Reading Kant in China

Went to Edwin’s courtyard school yesterday for his lesson on Kant, and it was a truly interesting experience for the insight into what Chinese teenagers think about morality. These were smart eighteen year olds on a break between their high school and entering top American universities, from top schools like Dulwich college (one of the most expensive private schools in China) and No. 4 Middle School. Their English was excellent – they were talking about Kant and understanding it – and it was clearly an enjoyable class for them.

What became very obvious from the beginning was that any appeal to God as a final arbiter of morality held no credence for them. “Did Kant believe in God?” asked Jenny, a younger girl. She was disappointed to hear that he did. “How could he believe in both God and reason?” – she found the two mutually incompatible. “What if God said one day that torture is OK, how would that be reasonable?”

They also found it difficult to get their heads around the categorical imperative. The idea of an embedded moral law  seemed not to appeal to Harry, a student who seemed to have the most experience reading philosophy. “My categorical imperative is that I want to be happy,” he said. “My genes make me seek my own happiness. I call it personal utilitarianism.”

His “personal utilitarianism”, or strategic selfishness, is based on seeking his own happiness and ensuring other people’s happiness to the extent that it does not interfere with his own. When it is pointed out that his imperative is hypothetical instead of categorical, because it is caused by something (i.e. his genes), he is profoundly dissatisfied, convinced he has come up with a completely workable system of ethics, informed, it seems to me, by a combination of evolutionary theory and Adam Smith’s invisible hand. He even illustrated it on the white board with the title “Harry” over it, in place of “Kant”.

Edwin remarked that they seem natural Republicans  – believing strongly in the need for free markets because self-interest would ensure individual efforts lead to wealth and success. In fact there is little consideration given to ethics at all. When asked if there was even a need for an ethical system, Harry paused and seemed to seriously consider whether there was a need for such a thing.

“Kant would have said that, if he observed your actual behavior, you would still follow a moral law,” says Edwin. Harry seems unconvinced that such a thing could live within him. “Perhaps tonight as you walk home and look up into the starry heavens above, you will find the moral law within you,” Edwin adds at the end of class, a little sardonically.

I wondered later what Kant would have made of Chinese teenagers in 2015. Would he have been so certain of himself about the universality of the moral law found within us if he had met them? I am a Kantian myself; I believe in the moral law. But in the face of the deeply self-assured, cheerfully amoral teenager perfectly happy to prioritize his own happiness and cynically keeping others just the right amount of happy in order for them to leave him be, I have to question whether this is truly something universal.

This is not to say that the students’ instincts are so different from my own. They don’t see the point in not lying to a murderer who would track down his victim to their door – “that’s a white lie, so the universal maxim for that is that it’s OK to tell white lies,” said Eric, another boy in the class. They would prefer to consult a dying person missing one vital organ before donating his four other organs to other dying people in need of organs; they wouldn’t kill him without asking him first. As for the famous trolley problem, they would probably pull the lever to direct a runaway trolley to kill one person rather than four, but would not push a fat man off a bridge to save them. Perhaps this speaks of a universally shared set of instincts? But of course each of these thought experiments are meant to manipulate one into thinking in a particular way.

There is definitely a sense of impatience at the abstract quality of philosophical puzzles. “Why can’t we just talk to them?” asks Harry of both the dying patients and the murderer at the door. “I don’t have enough information to make a decision.” The theoretical is dismissed as irrelevant because it doesn’t have any bearing on everyday situations, in which a decision would depend on many more factors. A certain flexibility and pragmatism is reflected in these responses.

I asked Edwin if any of them seemed at all influenced by Marxism, which is after all, taught to all students in school. “Their interaction with Marxism is only in the most superficial way. There is definitely no concern for equality of outcome whatsoever. When was the last time you ever heard a Chinese person complain about inequality?”

