Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Frog in a Well

On the left, I am adding a link to a blog by graduate students of Chinese history, which I discovered while conducting a google search for jobs in Chinese history. I just love the title: Frog in a Well--a phrase which derives from my favorite chapter of my favorite ancient Chinese book: Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu). The passage from Autumn floods relates a conversation between the Earl of the River and the spirit of the Great Ocean, who teaches the river god how small it is in the presence of the ocean, which is itself small when compared to the vastness of Heaven and Earth. The spirit of the ocean says:

A frog in a well cannot be talked with about the sea;-- he is confined to the limits of his hole. An insect of the summer cannot be talked with about ice;-- it knows nothing beyond its own season. A scholar of limited views cannot be talked with about the Tâo;-- he is bound by the teaching (which he has received). Now you have come forth from between your banks, and beheld the great sea. You have come to know your own ignorance and inferiority, and are in the way of being fitted to be talked with about great principles. Of all the waters under heaven there are none so great as the sea. A myriad streams flow into it without ceasing, and yet it is not filled; and afterwards it discharges them (also) without ceasing, and yet it is not emptied. In spring and in autumn it undergoes no change; it takes no notice of floods or of drought. Its superiority over such streams even as the Kiang and the Ho cannot be told by measures or numbers; and that I have never, notwithstanding this, made much of myself, is because I compare my own bodily form with (the greatness of) heaven and earth, and (remember that) I have received my breath from the Yin and Yang. Between heaven and earth I am but as a small stone or a small tree on a great hill. So long as I see myself to be thus small, how should I make much of myself? I estimate all within the four seas, compared with the space between heaven and earth, to be not so large as that occupied by a pile of stones in a large marsh! I estimate our Middle States, compared with the space between the four seas, to be smaller than a single little grain of rice in a great granary! When we would set forth the number of things (in existence), we speak of them as myriads; and man is only one of them. Men occupy all the nine provinces; but of all whose life is maintained by grain-food, wherever boats and carriages reach, men form only one portion. Thus compared with the myriads of things, they are not equal to a single fine hair on the body of a horse. Within this range are comprehended all (the territories) which the five Tîs received in succession from one another; all which the royal founders of the three dynasties contended for; all which excited the anxiety of Benevolent men; and all which men in office have toiled for. Po-î was accounted famous for declining (to share in its government), and Kung-nî was accounted great because of the lessons which he addressed to it. They acted as they did, making much of themselves;-- therein like you who a little time ago did so of yourself because of your (volume of) water!' (Legge)

Alan Baumler points to a different Zhuangzi passage. See also here for more about the site and its relation to Zhuangzi. Finally, this post by Alan on whether or not graduate students should blog is worth a read. I know for me, blogging has brought me out of my own little well that was my dissertation topic and my own particular training.

Why I love politics

Most people I know dwell on the dirty side of politics and make statements like: "I hate politics." and "Why is politics so negative?" and "You can't trust a politician." No doubt, there have been times when I have made similar comments. However, after limited involvement over the past few years, I have experience another side to politics, and can frankly say: "I don't hate politics" "Not all politics is negative" and "You can trust some politicians."

I have grown to love politics--at least some. Why? I must say, partly for selfish reasons, but even those selfish motivations reflect on what I feel is important in life and in a healthy society.

Politics brings a lot of people together. Those connected to successful campaigns--by which I do not merely refer to winning ones--often feel like they are part of a movement, something bigger than themselves or a single politician or a single issue. I think that feeling of being part of something bigger is important in life, important to an individual's self esteem. When people feel like they are cut off, disconnected, on their own, they often do not function as well as they do in a group, or with other accomplices. That is my great conspiracy theory.

No, I can't speak for everyone. Some people like to be by themselves; they might even believe that it is necessary to become a hermit in order to achieve their goals; they may teach their students or their children that you just have to do things on your own. How are you going to grow up if you don't figure it out yourself. Or as Roger Waters asks: "If I don't stand my own ground, how can I find my way out of this maze?"

Personally, I thrive on collaboration. I just feel more alive when I'm working together with my peers. So, this is the selfish part. I like interacting with other people. Who doesn't? But this is also the unselfish part. When a lot of people interact, something magical happens, something that can lead individuals out of themselves, beyond their own particular interests. Community arises. Societies are formed.

Some individuals want to congregate. Others do it just to survive.

To me, politics is about individuals--not necessarily of the same background--coming together, working together to achieve a common objective. There is nothing by nature dirty about that. What can corrupt the process is the nature of the objective, the composition of the group, and the particular motivations of the forces that cause the group to coalesce.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Narrative Reproduction

Once again, I'll refer to one of Stirling's posts, not only because I feel he is one of the more thoughtful, visionary writers on the web, but because this post resonates with issues I was working on in my dissertation. Perhaps as a reaction to the general trend in most academic historical writing, where one is asked (and asked and asked) to focus on a particular period (What is your period?), and it is generally assumed that the events of one age do not have a lasting impact on those that follow, at least not lasting beyond a given period of time, my primary concern (really since I started studying Chinese) has been to explore how the past, even the ancient past, has a profound influence on the present. Such an approach often meets with typical reactions:

How can you study such a long period of time? It was a different world. This is an assumption. Is it a given that an age is an enclosed temporal entity, just like a state is a spatial one? Is there nothing that flows across borders, that isn't restricted by time and space?

Yes, that might be true for the 2nd century, but you are talking about the twentieth. This is really the same assumption. It is as if there is some immense, inpenetrable barrier between some fixed point in the past (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th century, when?) and where we are now. However, that point changes depending on who you are and what you have studied.

I have encountered this argument repeatedly, by people who only study ancient China and by people who only study contemporary China. I guess people want to view what they study as unique. It is also a reaction against the timeless China way of expression. "It has always been thus."

Certainly there is something to be gained by observing shorter periods--100 years, 10 years, even 1 year. Wow! To really get to the heart of what occurred in 1260. That would be a project. It might become one. But where would you begin? Could you fully appreciate 1260 without knowledge of what came before and what followed?

There are also those who are so absorbed in the contemporary world that they seal themselves off from everything that came before. For instance, I heard one anthropologist say she was mainly interested in the contemporary situation as it is emerging. But when did the contemporary world begin?