Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reading the minds of Robert Kaplan, Ruth Benedict and Mario Miclat

By Chester B Cabalza

Blogger's Notes:
Commentary of an Academic 
(Copyright @ 2014 by Chester B Cabalza. All Rights Reserved).

(Asia’s Cauldron, Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Secrets of the 18 Mansions

The fighting spirit in me to read a number of books this semester challenged me as a working graduate student. Although the books are easy read if it really interests me. But as I reflect, even if I keep on acquiring books, I oftentimes forget to browse or even read it. Because of my World Ethnography class, I have been encouraged to smell the pages of my books and read the texts of some classic and current paperbacks locked inside the drawers of my mini-library at home.

Three years ago, I had invited Dr Mario Miclat to lecture in my module at the National Defense College of the Philippines, and as a gesture of his kindness, he gave me a copy of his novel, Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions. I have known him as a China expert on society and culture in the academic community, although, I had no chance to enroll in his subject back when I was finishing my masters at UP Asian Center. After inviting him in my class to lecture about China with military officers as my students, the more his memories reverberated about the Middle Kingdom. All the while, I started to fall in love with Chinese culture and society, especially that China has become one of my research interests.

On the other hand, since my college days, I had been hearing about how prolific a writer anthropologist Ruth Benedict was. I am told that I need to read her ethnographic masterpiece, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, most especially that I work for the National Defense. Some says it is considered a classic book. And to better review it, I might as well to read it, to know whether or not the ethnography is truly excellent. Given the culture at a distance context of the writing, the ethnographic research is truly superb in narrative. I am thinking in the future, when I will be writing later on a dissertation about China, given my limited travel and studies in China for a short period of time, it may not be considered as a fieldwork in its full scale, perhaps, I can use the same methodology as what Ruth Benedict had done in her best-selling book about the Japanese culture and society.      

With the success of 2012 Jacques Martin’s provocative testimonial on When China Rules the World, a new book published this year is making some noise about Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert Kaplan. It talks about the security environment of the world and the change of fulcrum of power from Europe’s landscape to Asia’s seascape. With my current interest on the South China Sea vis a vis West Philippine Sea issue, perhaps this western narrative can help me understand deeper the impacts of defense and security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region.

Given the backgrounds of these three great selection of books, Mario Miclat’s story is based from his personal life’s struggles about the commune and secret society in China and the Philippines, disguised as a novel, as a literary license he can think of to freely express his narratives about communist China. On the other hand, the ethnography of Ruth Benedict should be viewed from a historical particularism context because Japan during World War II became the prime foe of the Americans inspired by archival research and key informant interviews without the support of actual fieldwork in Japan. What interest me about the book is that it was used for intelligence and espionage by the Americans using the methods of the anthropology of war and war anthropology. Lastly, journalist Robert Kaplan’s latest book discusses hottest maritime issues in the 21st century and analyzes the use of maps as flashpoints of conflicts from the multi-disciplinary perspectives of history, anthropology, international relations, and strategic culture.    

Content wise, Miclat’s 251 pages novel, published by Anvil in 2010, has a prologue and epilogue divided into ten chapters. The story starts in Manila and ends in Beijing. The novel is also long listed in the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize. Whereas, Benedict’s ethnography has thirteen chapters, written in 1964 and published by World Publishing Company in 1967, containing 324 pages including acknowledgements, glossary, and index. It is considered one of the best-selling ethnographies of all time. Meanwhile, Kaplan’s book, published by Random House in New York, has 209 pages with eight chapters, also has a prologue, epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, and index. Among the three, Benedict’s work has the most number of reviews because of its timeless theme, more than five decades of presence as a classical literature; though, there are few reviews for Miclat’s book, mostly from the local readers; while, Kaplan’s research is starting to get good reviews from the international critics.

Context wise, the strength of Miclat is his power to narrate stories and his literary prowess that would compel his reader to compare Chinese and Filipino culture and society. The period of the novel should also be understood in order to better understand the setting and soul of the account – it tackles stories from the first quarter storm of student activism and the formation of the New People’s Army in the Philippines, including fragments of back stories about China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On the other hand, Benedict is swollen with a mission to profoundly tell a story about the ideology of the Japanese as it is reflected in the daily manner and customs of their life. It outlines the multi-faceted Japanese society, ethics, political, religious and economic life. Lastly, Kaplan dissects contested perspectives in the South China Sea as he renders the importance of geography and maps, discusses China’s Caribbean referring to Southeast Asia, frames concert of civilizations referring to major powers across the region, and pushes the Unites States role in the security environment of the region. It gives us a view on how geography determines destiny. He has a poignant thesis on how to construct the imperative roles of economics, military strategy, maritime power, Sinitic culture, and geopolitics.

In trying to flesh out important details of thinking from the thinkers of the three chosen books, Kaplan’s account in Asia’ Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, describes the contested South China Sea as (p9), “the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans – the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea route coalesce. Here is the heart of Eurasia’s navigable rimland, punctuated by Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through the choke point, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide.” In Kaplan’s musing into understanding the concert of civilizations in Asia, he was helped by the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz to understand a bigger picture, in which he said to him (p73), “while the reality of a foreign culture is not simply a prejudice on the part of the observer, at the same time, there was such a thing as the ‘basic unity of mankind’. Thus, too much of an emphasis on culture and civilization could obscure the reality of human reality itself.” And as Asia’s Cauldron connotes in his book, he points out that (p49), “domination of the South China Sea would certainly clear way for pivotal Chinese air and naval influence throughout the navigable rimland of Eurasia – the Indian and Pacific oceans both. The South China Sea is now a principal node of global power politics, critical to the preservation of the worldwide balance of power.” In his mind, China thinks out it has the right to tight belt Asia’s maritime territories using the controversial cow’s tongue or nine-dashed line concept because (p166), “the South China Sea and its environs are Chinese near-abroad, where China is harmoniously reasserting the status quo, having survived the assault upon it by Western powers,” Kaplan believed.

