On China and other niceties

Will the pig give us a hand?: happy Chinese new year

By | China, Others | No Comments

As you know, the Chinese Zodiac, also known as Sheng Xiao (生肖), is based on a twelve-year cycle. Each year in that cycle is related to an animal sign. These signs are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and finally, the pig. AIl is calculated according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Since this coming year is the year of the pig, we all have to find out what is the relationship of our own animal sign, the snake in my case, with the pig, in order to figure out how our life is gonna be this year. It seems the beneficial pig effect on the serpent will be reflected in my revenues and some good luck in any new ventures I might undertake. Will I strike it lucky? Let’s have a closer look.

I suppose living a life can be compared to writing a novel. In theory, we have a whole life ahead of us: a pile of blank pages we can fill with words. People who write novels or who live supposedly successful lives always say how easy it is: it’s just a question of getting down to it. They give the impression they’re always headed in the right direction and that everything they do has, or had, a goal or a purpose to it. Does the pig, or any of the other Chinese Zodiac animals, give a hand to them?

In contrast, I have to confess that I have a terrible sense of direction, and whenever I go somewhere, be it on foot, by motorbike, or by plane, I always think I am headed north, i.e. in the right direction, even though I might be going south. I really have tried to get my head round this, but with little success. I was born in Brussels to a mother from the Canary Islands and an Ecuadorian father, so I did wonder if my family’s ‘Southern Roots’ had disorientated me to the extent that I didn’t even know where the centre was any more.  That’s the way things are; I’m not going to go into why I prefer the north because of my complex about the south, or because it’s more developed, or whatever… I doubt the pig can give me any directions!

If each place is its own centre, the same goes for each life, and the same goes for maps; their centre is relative: it depends on the country where you buy them.  If you are in China, the centre of the map branches out from there, and if you are in Mali, the same principle more or less applies. In point of fact, when we examine our lives and place in the great scheme of things ours is the perspective of a mosquito. When we talk about life, and not some auto-life, what do we really mean?

Let’s dig a little deeper. I picture a huge GoogleBio focusing on different lives. Like the countries listed on Google Earth, when our lives are seen from the perspective of a roll call, they all look the same; any differences are simply details. These details may be important for those concerned, but they are so trivial, so tiny; barely changing our mosquito’s perspective, that without wanting to, we come up against the limits of existence; with that unbearable lightness of being.

I’m saying this because there is something unreal about this vivre à l’essai, this putting our lives to the test all the time: we can do something, or do the complete opposite without it affecting our existence one iota. ‘Can’t we do anything right (1)?’ , Goethe once asked.  Well, I’m afraid we can’t. We don’t do anything right, and worse still, we have very little room for manoeuvre. What ill luck we have, my dear pig!!!

Some Details

It might seem trivial, but the day I was given my Chinese name was a momentous occasion. Not so much for the event itself, when I didn’t really take it in, but for the significance it took on later. Things still existed, even before they had a name, but they were somehow different; I would say their existence was diminished. So, when they called me Táng Mènglóng (唐梦), I somehow felt that I had acquired a complete existence again, perhaps because this baptism created another way of existing in the world, and possibly reflected how I had changed over the years. Maybe it wasn’t even that: perhaps it merely confirmed what I had always been.  It’s at this point where I begin to have doubts, and, going back to the subject in question, I’m never sure about the extent to which our decisions make any differences to our lives. Probably none.

Due to the peculiarity of Chinese writing, and also the fact that the language is replete with homophonic words, the characters chosen for names are vitally important.  A good example is the word  (meng: to dream) which can be spelt (meng):  meaning ‘the first month in a season’. It also means ‘older brother’, but more importantly, it is also the first character of the name of the 4th-3rd century BCE Confusian philosopher Mencius (孟子 Mengzi) . The fact my teacher chose a character which refers to a dream world imbues my name with an oneiric, idealistic nuance, which it wouldn’t have otherwise.

