On China and other niceties

The Geography of the sea urchin – The Distance

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I don’t remember exactly when I wrote La distancia. It must have been between March and June 2019.  Back then, not even the wise men had any idea what was coming. As Constantine Cavafy wrote (Σοφοι δε προσιόντων), the mystical clamor of approaching events was never heard.

I can’t help feeling that everything has taken on another meaning and that distances have grown longer.


la distancia - ilustracion

Illustrations by Miguel Panadero – The Distance

Romain Gary: A lust for life

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Few writers can claim to have led a life as intense as Romain Gary’s. Few writers can claim to have written under so many pseudonyms. A few writers can claim to have loved as much as he did. But no other writer can claim to have won the Goncourt Prize twice.

I’ve just finished reading The Life and Death of Émile Ajar, by and about one of my favorite writers, or should I say two of my favorite writers: Émile Ajar was one of Gary’s many aliases, which is how he managed to break the Goncourt Prize rule that it can’t be awarded to the same writer twice, after winning it first in 1956 with Roots of Heaven, and then again as Émile Ajar with Life Before Him in 1975.

Born in 1914, by his sixties, and with a distinguished literary career behind him, Romain Gary simply got tired of being himself, unhappy with the image the public and the intelligentsia had bestowed on him, and more specifically by the all-seeing, all-knowing Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment that it would take 30 years to find out whether Gary’s 1945 A European Education was the best novel about La Résistance or not. Gary was not about to accept that he was finished.

He was fed up with people describing his various lives as an aviator, diplomat, writer, polyglot, as symbols of a full life, when he simply saw himself as an adventurer, driven by an irresistible lust for life. “The truth is that I was deeply touched by man’s oldest temptation: the multiplicity of Prometheus,” he wrote in The Life and Death of Émile Ajar.

So he reinvented himself again, convincing a friend to send the manuscripts of a certain Émile Ajar to the Gallimard publishing house. He wrote four novels under this pseudonym, and one of them won him the Goncourt again, the jury unaware of Ajar’s true identity. Other nom de plumes included Fosco Sinibaldi and Shatan Bogat, along with his real name, Roman Kascew.

There’s no point in discussing Sartre’s opinion of A European Education, but there is no denying that Gary’s The Kites is not only one of the best books about the Second World War, it is also an unforgettably bitter-sweet love story, perhaps drawing on his time married to Jean Seberg, mother of his only son.

Both lives ended tragically. Seberg committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 41. She was found dead in Paris in her car with a note in her hand, addressed to her only son, Diego: “Dear Diego: I can’t stand the pressure anymore. Forgive me. Be strong.” Her support for the Black Panther movement had angered the FBI, which for more than a decade had put all its efforts into making her life impossible.

A few months later, at the age of 66, Romain Gary blew his brains out with a Smith & Wesson. “Anybody who has created himself has the right to destroy himself,” wrote Nuria Barrios in 2008. With Gary died a host of other writers: Roman Kacew, Shatan Bogat, Fosco Sinibaldi, and of course Émile Ajar. “What no one knows is which of them pulled the trigger,” concludes Barrios, who has just published Todo arde, a powerful reworking of the myth of Orpheus set in Madrid’s drug underworld.

I have to say, having read the works of most of Gary’s alter egos, I still don’t know which is my favorite.

China through Vermeer´s eyes

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By analyzing the objects in 5 of Vermeer´s paintings, sinologist Timothy Brook shows the importance of international trade in XVII century between China and the West.

In his magnificent Vermeer´s Hat, sinologist Timothy Brook (Chinese name 卜正民) has produced an impressive and unusual piece of research work: has chosen not to focus on the beauty and technical perfection of Vermeer’s paintings, nor his mysterious personal life, nor why one of the greatest painters ever was only recognized two centuries after his death—thanks largely to 19th century French art critic Théophile Thoré. Instead, Brook has produced a meticulous analysis of the objects that appear in five of his paintings, to show us the importance of international trade in the seventeenth century between China and the West, and particularly, Vermeer’s home town of Delft, which played a hitherto largely unknown role until recently.

