“A breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that pops into his head is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.” – The Elements of Style
Anything I can do AI can do better. Is this the writing on the wall? Sincerest apologies to Misters Strunk Jr. and Wittgenstein for the above and below but on Sunday, the day of my week usually devoted to the writing and posting of posts, I was sitting in silence in a syncretic Taoist temple on Lion's Head Mountain – or rather, in the Howard Johnson-like hotel hanging off the cliff in front of the temple – researching the most recent reported cases of police violence in France while drinking delicious cup after delicious cup of burdock tea and listening to the temple’s monks chant mantras and bang out Yang tones on sacred metal bowls and wooden Muyu blocks.
Just as the Tao that can be named is not, they say, the real Tao, these chants were not the real chants, they were pre-recorded, looping continuously dawn through dusk from loudspeakers tucked under the hotel’s swallowtail temple eaves. This is not to diminish them, nor my experience of them, nor the temple and its tea, nor the police and their violence: all were viscerally charged; and the coding, channelling and decoding involved, the conversion of monk, bowl, block, cop, black bloc into waveforms suitable for the paths along which they were sent – to the eaves to the ears, from the mob to the phone to the eyes (never mind the mind) did not lessen their power, nor the meaning of the signals involved. If anything, they amplified them. Not just electronically. Existentially. As does this. For we have stepped through the glass – the ceramic shield, the Gorilla Victus – and become our reflections. And our storage drives. And everything else is noise.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Still, it must be said, the chanting enchants.
Even though it is nothing but ratios between numbers, rhythm and its prediction, what Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz called “a counting that we are not conscious of but which the soul cannot refrain from carrying out: beats or vibrations of sounding bodies that coincide at certain intervals . . . Music is nothing but unconscious arithmetic.” What’s more, “the pleasures which the eye finds in proportions are of the same nature, and those caused by other senses amount to something similar, although we may not be able to explain them so distinctly.”
One of the monks’ chants gave praise to the Jade Emperor, a representation of the first god, for whom the temple had been built, sometime in the very earliest days of Taiwan’s Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). The temple was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in 1935, on the very day the Nobel prize-winning writer Kenzaburō Ōe, who died a few days ago, was born. It was demolished and rebuilt, along with the hotel, by the Nationalist Party under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in 1961 – the same year that Chiang, in response to mainland China’s Great Leap Forward and Project 596, and the fallout from the Sino-Indian War and the Sino-Soviet split, initiated a plan to reconquer mainland China by large-scale invasion.
(1961 was also the year I was born, a coincidence that, in another life, I might consider a sign of some auspiciousness, were I so predisposed.)
A second chant praised the Three Pure Ones – Lord of the Numinous Treasure, Lord of the Way and its Virtue, and the aforementioned Jade Emperor, the Lord of the Primordial Beginning. This trinity, which some say arose from early encounters between followers of Christ and disciples of the Tao, are, according to the Lao-tzu, manifestations of Primordial Celestial Energy, composed of the highest deities in the pantheon, and yet at the same time as formless as this post.
Two more chants zeroed in on health and longevity – “Wah Sheen, Jing Ru, Bye Lien” (“My heart is as pure as the white lotus blossom”) and “Huh Yu Woh Tong Cheung” (“May the life of the universe live forever with me”) – and a third, the one I was listening to while researching police violence in France, wielded the full power of the six healing sounds.
By research, I mean, as mentioned above, I was looking at my phone. While at the same time listening to the rhythmic clinks and clacks of the bowls and the blocks and the chant’s monosyllabic drone. My inner being thus fully split between these activities – and numerous and numinous others, besides – was thus neither focussed on the eternal Tao nor on the events temporally unfolding at that moment six thousand miles away in France, nor on the writing on the wall or the writing of the post, this post – neither here, then, nor there, nor anywhere in between, and nowhere near the path to enlightenment but lost, as it were, in conflicting and interfering thoughts.
The questions begged: whose enlightenment? Mine? Yours?
“It seems to me,” said Wittgenstein, while chopping vegetables in a country kitchen in Ireland, “that, in every culture, I come across a chapter headed ‘Wisdom.’ And then I know exactly what is going to follow: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’”
Vanity. Better to withdraw, lower ambitions, simplify goals, lie flat in goblin mode. So what if you miss your silly, self-imposed deadline? Who cares, old man? People are busy, they have better things to do than read your breezy, egocentric, uninhibited bullshit. Whereof thereof, shut the fuck up.
