Monday, December 12, 2011

The Voice of Treason: Ai Weiwei

The Voice of Treason; China's Most Famous Dissident Artist, Ai Weiwei

This is a very simple article but the point Ai Weiwei makes in the paragraph that begins, "Ai believes the world shares responsibility for what is happening in China," is particularly interesting. The US has abdicated a lot of moral responsibility in the last few decades and continues to do so. Now our "civilian" police are equipped to respond to non-violent protests with military precision and  protected by military armor.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Making new friends and keeping the old

This past Monday, November 21, was a special day at Pace. Several of the friends that we made at Nanjing Normal University this summer visited the Pace--Pleasantville campus. In addition to seeing again the wonderful faculty who were so generous with their time during our visit, people such as Dr. Wu Yidong, Dr. Xu Keqian, Dr. Lin Yipeng and Dr. Tang Huisheng, we met open and interesting new acquaintances such as Dr. Bai Li of the NNU School of Social Development. After a delicious lunch at the Pleasantville Country Club, we met on campus for the Chinese Cultural Seminar. I especially enjoyed the all-too-brief lectures on Contemporary Confucianism by Dr. Xu and on the Dao by Dr. Tang.

I wish that the students in my film theory class had heard the lecture on the Dao, because they would have recognized the seeds of Eisenstein's editing techniques--dialectics--in this brief look at Daoism.

My one regret, other than the brevity of the time we spent together, is that I was unable to go to the NYC campus to hear the lectures from Bai Li and Dr. Ni Yannian. I was especially curious about Dr. Bai's lecture on Contemporary Chinese Muslims after she told me that the form of my surname in Chinese (ma - tone 3) would have indicated in China that I might be Muslim, since surnames of many Muslims begin with the "ma" sound of "Muhammed." I should remember that! Anyway, I am sorry to have missed those no doubt fascinating lectures.

Thank you to our Pace Confucius Institute, as well as Nanjing Normal University, PPMG and Hanban for making this cultural exchange possible. And may it continue! I offer special thanks here, also, to Dr. Weihua Niu, Dr. Zhou Yanyu (Xie Xie, laoshi!), and Dr. Zhu Min and their program assistants for this enjoyable and enlightening afternoon.

Meryl Streep and Joel Coen discuss filmmaking with young Chinese

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Friday, July 8, 2011

Meanwhile Back in Suzhou

Ok, where was I...? Oh, yes, Xian to Suzhou, which happened before we went to Nanjing, but I was so eager to tell you what happened late one night in Nanjing that I...oh, never mind.

So, we drove back to the Xian airport past those noir-ish, sparsely-lit sidewalks where the ladies had been walking and talking to people in cars but now it was daylight, so that wasn't happening. We did not have any incidents at the airport unless you count the rather frenzied search for wine after we determined that, yes, you can bring your own liquor on an internal flight in China. Whoop!  That out of the way, we flew to Shanghai.  Then, Janet, our new guide, met us at the airport and we boarded a van and took off into the Shanghai night, drove for hours, and ended up in Suzhou. We almost lost our dean ("Nira, we hardly knew ye!") under a pile of shifting luggage on this ride because the van was just a titch too small for us and our luggage was way too close and unfettered.  Luggage becomes a theme in the trip at this point.

And, you may be thinking, but they are flying home from Shanghai, so why are they going to Shanghai and they still have six days on their trip? Why are they leaving Shanghai? I thought that's where they wanted to be? What are they doing in Suzhou? Well, the following day was to be the Dragon Boat Festival, a national holiday, so...oh, don't ask. It's complicated.  The important thing about the following day is that it rained 猫 and 狗 all day. Too bad for the Dragon Boat Festival and too darn bad for us too, because Suzhou seemed like a lovely city, smaller than the others we visited, and it is renowned for its gardens, of which we managed to see precisely one. It is also renowned as the "Venice of China," because it's a city of canals and we took a ride through some of the charming canals. That was fun but damp. We got to look through the doors of people's houses if they faced the canal.  Very interesting. Quite a few people have cats, I observed. We also got to see the backs of people's houses if the front faced the street; it wasn't good to consider what probably comes out of the back of those houses and into the canals.  Many of the houses, we were told, do not have indoor plumbing.  Despite the drizzle and rain, though, we did have some pretty stimulating experiences.

We visited the Humble Administrator Garden.  There were a LOT of people and their umbrellas there but it's a lovely garden filled with soothing sounds and with meandering paths, bridges, moving water, fish, beautiful flowering plants and trees (enhanced by rain), and some small, lovely buildings. It's a shame that the day was just not conducive to outdoor activities.

