On China and other niceties
mottainai-destaca

Mottainai (勿体ない) !!!

By | Others

We all destroy the thing we love most. We need only look around us, at our personal lives, to understand this irrational inertia. Mottainai!

It’s as hard to evade these internal irrational inertias as it is to ignore those external inertias, also irrational, along with their political counterparts, national and international, that reach us from every corner, all with the same goal as the aforementioned, to destroy the thing we love most. An eternal Mottainai!

Buddhists traditionally used the word mottainai to express sorrow in the face of the squandering or misuse of something of a sacred nature or of great value, for example a religious object, a teaching or a life unfulfilled, perhaps. Today, the term is widely used by environmentalists to indicate profligacy in the use of non-renewable resources.

Some readers might find all this saddening, but that’s not the impression I want them to come away with. I say what I say with the greatest optimism. We need to work harder at happiness: “happiness is like oil, we need to pump it,” as a character said in a story I once wrote. Pessimism is free, so why bother with it.

mottainai-eco-district


P.S.: Mottainai is composed of two concepts: mottai and nai. Mottai (勿体) refers to the intrinsic value of a material object, while nai (無い) indicates absence or a lack of something. In turn, mottai is divided into mochi (勿), inevitable or something beyond discussion, and tai, (体), an entity or body.

distance

Distance

By | China, Poetry

Zhou Dunyi & the lotus flower

 

The other day I showed my colleague Jaime Pascual, who claims to dislike poetry, a bad poem of mine (see below), called Distance, which vaguely (distantly) echoes the comments of eleventh century Chinese philosopher Zhou Dunyi (周敦頤) about Tao Yuanming’s (陶渊明) love of lotus flowers, writing seven hundred years earlier: “The lotus flower can be only appreciated from a distance, touching one is blasphemy” (可远观而不可亵玩焉)…The lotus flower emerges from the mud unsoiled (出淤泥而不染).

Perhaps we too should learn to keep our distance as we go about our daily lives, the better to remain unsoiled, like lotus flowers, oblivious to the mud around us. Jaime said he liked the idea of my poem and I was glad he had grasped it through poetry. I am convinced that poetry alone can express things in such a way as to make us believe there is still a chance of emerging from the mud unsoiled!

 

tao yuanming

The Poet Tao Yuanming (陶渊明)

 

DISTANCE (1)

You wander through space.

Distance annoys. Distance intrigues.

You leave one place to get to another.

And when you get there…

It’s clear you don’t like what you find.

It could have been different.

In any event, where there’s distance you want to reduce distance.

Distance is stronger than taste.

You only want to conquer distance.

That’s why you travel from origin to destination.

Distance annoys, distance intrigues.

You only want to conquer distance.

 

 

dibugrafia distancia


(1).

This poem was not included in my book Dibugrafías

Is It a Duck or a Rabbit

Is it a duck or a rabbit (Per ardua surgo)? (Aspect Seeing)

By | Others

Bird in a cup, by Miguel Panadero

 

The artist who made this drawing sent it to me preceded by the following words: Please find attached a bird in a cup. Tell me what you think. Miguel.

When I saw it for the first time, I thought this bird was a rabbit wearing a kind of Phrygian cap. I never get things right first off. Maybe you have the same problem. It’s strange that I should see a rabbit where everybody else sees a bird. No less strange is the story of the Phrygian cap itself, which in Roman times were a symbol of liberty. What’s more, in a symbolic act, Julius Caesar’s assassins decided to bear one aloft. And all this without mentioning that these caps seemingly originate in the region of Phrygia, in so-called Asia Minor, today Turkey, and that the unforgettable Marianne, by Delacroix, the incarnation of the French Republic, also bore a Phrygian cap. And today, there are several countries and regions that feature this cap as a symbol of liberty. That said, there is no evidence of a rabbit ever having worn one, but, as the motto on the state flag of Bahia notes, it is through difficulty that things emerge (Per ardua surgo).

I guess all this, at the end of the day, is the same as when my boss sees things white, and I see them black, except that instead of black and white, we are talking here about a bird and a rabbit.

But can anybody tell me what the hell a bird, or a rabbit, I couldn’t care less either way, is doing in a cup, says my Boss’ boss… (1)

 


(1). On March 31, 2014, I had the opportunity to attend a class given in Singapore by INSEAD lecturer Neil Bearden in which he spoke about what is known as Aspect Seeing, the ability to perceive the same thing in different ways. He illustrated his talk with the celebrated image, below, of a duckrabbit used by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations to demonstrate the problem. The duckrabbit can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit. Transferring this image to the world of language, the outcome is that it seems it would be difficult to affirm that something like The Meaning of a thing really exists, because things can usually be interpreted in different ways. 

