Ethan’s Latest News

Today I went to a go-kart place called USpeed. In USPeed you get to do 6 minutes of racing around a track. You first go around a small curve, then you do a complete U-turn, then you go another U-turn the other way and then you do a zig-zag kind of thing. Then there’s a straightaway. Either you go racing around the track again, or if your time’s up you go back where you started. I went around 6 times.

There were some people who’d been driving maybe 10 years and they, for one thing, got a head start. And then they were really quick so at times, when they were coming up behind me, I would really do a strategy my mom told me, to slow down on the curves and then speed up while you’re going through. It worked to keep them away, for maybe a minute. Then they got past me.

There was one lady who got in front of me on a straightaway and made me do a 360 in my car and bang into the wall.

The next day, on this ride you got hooked up and it starts spinning around. At times you’re facing down, at times you’re acing up towards the sky. This was in a park called Chaoyang Park. There’s a peony garden there, and lots of children’s activities.

This is a Lego Great Wall of China.

Also in Chaoyang Park, it has a ropes course. First they teach you how to do it. You get 3 different hooks. There are colored cables where you hook your own carabiners. The guy spoke a little bit of English. There were 2 different ziplines – first you did your ropes course and then you’d climb to the top and take a zipline to the bottom. Then you did more course to the top and take a zipline again to the very bottom.

In other news, my dad left this Saturday.

Ai WeiWei & Protest Art

As you enter 3 Shadows

Off Beijing’s airport road yesterday, we found the digs of China’s leading dissident and artist, Ai Wei Wei’s Three Shadows. Library, galleries, cafe, studio, his home in there somewhere, repurposed industrial landscaping surrounding a space for outdoor movies. The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos likened 3 Shadows to a monastery-meets-crime-family-hideaway. We exulted in breathing its free air there, like nowhere else we’ve been.

…Free air for us. Ai himself is in and out of detention and, of late, forbidden from videotaping himself (though the police have many cameras trained on the place). These now-banned video feeds were for friends & fans. He appears to live a blend of life & conceptual protest art.

My students mainly find Ai too confrontational, one-sided (those giving-the-finger photos, I guess), too in-your-face. I felt generationally connected (standing in the bookstore, Beijing 2012, leafing through his E. Village photos — we, too, hung out there in the ’80s). But most powerful was the Chinese art exhibited (others’), including a group show of award-winning new work. I see in blogging I’ve chosen the documentarians; many others were ethereal, meditations in sepia on Chinese medicine ingredients or dried up bodies of water, far more abstract. As a newsperson, I guess, gravitated to these:

Fan Shisan’s “2 of Us” a series takes on China’s 30-year-old One-Child Policy, which the artist dubs “tragic,” adding the generation of 100 million only-children is “the loneliest generation in history” and “besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries,  the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China – though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” Only children “won’t know what they’ve lost.” Double exposures pair the children — with themselves.

A series on animal rights featured mostly black-and-white pictures including many landscapes with large (wild) and small (domestic) cats + text.

A series by Zuo Feng called “Shanghai Zero Degree” : Insanely optimistic urban real-estate ads (which plaster the streets, on construction fences, everywhere) juxtaposed with the reality surrounding them. The artist says they give China’s cities “a strange, hard-to-understand vitality.”

A series on displaced Uigurs, the Turkic people of the far northwest, who have lost land to development. Like Palestinians, unlike the war displaced, they’re homeless while at home. The artist Jia Xicheng did them in brazen colors, printed with inhjet.

Geng Xi does a series called “Embroidered Bodies,” a social survey of Chinese tattoos.

Was also impressed there with the work of Mo Yi, whose hand-sewn book 1989 was an oblique memorial to Tiananmen, with street scenes washed in red light, faux-mug shots and crowds.

I pay honor to Ai as China (& the U.S., on the eve of Secretary Clinton’s visit) are in the throes of a dissident drama — what VOA called “The dramatic nighttime escape of a blind rights lawyer from extralegal house arrest in his village” which was “a major embarrassment to the Chinese government and left the United States, which may be sheltering him, with a new diplomatic quandary.”

