Friday, October 18, 2013

The Dauis Church Part 2

Those of you who follow the news may have saw or read about the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the Central Visayas region of the Philippines this past October 15, with the epicenter of the quake being the center of the island of Bohol.

Had my life taken a different path nearly two decades ago, this particular earthquake would likely have been no different to me than any other natural disaster to afflict a country thousands of miles away.  Brief moments of sadness and maybe a donation to a disaster relief organization if the damage and death toll were particularly severe, only to fade away and be forgotten.

In this case though, the quake affected me personally because Bohol is the island where my wife grew up and where her family lives.  I have been there three times in the last ten years and the wife, kids and I were planning to visit again next summer.

The good news, to cut to the chase, is that the family there are safe and unhurt.  The house of my sister-in-law Mia and her husband Stuart was badly damaged and is uninhabitable for the time being, though Stuart seems to believe that the damage can be repaired.

The death toll at present is below 200, with some hundreds more injured.  The physical damage is far greater, with the island's infrastructure severely damaged.  Bridges have collapsed, roads have been buckled, and buildings destroyed.  It will likely take some time before the island looks like it did before the quake, and I imagine that there will be some kind of effort to enforce stricter building standards to make structures more resistant to quakes.

One class of buildings that has suffered considerable damage, and in some cases virtually complete destruction, is Bohol's many Spanish colonial era Catholic churches.

Among those churches is one that has some personal resonance with me, the Dauis Church, which I did a blog post on nearly 6 years ago.  It was the church were Stuart and Mia had their wedding ceremony on June 26, 2004.  Below is a picture of the Dauis Church I took on the day of their wedding.

And here is how it looks now.

As you can see, most of the front of the building's façade has crumbled, though the tower looks largely intact.  I haven't seen pictures of the sides and back of the church, so I don't know how widespread the damage is.  Other churches, particularly the Baclayon and Loboc churches, have been largely destroyed.

Granted, as an atheist, I would rather that a hundred churches (unoccupied, of course!) crumble to dust than lose a single hospital for treating the sick and injured.  In this case though, the Dauis Church has a sentimental value for me, as it was the setting for a joyous occasion in our family.  And as I wrote in my original post about the church, I can appreciate such places for their historical and cultural importance as well. 

It Takes A Sick Day To Start Blogging Again

Yeah, it's been nothing but crickets here for the last three months, probably my longest dry spell ever.  It hasn't been for want of topics to blog about but finding the time.  Well, today I'm home sick and have the house to myself, so I am all out of excuses.  Here we go!

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Fear of Pigs

For about the last year, I've been reading lots of memoirs and journals of explorers from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  I'm currently reading on my Nook Memoirs of a Buccaneer: Dampier's Voyage Round the World 1697.  As I've written before, I find it fascinating to read first hand accounts of such travelers.  While their descriptions are of course tainted to varying degree by their biases, flawed recollections or lack of understanding of some of the things they witnessed, they are still some of the best sources of information we have of the lands they visited and the peoples they encountered during an age that did not have cameras.

Once I read a little about William Dampier, a sometime pirate and self-styled naturalist who sailed to many places around the world and wrote in keen detail about the peoples, climate, animals and plants of the lands he visited, I knew I had to read his memoir.  In some respects, he was a sort of proto-Charles Darwin.

One recent passage that caught my interest concerns his ship's stopover in Mindanao, a heavily Muslim part of the Philippines that at the time was not under Spanish rule, where Dampier describes the Mindanaoans religious practices.

"A main part of their Religion consists in washing often, to keep themselves from being defiled; or after they are defiled to cleanse themselves again.  They also take great care to keep themselves from being polluted, by tasting or touching any thing that is accounted unclean; therefore Swines Flesh is very abominable to them; nay, any one that hath either tasted of Swines Flesh, or touched those Creatures, is not permitted to come into their Houses many Days after, and there is nothing will scare them more than a Swine.

Yet there are wild Hogs in the Islands, and those so plentiful, that they will come in Troops out of the Woods in the Night into the very City, and come under their Houses, to romage up and down the Filth that they find there.  The Natives therefore would even desire us to lie in wait for the Hogs to destroy them, which we did frequently, by shooting them and carrying them presently on board, but were prohibited their Houses afterwards."

Dampier then follows this with another amusing story.

"And now I am on this Subject, I cannot omit a Story concerning the General [Dampier is referring to a man called Raja Laut, who was apparently a general of the Sultan of Mindanao].  He once desired to have a Pair of Shoes made after the English Fashion, though he did very seldom wear any: So one of our Men made him a Pair, which the General liked very well.

Afterwards, some body told him, that the Thread wherewith the Shoes were sowed, were pointed with Hogs-bristles.  This put him into a great Passion; so that he sent the Shoes to the Man that made them, and sent with him withal more Leather to make another Pair, with Threads pointed with some other Hair, which was immediately done, and then he was well pleased."

