Monday, June 27, 2005

Floating Lives

I explained my thinking behind this project in the post below ("Mao Zedong & I Were Beggars"). To recap, about 10 years ago I was working on a book that I intended as a sort of pop history of the Chinese revolution and its aftermath, told mostly through the life of Zhou Enlai, and to a lesser extent, Mao Zedong. The writing doesn't always work, and this next excerpt covers a lot of ground (a nice way of saying, a tad disjointed). But since I am still too unmotivated to post that incisive, insightful essay about Unocal and Chinese geopolitical aspirations and American miscomprehehsions and the need of our leadership to find a better enemy that that raggedy old Osama...

Here's another selection...


"History is mostly guessing; the past is prejudice."
Will & Ariel Durant.

People used to say that Zhou Enlai could have been an actor. Some say, in fact, he was.

One of the first books on China that I bought back in California, when I resumed my personal investigation, was a biography of Zhou Enlai. On the cover is a series of four photographs, early Zhou-As-Premier, probably taken around the time of the Bandung Conference. They show a handsome man of indeterminate middle-age with strongly marked, regular features, dramatic brows and jet-colored eyes that observers claimed sparkled with unusual intensity.

In the photos, Zhou thoughtfully considers, then pensively responds, is taken aback, and finally chuckles, crinkley-eyed, as though he and his questioner have reached a point of understanding. He looks like he's posing for a commercial headshot, exhibiting his range: calculating, deferential, surprised, charming.

* * * * * * *

In 1936, Zhou Enlai told American journalist Edgar Snow that his father had died when he was an infant. The statement was not exactly a lie, given the tangled circumstances of Zhou's upbringing, but it certainly wasn't the truth. Perhaps there was an element of wishful thinking in Zhou's response. An early death of his father would have removed a portion of the ambivalence that seemed to have formed so much of Zhou Enlai's character.

* * * * * * *

One of the archetypes of old China, one that still operates in China today, is the Good Official. Good Officials are the sort that won't betray their Emperors but will drown themselves in lakes to protest poor policy decisions. Confucius pretty much set the standards in his "Analects." A quick note about Confucius, who lived c. 551 to c. 479 B.C. Confucianism is a philosophy that examines the relationship of government to morality and personal conduct: a prescription for how people should live together to encourage a responsible, moral society. Whether you agree or not with all the prescriptions (and what feminist could?), it's probably at least half-right, and we should be frightened to think that for many generations, Confucianism was reduced, in the West, to buck-toothed, pig-tailed caricatures. I guess that's the tendency of all Imperial societies, to ridicule the cultural glue of the opposing Empire.

Anyway, according to Confucius, the Good Official is required to serve his lord with absolute loyalty: "If one were to serve one's prince with perfect homage, people today would deem it sycophancy." At the same time, a Good Official must govern by example of his moral excellence, guided by virtue at all times (the conflict between loyalty and virtue being the thing that led to the drowning option). The ideal man, Confucius tells us, "in his personal conduct...was serious, in his duty to his superior, he was deferential, in providing for the people he was beneficent, and in directing them he was just." Confucius himself achieved only minor success in propagating these ideals in his lifetime; the princes he attempted to serve were not altogether fond of certain aspects of his philosophy. In Confucius's favor, you were supposed to know your place in the hierarchy - "let the prince be a prince, the father be a father, and the son a son," as he put it. Relationships were generally vertical, a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors, ruler above ruled, man above wife. Only the relationship of friends was one between equals. The idea behind all this was to perfectly link the present to an idealized version of the past, a mythical Golden Age set some time in the early Zhou dynasty of around 1000 to 800 B.C. This was a time, supposedly, when everything worked. Rulers were just and virtuous; families functioned thanks to clearly defined roles as outlined above; communities were a collection of non-dysfunctional families; the resulting benevolent Empire was the center of the world.

