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Understanding China and the Chinese


[Peter Brimelow writes: I was veryimpressed (as always) with John Derbyshire’s thoughts on China, originallydelivered in Turkey this spring and published by Sean Gabb onhis Libertarian Alliance Website—VDARE.comtrademark links added here. For other reasons, I am cautious about Chinatriumphalism. Some years ago, we posted an interview Idid with Gordon Tullock, father of the concept of “rent seeking”, inwhich he suggested that not merely the imperial territories that Derbyshirementions here, but also the Han core itself, might break apart. Nevertheless,China remains the quintessential nation-state—the political expression of a “nation”

Peter Brimelow写道:John Derbyshire对中国的看法给我留下了深刻的印象(和往常一样),这篇文章最初是今年春天在土耳其发表的,由Sean Gabb发表在他的自由意志主义联盟网站- vdare.com的链接上。
出于其他原因,我对中国的必胜信念持谨慎态度。几年前,我们发布了我与“寻租”概念之父Gordon Tullock的一次采访,他在采访中表示,德比郡(英格兰)提到的帝国领土,以及汉民族的核心,都可能分崩离析。然而,中国仍然是一个典型的民族国家,一个“民族”的表达,一个有机的民族文化共同体,任何研究民族文化的人都不能忽视它。

Therest of us went ahead with our presentations anyway. Here is mine.


Goodmorning, Ladies and Gentlemen. The title of my talk here is “Understanding China and theChinese.” I’m going to take thatvery literally; so please let me make it clear that the topic of my talk is notChina and the Chinese, about both of which I know all too little; the topic is understanding Chinaand the Chinese, about which I am somewhat more knowledgeable—about which,indeed, I can claim, I hope not too fancifully, to be something of aworld-class expert.


To make a claim tounderstanding of China and the Chinese, as opposed to merely understanding thebusiness of trying to understand them, would be pretty darn presumptuous. Formost of the past 25 years I’ve lived in the United States, a cousinnation to the one I was raised in,yet there are many things about the U.S.A. I still don’t understand, asevidenced by the fact that I still occasionally bang my shins against someaspect of the national psyche I didn’t even know was there. Peanut butter withjam—whose idea was that?


Backin the early 1970s when Mao Tse-tung’s GreatProletarian Cultural Revolution was in its acute phase,there was a desire among thoughtful Westerners to know what the heck was goingon and what it all meant. Unfortunately China had closed herself off. It wasvery difficult to get in, even for scholars; and once in, it was difficult tomove around.
I was living in Hong Kong atthe time. We knew that momentous things were happening in the Chinese interior.For just one clue, there were the matted rafts of decomposing corpses thatoccasionally floated down the Pearl River past the colony.


Well,now and then the Chinese authorities would allow some Western celebrity orpolitician to go in on a visit. The foreigner would spend three very closelysupervised weeks in China, being escorted around a model farm and a modelfactory, inspecting some institute of arts or sciences relevant to his ownspecialty, sitting through a performance by the Dongxiang National MinorityFolk Dance Troupe, and so on; then the foreigner would go home and write a bookor produce a documentary movie explaining all about China to the news-consumingWestern public.


The premier example of a ThreeWeek Sinologist was the movie actress Shirley Maclaine, who on her return fromChina brought out a very silly movie;but there were many others. My own old boss, the late William F. Buckley, Jr.,who had gone to China in Richard Nixon’s baggage train in 1972, showed someinclination thereafter to market himself as Three Week Sinologist but soon, Iam glad to say, realized his error.

最典型的三周汉学家是电影演员雪莉·麦克雷恩,她从中国回来后拍了一部很傻的电影;但是还有很多其他的。我的老上司、已故的WilliamF. Buckley, Jr.于1972年乘理查德尼克松的火车去了中国。在那之后,他表现出了一些倾向,打算把自己推销为为期三周的汉学家。我很高兴的说,我意识到了他的问题(错误)。

Iwas, as I said, living in Hong Kong at that time, and hanging out with localexpats, including professional China-watchers. Some of them were scholars;others had grown up, like Jared Taylor, in missionary or China-coastmercantile families. They all spoke two or three dialects fluently. By way ofinvestigative journalism they would hitch a ride on a Hong Kong coastguard boatand go looking for swimmers in Deep Water Bay.

