genghis-khan-documentary

[Photo: BBC]

GENGHIS KHAN AND THE QUEST FOR GOD: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom by Jack Weatherford completely revises our concept of Genghis Khan. Outside Mongolia (where he is venerated), he’s viewed as murderous, merciless, a monstrously insane warrior king who conquered the largest empire in history.

But Weatherford – a bestselling Macalester College anthropologist – finds Khan was a key influence on Thomas Jefferson and American religious freedom. Here is Simon Winchester (one of David’s favorite writers on China) in a book review last month:

“Though godless himself, [Genghis Khan] favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions, of many different faiths…[who should] ‘live together in a cohesive society under one government.’ …The Great Khan’s ecumenism has as its legacy the very same rigid separation of church and state that underpins no less than the American idea itself. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is, at its root, an originally Mongol notion…Many might think this eccentric in the extreme, until we learn that a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies was in fact a history of “Genghizcan the Great,” by a Frenchman, Pétis de la Croix, and that it was a book devoured by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.”

grasslands-yurts-clouds

We’ve written here about Chinese (Inner) Mongolia (2012, the time of these photos). The haunting music, devastating impact of mining, the demeaning commercial imagery.

grasslands-temple-exterior

The author Weatherford, a hero in Mongolia, lives there half the year with his wife, who is apparently quite paralyzed by MS. I was touched, in an interview he gave, his description of how she is received there:

“In Mongolia there are no special facilities for disabled people; the streets and sidewalks are a jumble of broken cement and open holes. Yet when we step out of our building, hands always appear. No one says, “May I help you?” They simply do it and disappear, expecting no thanks. I never have to ask for help. Every week a few musicians come by to play the horse-head fiddle and sing for Walker, in the belief that music is the best medicine. Pop singers and hip-hop groups have come for the same purpose, saying that it will keep our home warm. People from all over the countryside send us dairy products. Our kitchen is usually full of yogurt, hard cream, curds, mare’s milk, mutton, horse ribs, and wild berries. Lamas, shamans, and healers come by to offer prayers, incense, herbal teas, chants, massage, and other forms of traditional treatments. Even strangers send camel wool or cashmere blankets, shawls, and socks to keep Walker warm. Mongolia has welcomed us with a care and warmth I can scarcely comprehend.”

 

 

Ming + Bauhaus: Tan Dun’s Water Heavens

zhu(Zhujiajiao village. Credit: Alexandru Velcea)

Composer Tan Dun: Raised in rural Hunan, rusticated by the Cultural Revolution. Joined a traveling Peking Opera as a teen. Eventually, Columbia fellowship and prominence in atonal music. Today he’s avant-garde and massively popular (Grammy; Oscar for “Crouching Tiger” score). We heard an astonishing Tan Dun piece recently by the Shanghai String Quartet. Wildly varied and dramatic, noisy shamanistic ritual cries and bangs from the sounds of his childhood. Last week, his”Water Heavens,” for strings, vocals and water, opened at a new venue–called Water Heavens, too–built for him.

It incorporates monks’ normal evening chants (at a monastery on the opposite riverbank) and musicians splashing in the canal water. It’s in ‘water village’ Zhujiajiao (photo above), one of the canal- and riverside towns on the outskirts of near Shanghai, along the Qingpu River’s path to the sea–insanely beautiful, well-preserved, highly touristed, miraculously intact.

The space began as a Ming-era house. Add a “lower story reminiscent of an industrial space fashioned after German Bauhaus style… The stage is partly submerged in water, and as musicians rock their bodies and move their feet while they play, the sound of splashing water becomes part of the performance” (Shanghai Daily.com ). The river itself flows into, through, and out of the hall, which becomes another instrument.

water palace

Credit: Tandun.com

“The combination of the Chinese Ming house and German Bauhaus styles, as well as the contrasting sounds of water, iron and other natural elements, completes my architectural music wonderland,” Tan told Shanghai Daily reporter Zhang Qian.

Tan Dun’s major works include operas (“Marco Polo,””Nine Songs” –with 50 original ceramic instruments created for the piece), the Beijing Olympics ceremonies music, and a symphony for the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong using tomb bells cast about 2,500 years ago. Theatrical, often watery, combining Western canonical and Henanese folk. The sounds of nature, a Taoist influence. China’s reanimation of extinguished religious life is subtle (hiking holy mountains for “exercise”; secret often Korean Christian missionary potlucks, popular among youth) but it’s there.

“My ultimate goal for Water Heavens,” he said of the piece, which has scheduled an open-ended run, “is to create a space where music can be seen and the architecture can be heard.”

(The architects were from Japan’s Isozaki Studio, with offices in Beijing and Barcelona.)

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Resident in NJ: Shanghai Quartet

shanghai quartet

Dazzled by a Shanghai Quartet concert, A Night in Ancient and New China — more about what that means in a sec. Proud it’s our “quartet-in-residence” at Montclair State, the university down the block. (“Resident” artists in Beijing and Shanghai too…OK, we’ll share.)

shanghai quartet the men

Their playing gets called “pitiless,” “ferocious,” “charged,” “aggressive.” We heard the intense premiere of a new “Raise the Red Lantern“(1991)  film score (trailer here; it’s got everything: historic setting, sex and violence, Gong Li) revised by the composer Zhao Jiping’s son. (The father also scored “Farewell My Concubine.”) That was China new. Ancient: traditional folk pieces featuring pippa (lute) virtuoso Wu Man, pictured at top — two members knew her, as children in a Beijing music boarding school. She played Kazakh folk tunes, apparently popular in the ’60s; ancient Central Asian nomads are believed to be the original source of the pippa. You hear hoof beats, feel the openness of the steppe, as in Mongolian folk music (China’s bluegrass — having its moment when we lived in Beijing).

The Shanghai Quartet cross genres and geographies. My favorite piece was a shamanistic Tan Dun composition, “Ghost Opera (Chamber Version)” — more on Tan (his latest work puts musicians knee-deep in an ancient canal) soon. Meantime, have a listen or a watch:

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The Scholar’s Stone: Miniature Worlds

 

scholars rock from met collection

山形靈璧石  (Rock in the Form of a Fantastic Mountain) Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

We saw “Museum of Stones” at NY’s Noguchi Museum, a vast survey of elements, mass, earth, flights of cosmic abstraction — weirdly, since solid rock seems at odds with airy thinking. Not so. Not to Noguchi, seminal modernist sculptor, not for the collectors of scholar’s stones, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. Where “rock and water rub up against each other, in a river gorge, along a coast…Rock is the sculptor and water is the material. Expand the timeline a bit, however, and the relationship reverses; water becomes the sculptor and rock the material” (said the exhibition catalog).

The traditional Chinese veneration of these pocked rocks always mystified me, at temples, palaces, gardens (below, Shanghai’s famed classical Yu Garden, Yuyuan). Hollowed-out, craggy — unlike Kyoto’s smooth rock and sand gardens, these stones are furrowed, wrinkled, honeycombed, twisting. What I found ugly is exactly why they’re valuable. Only now do I understand why.

China’s literati collected Scholars’ Stones, gongshi (gong=spirit; shi=rock) for thousands of years. First in gardens; then Taoist monks wanted them inside for meditation and inspiration, small enough to put in their studies. They loved those that resembled mythical creatures, actual beings, or “the magical peaks and subterranean paradises (grotto-heavens) believed to be inhabited by the immortals,” the Met explains. The immortals — the many gods of the Taoist pantheon — live in the holes. Stones may also resemble earthly islands, caves, mountain landscapes. They appear in so many classical paintings, and millennia ago, in Tang dynasty (618-907) poems.

 

I should add that some got drilled, improved a bit, to evoke more. They’re “Rorschach blots in three dimensions,” a Times critic wrote. “In the blink of an eye they move from abstract to representational, conjuring a great deal of Western sculpture as they go…. One thinks of Rodin, Giacometti, Henry Moore, Dubuffet, de Kooning … Michaelangelo.”

The best are perforated, full of emptiness, “worlds within worlds” (as the Asia Society titled a past scholar’s stone exhibition). In them you find creation, time, nature’s forces. The underlying concept emerges from Taoism. Pu — ‘the uncarved block,’ i.e. the power of the thing in its simple, natural state. These are thing and metaphor at once. As Artist John Mendelsohn wrote about scholar’s stones, “Nature made art in its own image, an eccentrically evocative fractal of itself… for tabletop contemplation of the universe.”

 

 

 

scholars stone noguchi museum.jpg

Now I get it. Stones. Battle (David and Goliath). Danger (Scylla and Charybdis). The grab at eternity — how our tomb stones and memorials, as the catalog says, “try to deny the insignificance of a biological lifespan on a geologic timescale.”

scholars stone reclining figure

 

Angel in America

The Year of the Monkey begins in 11 days. I’ve been thinking about Angel Island, San Francisco Bay. Our kids study U.S. social history, reform and rights struggles, but not yet the Chinese-American story. America detained 500,000 immigrants on Angel Island, about half from China, 1910 to 1940, during the Chinese Exclusion Act . Some were solo children under 10. They were interrogated, inspected, often deported. A woman detainee without her husband saw her baby die, and was refused release to attend the baby’s funeral. A graphic novel tells these stories: Angel Island: The Chinese-American Experience, recently released by Stanford (buy one).

