The Disappearing Act of China in the World of World Literature

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The second of two lectures from the Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies.

World literature: all literature that circulates beyond its culture.

There are parallels between the literatures of the Far East and the Far West which included crime literature, fantastical literature, sensual literature, and literature of sensibility.  Despite this Chinese literature is dismissed as inaccessible, cut off to the western mind by deliberate particularism so there is no common reference.

English literature encountered Chinese literature at the same time as the canon of English literature was being shaped.  The encounter with Chinese literature was inconvient for a literate culture celebrating itself.  I saw a comparison with how our modern heroes reference themselves on the canon of television and cartoons (“Willy taught Jerry about the Revenge of the Bunny, and how revenge is a dish best served funny”).

Chauvinism required the superiority of Western imperial culture and science.  In China the imperialists encountered a literary culture meriting a literate education.

The Chinese Other was borrowed as someone used to project the morality of the age on.  For Voltaire and Goethe they were cosmopolitan philosophes.  For later writers like Strachey and Bertram Russell the Other was a culture of contentment, poetic anti-modernity and anti-industrialism.  The Chinese Other was both brobdingnagian and lilliputian: great-hearted and small-minded.

Does this say something about our modern fantastic literature?  Our utopia is out there, beyond the boundaries of our imagination.  I wonder if in modern literature what we project onto China has become amoral.  Onto their culture we project a dystopic authoritarianism, the worst of what we fear is to come.

Westernisation as Barbarism

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This was an open lecture on political theory and cross-cultural studies at the university.  The title sounded interesting because the background was in the encounter between the Chinese and European cultures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Chinese culture until this period had survived because it had a strong sense of its own identity.  The underlying concept behind this was Wen, originally meaning ‘pattern’ it implied a cultivation of cultural, literary and social structure.  Chinese culture had absorbed those who would conquer it by force.  For the first time it faced a rival who could conquer it through its own Wen.

The Chinese needed to learn European Wen, the European way of cultivating character.

We have problems understanding and appreciating another culture.  The two alternatives are Particularism or Universalism.  Particularism is rooted to knowing and learning within the context of our own society and history.  Engagement and dialogue happen in a third space because it happens between cultures.  We accentuate how the Other are different to us.  We do not read the Other within their own context.

Universalism applies moral facts as above and beyond cultural issues: science, democracy, human rights.  They are assumed to be universal.  I wrote down “manifest dialectic” in my notes.  We forget that progress can reverse.  The questioning from the audience suggested that people had difficulty with this dismissal of universalism.

Wen was suggested as a third way.  Self-cultivation makes a person a citizen.  Seek the benefits of education and transcend the boundaries between Chinese and the Other.  Members of the audience suggested that this was compatable with Universalism values.

I had gone to the lecture considering two images from the Archives collection.  One was the sign of the Canton Villages Mission supported by my sect of New Zealand Presbyterians, the missionary’s hand from heaven brandishes the cross and the Chinese gods and demons and Buddha are scattered, a Chinese scholar looks on, hands raised in surprise.  (Ironically in hindsight, the cross is inverted.)  In the second image, a Chinese image, Thunder God strides through heaven on a cloud of fire-cracker smoke and lightning, the missionaries are pig and deer demons, fallen prostrate before his approach.

I did not raise this contrast in the lecture.  Are we still talking past each other?  Perhaps we need to cultivate our sense of Wen.

What the Thunder said

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Doubting Thomas, by Andy Moxon

Who is the third that walks always beside you?
When I count, there is only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that one the other side of you?

T. S. Eliot

I find I’m always coming back to this quotation, this question.

Robert Louis Stevenson and the South Seas

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We have been uncertain of things…Tusitala spoke out.

G. K. Chesterton

The world is so full of a number of things, I sure we should all be as happy as kings

Philosophically an optimist: My bed is like a little boat.  He had a reason for being right where he was at the moment.

  1. Imperialistic expansion into the Pacific.
  2. Literary fascination
  3. Missionary effort — The London Missionary Society.

That’s not why Stevenson was there.  It motivated the British, the Americans, the Germans to be active in the same area at that time.  Stevenson was six years in the Pacific, four years in Samoa.  He died suddenly when he was 44 years old, from a stroke.  I’m older than Stevenson now.  He accomplished so much.

“Man most interesting”.  Natives needed to move towards civilisation (Science, Cricket, Christianity).  Stevenson accepted that without indentifying natives as savages.  They were something different, “more manly ways of life”, without the falsity of western urban life, the falsity of club and college life.

It was in Samoa that the word ‘home’ first began to have a real meaning for these gypsy wanderers.

