(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘China

“Comparisons are odious”*…

… but sometimes instructive in the very ways that they fail…

The innovations which make their appearance in East Asia round about the year 1000 … form such a coherent and extensive whole that we have to yield to the evidence: at this period, the Chinese world experienced a real transformation. … The analogies [with the European Renaissance] are numerous – the return to the classical tradition, the diffusion of knowledge, the upsurge of science and technology (printing, explosives, advance in seafaring techniques, the clock with escapement …), a new philosophy, and a new view of the world. … There is not a single sector of political, social or economic life in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which does not show evidence of radical changes in comparison with earlier ages. It is not simply a matter of a change of scale (increase in population, general expansion of production, development of internal and external trade) but of a change of character. Political habits, society, the relations between town and country, and economic patterns are quite different from what they had been. … A new world had been born.

Jacques Gernet. A History of Chinese Civilization, pp. 298-300

Doug Jones, on what the remarkable story of the Song Dynasty can and can’t tell us about other periods…

Scholars contemplating the sweeping economic, social, and political transformation of China under the Song dynasty (960-1279) seem compelled to draw analogies with later dramatic occurrences in Europe – with the Renaissance (as in the quote above) or with the Economic Revolution in England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

The changes are dramatic. Population roughly doubles, from about 50 million to about 100 million. Cities grow. Both internal and external trade boom. The division of labor advances, with different households and different parts of the country specializing in “goods such as rice, wheat, lighting oil, candles, dyes, oranges, litchi nuts, vegetables, sugar and sugarcane, lumber, cattle, fish, sheep, paper, lacquer, textiles and iron.” In a number of fields of technology – iron production, shipbuilding – China reaches heights which the West will not attain for many centuries.

With changes in the economy come changes in the relation between society and state. Taxes come to be mostly collected in cash rather than kind, Eventually revenues from taxes on commerce, including excise taxes and state monopolies, will greatly exceed those from land tax. A Council of State will put constitutional checks on the power of the emperor.

Yet Imperial China will ultimately follow a different, less dramatic developmental pathway than Europe. Some reasons why…

On the ways in which history doesn’t repeat itself: “A cycle of Cathay,” from @logarithmic_h.

* Proverb

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As we listen for the rhyme, we might recall that today is Schicksalstag (“Day of Fate”) in Germany. On this date five momentous events took place: Robert Blum, a leader in the Vienna revolts, was executed in 1848; Kaiser Wilhelm II resigned, marking the end of German monarchies in 1918; the Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch failed in 1923; Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) and the Nazi antisemitic pogroms raged in 1938; and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

East and West Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 9, 2022 at 1:00 am

“To achieve style, begin by affecting none”*…

The first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

From Roger’s Bacon, in New Science, a brief history of scientific writing…

Since the founding of the first scientific journal in 1665, there have been calls to do away with stylistic elements in favor of clarity, concision, and precision.

In 1667, Thomas Sprat urged members of the Royal Society to “reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things, almost in an equal number of words.” Some 200 years later, Charles Darwin said much the same: “I think too much pains cannot be taken in making the style transparently clear and throwing eloquence to the dogs” (Aaronson, 1977).

Darwin and Sprat eventually got their way. Modern scientific writing is homogenous, cookie-cutter, devoid of style. But scientific papers weren’t always like this.

Writing in The Last Word On Nothing blog, science journalist Roberta Kwok explains how old articles differ from their modern counterparts:

Scientists used to admit when they don’t know what the hell is going on.

When philosopher Pierre Gassendi tried to capture observations of Mercury passing in front of the Sun in 1631, he was beset by doubts:

“[T]hrown into confusion, I began to think that an ordinary spot would hardly pass over that full distance in an entire day. And I was undecided indeed… I wondered if perhaps I could not have been wrong in some way about the distance measured earlier.”

They get excited and use italics.

In 1892, a gentleman named William Brewster observed a bird called a northern shrike attacking a meadow mouse in Massachusetts. After tussling with its prey, he wrote, “[t]he Shrike now looked up and seeing me jumped on the mouse with both feet and flew off bearing it in its claws.”

They write charming descriptions.

Here’s French scientist Jean-Henri Fabre rhapsodizing about the emperor moth in his book, The Life of the Caterpillar (1916):

Who does not know the magnificent Moth, the largest in Europe, clad in maroon velvet with a necktie of white fur? The wings, with their sprinkling of grey and brown, crossed by a faint zig-zag and edged with smoky white, have in the centre a round patch, a great eye with a black pupil and a variegated iris containing successive black, white, chestnut and purple arcs.

All this to say: Scientists in the pre-modern era wrote freely, despite calls to do away with that freedom. At some point, narrative and literary styles vanished and were replaced with rigid formats and impoverished prose.  The question now is: Have we gone too far in removing artistry from scientific writing?

For a well-argued case that we have– “the way that we write is inseparable from the way that we think, and restrictions in one necessarily lead to restrictions in the other”– read on: “Research Papers Used to Have Style. What Happened?,” from @RogersBacon1 and @newscienceorg.

* E. B. White, The Elements of Style

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As we ponder purposive prose, we might spare a thought for Johann Adam Schall von Bell; he died on this date in 1666. An expressive writer in both German and Chinese, he was an astronomer and Jesuit missionary to China who revised the Chinese calendar, translated Western astronomical books, and was head of Imperial Board of Astronomy (1644-64). Given the Chinese name “Tang Ruowang,” he became a trusted adviser (1644-61) to Emperor Shun-chih, first emperor of the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911/12), who made him a mandarin.