Until that time, I had never seen the drawing of the duckrabbit. I asked the author of the drawing that accompanies Per Ardua Surgo, Miguel Panadero, if he had seen it before, to which he replied in the negative. This raises the inevitable question as to how often we display our ignorance by not having the least idea of what things are really about or have been about.

– Now you really can all go to hell!!! says my Boss’ boss.

Is It a Duck or a Rabbit

Zatou, where are you from, where are you going?

By | China, Literature

While spending a few days in Kunming, I received an email from Sun Long saying he’s discovered the meaning of that graffito, 杂投 (Zatou), we saw together in Beijing that consisted of just two characters. Sun Long added that he came across the same graffito in several places and that apparently it was just a name, Zatou or Zato, a graffiti crew from the 1970s, one of the first in China, consisting of four members, who it would seem were all still alive. But what had really caught his attention, said Sun Long, is that somebody had once asked Zatou:

– “Zatou, where are you from, where are you going?”

– “I have no past, I have no future,” Zatou would have answered, making a clear reference to how his graffiti had been erased in the past and would continue to be erased in the future by order of authorities extremely worried about the mental health of their citizens.

While out and about in Kunming, I came across the same graffito twice. One of them is shown in the image. It’s very comforting to see something that one has already seen. Almost as comforting, I would say, as seeing it for the first time… There is something about the past! It’s also comforting to know that there are still things that remain to be seen. There is something about the future! It is said, however, that the danger with the eye is in seeing too clearly, and that the danger with hearing is in hearing too sharply… In short, every faculty hides a hidden danger within it. This danger looks very much as though it always happens in the present. Zatou, will you explain a bit more next time? Sun Long asks me why I ask for so many answers…(1)

 


(1) The dangers of the eye and hearing, and that all faculties hide a hidden danger within them is taken from the book Zuangzi, translated by Iñaki Preciado Idoeta, published by Kairós in 2007. Book XXIV, page 257. The Zatou graffito that Sun Long showed me in Beijing is in Jīngmìlù street (京密路).

Palindrome

By | Short story | No Comments

It’s been said that art is an act of resistance, an act of liberation, or the product of humanity’s God complex, or any number of other things that have been said. For me, art, creation, is a re-run of a feeling, in the same way that palindromes re-run a word, surprising us. Art surprises, it gives us a new perspective, it inverts feeling. (palin (πάλιν) “again”) and dromos (δρóμος); “way, direction, run”).

Ruskinland

By | Others | No Comments

 

Surely one of the most difficult challenges we face each day is simply presenting things as they are, without our perception of them getting in the way. It’s pretty much the same with writing style. There was a time when I loved recognizing the penmanship of a text’s author. It’s Proust writing, this is Scott Fitzgerald, no, Hemingway… But these days, I find myself appreciating what is being said much more than enjoying any clues as to who is saying it. My judgment would be that this is a form of transparent justice with respect to the written object.

I say this in light of Ruskinland, recently published by Financial Times journalist Andrew Hill, who expresses to perfection my thoughts above. His goal in the book is to make us see why the thinking of John Ruskin (who I called The Napoleon of Brantwood) is still needed today (page 26), and throughout the book it’s as though Ruskin himself were speaking to us, when evidently this is not the case. Ruskinland is the perfect enticement to read Ruskin. What more could one ask for?

In short, I recommend the book wholeheartedly, and would advise anybody who says they don’t have the time to do so to start with the third chapter, Seeing, which discusses Ruskin’s passion for simply watching: he was capable of looking at an object or landscape for hours on end, trying to make sure he hadn’t overlooked any aspect of it. The opening lines of the chapter quote Ruskin on the importance of taking the time to look:

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands think for one who can see.
To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.

 

PS: In October 2017, while still ignorant of Ruskin’s work, I published a collection of stories called Dibugrafías with the painter Miguel Panadero. One of them, Escalenes, discusses the virtue of seeing clearly in the dark. I leave it with you in the hope it clears a few things up…!!!

Scalenes

escalemasA triangulated head is clearly a mystery, because the number three has always been a mystery.

Let’s take a closer look:

If the three sides of a triangle are equal, we call it an equilateral triangle. The triangle is isosceles if only two of the sides are equal. And it is scalene if all three sides are unequal. Everybody knows, however, that these are just the certainties of geometry, because in the world out there, everything is unequal, scalene, and that’s without bringing heads into it. Now things seem a little clearer.

The virtue of being able to see clearly in the dark seems more like a virtue of geometry; let’s face it, not all heads are of equal capacity, but still none of them see clearly. Or does anybody know of a head that can see beyond the darkness?

