On Titans of Greek Mythology

A former top Chinese official considers what makes a civilized society.
Bao Tong
Bao-Tong-305.jpg Bao Tong during an interview at his home in Beijing, April 27, 2009.

By Bao Tong

BEIJINGChina's two annual parliamentary sessions are about to open.

Whom do they represent? They represent the people, who are voluntarily following the Party leadership. They represent officials, who get their power to lead the people from Party orders. In short, they represent the Party, the leadership, and their followers, all mixed up together.

They represent public servants and their masters. This is where their convenience, their legality, their power, their interests, the truth, where it all lies. Now that is superiority. And while we're thinking about this, all mixed up and muddle-headed, lets also think about Greek mythology.

The Greek gods aren't much like Chinese gods. Chinese gods all have the feeling of a leader to a greater or lesser extent: they inspire fear. Most of the Greek gods who live on Mount Olympus seek pleasure in human ways. Their human-style flaws and weaknesses aren't glossed over. They hunt for a living, drink wine, sunbathe, gamble, quarrel, play pranks on each other, fail to treat their elders appropriately. You could say they were like a bunch of cute but annoying children.

There is a very important story in Greek mythology, and that is the story of the Titans. The story of Zeus, Aphrodite, and Ares is charming and charismatic, but nonetheless the story of the Titans is tragic and inspiring.

Its importance reminds me of would-be China watchers, who may be familiar with the gems of wisdom from the Party and government leaders and the political elite, but who, if they are deaf to the groans of migrant workers, can't be said to understand China.

According to the oral traditions of Greek myth, humans were created by the Titans. Fire was stolen from heaven by a Titan and brought among humans by Prometheus, whose name is an important one among the Titan race. The earth owes its very existence to one eternal and very powerful Titan, who holds it up on his shoulders.

Without the Titans, humans wouldn't exist, and neither would the earth or Mount Olympus, the abode of Zeus. This is better than ancient Egypt, because there are no slaves, nor traces of pyramids, and it's better than contemporary China, because there are no migrant workers and no talk of "rising up."

The Titans have the strength to move mountains, and their anger is legendary. They do the hardest, dirtiest, lowliest, most dangerous, and smelliest work: the kind of work that someone has to do. They have to keep working; they can't stop for a minute. If they did, all their previous work would be instantly undone. They are the cheapest possible workforce. They don't have clothes or food.

If they wanted to drink water, there would be none for them. If the clearest mountain spring burst forth right under their feet, it would dry to nothing as soon as the Titan stooped to drink. Most of them have committed some kind of "original sin" for which they are doomed to suffer torture as their fate.

Prometheus's fate was to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle, because he committed the sin of seeing things from the point of view of humanity, and of helping them. Legend has it that the Titans were the children of Mother Earth and Father Sky and the uncles of Zeus. But they didn't find favor with Ouranos, so they became a disadvantaged group, living out lives of misery and forced labor.

Right to speak

They were forced to remain in fixed locations and weren't allowed into the cities. The city of Athens and Mount Olympus were brilliant and splendid, bustling places which often held top-level meetings.

In China, the unwritten rule of such meetings is everyone must be disciplined, with everyone following the arrangements set down by the leaders, 10,000 people with a single mind, speaking the same word. In ancient Greece, everyone, be they man or god, enjoyed the right to express themselves, and to hold a different opinion, to choose their own way.

If Chinese meetings make everyone feel exhausted, ancient Greek meetings must have been full of fun and interest. It's such a pity that the Titans didn't get to enjoy any of this, because they didn't have the right to speak, and those who did would be treated as criminals. They were criminals without a voice.

The word Titan can be translated as "giant gods" or "giants," but a better meaning is probably "super-strong slaves," or "giant slaves." Mythology might be imaginary, but it is a refraction of reality. It would have been hard to imagine the Titans if Greek society had had no slaves.

The meaning of the word "Titan" gradually began to change after the fall of the slave society. The word for the American passenger liner "Titanic" was intended to show its super size, while closing its eyes to the association to slavery. With the movie by the same name, the word became a symbol of love, friendship, and the highest human values.

Greece was also a splendid ancient civilization. They too experienced dictatorship, and finally they chose democracy. The descendants of the Titans not only stood up, but sat down again, on a dais representing the people. During World War II, the Greek people took up their guns, and put them down again to create a military state. Political power may come from the barrel of a gun, but democracy never can.

They were never "liberated" by Adolf Hitler, nor by the socialist faction. They won freedom and democracy for themselves, by themselves. The liberated themselves. Democracy didn't mess up Greece. Neither was it made poor by democracy. In 2003, Greece had a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of U.S. $10,000. It grew fast to reach U.S. $20,000 now, perhaps even more.

Our per capita GDP, here in "rising" China, doesn't even come up to their shoulders. But then they never talked much about rising, and probably didn't think much about it either. It's strange how small the gap between rich and poor is under their "capitalism." Under our "socialism," everyone used to be as poor as church mice. In the blink of an eye, the rich got rich to the tune of hundreds of millions, while the poor still can't afford to feed themselves, to go to school, or to see a doctor.

Equal before the law

We have the largest number of poor people, and yet we seemingly have endless cash to spend. We have already built the world's most expensive and opulent Olympic stadium to date and World Expo facilities. Here in China, the state is rich but the people are poor. Money is earned by the people and spent by officials.

The people might have trouble scraping by, but officials spend money like water, hundreds of billions of it every year, to pay for entertaining, cars, holidays and country houses, all at public expense. Everyone copies the leaders, keeps up with the Joneses, the same thing again and again, in endless progression.

In Greece, they have a different mantra: The people are rich but the state is poor. The current difficulties are caused by the fact that the government has too much debt. A summit of European Union finance ministers recently met and decided that they would prepare to help Greece through its difficulties, but that of course, Greece would first and foremost have to help itself.

Enough mythology for now. Zeus and the children and grandchildren of the enslaved criminal Titans are now the same as the ordinary people: all Greeks with the same rights as citizens. They are equal before the law, and dealt with according to law.

No one can take away anyone else's rights. There is struggle between the classes, but there is also collaboration, debate, and compromise, harmony among diversity. Things are pretty harmonious over there. This has nothing to do with Greek characteristics, and everything to do with the normal state of affairs in a civilized society.

Bao Tong, a former secretary and friend of the late sacked Communist Party chief Zhao Zhiyang, lives in Beijing. Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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