A Chinese man visits Turkey…

Just spent an interesting dinner with one of my cousin’s oldest friends Lao Lei, a Chinese man in his sixties who just spent 50 days traveling in Turkey. It was interesting to hear what he had to say about his trip and what it meant for the horizon-opening nature of travel, particularly as more countries make it easier for Chinese people to travel there as they scramble for the Chinese dollar…but mostly because I just thought it was a fascinating tale of encountering.

“After seeing the Turkish people I just felt that we Chinese are short and ugly…it’s as though we are all missing a whole middle portion of our waists,” he said, gesturing at his midsection. “They are all so tall and slender, it’s just as though we cannot compare.”

“And the men are truly good looking,” he said, “with cheekbones that stick out to here, and beards that reach from their ears to their necks, and eyelashes that are so long. Some of them have light eyes.”

He went to a Turkish bath, where he said he got to observe the Turkish men up close. “The hair on their chests is thick and luxuriant, and isn’t like the hair on laowai’s chests in China…. they swirl in a clockwise direction, like flowers,” he said, “and the hair on their belly is so thick, it’s almost an inch thick, and some of them had white tips.”

His eyes when he was telling this to us were so wide and expressive they made me laugh out loud. Here was this (totally straight) Chinese dude explaining the beauty of Turkish men with a sort of childlike wonder and just sheer appreciation for human beauty. It was a special moment.

He also mentioned the prevalence of cats in Istanbul. Apparently they were just hanging out on the high street, weaving in and out of the Prada boutiques like it was their birthright. “Mainly tiger and leopard style cats,” he said. “And they were all fat and well-fed, and clean. There were clothing boutiques where there would be clothes hanging on a rack, and in between the clothes you would find a cat.”

“But the food I really couldn’t take for long,” he said sadly. “Even so, even though I spent more than a month there, I only saw a third of what there was to see. It’s a good place to visit, even better than Greece.”

Plato, Larkin, Donne, Jesus and death

I just read two things which put death on my mind today – Plato’s Phaedo, and Wait but Why’s post on timelines, both of which ended with expiration (of Socrates as he drinks his hemlock, and the death of everything at the Heat Death of the Universe). This has put me in a very existential mood.

What fascinated me about Plato’s Phaedo is that the character Socrates holds a belief about the immortality of the soul so strongly that he faces his imminent death with great courage, so convinced he is that the separation of the soul from the body is a good thing (since as a philosopher he has spent his whole life trying to untangle himself from bodily things). This conviction comes out of Socrates faith in this belief, although he does arrive at it by a certain amount of (not particularly convincing) reasoning.

Can reason alone overcome the emotions of fear and uncertainty in the face of death? I have never seriously doubted the immortality of the soul. Although I have considered the idea that consciousness ends with bodies I have never really believed it for longer than half a second. And yet death fills me with fear and I would do what I could to prolong my life, and certainly have delayed taking the hemlock til the last possible moment (Socrates turns down the chance to). I could not welcome it as a good thing, even though I believe I would be going on to something better, because I am convinced that life is too good to let go of.

Of course, Socrates is a character made up by Plato for his play, and we have no idea how the real Socrates died – whether he did so with heroic resignation and even optimism, or not. I have never stared death in the face before, and don’t know what my reaction would be to my imminent demise. Perhaps I would be given a special dispensation of grace that would allow me to accept it, or even welcome it, when the time comes – I certainly hope so.

But there is no way I would be happy about death itself. And I am reminded that, just the way Socrates’ friends wept when he had taken the poison, Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, even though he knew that moments later he would be leading him out of the tomb. That is enough for me to understand what our attitude towards death should be – precisely what it is, sadness, even, rage.

It upsets me that the universe is heading, in the long run, for absolute cold and dark and nothingness. It upsets me that I will lose my loved ones, one by one, in this life, and be unable to communicate with them or see or hear or touch them when they die. These are losses, grave ones, and the response is to grieve, and even to rage at death itself. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

So there is in a sense room for me to believe that there is something good for me on the other side of death, and yet still hate the door I have to pass through to get to that other side. Because that door represents a bundle of doubt, of pain, of separation and of difficulty, much like the struggle out of the birth canal must have been at my birth, which I nevertheless will emerge into greater life from.