Given the popularity and prevalence of pork in the diet of Filipinos (as someone who is married to a Filipina, I can attest that no Filipino party is complete without a pig roast), I wonder how long it took the Filipinos who converted to Islam to abandon pork and if there was some resistance to it.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thank God for [Fill in the blank]

Recently, one of my wife's aunts flew back to the Philippines for a family reunion.  She posted about her arrival on Facebook and proceeded to give thanks to God for safely reaching her destination.

Me, being the wiseass that I am, couldn't help but respond by commenting "Don't leave out the pilot and the air traffic controllers."  I also added a smiley face to keep things in a humorous vein.

But seriously though, why didn't the flesh and blood human beings who actively participated in the flight of her plane from takeoff to landing get any credit from her?  What specifically did God do to ensure the safe arrival of her flight that could not be accounted for by the engineers who designed the plane, the mechanics who built and maintained it, the pilots who flew it, and the air traffic controllers who helped guide its departure and landing?  Did God surround the plane with a magic shield to keep it from being struck by lightning?  Or did he prevent a defective part from giving out during the flight?

And of course, for the occasional flight that does crash or encounters some other difficulty, was God momentarily distracted, or, more disturbingly, is this supposedly omniscient and omnipotent being actively deciding what planes will reach their destinations and which will meet with disaster?

Then there was a Facebook friend who wrote of a family member who faced some serious medical issue.  She did not elaborate on what it was, and of course, it was indelicate to ask.  Fortunately, as per her recent update, the relative is doing better.  But this friend added that God had answered her prayers.

Would the relative have recovered in the absence of her prayers, or would he be dead by now?  If he had undergone medical treatment, where was the thanks for the medical professionals? 

Being the moderate atheist that I am, I can live with people thanking God for this or that thing, so long as they give some props to the people who played a role in helping to bring about the desired end.

Monday, April 29, 2013

China's Age Old Obsession with Secrecy

While reading R. Po-chia Hsia's biography of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, A Jesuit In The Forbidden City, there was one brief passage that was of particular interest to me because it illustrates a certain characteristic of China's government that is still of tremendous relevance in the present day.

In his early years in China in the late 16th century, Matteo Ricci served with another Jesuit missionary named Michele Ruggieri.  One of the ways the Jesuits tried to impress and curry favor with their Chinese hosts was to show off their superior knowledge of astronomy and cartography.  These included making astronomical predictions and providing the most up to date and accurate maps of the then known world.

Hsia writes of an incident that Ruggieri describes between Ricci and a Mandarin official.

"[O]nce Ricci told their patron Wang Pan the exact latitude and longitude of his hometown and was surprised to find that Wang 'was very angry and reprehended [Ricci] for knowing such things'.  Missionaries must not be seen to know or describe their country or provinces, Ruggieri concluded, as they would otherwise be suspected of harboring evil intentions of conquest."

In recent years, foreigners in China are finding themselves ruffling the feathers of the Chinese government over the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment.

An article from Nature in 2008 summarizes the dilemma:

Foreign researchers working in China are falling foul of laws restricting environmental monitoring and use of Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment. Geologists, botanists, environmental scientists and meteorologists have been affected. Even those who believed that they were within the law and were collaborating with Chinese researchers have lost data, been detained and had equipment confiscated.

One of the most recent and prominent cases of foreigners running afoul of these restrictions is Coca-Cola.

The beverage giant's sin in the eyes of the Chinese government was that "trucks for some of its bottling plants use location technology that is widely available commercially in China to improve the efficiency of deliveries."

A more serious case involves a Chinese-American geologist named Xue Feng.  Several years ago, Feng was sentenced to eight years in prison for "violating the country’s vague state secrets laws after he obtained an oil industry database for his employer, IHS Energy, a consulting company in Colorado."

In a letter to President Barack Obama, David Rowley, a geologist and professor of geology under whom Feng served as a graduate student, wrote:

This was not a nefarious deal, but a very public one in which Xue Feng was simply a corporate representative acting on IHS’s behalf. He had done this many times before. What is most troubling is that it raises concern for all of us who work or do research in China and may be given books or documents that exist in the public domain but are deemed "state secrets" after the fact. What source can assure us that we are within the law? How can anyone be sure that the information they have is "legal"? Having worked in China for 26 years and researched the geology, including the petroleum geology of China, I have to admit I am no longer certain and far from confident that I too will not be detained, incarcerated, and found guilty of violating states secrets for possession of geologic information that I bought at the bookstore.
Feng has also alleged that his captors tortured him, including burning his arms with lit cigarettes.

