Sunday, December 31, 2006

A thing of beauty (the sequel)

Those of you who have been browsing this blog before already know that I am quite enchanted with the traditional art of papercutting. I did a post on that last April. I've always thought that this artform was typical of China though, but after stumbling upon this site I know that the creative mind cannot be confined to the borders of any country.

Please let me introduce you to Peter Callesen:

About my paper works

My paper works have lately been based around an exploration of the relationship between two and three dimensionality. I find this materialization of a flat piece of paper into a 3D form almost as a magic process - or maybe one could call it obvious magic, because the process is obvious and the figures still stick to their origin, without the possibility of escaping. In that sense there is also an aspect of something tragic in most of the cuts. Some of the small paper cuts relate to a universe of fairy tales and romanticism, as for instance "Impenetrable Castle" inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", in which a tin soldier falls in love with a paper ballerina, living in a paper castle. Other paper cuts are small dramas in which small figures are lost within and threatened by the huge powerful nature. Others again are turning the inside out, or letting the front and the back of the paper meet - dealing with impossibility, illusions, and reflections.

There's lots to explore. The mix between traditional papercuts and origami-like sculptures, between dreamlike scenes and reality, between the minute and the grandiose is offered here in a simplicity striving for the sublime.

Let this be my way of waving the old year goodbye, and here's to hoping that for everybody the new year 2007 may be crafted as exquisitely as these delicate small gems.

大家新年快乐, 吉祥如意 !!!!


Saturday, December 30, 2006

I got tagged !

I've been out of town -to Paris, actually- in the last couple of days, so that's why I have only today noticed that I was tagged by Richard in some sort of chain-post (or how should I call this ? and are those participating then members of a chain gang ?) Anyway, always heed the call of the master, I was told, so when Richard puts me up on TPD, all I can do is obey.

So here is five things you always wanted to know about me but were afraid to ask.

1. I started to study Chinese because in 1983 our television broke down. Seems a bit strange ? Not really, that's just the way things are: television sets do break down ... All joking aside, I happened to have Latin and Greek as my majors during secondary school and though I've never regretted it for an instant, I was starting to get a little worried on my job prospects later as those six years pulled to an end. I was however almost determined to continue classic philology at university, in spite of having nearly no other way to go with such a bachelor degree than in education, when, as mentioned, our TV gave up on us. The guy who came to deliver a new one a couple of weeks later had just come back from a trip to Japan and happened to have some pictures in his car, as well as a pile of stories on how difficult it was for foreigners to get around in the Land of the Rising Sun due to language problems. My interest was aroused and after a "minor shift" from Japan to China in the months that followed, I started at the Sinology Department of my university in September 1984.

2. There are not too many things I'm proud about but from those six years in secondary school, there is one that remains etched in my mind as a moment of absolute triumph, the kind of moment one comes across only a very few times in an entire lifetime. In the sixth and last year, everybody had to deliver a speech on a subject you were free to choose. Now, although you may not think so from reading my English (which is not my mother tongue, as you probably have guessed), I was rather good at writing in my native language and I put a lot of effort in getting this speech exactly into what I wanted it to be. I teamed up with one of my classmates and we took Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" as our starting point for a fictive trial. While my friend delivered the speech for the accusation of the two convicts, I delivered the speech for their defense. I'll never forget that as soon as I had delivered the last word, the entire class rose up in a standing ovation and declared the accused acquitted. Shivers all along my spine !! I like to think I could still write such a piece if I really wanted, but I honestly doubt if I'd still have the touch like I had at that time.

3. Has anybody else noticed that the older you get, you start to cry more easily ? Well, I certainly do, and I don't mean to say rivers of tears, but I do tend to get more emotional, accompanied by the occasional tear. As I reported on in this post, last September was the first time since long I found myself crying over a book again. But it can just as easily happen in the car, driving to work, listening to this morning talkshow on the radio where people reminisce on the small and larger things in life and sometimes, just by something they say, it triggers off a feeling that comes from deep within and makes your eyes go red and wet. Or it can be just listening to a song. I had it for instance hearing for the first time Jeff Buckley sing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", and again yesterday in Paris' Virgin Megastore listening to the voice of Portuguese fado-singer Maritza. Has it got to do with age, or am I just growing soft ?

On a sidenote to Richard: I haven't had it with Abba yet, but give me a couple of years more ...

4. When I neared the end of university, I vowed that I would try everything to stay out of the realm of the industrial world, and look at me today: almost 15 years in telecommunications, in the same company even. Life plays funny tricks on a man, which doesn't mean you're always in for the worst part of the deal. It's this company that sent me to China again for two years, couple of years after I had graduated from Shanghai's Tongji University. However, Shenyang was not exactly like Shanghai, if you know what I mean. Anybody been hanging around there for some prolonged time ? I would love to hear the stories. But still, like a lily rising from the mud in the pond, I found my wife there, gleaming amidst the dirt and the dust of China's industrial North. Hallelujah !!!

5. After my musical ambitions were not much of a success (I took theoretic classes for 2 years and then, just when I wanted to subscribe for trumpet and set off on a life of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll (or was that meant for another type of instruments ? Damn !!) , there were not enough subscriptions to organize the class. So that was the end of my trumpet days. I held a trumpet once, few years later, but after I didn't manage to extort any plausible sound from the instrument, I congratulated myself for having made a very wise decision at the time. So I stuck to volleyball, and I still do, for 25 years now. Fine sports. I wonder when there is ever going to be something like the NVA, so volleyball finally gets the airtime and publicity it deserves ... and so they wouldn't have to change the rules every second year all in name of making the game more attractive for television.

That's it, folks !

Now rests me the task to try and continue this thread by tagging some of the others in the chinese blogosphere. That may be the nasty part, as you will notice from the number of comments that my site is not (yet) attracting huge crowds of readers. Still, there is two people I would like to take a shot at out there:

1. Sam, over at "The Useless Tree", for bringing some little marvels of wisdom and reflection to this blogging circle.

2. otherLisa at "The Paper Tiger" (but I guess just as much at "The Peking Duck"), for being my very first commenter ever, and for her very human touch in all her comments and musings.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Mum, what's a flamethrower for ?

I'd like to pick up on the story from John over at Sinosplice: "Military Weaponry for Kids". By all means, go over and read the whole article (and definitely don't forget to continue on to the link he provides to the Peer-See website about bizarre blocks. I won't link it here: go over and enjoy).

I am not going to explain again here what John has done much more eloquently and ironic than I ever could, but for reminiscence sake, let me just post one of the pictures that can be found in the children's book:

So is this what education in China has come down to: teaching infants how to draw machine guns and write a few characters along the line (note that the entire book has about 35 pages with vocabulary and drawings ranging from flamethrowers over missile launchers to air pistols)? Ever since I saw this article, I have been wondering how this kind of "educational material" would be received in our parts of the world and I am left to think it would be banned outright. The average age of the target audience must be about 5 to 6 years old, for Christ's sake !!! So if I were in a position to do so, I would revoke the business license of the "Beijing Children and Juvenile Publishing House" on the spot, so they wouldn't be allowed to publish anything again, notwithstanding any good stuff they may have published before.

