Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Six Dynasties blogging: Ancient patterns repeat themselves

Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well isolates the universal today. Finding commonalities between 6th century Chinese literati essay writing and the contemporary blogging phenomenon.

I would gather that satirists and parodists have been having their heads lopped off since the invention of writing and even before then more reliably by passing on local gossip.

U Ponya, Burma's "Shakespeare" and a favorite of the then Burmese king, was beheaded by a subordinate elite before the king even had a chance to learn about it. China has critical intellectual traditions going back even further. Alan Baumler writes:

"One of the things I have been doing for fun this summer is reading Family Instructions for the Yen clan 顏氏家訓by Yen Chih-t’ui 顏之推 (T’eng Ssu-Yu trans Leiden 1968) Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 C.E.) was a literatus and court official under the Liang dynasty the Northern Ch’i, the Northern Chou and the Sui. He wrote extensively on religion, etymology, phonology etc."

"He was also apparently a blogger, or at least that is what I gather from reading the section in the Family Instructions entitled 'On Essays':"

"As for writing essays to mold your own nature and spirit or to give others unembarrassed advice, if you penetrate to the interesting part, it is also a pleasure. If you have leisure after your other activities you may practice essay writing."

"Being able to write good essays does not necessarily bode well for your career. He points out that 'many men of letters have suffered from a light (mind) and a sharp (tongue).' He then lists a litany of famous essayists who came to bad ends, including Ch’u Yuan who ended up drowning himself when the king disregarded his words, Li Ling, a general who was captured by barbarians, Feng Ching-t’ung who was not promoted and then was dismissed because of his unstable personality and Wu Chih who calumniated and alienated his fellow countrymen. Perhaps most interesting was Tso Ssu who, in order to produce good poetry had his house and garden furnished at every turn with tables and materials for writing so that he could write down his ideas whenever they occurred to him. (obviously he needed wi-fi in the house) When Tso Ssu finished his fu poem describing the capitals of the Three Kingdoms so many people wanted to copy it that there was a shortage of paper in Loyang. (sort of an early version of a server overload.)"

"While there are some essay-writers who have come out well, both in a career sense and in a moral sense most of them come out badly."

". . . a body of essays exhibits the writers interests, develops his nature, and makes him proud and negligent of control as well as determined and aggressive."

"The main problem is that they seem to get wrapped up in their own wonderfulness."

[The process of properly socialized, peer-refereed journal publishing also puts a nice limit to the ideas they disgorge, spew, issue forth, disseminate (I seem not to be able to find a suitable verb) into the public domain, a journal article makes them think more before writing than a blog does, still some areas of academic discourse that are still caught in stone age practices, could do with immediate feedback from other more developed areas to hasten their development]

"A proper expression of one fact or a clever construction of one sentence make their spirits fly to the nine skies, and their pride towers over (the other writers) of a thousand years. They read aloud again and again for their own enjoyment, forgetting other persons nearby. Moreover, as a grain of sand of a pebble may hurt a person more than a sword or spear, their satirical remarks about other persons may spread faster than a storm."

["They read aloud again and again for their own enjoyment, forgetting other persons nearby" don't they usually do this silently as they edit and perfect their writing? People voluntarily choose to read them, I find the reverse where people are hoarding all their ideas because they think that someone is going to steal them worse, when ideas pass into the public domain more freely it's like a feast where everyone competes to spend the most and in the end we have more knowledge]

"Some of them in fact get so tied up in themselves they loose all touch with reality. Specifically, they can’t tell if they are writing nonsense or not."

[No doubt a problem with disenfranchised, disgraced Chinese officials banished to the provinces like you find in Heng Leng Meng (?) [Dream of Red Mansions], somebody always has to pay for the truth I guess, still I underlined three times that terrible part at the beginning of Heng Leng Meng where all those decent people get abused by the gangster like immoral son of the rich family, it's prototypical familism of the sort you see over and over again in Asia, Korea, Burma, Thailand, etc., people getting away with crime because of their influential parents, sons of MPs who shoot policemen, sons of military generals who get away with assorted crimes that never make it to news for instance, but to bring this sort of thing up makes you a culturally insensitive area studies specialist, I suppose, must behave as an ambassador, diplomat as well, does living in the field, so to speak, of your area studies disqualify you from further work in the area because you have seen, had, experienced too great a dose of the truth? , when I was in grad school at Stanford the university actually punished this guy who blew the whistle on some sordid government sponsored abortion thing, can't remember the details, but I do remember that the gradudate student felt his moral obligation outweighed everything else]

"In this world I have seen many people without the slightest literary talent who consider themselves elegant, flowery stylists, while spreading their awkward and stupid writings. . .Recently in Ping-chou an aristocratic scholar liked to compose ridiculous poems, challenging Hsing, Wei, and other eminent writers. All of them mocked and falsely praised him; but he was so excited that he prepared feasts to entertain those with literary reputations. His wife, an intelligent woman, admonished him against (this folly) even with tears. The gentleman said with a sigh, 'Even my wife cannot appreciate my talents; how can I expect much from strangers?'"

"Yen also includes various small tips about writing. One should avoid the use of the phrase 敬同 -respectfully echoed (indeed). One should also beware of misusing literary allusions. This is more tricky than you might think, since “the miscellaneous tales of the many schools of philosophy are occasionally different, and their works have usually been lost or unavailable.” He then lists a series of little errors he has found in the writings of others. Needless to say he thinks these errors of his opponents are worth being preserved for the next thousand and a half years, and so he includes them, supposedly as a form of instruction, but I think just as a bit of pettiness."

"It really is a fun book."

[From reading Chinese history like the Cambridge History Ming volume, I get the sense that there has been over hundreds of years, thousands of Chinese intellectuals willing to die for the truth (the West's Socrates drinking his hemlock X 1000) this I don't find flippant or "petty", It seems that the main point is that unrestricted discourse that traditions of essay writing or blogging bring on, leads to chaos, intellectual and social, like American politics nowadays, so partisan and fragmented, probably exacerbated and amplified by blogging, maybe there is some wisdom to current Chinese government censorship, still a hundred years from now the blogs will probably be better and more accurate historical sources than official press releases]

[BTW Found this interesting blog entry as it was published with the New Google Sidebar that tracks your activities and predictively feeds you stuff you're interested in]