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OK, time to get 2017 started in earnest! I have some resolutions and ideas–and I’m looking forward to hearing your New Year plans too. But first there is extremely good news in the paper, so let’s lead with that:  the People’s Republic of China has announced that they are shutting down their national trade in ivory by the end of 2017.  The world’s most populous nation is by far the world’s largest ivory consumer: estimates suggest that it accounts for as much as 70% of ivory demand.  The tusks of slaughtered elephants reach the nation illegally and then become part of a vast economy of carvers, traders, dodgy antiques merchants, and suchlike sellers.  All of this is to feed the growing appetite of China’s new middle class, who are hungry for anything which confers status (but who do not necessarily understand just how sapient, compassionate, and irreplaceable elephants are).

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The ban is said to be a direct result of a meeting between the world’s two most powerful men, President Xi Jinping and President Obama, who laid the groundwork for a comprehensive ban when they met in Washington in 2015.  Obama tightened up surprisingly lax ivory rules in America in an effort to save the last proboscideans.  It is a great pleasure to see China’s leadership follow the same path.  The New York Times has noted that the ban is not just sound environmental policy, but also makes sense both politically and economically.  Perhaps other ivory-consuming nations will follow suite! I will be sure to praise their far-sighted leaders as well.

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However elephant conservationists must not pretend the Chinese ivory ban alone has saved our big gray friends. Elephants are in deep trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, and, above all, poaching still threaten the giants. Powerful forces in China (and even here, in the increasingly reactionary United States) will conspire to restart the ghastly trade.  Additionally the mayhem in central Africa which has allowed poachers to flourish is far from over.  Yet this unexpected boon from the Middle Kingdom is a cause for great hope. Let us thank our friends in China for their thoughtfulness and use their fine example as a cause to redouble our own efforts.  If we keep working together we can make sure elephants are still with us not just in 2017 but in all the years to come.

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We have a nasty habit of becoming unduly obsessed by the demographics of the United States.  This is to overlook the fascinating demographics of the world’s most populous country, China, where the immense number of people means that there are subgroups larger than very large nations.  For example, contemporary Chinese policymakers and planners agonize over “the ant tribe.”

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The ant tribe is a neologism used to describe certain people born in the 1980s in China’s countryside and small towns. These kids (who are often one-child-policy children) worked incredibly hard to get into universities (while their parents scrimped and saved to send them there).  Once they had a degree they moved to China’s giant cities in order to pursue middle class prosperity…and there they ran straight into a problem which transforms them into ants.

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Welcome to the beautiful Super Cities of Contemporary China

Chinese citizens (or “subjects”?) are tethered to a document known as a hukou—a household permit.  The hukou, like some sort of medieval serfdom or indenture, trails the bearer throughout life and then applies to their offspring, no matter where they are born.  So ant-tribe young people move to Guanzhou, Beijing, or Shanghai in order to get worthwhile office jobs which do not exist elsewhere but they are not officially allowed to live there.  Their solution is to move underground: the great cities of China are filled with illegal basement and sub-basement apartments which are the tiny damp bedrooms of sexless, hardworking, subterranean office drones—the ant tribe.

To quote The Globe and Daily Mail:

The “ants” are not indigent beggars or lost souls (who could not afford even sub-basement rent) or low-wage workers (who generally live in workers’ dormitories, 10 to 12 of them to a room, but above ground). Rather, they are ambitious citizens who have been driven underground, literally and figuratively, in their quest for middle-class stability. Their mildewed lives are the material embodiment of something being endured by countless millions of Chinese today, as they attempt to balance President Xi Jinping’s ambition of creating a middle-class China with his party’s desire to control and regulate their lives.

The ants live in extreme penury.  They spend all of their money on rent, bribes, and, eventually, on school fees (without the proper hukou, Children can’t attend school in Beijing unless certain parties are remunerated).  So contemporary China has a larger middle class than it seems to, but it is held back by communist mandarins’ unwillingness to extend people basic property rights or the right to move freely around the country.  China is always touted as the next big thing–the country that will make the future–yet if the clerks, bureaucrats, marketers, salespeople, and number crunchers who are the mainstay of a tertiary sector economy must lead lives of monastic self abnegation (and possibly forgo having families of any size), I see little hope for China’s long term prospects.  The rulers of China must decide whether they want to completely control their people or allow them to flourish.  They seem to have decided on the former…which makes me wonder if this may be the era of “peak China” and the future may be a lot less Sinocentric than everyone says.

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Or maybe we are all destined to live crammed in underground cells with legally questionable identities and China is the innovator of a terrible future (there is ample historical precedent after all)…but I hope not.

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Eco-tourism is a valuable way for communities which are close to magnificent wildlife to monetize (and protect) that wildlife.  Except, every one and a while, things go wrong.  An example of this is the community of Xianfeng, a village in central Sichuan Province, which suffered a bit of a mishap as it attempted to become a world-class environmental destination. Here is what happened: a few years ago, villagers decided that they could become a beloved tourism destination if the macaques which lived in the nearby mountain forests were adorably living in town.  So they lured a group of monkeys back to Xianfeng with food and treats. Investors paid to cosset the monkeys, and a few tourists started to show up.