If we move on from geometry to arithmetic, we have addition. The addition of a head, plus another head, and another, might this help gain clarity?

Marbella, May 1, 2014

The mayor of Education City

By | Others | No Comments

 

At a time when thought seems to have been reduced to the simplism of a tweet, a slogan or a mantra, which is then repeated ad nauseam throughout the social networks, it’s not easy to find executives with the ability and confidence to think issues through on their own terms and who are then capable of distilling their knowledge and experience, the better to share it. One of those happy few of whom Henry Thoreau spoke is Santiago Iniguez, Executive President of IE University.

Today saw the launch of Business Despite Borders, by Iñiguez and Kazuo Ichijo, Dean of Japan’s Hitotsubashi ICS (Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy). The event took place at the Palace Hotel in Tokyo and was attended by a large group of leading CEO´s and Executives from some of Japan’s biggest companies such as Nissan, Mitsui, and Otsuka pharmaceutical.

Business Despite Borders is a collection of essays by a diverse range of authors on the major issues of the day, among them The Unconventional Internationalization of Huawei, by Yufeng Zhou, Ji-Ye Mao and Ziliang Deng; How Companies and Governments Should Adapt to Technological Disruption by Manuel Muñiz; and The Nightmare of Populism and the Hopes Brought by Technology by Ichijo and Iñiguez, with Peter Lorange.

Iniguez holds firm to his belief that the best antidote to the nationalism and populism of our times is to do good business. His tireless defense of education as the best weapon against most of the ills afflicting society today has earned him the sobriquet of the Mayor of Education City, a reference to his oft-quoted comment: “It’s very cold out there, outside education city.” His work has been widely acknowledged and he was the first non-American to chair the AACSB, while Poet´s & Quants founder and editor John Byrne called him Europe’s Business School Maverick when Iniguez was named 2016 Dean of the Year, the first European to achieve said award (I recall John Byrne being the first to call Iniguez The Mayor of Education City, but I might be wrong, as is the case many times).

Iñiguez is always on the go, spreading the word about education around the world, which is why, a few years ago, when I made a short video about him, I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good, and in particular, a chapter called Globe-trotting,  whose title I borrowed for his video Globe-trotting flying in a balloon. From Spain to Japan, and just about everywhere in between, for Iniguez, education has no borders.

Business Despite Borders de Santiago Iniguez y Kazuo IchijoP.S.: Other books by Iniguez are The Learning Curve  (Also available in Chinese as 商学院); and Cosmopolitan Managers.

 

 

Let me tell you your favourite dish

By | China | No Comments

Life is life and not the thing we want it to be. That’s why it so often slips out of our hands and why the story of every life boils down to the story of the tension between the urge to do the thing you want and the combination of circumstances bent on keeping you from it, let’s say, your dream. It seems unnecessary to stress that this tension creates a lot of frustration. Put like this, life tends to look more like a process of breaking down – as Fitzgerald wrote – than anything else, like some kind of title bout, where all that matters is staying on one’s feet as one’s ride the punches. The progress of an education, whether a contender’s, for the Heavyweight Championship of the World or one’s own, has always interested me (that´s why I like the 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.)

Long ago, perhaps aware of the punches coming my way, I came up with a very small stratagem – sometimes, small things are crucial – to help me escape from the frustration, bad moods, or weakness, that life can deliver. The stratagem is simply a list of 10 delicious dishes I could choose from to give me back my lust for life or that energy I lacked after the latest blow. I have yet to complete the list. Moreover, a lady once said to me: “Let me tell you your favourite dish”. She didn’t say much more, because it seems that at some point in her life she had acquired the habit of not doing so, of politeness, and converted said habit into a question of manners, like when one leaves a tiny bit of food on the plate to show one’s host that the meal was abundant. Oh les femmes!

 

cangrejo

 

Please find below my list, in no particular order, because each has its moment.

Dazhaxie (大闸蟹), wonderful Shanghainese river crabs, only available from late September to November (see photo).
Chayedan (茶葉蛋) or Tea egg: delicious eggs cooked in spices, soy sauce and black tea leaves.
Toro (とろhiragana or トロ katana), the fatty cut of tuna belly.
Caviar, which needs no explanation.
Morcilla, or spicy black pudding, from Leon, in northern Spain.
Escamoles, a Mexican dish made from ant larvae and pupae.
Spanish dry cured ham (jamón ibérico).
– A juice of Acaí, made from a Brazilian berry.

As you can see, the list is incomplete and needn’t stop at 10, which when all is said and done, is simply a number we’ve chosen from our habit of rounding up things, a sort of security blanket to ward off our loneliness and frustration. By the way, another femme, French of course , said you do not forget Le Champagne!!!

 

 

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

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