Our next activity, in fact, was indoors and it was fascinating.  I understand that the point of the activity was to get us to buy stuff at the end of the tour (I cooperated), but still it was very, very interesting and certainly something you won't see anywhere in the US.  We went to the Suzhou Number 1 Silk Factory. We saw everything, and I mean it, everything, in our tour. We watched silkworms munching their mulberry leaves, we saw silkworm poop a-plenty, and I made a friend for life.  Joe Ryan pleased me by taking a picture of the worm who seemed so fascinated by me. This worm never took his eyes off me the whole time I was standing by the tray. He was standing up looking at me, yes.  I like to think that the products I purchased later were little gifts from him to me. I wish I could post the picture (Google? Are you listening?). We saw cocoons in all different stages and we saw, up close, every part of the process of teasing out and pulling the individual thread of which each cocoon is constructed (except if there are twins!), and of moving those threads through the process by which they eventually become scarves and lots of other products, such as comforters and pillow covers.  Don't take silk for granted.  Think of this as a process that requires real people to work with yucky stuff and have their hands in boiling water all day.  Yes, individuals do this and we looked over their shoulders.  It is very specialized work and I hope that Bag Balm is handed out to everyone at the end of the day. So the whole thing was enjoyable and instructive and, finally, quite costly. But I accept responsibility for that. Oops!

In the afternoon, we took another bullet train, this one from Suzhou to Nanjing.  I could tell you about the problem with our luggage, which just could not have been anticipated, but all's well that ends well.  Our luggage, which we could never have gotten onto the train, went ahead of us to Nanjing and that was a perfect, though a fraught and, for Pace, costly, solution.

The REAL Highlight of My Nanjing Experience

We spent four full days in Nanjing and, for me, being there was the best part of my China experience.  We stayed long enough to meet and interact multiple times with some very nice people and we did very little tourist stuff; we had classroom time learning more Chinese language and some practical knowledge and experiences (translation:  "we shopped") and we had a series of interesting lectures from professors at the Nanjing Normal University.  I will have more to say about the days we spent in Nanjing, but I have to get the peak experience out there to the world first.  I am so eager to tell this story that I am skipping the day spent in Suzhou, but--not to worry--I will go back to that.

It wasn't a particularly interesting day (Wednesday, June 8) till we went on a trip to the other campus of Nanjing Normal.  It is far from the original, old campus (the school is older than Pace, by the way), and seemingly way out of town, but the way things work around here, it's probably still in town, just doesn't seem like it. So this campus was built about ten years ago and it is very spread out with all shiny, modern buildings.  Very impressive.  We met up there with some of the same people we seem to see everywhere and a few new ones.  First, we had a meeting, quite formal and structured (I've lost count of how many of these we have sat through). Then we were driven to the library, which has a cafe downstairs, so we (now a subset, i.e., just the visitors and a couple of our entourage members, including my personal favorite and new friend, Mr. Wu). Then we were driven to another building and had another big banquet with all the same people from our previous meeting. I got to sit by Mr. Wu again and he and I talked about literature, teaching and summer vacations.He is going fishing, just so you know.

We had numerous dishes, including a surprise birthday cake for Deborah, and a soup with some very strange stuff in it (the one thing I thought I could identify looked like a chicken gizzard)(I only tasted the broth, yuck), and--the bonus round--what turned out to be fried chicken "paws," as Adelia delicately called them. I didn't know what they were, so crunched through one and ate it, then crunched another and spit it out (Mr. Wu was away toasting someone at that moment, fortunately). Tried another and spit it out too. I thought perhaps the first one was an aberration, but it turns out they were all like that. On purpose.

Then the party was over and two of our Pace people (I am protecting your identities) decided to go for a foot massage at some place back downtown that an incredibly gorgeous PPMG staff person recommended and I was invited to go with them. You are surprised I said ok, right? Obviously this is a trip where I have stepped way outside my comfort zone! And, to be honest, I have not regretted that even one time.  Even with the chicken paws and the donkey.

Well, I can't begin to tell you what a weird experience this was. The PPMG rep (we had all met Isabelle at Pace before) took us to the hotel (not one we were staying at) and made the arrangements. Then she left and we fumbled through the rest of it with people who spoke not one word of English. And it's not like we've learned a helpful vocabulary for, say, foot and head massages, which is what we all had. We were all required to take showers first, and the charge for the showers was greater than the charge for the additional services, so we see how they turn some profit.  None of us knew the proper, shall we say, protocol for dressing and undressing in a Chinese spa, so we just got on with it however we could.  I, for one thing, ended up with both my towel and my abandoned clothing getting wet from my shower.  Oh, and we had lockers to deal with, but only a staff person had the key, so I can't begin to tell you the embarrassing number of  times I had to call her back, since I was pretty disorganized.  I don't exactly have my own routine for Mandarin Massage established. 

We finished our showers at all different times so had to be led individually through multiple turns down hallways lit for perpetual twilight.  It was eerie  because there were so many doorways off the hallways but I could get no sense of whether there were people behind all the doors, or even some of them. Was I being kidnapped? Had we been separated and assigned to different interrogators?

The foot massage was very pleasant.  Once we were situated in our room that had several BIG comfy chairs in it, these young women dressed like 15-year-old private-school girls came in and took our feet in hand(s). After they determined that we did not want to watch tv, they got to work, but soon set up an incessant chatter. That part was not relaxing but since we couldn't understand a single word, it was sort of like Muzak.

When they were finished, the head massage woman came in and was shocked to find three heads, rather than the one she had been informed needed massaging. She was peeved about this, I would surmise.  I went last so had time to examine her performance by using my peripheral vision. Anticipation had plenty of time to build.