Confucius was big on rituals. "For me not to be present at a sacrifice is as if I did not sacrifice," the Master said. When one of his disciples wished to dispense with the sacrifice of live sheep for a ceremony, Confucius said that the disciple cared for the sheep, while he cared for the ritual. Ancestors should be worshipped, since they were the reason you were here, and your body was a temple, because it did not belong to you; it served the future. Rites and ceremonies summoned the past, real or not, preserved its relevance, particularly if the past was invoked with blood.

Since we cannot even fully understand life on earth, Confucius would say to his disciples, how can we presume to discuss the gods or the afterlife?

The Master said: "I will not grieve that men do not know me; I will grieve that I do not know men."

All of this was probably fine with the princes of Confucius' day. What they probably didn't like so much was the part where the first requirement of their rule was to provide generously for their subjects.

* * * * * * * *

In 1809, a man named Shen Fu wrote a fragmentary autobiography called Six Records of a Floating Life. Shen Fu was a yamen private secretary, a clerk in an Imperial government office who assisted the magistrate. The Yamen itself was the government compound, both office and residence, also, "the court of law, prison, barracks, arsenal and treasury, and, since taxes were usually collected in grain, a granary as well." Yamen secretaries in general were well-educated, men who studied to be scholar/officials but for whatever reason did not succeed. In part this was because the Imperial system that bred men like Shen Fu was in the process of collapsing under its own sclerotic weight. The Qing Dynasty, bloated by nepotism and profit-seeking factions who recruited officials to gain influence, no longer had room for many of the candidates trained practically from birth to serve it. In this it was following the typical pattern of dynastic decline: a gradual corruption that arises from too many generations of hereditary privilege, badly-paid officials who enrich themselves at the expense of their public obligations, a drain on Imperial resources that leads to overtaxing the populace and a neglect of infrastructure. Perhaps there is a flood or a bad harvest, worsened by an untended dike, a lack of stores of grain in the tenant households. For peasants already living on a razor-thin margin of existence, it meant unmitigated disaster.

For an educated man like Shen Fu, it meant a "floating life," drifting from job to job, living off relatives and borrowing deeply into debt, at one point sending his young son (to save his father's face) to pawn the family's possessions. Pleasure was the company of his wife and a few friends, with enough money to buy wine and a few fancy dishes, and they would drink and engage in poetry composing contests late into the evening.

By most standards, Shen Fu seems ineffectual, unable to adapt to his country's changing circumstances, unable to provide for his family (both his beloved wife and only son died before him), a passive passenger on fate's ride. On the other hand, he'd held up his end of the bargain, studied hard, remained virtuous (resigning in protest from unethical situations, in proper Confucian tradition), and what had he gotten in return? Still, he remained loyal to the way of life he knew, the authority he'd been taught to serve, even though his loyalty was seldom returned.

Zhou Yineng, Zhou Enlai's father, must have understood Shen Fu. Really, his life was Shen Fu's, except by 1898, the situation was worse. The Qing Dynasty, ill-equipped at the end of its life to deal with its internal contradictions, would in no way effectively manage competition from aggressive and expansionist European powers. By Zhou Yineng's time, the Continental Empires were busily declaring various portions of China their zones of influence, a process generally inspired by the earlier experience of Manifest Destiny in Africa, and specifically by British successes with gunboat diplomacy in the mid-19th century. China was then the only source for tea, and the tax paid on tea by British consumers was a major revenue source for the British Empire. The problem was, China was not terribly interested in trading tea for Western goods. It was the view of the Qings that China produced what it needed for its own consumption, even if distribution was not entirely equitable.

By the time of the Opium Wars, economic polarization in Chinese society had, in fact, reached a crisis state. At the beginning of the dynasty, the Qings had governed competently, and as a result of fairly consistent good times, China's population boomed, doubling in the eighteenth century and reaching 400 million by the mid-nineteenth. Now there were far too many landless peasants, not enough cultivatable land in any case, little industry to absorb this excess labor. Various things happened to the armies of the displaced. They became tenants, subsistence farmers who worked for food and little else, they starved to death; they joined provincial armies or bandit gangs, professions with at times little difference between them. Many emigrated, the Chinese Diaspora that spread throughout southeast Asia and across the Pacific to the Americas. They formed secret societies, mutual protection groups frequently invested with the ostensible goal of restoring the fallen Ming Dynasty, the ruling Qings' predecessor. At times they participated in full-scale rebellions, peasant uprisings that presaged dynastic decline.

