Saturday, August 19, 2006

Listening to the jade, and religious freedom

I went to the National Palace Museum today. It was well worth the visit, even though I'm still feeling a bit queasy from the bout of TD mentioned earlier. It's probably foolish for me to give a play-by-play of what I saw there, but just imagine: 8000 years of the best of Chinese art, stored in the Forbidden City in Beijing until opened to the public after the 1911 revolution, then stored away for safekeeping during WWII and the Japanese invasion, then shipped to Taiwan as the Maoists were defeating the Nationalists, then opened to the public. The People's Republic of China says the Republic of China (Taiwan) stole it and wants it all back. Taiwan says no way. They must have much more than they are showing--they have galleries that are closed off because they're not finished, and they're doing more construction to add even more gallery space.

I feel I must say a few words about one particular piece, though: a cabbage (Bok choi) made of jade. It was quite life-like, including a tiny grasshopper on its leaves. If you know bok choi, then you know that like celery, the base is white and the top is green. What is amazing is that this piece was carved from a single piece of jade, with white and green parts corresponding exactly to where the color changes in the cabbage. Even the grasshopper is green.

In much of Western art, we make the medium as generic as possible: an empty canvas, a tabula rasa, a blank slate. The production of this is not the art. It can be mass-produced, ready for the consumer, the artist, to put art on it.

The jade cabbage is a case where the medium was definitely NOT generic. Somehow the sculptor had to be in touch with the stone: perhaps he had to look for just the right piece of jade for this project, or perhaps he looked at a piece of jade and asked what potential it had inside it. What it wanted to be.

Some art students learn by making imitations of other artists. Take the same starting materials (as in a laboratory experiment) and do the same thing, to get the same result. Such a procedure could not work with the jade cabbage.

I should mention, however, that most of the artwork in the museum was not like this. With the exception of a jade carp that similarly used the brown and white natural colors of the jade, all the other pieces appeared to treat the medium as background. And perhaps that's because the opportunity to make such an artwork is so rare: it requires just the right piece of jade with an artist who can carry it out, and who can recognize the cabbage in the lump of jade.

The story goes that when this was presented to the Emperor of China at the time, an official said the grasshopper reminded him of the poem where a farmer had riches in his field and did not know of it. The official meant that the Emperor had many talented people in his kingdom, but did not hire them for his most important posts. They don't say what happened to this particular official.

As I exited, there were people handing out flyers, in Chinese, English, and Japanese. They were adherents of Falun Gong, which the People's Republic of China (Communist China) calls a dangerous cult, but most other people call a religious/spiritual group under persecution by the PRC. It's strange: the PRC had persecuted many religious groups in the past, including Christianity, but much of this persecution (at least of Christians) seems to be waning. And yet persecution of Falun Gong has increased since its beginnings in the 1990s. One might be cynical and say that the PRC's improved treatment of Christians comes with the interest in doing business with the United States, while Falun Gong has no major nation backing it up. I guess that makes Falun Gong a better indicator of the PRC's views of religious freedom--we can see how the PRC acts when it doesn't worry about how it will be perceived.

It also got me thinking: how fragile are the legal freedoms we enjoy in the United States. Strictly speaking, the PRC has freedom of religion. But if the religion is seditious, if it is counter-revolutionary, and now, if it is a dangerous cult, then that's another story. In other words, we give you freedom of religion, but we get to say what a religion is.

In the West we use the term "cult". It's not clear what defines the term, except "a religion we don't like". If you're a Christian, it means a group that appears to be Christian but we want you to stay away from (for some reason, perhaps a good one). If you're a secular-minded fellow, the word "cult" means a group that lets religious belief intrude on how one lives one's life, instead of compartmentalizing it "like we do". If you're for individualism, it's any group that attempts to tell you how to behave. If you're against concentration of power, then it's any group that concentrates power in one or a few top leaders.

Was it Jonestown that started this usage? I don't know. Jonestown happened when America was sure that religious freedom was a good thing--that what one believed was one's own business. Then in 1978, after shooting at a congressional delegation to their base in Jonestown, Guyana, Jim Jones's followers committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned kool aid, killing about 1000 in all. All of a sudden, it became clear that not all religions are okay, after all.

And now when you want to malign a religious group, it's easy: just call it a cult. Most religions have beliefs and practices which, to those who have no exposure to them, seem weird. So just bring some of those beliefs and practices to the fore, and any group becomes a "cult".

Some of you know my view of our Evangelical use of the word "cult". If not, ask me about it later.

But the point is that we should be very careful about the term. The Romans had quite a bit of religious freedom: it was more pluralistic than the US today, by far. But they persecuted Christians because they were weird. They were cannibals, eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their religious leader. They didn't participate in civic sacrifices. They wouldn't play along with the societal system of kissing up to those on the top and disregarding those at the bottom. In today's terms, they were a cult. And that was unforgivable.

Now it's true that some cults do a lot of damage. Secularists would point to the brainwashing, the financial and social losses, the breakup of families and friendships. Christians would point to people thinking they're getting saved when they are not. Obviously the nature and extent of the damage in each case depends on your point of view, and there will probably never be consensus on this. But Jonestown proved that there is such a thing as a "bad" religion.

What, though, is a state supposed to do about this? If we hope to have any sort of freedom of religion, the state cannot act against the group merely because of their beliefs. If anything, it must act on punishable actions: assault, child abuse, fraud, etc. But even this satisfies no one: some would say it's too easy to pass laws making some ritual act (say, animal sacrifice, polygamy, or even serving food to the homeless) illegal for the purpose of delegitimizing a religion, and others would say that by the time the cult actually breaks laws, they would have already caused too much damage (Jim Jones might not have been arrestable until he started shooting at people).

This is a tough nut. And this is without getting into freedom of speech (unless you incite to riot or slander?), freedom of the press (except libel and copyright violations?), freedom of assembly (except where it says "no loitering"?), and so on.

I like my freedoms. I wish they weren't so fragile.


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