Henan University, Kaifeng, Henan, 16-19 April:

‘Western Marxist Approaches to the Bible’

Xiangtan University, Xiangtan, Hunan, (Mao’s birthplace), 22-24 April:

The Need for the ‘Warm Stream’ in Marxism

Nankai University, Tianjin, 25 April:

Reconsidering Marxism and Religion in a Chinese Context

Academy of Marxism, Beijing, 29 April:

‘The Need for the "Warm Stream" in Marxism’

Peking University, 14 May:

‘Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben and Theology’

Tsinghua University, Beijing, 15 May:

‘Reconsidering Marxism and Religion in a Chinese Context

Beijing Languages and Cultures University, 16 May:

‘The Need for the "Warm Stream" in Marxism’

Renmin University, Beijing, 17 May:

‘Is Australia a "Western" Country?’

Nishan Forum, Qufu, Shandong, 20-22 May:

‘Reconsidering Marxism and Religion in a Chinese Context’

Sichuan University, 27 May – 1 June:

‘Reconsidering Marxism and Religion in a Chinese Context’

‘Western Marxist Approaches to the Bible’

All of these topics have been chosen by the various people at the universities (and academy) in question, so what intrigues me is what they see as relevant for Chinese debates.

‘If we are unable to read the script, then we are unable to read’. So it is said concerning the ‘traditional’ Chinese script. The saying is really a lament concerning the most recent process of simplification of the script. Of course, it was Mao Zedong and others who instigated this change, which unfolded over half a century from the 1930s to the script used by the vast majority of Chinese, in the People’s Republic and around the globe.

But why lament the process of simplifying the script? For some, the very nature of the script has become a marker of an intellectual and scriptural tradition of more than three millennia. For others, a script that can be used by so many diverse languages and dialects acts as a potent sense of unity. So to simplify the script is seen by these people as an attack on the tradition and on the unity of China. However, the script has also been a symbol of class, or better, caste. The ability to read and write belonged to the select few in the imperial administration, especially those who had undergone the arduous examination system for entry and promotion into that service. The result was that no more than ten per cent of the population as a whole were able to use this formidable and complex script. The remaining ninety per cent – peasants – had no hope of learning it and were actively prevented from using it. Writing was not only a means of power, as Lévi-Strauss would have it, but also of caste.

The communist challenge to the traditional script was therefore a challenge to the power of that scribal ruling class. It was, of course, not simply a challenge to the script. The primary motivation was to empower the peasants, not merely through a new socio-economic system and army training, but also through the ability to read and write. The simplification of the script was therefore a means to this empowerment. The first steps were taken back in the 1930s, in the Yan’an Soviet (where the Red Army had ended the Long March). In the makeshift schools established in huts, cave-houses, and in the open, peasants were taught to read and write in large numbers. To ease the process, a simplified script along with the pinyin (Romanised) system was developed along the lines proposed by Qian Xuantong. The success of the project ensured that the new and easier script would eventually become national policy, a policy that continues today with the latest List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters published in June, 2013. Needless to say, the initial act of simplifying the script undermined the very claim to superiority by the intellectuals who had preserved the traditional script for themselves.

In this respect, some of these intellectuals have never forgiven Mao for what he did. Their response has been to establish a common assumption that the simplified script was a dumbing down – for peasants – of China’s literary and cultural heritage. They also managed to secure the astonishing assumption that Taiwan is more traditional than the mainland. Any visitor to Taiwan can see that it is deeply Americanised and more pervasively capitalised than the mainland. ‘Traditional’ is certainly not a word that comes to mind easily, if at all. Yet, many on the mainland insist it is more traditional. Why? It is simply because Taiwan has not broken with the traditional script. Forget the fact that the Guomintang kept that script as an explicitly elitist, anti-communist measure once it had escaped to Taiwan. Indeed, forget the fact that the process of simplification has itself gone through waves from the time of the Qin dynasty of the late third century BCE, with perhaps the most significant effort during the May Fourth Movement after 1919.

In light of all this, it becomes a little easier to understand the Cultural Revolution. ‘To the countryside’ was the slogan. The intellectuals accustomed to their caste superiority, to keeping the cogs of bureaucracy running, to keeping the peasants ignorant, were now told to learn from the peasants. The intellectuals were not, of course, to give up being intellectuals, but to learn a new way of being so. And a crucial part of that process was to use the simplified script. It is a useful reminder of the depth of Mao’s challenge to the vested interests of intellectuals that he also pondered whether to abolish the script entirely and simply use the Romanised pinyin system. Perhaps he took to heart Lu Xun’s statement, ‘If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die’.

I, for one, am grateful for the simplification. Given that it is a little more difficult to learn a new language as one gets older, and given that Chinese is a challenge at the best of times, the process of learning is somewhat easier with the new script. That is not to say it easy in itself, but I am thankful indeed that I do not need to learn the traditional script.

2014 22 February 03a

Thanks to LL for this one.

Is Australia racist? This question comes up from time to time, both in the local commentariat and internationally. It may be prompted by an event in indigenous politics, or by the brutality of off-shore detention for asylum seekers arriving by boat, or by a politician stating a person has the ‘right to be a bigot‘. Sure, these are racist moments, or have the potential to foster racism among some. But it is a different question when someone asks, ‘is Australia racist?’ The problem is that the question itself is racist. It assumes that Australia has a known identity, which is white and derived from Europe. Everyone who does not have such an identity is therefore the other against which ‘Australia’ is opposed – even indigenous people. I am reminded of a German visitor, who opined one evening in a restaurant: ‘we’re the only table of Australians; all the rest are Chinese’. Chances are that more than 90% of those he viewed as ‘Chinese’ were also Australian.

