Su Shi was a government official and one of the most respected poet of the Northern Song dynasty in China, twice exiled for his criticisms of imperial policy. In 1082, he pondered about mortality and change at the Red Cliff, the place where General Cao Cao was defeated by his enemies 800 years earlier, expressed in his immortal Former Ode on the Red Cliff.
He first realized the insignificance of human beings in comparison with nature:
Mayflies visiting between heaven and earth, infinitesimal grains in the vast sea, mourning the passing of our instant of life, envying the long river which never ends
But then, he considered the matter from a relativism perspective that both an individual and nature can be constantly changeable and immortal:
Have you really understood the water and the moon? The one streams past so swiftly yet is never gone; the other for ever waxes and wanes yet finally has never grown nor diminished. For if you look at the aspect which changes, heaven and earth cannot last for one blink; but if you look at the aspect which is changeless, the worlds within and outside you are both inexhaustible, and what reasons have you to envy anything?
As Vladimir Lenin said, there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen. What makes our times particularly turbulent is that we are simultaneously at the late stages and transitional moments of three big cycles:
- Carlota Perez’s technological revolutions / financial capital cycle (50-60 years)
- Strauss–Howe generational cycle (80-100 years)
- Ray Dalio’s empire / reserve currency cycle (200 years)
If you don’t understand these cycles and how they interact with each other, you can’t understand what’s coming at you. Collectively, they explain the U.S.-China strategic rivalry, the clash over Hong Kong, political extremism across the world, and the rise of Bitcoin. It is in moments of greatest danger like ours where once-in-a-lifetime opportunities lie.
John Atkinson created irreverent summations, in the fewest words possible, of some of the most famous works of literature. Here are my own for the Four Great Classic Novels of China:
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Empire splits into three parts. Then reunited.
- A Journey to the West: A monk, a monkey and a pig take forever to get to India.
- The Water Margin: 108 outlaws vs. government. Government wins.
- The Dream of the Red Chamber: A rebellious rich kid is spiritually awakened.
Fanatical experiments cannot be sustained without creativity. To paraphrase a wise man from the last century, the way the Nazis or the Communists sell their holy causes is no different from the way capitalists advertise their Gucci bags or cigarettes. The techniques we found in the imperialistic tendencies of the Nazis and the Communists are in fact based on the methods of industrial enterprises.
Today, when theorists in Beijing talk of socialism with Chinese characteristics, they are perhaps admitting that the success of the authoritarian experiment will always depend on the creativeness proceeding in the outside non-authoritarian world. If there were no free societies outside of China, they might have found it necessary to establish freedom by coercion.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses two criteria to filter ideas and books. First, the Lindy Effect: the more the book has been around, the longer its future life expectancy. Second, the more skin in the game, the more convincing the idea is. In practice, I am attracted to books that look ancient, and look at how far the author is prepared to pursue his/her ideas.
In most Chinese cities, I seldom find bookstores where you can buy the Book of Lord Shang (商君書) and Guiguzi (鬼谷子) together, except in Beijing. I think the only reason is that readers in Beijing have skin in the game as they rub shoulders with Leviathans and Machiavellis every day.
Shang Yang (商鞅) and Guiguzi (鬼谷子) predated Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli by over 1,500 years. And unlike today’s members of the “intelligentsia”, they have real skin in the game, more so than their rival Confucians. Shang Yang was literally torn to pieces for executing his reform ideas which paved the way for Qin’s universal rule. Guiguzi bred Su Qin (蘇秦) and Zhang Yi (張儀), two preeminent rhetoricians that are rivalrous yet mutually-reinforcing in the Warring States period. In the end, one was (again) torn to pieces, the other died in exile.
Therefore, their books are great, per Lindy Effect and skin in the game. The same principles apply to other fields. Among Republican China’s men of letters, I think Wang Guowei (王國維) is the best. He was a rarity by drowning himself in Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace in 1927. Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) personally experienced the fall of his illustrious family from its height, dying in poverty. Hence, I think the Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) is infinitely better than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. I too love Nietzsche, who died of insanity, and Yukio Mishima (三島由紀夫), who committed ritual suicide.
