Wednesday, April 30, 2014

May Day

What’s the deal with May 1st?  I made plans at the beginning of the week for business travel in China on Thursday and Friday.  Come to be reminded that it is a holiday here today.  My kids will have Thursday and Friday off and then need to report back to work on Sunday.   Me and all the other people who 呕心沥血[1] are officially mandated to slow down today, and rest.

 Some eighty countries in the world, including China celebrate May 1st as International Workers Day.  America celebrates “Labor Day” for the first of September.  I assumed the schism had to do with our nation’s official, historical aversion to anything to do with socialism and communism.    And upon looking I’ve confirmed that International Worker’s Day began with the Second International, which unlike the first excluded the anarcho-syndicalist movement and the unions.  The day was originally chosen, oddly, to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886, when a bomb went off at a peaceful protest leading to the wrongful conviction of eight anarchists.  

May Day is also commemorative of the rights of spring.  In pre-Christian Europe it was associated with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and with the Walpurgis Night celebrations in Germanic countries and from this we get our May queen and the fertility symbol of the maypole.  During the Red Scare in the US the day was apparently pasted over with nationalist nonsense and referred to as “Loyalty Day” in 1958, which fortunately never went anywhere.  Now apparently people in the U.S. are trying to unite the “green root” and “red root” holidays into a combined revision.  I don’t know if all this legalization progress back home has sapped this reference, but I seem to recall May Day was also Jay Day, for public consumption of marijuana, back in the Lower East Side.  A quick examination and the “cannabis parade”, is still going strong.

My favorite Asian “Labor Day” anecdote was from when I lived in Hong Kong.  I was, perhaps not unlike yesterday preparing to go to work on May 1st, back in 2007 or so and was told my a staff member with the thick Cantonese accent that May 1st was a holiday.   “Which holiday?” I asked.  “Neighbor Day.”  Huh?  OK.  What the hell is “neighbor day” I wondered?  I envisioned knocking on the door of the heretofore stranger families who also lived on the 9th floor there in Pok Fu Lam, and saying “hello, well, yes, how do you do?  I’m John and we live in 9D and seeing how it is “neighbor day” here in town, I thought I’d take it upon myself to pop over and introduce myself.”  “What?  Today is “labor day” asshole, not “neighbor day.” Go home, and stop knocking on my door,”

And so labor stopped, briefly this morning.  My younger daughter insisted my wife and I play a board game.  And I’ll let you all know at the outset that it was “Ms. Scarlet, with a pistol in the hall,” these turned out to be the ghastly details, in our game of Clue.  I couldn’t say how long it has been since I played Clue; probably at least thirty-three years or so.  I thought it would all come back, but it was good have the directions handy.  “No doubles Baba!  No doubles!”  “Are you sure?  I figured I go again if I got doubles.”  She was right.  My wife, who had never played Clue, didn’t have a clue, but after a decidedly clueless start, got the hang of dispelling rumors discretely.  I still think I prefer Monopoly. 

Another morning I was glad to be in the gym alone.  The Isley Brother’s 1975 classic “Fight the Power” from the album “The Heat is On” started off the mix.  It’s odd to think of time when I didn't’ know that song with its refined frustration, commanding bass groove and subtle flourishes.   But it was only in 1989 when Public Enemy released a same titled song with the Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing,” that I and my circle of music intimates bothered to find out the inspirational source.  In my mind, I looked pretty good doing air-bass on May Day there on the rotating stair machine. Thank Flora and Saint Walpurga it isn’t available on Youtube.

[1] ǒuxīnlìxuè:  lit. to spit out one's heart and spill blood (idiom) / to work one's heart out / blood, sweat and tears

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sorry, I'm Not Sorry

Last day of my lovely month of April.  Glad to've had ya here.  Let me finally get around to talking about Reggie Workman.  I’ve got him on now live in Munich in 1961, optimistically punching his way through “On Green Dolphin Street” with Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet and McCoy Tyner on keys and what should have been Elvin Jones on drums, but apparently he had passport problems, (did he lose it at a bar or not they issue him one?) and instead we’ve Mel Lewis who I’m not familiar with.  But otherwise it is that classic Coltrane combo, sans JC.  Scott Yanow points out on Rdio that the recording quality is poor, but it is still lovely to swing with them regardless over these glorious, extended standards. 

