Books

Learning from the lives of ants

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Hurrah! Hurrah!

What can we learn from ants? Are they only good as ingredients in a dodgy aphrodisiac? Or can they teach us things about life and happiness?

A post on the Amoiist blog yesterday translated a sarcastic slate of awards from a Chinese BBS. The pig receives the 2007 economics prize because of the skyrocketing price of pork, the humble baozi wins the food prize because of the invention of cardboard baozi, a masterpiece of human ingenuity, and so forth.

Amoiist added a prize category of his own with a link to the Yilishen story:

Annual award of most impressive animal: Ants.
Don't look down upon the ants. They can ruin hundreds of families.
The prize presentation speech: Although small in size, the ants can in one hand support a building, in the other hand destroy it.

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Consider her ways, and be wise.

There's a similar sentiment behind the recent novelty book, Ant (蚁呓, "ant sleep-talk").

Ant comes from the studio of Zhu Yingchun, a book designer whose Stitching Up (不裁) was named one of China's most beautiful books in 2007 and was awarded a bronze medal in the 2007 Book Design Awards, run by the Book Art Foundation in Germany. Although Ant isn't as exquisite as Stitching Up (it's not uncut, for one thing), the slim volume is still quite attractively put together. Illustrations, which make liberal use of white space to provide room for jotting in the margins, depict ants crawling over all kinds of objects, both natural and man-made, and there are blank pages included at the back for readers to record their own thoughts (which they can then send in to the publishers for inclusion in future editions).

The bilingual text, written by Zhou Zongwei, a professor of education at Nanjing University, uses the life of an ant to provide insights on human life. As a line on the cover advises readers in a playful variation on the well-known proverb: "There is profit in interpreting the meaning of the ant" (译蚁意·亦益矣). Here's the author's introduction:

When I was a little child, I was fond of squatting down to watch ants. Their lives were so amusing and interesting to me. But when I have grown up, I rarely watched them any more. I spent all my time on my own concerns, and ants fade away from my world. Once in a while, when I watched a special TV program "Animal World" with human being's tolerance and arrogance, I found that ants were similar to human beings. They seek for food, reproduce, form groups, fight, and even bury their companions' bodies as we do. But one day, when I squatted own to see the ants again, I realized that it is not ants that look like human, but human that are like ants. From our high perspective, we can't see ants clearly. We believe that the little ants are under our control. But when we get close to them, we realize that human beings are as pitiable as ants, because when we are in the vast universe, we are as fragile as ants. The only way to find the truth of the world is to squat down to watch the world carefully by placing ourselves in a lower position. In essence, human beings and ants are the same.

The story follows an ant as it discovers the secret to a happy existence. It's sort of like a formicid version of that inspirational classic, Hope for the Flowers. Except that unlike caterpillars, when ants finish crawling around on the ground they don't sprout wings and take to the skies in a glorious triumph over adversity.

Despite its somewhat bleak outlook on life, Ant seems to have struck a chord with readers. Here's part of a reaction from Huang Jiwei, a noted essayist and book enthusiast:

The Chinese text is printed in size 7 [5.5pt], or something even smaller - really, really, really small.

The red English text underneath the Chinese is to me like lines of running decoration, runes from outer space, finely-looped stitching, dense and exquisite.

Like ants, they cluster together and are negligibly small.

They suggest the humble existence, the weak gasps for breath and struggles of writing amid today's flood of information.

They lie there so low, low, low that they are one with the dust, where the fundamental truth of the world is concealed: "In essence, human beings and ants are the same."

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Life of Ants by Wang Jinkang

One of the most interesting books your correspondent has read this year is based on the opposite assumption: humans are nothing like ants, but they ought to learn from them.

Life of Ants (蚁生, aka "Life of Antz"), by noted SF author Wang Jinkang (王晋康), is the story of an attempt to improve selfish, violent human society by making it more like an ant colony. The novel is set in the late 1960s, when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing and collectivism was the overriding ideal.

Sent down to the countryside, a young researcher who has invented an "altruism serum" derived from ant pheromones decides to use the workers at his farm as experimental subjects. The group of farmers and young intellectuals enjoys a brief period of happiness living in a true Communist utopia before everything goes to hell.

Each section of the novel is headed by an excerpt from a fictional treatise by the entomologist who unlocked the secret of the "altruism serum." Here's a translation of one of those excerpts:

Out of all of the organisms in the world, the ant can be said to be the most successful. The society of this social insect is considerably more advanced than that of humans; it is a completely altruistic society, in which each individual is a model of selflessness, sacrifice, discipline, and hard work. Most commendable is this: the altruistic society of the ant stems entirely from its genes, from the biological structures (glands and pheromones) that it has from birth and carries to the grave. It has no need of education, reform, compulsion, or punishment; it needs no religion, law, prisons, or government. Therefore, every bit of social capacity in ant society can be put to effective use with no internal waste whatsoever. Because the altruism of individual ants is innately stable, their society is a model of stability and sustainability. It has lasted, unbroken, for eight million years.

Compared to them, all other beings should feel ashamed. Most of humanity's ten-thousand year civilization has been spent mired in ugliness, blood, randomness, inflamed passions, and moral decrepitude. The lesson of the "goodness" of God and the saints cannot overcome the instinctive "evil" of all living creatures. The well-ordered world we so painstakingly establish is a castle built on sand that collapses in the twinkling of an eye.

Were we to take ant society as our model, what heights could human civilization reach!

Life of Ants is not very optimistic about humanity's prospects as an ant colony. For violating the tenets of Marxism by elevating ants higher than humans, the author of above treatise is targeted in a violent struggle session that opens the novel, and the events that transpire on the farm illustrate the dangers of scientism, demagoguery, and ideological extremism. In an interview with Novoland Fantasy Plus (幻想1+1), the magazine that first published Life of Ants last year, Wang Jinkang noted that he based much of the novel on the three years he spend in the Nanyang countryside in the late 60s.

Unfortuntately, the book isn't too widely available. The magazine edition is available used on Taobao, but the standalone volume released at the Chengdu International Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention in August seems to be available only from the editorial offices of the now-defunct World SF (blog link). It's well worth tracking down.

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