Detainees who’d fled famine and the fury of armies local and foreign (sound familiar?) carved hundreds of poems on Angel Island barrack walls. A park ranger discovered them in 1970.

angel island image

This is a message to those who live here not
to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast your idle worries to
the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.
Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.

*

The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting
and turning for a thousand li.’
There is no shore to land and it is
difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city
thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to
live in a wooden building?

*

In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon
seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.

*

America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is
nothing I can do

(Credit: Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, Island Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991)

You can hear the Angel Island poems read (via KQED), and visit the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Happy Year of the Monkey.

monkey-year_character

 

The End of China’s One-Child Policy

fanshisan1Since China announced the end of its one-child policy last week (replaced by two), I’ve been thinking about Fan Shisan’s 2 of Us exhibit we saw at Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing studio, Three Shadows. (Ai is known as an opponent of the one-child policy, though not as closely identified with it as dissident Chen Guangcheng. The blind lawyer suffered beatings, as did his wife, for defending women involuntarily sterilized; his dramatic nighttime escape from house arrest – to shelter with the U.S. government  – was an international incident, with then-Secretary Hillary Clinton getting Chen out.)

fanshisan3Photographer Fan Shisan’s double exposures highlight the kids’ aloneness, pairing them with themselves. Fan calls China’s 100 million only-children “the loneliest generation in history…Besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries, they are the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” My students often considered first cousins to be siblings because they were so close; likewise, the feelings were intense for school and college dorm roommates.

paint men onechild-policy your responsibility(This billboard, in a village in Hebei, tells men that having only one child is their responsibility.)

I had one memorable student with four siblings, whose parents paid heavy fines. She wrote an essay about sister love, using e.e. cummings’ poem to convey her feelings. She gave the poem to her sister and brother-in-law for a wedding gift:

“I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)
I am never without it
(anywhere I go you go, my dear;
and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
I fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you”

Lijun ends her essay: “I hope the man I barely know and never see will carry her heart just as well.”

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Natural Disaster Forecasting

August 1, 1971. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar joined on stage by friends Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston to raise funds for UNICEF relief in Bangladesh.

August 1, 1971. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar joined on stage by friends Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston to raise funds for UNICEF relief in Bangladesh.

No snowmageddon in NY — though it’s nice, no school or work. After warnings of a snow storm of “historic proportions” it’s fun mocking the “state-of-emergency closure” of NY and NJ’s highways, bridges, tunnels, even the subway. Only 15″ snow total here (less than .5 meter), counting old snow from an earlier, small Alberta Clipper storm.

But forecasting is real, and it is saving hundreds of thousands of lives, I recently learned (in part through some writing for UN humanitarian-emergency agencies). Bangladesh suffered the Bhola tropical cyclone in 1970 (tropical cyclone, in American English, equals hurricane; Ghola was Cat. 3 in strength; Hurricane Sandy was just a Cat 1). Bhola was the deadliest storm ever recorded. Its storm surge was responsible for the deaths of 500,000 people, when their villages, in the Ganges Delta, were erased by the thousands. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh was organized for the survivors.*

Now compare that to an equally strong storm that caused disastrous flooding in Pakistan in 2014. Same-strength cyclone. Yet fewer than 500 people died in the disaster. Instead, because of investments in forecasting, 700,000 people were evacuated in time

[ * The 1971 Bhola cyclone hit millions of refugees uprooted by Bangladesh’s gruesome war for independence from Pakistan. The humanitarian crisis was worsened still more by larger-than-usual annual rains the next year, 1971, when the concert was held in NYC. ]

 

Chinese earthquake sensor. American Museum of Natural History.

Chinese earthquake sensor. American Museum of Natural History.

Second amazing thing: This ancient Chinese earthquake sensor (A.D. 132) (From “Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters,” a current special exhibition at the AMNH. Eight toads, eight dragons’ heads. This didn’t forecast or measure magnitude of the natural dissaster, but showed its direction. Depending on where the shaking was coming from, a ball would fall from one of the dragons mouths into one of the frogs’. Not bad for 2,000 years ago.

Of course (tragically), the most deadly natural disaster in human history is believed to be the 1931 flooding in central Chin of the Yellow River, (which we discussed in “Yellow River of Sorrows“) in which as many as 4 million people died.

Stay warm & dry.

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Chinese Police in the American Mosaic

Young Officer Wenjian Liu’s tragic murder in Brooklyn at age 32 gives us a chance to pause & marvel, at least, at how he was part of the dynamic, salutary building of America’s classic ‘mosaic’… new arrivals making NYC their home. My friend David Chen, fantastic NY Times investigative reporter, penned this front-page story today on the rather dramatic surge in Chinese- (& other Asian-) Americans in the ranks of the NYPD. Read it to find out why…

(Yahoo carrying images by Carlo Allegri of dignitaries & weeping cops, gathered by the thousands at the funeral, which included Buddhist monks, and citizens holding “We [heart] NYPD” placards in freezing rain.)

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Calligraphy for Wenjian Liu: “A vision left unrealized”

Outdoor calligraphy market, Xi'an

Outdoor calligraphy market, Xi’an: “To see far, you must climb to the mountain’s heights.”

"I love Wudang" by a calligrapher who stopped teaching high school after experiencing a sudden mystical calling.

“I love Wudang” by a calligrapher who stopped teaching high school after experiencing a sudden mystical calling.

The living art of characters drawn in a burst of inspiration — a Chinese funerary custom with poignancy at the funeral today of Wenjian Liu, a NYPD officer gunned down by a crazed madman in his squad car in Brooklyn in December. We read today in the NY Times (Calligrapher Brings an Elegant Touch To a Chinese Ceremony by Jeffrey E. Singer and Kirk Semple)   how the calligrapher wrote infused with the deceased’s moving spirit. (Of course, it takes lots of premediation, drafts, and many tries.) Then the finished scrolls play a sober, decorative role  honoring and giving comfort.

An Asia Society curator, a young white woman we met once, told us Chinese calligraphy sparked her life work when, as a teenager she fell in love with it studying in Taiwan. One Coplan received directions to study hard in calligraphy (phrased much more poetically-through an ancient stanza) —a gift from a calligrapher now hanging above his desk (left photo above). Another collects pieces, if he’s met the calligrapher. A Buddhist piece from a monastery in holy WuTai Shan, a Confucian saying picked off the sidewalk in his birthplace, Qufu, Shandong…and finally (photo above right), a bit of an odyssey but he tracked down a Taoist calligrapher (and tai qi master) in his little apartment outside Wudang Shan, tai qi’s birthplace, near Wuhan.

The New York Times presents local master calligrapher Zhao Ru, 73, an immigrant and sometime-restaurant worker originally from Toisan, who volunteered his services for Liu’s funeral. He used top-quality ink donated by a bookseller in Sunset Park (Brooklyn’s “Chinatown”). Officer Liu’s “spirit moved me to conjure this work,” he says. The funeral home’s Chinese consultant is quoted: Zhao’s calligraphy gave “the room the high quality of the life that he led.”

Photo by Karsten Moran for the New York Times. Zhao Ru, Brooklyn calligrapher, creating memorial scroll fo Officer Wenjian Liu's funeral today

Photo by Karsten Moran for the New York Times. Zhao Ru, Brooklyn calligrapher, creating memorial scroll fo Officer Wenjian Liu’s funeral today

Zhao’s calligraphy pieces read:

“In the sphere of law enforcement his vision is left unrealized”

“For his service to the people, his name will forever be cherished in our hearts.”

“A model for all police.”

Peace.

Ferguson, NYPD, and Chinese Exclusion

Black Lives Matter march, Union Sq., NYC Dec. 2015 (photo by Jill)

OCA in Black Lives Matter solidarity march, Union Sq., NYC, Dec. 2015 (photo by Jill)

A new Civil Rights movement has begun. Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and a Staten Island grand jury’s failure to indict the police officer whose choke hold killed Eric Garner, protests have gone on with hardly pause, in NY and nextdoor to our town, in Newark. Police killing these — and many other — unarmed black men, and the increasing use on US city streets of military equipment, and undue and unjustified force, against people (mostly men) of color sparked the movement. But demonstrators at Black Lives Matter marches (including us Coplans) are out there for other things, too. Fairness. Recognition of anti-black racism and deep systemic discrimination. Equal rights. America’s fundamental, unfulfilled promise.

Yesterday, the latest chapter: thousands of NYPD officers turned their back on Mayor Bill DeBlasio, as he spoke at the funeral of an officer tragically murdered by a deranged killer, claiming he was avenging Garner’s and Brown’s deaths.

Marching in New York a few weeks back, I noticed a large contingent from Organization of Chinese Americans (above). Forty years old, DC-based, OCA “consistently affirms the human rights and dignity of all Asian Pacific Americans as contributors, citizens, and defenders of democracy.”

Seeing them brought to mind Chinese Americans’ struggle for rights — powerfully illustrated in the New York Historical Society’s “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” (open through April). The notorious Exclusion Act of 1882, a quota system limiting Chinese immigration, marked the first time a group was barred. The Exclusion Act officially deemed Chinese people aliens, not to be trusted, spurring copy-cat local and state ordinances and laws designed to exclude and harass. Often these led to state-sanctioned violence.

