Saturday, December 28, 2019


History Today, June 2018
Explorers and Orientialists
Zareer Masani

Cultural curiosity inspired generations of British imperialists to unearth India’s past.

    For a generation brought up on Edward Said’s writings on Orientalism, it may come as a surprise that it was British Orientalists who rediscovered India’s history and artistic heritage and made it accessible to all. The Palestinian American Said knew little about India or else he might have recognized the cultural curiosity that inspired thousands of Britons to explore India’s past.

    The ‘colonial gaze,’ which Said’s followers dismiss as colonial appropriation, took the form of paintings and engravings by artists such as Thomas Daniel and William Hodges, long before Britain acquired any imperial ambitions in India.

    Then there was Sir William Jones, the polymath who contributed more than any other individual to India’s national renaissance. Alongside his day job as a judge in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the East India Company’s capital, Jones studied and mastered Sanskrit, translated its classical texts and used the language to unlock the glories of India’s long-forgotten Hindu and Buddhist past.

    Jones found Sanskrit “more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either. I am in love with the gopis, charmed with Krishna and an enthusiastic admirer of Rama. Arjun, Bhima and the warriors of the Mahabharata appear greater in my eyes than Ajax or Achilles appeared when I first read the Iliad.”

    Unlike ancient Greece and Rome, India’s classical past had left behind no written histories, so it had to be reconstructed from lost pavilions and buried treasure. In 1784, with the active patronage of the first British Governor-General, Warren Hastings, Jones founded the Asiatic Society to take on this giant task. It became the beacon for a huge volunteer army of amateur antiquarians across the subcontinent, enthusiastic British civil and military officers, who scoured the mofussil (those regions beyond the East India Company’s control) for ruins and artifacts, wrote learned articles about them and sent their findings to be collated and studied in the Presidency cities: Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai).

    When Jones returned to England a decade later, his health broken by overwork, the Asiatic was taken over by his protég
é, James Prinsep, another polymath, who worked at the East India Company’s mint in Benares (Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh). Prinsep’s labors produced the biggest breakthrough in Indian historiography, the deciphering of the long-forgotten Brahmi script, and, through it, the discovery of the Mauryan empire, which had united the subcontinent in the third century BC.


Wednesday, December 18, 2019


The reconstruction of Polska YMCA in the immediate postwar period was a classic example of what is nowadays called “civil society,” a phenomenon that has gone by other names in the past. In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke wrote admiringly of the “little platoons,” the small social organizations from which, he believed, public spirit arose (and which he thought were threatened by the French Revolution). In the nineteenth century, Alexander de Tocqueville wrote equally enthusiastically of the “associations” that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form.” He concluded that they helped ward off dictatorship: “If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve.” More recently, the political scientist Robert Putnam has redefined the same phenomenon as “social capital,” and concluded that voluntary organizations lie at the heart of what we call “community.”

By 1945, the Bolsheviks had also developed a theory of civil society, albeit one that was entirely negative. In contrast to Burke, Tocqueville, and their own Russian intellectuals, they believed, in the words of the historian Stuart Finkel, that “the public sphere in a socialist society should be unitary and univocal.” They dismissed the “bourgeois” notion of open discussion, and hated independent associations, trade unions, and guilds of all kinds, which they referred to as “separatist” or “caste” divisions within society. As for bourgeois political parties, these were meaningless. (As Lenin had written, “the names of parties, both in Europe and in Russia, are often chosen purely for purposes of advertisement, the ‘programs’ of parties are more often than not written with the sole purpose of defrauding the public.” 

The only organizations allowed to have a legal existence were de facto extensions of the Communist party. Even completely apolitical organizations had to be banned: until the revolution had triumphed, there could be no such thing as an apolitical organization. Everything was political. And if it was not openly political, then it was secretly political.

From that assumption, it also followed that no organized group was above suspicion.

Anne Applebaum, (2012-10-30). Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (148-149). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019


China Transformed by Elimination of ‘Four Olds’

By Tillman Durdin—Special to The New York Times

May 19, 1971

HONG KONG, May 18—One of the early objectives of the Cultural Revolution in China, which began in 1966 and goes on today, was to wipe out the “four olds”—old things, old ideas, old customs and old habits.

