Showing posts with label Jang Qing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jang Qing. Show all posts

21 November 2013

Speaking of the Other: China

by Eve Fisher

(NOTE:  Using my emergency blog because I have just emerged from computer hell, and a weekend at the pen, and I have literally not had time to work on anything but that.  Will update you on the boys next time.)

What's the deal with China? Are they really out to take over the world? (Maybe)
Are they going to invade? (No)
What do they want? (Life, food, clothing, shelter, a little fun...)
Why don't they understand human rights? (Define your terms.)
How can they call themselves Communist if they practice capitalism? (see below)
Don't they know that's wrong? Don't they know what's wrong? Don't they practice Zen Buddhism? Is that where the samurai came from? (Sigh.) Yes, I've heard all of these and more back in my teaching days.

Jade Emperor
First of all, China has been in existence since the Shang Dynasty (around 1600 BCE) and ever since has considered itself to be the center of the world: that's why China's name for itself is Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom. And China has been the dominant powerhouse of Asia for almost all of those millennia. To grasp this, consider that America has been a superpower for less than 80 years, and we're pretty possessive about our status. Every week - probably every day - some pundit/politician is screaming about America losing its dominance in the world sphere as if that is going to bring about the end of the world.

Meanwhile, China laughs. Being the dominant cultural, economic, and military presence in Asia for over 3000 years has meant that the Chinese pretty much see everyone else as culturally inferior barbarians. Yes, they're willing to adopt the technological advancements or cultural quirks those crazy barbarians come up with that might be helpful or fun, like KFC or cars–  but that doesn't mean they're going to adopt Western ideology. Why should they?

The truth is, China and the West share almost nothing in background, history, religion, or social values. China never experienced Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon. The West never experienced Qin Shihuangdi (the emperor of the Qin Dynasty, from which we get the name China), Cao Cao, Empress Wu, or Kublai Khan.  And most Westerners have never even heard of them.

Empress Wu
China knew absolutely nothing of the Roman empire, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the discovery of the New World. On the other hand, the West knew absolutely nothing about the Zhou, Qin, Sui, Tang (a Golden Age), or Song Dynasties. Chinese and Western history only merge in the 1840's. And even then, the West never bothered to learn Chinese history.  (For the most part, we still don't.) They just wanted the porcelain, silk and silver.

NOTE: Porcelain is French for pigs in wool: the first imports to the West (post-Roman empire) were to the French court, which was the only one that could afford them, and the merchants brought lots of pigs (porc), a symbol of good luck and fortune in China, wrapped in wool (laine) to keep them from breaking.

SECOND NOTE: The West got gunpowder, paper, pasta, and various navigation equipment from China, but, since (once imported) all of these could be made at home, the Chinese did not get credit for them for a very long time.

Back to differences: in the West, the religious background is primarily Judeo/Christian/ Islamic; in China, it's Confucian/Daoist/Buddhist.

Lao Tze, Confucius, and Buddha frolicking in a glade

The great Western religious are monotheistic, exclusive (you can only believe in one at a time) and have a strong belief in the afterlife; the Eastern religions aren't and don't. You can be a Daoist Confucian Buddhist, no problem.  On the other hand, in the West, science has practically become a religion, in which nature is a group of objects that we can use, shape, predict, control. In Asia, animism– the idea that every stick and stone has a living spirit in it– was (and still to some extent is) the norm.

The Western philosophical background is Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; theirs is Confucius and his followers. Our philosophical tradition is one of logic and reason, and it's bred in our bones. We believe, naturally, innately, that when a thing is proved, it's proved, and you cannot hold two opposite beliefs at the same time without something serious being wrong with you. The Eastern way of thought is based on harmony and synthesis. Just because you prove one thing doesn't automatically mean that its opposite is wrong. In the Eastern mind, two opposites can - and should - balance each other very well, because that's what life is all about: yin/yang, male/female, good/evil, etc. Instead of creating equality by erasing differences, equality comes through fulfilling separate spheres that balance each other.

