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Posted by eleanor

On written language

The stunning Zhang Yimou flick "Hero" tracks an assassin's plans to take revenge upon the would-be conqueror of China and parts of Asia. But -- spoiler alert -- Jet Li's character instead is convinced to spare the king for the good of the continent.

The argument goes like this: "The people have suffered years of warfare. Only the King of Qin can stop the chaos by uniting all under Heaven."

"He asked me to abandon the assassination for the greater good of all. He said, one person's suffering is nothing compared to the suffering of many. The rivalry of [the kingdoms of] Zhao and Qin is trivial compared to the greater cause."

The 3rd century B.C., it sez here, "was a time of endless brutal wars and much hardship and suffering.... The King of Qin (Qinshihuang) was most ruthless and ambitious of all. Historically chronicled as a brutal tyrant, the Qinshihuang was determined to conquer and control all of the states."

Can there be a just war? "Hero" suggests that there can (from the modern Chinese viewpoint, anyway), though the ends justify the means.

"Political power, generally conceived as the power of constraint and command, was seen in China as the principle that gave life and order, even if this conception did not exclude recourse to force and brutal interventions," notes French historian Jacques Gernet in his monumental work, "A History of Chinese Civilization." (My translated copy is in two volumes, amended, corrected, and published in 2002.) "But constraint is always accompanied in China by the idea of moral correction. It would be a mistake to see in the insistence laid on the regulation of morals only a pretext, a sort of alibi for a tyrannical regime; it is in fact the expression of a privileged mode of political action which has lasted down to our day. Thus we should only be deceiving ourselves if we thought that we had torn away the mask from a power that was simply autocratic."

(I did up look up author Jacques Gernet in watershed academic Edward Said's "Orientalism," an endless and cantankerous overview of offensive Western stereotypes of the East. Gernet, although a force in sino-studies for some four decades, was not listed in Said's index at all. That's a good sign, I think. It's always possible that the indexer missed Gernet's name, but frankly, it will have to do because I'm not ever rereading Said ever again. "Orientalism" is an important work, a ground-breaking work, but also a repetitive and not terribly well-written book.)

Gernet continues: "This remark leads us on to the dangerous ground of the general characteristics of Chinese thought. [...] China does not know the transcendent truths, the idea of good in itself, the notion of property in the strict sense of the term. She [sic] does not like the exclusion of opposition, the idea of the absolute, the positive distinction between mind and matter; she prefers the notions of complementarity, of circulation, influx, of action at a distance, of a model, and the idea of order as an organic totality.... for Chinese thought, the order of beings and of the world is best translated by systems of variable, dynamic symbols. Her logic does not proceed from an analysis of language. It is based on the handling of signs with opposing and complementary values. Perhaps Chinese writing is not unconnected with these deep-rooted tendencies which have ended by giving a privileged position to the written sign at the expense of the spoken word."

And then Gernet looks at the King of Qin (or Ch'in) and written language.

"There are close links between writing and civilization. Without this means of recording and transmitting facts and ideas, which gives man a hold over space and time, the great civilizations would not have been able to develop. But the sort of writing used has had profound effects on the general orientation of these civilizations. Chinese writing enables us better than any other to appreciate this very important fact. It provides the only example of writing totally original in its principle -- every sign corresponds as a rule to a semantic unit -- and consequently extremely complex, which has nevertheless served as means of expression to such a large part of humanity."

Now we get to the movie: The king forced his many subjects to learn to communicate with each other -- his way. "After the unification of the script imposed by the Ch'in in the Chinese lands at the end of the 3rd century B.C., this writing became one of the most effective instruments of political unification.... Chinese writing became a sort of universal means of expression in every part of Asia subject to Chinese civilization or influence.... Written Chinese remained the cultural and administrative language of Vietnam until the French conquest and that of Korea down to the Japanese annexation, just as it had been a part of Japan during the centuries when the influence of China was preponderant in that country. Thus there exists a whole literature in Chinese whose creators -- poets, historians, novelists, philologians, and philosophers -- were not Chinese at all, but Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese. It is consequently legitimate to say that in East Asia there was a real community of civilization characterized by use of the Chinese script."

So, was this Qin conquest good or bad? We have no answer, because we cannot know a different future. We can only marvel at what written language has done, and wonder at what might have been.