Nellie Van De Grift Sanchez

What does Stevenson find?  What does Stevenson bring?  There is no ‘Rosebud’ moment.  Stevenson could be both a horizontal nomadic writer (Pakeha) and a vertical wounded homelander writer (Maori)

I saw the rain falling and the rainbow drawn on Lammermuir…in my precipitous city.

The world was like all new painted.

A strong notion of history, starting with A Page of History to A Footnote to History, a far off land of which we know nothing.  The handful of whites have everything — the natives walk in a foreign town.  Stevenson wrote a polemical pamphlet.  We are in the thick of the age of finance; they are in a period communism, a communism of a communal culture where everything is shared.

Stevenson, an exile, (a migrant?) wrote about morality, corruption and mystical evil.  Where did he keep the bottle?

Home is the sailor, home from the sea.


The Future of Virology: Virology in the 21st Century

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Science is mostly outside my area of knowledge.  I took notes.  It was informative.

Viruses follow a three-part strategy:

  1. They package their genetic information into a particle.
  2. They plug into a cell to produce new virus particles.  A few viral genes can take over a cell.
  3. They must take down host defenses.

Viruses are a tool to dissect biological nodes and replicate.  There’s potential for technological development there that waits research.  A virologist has good job security: where there’s life there’s viruses — extremophile viruses have been discovered and have information for us about stable structures for nanotechnology.   A virologist has to know a little bit of every informational domain.

Sequencing technology is a game-changer.  As the boffins among us map out the gene sequences of viruses advantances in software and bio-informatics will be needed.

The closer study of what viruses do to us raises questions.  Are viruses the pathogens that cause the disease, or a sympton?  What’s the good stuff and what’s the bad stuff?  And what are they doing in our gut?  They need intestinal microflora to replicate.

Systems approach: study genes over an array of strands.    Information flows through networks, diseases arise when information flow is disturbed over networks.  What networks are active when you’re sick?

Public need and support drives research.  Scientists remain talking to the community.  It may be basic stuff, like how to run a laboratory.  And scientists remain talking to each other, across disciplines.  New discovery will not come out of following what’s popular trends.  Personal curiosity drives discovery, the “a-ha” moment, the “now, that’s interesting” moment.  Look for the gaps in our knowledge.

Here is Hope

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The Combined Dunedin Churches put on a well-attended event at the Dunedin Town Hall.  Even though I knew I would not enjoy the worship music, which would be jumping, I went to hear one of the speakers, Highlander Captain and All-Black Brad Thorn.

I stood for the songs.  Mostly I did not sing as they were unfamiliar to me.  I listened to this wall of sound around me.  I joined in when they sang a version of Thine Be the Glory, Risen Conquering Son and sang with gusto.  I used to have a version of this from a worship service from the London Proms.  Perhaps a more orchestral sound next time?

As I said, it was Brad Thorn that I had come to hear and consider.  He was interviewed on stage by a pastor.  The conversation steered away from the details of testimony and theology.  There was several references to the recent Highlanders game.  Don’t ask me about that, I’m a sports non-believer.  Thorn was not on the field during the game.

I picked up some notes from what the big man said.  He’s from a Mosgiel family, with a back-ground in one of the churches that faded away when the family moved to Australia.  His success in both Rugby League and Rugby Union made him independently wealthy and at the top of his game.  He wanted more from life and with some encouragement made a commitment to Christ.  This involved a noticeable change of nature to those around him as he “put on the Christ nature” (his choice of words).

For him being Christian is being professional.  I’m guessing this is a reference to his role as a professional sportsman.  He lives by the code of the game on the field, in his public life, and in his Christian life.  I wonder if this a return to the chivalric romance of muscular Christianity as was popular in the first half of the twentieth century, a masculine ethos to balance feminine religion.

The evening ended with a 30 minute address and altar call from retired Youth for Christ man and family councillor Ian Grant.  I left wondering what the evening had been for? And who for?  It all felt muddled.

Democracy, Human Rights and the Role of Law in the Asian Century

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I saw a notice for a Department of Politics open lecture and thought it worth attending.  Members of the department were addressed the European Union’s Greek-born Charge d’Affaires in New Zealand, Michalis Rokas.  I found the lecture a little dull.  The one substantial point that it made was that Human rights and values are integral to all European Union treaties.  It is important to include agreements on Human Rights between like-minded partners, as equally between the European Union and New Zealand as between other countries.

The underlying principle of the European Union is the partner nations within the Union will not go to war with each other again.  All the partners remain in communication with each other.  The European Union remains a problem-solving operation working to enhance human rights and the rule of law.  It is not always visible in the media.  It has become heavily reliant on its bureaucratic workings.  However in unmeasured ways it is quietly making a difference, and its trading partners, such as China, notice this.

This PDF from the German Institute for Human Rights includes a model human rights clause in chapter seven of the pdf.

Somebody take this man fishing!