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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Petyr Baelish of Sichuan: Echoes of the 3 Kingdoms

Sometimes my mind makes unexpected associations. A few days ago I was talking to a couple of friends, who are of Sichuan (or Szechuan) ancestry, about the unique culture of the Sichuan province derived form its unique geographic characteristics. It's a region of fertile land surrounded by nearly impassable mountains. The climate is warm with reliable rainfall. The land is fertile. For millennia, people thrived in this secluded Shangri-la with little interest in the outside world, for they had everything they needed here. The outside world was barely aware of the existence of the haven and had no access to invade or raid it.

I was just explaining to someone else what was actually happening in ASOIAF with Petyr Baelish and his favorite pet, uh, student, Sansa Stark. According to the Sansa chapter in the unpublished Book 6, which was tossed to long-suffering fans by George RR Martin, they are safely tucked away in the impenetrable Vale. Now that Uncle Littlefinger (LF) has wrapped all the Vale lords and their armies around his little finger (no pun intended), he is the only regional leader in the entire Westeros who has stored enough supplies to survive the winter. At the moment, he has neither the military prowess nor advanced weaponry (eg, dragons) to defeat anyone or conquer anyone, but Uncle LF is playing the long game. He is waiting for everyone outside the Vale to kill each other and for the last king or queen standing to starve to death or near-death in the long winter. Then, when it's all over, all he has to do is walk out of the Vale, with dear Sansa on his arm, and the kingdom is his for the taking.

Why is he not worried about being invaded or raided for the precious supplies he has mustered? It is thanks to the geographic features of the Vale, of course, which is ...

... Just like Sichuan.

I've begun to suspect that Petyr Paelish is a mirror image of Zhuge Liang, the beloved prime minister of the Kingdom of Shu, ie, Sichuan, in the Three Kingdom period. Zhuge Liang is quite possible the most famous historical figure in the entire Chinese history, characterized in historical records as a political and military genius who was "supernaturally brilliant." He was an intellectual and couldn't slaughter a chicken if he had to, but he was said to have win multiple battles against enemies that vastly outnumbered his army.

The 3-kingdom problem was, in many ways, fundamentally the same as the war of the 5 kings, or any other such complex situations: No single party can defeat the other 2 parties, but no 2 parties can form a permanent alliance, either. The Shu kingdom was the smallest and least powerful of the three parties in this delicate balance. No one expected it to survive --- and it didn't in the end --- but, for a couple of decades, it was not conquered by either of the other 2 enemies. Later commentators tended to credit Zhuge Liang's genius for this incredible feat, but Shu's advantage was probably more geographical than intellectual. It was tucked away in the mountains that were nearly impossible to invade, and it had plenty of agriculture to support a sizable army without needing to trade with the outside world. Sieges did not work. All of this is eerily similar to the Vale in its current situation, not to mention having a leader who is "supernaturally brilliant" at politics (almost entirely lost in the TV series).

Much like Mr. Zhuge, Mr. Baelish is also an ambitious man and not satisfied with self-preservation alone in this secluded happy little kingdom. For six years (228 to 234 AC), Zhuge Liang attempted to march north multiple times to attack the strongest rival the Kingdom of Wei. Not surprisingly, he failed. The direct cause of the failure was Zhuge's death from disease, but the root cause might simply be that he took a bigger bite than he could chew. Of course, if the entire China were facing an encroaching army of the Others, along with a long winter they bring, Shu could have stayed put and waited for everyone else to freeze to death. Alas, Mr. Zhuge had no such luck. In addition, although we had a glimpse of all the stockpiles and preparations for winter inside the Vale, we have no clear idea of Mr. Baelish's military strength relative to those outside of the mountains. Both the real Sichuan and the fictional Vale are easy to defend, but striking out is an entirely different matter.

