I recently chanced upon a comment about a Chicago celebrity: "She was a very sophisticated person and has a beautiful French accent." It then occurred to me that remarks about "beautiful accent" are both banal and intriguing: we hear them so often that we seldom wonder about the underlying assumptions beneath them, and they seem innocuous enough for people not to censor themselves, but that is precisely why they can shed some candid light on the world where we live.
In the case of the accent native speakers have when speaking their own language, it may be politically correct to say that all accents are equally beautiful, but the reality is some accents are more equal than others. Statistically, "beautiful" is more frequently associated with certain accents. This phenomenon might be conveniently explained away by the number of their native speakers, thus if we more often hear about "beautiful American accent" than "beautiful Australian accent", we may think that it is because there are more Americans than Australians, but this wishful thinking does not explain why we are almost as likely to encounter "beautiful American accent" as "beautiful British accent", and there are so much more occurrences of "beautiful British accent" than "beautiful Chinese accent". Perhaps China is too far away from predominantly English speaking countries for such comments to show up in English, but we also seldom hear about "beautiful Mexican accent", or "beautiful Canadian accent". Needless to say, such statements usually overlook variations of accents among people from the same country.
Even trickier is the "beautiful accent" that originates from cross-linguistic influence of multilingual people's previous language(s), or foreign accent, such as Penelope Cruz's "beautiful Spanish accent", or the Chicago celebrity's "beautiful French accent", when they speak English. Those with some other accents do not customarily receive such a compliment. After all, one of the goals of learning another language is to sound as close to native as possible, not the least in order to be more easily understood. You really have to like a particular accent a lot in order to find it beautiful when it appears in another language.
While learning Spanish by auditing classes taught by various colleagues, vocabulary, grammar and reading come easily to me because of my prior mastery of French, but I have a harder time with pronunciation, especially how to roll the [r] in Spanish, or which syllable gets stressed. One colleague patiently corrected me, but another told me not to worry.
"You don't need to change it. Your accent is beautiful. It is French," she insisted. "We like it."
It is well-known to linguists that our second or third language (L2 or L3) can have a stronger influence on subsequent languages we learn than our first, especially when they are much more similar, such as in the case of Spanish and French. Nevertheless, her comment made it obvious that there is a hierarchy in accents, some more beautiful than others.
The prestige of French accent may be connected to that of the French language, which we can trace all the way back to the Century of Louis XIV when French was spoken in all the royal courts in Europe and Dominique Bouhourr S. J. (1628-1702), one of the earliest and most effective advocate of French, declared it the most beautiful language in the world in the Entretiens d'Ariste et d'Eugène (1671). Few people remember Father Bouhours, but thanks to him the ineffable charm of "je ne sais quoi" can be used as aesthetic criteria beyond rational analysis and has been associated, sometimes half-jokingly, with all things French in the US. Generations of Chinese learned that French is the most beautiful language in the world from their middle school textbook, which included a short story by Alphonse Daudet, "La dernière classe" (The Last Lesson), translated into Chinese during the early twentieth century. The Chinese reception of the story happened to be connected to a long history of Japanese invasions of China. Many of us may not know much about the situation in Alsace, but identified with a people who lost their land to invaders, and felt a special affinity with their language.
Accents can convey layers of meanings beyond sound. I grew up in a small city in Sichuan and spoke the regional dialect for many years until I went to college in Beijing at 17. After several decades of speaking only the official Mandarin, French and English, I almost lost the ability to speak the dialect fluently, until I reconnected with my high school friends and made an effort to bring it back. It was highly rewarding: the fact that I can speak our dialect "in its original flavor" has been well appreciated by my hometown friends, which reminds me of a Quebecois colleague. He once gave me a ride from Montreal to a small Quebec town and back for an invited talk. We chatted for many hours and I only noticed a slight Quebecois accent from him. But when we met again at a conference and went out for dinner with several other Quebecois, his accent was so pronounced that I did not understand everything he was saying.
People from relatively marginalized groups know that their accent may not be generally perceived as beautiful, but keeping it constitutes a badge of authenticity and loyalty; on the other hand, finding an accent beautiful can reveal appreciation, admiration and even adulation for the culture in which the said language/dialect is spoken. It is not unrelated to our sometimes unchecked preconception about cultural appeal, prestige and power. How beautiful is your accent? How do we measure that? The answers are surely complicated and not always comfortable.
