Coerced Stability

Author Yi-Zheng Lian, a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan and contributing Opinion writer for the NYTimes, makes a crucial point in this article about Covid-19:

Of course, the virus isn’t Chinese, even if its origin eventually is traced back to a cave in China; nor is the disease that it causes.

It makes as little sense to attribute nationality to a virus as it does to attribute it to plankton. The corollary that Yi-Zheng Lian states is equally crucial:

Epidemics, on the other hand, are often societal or political — much like famines are usually man-made, even though droughts occur naturally.

For me the distinction he draws brings a moment of clarity amid the maelstrom of obfuscation and fault-finding that’s abroad in the world. The agency of human beings in epidemics, as in famines, must be recognized.

From here Yi-Zheng Lian proceeds to enunciate the following point about Chinese culture and support it with observations about that culture:

Punishing people who speak the truth has been a standard practice of China’s ruling elite for more than two millenniums and is an established means of coercing stability.

There are several handles to grab on this essay, prominent among them the themes of Chinese food culture and traditional medicine. Because it’s what I’ve least encountered, however, I was captured by the references to classical Chinese literature, including associated Chinese script.

Here’s a sample:

The sage [Confucius] took a page from… “The Classic of Poetry” (also known as “The Book of Songs”), a collection of songs and poems dating to the 10th century B.C. or before, and adopted a rule from it: “To Manifest the Way, First Keep Your Body Safe.” (明哲保身) That may sound innocuous enough, until you consider the fate of one of Confucius’s beloved students, Zi Lu (子路), also known as Zhong You (仲由), after he ran afoul of the precept: For trying to rebuke a usurper in a power struggle between feudal lords, he was killed and his body was minced. (It is said that Confucius never ate ground meat again.)


In the third century, the maxim took on some literary flair and a cynical didactic twist in an essay on fate by the philosopher Li Kang (李康): “The tree that grows taller than the forest will be truncated by gales” (木秀于林,風必催之). This, in turn, eventually gave rise to the more familiar modern adage, “The shot hits the bird that pokes its head out” (槍打出頭鳥).

(Yi-Zheng Lian, “Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China?” NYTimes, 2-20-20)

(c) 2020 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
This entry was posted in Commentary, Quotations and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.