Now it appears the friends and activist network and even family members of the dissident, Chen Guangcheng, are being jailed. In the past Chen has suffered beatings (as has his wife). Tied to the first photos of only children — one of Chen’s ‘crimes’ was defending women who had been involuntarily sterilized.

Sometimes I wonder how the art can be so feisty here, why this space for it has been left open (as a steam valve, most likely, and for the tourist/collector dollars it draws). What’s certain is the tight, vital relationship here between art & politics. Art’s fierce urgency, and the role (greater, I think, than journalists’) it plays today as a force of conscience in China.

Psychiatric Help, 5 Cents

Long line for office hours

Office Hours are standard practice in U.S. universities, but NOT normal here. Students will write a note when work is due saying they never understood the assignment, or crowd around me after class, each in their own crisis (& always the day I can’t stay to talk). So I made attending office hours mandatory. There’s a sign-up sheet. I see 12/week.

Waiting their turn since 201 B.C.

Some discuss their coursework, past or current or future pieces. But as often, students come to me as a therapist to discuss:

China's first emperor never held office hours

— Don’t be polite, just tell me honestly: Am I cut out for journalism work or not?
— I hate my job, do you think I should quit?
— The Propaganda Ministry takes us to resorts for luxurious long week-ends. We all think this is wrong but what can we do about it?
— You and your husband seem so happy. I don’t know what to do about my boyfriend who’s breaking my heart.
— If I work for the Chinese media, they’ll censor my stories. Is this the way I should spend my life?
— China acts with kindness and offers peace, harmony and goodwill to everyone. Why do Americans think our government is evil and feel hostile towards us?
— How is my English?
— What Chinese habits or behaviors do you think are strange?
— You’ve asked us to write a memoir but is anything about my life really interesting?
— Do my opinions really matter?

Questions to melt a heart of stone.

What Confucius Really Said

Confucius' simple burial mound

From intense parent-child bonds to–perhaps?–a tolerance for authority,* mainstream Chinese culture bears the Great Sage’s powerful imprint. His home was Qufu, an overnight trainride from Beijing. (*Highly contentious statement.)
Chinese friends we were with knew the ’24 Virtuous [Filial] Duties’ that Confucius says children must do for their parents:
– Give them medicine yourself (don’t have a servant do it).
– Give them your coat in winter.
– Carry rice for them.
– Give them deer milk. (I’ve begun upbraiding mine over this: ‘Again today no deer milk?’)
– Entertain them.
– Be brave enough to kill a tiger if it’s endangering them.
– Carry them on your back on a hard road.
– Guard their tombs.
– If mosquitoes are biting them at night, remove your clothes and sleep naked [so they’ll bite you].
But things get worse:
– If you get promoted to a high rank but the position is far away, say no [to the job].
– Taste shit to show your subjugation.
– Wash their chamberpot with your own hands.
– If one of your siblings dies, bury the child for your parents.
And finally:
– If they die and you don’t have the money for burial, sell yourself [into slavery].












(The Confucius Temple incorporates ‘pen’-like decorations; for the kids  the temple was a slide.)

Along with Confucian filial piety, his love of learning is a commonplace. China still venerates educators–even at the bank, where teachers are almost guaranteed mortgage approval.

Confucius valued knowledge,but not fame: “I will not be afflicted at men not knowing me; I will be afflicted that I do not know men.” (All the quotes are from our little children’s translation of some of The Analects.)

I teach, but never studied educational pedagogy. The visit offered many lessons: “The Master said, Not until he is eager to know, but feels difficulty, do I instruct; not until he wants to speak out, but fails to express himself, do I enlighten. If I present him one corner and he cannot from it infer the other three, I do not continue the lesson.”

And: “There are sprouts which can spring up but never flower; there are others which can flower but never bear fruit.”

Confucius wandered during his life, disappointed with various government jobs where people wouldn’t take his advice. He responds: “Is he not a man of lofty virtue who feels no annoyance though no one understands him?”


