Shifty eyes

Two of my (many) heroes became famous while suppressing the Taiping Rebellion, in China in the mid-19th century. One was the British reactionary, & devout Evangelical, Charles George “Chinese” Gordon (later “Gordon Pasha,” & “Gordon of Khartoum”), who took command of the foreign-officered Ch’ang Sheng Chün (“Ever Victorious Army”). It was a remarkably small, independent, mercenary outfit, fighting on behalf of the Ch’ing Dynasty in Peking, which “punched above its weight” by several orders of magnitude.

The other was the Hunanese reactionary, & devout Confucian scholar-general Tseng Kuo-fan. He raised the Hsiang Army (named for the river that flows through Hunan province northward towards the mighty Yang-tze Kiang), that took back Nanking.

Gentle reader should be apprised of what I have discovered this summer, while reading some modern Chinese history. It is that Wikipedia, & other Internet sources that depend upon it, reflect, or at least obsequiously respect, the official Communist Party line in most articles touching upon China. Therefore they cannot be trusted. There is indeed a background problem, for any “China expert” must maintain his Chinese visa & access to mainland archival & other institutions in order to keep his credentials warm, & flourish in his trade. This leads to careful self-editing, & by increments from discreet vagueness, to tendentious selectivity, to contextual misrepresentation, to calculated lying.

Bear this in mind when reading, for instance, that Tseng Kuo-fan was some kind of “warlord,” who ordered gratuitous massacres; or when he is presented as a stooge for foreign interests; or conversely as a “traitor” to “modernization.” Such views are artefacts of the old Maoist propaganda, only beginning to deliquesce. Similarly, broad accounts of the so-called “Tung-che Restoration” are ill-served by systematic smearing. This was an effort corresponding to the reign of the 10th Ch’ing emperor, 1861–75, to cope with modernity on Chinese terms. The dowager empress, Tzu-hsi (mother & regent of the child incumbent, who died at nineteen) was the remarkable figure behind impressive efforts in what proved a hopeless cause. Her struggle continued until her death (in 1908). The Chinese governing order this august Manchu former-concubine was trying to sustain finally disintegrated in the republican revolution of 1911. By Sun Yat-sen & his political successors, Chiang Kai-shek & Mao, that ancient & magnificent civilization was finally obliterated.

Another century or more will surely pass before the history can be told in a disengaged way. For now, the satanic ideologies of Progress are spread, like lava & ash over the whole vast territory. Even before the accession of the human monster, Mao Tse-tung, millions of Chinese lives had been extinguished in pursuit of progressive fantasies & illusions (“democracy,” &c), foisted on the world by the votaries of Power.

I am, by way of full disclosure, a Ming Loyalist myself — i.e. still attached by sentiment to the last fully-independent Han dynasty, prior to the (Manchurian) Ch’ing; whose capital fell to the barbarians in 1644 — for the same reason I am a Jacobite, & a United Empire Loyalist, & a Holy Roman, & habsbourgeois, & réactionnaire tous azimuts. These were all lost causes. Yet only from the position of defeat, before the forces of Progress, is it possible to see the Beast with clarity, or to appreciate its mechanical, steamroller aspect.

Let me concede, that no specific lost cause can, once flattened into the asphalt by Progress, ever be revived. No veterinary medicine can rejuvenate the roadkill; no garden is worth watering, once paved. Yet I have seen the freshets come, & the shoots & seedlings sprouting through the asphalt cracks. The cause-behind-the-cause, of “Restoration,” remains dear to me; the vegetable opposition, expressing its dissent. And likewise in society a Man may sprout, through the cracks in The People. Hail Mary full of grace!

In what remained of that old “feudal” China, the gentry organized the peasantry for the defence of their homes & fields, against the first waves of revolutionary violence. It was as ever the old, civilized aristocracy, standing against the new, plebeian, puritans & psychopaths. True leadership is thrust upon a man, never wilfully seized. But by formation & training he must be ready to receive it. True leadership requires moral & spiritual strengths, along with intellectual qualities grounded in them. It requires simplicity of life & outlook, indifference to popularity, freedom from vanity & vain attachments — including that final attachment to survival at any cost.

Alike, “Chinese” Gordon & Tseng Kuo-fan understood such things. They are entirely worth studying in that light. Neither was importunate for command. Both were called to duty by “events.” And they were allies in a heavenly cause, who spontaneously recognized one another across every cultural divide. (Read again, Kipling’s “Ballad of East & West.”) Neither attempted to build a private power base, or to derive wealth from his service to the legitimate governing order. Nor did either strut as a paragon of virtue. When no longer needed, each quietly retired; until called again by the bugle of duty.

It is with Tseng I most wish to identify. On ancient principles of Chinese recruitment, he chose his officer corps. This product of the venerable Han-lin Yüan (“Brush-Wood Court”) laid down the exemplary procedure by which candidates were subjected to long interviews. He would begin with a slight, “oriental” smile, staring at the candidate for a prolonged period, observing the man’s facial & bodily dispositions. Questions were then directed to his practical knowledge, his intelligence & capacity for independent thought; but at the back of these was also an inquiry into the man’s fundamental honesty & decency. Before risking betrayal by a self-interested officer, Tseng would assiduously watch for signs that the man was betraying himself: would eliminate the boastful, the coarse of speech & manner, & above all, the shifty-eyed.

As a journalist I had often to make judgements in the course of an interview; to decide on whom I could or could not rely. I was actually taught, young, the sort of ticks to look out for. In particular, the inability to return one’s gaze unselfconsciously; for shifty eyes are the very flag of devious low cunning. The ability to distinguish upright from dishonest was once taught, generally, as a survival skill. Today we are taught instead “not to be judgemental,” & to overlook what “isn’t important.” But to the wise, the large is revealed in the small. The skill of reading character is not in itself a cultural property, though it may take cultural modes; it is rather one of the universal properties of man. It is a human skill, in the acquirement of which we are constantly reminded that nobility is simple & direct; that the ignoble are complex & crooked.

The leaders in our public life today — our “politicians” — are more or less invariably ignoble, self-serving, crooked men & women; “complicated people,” who cannot coherently explain themselves; “passive-aggressive” as the current saying goes. They boast, they are coarse, they are shifty in behaviour. This has much to do with the way they are selected.