What is man that You are mindful of him; mortal man that You keep him in mind? (Psalm 8:4)
This question preoccupied the immediate successors of Confucius, and considerable disagreement and dispute arose. Earliest was Gaozi, who wrote,
性猶湍水也，決諸東方則東流，決諸西方則西流。人性之無分於善不善也，猶水之無分於東西也。Human nature is like flowing water. If you lead it eastward, it flows eastward; if you lead it westward, it flows westward. The way that human nature cannot be categorised as good or not good is just like the way that water cannot be categorised as flowing eastward or westward.
Thus, man has the capacity for good or evil. But which is he at his core? Gaozi thinks that is the wrong question to ask. Humanity is intrinsically neither good nor evil.
Later thinkers begged to differ. Mencius, in his great tome of the same name, quotes Gaozi so as to refute him.
水信無分於東西。無分於上下乎？人性之善也，猶水之就下也。人無有不善，水無有不下。今夫水，搏而躍之，可使過顙；激而行之，可使在山。是豈水之性哉？其勢則然也。人之可使為不善，其性亦猶是也。It is true that water may flow either east or west, but does it not distinguish between flowing up and down? The goodness of human nature is like the tendency of water to flow downward. There are no people who are not good, just as there is no water that does not flow downward. Now if you slap at water and splash it, you can make it go higher than your head, and if your force it along, you can make it go up a mountain. But how is this the nature of water? It does this because you force it to. The way you can make people do things that are not good is just like this.
So human nature, argues Mencius, is inherently good. It naturally tends towards goodness. Goodness is its natural state. An Aristotelian would recognise here the notion of telos (as usual, Aristotle turns up where you least expect him, even in pre-imperial China; wherever you want to go, he’s already been there!). Moral goodness is the final cause of human nature.
But how then to explain the great evils perpetrated by humanity throughout its history? How, more urgently, to explain the tendency within my own heart to desire and pursue that which is wrong, that which is false, that which is ugly and base?
On the eve of the Qin dynasty (not coincidentally, perhaps), Xunzi believed he had an answer. But it was in direct opposition to Mencius’ idea.
人之性惡，其善者偽也。今人之性，生而有好利焉，順是，故爭奪生而辭讓亡焉；生而有疾惡焉，順是，故殘賊生而忠信亡焉；生而有耳目之欲，有好聲色焉，順是，故淫亂生而禮義文理亡焉。然則從人之性，順人之情，必出於爭奪，合於犯分亂理，而歸於暴。故必將有師法之化，禮義之道，然後出於辭讓，合於文理，而歸於治。用此觀之，人之性惡明矣，其善者偽也。Human nature is ugly; anything good in it is artificial. Human nature is such that, from birth, we love [our own] advantage. Following this gives rise to strife and competition, and causes an end to deference and humility. From birth we are jealous and hateful. If we let these qualities go unchecked, thieves and robbers will abound and loyalty and trustworthiness will decline. From birth we have the desires of ear and eye, the love of sounds and beauty. If we follow these desires, lust and disorder will arise, and decorum, righteousness, civility and reason will perish. Thus if we follow human nature and go along with human feelings, starting from strife, we will inevitably go against civility, throw reason into confusion, and return to violence. Therefore we must make use of the transforming power of teachers and laws, and the Way of decorum and righteousness, and then starting from deference and humility, we will join with civility and reason and return to order. Looking at it this way, it is clear that human nature is ugly, and that anything good in it is artificial.
But then if Xunzi is right, why should we desire goodness and virtue and choose to cultivate them, even artificially? Why is goodness inherently attractive if the core of our being is only ugly?
Here is a paradox- the greatness and wretchedness of man. How to resolve this paradox? How to adequately explain all the data?
Centuries later, Zhu Xi tackled the question and came up with a response. 理 (Li), the rational principle of the universe (comparable to the Greek logos?) is good and only good. In the metaphysical ordering of each being is 理. But the particularity of each being, the psychophysical stuff (as I have seen it translated) that comprises them, is 氣 (Qi), and this may be obscured, clouded or tainted. Zhu Xi agreed firmly with Mencius that at its core human nature is good. But in this way, he was able to offer an explanation for the ubiquity of evil in human experience and in the human heart. The pursuit of virtue is, from the perspective of Zhu Xi’s metaphysics, an attempt to clarify or polish the 氣 of one’s being.
To what extent is Zhu Xi’s metaphysics in accordance on this point with reality? I don’t presume to say, not least because I am still a long way from having fully grasped his ideas. Going back to the source, though, Confucius, despite not having an elaborate metaphysic to hand, manages to strike a realistic balance.
我未見好仁者，惡不仁者… 有能一日用其力於仁矣乎？我未見力不足者。蓋有之矣，我未之見也。I have neither seen a man who truly loves goodness, nor a man who truly hates that which is not good….Is there anyone who is willing to devote himself to goodness for a single day? Though I could find no one who does not possess the capability, yet I have never seen such a man who has devoted himself to it. Perhaps there is such a man, but I have not yet met him.
The tension is excruciating. Such goodness, such evil, and both flow from the same source. On the one hand, man is a marvel. Immortal soul or not, our ability for abstraction and language transcends anything of which the other animals are capable, and our modern technological societies have achieved a level of complexity that they have almost become organisms, in a sense, in their own right. Goodness and virtue do not always feel so unachievable, and when we find them, we rejoice and are filled with delight. Confucius had the Duke of Zhou (周公); recently we’ve had Pope Francis, who has elicited praise and admiration from many who would otherwise find little to love about the Church of which he is the earthly head.
The rankest depravity and violence characterise the most civilised of societies, from the dawn of human civilisation to now. Bombs continue to be dropped on Yemen and Pakistan, babies continue to be slaughtered in the womb, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen and otherwise pious people continue to repulse those around them with their self-righteousness, legalism and pettiness. And my own heart chases after what cannot last and feels irrationally self-satisfied when I’ve done nothing particularly heinous for a week or so. And all of these things have their defenders. Including that last.
We humans are the kind of creature that speaks vile hatreds, eloquent lies and profound, beautiful truths with the same mouth. We’re the kind of creature that participates in the Stanford Prison Experiment and makes its findings so unsettling, and we’re the kind of creature that allows the Stanford Prison Experiment to continue longer than it had any right to, for the sake of science.