Confucius says your train’s on time.

He had faith in government, that it could – would, might — through virtue, win loyalty & achieve peace. But what if it doesn’t govern virtuously? Then he scorned it. But he scorned business even more: “The Master said, a superior man has a complete understanding of righteousness; the small man has a complete understanding of profit.”

Yet he became a source of power and profit after he died. High officials began marrying their daughters to Confucius’ descendants. Soon his thatched hut was a mansion beside the increasingly grand temple, as they linked their rule to his growing reputation. Though in his lifetime, the Sage would accept “no better present than a bundle of dried meat.”

Confucius can seem fastidious,a  perfectionist: An old, illustrated mural of his life at the temple says he played one song on an instrument for 10 days, though people begged him to stop, until he grasped it. Protocol violations drove him crazy — like vulgar music played at a diplomatic occasion. He hated utensils improperly arrayed. “Have no friends not equal to yourself,” the Master said.  He can seem priggish, like when he’s annoyed that people love beautiful girls more than virtue. Yet for Confucius ‘propriety’ wasn’t manners; it was a social contract, personal creed:

“Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes fussiness; caution, without the rules of propriety, becomes timidity; daring, without the rules of propriety, becomes turbulence; straightforwardness without the rules of propriety becomes harshness.”

And he could be ruthless, too, against the self: “When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.” (And if you’ve been psychoanalyzed, you have to appreciate that word – “fear.”)

Confucius & family cemetery











Late in life, Confucius pondered the ages of man—a progression toward freedom, which he said could be ever-better exercised within (–despite? thanks to?–) constraint:

“Since the age of 15, I have devoted myself to learning; since 30, I have been well established; since 40, I have understood many things and have no longer been confused; since 50, I have known my heaven-sent duty; since 60, I have been able to distinguish right and wrong in other people’s words; and since 70, I have been able to do what I intend freely without breaking the rules.”

It resonates so for human life …while at the same time echos current language on China’s supposed-yet-not-really-happening progress toward liberalization. “Free[dom]…without breaking the rules”…

In his last days,  Confucius collated ancient documents, became a vegetarian, and prayed to the Big Dipper. He had amassed 3,000 disciples. Before he died, a rainbow turned into jade, which he received– a sign he was divine.








On the temple’s central hall’s main shrine, it’s painted: “He can be taught for 10,000 years.” The children we were with had been taught, and recited, their Confucius. Later we saw he was also selling liquor … and dream-interpretation videos.







Before we left, a Confucian poet-calligrapher in a shop there composed and painted, on-the-spot, this Confucian verse for our friend’s 7-year-old son:

Spring willow in the breeze. Teacher on a platform.

Don’t be distracted by nature. Base yourself in knowledge.

Your journey will be smooth. You’ll have a great prospect (a pun: your career & a view over a landscape).

Earth and sky are wide. You’re free.

If you’re really virtuous, you’re in control of everything.

Confucius says, Nice new Atticus Finch glasses, David!

Jews Built NE China?

Who knew?

Harbin, in northernmost China, was once a mini-Zion up in the snow, as if Michael Chabon’s imagined Alaska homeland in The Jewish Policemen’s Union had come to life. Harbin: the frozen chosen, indeed. A city rich in Jewish history, characters, gorgeous Jewish-built European architecture. Chinese Jewish life flowered gloriously, 1900-1950.

They arrived first in 1899 to present-day Heilongjiang Province, bordered on 3 sides by Russia, fleeing (like our ancestors) the Czar and pogroms. They took a rail line to Harbin from Vladivostok to the East. They called themselves Harbintsi.

1 of Harbin's synagogues

China welcomed them, so it seems; especially Israel Epstein (b. Poland, 1915) a‘40s revolutionary; he’s pictured in the museum here (housed in a former synagogue–the other synagogue is now a youth hostel!) with Mao, and in other shots with Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaopeng, etc. He married a Chinese woman and sat on China’s national legislative assembly. Who knew? Austrian-born Jacob Rosendal (also called in the museum, variously, Rosenfeld and Rosenfield) had a similar history; he fought with the People’s Liberation Army in ’41 and is pictured with legendary Liu Shaoqi, who signs the photo, “Beloved comrade.”