So, turns out the head massage is done by this woman who sits behind you in the big massage chair.  She wears a long, split skirt and she hikes it up and "mounts" (so to speak) behind you.  Let's just say that by the time this was over, I figured that she and I were--at the very least--going steady, if not planning the size of the family we want to have together. I was, literally, in a sweat and she was too, because at one point she paused in the massage and heaved a big, hot sigh. We were making a lot of sweat between us.  Man oh man. I opened my eyes at the end (closing them was part of my unsuccessful relaxation attempt) and--uh oh!--my friends were gone and it was just this head-massager with me in this dark room.  And I wasn't sure at this point that I had given her the kind of encouragement that would signal that we had bonded in a special way. And I had forgotten to drop breadcrumbs in the hallway so I could find my way back.  She led me out the door of our twilit room into the twilit hallway around the many corners and did deliver me safely. She did not ask me for my phone number or email address so we could touch base later or plan whose family to visit over the holidays.

We had a good laugh about all of this in the cab.  A very good laugh. A very, very good laugh. Anyway, the foot massage was relaxing, but the head massage was...strange. I wasn't quite relaxed enough for it, let's say!

And then there was the part where we tried to stiff the cab driver for his fare, but just don't check the Nanjing police blotter for that evening and you will not risk destroying the high reputation I have attained with you.

PS: If you had a bad day today, will it make you feel better if I tell you I somehow managed to pee on both pants legs in a squat toilet before dinner this evening? 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

People and Pandas

Got this from Andrew Revkin's tweet:

"China moves from human census--1.33 billion--to panda census--1596--at last count."

We came so close to those mountains outside of Xian!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Traditional Chinese Music on the Guzheng

The performer is Liu Fang, a native of China who now lives in Montreal.  She is a world-renowned performer on this instrument and other ancient ("gu") Chinese stringed instruments. There are many YouTube videos, some sounding more like western classical music on the harp.  This performance, though, is traditional music like what we heard in Xian. This tune is "Seagulls Playing in the Water." It is an excerpt from a longer work.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

From Beijing to Xian

[Conjure for yourself here a picture of confusion and consternation at Beijing Airport as various passport data-entry errors are discovered.  Picture dread and consternation as our flight is late in departing.][International incident narrowly averted.][Endless ride in darkness from the new, soaring Xian airport to Xian city accompanied by our guide, Mr. Harry Wu.  From the window of the bus we see coal plants belching smoke into darkness.  We pass through mysterious intersections where cars are stopped curbside and numerous ladies are observed strolling the sidewalks. There seems to be quite a lot of activity in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Much of it feels like an industrial area but occasionally we pass by groups of children playing under streetlights. A Dantesque landscape?  Or was I just tired and hungry?]

Xian is a large city now, but at its core is the old, walled town that was a major stop on the Silk Road.  In Xian we observed much greater ethnic and racial diversity than in Beijing, because there is a sizable Muslim population, the result of movement west to east along the Silk Road hundreds of years ago. Xian has much to recommend it, but here the trip began to feel a little like a Long Walk, with stops for feeding, whether we were hungry or not.  The weather began to be much hotter too.

Our first morning in Xian we took a long bus ride toward the mountains (there are pandas up there somewhere, but they were not on our agenda), eating lunch in a restaurant with a very local feel to it, and finally arriving at the location of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors. Peter Hessler in Oracle Bones offers an interesting description of the accidental discovery of this very significant 3rd-c BCE archeological find and the history of its excavation.  1974! Imagine! This vast repository of individualized, life-size (and larger) terra cotta figures, including horses, and chariots--truly an army--was discovered by a farmer that year. I can't help thinking of Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" here as the mundane activities of the humble farmer and the intended glorious afterlife of the first emperor of China come together in a field.

To this point, China hadn't seemed so crowded to me, but on this particular hot, dusty day, part of a holiday weekend in China, thousands of people had shown up to see the army of Qin Shi Huang. It started out feeling like Disneyworld (crowds! lines! trams!) without the fun rides and Mickey. The warriors that have been excavated are in three different areas and, fortunately for us, they are now covered by protective buildings. Getting through the entries to each building was a test of our individual aggression and physical strength.The crowds inside the buildings meant that it was hard to get up to a railing to see the dig and this raised the level of paranoia among some of the shorter members of our group who feared being trampled, crushed, lost or all three, but the sight of the warriors is breathtaking and thought-provoking and I think that at some point each of us experienced a moment of, simply, awe. The trip was long, the day was really hot and the crowds were daunting, but my advice is...just don't go on a holiday weekend. Duh.

Xian has many other attractions, though we only took in a few.  We had a pleasant morning stroll along the top of the city wall, where many people enjoy riding bikes, and an evening of dinner and entertainment at the Shaanxi Grand Opera House.  Dumplings are the specialty of the Shaanxi area, and we had a wonderful dinner that evening featuring too many dumpling varieties to count as well as delightful music from traditional Chinese instruments and dancing.  The experience was a little dinner-theatre-ish but the performances were consistently interesting and I came away with the feeling that I had gotten at least a little flavor of the cultural traditions of the T'ang dynasty.  I discovered I really enjoy the music of the seven-stringed qin (guqin) and the zheng or guzheng.