The first thing Brook does is to challenge the way we look at paintings, telling us to stop seeing them as windows to other times and places. “Chief among these habits is a tendency to regard paintings as windows opening directly onto another time and place. It is a beguiling illusion to think that Vermeer’s paintings are images directly taken from life in XVII century Delft. Paintings are not “taken”, like photographs; they are “made”, carefully and deliberately, and not show an objective reality so much as to present a particular scenario,” argues Brook. Through a careful analysis of these scenarios, Brook creates a map of the world of the time.

With the future of international trade, and particularly with China, a hot topic, Vermeer’s Hat offers a highly stimulating and cosmopolitan perspective of the world.

More faces?

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Story based on a graffito photographed in Beijing´s 798 art district. “However bad things may seem, if you’re positive, you’ll feel like Cleopatra, even without high heels or anything… –says Marina”.

She says she really wants to talk to me and that I’ve called her at exactly the worst time, with all the noise there, in the restaurant where she’s eating. But it doesn’t matter. She says she’s happy, even though things aren’t going so well—she doesn’t understand why—but in the end what does it matter if she’s happy. My friends, she continues, if they’re not unemployed they’ve got health problems or their parents are on their last legs, so whoever I talk to, there are always problems… Nevertheless, I feel good, even with the allergy after coming back from my travels, and I can’t breathe without sneezing. But as I said, things look good, I’m positive. And that’s the main thing.

However bad things may seem, if you’re positive, you’ll feel like Cleopatra, even without high heels or anything… And you should see the week I have ahead of me… But all in all, it seems as though life smiles at me, or maybe I smile at life, but say what you like, and eating with my friend, the one I’ve told you about, who’s like one of the living dead, it’s been very nice and we’ve laughed and I also laughed with my friends having a drink earlier, and I really enjoyed reading the text of the Faces this morning while I ate my breakfast. So I thought that today I would give you the nicest face I have, and I also thought that we have a few faces of our own, that sometimes we show the world, and other faces we’ve learned, like the hipsters and the jihadists you were talking about…

It’s just that there are faces or flags we find on the floor and that we unfurl, even if we don’t totally believe in them, because these are the faces or flags the tribe demands from us. The number of times I haven’t been me because of the tribe! By the way, I didn’t understand the last sentence in Faces, the one about the many declentions of the face, or maybe I did understand, like those verbs in Arabic that have different forms depending on their function, and each form represents a function, the second emphasizes the idea of the verb, the fifth is reflexive and the fourth inchoative, so maybe faces are like that, each with a function… Yes, I say to her, and also that in Beijing, in a place called 798, that’s a kind of huge arts center with walls where it’s legal to paint graffiti, I’ve seen these faces that you’d love. Don’t get carried away, she says, before hanging up and reminding me of my function: I mustn’t forget to buy her the silk handkerchief she asked me for.

I also wanted to tell Marina that I really wanted to talk to her.

more faces grafiti

The wall of ignorance

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How Berlin East Side Gallery graffiti can help to speed up our de-donkeyfication process.

During a visit this weekend to Berlin, I was hoping to continue with my plan (Inhshallah) to write about the Chinatowns I come across during my travels, but there isn’t one in the German capital: the best-laid plans… The closest Berlin comes to a Chinatown is in Kantstrasse, in Charlottenburg, but in reality, Berlin is a graffiti town. Wherever you go, you’ll find a wall or some corner that’s been painted.

I’ve chosen these graffiti from the East Gallery, painted on one of the last remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall along Warschauer Strasse in Kreuzberg, both for their message and their esthetic. If I had to choose one in particular, I’d go for The Persistence of Ignorance, which sadly is the worst photograph, because I’m not such a great photographer, and so part of the graffito is missing. Ignorance manifests itself in so many ways: as lack of knowledge or ability.