Illustration by Bendu
Stevan Harrell sent this report from his visit to Yangjuan-Pianshui last August:
We arrived in Yangjuan on August 25, 2014. It had been raining for several days; it let up for two days, including the first half-day we were there, and then continued to rain for the rest of the six nights and five days we spent there.
There were three groups of people visiting while we were there (in addition to Yanguan co-founder Professor Li Xingxing from Chengdu, and Yangjuan native and current English teacher Ma Fagen):
1. I was with two undergraduate students from the University of Washington (UW), Noah Baseleon-Abbot and Tiffany Fox, who will be spending the year in Chengdu. They began to carry out a survey of high-school and college students' knowledge and use of written Nuosu language. They did this with the help of Ma Xiaolan, Ma Zibo, and several other local college and high-school students.
2. My colleague Dan Abramson, a professor of Urban Planning, who works on changes brought about by the New Socialist Village Campaign on the Chengdu Plain, and also on post-earthquake reconstruction, brought with him his old classmate from Tsinghua, Tao Tao, who now owns a planning firm in Beijing, two UW students, and the Shanghai girlfriend of one of the students, who is an expert sketcher (see more of her sketches about the trip on her blog).
3. Liang Zhun from Shanghai had with her Mr. Zhang from Chengdu University of Technology. I never really talked much to him, but he seemed very nice, and took a lot of good pictures.
We stayed for five days. Much of Fagen's, Xingxing's, and my time was taken up with the task of figuring out the list of scholarship recipients from Cool Mountain Education Fund. We had more money available to give out this year than in the past, which meant that we could be a little more generous with the college scholarships (we gave 3000 yuan to the 4-year bachelor's candidates, and 2500 to the 3-year associate degree candidates). We also gave 1000 to all those beginning high school or high-school level vocational and technical programs, and we saved some back for next year.
Yangjuan School Graduates are Doing Well
But the most heartening news is about the students. We have been blogging some of their progress: Kaitlin Banfill, who is starting a Ph.D. at Emory University, and who spent last year on a Fulbright fellowship, headquartered at Sichuan University but spending a lot of time in Liangshan, has just blogged about the success of Ma Xiaoyang (the second son and youngest child of Labbu, Fagen's 2nd uncle). Xiaoyang has just taken up a teaching job in Leibo after graduating, along with two of his relatives, from Guang'an Technical College.
Of Ma Xiaoyang's two classmates, Qubi Lisan) is teaching art in middle school in Zhaojue, and Li Musa is teaching English in a middle school in Yantang in Yanyuan. Ma Yifei, a cousin, has a job with an engineering firm in Chengdu, and his brother Ma Zibo is in the second year of law school at Panzhihua University, where he tested 7th out of 130 in his class of almost all Han students, and wants to be a lawyer. Ma Xiaolan is now in her last year of a mathematics teaching course at Xichang College. I finally got to visit her at college, with my two students. She and her classmates showed us around for a hot afternoon, and we had a wonderful time, culminating in ice cream on the shores of Qionghai. Finally, when I spoke at Sichuan Normal University (Liang Wei and Fu Chunmin were there), the real guest of honor was Li Lan, a Yangjuan graduate who is now a sophomore there.
Yangjuan School Faces a Crisis
At the same time as Yangjuan's graduates are doing so well, Yangjuan School itself is experiencing in serious decline. Enrollment was between 300 and 320 students from 2005, the first year there were six full grades, until 2010, at the time of the 10-year celebration. But then people started leaving; upper grade students stayed, but when a class of 40 graduated, it was typically replaced by a class of 15. This year there are only 80 students registered.
Some people attribute the decline in students to the poor quality teaching by "substitute" teachers, and thus indirectly the failure of the County Education Bureau to give the school enough regular, credentialed teachers. This is the principal's view. Indeed, I have sat in on many of substitute teachers' classes, and some of them are awful. This has caused test scores to drop, and many parents are moving their children to more urban schools with the latest equipment, including Internet classes taught by teachers from Chengdu (even Fagen's English classes at Meiyu Middle School have internet teachers from Chengdu).