One of the best things about Xian is the Shaanxi Provincial Museum.  Don't let the word "provincial" fool you into thinking this is some kind of dusty little set of shelves with a drowsy docent at the front desk.  This is a large and beautiful museum with artifacts of the four dynastic periods carefully displayed in a way that avoids overwhelming visitors and allows each object to be admired.  This is a very fine museum that is well-organized and contains many quite spectacular items including a kneeling archer from the Terra Cotta Army.  Finally, a chance to get close to one without others' heads in the way.

About this time, the group staged a mini-strike and opted out of some of the visits to ancient monuments, though quite a few people ended up taking non-forced strolls to the Bell and Drum Towers.  The proximity to Starbucks may have had something to do with this.

Monday, June 6, 2011

June 7 8:30 am

For me, and I suspect for some others, the highlight of our time in Beijing came on our last day when we met with a group of people in a hutong (a very old area of the city, a narrow alleyway lined by old residences, some of which consist of a series of small structures surrounding a small, covered courtyard). Most of Beijing was once covered with such places but now the majority have been removed to make way for new buildings. Beijing has come upon the idea of preserving this part of the past just a little late, though perhaps not too late.

Most though not all of the people we met at this "special cultural activity" were elderly, though some were probably in their fifties and one man was much younger. Through the many friends and connections of our dedicated and hard-working Confucius Institute director, Dr. Weihua Niu, we've met so many interesting people and this group was the most diverse in terms age, interests and experience.

Our conversation with them was facilitated by Weihua and her college friend Linda, who is now a travel agent. Most the people were old enough to have lived through the destructive and terrifying Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s. They spoke about their experiences of the changes China has been through in the last several decades. One man said boldly that the Cultural Revolution had destroyed everything that was good about the old China. Many of their concerns were the same as people of their age in the US and elsewhere--taking care of older or ill family members who don't live nearby, children and grandchildren who have moved away, having enough money to be self-supporting, the availability of health care (I believe we were all convinced that we have it GOOD in the US, no matter how broken we think our system is).

The most touching part of the meeting was the singing performances. First, the group sang for us in Chinese and then we all sang "Auld Lang Syne" together lustily. Then one woman sang a lovely rendition of "Memories" from Cats and the most elderly gentleman sang a beautiful, beautiful "God Bless America." There was a lot of sincere emotion packed into this song by the singer, a former editor/publisher, and we responded in kind. I believe everyone, both Chinese and American, was moved.

We learned to make zongzi, sticky rice (and sometimes beans) wrapped in a lotus leaf and bound with lemongrass. This is a traditional Dragon Boat Festival activity. The packets are then thrown in a river, though we skipped that part. Deborah gamely tried her hand at the preparation but shouldn't quit her day job.

We drew numbers to exchange gifts--we received some lovely, meaningful ones--and then we all walked into another room and found ourselves in 44 Restaurant, where we ate course after course of creatively presented and prepared Hunan (southwestern China) cuisine. Rabbit (I wish I could post a picture of how this dish was presented--on a bed of lettuce, thin strips of rabbit topped with a light, dry chutney-like mixture of scallion, cilantro, and chilies, around this mound, a little L-shaped stockade fence and alongside the mound two small rabbits carved out of tiny tomatoes), catfish stew, pickled lotus root with blueberry, spicy pickled vegetables, beef with spicy chutney, rice wine soup--if you're ever in Beijing, go to 44 Restaurant!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sunday, June 5 morning 10:45am

On Thursday, June 2, we met with representatives of the sponsor of the international Confucius Institutes, Hanban. First, we took a tour of their beautiful exhibits about Chinese language and culture on the first floor of the building. I hadn't realized Hanban published so many books. There was a very impressive array and I took down titles of several books I want to be sure we have available to us at Pace. Many of the exhibits are interactive. Joe Ryan was showered with opportunities for interaction:  you will see proof of his scholarly nature and accomplishments when the pictures of him in the robes of a scholar appear.  Then he was given a plush talking panda for his many grandchildren.  And the panda would not shut up! That's the only time so far I've seen Joe red in the. Face from anything but a near heatstroke!

We met briefly with some representatives of Hanban who were interested hearing about the scholarly work involving Chinese language and culture we all hope to do.  I couldn't help but notice with trepidation the insistence on language over culture.  I may be doomed, since my proficiency in Mandarin will not take me very far. Of course, we all have four days of language study to look forward to (feel free to consider that phrase a euphemism for some though not all of us) in Nanjing.

One curious emphasis in the brief meeting (though I did fixate for my own reasons on the spoken language thing) was the talk about the necessity for modern China to become a more creative environment. It was later in the day that we saw this sign outside the Temple of Heaven addressed to honored guests (verbatim): "May we remind you, please be self-restraint and be a  good tourist to mold a well-mannered imagination."

This demonstrates that there is quite a lot of work to be done.  Of course, first you have to admit you have a problem.  Check Step 1 off the list.

Sunday, June 5 morning 8:30am

Sunday June 5 blog 3

Speaking of returning to the past...the theme of the search for a steady guide through a time of transition was first introduced in our meeting with faculty of Tsinghua University on their lovely campus in Beijing. We met with faculty representing psychology, sociology, Chinese language and literature, English stylistics and several other  subjects. We were able to learn a lot from one another just by introducing ourselves and talking about our interests. This is where I first pulled "zhentan xiaoshuo" out of my hat.