As is well known, we come into this world as donkeys, and it is only after a great deal of hard work that education de-donkeys us. It’s a long process, as summed up by the Chinese proverb Live to be old, learn until you are old (活到老, 学到老 huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo. Also see The civilizing influence of Lady Gaga).

In short, de-donkeyfication takes a long time; there are few walls as big as the wall of ignorance, although there are many other walls that need to be knocked down, as another of these graffiti points out.

P.S: We would like to thank the authors of the graffii, whose authorship we know: The persistence of ignorance by Karsten Wenzel, Tolerence by Mary Mackey, Pal Gerber

The Poet

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The incredible story of Andrés Mirón and how in an irony of fate, right before being killed in a road accident, he won the Villa de Aoiz International Poetry Competition in 2004 with the poem When nothing matters any more.

Most of the time in the IE China Center’s blog On China and Other Niceties I write about China, but just as we can’t eat our favorite dish every day, to hell with China this time, and instead here’s a nicety as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “the small details or points of difference, especially concerning the correct way of behaving or of doing things.”

On June 14, while enjoying a coffee together, my colleague Soledad Mirón told me the story of the renowned poet Andrés Mirón, who was killed in a road accident two days before winning the Villa de Aoiz International Poetry Competition in 2004. In an irony of fate, the poem that earned him the prize was called When nothing matters any more. His death brought an illustrious career to an end, with more than 30 collections of poetry published, along with numerous prizes. Soledad collected the Villa de Aoiz prize on behalf of her father.

This October will be the 15th anniversary of Andres Mirón’s death and Soledad wants to pay tribute by reading one of her father’s poems on September 22 in the Jardín del Romeral at 11 am during the Segovia Hay Festival.

P.S.: We are grateful to the Segovia Hay Festival Director Sheila Chremaschi and the Managing Director of IE Fund Geoffroy Gerard for their help on this matter.


Watercolours by Painter Manuel Chaves, a friend of the poet Andrés Mirón



You ask me to forget you and what I forget
is to do just what you ask me.
In the ice of my life, you decide.
I decide in the honey of what’s been lived.

Forget you, why? What hurt you so
that you say goodbye to me with such indifference?
If perhaps my fire doesn’t suit you,
then neither does your ice suit me.

I fear hurting you by saying that I still kiss
the silk of your voice and am enraptured
remembering the brilliance of our story.

and this is how I forget to forget you.
Now, while I live, I will live to love you,
because you live forever in my memory.

Made in God

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French street artist Combo has become a symbol of diversity, celebrating co-existence and encouraging us to “Fear no one, fear nothing”. He has plastered Hong Kong with Google advertisements banned in China and been beaten up while at work in Paris, but undeterred, he continues to spread his message. 

Combo is the nom de plume of a young French artist who in 2012 burst onto the international arts scene by, in the opinion of some, damaging the image of Made in China by plastering Hong Kong with Google advertisements banned by the Chinese Communist Party. But it wasn’t until early 2015 when his name really hit the headlines after, according to others, he damaged the image of Made in God.

Combo photographed himself wearing a djellaba and then pasted the portrait on a wall at the Porte Dorée alongside the word coexist writing the c with the crescent symbol of Islam, the x with the Star of David, and the t with a Christian crucifix. It looked more or less like this:

Coexit textThe outcome was that four young guys, whose identity Combo has not revealed so as not to fan the flames, beat him up after he declined to remove the graffito, leaving him off work for a week. “FEAR NO ONE. FEAR NOTHING,” reads his defiant Twitter profile.

Combo, who pays attention to detail and says his work is designed to surprise and to be found where least expected, painted the graffito above, in the Place Émile Goudeau. Goudeau was the founder of the Hydropathes poetic movement, whose aim was to propagate poetry in the same way that Combo propagates art. It wouldn’t have escaped his attention that the hydropathes named themselves thus because of their phobia toward water and their affinity for wine. Others say the name is a pun on the name of the founder of the movement, Goudeau: goût d’eau, which means “a taste for water” in French.

