[withheld]'s Thunder Rites points of gen, ah, lt col. int

Daniel A. Foss (U17043@UICVM.BITNET)
Fri, 13 Oct 1995 22:30:40 CDT


Ruby Rohrlich has written,

>I think Daniel Foss's posting was neither over-written nor under-written,
>but excellently done, veryclear and most interesting. Ruby Rohrlich

...but, fact is, the post was deliberately ambiguous for, as in the literary
genre of fiction known as The Research Design, what I was to determine I said
in the post was to be ascertained *post facto*, from what you, pl., figured
it was about; I hadn't got my thinking straight that day; thought, geewiz,
I aint thunk in three weeks, need practice.

As it transpired, one of the better diving boreds for a cool dip into the
conceptual reddiwip came in an offline letter, from [withheld], whose name,
luck was holding, was withheld from the letter itself. As the <userid> is
vaguely familiar, I could easily ascertain who it was by calling up files and
using a Locate CMND, but let's suppose the writer has run away from home,
has no desire to reLocate. There are two comments of interest. The least
of these is:

>-some trial and error-some SCIENCE was involved.

Does this allude to the discovery of gunpowder in the tenth century? Or to
the elaboration of Thunder Rites in the twelfth? Daoists developed a taste
for *all sorts of stuff* in their quest for the Elixir of Immortality. Such
as deadly poisons, eg, Cinnabar. Not recommended, even for suicide attempts;
somatic effects too disgusting. But used to Attain Immortality anyway. Where
is the Error in the Trial and Error here? Where religion is involved, the line
is clearly drawn elsewhere than is takenforgranted in [withheld]'s assumptions
as to the relation between science and religion. (Which was sort-of noted in
the sentence preceding the line quoted above, but too late now.) If so much
makes you drop dead, maybe a lesser/greater dose gives you Eternal Life. We
are dealing here with the Supreme Goal Of Human Existence in one of the World's
Great Religions, right, Maureen Korp? and there must be a Way, Dao, to get to
it, somewhere, somehow. Which is not the Dao Daoism is principally concerned
with, anyhow. "The Dao is not the commonplace/unchanging Dao," begins the
founding text of this faith; it wasn't a faith at the time, however: The
line in question alludes to a revolt against the Confucian and other conser-
vative versions of the Dao, which indeed *was* embedded in commonplace assumpt-
ions and posited an unchanging social order.

The Daoists, to take it from the top, were not endeavouring to conduct
military R&D in the quest for high explosive. They were trying to live forever
and, from this perpective, when one of them made a Spectacular Error, his wife
and children and some good friend who could read his "lab notes" would,
typically, turn the Results over to the Ministry of War of one of the Five
Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms where there was desperate need for firepower at
the time. Military utility was to diminish, however.

The Scientific Method, my Computer Science instructors vainly tried to
tell me when I disregarded the Dao in the quest for making a living, the
Elixir of Immortality is easier, is not just trial and error. Something
about monkeys looking up the laws of probability and writing the Encyclopedia
Britannica, then getting sued for copyright infringement. In the lower depths
of [mis]behavioural-science "research," alas, the numbercruncher is apprised
that, given that one out of twenty computer runs comes up with something
statistically significant at the p=0.05 alpha level, or the universe is badly
screwed up; the latter, also, for no good reason; it is as the PI's discretion
whether to make a Thingie of this or not; and the latter in turn is contingent
upon the ease-cum-plausibility of fictionalizing The Research Design (the last
branch of fiction with the Dirty Parts left out, Bob Dole, can you hear me).
Those who have so much as eavesdropped on a Sociology of Science course will
have been apprised of the qualitative difference between *empirically observa-
ble* - via fieldwork - science, as opposed to normative-idealized science. Read
Bruno Latour, like everybody else. Until recently, when it was discovered that
he's French, presumed carrying nuclear warheads, he was a celebrity sociologist
whose public appearances, for reasons ill-understood to this writer, leave the
women present fainted in a heap on the floor. That was in Stony Brook.

The point of the foregoing, in case you care, is that the viability of trial
and error, whatever its normative-idealized stature, is contingent on situati-
onal success rate: With computers, if at first you don't succeed, STOP. In the
quest for Higher Things, the gods, dharma, Dao only knows what's Ultimate;
Error is part of the superficialities of Appearance; you don't just go around
junking Eternal Moral Principle for instrumental rationality, unless, depend-
ing: Only last night, I heard one chinoise say to another, "I want to use a
Mouse." So I immediately thought: "I want to use a Cat which is neither black
nor white."