Now I have been reading up on the comments on John's article as well, and I was surprised that not more commenters were flatly denouncing the idea of having this kind of material in a children's teaching book. The reaction sometimes found is this one:

"I think kids just like guns and war and bombs. I remember the first things I drew as a kid were these crazy war scenes. When I was 15 I was out blowing up bottles with my buddy’s .22 and shotgun. As I’m what might be called a pacifist now, all the exposure had little affect."

"Excellent renderings - these books continue the war-theme throughout society. It’s like kids playing cops and robbers, indians and cowboys… everything is the same as before (human emotions, needs, wants), technology changes (weapons of war, fax machine, Internet, phone, television, etc.)".

I totally do agree kids like weapons: in my toddler days (and for quite some years after that), I have been branding plastic swords, firing toyguns, "taken down" hordes of cowboys (since I always wanted to be with the Indians), but what we used were "just" swords and "just" guns. At least for me it was like this. Now I wonder what happens when you start differentiating on the names. I was very impressed with an article from Sam at "The Useless Tree" where he wrote the following on Bush and the war in Iraq:

He can't do anything because he does not have the words to capture the complexity of the situation. To be sure, "civil war" is only an approximation of a multidimensional conflict. But "civil war" is a starting point. Without that concept, there is really no way to dig into the dirty details and find a way out. And that is what reminds me of Confucius:

Naming enables the noble-minded to speak,and speech enables the noble-minded to act. Therefore, the noble-minded are anything but careless in speech.
Analects, 13.3

Bush, of course, is famously careless in speech. And his willful denial of the name "civil war" makes it impossible for him to act.

So, by reversal of this situation, the question for me is: what happens in the kids minds when you give them all the names ? How will they act ? If I were fed with all that different terminology, I am sure I would start to ask what it all is for ? Under which circumstance would I rather use this than that ? I'm looking forward to the answer from the education experts at the Beijing Publishing House to a kid's question what a flamethrower is needed for ? Shall we explain how in Vietnam entire villages were napalmed into oblivion with this equipment ? And how do you explain the use of the silencer, when all kids just adore wreaking havoc with tons of noise ? I bet it will make them sleep real tight if you tell them it is used to kill others in their sleep without waking up Mum and Dad.

For me, I totally agree with Sam that the name itself is a formidable power, albeit applied here in the other way than in his example.

But then I kept wondering why one would ever come up with the idea to have all this military wisdom in a children's book ? And the hypothesis I came up with was brought on to me by the very first comment to John's article:

Little boys like it. I have a poster of military equipment I picked up in a discount bookstore, I’m not sure if it was for kids or not, but now I know how to say things like Apache Attack Helicopter. And if you don’t know how to say something like .50 cal Desert Eagle, you’re lost in CounterStrike.

... you're lost in CounterStrike ... It suddenly struck me that the only reason this kind of stuff was making it into a children's book could be that the gaming industry was already trying to tie their future customers from childhood on, by learning them the vocabulary they would need later in the playing arcades and online. In a country where elementary schools are allowed to make educational trips to ... McDonalds, I would expect this hypothesis to be perfectly possible. The kind of money involved in the gaming business would require recruitment of the players from very early on, and unless someone proves me wrong, I believe this is one of their marketing vehicles. But since China doesn't seem to mind the publication of this kind of materials, I wish them good luck with cleaning up their mess.

Oh, and by the way, there's no harm with having this published in Beijing: all terrorists are located in Xinjiang anyway.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Debating the Dragon

Via the CDT, my attention was drawn to this article on the BBC news website that discusses the debate ongoing in China about the dragon as symbol of China:

Chinese internet users have stirred a heated debate over the status of dragons, seen as a national symbol.

The problem, some academics allege, is that Chinese people and Westerners have very different concepts of dragons.

Chinese dragons are supernatural symbols without the Western traits of aggression or maiden-eating.

The debate began when a Shanghai professor claimed Western views of dragons could give people a negative impression of China.

But some 90% of respondents to a Chinese website survey disagreed, insisting that the dragon should remain the traditional Chinese icon.

Besides from the fact that I think it is pretty strange to hear Chinese question the appropriateness of having the dragon as their national symbol, exactly at the time when China is re-emerging as a powerful force on the world scene, I don't think the arguments brought forward in the article bear much relevance to the question.

Pang Jin, the director of China Research Centre on Dragon and Phoenix Culture, said dragons in the two countries should not be mixed up.

"The dragon in western culture enjoys a low cultural rank, but in China, it is a spiritual and cultural symbol representing prosperity and good luck," he told the Xinhua news agency.

If matters were that simple, I doubt if there would be any debate at all. Why get rid of a symbol that incorporates only "prosperity and good luck", and how come Westerners have never thought of adopting the creature and dropping it into their heritage ? Because it's all more complex than is expressed in those three lines above, just as the dragon itself is a complex creature.

I suppose if you are reading this article, there is a good chance you have seen or heard about the six-part documentary that hit Chinese TV screens in 1988, "River Elegy" (He Shang, 河殇). The first part "In search of the Dream (寻梦)" opens with one the most comprehensive explanations on the very nature of the dragon culture in China. Starting with the dragon itself (translation is mine and thus so are eventual errors):

Cai Dacheng (Mythology expert): "In our opinion, the primitive man created the dragon from a special designed concept, it is a composite creature. Which parts can we discern ? The head of a horse, the antler of a deer, the body of a snake and the claws of a rooster. The body of the snake represents the life vision of that primitive man, for it happened very rarely that he got to see a dead snake, so therefore it was thought that the snake, once old, just shed one layer of skin and was thus rejuvenated. Likewise are the claws of the rooster a symbol of life. each time the old ladies went down to the market to pick a rooster, they always watched the spurs first: were these short, the meat would be tender. Again the same with the teeth of the horse: "judging a horse by it's teeth". The antler of the deer changes once a year and each time again it grows an additional hairy branch. With one fork each year, a hunter knows the age of a deer as soon as he has seen how many forks the antler has. An antler that has dropped came to symbolize death. The growing of a new antler came to symbolize life, new life. Thus, in it's cultural implication, the dragon became a symbol of life, a symbol that reflects the hope of the ancient man towards the cycle of life, towards dying and being born again."

I believe the "dissection" above is not even complete, other sources discern even more animal parts but with such a background, it is hard to expect that the dragon could be purely a symbol of prosperity and luck. If life itself were to be an endless chain of good things and happiness, then maybe, but clearly it is not. If the ancient Chinese had wanted to create a symbol for all that is positive, they surely could have gotten away with something less complex and it would have been void of meaning, for not all IS positive. But in the struggle for survival they have clearly looked for a polymorph creature which embodies a positive and inspiring vision, which is different from saying that the creature is nothing than good.

Things tend to become even more complicated when we look at the source of the dragon culture, the Yellow River basin.

According to Xie Xuanjun, co-editor of the book series "Cultural Philosophy", where the dragon is seen as the wild creature from the (super)natural world, the king (emperor) projected himself as it's counterpart in the human world and deemed himself to be the incarnation of the dragon on earth. The artery of China is the livelihood of innumerable people, who depend on it for their subsistence, yet the water of this river is dominated by the "dragon" king. Remember the mythical king Yü the Great, who is hailed for being able to bring the waters under control. Others were less successful, so developed a love-hate relation between the agrarian society that depends on the river and it's ruler, which swings from admiration to despise. That relation is as complex as the form of the dragon itself.

