Friday, April 23, 2010

Letter to Uthayakumar: The Thousand Li Journey

Xiaode addresses the honourable Mr Uthayakumar:
Because of China’s geographical spread and its vastness, the Chinese count large numbers in ten thousands. Hence in hanzi (the Chinese language), wan = 萬 or 10,000 is a popular transliteration of idioms that speak of distances and of great effort. The Chinese quantitative measure, li = 里 (written same in Japanese kanji) is equivalent to about half a km. In its Chinese name 萬里長城 wan li changcheng it reads literally, ‘ten thousand li wall’. But Anglophile idiots, Malaysian lovers of an English model of life, call it the Great Wall instead; what do they know?
P. Uthayakumar, like many Malaysians, has heard of the Chinese principle of the thousand li (which hadn’t come from Confucius but appears in a work predating the Analects, that is, Laozi’s daodejing 道德经). In the original Chinese, it reads 千里之行 始于足下, qianli zhihang shiyu zuxia. Literally, a thousand li journey begins at the foot below. In this, you immediately sense a nuance difference from the popular recitation: a thousand li journey begins with a single step, as opposed to ‘the foot’.
The original Laozi version emphasizes a conscious, deliberate attempt towards a goal, hence, of individual assertion and volition whereas the popular phrase connotes the requisite of a journey and its inevitability. Be that as it may, here is the problem: popular comprehension of the idiom begins and ends with the first step? What’s the second to be? The tenth, the hundredth? The 10,000th? The last step?
Ch 64 of the daodejing from which the line is drawn offers no answers. But the thousand li idiom was written within a context, which is that of a person left in a situation, a quandary, without resolution, an escape, a remedy. What to do? Continuing on the idiom, Laozi said:
Whoever does anything to it will ruin it;
Whoever lays hold of it will lose it.
Hang on to those two lines and we’ll return to them.
That situation – “it”, as predicament – is exactly as Uthayakumar’s description of the Indian state of affairs: a people politically disenfranchised and dispossessed of the land have no escape. Umno will pulverize this community, perhaps not out of malice but slowly and surely if only to protect their economic and monied interests. Given half a chance, neither Anwar Ibrahim nor the DAP nor the PKR is of any help. They know which side of the bread they must butter to stay in business.
The Pakatan is spread so thin it will hanker after any vote, accompanied by recurring talk of “Beyond Race Politics”, its prodigy “Malaysian first”, its banalities “we’re part of the human race” and keturunan rakyat. Anwar also understands the situation all too well of the Indian predicament: there is no third influential bloc. Indians without power will vote Pakatan regardless. (Petra Kamarudin’s latest, kindergarten diatribe against Hindraf reflects very well this PKR conceit and condescending presumption.)
Pakatan no longer has need to pretend to listen. It has propaganda on its side, and Ibrahim Ali to haunt the population as the ghost of Umno. What is to be done, Mr Uthaya?
To-date you have relied largely on the only leverage you know, pleading, although you must admit, and have, that any and all Pakatan political promises were never actually specific to their intent. They talk in abstract terms of equality and justice, ringing in pious tones, but in detail, on the ground and in specifics, they are hard to fulfill for the reason the parties, politics and policies of Pakatan were in their origins not constructed from humanity and compassion. They were constructed from vengeance and hatred (of Umno mostly) overlaid by a Western ideology and Arab Islamic religious bigotry.
So you dispatch endless rounds of letters. In the nature of your pleadings, those letters, for them to work, must presume there is virtue in persons such as Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang, Hadi Awang and their second-echelon underlings. But, if those virtues existed, your letters would have been unnecessary in the first place. Land for Indian schools, for example, would appear almost as if by magic, no questions asked, no need for the Press, before you even sat down with pen and paper. A man honours his word as he does to his family and ancestors. But, Pakatan people don’t even know how to honour their forefathers much less those alive and distant from their selves. Consequently, the DAP is not representative of Chinese culture, much less the Chinese polity or Indian. On the contrary, they represent an evangelical, Anglophile, urban-only interest constructed on White society ideologies. Then, there are the PKR and the PAS: you know them already….
