An Interesting Conversation

Hi legacydaily,

Below is the conversation mentioned.

Don Chu


Monday, August 11, 2008

The Capitalist Mass

In 1935, Lin YuTang in his “My country and my people” wrote:

“They[the chinese] do not indulge in sport, which binds human beings together, and which is the essence of the English and the American social life. They play games, to be sure, but these games are characteristic of chinese individualism. Chinese games do not divide the players into two parties, as in cricket, with one team playing against the other. Teamwork is unknown.”

This account of Lin YuTang may not be the most precise, and it can be attacked in a number of ways (I believe for instance that the English had a social life before the 19th century, and sport was certainly not its essence, no more than it is now, I would guess). Anyway, what it shows is that sport is not a traditionally chinese thing, so what can explain the current olympic extravaganza ?
There are a few obvious answers: Political propaganda, nationalistic pride, want of international recognition,…etc., but there may be something deeper, more fundamental at the root of all these valid answers.

Sport is the mythology of capitalism. It embodies the values of capitalism in their purest form, which are rooted in the immanent justice that radiates from perfect competition.

The immediate rebuttal to this thesis seems to be USSR (and Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy). USSR was not capitalistic, it however invested heavily in international sport to compete with the USA. The context of the cold war, may however explain that. Besides, USSR was institutionally committed to drugs use, which is the most unsporting thing to do, sport for them was just a means, not an end.

True sport, however, and sport as the mythology of capitalism must be considered as an end, drug use may exist (and obviously does on a scale most don’t imagine), but it must remain concealed, and acknowledged only relatively exceptionally (fortunately, modern scientific means ensure the possibility of such a dissimulation, and unless a very strong and strict policy is put in place to ensure their efficiency, drug controls are relatively useless), since it must serve as a logical justification of the ultimate fairness of the capitalist logic of the market (which itself is a myth).

In this sense, the Olympics are the grand mass of capitalism. The great open question is whether China looks at it this way (which is the american way really, and to some extent, the western way, but with a much lower ideological importance than in USA, more europeans acknowledge the pervasiveness of doping in professional sport for instance), or whether its approach is more like the one from USSR.

Personally, I would tend to think that the chinese approach is unique and does not coincide with any of the existing approaches. It is not as cynical as USSR, though not as ideological as USA, the Olympics are certainly more a means for them than an end. It seems to be an opportunity for internal propaganda (and justification of the one-party system, but not along ideological lines, rather along pragmatic ones) more than anything else.

Posted by Jean-Philippe at 8:25 PM

Labels: China, Economics, Philosophy


Don said…


I would guess you are right regarding the pragmatism of the Chinese people in approaching the Olympics (and probably chiefly for internal consumption, as you noted), as in with much of everything else they approach.

However, your quote of Lin YuTang and subsequent inference, “what it shows is that sport is not a traditionally chinese thing” seems a little premature. Apart from a messy dig into the history of sports on the various continents and even into the definitions and domains of “sport” itself, perhaps a fuller sketch of Lin will be helpful and suffice in a clearer understanding of his words.

Lin YuTang’s English translations of some of the Chinese classics are more readable than the work carried out by earlier Sino-scholars, mainly (and naturally) because he was able to culturally texture his translations with his rather unique perspective (at least for his time) as a man of letters straddling the Chinese and Western world-views.

Apart from his sensitive translations of the classics, Lin was a most prolific writer of books and essays, and published several magazines in a style many would call political and social satire.
However, I hesitate in calling Lin a satirist in its fullest and militant sense, and prefer to simply note his employment of humor and irony in his writing. There is probably no greater testament to Lin’s championing the literary application of humor, than the fact that he phonetically translated the English word” Hu-mor” into the modern Chinese word “幽默” (You-Mo). That and his promotion of humorous literature won him the title of: Master of Humor, 幽默大师. And it is Lin’s use of humor, especially in the books that won him acclaim from western readers, that I think is essential for a more complete understanding of the thrust and parry of his self-expression.