With this in mind, getting rid of the dragonsymbol would in my opinion be equal to the previously uttered idea of getting rid of the Chinese characters for writing and reverting to the "Western" alphabet. It would be tantamount to cutting off the next generations from an important part of their history, and doing away with a vision of life that has helped them sustain through the centuries. And for what ? Because the West feels threatened ? It will not feel less threatened if China adopts a cute little Calimero as it's symbol, yet keeps flooding the markets with cheap clothes and shoes and lays it's hand on every natural oil resource it can get.

Purely from a timespan argument, one could defend that the dragon has, without competition, in effect become THE symbol of the Chinese identity. So instead of continuing this debate, let's rather focus on how, in the Big Forest that is our world, the dragon can find other animals to mate with, leading to an even more complex, even more fascinating creation.

Besides, by dropping the dragon, just imagine how many scenic spots would have to be renamed in China. Can you fathom having to lead a bunch of tourists to the "Nine Chimpanzee Wall" ? Any other suggestions ?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"Treason by the Book": more than a medieval whodunit

From the day I put down his masterly account of 100 years of Chinese revolution as lived by the leading intelligentsia of the times in "The Gate of Heavenly Peace", Jonathan Spence was an instant hit with me. But he just wandered off after that, meaning I didn't read anything else of this eminent Sinologist, ... till last September, on my recent China-trip, I noticed this book of his I had never heard about before in a bookstore in Shanghai.

"Treason by the Book" (Penguin Books, 2001), in a diminutive sense, could be referred to as some sort of a whodunit but in all is so much more. The story in the words of Laura Rivkin:

The story begins in Xi’an when Zeng Jing’s messenger Zhang Xi delivers a letter to Yue Zhongqi one of Yongzheng’s most trusted generals. The letter asks Yue to rise up against the emperor, but instead Yue immediately arrests the messenger and reports to the emperor. The action quickly moves to Beijing and to the emperor who, from the moment the first despatches arrive from Yue Zhongqi, takes personal control of the investigation. The action follows the continuing search for culprits, their questioning, the final reckoning between Yongzheng and Zeng Jing and Yongzheng’s resolve to teach the people of China the lessons he himself has learned as a result of Zeng’s delusions and successful thought-reform.

The entire process of Zeng Jing's rectification goes on record in the "Awakenings from Delusion" (大义觉迷录) which is subsequently spread in hundreds of thousands of copies over the entire country. The "Awakenings", a philosophical treatise, are largely based on the correspondence between Zeng Jing and the Yongzheng emperor during the former one's captivity in Beijing. The would-be traitor is at the end of process fully pardoned by the emperor who thereby goes entirely against the advice of his counselors.

What was destined to become a mere side note in the Qing history, turned into a heroic effort by emperor Yongzheng (1678 - 1735) to defend his legitimacy, a debate on the still infant legacy of the early Qing as compared to the almost mythical Ming dynasty, a questioning into the status and position of the Confucian scholars of eighteenth century China ... and Spence captures it all beautifully.

With his style of writing, he positions himself somewhere in the twilight zone between the strict requirements imposed on the historian and the narrative freedom of the novelist. Spence the historian has once again dug up tons of material and sources that by it's sheer amount would be enough to scare away anyone with the faintest interest in the subject, but Spence the narrator manages con brio to distill a captivating story out of all this. Siding with none of the involved parties, he takes the reader by the hand and like Alice in Wonderland we are guided through this kaleidoscopic world where words possess still the power they were intended to have, where words and the writings and poetry they feature in are attacked as a result, where Big Brother is watching each and every one through the eye of the collective memory and through the jottings, memoirs and missives of hordes of scholars and officials who meticulously recorded anything that could bear relevance to the administration of the State. Again Laura Rivkin:

From all the thousands of years of official Chinese history, why does Spence choose this particular episode to research and write about? This story is a footnote to the great Qing histories. Although well-known among scholars of Qing history most non-academic Chinese or western scholars of China will probably never have heard of Zeng Jing nor of the great publishing enterprise that was the result of his treason. Qianlong banned the book and ordered all copies to be destroyed. Only a few were saved, buried in archives or by enterprising book collectors.

Spence’s reasons no doubt are many-fold, but for the reader the descriptions and details about the inner-workings of the Qing bureaucracy are fascinating beyond mere curiosity. This story encapsulates the imperial machinations within the Forbidden City, the emperor’s relationships with his provincial commanders, how absolute state control reached down even to the tiniest county town thousands of miles from the capital. But it is also a story about the ordinary people of a huge empire, living in tiny isolated communities where the arrival of a stranger remained in the collective memory for years afterwards, where conversations may still be recalled in precise detail. It was possible for Qing officials, without names, crimes or even proper dates, on the basis of a rheumy memory of an elderly road-side inn-keeper to locate prisoners who had passed through Hunan seven years previously en route to exile in Guangxi province.

The scope of the dynastic histories, the breadth of the (currently still available) material produced several centuries ago seems to foreshadow our urge to capture the world and put it all down in databases. The sheer amount of knowledge that was available, the way it was being shared and distributed is what makes this book a delightful learning experience.

But what has captivated me even more than the description of a highly and well organised society is the person of the Yongzheng Emperor. At the pinnacle of power, he is depicted as a hard working manager amidst a staff of trustees whom he supervises almost on a daily basis and who help him rule the country. Yet by pardoning the traitor who threatened to bring him down, against the advice of his counselors, it seems to me that this First Citizen of Beijing, this Prisoner of the Forbidden City, has tried to reach out for a freedom that was beyond his reach, the freedom to think things over, come to a decision and then act according to it, irrespective of what others think, as in some way Zeng Jing had tried (albeit in vain) by starting his insurgency.

I wonder how Yongzheng would have felt had he known that his son, the famous Qianlong Emperor, notwithstanding his fathers order that Zeng Jing could not be touched, had the traitor captured after all and with his accomplices sliced to death. I know we will never have the answer to this question, but if anybody has an idea, I'll be glad to hear it.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

The "H"-word

Hu Jintao seems to have engaged in a fierce struggle with George W.

In the old days, father Bush (or Bush 41 as he's now named by Newsweek, as compared to the son Bush 43) still had to tell the Americans: "Read my lips". It seemed like the message he had to bring couldn't have been very convincing, as he got stuck with a single term in his presidency. That remark aside, he still required more effort from us than his son does: without reading his lips, everybody already knows what he is going to say: "freedom and democracy". If you want F&D for Iraq, F&D for Afghanistan, F&D for Cuba, F&D for ... well, basically, the entire world ... you can easily rely on Bush Jr. to make it happen !

But the president of the US of A recently has seen a formidable challenger standing up, in the person of the president of the People's Republic of China, Hu Jintao.

