Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Dickens Set Free in China

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Crossposted at Daily Kos and also at Truth & Progress

Lost in the hoopla and frenzy of the 2008 Presidential Campaign over the past couple of weeks was an overlooked (though important) anniversary in the Peoples Republic of China.  In February 1978 — a year or so after Chairman Mao Zedong’s death — the Chinese communist government lifted a ban on the writings of three of the greatest minds the world has ever seen.

This was a critical development for from their graves, three men long dead — Aristotle, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens — were finally free to peddle their ‘subversive’ ideas about the complexity of the human condition.

Aristotle, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens

This relaxation of censorship rules occurred, surprisingly, in a far away, still somewhat mysterious land and one suspicious of foreigners and alien ideas. Interestingly, it also resulted after the repudiation of Mao’s  Cultural Revolution by his successors. Something similar had happened in the Soviet Union in the mid-1950’s when — during the power struggle that ensued amongst competing factions after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 and a desire for the country to confront its past — Nikita Khrushchev’s gave his famous speech denouncing the cult of personality and acknowledging the sins of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin.  However, it wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (opening up of society) and perestrioka (restructuring of the political and economic system) in the mid-1980’s that real reform started to take hold in the Soviet Union.  By then, it was too late.  The USSR was not designed for Gorbachev’s shock therapy for decoupling the party and government led, a few years later, to its demise as a political entity.  The Chinese model of accelerating cultural, societal, and economic reforms first has enabled the Chinese Communist Party to maintain its political hold over the country.  So far.  But, the question remains, for how much longer?

The purpose of this diary is not to delve into the philosophical critique of Aristotle’s works nor to evaluate the extensive literary writings of Shakespeare or Dickens. Rather, it is to explore the notion of censorship under closed, totalitarian regimes and the free flow and discussion of ideas alien to one’s culture. It will also attempt to look at how intellectuals cope with the suppression of thought in a country occupied by a foreign power.

Why does intellectual thought matter?  All you ever have to do is read this and you will understand the importance of Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language and how it conveys our inner most feelings and affects our actions without even being conscious of it

On Quoting Shakespeare

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me,” you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise — why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then — to give the devil his due — if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness’ sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

Bernard Levin.  From The Story of English.  Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil.  

Some would say these are ‘just words’ but words can be incredibly powerful in molding our behavior and affecting change.

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How do totalitarian regimes control the free flow of ideas and exert a tight level of control by censoring the works of foreign authors and intellectuals?  And, how do they achieve this?  This is an idea I explored at length in an undergrad history course called, ‘Collaboration and Resistance During the Second World War.’  It also detailed the difficult moral choices faced by those under foreign occupation and how they coped with it.

One of the best books I’ve read on this subject is the The Captive Mind, published in 1951 by Czeslaw Milosz.  It described the manipulation and supression of intellectual thought in Soviet-occupied Poland in the late 1940’s.  The author, Milosz, was an ex-Polish diplomat and, later, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. He defected to the United States in the early 1950’s.  Read here on how the book’s four main characters — Alpha, the Moralist; Beta, The Disappointed Lover; Gamma, the Slave of History; and Delta, the Troubadour — dealt with this dilemma.  Note: As an aside, Beta was Tadeusz Borowski who wrote This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, an harrowing account of a non-Jewish Polish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp.  The book deals with the emergence of sub-cultures at Auschwitz and how humans react differently when confronted with serious moral choices and dilemmas.  Borowski committed suicide in 1951 at the young age of twenty eight.

I remember discussing this book with a Polish classmate who, describing his family’s ordeal in Soviet-Occupied Poland, remarked, “When the Soviets occupied us, they pretended to be our friends; the Nazis, however, harbored no such illusions when they invaded Poland in 1939.”  

