Bamiyan Buddhas

The race question discussed in the Cashmore article was interesting, as was the debate between the anthropologists and biologists.  The way I would have dealt with it is that race should be designated as a biological term, that is, and on this part no one can disagree, some peoples are genetically different from other.  This may manifest itself in several ways, increased intelligence, skin color, athletic ability, etc. but it does not imply that one race is ipso facto better than another.  Seeing as UNESCO is part of the UN, I think it would agree with the UDHR’s declaration of the inherent equality of all people.  The article even states that we are all of a common species and that we are inherently equal.  And rightly, it shares a concern towards racism, which, as I see it is a result of stereotyping.  The idea is to prevent stereotyping in the first place.  Here I would argue against “racial essentialism”, the idea that people of different races are predisposed towards certain behaviours based on their race.  This is untrue, much in the way gender essentialism is.  Race is a biological given, like sex (in the sense of possessing an XX or XY chromosonal arrangement) but it only limits what “culture” and individual agency can transform a person into.

In terms of the other articles, I am forced to ask, “Who is all this cultural preservation for?”  The cynical answer would be “The West”, for the Taliban don’t quite care about Afghanistan’s cultural heritage given Afghanistan’s current strife.  Supposedly it is for all of humanity which I would agree with.  But I think that it would be a better course of action to rehabilitate Afghanistan and let them preserve their cultural heritage, rather than having “outsiders” come in and do it for them.

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Central Asia

In regards to Said’s article he quite rightly dismisses Huntington’s thesis of The Clash of Civilizations citing that it oversimplifies world affairs and enforces a kind of “cultural essentialism”.  Moreover, Huntington’s choice of seven (or eight civilizations) seems rather arbitrary.  Moreover, it cannot deal with diversity within civilizations, for example, what would Huntington make of Muslims living in the United States?  However, against Said I must point out that he claims that Dante placed “the Prophet at the very heart of his Inferno”.  This is false, Satan was at the heart of the Inferno chewing Judas, Brutus and Cassius.  Moreover, he quotes Eqbal Ahmad, who states that Islamists are distorting Islam.  I would argue against Mr. Ahmad by stating that there is no “authentic” Islam, only Islams none more authentic than the other.

The Gunn article similarly dismisses Huntington’s thesis by showing how diverse Central Asia is and the different forms of Islam operating within it.  Ideally, however, this article would best be supplemented by an article analyzing non-Islamic sources of influence, though atheistic communism and Russian Orthodoxy were considered.

Regarding the Mahmood and Hirschkind article, I found that their rhetorical attack in the introduction against celebrities and Mrs. Leno a bit cruel and unprofessional.  It would be best had they avoided ad hominen attacks on celebrities because all it seemed they were saying, however justified, was “Boy, these people are dumb.” which is not at all constructive.  Beyond that, the article acts as a corrective to inform people so that they may create better foreign policies, though I am doubtful that American policy-makers would accept that they, not the Taliban, are the cause of the strife in Afghanistan.

Moreover, I was confused by the statement “trope of Islamic fundamentalism”; a trope is a literary device that turns away from its literal meaning.  I do not see how Islamic fundamentalism is a trope.  Lastly, the authors are correct in dismissing the veil as a symbol of oppression.  It is a symbol of personal piety, nothing more.  What feminists should be arguing against is the imposition of the veil, not against the veil itself.

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Cosmopolitan Chang’an

A common theme I found in all the articles was the ambivalent Chinese attitude towards foreigners: on one hand they were viewed with suspicion.  Some officials in Chang’an, for example, distrusted foreigner merchants suspecting them as spies.  More than that, they were confined in foreigner’s quarters and projects of ethnic puritanism were implemented.  However, they were bearers of the exotic; they were the Other.  I doubt that the Chinese really did dislike foreigners in such multicultural cities like Chang’an; why else would people spend money on houri (Western dancing girls)?  But what they certainly did love was Western material culture, like Turkish clothing.  At the same time, like in Orientalism, the “West” was mythologized.  There is no better example of this project than in 9th century “fantastic tales”, particularly in the catalogues of wonderful items like the fire-rejecting sparrow or “daylight altering herb”.  Ironically, these tales arose after the expulsion of foreigners, showing how integral foreigners, or at least their goods, were to the Chinese.

On a separate note, the Bundy article was an excellent refutation of the scholars who believed that Nestorian Christianity was just Christianity watered down, but I would critique this idea in a different way.  To assume that Nestorian Christianity was watered down would presuppose some “pure” Christian tradition but then the same argument could be applied to any other branch of Christianity – Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Mormonism, etc.  I do not believe “authentic” Christianity exists, in that what would be considered authentic would be chosen arbitrarily; rather Christianities exist, in that they are a part of the  historical Christian tradition but none is more “Christian” than the other.

