Review of “The Otherness Of Self” by Xin Liu

“The Otherness of Self” by Xin Liu, published in 2002. Rating: 1/5.

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I don’t want to sound overly demanding, but really, unless a writer is the next Kant or Heidegger, he owes it to his readers to make his prose at least minimally engaging. With this book on too many occasions I was under the impression that I was reading something from the Postmodern Essay Generator. Here is a totally random quote I just pulled from [easyazon_link asin="0472068091" locale="US" new_window="default" tag="httpakarcom-20" add_to_cart="default" cloaking="default" localization="default" nofollow="default" popups="default"]THE OTHERNESS OF SELF[/easyazon_link]: “As Carr argues, a solution to the problem of experience is provided by the Husserlian idea of retention-protention as a horizon from which the experience of being experienced at the present moment stands out.

Come again, amigo? About 80% of this book is PoMo-babble, as verbose as it is apparently meaningless – one is under the distinct impression that Xin Liu is padding out a thesis paper with references to thinkers who are not really at all relevant to the putative object of his studies, the Beihai Star Group and South Chinese business culture. It is with this in mind that we come to the actual content, unearthing which expends no small time of energy and sanity.

In this book, the anthropologist Xin Liu argues that “the human experience itself is narrative in character… time is the life of narrative.” By extension, social life is centered around the perception of time as it relates to the past, present, and future, as well as to the sense of “before” and “after”. He analyzes China’s changing society through the prism of its changing conceptions of temporarily as described in three contemporaneous books representative of the time periods in which they were written, as well as his own observations of business life in Beihai.

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Review of Benjamin Schwartz’s “In Search Of Wealth And Power”

In Search of Wealth and Power by Benjamin Schwartz, published in 1964. Rating: 4/5.

in-search-of-wealth-and-power-benjamin-schwartz

In Search of Wealth and Power is a very dense but richly rewarding tome by Benjamin Schwartz, a noted China scholar. He focuses on the life of the translator Yan Fu to illustrate the culture clashes that arose when traditional Chinese civilization came into contact with Western philosophies.

Yan Fu was a translator and thinker who was one of the first Chinese to engage with Western thought at a deep level. He rejected contemporary thinkers like Zhang Zhidong, who aimed to integrate Western technics onto Chinese cultural foundations – not for him was the slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Nor was he a Marxist, to consider society as a mere superstructure to underlying economic realities. Instead, Yan Fu emphasized that if anything there was “more materialism (in the ethical sense)” among Chinese than in the West, whose own material foundations were built on innovative legal, political, and spiritual foundations. In a nutshell, the purpose of Yan Fu’s lifework was to foster the evolutionary growth of these Western qualities, many of them quite intangible, so as to “enrich the state and strengthen the army.” Yet in so doing this through his translations and commentary he ran into many paradoxes, and grew disillusioned with Western thought in the last decade of his life – as did admittedly many Western intellectuals as well. At the end he (re)turned to a form of Taoist mysticism.

At the start it is important to note that Yan Fu was intimately acquainted with all major strands of the Chinese philosophical tradition. Confucianism had been the bedrock of the Chinese state since the Qin dynasty. It stressed the importance of filial piety, of the ruler setting a virtuous example of the people, and of keeping laws and regulations light; however, Yan Fu and numerous other members of the Chinese intelligentsia during that time were coming to see it as a regressive influence keeping China backward. For his own part Yan Fu has little patience with it, beyond keeping its few good parts – mostly those to do with family organization – and extending it to the masses, the armies and factories (much as he perceived Christianity to have laid the groundwork for English public spirit despite its purported theological errors).

The other strand that he drew on is Legalism, a far more practical doctrine that  contained the Chinese version of balance of power theory and Machievallian ideas about the state. Furthermore, Schwartz writes, “while the immediate aims of the Legalists may be narrowly fiscal, the germ of a notion of economic development is latent within this mode of thought.”

Finally, there was Taoism; although the least practical of the three, Yan Fu was extremely influenced by it. In its attribution of a deep and incomprehensible driving force he found deep parallels with the monist Western philosophers, as well as a metaphysical lattice to hold together the evolutionary process and the “ten thousand things”. It did not proscribe a frozen feudal order like old-school Confucianism, and it was the polar opposite of the crass materialism of Legalism. As such, Yan Fu considered it the ultimate anchor on which Western philosophical concepts could be moored, even going so far as to argue proto-democratic tendencies in the works of Zhuangzi.