If the geographic and political situation were the only similarity between Shu and the Vale, I would have chalked it up to coincidence. However, there is more reason to suppose that the link is intentional rather than an accident. Petry Baelish and Zhuge Liang are extremely similar in some ways: Both are renowned for their cunning and plotting, especially their ability to see ten steps ahead in the chess game than anyone else and play out all possible scenarios in their heads. Both played people against each other like pawns. Both have the ambition to conquer the world. Perhaps most revealing ... Both rule through a useless boy king: LF through Lysa Arryn's son, the sickly Robin; Zhuge through his king nicknamed Ah-Dou (阿斗), whose name later became synonymous with a very weak person or a puppet controlled by someone else. The similarity is striking.

Lastly, while GRRM has never let slip that he was in any way or shape familiar with Chinese history, he did own up to having played the computer game Romance of the Three Kingdoms (originated in Japan). While the primary inspiration of ASOIAF is the Wars of the Roses, there were only TWO sides in that war: House of York and House of Lancaster. Yet, GRRM chose to set up a multiplayer game from the start.

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By now we know that a character's historical inspiration isn't necessarily any indication of the character's future fate. Tyrion isn't likely to be killed in battle or by the barbarians that he brings back to Rome, uh, King's Landing and later betrays. Nevertheless, there is a certain delicious irony in Zhuge Liang's demise. I wonder how much this mirroring will carry on. Zhuge could plan and plan and plan and still life interfered. I cannot help but suspect that GRRM has a deep appreciation for life's ironies.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Timon of Athens


During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with two teenage children) sitting next to me. The boy kept saying, "His motivation is unclear. Why is he so strange?" He was referring to Timon's showering his "friends" with money and gifts at his own peril. It seems unsatisfactory that Shakespeare should obscure such bizarre behavior or personality. The mother pointed out that such is the tradition of Greek tragedies, and don't forget the play is intentionally set in ancient Greece.

I couldn't help but inject myself into the conversation. "Why does Gatsby throw big parties every night?" Well there's an easy answer --- he wants to announce his presence to the girl across the bay. He wants to demonstrate that he is no longer poor and undesirable. He wants to show Daisy that he now deserves her love.

Is that so different from Timon of Athens?

I pointed out to the boy that bizarre behaviors are common among rich people, contrary to popular American mythology. For every Warren Buffett, you have dozens of Mercers and Kochs, and those are the "normal" ones. The director Robert Richmond modeled his Timon on the legendary weirdo rich man Howard Hughes, with the tics and OCD.

Nevertheless, Timon's desperate need for friends, along with his inability to find any, stabs you straight in the heart. Do we really not feel his motivation in our gut?

If Shakespeare were a true misanthrope, he would confirm Timon's worst nightmare that he truly does have no friends and there truly is no love between people. However, Shakespeare clearly was NOT a misanthrope. In a brilliant bit of casting, Richmond made his steward and one true friend Flavius into a woman. There is a tinge of sexual tension between Timon and Flavius that remains unresolved. Flavius represents real human relationships that Timon is unable to grasp. If we are still too dense to buy into Timon's extreme distrust of humanity, there is another character, General Alcibiades. While he takes revenge against the ungrateful treatment of his fellow Athenians like Coriolanus, his motivation is different from the latter. He is not banished for his own ego; rather, he tried to defend and save a friend. Even in a play that serves up the most angry diatribe against humanity, there is friendship and loyalty.

Maybe this is why Shakespeare's tragedies are so addictive. They're bleak, but they're not all that bleak. He is not an extremist.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Tide of Time

On the way home from Macbeth on Saturday afternoon, the Metro was flooded with people leaving the People's Climate March. There were middle-aged and young people and couples with children, holding cardboard signs supporting environmental policies and protection against climate change, etc., etc.

All signs suggest that it is too late and the earth is on an irreversible course of climate change that will bring warmer temperature, rising sea levels, and extreme weather. Whether these changes spell doom for agriculture and the human society as a whole, there is no reliable economic model to predict. Obviously, this is no reason to stop the effort to curb carbon emission and other types of pollution, but we're kidding ourselves if we believe that we can still turn the tide back to the world of yesterday, even 50 to 70 years ago.

Ironically, millions upon millions of people are still treating climate change as a pure political issue or a conspiracy created by liberals. This stance will continue until their crops fail in scorching droughts and their homes get swallowed in flood and hurricanes.