Moreover, this character  (Táng), which would be my new surname, also connotes the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), considered the most glorious period of Chinese rule. The third carácter  (Lóng) means ‘dragon’, which is one of the symbols of China. This, coupled with the fact that these three characters in Chinese phonetics sound good together, means that when I say my name I am often complimented, given that I am the dragon which dreams of the Tang dynasty. At the same time, the name also conjures up the Ming dynasty writer Feng Menglong (冯梦龙), who lived between 1574 and 1645.

will the pig give us a hand

That said, an ice cream called Menglong () has become popular in China, as a result of which  people are increasingly likely to say “Ah, like the ice cream!” when I tell them my name. I can’t do anything about it. If you look at the photo, you can see the problem.

Spanish friends say my Chinese name Menglong sounds like the word “melón“, and I suppose at the end of the day, that’s what it boils down to. “A bit like a melon” means a “bit nutty” in Spanish, and that’s not far from the truth. Needless to say, that wasn’t how I imagined things would turn out. C’est la vie. Dear pig, can you still give me a hand?

(1) “Sage, tun wir nicht recht?” is Goethe’s original quote.

 

 

John Ruskin

John Ruskin (The Napoleon of Brantwood)

By | China, Others

Back in October 2018 I met FT´s management editor Andrew Hill at Financial Times premises. He then talked enthusiastically about the release of his new book in 2019. Well, the time has come and his book Ruskinland: How John Ruskin shapes our world is now available for pre-order. I have to say that his enthusiasm about the book sparked my interest on John Ruskin. Needless to say, the following day I bought a copy of Ruskin´s Unto this Last. Here some thoughts, while I wait to receive my copy of Ruskinland…

When the idea of writing a post on Unto This Last occurred to me, I instantly thought of G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and in particular his humorous chapter, Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy. Whatever else he might have been Ruskin was a species of prophet, as Andrew Hill says in his enlightening introduction:

“Given the failure of almost everyone to foresee the financial disaster of the late 2000s, Unto This Last now merits re-examination. The latest crisis shattered the confidence of market economists –the same smugness Ruskin was attacking in 1860–and fueled many specific concerns that he would have recognized and shared: worries about excessive pay and bonuses, about the use and abuse of wealth, and about the purpose of work.”

I must admit that if only by force of circumstances Unto This Last has now earned the status of a historical essay dealing with the past. But the book is not so much an attempt to render an image of the economic state of Britain in the 1860s, as a study of the foundations of political economy itself: as a result, I would venture to say that the book is highly relevant to the situation we face today, particularly the five things a Ruskin CEO should do, among them, robust leadership, rather than those heart-warming statements issued by contemporary business leaders, such as: “every person has leadership responsibilities and potential.”

As Andrew Hill comments, Ruskin would probably have found this cheesy motivational approach feeble. This kind of language is what Chinese netizens mockingly call “chicken soup” (鸡汤jītāng ), a catch-all term for gooey, feel-good essays that might belong in a Chicken Soup for the Soul type book, along the lines of “Ten things Jack Ma taught me.”

Returning to Chesterton: “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called, “Keep tomorrow dark”, and which is also named “Cheat the prophet”. The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely.”

It would seem Ruskin is refusing to lie still in his grave: he admitted that the essays of his book “were reprobated in a violent manner… by most of the readers they met with” when they were first published in Cornhill Magazine, but then noted sarcastically, à la Chesterton, when they were published in book form: “So I republish the essays as they appeared. One word only is changed, correcting the estimate of a weight; and no word is added” !!! (The bold letters & the exclamation marks are mine!!).

In conclusion, all I can add is that Unto This Last is a very good read and is overdue for rehabilitation, as Andrew Hill argues.

P.S.: Unto this Last had such an impact on Ghandhi´s philosophy that he decided not only to change his life according to Ruskin´s teaching, but also to publish his own newspaper, from a farm where everybody would get the same salary, without distinction of function, race, or nationality.
Unto This Last was translated into Chinese in 2011 as 给这最后来的 (Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press).