Another reason is demographic and economic. The population of Yangjuan and Pianshui has declined by about a third in the last five years, with people moving out to Baiwu and Yanyuan, and some families choosing to have only two children, even though the policy allows them to have three.
A third reason is that after the bitterly fought election for Village head (I think it was in 2011 or 2012) between Ma Guohua, the current head, who comes from Yangjuan, and a losing candidate from Pianshui, most Pianshui parents took their children out of Yangjuan school and put them into Baiwu Comprehensive Scbool in the nearby town. So most of the remaining students are from Yangjuan and the neighboring village of Mianba.
For families who choose not to enroll their children at Yangjuan, The typical pattern now is for the parents to go work somewhere (construction is much favored over factory work, because it pays better) while the grandparents rent a cheap room in Yanyuan (some are available for as little as 100 yuan per month) where they live with and cook for the 1st to -3rd grade children. Starting with the 4th grade, the students can board at the Yanyuan schools, but some continue to live with grandparents anyway. Here is a link to the article I wrote with Aga Rehamo (Ssyhxatmop) about this general situation.
I should point out that the decline in student numbers is not just a Yangjuan phenomenon. All the other village schools in Baiwu Township have either closed altogether or severely curtailed their operations— For example, Baoqing, which had four grades when we visited there in 2006 or so, is now down to one.
Yangjuan school is also in a budgetary crisis. Fewer students means less support, which means the facilities deteriorate (leaky roofs are the main problem; the grounds still look beautiful), which means that parents are more likely to pull their students out (or not start them in the kindergarten), which means that enrollment declines, and the downward spiral continues.
Possibilities for the Near Future
I had endless, interesting discussions about what the future of the school might be. Right now, it won't close altogether. But there are a series of possibilities:
1) It could continue as a 6-grade school, with an infusion of outside funds. There are possible sources, but we don't know yet whether they will come through.
2) It could be taken over by the County as a regular school, losing its "minban gongzhu" status (民辦公助 －A state-subsidized school run by local people). This would solve the financial and facilities problems, and potentially might solve the problems of not retaining permanent teachers. But I see it as unlikely.
3) It could become a 2- or 3-year village school, serving 6-9 year-olds before they are old enough to go to Baiwu or elsewhere.
I haven't decided what I think about these possibilities. But I want to reiterate Yangjuan's situation is representative of the fate of small rural schools altogether. Even the 9-year comprehensive school at Baiwu, which now has a lot of modern facilities, has seen its elementary school enrollment decline from 1400 to 700 in the last few years (though the middle school enrollments have been steady).
There is another, more remote but very interesting possibility. When I was in Taiwan before traveling to Liangshan, a former student, now a nursing instructor at a local university, wanted to introduce me to her sister's husband, principal of the elementary school at Cajiao in the valley above where we did our fieldwork near Sanxia (a district near New Taipei City). That school has very few local students, because almost all families have moved out of the mountain areas. But the school (which has beautiful buildings and grounds) serves ecologically-minded Sanxia urbanites (a phrase I could not have imagined using when I lived there in the 1970s) who want to send their children to a school in the peaceful countryside where they can learn about the environment and get intensive teacher attention in small classes. People I discussed this with were excited about this as a possibility a decade hence. It seems far-fetched to me now, but 60 college students seemed far-fetched when we started Yangjuan school in 2000.
So we are at a bit of a crossroads. Li Xingxing will be retiring when he turns 65 in January, and he wants someone else to take over the Chengdu responsibility for the scholarships. He is suggesting one of the younger researchers in his institute, but nothing is decided. For my part, I can continue, but I'm inclined to start transferring some responsibility to some of the younger members of the Cool Mountain board; right now Kaitlin Banfill seems like a strong possibility, eventually. She visits Liangshan regularly, and her Ph.D. work will continue the investigation of Nuosu college students and their careers. She speaks pretty good Nuosu, in addition.