Emotional, physical, economic consequences resulted, for a century. The Act made exceptions for students, merchants, teachers & diplomats. But laborers were feared. From Popular Science Monthly, 1876: “These hardy Mongolians with their peculiar civilization …have begun the contest for ascendancy.” Chinese workers were barred from industry, called ‘unfair competition” (helping lead to the rise of the hand-wash service).

It also tore families apart. One year (1902) 20,000 Chinese Americans, US citizens, were stranded outside the US, separated from family.

Meanwhile, discriminatory laws that “rigidly prohibited” Chinese immigrants from most neighborhoods. That, and racial violence, led to the rise of Chinatowns. Though in New York City, 75% of Chinese Americans did not live in Chinatown.

Anti-Chinese poster

Anti-Chinese poster

Until recently, there had been no official apology for the Exclusion Act, a violation of fundamental civil rights. (See the 1882 Project for more information.) The Senate passed S. Res. 201 on October 6, 2011, and the House passed H. Res. 683 on June 18, 2012 “expressing regret for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Laws… recogniz[ing] the harm done to the civil rights of individuals, families, and communities.”

The banner we saw in NYC was a reminder of that history, and how for all Americans, protection of fundamental civil rights is essential to life in America.

 

PS: Cool factoid from the exhibition:

Hu Shih 胡适  philosopher, essayist, diplomat, key figure in Chinese liberalism (an intellectual leader of the May Fourth anti-colonial/nationalist movement) and language reform, was mentored by John Dewey at Columbia, and when he returned, was influential in the movement for Mandarin language reform and using written vernacular Chinese (Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

Praise for a Five-Child Policy

A former student in Beijing has four siblings — a rarity for ’80s kids in China. Below is a bit out of an essay, a love paean to her older sister on the occasion of her sister’s wedding. I love my siblings and watching my two kids grow up together. I was moved a few years ago by this exhibition of photographs at Three Shadows, commenting on the One Child Policy — bleached, hyper real double-exposures pairing only children with themselves.

1 child policy exhibit

Loneliness is the message of Fan Shisan’s “2 of Us,” a take on China’s 30-year-old One Child policy. The generation of 100 million only-children is “tragic,” Fan writes in exhibition notes. “The loneliest generation in history. 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.”

My writer, Lijun (Julia) reached out to me for a grad school rec this month. So she and her writing on her siblings, a topic she returned to in several assignments, are on my mind.

“I gave my brother-in-law a big smile and thanked him for the willingness to shelter my boring leftover sister.

What will I bring to my sister’s wedding, what can I say? I think I will bring nothing but one of my favourite poems, if she will forgive me for not bringing any gift.

I Carry Your Heart With Me  by E. E. Cummings
I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart) I am never without it
(anywhere I go you go, my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
I fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide) “
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)

And I hope from that wedding day, the man I barely know and never see will carry her heart just as well.”

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US-China Cooperation: Restoring Qianlong’s Secret Garden

Thirty women, China’s best embroiderers, in Nanjing, worked for one year to embroider the richly brocaded upholstery. Papermakers, working with a traditional and especially tough pulp from the mulberry tree, recreated the paper strong enough to support the Italian trompe l’oeil ceiling painting, from their papermaking studio in rural Anhui. Bamboo craft masters, recruited after a national search, prepared inner skin bamboo carving and bamboo thread marquetry with their grandparents’ tools. During the Cultural Revolution, many of these craftsmen’s parents, or grandparents, had their tools smashed. Some buried them and they survived. Many tools had been handed down for generations.

They chosen to were repair the emperor’s secret garden, Juanqinzhai. (The book🙂

juanqinzhai book

I learned about the project from a lovely documentary, The Emperor’s Secret Garden (by Mandy Chang and Zhou Bing, 2010, BSkyB Masterpiece productions). The Qianlong Emperor, who ruled around the American Revolution, was the richest and most powerful man on earth. As a highly cultured man, Qianlong wrote calligraphy, and we actually saw his handiwork on auction in NY a few months ago:

At Sotheby's Chinese calligraphy auction, NYC, Spring 2014

My son and I pretending we could afford Sotheby’s Chinese calligraphy on auction, NYC, Spring 2014. A few of Qianlong’s panels were set to fetch half a million dollars.

Qianlong, already living in earth’s largest palace, having sucked (as emperors do) the continent’s wealth, commissioned a secret garden where he envisioned retreating for a fashionable, scholar-monk-style retirement: 27 buildings, grottos and rockeries, a garden, and interiors of textile, friezes and woodwork, silk brocade so delicate it’s transparent, woven on looms 2 storeys high; a level of craftsmanship that blows the mind. Somehow, the retreat was locked up, and discovered dusty and crumbling in the early 2000s. It had been undisturbed since the 1700s. As WMF explains, it sparked one of the most awe-inspiring international  restoration projects ever.

From the World Monuments Fund slideshow on the project: A painting of the garden complex itself, and of one mural, of the royal family:

the emperors garden painting

wood panel showing royal family

The work was part of Forbidden City’s first international collaboration — and China’s first large-scale interior conservation project. The effort became a lab, and a classroom for training a young generation of Chinese conservators. But first, restoring the emperor’s secret garden required searching for what had  nearly disappeared: highly skilled traditional craftsmen and women.

Together with architects, engineers, scientists, archaeologists and curators, conservators and conservation scientists, helped by the World Monuments Fund, the hideaway was restored. Cultural heritage was strengthened. Traditional craftspeople fired up their shops. And the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing created, through Jinqinzhai, China’s first degree program in interior conservation. Which means preservation according to international standards, can begin to take hold here.

 

To see, as we have, the scale of destruction (even to this day) of the treasures scattered across mainland China is to understand what a huge big deal it is. The project also forged new levels of cooperation and trust between U.S. and China preservationists, a positive part of this emerging, fraught relationship. I expect it won’t be the last: Large sections of the Forbidden City are still in disrepair.

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

If you’re in China, you can go and visit, though the rooms open only part of the time.

For Temple Lovers Only: A Beijing Temple List

Chengde Puning Temple

Chengde Puning Temple

Baijynguan Taoist monk

Baijynguan Taoist monk

We have a joke (actually serious) about visiting active temples / monasteries: ‘It’s time to leave when you reach the monks’ underwear.’ Drying on a line, I mean. There comes that point. You can go no further.

We love that. We couldn’t see enough temples.

Beijing, having sucked the wealth from a continent, for millennia, has unknown minor temples that would be cover stories anywhere else.  There is Yonghegong & the Temple of Heaven. And there are many more. Here is the list had — and didn’t quite finish. Our 14 Beijing Temples List.

1)    Guanghua On HouHai/Shichahai, beautiful, very active Buddhist temple. 31 Ya’er Hutong, Xicheng, Beijing. The boys were given amulets there by the abbot.

IMG_59062) Zihua. At certain times, the monks play ancient Buddhist music. It is the only place of its kind.  A bit hard to find in Dongchen, about 14 blocks below Jianhuomen on Line 5; about 15 blocks above Chaoyangmen. Below Lumicang hutong, above Dafangjia hutong.

3) Mentougou 1 hr. outside Beijing. Best hire a driver for the day. The temple complexes are Tazhe Si, and nearby Jietai Si, from 600s & also very famous.

4) Chengde (many temples) ‘Little Tibet’, about 3 hours’ drive. Summer getaway of the Qing. Main palace in a vast forest park, plus (even better) the many outlying Tibetan-style temples built in tribute, and to rein in faraway lands. Need a car. We went in one too-long day. Best for a week-end. Less crowded at the outlying temples. Many under construction…or should be.

5) Dazhong Si (Great Bell Temple) Right in Haidian, buried in urban craziness. Huge bell! Has its own subway stop. Great.

jietai

6) Wanshou (Temple of Longevity) 5-minute walk from Beijing Foreign Studies U., and from Purple Bamboo Park. Ming. 1578.  Before fall of the Qing, a rest stop for imperial processions traveling by boat to the Summer Palace and Western Hills (it’s on a canal). Managed by Beijing Art Museum, houses collection of Buddha images. Suzhou Jie, Xisanhuan Lu, on the north side of Zizhu Bridge, Haidian District

Dajue Buddha

7) Zhenjue No.24 Wutaisi Cun, Baishiqiao, Haidian District, Beijing. (Chinese: 24; pinyin: Bĕijīng Shì Báishíqiáo Cūn 24 hào). We did not make it here! It’s still on our list!

8) Dahui (Temple of Great Wisdom) Haidian. Ming dynasty. Dahui Lu Si near Xueyuan Nan Lu. Built 1513; restored 1757.   We did not make it here, either!

9) Biyun Si (Temple of Azure Clouds) (Chinese: Buddhist, eastern part of the Western Hills, just outside the north gate of Fragrant Hills Park (Xiangshan Gongyuan). Can also see Sun yat Sen memorial & Fragrant Hills (has a chairlift if you don’t want to climb) We walked up, chairlift down. Taxi works well.

