Books: Great State: China and the World By Timothy Brook

It approaches impossible to be a humanist without eventually trying to reach an understanding of the politics of China. Enter just about any conversation about secularism and sooner or later someone is going to mention the human rights record of the Chinese government over the last 80 to 100 years. Here’s a book that may be a good place to move toward an understanding of China’s immense history.

Great State: China and The World was published in 2019/2020 by one of Canada’s leading scholarly experts on China. It is a collection of thirteen historical vignettes written to support its author’s thesis that China is, and has very nearly always been, a “Great State”.

Timothy Brook is a professor at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). A native of Toronto and graduate of the University of Toronto, Brook moved from Toronto to become principal of St. John’s College at UBC in 2004, where he was named to the Republic of China Chair. Brook previously held positions at the University of Alberta, Stanford University, and the University of Oxford, where he was Shaw Professor of Chinese from 2007 to 2009.

Book Marks reviews of Great State: China and the World by ...

At a little over 400-pages, the entire book is well-worth reading; however humanistfreedoms.com found particular interest in ….Chapter 8: The Missionary and His Convert, a chapter providing some interesting insights into how China’s political leadership has approached religious influences in the country. The chapter is set in the early 1600’s and reviews political events stemming from the arrival of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in China. Brook demonstrates that some leading Chinese political forces felt that “...these foreigners were not official envoys from their rulers. There were protocols for receiving tribute envoys, but these men had entered China without having received such clearance. That they were in China to speak of matters of Heaven – which could be construed as infringing on the divine authority of the emperor – only made the illegality of their status that much more offensive.” (pg. 203)

It is not uncommon for Western people to view China as having been cut-off from the world (i.e. Europe) for must of its existence. Brook attempts to dispel this view as a myth. But he also reinforces, in this chapter and others, the deep concern Chinese political leaders have had regarding foreign influence in their country’s affairs. The lesson seems to be that foreign influence that is cut-off is very different from foreign influence that is limited and controlled.

Another valuable chapter to the humanist student is Chapter 10- The Lama and the Prince, dealing with the Dalai Lama and China’s occupation of Tibet – what Brook describes as China’s act to “reimpose its active sovereignty over the territories of the old Great State.

Despite being fairy attentive readers, we found it difficult to locate where Brook differentiates a “Great State” from an “Empire”. Clearly in certain parts of Western culture, the words empire and imperialism carry a great deal of baggage. The words bring up notions of militarily-strong foreign control and influence of local populations.

In the book’s introduction, Brook argues that “Great State” is an”Inner Asian concept. It is not a term that Chinese today will recognize, let alone accept, but it has hugely shaped Chinese Political thinking since the time of Khubalai Khan. Before the 1270s China was a dynastic state in which one family monopolized power at the center because, so the theory went, Heaven had given that family an exclusive mandate to rule.. What changed with the coming of the Mongols was the deeper conviction that this mandate entailed the right to extend the authority of that one family out across the entire world, incorporating all existing politics and rulers into a system in which military power is paramount. This was the Great State, and this is what China became.

The book is well-worth the time spent.

Citations, References And Other Reading

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of https://thetyee.ca/Culture/2020/03/25/China-Pandemics-UBC-Expert/
  2. https://www.harpercollins.com/blogs/authors/timothy-brook
  3. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2019/09/myth-chinas-great-state
  4. https://history.ubc.ca/profile/tim-brook/

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

Photography of Fred Stein

How often have you seen a photograph of a brilliant scientist, let’s take Albert Einstein as our example, and thought or exclaimed – “There! There is an individual with a fine mind and exceptional abilities!”?

More than once, we would guess.

Did you also wonder about the fine mind and abilities on the other side of the camera? The featured photo here and others that you may view on Artsy or www.fredstein.com, you may find examples of the photographic craftsmanship of Fred Stein.

According to Artsy, a website for promoting and selling of art, Stein was a German refugee, committed humanist, and early exponent of handheld photography. Stein fled his home country for Paris and later New York, where he captured both the poetry of the streets in joyful photographs and the luminaries of the 20th century in sensitive portraits. Despite the desolation and upheaval of the 1930s and ’40s, Stein found hope and beauty in city streets, taking photographs that conveyed his profound honesty and concern for his fellow human beings.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1958
Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, 1958 (www.fredstein.com)

Meanwhile http://www.fredstein.com says that Stein was born on July 3, 1909 in Dresden, Germany. As a teenager he was deeply interested in politics and became an early anti-Nazi activist. He was a brilliant student, and went to Leipzig University, full of humanist ideals, to study law. He obtained a law degree in an impressively short time, but was denied admission to the German bar by the Nazi government for “racial and political reasons.” The threat of Fascism grew more and more dangerous and after the SS began making inquiries about him, Stein fled to Paris in 1933 with his new wife, Liselotte Salzburg, under the pretext of taking a honeymoon.

Our understanding of historical events and persons is often deeply influenced by photographs we have seen. The engaged expressions of Roosevelt or Einstein on this page may act to establish details of our individual and collective understanding of who these people were. That these images were crafted and informed by a humanist artist seems essential to comprehending the people and events that are captured in the images. These are humanist images and it is eminently humanist to reflect on the the rich and important humanist history and perspectives operating on both sides of the lens.

By the way, you may currently find other Fred Stein images for sale via Artsty. Viewable at the time this article was published are the wonderful Times Square in the Rain and View of Manhattan (New York), 1945.


Citations and References

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of http://www.fredstein.com/
  2. https://www.artsy.net/

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.