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November 21, 2008


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What a dream!

Here’s my guess:

Huizong’s calligraphy is living shrimp (red bugs)
sealed in an amber field.
Huizong/Bell is a magus in the Eastern capital.
Bell offers Eastern wisdom to the West,
But Huizong’s amber wisdom
(among other things, art stands for knowledge of philosophy)
was counterfeited westward by gold (大金).


You know those are fighting words, Bill!!! And His calligraphy is usually likened to dancing crane legs-- not shrimp (but if I hang upside down I can kind of see your point).

Anyway, off to cook small fish like I govern a kingdom... and drown myself in beer--- 大金 indeed!

I think you're proposing to look at Asian perspectives as contexts within themselves, and not in comparion to Western views is excellent. After all, culture can really only be understood within its own paradigm and context.

I would love to join you on the book and exchange thoughts.

Amber is an interesting thing. It's warm. The glow you saw and felt was warm. Unlike gold. I wonder if that doesn't say something about what you feel might have more meaning and value.

Hello All,

Do you folks have a preference between the two at this point? Judging from the tables of contents for each, they certainly seem aimed at different audiences. Either would be fine with me.

Prof. A. Ku

At last the mysterious professor makes an appearance!! Great to see you and hope you are enjoying your weekend there. Bill, how about making an executive decision? I can decide, but the truth is I am interested in all of his books now that he has appeared in my dreams. Bill, it doesn't even have to be those 2 books either (the East West book is where the Mencius quote comes from). Also, because I am thinking more about the silk road stuff, Bill, what about choosing the best book for your's and chris' interests? If no one has an opinion, I will be happy to decide-- am leaning toward East West.

Hi Eric,

I've never really thought much about amber before this dream (but I had never really thought much about the Gialbo before the other dream)-- except that everytime Adonis puts rosin on his violin, I think how pretty it is and how people used to really appreciate tree resins more. Also, on that same TV show that introduced the amber museum in the medieval castle in Poland they showed how amber can generate an electrical charge-- so it's actually much more exciting than it appears. The greeks called it electron or electric (電)or something like that and that is how we get our word for electricity (at least that is according to NHK-- who is never wrong probably).

More valuable than gold-- perhaps?

Last week was so busy, I don't think I even left the house once and looking out my window I wonder if I completely missed the changing of the leaves. Isn't that awful? We're going to go climb a local mountain (I call it more like a hill) today to see if we can "gather" any leaves-- the Japanese call that 紅葉狩り- hunting autumn leaves-- beause traditionally autumn foliage viewing was something you weren't suppose to just watch like the sakura but rather were suppose to touch (gather some pretty specimen...Adonis has a leaf collecting kit)

By the way, Poland looked like a fairytale-- so beautiful, with archetectual wood carving like in Nepal. Beautiful forests and horse-drawn carriages... I know I say this a lot these days, but I wonder if I'll ever see it? Shunya, if you are reading this, when are you ever going to tell me about your trip to Poland?

I came across this interesting review by Chih-yu Shih of two books on human rights, including East Meets West by Daniel A. Bell. Thought might interest you. Here is a tantalizing excerpt:

The debate between human rights universalists and cultural relativists has continued into the 21st century. Many writers today have acknowledged that universalism is the product of European history. As a result, the center of the current debate veers away from the argument over whether or not human rights are universal rights in actuality. What concerns a good number of thinkers today is whether or not human rights “should be” universal. Human rights universalism has always been challenged on the ground that it represents a form of cultural imperialism or hegemony. Having such origins, it denies communitarian values, especially of the so-called non-Western societies. In response, universalists often accuse relativists of providing excuses for legitimizing political suppression. The problem with this kind of exchange is that all sides tend to arbitrate the correct form of human existence. Unfortunately, the uncompromising stance of both parties only shifts the argument away from the fundamental issue—whether the forms of human existence and their meanings are decidable.