It has been over a century since China was ruled by emperors, but one thing that seems to have survived since at least as early as the Ming Dynasty is the ruling government's paranoia with regard to outsiders' knowledge of China.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Back In Action Soon

My computer was knocked out of commission due to a massive hard drive corruption since last week, but fortunately the computer repair guy I know was able to bring her back to life.  I hope to resume posting next week.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Om Mani Pad Butt: In Which I Shit on Buddhism

"Let not one deceive another nor despise any person whatever in any place.  In anger or illwill let not one wish any harm to another."

 The Metta Sutta, a Buddhist sutta.

"This spirit of tolerance and understanding has been from the beginning one of the most cherished ideals of Buddhist culture and civilization.  That is why there is not a single example of persecution or the shedding of blood in converting people to Buddhism, or in its propagation during its long history of 2500 years.  It spread peacefully all over the continent of Asia, having more than 500 million adherents today.  Violence in any form, under any pretext whatsoever, is absolutely against the teaching of the Buddha."

 'What The Buddha Taught' by Walpola Rahula (emphasis mine).

When I abandoned the Catholicism in which I had been raised and believed on Easter in 1988, I spent the next two or three years in a state of spiritual flux before I eventually came to the conclusion that there was no god.  During that period, I took an interest in Buddhism and added to my library Walpola Rahula's 'What The Buddha Taught', from which I quoted above.

Though I ended up rejecting Buddhism as a package, I did find a lot in the religion that appealed to me and which I incorporated, with varying degrees of success, into my life.  In some ways, Buddhism has a lot in common with Christianity, with both religions admonishing us not to set too much store in the material things of this world.  And Catholicism and Buddhism both have nuns and monks.

One valid criticism that Western Christians have made of Westerners who rejected Christianity and embraced various forms of Eastern religious and spiritual traditions is that they idealized the East while having a shallow understanding of it and overlooking some of the very flaws that turned them off to Western religions.

Regardless of our knowledge of Buddhism, many of us in the West likely hew to notions of Buddhists, particularly Buddhist monks, as being gentle, peaceful folk who would never harm anyone.

This stereotype, whether it was ever really true, is increasingly being shown to be false in at least two Buddhist majority countries.  In both Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have been instigating violence against the Muslims and other religious minorities in their respective countries.

First, Myanmar.  This article from The New York Times paints a frightening picture:

Images from Meiktila showed entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, some with only blackened trees left standing. Lifeless legs poked from beneath rubble. And charred corpses spoke to the use of fire as a main tool of the rioting mobs.

One video posted to Facebook by Radio Free Asia on Friday showed Muslim women and men cowering and shielding their heads from flying objects as they fled their attackers. Onlookers are overheard shouting, “Oooh! Look how many of them. Kill them! Kill them!”

Just as in western Myanmar, where more than 150 people have been killed in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims over the past year, those behind the violence in Meiktila tried to stop images of the destruction from getting out. On Friday, a group of Buddhist monks threatened news photographers, including one who works for The Associated Press, with a sword and homemade weapons. With a monk holding a blade to his neck, U Khin Maung Win, the A.P. photographer, handed over his camera’s memory card. (Underlined for emphasis).

While the violence has only recently flared in towns like Meiktila in central Myanmar, the situation with regard to the Muslim Rohingya minority in Arakan, a coastal state on the Bay of Bengal near Bangladesh, has been festering for a number of years and looks to be getting worse.

From a Human Rights Watch report:

The Burmese government is systematically restricting humanitarian aid and imposing discriminatory policies on Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State.

Arakan State’s Rohingya population also faces widespread hostility from the majority Burmese Buddhist society. The violence in Arakan State in June between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims was followed by planned attacks on Rohingya and Kaman Muslim communities in various townships in the state in October.

More recently, disputes between Buddhists and Muslims resulted in violence in the central Burma town of Meikhtila on March 20 to 22, which has spread to other parts of the country. During the violence, at least five mosques were burned down and an unknown number of people died as mobs and Buddhist monks attacked Muslim residents and set fire to Muslim homes, businesses, and places of worship. The violence in Meikhtila has displaced 12,000 Muslims, according to OCHA.

“The unfortunate lesson from the violence in Arakan State is that so far the government does little to hold accountable those who violate the rights of Muslims in Burma,” Robertson said. “By failing to stop violence and prosecute those who incite it, the country’s leaders are failing the test of reform.”

And then there's Sri Lanka.

Several people have been injured in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, when Buddhist monks led hundreds in an assault on a Muslim-owned clothing warehouse.
Buddhist monks were filmed throwing stones at the storage centre of popular garment chain Fashion Bug in a suburb of the capital on Thursday night.

After some Muslim groups called a strike in protest against a growing Buddhist campaign against their lifestyle, including halal food classification, a hard-line Buddhist party in the governing coalition issued a statement saying: "Sinhalese Buddhists should be determined to teach such Muslim extremists a lesson that they will never forget".

