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A Neo-Confucian Blog


A Neo-Confucian Blog

Once again I open a blog with a reference to an item on The NYTimes editorial page--this one on yesterday’s, for July 11th. The Times is the first thing I read every morning early, beginning with the front page headlines and going on to the editorials. (My other regular readings are in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly--plus, of course, several online news services that I have bookmarked.) This time the editorial didn’t evoke anger, only an initial sense of hopefulness that dissipated as I read on. It’s by a certain Jiang Qing (no, not Mao’s wife--different characters, surely) who is “founder of the Yangming Confucian Academy in Guiyang” --named, it must be, after the great Song-period philosopher Wang Yangming. Listed as co-author but apparently more editor is Daniel A. Bell, an Australian scholar who is himself author of a book on Neo-Confucianism. The editorial begins by stating that what China needs isn’t so much democracy as a government of Neo-Confucian “humane authority.” I immediately expanded that second word in my mind: he probably means humane authoritarianism, style of Singapore? And sure enough--hopes raised, only to be heavily dropped soon after.

As I have related on several occasions, I used to reply, when asked about my religion or philosophical leanings, that I was a Neo-Confucianist. And it’s true that that body of philosophy had a great appeal for me in my early career. I used it to counter the excessive claims that the Ch’an/Zen people were making in the 1940s-50s to most everything that was attractive in East Asian culture--spontaneity, humor, inner peace, transcendence of the worldly. I wrote, for a 1958 conference on Neo-Confucianism, one of that great series organized by John Fairbank and others, a paper on “Confucian Elements In the Theory of Painting.” And I traveled for weekend seminars in colleges and universities as one of Wm. Theodore  (Ted) de Bary’s team of experts to help persuade university administrators to start up China programs with Ford Foundation funding--seminars in which Neo-Confucianism was presented and promoted.

As a U.C. Berkeley professor I enjoyed for some years the friendship of a major Confucianist, Weiming Tu, who was in our History Department from 1971 until he moved on to Harvard in 1981--forced out, so we understood, when he divorced his wife and she chose to stay in Berkeley, obliging him to move elsewhere. (Fig. 1, a photo of Weiming Tu.) He is now some kind of dean at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, not one of my favorite places. I liked Weiming as a person while leaning in an opposite direction on those issues for which he seemed to me a counter-foil for Joe Levenson--Levenson constructing historical and intellectual situations in terms of tensions and contending forces, Weiming searching for grand harmonies and unities. Weiming was called to Singapore to advise that government on their adoption of a Neo-Confucian political stance. (In my video-lectures I point out that the great Neo-Confucian intellectuals of the late Northern Song would be Tea-Party types today, with their bitter opposition to the political reforms advocated by Wang Anshi and others.) But I benefited a lot from his scholarship. Weiming involved me, for instance, in a conference organized in 1981 by Peter Gregory on “Sudden and Gradual Approaches to Enlightenment”--my article for that, exploring implications of Dong Qichang’s “Northern and Southern Schools” theory, was printed in the Sudden and Gradual volume that Peter Gregory edited, published in 1988. (It was also at that conference that, in response to a limerick contest announced by Gregory, I composed the “Sudden and Gradual Limericks” that are the first items in the Ching Yuan Chai Treasury of Imperishable Ephemera, accessible on this website under Writings of JC. I won the contest, if only by composing more than anyone else. I still like the one about Ikkyû.) Fig. 2: Participants in Sudden and Gradual Conference.

Back to Jiang Qing’s editorial: I read on with interest--almost anything would be an improvement over the present regime in China--until I came to his plan for a government of “humane authority.” It would have a “tricameral legislature”--not, like ours, an attempt at balance between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but a House of Exemplary Persons, a House of the Nation, and a House of the People. Exemplary Persons would be made up of “great scholars” who would be “examined on their knowledge of the Confucian classics”--we are back, that is, to the old examination system of dynastic times. The “leader of the House of the Nation should be a direct descendant of Confucius,” and it would be made up of “descendants of great sages and rulers.” Only the House of the People would be elected.

