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The Otherness of Self” by Xin Liu, published in 2002. Rating: 1/5.

I don’t want to sound overly demanding, but really, unless a writer is the next Kant or Heidegger, he owes it to his readers to make his prose at least minimally engaging. With this book on too many occasions I was under the impression that I was reading something from the Postmodern Essay Generator. Here is a totally random quote I just pulled from THE OTHERNESS OF SELF: “As Carr argues, a solution to the problem of experience is provided by the Husserlian idea of retention-protention as a horizon from which the experience of being experienced at the present moment stands out.

Come again, amigo? About 80% of this book is PoMo-babble, as verbose as it is apparently meaningless – one is under the distinct impression that Xin Liu is padding out a thesis paper with references to thinkers who are not really at all relevant to the putative object of his studies, the Beihai Star Group and South Chinese business culture. It is with this in mind that we come to the actual content, unearthing which expends no small time of energy and sanity.

In this book, the anthropologist Xin Liu argues that “the human experience itself is narrative in character… time is the life of narrative.” By extension, social life is centered around the perception of time as it relates to the past, present, and future, as well as to the sense of “before” and “after”. He analyzes China’s changing society through the prism of its changing conceptions of temporarily as described in three contemporaneous books representative of the time periods in which they were written, as well as his own observations of business life in Beihai.

In traditional society, social life centered around the family, which in the Chinese word jia carries not only strong implications of materiality but also refers to “not simply a group of biologically connected individuals but a chain of individuals in time.” The family is a rope, its various strands are its various branches, and the single-thread (male) individual is the “personification of all his forebears and of all his descendents yet unborn.” As such, the ethnographer Francis Hsu in his 1948 study Under the Ancestors’ Shadow characterizes Chinese life as a “continuum of descent”, with all its attendant rites and features like reverence for ancestors. I would further note that even the Chinese language supports such an interpretation, with “before” being coterminous with “above” (e.g., 上个星期) and “after” being coterminous with “below” (下个星期). Or in McTaggart’s interpretation, which is heavily expounded on by Xin Liu, the traditional Chinese concept of time is an “A-series”, in which there is “an equivalence between the chain of past-present-future and that of ancestors-self-descendents” – that is, the self is defined in terms of ancestors, and one must honor them by maintaining filial piety and producing children; in their turn, the ancestral spirits will continue looking after the family line.

The Maoist Revolution kept the A-Series but inverted it, such that “the self was no longer imprisoned by the shadow of the ancestors”; to the contrary, the jiu shehui (旧社会), or old society, was to be decisively rejected in the long march to the Communist utopia. This process is reflected in Hao Ran’s massive novel The Sky of Bright Sunshine, written in 1964, in the interlude between the millenarian madness of The Great Leap Forwards and the Cultural Revolution. The novel itself has no dates, it is for all intents and purposes timeless. It features a struggle between a dedicated party cadre, Xiao, persuading the people to join collectives, and the reactionary agent Ma, who does all he can to subvert the Smaller Helmsman’s efforts – up to and including sacrificing his own son for the socialist victory. In this secular-Oriental version of the Biblical story of Abraham, Xiao received The Selected Works of Mao Zedong as a reward. That said, I would note that the millenarian element of the Maoist Revolution – the inversion of the A-series – is not unprecedented in Chinese culture, as we see from the Taiping Rebellion; and furthermore, the very concept of an end-time Da Tong (大同) is integral to the otherwise unchanging, “frozen-in-time” essence of classical Confucianism.

