On China and other niceties
Category

China

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).

Let me tell you your favourite dish

By | China

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

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.

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.

Este sitio web utiliza cookies para que usted tenga la mejor experiencia de usuario. Si continúa navegando está dando su consentimiento para la aceptación de las mencionadas cookies y la aceptación de nuestra política de cookies, pinche el enlace para mayor información.

ACEPTAR
Aviso de cookies