“It has become clear that real wars are fought not for people or fatherlands, but take place between different media, information technologies, data flows. Patterns and moirés that have forgotten us…” – Friedrich Kittler
The temple hotel reminded me of the Grand Hotel in Taipei, built by Chiang Kai-shek at the urging of his wife, Soong Mei-ling on the ruins of a Shinto shrine erected at some point during the island’s 51 years of Japanese rule, which ended with the Emperor’s capitulation to the Allies in 1945. Richard Nixon stayed at the Grand Hotel during his so-called wilderness years, just prior to President de Gaulle’s announcement that he intended to exchange France’s U.S. dollar reserves for gold. Dwight E. Eisenhower, under whom Nixon served as vice-president, had stayed there before Nixon, during his first year in power – making him the only US president to visit Taiwan during his time in office. This was not long after the closed-top car Nixon and his wife Pat were travelling in during a goodwill tour through South America was beset upon by a mob in Caracas in what was called, at the time, the “most violent attack ever perpetrated on a high American official while on foreign soil”.
The hardening of Nixon's attitude toward Latin America, which he came to “equate with violence and irrationality”, has been attributed to his experience of the attack. Some believe this change of mood foreshadowed his subsequent support for covert U.S. actions directed in support of dictatorial regimes in the region. In fact, he would later privately list several nations whose populations, he believed, were too immature for democratic government and would be better administered by authoritarian regimes, specifically citing France, Italy, and all of Latin America “except for Colombia”. (Wikipedia)
Breakfast, I was told at reception, would be from 6:30 to 7. Dinner, from 5:30 to six. Hot water, in the bathrooms, between 5 and 10 pm.
While I was conducting my research a young monk sat on a white Naugahyde couch in the reception area with her eyes closed. Sleeping or meditating, I could not be sure. The fat temple dog, however, lying on the ground of the courtyard just outside the door, was definitely unconscious, and snoring loudly, front legs scrabbling after ignis fatuus rabbits.
Four women with shaved heads sat cross-legged in a circle nearby, peeling bamboo shoots and de-stemming coriander leaves. A steady procession of people with ski poles and Tilly hats snaked from the parking lot below to the main hall of the temple, where the Jade Emperor dwells. Many had purchased sticks of incense from the gift shop, which they then held lit in front of them, above their heads, in both hands, as they bowed and bobbed to the deity.
Also in the gift shop, at the cashier, next to a display of toy guns, was a bundle of Sunday’s newspapers.
The Council of Europe was alarmed at the “excessive use of force” by the French police at rallies. The Financial Times had declared that “it is time to end the Fifth Republic, with its all-powerful presidency – the closest thing in the developed world to an elected dictator”. Reporters Without Borders deplored the increase in violent behaviour by the police against journalists and the obstruction of information. Five women, university students, were sexually assaulted by police officers after being “kettled” during an anti-49.3 demonstration in Nantes. A man had lost an eye following the bursting of a GM2L grenade in a Parisian demonstration and a woman a thumb in similar conditions in Rouen. Four thousand grenades had been used by the police against demonstrators at the méga-bassine site in Sainte-Soline. Two demonstrators were in comas. Five more were in intensive care.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, 149 gendarmes and police officers were injured in France on Thursday. 172 people were arrested, including 77 in Paris.
Then, the gateau cerise: Due to fears for their safety, King Charles III and his consort’s Saturday-night banquet with Emmanuel Macron and his Grade 10 drama teacher in the Chateau of Versailles had been cancelled.
This led France's “hard-left” leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon to tweet: “The meeting of the kings in Versailles dispersed by popular censure.” Which is inaccurate. Macron is not the king of France, he is its president. However, as the Co-Prince of Andorra, diarchically tandemned with the Bishop of Urgell as that landlocked microstate’s conjoined head of state, he is a nobleman. But is he an honourable one? Is he on the path? Is he, too, destined for his years in the wilderness?
The new British monarch and his consort’s cancellation — this was to have been the first state visit of his reign – rabbited my research down a series of interesting holes, starting with the royal purple Rolls Royce they had been besieged in during violent student protests over tuition fee hikes in London in 2010.
