Land of rice, without fish

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:23 pm


There has been a some talk about China and fish of late, and while I generally don’t like me too posts, I think China’s relationship with fish is interesting. Basically, as China modernizes and gets richer there are fewer fish. The Yangzi river ecosystem has lost thousands of species as runoff, pollution overfishing and poor management have taken their toll. To some extent the Chinese have dealt with this by sending fishing fleets to West Africa to vacuum up every bit of piscine goodness they can get. While it is interesting to think of a new Zheng He returning from Africa with treasure in the form of fish, this is a pretty modern problem. With modern technology it gets easier and cheaper to overfish. You can deal with this in part by re-naming the junk Patagonian Toothfish the Chilean Sea Bass and serving it up, by cheating on your fishing quotas, etc. but there are limits to how much of that you can do.

I suspect that China (and the world) may be headed for a real disaster here, a disaster with Chinese characteristics. One thing that leads to overfishing is the tragedy of the commons. Especially in a hyper-capitalist system resources that are not owned by anyone will be exploited to the point of destruction. Another way to get an ecological disaster is to have huge Stalinist style state projects like the Three Gorges Dam, which was built without much attention being paid to what it would do to fish populations and spawning patterns. How many countries have both the yen (desire) and yuan (cash) for big Stalinist projects and a hyper-capitalist economy? Only China.

P.S. I’m not real up on the literature on China’s environment, but the various works of Vaclav Smil are a good place to start.

P.P.S. for our non-Chinese readers, Land of rice and fish (鱼米之乡) is the equivalent of the Land of milk and honey,  a place of great wealth and prosperity.


Yellow Peril 3.1

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:31 pm

Via Cameron Campbell’s Facebook feed I found a link to How Social Darwinism Made Modern China: A thousand years of meritocracy shaped the Middle Kingdom  from The American Conservative It is…odd.  The author (Ron Unz) is arguing that the Chinese have been becoming genetically more intelligent due to the long term effects of economic scarcity and competition. Unz claims that his type of thinking will automatically be rejected by the Soviet-style totalitarian system of intellectual conformity that dominates American life, banishing the racialist truths that would be self-evident to anyone but an American. He’s actually right about that. Every time I tried to think about his argument the chip that they implanted in my skull freshman year give me a little electrical shock.

A lot of the piece is just looney. We get a suggestion that “the socially conformist tendencies of most Chinese people might be due to the fact that for the past 2,000 years the Chinese government had regularly eliminated its more rebellious subjects.” I’m pretty sure that if the Chinese people had been selected for non-rebelliousness from the Han Dynasty on we would be seeing some signs of this by, say 1850.

The thing that makes the piece interesting is that it is actually pretty good. It’s a re-written undergraduate paper, but Unz has read a lot of stuff since then. He is essentializing the Chinese, but in a way that shows a some engagement with the literature.

The cultural and ideological constraints of Chinese society posed major obstacles to mitigating this never-ending human calamity. Although impoverished Europeans of this era, male and female alike, often married late or not at all, early marriage and family were central pillars of Chinese life, with the sage Mencius stating that to have no children was the worst of unfilial acts; indeed, marriage and anticipated children were the mark of adulthood. Furthermore, only male heirs could continue the family name and ensure that oneself and one’s ancestors would be paid the proper ritual respect, and multiple sons were required to protect against the vagaries of fate. ….

Nearly all peasant societies sanctify filial loyalty, marriage, family, and children, while elevating sons above daughters, but in traditional China these tendencies seem to have been especially strong. [emphasis mine]

See? Chinese peasants are peasant-y, but then so are most peasants. China is different than other places, but not that different. He has read and thought about some stuff, and has even read, or at least cited, some staggeringly dull stuff on Chinese historical demography. He suggests that the exam system may have led to increased competitiveness, but then concludes that not enough people participated for that to be the case. He suggests that culture may matter, and while he does not really follow up on this he does at least mention it. This is a cut above the Yellow Peril stuff you ordinarily get on the Internet.

This made me think a bit about how this is different from the earlier Yellow Perils. He is arguing that Chinese have, for the last several centuries, becoming smarter and more competitive. Is that what the original Yellow Peril was? For me that mostly means going back to Jack London.1 In The Unparallelled Invasion  London suggested that the Americans might have to exterminate the Chinese in self-defence, but the reason for this is not their intelligence but their industry. Mark Twain also agrees that the Chinese were hard workers.

They are a harmless race when white men either let them alone or treat them no worse than dogs; in fact they are almost entirely harmless anyhow, for they seldom think of resenting the vilest insults or the cruelest injuries. They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long. A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.
Roughing It

London is, of course, a good Social Darwinist, who thinks that history is a constant process of racial competition.