Like John Coltrane, Reggie Workman was from Philadelphia and unlike Eric Dolphy or most of the other jazz giants we profile on this page, I’m happy to report that he is still alive and teaching at the New School back in Manhattan.  This recording “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise- Live In Germany 1961 “ does make it difficult to focus on his playing but it isn’t hard to hear how he’s driving Mel Lewis, in a graceful arc that keeps rejuvenating, cyclically.

Great article in Foreign Affairs by Gi Wook Shin and Daniel Sneider on the resolution of bitterness from WWII in the region.  I worked hard in a manuscript that I was well along with this time last year, “The Seven Deadly Starbucks (7DS) in which I tried to push myself to offer recommendations on these matters.  It’s a vexing puzzle.  One area I decided was under examined was the unique roll of Korea, North and South, in bridging the giant neighbors.  But the authors in this article seem instead look to challenge America to take the lead.

America doesn’t want to be seen to be meddling.  But it is arguably the unwitting author of many of the current tensions.  The pardoning of Hirohito, and certain “nationalist conservatives”, the recognition of territorial disputes early in the Cold War in the hope that they would ultimately settle.  It’s a healthy reminder.  We tend to be least optimistic sometimes about the devil we know best.  I can think of countless reasons why the US will exhibit a deficit of will to lead this issue, just as Korean friends tell me the same, about their beloved home. 

This article doesn’t seem to put much of any onus on South Korea or North Korea to do anything more than be magnanimous when Japan finally does what it ought to.  China merely looms in this reckoning.  Japan is at fault.  And the U.S. is powerful and timorous.  But it’s nearly impossible to imagine a rendering that didn’t tilt or slant with bias. Japan does wear a unique responsibility.  That they, as the author’s pithily observe say “Sorry, I'm not sorry,” is perennially depressing. 

I implicitly understand but would be pressed point to specific, tangible differences between the way Germany responded to its wartime history and the way that Japan did.  These authors help to layout some specifics:  the $7.5 billion  “German Fund for the Future” jointly run and funded by German corporations and the German government.  German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the site of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.   Germany and France jointly designing text book curriculums for their students. 

What it mean for North Asian relations if the Japanese Prime Minister, indeed Abe in particular, if he were to bow at the Nanjing massacre site, if he were to meet with the surviving South Korean “comfort” women?  He needn’t 负荆请罪[1], just be sincere.  And what if the United States, were to push Japan in unison with China and South Korea on certain matters.  What if as they rightly suggested an American President were to: 

“throw aside political caution and go to Hiroshima or Nagasaki to offer his or her own reflections on the horrible human costs of the decision to drop atomic weapons on Japan. The United States would not only set an example -- without doing so, it would be hard to justify American intervention on wartime history issues.”

The authors referenced research done on the part of a larger initiative they titled “Divided Memories and Reconciliation.”  It is a Stanford program that cross references quite a bit of interesting material.   The introduction was very thoughtfully written to allow entry from any perspective:

“Questions about what happened in the past touch upon the most sensitive issues of national identity, the formation of historical memories, and national myths that play a powerful role to this day. Whether it be Japanese atrocities in China or the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, no nation is immune to the charge that it has formed a less-than-complete view of the past. All share a reluctance to fully confront the complexity of their own past actions and blame others for their historical fates.”   Dr. Gi-Wook Shin
I’ve downloaded a large “Progress Report” that looks like it will be interesting. 

[1] fùjīngqǐngzuì:  lit. to bring a bramble and ask for punishment (idiom) / fig. to offer sb a humble apology

Monday, April 28, 2014

Victory and Sorrow

My friends are hard at work in the house behind mine.  The group I successfully had cease and desist on Sunday are back at it, drilling, sawing, pounding.  China’s remarkable urbanization of rural workers building the cities they will eventually come to live in themselves, is well described in this fascinating Economist summary article, “Building the Dream."
Indeed.  Two thirds of the nation, (1/6 of the planet or so) all 弃农经商[1] Immediate evidence a mere watermelon’s throw behind me. 