Reading the mind of Ruth Benedict in her influential ethnographic book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, it brings me to her thesis on the concept of hierarchy, as she wrote (pp56-57), “such a bald statement of hierarchy in the Japanese family does not, when Americans read it with their different standards of interpersonal behavior, do justice to the acceptance of strong and sanctioned emotional ties in Japanese families. There is considerable solidarity in the household and how they achieve it is one of the subjects of this book.” Thus, as a substantial example of wartime ethnography, she was commissioned to write the book and explain the Japanese culture including their psychology of militarism and patriotism since WWII, as she shares her thought (p1), “conventions of war which Western nations had come to accept as facts of human nature obviously did not exists for the Japanese. It made the war in the Pacific more than a series of landings on island beaches, more than an unsurpassed problem of logistics. It made it a major problem in the nature of the enemy. We had to understand their behavior in order to cope with it.” Unable to undergo the Malinowskian model of fieldwork due to the wartime situation, Benedict furthermore had relied much her data at that time from US-based Japanese translators, by reading and watching Japanese propaganda books and movies, and by using comparative method to better understand the contradictions in Japanese traditional culture. With that, her work received harsh criticisms among anthropologists, and other critics slammed her method something as not so different from what historians do; however, it remained influential in shaping the minds of American policy-makers during the WWII.      

            Meanwhile, Mario Miclat’s Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions, claimed by critic-readers as disappointing, uninspired, a narrative of the author’s misadventures in his youth, a black propaganda, life of a communist cadre in China during Martial Law in the Philippines, a tale of an underground Filipino expat in China, and the book is incoherent as its chronology. However, it can be inferred that the form of the novel maybe considered as an art too, given his poetic license, to articulate his thoughts in such a form. Regarding the title of his novel, the eighteen mansions refer to the buildings in a secret compound in Beijing where the Chinese Communist Party in 1960s and 1970s housed delegations of Communists parties all over the world to facilitate its secret aid to their own insurgencies. The Mansion No. 7 is where the author, as a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines, stayed with his family since 1971. He lived and worked in that mansion at Radio Peking. In his novel he has vivid memories of the mansion, as he writes (P108), “twenty-meter-high skyrocketing poplar trees at 10-meter intervals within the cypress hedges hemmed in the cemented two-meter-wide driveway fronting our mansion. But the Chinese describe most everything in precise mathematical terms and one gets to used to their system after a while. Meanwhile, the back and southern side of the house was an orchard of walnut, plum blossom and apple trees.” He returned to the Philippines in 1986 and felt disillusioned with the party he help founded it with Jose Ma Sison aka Amado Guerrero.  In the novel he continued by writing (p109), “we constantly discussed how to weaken the dominant superstructure – ideas, customs, habits, culture – all the institutions that supported, strengthened and consolidated the economic basis of US imperialism, the law, the authorities, the military, the police, and Washington apples.” Roberto Tiglao (PDI: 2010) in his column, strongly deems that Miclat’s book is not a fictional novel, rather a personal and political memoir of his nearly two decades as one of Sison’s earliest recruits who worked as an editor and translator in Beijing. In Tiglao’s words, since the novel is overtly titled, Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions, he views that secrets range from the personal to the political. To quote from one of his examples, there’s an instance where CPP’s founder Joma Sison found him womanizing and bearing an illegitimate daughter and even physically abusing his wife – it is trivial yet shocking for many readers like me. 

Each book has its strong points in terms of genre and style of story-telling. Miclat’s book is a novel but documents his personal life since some characters in his story are real like his own family members and other personalities used pseudonyms in his organizations in China and the Philippines. Benedict’s book is an ethnography based from her research assignment as Head of the Basic Analysis Section of the Bureau of Overseas Intelligence of the United States’ Office of War Information (OWI) who later on advised then US president Theodore Roosevelt by the time Japan lost the war in WWII to the emerging superpower of the late 20th century, the United States, not to dethrone the emperor of the Japanese to allow continuity of his divine monarchy in the Rising Sun. Kaplan’s book is the latest book on how to understand the security dynamics around the South China Sea as he tries to mine important historical narratives as to why China is behaving as a hegemon robed by its Middle Kingdom mentality in the East Asian region which has parallel comparison to the US when it was emerging as a superpower in the Atlantic region. Security interests as a hegemon requires dominance over resources and other important strategic defense and security dynamics. Kaplan even foresees the fate of the disputed seas which cover the hottest sea lanes of communications (SLOCS) in the globalized world as all cargo ships and goods from various continents worldwide pass through these high seas.

            As an avid researcher and observer of Asian security, foreign relations, and clash of cultures – these books are like bibles for me to better understand nations and societies. It gives me structures to think systematically on how and why these countries behave based from the ethnographic account, storyline of the novel, and current issues discussed in the book, to help me read the minds of these prolific writers, and to give meanings to the contexts about their valuable writings. Regardless of their disciplines and writing styles, their accounts are definitely true and stimulating as they tackle various cultures, different ethics and values, strong and weak people, and histories of nations. It reveals impliedly and expressly the strategic cultures of various nation-states as interpreted by these great writers and narrators in their highly credible ethnographies.       

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