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The Personal Column: Tales of the Emperor

Jeff Cloves reflects on Newspeak, ancient and modern

Anyone who writes a column for any publication whatever, will naturally try to write clearly and unambiguously – and fail in one way or another. Life itself is frequently – always some will argue – not clear and unambiguous and then there’s the problem of language. Here’s an example….

When I was growing up the word ‘progressive’ belonged to the Left. Now it’s frequently used by the Right in the UK to describe policies which Lefties regard as reactionary. I’ve also heard supposed Lefties describe their own policies approvingly as ‘conservative’ – and so it goes.

In present times, this ambiguous re-writing of language is at its most extreme when considering the People’s Republic of China.

‘Communist China’ is how it used to be described but does that mean anything anymore? George Orwell called this phenomenon ‘Newspeak’. Would my own dad – a communist until disillusion set in very late in his life – recognise anything ‘progressive’ in the current Chinese regime?

I fancy not, just as I fancy readers of Peace News will consider China as such a successful proponent of capitalism it is undermining the USA’s free-market economy. At a public debate nearly 35 years ago, I heard a Labour MP – long-since disappeared into deserved obscurity – refer to the ‘yellow peril’.

These days our government has decided we should be friends with China and has muted any criticism of its human rights abuses. The ‘yellow peril’ as been replaced by the ‘Islamic State peril’ and so it goes – again.

Now, just in case you think I’ve become a party-politico overnight, let me explain these thoughts have been prompted by the latest book from my dear friend Jack Winter. A UK-based Canadian playwright, poet, novelist, autobiographical essayist, and overarching ironist, Jack is as appalled by the world as he is entertained by it and he has always made me laugh out loud.

Jack’s Tales of the Emperor (Talon Books, 2015) claims to be ‘a novel… the birth-to-death story of the first Emperor of China’, but this word is quite inadequate.

Jack’s supposition is that what we believe or imagine happened is as likely to be true as any ‘official’ history and so his narrative contains poems, songs, myths, fantasies, dreams, aphorisms, hearsay, fabrication, and downright lies – and even the lies might turn out to be the truth.

The first emperor, Qín Shi Huángdì (260-210 BC), gathered all the kingdoms together and gave his name (Jack prefers his ‘more familiar citation’, Ch’in) to his resultant empire and ultimately to the massive free-market state which is China now. Read and learn, I say, and you’ll end up wiser, even more confused, and highly entertained, I insist.

I know nothing of Chinese history, had never heard of the first emperor, and had no idea Jack could write – and was writing – such a book as this until I read it. Of course, I’ve never read Tolstoy’s War and Peace but nevertheless feel familiar with it. China is uncharted territory for me, yet I feel at ease with Jack’s historical method and am persuaded I now know the truth: ‘The Emperor did not rise. He unfolded until at last the empire turned and found him at his zenith.’

In many ways, this is a book of manners. A chapter (of two sentences) is titled ‘The Emperor divorces the Princess’: ‘Madam, I divorce you. Had I less to give, it would be yours more heartily.’

A one-sentence chapter titled ‘The Imperial Law’ has this to say: ‘The right way is the weakening of the people, and the way of weakening is the law.’

And here’s the emperor on war: ‘Confused in a wood, the Emperor approached an encampment of militia and said, “I seek the war.”

‘“Have you lost it?” said a soldier.

‘“That,” grinned another, “is our job.”’

And what about this? In the emperor’s entourage is one Madame Fu: ‘Hers was the cause of peace and it embraced every other cause, even that of war…. she reasoned thus: “When war is waged for the cause of peace, war is better than peace for, without it, how should peace be won?” Such reasoning was intended to please the Emperor, for it enabled him to wage peace or war without losing the support of Madam Fu.’

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Read it and weep, I say – and raise a laugh as well.