And the 1998 Lafayette political scandal in Taiwan and France, when:
US$500 million commission was paid by Thomson-CSF (now Thales) to French and Taiwanese officials, to facilitate the $3 Billion sale of 6 La Fayette-class frigates to the Taiwanese Navy. Eight people involved in the contract died in unusual and possibly suspicious circumstances. Taiwanese arms dealer Andrew Wang, who was implicated as being part of the affair, fled Taiwan to the UK, after the body of presumptive whistleblower Captain Yin Ching-feng was found in the ocean. (Wikipedia)
And the still raging cash-for-honours scandal involving a Saudi billionaire, a Russian convict and a meeting between then-Prince Charles and:
Bruno Wang (汪家興), a Taiwanese fugitive who describes himself as a Chinese philanthropist and donated ￡500,000 (US$683,522) to the prince’s charity, the Prince’s Foundation… Wang is wanted in Taiwan on charges related to money laundering and being a fugitive from justice… Investigation and cooperation with foreign authorities have found that Bruno Wang’s father, Andrew Wang (汪傳浦), had stashed proceeds from a scandal involving the procurement of Lafayette frigates in 61 bank accounts, mainly in Switzerland, as well as in accounts owned by his family in banks in about a dozen countries and territories, Ministry of Justice officials have said. (Guardian)
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Cutting stalks at noon time, perspiration drips to the earth. Know you that your bowl of rice, each grain from hardship comes?” – Cheng Chan-Pao
At 5:30, there was only one other couple in the giant dining hall. We ate in silence rice, pickled vegetables, and wedges of tofu or perhaps gluten flavoured and textured to resemble grilled salmon.
Mock fish, mock duck, mock mutton, mock beef. Just as naming, apparently, is the origin of all particular things, and freed from desire you realise the mystery, and caught in desire you see only its manifestations, not everything on our plates was what it appeared to be. All of it, however, was delicious.
And all, too, was bliss. And yet, and yet, I was still researching police violence. Still pursuing ideas – or being pursued by ideas – that had, perversely, come into consciousness at precisely the moment of most bliss – halfway along a morning hike up through the mountain’s blossoming mandarine and jasmine groves, past Buddhist and Taoist temples and pavilions, fields of camellia tea, bountiful snack bars, and sacred stands of giant banyan trees.
The next day, after a breakfast of congee and cabbage, we took a taxi to Zhunan, and then a high-speed train to Taipei. The train was packed, mainly with women my age or older and high school girls. The older women carried fancy boxes of baked goods, the younger backpacks and shoulder bags accessorised with toy animals. Everyone was masked and looking at, but not talking on, their phones. No one talked at all. No one ate. The advertisements on the compartment walls were for cosmetics, skin creams and cod liver oil pills. Many of the skin-cream models were Caucasians. Many of the girls were dressed in sailor-outfit school uniforms, though it was Sunday. A variation on Japanese conspicuous-consumption Kogal culture? No. Most high-school students in Taiwan, despite their reputation for being “strawberries” (sweet, beautiful, easily bruised), follow a seven-day curriculum, with evening classes most days. They work hard, as do their parents. Taiwanese workers worked an average of 2,021 hours in 2020, putting them just behind Singapore, Columbia and Mexico, and almost a month a year ahead of France.
Taiwanese parents keep their children under intense pressure before their university entrance exams, where ranking means everything (depending on your rank, you will be assigned to schools of different levels) . . . this ranking-crazy mentality does not help Taiwan’s educators prepare future graduates for a constructive role in society. Instead, it discourages creativity and independent thought. Moreover, those who fail or are de-selected by the educational system bow out reluctantly and often end up marginalised. – Hugo Tierny, (2017) “Taiwan youth: the rise of a generation”
Other girls wore sweatshirts and baggy jeans. Almost everyone under the age of 70 wore sneakers or shower sandals.
In Taipei, we walked through the 228 Peace Memorial Park, where the February 28 Incident began on that date in 1947. The day before, February 27, 1947:
agents of the State Monopoly Bureau struck a Taiwanese widow suspected of selling contraband cigarettes. An officer then fired into a crowd of angry bystanders, striking one man, who died the next day. Soldiers fired upon demonstrators the next day, after which a radio station was seized by protesters and news of the revolt was broadcast to the entire island. – Wikipedia
The citizenry of Taiwan took control of the island. Mainland Chinese were hunted down and beaten. Over 1,000 were killed. Soon, volunteer brigades of students and former Japanese soldiers restored order and organised “resolution committees”. The committees presented demands to the Kuomintang–led nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek and his provincial governor, Chen Yi. The demands included free elections, greater autonomy, direct participation in upcoming peace treaty negotiations with Japan, and the eradication of government corruption.
