Thursday, August 11, 2011

Chou En Lai on the French Revolution : Did he say it's too soon to tell?

Nixon with Chou en Lai in February 1972 - taken for all I know in the
walled garden (Encylopedia Britannica)

It is said that Chou En Lai, asked to assess the impact of the French Revolution, replied:

"It's too soon to tell."

Not according to Nixon’s interpreter, the American diplomat Chas Freeman, who has recently spoken about this. But before we see what Freeman had to say, let’s have a look at the story as it’s usually told.

Legend has it that, while preparing Richard Nixon for his historic visit to China in 1972, Henry Kissinger mentioned that Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai was an avid student of French history. During his trip, Nixon met with Chou in the walled garden of the Forbidden City. As they walked slowly around the lily ponds, Nixon remembered Kissinger's comment. To break the ice, he asked Chou what he thought had been the impact of the French revolution on western civilization. Chou En-Lai considered the question for a few moments. Finally, he turned to Nixon and replied, "The impact of the French revolution on western civilization - too early to tell."

It seems this shows up in a few different versions. Sometimes it's said to Kissinger, sometimes, as related above, to Nixon, and sometimes a full twenty years earlier to someone else. So it looks, or looked, like a good guess that Chou En Lai did actually say this, though precisely when, or to whom, isn't clear.

Chou’s answer has become a frequently deployed cliché, used as evidence of Chinese leaders' sage, patient, and far-sighted ways, in contrast to impatient westerners.

But now up pipes Chas Freeman and kills off this cosy anecdote. Here's what he says happened.

Chou and Nixon did indeed converse about events in France. But whilst Nixon’s question referred to the Revolution of 1789, Chou’s reply referred to les évenéments of 1968 – the Paris student riots and sit-ins just three years before.

It seems this all came out at a seminar in Washington (in early June, I surmise) to mark the publication of Kissinger’s book, On China.
Chas Freeman is reported to have said “I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction”; also that Chou’s misconstrued comment was “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected”. Moreover that this probably occurred over lunch or dinner, during a discussion about revolutions that had succeeded and failed; not in the walled garden.

He said Chou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, since “these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Chou understood them.”

Just a 300-year interlude

I'm partly sorry this story has been debunked. That the Chinese take a long view of history may be both a cliché and actually true, even if the Nixon/Chou story can no longer be cited as an instance of it.

As an example of short- and long-term historical perspectives, let's note that in the West, China’s emerging economic dominance is surprising and disturbing. To the Chinese on the other hand, it’s wholly unsurprising. Through most of recorded history their country has been the world’s foremost economic power; there’s been a 300-year interlude, that’s all.

As to the effect of the French Revolution, this event brought about the rise of the nation state and was the precursor of the Russian revolution, and the Chinese revolution, and arguably of the First World War (and thereby also the Second World War). Who can say what the long term consequences of all that is? Chou’s answer, the answer we now have to believe he never gave, was quite apposite.

China’s long predominance in world history prompts the question, why did modern science and technology develop in Europe, when China seemed so much better placed to achieve it? It’s known as the Needham Question … but here I'll stop ... more another day.

Media myth alert - blog by W Joseph Campbell

Subsequent link:
my thoughts on the Needham Question

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cameron’s Britain – is it come to this?

You get what you pay for I suppose. In Syria we see people withstand tanks and snipers in the name of freedom with unbelievable dignity and bravery whilst in London a brutish mob loots jeans and televisions. And if I accosted one of them and said lets discuss what you're protesting against, Karl Marx had something to say about it, my recompose, I fear, would be a bop on the nose.

Milliband eschews 20/20 hindsight

Snellen eye chart

This morning on BBC TV news Ed Milliband, declining to criticise the ineffective police response to the London riots, told the interviewer “I'm not going to engage in 20/20 hindsight”. What did he mean?

From the context in which it's normally used I've always assumed 20/20 vision meant perfect vision or maybe, as Milliband appears to think, all-round vision; but actually no, it signifies normal vision, for which the technical term appears to be normal visual acuity (VA).

To an optometrist, 20/20 vision means that when you stand 20 feet away from a wallchart, you can see what someone with normal vision can see at that distance.

If you have 20/40 vision, your visual acuity is rather poor. It means at 20 feet, you see what a person with normal vision can see at 40 feet. 20/10 vision means your visual acuity is good; at 20 feet you can see what a person with normal vision would need to step up to 10 feet to see.

20/100 vision means that at 20 feet you can read no more of the wallchart than a person with normal vision could at 100 feet. And 20/200 is the cut-off for legal blindness in the United States.

The information comes from the American Optometric Association. For all I know 20/20 vision may be a specifically American expression, and perhaps something different is used in Europe. It certainly seems to have entered the language as an instance of American business speak. Annoying at the best of times. Doubly so when it's misunderstood even by those who use it.

In metric terms 20/20 becomes 6/6. So if Milliband wanted to be right up to date with his jargon, perhaps he ought to have said “I'm not going to engage in 6/6 hindsight”. Lacks a certain rhythm, but would it have been more happening and abreast of the modern thing?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why purgatory is no laughing matter

With Eileen to a Catholic memorial mass marking the anniversary of the death of a neighbour in these parts, whom I'll call John. At the start of the service the canon announced that we were here to pray for the repose of John’s soul. Later, he remarked on the size of the congregation, how many friends John had, and how pleased John would be to see us all here tonight. He was sure John was smiling down on us all from heaven. A comforting image for anyone which can bring themselves to believe in such things.