Mr.Hu, in line with his country's increasing importance on the world's stage, undoubtedly must have thought that he also needed a term tagged to him like ...uh, a fig leaf to Adam. And thus he took recourse to the most famous of ancient Chinese philosophers, Confucius, to deliver him the concept of "Harmony". From that moment of enlightenment onwards we have seen Mr. Hu embarking on a crusade, first in China itself, but now also outside China's borders, to promote his "harmonious society" and by extension, a "harmonious world":

"China will work with other countries for harmonious coexistence in the political field, common development in the economic field, mutual enriching in the cultural field and mutual trust and coordination in the security field," Hu told a CEO summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hanoi.

Let's call it the "H"-word. I'll readily agree to the fact that it definitely has more appeal than his predecessor Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents":

"Reviewing the course of struggle and the basic experience over the past 80 years and looking ahead to the arduous tasks and bright future in the new century, our Party should continue to stand in the forefront of the times and lead the people in marching toward victory. In a word, the Party must always represent the requirements of the development of China's advanced productive forces, the orientation of the development of China's advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China." (from Jiang's speech at the 16th CPC Congress)

I guess nobody really ever knew what his ideas represented.

Coming back to Hu, he took a somewhat broader view and defined his ideas for China's harmonious society not in a set of just three but eight guidelines, the so-called "Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces" (八荣八耻):

Hu Jintao listed the "Eight Honors and Disgraces" as follows: "Loving the Mother Country is honorable, harming the Mother Country is disgraceful; Serving the People is honorable, neglecting the People is disgraceful; Upholding science is honorable, blindness and ignorance are disgraceful; Hard work is honorable, idleness disgraceful; Unity and cooperation are honorable, using others for profit is disgraceful; Honesty and keeping one's word are honorable, seeing personal gain and forgetting justice is disgraceful; Respecting laws and regulations is honorable, disobeying laws and regulations is disgraceful; Suffering for the struggle is honorable, conceit and lasciviousness are disgraceful".

Some neat statements in there, no doubt, but I wonder whether he's going to pull off the trick though, as his formidable contender under the F&D banner has the "Ten Commandments" to rely on. They have some trait in common though: you already do not need to read their lips to know what they are going to say, but both of them also don't do very well under intense scrutiny of their deeds.

No matter the force of his resounding buzz-words, Bush Jr. took a "thumping" last week in the mid-term elections. Now if the Chinese joke "胡说八道" (can be read as "Hu speaks about the eight ways / rules", but is also a standard Chinese idiom for "nonsense") is any indication, his "harmony"-trump must have some false chords in it's sound as well.

Gentleman, may The Force be with you and may the best prevail !

Monday, November 13, 2006

Lesson 45: Beijing has "countless" hutongs

Somewhat of a sad irony, I thought, that while in the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympics more and more of Beijing's hutongs (alleyway with typical courtyard houses) fall victim to the merciless verdict of the character "拆" (to be demolished), new web-based chinese learning sites would exactly pick the quickly disappearing hutong as something that comes to mind in the context of teaching the new word "不计其数" (countless).

To be fair, I have not an exact idea on the size of destruction taking place. As I have never been living in Beijing myself, I can in no way accurately relate the current situation to how it was, say, 20 years ago, when I was thriving in the city of the "里弄" (lilong), Shanghai. But if this article and photo reportage by Sean Gallagher is any indication, it must be pretty devastating:

According to UNESCO, in the past three years a third of the 62km squared area that makes up the central part of the old city has now been destroyed. This has displaced close to 580,000 people – one and a half times the total population of Washington D.C.

There's the arguments pro and contra, for a lot of these hutongs are indeed rife with dilapidated dwellings which are basically screaming for a sledgehammer to help them end their torment. But more important even than the architectural value may be the social fabric that these alleyways have woven throughout the centuries they have been in existence and which is now being ripped to shreds by moving out the original residents to the high rise buildings in the outskirts of Beijing.

It is too early to judge, I believe, the social implications this will have on the new Beijing as it is emerging. If the Chinese have proven anything to this day, it is definitely their resilience and ability to bounce back even under harsh conditions. However, what is sure is that the high rises can not replace the cosy and protective atmosphere of the hutongs. In that respect, I feel a lot of sympathy for this site, that tries to capture the spirit of the hutong society through the eyes of it's residents:

Hutong to Highrise is dedicated to extensively documenting the disappearing hutong communities of old Beijing. Hutong to Highrise (H2H) visits Hutongs, interviews the residents and dispenses cameras so that residents may photograph what they deem important in their daily lives. H2H is slowly building a photographic archive of Beijing's rich Hutong culture, one supplemented with the stories, and insights of Hutong residents.

Like the Japanese ukiyo-e prints, these are truly "images of the floating life" and life may be floating faster than one would like.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

China & Africa: a new bride or merely a concubine ?

If the ability to halt Chinese construction work is any indicator of a big thing going on, then the Chinese - African summit held last weekend must have been a major gig. Which of course it was. The biggest diplomatic top meeting ever organized by the PRC (48 heads of state or government leaders from 40 different countries) focused on strengthening the ties between the Middle Kingdom and the Black Continent, which have steadily been on the increase in the last couple of years.

The situation is said to be a win-win for all parties: China gets access to the abundance of Africa's resources (especially the oil) and Africa gets an investor that asks no questions. At least not the troubling kind, such as on human rights abuses, genocide, corruption etc ... Seems like we are witnessing the birth (or better: the honeymoon) of a match made in Heaven.

Let there be no doubt: whatever would be able to show Africa and it's people a way out of the deadly spiral of poverty, violence, disease ... is to be applauded. The West till this day has failed to do so. While we have shed most of our colonial behavior, we have not been able to redress what we have ruined in the past. So to let the Chinese have a go at it, is only fair. They, as a country that also only recently has emerged from the ruins left after a century of wars upon disasters, may have more affinity after all with the situation on the ground in a lot of those African countries. I believe they have the clout to do it, they have the people to do it ... but I can't help wondering if the Chinese face is showing it's real intentions.

A honeymoon is fun while it lasts, but it tends to come to an end very soon when real life kicks in. China may start already to feel the first hiccups in the relation with it's new bride:

Despite the cordial relations that exist between China and Zambia, resentment towards Chinese businesspeople is widespread among small-scale Zambian businesspeople and poorly-paid workers.

Neo Simutanyi, a political scientist at the University of Zambia, says the anti-China sentiment that Sata raised in the run-up to the election endeared him to many voters in Lusaka and the Copperbelt.

Simutanyi believes the labor practices of especially Chinese businesspeople spurred some people to vote for Sata. The Chinese are frequently accused of being the main culprits in the use of casual labor, which involves lower pay and no social security benefits.

Let us also take a look at the results of the summit. 16 deals were inked with 11 countries (I'm wondering how that makes the countries feel that are not part of the 11) for a total value of 1.9 billion USD. Just for comparison: when Jacques Chirac visited China last month, he brought back deals totaling 10 billion USD. The comparison is unfair, as Africa has to date no company such as Airbus, who took the lion's part of the 10 billion (and Airbus is not entirely a French company either), but still, it gives some perspective, however relative, to the figures.