Close the windows, put on the headphones.  I have no ground from which to complain.  Who am I to stop the greatest urbanization project human kind has ever witnessed.  But come next Sunday, if they so much as hold a rasp up to the light, they’re gonna hear from me. 

Ah, but I’ve got Booker Little in my ears and he sounds beautiful and with a bit of preparation I can’t hear the builders at all.  I’ve come upon Mr. Little, who hailed from Memphis Tennessee through my pursuit of bass players.  I have been planning to mention and eventually will, Reggie Workman, who, of course played with Coltrane on many of the classic releases from the early 60s.  I will get around to writing about Reggie Workman, who sounds great in my ears just now, swinging with the New York drummer turned attorney, Pete La Roca whose been featured here before, Workman lead from the workmen and on to the trumpet player who heads this session, Booker Little. 

Before Reggie Workman I'd discussed the bass player Doug Watkins who died tragically at the age of 27 in 1962.  You need a different adverb I suppose to describe the death of surging virtuoso with the striking looks, who passes at the age of 23.  Booker Little came up in Max Roach’ band in the wake of Clifford Brown’s passing.  He died not long after this set I’m listening to, appropriately titled  “Victory and Sorrow” off the album “Booker Little and Friend,” recorded in 1961.  The cause was complications from uremia, otherwise known as kidney failure.   Apparently Max Roach was so shook up that another great brass luminary associated with him should pass so young, he wondered if he was somehow a jinx for trumpet players.  Amazing to consider making a lasting impact on a tradition, by that fledgling age. 

I’m a member for the Pacific Council on International Policy and my only real connection, as all the events for the Council take place on the other side of the Pacific, is the China news summaries I receive, compiled by the inimitable Bob Kapp, former head of the U.S. China Business Council.   And I love this list because it regularly brings in a dozen new news sources, like the Economist article above, that I might not normally consider.  Today’s trawl included an interesting piece on how China’s search efforts for the Malaysian Airlines jet have revealed that her blue water navy will run out of gas, projecting power much beyond Hainan.  China has no official allies with whom it can count on for refueling stations, should relations with our favorite hegemon, turn sour. 

It is interesting to consider who it might be that will actually assume the role as China’s first proper treaty ally.  Perhaps it will be in Tanzania, after building this fuel station.  Not that lack of allies ever stopped the Japanese Imperial Navy from projecting its power across this continent.  But China’s behavior in the South China Sea with Vietnam, and the Philippines, will not lead to any trusted affinities, any time soon in their immediate neighborhood.

Meanwhile Oliver Stone was in town, chiding the Chinese to come to grips with their own history and approach a Chairman with a fair, no holds barred, critique.   The hapless moderator tried to turn the subject to more moderate matters and Stone told her she was missing the point. 

"You talk about co-production but you don't want to face the history of China. You don’t want to talk about it," Stone said.  "Three times I've made efforts to co-produce in this country and I've come up short. We've been honest about our own past in America, we've shown the flaws."

Only partially true, but important nonetheless.  I once wrote a candid, farcical screenplay about Mao, that will never be made. I can sympathize.  Oliver missed the memo on the niceties of Chinese hagiography and the importance of stability over all else, but that’s not a bad thing.  Sometimes its good to have a bull in the China shop. 

Finally, I often quote a stat I learned a long time ago that United States enjoys 1/5 the population of China, living on five times the arable land.   Raw geographic comparisons of approximate comparability notwithstanding, most of China is mountainous, desert like and not capable of sustaining people.  This article in the China Dialouge blog adds insult to the injury of the aforementioned juxtaposition.  Apparently nearly 1/5 the arable land in China is polluted according to an official quality report, published last Thursday.  One can only imagine this is going to get worse, before it gets better.  Hence people leave the countryside and a life of cultivation to improve their lot, but also, presumably, because 1/5 the land doesn’t yield any more.  Or worse, it does, and people poison themselves, daily.  So much further to go . . .

[1] qìnóngjīngshāng:  to abandon farming and become a businessman (idiom)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Shave Em' Dry

Every morning when I’m back from the gym I wake up the ladies and get to work preparing some breakfast for them.  I’ve taken it upon myself to orchestrate this particular phase of the day with female blues from the 20s and 30s.  The blues is a fundamental fabric of the American cultural experience.  If you want to understand most recorded music of the last century, these are the underlying melodies, this is the underlying feeling that explains most of what follows. 