[withheld], three lines later, said:

> Science is the business of coming up with useful explanations of phenomena.
> That is the best approximations of the physical universe. The physical

This is a truly difficult can of worms, pardon my metaphor. From the context
I gather that [withheld] was suggesting that, had the Chinese kept at their
science, they would have learned to blow things up using the gunpowder (anach-
ronism-Eurocentrism alert, they had a mixture of "sulphur, realgar, saltpeter,"
occasionally mixed with honey, which *we* call gunpowder); and thereafter they
would have rolled up their sleeves, had they but been able to afford shirts,
and figured out the how and the why. Here again, we are compelled to throw the
"utility" question back in the vat of molten ghee wiz. What I'm sure about
"utility" is that there is an index number for the share price of fifteen or
twenty-five of the Thingies computed continuously and published daily by Dow
Jones, Standard & Poor's, or one of those businesslike Thingies in there.

Under the Northern Song Dynasty, Chinese military R&D produced rocket
grenades, antipersonnel mines, hand grenades, and even a few rudimentary
infantry handheld projectile weapons. There was a severe manpower shortage
on. The standing army of 1,250,000 armored infantrymen was utterly helpless
against a few tens of thousands of Khitan (Liao), Tangut (Xixia), and, later,
Jurchen (Jin) tribal cavalrymen. One of the problems was morale. The soldiers
felt treated like branded criminals. This was likely because they *were*
branded criminals. The Conservative party (there was a two-party system in
the Northern Song) never missed a trick to starve the professional military
of prestige, horses, and above all, money. (The activist-interventionist party,
epitomized by the Great Reformer Wang Anshi[*] and his "New Policies," despite
frantic and effective efforts to reorganize the army and procure horses, nota-
bly failed in this sphere.) The impact on firepower was, well, that when the
Jurchen besieged the capital in 1126, it was found that the gunpowder weapons
were nonfunctional as well as out of ammunition thanks to budget cuts.

Confucianism was originally marketed, in the third century BC, as a prophy-
lactic against social revolution. The most systematic pre-Imperial Confucian,
Xunzi [=Hsun Tzu], d. 265, made this quite explicit. After going through a pile
of analogies relating the fears and terrors of rulers to the fact that danger
from the people was objectively real - this was before the earliest-known all-
China peasant war, commenced 209 BC - where, for example, the ruler is riding
in a coach and the people are the horses pulling it, but the people can act
like runaway horses and topple the vehicle, ruler, baby, and all, he stated:
"From ancient times it has been traditionally said, 'The people are the water
and the ruler is the boat. [No, no, fish, dammit, fish.] The water keeps the
boat afloat; the water also capsizes the boat.'" Whether Xunzi was fibbing
about the "from ancient times it has been traditionally said" is unknown, to
me, that is; Confucians, lacking textual bases for Tradition, would write it
as they needed it; then they'd keep it on the Required Reading list for
centuries and make you Responsible For It On The Test. Ask Chu Xi, when he
was just small.

Conservative Confucians (reformist ones like Wang Anshi were atypical in
most periods) feared the effects of state fiscality on incitement of the
peasantry to insurrection and worse. A minority benefited, however greatly,
from the most beneficent state-intervention projects (eg, flood control in
the ever-flooded valley of the course-shifting Yellow River; defense of the
country against foreign enemies); the majority chiefly noted the mounting
tax burden on those least able to pay; the latter was something the landlord
was there to ensure, it's the Dao, Daoist *and* Confucianist, i'll bet.