My mind made a turn and connected climate change with the three witches with prophetic power. It is curious how Macbeth selectively hears and believes the parts of their prophecies he likes and discards the parts that troubles him. We all do this, and we can't help ourselves. If we could put aside all the killings he commits and orders, Macbeth is just another Oedipus Rex. While the orthodoxy considers Macbeth's fate as a result of his own character flaws (greed, ambition, cruelty, megalomania) with a dash of justice, I wonder if it's a lost child of the ancient Greek's mythology, which attributes human fortune to the fickleness of the gods. We only seem to be a creature of cause and effect and we only seem to control our lives via our choices and actions.

Like the pessimistic projection of climate change based on already-collected data, the hypothesis that free will does not objectively exist is also based on some hard-to-dispute scientific evidence, starting with Special Relativity and including the vastness of the unconscious. This is not to say that free will, as a subjective phenomenon, does not operate in the human mind, much like the functions of perception or emotion or cognition. Nevertheless, we probably do not cause or control our realistic lives nearly as consciously and as freely as we would like to believe.

When we think about history, the conventional habit is to trace the cause and effect of significant events to powerful kings and queens and presidents, and their personalities and relationships and competence. The Wars of Roses went on for decades because, see, Henry V died too young, leaving an infant son who was unable to control the factions of his court. The Cuban missile crisis was resolved before we met annihilation because JFK was a smart guy, or maybe he had a really smart brother to help him, or Khruschev was more reasonable than Americans know. We attribute historical events and trends to human motives and reasons. Maybe GW Bush wanted to show his father he was a good son, or maybe his friends wanted to make a few more billions of dollars in profit. Whatever.

But, imagine if you were an alien observing humans like we humans observe ants or plants. You see patterns, some of which are cyclic and some are linear or spiral. Would you give a damn about the motive of each significant event? If you see the species as a whole go to war with each other every 5 to 10 years, or continually, would you give a damn what the human motive is behind each war? If you see the human society obsessively strips its natural environment with increasing efficiency, do you really need to hear their rationalization?

Can we help ourselves? Macbeth can't.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Shakespeare Season in Washington

The upcoming theater season in Washington DC will be filled with heavy-weight plays. Before his retirement, Michael Kahn is going to put on HAMLET (!) again at the STC, which will also do Twelfth Night and Waiting for Godot.

As if that's not enough, Folger just sent out an email announcement that they will put on Antony and Cleopatra (!) in October-November, directed by Robert Richmond. 

I went to STC to see the new Macbeth, directed by Liesl Tommy and set in a north African country named ... Scotland. Very nicely done with breath-taking set design that rivaled the set of Wallenstein I saw some years ago. Lady Macbeth, played by Nikkole Salter, was particularly memorable. 


Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Seagull

I think I'm in love with Chekhov. The thing is that he puts the audience in a situation in which you want to both laugh and cry at the same time. He jams comedy and tragedy together, and yet I don't feel the whiplash from such jarring contradictory tones. Reading the scripts of The Seagull and Three Sisters, I keep laughing even though laughing seems inappropriate because it's all so sad! And funny! And sad and funny! Also I suspect that his scripts are best presented on screen, perhaps television rather than movies (never mind TV was not even invented in Chekhov's time). They are so subtle and full of winks and nudges, totally unsuited for a large theater where actors have to raise their voices to be heard. And the plays are best acted by professional comedians with mature mastery of ... timing.

In The Seagull, at first I was taken aback by how Oedipal it is in the depiction of the mother-son relationship (Irina Arkadina and Konstantin). Chekhov is Freud's contemporary, but surely the latter had no influence in Russia, did he? This is explained in the translator Paul Schmidt's notes --- Chekhov modeled it on Hamlet and Gertrude. No wonder ...

This type of generational rivalry usually occurs between parent and child of the same gender: mother versus daughter, father versus son. Here Arkadina's contempt for her son's literary and dramatic pursuits reflects perhaps a generational conflict between Chekhov and his older or younger colleagues in real life. Her prima donna personality must have been modeled on real stars he had met. Any other writer would surely tar and feather her as a horrible villain, but I want to laugh.

