We can a certain amount of repetition in 2022. Xi Jinping will be re-elected for the third time, and nationalism, in all its manifestations, shows no sign of going away.
The Year of the Ox. According to Chinese astrology, as well as others, our destiny is directly related to the position of the planets at the time of our birth. Chinese astrologers, observing the orbit of Jupiter around the sun, divided it into 12 sections, corresponding to 12 years, each named after an animal.
In his magnificent Vermeer´s Hat, sinologist Timothy Brook (Chinese name 卜正民) has produced an impressive and unusual piece of research work: has chosen not to focus on the beauty and technical perfection of Vermeer’s paintings, nor his mysterious personal life, nor why one of the greatest painters ever was only recognized two centuries after his death—thanks largely to 19th century French art critic Théophile Thoré. Instead, Brook has produced a meticulous analysis of the objects that appear in five of his paintings, to show us the importance of international trade in the seventeenth century between China and the West, and particularly, Vermeer’s home town of Delft, which played a hitherto largely unknown role until recently.
The first thing Brook does is to challenge the way we look at paintings, telling us to stop seeing them as windows to other times and places. “Chief among these habits is a tendency to regard paintings as windows opening directly onto another time and place. It is a beguiling illusion to think that Vermeer’s paintings are images directly taken from life in XVII century Delft. Paintings are not “taken”, like photographs; they are “made”, carefully and deliberately, and not show an objective reality so much as to present a particular scenario,” argues Brook. Through a careful analysis of these scenarios, Brook creates a map of the world of the time.
With the future of international trade, and particularly with China, a hot topic, Vermeer’s Hat offers a highly stimulating and cosmopolitan perspective of the world.
How Berlin East Side Gallery graffiti can help to speed up our de-donkeyfication process.
During a visit this weekend to Berlin, I was hoping to continue with my plan (Inhshallah) to write about the Chinatowns I come across during my travels, but there isn’t one in the German capital: the best-laid plans… The closest Berlin comes to a Chinatown is in Kantstrasse, in Charlottenburg, but in reality, Berlin is a graffiti town. Wherever you go, you’ll find a wall or some corner that’s been painted.
I’ve chosen these graffiti from the East Gallery, painted on one of the last remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall along Warschauer Strasse in Kreuzberg, both for their message and their esthetic. If I had to choose one in particular, I’d go for The Persistence of Ignorance, which sadly is the worst photograph, because I’m not such a great photographer, and so part of the graffito is missing. Ignorance manifests itself in so many ways: as lack of knowledge or ability.
As is well known, we come into this world as donkeys, and it is only after a great deal of hard work that education de-donkeys us. It’s a long process, as summed up by the Chinese proverb Live to be old, learn until you are old (活到老, 学到老 huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo. Also see The civilizing influence of Lady Gaga).
In short, de-donkeyfication takes a long time; there are few walls as big as the wall of ignorance, although there are many other walls that need to be knocked down, as another of these graffiti points out.
French street artist Combo has become a symbol of diversity, celebrating co-existence and encouraging us to “Fear no one, fear nothing”. He has plastered Hong Kong with Google advertisements banned in China and been beaten up while at work in Paris, but undeterred, he continues to spread his message.
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…