When we further look at the kind of business that was concluded, it is said to be entirely in the range of infrastructure, telecoms, mineral resources and insurance. Though the first two of course ARE crucial to the reconstruction of countries in decline, it seems to me that they are also first and foremost needed by the Chinese to get their part of the deal safe and sound out of those countries: oil. Isn't it a little bit strange, or worrying, that in a continent like Africa none of these investments bears on agriculture ? Judging from the Tanzam Railway, the "track"-record the Chinese have on building railways in Africa, seems also not much to boast about:

For the last two years, Africa has experienced an annual 5 percent increase in its gross domestic product due to China's demand for resources. The continent has gained increased access to Chinese markets and several countries have signed agreements with Beijing to implement a host of development projects.

But some observers say these gains do not provide a sound economic basis for future growth. They point to the TanZam railway as an example of how the Chinese send in their workers to construct a project and then withdraw once it is completed without leaving behind the expertise necessary to keep it going.

I sure do hope that for both "newlyweds" there is profit to be found in their relation and I am quite confident that in the short term there is going to be actual gain involved. I tend to be more sceptic on the long term, as I don't see enough altruism in China to make this relationship work over a prolonged period of time. What the weekends summit, by it's sheer scope and number of countries involved, for me has demonstrated, is China's anguish -not to say fear- to loose out on the oil it so badly needs for it's own continued development. By trying to lure an entire continent with one top-notch charm offensive, China may also have revealed it's main weakness: it's voracious hunger for fuel.

If this series of pictures (via "virtualreview: china") gives any hint to the warmth of the relations shared between both partners (take a good look to the pictures with Wen Jiabao), then we better prepare for a new Ice-age.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

On reading Xinran's "Sky Burial"

I just finished "Sky Burial", the second book by London-based journalist Xinran, who acquired fame for her account of different Chinese women's lives in "The Good Women of China".

In "Sky Burial" she brings the story of another Chinese woman, Shu Wen, whom she met for a few short days in Nanjing, during which she told Xinran about the amazing twist that brought her to live in Tibet for 30 years.

A native of Suzhou, Shu Wen marries Kejun, an army doctor, who is sent to Tibet in the fifties and goes missing soon thereafter. Having only been married for a hundred days, Shu Wen joins the army herself and sets out on a search for her husband whom she believes might still be alive. What ensues is pretty mindboggling: she saves a Tibetan aristocratic woman named Zhuoma, gets separated from her army unit, is saved by a Tibetan nomad family and continues to live with them for nearly thirty years, in the process of which she sheds most of her Chinese identity and blends in in the Tibetan Buddhist world around her. She never gives up her search for Kejun and in the end she finds the truth revealed.

The book has been described as "Wild Swans crossed with Seven Years in Tibet" (Giles Foden in "The Guardian"). I would rather say it is "Dances with Wolves" in Tibet. Xinran presents us with the oriental version of the noble savage: it's rough land, with a rough culture, where people are struggling to survive in dignity. In that sense, the book transcends the geographical boundaries drawn by man and brings us into a world of universal values that all of us like to connect with.

The question on the authenticity of the story has also been raised several times. Maybe I have to refer to this review which in my opinion makes several valuable points.

"XINRAN's SKY BURIAL exists in that strange place where truth and fiction overlap. Some fiction, perhaps the best fiction, illuminates the truth in way mere fact cannot, while some true stories are so unique and extraordinary as to intersect less with everyday reality than most fiction.

a number of SKY BURIAL's Tibetan protagonists might very well recognize this place of blurred boundaries between what is and what might be, for it is often a place of spirituality and hope. This is just one of ironies in Xinran's account of Shu Wen's tale. The relationship between the Chinese and Tibetans is hardly the black and white affair it usually presented to be (by either side of the issue). Not all Chinese revolutionary martyrs were hypocritical propaganda constructs."

In the end it doesn't really matter whether all is based on factual truth. The fact that the boundaries between reality and fiction are very narrow at some times IS the truth and it is illustrated in this book. The account of all that is told in the book could not have entirely been revealed in the two days time Xinran had the occasion to talk to Shu Wen, so for sure fiction is used in helping to create the image of the reality. Xinran is walking the path Karl May took when he wrote about the West he had never been to, yet May's accounts were well funded in reality.

For those wanting to read the book, let there be no mistaking: it is NOT about the ritual known as sky burial (jhator in Tibetan), where the corpse of a deceased person -during life the vehicle that carries the spirit and soul of the person but merely an empty vessel after death that can be disposed of without much further ado (since the spirit leaves the body at death)- is cut up, crushed and fed to the vultures. It is a last gesture of kindness to the other living beings. Though there is a key scene describing the ritual, I believe Xinran is using this connotation of the sky burial practice as representing the selfless behaviour of Kejun and by extrapolation most of what is going on the book: it is acts of humanity that make people survive in the struggle for life, it is one living being taking care of the other that makes us come through. The title, in my opinion, therefore should not be read in any ethnographic sense or as a reference to a cruel, uncivilized world, but rather as symbolizing the opposite.

Seen from that point of view, it is a remarkable book that deserves everybody's attention. I would like to end with Peter Gordon's final remarks from the above mentionned review:

Xinran has once again written with understanding and compassion about strong women who seem to have stepped out of the pages of a novel. Shu Wen disappeared right after Xinran's copied down her story. Is SKY BURIAL true? The strength of the story is that it doesn't matter.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Well, I'll be dammed ...

While the nationally heralded joy over Jia Zhangke's win at the Venice Filmfestival with his documentary-style feature film "Still Life" (三峡好人) must be slowly subsiding, it seems not all is quiet yet on the Three Gorges Dam front.

While the film focuses on the tribulations and love stories of the people that had to suffer through relocation because the dam reservoir flooded their original dwellings, a lot of people are now also frowning their eyebrows for more economic concerns. With one of the two shiplocks that take the boats around the dam, in effect locked, one of the major reasons for having the dam built, i.e. improving navigation on the upperreaches of the Yangtze, seems to be in serious jeopardy.

The delays that have plagued boats trying to get around the Three Gorges dam are set to worsen soon when one-half of the two-way shiplock is taken out of service for more than nine months.

The partial closure of the shiplock is scheduled to begin in mid-September and continue until the end of June 2007, Xinhua reports. The five-step shiplock raises vessels to the higher water level in the reservoir behind the dam or lowers them to the river downstream.

The Three Gorges reservoir is due to be raised a further 17 metres after the current flood season, when it will go from 139 to 156 metres above sea level. After the reservoir is raised, the south (downstream) side of the shiplock will be drained to allow construction work on the structure to be completed. With the shiplock's traffic-handling capacity cut in half, vessels going in both directions will have to use the one lane that normally only handles ships going upstream.

The story, which can be found over at CDT and Three Gorges Probe, is just one of those things that makes one wonder whether the benefits will finally outweigh the drawbacks. In the meantime, the bills keep going up on the monsterproject.

Now, in an apparent effort to relieve some of the pressure on the shiplock, the Three Gorges Project Corp. has decided to build a highway from the dam site to the city of Yichang, China News Service reports. The 57-kilometre, 3.6-billion-yuan (US$450-million) road will run from the port of Maoping just upstream of the dam to the Yangtze Bridge at Yichang, and connect with the Chengdu-Shanghai national highway system.

The plan for the new highway appears to confirm the concerns expressed by many, including local governments and shipping companies, that the shiplock is able to handle much less freight than its designers anticipated or project authorities promised.