Perhaps the Sinhalese Buddhists would be wise to heed the words of the Buddhist Emperor Asoka Maurya, who declared in one of his Rock Edicts:

"One should not honor only one's own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honor others' religions for this or that reason.  So doing, one helps one's own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too.  In acting otherwise one digs the grave of one's own religion and also does harm to other religions.  Whosoever honors his own religion and condemns other religions, thinking 'I will glorify my own religion.'  But on the contrary, in so doing he injures his own religion more gravely."

Happy Chocolate Bunny Day!

I've just been too damned busy to post anything new of late, for which I apologize. It's just so hard to find the time given all I have on my plate, but in the spirit of Easter, hopefully I will be able to resurrect this blog.

But for now, I leave you with an obligatory clip from Monty Python's Life of Brian:

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Why Did China Fall Behind?

"Moving on from here, we shall tell you next of a large and very splendid city called Suzhou.  The people here are idolaters subject to the Great Khan and using paper money.  They live by trade and industry, have silk in great quantity and make much silken cloth for their clothing.  The city is so large that it measures about forty miles in circumference.  It has so many inhabitants that no one could reckon their number.  I give you my word that the men of  the province of Manzi [southern China], if they were a war-like nation, would conquer all the rest of the world."

                                                                 The Travels of Marco Polo (circa 1300)

"The Empire of China is an old, crazy, First rate man-of-war, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers has contrived to keep afloat for these one hundred and fifty years past, and to overawe their neighbors merely by her bulk and appearance, but whenever an insufficient man happens to have command upon deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship.  She may perhaps not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom."

                                                                             Lord George Macartney (1794)

There are a number of topics that historians and those who take an interest in history love to discuss and debate.  Among the more popular ones are the reasons for the collapse and fall of the Roman Empire in the West or whether the Confederacy could have won the Civil War.  Another subject of historical interest is the mystery of why China, which had seemed so far advanced a half millennium ago, fell so far behind the European powers.  

The two quotes at the top of this post serve as convenient bookends to the period when Europeans received their first popular eyewitness account of China possessing vast riches and power and ending when they realized the Chinese empire had become a hopeless anachronism.  So, somewhere in between that time, something happened to cause China to fall from its height as an object of wonder and admiration down to the level of pity and scorn.

The China described by the Venetian Marco Polo was ruled by the Mongols, whose various khanates stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Eastern Europe, which some historians have dubbed the "Pax Mongolica".  The Mongols would be driven out of China in 1368 and replaced by the last native Chinese dynasty known as the Ming.  The early Ming emperors were energetic rulers who expanded their territory south into present day Vietnam and north against their former Mongol rulers.

It was during the reign of the third Ming emperor, known as the Yongle emperor, that a series of treasure fleets were sent out that sailed through the Malacca Strait into the Indian Ocean, some venturing as far as the Red Sea and possibly to the coast of present day Mozambique.  The treasure fleets, consisting of several hundred ships, some reportedly up to 400 feet in length (by way of comparison, Columbus's ship the Santa Maria was about 85 feet long) were launched on their first of seven voyages in 1405, with the seventh and last voyage ending in 1433.

Right about the time that the era of the Ming treasure fleets was drawing to a close, at the other end of the Eurasian landmass, the Portuguese were spearheading what would become the European Age of Discovery.  Over the course of half a century, Portuguese navigators pushed further and further down the coast of Africa until in 1488 they reached the southern tip and were poised to enter the Indian Ocean.

So why was it that it was the Portuguese who circumnavigated Africa and came to dominate the Indian Ocean, instead of the Chinese sailing into the Atlantic and discovering Europe?

The short answer is that the Portuguese, as well as the other European kingdoms and states, desired the goods of the Orient, and wanted to trade directly with the lands of east Asia, thus bypassing the hostile Muslim states that dominated the Middle East.  In other words, the Europeans were driven by a want of things.  The Chinese, on the other hand, felt they had all that they needed and saw no need to explore foreign lands.

One possible reason for China's stagnation is that being the largest and most powerful state in East Asia made it complacent.  Portugal, by comparison, was a poor country inhabiting a strip of land on the Atlantic coast that was hemmed in by Spain.  The Portuguese had nowhere to go but out into the sea to seek their fortunes.

China's view of itself and the world around it may have been roughly analogous to the Roman Empire at its peak during the 2nd century C.E.  H.G. Wells, in his sweeping historical work, The Outline of History, makes the following observations about Rome:

"In one field of knowledge particularly we might have expected the Romans to have been alert and enterprising, and that was geography.  Their political interests demanded a steadfast inquiry into the state of affairs beyond their frontiers, and yet that inquiry was never made.  There is practically no literature of Roman travel beyond the imperial limits..."