Jewish music teacher, Chinese pupils

Jews formed about 10% of Harbin (then-pop. 300,000 – now it’s 4 million) at their peak, 1920, having fled the Bolsheviks. (Numbers swelled again with Hitler’s rise.) They were mostly Russian; also Lithuanian, Polish, Swedish (a big Harbin Jew named Spiro was a Swede). Harbin Jews built a theater, cinema, printer, an art school called Lotus and several music schools (A leading musician was named Traktenberg) which trained Chinese as well as Jewish students and fed two local Jewish symphonies. Unlike Shanghai, a very quick refuge, this was a long-term affair. Jews built the electric company (1902) and oil refinery and involved themselves in governing (oilman S.H. Soskin sat on Harbin’s Legislative Assembly). They (can I say “we”?) managed the horse race track and operated a Jewish-Chinese Friendship Association. Jewish-owned factories made cigarettes, textiles, flour … and Harbin Beer! (Harbin Joint Beer & Beverages, founded 1905).

They created banks, department stores, insurance companies, hotels. On streets with Russian names you could find the Jewish bakery, watch shop, clothing shop, optics shop, musical instrument shop and pharmacy. E.A. Katz ran the restaurant. In the 1920s the museum says, they were Harbin leaders in education, engineering, law, newspapering and medicine; “They were the founders of Harbin’s industry.” (Harbin remains a prosperous town reliant on heavy industry.) Tycoons included the owners of Muling Coal, and of Songhuajiang Flour (founders: Kagan & Ginsberg). Jewish businesses exported sugar, wood & soybean oil. The largest exporter, Skidelski (Schidelsky), a soybean specialist, today has a descendant in the House of Lords; their company kept offices in Harbin, London & Vladivostok.

A few other Harbin Chinese Jewish institutions:
Harbin Siberian Jewish Culture Library
The Far East Jewish Commercial Bank, Harbin Jewish People’s Bank and the Harbin-American Bank (founded by Osibov).
The Old Synagogue (1918) and the New Synagogue (1931), the biggest in China.
Harbin Betar
Harbin Jewish Hospital

The Women’s Charitable Relief Organization (1906); chairwomen Grossman, Kaufman and Schwartz.
An art school (the museum was full of old oil paintings; Harbin Jews, it said, “were very choosy about displays [décor] and paid great attention to social manners and their children’s art education.”)

Jewish Middle School

Many of the beautiful, Jewish-built old buildings recall Paris. They’ve been renovated and form a lovely old pedestrian quarter near the River, which is like nothing we’ve seen anywhere in China. (As in all big Chinese cities, you pass MaxMara, Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo, MontBlanc…and McDonald’s.)

One original macher, Kaufman, had a son who was a Harbin doctor. His wife gave birth in 1961 to the last Jew born in Harbin. “They brought Western culture and advanced science and technology to Harbin,” the museum says. Then they wandered onward — Israel (Ehud Olmert’s family were Harbintsi), England, the U.S. In a bit of overstatement, the museum calls Harbin “a foundation for [Jews’] economic life in Europe and America.”

One part of the museum acquaints visitors more generally with this little-known people known as “Jews.” Pictured on an eclectic “wall of fame,” amusingly in no particular order, hundreds of portraits including:

Leonard Bernstein, Jonas Salk, Yascha Heifetz, Marc Chagall, Steven Speilberg, Modigliani, Brandeis, Martha Graham (Jewish?), Martin Buber, Adolf Ochs, Disraeli, Kafka (perhaps in a uniquely Chinese Freudian slip — twice), Freud, Claude Levi-Strauss, Walter Benjamin (pictured), several Israelis (Ben Gurion, Weitzman, Jabotinsky, Hertzl) and – not to be forgotten – Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Marx. Einstein gets his own corridor. And last but not least, holding his own: Mark Spitz.