I search for Cheerios in a bowl with raisons.  Cup of 2% milk on the side, so they aren’t wonky by the time they descend.  Peel back a banana, cut open a mango, toast and butter an English muffin, set it all out.  Get the coffee started for mom.  And all the while the scratchy, 30s sound fills the morning with its warm, particular invocation. 

Bessie Smith is the standard, the apex in my mind for what the expression of this initial flowering.  My mother had two double albums of hers when we were young and that music has fortunately been part of my aural landscape ever since.  I can recall transcribing the lyrics to “Black Mountain” for my students when I was a high school teacher in Brooklyn and presenting it to them.  After Bessie there are the other names I’ve long known like Ma Rainey and Alberta Hunter then there is everyone else.  

Now, worries about royalty payments mentioned yesterday not withstanding, I have been enjoying the slow discovery of some of these luminous ladies, breakfast by breakfast.  I’ve written about a few of them, like Memphis Minnie and Mamie Smith, and Sippie Wallace and Ida Cox.  But I hadn’t heard of Lucille Brogan and I have Rido to thank for linking her in there next to Ida Cox.  Fine then, we’ll throw on some Lucille Brogan this morning.  

Good morning ladies.  Make sure you eat that mango.  You need some vitamin C.  I have no idea where your homework is.  That’s your responsibility.  I know honey, there must be something wrong with the coffee maker.  It’s coming out so slowly.  Then, from over the din, I heard a man singing on the cut in an almost hushed tone about “bitches.”  Hmm.  I listened a bit more closely and sure enough, he was talking about bitches.  Right.  Well then, off you go ladies.  Have a nice day. 

I went in the other room to listen again and found reference to the tune on line.  There is in fact a raw version of the song that Lucille herself sings; “Shave Em’ Dry” that is about as filthy as a ditty could be.  Be sure to scroll down for the lyrics transcribed below.  色胆包天[1] Lucille knows what she wants.

No need to ponder the humorous double entendres of Bessie Smith who wants ‘sugar in her bowl’ when listening to “Shave Em Dry.”  It’s all quite clear.  I guess I hadn’t realized that all those words were in popular usage back then, but of course they were.  And as the article suggests this is what it must have actually sounded like in a juke joint after everybody’d had their gin and whiskey, in places where police never patrolled and people took risks and had fun with candor.

And you think of people like Lenny Bruce who’d was hounded to the point of suicide for uttering things far more tame, twenty-five years later.   The MC5’s who had their classic live album pulled from the shelves in 1968 for the unfiltered intro at the beginning of “Kick Out The Jams”, or the first time I’d heard The Sex Pistols sing “Bodies” from 1977 and counting up the five or so times the word “fuck” is used in that song and thinking, as a thirteen year old might, that this was quite something.  

Lucille’s raunchy candor antedates it all, including the lewdest gangster rap that speaks to this feeling most directly, by at least fifty years, reminding us there is really isn't anything new under the sun.  It is perhaps appropriate that she is interred in the Lincoln Memorial Park in Compton, California, the soil from which would spring NWA. 

I’ll save the sharing of the transcription with my daughters’ however, for some other decade. 

[1] sèdǎnbāotiān:  to be driven by strong sexual urge (to do sth) (idiom)

Hypokrites, I Suppose

Thinking of the 1958 Chinese number I referred to yesterday, “Socialism Is Good” it is striking to consider what was playing over in New York at roughly the same time.  I’m continuing my bop bassist search and have come upon two albums by the one Doug Watkins.  The 1960 release “Soulnick” and the song “One Guy” with Yusef Lateef on flute is filling out this lovely spring day. How stentorian and arhythmical the prior would have sounded to the ‘Soulnick’ set, how decadent and frivolous the bop groove would have registered in China’s Great Leap Forward élan. 

And fate is tricky.  Li Huanzhi the prior song’s songwriter managed to live through the great famine and the insanity of the Cultural Revolution to greet the new millennium, when he died at aged 81.  Our man from Detroit would die within two years of this session he lead in a car accident at the age of 27.

