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On China and other niceties

What is strange: Juan Carlos Gumucio In memoriam

By Others


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

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

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

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

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

que es extrano - a private war

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

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

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


What is strange?

que es extrano dibugrafia

Painting by Miguel Panadero

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

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

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

Moscow, April 23,


By China, Literature, Story


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

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

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

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

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


lost horizon-autor

destaca tomara


By China, Others

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

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


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

Vinicius de Moraes

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

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


the new sik roads


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.


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.



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)



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


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


By Short story

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”).


By Others


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…!!!


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


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.



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