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.