 

portadas John-Ruskin

Ai Shen

AI SHEN (艾神)

By | China, Short story

New York, Brooklyn, 29 October, 2015.

Once again, Bruno and Arun meet in New York. As usual, there are conversations pending, and interminable disagreements. On Metropolitan Street, almost at the corner of Kent, in the Williamsburg district, they pause.

“This is a piece of shit,” says Bruno pointing at the graffito. “Noise, images. Just about any top model has more impact on the world than anything else.”

“Don’t exaggerate.”

“I’m telling you, a guy like Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is like one of those flies that want to get out of the room and bang again and again against the window. It’s clear to them, they want to get to the other side, and bump, once again, they’re up against it. That’s the way it is. It’s a desire to play a role in the world. But there’s no way on earth anybody’s changing China.”

“Stop trying to change things,” replies Arun. “Art is art and the world is the world. I’m glad they’re separated by the glass. There’s no reason why the one should play a role in the other.”

“Oh, come off it! What do you want, do you think art is just about making the world a prettier place? Shouldn’t it be able to transcend things?

“Bruno, it’s not because anybody wants it to, it’s that art will always transcend things.”

“Come on Arun, you’re so infuriating. What I’m saying is that top models, footballers, or whoever, are continually sending messages, images, noise… These wretched people have stolen artists’ thunder. Ai Weiwei (艾未未) has no choice but to create a fuss, elevating himself to art, to be a work of art himself, a brand that produces more images, more news, than that top model…”

And Arun interrupts Bruno, because he knows this is a conversation with no end and because whatever Bruno says, for Arun art isn’t supposed to change anything necessarily, it’s just a way to pass the time on the other side of the window. Bruno puts his hands to his head and simply says that Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is also known as Ai Shen (艾神), which is to say the Divine Ai, or the God Ai, whichever you prefer.

P.S.:

The artist who painted the graffito has gone to the trouble of depicting Ai Weiwei (艾未未) as the Monkey King in Journey to the West. That’s why he has those features and facial hair and is wearing the magic head band the monk Xuanzang tricked him into putting on his head so that when the monkey misbehaved he would get terrible headaches. The red line could be from the tight headband, or could be the line that Ai Weiwei mustn’t cross in criticizing the Chinese authorities. The graffito is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn near to where Ai Weiwei (艾未未) lived while studying at the Parsons School of Design during the 1980s. More from Arun and Bruno in Watch it! , Operation Fun, Sex is Fun, and We Laugh Less.

Visions of china

By | China

A well-known Chinese tale tells the story of a group of blind men who were arguing about what an elephant looked like. As nobody could convince the others, they asked that an elephant be brought before them. The first blind man, who touched the animal’s leg, said:
An elephant is like a column.”
The next placed his hands on the trunk.
An elephant is like a wall,” he pronounced.
The third, who happened upon the tail, said the animal was like a serpent.
The argument continued. Finally, the man who had brought the elephant described it fully, ending all discussion.

Much of what we think, and share with the world, is determined  by our own shortfalls, prejudices, and limited vision. Raymond Dawson, the British academic who dedicated his life to studying and writing about China, observes in his book The Dragon is a Chameleon that, “Our response to China is conditioned in part by the objective situation that already exists there, and in part by the conscious and unconscious interests of our own education.”

Time ago in a radio interview, Spanish science commentator Eduardo Punset summed up the function of the brain as being little more than helping us to avoid bumping into things. His view questions our conceited overestimation of the products of our intellect, what we call ideas and opinions. Punset argues that the source of the avalanche of stimuli that constantly bombards our brain is simply our ever-diminishing senses: we see little, hear less, and our sense of smell isn’t much use unless applied to odors that emanate from the immediate space around us. As for touch and taste, it is probably wiser to avoid comment. The key question we have to address is how does the brain order that avalanche of stimuli into something we can more or less make sense of, and that we can then label “rational”—arguably the most pompous of terms. It would seem wiser therefore to avoid pretentiousness and accept that our head has fulfilled its purpose by allowing us to avoid knocking into the side table in the hall, which is no small matter.

