Drainage: Civilization’s Foundation

July 27, 2012

BEIJING — In the heart of the Chinese capital is the showcase neighborhood of Sanlitun, where expatriates and Chinese glitterati go to dine, drink and dance. It has gleaming curved skyscrapers, a boutique hotel where rooms list for $400 to $4,000 a night, and restaurants with cuisines like French, Persian and Mexican.

What it does not have is a modern drainage system.

Here is the fundamental text – Drainage: The Wine of Life.

And here are some other posts on various aspects of this neglected topic:  Drainage Posts.

 


What would McGarrett do?

May 19, 2012

Lately, I’ve been watching Hawaii Five-O during my daily treadmill exercise.  At first, it was just a fun bit of nostalgia as I used to watch the show as a kid in the late 60’s.  I thought it was dumb then, with its outrageous spy plots, the unerring McGarrett, and the predictable plots, but watching it today, I like the production values, the mens’ suits, and the bright color of the scenes.

Now, after seeing a season, I begin to fathom the true appeal of Five-O:  McGarrett is a spiritual guide, a guru figure.  He’s always calm, only losing his cool when one of his men is injured by a crook.  He is deeply humane:  gently leading a serial murder psychopath he has apprehended away to the looney bin, without gloating or celebration.  He feels the pain of the victims he interviews:  the flicker of muscle movement on his face shows it.  Women are drawn to him, but he does not pursue them.  He is witty, and enjoys the philosophical games of crime solving.

McGarrett’s arch-enemy is the Red Chinese agent, Wo Fat, with whom he spars on many episodes, holding up the USA end of the cold war game.  The Chinese spymaster is no match for Steve.  (He is played by New Jersey native, Kenneth Dickerson, aka Khigh Dheigh, who is of north African descent – not Chinese – and who created a foundation for the study of Taoism late in life.)  They are an entertaining pair.


Public Image

March 15, 2012

I was struck by this image of the Prime Minister of China that appeared in today’s NYTimes.  I don’t know enough of Chinese art to be able to place the style of the image in the background, or to know if it is a reproduction or a valuable original, but it is interesting to me that he is happy  to be shown in front of an image that depicts peacocks.  Can you imagine Obama in such a pose?  Or Sarkozy? 

China is, after all, the oldest continuous civilization in existence, and the imagery of state power does  change slowly.  The Emperor simply changes his clothes.


“My father is Li Gang!”

November 18, 2010

In the old movie of Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, Basil Rathbone plays a decadent and amoral nobleman who runs down children in the street with his carriage.  The urban proles grumble -The Terror erupts. 

The NYTimes reports today on a case from China that seems right out of Hollywood – some themes are eternal.  A drunken man runs down and kills a young woman skating in the street.  He informs the police that he is the son of a powerful local official.  The case is hushed up, but in today’s world of the Internet, the story gets out anyway, and his declaration is scornfully directed at the elite.

China is ruled by a corrupt and ruthless class, strata, clique…whatever, and the millions of ordinary men and women are just finding their voice.  See here for more posts on China’s dilemmas, and ours.


Capitalist Roaders

May 27, 2010

From today’s New York Times:  Trampled in a Land Rush, Chinese Resist

I shudder to think of the kickbacks and payoffs being made to Party officials at all levels as the gold rush in land displaces ordinary Chinese farmers and city dwellers.  It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the Party or the Tycoons who are stealing from the people, as long as somebody is doing it!
We’ve been there before
 


Mao: Outsider Philosopher King

May 25, 2010

These pictures were published in Life Magazine when I was a boy, prompting me to wonder, “Why the heck are they making a big deal about this guy swimming?”  I recall there was speculation about the image on the left – whether or not it was doctored.

No, Mao was in the swim, and he was demonstrating his fitness to be supreme leader and godhead of all political correctness in the coming storm, the soon-to-be released cataclysm of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.  Such a strange event – an aging dictator making good on his earlier threats to go to war against his own revolutionary establishment!  Of course, these days, this is old hat, running for the Senate or President, and claiming status as an outsider, eager to clean house.  But Mao did it…in his own way.