In the following discussion, I will put forth the view that neither universalism nor relativism is sufficient in coping with the increasing variety of the human ontologies. What scholars have overlooked is the role of human agency, which enables a person to shift among, mix, and/or transcend universalist and relativist claims. However, as long as a universalist or a relativist does not try to lock a person into specific identities and roles, their advocacy can be entirely legitimate. In other words, the views on human relationships from both schools can remain more or less valid if discursive mechanisms are available to allow individuals to move out of these value systems and accept, mix and/or create others.


Let us first take the example of the Tiananmen Massacre in China.... Relativists may respond by saying that Confucianism contains elements ready to denounce such a massacre. In other words, there is a Confucian remedy to oppression. Indeed Daniel A. Bell’s East Meets West consistently and persuasively reminds readers that respectful solutions are always extant in the local culture. However, the relativist approach is confronted by two problems: First, is the objection to political oppression, if alive in Confucianism, a universal value nonetheless so that some form of universalism is ontologically presumed? Second, who should be included in the application of a declared local culture and who should not?

Read the full review here.

Hi Namit,

Thanks for the comment-- and I assume this means you are in for the book reading? :)

Regarding the excerpt,

I don't want to really commit to anything till I actually read one of Bell's books-- since in fact, Shih is addressing Bell's thoughts (not mine) and until I actually read Bell, I really couldn't say one way or the other.

However, having said that, I'll reply briefly (with more later):

1) I do not necessary accept the claim that the opposite of universalism is cultural relativism (as Shih is rather simplistically presenting).

I wonder if Hindi is similar (I am thinking perhaps it is) but in English people really tend to think in terms of categorical dichotomies. In this case, I think it is a _false dichotomy_ for Shih or and others to claim that the opposite of universalism is cultural relativism. It is not a practical dichotomy because

2) To my knowledge, not very many people are in fact recommending pure cultural relativism for one thing (thinkers almost always qualify what they are saying)

3) In general, I think people are really seeking to talk about something more along the lines of liberalism versus anti-neoliberalism and/or value pluralism--

but even there, when people talk of these things in general I think they are **not** talking about the logical extremes (especially in cases of human rights!) -- but rather practical, more subtle distinctions than Shih hints when he writes:

"In the following discussion, I will put forth the view that neither universalism nor relativism is sufficient in coping with the increasing variety of the human ontologies. What scholars have overlooked is the role of human agency, which enables a person to shift among, mix, and/or transcend universalist and relativist claims."

And in the same way that pure universalists and pure relatavists do not practically exist, "who should be decided in local culture" is also intuitively understood by context-- I would challenge Shih to give me 10 cases where it is not clear by context (on a case by case, topic by topic basis). Those involved know intuitively they are involved--and this does not imply categorically that no one else can have an opinion. But on the other hand, it may make sense to think that those "on the ground" ought to have a louder say in events that are directly affecting them rather than not?

On which book to read:

I have managed to buy or borrow copies of China’s New Confucianism and East Meets West.

I haven’t seem Beyond Liberal Democracy. It’s on 2-hour reserve in the library for a class, and I’ll find out shortly whether a local bookstore can get it for me before I leave here on the 18th. If not, I’ll order it so it arrives at my US home by the 18th.

Any of the three would be fine with me.

CNC looks like a collection of interesting essays on practices and situations in current China. I look forward to reading it, but it might not be the best discussion-platform for us who haven’t been living in China.

As between EMW and BLD, my vote is for EMW, because: I have my hands on a copy, it looks interesting and easily accessible, and I have got the impression that BLD is narrower in focus in the sense that it constructs a definite positive view.

So my weak preference-ranking is: EMW, BLD, CNC.

To me, "opposite/pure positions" are devices to illustrate conceptual differences and to aid understanding. In writing, we routinely use categories like orthodox vs. mystical religion, free market vs. socialist, Enlightenment vs. Romantic ideals, etc., even when few people/societies map onto these pure categories. Likewise, universalism and relativism stand for polar positions that help frame the problem. Virtually all of us fall in between.

Shih would certainly agree that "those on the ground" should have a louder say in events that effect their lives. I take his point to mean: Whose idea of "local culture" gets to be normative? To modify a quote from Howard Zinn, "nations are not communities (pretending to a common interest) and never have been. The culture of a country, presented as the culture of a single family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex."