But Xunzi was, for all his pessimism, wrong and Mencius is tantalisingly incomplete. Confucius has the balance, and it is echoed in the West by Pascal:
Il est dangereux de trop faire voir à l’homme combien il est égal aux bêtes, sans lui montrer sa grandeur. Il est encore dangereux de lui trop faire voir sa grandeur sans sa bassesse. Il est encore plus dangereux de lui laisser ignorer l’un et l’autre. Mais il est très avantageux de lui représenter l’un et l’autre. Il ne faut pas que l’homme croie qu’il est égal aux bêtes, ni aux anges, ni qu’il ignore l’un et l’autre, mais qu’il sache l’un et l’autre.
It is dangerous to explain too clearly to man how like he is to the animals without pointing out his greatness. It is also dangerous to make too much of his greatness without his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both, but it is most valuable to represent both to him. Man must not be allowed to believe that he is equal either to animals or to angels, nor to be ignorant of either, but he must know both.
Confucius was not wrong. In his time, there was no man who could devote himself to goodness for a single day. But five hundred years later, there was. And in His presence we see our wretchedness and our greatness writ large. For He asks us, at this time in particular, two fearful questions:
“Who do you say that I am?”
“Why do you come against me as though I were a robber, with swords and clubs?”
If Xunzi was right, and mankind is only and always ugly, God could never (contra the Calvinists) have become human. Looking at Christ, we see a man- the first man- who was fully human; who lived out fully what it means to be, in the Jewish phrase, made in the image of God; whose water, as Mencius would say, always flowed downward.
Yet what do we do when such a man comes to us? We come out against Him with swords and clubs. We see Him lying scourged and beaten and decide it might be a lark to ram a crown of thorns down on His head. Because it’s funny.
The Calvinists can go on about ‘penal substitution’ and the New Atheists go on decrying ‘divine child abuse’ in reaction against them, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t the Father who killed the Son. God didn’t kill Himself. We killed Him. We humans did that.
Deicide- mankind doesn’t get much uglier than that; the water’s gone into orbit, as it were. We look at the crucifix and wonder why such a sacrifice was necessary. Well, wonder no more. For that is the kind of creature we are. Wondrous, brilliant and amazing, capable of acts of heart-breaking kindness and beauty, little less than a god- yet when we find the God walking amongst us, we’ll kill Him, given half the chance, and enjoy it too.
Thanks be to God, then, that that very blackest of black acts is the very thing He used and is using to restore to its true and always intended form our downward-and-upward-flowing human nature. God knows, it’s more than we deserve.
Many years ago, I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I remember quite vividly the experience of reading the first few pages, and equally vividly the experience of reading the last page.
The first few pages I read in the passenger seat of our car. I had mere minutes earlier purchased the book (or, what is more accurate, had it purchased for me- I was about 13 at the time and was in the habit of receiving $1 a week as pocket money in return for the performance of various home chores, a sum that would have been sufficient for perhaps 2 or 3 book purchases per year- hardly enough for my voracious appetite; consequently I was, at that age, largely dependent on combinations of charm, persuasion, pleading, birthdays and Christmas to keep sated my desire for reading material). Now I cracked open the paperback cover. The pages had a wonderfully musty smell, suggesting hidden mysteries and secrets. I read the Preface first, since it came first, sniggering ironically at Tolkien’s admission that the book’s sole fault lay in its being too short (it was certainly the longest book I had read up to that point) then commencing at Chapter 1: A Long-Expected Party.
Within a week I had finished the first volume and within a couple of months (I had to wait on Christmas for ‘The Two Towers’ and a birthday for ‘The Return of the King’), I had made it to the last page of the last volume where, about halfway down the page, I read the words, “‘Well,’ said Sam, ‘I’m home.’”
There wasn’t anymore. The rest of the page was blank. It was the end of the story. I was sitting on one of the couches in our living room. Through the doorway a few feet away from me, my mother could be heard pottering around in the kitchen. I closed the book slowly and put it down. It was about 4pm on a Saturday afternoon. The feeling of deep satisfaction from having read a remarkable piece of literature, of having been caught up in a story epic in scope and profound in emotional resonance, suddenly gave way to a feeling of utter bewilderment and confusion.
I’ve just finished ‘The Lord of the Rings! What on earth am I going to do now?
I was reminded of this experience because a short while ago it happened again. At the beginning of this year, I began and, in the space of a couple of weeks, finished reading Hayao Miyazaki’s manga masterpiece “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”. To date, I have not seen the movie, though I have heard rumours that it butchers the book quite badly, which I can well believe. I think this book would be near impossible to film (even with animation), though perhaps a TV drama could do it justice.
Reading “Nausicaa”, I was enthralled. Its sense of place and culture is amazing- a consummate piece of worldbuilding- enhanced considerably by the visual aspect. We recognise members of the various cultures of this world immediately by their clothing, by their architecture or by the design of their ships, and none of these readily fit the kind of crypto-historical cultures beloved of Star Trek or Stargate (look, a planet of ROMANS! a planet of MEDIEVAL EUROPEANS!, etc.). The story unfolds organically, but there is precious little status quo and from one chapter to the next I was never quite sure where the whole thing would end up. Unpredictable and, in that way and many others, very unlike the products of American pop culture. Indeed, I’m still digesting the whole thing and I think I will have to read it again before I’ll feel like I have any kind of handle on its meaning. Eventually – far too soon, in fact- I reached the end, and hit head-on exactly that sense of disorientation and confusion I had experienced putting down LOTR.
Wow! I’ve just finished reading “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”. What on earth am I going to do now?
Walker Percy refers to this sensation as the difficulty of re-entry. It springs, he says, from our capacity for language, which enables us to abstract and, thus, transcend. But, being part-animal and part-angel, we cannot maintain our transcendence. We have to come back down- to eat, if nothing else. The necessity of adjusting to our sudden non-transcendence is what results in the aforementioned disorientation- the greater the transcendence, the greater the disorientation. According to Percy, it is scientists and artists who have the worst time dealing with re-entry because transcendence is their stock in trade. The problem for artists in particular, he says,
comes from the transience of the salvation of art, both for the maker of the sign (the artist) and for the receiver of the sign. The self in its predicament is exhilarated in both the making and the receiving of a sign—for a while. After a while, both the artist and the self which receives the sign are back in the same fix or worse —because both have had a taste of transcendence and community. If poets often commit suicide, it is not because their poems are bad but because they are good. Whoever heard of a bad poet committing suicide? The reader is only a little better off. The exhilaration of a good poem lasts twenty minutes, an hour at most.
