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.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Behind the Great Firewall of China

Edith is behind the Great Firewall of China and can't post a blog, a Facebook comment, or even tweet. Even text messages are proving susceptible to disappearance. Perhaps it's the smog.

But she is enjoying some ancestor worship and the exceptional hospitality of the philosophers of Hangzhou, and will be back in time to blog about it next weekend.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Making Alexander the Great look Like a Wimp



The news is riddled with heads of state whose power has gone to their heads. What with al-Assad’s helicopters dropping five barrel bombs on Aleppo for every rebel shell, Putin invading Ukraine, Erdogan trying to ban Twitter in Turkey, and the Egyptian ruling militiamen’s judge passing death sentences on 529 people simultaneously, we aren’t lacking candidates for the title of ‘most ruthless tyrant’ in the 21st century.


Emperor Wu of Han
Time for a fast exit—I’m off to China, to lecture at Zhejiang University. I may not be able to post a blog next weekend. But a preparatory peep into Chinese antiquity has revealed that today, 29 March, is the 2,100th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest emperors in world history, Wu of Han.


He was born in 156 BC, at about the time when Macedonian strongmen were beginning to give way to Roman imperialism. But Wu makes men like Alexander the Great (let alone Julius Caesar) look a bit of a patsy.  ‘Wu’ means ‘warlike’. He was a military genius whose cavalry vastly expanded the borders of China by ‘annexing’ parts of what are now Vietnam, Korea and Kyrgyzstan.  

Horse Statue dated to Cavalryman Wu's reign
He announced that Confucianism was the state religion and killed tens of thousands. On the plus side he opened an Imperial Music School. True to the form of anyone allowed to retain power for more than five or six years, he developed weirdness and paranoia.  

"My hat's bigger than yours"
He also reigned for no fewer than 54 years, a length of time unparalleled by any Roman Emperor. So he could be very strange for a very long time. He surrounded himself with magicians and asked them to come up with a pill which would make him immortal. When they disappointed him, he had them executed. He accused his 'barren' wife of witchcraft and had her lady attendants burned to death. 

Wu went on expensive imperial tours with a vast entourage and emptied the national treasury. He 'suppressed' several peasant revolts. He had psychotic delusions in which little puppet-figures beat him with sticks; they convinced him that everyone wanted to assassinate him. He drove both his empress and his oldest son to suicide (this is more Tyrants of Thebes in Tragedy than Alexander or Caesar).


So how have I got into my sixth decade without being told that my rather suspect fascination with crazy dictators, at least with dead ones safely confined to history books, could be far better fed by the Han dynasty than anything the Mediterranean has to offer?  Overjoyed at discovering Wu, and attempting to avoid TV exposure to the megalomaniacs taking over the contemporary world, I tried to order these two items from various online outlets. The first costs £180 and the other is ‘temporarily unavailable’. Can any of you out there lend me a copy of either to watch before next Friday? Please?


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Are Modern Theatre Audiences too Respectful?



Ancient Audiences were inter-active

Twenty years ago I was thrown out of a performance at the English National Opera of an opera by John Buller based on Euripides’ Bacchae. An aesthete sitting in front of us had complained to the bouncers because my escort, no classicist, whispered occasional questions to me, such as ‘Why is Teiresias wearing coconuts?’ The expulsion was poignant because, unbeknownst to the complainant and the bouncer, I had been a consultant on the show. I had only got to sit amongst the most refined opera aficionados, in expensive seats, as a reward for writing the programme essay.

Euripides had to cope with more than tweets
I explained to our accuser that in Euripides’ theatre, the democratic audience (who had not paid ludicrous sums for the right to attend) felt entitled to comment noisily and get bad performers and dramas driven from the stage: really great productions received praise because they had managed, unusually, to spellbind the audience into silence. Unfortunately my line of argument didn’t work and in lieu of the second half I ended up explaining the coconuts in the pub.

Fast-forward two decades to an almost empty theatre at a production of the disastrous musical Stephen Ward, imminently closing, about the Profumo affair. I bought myself a ticket because my children’s great-grandfather (on their father’s side, I hasten to reassure you) was Percy Murray, the owner of the sleazy nightclub at which the main players (Keeler, Ward etc) met one another. Much of Act I is set in this legendary knocking shop, and my children’s great-grand-dad even gets to sing! What an honour! To have a role written for my in-laws by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself!

Advert for my grandpa-in-law's infamous nightclub
Sitting at least five seats from anyone else, dazed by the awfulness of the show, I made my reactions available to my tiny Twitter following. The next day I received in response a stream of outraged tweets from one of the actors, who found it astonishing that I should think it okay to sabotage the creation of Art by tweeting at a live performance. His grounds were that it was bad manners, could disturb other spectators (possibly, but nobody was sitting near me) and was disrespectful to the actors. 

Murray's club, rather cleaned up, in Lloyd Webber's Show
How, exactly? I have learned to ignore all the students who live tweet my lectures, regardless of whether their views are positive or critical. That is their right. Now that Higher Education is a commercial transaction, they are paying vast fees, as we all have to pay small fortunes to attend London musicals. Call me a boorish groundling if you will, but shouldn’t the performers of both lectures and musicals, selling their products, have to earn their customers’ respect?  I would be interested to hear your opinion.
My sister-in-law's signed copy of Keeler memoir: 'It was wonderful working for your Grandfather--it was a great show'