What was infinitely cheaper than state intervention for societal development
(and defending the country) was ideology and indoctrination. (It still is. This
is what the political regime of the People's Republic of China is least bad at.
Compared to, say, management of state-owned enterprises or gender equality.)
This was critical in Imperial China of the Song period, as by that time each
successive political regime since that of Wang Mang the Usurper (9-23) had been
rocked to its socks or overthrown by religious-sectarian-millenarian violence.
This is not counting the first social revolution, 209-202 BC, which overthrew
the successor of Qin Shihuangdi, Mao's hero; the First Emperor was a widely
hated sonofabitch, a state of esteem he embraced as a matter of principle.
Where Mao wanted to be loved. The religious content of the peasant war is not
clear and may be presumed secondary. But Wang Mang, who deposed the Former Han
(202 BC-9 AD) was sliced up on his throne by the Red Eyebrows. The Later Han
(23-220) had the stuffing knocked out by the psychotropic-Drug-using Daoist
Yellow Turbans in 184....The inchoate mess which overthrew the aristocratic
ruling class of the Tang, the last longlived political regime ("Dynasty")
anterior to the Song, had an admixture of nativist religiosity still obscure.
The movement was led by a salt smuggler named Huang Chao, who in 884 led his
army in massacring Muslims, Jews, and Nestorian Christians in Guangzhou, to
the reported number of 200,000. This was not an atrocity committed by skeptics
and atheists. (Folks, I'm still working on the connection between this social
revolution and Chinese footbinding, which commences at this time; so if you
hear any rumours, send a pigeon.) Persecution of Buddhism had commenced earlier
for likewise nativist reasons; the bigotry of Han Yu, 779-824, is noteworthy
for antiforeign-xenophobic pitches for Confucianism against Buddhism; and the
confiscation of Buddhist Church property came in 841-845, mainly because the
state was broke.

The Song state, for reasons of internal security, the sort of security it
really cared about, took religious expression whereof it disapproved (as well
as approved) extremely seriously. As it did not take defending the country.
(Well, that's not fair; but the won-lost record is cellar-dwelling.) The
scriptural religions were regulated by Buddhist and Daoist Bureaus, respecti-
vely; these compiled the canons for each, deleting scriptures sociopolitically
undesirable. In the realm of "popular religion," the Song promoted approved
cults with titles, subsidies, tax-exemptions, and commencing the recognition
of gods having non-merely-local significance. (See Valerie Hansen, Changing
Gods in Medieval China, Ch 6.) The previously-mentioned Emperor Huizong, in
whose reign the first work on Thunder Rites was published, was most generous
in bestowing titles on needy gods. (He was also the most military catastrophic.
He was captured by the Jurchen in 1125, in whose custody he died. His reputa-
tion as a painter of bird pictures, in the "Academic Style," remains justly
celebrated, however.)

The struggle against the outlaw shrines, from the perspective of officialdom
of course, was one of whitemagic (Thunder Rites) against blackmagic. Which is
Eurocentric and racist, but whatthehell, virtue is boring. Read too much
Confucian prose. (Say, people, if you can't sleep, and the condition persists,
I recommend Martina Deuchler, The Confucian Transformation of Korea: A Study
of Society and Ideology, Harvard, 1992; Patricia Buckley Ebrey's 1993 book
The Inner Quarters is everything this book is not, notwithstanding the social-
anthropological theory and kinship diagrams used in each.)

The utility of magical intervention in the supernatural requires superna-
tural-magical trappings. Without the amulets, spells, incantations, and
talismans, the gunpowder was useless for the purpose at hand. Which was
showing that our god has got *ling* and yours, well, we blew it up, didn't

For those interested in what *ling* is, John McCreery will be overjoyed
to explain. While he's at it, he will also formulate the precise meanings
of *qi*, *yin*-*yang*/Five [Untranslatable]s, and other Thingies which the
Chinese have kept carefully Undefined for over 2,000-2,500 years. (Note:
whatever the precise relation between Thingies and "phenomena," the preceding
are not "phenomena," but clearly are Thingies.)

An example of *ling*. Though the memory of Mao Zedong remains execrated,
the years 1991-1992 witnessed a surging market in Mao memorabilia. One reason
for this was that it came to be believed, in particular by motorists on danger-
ous roads, that those vehicles destroyed in massive traffic pileups were
distinguished by *not* having Mao amulets hanging from the rearview mirrors;
those vehicles spared, contrastingly, had these very amulets where they could
do the most good. Thus Mao acquired *ling*, turnoverinhisgrave as he might.

Daniel A. Foss
(*) Wang Anshi was an authoritative commentator on the *Yijing*, or I Ching.
His great Conservative opponent, Sima Guang, was an authority on the heavily-
forged Book of History. The Classics were taken Very Seriously by your Normal
Confucians; but the better of them never confused delusional pasts with What's
Really Out There Now. The better of them.