China’s Odyssey

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cina

Ulysses or the Yellow Emperor? The Mediterranean Sea or the Yellow River? China is searching for its new path, perhaps with an old map. Meanwhile international politics is veering toward new modernity, and COVID is thrashing everything in its wake.

Good morning, Bongiorno

In 1961 Umberto Eco wrote a famous essay about Mike Bongiorno[1], the Italian presenter of a very popular TV quiz show. Eco wondered why he was so popular, although he was obviously not extremely smart.

Eco writes, “Mike Bongiorno thus convinces the audience, with a living and triumphant example, of the value of mediocrity. He does not provoke inferiority complexes while offering himself as an idol, and the audience repays him gratefully by loving him. He represents an ideal that no one has to strive to reach because everyone is already on his level. No religion has ever been so lenient with its adherents. In him, the tension between being and ought-to-be is nullified. He says to his worshippers: you are God; remain still.”

It was the beginning of television that, to aristocratic intellectuals, posed a series of issues. Entertainment had to be culturally relevant for them, whereas television was often culturally irrelevant and not very sophisticated.

The smart answer Eco offered was that people identified with Bongiorno and not with the champions of the quiz. The champions were superhumans; they knew what the ordinary people didn’t know, but Bongiorno, a nobody, the average guy who didn’t know, was as shocked as we all were watching those heroes of knowledge and intellect.

Then, as decades went by, the average intellectuality in mass media seemed to decline, and everything seemed to cater to the lesser people and demand less effort and less culture from everybody. The average guy is the idol, a god; and the heroes of knowledge from once upon a time, the demigods of wisdom, are quirks of nature that one can admire from afar but one doesn’t need to aspire to become like.

At the same time, it’s not just mass media. Politicians used to be compared with the champions of Bongiorno’s shows.

Max Weber argued that “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly, all historical experience confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless, time and again, he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that, a person must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else we will not be able to attain even that which is possible today.”[2]

But perhaps sometime in the 1990s, a new breed of politicians came to the fore in Italy and understood that if they wanted to get voted in, they had to resemble Bongiorno, the nobody, not his champions. It started in the time of Silvio Berlusconi, extended to Donald Trump in the US, and went through to Beppe Grillo in Italy, actually all smart people posing as the guy next door.

They all wanted to show ordinary people, people who are not superhumans, that they are not heroes, like the political leaders envisioned by sociologist Max Weber. They are average or less than average people with whom voters identify. This is totally different from political leaders until very recently.

Weber’s standard used to be the ideal for leaders. Heroes equipped with great knowledge and great intellect. These are the people who Kissinger also talks about in his latest book.

“Leaders are called upon to think creatively and diagnostically: what are the sources of the society’s well-being? Of its decay? Which inheritances from the past should be preserved, and which adapted or discarded? Which objectives deserve commitment, and which prospects must be rejected no matter how tempting? And, at the extreme, is one’s society sufficiently vital and confident to tolerate sacrifice as a waystation to a more fulfilling future?”[3]

Are people posing as the average guy to get votes simply posers, or are they merely disguising their hero qualities?

Indeed, people don’t root for the champions of the quiz show, but for the Bongiornos of present politics.

This trend is changing the face of democracy worldwide and authoritarian states frown upon it. In this they are not totally wrong.

In authoritarian states, the leader is portrayed as extremely smart, well-read, and almost superhuman. He is no ordinary man; he is a hero, a demigod. In a democracy, an ordinary man can vote for his peer. Still, then you had a bureaucracy groomed on education and systems of control for merit and efficacy, supporting the democratic choices but also channeling them.

Therefore, in democracies, you can have a fragile balance between politicians who may not be so well trained. Still, you have a competent civil service and a system of controls that channels the elected politician. The politician can always trump the bureaucracy, but he needs to win an argument with it. The system is cumbersome and makes many mistakes, but every mistake can be solved in an election that will discard the guy who made a mistake and select another leader. The system will go on unscathed. A few successes will hold the system together and carry the day.