But then, if this is a problem, what is the solution? To remain constantly transcending is impossible because bodily needs have to be attended to sooner or later and we have to, at one time or another, deal with other selves, other people, if only to get our material published or buy the art through which we achieve transcendence. On the other hand, we could eschew any kind of transcendence, but that would mean remaining ever immanent, just a passive consumer beholden to habit and necessity and not much else.
But is there really a problem? Percy is, for the most part, merely descriptive in his diagnosis, prescribing nothing. The unnerving experience of re-entry merely highlights a fact of our nature. Language has, for good or ill, elevated us from creatures in an environment to selves in a world, giving us the exhilarating possibility of transcendence, whether that be through reading an engrossing book or collating data readouts from the Large Hadron Collider. Yet we haven’t transcended (nor could we) our creaturely-ness or our environment. We still need to use the loo, the kitchen, and blankets in winter.
Not being a suicidal poet, I don’t experience that displacement as dangerous to my health (though admittedly a good book has occasionally caused me to forget to have lunch). If nothing else then, the experience of re-entry, be it rare or common, prompts me to recognise the kind of thing I am; in the words of the Delphic Oracle, to know myself. And that can’t be a bad thing. Especially when prompted by great literature.
(I should mention, here be spoilers)
I worry about Quentin Tarantino.
Which is not to say I don’t enjoy his films. In fact, I find them consistently entertaining, and have watched most of them more than once. One of their strengths is a creative use of violence (a feature which many decry- but I find other elements more objectionable, to which I shall turn anon). There seem to be three kinds of violence in Tarantino films. The first is action violence, not dissimilar to the kind of violence most at home in 80s action movies, with lots of guns, explosions and high body counts, to which cocktail Tarantino adds ample blood. This first kind can also be played to comedic effect, as in the death of Marvin in ‘Pulp Fiction’, or rendered cartoonish and stylised by ramping it up to absurd levels, as in many sequences in ‘Kill Bill’. The second is dramatic violence, which plays on the emotions and makes the protagonists and their actions sympathetic. The opening scene of ‘Kill Bill’ would fit into that category. The third could be a sub-category of the second, which I’ll call invisible violence. When Tarantino really wants the violence to have an impact on his audience, he cuts the camera away and instead shows the expressions on the faces of the people who are watching it. The OD scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ is brilliantly effective because of this technique and Tarantino has used it again since then- in his latest film, ‘Django Unchained’, I counted at least three instances of it.
None of this bothers me, nor do I find any of it necessarily objectionable. What does bother me lies on a more thematic level.
Quentin Tarantino is a man preoccupied with vengeance. It is an idea with which his early films toyed and with which his more recent films are obsessed. Many of the objects of his vengeance (anti-Semitism, slavery & racial prejudice) are understandable and, arguably, justified, and along parts of that road I am quite willing to follow, at least as far as willingness to be entertained goes. But not all the way.
Yesterday, I saw ‘Django Unchained’. It concerns a deliciously articulate dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Schutz, and an ex-slave, Django, whom the former buys, then frees, then trains in his line of work.
The theme of vengeance features from the first scene, in which Schutz comes upon the slavers who are transporting Django and his compatriots, kills one, debilitates the other, purchases Django (making sure to fill out a valid receipt), then gives the remaining slaves a choice- free the remaining slaver and go on to be purchased in the slave market to which they were heading, or free themselves and head north. The slaves choose the latter option, and we see them for the last time as they walk slowly and deliberately towards the increasingly terrified slaver, who has been pinned beneath his fallen horse. We are meant to sympathise with the slaves as they take their revenge, and we do. Their actions are understandable. We might easily do the same. So far Tarantino has us in hand.
One of Django and Schutz’s first bounties together is three wanted slave owners whom Django served under. The lead-up to his vengeance-taking features flashbacks of one of these three giving Django’s wife the lash while he begs for mercy towards her as her cries and screams fill the air. To emphasise the point, when Django finds two of these brothers, one of them is dragging away yet another woman to be beaten. This is effective. Again, we sympathise with Django. Anger and indignation stir within us. We do not begrudge Django his vengeance.
At some point, however, a line is crossed. When precisely the crossing takes place is difficult to pinpoint. It might be when, on another bounty, Schutz urges Django to shoot a man plowing a field with his young son by telling him of this man’s crimes, and Django does so (though, through Django’s hesitation, it seems clear Tarantino doesn’t intend us to feel entirely comfortable about this). It might be when Django stops Schutz from buying a slave who is about to be mauled to death by his owner’s dogs, because it might blow their cover. By the end of the film, though, it is clear that Django (and Tarantino) has crossed a line somewhere. The slave owner who had owned Django’s wife, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (the slave owner, that is, not the wife) has been killed (by Schutz, earlier in the film) and his family is returning from the funeral. Django stands at the top of the stairs with gun in hand. The white men he kills first. We have already seen them maltreating both Django and his wife, so this is not surprising. But then he kills the older sister of the man, whom we have so far not seen guilty of anything more than the racial prejudice one would expect of a white person in the pre-Civil War South. This is played for comedic effect. After this, Django shoots out the kneecaps of the elderly black man, played very well by Samuel L. Jackson, who served as butler and confidante to DiCaprio’s slave owner. This man we have seen guilty of remarkable cruelty, but then he is also old and black. Perhaps we expected some kind of redemption for him? But there is only redemption through violence here. Django has fitted the mansion with dynamite and, after it blows up, taking Samuel L. Jackson with it, we see Django walking in slow motion out of the smoke and towards the camera. It is a hero walk, but in what way is what he has just done heroic? His wife, waiting on a horse outside the gates of the mansion, is clapping delightedly. I’m feeling a little ill.
I think back to earlier parts of the film, with slave owners whipping women or putting them in metal boxes in the sun, and wonder if, by the time the credits roll, Django is much different from those people. Of course it may be that Tarantino is trying to say something about the nature of revenge. But I don’t think he is. All the hero tropes are in place. The camera effects and cinematography leave us in no doubt for whom we are supposed to be cheering. But strip away the effects, zooms, cuts and camera angles, and the protagonist and antagonists look pretty similar.
Tarantino’s previous film, ‘Inglorious Basterds’, was even more stark in this regard. At its climax, Jews have locked Hitler and many top Nazi officals inside a cinema, which is subsequently set on fire.