Another excellent example of how intellectuals dealt with the fear of retaliation in the past was when French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Les Mouches (or as translated in English, The Flies) in 1944.  The play was essentially an 20th century adaptation of Sophocles’ Greek mythological tale of Electra and was first enacted before a sold-out crowd in a fancy Paris theater during the Nazi occupation of France. Seated in the front row were leading members of the German Army brass along with several SS officers.  Just as the dominant theme in Electra was revenge and restoring the family’s honor, Sartre was imploring his countrymen to resist the Nazi occupation. The play was a brilliant, subtle call-to-arms to his countrymen to re-evaluate their collaborationist tendencies and resist the German occupiers

Jean-Paul Sartre

Orestes: Electra, behind that door is the outside world.  A world of dawn.  Out there the sun is rising, lighting up the roads.  Soon we shall leave this place, we shall walk those sunlit roads, and these hags of darkness will lose their power.  The sunbeams will cut through them like swords.

Electra: The sun —

First Fury: You will never see the sun again, Electra.  We shall mass between you and the sun like a swarm of locusts; you will carry darkness round your head wherever you go.

Electra: Oh, let me be!  Stop torturing me!

Jean-Paul Sartre.  No Exit and Three Other Plays.  p 111.

Sartre later wrote that while almost all of the French attendees in the audience understood the underlying message of his play, it completely eluded the Germans.

As I mentioned in this diary last year about the PBS documentary ‘The War’ by Ken Burns

Importantly, after the Nazi Occupation of France ended in 1944, the captured Nazi archives were not declassified until 1969.  Following that, Professor Robert Paxton of Columbia University wrote an excellent book on Vichy France, deconstructing and demystifying the myth of most French as being part of the Resistance, as Hollywood had been portraying it during and after World War II.

Marcel Ophuls’ famous documentary ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ and his later one on the Butcher of Lyons, Klaus Barbie, once and for all shattered this myth and explained what was really going on in France during the years 1940-44: the overwhelming number of French were collaborators.

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It is fair to ask this question: has our own country been free of such pressures on intellectuals and others to conform in the past? No.  As I wrote last month in this diary about Paul Robeson — Scholar, Athlete, Actor, Singer, Linguist, Activist, and More — he was, by anyone’s definition, one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century.  Yet, he was hounded by the FBI for decades and died in near-obscurity in 1976.  It wasn’t until only recently that his reputation was restored and his many contributions to our culture and politics recognized and, even, celebrated.  After I wrote that diary, I got an email from the Archivist of the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee thanking me for it and highlighting these events honoring Robeson.  

Some of you may have noticed that the Rightwing usually screams about the notion of “revisionist history.”  But, as many historians have argued, history is an endless argument — an argument without an end.

Why is historical revisionism necessary?

1. Documents are declassified that shed light on previously unknown facts. See my above example of Ophuls’ documentaries and Paxton’s book.  Such disclosures also punctured the Hollywood myth perpetuated for two decades after World War II — one which portrayed most French as “resistance fighters.”

2. Former high-level government officials write ‘insider’ accounts of their service providing details heretofore unknown to historians.  Example: Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s book Present at the Creation and State Department official James Jones’ book The Fifteen Weeks began the process of rehabilitating Truman’s image as a great foreign policy US President.

3. Events happen, perspectives change decades after policies are implemented. Example: Harry Truman’s Marshall Plan, creation of NATO, Berlin Airlift, and other actions (controversial at the time) cemented his image as an effective foreign policy president. This didn’t happen until the 1970’s.  The same Harry Truman who left office in 1953 with approval ratings well below 30% and declined to run for a full second term.

Note: Over the years, I’ve had similar experiences with Japanese classmates in both undergrad and grad schools.  The vast majority of them didn’t have a clue about Japan’s role in World War II.  Ask them about, for example, the ‘Rape of Nanking’ and you get blank stares.  As opposed to most German classmates who are all too aware of their country’s recent Nazi past.

American Conservatives also cling to this “city on a hill” argument in which there is a reluctance to examine our own past even as our country’s political history is littered with evidence which suggests just the opposite.  We are not now, nor ever have been, practitioners of purity in public life.  Nonetheless, myths are what nations cling to for myths and symbols are as important, if not more so, than the muddled political reality that exists all around us.  

One of the reasons, I believe, that progressives are up in arms over the recent FISA debate in Congress is because at its core, the debate is all about an open society and minimizing the corrosive effects of secrecy and governmental misbehavior.  Most of us prefer to live in a country that allows open dissent and holds our elected leaders fully accountable — particularly in a country whose very formation was based on the quaint notion of dissent!