When I think of death I think of two great poems on the subject – the atheist Philip Larkin’s Aubade, and John Donne’s most famous Holy Sonnet (“Death, be not proud”). One is painfully frank and chilling, staring nakedly at the gaping void of death that we all instinctively fear; the other is a piece of triumphant cleverness, declaring after a few specious arguments about the smallness of death, in its last lines, the Christian defeat of humanity’s most dreaded enemy. It is curious that while I believe in the triumph of the last two lines of Donne’s poem, it does not make me feel less like the persona of Larkin’s. There is something inherently troubling about the coldness of the corpse left behind. What if that’s it? Or worse, what could there be that we would hurtle towards in the unknown bowels of eternity?

Web 1.0 vs Web 2.0

I was perusing my old blog entries from the blog I kept from 2001 to about 2007 (it kind of tailed off in college) and I was absolutely amazed at the sorts of things I used to happily publish on the internet. It was a lot less censored, a lot more frank and stream-of-consciousness and above all, angsty and raw than the sorts of things I publish on the web today. And I think the key difference, aside from the fact that I am no longer an adolescent, of course, is the slow erosion of online anonymity.

The web when I was a teenager was a lot more anonymous. Nobody had their real name on their blog. Hell, my URL is my name and surname now, so everything I write on here can be traced very easily to me. And if somebody didn’t know the URL of your blog, they were unlikely to find it. Although perhaps with friends linking blogs to each other’s, there was a way for acquaintances to find your way onto your blog. But quite crucially, parents didn’t tend to find your blogs. Or at least, I was belaboring under the assumption that they didn’t, and if my parents were reading my blog when I was a teenager (which I suspect they couldn’t have, or they would have confronted me with a lot of the shenanigans I revealed I was up to) they certainly didn’t let on.

Anyway, in Web 1.0, before the web got “social” so to speak with Facebook, the kinds of stuff you put online was more vulnerable and open. Now that it’s linked to our real-life identities, it has become a sort of performance for a vague, ill-defined public that may include your future employers or romantic partners, and so it becomes an exercise in image-crafting rather than soul-baring. I do really miss the era of baring my soul online, but wouldn’t do so now because the countless blog/youtube/facebook scandals which have destroyed lives/careers/even run people out of countries have already revealed how unwise being uncensored and frank on the internet can be, so I guess that’s just firmly in the past.

But yeah, circa 2001, everybody was on blogspot, and everybody’s “life suxxx”‘ed…circa 2015, everybody’s on Facebook, and everybody’s life is perfect. What happened?

on first entering Japan

The Japan of my imagination is populated with the strange spirits of Spirited Away, the underground creatures of Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and the dreamy neon cityscapes of Lost in Translation. What I wasn’t prepared to be confronted with was a heavy dose of reality.

It’s strange that being fed on a steady diet of fantasy and imaginary media, we come to build an imaginary world in our heads that does not conform to the reality of what is in the world.

I found that I liked my imaginary Japan more than the real Japan I encountered. I had expected to find something completely foreign and strange, and instead found a place not that far removed from my own world. Is my imagination to blame?

One other thing that surprised me in Tokyo was how much tackiness I found. I expected tackiness in China, but somehow my impression of Japan was that it was super high tech, sophisticated and refined. But I saw bargain basements with tacky fetishwear, disposable teen fashions, an onsen made up to look like an Edo era town filled with cheap looking souvenirs, and unrenovated staircases on a supposedly high end department store.

Perhaps because the only Japanese goods I had seen outside Japan were high end electronics or exquisite craft products, I had simply assumed the cheap and tawdry didn’t exist in Japan, but this was a false impression.