Our social background, especially in America, emphasizes individualism, freedom, and equality. The Chinese social background emphasizes community (especially the family), loyalty, filial piety, and hierarchy. Harmony is the primary goal on all levels of life, which can lead to a lot of sublimated emotions in the search for exterior peace. It also means that, if there's a choice between order and freedom, guess which wins? Order, every time.  For thousands of years, the watchword of every government has been "Stability above all."
Qin Shihuangdi

A lot of this is thanks to Qin Shihuangdi, the most ruthless emperor of Chinese history. In less than 20 years, the Qin Emperor set up a system of unified weights and measures, laws, money, and written language, all of which are still pretty much in place. He built roads, bridges, and much of the Great Wall of China using slave labor. He also came up with all sorts of ways to control the people, including thought control.

Legend has it that he burned all books except for "useful" ones like medical or agricultural works; that he tried to wipe out Confucianism and its teachers; and set in place the still-useful idea of collective responsibility. Basically, under collective responsibility, if one person committed a crime, or was just suspected of it, his entire family, perhaps his entire clan, would be arrested, tortured, perhaps killed. This encouraged people to police their own family, even to the point of turning them in, in order to save the clan. Harmony, order, above all.

Mao Zedong liked the Qin Emperor's style, and claimed to be his reincarnation. Certainly the Cultural Revolution appeared to be a Qin repeat, in which entire families were wiped out or sent to the country for reeducation because someone was a teacher, doctor, or otherwise educated.  (NOTE:  Mao was crazy, but not a fool - during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese nuclear scientists were kept carefully protected from any harassment.)  Today all of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are blamed on Mao's 4th wife, Jiang Qing, former actress and leader of the "Gang of Four".  Mao is still officially revered, even worshipped as a (minor) deity among some.  But the cult of Mao is why any current Chinese leader who appears to be rising up above the norm (i.e., have a personality) is quickly chopped down (see Bo Xilai, soon to be tried by the Supreme People's Court for everything from corruption to murder; he may be guilty of some of it, but his primary crime was being interesting).

But what about Communism?  Well, I could go into all the philosophical/political differences between Chinese Communism and Russian Communism - for one thing Chinese Communism basically threw out the thought of Karl Marx and Lenin because they had to.  But the real way to look at it is quite simple:  The Chinese Communist Party is basically the latest Chinese Dynasty.  Mao Zedong led a cult of personality, just as the founder of almost every dynasty has (especially the Qin Emperor - maybe Mao was the reincarnation).  But really, the style of government barely changed:  the Chinese government always had tight control of almost every aspect of Chinese life, laws have always been strict, the peasants have always been screwed, and everyone has always been scrambling to get wealthy.  As Deng Xiaoping said (after Mao's death):  "Poverty is not socialism:  to get rich is glorious."  They're still practicing that, too.


25 April 2013

The Real Asian Bad Girls

by Eve Fisher

A long time ago I read a pretty good book called "The Asian Mystique:  Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient" by Sheridan Prasso.  (The "our" being the West, of course.)  The sleek, dangerous, powerful, seductive Dragon Lady; the submissive, elegant, sexually available geisha/concubine; the perky, young bar girl who can be saved by the right man - and if it sounds familiar, it should, because most of it is just endless repetitions and variations on the whore with a heart of gold. I can say this because each and every one of these fantasies exists in Asia, too.

But there are real characters behind them.  We're going back in time to the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907 CE), considered by many to be the high point of Chinese culture - the great age of art - painting, ceramics, poetry - and power.  Its capital, Chang'an, was the largest city in the world.  It was also a great age for Chinese dynastic conquest - as you can see from this map: 

File:Tang Dynasty circa 700 CE.png

And during the early Tang, two women rose to power within 100 years of each other, two women who are household names, who once held great power, seduced emperors, and (depending on who's telling the tale) nearly ruined China in the process. 

The Empress Wu (625-705 CE)

File:Gaozong of Tang.jpg
Gaozong Emperor
In 638, Wu Zetian became a concubine of the Taizong Emperor.  She was beautiful, smart, and mind- bogglingly ambitious.  But the Taizong Emperor died in 649 CE, and Wu, like all imperial concubines at that time, was ordered to become a Buddhist nun, complete with shaven head.  She did.  But somehow, in seclusion, drab robes, and with a shaved head, she attracted the attention of the next emperor, her dead husband's son, Gaozong, who brought her back to the palace.  His empress was not amused.  Nor was anyone else - this was completely shocking to both Confucian and Buddhist morality - a man taking his father's concubine who was also a nun?!?!?! 