Combo is the son of a Lebanese Christian father and a Moroccan Muslim mother, but he himself isn’t religious. The problem is that the identity crises prompted by the attack on Charlie Hebdo has not only obliterated nuances, but also forced people to take sides. So when Combo wrote in Chatelet, “Did you know Muslims end their prayers with Amen, like the Jews and the Christians”, he was criticized for not writing Je suis Charlie. My guess is that Combo simply wants to be French, an artist, himself, and not be obliged to choose between two sides that are increasingly fractious. (1)

For reasons unknown the world is being deprived of its symbols of co-existence. One of the few remaining examples is The Hanging Monastery (Xuankong Temple 悬空寺in simplified Chinese; 懸空寺traditional Chinese), in Shanxi Province, China. Built more than 1,500 years ago, this temple is notable not only for its location on a sheer precipice, but also because it is the only shrine where China’s three traditional religions live alongside each other: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. In December 2010, Time magazine listed it among the world’s most-precarious buildings. If you have the time and don’t suffer from vertigo, it’s certainly worth a visit!

made in god - monasterio

(1) I took the photo of the Made in God graffito in Paris, June 3, 2015. I don´t know if the graffito is still there. God knows!!! I have not had the opportunity to meet Combo. The quotes are taken from an article by Laurent Carpentier, published in Le Monde on February 4, 2015.

What is strange: Juan Carlos Gumucio In memoriam

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After reading my recent post, Shangri-La, my work colleague at IE Business School, Mar Hurtado de Mendoza, surprised me this week with a question, which I answered with a story I had never told, one filled with happiness and at the same time, sadness.

In 1992, in Zagreb, I met a man who left a lasting impression on me, Juan Carlos Gumucio. A war correspondent, at that moment, he was covering the conflict in Sarajevo for leading Spanish daily El País.

He had come to the Croatian capital to try to forget the miseries of the war and so paid more attention to my former colleague Marta Marín, who remains a friend to this day, speaking with me on a few occasions. On one of those occasions, sitting at a bar, I mentioned my literary concerns. He looked at me, sipped his neat whisky and without saying anything, gestured over the bar that I should get going, or more accurately, that I should get writing.

Time passed and Marta and I finished our glamorous feature on Croatia for Paris-Match, gradually losing contact with Gumucio. Juan González Yuste, war correspondent for El Periódico, told Marta that his old friend had married Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times correspondent, in 1996 and that the couple had later divorced.

In 2002, having steadily lost contact with them, Marta and I learned from the papers that Gumucio had returned to his native Cochabamba, in Bolivia, having decided, inexplicably for such a dynamic person, to retire. He shot himself that year at the age of 52. Colvin would die a decade later in Homs, an early casualty of the war in Syria, alongside photographer Rémi Ochlik: “murdered while reporting bravely from Syria,” said Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, at the time. The film A Private War was based on her incredible life.

que es extrano - a private war

González Yuste died in 1999, also aged 52, in a hotel at Barcelona’s El Prat airport while travelling from one war zone to another.

I write this after telling Mar that I have no time for creative writing courses and that if she too has literary concerns, the best thing to do is to get writing, as Gumucio put it. I wrote the story below, What is Strange? in honor of a dreamer who came up against reality.

PS: Renée Cortés, a Bolivian colleague at IE University, knows the family of Juan Carlos Gumucio and is familiar with his legend.


What is strange?

que es extrano dibugrafia

Painting by Miguel Panadero

We accept that dream things happen in sleep and that real things happen in reality. It’s strange that we still accept this division between dreams and reality, strange that they aren’t both in the same pile of stuff. Didn’t the poet say that life is a dream where life is reality, and dreams, dreams?