News about China, whether in the Spanish or international media, is always framed in terms of the great yellow power, the birth of a global giant, the return of the empire, etc. And while it is true that a lot of China reporting addresses the huge political and economic challenges the country will face in the coming decades, in general, the message is one of an new world power; the birth of a dragon that will burn anything that tries to stop it to a crisp.

But a glance through the pages of history shows that the West’s perceptions of this dragon have changed according to the needs and views of each age. In 1245, fear of the Mongol Hordes prompted Pope Innocent IV to task Franciscan monk John of Plano Carpini to spy on the court of the Great Khan under the pretext of exploring the possibilities of Christianizing the Mongols. The most famous explorer of that age was of course Marco Polo, sometimes dubbed Il Milione for his tendency to stick several zeros on any figure he cited. Polo and Plano Carpini, as did the explorers who followed in their steps in the following two centuries, made constant reference in their writings of the immense wealth of the East, a veritable horn of plenty. They were doubtless influenced by Genesis 2.8:  “And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden”. The Orient has always exercised a fascination over the West’s collective imagination.

By the sixteenth century, when the opening of sea routes meant it was no longer necessary to trek overland, carting bags of precious stones to pay for the journey, our view of China changed: we were no longer dazzled by its treasures; and we began to form a different image of China.

It would be the Jesuits, at least until the order was abolished in 1773, who would be the world’s opinion makers regarding China. The Jesuits only contact would be through the emperor and his cadre of elite civil servants the mandarins: after all, their goal was to evangelize the country downwards. The Jesuits, inspired by Plato’s Republic, portrayed China in utopian terms. The intellectual elite of Europe, they dreamed of a government composed of philosophers, and saw China as the model to follow. But were they right to depict the China of the mandarins as a utopia?

When Dawson describes China as a chameleon he is referring directly to the China that changes depending on the magnifying glass through which it is observed. Aren’t the astonishing growth statistics, the incredible rags to riches tales, and the awe China inspires simply the other side of the coin in terms of the West’s development, a West as much in need of cheap labor as a new spiritual reserve?

The cost of creating the West’s so-called welfare state has been high; what will be the cost of China’s wellbeing? One thing we can rely on is that nobody will come along to explain to us what an elephant looks like.

Revolver verses

By | Poetry | No Comments

I’ve been invited to take part in Versos al paso, set up by Madrid City Hall and urban artists Boa mistura. This literary initiative presents pedestrians with fragments of poetry at some 1,100 zebra crossings throughout the Spanish capital’s 21 districts. Below, photos of the two verses I contributed. 

¡No hay quien dé con su destino!!! (not a literal translation, but something like: There’s no chance of meeting our destiny!!!),
(at the crossing by 85 Bravo Murillo Street, not far from IE Business School, where I work.)

“Hasta la nada tiene algo” (Even nothingness has something),
(where the Paseo de los Ferroviarios meets Nuno Gómez street, in the Villaverde district.)

And here’s a photo of the lines written by Loreto Sesma, a young writer I discovered, so to speak, on 13 Mateo Inurria street. I would recommend her book, Amor revolver, which she describes as a “collection of poems with six bullets. Like Russian roulette, the reader plays with the six bullets until, inevitably, one enters him or her.” The bullets, needless to say, are Loreto’s words:

“Keep the Kiss, burn the verse, shrug off the burden and fly.”

Two of my proposals for Versos al Paso were chosen: He’s the third:

Dónde estás, Amor?  (Where are you, Love?)

For me, love is either a revolver, which kills you, like Loreto Sesma says, or there’s no chance of ever finding it, like our destiny!

 

The civilizing influence of Léi dí gā gā

By | China, Cinema | No Comments

I’ve just seen Bradley Cooper’s take on A Star is Born. I loved it. Poor old Cooper: not only is he improbably handsome, he’s got a great voice, and of course he’s a silver screen natural. Somebody ought to put him out of his misery… And what can I say about Lady Gaga? Well, obviously she’s got a great voice, and while no conventional beauty, her role makes her irresistible. One could think of worse things than hanging out with her for a while. 