It really goes to show that a country’s image is projected by its cultural products and the goods it produces… So much of what I expected from Japan was shaped by its imaginative products, from Doraemon to Studio Ghibli. Perhaps the Japan in my mind is as real as the one I visited…

“what it means to have left one’s heart in an alien and hated country”

“Poor devils, they know what it means to have left one’s heart in an alien and hated country. There was, he saw clearly, only one way out. To find someone who would share his life in Burma – but really share it, share his inner, secret life, carry away from Burma the same memories as he carried. Someone who would love Burma as he loved it and hate it as he hated it. Who would help him to live with nothing hidden, nothing unexpressed. Someone who understood him: a friend, that was what it came down to.

A friend. Or a wife? The quite impossible she.”

– George Orwell, Burmese Days

Well, I am not living in a colony as a colonial master, but sometimes I feel the dynamic is somewhat similar when one lives as an expat in a developing country, and I sympathize with Orwell’s Flory.

What does it mean to have sunk roots into a country other than yours, a country you grow to both love and hate? And a country that causes you to both love and hate your own country?

Because it is inevitable to live in a country and not develop feelings for it. Its scenes start seeping into your soul, its people weave into your life, its values start becoming, insidiously, your values.

It also means that increasingly, the people who love and hate the same places and countries you love and hate become rarer, fewer on the ground. I envy people who, like my friend Arnulfo, have both their roots and their lives anchored in one place, because with that comes a certain certainty.

Oh, why did they launch us to sea with our faces ever facing to the shore?

There is a difference between being an immigrant and an expat.

Why should they be? Don’t they mean the same thing – being transplanted from your home country and into another?

But no – an immigrant comes from a place of powerlessness to the center of power, whereas an expat “deigns” to live in a lower-status country. In one you come in a position of supplication, hungry to assimilate, to join the culture, in the other, to provide “expertise”, to govern, to impart, to hold yourself at arm’s length from the culture. They are two very different ways of being.

In America I was an immigrant, in China I am an expat. And yet these categories, too, blur because I did not readily accept the cultural superiority of America while I was there, and in fact chose not to remain to attempt to assimilate, while China is a rising superpower which the world increasingly looks to for leadership. To delineate it as I did in a sentence is too simple.

It is uncomfortable to be on either side of the power differential. Of course it is a shock to realize there are many more hurdles for you than for people who are citizens to get particular jobs in particular industries, or to lack the networks that growing up in a country naturally bring. But it is equally uncomfortable knowing that you are paid on a completely different scale from your eminently qualified local colleagues, or that the terms of your contract are vastly more favorable simply because of your nationality. This is especially the case when you even look like them.

Orwell understood the corrupting nature of privilege, of the power differential. Perhaps it was even more extreme with a formal arrangement under colonialism.

“In reality, Flory had dodged the War because the East had already corrupted him, and he did not want to exchange his whisky, his servants and his Burmese girls for the boredom of the parade ground and the strain of cruel marches….What was at the centre of all his thoughts now, and what poisoned everything, was the ever bitterer hatred of the atmosphere of imperialism in which he lived.”

And then, of course, there is the fear, the constant fear of being simply that dithering, blathering idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing:

“Did all his trouble, then, simply boil down to that? Just complicated, unmanly whinings; poor-little-rich-girl stuff? Was he no more than a loafer using his idleness to invent imaginary woes? A spiritual Mrs Wititterly? A Hamlet without poetry? Perhaps. And if so, did that make it any more bearable? It is not the less bitter because it is perhaps one’s own fault, to see oneself drifting,k rotting, in dishonour and horrible futility, and all the while knowing that somewhere within one there is the possibility of a decent human being.”

(Also Orwell, Burmese Days)

Imaginary landscapes of parental pasts

As a kid growing up, you tend to have these mental pictures of the places your parents talk about, their old houses and schools and haunts, and your imagination fills in all the gaps of what they don’t describe to you, and you wind up with this whole internal geography of places that used to exist but don’t anymore, and then one stray detail gets added to it when an unrelated thing sparks your parent’s memory, and you have to revise your internal geography.