Regardless, more than anything, this particular play seems to disprove the theory that Chekhov always writes about people's inaction and stagnation and unfulfilled dreams. On the contrary, nearly all of the characters in the play have taken quite decisive actions. Trigorin seduces Nina. Nina elopes with Trigorin and even goes forth with her dream of becoming an actress. Konstantin writes and gets published and continues to write his experimental plays. Masha marries Medvedenko and has a baby with him. Even Sorin, the guy with lifelong regrets, has worked as a government bureaucrat for nearly 30 years. He hasn't been sitting in a chair all day. They are not people of procrastination, moping around mumbling should have could have would have. They are people of action!

And look where all the actions get them. Maybe that is the point. Contrary to the advice of American self-help books, taking action does not deliver people to happiness and "self-actualization" (but neither does inaction). What then? All we can do is march on in spite of it all ...

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Timon of Athens


Folger Theater is going to put on a new production of Timon of Athens, directed by Robert Richmond, in a couple of months, so I've started reading it. It is in some ways the same story as Coriolanus, one of ingratitude, betrayal, and rage/revenge. But still ... just like Coriolanus and King Lear, two other characters in parallel with Timon, our feelings toward the protagonist cannot remain purely sympathetic. There is something troubling about his tragedy. Upon first glance, it is a simple injustice done to him by heartless people who betray his generosity. If you chew on it a bit, however, the easy moral lesson just doesn't sit right. The ambiguity is not as explicitly presented as King Lear's opening scene, but Lear's offering his kingdom to his daughters and Timon's free distribution of gifts to anonymous "friends" somehow give off the same vibe.

Timon believes that everyone at his banquet table loves him, because they tell him so while eating his food and pocketing his expensive gifts. Later, a financial downfall proves his judgment wrong, as none of these people wants to lend him a penny to help pay his debts. To Timon, money seems to be the currency of interpersonal relationships. Affection is bought and sold and passed back and forth between people, as solid and countable as gold coins. When it is apparent that this is not the way of humanity, Timon flips out in a rage. People took my money and paid me in love, and now they refuse to love me again by throwing money at me? Bastards! How could they? In Timon's mind, there is no difference between money and relationship. He is not so bad as those who try to buy love and loyalty via exploitation, because his need and neediness for affection are sincere and, can we say, desperate.

Lest we despise or laugh at Timon, who among us have not been plagued by unrequited feelings and unjust relationships? Who has not attempted to win someone's affection by freely giving one's own, only to be rejected or worse, deceived and betrayed? And yet, there is no road of banishment for us, out of Athens and into the woods, alone and independent, never again to beg for someone's unreliable bond. You can give and give and give, with never any guarantee of returned favor. There is no justice or accounting in our relationships with each other.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chutney

I happened upon an Indian takeout place today for some tandoori chicken and naan. On the way out I picked up some mango and tamarind chutney in tiny plastic cups.

The el cheapo naan was pretty dense and tough. I would have tossed it out if there weren't the two little cups of watery, sugary liquid to dip it with. Almost unconsciously, I finished a big piece of the lousy bread.

What the hell is chutney? Who invented this stuff to trick people into eating flavorless, nutrition-less, boring and bland starch? Perhaps it's a testament of the ingenuity of ancient people who crushed, boiled, ground, and fermented natural food stuff into unrecognizable shapes.

Substantively, chutney contains hardly anything more than a bit of minced fruit, sugar, and water. And yet, its effect is transforming and transcendent, like a pinch of curry or saffron or a few slices of ginger. It's ... magic.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Work, Meaning, etc.

Through this article on FT, I stumbled into a rabbit hole and just barely pulled myself out before sinking a whole evening into reading more and more lateral links on this subject.

Does work have meaning? What a can of worms. If yes, what is it and why is it so obscure? If no, why work beyond the poverty level?

Of course, on the most fundamental level, the purpose --- if not meaning --- of work is survival. Survival of the self and our genes. It's simple.