But what did this have to do with selling tea to the British? The Chinese government preferred silver, the currency of the Empire, to goods in trade. Moreover, they could not see any particular advantage to increased intercourse with foreigners. They didn't understand who or what they were dealing with.

A measure of Imperial China's conceptualization of foreign affairs: until 1861, the two bureaus which managed relations with foreigners were called the "Office of Border Affairs," dealing with historically invasion-minded peoples to the North, Mongols and Muslims and Russians, and the "Ministry of Rituals," which managed relations with "tributary" states, countries like Korea, Thailand and Vietnam that had some cultural linkages to China and were traditionally subservient to the Empire. Initially, European nations seeking to trade with China were placed in the "tributary" category; eventually a small number of Chinese merchants in Canton were licensed by the Imperial government to manage commerce with Europeans, who, by the way, could be imprisoned for such transgressions as learning the Chinese language.

It is of course an easy stereotype in which to indulge, Great China, the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world with no interest in what lay beyond its boundaries. Easy, but there it is, stated bluntly by the Emperor Qianlong, who graciously received the first British Ambassador to China in 1793: "Our ways have no resemblance to yours, and even were your envoy competent to acquire some rudiments of them, he could not transplant them to your barbarous land...Strange and costly objects do not interest me. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufacturers." Having set King George's ambassador straight, the Chinese emperor politely refused the British envoy's request for formal diplomatic relations and kicked him out of Peking, sending the delegation back to Canton, where the barbarians were allowed to live during trading season.

From the British perspective, the Tea Trade must continue, but England could not simply bleed silver to obtain Chinese tea. It was unfair for protectionist China to refuse to accept foreign goods and create this massive trade imbalance, the real White Man's Burden that was getting in the way of Great Britain's global destiny.

Finally a product was found for which there was Chinese demand: Bengali opium. The Empire objected; drug addiction tended to undermine Confucian family values, since the user, generally the patriarch, expended resources on the drug that the family could frequently ill-afford. After many diplomatic skirmishes, the British government proceeded to wage war upon China in the name of free trade. "Justice, in my opinion," said William Gladstone, then a member of the Tory opposition, " is with them; and whilst they, the Pagans, the semi-civilized barbarians, have it on their side, we, the enlightened and civilized Christians, are pursuing objects at variance both with justice and with religion...a war more unjust in its origin, a war calculated in its progress to cover this country with a permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of."

Maybe the British Free Traders thought they were doing the tottering Chinese Empire a favor: if you can't provide for your subjects, stuptifying them has its points. Opium was, after all, perfectly legal in the dismal, impoverished factory towns of England.

By 1895, opium alone could not account for China's trade imbalance; in fact, imported textiles made up the biggest portion of the deficit. China, it seemed, had discovered a need for the West's "strange and costly objects" and "ingenious articles." Imperial China may have "possessed all things," but indigenous industry was not competitive with Western models. By the turn of the century, reformer Kang Youwei would write in a memorial to then Emperor Guangxu that China imported great quantities of textiles, foodstuffs, cigars, liquors, medicines, raw materials, manufactured goods and many other "amusing or ingenious items," in Kang's words. India and Ceylon were now producing the tea for which the British had originally gone to war. Particularly galling must have been the import of natural resources which China possessed in quantity but was unable to exploit.

You had to hand it to the barbarians; their methods were certainly effective in some areas - combat, for example, as was amply proved by the Opium Wars. Moreover, these Western skills appeared to be transferable, if the Sino-Japanese War was any indication. In 1893, the Japanese, who had adapted Western military methods, easily defeated the Chinese in Korea and Manchuria.