As Nazis desperately try to escape from this death-trap, running about, stampeding each other, trying to find an exit, my mind ran to the Jews in the gas chambers who reacted in exactly the same way when faced with their deaths, and with a flash of epiphany I realised, “These Jewish characters have become their persecutors” The pigs had stood up. In that scene, as in ‘Django Unchained’, there is little nuance. It is intended that I should identify with the Jews of the film, as I was yesterday supposed to identify with Django, all the way to the closing credits. I couldn’t do it. What bothers me is that I think Tarantino could (not to mention one or two of the folks with whom I saw the film).
His films were not always thus. ‘Kill Bill’ was a revenge flick through and through. But there was a certain stoicism, a certain resignation to the proceedings. Beatrix is driven by a sense of duty and obligation as much as by passion. Bill, who starts out as a faceless malice, is, by the end, a very ambiguous villain. When Beatrix discovers her daughter is not only alive but has been raised by Bill in her absence, there is very little visceral rage left in her.
When she does kill Bill, it seems almost fated, as though it could not have been otherwise even if Beatrix had wanted it so; it is a duel between equals, and there is an air of the tragic in his final five steps. Her tears afterwards are more cathartic than the killing itself.
Going further back, ‘Pulp Fiction’ has something almost akin to mercy. When Ving Rhames chases Bruce Willis down the street with murderous intent, both of them fall into the clutches of a store-owning BDSM enthusiast. Bruce Willis has a chance to escape, but decides to go back and save Rhames. After Rhames has had his revenge on their captors, he renounces his grudge against Willis, and the two go their separate ways. Here there is, if not forgiveness or reconcilation per se, at least a union of former enemies against a greater and more immediate foe, and a wiping away of former debts.
These latter two examples have nuance. Those seeking vengeance escape with their humanity intact. We can even sometimes see two sides to the dispute. But Django and the Jews of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ are victims who have become monsters. The only thing that keeps us from noticing the transformation is Tarantino’s complete mastery of style. He knows how to handle his audience.
Exiting the cinema yesterday, I was thinking on these things, wondering if I should feel worse for having enjoyed most of the movie, feeling irritated that some of my companions didn’t understand why I hadn’t enjoyed all of it, and speculating about the reasons behind Quentin Tarantino’s apparent moral slippage over the past few years. And I recalled a curious juxtaposition which suddenly struck me as pertinent- before the film began, I and my companions sat through not one but two (slightly different) previews of the imminently opening ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.
Now ’Zero Dark Thirty’ is a movie I would not pay to see on principle, for the same reason I wouldn’t have paid to see one of Leni Riefenstahl’s films, and I suspect it is a film which will be studied by future generations for many of the same reasons current generations study Riefenstahl’s oeuvre. And, though I have not seen it, I know enough about it to know that it is also a revenge flick, albeit one based on actual events. And that makes me wonder.
In ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘Inglourious Basterds’, there is no redemption save through violence. And I can’t help but wonder if many of us suspect, and certainly many of our leaders suspect, that that is a statement of hard but unsentimental and uncompromising reality. Faced with a singularly tragic attack by a singularly determined enemy, the greatest empire of modern history extended every means at its disposal to kill a single man. Not to detain him or try him (a dignity they at least went through the motions of allowing that other implacable foe, Saddam Hussein), nor even, as in an age at once more barbarous and more civilised, parading him through the streets of the capital in chains, but simply to kill him.
Which they eventually did, in a foreign country, under the noses but without the knowledge of that country’s duly elected government, and with the information afforded by offering fake immunisation injections to sick children. He was not a very nice man, there seems little doubt. Neither were the slave owners of the pre-Civil War South or Hitler and the Nazis. There would be few in the West or East who regret his passing. And maybe there will be a hero walk or two in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. But there will also be chickens coming home to roost for a long time yet, chickens that would otherwise have stayed quite happily in the yard. The greatest empire of the modern age cannot, like Django, have its cathartic vengeance and ride hero-like into the sunset as the credits roll.
What do I mean by connecting these things? Am I suggesting there is a link, causal or otherwise, between the trajectory of America’s foreign policy and the trajectory of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking? Not really. But there is a parallel instinct, a correlating moral sense, that is unsettling. What bothered me slightly more than the film itself yesterday was that, chatting to people afterwards, I seemed to be in a distinct minority in finding anything about it objectionable. That may be more indicative of my fellow cinema patrons on that occasion, but I suspect that many (though not all) of the folks who would indeed be uncomfortable seeing such a movie, would be decidedly more comfortable with an identical plot but less blood. I daresay too many politicians would fit into that category. If you doubt that, I’d like to submit ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ as Exhibit A.
I wonder, have our nations inadvertently adopted the logic of a Tarantinian revenge flick? And are we as uncomfortable with that as perhaps we should be?
Recently the last semester of 2012 came to an end, (along with 2012 itself- turns out the Mayans were wrong and a lot of superstitious people are now feeling very foolish, which is fun!) and this included classes such as the one I’ve been teaching on poetry. The assessment for this class included writing a piece of poetry oneself, and I was pleasantly surprised by some of the submissions, several of which were fair-to-decent first attempts at the poetic form, especially given that they were written by folks for whom it is their second language. I thought my readers might be interested therefore to read a couple of the best of these. Here are two:
If Winter Comes, Can Spring Be Far BehindI was heading for dormitory quickly on foot in the noon after class, But unluckily wind is not lovely and soaring in white; I can see lots of snow, much more ice and no sunshine through glass; It’s too cold, all the livings are lazy, mosquitoes don’t bite; When we walk on the street, our whole necks are all rounded with scarf, Because parents do warn us diseases occur when we’re old; In my youth I was worrying those necks that are long like giraffe- If their necks unprotected should feel bitter chill from the cold. As they hiberante, folks are all staying at home when at night, But the Spring is to come and will bring us both hope and the light.
Notice not only the rhyming pattern but also that the metre is consistently anapaestic. I am particularly proud of 杨婷婷 for this piece.
My Second SonnetStanding at crossing still, and wind’s not nice, Chilly and gloomy day, what are you waiting for? Your dove-eyes do not help with melting ice; Maybe there awaits a storm, and downfall summons Thor. The leaves had gone, the flowers we lose, Nothing can change. No sad cause destines fate. No one will care them, only when they fit your blues; Be death or life, the nonsense not deserves your wait. “I think each plain and good complete the earth, Though silent lasting deaths are helpful too. Only the blind can’t see the worthy thing, Neither can hopeless people create the new. I’m waiting mood of spring to back my heart; Until it springs up blooms, surmounts the dark.