In the chapter from where the above quote was taken, Lin was making a case for Chinese individualism (tongue-in-cheek irony for selfishness), and the juxtaposition and parody of commonly-held views serves to caricature western individualism/chinese selfishness/western social-mindedness/chinese self -interest/chinese community spirit etc… …

Lin employs irony within his books and between them as well. Below, extracted from “My Country and My People”, he says:

“Perhaps the most striking quality of the Chinese people is what for want of a better term, must be termed its ‘old roguery’. … An old rogue is a man who has seen a lot of life, and who is materialistic, nonchalant and sceptical of progress… At its worst, this old roguery, which is the highest product of Chinese intelligence, works against idealism and action. … It has a strange way of reducing all human activities to the level of the alimentary canal and other simple biological needs.”

and then from the even more popular “The Importance of Living”, in reference to his own writing:

“It seems in my last book, My Country and My People, the net impression of readers was that I was trying to glorify the ‘old rogue’. It is my hope that the net impression of the present one will be that I am doing my best to glorify the scamp or vagabond. I hope I shall succeed.”

And one can see echoes of Lin’s Old Rogue and Scamp in his later works on the writings of Lao Tse and Chuang Tse, the classic philosophical works of whom, of course directly influenced Lin’s old roguish scamp in the first place.

But who is to say what Lin really meant by his words?
Indeed, the 俏皮(naughty/witty) Lin YuTang provided in the preface to My Country:

“I have not tried to enter into arguments or prove my different theses… China is too big a country, and her national life has too many facets, for her not to be open to the most diverse and contradictory interpretations. And I shall always be able to assist with very convenient material anyone who wishes to hold opposite theses.”

In My Country, Lin writes in the chapter on humor,

“A humorist is often a defeatist and delights in recounting his own failures and embarrassments, and the Chinese are often sane, cool-minded defeatists.”

and ends the chapter with:

“… but I wish our people would sometimes be serious. Humor, above everything else, is ruining China. One can have too much of that silvery laughter, for it is again the laughter of the old rogue, at the touch of whose breath every flower of enthusiasm and idealism must wither and die.”

August 13, 2008 4:05 PM

Jean-Philippe said…

Hi Don,

And thank you for this thoughtful comment, I agree with you: My use of Lin YuTang was ambiguous at least, and relatively misleading. I developped my point after typing the quote, and that took me in an unexpected direction, I should have gone back to the quote and replaced it with a more appropriate one.

My point was really to say that Sport as an ideal form of competition based on fair-play, is not a chinese thing. Sport, as a physical exercise, has obviously existed in China for a very long time.
And a much better quote to illustrate this would have been the reply of LuXun to Lin YuTang, dated from December 29th, 1925, known in english as “On deferring fair-play” (and I think it’s coming from Hua Gai Ji《华盖集》):

“Mr Lin YuTang alludes to fair-play in the number 57 of “Little remarks” and says that all should be done to encourage it because it is extremely rare in China. He adds that “not beating the dog which is in the water” gives all its sense to fair-play. I don’t know english and don’t understand what this expression really implies; but if it is to say that one should “not beat a dog in the water”, then, I beg to differ(…).And putting some limits is necessary. The equity that we display depends on the quality of the opponent. No matter how did he fall into the water, he must be helped if he is a man, ignored if he is a dog, and beaten if he’s a nasty dog. Briefly, care for ours and discard the others.”

I believe this passage (which is actually a collage of two passages separated by a substantial discussion more focussed on the chinese situation in 1925) illustrates something very significant about the difference between chinese pragmatism and western idealism, and curioulsy Lin YuTang here tends to side with idealism, as is also evident from your last quote.

But LuXun reply is quite efficient: The constant mean, the unwobbling pivot (as Ezra Pound puts it), the 中庸(zhong yong) is not constant in an absolute sense, its only constancy is to invariably be in the middle, but this one is obviously relative to the situation.

What LuXun says, is that if fair-play is this hypostatized absolute equity, this blind respect of some rules written in stone and that are to apply regardless of the circumstances, China has no use for that.

August 14, 2008 10:01 AM

Don said…

Hi Jean-Philippe,

Sport, with all its related drama has held my country in thrall these last few days… You see, my small island nation has just won our only second Olympic medal ever, with the last and first one coming a long 48 years ago in 1960. Yes, our women’s table-tennis heroines fought off the tenacious Koreans to face-off mighty China in the team event finals.