In authoritarian systems, however superhuman the big man may be, being human, he will always make some mistakes.

Then the conundrum: How will the system correct mistakes when errors are made? Will he correct himself, or will others correct him? And if he is to be replaced, how will he be replaced? All these questions are still there with dictatorships, making them structurally weak.

With democracies, there is something else. The slide of intellectual capacities of the political class and the support to Bongiorno-type politicians make democracy more fragile. Power is more in the hands of bureaucracy, which is also bound to slide, as the politicians choosing their officials will be looking for someone in their league, not better than them.

To make up for this trend, some democracies are moving steadily towards some kind of an oligarchic system, providing some kind of a pool where politicians de facto are to be selected based on merit. Then, what we call democracies are evolving in different directions.

Old legacies

In ancient Greece, the divide in the political debate was with the oligarchs, who thought that only aristocrats (however defined and selected) were the true supporters of the polys, the city the political center, and had the wisdom to lead the community. The democrats were instead relying on a new class of people, the demos, the ordinary people who were not aristocrats, yet they were also not slaves. The same divide was inherited in Rome, where patricians fought plebeians.

In any case, it was not “democratic” in a modern sense: Not everybody was part of the decision-making process, but there was a debate about how large the group of people should be that was included in the decisions, only the patricians or the plebeians too.

For many centuries, many people were excluded from the decision-making process. Perhaps the very first actual enduring expansion of the process to include everybody, even the lowest classes, was the French revolution, where the sans-culottes, the people who couldn’t even wear trousers, the lowest classes, were brought in and moved the political revolution.

This process was hindered by the highest classes but advanced until the rise of the communist movement and then the communist revolution in Russia.

Then for the first time really everybody, the masses, was brought to the fore.

This political dynamic was very different from what existed in China. Here the debate was not between two groups of people, the aristocrats and the demos, but between those who wanted the selection of the heir, of the ruler, to be based on blood or based purely on merit. Professor Sarah Allan[4] pointed out this key element of the Chinese philosophical debate in stressing the importance of selecting the heir as a critical element, so vital that it was erased almost entirely by the Chinese literature and intellectual tradition.

Patricians existed in China, too. They were the baixing 百姓, the people with the hundred surnames that had gained the right to pass their surname to their descendants, a privilege then. “Common people,” min 民, were slaves and forced labor; in fact, the pictogram describes a man blinded in one eye to make it challenging to escape. The word ren 人, person, comes from a pictogram of someone who bows down to authority, they were higher than the min but still servants. The jun 君 were the “commanders”; the graph comes from the pictogram of a man who shouts and orders and directs with his mouth and hands. And wang 王, the king, is some kind of high priest, the straight line who puts in order the three horizontal elements: the sky, the earthly matters, and the people.

The structure of society was very different in China and the Mediterranean. We also have two very different traditions from these two different social structures.

In China, a great effort was made to try to take control of the floods and the rivers. Luan 乱, chaos, comes from a word representing invasive and destructive floods, destroying everything and creating a swamp where nothing can grow but disease. Conversely, zhi 治,  order, comes from a pictogram of an embankment channeling the water. Then there are crops, diseases are stopped, and there is life and order. The myth encapsulating this situation is that of the Yellow Emperor and the other mythical emperors. They checked and reshaped nature according to their needs and wishes. They bridled the course of the great river and tamed it, as one tames a wild animal.

Of many gods and one Heaven

Feng Youlan[5] first proposed a Mediterranean way of thinking as the origin of Western thought, contrary to the fluvial pattern that shaped China’s mind. From this stark and fitting contrast, there are many consequences.

Ancient Chinese men managed to control the Yellow River basin, the cradle of their civilization. They managed the plains, pushed out the elephants, and cut down the forests. They made an environment that was basically under control by themselves without help from the gods. The seasons and the tilling of the land, on which the Chinese farming society revolved, were all entirely predictable. In most cases, the Chinese expelled gods from most of their lives by bringing nature under man’s firm control.

