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Slow train coming

  The space is pervaded with green, with the chirping of birds and the sweet smell of pollen. We are in the countryside of Dordogne, and it would be difficult for anyone to find a more idyllic setting. In general, I try not to read the news, especially here, but whenever I do, that idyllic image is replaced by another one: the slow train, picking up speed downhill. The machine engineers are incompetent and instead of stopping it and repairing the faults with care, they keep on loading it with coal. Its lights are on in the darkness; they illuminate only the small patch in front, so the passengers could see the end, but only in a fashion.  Why are we in a such a hurry to destroy our civilisation? Do we have so much that we are bored with it? There was this boredom in the air before the epidemic in 2020. I had the feeling that people, especially the young ones, were waiting eagerly for something to happen. Anything. Just not that day after day boredom. They were trying to shake it off –

One line, two meanings

'The ruler is just the boat; people are the water'. This is a beautiful saying from the 263BC Chinese philosopher Xunzi. However, it is also a striking example of how the words can have a different meaning according to the person who perceives them. For me, and for Xunzi himself, this sentence has the meaning of mutual dependance. The ruler is nothing without the people; he should try to look after them, knowing that he is above them only in the way a boat is above the water, by being supported by it.

In ancient China however this saying became the beginning of the mass slaughters of the third century BC. At about the same time as Xunzi's visit to Xiyanyang, the capital then of Qin kingdom, Qin abandoned the traditional policy of alliances and adopted one of expansion through naked aggression. 'Attack not only their territory but also their people for the ruler is just the boat, but people are the water,' advised Qin's then chief minister. Enemy forces must not only be defeated but annihilated so their state lost their capacity to fight back.

Their policy worked. Qin became the First Empire of China and although shortly lived (221-206BC) it changed the whole course of Chinese history.

There is a famous story in Vajrayana Buddhism in which a teacher gives the same instruction to two disciples. One of them achieves Enlightenment, the other one becomes a murderer. One line, two meanings.

Reading 'China, A History' by John Keay


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