He really was sui generis as a tyrant.  A romantic revolutionary, impatient and uninterested in the minutiae of running a huge state, but ever ready to stir up a hornet’s nest of chaos with some opaque power play or ideological broadside.  Some of his colleagues called him B-52, because he dropped huge bombs from way up high.

He took on the role of emperor, the emperor perpetually running against Peking!  The goal of the revolution was not to make China rich, but to maker her an independent power and to further the maelstrom process of class struggle worldwide.  The Russians and many of his party, to his disgust, were more interested in pedestrian challenges like making the economy grow.  Here we see the lingering influence of his youthful leanings toward anarchism, and perhaps the source of his appeal to young radicals around the globe.  What other septuagenerian supremo would call on the students to smash the party regulars, dismantle the bureaucracy, trash the establishment, and give them arms, or at least look the other way when they stole them, to do it?

The millions of deaths he caused were not personally ordered by him.  He did not pore over death warrants as did Stalin, personally making annotations and changes.  He just commenced a totally hare brained scheme to make China overtake Europe’s economy in a few short years – without understanding a thing about economics – and as a result, agriculture withered, and tens of millions starved.  He whipped up the Cultural Revolution and millions were beaten, tortured, killed, but excesses are inevitable in the yin-yang dialectical struggle of the classes.  Oh, and he did personally direct a few traditional purges resulting in many thousands of executions, but only in a managerial capacity.

Why did he do this?  He was entranced with the Idea of revolution, and he firmly believed in the supremacy of the will.  Good qualities for a military leader fighting from a weak position – he was brilliant.  Bad for the leader of a giant state.  Nor did he have any understanding or interest of science and industry – willpower was supreme there as well.  And since will, his will, was all important, he created a position for himself in which he could not be questioned or opposed.   His lack of understanding and total contempt for what we call democracy, what he called bourgeois democracy, joined to the absence of any democratic tradition in China, topped off by the rule of committed party men who shared the Leninist belief in the guiding mission of the party ensured disaster.   Any dissenters were targeted as the rightist bourgeois element within the communist party!

After he died, the Gang of Four, including his estranged wife of Peking Opera fame, tried to carry on his apocalyptic quest.  The capitalist roader, Deng Xiao Ping prevailed and did exactly what Mao had been afraid he would do – turned China’s economy into a  form of state-capitalism.

Mao unified China, drove out the foreign devils, made China a great power, and destroyed the feudal landlord class.  For this, he will be regarded as a giant of China’s history forever.  For now, the ruling dynasty of the Party lives on, but China  favors total blandness in its new leaders, and no wonder.


Free will, and all that…again

May 24, 2010

Following up on earlier posts about historical determinism, free will, all that sort of stuff, I offer this astonishing snip from the New York Times, musings by Paul Kennedy on the eternal question of who makes history – great men, or impersonal forces: 

Interestingly, the most important challenge to Carlyle’s great-leader theory came from his fellow Victorian, that émigré, anti-idealist philosopher-historian and political economist, Karl Marx. In the opening paragraphs of his classic “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” he offers those famous lines: “Men make their own History, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

What an astonishing sentence. In it Marx captures not only the agency of human endeavor, but reminds us of how even the most powerful people are constrained by time and space, by geography and history.

Yes, astonishing too is the occurence of favorable comment on Karl Marx in the press, let alone the Times.  Fact is, he was a brilliant historian and thinker.  Maybe not so hot as a practical politician.  Not unlike Mao, about whom I am reading in Phillip Short’s biography – and he too made a difference as an individual.  A big difference!  But as Short makes clear, he did so within the structures of Chinese cultural history, adopting or slipping into the role of detached-philosopher-emperor, the object of daily veneration, just as Mao was brought up to bow to the image of Confucius each morning.


What the hell happened?

May 22, 2010

The Sand Pebbles is a three-hour epic of American gunboat diplomacy in China in 1926.  It was released in 1966, and in those days, long films had intermissions, with music!  I saw it about that time.  Memory is a funny thing that amazes me always – I am dumbfounded at how much of the movie I recalled from my boyhood viewing of it.

The hapless ship, San Pablo, is captained by Richard Crenna, a Navy man who feels he’s come down in the world, or been forced down, by being given command of this much derided gunboat.  Still, he’s a spit-and-polish guy, who makes the American presence known by flying the flag and leaving a trail of smoke wherever orders send him, no matter the reason.