Comforting but false. False in any event by the lights of the Catholic church. For according to Catholic doctrine, [1] John is not in heaven. He is atoning for his sins in purgatory whence he will be elevated to heaven at the last trump.  Which is why we were all supposed be praying for his soul. Why after all pray for John’s soul if he is in heaven already?

As the canon drove off afterwards I tapped on his car window and said I needed to have a theological discussion with him sometime. This is all good fun and he will take it in the spirit in which it’s intended. Next day we went round for dinner at the house of a devout Catholic couple who were also at the service, and I decided to defy Eileen’s ban on me talking religion, and sport with them on this theme of priests glossing over the existence of purgatory.

Needless anxiety

And then, thankfully, the conversation changed, giving me chance to reflect. And I abandoned my plan. Because actually that would be a rather cruel sort of sport, would it not.  If as a faithful Catholic you are comforted by the belief that your departed mother and father are already in heaven, who am I to cause needless anxiety, just for the sake of airing a bit of knowledge.

Dante poised between the mountain
of purgatory and the city of Florence
Domenico di Michelino's
painting, Florence 1465
A N Wilson [2] says most Catholics (even though they may not be aware of it) get their idea of purgatory from the 14th century poet Dante, not from the church. Purgatory had been invented only 50 years before Dante wrote, says Wilson, and Pope Boniface VIII (who Wilson suggests may have been an atheist) raked in the money by declaring 1300 the Holy Year and encouraging the faithful to come to Rome to pay for remission from their time in the newly invented arena of torment.

And when Wilson says rake in, he does mean rake in. Priests with rakes raked the gold coins off the altars.  

It's worth taking a close look at this pop-up of souls in purgatory from a French 15th century manuscript - some souls trapped in water, some in fire, and some rescued by angels. [4]

More painful than anything in this life

St Augustine described the cleansing fires of purgatory as more painful than anything a man can suffer in this life [3].  But this kind of talk is all a bit fruity for modern sensibilities, in recognition whereof Pope Benedict has recently described purgatory as like a purifying fire burning inside a person, a painful experience of regret for one’s sins.  

And in this short video the Pope doesn’t mention fire at all, the soul is purified by the love of God.

But still and all … whichever way you cut it purgatory isn’t for the faint hearted. On the whole I think Catholic priests are well advised to hide its existence from the faithful and confine it to seminaries.  The best way to keep a docile and contented congregation.

Though not all agree. A recent reader’s letter to the Irish Catholic deplored that most Catholics don’t understand purgatory. The writer has met Catholics who thought purgatory had been “done away with”, and others who’ve never heard of it. People praying at the graveside frequently say they are “just remembering their dearly departed.”

That's really all I want to say about purgatory. What follows is by way of a digression.

What of Judgement Day ?

Judgement Day: Christ separates the sheep
from the goats in an early
mosaic from Ravenna
Disappointingly something that the Catholic church does seem to have done away with, is Judgement Day. This is the day, or so I thought, that the Son of Man will return in glory to judge the quick and the dead, to separate the sheep from the goats. And when the faithful pray for departed souls, they are praying the souls will numbered amongst the sheep. Or maybe amongst the goats.

But it seems that somewhere along the line there has been an adjustment, and the Church’s current teaching no longer includes a universal day of judgement.  A person undergoes judgement immediately after death.  Saints go straight to heaven.  Out and out sinners go straight to hell.  The rest go to purgatory, from where eventual admission to heaven is guaranteed.  But first the stain of transgressions must be burnt away, and the soul purified.

Which leaves me wondering what exactly it is you're praying for, when you pray for the souls of the departed. Whole books have been written on the subject I'm told. But they will remain unread by me. The time available for pondering the doctrine of purgatory has now well and truly expired.

[1] For Catholic doctrine on purgatory,  see Catholic Encyclopedia  or for a shorter exposition  Reaching Catholics For Christ. For purgatory in other traditions see Wikipedia.

[2] A N Wilson on BBC’s Start the Week (4th July) talking about his book Dante in Love, 2011. 

[3] Search for "Pain and fire" in the Wikipedia article on purgatory.  Note conflict with Wilson’s statement that purgatory was invented in the 12th century

[4] "Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry", a book of hours, c. 1410.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

More on Swedish neutrality in the 2nd World War

Holiday snap in Stockholm, 17 July 2011
My cousin Kim took this picture of me standing on the steps of the Stockholm office of the Swedish employers federation three weeks ago. The address is Södra Blaiseholmen 4a, and during the Second World War it was the German embassy. My aunt Inger once said: “during the war we were ruled from that building.”

German military trains, known in Swedish as permittenttåg, were allowed to use Sweden’s rail network to transport troops to and from occupied Norway. As Sweden was neutral, this was and remains controversial.

During my visit last month the 70th anniversary occurred of the permittenttåg. The TV news showed an interview with an elderly German who, as a junior officer in the Wehrmacht, had travelled on these trains. It was like travelling through a friendly country, he said, he encountered no hostility. A black and white movie clip was shown, taken from the moving train. Two Swedish girls standing by the track waved at the German soldiers as the train passed by. OK, so the clip was probably from a Nazi propaganda film, but nonetheless, the evidence accumulates.

My aunt and her sister reminisced about their life in Stockholm during the war, and how Stockholm was full of Nazi sympathisers. They had a Jewish sounding surname, and one day they discovered a swastika daubed on the door of their apartment. Inger (who would have been about 12 at the time) cried “I wish we weren't called Levin”, according to her sister.

These are all anecdotes. When I have time, I intend to look up some of the history.

For a different angle on those trains, see a couple of pieces I posted early this year:

A German troop train in Sweden

My Swedish cousin and the German cigarettes

And see also Irish & Swedish neutrality during the Second World War