Calendar notes

There is a fine piece of Chinese calligraphic brushwork, rolled in a tube in the corner of a closet, up here in the High Doganate. Or rather, unrolled, on a table, for I took it out this morning to admire it again. It was done by a Chinese engineering student — on exchange to the University of Toronto, at the expense of the Canadian taxpayer. He painted it on the back of an (ancient technology) blueprint sheet, mounted that on cardboard, then fixed it to a stick of bamboo. (The board and stick are long gone.)

It was a placard. My Chinese is a bit rusty, but I trust it still demands, in effect, “Freedom and Democracy for China!” The use of classical instead of Pinyin characters was an effete touch, that pleased me then as now. The elegant brushstrokes made the sheet itself worth keeping.

Twenty-five years have passed since the little man in front of the column of tanks in Peking, and all the other events, in Tiananmen Square, and elsewhere across China. I was thirty-six then, I am sixty-one now; but my desire to overthrow the Communist Politburo is easily rekindled.

It is twenty-five years since I was waving that placard, among my Chinese brothers and sisters, pointlessly in front of the Red Chinese consulate on St George Street; and characteristically struggling with the tones, to chant the slogans. The officials inside were pretending not to be there. They had turned off all lights, and locked the doors and gates. The demonstrators outside, though fairly numerous, were behaving like Canadians, i.e. too polite to put out their windows.

Looking back, over this quarter century, I see that my political views have “evolved.” I cannot use such terms as “freedom” and “democracy” quite so glibly as I could, then. My sympathies have hardly shifted to the Maoist party, however. On the contrary, my disgust may actually have increased, at their success in delivering to China the bourgeois, consumerist non-paradise that has changed everything. The young who were mercilessly gunned down, by their hundreds and probably thousands not only in Peking but in other cities away from Western media, could hardly have realized the cause they were serving: which is to say, inspiring their government to a more cynical exploitation of themselves, and the masses.

Had the Chinese “counter-revolution” prevailed, it is quite possible the result would have been worse for the Chinese people. It is likely that many, many more would have died violently, and perhaps also, starved, as the vast country disintegrated; it is unlikely the transition of power would have been so outwardly smooth as it was throughout the old Soviet Empire.

But here I propose to be rather mysterious. The savage, murderous, evil Maoist “dictatorship of the proletariat” had produced those students, willing to put their lives on the line for what they took to be unambiguously noble ideals. They were courageous young people, grown up entirely under Communism, committed to a cause that was above their own immediate personal interests. As most observers agree, after a quarter century, the young now want a house and a car, and with a better income, a variety of consumer durables still largely beyond their reach.

There are exceptions, to be sure. A small minority have sincerely embraced Christianity, for instance, through the generation since the “events” (i.e. massacres) of 4th June 1989. I am aware, too, of a quite voluntary “back to the land” movement, from young people rejecting the consumerism, and the office and factory regimentation, and the pollution and vileness and spiritual desiccation of those new cities, which seem so gleaming from afar. They have no interest in politics. They stay away from that. They, like the office and factory workers, get as far away from politics as they can.

Another old Chinese friend, an exiled municipal politician from Hong Kong, ran a book store for a while after he washed up in Toronto. It failed, for lack of customers. His interests went beyond politics to Chinese history and culture, and he was a genuinely thoughtful soul. (I’ve lost track of him since his store on Harbord Street closed.) By increments, he had come to the view that “there are no political solutions, to anything.” Freedom might even be, “freedom from politics.” But politics were in his soul, and he could not help (like me, perhaps) trying to devise a “politics of the apolitical.”

His China — the China of his dreams — was revealed under cross-examination. It was the China of the Chiang-nan (“South of the River,” i.e. the Yangtze) — for eight centuries or more the prosperous heart of the civilization, and her artistic and intellectual centre, speaking the gracious Wu dialect, in such beautiful cities as Soochow and Hangchow. The political centre of the empire was invariably elsewhere, usually far to the north and west. That was a natural advantage. It contributed to the atmosphere of freedom, in the Chiang-nan.

That is my China, too. It has nothing to do with “democracy.” It will never have anything to do with that; nor could it ever be restored by any imaginable kind of political action.

The old Soochow, for which I have shed strange tears of nostalgia, was a flower that grew up of its own, because it was not uprooted. Now it has been uprooted. And should anything like it come again, it will have to grow again, from seed.


It was yesterday the 51st anniversary of the death of Saint John XXIII. This is another event I remember personally, though I was just a child of ten. I feel as if I were once again touching the black headline, in the broadsheet newspaper I was then holding. I was gradually taking in what a Pope is, and where he lives — in Rome. I hadn’t devoted any thought to the topic beforehand, but in the course of struggling with an obituary notice, I was beginning to grasp a few straws — of the institution, and of this man, once Angelo Roncalli. (How odd that one’s acquaintance with a man, so often begins on the day of his death.)

A priestlie friend forwarded an item from the “Salt & Light” blog. It quoted the “Daily Decalogue” of this pope. My views on him today are vex’d and complex’d. But rather than trouble gentle reader with these views, let me instead transcribe the same document, in the italics below. For they remind me very much of my beloved Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who seemed to understand everything, and to have about her a serenity that was truly not of this world:


Only for today, I will seek to live the livelong day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.

Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behaviour; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.

Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.

Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.

Only for today, I will devote ten minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.

Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.

Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.

Only for today, I will make a plan for myself. I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.

Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.

Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for twelve hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.