I think Shih makes a significant point about human agency in his essay. And so our dance continues. :-)

Rather than tussle with the comment(ary), I will stick to the path of 'sola scriptura [Peonica]'.

I was in the Queen's Collection, in Buckingham Palace, last week, where I had gone to see the current exhibition of Dutch painting; in an alcove at the back was an array of gaudy priceless junk, including one tankard or mug of some sort which the label claimed to have been made of amber, though the mineral looked nothing like amber, but rather a sort of red quartz or chalcedony of some kind. I was so confused by this discrepancy that my brain suddenly dislodged the word "amber" from the definition "golden hardened tree resin", and for a moment I couldn't think or remember what the hell amber was. Which is funny, because as I sit here at my desk at home I have two pieces of amber in the mineral cabinet above my head: one more common round lump, and one unpolished specimen, which rather resembles a bit of toffee, with two mysterious grooves on it.

So I have been thinking about amber. I can't think of much about amber in ancient times. Diogenes Laertius says that according to Aristotle, Thales "attributed souls also to lifeless things, forming his conjecture from the nature of the magnet, and of amber."

Lucian, meanwhile, has a story entitled, "On Amber, or on the Swans". This story opens, delightfully, "With regard to amber, you doubtless share the general belief in the story that poplars on the banks of the river Eridanus shed tears of it in grief over Phaethon [the son of Apollo who drove the sun-chariot too close to the earth]; and that these poplars are the sisters of Phaethon, who out of sorry for the boy were changed into trees and still drip tears--of amber!" The narrator asks some local boatmen about the story and they laugh in his face: the story becomes a little parable (like so many of Lucian's stories) about popular credulity.

In these texts the Greek word for 'amber' is 'elektron', as you have already pointed out. It is certainly related to Greek 'elektor', which means sun or sunshine, and Georg Curtius (1858) connects it to Sanskrit 'ark', with a similar meaning (as well as 'copper'). The German 'bernstein' (burn-stone) has a similar etymology.

Pliny, too, has a whole chapter on amber and its mythical origins, "Natural History" 37.11, including the story that would later be told by Lucian. Pliny says amber is "an article which, for the present, however, is in request among women only". The native word is "sucinum" or "succinum", ie. from succus, sap. But he also notes the German word 'glaesum' or 'glessum'. Valpy connects this to Icelandic 'glys' (splendour) and Greek 'glausso' (to shine). Pliny also offers quite a lot on foreign trading of amber.

It would be interesting to see what mediaevals had to say on amber and its presumably magical qualities. The texts to look at would be Marbodus, De lapidibus pretiosis, and Albertus Magnus, De mineralibus, but neither of these are to hand, online, or in translation.

Hi Peony ~
As you might expect, I'm going to supply a visual. I'm surprised this hasn't appeared yet…


Since you folks have at least a mild preference for EMW, let's go with that. In addition, EMW has the additional benefit of selling on Amazon used for 5.99, which given the amount of books I buy is always a plus (sorry Daniel Bell, small royalty on my copy).

"Rather than tussle with the comment(ary), I will stick to the path of 'sola scriptura [Peonica]'"

Conrad, you know I love it when you talk like that!
Sola scriptura, etc.

This comment was wonderful-- thank you so much as it will keep me out of trouble for a week. I can't talk you into writing about the ancient trade in amber (The Amber Road) can I for our project? I would love to read more. There was a really vigorous trade-- not just east to west-- but west to east, and north to south and south to north in all manner of things, wasn't there? Furs and glass and corals... amber.

I didn't know that about sunshine. The Japanese documentary stated that it was because amber will produce static electricity and they even showed it doing so.

Conrad, I cannot help but wonder whether it is wise to keep a heavy cabinet just above your head? Well, I guess there are no earthquakes where you are-- But what about great rumbling winds?

Magnets and amber--- I cannot say I'm surprised. I really do think you should move the cabinet.

So, EMW it is.... Bill, the mysterious Professor A Ku has just informed me of the chink in your epistemic armor-- knowledge of which shall come in very handy in the days ahead, I'm sure. Consider yourself warned! :)

I would seem to need a new helmet.