Land for Chinese schools was not acquired on the basis of a man’s virtue. In the past they were paid for with the blood, sweat and money of the Chinese people, not the Anglo-white lovers of course. (What do they know?) Rather, it came with the efforts of the Chinese who understood and therefore appreciated why a school is necessary to sustain a way of life that we call culture. There might have been occasions when wheeling and dealing became necessary, but this goes with the turf in Malaysia. This country, being Malaysia or Malaysian first, makes exceedingly difficult and hazardous an honest life. A country free of corruption cannot be an end in itself – that would be humanly impossible – but neither should be the desire to hoard material things, the accumulation of assets. Land ownership goes with a larger, fundamental purpose. Having land merely permits the control of the school, of education, of thought dissemination, of the children’s future, of a way of life, thence culture.
Looked at this way, the land, pivotal and indispensable, yes, but it isn’t the ultimate intent. It’s the culture – is it not? – which, in turn, enables a community of people, Indians in your case, to survive the onslaught of the imported, mercenary, aggressive and hostile bureaucratic institutions and a political apparatus exemplified in people that shall remain nameless. The resilience of such a culture is therefore the beginning of freedom. Once you begin to see and recognize this truism – there are things, culture, freedom, that are greater than the land, hence greater than the money or the politics required for its acquisition – then both the purpose and direction of your thousand li journey inherits a fresh meaning. You are off to a new political strategy. In its renewed purpose, the thousand li journey begins to matter in the first step you take, in the what and in the how.
It is along those lines, to confess to you, that are at the root of Chinese political thought in Malaysia. By Chinese it is meant here, to repeat, not the Anglophiles, the White lovers; they are a colonized lot. Only they don’t know it, and they wouldn’t be a problem excepting they get in the way like a horde of vermin and bugs.
Hindu culture – and here one writes at a great risk of presumption – also seeks to sustain itself but has its limitations because Indian society is fragmented as a class system. Chinese culture is more complete, unitary, civilizing, purposeful, and it does what it does for very practical purposes that we shall skip discussing here.
If this is true of Hindu culture, then there is little you can rely on the depth of your community to pick off, one by one, parcels of land and then pass them to the schools even if the Indians have the means. Yet some do, so it is a question purely of who do you turn to. But, note that the wealthier the Indians and the higher up they are in the social hierarchy, the elite, the more Anglicised, the more White they become. This is in contrast to the wealthy Chinese that you often read about and are associated with indigenous Chinese culture, literature, the fine arts, language, and especially education. It means that the Indian group, from who you must turn to in your pleadings, is even more remote from Indian culture to be willing to open their wallets.
What are you left with?
Back then to the same futility: pleading. This, too, is the political raison d’etre of MIC, MCA to some extent. You sometimes call it “mandorism”. They are reduced to pleadings, looking for pickings that make them subservient. This way of conducting a relationship, political, social, economic, strips people of dignity and it might even be alright or tolerable if it worked. You know well, however, it doesn’t. In White man’s ideological parlance, it’s called an unequal relationship. You therefore turn to the principle of equality – What? Article 8? – but it’s the same mucus dripping from the mouths of DAP and PKR party hacks, Indian and Chinese especially. You know who they are.
There are two sources of power within your reach to enable the demands that justly belongs to the Indians. These are (a) numbers, concentrated numbers, and (b) the vote.
Because this power emanating from your community is so scarce, use it wisely and sparingly. Above all, do not plead; do not rely on the virtues of men, both for the reason, again, they don’t work. Moreover, those are not men – in Chinese culture we refer to true men as the junzi 君子 – that you deal with. They are instead political creatures, made in Malaysia, schooled by a Western culture (Judeo-Christian), raised, fed and indoctrinated in a system that uses power, rather than virtue, as the basis to govern.