The third novel Xin Liu analyzes is A Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi, written in 1995, in which the nature of time becomes a B-series of “before” and “after” from which the self now becomes alienated from. This is already well into the period of the capitalist roaders, and contemporaneous with the story of the Beihai Star Group that forms the focal point of Xin Liu’s analysis of the self in today’s China. “The total absence of scheduling”, he notes, “is a key feature of South Chinese business practice in general.” The business culture is intensely people orientated, given the importance of building up contacts and grace with officialdom, for the chuzhang is “someone who pleases when pleased.” Now there is no longer either a past orientation or a future orientation. To quote Xin Liu in extenso: “For those whose life is part of A Song of Everlasting Sorrow or is spent on these pleasure trips, the utterance today seems no longer pregnant with either “yesterday” or “tomorrow”; instead, the utterance has become “today’s today.” … It is no longer burdened by the world of ancestors or driven by the promised communist final victory.”

It is here however that we come to the crucial problem surrounding all attempts to reduce the complexities of social life, arising in specific socio-political circumstances, to general sociological theories. One can, like Xin Liu, attempt to situate South Chinese business culture in terms of its perceptions of time. Alternatively, one can note other explanatory factors. Beihai was in the far south, in the mountainous, non-Mandarin speaking Guanxi province – a pertinent point given the realities of high mountains and far away emperors (山高皇帝远). This meant that the enterprising laoban could suborn central officials with “unofficial” holiday trips and the “golden production line of entertainment” at locations far removed from the official scrutiny of Beijing; a matter of overriding importance, as it is these officials who would decide which companies swam or sank.

But apart from that Beihai was also one of China’s fastest growing cities during the transition period. These two factors – the sheer speed of development, and the remote location – strongly incentivize the kind of people-centered, improvisational, and traceless business culture that Xin Liu describes. After all if success depends for the most part on guanxi , not meticulous business plans, then it makes sense to focus one’s efforts on the former. Furthermore, not that many other locations during the transition period fulfilled the two criteria of mega-boom and remoteness. As such, the Beihai story does not seem to have been all that typical, and the business practices it spawned as such may not have existed in so full and flagrant a form in other Chinese regions.

The final point to consider is to what extent this dissolution of self in the river of time was a specific Chinese experience of the transition – or a feature traditionally common to the Chinese, or to societies caught up in rapid changes. Consideration of these points do not necessarily refute Xin Liu’s thesis but they do give cause for numerous caveats, and the more caveats there are to a theory, the less useful it tends to become in terms of explanatory power. First, in his article Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, David Moser notes that the language’s linguistic idiosyncrasies – namely, the difficulty of remembering less common characters – means that in general, detailed note-taking isn’t as practical; far easier to give someone a call. Second, in his book Future Shock, the futurist Alvin Toffler writes of the impact of modern technology as “too much change in too short a period of time”; an effect that produces social anomie and “shattering stress and disorientation.” The conditions apply to China what with its turbo-charged transition from agricultural subsistence to the Information Age.

As such, the radical simplification of temporal categories implicit in the transition from the A-series to the B-series – and the attendant constriction of a disembodied self between a “before” and an “after” – may well in part be just a coping mechanism of Beihai executives to deal with the information overload produced by the capitalist, “informatized”, monetized, extensively quantified new world that they are constructing themselves.

So, in conclusion. He does have an occasionally interesting idea, such as the laoban-chuzhang-xiaojie triangle; or his theory of time and narrative as applied to post-Maoist China. And in the spirit of Smith, he is capable of making the occasional poignant observation. But these nuggets are deeply buried under an avalanche of quasi-academic vapidity, and aren’t all that universal or profound anyway (certainly not near enough to justify the verbosity expended on their behalf). Yes, hustlers hire call girls to get favors from officials – we get that, it happens in quite a lot of other places too. No need to write 200 pages about friggin’ Husserl to make that point.

THE OTHERNESS OF SELF matches neither the wit and flair of Arthur H. Smith’s “Chinese Characteristics”, nor the lucidity and true erudition of Benjamin Schwartz’s “In Search of Wealth and Power.” It is most not recommended for reading.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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In Search of Wealth and Power by Benjamin Schwartz, published in 1964. Rating: 4/5.


In Search of Wealth and Power is a very dense but richly rewarding tome by Benjamin Schwartz, a noted China scholar. He focuses on the life of the translator Yan Fu to illustrate the culture clashes that arose when traditional Chinese civilization came into contact with Western philosophies.