Anyway, he took her to the palace, and she went to work at gaining power.  She had the empress executed on the grounds that the empress had poisoned Wu's daughter by Gaozong.  (Legend has it that Wu killed her own daughter herself so that she could blame it on the empress.)  She had another concubine, a former favorite, killed.  The Gaozong Emperor himself had a series of strokes in 665 CE that incapacitated him (legend says poison administered by Wu), and Wu began sitting behind a screen behind the throne and giving orders. For the next 18 years, she ruled in his name.

File:Wu Zetian, Empress of China.PNG
Empress Wu
When the Gaozong Emperor died in 683 CE, Wu became the Dowager Empress Wu, ruling as regent for her two sons who never quite made it to adulthood (legend has it...  you can guess).  Finally, in October, 690 CE, she officially took over.  She declared herself Emperor - not Empress - Emperor Shengshen, head of the new, Zhou Dynasty (named after her own family).  She was the only woman in 2100 years of  Chinese history to sit on the Dragon Throne itself.  She bolstered her claim by citing a Buddhist sutra (that I for one have never been able to find) that said a woman would rule the world 700 years after the death of the Buddha.  She ruled for the next fifteen years and, other than trying to wipe out the remaining Tang heirs, she was pretty good at ruling.  (She had a thing for young men, but then so did Catherine the Great.  So did Frederick the Great, but we won't go into that...)  She was finally deposed at the age of 80, and died nine months later. 

The Empress Wu has gone down in Chinese history as one of the most duplicitous, salacious, lustful, evil women in history, and she's been used ever since her death as the reason why women should never rule China.

Yang Guifei (719-756 CE)

File:Tang XianZong.jpg
Xuanzong Emperor
After the Empress Wu died, her son became emperor, who was succeeded by her grandson became the Xuanzong Emperor (685-762 CE).  He was a great emperor in many ways, and a major patron of the arts, but he was dominated by his favorite concubine, Yang Guifei.  This led to one of the few great love stories of China, and, like the tale of Empress Wu, was given as a reason to keep women out of politics.

Yang Guifei was the wife of Xuanzong's son when he met her.  He ordered his son to divorce her, which of course the son (as a good Confucian) did, and had her put in a Buddhist nunnery.  A couple of years passed, and probably a lot of people had forgotten about that obscure ex-wife in a monastery - but then she was brought out, brought to court, and made Xuanzong's concubine.  Which was sort of fine (Father is always right), except he was obsessed with her. 


File:上马图.jpg
Yang Guifei mounting a horse.
Her family all got promotions, imperial messengers traveled night and day to bring her her favorite foods, and he never let her out of his sight.  Ever.  His work suffered.  Yang Guifei's favorites were taking over administration.  Eventually, one of her favorites, a strapping young man named An Lushan, launched a rebellion in 755 CE that actually captured the capital.  She was blamed for all of it.  The rebellion was crushed, but the army forced her execution.  She was strangled at a Buddhist shrine and the Emperor was forced to abdicate.


Yang Guifei and the Emperor have had innumerable operas, plays, and, later movies and television shows written about their love, and their great disaster.  Some present her as the author of all the trouble, others as a scapegoat.  (She's also a favorite subject in Japan, where there have been Noh plays and a legend that she actually escaped to Japan.)  The most famous is the Chinese poem "The Song of Everlasting Sorrow" by Bai Juyi: 
http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Song_of_Everlasting_Regret#cite_note-20

File:Jiang qing yanan 001.JPG
So, a Dragon Lady and a Concubine.  The sexy bar girl?  Well, try Jiang Qing, (1914-1991) who began life as the daughter of a failed concubine, became a fairly poor film actress, and met and married the most powerful man in China, Mao Zedong.  She was his fourth and last wife; he was her fourth and last husband.  He modeled himself on the Qin Shihuangdi Emperor; she modeled herself on Empress Wu.  She called herself, after his death, when she was on trial for the crimes of the Cultural Revolution, "Mao's Dog".  She is called to this day the "White Boned Demon".  Who says that only the West has fantasies and cliches? 

NOTE:  On vacation - will be back next week!