It has all been worthwhile
Finally, I want to sum up what I think we have accomplished by building the school and supporting the graduates. As I said in my talk at both Southwest Nationalities University and Sichuan Normal University, if we were starting today, building a school in Yangjuan would be a huge waste of time and money. The Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping administrations have taken rural education seriously, to the point where free education through middle school is easily available to anyone in Yanyuan (I can't speak for more remote areas of Liangshan, but I want to visit and find out more). But we made it available to Yangjuan, Pianshui, and Mianba children about 8 years sooner than it otherwise would have been, and this has not only provided opportunities for education and employment for ordinary villagers, but has nurtured, everyone agrees, a positive attitude toward education and a possibility of education as a life course and a route of social mobility alternate to migrant labor. In other words, people who had the opportunity to study at Yangjuan have leapt ahead half a generation in becoming educated, and the community in general values education greatly, as a means of mobility to be sure, but I also think for its own sake. Our original dreams of community-based education, an educated community of farmers who revere their own as well as the Chinese literate tradition, did not happen, but I think it was a dream based in the realities of the mid-90s, not in the realities of the 2010 decade. We need to be adaptable and change with the times.
Photos by Liang Zhun, drawing and map by Tiantian
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was all the rage in Catholic circles and beyond them thirty to fifty years ago. He is credited with having had a major impact on Vatican II (1962 – 1965). As a scientist, he was at the forefront in his chosen field – paleontology.
Now the thought of the influential but no longer popular French Jesuit is making a comeback and from an unlikely place – China.
The relationship between Teilhard and China was much deeper and more decisive than most of his readers realize. Teilhard was based in China for 23 years (1923-1946), and wrote his two most influential books there. They included several of the writings that would later be gathered under the title "The Divine Milieu", and, most importantly, "The Phenomenon of Man."
The Jesuit scientist was already 42 years old when he went to Hebei Province in northern China on archeological digs. And he he had come to China not entirely by choice: an article on original sin saw a question mark put over him in "orthodox" circles, and he was directed by his religious superiors to concentrate on scientific research in the Chinese hinterland rather than tackling tricky theological subjects.
Teilhard was not a new Ricci in hios adaptation to Chinese culture and mores. Nor was he at ease with traditional missionary methods. And he felt himself often to be an exile. Still, it is in China that he made his most exciting discoveries, identifying in 1930 "Beijing Man' as a "Homo Faber", and conducting extensive geological surveys across China.
As the text of his "Mass on the World" eloquently testifies, it is primarily the Chinese earth, replete with early testimonies to the development of life, which inspired Teilhard and provided him with the basis for the full development of his thought.
But such exploration came from a choice he made early on after arriving in China: he had left the private museum of natural history created in China by his colleague Emile Licent, choosing instead to join the Geological Survey Bureau created by the Chinese government.
He is remembered as one of the three founding fathers of Chinese paleontology. When leaving China, Teilhard eloquently spoke of his "enormous gratitude" for the country in which he made so many friends, conducted so many exploratory missions, and was able to reflect in new ways on humankind's and cosmic destiny.
After his death in 1955, Teilhard's thought exercised an enormous influence on the Catholic Church and beyond, before somehow waning towards the end of the 1970s. During the same period, Teilhard was of course never mentioned in China.
Today, the situation seems to be reversing. During the 1990s, the Chinese Institute of Paleontology was the first to rehabilitate his name and scientific contribution.
What about his cosmological and theological thought? Professor Wang Hayan of Beijing's Language and Culture University wrote her doctoral thesis in Paris on Teilhard. She was the first to popularize his concepts in Chinese context, publishing an Anthology of his works based on his Complete Works.
As well, "The Phenomenon of Man" and many other his seminal works have been translated, sometimes twice. Older Chinese Jesuits published early translations in Taiwan from the 1960s, and some of them now available in the PRC. And the process continues with a short book by Teilhard, "The Place of Man in Nature", published by Beijing University Press in October 2014.
The translator of this last work, Alex Wang, is a Chinese-born senior manager of a French firm. He was awarded two doctorates in Paris - one in engineering and the other in philosophy. Wang has enthralled with Teilhard's vision for many years and was the main organizer of a colloquium entitled "Teilhard and the Future of Humankind" which was held in Beijing on October 19, 2014.