Here’s an unlikely connection: Lady Gaga  (雷迪嘎嘎Léi dí gā gā in Chinese) and John Locke. The 17th century English philosopher famously argued that we come into the world a blank slate.  I’d say we start out as donkeys, and that over time, education hopefully weans out our more ass-like qualities, exercising a civilizing influence on us. In other words, we know so little for so long that it’s a wonder so many of us have the arrogance to venture an opinion. 

Anyway, back to Lady Gaga, who I first came across in China. At the height of her fame, back in 2010, I’d never heard of her, until one day, in some God-forsaken town in Ningxia province, where I was spending yet another summer trying to learn Chinese, I bought a few Chinese-language movies and noticed an attractive looking CD, shown above. I asked to listen to it and immediately liked it. On my return to Madrid, I told my former wife that I had discovered a great singer by the name of Lady Gaga. You can imagine her response!!!    

There’s a Chinese proverb,  活到老学到老 huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo, which means something like: [If one] lives to an old age, [one will continue to] learn until old age. In the meantime, let’s welcome President 习近平 Xí Jìnpíng to Spain this week and listen to A Star is Born’s hit song Shallow, which pretty much sums up the depth of our understanding!

 

 

This is not a story

By | Story, Short story | No Comments

On a day like today, November 21, but in 1898, René Magritte was born. In his honor, a few lines and this video, in which I link his famous “This is not a pipe” with Diderot and our book, Dibugrafías

This is not a story

René Magritte spoke about how images deceive. Of his famous painting, «Ceci n’est pas une pipe»  (This is not a pipe), he said: «The famous pipe. How people reproached me! And yet, could you fill my pipe? No, it’s just a representation… So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying…» Long before Magritte, Diderot said «This is not a story». Words deceive as much as images do. Liberty, happiness or justice are also merely representations we fill as we see fit. So who’s lying?

comimos y bebimos

This book was made por sharing

By | Literature, Others

I like eating, drinking, smoking; I really do. Needless to say, I also like conversation, discussion, laughter and a long etcetera of other things, but what really matters for me, what I really like doing, is sharing all these activities. To be honest, I don’t even like going to the bathroom alone, although one must, like a few other things, because after all, people talk.

Leonor gives me no credit for studying all those languages, Chinese, Japanese, because I enjoy it, as simple as that. I tell her she’s wrong and that what I really like is smoking, drinking and suchlike and that the studying is basically self-improvement, and that doing so does require an effort, and a hell of an effort at that. But that’s pretty much where she and I are at. I should point out that Leonor is my mother-in-law.

Anyway, to the point, and getting back to the pleasures of eating and the good life in general, I’ve just read Ignacio Peyró’s latest book, Comimos y bebimos, subtitulado Notas de cocina y vida, (We ate and we drank: notes on cooking and life) published by Libros del Asteroide.

I think the best thing I can say about it is that it’s a book to be shared, because after finishing each page, I want to talk about it with somebody, uncorking a bottle and sharing a bite to eat. Anyway, I’ll say no more and instead leave you with a small fragment that I believe counters our age of running and vigorexia…

More maiorum

Montaigne’s appetite was such that he was unable to talk when seated at the table, while Doctor Johnson ate trancelike, breaking into a sweat, the veins standing out on his brow. And here we are today, worried about whether or not to ask for a sliver of cheese. (Page 163)

P.S. What some writers might call praise, I don’t. So let’s say it: Ignacio, you’re almost better in book form than in person. And that goes for Pedro Letai as well!!!

pinocho dispara denuevo

Pinocchio strikes again

By | Literature, Short story

Of the 100 stories inspired by the paintings of Miguel Panadero I wrote, we ended up choosing just 51 for our book Dibugrafias. Here’s one we didn’t use, Pinocchio strikes again, which came to mind after reading this article, Una brillante escultura de Pinocho denuncia la corrupción en Recoleta (A brilliant statue of Pinocchio criticizes corruption in Recoleta) in Argentinean daily Clarín, published on November 2. 