Yan Fu was a translator and thinker who was one of the first Chinese to engage with Western thought at a deep level. He rejected contemporary thinkers like Zhang Zhidong, who aimed to integrate Western technics onto Chinese cultural foundations – not for him was the slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Nor was he a Marxist, to consider society as a mere superstructure to underlying economic realities. Instead, Yan Fu emphasized that if anything there was “more materialism (in the ethical sense)” among Chinese than in the West, whose own material foundations were built on innovative legal, political, and spiritual foundations. In a nutshell, the purpose of Yan Fu’s lifework was to foster the evolutionary growth of these Western qualities, many of them quite intangible, so as to “enrich the state and strengthen the army.” Yet in so doing this through his translations and commentary he ran into many paradoxes, and grew disillusioned with Western thought in the last decade of his life – as did admittedly many Western intellectuals as well. At the end he (re)turned to a form of Taoist mysticism.

At the start it is important to note that Yan Fu was intimately acquainted with all major strands of the Chinese philosophical tradition. Confucianism had been the bedrock of the Chinese state since the Qin dynasty. It stressed the importance of filial piety, of the ruler setting a virtuous example of the people, and of keeping laws and regulations light; however, Yan Fu and numerous other members of the Chinese intelligentsia during that time were coming to see it as a regressive influence keeping China backward. For his own part Yan Fu has little patience with it, beyond keeping its few good parts – mostly those to do with family organization – and extending it to the masses, the armies and factories (much as he perceived Christianity to have laid the groundwork for English public spirit despite its purported theological errors).

The other strand that he drew on is Legalism, a far more practical doctrine that contained the Chinese version of balance of power theory and Machievallian ideas about the state. Furthermore, Schwartz writes, “while the immediate aims of the Legalists may be narrowly fiscal, the germ of a notion of economic development is latent within this mode of thought.”

Finally, there was Taoism; although the least practical of the three, Yan Fu was extremely influenced by it. In its attribution of a deep and incomprehensible driving force he found deep parallels with the monist Western philosophers, as well as a metaphysical lattice to hold together the evolutionary process and the “ten thousand things”. It did not proscribe a frozen feudal order like old-school Confucianism, and it was the polar opposite of the crass materialism of Legalism. As such, Yan Fu considered it the ultimate anchor on which Western philosophical concepts could be moored, even going so far as to argue proto-democratic tendencies in the works of Zhuangzi.

Of course while finding a balance between Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism seems to be hard enough, meeting the challenge of Western ideas is all the more so. Possible consequences include the very extinction of certain Chinese intellectual traditions, for whereas “one could conceive of wealth and power as an outer rampart for the inner sanctum of essential Confucian values and institutions only so long as the requirements of one were not incompatible with the demands of the other.” But what if it was impossible to build the new fort, bristling with modern weapons, without also “destroying the sanctum”?

This dilemma reflects one universal to all non-Western conservatives who realize their country’s backwardness. For instance, Nikolai Trubetzkoy would lay out precisely this dilemma in his seminal 1918 tract Europe and Mankind, where he noted that whereas Romano-Germanic nations could “move along a well-worn path, looking neither to the right nor left and concentrating its efforts on the coordination of elements from a single culture” and the rest of the world had to manage the culture clash of its own traditions with these European imports. Staying still is not an option because of the West’s military threat; on the other hand, the permanent culture clash involved in copying the West, the so-called “duel logique”, expends precious energy and reinforces the permanent gap between the Romano-Germanic world and the country attempting to modernize. Eventually the situation becomes desperate and the lagging country attempts a “long leap”, covering in a few years what took decades or centuries of organic development in the original countries. But the consequences of these leaps tend to be terrible, according to Trubetzkoy, because it is followed by “a period of apparent (from the European standpoint) stagnation, when it is necessary… to coordinate the results achieved by a leap in a particular area with other elements of the culture.”