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Review of Arthur H. Smith’s “Chinese Characteristics”

Chinese Characteristics by Arthur Henderson Smith, published in 1894. It is available free hereRating: 5/5.

chinese-characteristics-arthur-h-smith-intellectual-turbidity

In rich and evocative prose reminiscent of De Tocqueville’s writings on America, Arthur H. Smith lays out what he sees as the core features of the Chinese character and his values. The tone is bold and fearless, making sweeping generalizations and brusque judgments that many today will dismiss as insensitive or “Orientalist,” if not downright racist. I will say from the outset that this is ahistorical and frankly, misses the point. Humans try to understand the world through simplified models, and stereotypes are an intractable part of this process. This was especially true in Smith’s time, when more objective data, e.g. statistical, was severely lacking in China. Thus, while he carefully acknowledges that “these papers are not meant to be generalizations for a whole Empire”, he nonetheless argues that deriving Chinese characteristics by “recording great numbers of incidents,” especially “extraordinary” ones, and setting down the “explanations… as given by natives of the country,” is an entirely valid and legitimate approach for a popular book on that country.

The “Chinese character” that emerges from his account forms a stark contradistinction to what we might call the “Smithian character,” a category that embraces not only the eponymous author but also reflects the values and assumptions of your archetypical fin de siècle American WASP male. The Chinese character goes by nature’s cycles, and does not have a good sense of either punctuality or even his own age; the Westerner, on the other hand, marches to the chimes of the clock. This “disregard of time” is matched by a “disregard for accuracy” – it is mentioned that the real distance of the Chinese li varies depending on terrain, the prevailing weather, etc. Likewise, the real value of the national currency varies from province to province.

Another major element covered by Smith in relation to China is “intellectual turbidity.” This might seem strange, considering that he also talks of how “all the examination halls, from the lowest to the highest, seem to be perpetually crowded”, but one which becomes much more comprehensible after noting that Smith also says that “education in China is restricted to a very narrow circle”. These observations are confirmed by the historical fact that primary enrollment was at just 4% of the eligible school-age population in China in 1900. (This characteristic, incidentally, seems to be alive well to this day, as evidenced by the immense stress that revolves around the gaokao). Nonetheless, the common folks come off as pretty stupid, and unable to grasp the essence of the questions put to them. For instance, in reply to a query about his age, one man’s answer is said to resemble a “rusty old smoothbore cannon mounted on a decrepit carriage.” Although isn’t asking such a question awkward in the first place? That said, at least we can’t fault Smith for not knowing how to throw in a good turn of phrase!

Another major part of the book concerns Chinese attitudes as regards kin, family, society, and nation. Filial piety is extremely developed; in fact, it is over-developed, to the extent that there have been cases of children willing to sacrifice themselves so as to avoid the death penalty for their criminal parents. (Not exactly a civilization with much in the way of individual responsibility). A less extreme but far more widespread effect of this is the devaluation of the worth of women. While Smith is undoubtedly a man of patriarchal views, he subscribes to the Christian idea of the spiritual equality of the sexes, and supports women’s education. These aims are harder to achieve in a society built around ancestor worship, where the prerogative to maintain the “continuum of descent” is overriding. Social sanctions, such as the ones for harboring criminals or traitors, are collective in nature, and go against the idea of personal responsibility. But it’s not all bad, at least as regards violence: “Human life is safer in a Chinese city than in an American city.” Nor are the Chinese dying out like the French:

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The Evolution Of Chinese IQ

In the discussion at the previous post, in which I took exception to Ron Unz’s theory of the East Asian Exception, he alerted me to so additional work on the matter he’d done as a Harvard freshman on Chinese IQ. You can read his summary of Social Darwinism and Rural China as well as Steve Sailer’s commentary on it.

Ron Unz’s Theory of Social Darwinism in Rural China

According to Ron Unz, Chinese peasants lived close to their Malthusian limits for millennia on end. That is correct. Furthermore, Chinese rural life was “remarkably sophisticated in its financial and business arrangements”, far more so even than in England. I do not have the comparative knowledge to offer informed commentary on this, though I would stop to note that such a system may not have been so much a generator of “selective pressure for those able to prosper” under complexity as a reflection of already high IQ’s. After all on most social, economic, and technological metrics China was far ahead of Europe until the 18th century or so (though there were important exceptions). Furthermore, “virtually all Chinese were on an equal legal footing”, with far fewer of the feudalistic or caste distinctions that proliferate in India and pre-Enlightenment Europe. This is also correct.

This environment included a number of mechanisms that promoted a highly eugenic development path for the Chinese population. Ron Unz says that only the relative affluent could afford their wives for their children. This is not quite correct, or should I say permanently correct, as this issue only heavily manifested itself during times of Malthusian stress, when families opted to kill baby daughters resulting in skewed sex ratios. Otherwise, we should note that Europeans within the Hajnal Line married late and that the poor sometimes didn’t marry at all, so this particular eugenic effect was if anything stronger in Europe.