Kongzi, that is Confucius, said: To govern by virtue is like the north polestar with which other stars find their places. Our politicians don’t understand this, nor culture, much less Chinese culture. In your predicament, in the dire situation of the Indians, and under the yoke of a system heaped against you and your people, this is the meaning in, if you’ll recall, the daodejing lines:
Whoever does anything to it will ruin it,
Whoever lays hold of it will lose it.
Once you begin to think outside the Western paradigm, you won’t have to go back to it for solutions that are futile. Instead, fresh ones, new approaches, will emerge. That is freedom, genuine freedom. But what shall be the replacement paradigm?
Your demand for land is intended to serve the schools. Yet, you already have the school, why then the need of the land? Your answer: to secure the school’s future, to protect its existence, and above all to get at government financial aid that comes with land gazetted for education. This means, your need is ultimately about money and security and your expectation of Pakatan governments is really to help deliver both, not the land.
In this circuitous approach, you’ve make a school’s existence dependent on an outside force, first Pakatan, the Barisan government after that. But, how can a dependent existence, especially dependent on outside parties, be ever, ever secure? Can you now see why the daodejing says: in your present predicament, you ruin it when you touch it? (Think of tofu with which you treat gently. Grab it, it breaks up.)
You must therefore remove the contradiction in your approach. And this means be independent. It is from independence that freedom emanates and your culture is sustained, and in turn the Indian people. Once independent, you no longer need to trade, to ransom, your power – those two scarce commodities, numbers and votes – for a pittance.
All this is to also say that because your power is so scarce it is all the more invaluable. See how the negative, which is the limits of your political power, becomes the positive, that is, the immeasurable value of that power? This negative-positive exchangeability is representative in the underlying, and key, idea of the daodejing yin-yang principles and other related idioms, such as the thousand li journey. The scarcity of power in your hands is too invaluable to trade for bits of land that’s fundamentally – and we had discussed this above – intermediary in its purpose. No. If that power is to be usefully deployed, then it must bring with it broad, maximum effect.
It would be presumptuous here to say how your community should employ that power but this much will be said: let it be the font of greater, not transient things.
What to do meanwhile with your decrepit schools?
The Chinese have a long history of experience, 2,000 continuous years, in managing education and so know what matters and what doesn’t (the Chinese invented the system of examinations the French copied and, after them, the rest of the world). More than that, the Chinese understands that, ultimately, it isn’t in the quality of the desks or the chairs – even the roof can leak – but it’s the effort put into teaching the children that counts above everything else. To the Chinese, the purpose of education is not to teach counting (Mahathir Mohamad), an easy task that’s purely incidental to schooling. Nor is it about teaching how to write fine words (Khoo Kay Kim) or to get rich (Anglophiles). Rather, something fundamental is at stake in Chinese teaching and this shall be a secret for another time between us.
While the Chinese searches for ways to sort out problems with the furniture and the roof, it is the content in the teaching that deserves most attention and that must be immediate and relentless. This is because, after six years, then another six, we turn out thousands of the young, true to their identity, filial to their parents, loyal to their community, useful to themselves, and so employable. They appreciate and know what is it to give back to the schools in the values by which they were raised, and they do so without prompting. Soon the school’s furniture and roof problems begin to sort themselves out.
(For contrast, consider Petra Kamarudin, schooled in a La Salle, comes out a Western product – and he is already half-White – hence, 40 or so years later he commits the ultimate profanity: he actually abandons his kid, flesh and blood, to the dogs, all locked inside the same cage. Even that isn’t all. He then excuses himself on some supposed “principle”, more important than the life of a son, and which nobody could quite put a finger on. The act of family betrayal becomes a glorious deed. And how does his English-speaking hacks respond? Literally they cheer him on. Incredulous! But this is Malaysia, and we are suppose to be Malaysian first.)