What we so easily call "detective fiction" (and can be relatively sure we all understand what we're referring to) is difficult even to name in Chinese. "Zuian xaoishuo" is "crime fiction," a broader category. Each time I have used the term to describe the rather specialized interest I have developed people cast light and lively looks at each other and they often laugh. Perhaps it is my pronunciation? Or maybe it is surprise? Embarrassment? They do know what I'm talking about though, as the names Sherlock Holmes and Robert Van Gulik (author of the Judge Dee novels) are then brought up. Step 1 in my research project is to find someone to help me understand this reaction.

From what I understand from the little research I have been able to do, when we say "private investigator" or "private eye" and believe we understand each other in our culture, we are speaking of a kind of work that has a more complex reception in China. If I understand correctly, one cannot hang out a shingle saying "Private investigator" in China. It is not legal to openly operate in a way that parallels or challenges the official legal system. One can, however, be an "information consultant" and operate carefully and discreetly to go where the official system doesn't go, won't go, or can't go. I'm sure There are Chinese authors writing what we would recognize as texts of private detection, but finding them isn't simply a matter of a Google search. Particularly since Google itself is not a welcome presence in China!

The only native Chinese authors whose work in this genre I really know are now living and publishing outside of China, Qiu Xiaolong in the US and Diane Wei Liang in England. Both the high and low versions of detective fiction give us a very interesting look at the border where the official version of the law meets reality, often revealing the shortcomings of either the law (its restrictiveness or the corruption of its enforcement) or of social reality (exotic personal failings or small mis-steps that lead to slippery slopes) or, often, both. My challenge is to find the "true true" name of this writing in contemporary China and to gain access to those entertaining but dangerous stories.

All periods are transitional periods but some transitions are more dramatic than others. Right now, the Chinese people are navigating very dramatic change and trying to do it without capsizing. At the risk of taking my seafaring metaphor too far, I would say they are trying to find materials to build a rudder that will steer their craft safely and steadily through this time. Stories about crime and the limits of law are unlikely to be welcome additions to the "official version" of this period's history because they are likely reveal uncomfortable truths.

June 4 Evening (almost June 5) - Blog Entry #2

June 4 blog 2

In Beijing, we visited the Summer Palace, went to a performance of the Beijing Opera at Tian Qiao, climbed the Great Wall at Juyongguan, entered and escaped Hong Qiao Market and, on our final day, visited the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square  and the Forbidden City. I don't intend to write a travelogue, though each place left me with significant and, I believe, lasting impressions. What I really want to write about is the people we've met. For the travelogue, there are other sources; for the people, you've got to be there.

We met with several groups in Beijing for a variety of purposes. On Tuesday evening we met with a group of men who study Confucius in an attempt to discover what he has to teach modern China. They meet regularly on their own time to study and discuss Confucian thought. We came together in the upstairs conference room of a simple yet elegant building overlooking a lake, a singularly beautiful location in which it was quite easy to ignore the fact that we were still in the midst of millions of others. Our hosts were very welcoming and treated us with respect.

The talk was of Confucius as a guide for a constitutional society. If there has been any theme that weaves together all of our interactions with the groups we have met, it is the idea that in this spectacularly transitional period, many people in China are grasping for some kind of guidance for their new society. So much of what held    China together in earlier periods--or, at least, a system of values held in common by most people--was destroyed in the twentieth century. There are generations of adult Chinese who were deprived of their country's intellectual history, who know little of it because they weren't allowed to learn about it. Now, they are trying to fill empty spaces in their cultural memory, learn their own history, and hope that in their past they can find a trustworthy guide for their future.

Can Confucius be a good guide for modern China? I don't know enough about the subject to offer an opinion. I can say that I was a bit troubled by some of what I heard. For instance, the idea that "filial piety" should be one of the fundamental underpinnings of society or that "the countryside has much to teach intellectuals" have, for me, a kind of dissonance.  Even the appeal to Natural Law seems to me to have some very unhappy associations. Given the experience of the Chinese people, I can understand the desire to look to one of the major figures in their history for guidance now. And I do know that I have much left to learn about China, past and present.

June 4 Evening - Blog Entry #1

June 4  10 pm Xian, China

Ok, so last time we connected, I was exhausted and was one of a group of sort of cranky folks. I'm happy to report that we are no longer cranky.  There is the prospect of a free morning tomorrow, Sunday!  With that relaxing thought in mind, let me back up and cover some of the ground I've, well, dragged over, since last I wrote.

Our hotel in Beijing was the Penta Hotel in the Chongwenmen district in the heart of downtown. Fortunately for some of us there was a Starbucks just around the corner though I am enjoying drinking lots of tea too. Black tea, green tea, jasmine tea, teas for all occasions. The jasmine is served in the evening.

