Involution, part 2

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[This is a guest post by Diana Shuheng Zhang.  It was prompted by "'Involution', 'working man', and 'Versailles literature': memes of embitterment" (12/23/20), where we discovered that the word "involution", which is little known in English-speaking countries, except in highly specialized contexts, has gone viral in China in a sense that is barely known in the West.]

The resource curse of Chinese textualism and Sinology's paradox of involuted plenty

I. Hyperabundance of texts

To me, the predicament of Sinology seems like a resource curse. The "paradox of plenty”. “Paradox of plenty” is an economic term, referring to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have worse development outcomes than those with fewer natural resources. I have been thinking about this in my head for a few days. The “resource curse” for China studies is that Chinese culture, especially Classical Chinese-based culture of writings, has too many raw texts. The discovery of the Dunhuang manuscripts has added even more to the already abundant, if not excessive, textual residue that scholars devote their lives to, accumulating and laying out textual evidence before they can reach the point — maybe they never can if they do not intend to — of analyzing, integrating, utilizing, and theorizing them.

This also explains the involution of Sinology. Well, involution is an economic, more specifically, agricultural anthropological term. First proposed by Clifford Geertz regarding Indonesia's (colonial Java's) agricultural model, where many centuries of intensifying wet-rice cultivation in Indonesia had produced greater social complexity without significant technological or political change. This process — of the accumulating of societal resources without essential change at the core — was named involution by Geertz. Etymologically, involution is a “turning-in” of itself; the members within a system compete with each other increasingly fiercely with highly homogeneous methods for highly homogenous results, eating and encroaching on each other with no vision on “revolution” (to re-start). A dilemma where quantitative changes do not lead to qualitative changes, but in turn prevent the latter from coming forth by paying no attention to reflection and effective use of the already acquired sources and quantitative changes.

The concept of "involution" as a term for agrarian economic change was applied to China by Philip C. C. Huang. A good description of how the notion of economic involution developed, from the anthropologist, Alexander Goldenweiser, who used it "to describe a situation in which the crafts or art of a society stuck with the same fundamental patterns, only making them more an[d] more intricate over time", to Geertz, and thence to Philip Huang, may be found in Dietrich Vollrat, "Involution and Growth", Growth Economics Blog (10/15/18).

Chinese love to write; Classical Chinese users love to record, to express, to basically deal with everything via writing. To Chinese language users in general, Classical Chinese has the dual identity of: 1) an exclusive code for an enclosed group of intelligentsia whose personal and social identity is adhesive to (if not dependent upon) the system and to members within it 2) an everyday language of affect and memory, a potent enough emotional force to travel through space and time. This leads to our Sinological scholars, repeatedly describing and presenting, discovering and re-discovering, with lamentable deficiency (across almost all regional studies in the world) of arguing, theorizing, reflecting, and constructing. Moreover, the rarity of the enormous abundance of Chinese textual resources, compared to other ancient civilizations, seems to have extended its conjuration to the extent that it enacts the communality of its inquirers by exclusion rather than inclusion — that China studies (esp. pre-modern) only opens up to those who are willing to adapt to this prescribed set of user system rules (writing characters, memorizing primary texts, accumulating allusions, etc.), without any possibility of having the system reform according to the experience of its newly gained groups of users, throughout the past two millennia, and perhaps will still, in the next two millennia. In cybernetic terms, it is a chāo wěndìng 超稳定 ("super stable"), static system determined by inertia.

So far so much, because I have go to back to reading (!). Before closing this section, I just want to mention how last year, a book that I read, about the past and future of Punjabi literature, struck me as presenting its vitality and reflourishing as relying on its “resilience” rather than “resistance”. If we bring our focus back to emic Chinese culture, flexibility rather than rigidity was what Laozi was fond of. Also, since Confucianism had been appropriated / imagined as the basis of Classical Chinese culture, we should bear in mind that “rú 儒” ("Confucianist; learned person; scholar") etymologically belonged to the word family of “nurture”, “retreat”, “soft”, "infiltrate". For those for whom softness or appeasement policy is not their cup of tea, Sinology needs revolution — restarting — rather than involution —turning-in on itself. As Joseph Needham famously asked: “In light of its early scientific accomplishments, why didn't the scientific revolution take place in China”? Yes, it’s an Orientalist and imperialist vision, yet a hindsight projected from this departure point may answer: now it’s the time to break the paradox, smash the curse, forget the prescribed, start our effective utilization of our abundant textual resources, and the time of change — of inclusion, of integration, of revolution.

II. Breaking free from literary linearity

"Proletariat" is partly defined not by owning no assets but owning no means of production. The proletariat’s value lies in their labor capacity only. In other words, their process of production has been forced into the productive framework of those who possess the “means” of production, thus bearing no outcome that would belong to the producers themselves.

“Antique”, or 古, has been a recurrent theme throughout the history of the Classical Chinese usage system. I have noticed how in recent years the meaning of “gu” in classical Chinese literature has been excavated, making the study of gu a similarly recurrent theme in English-language EAS (East Asian Studies) scholarship as the object itself in pre-modern East Asia. It’s my surmise that gu is a symbolic enactment of Chinese literary bourgeois. Gu, in the literary realm, is a kind of cleansing; a mode for reducing the accessibility of means of production rather than enlarging them…. The recurrent theme of “approaching antiquity” has been detrimental to the means of Literary Chinese knowledge production under the disguise of the increase of knowledge outcome.
Classical Chinese created “Literary Proletariats”. While things may be similar in other places, or all around the world — e.g., the limited access of Sanskrit knowledge to Brahmans and the limited access of Latin to Patricians — the case was extremely caustic in pre-modern China, with the guise too strong and expression too subtle. Gu or non-gu, or even anti-gu, in China the literary outcome would all be written by the same character strings with little, if not none at all, reflection on the varying visual level. There would be no means for a reader to tell what exactly had happened a few centuries before in a certain topolectal area based only on the literary production that had been passed down to him. This I would call the dual layeredness of the Literary Chinese fortress. The mechanism for detecting whether the access of knowledge production was limited was itself curtailed.