Not as metrically consistent, perhaps, but a pretty decent stab at a sonnet, I think you’ll agree. These are the times I feel pretty good about my vocational choice.
It’s been a while since I posted any poetry (actually, it’s been a while since I posted anything, but let’s not split hairs), which is ironic since I’ve been teaching a poetry class this semester. In one of our classes, I had the students make a first attempt at writing a sonnet, on the assigned subject of “Winter”, and I happened to jot a couple down myself as well. Here they are.Frosty tendrils now extend their hold On Nature, and the yearly trial starts; All movement is lethargic, and the cold Embraces with new might our limbs and hearts. The rain, like bullets, cuts uncovered skin And then it freezes, lingering for days. The wind blows. Thickest clothes seem still too thin, Too small protection ‘gainst its strong essays. But even in the midst of winter chills, When all the world’s a place unwelcoming, And ice hangs stubbornly on window sills, A rumour does the rounds: “Soon comes the Spring”. So Death, despite its strength can never last; The worst of times shall, soon or late, be past. Over a porcelain bowl of meager rice Slow bends the winkled face of farmer old; He pulls a little tighter ‘gainst the ice And snow his coat which hardly keeps out cold. What could I say to such a man, so poor, Whose life’s short length has reached its winter grim? Who fears that only death now lies in store?- Hear now the words I found to say to him: “O blessed man, enduring so this dark Which saps all strength, such bitter chill and grey, Within you still is life and warmth. O mark The time, for this shall soon have passed away. Not long, the dawn shall rise, so warm and clean, And winter’s branches shall burst forth in green.”
(Actually, this story is not true. If it were, it would be a quite unfeeling thing to do. I’d like to think if I did meet such a man, I would do more for him than just talk in high-sounding and self-righteous fashion [not least because my Chinese is a long way from eloquent]. But I think it works well enough for the poem)About my neck is none too tightly held The python coils of my long-suff’ring scarf, Flapping in the never-to-be quelled Cold biting breeze, too powerful by half. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for summer heat, When I would ne’er avoid a trip outside, When beds are made with but a single sheet – But if I said I liked those things, I lied. I know in summer I complain as much As now I do in wintertime. The grass My neighbor has is green and full and such. Complaints all change according as times pass. Such fickle-mindedness has gotten old; I think I’ll smilingly endure the cold.
When I was in Year 11 of high school, I sat a Maths exam- and failed it.
It was my own fault, in fact.
I have never had a head for Maths. Always hated it. Indeed, it was the teacher of that very Year 11 class, Mr Kennedy, who eventually persuaded me that it was possible for otherwise well-adjusted individuals to get passionately excited about Maths (and more recently, folks like Leah Libresco, or actions like trying to understand certain xkcd jokes, have almost persuaded me knowledge of maths might actually enrich my knowledge of things which ARE interesting). In the end, I could sorta kinda see how he could get excited about Maths, though I could never quite get excited about it myself. As such, for this particular exam, I studied as little as my students’ conscience allowed, and (foolishly) only the things we had covered in the most recent semester’s classes.
Walking out of the exam room, I had a vague sense I had done rather poorly. Bumping into Mr Kennedy later, he asked me with astonishment, “Glenn, what happened in the exam?” The short exchange that followed was in other respects friendly, and for the most part I laughed the exam off and promised in the flippant way that students often do that I would study harder next time. But when classes resumed and we received our exam papers back, there was little flippancy I could muster. I had received an abysmal mark, and I deserved it. The mark, if I recall correctly, was 27%, in large red letters on the front of the exam paper. Our Maths class was a small one (6 people), and I was clearly at the bottom, and that by a comfortable margin. It being such a small class, moreover, made it impossible to disappear into the crowd of other low-performing students.
What made things worse was that the next two classes were spent going through the paper, working over each question, assessing and revising and unravelling the methodology of the most difficult equations and algorithms anew, until all that had come before was thoroughly consolidated and understood; solidifying the foundations so that new structures could be built on them. I felt like my nose was being rubbed in my failure. Almost every question we looked at during those two lessons I had either misunderstood or, giving up in defeat, left blank. Mr Kennedy called on my classmates to answer questions or supply the next step in the equation; me he conspicuously allowed to remain silent.
As an otherwise high-performing student, it was one of the greater humiliations of my life. But it did arouse in me an iron resolve, somewhat akin to anger (perhaps at myself, perhaps at Maths; probably partly both), the end result of which was that, though I still failed by a small margin my final I.B. Maths Exam at the end of Year 12 (I received 3/7), I did so with the dignity that comes from knowing I could not have done better- that this was the fullest extent of my potential Maths capability.
This whole incident came to mind when I was informed recently by my department that the classes of foreign teachers would from next semester show up on students’ transcripts.
Not seeing the connection? Fair enough. I should explain. Hitherto, classes taught by foreign teachers at my university occupied some more ethereal realm. I guess that’s safer when there’s a chance the teachers coming in are not all fully qualified and experienced teachers, but are occasionally instead well-meaning 20-somethings, fresh off a CELTA, with a year or two to kill and an interest in living and working abroad. The quality of the teaching can vary markedly. So that’s fair enough. The downside is that, once the students hit second year, many of them regard foreign-taught classes as de facto optional. So the common experience for foreign teachers is to see attendance fall somewhat around Week 3 or so, then be reduced to, at most, a trickle in the weeks leading up to exams, as students prioritise their time and decide that skills and knowledge are all very well, but it’s the numbers that make it into your CV that really count.
Of course, the upside is that the students who continue to faithfully attend are the ones who are really interested; the ones who see knowledge as good in itself, not just good as a means to an end. Those are the students that are a delight to teach.
So when the announcement came that next semester will see this situation changed, at first, I rejoiced. Actually, not just at first. I’m still happy about it. But I got to thinking, will it really be a better situation? So far, I haven’t really had to contend with students falling asleep or climbing the walls over here (well, except for that one guy). Maybe I’ll have to contend with that kind of thing more. Trying to cram knowledge into minds that don’t care for it- what’s to look forward to there? I wonder what Mr Kennedy felt like teaching me Maths- so exciting for him, so boring for me- and how frustrating it may well have been for him.