 Augh--would this really be an improvement over the present Chinese government? Even if a Singapore-like attempt to implement it were made, it wouldn’t last long--nor should it, in my view. It would pull back into 21st century China too much of the worst of their past. I have often asked rhetorically, thinking of the relative peace and prosperity of China under the Manchus, or of Hong Kong under the British: How long has it been since China produced a native government that any sensible person would want to live under? Some time in the Ming? Is there some ingrained set of qualities in the Han Chinese that works against their ability to govern themselves effectively and humanely? I hope the answer is no, and that I will have the satisfaction of observing such a government take shape while I’m here to watch it.


Finally, a word about making “a lineal descendant of Confucius” into a leading legislator. I used to know one of them--K’ung Te-ch’eng, 77th generation lineal descendant of Confucius, living in Taiwan and Director of the National Palace Museum when I carried out the great photographing project there in the early 1960s. (See Fig. 3, a group photograph--I am  second from left, K’ung at far right. For an account of that project, see CLP 117 on this website.)  But it was George Yeh, whom I had come to know while he was Chinese Ambassador in Washington D.C., who really facilitated that project.  I saw K’ung only when he and George gave one of their frequent banquets, in Taipei and later in Taichung, for our photographer Ray Schwartz and myself. Both K’ung and Yeh were great gourmets--or is it gourmands--making up the banquet as they went along, sending messages to the chef, sending dishes back to be recooked or supplemented--the banquets would go on for hours, and leave us uncomfortably stuffed. K’ung, I remember, brought a string instrument, the erh-hu? and played on it while he sang, or performed--I suppose it was k’un-ch’ü, or kunqu--whatever it was, it went on for very long stretches of time, and was not pleasant to the foreigner’s  ears. So I remember him as a good banquet host, but not as someone I would like to see heading one of the branches of a government I live under.

China lost its best chance in recent history at a more liberal and enlightened government back when Zhao Ziyang lost out to the awful Li Peng and the party elders in the Tiananmen confrontation of 1989--I am now working on a video-lecture in which I allude to that tragic and far-reaching turn of events. The lecture is on “The Birth of the Goddess of Democracy,” which I take to be the greatest interaction of history and artistic creation accomplished in our time. So I end this blog and return to my work on that lecture, which eventually, I hope, you will all be able to view on this and the IEAS’s websites.

James Cahill, July 11th.

L.L.L. Blog


L.L.L. Blog

I ended the previous blog with a teaser: “Hint: they were small, leather-covered, with a distinctive and not-unpleasant odor, and they did a lot to start my intellectual life off in a good direction. And their initials were L.L.L.” Of course I have no idea how many of you readers guessed what they were--fairly few, I would suppose, because they are scarcely remembered today, except by book-dealers and book-collectors. But try Googling them and you’ll find lots of entries. They are:

The Little Leather Library. Here is an image of one of them (Fig. 1).

I awoke yesterday morning thinking about them--or, rather, remembering holding one of them and reading from it. And remembering its feel, and its modest look with green cover and cheap yellowing paper, and its “distinctive and not-unpleasant odor.” And where was I, while holding and reading it? Up in the crotch of a tree out behind the house I was living in, on the eastern edge of the Mendocino coastal town of Fort Bragg (then population 3,500), where I spent most of my pre-teen years. The house was on a plot of twelve-and-a-half acres, with forest covering much of it, the part away from the road. I lived with the family of Charles Blackledge, known as Blackie; he was an insurance salesman, and had his office in a separate small building just outside the house. And in the small ante-room of that office, intended for clients who came to see him to sit waiting, were bookshelves, mostly lined with books of no interest to me. But on one of the shelves was a box, or a case of some kind, with the green backs showing of a collection of Little Leather Library books. Each was about 3” wide and about 4-1/2” inches high--easy to hold in one’s hand, or carry into a tree. And I would take them out, one after another, and go off to read them--at least, the ones that seemed to me worth reading, and accessible to an already overly-literate young person. And a favorite place for reading these and other books was in the comfortable crotch of a large tree--some kind of oak? (I didn’t learn the names of trees, then or later.) It was located at the edge of the clear land, above a small stream (which provided soft background sound, along with the wind), only a few hundred yards from the house, and it was a favorite place of mine--I would almost say that more of my early literary and intellectual development happened there than at school. (The Fort Bragg Public Schools didn’t expect much of their students, or offer them much--until my sixth grade year, when three young teachers arrived from the Bay Area. But that’s another story. Back to L.L.L.)