Steve McQueen, as Jake Holman, does his tough but sensitive loner thing as the ship’s engineer.  He just wants to be left alone with his machines, and he don’t care about nothing else.  The Japanese-American actor, Mako, plays the coolie whom he trains to be his assistant once he realizes the guy has mechanical aptitude.  Jake is no thinker, but he takes people as they are, without preconceptions.

I remember Mako’s frequent turns in the movies and on TV, often as a crazy Japanese officer, or Asian thug.  Another flash of memory brings him to mind as one of the two antagonists in The Challenge, an awful TV movie from 1970 that struck me as absurd even at my then young age.  The story is that to avoid nuclear war, the USA and an unnamed Asian power agree to settle their conflict by each supplying a champion to fight it out, to the death, on a tropical island.  Mako supplies comic relief, intentionally?, by shouting taunts to the American, whom he calls “Joe.”  “My name’s not Joe!” shouts Darrin McGavin.  “All American’s Joe to me, Joe!” returns Mako.  I love that line.  As one reviewer noted, the director protected his reputation by using a pseudonym, but Mako and Darrin didn’t have that option.

Mako doesn’t fare well in this film – caught onshore when an anti-foreigner riot starts, he is strung up and tortured as a running dog serving the American foreign devils.  Holman and the men watch from the safety of their boat, ordered to hold their fire by the captain who is strictly forbidden to avoid all incidents – it would be propaganda fodder for the Bolsheviks – as the man pleads to be put out of his misery with a rifle shot.  His mentor, Holman, obliges, and kills him with a shot, then throws his rifle into the sea in disgust.

Sick of the military, disgusted by American policy, by Chinese Nationalist propaganda, by the riots, by racism on all sides, Jake just wants to be left alone.  Nevertheless, he forms a bond with a young American teacher serving with an idealist missionary, an old “China hand.”  Played by Candice Bergen at 19 years old, she senses his basic decency and intelligence.   Perhaps there is something to live…and die for?

When the crew nearly mutinees, the captain is despondent, and contemplates suicide.  News of widespread uprisings saves him by giving him the opportunity to redeem himself and his crew in a daring and unauthorized “last thrust into the heart of China,” to rescue the teacher and the missionary.  The missionary isn’t interested in being rescued; he’s renounced all nationality with a letter to Geneva, and wants to stay on, convinced he will not be harmed, or treated like an American foreign devil.  He understands a lot about China, but not much about political revolt.  The troops shoot him down as he waves his letter at them like a white flag.

The captain rises to the occasion of the incident he has pursued, and acts bravely and heroically.  Jake stays behind to delay the pursuers while the remaining American shore party rush back to ship with the young woman.  He knows he might not make it, but there’s that girl to protect…  You almost think he’s going to make it, running for that back gateway out, but he’s shot.  As he sits with a bullet in his chest, he wheezes, “I was almost home…” Then he shouts, “What the hell happened!”  and is shot dead.  It’s almost…existential.  Far better than the “There is nothing..!.” as Joe dies in The Wages of Fear.

When I told my sister that I had just seen the film, she asked if McQueen was in it.  I said he was, and that he was shot in the end.  “He always dies in the end of his movies,” she said.  Did he? 

Some reviewers see the film as the beginning of the anti-American Vietnam War era genre of war film.   Perhaps so, but if it had a political axe to grind, it was not overt:  its focus is on the characters, and how they deal with their situations, created by an era of brutal conflict.  Sort of Sound of Music (same director), without the music.

Steve McQueen is one of the oddest male stars I know.  He famously remarked that he wasn’t sure acting was a proper career for a grown man, and he never seems like he’s quite comfortable with where he is – as if he just stepped into the scene…like a real person.


Mao & Political purges: theory and practice

May 19, 2010

The Long March is over, but I am only half through Phillip Short’s engrossing biography of Mao Zedong.  To escape encirclement by Chiang kai-shek’s GDP armies, vastly outnumbering the communists, Mao led the Red forces on a trek thousands of miles long to the northern desert wastes where they were able to establish a base and rebuild their strength.  The march was an incredible feat of stamina, daring, brilliant strategy, and a bit of luck.  It was in their secure retreat at the end of it that Edgar Snow interviewed Mao for his book, Red Star Over China.