Clearly, the trials have only begun, as already the first reports start popping up on weather change, not only in Yichang -the dam's location- but areawide in the Sichuan region, which could be due to evaporation of the huge watersurface behind the dam. According to Probe International's Patricia Adams, also the Yangzi flood control argument will not be able to deliver on it's promises:

Meanwhile, the much-touted flood-control benefit turns out to have been nothing more than propaganda. Internal and confidential state documents that were leaked to us confirm that, according to the best analysis done by Qinghua University scholars, the dam will not control Yangtze floods, and the officials know it. But, the leaked documents warn, "never, ever let the public know this."

TGP however is now a fact of life and the Chinese (and the world by extension), whether benefitted by it or not, will have to accomodate whatever consequences it may bring. In view of the huge debate this project has aroused, with fierce criticsm from all circles of scientists, environmentalists, engineers etc ... AND the less than positive track-record they have on dams (over 200 collapsed, several disfunctional due to silting, ...), one would have expected China to be cautious on venturing in further megalomaniac hydropower projects.

Not so the Middle Kingdom. Though TGP will probably remain the largest single project in dimension and size, the sheer number of dams that are on the planning table is incredible. "International Rivers Network" has put up a map on what is in the pipeline for the so-called Greater Shangri-La Region. Extrapolation of this map to the entire country may not be the correct thing to do as there are other area's in China that have far less river coverage than this part, but it gives us an idea on what is on the Chinese planners mind to boost power production fourfold by 2020. When we look at it from this angle and from the first lessons that have been learned from TGP, it may seem that China's environmental nightmare may only have just begun.

The chinese authorities may also have to toughen up further if they want to implement all they have in their drawers, because opposition is also straightening it's back and gets ready to fight. As such, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao already had to order a stop on the building of a dam on the Nujiang River to further assess the environmental impact (Ref. Ma Jun's "Record-breaking Dam Building Boom could make Free-Flowing Rivers and Endangered Species in the World's Most Dammed Country") .

Maybe the River Dragon is slowly awakening and starts to bite back in defense.


Friday, October 20, 2006

One new blog a day ...

From a blog-spotting perspective, this has been a good week. I even think it's fair to say it has been an excellent week.

First I ran into J's "Jottings of the Granite Studio", which makes for really very refreshing reading on Chinese history and how it links into modern China and the rest of the world, or just the opposite way round. Can't go wrong with a guy who can actually blog an entire entry on how he got to the name.

Then today, I stumbled into "The Opposite End of China", a China blog by an American laowai on life at China's outer regions with focus on Xinjiang. Still a lot to be discovered over on that site, but I couldn't resist drawing attention to the magnificent pictures of Michael's last trip to Tibet. I was especially charmed by this one:

The charm, apart from the beautiful colors of the sky, comes entirely from the angle from which it is shot. Not the seen-that-one-thousand-times (yawn, yawn ...) frontal view of the Potala Palace, but a more distant shot from the side, contrasting the building with the relative chaos of the other urban dwellings in front and making it look like one of these Japanese fortified castles like you're bound to see in for instance Kurosawa's "Ran".

Love it, and the best part ... there's plenty more to be enjoyed.

Monday, October 16, 2006

North-Korea: shocking !

A lot of debate ongoing in the blogosphere on North-Korea, the international pariah receiving the unanimous conviction of the entire "civilised" world for the outrageous provocation they have thrown in our face by performing a nuclear test.

To be sure: I don't feel comfortable with these guys messing around with nukes, albeit in the underground of their own country.

But then again, I don't feel any more comfortable with the American or Russian nuclear arsenal, when there is evidence popping up that for instance the Kursk, the Russian submarine that sank on August 12, 2000, may have been grounded by a U.S. launched missile.
I don't feel comfortable when the U.S., in a way that is more becoming rule than exception, is disregarding the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and cooperates with India on it's nuclear development (for civil reasons, of course) while leaving Pakistan in the cold.
I didn't feel comfortable back in 1995 when Mr. Chirac slapped the world in the face by resuming nuclear tests in the Mururoa atol, when 10 years before that the French had already sunk Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior for trying to intervene in similar tests.

I just don't feel comfortable with any nukes, whether they are held by George, Jacques or Kim.

In the Korean debate, I however missed anyone making reference to a pretty good article in Newsweek by Selig S. Harrison. His opening statement read like this:

On Sept. 19, 2005, North Korea signed a widely heralded denuclearization agreement with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang pledged to "abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." In return, Washington agreed that the United States and North Korea would "respect each other's sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize their relations." Four days later, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sweeping financial sanctions against North Korea designed to cut off the country's access to the international banking system, branding it a "criminal state" guilty of counterfeiting, money laundering and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration says that this sequence of events was a coincidence. Whatever the truth, I found on a recent trip to Pyongyang that North Korean leaders view the financial sanctions as the cutting edge of a calculated effort by dominant elements in the administration to undercut the Sept. 19 accord, squeeze the Kim Jong Il regime and eventually force its collapse.
(emphasis is mine. Notice again the "weapons of mass destruction'-thing ?)

So is that the way we do business nowadays ? Signing treaties and then shoot the cosignataries in the back ? I don't care whether North Korea were communist, Hinduist, polygamist or ... my God, catholics ... they deserved a chance to show that they were willing to make efforts in a process that could lead, if not to worldwide loving embrace, at least to peaceful co-existence with it's neighbours. Israël is given a new chance every time they have trampled on the Palestinians, so why not North-Korea, a "country on the verge of collapse" ?

Do I have any reason to distrust Mr. Harrison ? I wouldn't see why, with his credentials.

I am getting sick of all the distorted thruths we are confronted with every single day, from all sides.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Lotus shoes

This time I couldn't help myself, I just had to buy a pair of those tiny little shoes for those tiny little chinese feet when I saw them on the Shanghai antique market near Huaihai Lu.

Don't worry: it's not that I take these to be the real thing. When I compare what I had to pay, to the prices I find on e-Bay for these items, I either have to conclude that I struck an incredibly good deal, or that I purchased some of these artefacts that roll out of some factory in response to popular tourist demand. I'll stick to the latter option, for the time being. Not that I care. I don't intend to become a collector anytime soon, but just to think of the history behind that kind of shoes made me feel I had to buy it.

Let me first show how they look like:

Isn't it an enormous irony that those who of old were said "to hold up half the sky", -the chinese women in other words- were hardly able to hold themselves upright because of their bound feet that made them rather hobble than walk ? Yet the custom has sustained for over a thousand years. As if these women felt that to mould the world they lived in into a moral universe, of which they had been assigned the keepers, they first had to mould their own bodies into something ... aspiring for more, let's say. The binding of feet, how male-induced it may have been at the core, could not have survived for such a long time if the women, who performed it on their own daughters, were not supportive of it.

There is no way denying the hardship footbinding brought for each and every girl that was submitted to the torture, but look at the shoes -and these may not even be the best of samples- and feel the love and pride that went into them. These shoes were after all the adornment of precisely that what empowered women in a male-centered world: their lotus feet, which purely by concealing them, could drive the men crazy, yet were just as much a token of the characterstrength and the right sense of decorum that could earn the women respect in an otherwise harsh world.

