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.