我说过,当时我住在香港,和当地的外国人在一起,包括专业的中国观察家。其中一些是学者;还有一些人像Jared Taylor一样,在传教士家庭或中国沿海商人家庭长大。他们都能流利地说两种或三种方言。通过新闻调查,他们会搭上一艘香港海岸警卫队的船,去深水湾寻找游泳者。

Teenage kids from the mainlandwould try to escape by swimming to Hong Kong. So your China-watcher would bethere on the deck of a coastguard boat sitting opposite some wretched peasantkid who’d just been fished out of the water, who was wrapped in a blanket,soaking wet and shivering, and the expat would be interrogating the kid inCantonese or Toishanese or Hakka about how things were going down on thecommune. Well, you can imagine the scorn these old China hands felt for theThree Week Sinologists.


Sodoes private enterprise account for 70 percent of China‘s economy, or 30percent?
Someone’s asking me?
“There is no bottom in China, and no facts.”

那么,私营企业占中国经济的70%,还是30% ?有人问我。

Asbig as China is in space and population, she is even bigger in time.
Alone among substantialnations, China has a culture going back continuously—same language, samecustoms, same core religious and philosophical concepts—to the Bronze Age.


I have heard working-classChinese parents send their kids off to bed with the phrase: “Go look for the Duke of Zhou.” TheDuke lived in the 11th century B.C., around the time of the Trojan War. Confucius, who lived 500 yearslater, revered him as a model public servant, and when the sage felt himself tobe short on inspiration he’d say that he hadn’t dreamt of the Duke of Zhou fora while.


Toa Chinese person of today, even a working-class kid being shooed away from hisXbox and sent to bed, Confucius and the Duke of Zhou are not foreign in anyway. They didn’t speak a different language, live by a different calendar,mentally organize the world in radically different categories, or deploydifferent table manners when sitting down to different meals, as would be thecase for us with their Western equivalents—Socrates and Odysseus, perhaps.


(I can’t resist here myfavorite description of the ancient Greek diet, given by Alfred Zimmern, quote: “The usual Attic dinnerconsisted of two courses, the first a kind of porridge, and the second a kindof porridge.” That wouldn’t do for theChinese atall …)


When Westerners first startedscrutinizing that enormous span of Chinese history, it struck them as beingvery static,as lacking in forward movement. Here’s a characteristic quote. This is from DemetriusBoulger, who wrote a history of China back in the 1880s. Boulger is telling usabout the fortunes of the Imperial family in the later Ming Dynasty, i.e.middle of the 16th century. Then quite abruptly he seems to tire of narratingcourt intrigues and barbarian affronts, and breaks off from his main story linewith this curious little editorial aside. Quote:


This condition of things may be disappointing to those who pridethemselves on tracing the origin of a constitution and the growth of civilrights, and also would have a history of China a history of the Chinese people;although the fact is undoubted that there is no history of the Chinese peopleapart from that of their country to be recorded.


The national institutions andcharacter were formed, and had attained in all essentials their present state,more than two thousand years ago, or before the destruction of all trustworthymaterials for the task by the burning of the ancient literature and chroniclesof China. Without them we must fain content ourselves with the history of thecountry and the empire.”


Havingthus unbosomed himself of an editorial opinion, Boulger then goes back totelling us about the border policy of the Shizong Emperor.


Nobody familiar withhistoriography will be surprised to hear that the 20th century brought forth arevisionist school of China historians (in fact more than one), keen to provethat, contra Boulgerand every other 19th-century historian, Chinese history did so exhibitsome progress.


They have made some goodpoints. Joseph Needham in particular showed us inhis magisterial work Science that there was creeping but steady progress intechnology across the centuries. The apparatus of Imperial administrationshowed itself capable of some modest evolution, too. First impressions usually get us a good big bite of the truth,though, and while Boulger’s view of utter stasis needs some qualifying, I don’tthink even the would claim that Imperial China was a progressivecivilization.


The very first book I ever readon Chinese philosophy was the one by Chai Ch’u, popular in the 1970s.(Well, as popular as books on Chinese philosophy ever get … [And note that Igave his name Chinese-style, with surname first. Amazon.com has itWestern-style. The surname is Chai, 翟.Trust me on this: I knew his brother.])


Prof.Chai takes you through all the main schools: Taoists, Confucians, Legalists,Mohists …And then the book ends, and you’re still in the third century B.C.!There’s a closing chapter, about ten pages as I remember, called something like “Subsequent Developments,” butthe main narrative of Chinese philosophy ended around the time of the FirstPunic War.