Thus the Song Dynasty shīhuà 诗话 ("poetry talks") have been extremely bothering to me as they impose the Literary Chinese users’ downward imagination of the non-users. Their blatant appropriation of how vernacular could have been and how Literary Chinese “could” possess the potential of being Chinese people’s everyday language repulse me. Remember that LL post on Bai Juyi’s “vernacular style” regulated poetry? Like what I said in the first comment to that post, whoever spoke in equisyllabic sentences??? If Literary Chinese, or gu itself, has been enacted as the kernel of cleansing and excluding, then isn’t the downward imagination of the “vernacular world”, or the appropriation of “vernacularity” into the “literary” format, hypocritical?
If I may appropriate a Marxist term, then things like shihua in Chinese literary history could well be the “revisionism” of Chinese vernacular that has been led by a “foreign” force — Mahayana Buddhism. In this way we’d be truly grateful to Dunhuang manuscripts, the discovery of which tore down the imagination and appropriation of everyday vernacular — the real everyday language of the Chinese people — by Literary Chinese users such as shihua compilers. Ahh. I have a good reason for not having been fond of the Song Dynasty which was so adept at exploiting almost everything that originally belonged to “commoners” and turning it into something elitist. Shihua is one such tool for doing so. Another similar aspect is 词 ("lyrics"). Starting from folk songs, even Central Asian songs… until the rules tightened again — regulating even the length of each line, not to mention “to which tune should a certain emotion be expressed, only”. I call such Song products “literary revisionism”.
I miss the Tang. Genuine, hybrid, inclusive, raw, where a Sogdian could be a royal officer and Literary Chinese users would not pretend to be “appropriating” Vernacular Chinese users, where the multiplicity and multivalency of “Chineseness” existed without having to be defined as a public unity, or anxious to seek denominators for it. A variety of “Chineseness" thrived in their own ways, forging their own little coteries, not really bothering each other’s existence, and would respectively generate Chinese literature in both “languages” (note: LS [Literary Sinitic] and VS [Vernacular Sinitic]) and attract appreciators of literary outcomes from both sides.


Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 25, 2020 @ 10:11 am

    I will not pretend that I understand every point that Diana seeks to make, although I feel I gained her general drift, but one part in particular puzzles me :

    Moreover, the rarity of the enormous abundance of Chinese textual resources, compared to other ancient civilizations, seems to have extended its conjuration to the extent that it enacts the communality of its inquirers by exclusion rather than inclusion

    What exactly is meant by "the rarity of the enormous abundance of Chinese textual resource", with or without its qualifying "compared to other ancient civilizations" ?

  2. AntC said,

    December 25, 2020 @ 5:19 pm

    @Philip, my take is that for most ancient civilisations we have very few textual resources, and they are mostly accounting records rather than literature or carrying cultural info.

    It's vital for 'enquirers' to pore over all those resources, to glean as complete a picture of that civilisation as possible.

    Chinese textual resources are abundant. Sinologists, uniquely perhaps (Diana is suggesting) don't need to pore over absolutely everything.

    Chinese studies is rare amongst studies of ancient civilisations in having an (over-)abundance of resources.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    December 25, 2020 @ 7:04 pm

    Thank you Ant — it still took me a long time to understand, but I now think that I do : it is not "the rarity of the enormous abundance of Chinese textual resource" (which simply made no sense to me) but (my paraphrase) the rarity of [the existence of] an abundance of textual resources from ancient civilisations, ancient China being an exception to this general rule. Would you agree with that ?

  4. The Other Mark P said,

    December 25, 2020 @ 8:16 pm

    In light of its early scientific accomplishments

    Were they scientific or technological?

    Lots of societies have discovered useful things but with no intention of understanding how and why they work — which is the distinction between science and technology. Having discovered gunpower, did the Chinese then seek to see how other things might be connected? It seems not.

    The Chinese level of medicine was still at the stage of humours until recently despite an alleged massive head start over the rest of the world. That suggests a profoundly non-scientific society — which is normal of course, but not the world leader in science often claimed.

  5. maidhc said,

    December 25, 2020 @ 8:32 pm

    I recently watched the episode of The Fall of Civilizations (on YouTube) about the Han dynasty, and I was surprised how many of those nutty emperors decided that it would be a good idea to burn the entire imperial library. And it seemed that there were only a handful of historical accounts from that period.

    But yet there is an abundance of textual resources? Or is this referring to a different period or different type of text?

  6. Scott P. said,

    December 26, 2020 @ 9:56 am

    But yet there is an abundance of textual resources? Or is this referring to a different period or different type of text?

    I'd guess this is a matter of putting together all literature from the earliest times to, say, the Song Dynasty and treating it as all of one period. The Western equivalent would be to treat all Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Western Medieval and Early Islamic literature as 'one tradition', in which case it likely equals or exceeds what we have from China.

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