Caught up in irony and hypocrisy today; my own and 世态炎凉[1].  Clearly of Greek origin, I had a look at the etymology of the aspersion 'hypocrite' today:

Whereas hypokrisis applied to any sort of public performance (including the art of rhetoric), hypokrites was a technical term for a stage actor and was not considered an appropriate role for a public figure. In Athens in the 4th century BC, for example, the great orator Demosthenes ridiculed his rival Aeschines, who had been a successful actor before taking up politics, as a hypocrites whose skill at impersonating characters on stage made him an untrustworthy politician. This negative view of the hypokrites, perhaps combined with the Roman disdain for actors, later shaded into the originally neutral hypokrisis. It is this later sense of hypokrisis as "play-acting", i.e., the assumption of a counterfeit persona, that gives the modern word hypocrisy its negative connotation.

Regular readers already know that workers are building a structure in the home behind mine in this compound.  They saw and bang away all week and it's a drag when the windows open and there ain’t much I can do about.  But I also happen to know that our compound has a rule prohibiting noisy construction on Sundays.   So as the circular saw started whining this morning, and I found myself enduring as always, it occurred to me that it was Sunday and I called the management office and asked them in Chinese to speak to these folks about this rule. 

Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later I could hear the guard go over and talk to them and it was quite for a while.  Then, all noises save the circular saw started up again.  Nah.  Uh, uh.  I called the management office back and said: “So it’s me again.  Your man went over, and talked to the workers and they’ve completely ignored him.  This is ridiculous.  If you don’t have any enforcement your rules are simply a joke.”  The man agreed and said he was on it.

Random construction noise continued for a while.  I was very tempted to yell out the window and tell them, “what did you not understand about ‘no noise’?”  or “please gents, go home.”  But here, where the rule of law is only imperfectly adhered to, I would accomplish nothing but trouble to insert my foreign ass directly into a dispute, unless it were absolutely necessary.  I started thinking about how not working would probably mean they weren’t going to earn critical money for the day.  But on the balance I settled on the relative legitimacy of the idea that for one day at least, we should have some quiet.  The guard returned, more flustered, animated this time, they objected, he insisted, and then, they left for the day. 

Later some workers miraculously showed up at my place days days later than requested, to finally replace some sheet rock that had been damaged by water.  Long overdue and I showed them to spot and offered them something to drink and left them to it, and it occurred to me, that technically, I should tell them to go home and return tomorrow.  But practically I resigned myself to letting them use screw guns and other noise generating devices in my home on a Sunday, until someone else raised the matter as annoying.  They wouldn’t be making much noise . . . 

I often speak about the “imperfect migration from the rule of man to the rule of law,” when discussing China, but realistically that is an imperfect migration in all of us.  Certainly it is in me: acting a a self righteous role, acting a sly one.

Alas, the theme continues.  I shared with some old friends my appreciation of the Menahan Street Band whom I first introduced a few days ago.  Walking around on a sunny Beijing day yesterday, they sounded divine.  It’s a caustic, ironic bunch these friends and one pointed out that the band was probably only getting $0.47 per year or so from Rdio for all this celestial music I was enjoying.  I escalated things sarcastically.  Others chimed in, and I gleefully ratcheted the sarcasm higher.  But the underlying point isn’t so easy to dismiss. 

Making use of Rdio is a like being eight years old in a candy store with a pillow-case and being told to help yourself.  It’s a fabulous cornucopia that I pay $10.00 per month for.  Doug Watkins and more recently Yusef Lateef have both passed.  So too, perhaps are the statute of limitations on what is in “the public realm.”  I absolutely feel that, having bought the “license rights” “the IP access” for “Abbey Road” and “Let it Bleed” and “Highway 61 Revisited” and five hundred other albums once, when it hurt, with my hard-earned driveway shovelling money as a teenager and then probably again, in my twenties, when I purchased the CDs, and I have no issue with listening to such things now, without paying a cent.  But certainly the Menahan Street Band, who released one of the albums I’ve been enjoying in 2012, are all, as far as I can tell alive and kicking, and heretofore have not received a penny from me, sans the meagre Rdio trickle for all the joy they brought me these last few days. 