And speaking of cuisine, did I mention I ate donkey my first night in China? Yes, I ate it even knowing what it was. Thank you for admiring my bravery. It was ok. I am tempted to say here that it tasted like chicken, but it was really more like a slightly bland beef. There was nothing objectionable about its taste or texture and I probably wouldn't have questioned what it was since it looked rather beef-ish too. Every time I look at a menu here I am forced to think about how culture-bound my ideas about foods are. There are billions of people perfectly happy and healthy eating foods and animal parts that I would never go near. No more donkey for me, but you can serve me lotus root any time!

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Beijing is a huge city of industrious people, canals shaded by willows, boulevards divided by quiet, shaded parks with benches, some extraordinary, eye-popping architecture, and some very mundane architecture.  It has shopping malls, Starbucks, millions of bicycles, KFC, articulated buses, and sometimes gridlock. We are staying on the 11th floor of a very nice hotel. We have just completed three full days of activities here and are totally exhausted. 
I have not been able to get much Internet access, so I am currently in the hotel lobby accessing it from there.  Though I can read and send email, the system is not letting me in to the Internet to access this blog directly; therefore, it is being sent to a 3rd party to post.  I am exhausted and distracted, so I will end this post and try to write more later.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chinese detective fiction

Tomorrow's the big day--our group is departing Newark Liberty Airport at 12:05 pm.  Beijing, here we come...after a 13.5 hour flight. I can watch at least six movies in that time or I can use my time more wisely by doing some reading and working on some ideas I have for my time in China. And I think Dr. Poe is going to make me do some brainstorming about our fall class, though my tendency (Kids, don't try this at home!) is to do that in, say, late August.  Dr.'t make me change my seat.

Since classes finished a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been able to devote more time to considering precisely what area of contemporary Chinese writing fits my interests and overlaps with my academic preparation.  One of the subjects I teach at Pace is American Detective Fiction, but for about three years I have been contemplating putting together a course that would explore detective fiction in the rest of the world, including, of course, East Asia.  I have been able to do only a small amount of research (all online, alas) in the time I have had to devote to this subject about which I am nearly completely ignorant, but it does seem like a worthwhile area of inquiry and one in which not much work has been done yet. Not to mention that it will give me even more reasons to read crime fiction, as if I needed any more. I looked through several years' worth of Clues, the journal of detective fiction, and found no articles at all about Chinese fiction and only one about Japanese. I have come across references to some printed works that will provide some information and I have found bits and pieces online (such as this from a Dartmouth professor, G.J. Demko: 

I contacted Dr. Eva Shan Chou, of Baruch College (CUNY), who spoke to our faculty seminar a couple of months ago about twentieth-century Chinese literature. She suggested a book that looks like a perfect introduction to the subject of Chinese "crime fiction."  Through the good graces of Xiaohong Hu I have a copy of this book (Chinese Justice, the Fiction: Law and Literature in Modern China by Jeffrey C. Kinkley) in my hot hands and plan to read it on the plane. It's a library book, so please God don't let my hands wander near a highlighter. In China, we're going to be meeting with a lot of academics at several universities and I hope to be able to meet at least one professor in China who knows something about the field. I also hope he or she speaks English, because I think I failed my Mandarin final.

I understand that little contemporary crime fiction has been translated into English. In fact, my only direct knowledge of the subject comes from writers such as Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, "overseas Chinese" who are writing in English.  I also understand that the “private eye” holds a tenuous place in contemporary China.  However, detective fiction as a genre also encompasses fiction that describes the work of police officers or the investigation of crimes by others out of professional interest or mere curiosity.  The detective figure does not have to be a private investigator.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

China's Gradual Revolution

In my recent post on the question "Is China Ready for Democracy?" apparently I left the impression that I was touting American-style democracy for China. That's the result of a lack of explicitness on my part. I wrote that people will continue to want greater "freedom and a greater voice in the disposition of their lives" and I predicted that they (in China and elsewhere) would continue to press for "democracy or at least a less oppressive state system."

I did not intend to suggest that American-style democracy is what Chinese people should work toward as an ideal. Hell, look how perverted American-style democracy has become in our own country. Look how we can't wait to throw it away and replace it with reality tv and voting for products rather than people. Would I recommend this to the Chinese?

But, China's circumstances and history are very different from those that enabled democracy in the US. China and other countries that are currently struggling with their own systems will come to greater freedom in their own ways, in ways that are possible in their own circumstances. I'm into "I want it now" like other impatient Americans, but I know we must expect that the process in many places will be very gradual (on this, let me recommend Guobin Yang's March 14 NYT op-ed piece and that there will be setbacks.

The Internet is both a blessing and curse but, now, let a thousand wi-fi access points bloom every day!

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Is China Ready for Democracy?"

In my literature capstone class last night, we were discussing Athol Fugard’s play, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, which is set in the apartheid era in South Africa. Toward the end of the class (and this is one of the best groups of students I have ever worked with), we were tying this play back to our earlier readings.

All of those readings, starting with Sophocles’ Antigone, feature characters who are forced to make choices between two untenable positions. In the case of Sizwe Bansi, he is forced to choose between retaining his name, which conveys everything about his identity--his tribal affiliation, his connection to his wife, his children, his whole family, his place of origin—and taking on the identity of a dead man, a man who has the right stamps in his internal identity papers. If he takes on the dead man’s name, Robert Zwelinzima, he will—because of the stamps in the dead man’s document—be able to seek work, seek a residence and he will be able to send money home to support his family. In class we talked about codes of ethics that refer to (what we may think of as) timeless and enduring values and we talked about situational ethics.