Skin in the game is something to aspire to.
Büro Ole Scheeren took the needle of the tower and bent it back into itself to create a loop. There is no beginning or end. Walk around the base of the tower, and you see it go from strong and imposing to unstable and fragile. It’s the perfect symbol for a post-truth world.
In vernacular Chinese, the Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) by Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) is regarded as the supreme novel. In classical Chinese, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異) by Pu Songling (蒲松齡) has the equivalent status. Mao Zedong claimed to have read the Red Chamber five times. I say you need to read Strange Tales two times.
Read it in English the first time. I discover Pu Songling through Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. Experience how Kafka and Borges read Pu, and recognize their voice and practices in Pu’s work. The three together grasp the absurdity and weirdness of the civilized world and human conditions.
Read it in classical Chinese the second time. Appreciate Pu’s humour, playing and twisting with the classical text that he was obliged to memorize and digest as a member of the Chinese literati. This is at heart a revolutionary work.
The works of Pu, Kafka and Borges are dark and understated. Some advice from 19th century commentator Feng Zhenluan (馮鎮巒) on how to read Strange Tales would apply to all three authors: Read these tales properly, and they will make you strong and brave; read them in the wrong way, and they will possess you.
The mysterious way in which seemingly disparate historical events are connected with each other fills me with awe. The human intellect simply cannot grasp the infinite permutations and the sheer complexity of the laws of history. In 1773, the Boston Tea Party threw 342 chests of Chinese tea into the Boston Harbor, leading to the independence of America. In 1839, Qing dynasty official Lin Zexu dumped 20,000 chests of British opium into the Canton Harbor, marking the onset of China’s century of humiliation. The two events are separated by over 60 years and happened on opposite sides of the world, but both can be traced to the seizing of Bengal by the British East India Company in 1757.
A series of mismanagement by the British led to the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 which killed up to 10 million Indians (one of the many holocausts in India which the UK remains silent to this date). The destruction of food crops by the East India Company to make way for opium cultivation reduced food availability and contributed significantly to the famine. The company suffered financially as a result of the famine, and influenced Parliament to pass the 1773 Tea Act to allow direct shipment of tea to the American colonies. The undercutting by the East India Company infuriated American colonists who were tea smugglers, many of whom went on to become founding fathers of the United States of America.
In fact, all the East India Company tea which the Boston Tea Party dumped in 1773 were produced in China. Year after year, the East India Company bought large quantities of tea from China, draining silver out of England. The British were desperate to search for a counterpart commodity to trade for tea. They found it in opium, which they planted in large quantities thanks to the taking of Bengal. By 1839, the drug trade became such a serious social problem in China that the Daoguang Emperor sent viceroy Lin Zexu to confiscate all the British opium.
This is how the throwing of tea in 1773 and the dumping of opium in 1839 into the sea were connected with each other.
I’m a political analyst, not an economist. But in many situations, it’s more than enough for me to understand the logic behind the Chinese economy.
As an important example: in the March 2016 National People’s Congress session, why did Xi Jinping set 6.5% as the GDP growth target for the next 5 years?
This number has nothing to do with economics. It’s all about politics and the logic is as follows:
- In October 2015, the Fifth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee set itself the ambition of doubling the 2010 GDP by 2021.
- Why 2021? Because it is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Doubling the GDP so that China becomes a “moderately well-off society” will fulfill one of the “two centenary goals” of the CCP, very key to sustaining its legitimacy.
- Take a look at the realized GDP growth rates for the past 5 years: 2011-9.5%; 2012-7.8%; 2013-7.7%; 2014-7.3%; 2015-6.9%.
- If the average growth rate for the next 5 years from 2016 to 2020 is 6.5%, the 2021 GDP will be exactly double that of 2010. Mathematically: (1+9.5%)*(1+7.8%)*(1+7.7%)*(1+7.3%)*(1+6.9%)*(1+6.5%)^5=2.