10) Dongyue Si  (Taoist, mid-Chaoyang) – probably the most important Taoist temple in Beijing, Buried in Chaoyang. Near the Russian market.

Dajue Tea House

Dajue Tea House

11) White Cloud Temple (Bai Yungguan) in Fengtai (southwestern) district. Home to the Taoist Association, very large, active temple in the middle of an ordinary residential neighborhood. There is one English speaker (top photo) who was so helpful with explanations.

Near Baiyunguan: a buddhist pagoda not on the premesis

Near Baiyunguan: a buddhist pagoda not on the premesis

12) Xi Huang Si – Western yellow, best lamaist architecture ,1780. This is fantastic gem, unknown. We found it closed to the public but talked our way in. I think its northeast 2nd ring?

IMAG1663

13) Bei Tai (White Pagoda) The temple atop the island hill in Beihai Park

Beihai

14) Dajue Si  at foot of Yangtai Hill, 1498 – Lovely site built into a mountainside. Has oldest extant Buddha statue in garden. Hire a taxi but have clear directions, no one knows where it is. Out beyond the secret military installation, kind of past/near Fragrant Hills. Gorgeous expensive tea house.

dajue spring and building

Kenny’s Wudang Shan Album

kenny climbing stairs to golden peak

Kenny and Tingting

Kenny and Tingting

kenny by the quiet temple

It was “Karate Kid” (the Jackie Chan remake) that first made Kenny want to see Wudang Shan, the legendary birthplace of taiqi, in Hubei.

Truthfully, a recent watch of the movie suggests they actually shot parts of the Wudang Shan scene (where Jackie & Jaden Smith climb the mountain & he drinks holy water), at Hua Shan on the other side of the country, at Huang Shan maybe, and even some aerial shots over Guilin very far in another province! (Basically, a roundup of picturesque China!)

Golden Peak

Golden Peak

Be that as it may…he really wanted to see it, and I agreed. We took a 22-hour train ride there (new direct route, no need to stop in Wuhan) from our summer teaching base, Qingdao.

Incense burner projecting over cliff - (where the female master in the movie hypmotizes a cobra)

Incense burner projecting over cliff – (where the female master in the movie hypmotizes a cobra)

The Taoist holy mountain exercised a powerful effect. The legends of the immortals, who used medicine, meditation and mountain power to find life everlasting. Hiking through misty valleys to the rocky outcrops where they gained immortality, where now temples stand (small and large, built by the Ming emperors — unlike the Qing, who preferred to underwrite & practice Tibetan Buddhism).

Southern Cliff Palace

Southern Cliff Palace

The astonishing Ming palaces (Taoist word for temples & monasteries), which have been very , so it appeared to amateurs, tastefully, properly restored, or just shored up well, preserving their wood carving, stone work, amazing architecture, paintings.

"Holy Water"

“Holy Water”

More on all that later. Here is Kenny’s album. Studying tai qi with Master Gu at his school, WuDang Wellness Academy, and hiking around the many holy peaks. These are his selections for his favorites.

kenny doing tai qi

kenny in mist near golden peak

kenny near golden peak

kenny on misty stairs

kenny on steps to southern cliff palace

kenny sitting at temple

kenny with golden peak behind

kenny with others at golden peak

Southern Cliff Palace

southern cliff palace landscape

with master gu at the training grounde

chinese national interesting place It is, indeed, as the sign says, a “Chinese national interesting place.”

Mod Chinese Architecture

China Petroleum University gymnasium

China Petroleum University gymnasium

Our campus (China University of Petroleum, Qingdao) is only about 3 or 4 years old at this location. Some of the buildings are cold, but surprising and dramatic. We didn’t seek out interesting new buildings; they’re everywhere. Train stations, universities, are part of the economy-stimulating infrastructure-building boom that’s both kept China’s economy kicking through the global slowdown, and — now — threatens to take it down as all the  (bad, or corrupt, or ill-considered) loans and spending comes home to roost.

mod gym campus architectureWe passed this each day on campus.

Hangzhou West train station (Zhejiang)

Hangzhou West train station (Zhejiang)

Train stations — this one in Hangzhou — are Hollywood-futuristic. They’e moving millions of people so it’s not surprising they have 10 escalators, not 2 or 4. Many we saw had 8, standard. It makes sense, but still looks daunting, futuristic & impressive. The driveway taking cabs to the Hangzhou station just is as we (’70s kids) once imagined the future.

lots of escalators nanjing

Nanjing's city public library, downtown Nanjing (Jiangsu)

Nanjing‘s city public library, downtown Nanjing (Jiangsu)

Jinan's train station (Shandong province)

Jinan‘s train station (Shandong province)

Right, note the huge lotus sculpture in a massive (Soviet-big) plaza in Jinan, largest city and transport hub of Shandong — the province home to the most Party leaders at the national level. Left, we randomly passed this on the streets of Nanjing — the public library.

If only the book collection inside was as expansive as the open-to-the-sky design.

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Buddhist Business Advice

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

A powerful Buddhist abbot runs Lingyin Si (monastery) near Hangzhou (in wealthy Zhejiang province, southeastern China, one of the places where capitalist “reform & opening” first took hold). It’s the top Buddhist temple, of the Chan (Zen) tradition, in southeast China. This July (2013), with China’s booming economy teetering, alarming the world — the abbot gave, according to the Temple‘s website — a dharma talk & interview to the journalists & editors of CEO Magazine.

Said Venerable Guangquan:

Buddhism should [not stay in the past, but should] advance … into the market economy…to [uphold] the level of morals and ethics, enlightening the people and purifying the mind and heart.

Buddha cliff carvings

Buddha cliff carvings , Lingyin Si

buddhism business grottotryptich closeup

Karma doctrine is useful in business management.

Entrepreneurs should treat employees as they were brothers and sisters, just like all creatures are equal.

In return, they gain employees’ loyalty and gratitude, thus creating a more meaningful and successful organization.

“The moon waxes only to wane, water brims only to overflow” [an old saying goes]: The natural cycle is decline after flourishing. [So]… As wealth is accumulated, contribute actively to benefit society. This balances the self and gives wealth a purpose.

buddhism business grottowith boy

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Why Buddha Laughed

China's first laughing Buddha, Felai Feng Gottoes, Lingyin Temple, Zhejiang

China’s first laughing Buddha, Felai Feng Gottoes, Lingyin Temple, Zhejiang

The Chan — Zen — sect runs China’s wealthiest temple. Near ritzy Hangzhou (subject of this Beauty, Crowds, Wealth, Beauty post), called Lingyin, 1,700 years old, English name “Soul’s Retreat.” It’s a wooded valley in the Wulin Mts., along a stream tourists were wading in. The cliff walls rising beside it were carved 1,000+ years ago into amazing Buddha reliefs, two of which laugh heartily, big ‘bellies large enough to contain everything in the world that people cannot bear.’

Smaller of the two laughing Buddhas at Lingyin Si

Smaller of the two laughing Buddhas at Lingyin Si

In its heyday (around 900), the temple and monastery held 3,000 monks. It has been destroyed either 10 or 16 times: in ’26 during the warlords period. In ’66 the Red Guards tried to destroy it, but the locals lined up and had a standoff that August, (they also pasted Mao posters on the cliff carvings) until Zhou Enlai closed it, for its protection.

Felai Feng grottoes, LIngyin Si: Beautiful carvings, about 1,000 AD

Felai Feng grottoes, LIngyin Si: Beautiful carvings, about 1,000 AD

Lingyin: The famous Guanyin (Kwan Yin) tryptich

Lingyin: The famous Guanyin (Kwan Yin) tryptich

The temple halls beside here ascend the mountain, and hold China’s largest wooden Buddha (circa 1954, covered in gold), at 82 feet. The temple hall is the tallest single-storey building, with apparently, an 110′ ceiling. It’s widely called the country’s “wealthiest” and the most important Buddhist temple in Southeastern China. Since ’00 it has held an important library of Sutras.

Deng Xioping regularly came here, and Jiang Zemin apparently personally calligraphied the tablet inscription out front.

But why DOES Buddha laugh? This is a far cry from the somber, tranquil, otherworldly Buddhas we normally see. It is also a very Chinese image. Aside from the famous quote (belly holding what is intolerable), and “He laughts at him who deserved to be laughed at”…what’s the origin of this character? This embodiment?

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou

Kenny and Felai Feng grotto buddha, Lingyin Si         (Jill was here)  (Jill was here)

There’s a local (now widely known) folktale about a magical wanderer with a big belly, who worked wonders. He carried a cloth sack of treats, candies and fruit that he gave to children and the hungry. At his death, it was revealed he was a Buddha. He is revered  as the laughing Buddha, protector of the poor and weak, Buddha of happiness, generosity and wealth, and in Shintoism (where the tale is local) as well as in Taoism where he is the God of Abundance.

He is one of about 330 carvings here, considered the best in the South along with Dazu (subject of a post last year) near Chongqing. (Once led by fallen Mayor Bo Xilai “Bye-bye Bo Xilai”– whose son Bo Guagua was, The Times reported today, is to attend Columbia Law School. With what funding, no one is quite sure.)

