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Zhong Kui

We are getting into Autumn and that means blog posts about ghosts, spirits, monsters, and the supernatural. Why don’t we start out in a big way with Zhong Kui, a king of the underworld.

Zhong Kui was a ghost, and he was tasked with hunting ghosts…and he commanded an army of 80,000 ghosts. To find out how he managed to end up in this ridiculous position, it is necessary to take into account the tension between meritocracy and autocracy. In ancient China, the official imperial exams were the gateway to highly esteemed civil service jobs and official advancement. Although he was infamously ugly, Zhong Cui was a devoted scholar. He studied long and hard to master all of the disciplines which would be on the statewide exams, and his hard work paid off. After traveling to the capital to take the great exam, he came in first in all of China…a surefire path to honors and high office!

Zhong Kui, the Scholar (Ren Yi, 1883) Ink on Silk

Unfortunately, the Emperor of China in Zhong Kui’s day was vain, stupid, superficial, and capricious. When the emperor saw how ugly the top-scoring student was, he declared the outcome was invalid. Zhong Cui was stripped of his rightful title of “Zhuangyuan” (top-scorer) and tossed out of the imperial city in derision. Enraged by the corrupt nature of society, Zhong Cui furiously rushed against the city gates and dashed out his brains against the great bronze doors. His hometown friend, Du Ping, had Zhong Kui’s remains laid to rest with honor, while Zhong Kui’s spirit made its way down the long road to Diyu, the black mansion, aka Chinese hell.

Zhong Kui Brooding (Min Zhen,1776) ink on silk

In China, suicide is accounted a sin. If all unhappy people killed themselves, the world would be empty and the serenity of the universe would be imperiled. This put Lord Yama, the emperor and judge of the underworld in a bind. Unlike the vainglorious mortal emperor of China, Yama was a shrewd judge of character (you have to be, to be the ruler of hell) and he saw great potential in Zhong Kui. Yet at the same time, the scholar had literally thrown his life away…and gravely profaned one of the sacred rules of existence. What was to be done?

Zhong Kui Keeping the Hungry Ghosts At Bay (Contemporary)

And thus Yama decided on the perfect punishment/reward: he elevated Zhong Kui to be a colleague. The pleasures of the world and of heaven would never belong to the ugly scholar, but in the end he did end up with a prestigious official rank–as one of the thirteen kings of the underworld. Zhong Kui was given an army of 80,000 subordinate ghosts and a mandate to hunt down unruly specters and monsters (and probably some cool magic and supernatural powers too).

Zhong Kui

He traveled back to his home village and arranged for his sister to be married to his faithful friend Du Ping and then he began hunting down malicious spirits. Since malevolent ghosts (and crooked autocrats) are endemic to all eras, Zhong Kui is still busy at his task, but the rest of China has finally come to appreciate his worth and he is revered as a guardian deity.

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Today’s newspapers, op-ed websites, and blather channels are filled with agonizing editorials and Pollyanna-ish laments about how Democrats have made a terrible political miscalculation and now Donald Trump will win the election of 2020 (and probably ultimately fulfill his Fascist quest towards becoming the first Emperor of America).  I am indeed troubled by the large minority of Americans who seem incapable of understanding just how terrible the President’s actions are.  If selling out the United States and our allies to our enemies in order to win an election is acceptable behavior in the myopic eyes of Trump’s supporters, then what exactly would be impeachable?  Obviously, nothing will ever cause 38% of voters to turn against this criminal buffoon.

However, it is a bit of a mistake to blame the Democrats for how events have unfolded and then give in utterly to despair.  Knowing what we now know, Democrats must impeach Trump or else they will also be accomplices to this criminal administration.  In the future, when Trump is finally gone (a day which will ineluctably arrive, no matter what today’s Chicken Little pundits say) we will pore through all the records and unravel all of Trumps corrupt webs and confidence schemes. Undoubtedly when everything is laid bare, everyone will then ask why the Democrats didn’t push harder to impeach this scoundrel much earlier.

The unexpected results of the disastrous 2016 election were such a shock that many journalists and opinion-makers now have Stockholm syndrome and secretly believe Trump can never be removed from office no matter what. This victim-blaming mentality needs to stop.  Democrats are not the problem and are doing the best they can in a disastrous political landscape where the GOP has abandoned all standards of decency and Constitutional responsibility. The Republicans are knowingly abetting the President’s brazen criminality.  Nobody should ever vote for a Republican for any office until they renounce Trumpism completely (and maybe cease their other norm-destroying, anti-Democratic misbehavior as well).

Today is a sad day for our democracy.  Our various failsafes have failed. Our secondary education system has likewise failed (and obviously it has been a failure for a long time): nobody other than crooked multi-millionaire oligarchs should ever have voted for Trump.  The fact that millions of otherwise normal people are so scared and lost within the PR blitz of lies that they embrace this American Mussolini illustrates that we have huge ground level educational reforms to add to our to-do-list of breaking up monopolies and reforming our sclerotic electoral system.