In Harbin, China, Jews took shelter, survived. Flourished.

More than Keifeng’s Silk Road Jews or the brief refuge found in Shanghai — Harbin makes you see China in a really different way.

Minor Difficulties

Subway poster: Ex-Knick Steven Marbury leads the triumphant Beijing Ducks

Though as temporary Beijingers/ex-New Yorkers  we may hold our heads a little higher since ex-Knick Steven Marbury led his new team to victory in the Chinese Basketball Association finals a few weeks ago, life is still always just a little harder than usual:

1) Making week-end morning pancakes

Add a few extra steps. Like going online to convert 2.75 cups milk to 650 ml. And soaking the strawberries in a dilute of Betadine disinfectant, rinsing with (yes, overkill) bottled water we then filter and boil. I hope this works; the embassy doc recommends bleach solution instead.

If it sound mildly traumatized…it’s the latest food-safety scandal. This week’s was gelatin rendered from used shoe leather, containing poisonous chromium, found in Chinese jellies and [gelatin] medicine capsules. Making the pharmacy we brought in a suitcase look a little less paranoid.

British School Bears beat the Canadian School Thurs.; Kenny scored three 2-pointers.

2) Salad-as-birthday-dinner

Celebrating Ethan’s late-birthday, we let him order a salad!! The first raw, unpeeled vegetable in 8 months. We just broke down. Look how happy he looks! Current plan is an an all-salad lifestyle back in America. At least for 3 days.

3) The Birthday Party Invitation Supplement.

Instructions and maps are involved, in English, pinyin (transliteration), and Mandarin characters, because Beijing is so hard to navigate. So for Ethan’s party in a park (sadly, rained out today) we distribute this:

RITAN PARK 日坛公园  – Party location. Home to the Temple of the Sun.

6 Ritan Beilu, Chaoyangmenwai,朝阳门外日坛北路6

8561 6301

STONE BOAT CAFÉ  石舫  –    For 9 am drop off & 2pm pick-ups:


Southwest corner of Ritan Park, Lakeside, Beijing


Chāoyáng qū Rìtán gōngyuán lǐ, húbiānJianWai Street

Near: Guanghu lu & YaBao lu
+86 10 6501 9986

ANNIE’S RESTAURANT – Lunch spot, for 1 pm pick-ups:


Ritan Park and Yabao Lu 日坛公园雅宝路

Unit 2-3-93, Ritan Highlife, (opposite north gate of Ritan Park), 39 Shenlu Jie, Chaoyang District

39 Shenlujie, Ritan High Life 2-3-93,   Vicinity: Ritan

Across from Ritan Park North Gate
日坛公园北门对面       8569-3031


Beijing is about as good as it gets right now.

Flowering cherry trees, lilacs, wisteria, tulips – spring at the Forbidden City & Jingshan Park.

Sorry no posts….Report coming on Qingdao (of beer fame) & its well-cared-for eastern province of Shandong, home to more Party officials than any other province. Big report to come on The Great Sage Confucius, whose hometown was one huge lesson in filial piety. More soon on the calisthenics TV show we like to call, “Exercise With Happy Minorities.”

And on my students, who are writing what they know: Living in Foxcomm dorm as a line worker. Being the left-behind lonely child of a migrant worker. Seeing your best friend’s dad jailed for corruption. Astonishing. Have a lovely week-end!

Beijing Spring: Best of Times

As temperature hits 70, kids are in shorts, trees are blooming, & Beijingers have moved outdoors. For public singing, dancing, games & homework. Our friend Kuilan says these are the best times China has seen in 150 years.

Homework at dad's newsstand.



Morning dance.

Singing 'Red Songs'

Ethan & Paul, Temple of Heaven.

Paul & Ethan.

Building the Temple of Heaven...

It's built!

Happy Spring!

Ethan and the Smiling Camel

By Ethan

This is my trip to Dunhuang. We went there during Qing Ming, Tomb Sweeping, the holiday.