An entire nation rejoicing over a single medal seems silly and we will probably not reach Michael Phelps’ personal Olympic medal tally for the next 100 years. But though the eventual color of the medal turned out not to be golden, I reckon for my country-men, the shine of this day shall last for quite some time…

… …

Regarding the Lin YuTang quote from your original post, I believe you already felt the “dodgy-ness” of his words when you remarked on its seeming imprecision and that it may be “attacked”. Any such “attack” however, will not be very useful and merely be striking at the illusory, since Lin was simply, exaggerating…

Heh, you have chosen one of Lu Xun’s more contentious essays containing a most colorful metaphor.

I am unsure how you came to the conclusion from the quoted passages from Lu Xun, that there is, “something very significant about the difference between chinese pragmatism and western idealism”. I am ignorant of the “Western Idealism vs Chinese Pragmatism” polemic and cautiously question the placing of Lin YuTang and Lu Xun (or anyone else, for that matter) squarely into these seemingly “opposing” camps.

May I ask what are “Western Idealism” and “Chinese Pragmatism” actually?
Who practices “Western Idealism” anyway?

August 18, 2008 2:39 AM

Jean-Philippe said…

May I ask what are “Western Idealism” and “Chinese Pragmatism” actually?
Who practices “Western Idealism” anyway?

You certainly may, I must warn you however, that my answer will be a mere outline of what it should be. These questions are very profound and can hardly be discussed in enough details, even less so in a single post.

First, I wish to precise that I did not intend to place either Lin YuTang or LuXun squarely into any position, I merely used some of their texts to illustrate a difference (rather than an opposition, since I want to emphasize that these different approaches are actually complementary) between the western and the chinese view of the world.

Western idealism arguably took a clear shape with the greek philosophers and mostly Plato, by means of his doctrine of Forms. This tradition was continued by Plotinus, who, in turn, was incorporated in Christianity. So really, anybody who relates to the judeo-christian view of the world (consciously or not), somehow relates to this western idealism in various degrees, and practise it (without presuming that all such practises are identical, they are not and they can even be conflicting). This tradition was then followed or opposed (which is just another way to acknowledge it) by various western philosophers.

In contrast, chinese philosophy never really developped a well-articulated theory of ideal forms (before the 20th century); concepts in chinese philosophy certainly exist, but they are not reified into precise descriptions, they seem to obey an endless dynamics that render them formless (isn’t the Dao such?).
One can hardly find commandments of the christian types in chinese philosophy, Good and Evil, if they are acknolwedged seem to be much more a matter of circumstances rather than of divine decrees. The closest chinese philosophy has come to western idealism may be with Mo Zi, but his importance, in terms of influence to chinese thought, is limited.
This comparison is actually developped in much more details in the works of Francois Jullien. Even though, his ideas are very controversed, I agree with them in several ways.

August 18, 2008 8:31 AM

Don said…

Thank you for your outline. Indeed, often-times it is only the simple idea or question which can reveal the tyrannical complexity of certain conceptual schemes, and can only be resolved by placing hand over mouth and to simply point.

I am glad to hear that you regard Lin and Lu to have different yet complementary approaches. Now let’s see whether we can head off what seems to be a “difference between the western and the chinese view of the world” and dissolve this misunderstood problem before it arises.

You said of practitioners of Western idealism, they “somehow relates to this western idealism in various degrees, and practise it (without presuming that all such practises are identical, they are not and they can even be conflicting).”
Recalling your earlier use of the hypostasis operation (applied to fair-play as an absolute term/Lu Xun), applying it here seems to show that Western idealism exists not as an absolute but rather in “various degrees”, as relational truth values presumably predicated in accordance to localized context.

Everyone can be pragmatic and/or idealistic (as expressed in ordinary language).
Pragmat-ISM and Ideal-ISM (with the requisite capitalization) however, are different animals, and unfortunately, our discussion here is with these shape-shifting creatures in mind.
Pragmatism can hardly be restricted to only the Chinese, just as Idealism cannot be said to be a wholly Western idea; and both come in a Baskin-Robbins multitude of flavors.