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I cannot argue with anything really in the Ma article, since it was really a statement of fact more than anything, though it was really keen to stick to the geometric details of the rooms discussed.  Fraser, however, took an approach that is rather uncommon; looking at the means of creation rather than the end.  One question I have right of the bat is inspired by Foucault’s What Is An Author? – do we include these sketches and rough drafts as part of the nameless artisans “body of work” or not?  And whichever answer we choose, what does that say about us?  Regardless, the advantages to this approach is not only do we see the process of painting but also how material supplies limited/enhanced the paintings – for example, with wall murals ponces could not be used as the wall height varied, so they were done “ad locum”.  I had doubts about this statement at first – wouldn’t it be possible to shine a light through the ponce holes and “project” the figure onto the wall (I know a similar technique was used by Western artists sometimes)?  But looking at the ponce picture I decided this probably was not feasible as the holes seemed too tiny to let light through.

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I thought the Chinese description of the Sogdians as a race of merchants was actually pretty funny; as if they were raising their children to be greedy capitalists.  Not to say they were not merchants, they very much were.  I guess all stereotypes have some basis in reality.  I also thought it interesting that the individual states of Sogdiana did not have any interest in empire building; it seems they really did not care who conquered them, be it Hepthalite or Turk, as long as they protected the trade routes.  More than that, Samarkand was incredibly opportunistic in seeking protection under China; which also kinda blew my mind, I mean, China extended as far as Samarkand!  Chalk that up to ignorance but WOW!  Also, with Sogdian as the lingua franca of the Silk Road (they translated a lot of Christian, Buddhist and Manichean texts into Chinese) I wonder if Xuanzang learned it or not.

Also, I was interested in their take on Zoroastrian.  In theory they were Zoroastrian as they recognized Ahura Mazda as the Supreme deity but they rarely ever asked favors of him and preferred to worship lesser deities from other cultures – like Nana and their Ishtar/Inna counterpart.  They were also highly syncretic, in the religious and cultural sense, taking in elements of Hellenic, Indian, Chinese and Iranian culture.  I guess they were Zoroastrian by self-designation, but I got the impression it was not the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanids.  Curiously, they didn’t take a liking to Buddhism, Christianity and Manicheism, and I wonder why that is since they were so gung-ho about everything else.

The letters were interesting, I found the reference to China as “inside” kinda funny; it kinda sounds like a Western spy speaking about what lies beyond the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.  Also, those wishes that the receiver be healthy and happy was kinda of repetitive; I imagine it was a mere conventionality like our “I hope you are well”.  And curiously, they put the date after the message whereas we put it before the message.  I’m no Marshall McLuhan, but I’d venture to guess that’s because the message was considered more important than the date, though when I think about it, the placing of the date in a letter is pretty arbitrary anyways.  So yeah, Sogdians, awesome!

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These readings were very useful to help flesh-out the context in which Buddhism flourished along the Silk Road.  It tackled everything; geography, politics, religious practices, art history, etc.  What I was really interested in was the BODDO coin; particularly because BODDO was in Greek characters and it was one of the earliest depictions of the Buddha.  But it was in Gandhara after all.  In the narrative, especially in chapters 3 & 4, you really get a sense of the effect of pan-Hellenism – Wriggins seems to reference places that Alexander the Great visited ad naseum, but for a good point (not to mention parallels between local legends and Greek Tragedies – part of me thinks that Wriggins was hinting at a common origin, though it’s not explicitly stated).

Moreover, I really began to appreciate the role that Asoka and Kaniska had in spreading Buddhism throughout the Silk Road.  Furthermore, I was surprised at how diverse the peoples and cultures were that he visited.  I imagine it was even more diverse than Xuanzang wrote (I figure he concentrated mostly on Buddhism in his record).  For example, Wriggins notes that Samarkand was a Persian/Zoroastrian city yet all we hear about the Zoroastrians is that a few of them pursued Xuanzang for worshiping in a Buddhist temple with firebrands and consequently had their hands removed.  Not too flattering but then again neither was his treatment of Hindus (whom he calls “untrustworthy”).  Though I’ll admit, I’m no saint when it comes to “seeing the Other”.  Up until this reading I always assumed that Aristotle invented logic and yet India had its own form of syllogistic logic which Xuanzang brought back to China.  Go figure, perhaps the idea of Western vs. Eastern Philosophy is another form of Orientalism that must be deconstructed.