"Yet Rome was content to feast, exact, grow rich, and watch its gladiatorial shows without the slightest attempt to learn anything of India, China, Persia or Scythia, Buddha or Zoraster, or about the Huns, the Negroes, the people of Scandinavia, or the secrets of the western sea."

A similar mindset can be detected in the letter of the Qing dynasty's Qianlong Emperor to King George III of England in response to Lord Macartney's mission to open China to trade in the 1790's.

"You, O King, live beyond the confines of many seas, nevertheless, impelled by your humble desire to partake of the benefits of our civilisation, you have dispatched a mission respectfully bearing your memorial. Your Envoy has crossed the seas and paid his respects at my Court on the anniversary of my birthday. To show your devotion, you have also sent offerings of your country's produce."

"Our dynasty's majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures."

While Western ships began to frequent China's waters from the 16th century onward, and some Westerners, particularly Jesuit missionaries, became resident in the Chinese imperial court, there does not seem to have been much, if any, effort on the part of the rulers of the Chinese empire, be they native Ming or later on the Manchu Qing, to send ambassadors to the European powers and learn more about them.

I remember reading somewhere that one theory for why Europe was able to advance technologically so fast was precisely because it consisted of a multitude of smaller countries that were in competition with one another.  Because China was the preeminent power in East Asia, there was no local competitor to spur her on to innovate.  The one nation in the region that had the potential to play the part of that competitor, Japan, would itself turn inward in the early 17th century and stay that way for another two and a half centuries.

China's age of exploration, if one could call it that, was largely due to the vanity and pretensions of the Yongle emperor, and once he had died, there was no one else capable or interested in patronizing such voyages.  One factor in ending the treasure fleets was the conflict at the imperial court between Confucian advisors, who considered the fleets to be wasteful extravagances, and the eunuchs, with the former opposing them and coming out on top in the struggle.  If the Chinese court was not going to sponsor a long distance naval voyage, there was no one else to turn to.

In Europe, by contrast, there were a multitude of potential patrons.  The Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus claimed that one could reach the wealthy kingdoms of Asia by sailing westward into the Atlantic.  If the king of Portugal turned him down, he could try his hand with the French court.  If France wasn't interested, there was always Spain.  And once Columbus returned from his voyage, evidently having found some hitherto unknown lands, it spurred an interest in further exploration of what would turn out to be the Americas by the other naval powers of Europe.  Magellan is another illustrative example.  He was Portuguese, but when the king of Portugal declined to support his plan to find a way to sail around South America to reach the Spice Islands of the East Indies, again the Spanish monarchy was willing to bankroll a navigator who was not one of their own.

The Ming cannot be entirely faulted for ignoring the potential threat from European navies during the duration of their rule.  In fact, on several occasions, the Ming navy was able to inflict defeats on the Portuguese and the Dutch.  The real existential threat to their survival came from their northern and western land frontiers.  While the Mongols were expelled from China in 1368, they remained a powerful opponent well into the 16th century, even capturing a Ming emperor in battle in the mid-15th century.  The Mongols were soon eclipsed in the north by the Jurchen, more commonly known to us today as the Manchus, who themselves would succeed in conquering China in the latter half of the 17th century.

Still, if one Ming ruler, the Yongle emperor, was the initiator of China's great treasure fleets, another Ming monarch, the Wanli emperor, played a critical role in crippling the dynasty's survival.  After showing some early promise, during the remainder of his reign, which straddled the last two decades of the 16th century and the first two decades of the 17th century, the Wanli emperor basically stopped doing his job.  Jonathan Spence, in The Search for Modern China, writes, "For years on end he held no court audiences to discuss key political events, gave up his studies of the historical and philosophical texts that lay at the heart of Confucian learning, refused to read state papers, and even stopped filling the vacancies that occurred in the upper levels of officialdom."

With the emperor asleep at the wheel, the dynasty entered a period of terminal decline.  The tax structure collapsed, leaving the dynasty without the means to pay its armies to defend against the Manchus as well as deal with the internal revolts that ended up bringing the dynasty down.  So, while the European naval powers were making technological advances in a wide range of fields, the Chinese at this critical time were held back by a lack of effective leadership, which in turn led to government collapse.   Perhaps if Wanli had been a visionary and dynamic emperor, he might have attempted to learn how small nations so many thousands of miles away could send ships across vast oceans into Chinese waters.  In an autocratic society, change comes from the top down.  China needed its equivalent of Russia's Peter the Great, a ruler with the wisdom to recognize that his empire was backward and who possessed the force of personality needed to drag his empire, kicking and screaming, into modernity.  But no such leader was forthcoming.