China's largest wooden Buddha, Lingyin Si near HAngzhou

China’s largest wooden Buddha, Lingyin Si near HAngzhou

Lingyin Si bamboo forest

Temple curtains

Temple curtains

It is Chan (Zen) Buddhism, maker of mysterious koans. Here is one from Lingyin Si, inscribed as part of a couplet on a pavillion sitting beside the brook:

“When does the spring become cold?”

lingyin 2 beautiful carvings

Beauty, Crowds, Wealth, Beauty (West Lake, Hangzhou)

Hangzhou on West lake

Hangzhou on West lake

West Lake, Hangzhou Lotus Blooming in Garden

West Lake, Hangzhou Lotus Blooming in Garden

West Lake, Hangzhou: lotus and pavillion off Su Causeway

West Lake, Hangzhou: lotus and pavillion off Su Causeway

This province (Zhejiang) is rich (for China); this town Hangzhou is money, money, money. But also…between the Lamborghini dealerships and babes in heels at glass-mod bars, it’s also full of it’s renowned beauty — sung by poets for centuries. China’s postcard.

west lake kenny on bridge stairs
west lake willow and bridge

If you don’t take these kind of photos, you can be arrested.

That is a joke. Here are some of our obligatory beauty shots.

I have edited out the fact that it’s incredibly crowded. Almost impossible to bike through the throngs of tour groups. Party black sedans pulling up here and there and extruding lovely things in summer dresses, a grandma and cute one kid in Hawaiian shorts.

Hangzhou temple on West lake

Hangzhou temple on West lake

Ate in an old alley away from the lake (pickled bamboo, and — they have it in Zhejiang!!!) what we never had in China before, what we would previously have called “American Chinese Food”: ‘General Tso’s’ candy-coated meat! They love sweet here.

Just dont’ get run down by scooters, cars, bikes, buses.
west lake island pagoda view

hangzhou west lake boatman

hangzhou west lake boatman

West Lake, Hangzhou: Too many waterfront gardens to tour...

West Lake, Hangzhou: Too many waterfront gardens to tour…

Hangzhou new and old

Hangzhou new and old

Hangzhou's West Lake for real: the new city!

Hangzhou’s West Lake for real: the new city!

Teacher, Friend, Son of Artists

Xiao Xiao's mother's art

Xiao Xiao’s mother’s art

Kenny art vincents mother2art vincents motherhad a wonderful “tutor” in Qingdao who took care of him while I was teaching, a part of the university compensation (which was also room & board and a lot of lovely perks like trips, and kindnesses like dinners); you could say it that way. Or it was a part of Chinese hospitality. Or it was part of an authoritarian system we saw in Beijing, where students are ‘volunteered’ time-consuming institutional duties that are anything but voluntary.

Upshot, this magnificent young man, a grad student (they say “post-graduate”) in translation specializing in the petroleum industries, and his fiancee, same field, were our companions and especially, Xiao Xiao and Kenny were often together. He kicked Kenny’s ass in badmitton, and recruited guys to play basketball at all hours of the day and night. They ate in Sichuan, Dongbei, and local restaurants around campus. They made silly movies using an iPad app.

And we learned Xiao Xiao’s parents are both noted artists: his father has a studio at Beijing’s 798 and runs an art complex there. His mother’s work (above) is traditional style, and she’s a calligrapher.

And his father’s work is below. His grandmother in Fujian was a village teacher. His grandfather hid the village’s “cultural relics”–treasures from the temple — during the Cultural Revolution, and suffered terribly as a result. Now the relics are in temples and museums.

art vincent's father

Nanjing’s (great) City Wall

Nanjing’s city wall inspired the Ming sections of the Great Wall.

The great mystery: Why are these magnificent, 50’-high walls still standing? Ransacked and demolished, bombed and attacked … yet in such good condition?
jill on nanjing city wall
(On UNESCO’s “tentative list” of world treasures http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5324/ ) “It is witness to the brilliant achievements of ancient China in the planning of urban defence facilities, craftsmanship of city wall construction, and overall development of feudal capitals,” UNESCO says.

Gate, Nanjing City wall

Gate, Nanjing City wall

I think it was the Nationalists, who made it their capital. They improved it — adding some 6 new gates, for more efficient traffic flow. I think the modernization — workign the walls into the evolving city grid — may be the reason. The city was integrally already growing around and through the walls. This is my guess.

Alice, a Chinese grad student working in American literature (thank you to fellow former Fulbrighter of 2011-12 Jim Ryan, who taught at Nanjing University), told us at dinner that Nanjing people never wanted to be politically powerful, like Beijing, never wanted riches, like Shanghai. But were content being more laid back, neither north nor south, neither rich nor poor, neither powerful nor powerless. So with the city’s walls: why take them down?

The walls’s era is early-Ming Dynasty era.(1300s). Yet even to the end of the Ming (1600s), and its move to Beijing, Nanjing’s remained the world’s longest city wall, surrounding the world’s largest city.
nanjing historic photo japanese enter wall
Nearly all the gates, and the Ming wall, were there at the time of the Japanese invasion in fateful (‘Rape of Nanking’) December 1937. The massacre museum shows the army’s entry through the Guanhua Men.

Today, Guanhua Men is the top tourist spot for Wall viewing. It’s less “gate” (men) than fortress of several layers, laying up against the wall.
keny on nanjing city wall
After the Communist Revolution, 1/3 of the wall was torn down, around ’54. But not more. From ’81, Nanjing local government began to restore, reconstruct, maintain. Unlike Xi’an’s walls — square / rectagunlar – Nanjing’s zigzag, conforming to surrounding topography of mountains and rivers, lakes. It’s other distinction: most bricks are marked with Chinese characters, noting the brick’s origin, the official in charge of its manufacture, and the name of the individual brickmaker. It’s the only record of its kind.

Ethan Makes Local News With China Presentation

Ethan at the Montclair Community Pre-K presenting "An American Boy in China," his slideshow

Ethan at the Montclair Community Pre-K presenting “An American Boy in China,” his slideshow

Quite proud of Ethan, who after graduating fromt he Montclair Community Pre-K 5 years ago, returned to show his PowerPoint presentation, with music, “An American Boy in China,” to about 125 very interested four year olds! It was covered by The Patch, our local online news service.

Graduate Returns to Pre-K to Share “An American Boy in China” Slideshow

Lovely how there were a couple of little boys who had just moved here from China. We hope it helped their classmates learn more about their birthplace so everyone can become better friends. The Patch story used a great photo of Ethan and a calligrapher he met in Xi’an, who did a calligraphy for Ethan, because he was impressed Ethan had a chinese name (Li San) and that he could write it in Mandarin characters. The story tells more about it.

In Xi'an with a calligrapher. The poem he inscribed says, TO see far, you must climb high," which means...Study hard!

In Xi’an with a calligrapher. The poem he inscribed says, TO see far, you must climb high,” which means…Study hard!

 

 

China Books for Kids

 

Year of the Tiger by Allison Lloyd

Year of the Tiger by Allison Lloyd

Before we went to China, we started purchasing books to read (& to bring, English kids’ books are hard to find — and if you can, they’re expensive in China). I’ve wanted to share this list for a long time.

Picture books: Nonfiction

A Time of Golden Dragons by Song Nan Zhang & Hao Yu Zhang, ill. A picture book about the millennial year coinciding w year of dragon, most powerful sign

 Chinese New Year Tricia Brown photogr Fran Ortiz. Preparations for, & meanings of, new year in US Chinatowns. Colorful.

Picture books:Fiction (mostly reinterpreted folkore

Little Plum by Ed Young – a Tom Thumb tale.

All the Way to Lhasa A tale from Tibet by Barbara Helen Berger. We enjoy this.

The Hunter A Chinese folktale retold by Mary Casanova Illustrations Ed Young. Love folk tales.

The Beggar’s Magic A Chinese Tale retold by Margaret & Raymond Chang Ill David Johnson

Red Thread written/ill Ed Young.Great one.

The Magic Horse of Han Gan by Chen Jiang Hong. An animal tires of war. A favorite.

Lon Po Po A Red-Riding Hood Story from China (Caldecott medal) Ed Young. Another enjoyable one.

The Terrible Nung Gwama A Chinese folktale adapted by Ed Young from the retelling by Leslie Bonnet Ill Ed Young.

 

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, a graphic novel (& an animated film)

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, a graphic novel (& an animated film)

Middle-grades Fiction

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai by Wu Lin We got this graphic novel in China, at the synagogue-museum in Shanghai. (Speakign of graphic novels: highly recommend the award-winning American-Born Chinese, which takes place in America; we read it later). A great book.

Shen and the Treasure Fleet  Ray Conlogue. Kind of slow.

 The Golden Key (Tangshan Tigers)   Dan Lee. I think an Australian series. Not bad.

Young Adult Fiction

Spilled Water  by Sally Grindley–Modern Yong Adult fiction, girl indentured, compares t Hunger Games. Enjoyed this. I think you can call it middle grades.

 Year of the Tiger  by Alison Lloyd– historical adventure like Percy Jackson. Really loved this. I actually would call this middle-grades.

 Dragon Horse  Peter Ward, 10th century China fantasy & adventure, catalog compares to Eragon. We found it slow and decided not to continue. Too many time, place- and flashbacks to ancient times, or myth, too soon.