But then, there’s another side to this. True, I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned in Year 11 & 12 Maths (except the Quadratic Formula, bizarrely enough). But I learned in that class things about myself that I would never have learned in far more interesting classes like English or French or History. I learned something of how to face failure, something of endurance, something of humility. I learned how to reap moderate results from barren soil. I learned how to be content with what others would regard as mediocrity but which I knew in my heart was hard-won achievement.
So, next semester, when it gets to Week 14 and there is more than a handful of students in my classes but their eyes are mostly glazing over, I’ll remember another student who sat in a Maths class many years ago with a similar expression on his face. And if, in years to come, I happen to run into former students and find that their English has gone downhill and that they can’t remember almost anything about Wordsworth or Shakespeare or Plato or Greek mythology, I won’t get upset. Perhaps, in some small way, I’ll have helped them learn something even more valuable. I can only hope so.
Oh, and Mr Kennedy, if you’re reading this, thanks.
In Shaanxi province, a few hours drive west of Xi’an, there is a pagoda. It is, in many respects, like any other pagoda one might see in other parts of Asia, but with a notable difference.
About 1200 years ago, King Ashoka of India won a great victory against those who challenged his rule but, seeing the battlefield strewn with the bodies of the dead and dying, the grass bedewed with blood, he repented of his dreams of conquest and, calling wisemen to him, was persuaded to follow the teaching of one Siddhartha Gautama, known to his followers as the Enlightened One. But unlike these wisemen, he did not become a monk. Instead he made laws and sent missionaries and remained a king. Some of these missionaries eventually made their way to China, and they brought with them what was to them an object of supreme worth- the finger bone of the Buddha. This bone came to rest close to the ancient capital, and a pagoda was erected above it. It was subsequently regularly removed and carried in procession through the city, eventually hidden, forgotten about for a few centuries then rediscovered a few years ago after an earthquake. It was against this bone that Han Yu eloquently railed in 819 AD (for which misjudgement of Emperor Xianzong’s genuine Buddhist sympathies he was exiled) and it would, in accordance with Han Yu’s wish though not his reasoning, probably have been destroyed in the 1960′s if anyone had known it still existed.
It did- and does- still exist, however. I can say this with some authority because I have seen it with my own eyes. A fact which earns +1 for modern Buddhists in my book. I’m still waiting to be able to come within coo-ee of the Ka’aba. (By the way, Buddhists, you’re welcome in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre any time!)
All of this, though, is not what is likely to strike first-time visitors to Fa Men Si (法门寺). Since 2006 a massive complex has been built adjacent to the old pagoda, dwarfing and, in many ways, distracting from it. If you go there today, upon arrival, you will find yourself in a huge open-air courtyard with pillars dotted around three sides and an imposing arch at the northern end. Going through this brings one to another courtyard, the centrepiece of which is a large square pool that takes up the majority of the space. Seemingly set to guard either side of the pool are statues of elephants on one hand and lions (or possibly qilin) on the other, and in the centre a man-sized golden lotus. All these are of substantial size and quite impressive. All around the perimeter of this courtyard hang banners of red with 祈福 emblazoned in bright yellow; a prayer for blessing, or possibly an injunction to pray for blessing. Again at the northern end is an even more imposing set of arches than the last one. Should the half-dozen elephant statues ever come to life and decide (for what reason I can’t imagine) to ride on each other’s backs, they could comfortably fit through. Indeed, the in-your-face grandeur feels ever so vaguely Roman.
Passing through this great arch, one finds oneself on a long and broad avenue whose end, several hundred metres ahead and barely glimpsed through the omnipresent smoggy haze, is the grand edifice of the Namaste Pagoda, a curious but nonetheless impressive piece of architecture, less than a decade old.
All along this avenue are placed at regular intervals massive golden statues of various boddhisatvas, increasing in importance as one approaches the steps that lead to the Namaste Pagoda. Before them are bins for rubbish, kneelers for kneeling and facilities to burn joss sticks (they probably have a name, but I don’t know what it is, and ’BBQ’ and ‘sandbox’ seem inappropriate). Indeed, many visitors do precisely that, stopping at each immense boddhisatva along the way to burn incense and make the appropriate religious gestures.
To either side of the avenue are narrow bits of ground that make up for their lack of space with intricate and beautiful gardens; flowers and flowering trees, rock-pools and water-features. In the righthand-side gardens, hidden at intervals among the trees and pools and parrallel with the walkway, are a series of sculptured tableaux, depicting the major events of the life of the Buddha- his birth, the trips into town as a wealthy young man and the suffering he saw there (a particularly affecting scene- in life-size statues, the young prince, dressed in his finery, sits on a rock, an expression of distress and crestfallenness on his face as, arrayed behind him, stand representatives of the poor, the old, the sick and the dead), his leaving home and family, his asceticism, his moment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree and so on. Accompanying these were small plaques explaining the meaning of each tableau for those not familiar with Buddhism.
As one advances up the grand avenue, one’s ears are constantly met by gently monotonous chanting piped from speakers hidden in trees or in fake rocks to either side. Moreover, up and down the avenue at intervals there pass electrically-powered mock trains of the kind one is accustomed to see in American theme parks, transporting folks to and from the Namaste Pagoda at the end of the path.
This Pagoda, as I mentioned, is impressive, but oddly plastic. Its shape is intended to be a larger-than-life (MUCH larger, as it happens- it’s the height of maybe a 15 or 20-storey office block!) replica of the reliquary in which the Buddha’s finger bone is kept. In its base and on one of its upper floors are rooms with more massive golden boddhisatva statues- particularly Amitabha and Matreya (and one or two I hadn’t heard of)- and people are there offering joss sticks, money, genuflections and bows, while nestled in corners are lifts and other modern conveniences.
Question: why have I spent so much time describing this place?
Because of the curious and confusing impresson it left behind. The modern complex of Fa Men Si does have a kind of plastic epic-ness about it, not unlike the castle you walk through at the entrance to the various Disneylands. It feels appropriately grand but somehow hollow, like a stage prop. Elements such as the ubiquitous recorded chanting played from speakers, the vendors (of joss sticks and memorabilia) and the mock trains, not to mention the fact you have to buy a colourful and oversized ticket to get in, add to the sense of ‘I’ve stumbled into EnlightenmentLand!’ One smells kitsch overlaid with incense.