The history of civilisation is a history of wandering, sword in hand, in search of food.  In the misty younger world we catch glimpses of phantom races, rising, slaying, finding food, building rude civilisations, decaying, falling under the swords of stronger hands, and passing utterly away.  Man, like any other animal, has roved over the earth seeking what he might devour; and not romance and adventure, but the hunger-need, has urged him on his vast adventures.Whether a bankrupt gentleman sailing to colonise Virginia or a lean Cantonese contracting to labour on the sugar plantations of Hawaii, in each case, gentleman and coolie, it is a desperate attempt to get something to eat, to get more to eat than he can get at home.2

So London has the proper old racialist ideas, and at least in one case he suggests that this is genetic. Check the bold bit (mine) below in The Tears of Ah Kim

Honourable, among labourers, had Ah Kim’s rating been as a towing coolie. In Hawaii, receiving a hundred times more pay, he found himself looked down upon as the lowest of the low–a plantation coolie, than which could be nothing lower. But a coolie whose ancestors had towed junks up the eleventh cataract of the Yangtse since before the birth of Christ inevitably inherits one character in large degree, namely, the character of patience.

The Yangzi does not have 11  cataracts, or at least not before you get to the Three Gorges, although Egypt of course had a lot of them. Still there is at least a suggestion of improvement through breeding.

Ah Kim is actually pretty modern

Ah Kim himself, a generation younger than his mother, had been bitten by the acid of modernity. The old order held, in so far as he still felt in his subtlest crypts of being the dusty hand of the past resting on him, residing in him; yet he subscribed to heavy policies of fire and life insurance, acted as treasurer for the local Chinese revolutionises that were for turning the Celestial Empire into a republic, contributed to the funds of the Hawaii-born Chinese baseball nine that excelled the Yankee nines at their own game, talked theosophy with Katso Suguri, the Japanese Buddhist and silk importer, fell for police graft, played and paid his insidious share in the democratic politics of annexed Hawaii, and was thinking of buying an automobile. Ah Kim never dared bare himself to himself and thrash out and winnow out how much of the old he had ceased to believe in. His mother was of the old, yet he revered her and was happy under her bamboo stick. Li Faa, the Silvery Moon Blossom, was of the new, yet he could never be quite completely happy without her.

In general, (and I look forward to a real Londoner correcting me here) Jack does not seem to be saying that the Chinese have been selected to be genetically superior to others. They are hard-working, phlegmatic3 but not all that bright. Like Fu Manchu you need to keep them away from the superior technology that the West has, but which does not seem to be really Western in the sense that it is the product of a more intelligent race that only they can use. Unz seems to be not taking the Chinese seriously and using them more as an attempt to convince Americans to get back to their racialist roots. Still, I think this ‘The Chinese are genetically modified super-folk’ might be an important meme going forward.

  1. I’m not actually writing a monograph on western thought about Asia here, just thinking about stuff []
  2. from The Human Drift. I wish the people here http://www.jacklondons.net/jackLondonWritings.html would make a single Kindle edition of all his stuff . There are lots of Chinese in there []
  3. and I swear I saw Ah Choon grin at me with philosophic resignation as he cleared the rail and went under. (From The Heathen) []


Going Native

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:11 am

Here is something from Edward V. Gulick Teaching in Wartime China: A Photo-Memoir, 1937-1939. ((University of Massachusetts, 1995)) When Gulick came to China he was a young, idealistic part of the wealthy, idealistic Yale in China program. He went on to have a career as a historian of international relations and of China, but at this point he was a young  Christian from a missionary family (although he ‘disliked old-fashioned missionary evangelism’1 ) who knew no Chinese and little about China. Still, he took to the place, and he learned a lot, much of it through meeting up with various missionaries, China hands and others. The one who interested me most was Gerald.