 Golden Rat   Don Wulffson- Young Adult, dark adventure.

 Dragonwings  Laurence Yep*- Boys’ historical adventure like Percy Jackson. Part of Yep’s wrote adventure series, Golden Mountain Chronicles. The best. We couldn’t put them down. Set in America, mostly.

 The Serpent’s Children: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1849 Laurence Yep

 Mountain Light: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1855 by Laurence Yep

 Dragon’s Gate: Golden Mountain Chronicles, 1867 by Laurence Yep

 The Traitor: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1885 by Laurence Yep

Memoir & Nonfiction

Brothers: A Novel  Da Chen — Moving.

Colors of the Mountain  Da Chen – award-winning memoir. Moving and lovely writing. More so-called “scar literature” which some Chinese today find unbalanced and overly negative. We found it useful to understand earlier generations’ experience, even if it’s not what’s happening right now.

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution  Ji-Li Jiang.My middle schooler read this. I’d say it’s appropriate for middle grades. Excellent, searing, unforegettable “scar” literature about the damaging experience of growing up during the Cultural Revolution.

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party  Ying Chang Compestine, modern young adult set in 1972, teen & Maoism, Cultural Revolution. Everythign I said above. Hard to put down.

The Tao of Pooh is good for older kids, not just adults

The Tao of Pooh is good for older kids, not just adults

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff: both kids (middle grades) read it & really enjoyed it. Very simply written even though it’s an adult book on a complex topic.

More China Chic

Chinese contemporary art watch

 

Noted: Swatch, the funky (overpriced?) watch chain just hit me with this ad for their newest design. It’s called “New Gent Majestic Bird,” issued in a limited edition of 1,888 pieces (lucky 8s?).

The artists behind it are Ji Weiyu and Song Tao, a duo of photographers who call themselves Birdhead. According to Asiarctic, a website about contemporary art in Asia, they’re 33 years old, Shanghai-born and based, and concern themselves with the city, the urban environment.

“The design arises from Birdhead’s ongoing preoccupation with the medium of photography and the various ways in which photographic processes can explore and document the passing of time,” according to Swatch’s promotion.

 

Soulful Mongolian Horsehead Fiddle

Mongolian horse head fiddle

We saw Arga Bileg perform — a Mongolian orchestra fused with piano jazz — at the Asia Society last night. The orchestra included three horse head fiddles (above), a magical instrument that emits a horse’s cry.

Legend says a shepherd once received a flying horse he rode each night to his lover. But a jealous rival cut off the horse’s wings. After  it died, in his grief, the shepherd made the first horsehead fiddle in its honor, and all day and night, played poignant songs about — not the lover he wouldn’t be able to see, but his horse. Another fiddle legend says a wicked overlord killed a little boy’s favorite white horse. The white horse’s spirit then appears in the boy’s dream, telling him, ‘Make an instrument out of my body so we’ll always be together.’ And he does.

In both stories, the fiddle sound box is stretched with horse’s skin, its strings are made from horse hair, and horse bones become the fiddle neck. And of course, the scroll is the beloved horse’s head. I’m not an expert, but there are such lutes, of trapezoidal sound box, all around Central Asian steppes – Tuvan, Kazakh, Kyrgyz.

Our guide in Innner Mongolia played it, and also played horse head fiddle on mP3. Talk about great driving music. It is hauntingly beautiful. But only last night did I hear horsehead fiddle accompanied by throat singing. That’s when the singer attains two tones at once – a sound that seems to come from another planet. Imagine that under an uninterrupted bowl of stars on the empty steppes.

In China, we heard another artist perform Mongolian fusion: Sa Ding Ding, a half-Mongolian pop star they call “the Bjork of Asia.’ She acvtually shared the bill with the Black Eyed Peas at a U.S.-China friendship concert the embassy sponsored. She also sings in Tibetan and Sanskrit.

Sa Ding Ding, Chinese ethnic pop influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

Mongolian folk rock is kind of hip in Beijing. (Someone called it “Chinagrass” i.e. bluegrass, in English). We heard some at an outdoor Beijing indie music festival. Hanggai may be the biggest group; apparently they were Beijing punk rockers who heard throat singing one day, sparking an interest in their (mostly lost) Mongolian heritage.  Now Mongo-rock is part of the scene. Like the folk music we heard in Mongolia, like the Mongolian-jazz fusion we heard last night, Hanggai is also often mournful, open-sky plaintive. This is Hanggai. And this is their best known song, I believe an updated folk song, “Xiger, Xiger.” It’s also here. Like many Mongolian songs we’ve heard, it alternates between fast and slow. When the tempo picks up, a horse begins to gallop.

There is loss and longing here. After witnessing the desecration of the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, the ever-worsening disappearance of language and culture as resource-rich area is mined and settled and overtaken, it’s impossible not to read that into this music.

Being global, it wasn’t only Mongolians in NYC giving a hollering standing ovation to Arga Bileg last night, but a typically varied NYC audience, appreciating the sounds of one of history’s greatest peoples, keeping its culture alive.

NOTE: Thanks for the horse head fiddle pic to an English teacher in Mongolia called “Jim” who writes the Wandering the World blog.  The instrument is found elsewhere (like E. Europe); in Mongolian it’s called morin khuur. In Chinese, matouqin – 马头琴.

Lower E. Side Jewish/Chinese


My Jewish ancestors started in America on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Now it’s Chinese.

Kenny heard no Mandarin on the street during our day there, but “heavy Southern accents”–Fujianese, as NYC is home to many from Fujian province, down the coast by Taiwan. Yet we saw two Lanzhou beef noodle places, a dish from China’s west (yet loved everywhere) — flavored with 20 spices, including cinnamon.

My great-grandpa had a candy pushcart here (my father’s side were in nearby Williamsburg). We easily found 5 old schuls. Glorious highlight: the Eldridge Street Synagogue, 1852, an exquisitely restored gem, reopened 2007.

Outside the synagogue, it’s reasonably priced Chinese food, Buddhist temples, and grocers selling 2-foot long beans, plus rambutans and lychees. For the half century the Eldgridge synagogue was locked and disintegrating, nothing was stolen, the docent said. Good relations. Next year we want to come for “Egg Creams & Egg Rolls,” a street fair celebrating Jewish-Chinese community friendship.

It’s also very Puerto Rican, Hispanic, on the LES, and (this being NYC) other ethnicities, too.

Hipsters among them. (I guess I’m guilty of being a predecessor; like many 20somethings, I hung out at Max Fish on Ludlow St. in the early-’90s. And I lived briefly on a heroin-infested Suffolk St. midway thru Brown.)

Around 1973, mom took me here for great prices on blouses, suits & sweaters (she also shopped for upholstery, drapes), from the last Orchard Street garmentos. We got my brother’s tallis here. Now dumpling makers (pork & leek) sell to students from Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School, while an African American monk lights incense at the Buddhist Association, an active temple.

Eldridge has a proper museum on the ground floor, with these old neighborhood signs.

We also found these synagogues:
[1] the old Norfolk St. Synagogue/Ansche Chesed, 1849, now Angel Orensanz Cultural Foundation, a performance space thanks to a wowwing Spanish sculptor;

[2] Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, sad-looking all boarded up and overgrown with weeds, though preservationists are trying to raise funds;

[3] on Broome St., Kehilat Kadosha Janina, the only Greek (Romaniote) schul in the Western hemisphere, open sometimes;

[4] one we weren’t even looking for, Chasam Sofer, the longest continuously operating synagogue, built by Polish Jews in the 1940s.

In China, we often lamented the loss of culture to modernization, the Cultural Revolution. Our own material heritage is disappearing, here. You can see Streit’s Matzoh, but go quickly. Schapiro’s Wine closed only a few years ago.

And this isn’t on the preservationists’ list, just background. Soon it will be gone.

Doorway diagonally across from Streit’s Matzoh.

Seeing Like Painter Wu Guangzhong

Wu Gorge by Wu Guanzhong

“Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guangzhong” (1970s through early 2000s) is in its last week-end at the Asia Society in NY. We got to see the artist’s landscapes, combining tradition, as he uses old-time ink and rice paper, with abstract contemporary aesthetics, moreso in his later works – huge bold black strokes and colorful confetti points that recall Jackson Pollock. (Wu died at 90 in 2010.)

He was brave. He’d studied in Paris for 3 years and it was potentially fatal during the Cultrual Revolution that he was both Western-influenced and departed from the Socialist Realism demanded of art by that era’s fanaticism. According to the Times review of a few weeks ago, he destroyed a decade’s worth of work before the Red Guards could get to them. Still he went to a labor camp for a few years. Later, he was embraced and flourished at home.

After visiting Chongqing, built now of skyscrapers — so big a city it has the status of a province – but it’s still steeply perched on mountainsides leading down to the Yangtze River, with some old neighborhoods (small) preserved, we really enjoyed Wu’s vision of Old Chongqing:

This is our vision of Ciqikou (磁器口 or Chongqing Ancient Town), not even a recreation but actually real.