A woman dreams in her own peculiar way about a man pointing to a box that contains a knife who wants to cut down a tree so that it can be used to make something else in the shape of a trapezoid and all this under the presence of the Sun which not for nothing is the King of light. What is strange?

Think as though you were dreaming. Think that before the wind, the whole of the forest was silence. Think that after the wind, it is as though noise suddenly arrived as thought. Think that if you thought like you dream, perhaps you’d dream when you think. What is strange? That reality is a dream?

Moscow, April 23,


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We can’t avoid acting in accordance with plans, after all, a plan provides security and reduces our degree of uncertainty to tolerable levels. That said, it’s also nice to forget the plan and allow life to surprise us, because a surprise can often give us that vital hit we were hoping for or simply lift us out of our planned boredom.

I say this because flying between Beijing and Shanghai last week, I picked up a copy of the China Daily  and half-heartedly began to scan its pages. When I opened it, I came across a great article called Where is Shangri-La? by Simon Chapman and DJ Clark about one of my favorite books, Lost Horizon, by the writer and prolific smoker James Hilton, who was born in 1900 and died at the early age of 54.

Needless to say, Lost Horizon, published in 1933 and an immediate international best-seller, is the origin of the term Shangri-La, a fictional Tibetan utopia that has not only captured the western imagination, along with other mythical places such as El Dorado and Xanadu, but also lends its name to an international hotel chain. Any number of communities have claimed to be the origin of the paradise Hilton invented (incidentally, he never visited the region), among them, Lijiang, Zhongdian, both in China’s Yunnan province. Shangri-La in Chinese is written 香格里拉 (Xianggelila).

Chapman and Clark focus on the question of why Hilton never admitted that the earthly paradise in his book was based on a series of articles written by the Austrian Joseph Rock published in the National Geographic, while accepting the lesser influence of Father Évariste Régis Huc.

I’ll leave you with the beginning of the novel, as said, one of my favorites, which is nothing more nor less than a great story well told: “Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves with less in common than they had believed they had…


lost horizon-autor

destaca tomara


By | China, Others

Shortly before a menino da rua snatched my cellphone in downtown Sao Paulo’s Praça Joao Mendes on Sunday, April 28, I had written a few brief notes about my future plans: in the city’s Chinatown and The New Silk Roads (see below).

I find what happened to me later strange. If there’s one thing we’re all worried about, it’s the future, but the future is nothing more than a hope. We hope to finish a post, earn more money or we hope that the world will become less crazy. As we know from experience, there’s no way that things are going to change in the immediate future, so we inject ourselves with the anesthesia of hope. The thing is that in our minds, as in fiction, things make sense. But reality is something else and makes no sense or has so many senses that they escape us. For me, a reality check robbed me of the immediate plans in my head and made me think once more about how fleeting everything around us is. I’m not about to get all transcendental, but this is a good moment to remember Tomara (Inshallah) by the great Vinicius de Moraes, because we never know when the end of the future we store in our small brains will be:


E a coisa mais divina
Que há no mundo
É viver cada segundo
Como nunca mais

Vinicius de Moraes

It’s the most divine thing
There is in the world
To live each second
As though it were the last

“I’m in Brazil, in the country of the future, as Stefan Zweig called it in one of his last books. The idea is to take advantage of my blog, On China & other niceties, to write a series of posts about the Chinatowns around the world I visit as part of my work. Sao Paulo’s Chinatown is very unusual, if only because it was founded by Japanese immigrants, and today it is also home to Chinese and Koreans and its name no longer relates to its Japanese founders. Perhaps this is what I find so interesting, because I’ve just finished reading Peter Frankopan’s 2015 book The New Silk Roads, in which the British historian provides an excellent outline not just of the growing importance of China and its rivalry with the United States, but also because of what the Far East means to the world today, as he notes: However traumatic or comical political life appears to be in the age of Brexit, European politics or Trump, it is the countries of the Silk Roads that really matter in the twenty-first century.”


the new sik roads

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