I had an imagined version of the house my mother grew up in, that had been demolished to make way for an expressway. And when she visited me in Beijing this time, she said living with a school in our backyard reminded her of Norfolk Road because of the school that was behind her house.  I had to do a double take because my impression of Norfolk Road had nothing to do with a school anywhere nearby.

Likewise the school my aunt first taught in in Sembawang was reachable only by a dirt road which she drove her little red Toyota to every day, and I have a vivid image of the muddy road splattering her chilli red car, but somehow it must be a false image because I never saw it, and this all took place way before I was born.

It makes me wonder at all the factual inaccuracies that we base our impressions of our lives and the lives of those we love on, how fragile these pictures are, and yet how powerful a force they have over us. I have grown attached to my ideas of these places, even though they are entirely imaginary, and to be forced to revise them actually feels like a violation of something I’ve held dear for a long time. Isn’t it precarious that our identities are based on something so inaccurate as imagination?

And yet there is something wonderful about these worlds that live inside us as well. They appear spontaneously, garnered from things we have seen and perhaps even things we have never seen, that have no source at all. The colours we choose for these imaginary worlds may come from the mood of the stories that come along with them, the people we’ve never met gain features representative of their characters as revealed by their actions. Every one of us carries such worlds within us, unbidden and unexamined. They reflect some aspect of reality – as filtered through emotion, perhaps, or personality. But they are different from reality, and yet a vital part of the scaffolding of our existence.

愚公移山: The Old Man Moves the Mountain

So I went to a post-rock concert with a friend last weekend at a Beijing venue called “Yu Gong Yi Shan” (愚公移山) and it got me thinking about the old Chinese story behind the idiom. It’s one of those four-character idioms that Chinese children are forced to memorize along with the story behind them which are both fascinating and frustrating when you’re trying to cram them for a Chinese test. But there is something cool about seeing these as names of nightclubs in China itself.
So the story of Yu Gong goes like this: There was a ninety-year-old man who had two mountains in front of his house. Naturally, he found them really inconvenient for getting out and coming in, and decided he was going to move the mountains. How? Well, by chipping off the rocks and moving them one little rock at a time. So he got out his pickaxe and started to work.

Of course other people saw him as foolish. “You’re ninety!” they said, “You’re never going to move the mountain.”

“But the number of the rocks in these mountains is finite, but when I die, my son will continue moving the mountain, and after him, my grandson will continue moving the mountain after him, so how is it foolish to say that the mountain will never be moved?” reasoned Yu Gong.

Impressed by his determination, the Emperor of Heaven sent immortals down to help Yu Gong move the mountain.

This story (and the idiom) is used to evoke the importance of determination and faithfulness in overcoming difficulties.

The story comes from a work of Chinese philosophy, Liezi (“Master Lie”) < 列子> attributed to philosopher Lie Yukou 列御寇, which dates back to about 4th to 5th century BC.

a red and green portrait of St Paul

St Paul

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” – Paul to the Romans, 5:1-5

Was listening to Rory Shiner’s sermons on Romans (, btw, that’s my voice doing the intro and conclusion to the podcast) and was inspired to do a portrait of Paul. It’s become a little trendy to be a little anti-Paul among Christian hipsters, myself included, due to some thorny passages about women that get a lot of press. But that aside, the man was such a deep thinker and an amazing, though difficult writer. He had these soaring run-on sentences that contain multiple abstract concepts linking one to the next with an insistent thread, just like the ones in the passage above. Sometimes it seems too much to hold so many things in your head all at once, and the moment you take to parse one part of the sentence the next washes over you like the next wave, scooping your feet from out under you in a rhythm you expect but still can’t prevent. And such theology! The insight into the fact that, like marionettes, we are slave either to sin or to God, at no point autonomous as we imagine ourselves to be, but governed by either one law or the other. Uncompromising, fierce insight. The body and soul as battleground, in extreme states one or the other:

“I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” (Romans 7:22-23)

This sense of struggle, and passion, I tried to convey using red and green, the most famously difficult complementary colours to use together (it’s a typographer’s no no to put red text on a green background and vice versa). I’m not sure I entirely got the penetrating gaze right that the icon I was riffing off of had so clearly, but I am rather proud of the eye rings I gave him. Somehow I never pictured Paul as a guy who got very much sleep.

when change and tears are past

Be still, my soul

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.