Wu also painted Zhouzhuang, a very popular 900-year old village this time in the East, an hour from Shanghai in the river delta, with 14 stone bridges. Sometimes it’s called the “Venice of China.” Here:
We saw it this way (it’s film – shot w/ some weird, probably expired old disposable):

Yesterday I got an email from a former student from the massive southern city of Guangzhou. I mentioned enjoying the hummingbirds & bunnies in my garden in the US. He said he’d seen those — once. So thru Wu’s ink paintings, once again we’re gravitating with a heavy heart to the old, straining to know what has disappeared, and yet feel joy and wonder at how Wu’s vision is at once postmodern and ancient – as China is, all the time.

PS We’re back in the US, but will keep blogging, there’s plenty to write, plus lots from travel in Shanxi and the Mongolias (Inner, Outer) that never went up. If you want an email notice, click “sign me up” on the right. Thank you so much, our 800 or so subscribers, we never expected that. Wish I could serve you all cold sesame noodles.

Granddad, Janni Shoot China

Shooter, shot


Amazing and rare when your grandparents visit you in China.

Shooting Suzhou St., in the Summer Palace


They shot lots of pictures. About 14,000 between them. They’ll only keep 8 or 9. Those’ll be some damn good pictures! Granddad published this book of his work, My Depth of Field, for charity. Stupendous landscapes. Artwork.

They’re extremely good.


They don’t think shooting themselves is interesting. In China, they captured clouds over Huang Shan, misty rice paddies, temple ruins, faces. By the way they stop so often, we’re made to think more about what we’re seeing.

Forbidden City




Finally they rested over hotpot!

Dazu: Chongqing’s Astonishing Buddha Caves

Walk thru bamboo woods…

It was Kenny’s idea to go

Dazu: ten thousand carvings, “monumental cave complexes” about Buddha, 2 hours outside Chongqing, in Sichuan. They’re not hacked out of mountains, but tucked into natural caves, dripping with jungle plants. It’s laid out, as one scholar notes, like a scroll unfolding, in a horseshoe-shaped valley. Nature is a temple.

Funeral – entering nirvana

The Dazu caves show life nearly 1,000 years ago. To win ordinary people over to Buddhism, the cave sculptures explain Buddha’s compassion with illustrations of motherhood: breastfeeding, a midwife beside a woman ready for birth, and even a carving of a mother moving out of the way where her baby peed in their shared bed. They also show the taming of animals, and the earliest evidence of a gun (a “bombard,” early-1100s).

Dazu escaped the violent frenzies of the Cultural Revolution, maybe because, in southern Sichuan province, buried in dense overgrowth of mountain valleys, the site was hard to access, hidden from harm.

Carved and painted during the Song Dynasty (960-1280), they were funded by a powerful patron. On q quiet, rainy day with no one there, the Buddhas offered themselves for contemplation.

The stories depicted contain Confucian and Taoist elements–indigenous Chinese influences absent from China’s older Buddha caves, which are more Indian, from before Buddhism fully enveloped China. (Unlike the other caves we’ve written about which are strongly influenced by Persian, classical Greek, and other cultures.) Dazu caves, the latest, are also the finest re: delicacy & complexity.

Dazu has been comparatively speaking little studied–through the mid-’00s, only two scholarly works in English. In 2006, USC held a conference, the first ever U.S.-China dialogue on Sichuanese temple-cave art.

In the caves’ renderings of buildings (see the big pic below, top & bottom) — cities, temples, architecture — there’s an unexpected spatial realism. Buildings aren’t frontal but 3-dmensional, comparable to perspective in Renaissance art.

Wheel of life


The university where I lectured on journalism & writing (Southwest) was kind enough to send us in a car, with a team of student caretakers who held me like a frail, old lady! Thanks for being pushy about it, Kenny. He wanted a feeling of completion, since we’ve seen the other great Buddha caves of China. This is the last, and in some ways –the storytelling, the naturalness in the woods, the Chinese-ness, the fine state of preservation and phenomenal artistry — greatest.

Lambie was happy, too.

Beijing’s Hidden Buddhist Treasures


Recently, we hunted down Beijing’s Western Yellow Temple–Xi Huang Si– squeezed between midtown (N.E. 2nd/3rd Ring Road) high-rises and thoroughfares.
Xi Huang Si is called the best surviving Lamaist (Tibetan Buddhist) structure here, and exquisitely restored. Noted for its white pagoda, it was built in 1782, during the reign of Qing Emperor Gaozong. Not sure how good (?) sources say it holds the personal effects of the sixth Dalai Lama, who died in Beijing. The Manchurian Qing, (as many of the Han and Mongol dynasties before them), loved the Tibetan faith.

Empty, tightly guarded, closed but to the monks we followed in, through a side alley. No sign, just a green patch a square block wide, hidden within the modern city. Anywhere else, it would be a number one sight, guidebook-cover material. But it’s Beijing, so rich in imperial treasures–though they’re hidden, fewer than before, at risk, hard to find, disconnected, surrounded islands nearly choked to death.
Hate the air, the traffic, the wanton destruction, prices, overpopulation, traffic, sprawl, madness, dust, water–it’s still Beijing, unique, unequaled. Home to what feels like a limitless wealth of Chinese cultural treasures. We’re not even halfway through our list of must-see temples.
Though it was closed, our friend and frequent traveling companion, Chinese-American studies professor Kuilan Liu (Kate Liu), charmingly sweet-talked our way in, looping her arm through the guard’s. We don’t know why it’s closed. The pagoda’s superb, complex reliefs are some of the most beautiful we’ve seen, and in mint condition.

Fun With Art

The kids like roaming around Beijing’s modern art scene. The Ai Wei Wei post was somber. This is the lighter side: going crazy at the art playground known as 798, on old factory train tracks, locomotive engines, working steam pipes, ramps, pieces you can climb.

798 is an amalgam… of commerce based on the creative industries, a symbol of China’s political opening, a showcase for individual creativity.

(798 is a set of 1950s, East  German-built Bauhaus radio tube factories now full of restaurants & radical-slogan-t-shirt shops as well as galleries and museums, anchored by the Ullens Contemporary Art Center. The factories peaked in the 1970s and failed in the ’90s, right at political opening. A sculptor of big outdoor pieces (Chen) and his artist wife (Wang) then set up a workshop in a furnace, & gradually added studios, offices, heat, publishing houses, exhibition space. By 2004, it got a ‘Protect Heritage’ law.

Last time here, spotted huge John & Yoko mural. This time, an old poster of Israeli Amos Gitai.

Cartoonist/caricaturist/children’s illustrator Zhang Guangyu, the pop hero whose name no one knew, was subject of a warehouse-size, first-ever show we loved. He drew China’s incredibly well-known “Monkey King” (folkloric) tv show, unbeknownst to most people.

(“Monkey King” cells now for sale, $10.) Earlier in life, Zhang was a revolutionary artist, “a culture laborer” as he said, making posters and murals for factories, printing newspapers & leaflets, and drawing a million political cartoons. A Peter Max/Lichtenstein/Shel Silverstein/Disney animator/Dr. Seuss/Gary Trudeau/etc rolled into one. Now at 798, his pop art is being recognized for the a influential, pioneering work it is.

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.

Top 10 Lessons, Midway Through Year

Sort of lost, as usual

At the Fulbright Mid-Year Conference in Xiamen–five days with the great full-year lecturers and getting to know the Spring-only group, I’ll be presenting…along the lines of this very condensed…

Ten Lessons Learned, Midway Through a Year in China

Mu Mansion, Yunnan


1. To understand anything, rely on Chinese journalism in translation.

Kuilan Liu, translator, scholar, friend


2. Banks are the object of protest. But life without them here (can you say “disintermediated”) isn’t great. In emergencies, there is no such thing as check, credit card, ATM. Find a place to hide a humongous wad on your person.

Calligrapher, Xi'an


3. Shame a student and you will never see his or her face again. (Suppose that’s why they call it “Losing face.”)

Mao Statue, Lijiang


4. Zithromax, Zithromax, Zithromax. Don’t leave town without a year’s supply x the number in your party.

Tagong cook, Sichuan


5. No matter how fab my lectures and exercises, students prefer field trips to places they’ve only heard about: global media and international NGOs.

6. When ad libbing a public speech (or–with any luck–delivering a prepared one), you might get away with a lighthearted opener but ultimately, weighty and formal are expected.

McDonald's, Old Beijing


7. Related: Give thanks, give tribute, give recognition.

Temple lamps, Chengdu


8. What the young feel and believe most deeply–everything you most want to know–they can’t articulate. Fish can’t explain water.

Guest speaker banquet


9. Gradual (imperceptible?) change is praiseworthy; upheaval is scary.

10. A little repression is always to be expected.

798 Art District, Beijing 2011

Tibetan Buddhism (Ate My Children)

I should’ve seen it coming. Kenny’s pre-teen rebellion, Ethan’s inherent spirituality, the human draw of the novel, colorful, mysterious. The children are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism. They began praying, behind my back, at temples during our trip to southwestern China (Chengdu, Sichuan and Eastern Tibet, Kham in the Garze Autonomous Prefecture). While I wasn’t looking, they got our guide Tenpa to teach them the motions.