All that says, the Chinese schools, other than equipping their students with practical living tools, also teaches humanness and relationships –  civilization. In the heart of that civilization is the strength of Chinese culture. So then, in a rather circular way of looking at things, it is also for the reason of culture that Chinese schools insist on being on their own. To be on one’s own means never to rely on the government but oneself.
By not expending the Indian vote on land, you save it – your power – for the future, and for a larger and greater cause. That time will come, as sure as spring arrives. (As for Hulu Selangor, go with the MIC for now although Zaid Ibrahim is a good, decent man, but he is in bad company. Also see related essay on Hulu Selangor in A Melancholy Year.)
It might be imprudent to suggest this but necessary. Go to the dongjiaozong (董教总). Get their help. Who knows, this – education – might just be the seed of a new Sino-Indian relationship this country needs for the betterment of our peoples. Consider encouraging the Indian children to learn hanzi, not to serve any grand design but simply to augment the employability of Indians. It will surprise you to know the Chinese language, unlike the languages of Western or Arab Islamic cultures, has no colonizing ambition. It seeks to convert nobody or to turn other people into Chinese. English education does that instead, conversion, and you see everywhere in urban Malaysia the converted. Chinese education is to the contrary….
Whatever your decision, recall your recitation of Laozi (not Confucius), the original and not the truncated version: a thousand li journey gazes ahead from the foot below.
The journey is to rebuilt your society and to restore the dignity of the Indians from the ground up. And, if that be so, then the first foot forward is not to trade your votes for schools. Marshall today that power but deploy it last.
While copies of the daodejing (circa 600 BC) circulated in modern-day Chinese societies, two near complete sets were found in tombs dating around 300 years BC, still before mass printing. The Mawangdui text unearthed in 1973 was on silk; the Guodian version discovered 20 years later in Guodian town, Hubei, has 13,000 characters on about 800 bamboo strips strung together. Other than variations in calligraphic style, they are consistent with each other and with print text at the respective times. Some more recent daodejing editions use either of two texts to polish on earlier print versions.
The Chinese original below is Mawangdui – it has a poetic quality – because the Guodian text has no calligraphic fonts in computer format. English translation is from unknown print version before Mawangdui. Since Chinese script is vertical, the chapter numbers probably follow the scripts arranged in sets, right-to-left, each bound, then stacked in numerical sequence. (You can catch a glimpse of how a “book” rolls out, to open, in the movie clip Confucius, circa 400 BC, who relied considerably on the daodejing for guidance in his role as political adviser in the state of Lu, one of several in a multi-state China before eventual unification 200 years later by the first emperor Shihuang.)
From Laozi 章六十四 (Thousand li journey idiom in bold and red)
English Ch 64 (Feng Giafu with Jane English translation, 1972)
Peace is easily maintained;
Trouble is easily overcome before it starts.
The brittle is easily shattered;
The small is easily scattered.
Deal with it before it happens.
Set things in order before there is confusion.
A tree as great as a man’s embrace springs up from a small shoot;
A terrace nine stories high begins with a pile of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles starts under one’s feet.
He who acts defeats his own purpose;
He who grasps loses.
The sage does not act, and so is not defeated.
He does not grasp and therefore does not lose.

People usually fail when they are on the verge of success.
So give as much care to the end as to the beginning;
Then there will be no failure.
Therefore the sage seeks freedom from desire.
He does not collect precious things.
He learns not to hold on to ideas.
He brings men back to what they have lost.
He help the ten thousand things find their own nature,
But refrains from action.
Below is what you might expect from the Chinese idea of education: what’s it for, why, and how. It is a dramatization, true, but one actually sees it in practice deep in the Chinese heartland and its culture. Farther below a modern depiction into the tumultous times of Confucius, to whom Chinese societies everywhere are eternally indebted. He took the first step, opening the way for the Chinese to cope with life’s journey.