Generals and Computers: From Ancient China to Wendell Berry and Andrew Yang

At long last, today I finished Arthur Waley’s translated collection of Chinese poetry. I also read “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” (1987) by Wendell Berry (a new author to me), from The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. Though these two readings may appear wildly different in nature, I was struck by how both of them are exemplars of the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun.” In fact, both of them are strongly relevant to today.

Love, Simple Joys, and Sorrow

Chinese Poems (1989) spans a mammoth amount of time: from circa 900 BC to the mid-1600s. The anthology begins with selections from the famous Book of Songs and later contains a large portion of works by 8th-century poet and governor Bai Juyi; the remainder of the poems are by various authors, including some anonymous ones. Romance, war, loneliness, and love of nature are all prevalent themes, and the clash of universal values versus traditional barriers creates ongoing tension.

Bai Juyi

I found this poetry book to be an uneven collection, but now and then there were some gems where the voice of the author cuts through the dense imagery and brings you down to earth. I was moved by “A Peacock Flew” (3rd-5th century AD), a tale of doomed love, even as I was frustrated by what seemed to me needless despair on the part of its characters. In Wang Chien’s “Hearing that His Friend Was Coming Back from the War,” I felt for the narrator who observed sadly, “That a young man should ever come home again / Seemed about as likely as that the sky should fall” (8th century AD). As poignant was this scene from Bai Juyi’s “The Flower Market” (p. 122):

There happened to be an old farm labourer
Who came by chance that way.
He bowed his head and sighed a deep sigh;
But this sigh nobody understood.
He was thinking, ‘A cluster of deep-red flowers
Would pay the taxes of ten poor houses.’

Nothing could better illustrate the divide between prosperity and poverty, alluded to in A History of East Asia.

Something I’d also learned in that history book is that, as with many other countries, rebellion was not an uncommon occurrence in China’s history. “A Protest in the Sixth Year of Ch’ien Fu” (AD 879) speaks to injustice and discontent simmering under poor leadership (p. 176):

Do not let me hear you talking together
About titles and promotions;
For a single general’s reputation
Is made out of ten thousand corpses

Technology vs. Conservation

Wendell Berry’s brief essay on computers is less about computers specifically and more about the shift from simple, localized living to more interconnected lifestyles enabled by increased automation. Underlying his concerns are its negative impacts on the environment, particularly electricity being fueled by strip-mined coal.

Photo by Guy Mendes

In my copy of the essay, Berry also prints opinions from readers who disagree with him and then offers a rebuttal, mostly cordially but also quite forcefully. These are some thought-provoking quotes:

I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.

I assume from [my reader’s] letter that he must send donations to conservation organizations and letters to officials…at any rate, he has a clear conscience. But this is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience. The guilty are always other people, and the wrong is always somewhere else.

Not only are the problems Berry talks about still as prevalent as ever, but today they are at the forefront of concerns for those of us in the U.S.

Photo by Gage Skidmore

It is why I have been following Andrew Yang‘s presidential campaign with extra attention. He has made the threats of automation the center of his platform, though he brings different ideas and takeaways than I suspect Berry would agree with. Here I’d lean towards Yang’s outlook—we cannot hope to return to fully simpler times (especially if we intend to continue to compete globally), and a minority of people giving up computers and smartphones is hardly going to stem the tide. That said, we can implement policies and programs that help us adapt to technological advances, so we are guiding them rather than reacting to them.

Either way, I sympathize with Berry and the kind of country he wanted America to be as depicted in this essay. “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” is both a warning and a reminder to us that with every new convenience comes a cost and earth’s natural resources are not infinitely renewable.

Ruined Cities by François de Nomé – Reacting to Surrealist Art

Better title would be “ignorant person attempts to interpret Art and fails miserably”… Well, this is just a random video to test out screen capturing.

Side note: I will try to write some real blog posts soon! I am nearly done with Chinese Poems (happy Lunar New Year, by the way :)). I also will be sharing some favorite poems from Emily Dickinson at some point, though I’m not sure if that will be a video or a post. We shall see.