This was the first event dealing with the entirety of Teilhard's thought, not only his scientific writings, to take place in the Chinese language and in Mainland China. It attracted a galaxy of talent:
• Professor Huang Huiwen, from the Chinese Institute of Paleontology, recalled Teilhard's contribution to Chinese Geology;
• Professor Li Tiangang (Fudan University) spoke of Teilhard as a "global man", helping us all to put our various levels of relationship into a broader context, challenging the common time-space continuum in which we move and think;
• The Mongolian writer Yang Dorje eloquently recalled the travels of Teilhard in the remote Ordos region and quoted the Chinese translation of "The Mass on the World." Evoking the physical relationship that still links humankind to matter and the earth, Yang Dorje highlighted Teilhard as a cosmic poet and thinker, anchoring us deeper in our origins and destiny.
• Liu Feng, the creator of XLab in China which specializes in training students to collaborate in their work, spoke of the concept of "Noosphere' and "Omega Point" in relationship with the insights provided by contemporary cybernetics.
• Thierry Meynard, a Jesuit teaching in China, reminded the audience of the way Teilhard was envisioning the future of humankind beyond national and ethnic barriers and the way such vision was congruent with the United Nations ideals developed at the same time.
The colloquium drew 100 participants, mainly university professors and doctoral students. It concluded by deciding to launch the Chinese association of the friends of Teilhard and on a program of promotional activities for 2015, the year of the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Teilhard.
At the colloquium, a 45 minute documentary entitled "Teilhard and China" premiered. It was co-produced by the Xu-Ricci Institute at Fudan University and the Taipei Ricci Institute. The work, directed by Benoit Vermander, SJ and Cerise Phiv, was filmed in Auvergne (where Teilhard was born), Paris, Shanghai, Beijing, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. It also includes testimonies by Henri du Passage, a nephew of Teilhard, who recalls how much his uncle suffered from the rejection he often experienced in Catholic circles, especially after his travel to Rome in 1947.
Besides recalling the Chinese adventures of Teilhard, the film documents an intercultural workshop on Teilhard's thought conducted in the Ordos desert in August 2013. In the place where Teilhard wrote "The Mass on the World" young intellectuals from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Fudan University and the "Shanghai Culture" journal read and discuss excerpts from "The Mass on the World' and "The Phenomenon of Man." They felt moved by the "radical optimism" that such works engender in the reader, helping her to go beyond failure and limited life-span so as to insert one's work and life into a process of cosmic and spiritual evolution.
Teilhard may not have secured a place in China's intellectual landscape just yet. But the Jesuit thinker is definitely reaching a new public, and several MA theses dealing with him have been or are presently being written in several Chinese universities.
There are reasons explain for such developments:
(a) Teilhard provides resources for thinking one's human condition beyond cultural and national determinisms;
(b) his own life illustrates how the presence of a priest-scientist in China was challenging the traditional missionary model;
(c) Globalization gives new relevance to the way Teilhard was envisioning evolution and the management of increasing complexity.
(d) Finally, Teilhard's life experience offers a touching resonance with his own choice of "radical optimism" when set in the context of the future of humankind.
It is not impossible that some of basic intuitions of the Jesuit scientist will bounce back to the West from Chinese experience and interpretations.
The term "microaggression", coined in 1970 by an American psychiatrist Chester Pierce, has taken on a new life in recent years after a Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue, a Chinese American, published a book on the topic in 2007 with several collaborators. It is used to refer to small non-physical acts – verbal or non-verbal, intentional or unintentional, ranging from ignorant, annoying, ridiculous, slighting, insulting to hateful - that offend people because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or any other perceived marginalizing factors. Viewed individually, each act may seem small, subtle and harmless, but cumulatively, they can create an unpleasant, hurtful or even hostile environment for their target. By far the most explosive topic is that of race and ethnicity, which constitutes a large percentage of reported microaggressions. Statistics also show that minorities are much more likely than whites to think racism exists in the US. There is tremendous amount of anger both from those who think they suffer from them and those who dismiss them as "leftist whining" or conspiracies.
