Document Mountains, Meeting Oceans

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Somewhat to my sadness, the teaching year is over; but because bureaucracy abhors a vacuum, rushing in to fill the void left by the departing students is a coming tide of endless meetings, a long summer of juggling paperwork. It’s always a relief when the autumn rolls around, and I head in to my first lecture of the new academic year to see the ranks of faces from the years before, and I have a chance to remind myself that this is why I am doing the job.

They are strange, these summer months in the academic world. Everybody imagines that we are retiring to our quiet hillside villas to write in our libraries, when we are, in fact, lost in a blizzard of spreadsheets and documents and meetings known only by their acronyms. So the following passage struck something of a chord. It comes from the wonderful A Dictionary of Maqiao, which I’m picking my way through in Chinese, with the English translation to one side. The novel, written by Han Shaogong (韩少功) and translated beautifully by Julia Lovell, is a dictionary of the rural village of Maqiao during the Cultural Revolution. It is savage, funny, wonderfully digressive, and deeply strange—my kind of novel. I’m about half way through, as I’m making my way through the Chinese slowly; but the following, from the dictionary entry on “Speech Rights”, particularly struck me.

Documents and meetings are both the key to safeguarding power and the best way of reinforcing speech rights. Mountains of paperwork and oceans of meetings are a fundamental or integral part of, and genuine source of excitement within, the bureaucratic way of life. Even if meetings are river upon river of empty talk, even if they haven’t the slightest real use, most bureaucrats still derive a basic level of enjoyment from them. The reason is very simple: it’s only at these moments that the chairman’s podium and the mats of the listening masses will be placed in position, that hierarchies will be clearly demarcated, giving people a clear consciousness of the existence (or lack thereof) and degree (large or small) of their own speech rights… Only in this kind of an environment do those with power and influence, immersed in the language with which they themselves are familiar, become aware that their power is receiving the warm, moist, nurturing, nourishing, safeguarding protection of language… and this is often far more important than the actual aims of the meeting.

“Mountains of Paperwork and Oceans of Meetings”; or, in Chinese, 文山会海 (wen shan hui hai , literally “document mountains, meeting oceans”) — I love this expression. Of course, meetings are not only empty talk: glimmering somewhere amongst those spreadsheets there are, I have to remind myself, useful and valuable purposes. But nevertheless, earlier today whilst we were mid-meeting, with five of us looking frowningly at one version of a spreadsheet whilst a sixth was talking about an entirely different spreadsheet, I thought of Han Shaogong’s book, and I thought that if I am to get through the coming months of paperwork, I’ll probably need crampons, ropes, and plenty of Kendal Mint Cake, whilst if I am to survive the next barrage of meetings, I should probably make sure that, at the very least, I am wearing a rubber ring around my waist…

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