What is the “right” thing for Sizwe Bansi to do? Should he give up his identity in order to support his family, essentially denying who he is and divorcing himself from his wife and the four children he has fathered? Or should he say “No More!” and take a stand against the oppressive situation he’s in, one that forces him and every other non-white person in South Africa to twist their lives and beings around the restrictions enforced through unjust laws?

All of the works we have read so far feature characters who are put in excruciating ethical situations and must make hard, hard choices. Antigone, Fugard’s The Island, and Chris Cleaves’ Little Bee all ask the question: What should one do when the choice is between one’s responsibilities to other human beings and saving oneself? Should you stand up to oppression and risk your own life? Does the situation change if you have others, like a wife and children, who depend on you?

I say all of this as a preamble to touching upon an article that Nick Kristof wrote in the Times on February 26: “Unfit for Democracy?” In this article Kristof makes the point that to those in the West and also in the East who speak variations of “Oh, the [Arabs][Chinese][Egyptians] aren’t ready for democracy,” we see now every day that people in these and other countries do see change and greater freedom as values worth dying for. These are people who have families, who have jobs, who have aspirations to long and happy lives and—every day—these people are imprisoned, killed, tortured.

Kristof notes that the chaos of change often brings periods of oppression, oppression in a new form, but that people go on wanting freedom and a greater voice in the disposition of their lives and the future of their countries, even knowing that this is often true. He quotes Lu Xun to this effect: “Before the revolution, we were slaves, and now we are the slaves of the former slaves,” Lu Xun said, about the fall of the Qing regime.

Without having a chance at change, the people of Egypt, China, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere will never know whether democracy or at least a less oppressive state system will ever work in their countries. I am struck by the connection between this notion and the front-page article in Tuesday’s Times (March 1, 2011), “Well-Oiled Security Apparatus in China Stifles Calls for Change.” This article introduced me to a word and concept we have not yet added to our Mandarin vocabulary in class, “weiwen,” or “stability maintenance.”

The next few years, or maybe even the next few months, will give us in the West some indications of whether the crackdowns and “stability maintaining” actions we are seeing in places such as China and Libya will create stronger and more violent discontent or will—only for awhile—“stifle calls for change.”

Consider another quote from Lu Xun, this one from his story, “My Old Home”: “…hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made” (from Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, 64).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dissent Magazine - Online Features - A Visit to a Confucian Academy -

Dissent Magazine - Online Features - A Visit to a Confucian Academy -

Bell follows his profile of Jiang Qing in China's New Confucianism with this surprising series of observations upon visiting Jiang at his Confucian Academy. The Catholic Church as a model of meritocratic leadership?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Guangzhou, China Wins Sustainable Transport Prize

Guangzhou, China Wins Sustainable Transport Prize

I think of the "Factory Girls" taking advantage of this well-designed and smoothly-functioning system.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

X-treme Education and Why Johnny Can’t Read and It’s Mean to Ask Him To Because You Know It Makes Him Feel Stressed Before Lacrosse Practice

Seems like everywhere I turn these last few weeks, I come across stories and articles about education in China. It might be the Chinese-inflected X-treme, home-based sport called “Tiger Mom” under discussion in book reviews, opinion pages, tv shows, popular magazines, and everywhere else. Or it might be the recent news that Shanghai was top-of-the charts among schools of 65 countries. In any case, the conversation about education in China or, at the very least, about education filtered through the experiences and sensibilities of the people of the Chinese Diaspora is heating up, not cooling down. The word “Sputnik” keeps coming up.

In my current state of X-treme ignorance, I think of the prominence of such discussions as more of a reflection of American insecurities about our own educational system (and, let me just say, parenting system), rather than any kind of serious examination of different pedagogical models. And we’re not talking about pedagogy of the classroom only; I think we have to admit that the conversation is about contemporary American culture and the way children are raised. It’s about our schools and our teachers. It’s about the inequalities in education in this country.

What the Chinese do have is a certain strong cultural value placed on education itself, a value based in Confucianism. Americans can’t even agree on this anymore. At least that’s what it looks like to me, since as much value seems to be placed on willful ignorance as on intelligent thought in our country. Maybe that’s just me going through a cynical phase? It’s certain that when I say “education,” I am not talking about the same thing many students and their parents are when they use the word.

“Attitudes toward education” was actually one of the themes I teased out of my recent reading of Factory Girls by Leslie Chang. Many of the young women profiled turn to additional education as quickly as they have settled into their jobs in the industries of the Pearl River Special Economic Zone. Most of them see learning English as the way up the economic ladder and the book shows a variety of more of less fantastic schemes that the women end up spending their money on, as in the chapter on “Assembly-Line English” (Ch. 9).