 The artist, Alberto Echegaray Guevara, says the aim of the four-meter high statue, weighing 260 kilograms, is to highlight all the corruption and lying in the world. “Corruption is intrinsic to us, and is globalized. It’s the same with lying. Scientists say we lie between two and 200 times a day, it’s called the ‘science of deception’ and covers different types of lies. And when we can’t lie to anybody, sometimes we lie to ourselves. That’s the famous self-deception, one of the worst kinds of lying,” says the artist in an interview with journalist Maximiliano Kronenberg.

Alberto Echegaray Guevara’s credentials are nothing if not impressive. As well as being an artist, he’s a specialist in money laundering and crypto-currencies, a graduate of the Ecole Nationale D’administración in Paris, holds a Master in Arts from the University of Georgetown, and a post-graduate in Management from Harvard Business School. And it’s all true. Perhaps we can learn something from all this around these parts, where we see to love inventing qualifications!

Here’s what all those Pinocchios deserve, in this humble servant’s version of Miguel Panadero’s Pinocchio, as mentioned above.

 

 

PINOCCHIO STRIKES AGAIN

Pinocchio strikes again, he’s the handsomest, the best-paid, the guy with the most, and of course, the guy who…

 The girl says it’s great that Pinocchio is the guy with the most, but that Eugenio, her boyfriend, says the same, and that somebody has to be the least. 

 Pinocchio tells the girl that her Eugenio is definitely lying and that what he says just can’t be true. The girl says Eugenio says that it’s Pinocchio who’s lying. 

 Pinocchio is angry because the world is awash with liars. Eugenio is angry for the same reason. The girl is angry with Eugenio as well as with Pinocchio and tells them both to quit striking again, left right and center, lying all over the place, because the whole thing has backfired on them. Now she doesn’t love either of them.

Aro Beach, May 31, 2014.

el enigma explosivo

An explosive mystery

By | China

On October 25, I made a stopover in Frankfurt during a return flight from Beijing to Madrid. During my brief stay at the airport, I read Chinamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and was particularly impressed by the Nigerian-American writer’s comment that the world is “shifting and darkening”. Her words took on a particular meaning in light of what happened to me shortly after.

While I was going through customs, a bottle of Chinese liqueur (府藏孔府家)  I was carrying caught the attention of two officials (see photo). The bottle had been packaged by the duty free shop in Beijing and was accompanied by the receipt in its plastic bag.   The two officials called their supervisor, who then took me to an interview room, where another official was waiting, and the pair then insisted they had to check the contents of the beautifully wrapped and sealed bottle.

My attempts to explain that the bottle was a gift and that its wrapping was part of the beauty of the gift were ignored. After first prizing open the sealed box containing the bottle, they then insisted they would have to “inspect” the contents. When I objected, they called three young, well-built police officers, but who seemed reasonably relaxed about the whole affair. They asked me to identify myself, which I did, and I then explained that the bottle was a gift. Nevertheless, they told me to open the bottle and to drink some of the contents. I again told them that it was a gift and furthermore that I didn’t feel like drinking at that moment, particularly as the liqueur was 52º proof. After a brief pause, they laughed, looked at each other and told me I could go.

Was the presence of seven people really necessary to establish whether this hapless traveler was hiding explosives or some other illegal substance in the mysterious bottle of Chinese liqueur? The world is darkening…

 –

N.B. I should point out that the Chinese liqueur in question 府藏孔府家  is called Confucius 孔子 (Kongzi); maybe the German customs officials had a problem with the Chinese philosopher. OR PERHAPS THE WHOLE THING WAS A JOKE, OR IS A JOKE, BECAUSE WE ALL PARTED ON THE BEST OF TERMS, SMILING.

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