At the end of August 2014, Beijing Commercial Press (or Shangwu, one of the biggest Chinese publishing house, owner of the Xinhua Dictionary, the world's most popular reference work) launched a volume more than 2,000 pages: The Ricci-Shangwu Chinese-French Dictionary, a revised and shortened edition of the "Grand Ricci", the seven-volume dictionary published in 2001 by the Ricci Institutes of Taipei and Paris. (Since then, the two Institutes have entrusted the Ricci Association with moral and financial rights over the work.)
Enrico Cau is an Italian-born Master Candidate at the Graduate Institute of Strategic Studies (GIASS) and a Fellow Researcher at the Center for Advanced Technology (CAT) of Tamkang University. He has a long experience in the areas of translating, interpreting and international affairs, with a specific focus on Asia Pacific issues. Below is his tentative paper on the Trans Pacific Partnership.
With the continuous development of the Chinese economy and China's more prominent role in the world, Chinese traditional culture correspondingly receives increased attention. To help managers in Chinese or foreign companies gain an understanding of Chinese philosophy, history, and contempory culture, Fudan School of Philosophy, in association with DPark, is sponsoring an English-language Certificate of Chinese Thought and Cultural Resources. The program is tailored for foreign and Chinese entrepreneurs/executives willing to mobilize such resources for managing their business endeavors in a culturally and socially responsible fashion.
This English-language program seeks to enhance international and Chinese managers' knowledge of Chinese cultural resources so as to enrich and facilitate the exercise of their corporate missions and social responsibilities in China. The program is designed and taught by professors from the School of Philosophy at Fudan University. Its unique teaching and rich research resources have been organized to create a ground-breaking training program adapted to the needs of decision-makers through course work, interactions with native informants, and field trips.
The program starts next January and lasts for nine weekends spanning over one year.
Details are included in these two online brochures:
Antonio Duarte, director of Dpark, and Benoit Vermander, professor in the School of Philosophy, Fudan University, will present the program at a lecture and discussion evening on September 25th, 2014, at DPark (No.738 Changyang Road, Shanghai). Please confirm attendance to:
Fin août 2014, les Presses Commerciales de Pékin (l'une des plus grandes maisons d'édition chinoise, éditrice, entre autres, du Dictionnaire Xinhua - le dictionnaire le plus vendu au monde) ont sorti un volume de plus de 2000 pages, le « Dictionnaire Ricci Chinois-Français », une édition révisée et raccourcie du Grand Ricci , le dictionnaire publié en 2001 par les Instituts Ricci de Taipei et Paris, dont les droits ont depuis été confiés à « l'Association Ricci pour le grand dictionnaire français de la langue chinoise » . L'ouvrage devrait atteindre les librairies de Chine début octobre.
Depuis les premiers contacts entre les Instituts Ricci et les Presses commerciales (Shangwu), il aura fallu attendre quinze ans... Mais le délai était largement justifié : les Presses commerciales ont effectué un travail d'exception, qui fait de ce dictionnaire – et pour très longtemps – l'outil de référence lexicographique entre le chinois et le français. Le choix des expressions a été fait avec scrupule, les expressions douteuses ou fautives ont été corrigées, un choix éclairé de nouvelles expressions venues du chinois contemporain a été introduit sans pour autant affadir l'ancrage du Ricci dans l'histoire de la langue et de la pensée chinoises. Les traditions lexicographiques combinées des Presses Commerciales et des Ricci ont livré ensemble ce qu'elles avaient de meilleur... Ouvrant le dictionnaire, je me remémorais avec joie ma première visite dans le « temple » intimidant des Presses Commerciales en 1999 : Zhang Wenying, l'éditrice qui m'accueillait alors a finalement coordonné jusqu'au bout le projet. Entre tous les partenaires impliqués, la confiance et l'estime n'ont fait que croître au long des années.
L'origine du grand Ricci remonte au « Bureau d'étude sinologique » de Zikawei, à Shanghai, dans les années 1880, et au travail accompli par les sinologues jésuites français Léon Wieger et Séraphin Couvreur dans le Hebei à partir de la même époque. Il avait été repris notamment par les pères Eugen Zsamar, Yves Raguin, Jean Lefeuvre et Claude Larre après qu'ils avaient quitté la Chine. Il était grand temps que ce fruit de la sinologie jésuite « rentre » en Chine, et qu'il le fasse corrigé, mûri, porté à fruition par la meilleure institution lexicographique chinoise. La parution du « Ricci-Shangwu » n'est pas seulement un événement éditorial. Ancrée dans une longue histoire, elle est un signe fort de fidélité et d'espérance.