Next up, Singapore schools turn to poetry slams! Xian schools give two thumbs up for French Club! Shanghai schools proclaim “Put aside the math books and take time for football!” (LOL)

Next week’s first meeting of the China seminar will focus on education in China. I’ve got homework to do.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Town and Country

While I did say that I wasn't "able to put down" Leslie Chang's Factory Girls, clearly I did put it down or else I have been reading at an abnormally slow rate. I made that exclamation ten days ago and I finished the book today. I still want to exclaim about it, though. The slowdown was my doing because I wanted to pretend to be on a break from school and serious reading. When I picked up the book today, though, I was right back immersed in its world again. Couldn't put it down. Really. It is a wonderful book. I recognize that those with personal connections to China and its culture undoubtedly will view the book from a very different angle, with different questions and perhaps personal sensitivities, but I do want to recommend this book to everyone interested in modern China.

The book is non-fiction and is based on the author's interviews with—and daily living with—a number of "factory girls" who, she suggests (but makes no extravagant claims for), typify in many ways the face of the new China, and in particular the face of its young women. The "factory girls" are young women who leave their homes in rural, agricultural China because they feel life there offers them little and because they want to see more of the world than they are likely to experience in villages such as Dajin, the "one-street farming town" that is the home of Min, one of the young women whose lives we follow in some detail.

More than this, though, the women profiled here are driven by a desire to succeed in the wider world. They take risks and push themselves in a way that seems quite foreign to someone like me who spends a lot of time with American college students. True, the desire to succeed of Min, Chunming and others we come to know in the book, often leads them into painful situations, cruel setbacks and even danger, but their attitude is "So I don't know how to do what this job requires? First I sell myself in the interview and then I'll learn on the go." Lying your way to the top is not admirable, nor does it speak very well of the readiness of Chinese businesses to offer to the world products manufactured or services provided by well-qualified workers, but everyone has to start somewhere, and it's not as if the business community in the US has many lessons to teach us right now about ethics and accountability.

Read this book. It offers history, an introduction to the two different universes of rural and urban China, personal stories of interesting and appealing people (underdogs you just have to root for), an unfamiliar (to me) version of exile and the immigrant experience, an unforgettable picture of Chinese business practices and attitudes toward education, and an enlightening—often entertaining, sometimes horrifying—portrait of China on the move in the 21st century.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Reading Lolita in Beijing

I won't make a habit of posting every article I read about China (though it's tempting, now that I'm paying attention and there are five or six articles about China in the Times every day), but will confine myself to articles I find especially interesting or that raise some good ideas in my mind.  This is one of them. While the world's attention is focused on China's attempt to control Internet access, the publishing industry is letting a hundred flowers or more bloom. Now I can see why Pace's publishing program--as offered in China--is booming.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

And what exactly does this have to do with 18th-c British literature, Rebecca?

I've come a long way from my dissertation topic--The 18th-c English Gothic Novel--but many of my current interests can be traced back to the Gothic. The horror film, detective fiction, Victorian sensation fiction, contemporary Gothic, literature of the supernatural...all are traceable to the Gothic. Of course, I know next to nothing about Chinese film or fiction, and I look forward at least to clawing my way to a beginner's level of learning in these subjects. I'm especially interested, though, in finding out whether China's contemporary genre writing includes detective fiction of any kind.  My only experience is with the very fine Inspector Chen novels written by Qiu Xiaolong, who now lives and teaches in the US.

Detective fiction isn't just crime and punishment (and the accompanying gore and violence). It's also social commentary on the culture that produces it and it's a gauge of the fears, obsessions, tensions and contradictions of the culture. It's a production of popular culture, not high culture.  Does this genre exist in China?  For whom is it written?  In what ways does it differ from American detective fiction in its production, audience or characteristics? I have wanted for quite some time to add to my detective fiction teaching repertoire by creating a course on global detective fiction.  I've done quite a bit of reading in European and Latin American detective fiction and some (random and unsatisfying) reading of Indian detective fiction, so investigating detective fiction in China will make an important contribution to my course work and my understanding of the practice and place of this genre in a wide range of cultures. 

This is just one of the subjects I hope to be researching in the coming months.

How did I find myself here?

In January 2006, I went on a Pace-sponsored student-faculty trip to India.  I came back incredibly excited about both the new India and the traditional India and wanting to let that energy carry me toward learning more about India.  Pretty soon, I was daunted and overwhelmed by the fact that India is such a vast and complicated culture that I could never begin to know anything in any detail about the culture--there was just too much to know and understand.  Yes, the more I tried to learn, the less I seemed to know.

But, I went ahead and created a course, Literature and Culture of Contemporary India, and taught it a couple of times.  In the process of researching, teaching, and relying on the curiosity and personal experiences of my students to teach me more, I got a much better feel for the parts of Indian culture that I could know more about and I gained some really eye-opening insights into the Indian diaspora culture that's right under my nose here in New York.  I remain very interested in Indian culture in its many manifestations and I hope to return to India some day.

I mention all of this because I'm taking my inspiration from my experience of India and its culture (however limited my experience of it) and I'm going on My Road to China. I am thrilled to have the unique opportunity that's being offered through Pace's Confucius Institute for selected faculty to learn more about China and integrate that learning into their courses. Throughout 2011 I'll be learning about China's history, language and culture through formal instruction and a trip to China.  This blog is where I will share some of that experience (and excitement)(and maybe some trepidation!) with you and track some of my thoughts and plans.