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“A great sound is given forth from the empty vessel”*…

Pakistan’s economy appears to be in pretty bad shape. Riffing on a provocative thread from Atif Mian, the redoubtable Noah Smith compares the economic condition of Indian’s nuclear-armed antagonist with its island neighbor (and current basket case) Sri Lanka…

Many of the particular root causes of Pakistan’s situation are different than in Sri Lanka — they didn’t ban synthetic fertilizer or engage in sweeping tax cuts. The political situations of the two countries, though both dysfunctional, are also different (here is a primer on Pakistan’s troubles). But there are enough similarities at the macroeconomic level that I think it’s worth comparing and contrasting the two.

In my post about Sri Lanka, I made a checklist of eight features that made that country’s crisis so “textbook”:

• An import-dependent country

• A persistent trade deficit

• A pegged exchange rate

• Lots of foreign-currency borrowing

• Capital flight

• An exchange rate crash (balance-of-payments crisis)

• A sovereign default

• Accelerating inflation

[He then examines each as it pertains to Pakistan]

… Pakistan shares a lot in common with Sri Lanka. It doesn’t have a pegged exchange rate, it’s not as dependent on imported food, and it doesn’t have quite as much foreign-currency debt. But the basic ingredients for a slightly more drawn-out version of the classic emerging-markets crisis are there, and there are some indications that the crisis has already begun.

Because Pakistan didn’t peg its exchange rate and didn’t borrow quite as much in foreign currencies as Sri Lanka, it made fewer macroeconomic mistakes than its island counterpart. But in terms of long-term economic mismanagement, it has done much worse than Sri Lanka. No, it didn’t ban synthetic fertilizers — that was an especially bizarre and boneheaded move. But one glance at the income levels of Sri Lanka and Pakistan clearly shows how much the development of the latter has lagged:

Pakistan went from 3/4 as rich as Sri Lanka in 1990 to only about 1/3 as rich today. That’s an incredibly bad performance on Pakistan’s part…

Another emerging-market crisis looms: “Pakistan is in big trouble,” from @Noahpinion.

Oh, and the weather’s not helping either.

For a consideration of the interesting (that’s to say, challenging) questions that Pakistan’s predicament (and the travails of other debtor nations) pose for China, which is an increasingly large lender across the developing world, see the first set of items here.

* Pakistani proverb

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As we batten the hatches, we might spare a thought for Fazlur Rahman Malik; he died on this date in 1988. A scholar and philosopher, he was a prominent reformer in Pakistan, who devoted himself to educational reform and the revival of independent reasoning (ijtihad). While his work was widely-respected by other reformers, it drew strong criticism from conservative forces– who eventually forced him into exile. He left Pakistan in 1968 for the United States where he taught at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Chicago.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 26, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The effect of tea is cooling and as a beverage it is most suitable”*…

A gold statue of Lu Yu at Longjing tea plantation Hangzhou China

We think of tea as a drink– some of us, as the drink. But as Miranda Brown explains, for centuries tea was food; caffeinated soups and chewing the leaves were the norm…

Sometime in his adolescence, in the 700s, Lu Yu, an aspiring writer and professional clown, had his first taste of tea soup. This probably occurred not far from Lu’s childhood home: a Buddhist monastery that overlooked a scenic lake in Central China. But Lu was unimpressed; he called the soup “ditch water.”

What bothered Lu was not the tea, but all the other ingredients. The offending brew contained scallions, ginger, jujube dates, citrus peels, Dogwood berries, and mint, all of which cooks “threshed” together to make a smooth paste. The result was a chunky soup, or even a sauce.

Lu Yu, in fact, adored tea—he’d go on to become the “tea god” and the world’s greatest tea influencer. But the tea he loved—brewed only from powdered tea leaves, without any other flavoring—was, in the grand sweep of human history, a recent invention. People in Asia, where tea trees are native, ate tea leaves for centuries, perhaps even millennia, before ever thinking to drink it. And it is Lu Yu who is chiefly responsible for making tea drinking the norm for most people around the world…

The remarkable story of Lu Yu: “The Medieval Influencer Who Convinced the World to Drink Tea—Not Eat It,” from @Dong_Muda.

* Lu Yu

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As we steep, we might send bubbly birthday greetings to the founding master of another class of potable: Johann Jacob Schweppe; he was born on this date in 1740.  A watchmaker and amateur scientist, he developed the first practical process for the manufacture of bottled carbonated mineral water, based on a process discovered by Joseph Priestley in 1767.  His company, Schweppes (later Cadbury Schweppes, now Keurig Dr Pepper) graciously acknowledges Priestley as “the father of our industry.”

1783_Johann_Jacob_Schweppe
Jacob Schweppe

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 16, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club”*…

As Viola Zhou explains, someone tried very hard to please Chinese movie censors…

Fight Club is getting an entirely different ending in a new online release in China, where imported films are often altered to show that the law enforcement, on the side of justice, always trumps the villain. 

The 1999 film by David Fincher originally ends with the Narrator (Edward Norton) killing his split personality Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). With the female lead Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), he then watches all the buildings explode outside the window and collapse, suggesting Tyler’s anarchist plan to destroy consumerism is in the works.

The exact opposite happens in the edit of the same film released in China. In the version on the Chinese streaming site Tencent Video, the explosion scene has been removed. Instead, viewers are told that the state successfully busted Tyler’s plan to destroy the world…

Cult Classic ‘Fight Club’ Gets a Very Different Ending in China,” from @violazhouyi in @VICE.

* “Tyler Durden”

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As we contemplate censorship, we might note that this was a bad day for revolutionaries of another stripe:  it was on this date in 1606 that the trial of Guy Fawkes and other conspirators began, ending with their execution on January 31 for their roles in the Catholic Restorationist “Gunpowder Plot.”

George Cruikshank‘s illustration of Guy Fawkes, published in William Harrison Ainsworth‘s 1840 novel Guy Fawkes

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 27, 2022 at 1:00 am

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