A MOOD OF LAMENTATONS: PIQUE EAST AND WEST
If only the Chinese weren’t so terribly mediocre. Yes, now in the big cities they are increasingly more or less educated—but that makes them more or less blinkered because they have acquired from Western civilization only that which is mediocre and utilitarian in it, mechanical and repeatable—engineering and industrial production. They stand beside the West as the famulus Wagner stood beside Faustus: their learning comes from the same books as that of the Western Faustuses, but with the difference that to them the lesson-books are sufficient and they are not gnawed by any doubt, or haunted by transcendent dreams or redeeming tragic flaw.
The most terrible thing is that they have multiplied the half-educated, brainless and smug type of Western mediocrity on a vast scale, in millions and billions of uninspired clones. But no, I am wrong: the most terrible thing is that they are so successful. They have learned from the West how to use machines and money, electronics and numbers, and it becomes obvious that there are enough of them to look forward to the equally mediocre dream of becoming masters of industry or masters of their world. They have omitted from human civilization everything that is aimless, playful, aspirational, passionate or fantastic. It would not be half so bad if they would only infuse their materialistic and socially conformist lives with something of the greatness of the imagination which once lived in their ancient culture—-Lao Zi, Mo Zi, Zhuang Zi, Zen (Chan) Buddhism, the drunkenness of Li Bai reaching out to embrace the moon, or the questing spirituality of Xuan Zang or the mischieveousness of the Monkey King Sun Wukong. But of these things they only know the “correct” answers for their “Gao Kao” or college entrance exam, and they have never read the whole text of these purported classics of their literary and philosophical heritage, let alone assimilated its spirit or dreams.
As a result, they have omitted everything that was human in Western civilization and adopted its practical, technical, businesslike and utilitarian side, while leaving behind lifeless and dormant the spirituality and moribund imagination of their own tradition. Their dreams and aspirations, always with the notable exception of a problematic handful of alienated and marginal intellectuals, artists and exceptional individuals, who like the Biblical poor, “are always with us,” extend no further than the worship of the “Tsai Shen” or the flabby and mindless “God of Wealth” which enjoys a cozy niche in so many homes, or the adolescent dream of a recovered “Chinese Greatness” which is coextensive with an ever increasing bulk of material GDP or the reflexive cohesion of an unquestioned authoritarian state whose God is “stability,” namely the stability of the hold on power and position of those reposing anxiously at the top of a vast pyramid of conformity and mediocrity.
But! This pitiful caricature of a civilization is doing splendidly! GDP increases in excess of 8% per annum, and newly coined billionaires multiply exponentially! It is building technical monuments such as the Three Gorges Dam—the world’s largest, high-speed “Bullet Train” systems—the world’s longest, even Magnetic-Levitation lines,, and mounting the very heavens to orbit men and circle the moon challenging the West’s formerly exclusive technical domains. (We avert our eyes avert for the moment to ignore the hundreds of millions of migrant industrial workers underpaid, exploited, and locked into a “HuKou-less” underclass unable to enroll their children in urban schools where they work, the dangerous Gini Coefficient of income inequality setting newly minted billionaires beside dispossessed itinerant peasants, the environmental degradation of a scarred landscape and disappearing realm of “nature,” the ever-unending carnage in unsafe illegal coal-mines operated through the collusion of billionaires and corrupted Party officials, and the phantom jails into which “unauthorized petitioners” and “troublemakers” are kidnapped upon arrival in the national capital by hired thugs and shipped back to the provinces by local officials anxious to squelch embarrassing evidence of their malfeasance before it might reach the public eye and embarrass their superiors.)
But have they yet contributed any Ideal to world civilization beyond the Ideal of Quantity—the omnivorous God of More? From his former disciple and servant, this Oriental Wagner, the Faustus of the West has to date learned only the hollow echo of the “secret of success” and mediocrity. But all this takes time, it is offered in rebuttal, and the reform in China is only a mere thirty years old. The next generation—the children of cardboard and real-estate tycoons, freed from former want, will soon awaken from a wasteland of vulgar materialism, conformity, civil cowardice and spiritual vacuity and bring forth a revival of the “Spiritual East” or even a new humanist Renaissance. We devoutly wish them well in this long-awaited further evolution and spiritual renascence, though with the lingering doubt it may not arrive much before the long awaited “classless society of pure communism,” the Messiah, Mahdi or Maitreya. Alas, the continuing parallel failure in the West to realize the promise of its own ideals in the debasement and spiritual emptiness of its own rootless and “dumbed down” pretensions to “civilization,” its Post-Modern commercialism and consumer materialism, random violence, its “boob tube” culture of re-runs and 3D remakes of fifty-year-old teen-comics, gun fights, “big games,” and “reality shows” (Un!), sensationalist sex and violence, now turbocharged in the Internet age with the “mouse Potato” or SmartPhone obsessions of jaded pornography, gambling sites, mindlessly homicidal or time-filling video games and “Tweets“ coterminous with the effective attention spans of their users, all leave little cause for hope from either East or West.