January Diary
The gulag, the Long Island Railroad, Chinese lit, and more


John Derbyshire

Born to be wild     In We Are Doomed I quoted William Hazlitt’s 1821 essay “On Personal Character”:

No one ever changes his character from the time he is two years old; nay, I might say, from the time he is two hours old . . . the character, the internal, original bias, remains always the same, true to itself to the very last . . . 

Sure enough.

The dash for freedom     Here is a recurring fantasy of mine. Sometimes I fantasize it of just one state; sometimes of the U.S.A. as a whole: Delete as applicable.

Faced with a pincer of collapsing revenues and swelling entitlements, the government makes a bold dash for freedom. All taxes, both personal and corporate, are scrapped, replaced by a flat-rate purchase tax. All entitlements likewise, after citizens have been reimbursed what they put in, compounded at a modest rate of interest. Legal immigration is reduced to the annual 23,500 recommended here. Illegal immigration is made a felony, subject to a mandatory five years with hard labor. Public-sector unions are outlawed. Foreign aid is zeroed out. All troops stationed overseas are repatriated. The departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor are abolished. All K–12 educational facilities are sold to crammer firms. All private-discrimination laws are repealed. Firms may hire who they want and fire at will. Contingency-fee lawsuits are banned, and losers in civil actions must pay full costs. Employer-provided health benefits are at market rates. The legislature will meet for five days a year, and legislative positions are unpaid . . . 

You get the idea. A dash for freedom. The chief executive announces that the state/nation will be the Hong Kong of the 2010s.

Oh, look, I can fantasize, can’t I?

Chinese Lit.     Here’s a thing I get asked occasionally: “Mr. Derb: Should I read the Chinese classic novels?”

My stock reply is: No, not for pleasure. The cultural distance — the amount of background you need — is just too great. I don’t say there aren’t non-Chinese people who’ve read The Water Margin or Journey to the West for pleasure. The human race contains every kind of oddity and exception. Your chances are not good, though.

I’ll qualify that by admitting that it’s an ill-informed opinion. I have not, in point of fact, read any of the Chinese classic novels all the way through, not in the original text, nor even in a translation. I did get past the halfway mark in David Hawkes’s five-volume Penguin Classics translation of Red Chamber Dream (which goes by an alternative title) before losing the will to live. And I have read the entirety of the kiddies’ picture version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and have a marked-up copy to prove it. (No mean feat: It’s twelve volumes, with around 700 of these captioned pictures per volume. The pictures are lovely, though, and keep you going.) The rest has just been random browsing and a few short passages construed as classroom tasks.

What you should read, if you are interested enough to ask the question, and are not embarrassed about taking a CliffsNotes route, is C. T. Hsia’s The Classic Chinese Novel, which gives a good critical account of the six big titles.

And yes: Among the six is the pornographic classic Jin Ping Mei, concerning which Chinese people love to tell the following tale, which I’ve copied here from Hsia’s book:

Early Ch’ing [i.e. Ch’ing dynasty, 1644–1911] anecdotists have further reported that the book was written as an act of filial piety. According to this legend, which could have started soon after the publication of the novel and was not discredited until modern times, its author was none other than Wang Shih-chen (1526–90), the leading poet and essayist of his time, who wrote the work to avenge the death of his father for which the evil minister Yen Shih-fan was mainly responsible. Because Yen was addicted to pornography, Wang poisoned the lower corner of every page of his completed manuscript and submitted it to him. As Yen mechanically moistened his fingertip with his own saliva to turn the pages, he eventually swallowed enough poison to cause his death.

Hsia calls this story “preposterous,” and I wouldn’t gainsay so weighty a scholar.