There is an entire new way of research ongoing, steering away from the standard, largely western, christian biased arguments of the early twentieth century anti-footbinding movement and there may be more surprises coming up in the way we view this peculiar custom.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Snowflower and the Secret Fan

"Achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination", that's what Amy Tan had to say about this book as we can see on author Lisa See's website.

I fully concur with the first part of that statement, and I guess also with the second, though the research See has put into the book lifts the novel beyond the pure realm of imagination and depicts a presumably fairly realistic view of life and traditions in a remote part of Hunan province in China.

I was not all that impressed at the opening pages of the book, which gave me the feeling the author was going to present us a "popular" version of some scientific findings on mainly three topics:
  1. The "women's script" or nüshu (女书), possibly the only gender-defined script that may have ever existed in the world, as it was at the exclusive use of women in some part of China.
  2. Footbinding and it's related processes
  3. Different types of relations between girls that existed in China before marriage (e.g. jiebai zimei 结拜姊妹) or could even extend beyond the drastic change that represented marriage in a girl's life (laotong 老同).

  4. The information presented to the reader tends to get a little crowded at the beginning, it's like we have entered the museum of chinese folk customs and we're following the guide rushing us through the different halls.

    Lisa See in her afterword gracefully makes allowance for the research of those whose works she has drawn on, among which William W. Chiang, who studied the linguistic and social aspects of the women's script for his PhD dissertation, Japanese professor Orie Endo who has made several field research trips to the area and Anne E. McLaren, professor at the University of Melbourne and with special interest in the interaction between oral and literate culture in China. Readers somewhat familiar with their work will see their influence seeping through onto the pages.

    However, once the stage is set, and we have entered Snowflower's and Lily's (the two main characters of this novel) world through the trials and tribulations of their youth, the story that develops is indeed of such an aching beauty (and the word "aching" could not be used more accurate than in the context of this book), that for the first time since my childhood days, when I wept over a cartoon version of the "Illias" of Homer everytime I reached the page where the hero Achilles died, I shed some tears again over a book.

    I will not go into the details of the story, suffice it to say that it is one of the most gripping lovestories -whereby the word "love" here has to be understood in a very broad sense- I have read in the past years and I would recommend the book to anyone with the faintest interest in China and it's women.

    Once I had finished the book, I was thinking of director Xie Jin (whom I had the honour of working with during my student days in Shanghai on his "The last Aristocrats", though my part didn't survive the editor's cut :-)) as the director of choice to bring this story to the screen. Those among you who have seen his "Stage Sisters" (1964) and "Hibiscus Town" (1986), will know how he can mould these very complicated chinese interhuman relations into movies that stick to the memory of the audience. This story would be worthy of this great director's capabilities.

    What I think is remarkable about the story is the quite extraordinary perspective it throws on the role of the women in this microcosmic part of the vast multicolored Chinese society (the main characters are in fact not Han Chinese, but originally of Yao descent). Lisa See, when drawing up the story, understood perfectly well what Dorothy Ko had already pointed out in "Every Step a Lotus; Shoes for Bound Feet":

"Boys and girls were often equally loved, but forces larger than human emotions dictated that boys were valued more. .."

The women may have been subordinate to men, but the efforts the parents of Lily are bestowing on her laotong relationship with Snowflower are quite tremendous, in view of the fact that she is after all only a girl. And in fact See is describing a process that seriously runs counter the common belief that girls were / are (?) unwanted for economic reasons. That standard reality is further described by Dorothy Ko as follows:

The intent was not so much to discriminate against women, as it is often taken to be, but to prevent family assets from falling into the hands of the families of the sons' wives. Unlike our society in which individuals own their houses and cars, in traditional China, strictly speaking, it was the family as a whole--not the sons--that owned houses and land, if any. The wealthiest families thus functioned more as a corporation jealously guarding its assets from hostile takeovers by its marital relatives.
(Dorothy Ko, Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet [Toronto: The Bata Shoe Museum; distributed by the University of California Press, 2001], p. 50)

But in "Snowflower", it is not the male line (Lily's brothers) that brings the family of Lily to a certain standard of wealth, but the linking of Lily by way of her laotong relationship to the relative wealthy family of Snowflower (or so they assume, at least) and the fact that her almost perfect "three-inch golden lotus feet" allow to marry her out to a husband that is higher up on the societal ladder. Though I assume this kind of situation is not in any way to be taken as mainstream, it is an interesting reversal of the angle from which we are normally lead to look at Chinese society.

The last thing I want to mention is the beauty of the imagery of the fan. The nüshu women indeed used to incorporate their writings in their embroideries as well as on fans, among others. Lily and Snowflower's laotong relationship starts with one written verse on the first fold of a fan and through the years their relation lasts, all space gets filled up. So when the narrator (Lily, aged over eighty, a widow -a so-called weiwangren 未亡人, "one who hasn't died yet") ponders over her past, she sees from the fan her entire life, with all the happy and the painful memories, literally un-folding.

Don't hesitate, go and read the book. Even in Shanghai, I found it prominently available in bookstores in English and Chinese.


Friday, June 02, 2006

The times they are a changin' ... or are they ?

Cold sweat, shaky hands, brains going in overdrive ... examination season is coming up again in China !! From June 7 to 9, millions of youngsters will again be faced with what could very well be a turning point in their lives: being admitted to university or being turned down. The impact on their further lives could be enormous and so the already well-to-do families leave no means unexploited to make life of their siblings during this period as comfortable as possible:

With the college entrance examination approaching, local high school
graduates and their families have started booking hotel rooms, maids, and appointments with psychologists to help prepare for the important test.

Hotels and guest houses say business has been booming in recent days.

The Shizeyuan Hotel, a three-star hotel in Yangpu District, set aside two floors of more than 20 rooms for students to review lessons during the exam period from June 7 to 9.

More than 95 percent of the rooms have been booked by yesterday. The earliest reservation came at the beginning of May - more than a month before the exam date, hotel staff said.

The Tianping Hotel near Shanghai Jiao Tong University says it has only two or three rooms left for June 7, a common situation at this time of year. Most of the guests are students who are going to sit the exam at schools nearby, according to the hotel's manager surnamed Li.

Taking in consideration the focus and importance that is attached to these examinations, it seems almost like a rite of passage for China's educated youths and I wonder why it is said that the imperial examination system was abolished in China at the end of the Qing.

Theoretically, any male adult in China, regardless of his wealth or social status, could become a high-ranking government official by passing the test, although under some dynasties members of the merchant class were excluded. In reality, since the process of studying for the examination tended to be time-consuming and costly (private tutors had to be hired), most of the candidates came from the numerically small but relatively wealthy land-owning gentry. However, there are numerous examples in Chinese history in which individuals moved from a low social status to political prominence through success in imperial examination. Under some dynasties the imperial examinations were abolished and official posts were simply sold, which increased corruption and reduced morale.

Does this sound so much different from the examinations as we have them today (apart from the gender democratization) ? And as for the corruption, also here ... nil novi sub sole:

A team of monitors will be searching for key words related to the national college entrance exam around the clock starting today to ensure questions aren't leaked online ahead of the test on June 7 to 9, officials with the Shanghai Educational Examination Authority said.

Officials said they believe they will be able to spot any question leaked online within one hour, and have the information pulled off the Web within two hours, but won't go into details about the technology they are using.