For instance, the Pragmatism philosophy of Emerson, James, Peirce et al holds that the meaning and truth of any idea is a function of its practical outcome or usefulness. These American Pragmatists reject absolutes and embrace fallibility, the idea that one can never be absolutely sure of anything and that claims must always be subject to revision.
Surely this turns classical epistemology with its (rather quaint) JTB/justified-true-belief system of knowledge on its head.
How close the American pragmatists mirror the Chinese pragmatists I know not, but note that it has been said that it was American pragmatism (in both ordinary and -ism meaning) that won the wild west and etched forever the image of the rugged tough-talking American cowboy.

You have noted the formlessness of chinese philosophy. And it is the western focus on the formlessness of chinese (and most eastern) philosophy which naturally leads to setting up a narrow duality between it and the Western/Platonic theory of Forms.

However, the core of these chinese/eastern philosophies rests not on a single leg of “formlessness” but coalescence between form and formlessness to yield a third, in-between state or if you like, the original state.
The chinese concept of Tao (Dao), the Ch’an (Zen) of chinese Buddhism, samadhi of Hinduism all relate to cultivating this non-dualistic in-between/original state, and ultimately to allow for prajna/perfect wisdom (I’m saying this with a straight face) to surface.
This concept does not lend itself to easy comprehension or even clear explanation (a recursive impossibility actually!) and regrettably, misunderstandings persists.

But there have been parallels between this eastern form/formlessness and western thought, notably:
Kant’s theory of imagination through which objective experience and subjective interpretation interacts dynamically in a limit process to arrive at perception.
Husserl performing phenomenological reduction in order to apprehend pure cognition.
Heidegger’s Dasein, burdened with its “context of equipment” and struggling towards “being-in-the-world”.

Happy am I that you mentioned Mo Zi… possibly the most overlooked of chinese historical thinkers.
Yes, Mo Zi’s universal pacifism resonates strongly with western idealism but don’t forget, his pacifist ideals are firmly girded upon a robust siege tower of pragmatic militancy. Indeed Mo Zi may well be the highest embodiment of the form/formless, pragmatic idealism.
His influence has been played down but may be far more pervasive and unconscious than history credited him for. But the poor chap didn’t stand a chance:
between the sublimity of Lao Zi, the polished-ness of Confucius, the free-ranging prose of Zhuang Zi and the tight codified tenets of Sun Zi; Mo Zi’s rather coarse vernacular probably did not read well generations after the immediacy of the tumultuous Warring States Period. Ruthless persecution by the Legalists of the newly-minted unified Qin Empire also ensured eradication of what must had been highly undesirable, self-strengthening militant teachings.


Your post was regarding sport, fair-play, chinese pragmatism and western idealism. I apologize that my comments seem to relate very little to your key concerns and am of half a mind to delete every word I’ve written. Apparently, I’ve learnt little from Wittgenstein’s lesson on language-games and cognitive relativism.

Let me try again:
I like sport and try to play my favorite ones as much as I can, in as fair-minded a manner as it allows.
I don’t know much about -isms and try to avoid them as far as possible.

August 19, 2008 12:11 AM

Jean-Philippe said…

Hi Don,

Yes, of course, some western thinkers have approached the traditional eastern way of thinking and relating to the world, and I could not agree more with your mention of Husserl and Heidegger, phenomenology and existentialism are indeed the most un-idealistic, Sartre is even going as far as denying the essence, this stronghold of idealism, but still, you used the word “struggle” in relation to Heidegger, and I think it’s a good word, but would you use it to describe any Chinese philosophy?
Personally I would not, because I believe that even in those existentialist thinkers we can see some unease in being in the world they just acknowledged: Camus even wondered whether this life is worth living. The sense of harmony that underlines all Chinese philosophy is absent, the pragmatism is still perceived as an awkward solution. Where the Westerner struggles, the Chinese will just let events run their natural course, for a Chinese thinker, to stop struggling is more adequate than to struggle.