The exotic qualities of the hotel were enhanced by our linking up with someone I will call Gerald, a young English Buddhist who was on his way to Kunming and who had also come on the S.S. Canton from Hong Kong. Gerald identified himself as a dropout from Cambridge University and as a member of a prominent English family. He had lived several years in South China and several more in Peiping, attaining fluency in both Cantonese and Mandarin, and becoming a Buddhist convert. That was interesting enough, but I was astonished to learn that this tall, handsome and self-assured man had an opium habit, and then fascinated  to be invited to watch him smoke. He was articulate, loved to talk, and relished having an interested audience as he lay on his side and prepared his opium for smoking. That ritual consisted of dipping a blunt needle into a viscous fluid like molasses; the tip of the needle with its adhering drop was held briefly over the concentrated heat of a squat opium lamp. He turned the drop as it bubbled and then shaped it on the flat surface near the bowl of the pipe, before dipping the needle tip wth its cooled droplet into the “molasses” once again, the cycle being repeated slowly and peacefully six or eight times. The finished pellet was finally pushed off the needle into the tiny bowl of the opium pipe which was turned to the heat of the lamp so the smoker could ignite the pellet with several big puffs followed by a gigantic long inhale. The whole procedure was known as a “mouth.” Since this took place thirty years before the prevalence of drugs in middle-class America, it seemed incredibly exotic
and offbeat to me.
Dr. Liebenthal and I visited Gerald a number of times in opium dens to watch and listen. He talked of northern and southern differences in preparation, of the gentleness of the habit, of how he had smoked socially off and on for a year, and even regularly for a month in order to cope with an intestinal ailment, before he realized he had a habit. By the time I knew him he was compelled to smoke two or three “mouths” both morning and evening. He was eager to show us how benign and peaceful the dens were, how civilized smoking was, how unrelated the whole process was to the ill-informed and prejudiced ways in which it was usually perceived by Westerners.
Gerald possessed a romantic image of a perfect and purified Chinese culture that led him to an obsessive conviction that the Chinese way of
doing anything- in art, in language, in manners, in dress, in architecture, in agriculture and organization, in religion- was demonstrably the
best. Initially, I found this view of life sympathetic, but it risked slipping from novelty and stimulation to tedium and aggravation.

Eventually he sours on Gerald, but for me the opium smoking was the most interesting part. Apparently for Gerald opium smoking was a vital part of connecting to China. Liu Wendian seems to have felt the same way. Needless to say that is not true now, but it was part of the package as recently as the 1930s

  1. p.16 []


The over-populated, misery-ridden East

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:29 pm

I was reading Leyland Stowe’s They Shall Not Sleep  Stowe was a WWII journalist, and I was interested in his time in SW China. While on the Burma Road he has a bit of an incident as he, his driver, and a Chinese named Yang rocketed along the road.

Yang was an amiable, shrewd-eyed young roughneck, reckless and devil-may-care, and his friend was of precisely the same stripe. The valleys were longer and wider now, so Yang drove at a fast pace, all the while chattering, joking, and gesticulating with his pal. Hitting it up in this fashion, we burst suddenly over a slight rise in the highway and a sickening sight struck my eyes. Exactly in the middle of the road lay the body of a man. The side of his head was bashed wide open. His face and shoulders were covered with blood. He was trying to crawl- to lift the upper part of his body on his hands. I saw all this in a split second as Yang jerked the wheel to the right and we sped past.

I grabbed the knee of the driver, who sat between Yang and me. “Stop! He’s dying! We’ve got to help him! Stop!” I cried again. Though they couldn’t speak a word of English, of course they knew what I meant. But Yang pushed his foot down on the accelerator. We were making fifty miles an hour now. I looked back. I thought I had seen pieces of brain bulging from the wound in that man’s head. Yang and his partner were jabbering to me in great seriousness now. The gist of their gestures was plain enough. Their gestures said: “If we stop we will be blamed. People will say that we ran him down. If you try to help people you only get into trouble. The only thing to do is to get away fast.” Yang drove on faster than ever. In a few minutes the two Chinese were chattering and laughing together as lightheartedly as ever. In the Orient you seldom worry about a dying man or a dying animal. Here, and most of all on this Burma Road, it is every dog for himself. Yang and his partner had simply followed a rule of the over-populated, misery-ridden East, a rule which is thousands of years old.1

The indifference of Asians, and maybe especially Chinese, to human life is one of the commonplaces of Western travel writing and fiction and I can think of lots of examples of this kind of thing.  This seems to extend all the way across the East. “In Casablanca, human life is cheap” but it seems to have been really prevalent in the 20th century. Stowe is not quite writing fiction here, but he is repeating the standard western literary trope that you know you are in China when you see someone die unattended by the side of the road. In this story this essential fact of Chinese culture even transcends the language barrier, as Stowe is able to translate his companion’s Chinese inhumanity without even knowing Chinese. Stowe’s account is particularly bad about this, but I am wondering if anyone has a sense of when this became so prevalent and how it changed over time. I wonder if the war may have been particularly bad, since in the warlord era or the Qing you could always talk about cruel warlords or feudal mandarins to get in your bits on Chinese inferiority, but after a while it sort of had to be the common people, as China was running its own affairs.

  1. p.16 []

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