Chen Yi called in reinforcements from the mainland. On March 8, he launched a crackdown. The New York Times reported:
“An American who had just arrived in China from Taihoku said that troops from the mainland China arrived there on March 7 and indulged in three days of indiscriminate killing and arrest. For a time, everyone seen on the streets was fired upon, homes were broken into, and occupants were arrested. In the lower income sections the streets were said to have been littered with dead.”
Between 3,000 to 4,000 people were executed. By mid-May, this number had swelled to as many as 18,000. The fear this engendered endured through the almost four subsequent decades of martial law and beyond. It is said to be the reason why, until the end of the martial law period, Taiwanese people were indifferent to politics. But then, as Christopher H. Achen and T.Y. Wang showed in a 2019 study:
Taiwan underwent remarkable economic change between the mid-1960s and 1980s as its gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an average rate of 9% per year. A series of political reforms were launched in the late 1980s, including the lifting of martial law, legalization of political parties, and termination of restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech. With the first popular election of a president in 1996, an impoverished authoritarian state had become a prosperous and vibrant democracy.
Initially, the island citizens’ political participation expanded substantially. The 2000 election season began with intense competition within the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Then in the general election, a three-way race, Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence DPP defeated the two candidates of an internally divided KMT by winning the election with just 39% of the popular vote. During the campaign, all three candidates made great efforts to garner electoral support, and the intense political competition led to an impressive voter turnout of 82.7%.
Taiwan's voter turnout declined nearly 15 percentage points after the 2000 vote. “All ages voted less in 2016 than before, but the drop was particularly severe among younger voters, who turned out at rates up to 20 percentage points lower than in 2004. Thus Taiwan resembles other mature democracies like the U.S., Canada, Sweden, France and Finland, where declining turnout has been shown to afflict the young disproportionately.”
In 2020, however, renewed support for and opposition to independence pushed turnout to 74.90%, the highest since 2008. A figure only slightly higher than the overall voter turnout in last year’s presidential election in France.
However, only 58.65% of eligible French citizens under the age of 40 voted. From a March 2022 report by the Conseil Economique, Social et Environnemental:
The link between young people, institutions and elected representatives has become deeply distorted, as evidenced by the record abstention rate among 18-24-year-olds . . . However, the younger generations are neither less engaged nor less interested in politics than their elders. This engagement is less manifested through the ballot box, but increasingly through other channels: online petitions, demonstrations, boycotts, online content distribution, etc.
Of these “other channels” participation in demonstrations is the most uniquely French. Protest movements are on the rise everywhere, but no one takes to the streets with anywhere near the frequency and urgency of the French.
This is especially true today of young French. Students and youths have recently pushed for reforms in Spain, South Africa, Chile, Turkey, Israel and elsewhere. But in France the number of young people participating in the latest wave of protests is, if not unprecedented, only precedented by the events of Mai 1968.
As long as the country’s youth largely stayed away from the two months of trade-union-led street demonstrations and transport strikes against Macron’s plan to raise the pension age from 62 to 64, the government felt the protest movement would be manageable. But street demonstrations on Tuesday have shown how far anti-Macron feeling and anger at the use of constitutional executive powers to push through the pension changes without a parliamentary vote, have spurred growing numbers of young people to take part.
There is a particular fury among French youth at what is seen as the heavy-handed policing of demonstrations and clashes with riot police. More than 90,000 students intended to join street marches on Tuesday, three times more than were present last week. – Guardian
It is this that sets the French apart in the west.
And the Taiwanese in the east.