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For Oct. 26

These two articles, for me, exposed the history of the same Silk Road era, only from different perspectives; one more concerned with migratory history focusing on the Yuezhi/Kushans/Tukhara (etc.), the other on the artistic history.  Not being familiar with Central Asian history, I was surprised to find that a pastoralist society such as the Yuezhi could found such an extensive “empire”, I always thought that such a feat required one to settle down.  Moreover, I find that the East/West divide (that is, the two never interacted throughout history until European imperialism) is slowly disappearing within my own mind, though it’s still present.  The fact that the Kushans were present in Bactria, that they might have been the Scythians, that there was an Indo-Greek Buddhist king named Menander/Millinda and the fact that Ptolemy had seen the city Mathura all go along ways to destroy this “glass wall” (as I’ve heard it called) between East and West.

Additionally, I noticed in the Czuma article made several references to Western culture as a metaphor which mirrors my own tendencies.  For example, non-Brahamanical, Jain or Buddhist sects are at least once termed “pagan” and there is a comparison between yaksa cults and Hellenic Dionysian cults.  Last blog entry I though this was a bad thing but no longer feel this way; Western culture is used as reference to increase understanding of what might be difficult concepts.  Nothing wrong with that (unless you start competing the two…).   Beyond that my last two comments are that the evasion of depicting the Buddha reminds me of Islam’s law against depicting Muhammad (lest one worship him instead of Allah) and the iconoclastic controversy in Greek Orthodox Christianity (again, contention was that one would worship the ikons, not God/Jesus, which is straight-up idolatry).  And I’m also curious as to why in Mathura nagas (water spirits) and salabhanjika (tree spirits) were a separate class of spirits from yaksa (nature spirits).  Was this because water more than anything is so vital to life?  I’d venture that’s a solid guess.

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China and Ethnicity


The over-arching theme of the first article is that ethnic identity is often shaped for political purposes.  It was one of those things that seemed obvious in retrospect but it was not before reading the article.  It also never occurred to me that the Chinese would also employ philology but again, it seems obvious in retrospect; I guess I had a hang-up that it was a German field.   Though I must say I’m still not convinced that ethnicity is adequately defined, though “social organisation whose members use common cultural traits” is the best definition I’ve heard so far.  Upon reading the article I found parallels between cases cited in the article and “Western” history.  The subsequent denigration of the Xiongnu wolf-myth reminds me of the pro-Athenian revisions of Homer’s Odyssey.  Also, this ethnicity manipulation phenomenon echoes the European attempt to root Christianity with an Aryan origin rather than Semitic.  I guess years of sensitivity training have led me to assume that these sort-of manipulations are purely European, but in truth, other cultures are susceptible to use such tactics.

In regards to the second article, it wasn’t as enlightening as the first article being more about historical fact.  But some questions occurred to me; for example, why exactly do Wu Shu coins have square shaped holes (is that to save costs in terms of metal or does it have symbolic significance?).  Also, the article says that the Western Walled City-States had developed steel technology and I’m curious to know when Europe (am I committing an academic mistake by grouping Europe as a unified whole?) developed the same metallurgic technology.  And in retrospect, I’ve noticed a tendency on my part to pit Europe against or in comparison with the “East”.  And one other eye-opening fact was that though it didn’t happen until 400 AD, Romans and Chinese were actually in contact, though few in number.  Still that is extraordinary.

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For Sept. 28

Since this was a broad swath of readings, I can’t present any great overarching insights that applies to all that was assigned but I can comment on some ideas that struck me as important.  Particularly, I’d have to say that while discussing the genesis of language itself is almost useless (we have no cavemen around to observe) the project of tracing world languages back to some “Babel language” (couldn’t resist the Biblical allusion) would revolutionize our understanding of comparative mythology and religion.  By doing this one could trace the genealogy (as Nietzsche did in the Genealogy of Morals) of various mythic/religious motifs and see how they reacted to the environments in which they came into contact with.  Also, the discovery of such a pro-generator language like Proto-Indo-European gives more evidence for something like Jung’s “collective unconscious” or Levy-Bruhl’s “Elementary Ideas”.

The other thing that struck  me was the brief discussion of language and religion.  I wholly agree with Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s dismissal of the term “religion” in favour of personal faith and historical cumulative tradition.  But in accordance with the latter I wondered what actually allowed one to continually recognize the tradition as itself despite its constant change.  From the article I got that at least one constant could be a central text.  One could recognize that A is part of the Christian tradition because A recognizes the authority of the Bible.  For Buddhists – the Pali Canon, Jews – the Torah, Islam – the Qu’ran and so on.  Hinduism is a case I’m not sure about yet, partly because since it is such a highly decentralized tradition, it might be an error to speak of a Hindu tradition.  But considering non-literate, oral societies it would not be a text but a story, so in the last analysis the centre of a tradition would be some story, expressed through whatever language – textual, graphic or auditory.  Similarly one could ask what makes a language recognizable as a “tradition”.

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Print (“Hello World”);

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