Technology will continue to drive disruption.  The manner in which music was produced and consumed in the late twentieth century will quickly fade ever faster into memory as an adorable anachronism.  The 33 RPM LP that replaced the Victrola, the Sony Walkman and the iPod are all, already, equally irrelevant staring forward.  Music will continue to completely change, in accordance with what technology enables in terms of sounds, means for consumption and . . . how value is transferred.   

So what’s to be done about the fact that musicians do not receive much of anything from a service, which I’ve paid only the barest minimum to enjoy?  Analytically it means this is not sustainable and in accordance, the music itself, the way people make it and distribute it, will all continue to change.  But personally is there anything practical to be done about addressing the hypocrisy of enjoying a personal bounty to the detriment of people who aren’t properly compensated?  Music is by no means the only area out from which these glaring headlights shine. 

Certainly live concerts like the family excursion to the Ray Lema Quintet last weekend, where I gladly paid twelve bucks on top of the ticket to have his latest CD that is not on Rdio, are one answer.  But in general, I’ll never have the chance support 99% of the music I consume that way.  Do we have faith then that human ingenuity and sense of moral refinement will find a way to fund what will otherwise die for lack of oxygen?  Or is this next hundred years a new, tighter, tightening of the screw that commoditizes art into something with less and less a chance to flower and disseminate?

Innately I presume that humans will simply find a new way to express themselves.  But when no one is around the hypocrites must answer to himself.  Certainly I have consumed more music in the last six months than I have otherwise heard anew for the last three years. Vitamin charged, what is my responsibility as one acting through life?  In a world where socialism is no longer especially "good", in the way Li Huanzhi suggested, where does the thread of 'fair trade' lead?

[1] shìtàiyánliáng:  the hypocrisy of the world (idiom)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

World Art Museum

I’ve just done something in China that I’ve never done before.  My oldest daughter needed to take a standardized SSAT class.  You sign up and pay on the U.S. web site and they point out the official site in Beijing, where the test is offered.  OK, it’s over on in Haidian District.  Throw it in Google Maps, and, it’s not in the north west, its’ over on the west side of the third ring road.  I used to work near there at ZiZhuYuan, (Purple Bamboo Garden) sixteen years ago.

My daughter approached the test with the appropriate seriousness, cranking through the prep book and asking me for clarification on some five hundred words.  Chinese, Americans, nobody wants to 名落孙山[1].  Like any parent we got all the stuff ready the night before, printed out the admission ticket, got the passport, and made sure we had copious, sharpened number two pencils.  This morning it was just like any other morning, up early, breakfast, get everybody ready and . . . click on the Maps ap for directions.

Sunny clear day, relatively unobstructed traffic down, easy exit off and refer to the map.   We’ve over shot the first right and take the second, and so it begins.  According to the map it must be this hutong alley.  We turn in.  My wife is driving, rolls down the window and asks the man having a roadside breakfast if the “how do you pronounce it?"  “The bla bla bla school honey.”  “let your daughter see it, that can’t be right.”  “It’s not in characters, it’s in pinyin (romanized) darling.”   Hence I can’t be wrong.  “Let me see.”  “Here you go.”

Now my wife proceeds in her sweetest Chinese: “Hey Mister, hello, can you let me know where the bla bla bla school is?”  “Ask the boss here, I don’t know.”  “Hi madame, is the bla bla bla school over this way?”  “Couldn’t tell ya.”  “I see.”  We proceed along the alley on my advice and are now stuck inching past an oncoming taxi.  “Hi sir, can you tell us where the bla bla bla school might be?”  “No idea lady.”  Oh dear.  “Hello?  Miss?  Oh Really?  Really?  Right over there?  Hey, great. Thank you.” 

Back out, over around, two more directional inquiries and we’re at the place described in the Google Maps’ address gate, with about fifteen minutes to spare.  The way before which, is blocked.  A squat man in a rumpled uniform saunters over toward our car.  "This is that place.  But I haven’t heard of any test here to day lady.  Louie?  Louie?  Is there a test on here today?” “I haven’t heard of any test.”   It dawns on me that we have found the place on Google Maps and it is the wrong place. 