It was another body-blow to the reeling Empire. Thanks to the intervention of European powers not entirely comfortable with the idea of "Oriental" Japan as global power-player, China regained title, in name at least, to their Manchurian territory. But the war indemnity the Imperial Government was forced to pay turned China into a debtor nation. China lacked sufficient internal capital to pay for the loans. Therefore, the Imperial Government borrowed from foreign bankers, "who fell all over themselves pushing gold-linked, high interest loans, secured on the government's most important revenues." This is the cogent summary of one Harold Schiffren, writing about Sun Yatsen and the coming Nationalist Revolution. He continues: "This meant that China's tax system...was working largely for the benefit of foreign bondholders. Within forty months of the war, this foreign debt amounted to about 50 million pounds - or nearly three times the annual revenue collected by Peking. Since the value of gold was rising in relation to Chinese currency, actual indebtedness was much greater."

Equally damaging, and just as instructional, was the blow to the Middle Kingdom's construct of cultural superiority. Apparently the idea that Great China could possibly be defeated by Japan, a debased cultural off-shoot, "little brown devils" from an insignificant archipelago, was nearly incomprehensible.

A foreign observer in Manchuria, a Christian missionary and medical doctor from Scotland, one Dugald Christie, described the Chinese Army at the time of the Japanese invasion:

"Many were raw recruits, straight from their farms, or sturdy beggars swept in from the streets, who halted for a week or two here to be drilled before starting for the front...Rifles were put into the hands of youths who had never seen a gun, and there was neither time nor teacher to instruct them. There were not nearly sufficient weapons of one make, so some companies had old rusty muzzle-loading muskets, or ancient Chinese matchlocks, or even bows and arrows, and many were armed after the ancient fashion with a short sword and a long wooden lance with a red tuft at the end. The chief thing these lancers practiced was to make a simultaneous lunge forward, thrusting out their bristling lances and yelling "dza!" which means 'stab.' On asking why they made so much noise, we learned that it was to frighten the enemy.

"It was pathetic to see these poor deluded fellows preparing to be mown down by modern fire," Christie continues. "When their short training was over, they marched cheerfully to their doom, clad in the gay, unserviceable soldier's garb, bright red jacket with large round target on chest and back...The general view of the coming war was that the Japanese had presumed to rebel, and of course China must crush them - an easy task."

* * * * * * *

Zhou Enlai's family came from Shaoxing District, in the eastern seaboard province of Zhejiang. Zhejiang is one of China's smallest provinces, densely populated, traditionally prosperous because of its seaports and productive farmland, cultivated for so many years that the land has lost its original contours and vegetation. "A flat, featureless plain with a dense network of waterways, canals, and irrigation channels," a tourist guidebook describes it - one of China's rice-bowls.

The city of Shaoxing was an agricultural market town and administrative center, a trading nexus between the ocean and the interior, the city Hangzhou and the seaport, Ningbo. Shaoxing is located near the terminus of the Grand Canal, the longest artificial waterway in the world which had been built some thirteen hundred years ago to link China's four major rivers and provide a north-south transportation route. On the Grand Canal, Imperial barges carried boatloads of southern rice to the northern capitals and pleasure-cruising emperors south to warmer climates. For most of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the invading Jurchens displaced the Song Court from their capital at Kaifeng, the ruling house fled south and set up in neighboring Hangzhou, no doubt increasing the Imperial traffic. Marco Polo called Hangzhou one of the finest cities of the world, and even today, though the original city has been surrounded and partially submerged by concrete-block horrors and Kentucky-Fried Chicken franchises, Hangzhou carries the reputation of beauty. Hangzhou is just north of Shaoxing. To the south is Ningbo, once a major port for the shipping of Zhejiang goods to Japan, the site of an early Portuguese settlement wiped out by locals fed up with their new neighbors' bad behavior in 1545. Never as prominent as its neighbors, Shaoxing, most accounts will tell you, is known for the production of two things: sweet rice wine and government civil servants, "shiye," found throughout China. By Qing times, Shaoxing clerks were so ubiquitous that "the term, 'Shaoxing Shiye' had come to connote corruption and every kind of bureaucratic vice." This was the background of Zhou Enlai's family. The wine is definitely included.

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