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Disagree With Ron Unz’s Conclusions On Chinese IQ

He writes:

These scores are indeed truly remarkable, and completely confirm the apparent pattern of Lynn’s IQ samples, in which desperately poor East Asians tend to score at or above the levels of the most successful and well-educated Western populations… But since the total population is at least well into the hundreds of millions, heavily rural as well as urban, the average PISA score of 520—corresponding to an IQ of 103—cannot be too dissimilar from the overall Chinese figure. And with China’s per capita GDP still only $3,700 and well over half the population still living in rural villages when the tests were conducted, these are absolutely astonishing results… Although opinions may certainly differ, I regard this new evidence as very strong support for my “East Asian Exception” hypothesis.

China isn’t anywhere near as backward as he portrays it.

(1) The urban-rural ratio was essentially 50/50 according to the 2010 Census. Furthermore, rural Chinese don’t really suffer from the absolute destitution common to peasants in Third World countries. They own their own land and it is almost impossible for them to lose it. Malnutrition is now close to non-existent. Slums are now very rare. According to a Gallup poll, Chinese now actually struggle less than Americans to buy food.

(2) Total Chinese meat consumption overtook US meat consumption in 1990, signifying a nutritionally adequate figure (as Americans eat a lot of and perhaps a bit too much meat anyway). Today Chinese meat consumption is half the US level. The PISA 2009 cohort would have been born in 1993, when Chinese nutrition had already essentially converged with the First World.

(3) He uses nominal GDP per capita which is quite meaningless. The PPP level of Chinese GDP per capita is $8,400 and that figure is probably underestimated.

Basically, if we adjust for the fact that in terms of basics (food, education, housing) China is now essentially equivalent to developed countries, it would make sense that its average IQ level is now only about 5 points from its potential maximum.

But really my fundamental problem with the “East Asia Exception” hypothesis is the huge paradox it exposes: Why was it Europe, and not China, that first underwent the Industrial Revolution? And the (initially unrelated) Scientific Revolution, for that matter? If as Ron Unz says the Flynn Effect barely applies to East Asian populations, then what you’d have had five centuries ago is 100mn Chinese, 20% of them urban – with an average IQ of maybe 95; and 100mn Europeans, only 5% of them urban – with an average IQ of 75. Sure Europe had various advantages (as chronicled by Jared Diamond, Kenneth Pomeranz, etc) but surely it couldn’t have trumped the effects of a 1 S.D. IQ advantage? That is why I believe the East Asia Exception to be historically implausible.

Analysis Of China’s PISA 2009 Results

As human capital is so important for prosperity, it behoves us to know China’s in detail to assess whether it will continue converging on developed countries. Until recently the best data we had were disparate IQ tests (on the basis of which Richard Lynn’s latest estimate is an IQ of 105.8 in his 2012 book Intelligence: A Unifying Construct for the Social Sciences) as well as PISA international standardized test scores from cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. However, the problem was that they were hardly nationally representative due to the “cognitive clustering” effect. The Chinese did not allow the OECD to publish data for the rest of the country and this understandably raised further questions about the situation in its interior heartlands, although even in 2010 I was already able to report a PISA representative saying that “even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average.”

As regards Chinese intelligence

Happily (via commentator Jing) we learned that the PISA data for Zhejiang province and the China average had been released on the Chinese Internet. I collated this as well as data for Chinese-majority cities outside China in the table below, while also adding in their PISA-converted IQ scores, the scores of just natives (i.e. minus immigrants), percentage of the Han population, and nominal and PPP GDP per capita.

Reading Math Science Average (native) IQ (native IQ) %汉族 GDP/c (n) GDP/c (P)
China* 486 550 524 520  ~ 103.0  ~ 91.6% 5,430 8,442
China: Shanghai 556 600 575 577 589 111.6 113.4 99.0% 12,783 19,874
China: Zhejiang 525 598 567 563 ~ 109.5 ~ 99.2% 9,083 14,121
Hong Kong 533 555 549 546 557 106.9 108.6 93.6% 34,457 49,990
Macau 487 525 511 508 514 101.2 102.1 95.0% 65,550 77,607
Singapore 526 562 542 543 550 106.5 107.5 74.1% 46,241 61,103
Taiwan 495 543 520 519 534 102.9 105.1 98.0% 20,101 37,720

* Twelve provinces including Shanghai, Zhejiang, Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu totaling 621 schools, 21,003 students. Results have been released for Shanghai, and later on for Zhejiang (59 schools, 1,800 students – of which 80% were township-village schools) and for the 12-province average.

(1) Academic performance, and the IQ for which it is a good proxy, is very high for a developing nation. Presumably, this gap can largely be ascribed to the legacy of initial historical backwardness coupled with Maoist economics.

(2) The average PISA-converted IQ of the 12 provinces surveyed in PISA is 103.0. (I do not know if provincial results were appropriately weighed for population when calculating the 12-province average but probably not). We know the identities of five of the 12 tested provinces (Shanghai, Zhejiang, Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu). They are all very high-income and developed by Chinese standards. Furthermore, these five provinces – with the exception of Tianjin – all perform well above average according to stats from a Chinese online IQ testing website.

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