A Spanish Jesuit, Alonso Sanchez, acidly observed in 1581 that "the Chinese are so arrogant that they consider themselves the cream and flower of the world, and it seems to them there is no understanding except theirs, and no-one but they knew any laws or customs.  Thus they look down on all other nations, considering them beastly."

China was ultimately held back by its self-imposed conceit that it was the center of civilization and that any relations with other nations was viewed through the prism of receiving tribute from barbarian states.  The Jesuit Sanchez, quoted above, was also of the belief that China was militarily weak and that the Spanish king Philip II should send an armada to conquer her.  We know that Philip did eventually build an armada to attempt to conquer England, which did not end well.  While the balance of power had gradually tilted in Europe's favor by the late 16th century, because of the sheer distance involved, it would not be until the Opium War of 1839 to 1842 that a European power, namely England, possessed the means to project sufficient force to crush China.

As a history lesson, China is a case study of what can happen to a great power when it takes its superiority for granted.

In writing this post, I relied on the following books, which I recommend if one has a further interest in this topic or Chinese history in general.

The Travels of Marco Polo.  I have the Penguin Classics edition.

The Immobile Empire by Alan Peyrefitte.  This is a fascinating book about Lord Macartney's mission to open China to British trade in the 1790's.  Peyrefitte interweaves his story with written accounts from members of the mission as well as the Chinese officials and the emperor Qianlong himself.  One can see how how both sides ended up talking past each other rather than to each other.

The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence.  Spence's sweeping work covers Chinese history from the late Ming up to the era of Deng Xiaoping.  The edition I have was published in 1990, so it is possible that later editions of this book cover the post-Tiananmen era.

A Jesuit In The Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci 1552 -1610 by R. Po-chia Hsia.  I only just started reading this book on my Nook several days ago.  It was the source for my quote of the Spanish Jesuit Alonso Sanchez.  As a well educated Jesuit missionary in late Ming China, Matteo Ricci is a valuable source of information about China during that time period.

The Outline of History, Vol. 1 by H.G. Wells.  This was one of the books that really got me into history.  Thank you to whichever of my parents was responsible for buying it.  It's one major weakness is that it is suffused with the author's racial views of nearly a century ago, which have long since become outmoded.

When China Ruled The Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1403 - 1433 by Louise Levathes.  It's a work of popular history, just over 200 pages, not including the notes and the index, that covers the treasure fleet voyages and their historical context, without the outlandish claims of Gavin Menzies.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Magical Thinking Gets People Killed

Some three dozen people were killed yesterday during a stampede at a train station in Allahabad, India during the Kumbh Mela festival.  The festival is described as "the largest religious gathering on earth" which takes place every 12 years "on the banks of the 'Sangam'- the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati." 

So, what happens at this Hindu religious festival?

From The New York Times article linked to above:

"Those who bathe in the conjoined waters are cleansed of their sins and given blessings that extend through several generations, Hindus say. Pilgrims make the trip not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren.

N. K. Auddy, a consulting engineer from Kolkata, was taking part in his first Kumbh because his daughter recently gave birth to his first grandchild, and he was hoping for a divine blessing for the child. “I want him to have a good future,” Mr. Auddy said."

Seriously?  How does one measure the difference in the lives of children or grandchildren of those whose ancestors bathe in the rivers and those who don't?  It obviously didn't make a positive difference in the lives of the pilgrims who were trampled to death.

If Mr. Auddy's grandson is to have a good future, he'll be better served by having a loving, supportive family, access to a good education, clean drinking water and decent health care.  I don't see how bathing in a river with millions of other people, which is not particularly sanitary, is going to provide a better future for his descendants.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Tragedy of the Rhino

Since at least from the end of the Ice Age about 12,000 years ago, the human race has had a growing impact on the natural world.  We have expanded into virtually every area of the globe, cutting down forests, draining swamps, turning fields into farmland, fishing the oceans and building factories that have spewed pollutants into the atmosphere. 
By sheer virtue of the size of the population of the human race, which is now counted at over seven billion people, we simply can't help but have a negative impact on the Earth's ecosystems and the other species that inhabit them.  On land, we have encroached on the habitats of numerous species, while the weapons in our assault on the oceans have included overfishing and the release of our sewage and agricultural runoff to create oceanic deadzones.  Then there is the threat of global warming.
We're a veritable bull in a china shop, destroying so much around us.  Even the most environmentally conscious of us realize that while we can take steps to mitigate the damage, it is simply impossible for humanity to stop all or most of it, unless we are all prepared to commit mass suicide. 
We take it for granted that the decline of most forms of wildlife and the loss of natural wilderness is the unavoidable collateral damage caused by the dominance of our species on this planet.  Still, we cannot help but be shocked and outraged when an animal finds its very existence imperiled because of the misguided beliefs of a significant number of people.
The animal in question here is the rhino and the threat to them comes from increased poaching due to a recent and rising demand for rhino horn powder in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam.  The chart below, from the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, displays annual death tolls for rhinos in South Africa.