Obviously, this is problematic and indeed incorrect. To begin with, the assertion of a distinct and known identity is voiced by an increasingly vocal minority. The more they assert such an identity, the more clearly is it under question. The reality is that Australia is in the middle of a long debate concerning identity. With the demographic and geopolitical changes of the last 60 years, people argue whether to hold onto a faded colonial heritage or whether we need to come to terms with the reality of being a country in between the Pacific and South-East Asia. The latter is as much a cultural and economic fact, as it is a geographical one. The last election in 2013 was a good symbol of this, with a Chinese speaking Labor leader (Kevin Rudd) firmly focused on Asia, and an English immigrant keen to kiss the queen of England’s hand (Tony Abbott).

Other indicators of this search for a new identity may be found in the responses of many visitors. I find that visitors who come here for the first time tend to have a certain preconception that is blown out of the water when they get here. Europeans are thrown since the expected codes from home are reconfigured and indeed absent. The increasing number of first-time visitors from Asia whom I encounter keep saying to me that Australia is nothing like they expected (i.e. Western and European). Perhaps it is telling that even the BBC lists Australia under its Asian section.

In a string of pieces from 1919, Mao deals with the questions of sex, love and marriage. These were prompted by the suicide of a Miss Zhao, who killed herself in the marriage sedan that was taking her to a wedding she did not want. One of these articles can be found here, but there are more than a dozen others. In ‘The Question of Love – Young People and Old People: Smash the Policy of Parental Arrangement’ (1919), Mao writes:

We have many different kinds of desires, such as the desire to eat, the desire for sex, the desire to play, the desire for fame, and the desire for power and influence (also called the desire to dominate), and so on. Of these, the desires for sex and food are fundamental, the former to maintain the ‘present’ and the latter to open up the ‘future’. Of these two desires, there is no absolute difference in the desire for food according to age. Sexual desire does, however, differ with age.

The expression of sexual desire, generally speaking, is love. Young people see the question of love as being very important, while old men don’t think it’s worth worrying about … Only in China is this question put to one side. When I was young, I saw many people getting married. I asked them what they were up to. They all replied that a person takes a wife to have someone to make tea, cook, raise pigs, chase away the dogs, spin, and weave. At this time I asked, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to hire a servant? It wasn’t until later that I heard that people got married ‘to carry on the family line.’ This left me still perplexed. … Society does not regard love as being important, and thus, except for the slave’s work of making tea, cooking, and so on, marriage is nothing but that base life of fleshly desire. (What we call sexual desire, or love, involves not only the physiological satisfaction of fleshly desire, but the satisfaction of a higher order of desires – spiritual desires and the desire for social intercourse.) … In short, capitalism and love are in conflict with one another. Old men are in conflict with love. Thus there is a tight bond between old men and capitalism, and the only good friends of love are young people.

Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949, pp. 439-40.

The first of a couple of posts on sex, love and intimate life from a youthful Mao Zedong. Initially, he moves between sex as a necessary instinct and then as an unstoppable wind from a great gorge (so to speak):

Whatever is natural is both true and real. Can something that is true and real fail to contribute to improving my life? Besides, my life and development ultimately depend on just such things. The desire to eat contributes to my life, sexual desire is good for my development, and both of these come from natural instincts … The conscience certainly always sees our appetite for food and sex for what they are. It is only at a particular time and place that the conscience will suggest restraining the impulses, as when the desire for food or sex becomes excessive. And then the conscience acts only to restrain or moderate the excess, certainly not to oppose or deny these desires …

The truly great person develops the original nature with which Nature endowed him, and expands upon the best, the greatest of the capacities of his original nature. Everything that comes from outside his original nature, such as restraints and restrictions, is cast aside by the great motive power that is contained within his original nature. It is this motive power that is the strongest and truest reality, that is the spring that fulfils his character … The great actions of the hero are his own, are the expressions of his motive power, lofty and cleansing, relying on no precedent. His force is like that of a powerful wind arising from a deep gorge, like the irresistible sexual desire for one’s lover, a force that will not stop, that cannot be stopped.

Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, pp. 255-57, 263-64.

In 1920, Mao and his friends established the Cultural Book Society in Hunan. This was to be – through spreading new modes of thought – one part of a larger effort to establish an independent state of Hunan. In each of the books sold, the following notice was placed.

A Respectful Notice from the Cultural Book Society to the Gentleman Who Has Bought This Book

The fact that you, sir, have purchased this book will undoubtedly have a great influence on the progress of your thought, and on that we wish to congratulate you. If, after you have read this book, your unslakeable thirst for knowledge inclines you to buy a few more books to peruse, we invite you, sir, either to come once more to our society to purchase them, or to do so by correspondence. We are prepared to welcome you!

The items which our society has for sale have undergone a rigorous process of selection. They consist exclusively of comparatively valuable new publications (We want nothing to do with stale and outdated thought.) … Our goal is that the thought of everyone in Hunan should progress as yours has done, so as to bring about the emergence of a new culture …

We are profoundly mortified that our abilities are too meagre to shoulder the great responsibility of propagating culture, and we hope that superior men of goodwill from all walks of life will grant us their assistance. If you, sir, can help us by taking the trouble to introduce us by word of mouth, we shall be extremely grateful …

We wish you, sir, continued good health.

Colleagues of the Cultural Book Society

56 Chaozong Streetm Changsha