Now everyone is getting frantic.  Check the receipt.  The only number to call is in the U.S.  The name on the receipt is different than what’s in the ap.   Down the street, u-turn, back around, miraculously we are able to go left across the high street with a fortuitous traffic light.  Somewhere over here on the opposite block said the last reference.  Just park, we can try to walk from here.  Ask an old man, right that way.  Cool.  Up we go, take a left as instructed and sure enough there’s a crowd up ahead.  Are the kids still waiting to get in?  Oops, these aren’t kids.  These are young people working for the fifteen some odd test prep class companies, who’ve set up shop around the entrance.   Yup, this is the place, and that is the entrance.  Where are all the kids?  There inside, the test starts in five minutes.  But you can’t go in with her.  OK.  OK.  Here’s your passport, dear.  Here’s the ticket.  I’ll take your phone and . . . you made it. 

Unwinding from the great dash, my wife now settles into focused nervousness.  “Is she all right?”  “Of course dear.”  “How can she call if she doesn’t have a phone?”  “She’s not supposed to call.  Let’s go drive over to . . . “  “I don’t want to leave the area.”  “I see.” 

To my great dismay we are sitting now in the only establishment in the area that is open and serving; Kentucky Fried Chicken.  My wife has ironically gone and ordered the classic Beijing alley-food breakfast, you tiao and dou jiang (fried bread sticks and hot tofu milk) from Colonel Sanders.   My daughter wants to know if they have this in the U.S. KFC.  No darling.  The Colonel has a different special recipe back home.  Not far up the road is the “Beijing World Art Museum.”    It’s not The Met, but it’s worth a look. 

Later, now it is safe to report that it was most assuredly not The Met.  I had to pump it up big time to get my younger one to assent.  We went in and then found out we had to go back across the street and show a passport to get a free ticket for everyone.  Walking in I ask the lady at the counter for a map.  She looks at me like I’d asked for an apple.  “A floor plan perhaps?”  “No such thing exists, sir.”  “Well then.  What’s on?”  Oh, well, yeah, the kids’ exhibit is over there and there are things open on the . . . Gladys?  Is upstairs open? Yeah, so the upstairs is open too.”  “Right.  Well.  Thanks.”

On the first floor is an exhibit of kids’ art, which is nice if you like looking at other children's artwork in a room where the air con is broken.  The dimly lit stairs lead us to the second floor where everything looks closed.  The gift shop gal explains that you walk around that wall over yonder, and then down.   There is an enormous round room on the wall of which is a rather predictable wall relief that looks like a more elaborate version of the wall carvings in two dozen four-star tourist hotels across the country which begins with our man from Sichuan, Deng Xiao Ping and traces Chinese history back counter clockwise to for a hundred cyclical meters to the mythical FuXi.  That’s the second floor of “Beijing World Art Museum.”  Surely the third floor must have something of merit.  We schlep up and there is a sculpture gallery of Chinese luminaries which various companies have sponsored the erection of.  Nothing wrong with refreshing on who’s who, in Chinese civilization but the rendering of Li Qingzhao sponsored by the Number 2 Shandong Cement Works, is hardly Rodin.

And with the completion of this progression we have seen all that there is to see in the “Beijing World Art Museum.”  Is this a civic boondoggle?  How can you have a massive museum of this size, with that name, one of the world’s most significant emerging metropolis and this is all there is to show for it?  It’s like the American World Series which doesn’t invite anyone else in the world to play.  The “Beijing World Art Museum” has absolutely nothing from anywhere else in the world to display.  Why not?

We took a stroll in the YuYuanTan Park which our man Qianlong, who’s appeared on our DustyBrine pages before, built during his reign.  It is a sunny spring Saturday and, as one can only expect, it is packed to the gills with humanity.  The two yuan for adults entrance fee, doesn’t seem to be deterring anyone.  

Up ahead there is a crowd   In the crowd are music stands.  A bald man is getting a score ready.  Behind him are tubas.  A one, two, a one two three four . . .  This is a collection of older people assembled in the part all singing the red anthems of their youth.  They all seem so excited when the tune kicks up.  Everyone knows what to do.  The bald conductor is bringing up the right, now bringing up the left to the um-pah-pah beat.  The Li Huanzhi, 1958 classic "Socialism is Good" is on. One can’t help but imagine what’s going through their minds, belting out the songs that they went off to make revolution with, fifty years on, with message removed of all its potency beyond mere nostalgia.