I allow it. It’s all one god, Adonay or Avalokiteshvara (1,000-armed manifestation of the future Buddha). Getting them to stay seated in Beijing’s lovely synogogue, or to do Hebrew homeschool with me (though they finally do), is harder.

Trek past stupas, Kham (E. Tibet)

Tenpa, our 28-year-old guide/driver, drove to patriotic Tibetan rap. Tenpa walked to Lhasa and over the Himalayas to Nepal at 15, in 2 pairs of crappy shoes. It took 55 days to escape China, to attend school. Tibetan-area schools (as throughout rural China) are terrible, and China won’t grant passports or he would’ve flown. He slept in one blanket and a plastic sheet. His group of a dozen, with guide, walked at night to avoid being shot or arrested. His friend lost all his toes.

Once in Nepal, UNHCR and Tibetan government-in-exile flew them to Dharmasala. He stayed 7 years and (atypically) returned to China, to see his dying father. Parents who send their kids out for education are subject to Chinese punishment.


Up above 12,000 feet in the Tibetan grasslands, brown now in winter, we were surrounded by yaks and wild horses. Thousands of prayer flags flapped beside mani stones on roadsides. Every moment unveiled robed monks, tradtionally dressed herders in fur wraps, old women prostrating on the road on 1,000-mile pilgrimages, kids making murmuring rounds of the many sets of prayer wheels at surprisingly big monasteries in tiny villages. At the legendary (cold, oxygen-deprived) top of the world, first you marvel that anyone can survive. Then you try to digest the decorative, and natural, beauty.

Below this paragraph, what looks like several buildings, is an important monastery in Tagong, built to honor the 7th century King Songtsen Gampo, whose conquests created a Tibetan empire on the high plateau (and nearby parts of China and India), spreading Buddhism with conquest. (It didn’t, as I’d naively imagined, simply flow naturally from here like water downhill.) I believe Songsten married a Chinese princess. Mongol rulers loved and patronized lamas. Tibetan Buddhism ‘ate’ China’s ancient dynasties, too, serving as their spiritual leaders, until the 20th century.

Tibetan Buddhism: Born in splendid geographic isolation. Nurtured by sophisticated monastic education at large universities. Gifted with astonishing aesthetics. Now led by a man with rock-star charisma and Nobel-prize winning politics of nonviolent resistance.

Lower down (around 9,000′) in Kham, homes clung almost to cliffsides and terraces (walnut orchards, at the home where we stayed) were so steep, only ladders could connect them.

When we got to China last August, one of my first thoughts–seeing Beijing’s masses, the power-crazed immensity of the Forbidden City and Great Wall, the grim determination of the sharp-elbowed old ladies forcing their way through packed subways, likely survivors of horrors I can’t imagine–the thought was, ‘There is no hope for Tibet.’ The boys’ beloved nanny for about 6 years in Brooklyn is Tibetan, from a Kathmandu refugee community, educated (like Tenpa) in Dharmasala, her father one of the 80,000 or so who escaped over the Himalayas, on foot, in the years after Chinese annexation, from 1959 through the ’70s. She has a distant cousin in Garze, where we were, a Khampa. The Kham accent, clothing, and other cultural aspects, are slightly different. Once there were three kingdoms, then three historic areas. Today there’s a jigsaw puzzle of designations, but of course, it’s all Tibet.

The Tibetan diaspora has more of almost everything than the Khampas: Education. Money. Medical care (traditional and modern). Freedom. But they face language and culture loss. In these more remote Chinese Tibetan areas–far from Lhasa (Lhasa is now only minority Tibetan, resettled by Chinese using the highway and rail line)–education levels are “some of the lowest in the world” … but they still live, while enduring repression and hardship, Tibetan lives. The herders are some of the last nomads on earth.

The reasons Westerners love Tibetans, in their (I’m sorry) exquisite victimhood, are compelling and familiar. The Dalai Lama is our era’s Dr. King, our Gandhi, our precious sane voice of compassionate interfaith understanding. (“One religion obviously cannot satisfy all of humanity… therefore the only sensible thing is that all different religions work together and live harmoniously, helping one another.” The Power of Compassion by the Dalai Lama.) But these intellectual, political, and (yes) ‘radical chic’ elements, and the anti-China sentiment embodied in much Tibet-love, are all absent in my innocent kids.

Tibetan Buddhism: Vajrayana, “diamond” –- precious, changeless, pure, clear, able to cut anything without being be cut. It’s part Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion (magic, shamanism, nature worship); part Tantrism (Indian metaphysics of ‘interwovenness,’ that mystical Oneness of all things). It involves the senses: visual (intricate, symbolic mandalas); muscular (the hand gestures, the moving of prostration and wheel spinning); verbal (sacred syllables, Om Mani Padme Hum).

Do they get that? We’ve talked about it a little but… no. They simply loved, without complication, and were moved to pray, in the mountains and under the blueness.

Kenny suffered, on our second night at altitude, a serious form of illness called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a potentially fatal condition, especially among climbers marooned way up high (who deny the symptoms, so invested are they in the climb). But I recognized it quickly–thanks to printouts from the Everest Base Camp Clinic I had, and we had Tenpa and his SUV to race us down to a Chinese county hospital, in time. With rapid descent, and oxygen, and the car (always a lynchpin in the whole Tibet plan, for safety), he was fine. The edema was mild, caught early. (Our Beijing doc pronounced his lungs unharmed.) So the children were not really eaten. But I was provoked, profoundly, to consider the draw of the place for me, and for them, and for all of us.

The trip was so intense that I am, for the moment, going to leave it at that.

Kenny

Next post: “Green energy” hydropower development desecrating Eastern Tibet.

Lambie in the Muslim Quarter

Grand Mosque's Chinese Architecture

Grand Mosque courtyard. Built 1300s


Lambie visited Xi’an and saw a big, old mosque: the Grand Mosque. It’s Chinese-style!

Islam has been here since it was born. China has 20 million Muslims, like the Hui (“Way”) who speak Mandarin. Others speak languages that are like Turkish and Perisan. Also Mongolian.

Trying tea


Seeing the mosque made Lambie tired, so she went to a tea house in a mansion with many courtyards. It also was a puppet theater! The puppets spoke Mandarin!

Lambie meets some fellow puppets


Lambie sees lamb cooking


Then came the bad part. Lambie learned these people love eating lambs.

Lambie on top of Xi'an's City Wall


She ran away, up onto the city wall around Xi’an. It was the worst moment of Lambie’s life.

Bales of tea in the Moslem Quarter food market


After a while she remembered the puppets and the dried lychee black tea. China has its ups and downs.

Lambie at Xian Drum Tower

Bang a drum, Lambie! It’s going to be alright.

Smiling (Non-)Buddha

Lue Mnjun's enigmantic grins are everywhere.

The smiling work of leading Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun is everywhere–huge, grinning self-portraits, often in bubblegum colors. Taking Kenny to an all-day football (soccer) tournament yesterday, passed this. Ethan felt the smiles were genuine, goofy happiness. The Times piece linked above suggests the smiles may be the “illusion of happiness headed toward extinction.” Lue is part of what some call China’s Cynical Realism school, which meets the despair of contemporary urban China sardonically, with a sense of the absurd. Take it straight or metaphorically–Yue’s famous smiles are referencing Buddha’s smile. I don’t pretend to get Beijing life today. But I often think of a student, native of the city whose home was razed as part of the rezoning of low-rise alleys so high-rise towers could rise, who said, “I’m homesick every day.” And of an Edison, NJ dad born here and now back several years, for a hedge fund, who gets lost driving his own hometown.
My students’ latest sets of writing have wrestled the inexplicable delays in banning waste (“sewer”) oil from returning to the food stream; the wrongness of not letting a good candidate who wasn’t hand-picked run for office, and the anger on campus when hundreds of students were forced to “volunteer” for the administration, with work sometimes lasting until midnight, under penalty of disciplinary action. And there’s this. The smog (using the Embassy’s Air Quality Index, or AQI) has been above 400 this week & today, a multiple of emergency health conditions almost impossible to express. I didn’t put Ethan in his mask yesterday because our Chinese playdate didn’t have them. My friend said it was just fog, rolling in before the rain.

Forest Park, beside the Olympic stadia

Funny Chinese jokes on things


PRC the Peoples Republic of China “Im lovin it.” I bought this shirt but mum says i cant wear it untill we get to America beacause she says it’s offensive.

A funny joke in Chairman Mao. I think its funny because Mao is the cat and change the name to Meow since cats meow.

Contermporary Art

The 798 Art District is no longer cutting-edge, but still, it’s a glimpse into Beijing’s world-class art scene. I saw both documentary frankness and irony; a multi-pronged social critique. One show depicted a warehouse full of headshots of a sex worker, taken every few minutes all day. There are tons of Mao quotations for sale (on posters, shirts, bags, mousepads). I’m told this is nostalgia (hard for outsiders to understand) along with the irony we get immediately.

“Being a man of ‘noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, and a man who is of value to the people.’ ” As a China scholar said during my orientation — Mao didn’t send his son to Harvard Business School, but to die on a battlefield in N. Korea. There’s a KFC logo shirt rendered PRC (People’s Republic of China) with Mao as the Colonel. We liked Chairman Meow, where Mao is a cat.