The Black Box: A Theory of China

Robert Logan once said: "China created what was probably the most sophisticated system of nonabstract science the world has known.” There is a deep connection to nature and a key to an almost physical way of thinking in the composition of Chinese characters, which then reveals itself in language so vivid and direct those who experience it for the same time will feel a jolt, before being taken to a wholly difference mode of experience. For example, the old Imperial Academy may be referred to by this abstract term, but the name in Chinese is "Forest of Pencils." A mouth and a dog means “bark” (吠). 口+犬. The word for "mountains" and the word for “rivers” make the word for "landscape" (山水).  You never lose track of these original meanings, the way we have long ago lost track of the origins, for example, of the word “sincerity” or “sarcasm.”

In a recent book, David Hinton hints at the secret of classical Chinese: “Each word is associated with the thing it names not because of a mimetic pointing at the thing from a kind of outside...” Rather than alphabetic marks that are distant and arbitrary signs referring to reality from a seemingly transcendental outside, pictographic Chinese words operate without the dualistic divide between empirical reality and a transcendental realm of language. Western observers — those Orientalists! — have always commented on the concrete, physical character of the language:

The poet Ezra Pound draws a vivid contrast between Western and Chinese definitions. Westerners, Pound explains, define by receding: cherry, red, color, vibration, mode of being. The object to be defined is subsumed under a more abstract idea. It works like a mental pyramid: we take a concept at a lower level such as "cherry," see that it is contained under a higher one such as "redness" and that allows us to speak of the cherry as red. Chinese definitions, by contrast, never leave the level at which particular things are found. How does one define red without actually using red ink? The Chinese ideogram might put together several red objects: the abbreviated pictures of a rose, a cherry, iron rust and a flamingo. The definition is not a philosophical construction. It uses what everyone knows from actual experience.

Two preliminary points:

• Is it orientalist to speak of fundamental differences in the way different cultures think about the world? No, it is not. In fact, those who are ready to dismiss this possibility out of hand are the real orientalists, as they assume everyone is the same but by “same” they invariably mean their own categories and prejudices!

• Whether these ways of thinking and speaking will survive the logic of modernization remains to be seen, but there is no reason to suppose they will not. A lot of the old China has been destroyed, but much is now being recovered. And more fundamentally: there is always what China lacks of the Western world and that suffices to move its culture and politics in a different direction.

Now the conclusion…

The absence of metaphysics described above continues to be a defining mark of contemporary Chinese life and society. In classical Chinese thought there is no metaphysical dimension. Language is not a transcendental realm, and neither is theory. There is a separation between self and world, the overcoming of which is the focus of Chan practice - the original Zen - but that practice is quite different because there is no metaphysical dimension involved.

Two silk cocoons suspended into a vat of black dye, visible in the early version of the character. Lao Tzu invented dark enigma to name the world without concepts and understanding. “One and the same they are called dark enigma, dark enigma deep within dark enigma, gateway of all mystery.” It is a way of saying emptiness emptied of conceptual content, before concepts including the concept of emptiness. “The famous black box,” the tech entrepreneur Dinglong Huang once told me: “Do you know why the Chinese are so naturally good at deep learning? Because the black box has been part of Chinese society and Chinese culture since the very beginning. Zen meditation, yes, but not only. Chinese medicine. There is an input, some herb or infusion. You have no idea how it works, but it does. All you can do to get a different result is enter a different input.”

An investment may turn out to be the bargain of the century, or it might be suddenly classified as a state crime. Voice an idea, express an opinion, and you might shift the debate. Or you might find out you have entered forbidden territory. As journalists in the private media in Beijing used to tell me during my time there, “one has to probe, there is no other way.” The photographer Lu Guang took a chance when he went to Henan to document the plight of those infected with HIV after being forced to sell their blood. He won the 2004 World Press Photo. In 2018 he was detained by state security officers while visiting Xinjiang. Many of the ultra rich, having relied on bribery and other underhand methods to become millionaires, stand on the edge of the abyss. They know that their next move might turn them into one of the two or three billionaires China produces every week or land them in jail for life. When they look down, they see the black box — dark and gleaming.

But the black box has obvious advantages as well. If you insist on understanding everything — what I mean by metaphysics — your potential to effect change will be limited. But if you can accept not knowing how things work, a host of new possibilities become available. Officials in Beijing will readily explain that the reason China was not affected by the Global Financial Crisis was that the country was not hampered by economic theory. It did what worked at the time and gave little thought to what was prescribed — or proscribed — by economics textbooks. When Xi Jinping recently wrote on what defines “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he never tried to defend a series of propositions or doctrinal tenets. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is simply the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.