The “four olds” had already suffered setbacks in the years of Communist rule preceding the Cultural Revolution, but the Maoist leadership tried to use the new revolutionary upsurge launched in 1966 to eliminate them completely.

In the turbulent years from 1966 to 1968, what remained of old religious practices, old superstitions, old festivals, old social practices such as traditional weddings and funerals, and old ways of dress were violently attacked and suppressed.

Visual evidences of old things were destroyed, and there was an orgy of burning of old books and smashing of old art objects.

Young Red Guards invaded homes and shattered family altars that denoted continued Confucian reverence for generations of forbears. The few temples, mosques and churches still used for religious purposes were closed and put to secular use. Even those that had been left open for sightseeing purposes, such as the great Buddhist, Lama and Taoist temples of Peking, were barred and their statues, altars and other furnishings were removed.

Forbidden City Is Closed

The Forbidden City—the walled enclosure in Peking of palaces, ceremonial halls, pavilions and residential quarters from which Chinese imperial rule was exercised until 1911—was shut.

The evidence, mainly visual, during three weeks of travel by this correspondent in the east coast areas of China, indicates that the drive against the “four olds” has had sweeping effect. In not a single home seen by the writer was there any family altar, any tablets to ancestors or any representation of the old gods formerly worshipped by the Chinese masses. In as Westernized a city as Hong Kong, still under British rule, such things are still commonplace in Chinese homes.

No religious practices were discoverable during the trip in China, and guides said there were none. Religious edifices have been turned to use as schools, warehouses or recreational centers.

The Forbidden City, with its evidences of great traditional art and architecture, remains closed to the general public, and the showplace temples and mosques of Peking and elsewhere are still barred except for a few that are reportedly kept open to be shown to visiting Buddhist and Moslem delegations.

Some Art Objects on Sale

Collections of traditional Chinese art objects of second‐class quality—porcelains, jades, paintings, lacquerware and jewelry—are for sale in special shops in Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai and Canton, but only for foreign visitors. The Chinese never get a sight of these examples of a great artistic past.

Before the Cultural Revolution it was not uncommon to see women wearing traditional sheath dresses and using cosmetics. Now the old styles in women's garments are gone, and today women wear the same frumpy blue or gray trousers and jackets as men. The writer saw no use of lipstick or rouge. Dressed like men, women work alongside them in manual as well as office jobs at the same pay.

The traditional big Chinese family apparently is gone, too. Cramped living quarters and social conditions today dictate a small family composed of husband, wife and one to three children.

The only old festival observed now is at the time of the old Chinese New Year, based on the lunar cycle, and it is not called a New Year festival any longer but a spring festival. Celebrations are not the colorful traditional kind. There are holidays, but the activities then are of a political nature—political dramatic performances or politically oriented mass meetings and sports events.

No old literature, either Chinese or Western, is on sale. Instead, the bookshops are stacked with the works of Mao Tse‐tung, and the few periodicals on politics, literature, medicine and other matters that are being produced these days.

In a library inspected at Tsinghua University in Peking, the section devoted to old Chinese literature was still intact, but a look into the classic novel “Water Margin” showed that it was last taken out for reading in January, 1967.

No traditional operas, no traditional music and no traditional plays are performed these days. There are only the 10 new standard dramatic works developed during the Cultural Revolution and performed everywhere now in full or in excerpts.

Even the manners and attitudes of the people seem changed. Weddings and funerals are plain and simple without public display of any sort.

People Seem Less Polite

People seem more direct and less polite. They appear to be more motivated than before by considerations of time and of cause and effect, as in Western societies.

The exotic, the traditionally pictured and the traditionally colorful things are gone from Chinese life, at least in the areas that were visited. In the Chinese People's Republic there is no “mysterious East” any more, just workaday people following workaday routines that seem essentially familiar and ordinary to the Westerner, even though they operate within a Marxist totalitarian framework.

Old folk sayings are occasionally heard, but these have largely been replaced by the maxims of Chairman Mao. The first of January is celebrated as the real New Year's Day, and the other fixed holidays, besides the spring festival, are May Day and the October 1 National Day.

A new generation has appeared, and though much of the old China is too indelible to erase as yet, a new China with ways quite different from the old is in existence.