This stasis is a remarkablething. It’s also a sad thing, as for most of history China was superior, atleast in technology and administration, to the West. They were a thousand yearsahead of us in metal-working well into the Middle Ages. The first great imperialdynasty, the Han, was much better administered than the contemporary RomanEmpire, at least until its last few decades. It wasn’t until thebeginning of the modern period—the voyages of discovery and theReformation—that the West pulled ahead.


If you look at the fall of theWestern Roman Empire in the early 5th century, and compare it with the fall ofthe Han Dynasty 200 years previously, you have to think that the Chineseimperial system got lucky. In the Dark Age that followed there were somebarbarian incursions, to be sure, and even some petty barbarian dynasties ofTurkic or Siberian origins. Steppe and tundra don’t support the same populationdensities as forest and fjord, though, so the barbarian numbers were small andthe core Chinese ethny remained intact.


Thereis a sort of a parallel here—a nontrivial one, in my opinion—between thesurvival of the imperial system in the early Middle Ages and recent Chinesepolitical history.


The great miracle of China inthe last quarter century has not been the economictake-off, which any fool country with a billion people could have pulled offstarting from such a low base, but the survival of the Communist Party’smonopoly on power, and the survival of its administrative apparatus. China‘scontribution to recent world history has not been a Wirtschaftswunder buta Staatskunstswunder,not an economic miracle but a miracle of statecraft.


In August 2001, just a few weeks before I wrotethat, Gordon Chang published a book titled The Coming Collapse of China. Gordon didn’tthink the communist system would make it through the decade. I see in fact he’s still beatingthe same drum; though like the fellow who told us the world would end lastSaturday, and like our automobile’s GPS gadget when my wife makes a wrong turn,he’s had to do some “recalculating.”

2001年8月,就在我写这篇文章的前几周,章家敦(GordonChang)出版了一本名为《中国即将崩溃》(The ComingCollapse of China)的书。戈登不认为GC主义制度能撑过这十年。事实上,我看到他仍然换汤不换药;尽管就像上星期六告诉我们世界末日的家伙,就像我妻子转错弯时我们汽车上的GPS装置一样,他不得不做一些“重新计算”。

Isthere any prospect for an open and civil society in China—a law-based nationunder consensual government? My answer to that would be: It depends what youmean by “China.”


Of the territory of the ChinesePeople’s Republic, less than half has a base population of ethnic Chinese.One quarter is Tibetan; one sixth is Turkic; one tenth is Mongolian. [See this ethnic map, which I have taken fromHermann’s , 1966edition.] The communists have made strenuous efforts to colonize these regions,but only in Inner Mongolia does their presence look truly irreversible. [Clickto enlarge map]


Likeeverything else nowadays, it seems, this comes down at last to demographics. It’s all very well to speak ofcolonization; but for colonization you need some surplus population. Theresults from last year’s census in China are not yet complete, but the figureswe have suggest a total fertility rate of 1.4, perhaps 1.3. That’s not quite asbad as Japan and Korea, which are down in the 1.2 or 1.1 zone, but it’s badenough, and has been going on long enough, that China’s population will go “over the hump” intonumerical decline sometime in the next five to ten years. China‘s working-agepopulation has likely already done so. For holding on by force to vast,inhospitable regions far from the civilizational center, this does not make fora good prognosis.


We know that Chinese people arecapable of an open, critical society under rational modern government. They arealready running one in Taiwan. If the mainland Chinese retreat to their ethnichomeland, as the Turks did ninety years ago—if, in other words, they get out ofthe empire business—I believe they will shake off their ancient attachment tobureaucratic despotism as quickly and decisively at the Turks did, and advanceto solid prosperity and enduring freedom. I only hope, for the sake of mycountry-in-law, that they will do so with less bloodshed than was the case withTurkey.

我们知道,中国人民有能力在理性的现代政府领导下建设一个开放、批判的社会。他们已经在台湾运作了一家。如果中国大陆撤退回自己的民族家园, 就像90年前土耳其人所做的那样——换句话说,如果他们退出帝国的事务——我相信他们会像土耳其人那样,迅速而果断地摆脱对官僚专制的古老依恋,走向坚实的繁荣和持久的自由。我只是为了我岳父的缘故,希望他们这样做时不会象土耳其那样造成流血事件。

Thank you, ladies andgentlemen.