On China and other niceties
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China

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.

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!

 

 

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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