What I mean by differentiating between Chinese thought and Western thought is that the difference is not only a matter of style, there is a real difference in approaching reality from two distinct perspectives and that leads to two very different outcomes (and most remarkably and interestingly, to some striking similarities in the domain of ethics for instance). That being said, these two different ways to look at the world can enrich each others, and they already do. But they don’t by simply “translating” or “rationalising” Chinese traditional thinkers, in the way Feng YouLan did. The radicality of the difference must first be acknowledged and then, a constructive dialogue may take place.
An important aspect of this difference is in the methodology to elucidate the world, while the western paradigm has been reductionism (analysis+synthesis), the Chinese methodology uses a more global approach , this is particularly apparent in medicine. Again, I don’t mean that the reductionist approach is unknown in traditional China, but simply that it did not play the prominent role it did in codifying all intellectual endeavour in the West.
Actually, fractal geometry that I am using in this blog to look at financial variations, is a methodology that merges the Western and the Chinese approaches.
But valuable results from a synthesis of the two traditions are not to be limited to sciences, and I believe that Chinese tradition has a great potential to contribute on and clarify some concepts, with regard to our understanding of democracy (I am not talking about Asian Values rhetoric here, with which I disagree, in agreement with the criticisms of Amartya Sen) . An understanding that, in the West, suffers from idealism (while democracy is much more a practise than an ideal). I am interested in some contemporary philosophers on this matter, though I haven’t had a chance yet to read their works in detail, Chung Ying Cheng’s “C Theory” seems promising, but I think that it is not translated yet, and my level of Chinese is not sufficient to read it. Francois Jullien is also exploring this direction (especially in his next book to come soon, I guess).


And I also like sport, I like practicing sport actually, much more than watching it on TV.
And I much prefer practicing them in a non-competitive spirit. Even when the sport itself entails competition (in tennis for instance), I try to focus more on my game than on the other’s or on the score (that is if we count at all). So fair-play does not really enter the picture, cheating against myself does not make a lot of sense.
I also have some trouble cheering for my country. Being a European does not help, we have some historical circumstances that make nationalistic enthusiasm difficult, at least I feel so (though I am perfectly aware that some Europeans are very fond of cheering at drug-addicts running up and down a patch of grass).
On a lighter note, did you know that Singapore is the country that rewards the most for a gold medal? 500,000 Euros. I don’t know the price for a silver though.
Not sure how this fits with Coubertin’s view of amateurism in sport. But clearly, modern Olympics (and not only Beijing) are much closer to 1936 Berlin propaganda than to anything Coubertin envisioned.
Fair-play in all that, appears to me as an empty ideal, totally disconnected from the existing reality. And one has to seriously commit himself to a fundamental form of idealism to think that fair-play has anything to do with what the WallStreet Journal fittingly reduced to a “competition for national bragging rights”.

August 19, 2008 9:13 AM

Don said…

It has been a long week in the trading trenches, with the markets showing more false starts and limp withdrawals than within the Olympic stadiums. Diligent students of the Doctrine of the Mean would have profited nicely with their mean-reverting methodologies. ZiSi would approve…

Gratifying to note your reading of the difference between western and chinese existentialist thinking and I agree. My choice of words in describing eastern consciousness was not a casual selection; the use of “coalescence” and “to allow… to surface” (though hugely inadequate) was intended for an unspoken contrast with the “to arrive at”, “to apprehend” and “struggling towards” of the western existentialists. That though the two may have a common intention, there remains a distinction between the underlying spirits.

This unease or dread/anxiety articulated by the western existentialists has a long tradition, having been given voice earlier by Kierkegaard (and here a salute to Kierkegaard’s masterful crafting of irony within the content, form and structure underlining his entire corpus of works is due). Dread arises from the experiential movement between freedom and responsibility, and consequently requires a leap to faith as the only reconciliation in the face of the interdependent limits placed onto each other by freedom (free will) and responsibility (values).
Following this line, one can probably trace the western concept of angst back to the Desert Fathers, the immense Augustine (his predestination tensioned against irresistible grace, and transmission of guilt), and to the biblical writings themselves, which informs the entire Judeo-Christian worldview. For indeed, if we be but “sojourners (aliens)… our days on this earth are as a shadow” (1Chr 29:15); then just how much at ease do we expect our shadowy lives to be?

And once again, I shall turn to the other hand (and there shall be as many as the thousand-armed Kwan Yin may possess) and say that the myth of the Chinese pragmatic, who never struggles, dresses in long flowing robes, lives in a simple bamboo hut, goes off “floating amongst mountains, playing with water”, comes back home and happily finds his remaining possessions and worries stolen, is just that, a myth. For the mass of Chinese people, like men everywhere else, through history have also been living lives of quiet desperation.