Yan Fu stares this dilemma straight in the face. On the one hand, it is necessary to modernize, and – he believes – modernization has to be full-spectrum, and not in just the narrow military sense that he senses will lead to ruin, as with Peter’s Russia. He is a proponent of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, and applying biological laws to that of society; individuals and nations are evolving, competing, progressing… unfortunately, the process hadn’t taken off in China. So paradoxically, China had to kick-start it via Great Men and legislators, a hopeless task according to at least two of Yan Fu’s Western philosophers – the Master himself, for Spencer believed that social evolution was a natural process that was outside human influence; and Montesquieu, who held that riverine civilizations located on great plains have a natural tendency towards despotism. No wonder then that Yan Fu cardinally reinterpreted Spencer to create a kind of “Evolution and Ethics with Chinese Characteristics,” and vigorously argued against Montesquieu’s crude geographic determinism and understandable lack of foreknowledge about technological changes that would shrink the world and make it more generally conductive for the evolution of democracies. It is stressed throughout the book that Yan Fu’s commentaries on these Western philosophers, his attempts to reconcile them with contemporary Chinese realities as well as its own intellectual tradition, were every bit as significant or even more so to the intellectual atmosphere in China than the actual translations that he performed.

Personally conservative and patriarchal; supporter of a strong state, but also one with liberal elements and public spirit – one gets the impression that disillusioned as he was by the 1910’s, Yan Fu would have had his faith restored by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. The state there was not a full democracy, but a managed democracy that maintains fairly strict social mores under a liberal economic environment. He would not have had too many issues with Taiwan either, where a dictator governed until the 1980’s, when – as he might see it – the people had become advanced enough to run the country themselves. As a man who loathed the idea of sudden, jolting changes he would have been aghast at the Maoist model, which developed by Trubetzkoy’s playbook: Importation of a Western ideology (Marxism) in one of its more extreme forms, and its attempted marriage to Chinese cultural traditions (some, like Confucianism, were repressed; others, like Legalism, were not, as Mao indeed was an admirer of Shang Yang’s methods); attempts to “leap forwards” (literally so, in 1959-62); a period of cultural clashes (Cultural Revolution 1966-76) and relative stagnation.

Even so, in a way the Communist Party did introduce important elements of Western thought and habits. There was a real emphasis on development, even if in practice was very inefficient until the late 1970’s. Concepts such as subsistence as the ideal were decisively rejected (in theory if not quite in practice). And one can even argue that the Communists introduced a kind of public spirit with the economic system of rural collective farms and urban danwei system and Maoist songs such as Comrade in Arms and The East is Red (equivalent in some ways to choral songs under Christian civilization). However this sense of community broke up pretty quickly after the 1970’s, people no longer call each other 同志, which formerly meant comrade but now denotes homosexuals in popular parlance, but things such as corruption and greed are also believed to have increased under the new capitalist order. Ironically however a similar process took place in the West, e.g. community life and public spirit is held to have declined since the 1960’s on most metrics both statistical (e.g. wealth inequality, incarceration rate, crime rate, etc) and intangible. So in a sense China and the US are converging towards being richer, more atomized societies. Perhaps Yan Fu would have seen this as a vindication of Spencer’s original vision after all, though then again, it’s not like the “power” part of “wealth and power” is exactly irrelevant today what with an incipient naval race between the US and China in the West Pacific.

What this book exudes in academic dryness it easily makes up in lucidity and erudition. (This is a 1960s Harvard man, writing well before it became widely acceptable to substitute genuine research with meaningless PoMo-babble). Unfortunately the Wade-Giles system is used throughout, but again that’s standard for that time. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, unlike Arthur H. Smith’s Chinese Characteristics, but definitely recommended for those who wish to delve into modern Chinese intellectual history, China’s “encounter” with the West more general, and the interplay of traditional Chinese philosophies with interloping Western ideas.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.