Day One – Lanzhou


On that zipline, you got hooked up to a line and because I was so light, I got weights put onto my strap (harness). Some other people who were older than me and a little bit heavier got parachutes put onto theirs to slow them down because they didn’t want them to crash. My dad had to hold onto a rope and get reeled in because he started going backwards on the zipline over the river!

Day Two – Dunhuang
On the first day in Dunhuang, we went to Crescent Moon Dunes. Crescent Moon Dunes are dunes that are taller than a lot of mountain ranges. The dunes are in the Gobi desert in Western China in Gansu province.

We actually tried to fly our kites in a sandstorm. The sandstorm was very, very, very, very, very windy. My string actually broke. My dad ran over to get the kite.

Lots of sand was blowing up in my eyes when I was climbing the dune.

Day Three – Jiayuguan
We drover to Jiayuguan on the Silk Road, the place where in the old days merchants would take their goods and bring them to the next towns. The Silk Road went from ancient Rome in the old days, to Xi’an in that time sometimes the capital of China. Jiayuguan is a fortress that was built in between two mountains to block the barbarians – aka some Mongolians – from getting into China. And there’s the beginning of the Great Wall there.

Day 4 – Camel Trek

We went over to the camels in their old kind of run-down stalls and I saw them eating. I walked over to one and pet it and it let me. THen it looked at me. I was afraid it was going to spit at me, but it didn’t. Then we got on the camels.

Our guide took us out into the desert. The camels were very comfy and very fun, but a little swaying at times. Sometimes they would go down a steep hill and sway a little too much so I would almost fall off. When we got to where we were going to camp in the desert, we got down and climbed a small dune.

Then we went back to the camp where our guide had started making a fire. Then me and Kenny climbed up a little bit of a taller dune and then we ran down. By that time it was getting a little bit dark. We put on some army coats and dug a little hole as a seat, which is a surprisingly good seat. We put on an army coat on top of it. Then we sat around the fire and our guide first made instant noodles as an appetizer. Then our guide, who was a very good cook, he made us chicken and then he made us lamb over the fire and boy was it good!

I also built a dune.

Next we set up our camp tents and we went to sleep. The next day we woke up and I made toast on the fire that our guide made and after we had breakfast, which was toast and jam, we climbed a dune that was pretty tall and very steep!

See us?

Gobi Dunes Photo Journal

A fun, sandy day climbing dunes & riding camels out at the Mingsha Sand Dunes in town of Dunhuang, Gansu Province, Western China, at the edge of the Gobi Desert. Couldn’t trek because the early spring sandstorms blow your tent away! Sand’s now in everything. It’s a long way here, and the conditions challenged, but no one got hurt. So I can say it was worth it!

The kids thought it would be so cool to fly kites in a desert sandstorm. The kites broke immediately.

I climbed, and then ran down, 2 dune ‘mountains.’ The boys did it for hours.

GanSu is wedged between Mongolia (north), Xinjiang the Turkic province (West), old Tibetan Amdo now aka China’s Qinghai province (South). And of course China’s heartland to the East. The capital (Lanzhou) is a massive new Chinese super-metropolis of 4 million+ plunked down on the (horrid brown) Yellow River and sprawling with skyscrapers in every direction, seemingly in the middle of desert nowhere…Danhuang, a 15-hour trainride from there, feels really removed. Dunhuang is an oasis town, a respite on the old Silk Road. (NY Times art critic Holland Carter won a 2008 cultural criticism Pulitzer for his coverage of Dunhuang’s unique Buddha cave paintings (Mogao), plundered by the museums of Paris, London & Harvard, now being destroyed by –mostly nationalistic Chinese — visitors’ exhalations … humans’ output of moisture & carbon monoxide.)

The desolation here reminds me of the Kara Kum desert in Turkmenistan, which I crossed in a train exactly 20 years ago, also this season. But I saw no water. There’s still a tiny “crescent” oasis at Mingsha that never dries up. Here it is through the blowing grit:

It must have been a relief to come upon that 1,000 years ago, after crossing the sand. Hard to believe a place this far from (what we consider) “anything” was once the busiest route in the world.