Heaven and divinity could intervene with sudden massive rainfall, unexpected earthquakes, and precipitous floods. But these were all extremely rare events that, in a way, could be explained by some unpredictably erratic failing in the social order: the lack of repairs to the dams on the river, the incorrect tilling of the soil.

Contrary to this, in the Mediterranean Sea, the cradle of Greek civilization, nothing could be forecasted for sure. Greeks were occasional farmers, yes, as they were herders. But mostly, they were seafarers, merchants, and pirates. They lived by moving through the Mediterranean along the coast, the most treacherous sea, with no constant winds and with whimsical currents turning at every corner at every season. Unlike the oceans, with constant winds moving according to the season, the Mediterranean can be unpredictable.

This sea is whimsical and chaotic, and there is no way you can manage it, unlike a river that can be ordered through embankments and dams.

Greeks had to survive and thrive by embracing this whimsical god. One of the keystones of Western culture is the Odyssey[6], the troubles of Odysseus (Ulysses for the Romans) through the Mediterranean.

After he contrived the clever scheme to bring victory to the Greeks in the war of Troy, sung in the Iliad, he was supposed to sail back home. But he doesn’t get there. The guy who was too clever for his own good was doomed to travel through the seas for ten years because he angered the god of the sea, Poseidon. For this, he was punished by the whims that made him drift away.

There was little he could do. He could only try to outsmart the gods, and eventually, he succeeded and returned home. But it was an unfair contest in ancient times to try to partially make up for the whimsical winds ruled by Poseidon.

Travelers in the Mediterranean had to rely not only on sails but also on rowers. Without reliable and constant winds, sheer human effort had to try to compensate for the chaos of the sea.

In other words, the daily experiences of those seafarers proved to them that chaos could be somehow won—and won by force and wits. But chaos also brought extraordinary adventures and riches, as the Odyssey tells us. The whims of the gods are to be embraced and fought head-on, as they are occasions to grow, although we risk our lives in the process.

There were gods and demigods to be battled at every corner, so you had many deities crowding the imagination of ancient Greeks.

In ancient China, we also have many ghosts coming from ancient times: spirits of the rivers, the mountains, and the forests. But sometime around the turn of the first millennium BC, these deities and ancient gods waned, and a new central divinity popped up: heaven, and his son, son of heaven, the guy who could manage to grasp heaven’s will and act accordingly. This legitimized the unity of China, and the will of heaven could be mathematically predictable through the careful reading of only the 64 hexagrams of the Book of Changes.

Contrary to this, the Mediterranean was scattered. It was united only once by the Roman Empire and only for a few centuries. After that, many tried and all failed. Then, even the Roman Empire unified the Mediterranean only with extreme difficulties; managing the Mediterranean was impossible from one central seat, and the empire soon divided into two portions, the Western side using Latin as lingua franca and the Eastern side using Greek. One empire two languages, not too united after all.

The difference in language also meant the struggle to control this uncontrollable sea.

Different Chaos

It is a different chaos from Chinese chaos, called luan. Luan in China was the chaos of destructive floods or mortal droughts. The chaos in the Mediterranean is these whimsical waves and winds. Then in the two environments dominating and winning these two types of chaos needed different strategies.

Chinese chaos could be tamed, and societies could be established by controlling the rivers. Something that could be done and was effectively done. The Mediterranean Sea could not be dominated; one had to battle and constantly duel with the sea. It was so until engine boats made whimsical winds partly irrelevant.

This difference leads to very different drives. It also has bearings in the modern world that come from these two other traditions.

Jumping to conclusions and just as an example, in a conference, George Friedman[7] said America embraces chaos and thinks chaos is part of its life. It is like Ulysses embraced the sea and didn’t panic before the waves, but went through the waves until he managed to go home.

Chaos per se in China is very different and scary. It entails total disruption. It is a different kind of chaos because it’s a different environment, the mental philosophical background from which the two traditions stand.