Leave to thy God to order and provide;

In every change, He faithful will remain.

Be still my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake

To guide the future, as He has the past.

Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;

All now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know

His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on

When we shall be forever with the Lord.

When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,

Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.

Be still my soul: when change and tears are past

All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.


My grandma, my last surviving grandparent, passed away last week, and we sang this hymn at her funeral. The day after we put her in the ground, I found myself playing it over and over at the piano and singing its solemn lyrics, and the heaviness of them gave my feelings a suitable weight and balm.

We had lost her slowly, not all at once, but a bit at a time. Not a big death, but many little deaths of attrition, as she lost her memory, then her speech, and finally her breath. It was painful to see her change, and what the song longs for is for this stasis, for a place and time where time is no more, and change and tears are past.

We are all awaiting that great change, that step beyond the threshold from life to death, and what lies beyond. But we are also constantly changing, sometimes with the violence of a budding shoot thrusting into light like in our adolescence, when everything rages within, and then later on that gentle slope of the greying, when youth is left behind and things begin to fail. I am too young to know that yet, I suppose, but I do feel it, the calmer waters I’ve arrived at since being that nightmare teenager, past the turbulence of my twenties when I feel my energy levels dip. It is a pilgrimage, life, one which we are to walk through at a set pace and one on which there is no turning back. A day, once lived, cannot be lived again.

And how she lived it, so well! All because she had her sights fixed on a constant star, the one unchanging thing amidst the world that roils and boils about like a psychedelic cartoon. “Leave to thy God to order and provide/ In every change, He faithful will remain”

God is surprising, but He is always the same. How can He surprise when He is unchanging? Perhaps because we are conditioned to expect so little of Him, that His generosity and love and abundance catch us unaware. But He was always there, the light source in the movie of her life. How she took the first step of faith to become the first Christian in her family when she heard the message in her school, how she chose the impoverished rubber tapper with the burning desire to build God’s kingdom for her husband, how she supported him and their children on her nurse’s salary and was unfailingly kind to those she met, and how she patiently bore with him when he left for Malaysia and did not come back. And how she, in her illness, never lost the sweetness of her spirit, or the optimism of her heart, or the love of her God even as she forgot everything else. She was herself a picture of faithfulness, and she could not have been without the faithfulness of her God to her through everything she suffered. I do not know how she bore with it all, or how such a sweet and humble lady should be made to suffer so much, but she did.

When I heard she had left, I felt panicked for a while that I did not know enough stories about her. But then I realized, when talking about her with the people from her life, that she was never one to be at the center of a story. She never drew attention to herself, always endlessly supportive of her husband (who thrived in the spotlight). Her grace was a quiet one, understated and self-effacing yet warm. She was incredibly self-controlled and long-suffering, never saying a bad word or complaining about anything, endlessly patient and kind. I wish I could say more than what sound like platitudes, but they are truly meant, with nothing of the glow of eulogy because they were so unadulterated and true.

When she had met my mum, she said to my dad that he would get $50 more a month’s allowance now, because he had a girlfriend. And in this way she showed that she approved of her. So gentle and understated and supportive. My best memory of her was when Grandpa told their love story to us during one of her birthdays, and then gave her four medals with their children’s names on them to honor her. She was flustered to be in the spotlight like that but accepted them graciously, and I thought she did deserve the grand gesture. She deserves many crowns, and will receive her rightful reward in the presence of God now, and it will be far richer than any she received on earth. It was a race well-run, and where she is change will not touch her, whether her body or her mind. There she awaits us too, and “all safe and blessed we shall meet at last”.