Rambling about A History of East Asia – Early Dynasties, Colonialism, and China as a Global Hegemon

Key takeaways:

  • Holcombe’s A History of East Asia is the kind of dry, academic, extremely cautious textbook that gives history as a subject a bad name (and myself some flashbacks to uni).
  • Nonetheless, this book is certainly a serviceable overview of the histories of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, which was the minimum I was hoping for.
  • Like most other geographical regions, the overall gist of East Asian history is a move (over millennia) from many small kingdoms to centralization and now, increasingly, globalization. In-between, there are a lot of revenge cycles, family members killing each other, and foreign invasions.
  • This book only included Vietnam in this second edition, and even so, the Vietnam content is pretty light. After reading it, I understand why the author was hesitant to put Vietnam into the category of “East Asia” as its history doesn’t quite follow the same kinds of patterns as the other countries. Still, I’ll probably have to seek out other resources to learn more.

In the video, I also go over some highlights and “things I didn’t know” about the history itself. Short version is: the antecedents of events and documents are often unexpected and sometimes downright bizarre… “truth is stranger than fiction”!

What I'm Reading (and More): January edition 2020

[Editor’s note: It seems my blogging is going to consist of this kind of post for the foreseeable future. I’m tentatively putting classics (and the return of the podcast 😦 ) on hold to make a dent in my 2020 reading. There will be classics (primarily for the Japanese Reading Challenge), but most of them I’ll be saving for the middle/second-half of the year rather than the beginning. Sorry in advance!]

Reading

A History of East Asia

This year I want to focus on a couple of reading topics, one of which is Asian history & literature (think Finding Your Roots 😉 ).

Holcombe’s book is the quintessential college history textbook: heavy on exposition, low on intriguing anecdotes, and written with an abundance of caution (not usually a bad thing, but overdone here IMHO). That said, I still find the overview useful and expect it will get more readable as it heads into the 19th–21st centuries. (Most interesting thing I learned so far is that a Catholic cleric helped facilitate the first unification of Vietnam, privately funded by Frenchmen roughly around the time of the American Revolution!)

Exodus and Beyond

This month marks my 1-year anniversary of resuming near-daily Bible reading via the New King James Version. I’ve made it roughly halfway…I’m intentionally slow and determined to read this entire translation before starting my New Cambridge Paragraph Bible (which is KJV).

As is well-known, there are many schools of thought on English translations of the Bible. What I appreciate about the NKJV is how naturally (to us moderns) it reads, while having relatively few differences in syntax and wording. It’s helped me keep up momentum, while the KJV remains my gold standard/reference since it contains important distinctions like “thou/you” (sign me up for the NKJV that uses “you all”). I expect this experience will make the KJV easier to read when I return to it next year.

(As a side note, I am completely won over to single-column/paragraph formatted Bibles now. The KJV I read growing up was traditional column-style—maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I find it still very hard to read to this day.)

But back to Exodus. There are many mysteries in this book, from Moses’s troubled beginnings to the magic of the Pharaoh’s sorcerers and the crossing of the Red Sea. Regarding the latter, one verse that jumped out to me was 14:29, which clearly calls out “a wall” of water on each side of the Israelites as they made their crossing. I’d recently heard of a scientific theory that they crossed a “reed sea” at low water level, but that theory obviously doesn’t fit this description. (So yes, Hollywood is more accurate…this time.)

Watching

The last movie I watched was It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which was very touching and relevant to me personally. I reviewed it on my other blog. 🙂

Other than that, my folks gave me the Complete BBC Robin Hood for Christmas! I actually have never watched Season 3 and don’t expect to like it (it’s verrrryyyy poorly rated), but I plan to watch and review it when I can find time. My favorite episodes are still from Season 2 and some of Season 1.

Robin Hood with hoodies—yep, this show is my guilty pleasure. It’s every bit as cheesy as it looks.

Also, I will forever ship Robin/Marian, cause Guy of Gisbourne is a CREEPER, even if he is the one-and-only Richard Armitage.

Other

I desperately wanted to go see Eugene Onegin at the Seattle Opera this month, but a) I completely forgot about it until there were no cheap tickets, and b) Seattle is kind of a scary place right now. So yeah, that’s not happening. 😥

There’s not much else going on, but that’s ok, as it gives me more time to read. A year ago, I was up to my ears in work, so it’s nice to actually not be busy in January.