But these reforms will not be accomplished right now, and the best Democrats can do at this moment is their constitutional duty (you know, to counterbalance a dangerous demagogic grifter).  Cheating and lying might gain the Republicans a few poll points in the short term, but it will come back to haunt hem (so long as the republic holds together).  It is also worth remembering that tyrants (and Trump is definitely a tyrant–albeit a stupid, incurious, and unambitious tyrant) tend to fall with exponential speed.  To those who love liberty and justice, it may seem that his world of bribery, coercion, harassment, intimidation, extortion, and treachery will always guarantee his victory.  It doesn’t.  Once cracks begin to appear in a tyrant’s carefully spackled façade of mendacity, the fissures tend to widen rapidly exposing the rot within.  Trump’s rotten world of fiscal corruption and subservience to Russia is not hidden very deep.  It will bring him crashing to his true level (exile in Russia? Prison?) before too much time has passed.  On that day Republicans will regret their cowardice and trembling toadyism.  Democrats will be glad they didn’t listen to today’s hyperventilating pundits but instead did what was right and impeached this corrupt president.

Have courage! Do not give in to despair and fatigue.  Pundits who despise the president yet demand legislators never call him to account are dangerous.  Whereas we know the president is a knave and his supporters will not be swayed by actual evidence, these journalists (who see no path to victory for the 60% of the electorate who despise the president!) are sowing discord and confusion among their own side.  They are bringing their worst fears alive with panicky words.

Being afraid is why we are in the mess we are in.  Becoming more afraid is not the solution.

Today’s news is good.  Trump is a criminal who needs to be impeached and removed from office.  He may not be removed right away, but putting the evidence we currently have on the record (and carefully recording the astonishing perfidy of the GOP for the history books) is a painful but necessary step to being rid of him for good.  Even more importantly, acknowledging the truth in accordance with the dictates of the Constitution is the best way to start digging our way out of the political crisis which we are all trapped in.

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I have been wanting to write about a troubling news story from the summer, but every time I start, I get frustrated by the shortsighted selfishness which has overtaken our culture. Sometimes it seems like the very fate of our society and our planet is writ in this regional fishing controversy. Naturally it is a story about flounder—more specifically, the summer fluke, (Paralichthys dentatus). These fish are beloved by commercial and recreational fishermen who catch millions of pounds of the flatfish between Maine and the Carolinas.

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Unfortunately, the ever-growing hordes of fishermen have grown too numerous and rapacious for the poor flounder to replenish themselves. The summer fluke fishery on the East Coast of the United States has been collapsing this summer (2017). The Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office “has determined that fluke are being overfished, with an estimated population that is 42 percent below the level regulators consider to be sustainable.” To keep the flounder alive for future generations of anglers, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office imposed new restrictions on how many fish can be caught and killed.
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Here is where the story takes a peculiar turn. Wilbur Louis Ross Junior “The King of Bankruptcy” is a billionaire banker and vulture capitalist. When Donald Trump’s casinos went bankrupt due to mismanagement, overspending, and bad deals, Ross stepped in to restructure the casinos, bail out Trump, and dump the bad debt onto others. This has had a lot of consequences, but one of them is that Ross is now the United States Secretary of Commerce.

When New Jersey’s charter captains, commercial fishermen, and sundry interested parties who make a living off flounder, heard about this year’s reduced catch limits, they wrote up a counter-proposal (which involved catching a lot more fish than recommended)—and they presented this plan directly to the Secretary of Commerce (who is originally from New Jersey and has some of his palatial mansions and nine figure art collection there).

Naturally Wilbur Louis Ross Junior could not care less about the fate of a species of fish. He happily overrode the catch limitations on summer fluke. After all it makes fishermen happy and who cares about the opinion of NOAA scientists? Indeed, the NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department and it turns out that its real purpose is not to understand the ocean and the atmosphere but to make people like Ross much richer. He is probably out there somewhere right now tenting his fingers and saying “exxxxcelllent!”
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[Here he is marveling at how the subjects of the Saudi king do not dare to protest because they are beautifully afraid]

If only New Jersey and its reckless and uncaring anglers flout the rules and fish their stocks to extinction, summer fluke on the East Coast can probably still rebound, however Ross’ cavalier disregard for the ordinary procedure of fisheries limits and his inability to care about (or understand) the scientists’ rationale for fishing limits raises the all-too-real possibility that other state and national fisheries will no longer be bound by evidence-based rules.

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I suspect many people will regard the summer fluke as an immaterial victim of the corruption which is a more and more the principal feature of American business and politics, yet the flatfish is a keystone species which is located between the small prey and the large predators (I sort of look at them as the middle class of the ocean). Wilbur Louis Ross Junior was born in the thirties. What does he care if one of the dominant species of teleosts in our part of the Atlantic is overfished to the point of vanishing? Yet one would think that the watermen who live in tandem with these flounder and have made their lives off the lives of the fish might care somewhat whether the species lives or dies. I guess that is wrong though. There is a reason Wilbur Ross, The Bankruptcy King” is rich beyond reckoning. He knows how far people will go (way too far) and he knows how to exploit that for himself. I wonder what other decisions will come from the Commerce Department.