Hypocrisy exists but surely not in our political culture.  Some wingnuts would have us believe that we are the perfect nation.  Let’s not get too carried away with that idea.

Still, there is a difference between our system of government and those of totalitarian regimes.  Milosz’s book reveals in “fascinating detail the often beguiling allure of totalitarian rule to people of all political stripes and its frightening effects on the minds of those who embrace it.”  He compares the two systems upon reaching post-War France, where he wrote his book

I have won my freedom; but let me not forget that I stand in daily risk of losing it once more.  For in the West also one experiences the pressure to conform — to conform, that is, with a system which is the opposite of one I have escaped from.  The difference is that one may resist such pressure without being held guilty of a mortal sin.

Csezlaw Milosz.  The Captive Mind.  p xiii.

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In citing the above examples, I certainly don’t mean to imply that similar conditions exist today in the People’s Republic of China as they did during the World War II years in many European countries or in the post-War era in the United States during the McCarthy Era.  China hasn’t been under occupation by a foreign power since the 1940’s.  Moreover, it is true that as a non-Western country, its traditions, culture, and history differs greatly from the Western world and doesn’t easily lend itself to change like Eastern European countries under Soviet domination.  That process lasted almost five decades.  Even so, once the the rules of blatant censorship are relaxed or completely lifted and external influences allowed to creep in, change is inevitable. Mikhail Gorbachev will attest to that painful reality.  His attempt at reform and change cost him his job for he learned the bitterest of lessons: you cannot manage change. More importantly, it cost him his own country as he had known it since his childhood years.

I should mention that it has become fashionable in some foreign policy circles — reflective of the kind of stale-but-dangerous thinking that led this country to war in Iraq and resulting quagmire — to assume that China and the United States are headed for some sort of confrontation down the road. We are told that emerging superpowers like China with its growing military, political, and economic power do not accumulate power simply for the sake of doing so.  Sooner or later, as history teaches us, these countries find a way, some way, of projecting this new-found power which, inevitably, leads to conflict.  The same crowd, particularly those prominent in the business community, tells us with a straight face — without elaborating on their selfish commercial concerns — that change in China will occur only when foreign investment pours into that country in even greater numbers.  How could the Chinese people resist the allure of consumerism once exposed to it?  Once their consumption habits mirror our own, won’t they also behave politically like us in the international arena?  

I do not know when the winds of real change will envelop China and the free flow of ideas there will be as commonplace as in most developed countries.  Suffice it to say, I’m rather skeptical of either one of the above theories to bring about meaningful change in China.  

It has also become accepted conventional wisdom that later this year, when the 2008 Summer Olympics are held in Beijing, China, it provides an important opportunity for still-Communist China to showcase all the reforms and changes the country has undergone since the disastrous days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  Often overlooked is the fact that the entire world — certainly tens of thousands of its representatives, literally speaking — will descend upon China for almost three weeks.  Will China exert the greater influence over its visitors or the host country be overcome by its massive interaction with the rest of the world?  Obviously, we don’t know for sure but don’t be surprised if it’s the latter — in the long run.  Change is never one-sided; the giver as well as the recipient is often affected in unpredictable ways.

A few years (or decades) from now, we may look back and recognize that the introduction of Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Dickens to the people of Communist China will be perceived as a symbolic yet significant turning point in that country’s turbulent history.

Nations, including our own, that tend to ‘airbrush’ their unsavory past from history books or intellectual discourse pay a high cost for the eventual day of reckoning always arrives sooner rather than later and, sometimes, with a vengeance.        

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Note About the Diary Poll: anyone who has had a fairly heavy dose of the liberal arts and the social sciences in college knows fully well that I could have as easily substituted the list of authors/poets/philosophers in the diary poll with several other sets of choices.  So, if I didn’t list your pick, perhaps you can tell us who it is and why you like that person.    

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  1. … lectures I ever attended in undergrad school was by a visiting professor of Soviet Politics and History from Moscow State University.  To this day, I remember his opening remarks

    One of the difficulties of teaching history in the Soviet Union is that the past changes so often.


    Tips, recommendations, comments, and suggestions solicited for this non-candidate diary. Thanks.

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