But then, on the other hand, there is genuine religious stuff going on. People buy joss sticks and bow before the boddhisatvas. Monks in yellow or brown robes can be seen about the place. Most intriguingly, there seems to be an evangelistic (or at least informative) purpose to much of the complex. The tableaux of the Buddha’s life complete with explanatory plaques in Chinese, English and Japanese, and similar plaques for each massive boddhisatva statue, seem to suggest the place has been built with non-Buddhists clearly on the list of intended clientele.
What struck me most of all was that there seemed no division, no demarcation between the religious and the touristy, the sacred and the profane. Ordinarily, when one is in a place of worship, one knows it. If it is a different religion from one’s own, one generally feels an appropriate sense of awkwardness, since people worship here but you cannot and will not. You are a spectator, getting a glimpse of something ‘Other’. You are merely looking in a place where actions, actions of deepest significance, are the order of the day. Then you step outside, over the threshold and into the public profane world, and you breathe a sigh, perhaps calmer than before, perhaps more knowledgeable or even (an outside chance) wiser but, in any case, at ease for no longer being on holy ground.
The complex of Fa Men Si was not a temple. Even the Namaste Pagoda looked nothing like any pagoda I’ve ever seen and certainly did not feel like other pagodas I’ve been in. Yet the kinds of activities one finds being done in temples were being done there, right next to the vendors and rubbish bins and plastic musical garden rocks. The strange juxtaposition of themepark with worship bothered me less than the fact there seemed to be no border or partition separating them. Like a Seaworld where baptisms are regularly performed. Or a Dreamworld filled with side altars and tabernacles. Or a Movieworld with a mihrab or a mikveh.
The whole place left me somewhat bemused for this reason. I should say I enjoyed my visit there immensely and didn’t finally feel like the expensive ticket price had been a complete rip-off (though it was exorbitant, I suppose they have to pay for building the place somehow) and I did leave feeling somewhat (ok, I’ll bite) enlightened. I do ask myself though, if there were a Christian version of the same thing, would I feel offended? I can’t comment on how a really devout Buddhist would feel about Fa Men Si since, as Chesterton reminds us, no one blasphemes Odin; i.e. you can only blaspheme something you yourself regard as sacred, and I’m not a Buddhist. But if a Christian doppelganger of Fa Men Si existed, would I think it blasphemous? Or would I regard it as a creative way to evangelise and showcase Christian worship?
It’s an interesting question, and one I continue to mull over. I’m open to the opinions of wiser minds.
Tomorrow is 中秋节 (Mid-Autumn Festival (which I suppose, to be consistent, the Americans would call ‘Midfall Festival’- which conjures in my mind the image of some nineteenth century colonial type in a pith helmet tumbling off an unexpected cliff in the middle of the jungle and taking a final swig from his liquor flask before he hits the ground below)). The day after tomorrow is Chinese National Day.
The unusual juxtaposition of the two holidays naturally puts me in mind of….The Space Programme (if you don’t see the connection immediately, look here). Over here in China, we seem to be watching another rocket go up every couple of months or so. While NASA fights for funds, the CNSA appears to be just revving up (and somewhere out there the EU and the Russians are doing…..something or other, no one’s really clear what). The Chinese seem pretty keen on the Moon and, if things continue as they are, they’ll probably get there and there’ll be two national flags flapping counterintuitively in the vaccuum. But the question really is, is anyone ever going to get any further? Or do anything more interesting? Not a single person has gone beyond near earth orbit since 1972. Which is almost as extraordinary a fact as that anyone did go beyond it in the first place.
One of my more recent acquisitions from The Great Courses has been this course on the Modern Solar System (i.e. the modern understanding of the solar system, basically post- Pluto’s demotion) which has been quite enlightening. On-topic, then, here are a couple of things I didn’t know before or that struck me afresh in their strangeness or power to arrest:
Geocentrism: To his credit, Professor Summers gives geocentrism its due. It turns out the geocentric model works pretty well until you have fairly powerful telescopes. He even puts moving diagrams of each model over each other and the orbits of the planets come to pretty much the same, epicycles and all, the only difference being the Earth and Sun swap places. As it happens, Galileo had telescopes, but not ones powerful enough to prove heliocentrism. And his main argument in its favour (the tides are caused by the Earth’s rotation) was flat wrong, and most scientists worth their salt knew it. So it looks like the Church was right to pull him up for teaching as fact what was then only hypothesis. Of course, since Galileo’s conclusion was right (though his arguments were dodgy), the Church now suffers from the fact that All Conclusions Seem Inevitable In Retrospect. Fortunately, we can take it.
Titius & Bode: Titius and Bode (hereafter to be known as The Two Johanns) had an interesting theory that seemed to work and have great predictive power. They calculated the distances from the Sun of the known planets, determined that there was a certain regularity there that could be described by an equation, and predicted, based on their equation, that there would be other planets at certain other distances from the Sun. And, lo and behold, there were! Uranus was discovered not terribly long after, more or less where the Two Johanns said it would be. And another planet, dubbed Ceres, was discovered between Mars and Jupiter, also where the pair had said there should be a planet of some kind floating about (Ceres is now recognised as the largest of the asteroids in the asteroid belt- once dozens upon dozens of rocky objects of various sizes were discovered in that same orbital area, Ceres went the way of Pluto and was demoted). That would seem to fulfill the requirements for a recognised scientific theory- explaining the data and making valid predictions. But then Neptune was discovered 26% off where the Titius-Bode Law said it should be. And then Pluto was discovered 95% off where it should have been! So much for the Titius-Bode Law, which is now regarded as a bit of a bizarre mathematical fluke. Albeit an intriguing one.
Io: Mt St Helens was quite a thing. So was Vesuvius back in the day. And of course there was that volcano a year ago that grounded all the planes in northern Europe. But what about a volcano whose eruption is so violent that, not only does it sow devastation on its surroundings for mile upon mile around but its plumes of smoke, ash and molten rock clear the upper atmosphere and can be seen FROM SPACE? Fortunately, no such exist on Earth, but Jupiter’s moon Io is full of them.