You'll need more than a new helmet, my dear!

Do you have a preference for dates in December? You and Professor Ku should decide since I never know my own schedule till the day before anyway.


And why read Bell, you ask Marc?
Well, for one thing to find out why history is not spelled with a capital H. (oh, that comment was for Laozi-- who needs a new helmet)

The cabinet is not literally above my head, in the sense that it would hit me if it fell down, it is just facing me above my desk.

Electricity is indeed named after amber because of the static. OED says: "< post-classical Latin electricus of amber, amber-like (1267, 1622 in British sources), electrical (1600, 1620, 1686 in British sources; apparently earliest in W. Gilbert De magnete (1600); also in Gilbert as neuter plural noun, electrica, denoting things with the same power of attraction as amber) < classical Latin electrum amber".

By the way, this is the unamberlike amber canister in Buck Palace.

My classes end on the 12th of December (finals afterward, but that's not a problem). So I'd say anytime after the 12th works for me.

How about we shoot a post on 1.1 ("Trade Offs") anytime right after that, perhaps in the following week.

We could then play out how to proceed from there?

Sounds good to me, A Ku!

Sounds good to me too, A Ku!

But shall we not keep all _tactical plans_ (ie "trade offs") under wraps so we keep our man Bill on his toes? He is, afterall, shopping for helmets, as we speak....

Conrad, I'm really glad we cleared that up because I could feel myself start to obsess about your being struck down by a heavy mineral cabinet (what else do you have in there beside amber chunks?)

I actually found the canister rather pretty (well, prettier than I expected). Like a decent beer glass.

What about my idea for The Amber Road?

Also, what do you think about my changing my name to Peonica?


Finally a moment to take a breath.... yes, the amber room. Believe it or not, I was planning on adding something about the amber room, but talking about the Count and then Poland and the museum distracted me.

I've wondered what the amber room would be like in real life. In pictures it reminds me so much of Hideyoshi's tearoom.

Remember I was telling Motoki in the comment to this post about the tearoom in the woodblock print in my living room. I always imagine myself sitting on the engawa, drinking tea and just doing nothing-- the bamboo is waving in the wind and I love the way it sounds...

Well, Hideyoshi's teahouse is the __other__ kind of tearoom .

Unfortunately I cannot seem to locate a decent picture of it-- but it was the shogun's portable tearoom made all of gold (I think the utencils were gold as well).

That's what the amber room reminds me of-- ostentatious and very bright... but after my dream and Eric's comment, I'm wondering if in fact it wouldn't be warmer in real life. I was surprised it wasn't one of Catherine's creations-- but it doesn't appear to be and was originally made in Prussia...

Namit, if you are reading this.... I'll be back to dance! (I need more time)

I have no idea what dreams mean. I never read enough Jung and Freud. So I have nothing of interest to add to that.

However -- last night I had a dream myself that deals with an "Asian theme".

There was this guy in the dream, he was not a "main character" by any stretch, but he was always present, almost like a stalker, at the outskirts of what was going on in the "main story." So me and a few others would be in a park, say, and there was that guy, standing on the edge of the park, staring at us. Every scene of the dream it was the same -- he was always on the outside, looking in. He never said anything, never moved, just stood there.

He was an old guy -- probably in his late 60s. And he had a huge bushy beard and mustache. You know, the kind that is so big that the lower part of the person's head gets lost inside of it. And he wore big eyeglasses.

After scene after scene of this oddness, I finally started to ask people who this guy was. They said his name was "Wade-Giles".

Yeah. Okay.

After a long flight to LA which ended dramatically with *a team* of huge LA Policemen boarding the plane and ordering me to sit down (After they had made the announcement that a "security team" would be boarding and that everyone needs to take their seats, I had figured I'd still have time to get my stuff down from the overhead before the so-called security showed up-- I really hate waiting for security!)...

Some fugitive was on board I guess and he was roughly escorted off the plane leaving the rest of us sitting there quite awhile-- which you know how annoying that can be after a gruelling Pacific flight.

Anyway Chris what a pleasure to arrive after a long flight to a note from you! Thank you!!!!!! And hope you enjoyed your long weekend.

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