Also similarly, there is a different attitude toward history. In the West, history is studied but is not something that becomes the norm, the rule, something that establishes the specific pattern of events. History can be changed, new ways can be invented, and past experiences can be deceptive because a sudden storm, the fumes from a volcano, can turn the waves. It is just like navigation through the Mediterranean Sea; it can all be highly different depending on the route one takes to move around the coast.

In China, the Yellow River’s course is established by barriers that must be carefully tended to. Then history can be safely repeated because once the set of the embankments is installed, it’s sufficient to repeat the same steps to keep it up. Then the river will flow as it should, and the fields will be fertile and grow whatever is necessary according to the season. In this way, history becomes a specific pattern, extremely reliable. Deviance from this pattern means disaster.

In the West, history, like navigation experience, is valuable information but can’t be a pattern of certainty. What do we make of this mental subconscious cultural root, bred in two different societies and cultures?

TikTok? Come modern times

Then we look at modern times, where we have the famous and controversial example of TikTok[8]. TikTok in China is controlled very firmly by algorithms that obey political directives. Specific ideas are banned, and some positive ideas are promoted. Mutual understanding between different regions of China is promoted. Subversive ideas are, conversely, banned.

So TikTok and its addictive nature helps Chinese leaders make China according to their wishes.

Abroad, Tiktok is geared very differently. Its only driver is to gain a lot of attention. It doesn’t have any political directives; therefore, it promotes whatever junk is available. Then, according to the Mike Bongiorno theory, it caters to the lowest end of society; serving the lowest end of the community helps to breed miseducation.

TikTok has been accused of serving two different purposes; in doing so, it is opium for the Western masses, goes the accusation. However, the real point, perhaps, is not that there is an evil conspiracy in China against the US, or not necessarily so.

The point is that there is no political leadership behind TikTok in the West. In China, TikTok is a political preserve. There is no political or educational standard for Facebook or Twitter, so TikTok can’t and won’t raise the education bar either. Therefore, they all vie for the lowest common denominator.

Also, there is a philosophical question. Who sets the bar for cultural denominators? What is culturally good or culturally bad?

In China, this is clear; the leadership, the wang and the jun, set the standard for what is good or bad—according to history, getting the right dam for the river.

In the West, the tradition is very different. It is the Mediterranean; it is moving, and it depends on what kind of coast you are navigating by. It’s exceptionally uncertain; in Greece, it is an open debate, and even in the debate, it is uncertain who should be included. Should only a few be part of the decision—the aristocrats, the captains, the Ulysses of the situation—or should it be rather the demos, the people who row the boat and will eventually pack bigger phalanxes, the military unit invented in Sparta originally for aristocrats that revolutionized military and political affairs. Everybody is equal, and each one is as strong as the weakest link in the phalanx.

It is an open debate that hasn’t been resolved and in which the West, in theory, embraces chaotic solutions. But this chaos is the chaos of the Mediterranean, not the chaos of the Yellow River basin. Then what is the correct pattern to use now, the Greco-Roman one or the Chinese one?

Then the question now is, what kind of world this is, and what kind of world do we want this to be? China wants this world to be of Chinese order because it is the one that China understands, in which it feels comfortable, and that it knows how to deal with.

However, this world now, for hundreds of years, has been the world of Mediterranean Sea thinking. Moreover, this present world is objectively chaotic in a Mediterranean, not a Chinese, sense. It is hard to believe that rigid political embankments can eliminate all current quarrels. Something more agile is needed. Not embracing chaos, not trying to outwit Poseidon, could be dangerous because Poseidon, unlike the river, cannot be shackled and imprisoned; it must be conquered in a duel of wits, in which it will survive anyway because the chaos of the Mediterranean will always be there.

Today, however, is Covid like the Yellow River, or like the Mediterranean Sea, controlled by the irascible and temperamental Poseidon? At first Chinese authorities thought Covid was like SARS in 2003, and it would vanish as easily as it had come. It would be enough to establish firm control for a few months, check its spread, and then it would go away.