Venus: Yeah, we tried sending a probe to Venus once. Quite a few, actually. They all melted. The sturdiest lasted all of 2 hours. Yet this guy from NASA wants humans to start living on Venus. Or, rather, 50km above it. In floating cities. So, yeah. CNSA, are you paying attention? Toujours l’audace 吧！
From St Augustine’s Confessions:
When the day was approaching on which she was to depart this life- a day that You knew though we did not- it came about, as I believe by Your secret arrangement, that she and I stood alone leaning in a window, which looked inwards to the garden within the house where we were staying, at Ostia on the Tiber; for there we were away from everybody, resting for the sea voyage from the weariness of our long journey by land. There we talked together, she and I alone, in deep joy; and forgetting the things that were behind and looking forward to those that were before, we were discussing in the presence of the Truth, which You are, what the eternal life of the saints could be like, which eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered the heart of man. But with the mouth of our heart we panted for the high waters of Your fountain, the fountain of the life that is with You.
Such thoughts I uttered, though not in that order or in those actual words; but You know, O Lord, that on that day when we talked of these things, the world with all its delights seemed cheap to us in comparison with what we talked of. And my mother said, “Son, for my own part, I no longer find joy in anything in this world. What I am still to do here and why I am here I know not, now that I no longer hope for anything from this world. One thing there was, for which I desired to remain still a little longer in this life, that I should see you a Catholic Christian before I died. This God has granted me in superabundance, in that I now see you His servant to the contempt of all worldly happiness. What then am I doing here?”
WHat answer I made, I do not clearly remember; within five days or not much longer she fell into a fever. And in her sickness, she one day fainted away and for the moment lost consciousness. We ran to her but she quickly returned to consciousness and, seeing my brother and me standing by her, she said as one wondering, “Where was I?” Then looking closely upon us as we stood wordless in our grief, she said, “Here you will bury your mother.” I stayed silent and checked my weeping. But my brother said something to the effect that he would be happier if she were to die in her own land and not in a strange country. But as she heard this, she looked at him anxiously, restraining him with her eye because he savoured of earthly things, and then she looked at me and said, “See the way he talks.” And then she said to us both, “Lay this body wherever it may be. Let no care of it disturb you. This only I ask of you that you should remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” And when she had uttered this wish in such words as she could manage, she fell silent as her sickness took hold of her.
This gallery contains 13 photos.
The normal and expected thing to do upon coming to Xi’an is to visit the world-famous terracotta warriors. But when have I ever done the normal and expected thing? No, I shall wait a full FOUR DAYS before going to the terracotta warriors! Until then, the slightly less beaten track awaits, and today we made a good start.
This morning, I and the folks drove (or, more accurately, were driven- which, among other benefits, meant that I didn’t miss my accustomed siesta around lunchtime) out to Hanyangling and Qianling…
Whu-what do you mean, you’ve never heard of these places?
Alright, well, they are the mausoleums of Han Jingdi and Wu Zetian, respectively…Still no idea, eh? Hmm….it seems some historical background may be in order.
The quick and dirty version then (I’ll leave Wu Zetian for later, I think). After Qin Shihuangdi (of terracotta warrior fame) died, his officials tried to hide the fact by putting a fishcart next to his carriage. When that didn’t work, they made Qin’s totalitarian state even more totalitarian. The people didn’t take well to that, and the country dissolved into chaos. From the chaos came two singular men, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, who started out as friends and allies, became mortal enemies, then engaged in a bloody chess game for control of the country (not even my metaphor- the two sides on Chinese chess boards are still named after them!). Xiang Yu lost hope when he got surrounded by Liu Bang’s army and realised how many of his soldiers had defected from the fact the opposing army’s soldiers were singing songs from his home province around the campfire. He responded in decidedly Byronic fashion by spending one last evening with his favourite concubine, riding through the night on his favourite horse (and escaping!), then stopping at the Yangzi river, walking back towards his foe and cutting his own throat in sight of them to cheat them of the pleasure. Whereupon Liu Bang founded the Han dynasty.
About forty years later, Han Jingdi, Liu Bang’s successor and descendant, was on the throne of China. He is most famous for centralising power by quashing the Rebellion of the Seven States, being the father of Han Wudi (of whom more later…probably), recognising the Dao De Jing as a Chinese classic, and fortuitously building his mausoleum along the route of the future Airport Express Highway. This latter piece of foresight being the reason his tomb-mound was discovered in 1998 and subsequently excavated and made safe for tourists, ticket-sellers, government officials and other domesticated animals.
And indeed it is an interesting place. Fortunately for us, most Westerners evidently haven’t heard of Hanyangling or Han Jingdi, so the few tourist groups present were without exception Chinese. Which may have been a blessing in disguise, since I’m certain that, sooner or later, representatives of the Academie Francaise will swoop in and gesticulate wildly. In general, the English explanations were not too bad, but what the informative tableaux lacked in Chinglish they more than made up for in (if I may coin a term) Chincais. Fortunately, the French can only correct the grammatical mistakes they know about, and I saw none there today.
Like in Egypt, this emperor is buried with a lot of bric-a-brac underneath a large broad-based structure (in this and most Chinese cases, an artificial hill) but here, unlike in Egypt, one doesn’t get to enter the tomb itself. Possibly because it hasn’t been opened yet. Instead the aforementioned bric-a-brac is on display. The tomb of Han Jingdi is perhaps a special case in this regard. Having been only recently discovered and excavated, the excavations are a long way from being finished. But the tourist industry being a greedy beast, and those who promote it sometimes sharing that quality, a kind of underground museum has been constructed so that the trenches and their unearthed contents can be viewed from a glass-covered walkway. Elsewhere in the museum are items that have been dug up and categorised, but the far more intriguing ones are those that still lie in situ.
Having seen the tarracotta warriors myself once a number of years ago, I was struck by the similarities. Here too were models of chariots (fossilised presumably- they were said to have been wooden, but now bear the appearance of stone) and horses to pull them. Here too were models of people. Unlike the terracotta warriors, these were nowhere near life-size. This was to be expected. Qin Shihuangdi being a megalomaniac, everything he did was larger than life. The Han emperors (Han Jingdi reigning less than a century after Qin Shihuangdi) were a subtler bunch. Apart from their founder, who was accustomed to use government officials’ caps as chamber pots on occasion, but I digress. The thing that struck me most about Han Jingdi’s figurines was a different difference from those of Qin Shihuang. Not their size, but something else, something I only realised upon further reflection, and is perhaps of greater moment. These figurines had been buried wearing clothes- actual clothes- and, though the clothes have mostly rotted away, it seems we have a good idea what sort of clothes they were. The vast majority seem to have been government officials and eunuchs, with a few concubines and consorts thrown in for good measure. While Qin Shihuangdi had himself buried wth an army around him, Han Jingdi was buried with a bureacracy.