A speculative what if: what if the Covid had happened during the late Qing? Would there have been discussions about loosing the will of heaven? Would we be having more serious conversations about ecological responsibility? And would we maybe understand all this Covid testing and infrastructure as some kind of attempt to suppress the expression of heaven’s mandate?
I know, kind of conspiracy theory-esque. But. Also, kind of sci-fi in the speculative way of questions such as: “how does science and technology reshape political ecologies within and against historical cultures?” Indeed, the ongoing management of the pandemic after pandemic’s end has my mind following Sun Wukong into imaginative black holes that aren’t explicitly Euro-North American, but rather all about the mandate of heaven 天命.
Painted in 1980, Guan Liang’s work Monkey King Wrecks Havoc in Heaven not only illustrates how the past is repurposed to interpret the contemporary, but also how heaven itself is imagined as an extension of the world or rather how the world may be imagined as an expression of heaven (See Wu Cheng’en and Anthony Yu Journey to the West vol 1 pg 160 for the full story of Sun Wukong’s semi-divine exploits. Also, the Monkey King’s 孙悟空 surname was Sun and his given name was ‘Understands Emptiness,’ so there are fun connections to how buddhism came to the Tang via people’s and kingdoms that were located west of Xi’an. But not going there today.) On the one hand, in this particular context, the crudest interpretation of the painting circa 1980 is straightforwardly political; the lame officials in heaven represent the stodgy old guard and the Monkey King was Deng Xiaoping, whose arrival signaled that red politics as usual needed to change.
On the other hand, a more general interpretation of the painting evokes how heaven 天 as a culture concept did referred neither to either nature 自然 nor to society 社会 (not this, not that), but rather to an amalgam of more than just two–a myriad of factors, some known, some not, some yet to be. Much as in Traditional Chinese Medicine, in disruption of the mandate of heaven occurs when operations are no longer smooth, and yes smooth as in 顺道 (following the way) or 顺其自然 (following one’s nature) is the most valued situation. In practice, however, following the way one’s nature is often figured as a last resort, when it is no longer possible to bend nature to one’s will. “It is what it is 随他去,” they say, or even “Whatever rocks her boat 她开心就好.” Phrases, which (as in the loose translations that I have provided) express resignation to rather than acceptance of 法, which can mean anything from the way to nature to legal practices.
Indeed, heaven has had multiple meanings throughout history, reflecting both native philosophies and interactions with western peoples (and by west, we’re not talking Euro-North Americans, but rather Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other peoples who inhabited the mountains between China proper and India and southeast Asia. As Hsiao-ting Lin notes, the incorporation of western peoples into the emergent modern state was ongoing even during the Republican era. But again, ‘nother story for a ‘nother day.) The ancient Chinese concept of “heaven” has referred to and still evokes natural laws, the root of everything, a harmonious mixture of everything ,and even the source of morality and legislation, proper governance and revolution. In other words, the pandemic and how it has been handled connects to all of these understandings of the place of human beings within and as nature, even as government is an expression of those principles. And yes, when it falls apart (as it seems to be doing) adjustments are necessary. But what to adjust and how?
So, today I’m wondering about so-called superstitions and how human beings interpret disasters. I don’t think we’ve gotten smarter than traditional humans. Nor do I think we’ve become more stupid. I think we’re still trying to figure out a language to describe the complexity of a reality that we understand enough to meddle with, but not enough to smoothly navigate. Thought du jour: when I interpret Monkey King Wrecks Havoc in Heaven circa 2022, I’m seeing Covid-19, extreme weather, and/or neo-authoritarianism disrupting the complacent beneficiaries of industrial modernity.