Let the football roll

SARS was like the Yellow River— social coordination could suffice to tame it and make it disappear. Covid has proved to be different. It keeps mutating and will probably live with us indefinitely, like the flu. To survive, people have to find a way to live with it, finding clever strategies around it. Covid is more like the Mediterranean Sea.

How does one survive in this situation? Is it by trying to reintroduce systematic river control as the Yellow Emperor did, or instead navigating the current situation to the point of exploiting it for one’s own benefit as Ulysses did?

Here explodes modernity, as it never hit China, with the kick of a ball in the World Cup.

Football is the most popular sport in China, and now millions are glued to the screen for Qatar’s World Cup. Whatever CCTV decides to show, perhaps hiding the fact that people are crowding the stadiums without any anti-COVID protection, it doesn’t take much to understand that everything is normal in Qatar. The World Cup shows that, unlike with the Beijing Winter Olympics held in a state of siege, life is normal in the rest of the world. Meanwhile a new COVID wave is spreading all over China, there are still quarantines, lockdowns, et cetera.

As Anne Stevenson Yang eloquently put it, there are three elements emerging from this new wave.

  1. Lockdown deaths: People are dying from lockdown perhaps more than from Covid. People are not brought to a hospital if they have other ailments and are in isolation. Hospitals are virtually paralyzed for fear of contagion.
  2. Disregard economic needs. People do not consume, do not get any pay, the economy is coming to a standstill, and as with other historical plagues, the impact on production, with spreading poverty, eventually kills more people than the actual disease.
  3. Distrust of government. While in early 2020, people trusted the government and obeyed orders, now many people do not trust whatever Beijing says. Some now think Covid is dangerous, while others do not think so. The same divide exists in other countries, but in China now, neither side trusts the government for the opposite reasons. Then, whatever Beijing decides to tell will be a tough sell.

These are signs of profound social unraveling on top of the massive socio-cultural unraveling in the past 30 years because of modernization and urbanization, something that didn’t happen in China in the past 3,000 years. The combination of short term and long-term unravelling could bring long-term or short-term effects.

But it’s not easy to turn things around without facing other troubles. Beijing is in a challenging situation. So far tried to cope with Mediterranean chaos in Chinese ways. Who is the Yellow Emperor, and who is Ulysses in modern times? It is a stretch, but they are comparisons to help us understand the harsh and unprecedented situation. The Yellow Emperor is the authority that imposes his order, zhi, on the Yellow River, the man who made himself the Son of Heaven and held the balance between mankind and nature.

Ulysses is different; he has to pretend to be Nobody, a Bongiorno, to escape with his crew from the cave where Polyphemus, the son of the God of Hell, on the Etna Volcano, trapped him.  In a game of wits versus strength, the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, Ulysses, declares his name was Nobody, so when he blinds the giant and the demi-god calls for help, his fellow giants ask who did it. Polyphemus says: Nobody did it. Then the other giants misunderstand the situation and don’t help their brother in need. Did Eco misunderstand the situation of modern democracy and didn’t realize the real hero was Bongiorno, the nobody? It is a giant leap to move from the Yellow Emperor to the Ulysses mindset, the nobody who defeats the gods.

Can China now embark on taking on the cultural burden to face its Odyssey to full modernity? This is the question.


[1] See Fenomenologia di Mike Bongiorno, in Diario Minimo, 1961.

[2] Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1919.

[3] Leadership, Six Studies in World Strategy, 2022

[4] See Buried Ideas: Legends of Abdication and Ideal Government in Recently Discovered Early Chinese Bamboo-slip Manuscripts, 2015, and  The Heir and the Sage: Dynastic Legend in Early China, 1981.

[5] See the introduction to his A History of Chinese Philosophy, 1934

[6]  Wang Huansheng translated in Chinese both Iliad and Odyssey which are having a growing success in China.

[7] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeOk8TelEEc

[8] See also Giuseppe De Ruvo on Limes Geopolitica delle Bassezze and M Brennan Attention Factory, The Story of TikTok and China’s Byte Dance, 2020.

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  1. Giorgio M Cortassa 27 novembre 2022

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