As I try to fathom the last member of the the 20th century’s triple crown of evil, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, I am struck by Mao’s differences from Stalin as portrayed respectively by Short and Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin).  Mao was not a paranoid mental case as Stalin appears to have been.  Like Stalin, he had a classical education.  Unlike Stalin, he was not enthusiastic about violence right from the start.  Joe seems to have relished the chaotic and violent life of a revolutionary outlaw bandit ‘expropriating’ bank funds for the Bolsheviks and organizing terrorist attacks; Mao, at first, was drawn to anarchism and communitarianism, and was repelled by ‘needless’ violence.  Mao was incredibly self-confident about his abilities as a military commander and politician, apparently with good reason.  Stalin was a bumbler as generalissimo, and always felt insecure around intellectuals.

A major difference between Russia’s revolution and China’s was that the Soviet state was founded by a military coup that was followed by a brutal civil war lasting a few years.  China’s ‘revolution’ was, in fact, a twenty-year civil war that ranged across the nation, and was fought with terrifying brutality, including frequent use of scorched-earth tactics by Chiang.  Mao rose to prominence, with frequent setbacks and dismissals by the central administration, while Stalin quietly and steadily homed in on supreme power.  Mao was so outspoken about his views, often directly in conflict with the center and with the USSR, that he was often reprimanded, accused of various political heresies, e.g. ‘right opportunism,’ ‘flightism,’ and ‘high flown-ism.’  He was adept at retiring from the fray at the right moment and waiting, sometimes in desparation, until the Party begged him to return and save their butts from disaster.

Eventually, his military strategy, and his insistence that the Chinese peasants must be at the heart of the revolution, despite the orthodox communist view that industrial workers and tradesmen must lead it, was accepted.    There’s no question:  his astute views, rooted in his deep knowledge of China – he produced several landmark studies of the peasantry, remarkable for their detail and understanding – were behind his role as the unifier and liberator of China.

One could take him for an Abe Lincoln or George Washington figure, which is the criticism made of Snow’s book.  Before the Long March, the dark side of Mao’s future was also apparent.  In Futian, during one of the GDP’s encirclement campaigns, the first big purges broke out among the communists.  They were massive, bloody, and indescriminate.  Short attributes them to the insanity-producing conditions of living in fear of the GDP, soldiers fearing destruction of their families by the GDP, the meddling Stalinist influence of the Soviet advisors, and the fact that most of the men were uneducated and illiterate.  Not to mention that Chinese history is filled with bloody and manic purges, so there was a tradition to uphold.

Just as in Russia, the purges were self-destructive, carrying off many needed, capable, and loyal party members, but these purges were before those of Stalin!  They seem to have risen from the grass roots upwards, rather than being concocted completely at the top and forced downward on everybody.  According to Short, Mao at first believed them to be justified, and then felt they had gone too far.  After that, he took a pragmatic and self-serving view.  Such ‘excesses’ were inevitable in brutal class war.  They helped enforce party discipline.  The cost of opposing them might be too high.  The man who had urged Red Army recruits to pay peasants for their food, always be polite, never strike a civilian, and who had urged good treatment of prisoners, including freeing them with the offer to join up with the cause, became comfortable with mass murder as a political tool.  The origin of the purges in the mind-numbing horror of the flight from the GDP foretells the insanity of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, barely remaining human under the onslaught of bombing by American B-52s at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

This raised a question in my mind about that other dictator/mass murder, Hitler.  Holocaust scholars debate the nature and ‘function’ of his campaign against the Jews, but did he have purges?  Other than the famous Night of the Long Knives, admired by Stalin, which was a calculated move to consolidate power over the Nazi party, I haven’t heard of any.  Perhaps the attempt to exterminate the Jews, despite the diversion of resources and the other practical problems it raised, was simply one long and very successful purge.  And it performed the same salutory function for the state:  maintenance of a state of terror and abject discipline.  Without the Jews, the Nazis might have turned on themselves repeatedly.  If the Jews hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them…