Time to go get our test taker. 

[1] míngluòsūnshān:  (idiom) to fail in imperial exam

Friday, April 25, 2014

Imperial Minds

Finished a wonderful read yesterday.  “The Mind of Empire” by Christopher Ford.  As I recall in my very first entry of DustyBrine, back last September, I cited an article that Christopher Ford had written.  It wasn’t the first thing of his I’d read, as I'd earlier encountered another fascinating article of his analyzing a military conference he'd attended with Chinese brass.  He is a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former officer, diplomat who has written a truly trenchant look at how the broad sweep of Chinese history can considered to understand China’s self perception.

The main juxtaposition lies between China’s traditional, unquestionable centrality and the violent confrontation with the western, Westphalian rhetorical understanding of equality among nations.  China, "imperial mind" could be seen to understand dominance and subjugation well enough, but have little historical preparation for coexisting as merely one of many nations, each with an understanding of relative parity. 

China does, of course, operate every day within a system of international law and frequently sites notions of mutual non-interference that stem from this European tradition rather than their own.  However, this can also be seen to be a conditional expedient, wherein the philosophical underlays that inform a Chinese world view, are irrepressible and constantly appear.  Chinese in general, in this understanding have their own 良知良能[1] the quality of which is necessarily exalted in relation to others.

The frame can be used to explain all manner of national behavior, such as the notion of “teaching a lesson” to India or Vietnam, through more or less successful incursions in recent history, or of the importance of being seen to stand for something larger than merely the nation itself.  It speaks to grave challenges for the future, but also illustrates how many concerns about Chinese behavior, may be misplaced.  A regional power, for example is much easier to ultimately accommodate, than a global overlord.

I have tried to organize my thoughts about different trains of Chinese philosophy to craft an explanation of current policy behavior.  It is an absolutely daunting undertaking.  For a non-Sinologist to cover 2500 years of Chinese philosophy and apply it to the last 180 years of engagement with the west, and do it swiftly and convincingly and entertainingly is masterful.  The end, not unlike the article I first mentioned last fall ends with a “damned if I know”-like conclusion on what these filters mean for predicting Chinese behavior going forward.  But perhaps this is about as committal as one should be.  A highly recommended read, from my vantage. 

This morning I participated in the humbling ritual of parents’ day at my kids school.  I went up to the fourth floor and piled in to the room with the other parents.  We were asked to sit and view the classes for the morning.  It is an important event for me to attend, because it gives me so much respect for my kids, among other things.  I can understand most of the teachers’ instructions at a high level.  But process in real time the specifics of fourth grade math calculation, word problems, decimal comparisons etc., in a foreign language?  I would have been rather lost if I’d have had to actually stand and respond to a question.  

It’s often how it is with foreign languages.  We have areas that are turn-key.  The travel vocabulary, the dining vocabulary, the business meeting vocabulary, the “I’m not happy” vocabulary.  But when it concerns math problems, the words for diameter and radius and complex fraction have not really come up much.  Chinese quote larger numbers in tens of thousands rather than thousands, so a figure is “twenty-ten-thousands”, rather than “two hundred thousand” and so you need to adjust those figures in real time, if you want to answer, calculate quickly and correctly.  My nine year-old rose and answered a question about comparing decimals without blinking.  I was doubly proud; one with her being able to provide the correct answer.  But second because the question was, in the end, completely indecipherable for me.

I followed on from the Menahan Street Band of yesterday to another New York group that has captured that remarkable West African 70’s sound in a way that is genuine and contemporary.  The Budos Band appears to be from Staten Island. They were the pick of the litter of a few of these other contemporary Afro-funk-soul bands I checked after the Menahan sound.  As I was poking around it seems like there is a profusion of Afro-beat, soul revival bands all producing, playing and cross fertilizing there in my home city of New York.  Glad to know the soil is still aerated and sprouting.

[1] liángzhīliángnéng: instinctive understanding, esp. of ethical issues (idiom); untrained, but with an inborn sense of right and wrong / innate moral sense