Benoît's "Locating Utopia on the Map" has prompted my endless musings on utopias. Without going back as far as to Adam and Eve or Plato's Republic, one such utopia which left a vivid impression on me is the early Christian community of the first century Jerusalem established by Peter, as narrated in the Acts. The believers sold all their possessions, held everything in common and distributed goods based on needs. All was well, except when a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira secretly kept a portion of the money they received from selling their land, they were both immediately punished with death at Peter's feet.
I often wonder how such a vision could be realized in present-day America. How many camels would go through the eye of a needle when the very people who claim the most literal and fundamentalist adherence to the Bible also happen to be aligned with a conservative voting block that most radically opposes any perceived "income redistribution"? One way for them to explain things away is to claim that the believers in Peter's church were only supposed to give up a portion, not all of their assets. I do not blame them for their unwillingness to give up their entire property, because I honestly admit that I would have a hard time renouncing mine, and I love my own garden much more than my neighbor's (this last point, however, might actually count as a virtue by the Ten Commandments). I am simply amazed at their sophisticated way of interpreting the Bible.
We do not know how long this early Christian community would have lasted had it not become scattered under persecution, but the relationship with surrounding communities does constitute a crucial factor for the survival of any utopia. That is why imaginary utopias tend to be set up conveniently on an island, such as Thomas More's eponymous story, which reminds me of a less famous work by a French Enlightenment writer abbé Prévost, whose voluminous novel Cleveland or the English Philosopher contains a subplot about a group of Protestants fleeing persecution who settled on an unknown island surrounded by rocks. In this perfectly idyllic society, there was no need for money and the residents shared everything based on their needs. A crisis arose, however, when the female and male birth rate became mysteriously so imbalanced that over a hundred maidens were waiting to be married. When six young men were recruited to join the colony, the elders decided that the only equitable way to determine who they should marry was to draw lots. The utopia started to disintegrate when it attempted to dictate the residents' innermost feelings in the name of equality.
Defining utopia, which connotes imagination and illusion, as social experiment, as Benoît did, may help to ground its plausibility. Utopia may become feasible if we renounce the all or nothing approach and experiment on a smaller scale. One of the reasons why Robert Owen's experiment at New Lanark enjoyed success for many years while his adventure in New Harmony, Indiana failed to take shape was because in New Lanark, he built upon an existing infrastructure and made noticeable improvements on workers' conditions, while in New Harmony, it was much more challenging to design a brand new society that would satisfy the needs and aspirations of new arrivals with vastly different backgrounds and principles.
When designing a utopia, a primary question emerges: where to recruit members for such a community? Past utopias were usually built by people who shared a similar ideal, such as religion. I also wrestle with the question of what to do with the children born from the members of such a community. While adults can accept a "social contract" on a voluntary basis, how can we ensure the children's freedom of choice, especially if the relationship between the utopia and the larger society is more or less hostile?
I can envision such a community for people 60 and older who share a strong emotional bond. In China, former high school classmates can conceivably create various types of communal living arrangements. Having spent their tender years together and bonded in some cases by a lifetime of friendship, high school classmates constitute an important support network in China. In many instances, formal or informal leaderships already emerged, facilitated by various social media, with more or less frequent activities organized such as reunions, celebrations, funerals and hardship donations. Alumni groups tend to maintain excellent relationship with the larger society which views such a bond as natural, uncontroversial and worthy of encouragement. Because members have held vastly different professions and achieved more or less material success in life, it is possible that some of them might be willing to share their respective expertise and devote a portion of their wealth to create various models of retirement community that offer mutual material and emotional support while positively impacting the social and natural environment. Given that the loneliness of the elderly is an increasingly grave problem facing modern society to the point that Pope Francis considers it one of the two greatest evils, communal living of older adults may be a type of utopia worthy of some consideration.
This is a response to an article by Benoit Vermander, which you can read here. Photo credit: New Harmony by F. Bate (View of a Community, as proposed by Robert Owen) printed 1838 Wiki Public Domain.