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.

7 thoughts on “Generals and Computers: From Ancient China to Wendell Berry and Andrew Yang

  1. Thanks for sharing those bits of the poetry. That’s probably not a collection I’ll ever get around to reading, so it’s nice to see portions here which resonate! I’m glad you’ve made WB’s acquaintance…he has reams of poetry in addition to essays and fiction…one I can remember off hand is “The Peace of Wild Things”.

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  2. Hello Marian. I love Chinese poetry and I’m going to look for this book, although I might already have a similar collection. My interest in Asian (I mean the whole continent) literature and poetry has escalated in the last couple of years. I especially like Haiku, but also Chinese poems and also the art from these countries.

    I have not heard of Andrew Yang and don’t know enough about Wendell Berry, so I cannot comment there, but I thought your post was interesting.

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    • Sharon, I think you’d like this collection! I’m also going to try to read some haiku later this year (a comment by Mudpuddle reminded me :)).

      I could say a lot about Yang but I’ve probably strayed too far into politics in this post. 😀 I don’t agree with all his policies, but he’s the best (aka most centrist, constructive) of the Democratic candidates for sure.

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