25 September 2008

"The mountains are high"

There's an old Cantonese saying: The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away.

It means what the late American politician Tip O'Neill also meant when he said, with less imagery but greater concision, "All politics is local."

I encountered this proverb in a novel recommended to me by a friend, Fragrant Harbour (2002) by John Lanchester. It comes into play there because one of the characters, Matthew Ho, runs an air conditioner manufacturing business, headquartered in Hong Kong but with certain crucial investments in Canton, the province of mainland China surrounding that special administrative region.

Matthew's investments run into trouble, of a sort that's make-or-break for his business as a whole. He tries to threaten a provincial official with the prospect of goig over his head to Beijing, only to be told: "The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away." We do our own thing around here, buddy.

Read about Lanchester's novel here or just admire the front cover above.

To test whether the proverb was perhaps the product of Mr. Lanchester's imagination, I did manage to drop it into a conversation I had with a businessman while I was in Hong Kong recently. He recognized it, and seemed pleased that I knew of it.

The idea that the southeast of China does things differently, that the mountains are high, etc., long predates the arrival of the Brits in the region. It may date to a Mongol invasion of China in the 13th century. As the Mongols conquered the north, the remnants of the Song dynasty retreated into what Canton. Though the Mongols eventually ended resistance there, too in one of the largest naval battles of history, and the Cantonese had to recognize Kublai Khan as their emperor, they may have begun soon thereafter to take solace in the idea expressed in the proverb.

He's up there in his "stately pleasure dome," and we're here shaking down air conditioner makers.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.