On March 18, 2014, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan was occupied by members of the “Black Island Nation Youth,” a student political action committee opposed to a trade bill with China they perceived as too favourable to Beijing:
The several hundred occupiers repelled police efforts to eject them, escorted out the few officers on duty, and barricaded the doors with seats tied together with rope. The occupation, later known as the 318 or Sunflower Movement would last 24 days and spawn the biggest pro-democracy protest rally in the island’s history, reframe popular discourse about Taiwan’s political and social trajectory, precipitate the midterm electoral defeat of the ruling party, and prefigure unprecedented protest in nearby Hong Kong. (Ian Rowen, The Journal of Asian Studies)
The Sunflowers were influenced by an earlier group, the Wild Strawberries, who in 2008 subverted the strawberry-snowflake stereotype of Taiwanese millennials by aggressively drawing attention to the then-government’s pro-China stance and increasingly close political and economic ties with the mainland. The Wild Strawberries in turn were influenced by the Wild Lily Movement of 1990, which successfully forced the then-government to step up its stated commitment to democratic institutional reform.
In 2016, the strawberries/sunflowers/lilies propelled Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to victory. Tsai adopted much of the Sunflower Movement’s platform. She promised to counter economic stagnation and inequality, lower the voting age from 20 to 18, and make Taiwan a “normal country,” distinct from mainland China. (Polls since 2015 consistently show that more than 80% of respondents aged between 20 and 29 believe that Taiwan should become an independent nation, and a 2022 poll by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy found 82% of respondents aged between 20 and 29 were willing to defend Taiwan if “China uses force against Taiwan for unification”.) Since, they’ve kept up pressure on her to deliver. In 2018, for example, massive demonstrations by young Taiwanese forced the government to uphold its promise to become the first state in Asia legalise same-sex marriage, which it did in 2019.
Then Covid hit, and Taiwan’s youth, like people everywhere, joined in the Great Resignation. But they still gave Tsai a landslide victory in 2020.
And here we are.
Generational identities confuse me. Naming them after fruits and flowers doesn’t help. And the whole enterprise strikes me as suspect. But that’s probably just the old fart in me, blowing hot breeze. Still, I can never keep them straight – when does boom turn to X turn to Y turn to Z? Not important. Taiwan has by far the youngest demographics in Northeast Asia, unlike mainland China, which has the fastest ageing society and working population in human history. France has the second youngest population in Europe, just behind Belgium, and, thanks to long-standing incentives and great childcare, the highest fertility rate. The median age in Taiwan is 41.3 years while in France it is 42.7 years. But Taiwan has an alarmingly low birth rate, 1.07 children per woman, compared to 1.92 in France. Both countries have nominal immigration, so these birth rates are too low to maintain a stable population, which requires a fertility rate of 2.1. But still. Still what? Still researching. Still scabbing together something to say. Still not still.
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” Lao Tsu.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe . . . thought established authority had an overriding right and duty to impose order, and he had little interest in procedures of representation or theories of the popular will. The creed was subtle, pragmatic, and benevolently paternalist, but it would be a travesty to see Goethe as a servile courtier or unprincipled egoist, though many have seen him in this light during his lifetime and afterward. – Britannica
At some moment during the evening of September 6, 1780, Goethe took a pen and scribbled what was to become one of his most famous poems on the wall of a wooden gamekeeper’s hut on top of Kickelhahn mountain on the northern edge of the Central Thuringian Forest:
Above all the mountain peaks is peace, In all the treetops you feel hardly a breath or a breeze; The little birds are silent in the forest. Just wait, soon you too will be still.
Fifty years later, just a few months before his death, he revisited the cabin, recognised the writing on the wall, and wept.
Incredible piece and so invigorating. Love the Elements of style quote at the beginning. Themes you mention overlap with what I have been thinking about :trying to learn to meditate to deal with anxiety and a galloping mind-at least starting with breath counting- with help from an book by Lawrence LeShan, How to Meditate-a Strunk-ian type -who cautions against "easy" , "breezy styles" offered by many new age charlatans .Have been listening to vids on youtube of Tibetan bells. Bertolucci 's the Last Emperor was on TV and it opened up apart of history i don't know about.Enjoyed the round faced Qigong breather ,too.and quotes...Kittler one-amazing.The clips of brutal violence against protesters I reposted. Here in Canada-Trudeau (another WEF young Global Leader -like Macron)is spending $40 million on a reno to his residence, he stayed in a 8k a night hotel in London-we payed $170 million for his holiday to sunny climes.His gov just gave themselves the 4th raise since 2020.So glutinous. Real inflation is at 16%. Average mortgage payments went from $1450-$3200 a month when bank increased rates.Crushing people.But we don't protest.And worse we mock and slander those who do.