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In 1837, the American financial system melted down and took the United States into a horrible economic death spiral.  In the same year, on the other side of the world, an obscure Chinese peasant named Hong Huoxiu had a nervous breakdown because he failed to pass the imperial civil service examinations (which only one out of a hundred test-takers passed anyway).  Strangely enough, Hong’s private meltdown ultimately proved far more damaging to humanity than the collapse of the entire U.S. banking system.   The ramifications of Hong’s actions are still being felt (and still being interpreted), but what is certain is that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 20 to 30 million people.

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Huoxiu was born the third son of a poor Hakka farmer in Guangzhou, Guangdong in 1814. He proved to be an apt scholar who had a way with words and concepts and, more importantly, an ability to memorize the Confucian classics which were the subject of the all-important imperial exams (which determined one’s status in life).  His family tried to support him in his studies, and he came in first at the local preliminary civil service examinations, however he failed the actual imperial examinations four times (the exams at the time were very difficult, but they were also corrupt—and many people passed thanks to gold rather than correct answers).  After failing for the fourth time, Hong fell into a serious illness and was tormented by bizarre dreams in which he traveled to the sky to meet a wise father figure and a powerful elder-brother dressed in a black dragon robe.  Because of this dream epiphany, Hong changed his name to Hong Xiuquan (at the behest of the figures in his dreams).  He stopped studying for the exam and became a tutor.

For six years thereafter, Hong scraped by, trying to understand the strange figures and portents from his delirium.  He read and reread some tracts which had been given to him by Christian missionaries, and suddenly everything came clear to him in a startling revelation: the authority figure from his dreams was the Judeo-Christian god and the respected elder brother was Jesus.  Hong realized that he was Jesus’ younger Chinese brother.  Armed with this knowledge, he began to gather disciples and converts among the poor Hakka charcoal burners of Guanxi.  In 1847, he made a formal study of Christianity and the Old Testament (which, not surprisingly, cemented his belief in his own divinity).  Hong preached a strange mixture of communal sharing, Christian evangelism, and fiery rebellion.  He had two immense symbolic swords forged (for the purpose of sweeping corruption and heresy out of China) and he burned Taoist and Budhhist books wherever he went.

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

In most other times, nobody would have paid attention to Hong (or the secret police would have noted him and dealt with him in a peremptory fashion), however in mid nineteenth century China the situation was ripe for millenarian craziness and fraudulent prophets.  The corrupt Qing dynasty was floundering badly as crooked ministers feuded with each other and robbed the treasury.  Famine and disaster stalked the land while bandits and rebellions popped up everywhere.  The Western powers were openly squabbled over zones of influence within China.  Opium addiction, religious extremism, and nihilism were popular panaceas.  Against this horrible backdrop, the imperial government did not notice Hong until he had gathered 30,000 followers.  In 1850, they dispatched a small army to dispense his followers, but by then it was too late.  The imperial army was defeated and Hong’s forces executed the Manchu commander.  The rebellion had begun in earnest:  on January 11, 1851, Hong proclaimed the founding of the “Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace”.  He assembled armies which he put in command of family and favorites and began conquering southern China in the name of a communal theocratic state.

Scroll painting from "Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855."

Scroll painting from “Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855.”

The subsequent Taiping rebellion—a civil war between the Qing dynasty and the Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace—was one of the most destructive conflicts in history.  At the height of the movement the Taiping rebels controlled 30 million subjects.  As huge armies clashed, tens of millions of people were uprooted.  Famine and disease became universal and the great cities of southern China were repeatedly besieged and burned.

The increasingly unstable Hong Xiuquan was a distant and hypocritical king to his strange and mismanaged kingdom. By 1853 he had withdrawn from day-to-day control of his kingdom’s policies and administration.  He became an isolated quasi-divine figurehead who ruled through written proclamations and strange religious pronouncements (while being carried from palace to palace in a sedan chair born by beautiful concubines).   For eleven years, his generals, prophets, and revolutionary figureheads fought an internecine war with imperial China, which only came to an end when the United Kingdom became involved and sent gunboats and British officers to assist the Emperor (most famously, Charles Gordon, a British military adventurer who went on to have one of the nineteenth century’s most colorful and infamous careers).  Lead and organized by Gordon and by General Tso (who is forever memorialized as a sweet-sour chicken dish), the imperial forces who were ironically renamed “the ever-victorious army” finally crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1864.

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

Reclining amongst his dozens of wives and hundreds of concubines, Hong is said to have taken poison (or perhaps he died of eating noxious weeds—in accordance with a religious vision).  Whatever the case, the Taiping rebellion was at an end. Thanks to a decade and a half of brutal fighting, southern China was devastated: huge piles of rotting corpses were littered throughout the Yangtze valley.  Jesus’ Chinese brother, a nobody with a messiah complex, was directly responsible for one of the most violent and senseless incidents in history.  By some accounts, he personally outdid the destruction caused by World War I.

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