This Conde Nast Traveler article on the rise in rhino poaching notes that "[t]his current poaching spike, which follows years of relative calm, began in 2008 after a Vietnamese government official claimed to have been cured of cancer after taking rhino horn."

For centuries, the powder from ground rhino horns have been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine.  Rhino horns are composed mostly of a protein called keratin which can also be found in the hair, skin, and nails of humans, along with horse hooves and the horns of other animals.

"Overall there isn’t much evidence to support the plethora of claims about the healing properties of the horns. In 1990, researchers at Chinese University in Hong Kong found that large doses of rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever in rats (as could extracts from Saiga antelope and water buffalo horn), but the concentration of horn given by a traditional Chinese medicine specialist are many many times lower than used in those experiments. In short, says Amin, you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails."

According to TRAFFIC, "Four main user groups have been identified in Viet Nam: the principal one being those who believe in rhino horn’s detoxification properties, especially following excessive intake of alcohol, rich food and 'the good life'. Affluent users routinely grind up rhino horn and mix the powder with water or alcohol as a hangover-cure and general health tonic."

From TRAFFIC's report The South Africa-Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus, "Collectively, this group personifies the cultural concept of 'face consumption', whereby extravagant usage of something rare and expensive becomes a means to flaunt wealth, status and success amongst friends and associates.  These consumers probably account for the greatest volume of rhino horn used in Viet Nam today... Popular websites drive this usage with an endless stream of slick come-on slogans: "to improve concentration and cure hangovers", "rhino horn with wine is the alcoholic drink of millionaires", and rhino horn is "like a luxury car".
In a possibly dismal foreshadowing of what awaits the rhinos of Africa, the last Javan rhino in Vietnam, which lived in Cat Tien National Park, "was shot and had its horn removed in early 2010."

South Africa is home to the majority of the worlds remaining rhinos,  But as The New York Times reports, sadly, "The number of rhinos poached in South Africa has soared in the past five years, from 13 killed in 2007 to more than 630 in 2012. The prehistoric, battleship-gray animals are often found on their knees, bleeding to death from a gaping stump on their face."

Having identified the problem, the question is what can be done to solve it?

One idea that has been proposed is legalization of the trade.  Why not raise rhinos specifically for the purpose of harvesting their horns?

The Conde Nast Traveler article quotes an Albi Modise, spokesman for the country’s Department of Environment Affairs, who points out that "There are now potentially three billion end users of rhino horn [in Asia] and only 21,000 rhinos left in South Africa.”

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet.  Putting a stop to the slaughter requires addressing the trade in rhino horns along the entire trade chain, from making it harder to kill rhinos to changing the attitudes of consumers of rhino horn powder in Vietnam and other Asian countries so that the demand is reduced.  That could take years, during which rhinos will continue to be decimated. 

An idea that occurred to me was flooding the market with a counterfeit product.  Is it possible to fool consumers by selling them keratin powder made from alternate sources while slapping a picture of a rhino on the packaging?  There are ethical considerations though to such an approach, particularly when Western governments and businesses press countries like China and Vietnam to crack down on counterfeiting of American and European products.  If it is wrong for China to tolerate counterfeit Viagra, for example, then it may seem hypocritical to them for us to promote counterfeit rhino horn powder just because we think it is a worthy cause.

One day, the large scale poaching of rhinos will come to an end, either because we were successful in stopping it, or because there will be no more rhinos left to kill.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Prostitution Is Already Legal For The Rich

Several years ago, when I took one of my kids to a doctor appointment, several of the clerical and medical assistant staff, all female, were gathered towards the back of the area behind the counter, talking amongst each other.

I guess they were talking about relationships with men, because one of them then declared loud enough that I could clearly hear her, "I don't want a boyfriend, I want a sugar daddy."

Another time, when I was getting a cleaning or some other dental procedure at my dentist's office, the dentist and the hygienist were conversing with each other.  Apparently, the hygienist was in some kind of sugar daddy relationship and the dentist was asking her questions about it.  When he asked her how old the benefactor was, she demurred.  I then blurted out "He's fifty."

The hygienist must have been impressed at the accuracy of my guess, because she then admitted that the man was 49.  Neither she nor the dentist asked how close I was to the right answer, but to me, it just seemed to make sense.

In order for a man to play the part of a sugar daddy, he needs to be wealthy enough to do so.  For most of those men, that probably does not come until they are in their late forties or early fifties when they are well established in their careers and are in their peak earning years.  The mortgage has been paid off.  The kids have been put through college.  If they're married, they may still love their wives but are looking for the excitement of being with a younger, more energetic women.  These are men who are nearing the end of their prime and want to relive their youth while they are still relatively healthy and fit enough to do so.  (As an aside, I just want to acknowledge that not all sugar daddy or benefactor relationships are exclusively older, wealthy males with younger, financially struggling females.  There are also male benefactor-male relationships, female benefactor-male relationships and female benefactor-female relationships.)