The cheap edition that Blackie had was published in 1920-24, and was mainly, according to one account, the plan of Harry Scherman, who (bless him) evidently believed in making cheap editions of the classics available to ordinary people. They appeared first in a deluxe form, with red covers made of real leather (see Fig. 2) and were sold by mail and at Woolworth’s stores; later the low-cost sets were published in greater numbers, with green, artificial-leather covers and cheaper paper, and were sold by mail-order, advertised in popular magazines etc.--a sample copy might even be found in a cereal box. (One chose cereals in those days partly for the minor treasures included inside.) Descriptions of the L.L.L. books on the web see them as parts of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and it’s true that they were well-designed and widely accessible. (See Fig. 3, a group of them.)

What were their contents? Some sets included as many as 101 volumes; Blackie’s was probably (from memory) about fifty or so. One 35-volume set advertised on the web had these titles:

"Words of Jesus", " Fifty Best Poems of America", "Poems" by Robert Burns, "The Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Inferno/The Divine Comedy" by Dante, "Short Stories" by Rene de Maupassant, "Confessions of an Opium Eater" by Thomas de Quincy, "Christmas Carol" by Dickens, "Sherlock Holmes" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "Comtesse de Saint-Geran" by Alexander Dumas, "Essays" and "Uses of Great Men" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Man Without a Country" by Edward Everett Hale, "Ghosts" by Henrik Ibsen, "At the End of the Passage", "City of Dreadful Night", "Mark of the Beast", "Mulvaney Stories", "The Finest Story in the World", "Vampires and Other Verses", "Without Benefit of Clergy", all by Rudyard Kipling, " Hiawatha" by Henry W. Longfellow, "Lays of Ancient Rome" by Thomas B. Macaulay, "Irish Melodies"by Sir Thomas Moore, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Raven and Other Poems" by Edgar Allen Poe, "Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" by Shakespeare, "Enoch Arden" and " Idylls of the King" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Friendship and Other Essays" by Henry D. Thoreau, "The Bear Hunt, Etc." by Leo Tolstoy, "Memories of President Lincoln" by Walt Whitman, "Ballad of Reading Gaol" and "Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde.

Imagine, then, being about ten years old, sitting up in the crotch of a tree, and reading one of these--now you understand why the memory of them remains so intense. Imagine discovering, up there, the pleasures of Shakespeare, or Poe, or Kipling. The book shown in Fig.  2 included two Sherlock Holmes stories, and must have been my introduction to those; the one in Fig. 1, in its cheaper edition, may well have helped to start me on reading poetry, and  also on my lifelong fascination with the King Arthur legends, containing as it did two of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

(If you are wondering how to pronounce that seldom-used word: no, it isn’t like “idle,” as you might suppose from “idyllic.” For the right pronunciation, remember the quatrain by the American humorist Dorothy Parker, who, annoyed by Alfred Lord T.’s excessive genuflections to the Queen, to whose late consort Prince Albert the Idylls were dedicated in a long sanctimonious verse, wrote this--I quote from memory):

“If God should send me any son

I hope he’s not like Tennyson--

I’d rather have him play the fiddle

Than bow and scrape and speak an idyll.”

Also from memory, here she is on the Romantic Poets:

“Byron and Shelley and Keats

Were a trio of lyrical treats--

The forehead of Shelley was covered with curls,

And Keats never was the descendant of earls,

And Byron went out with innumerable girls,

But that didn’t affect the poetical feats

Of Byron and Shelley

Of Byron and Shelley

Of Byron and Shelley and Keats.”

Now I have wandered far off my subject, as my aged mind tends to do, and it’s time to close. I hope I have aroused memories of L.L.L. readings in some of you, especially oldsters like myself, and stimulated interest in others who will watch for these small treasures in old bookstores. No way can I convey their feel and their “distinctive and not-unpleasant odor” in writing: you have to find one and hold it and smell it. And with that well-meant advice I conclude this blog.