But then it got more and more complicated.

Just like "happiness," the word "meaning" should send a shiver down anyone's spine. Both are so chronically abused by cliches and wishful thinking and propaganda that they have by now lost all meaning.

When economists barged into the happiness business, all hell has broken loose. The problem is that economists do not see individuals when they think about people. So intent are they in seeking universal theories about the world and, worse, people, that they would never stoop to the level of individual persons and observe their similarities and differences --- some external and some internal, some constant and some ever-changing. And yet, without taking the interperson and intraperson complexities into consideration, the search for a universal theory of meaning or solution to happiness is doomed.

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Post Script: Actually, the whole point of this post is that all the talk about "meaning" --- as in the meaning of work, the meaning of life, blah blah blah --- reminds of me Harari's assertion that almost everything that binds human society together is fiction: morality, religion, human rights, and money.

Or I prefer to quote GRRM:

"Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
“So power is a mummer’s trick?”
“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill.”


It applies to the modern concept of "meaning" just as well. Meaning is what one assigns to it. No more and no less. There, GRRM has solved the existential question for ya.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind


I had a hard time enjoying this book by Harari, not because it is not good or interesting --- it is very interesting, but the (inevitable) scatteredness irritated me every few pages. The author was overly ambitious and crammed as many ideas as he could into a small space. It's against my temperament to move on, as quickly as the book does, from one thought to another, without an urge to dig deeper and make connections between some of them. This might be the other extreme of Nassim Taleb, who would pound a perfectly good but not very complex idea to death with 200 more pages than necessary. I find them both to be enlightening but often frustrating.

To me it is only viable to take a couple of the ideas and look closer. I was particularly struck by a subsection in Chapter 8 No Justice in History. The author wrote:

At least since the Agricultural Revolution, most human societies have been patriarchal societies that valued men more highly than women. No matter how a society defined "man" and "women", to be a man was always better.

He went on to point out that sociological and biological attempts to explain this phenomenon have failed so far. Not being a student or scholar in gender studies, I cannot determine whether he is right or there are indeed illuminating theories buried in some university's archives.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

1913 or 1938?

I have been chatting with my Chinese American friends for weeks about the geopolitical and global economic outlooks in the next few years. Whichever way I look at it, the barrel of dynamite sitting between China and US is going to blow up in some shape or form. Both sides need it to blow up, because they have run out of alternatives. They just can't help themselves. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times recently compared today to the eve of WWI. The similarities are striking.

Mr. S refuses to heed my paranoia, but I continue to plot my doomsday scenarios. Not that I want the worst to happen, but it really does seem the most logical outcome given the current conditions. All the other options are rapidly receding into the fog.

I have to admit that, beneath the anxiety and dread there is a sliver of thrill. I was born in 1973, barely escaping the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. I never thought that, in my lifetime, I would witness such historical events as Hemingway or Christopher Isherwood or my parents did. From moment to moment you don't even know whether you will survive the next day! Is there anything more life affirming?!

The somewhat comforting elements of peace are two: 1) China does not have nearly enough long-range nuclear warheads to attack across the Pacific Ocean. 2) At the moment Russia has very little reason to get into any conflicts with US (Why would he? Putin's going to run the show of American national politics.)

So I'm sitting here on the brink, dangling my legs over the abyss, and shivering with a morbid curiosity. It is like the moment immediately after the boy king Joffrey unexpectedly had Ilyn Payne chop off Ned Stark's head, and I'm watching in the crowd through the eyes of Arya Stark or Uncle Yoren, with only a vague anticipation of the storm of swords to descend. There's also a faint whisper that I should write it down --- what it's like to live in January 2017 --- and take a snapshot of the sharp smell of snow halfway between the clouds and the earth.

I suppose we'll find out what is going to happen to the world, once George R. R. Martin finishes his damned book The Winds of Winter.

Petyr Baelish of Sichuan: Echoes of the 3 Kingdoms

Sometimes my mind makes unexpected associations. A few days ago I was talking to a couple of friends, who are of Sichuan (or Szechuan) ances...

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