There are a host of websites that those seeking a "mutually beneficial arrangement" can go, such as or

I suppose the idealized version of these types of relationships is one of a successful, wealthy benefactor with an altruistic streak who wants to pamper and spoil a younger recipient and help them pay for their education or otherwise give them a chance to better themselves in some meaningful way in return for an exciting or fulfilling relationship where sex sometimes happens.  I don't doubt that in the spectrum of these sorts of relationships this does happen.  But then there's the other end of the spectrum.

Mac McClelland wrote an article for Mother Jones describing some of the encounters she had with would be male benefactors when she set up an account with one of these web sites for research for her article.  From the opening paragraph:

Few things are less appetizing than a man four years my father's junior, a dumpy, pasty, greedy-eyed man in a gray suit who says he doesn't care to screw fat women because they're harder to overpower, asking me over a big bowl of warm apple crisp if I like anal sex. But since he's just offered me $3,000 a month plus perks—gifts, dinners, shopping sprees—to get naked with him once a week, I keep my tight young ass in its place, laugh politely, and pick up my fork.

She goes on to write, "[He] puts proprietary hands on my shoulders and hips before we even get our cocktails and starts bartering for carnal treasure by the time dessert comes by asking me if I'd want to "hang out" once a week. I ask if "hang out" is a euphemism for "screw"; he says yes; I say that I wouldn't consider it for less than $5,000 a month. He counters with $3,000."

For the purposes of writing this article (seriously!) I registered for a free 30-day trial membership just to get an idea of what was waiting out there for me if I were actually wealthy enough to be some young woman's sugar daddy.

Here's a sampling:

1. From a 22-year old single woman in Manhattan, "My favorite sexual position is doggie style because it feels the best.  I enjoy giving and receiving oral, and I am VERY good at it." (Capitalized in the original).

2. From a 27-year old woman from da Bronx, "I love singing and dancing specially when I'm drunk.  I love being drunk because that's the time that I can express my feelings but watch me when I'm drunk because I'am (sic) wild!!!"

3. From a 24-year old single in Manhattan, "I could be your own Asian Barbie that you can play with."

Of course, not all or even most of the ads were that explicit or suggestive.

4. From a 27-year old Manhattanite, "Down-to-earth, sincere, genuine and kind, intelligent and well-educated… I love to go out dancing, watching movies, theater and sports. I also love to sail and horseback riding and entertaining!"

5. From a 25-year old in Manhattan, "I'm an attractive, passionate, sensual girl, with a good sense of humor. I am well educated and keep myself in a good shape. I enjoy reading, arts, fine dining, shopping and explore the city. I am trustworthy, honest and discreet. I am working on my masters degree, but I also have a flexible schedule."

6. From a 26-year old in Manhattan, "Fun, kind and classy young lady that loves to have fun and have intellectual conversations...(I am not your average girl on here) I take very good care of myself and have a beautiful, toned and slender body. The finer things in life are a great joy to me...what can I say, I LOVE luxury goods!" (Capitalized in the original).

When you get right down to it though, these benefactor relationships are simply a form of prostitution that is available only to the wealthy and it cannot be prosecuted because it is not a matter of payment for an encounter where sex is expected, like busting a john for trying to pick up a hooker on a street corner.  Instead, these are relationships in which sex is expected but which encompass more than sex.  It is impossible for law enforcement to police it because it is not an effective use of their time or resources.

From the aforementioned Mother Jones article:

"Under California law, solicitation is to offer or accept anything of value for sexual services," says former San Jose police chief and Hoover Institute fellow Joseph McNamara. "But this is right on the line. If the relationship exists for some time and the guy is mega-rich, he can give you whatever he wants; it's not prostitution anymore. Let's face it—a lot of relationships are like that. It's a common thing."

Such benefactor type relationships may be on the rise in recent years, at least for college students or recent graduates, due to the high cost of college education, accumulated student loan debt, and a lousy economy where one either cannot find a job or at the very least a well paying job.

On the one hand, I can understand if student or recent graduate is looking to enter into an arrangement with a wealthier, older person for a relationship that offers the prospect of being able to not only make ends meet, but if they're lucky, enjoy some of the finer things in life in return for putting out for their benefactor once in a while.  On the other hand, as the father of a daughter who will likely be a college student a decade from now, I would certainly hope that she would never feel the need to seek out such an arrangement for herself.  As someone who styles himself a feminist, I want her to feel rewarded and be able to succeed because of her talents and intelligence instead of being just a commodity for an older man with cash to burn.