Sunday, 13 April 2014

Lessons of 8 Days Teaching Greeks in China

Worshipping Ancestor General Yue Fei
Day 1. The People of Hangzhou City and its excellent Zhejiang University are warm, kind and funny. We were brilliantly hosted throughout by Zhiang Bobo (aka ‘Bob’) who has just won a national prize for his translation of Plato’s Philebus into Chinese and is about to embark on the first substantial Chinese commentary on Plato’s Republic book I. We arrived in the middle of the annual festival of the dead and were considerately whisked off in a taxi to honour the spirit of General Yue Fei, Tartar-repeller extraordinary (1103-42 CE).

Don't mention the Tiananmen Tanks
Day 2. Under no circumstances EVER mention the Tiananmen Square incident of June 3-4 1989. A journalist on a newspaper in Hangzhou told me that although nobody had ever made this prohibition explicit, it was universally understood. She remembered her mother picking her up from school early that day as the government implemented a nationwide curfew. Since the Great Firewall of China cuts off most of the people from information not approved by the government, most young people have no idea what the so-called ‘counter-revolutionary riot’ actually involved.

Aristotelian Ethics; Platonic Censorship?
Day 3. Many educated people trust their government implicitly. They are impressed by what they call the current ‘economic miracle’ and believe they have the government to thank for it. Some young ones, studying ancient Greek philosophy, walked out of my Ethics lecture when I praised the deliberation skills required of ordinary Athenian citizens when serving on the democratic Council. A senior philosopher made a detailed case for the continuing need for Censorship on the lines of the rule of the Guardians in Plato's Republic on the ground that most people 'do not have the ability to understand complex issues.'

Bob, Host and Plato Scholar, with Mannequins in the Tea Museum
Day 4. The smog is almost unbelievable. The sky is never blue (top image has clearly been photo- shopped) but always an opaque grey haze. You can never see the stars at night. When I lectured on the connections between navigation by the stars and the origins of Greek rational science, there was much cynical laughter.

Free for Citizens who Swipe Identity Cards
Day 5. Chinese people operate under a degree of surveillance which I would find absolutely intolerable. You can’t buy a ticket to ride on a domestic Intercity train without having your identity recorded. You can’t move residence and employment between cities without applying for and receiving permission. You can’t even take a short ride on one of the free public bikes [a system Boris Johnson did NOT invent] without swiping your identity card. 

Day 6. The one-child policy is deeply sexist. It's not just that there are visibly more little boys than girls. Women may only bear one child; men can have serial babies with different women provided each one has not given birth before. If a woman wants to have more than one, she needs to move to Shanghai, which has an aging population so its officials turn a blind eye to mothers-of-more-than-one. But it may take her five years to get permission to move to Shanghai.

Day 7. The Chinese love the myth of Circe turning Odysseus’ men into swine.
Pig-Man and Circe: Top of Chinese Greek Classical Pops
I think this may have something to do with the Chinese calendar, according to which those born in the year of the pig are regarded as  happy and successful. By far my most enthusiastic audience response occurred when I discussed Plutarch’s dialogue Gryllus, in which one of Odysseus’ men, in porcine form and called ‘Grunter’ (which is what 'Gryllus' means), explains why pigs are morally and politically superior to human beings. 

Jiaoran discovering Enlightenment via Tea
Enlightenment via Beer
Day 8. Tea is, for Chinese scholars, the certain way to Philosophical Enlightenment. This was first discovered by the Buddhist monk Jiaoran. His first cup awakened him from worldly illusions; the second  offered catharsis to his spirit; the third cup led to enlightenment and  freedom from mental suffering very like the Greek Stoic-Epicurean ideal of ataraxia (‘no-hassles’). I admit that I tried this and got nowhere, so located three cups of excellent Rice Beer in the depicted bottle instead.  Cultural Relativism has its limits.

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