James Cahill, July 6, 2012

Angry Fourth-of-July Blog


Angry Fourth-of-July Blog

Today’s blog is about something I read this morning that made me angry, and that has been bothering me all day, so that I feel compelled to write a blog and get my anger out into the open. What I read was the lead editorial in this morning’s NYTimes, written by  Kurt Andersen, evidently a popular novelist and essayist whose writings, however, I haven’t read, excepting maybe a stray New Yorker piece or two. His editorial is titled “The Downside of Liberty,” and makes what I take to be a totally misguided, deeply wrong-headed argument. He begins by telling how an audience member at a lecture he gave asked him: “Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts--women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex and drugs, rock ‘n’ roll--but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?” Andersen, having what he calls “an epiphany,” answered that it wasn’t contradictory at all, but all of a piece. “For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.” A kind of “grand bargain” was reached by which “the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the form of regulations, taxes or social opprobrium.”

It’s hard to imagine a more false and pernicious equation than this. I looked up Andersen on the internet, and learned, as I expected, that he was born in 1954 in Omaha, Nebraska, and so was too young to know what was going on in the 1960s, and far away from the action. Nobody who was an active and reasonably open-minded academic-intellectual in Berkeley in the 1960s, as I was--still a fairly young professor, engaged enough with the new movement and close enough to students who were more actively engaged to be able to understand and appraise it--nobody around here then could have made this profound blunder. My own belief about the relationship of the two large trends Andersen writes about, expressed several times in my writings, is that even as we watched with pleasure and approval the new opening up of American society, or big segments of it, we feared also that there would be a backlash--and so there was: Reagan, Nixon, the lifting of curbs on predatory capitalism, and so on, down to George W. Bush and the awful eyes-wide-open blunders and misdeeds that have brought us down to where we are now. This was no “grand bargain,” but the opening up of an age of open warfare.

I trust that a great many other people of a certain age will see the wrongness of what Andersen wrote, and that many will write protest letters, so that the Letters to the Editor columns tomorrow and after will be full of them. This, written rather for my website, is my angry and impassioned contribution to that collective refutation.

The profound difference between the movements or grand phenomena that Andersen tries to equate is simple and basic: the difference between do-your-own-thing attitudes that recognized also the rights of others and were careful not to infringe on them, and the all-for-me, to-hell-with-you attitudes that have motivated and enabled the Wall Streeters and one-percenters to amass their obscene fortunes--favoring (as more and more evidence reveals) gain for themselves and their companies over what is good for their investors--and all the rest. Of course there are exceptions, on both sides; but not enough to disturb the large pattern. Even when not overtly moralistic, the liberated young of the 60s and early 70s didn’t adopt a more-for-me-at-your-expense attitude either. And that is exactly what motivates the big-money people that Andersen mistakenly balance them with. A movement that still keeps some moral sense vs. one that has renounced it in the pursuit of self-enriching: what could be clearer. We could have had one without the other; that we fell victim to the second is the tragedy of our time.

All for now. I have another subject, based on an early-morning waking-up remembrance, that will be the subject of the next one. Hint: they were small, leather-covered, with a distinctive and not-unpleasant odor, and they did a lot to start my intellectual life off in a good direction. And their initials were L.L.L.

James Cahill, July 4th, 2012


P.S. In my previous, “Angry Fourth-of-July” blog, I predicted that the NYTimes would be receiving lots of angry letters from readers of the wrongheaded editorial by Kurt Andersen that appeared on their editorial page on July 4th. And today, sure enough, the Letters to the Editor section on their editorial page is headed by four of them, all making essentially the same point that I did: that Andersen’s argument “that left -wing social movements and right-wing economic greed are ‘flip sides of the same libertarian coin,’ forged in the late 1960s” (as one of them summarizes it) is deeply wrong because it ignores the huge contrast between the relative harmlessness of the one and the pernicious effects of the other. Three of the four are written by academics. They read like cut-down versions of longer letters, and are representative, I’m sure, of many more that could have been printed. I hope that Mr. Andersen and all the readers of his misdirected editorial receive the message: those of us who lived through that time know better than to believe his contention; we know that (as the first letter concludes) “Left and right libertarianism are conceptually similar, but not morally equivalent.”

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