And it is only individuals, western or eastern, who have tried to penetrate the veil of Maya and grasp reality for themselves.

In the west, this can probably be more evidently seen in literature than existential discourses; Proust – drinking tea and experiencing an expansion of self, Whitman – singing of the universal electric, Thoreau – enveloped in the music of the spheres, Borges – in the all-encompassing Aleph, in the one-word poem which is itself an entire palace-city, and of course his Babelian Library, containing all books and all anti-books, all worlds and non-worlds.


I have to say that in our brief discussion on western/chinese thinking, pragmatic/idealistic thinking, we are largely in agreement. What is interesting is that these themes seem to also have been mirrored in the ways we approached this discussion. I believed you framed the themes within classic dialecticism in order to draw out the potential for western/chinese, pragmatic/idealistic thinking to complement and enrich the other. I confess that from the start, I intended for an inclusive, non-dualistic approach to engaging the discussion (never realizing the method to reference the theme so pointedly) as it develops.

What you said about using fractal geometry to merge the western and chinese approaches stands out to me.
Many years ago, in my initial flush of excitement upon first contact with complex theory, I extended the structure framing the Determinism/Randomness dichotomy to the Judeo/Christian doctrine of Predestination/Free Will. I attempted to show that individual human actions/choices bifurcate into steady states of (largely normal and trivial) expected outcomes, which are fractal and scale indeterminably. Then I reduced the set of human actions into the general and most crucial (indeed raison d’etre) case: the free-willing decision to accept or reject Christ, leading to the final (and eternal) states of Heaven/Hell.
Heh, the heady mix of youthful passion and ecclesiastical yearnings…

More recently, I find myself thinking about the fractal nature of cultural/national/ethnic identities (through the use of language as both the lexicon for meaning as well as for expression), and how much this has facilitated, foundered, or biased inter-grouping exchanges. This invariably calls for consideration of man in his singular form (private language, or not at all?), man in his community (village, ethnic, nation, region, religious – public languages, but what’s the correspondence?), man in his entirety (no languages here, just divine consciousness, or if we evolved/devolved into Borgs, or perhaps after 10,000 years of Esperanto).
And we have not even considered man across time: can we have a complete cognitive grasp of our language /cultural/national/ethnic identity from an earlier time? Does human nature scale?

A fractal magnifying glass will be useful in examining shared principles (if any) between groups and time, without sliding into the domain of that bastard-child from anthropology, cultural relativism.

August 22, 2008 8:47 PM

Don said…

Of course, when I find myself thinking like that, a ghost will knock me on the head and say: Come on, that of which you cannot speak, leave to silence.

Its time to get to the tennis wall, and hit some backhands…

August 22, 2008 9:06 PM

Jean-Philippe said…

And once again, I shall turn to the other hand (and there shall be as many as the thousand-armed Kwan Yin may possess) and say that the myth of the Chinese pragmatic, who never struggles, dresses in long flowing robes, lives in a simple bamboo hut, goes off “floating amongst mountains, playing with water”, comes back home and happily finds his remaining possessions and worries stolen, is just that, a myth. For the mass of Chinese people, like men everywhere else, through history have also been living lives of quiet desperation.

Absolutely. Suffering, despair, are exactly the same for chineses and for westerners, but the way one relates to this common human condition does differ, not only between the two traditions, but between each individuals, the contrast between traditions just adds a layer of rationalization to these differences.
And it is because we all relate to the same reality and the same human condition that there is a possibility of constructive dialogue between traditions and individuals.

As for your thoughts about scaling, it’s indeed a very old idea. Mandelbrot himself gives some literary references such as William Blake or Jonathan Swift. One can also think of the intrecated designs of the Kells book or of muslim arts. It, no doubt, has relevance to many domains of thought, as one of the most sophisticated, yet simple enough (and therefore workable), form of infinity.
The big question however is how precisely do fractals constitute attractors of real phenomena? Or, in other words, are fractals the adequate mathematical object to describe a dynamic order inherent to the fabric of reality? Or, is ergodic theory the new metaphysics?
I am actually looking at this problematic right now (albeit from a very humble point of view, and very far from considering the above directly), which is the cause of my relative inactivity on this site, in the last few days.

August 29, 2008 9:06 AM

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