To prevent any questions from leaking ahead of time, all of the teachers who helped draft the exam paper are being held away from their family and friends until students are finished writing the test.

So all era's and times may have their own set of customs and specifics, but often at the bottom the basics are very similar.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Vacancy in the Church: Chief Marketing Officer

Read the book. Seen the movie. Been there, done that ... and with me, according to this Wikipedia article, another 60.5 million readers and who knows how many viewers. And counting, of course. 44 translations were made of the original, which, I think is fair to say, should have more than half of the literate world population covered, and I think I'm being conservative here.
Undoubtedly like so many others before me, in the past few days I have been chewing on the question what drives tens of millions of people to go and ... read a book ?! Weren't we in the age, where paper's major role is to collect dust ? Apparently not just yet. So what is it, that triggered off this tsunami of bibliophilia (if bibliophilia, in any way, could be defined by sheer numbers) ?
I barred out some possibilities for myself:
  1. It can't be the literary qualities, because (remember: been there ...) in my opinion they are rather poor. I don't believe Dan Brown is in the running for any great literary award, although, to be quite frankly, that is also not what I am looking for foremost in a mystery novel myself. Although if any of you have read Wilkie Collins "The Woman in White", you know it is possible, and in the realm of religious detectives, Browns' bestseller is no match for Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose".
  2. I figured, it also can't be because millions of people currently got interested in what really was decided at the Council of Nicaea or wanted to catch up on their knowledge of the relation between Jezus and the Merovingian kings.
  3. I could accept that, where the words Opus Dei and Knights Templar fall, some people may suddenly experience a bout of what I would call heightened interest, but for a lot of others they may not even ring the tiniest bell.
So shall we give full credit for this outrageous succes to a plotline, that I would rank as a 10 on the scale of Richter, "pageturner"-wise, that is ? Sure thing, but there are more pageturners out there that will never ever get even 0.1 % of the 182 million results that Google spews out when you search for "The Da Vinci Code". For me there has to be more.

Then is it the Holy Grail, that like the monster of Loch Ness, is bound to come and knock from time to time on our door, in the way urban legends tend to resurface again and again through the ages ? Getting closer, I would say, in view of the fact that the Holy Grail takes on some more inspiring form than a simple winecup. The fact that it is a woman, Mary Magdalene, that gets the story going and that, like Empress Dowager Cixi, she continues to govern the story like from behind a curtain, in my opinion is part of the appeal. The gist however lays in the fact that she is "casted" as Jesus' wife, mother of his child and heiress to his intellectual legacy.

Allow me at this point to steer clear from all debate on historical accuracy, theological correctness and badly researched blasphemy. Because, what do we get in "The Da Vinci Code" ? He/she who wishes to believe in it, is here presented with a Jesus that is as human as it gets, who is as much like us as we may ever hope him to be: married to a loving wife and father of a child (well, unborn still by the time he died, according to the book). What I believe is happening is that a lot of people are thirsting for a more elaborate spiritual life, but are confused by an icon that walks on water, turns water into wine, has a "father" that basically kills him to set humanity free (I feel no ordinary person really has a clue how to interpret that process) and who by his death freed us from the "original sin", whatever we have to understand from that. Though we may admire what he did, I at least never had the feeling that Jesus was one of our league. Pondering on this issue, I had to think of the Joan Osbourne song "What if God was one of us?" from a couple of years ago.

Indeed, what if ... and this more or less is what we get in this book: the Christ from the Bible becomes the nextdoor Jesus and we may be tempted to believe that what he did, we may be able to do. Are we rewriting history in this way ? Very presumably we do, but it is being done all the time and I for one am not yet convinced that all what is written there by Dan Brown is entirely a hoax and utter nonsense.

I may be way out of line and is the success of the book really and truly and only it's captivating plot, but the 60 million figure keeps spooking through my mind and it keeps saying there is something more out there in the form of an explanation.

Anyway, where does the Church stands in the controversy ? Right where we expect them: on the opposing side, of course. For all the fuzz they have made and are still making, they should have realized at least that the more fuzz there is, the more people will want to know what the fuzz is about. Been there, seen that.
But is the Church not loosing out on an enormous opportunity here to get large numbers of people listening again to what the faith is about ? A momentum has been created from the brain from one author and it resounds in all corners of the world. People are discussing religious affairs in cars, in bars and ... well, euhh ... on the streets.
A positive attitude could have given some direction to that willingness to get in a conversation, but alas ... we have been knocked over with scientific and theological exposes on the mainstream character of the decidedly feminine pictorial representation of Jesus' disciple John among Da Vinci's peers at the time and how only the canonical gospels can be relied upon by a true believer to find the way to God ...

Can we maybe change the tune ? Is somebody listening ... at all ?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Faces from Tibet


Yama came with her parents and three sisters on a 6 week pilgrimage to the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa from the province of Kham. “Yama helped carry our 10 month old daughter much of the way.” Her father said. “We noticed very early that she was born with the true spirit of wanting to help others.”
(taken from "Phil Borges: people of indigenous cultures")

If ever there was sheer beauty captured in human's face, these pictures are as good as it gets. Go quickly over to this site. I hope there is more to follow with the new website under construction

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

It's the money, stupid !

If this doesn't create an outrage in China, then I wonder what happened to human dignity. And at least in this instance, the China Daily also seems to get the priorities right.

More than 200 people in camouflage gear demolished a school of disabled and mentally retarded children and beat students who attempted to block the demolition, media reported yesterday.

A Beijing court ordered the school to move out last September because it had no right to use the land on which the school was built. A private company that recently leased the land began sending demolition crews to the Zhiguang Special Education School last Friday.

As of Monday, only several buildings were left untouched. About 70 students and teachers were forced to stay in five dorm rooms at the school in Changping District, reported The Beijing News. Another 30 children returned to their homes in the capital city.

I can perfectly live with a court order stating that the school should never have been built, if that is according to the rule of law of the country.
I can perfectly live with a company claiming it's right to the site, if that is it's lawful property.

And there it stops !

Because after that, you have children, disabled and retarded children as a matter of fact, victims in every possible way of the word you can imagine. Then to hire a gang of 200 thugs to go and demolish the only safeheaven this children may have gotten in their life, just because the land on which the school sits must be turned to profit (let me guess, would it be another skyscraper or another factory ?), is just beyond words.

What about sitting down with all parties involved, how about discussing relocation scenario's for the school, what about leaving the school where it sits and seek for compensation for the company ... what about a spark of humanity in the debate ?!!!

No, none of that. Some guy, in some office, decides that there is no time left to discuss and that he can't be hampered with the fate of a couple of kids that life itself didn't treat mercifully, so the school will have to be demolished, if not by free will, then with violence. And down it goes.

So what's next, I wonder ? How far can you push the buttons of chinese society before it reacts ? Is chinese society WILLING to react to injustices that don't have to do with personal loss or gain, in other words, is there still enough altruism left to fight acts that debase mankind ? I'll be watching.

As for the guy, the woman or whoever issued the command to demolish the school: I hope that next time he or she enjoys some time off on the golfcourt, somebody takes good aim and slaps the ball, real hard, and that there is enough altruism left then to take him/her to a hospital.