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Things seemed bright until the investor died and his plans and schemes for popularizing the town went with him.  However the monkeys did NOT vanish (or head back into the jungle).  They acquired a taste for town life and no amount of luring (or humane trapping) has been able to convince them to leave.  The year of the fire monkey has extra significance in Xianfeng, a town where 600 macaques are continuously squabbling and stealing things and disrupting every activity. The macaques are protected by Chinese law, so there isn’t much the villagers can do to take their town back without incurring the formidable wrath of the state.

It is an unhappy tale about 2 sorts of primates and how greedy and short-sighted they can be, but the town really does look cantankerous and fun!

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Thus far, there are four great classics of Chinese literature (or possibly 5 if you count the erotic masterpiece “The Plum in the Golden Vase”).  Three of the four were written in the Ming dynasty.  Of these three, Ferrebeekeeper has already talked about “The Journey to the West.”  I have not yet read “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which concerns the brutal nature of statecraft and the ghastly moral equivalence involved in controlling other people (maybe I don’t want to read that one).

This leaves us with “The Outlaws of the Marsh,” the tale of a group of Song dynasty heroes who are marginalized, framed, abused, or exiled by corrupt court officials.  These convicts, bandits, rogues, and dark sorcerers join together in an inaccessible wilderness in Shandong and form a “chivalrous” brotherhood (although three of the outlaws are warrior women and witches).  The bandit brotherhood fights off increasingly violent attempts by the state to subdue them while trying to deal with the anomie of the times and the vexatious problem of which outlaw will lead them.

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There is a larger frame story to “Outlaws of the Marsh.”  Since it is the first of 100 chapters I will spoil the book somewhat by relating it to you:

Plague is ravaging the capital and the emperor sends out Marshal Hong, a weak and corrupt court official, to find “the Divine Teacher” a great immortal magician who can stop the plague.  At a local abbey, the chief monk tells Hong that, in order to find “the Divine Teacher”, he (Hong) must ride to the top of a foreboding mountain.

Hong precedes only a short way before he is scared by a white tiger and by a poisonous snake.  He weakly decides to abort his mission when…supernatural events fully reveal the nature of his corruption (and the Divine Teacher intervenes with godlike insouciance).

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In a black mood, marshal Hong rides back to the monastery and starts to torment the monks with edicts and highhanded behavior…which leads him to find that a group of demons have been imprisoned under a tortoise with a great stone on its back.  With his trademark blend of bungling and arrogance, Hong destroys the magical prison to reveal a vast evil black pit a hundred thousand feet deep.  Out of this pit leaps a roiling black cloud of spirits which tear the roof off of the monastery and fly into near space above China before breaking into one hundred and eight glowing stars which fall throughout the land.

Marshal Hong orders his flunkies to silence concerning this misadventure and rides back to the capital where he lies to the Emperor.  Thus we are introduced to the thirty six heavenly spirits and the seventy-two earthly fiends (who are the outlaws of the marsh).  It is one of the best lead-ins ever.  A perfect beginning to this huge novel which is the father of China’s rollicking fung-fu tradition.

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The book also gave us some of the most indelible characters of martial literature: Wu Song, Lu Zhishen (the flower monk!), the cunning Wu Yong,  Black Whirlwind, and my favorite, “Panther Head” Lin Chong.  Each character has a different personality..and a different lethal weapon. They are all matchless warrior trapped in nightmarish circumstances.  There is no way out…only a way forward by means of red slaughter…

Speaking of which, Outlaws of the Marsh is a violent book.  In fact it is so exceedingly violent that it would probably make George R. R. Martin fall down and start throwing up. However, it is also a funny book…and, like all Chinese literature, it is heartbreakingly sad.  Even though the novel is set in the fictionalized Song Dynasty, it somehow describes the corruption endemic to JiaJing-era China, the corrupt Late-Ming era when it was penned by an anonymous author (probably Shi Nai’an, but nobody truly knows for sure).

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I am also sad…I have not described what is so magical and dark and beautiful about this amazing epic tale of corruption, bravery, and friendship (and death).  I guess there is only one way to find out for yourself… Coincidentally the translation by Sidney Shapiro was excellent.

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“Jiajing on his State Barge” (Artists Unknown, ca. 1538, ink and watercolor on silk)

The Ming Dynasty was a hereditary dynastic empire which ruled China for 276 years between 1368 AD and 1644 AD.  This regime was lumbered with an exceedingly conservative and cautious weltanschauung, which caused Ming leaders to walk back some of the empire’s greatest accomplishments (like astonishing journeys of discovery and prodigious economic growth—both of which were nipped in the bud).  Arguably this unbending Confucianism ultimately led to the downfall of the Ming as well (although the dynasty was undoubtedly undone by wide a host of factors).  However this same core traditionalism also made the Ming dynasty one of the longest and most stable empires in world history. The Ming dynasty achieved a number of cultural and social high watermarks which were not exceeded anywhere for a very long time.

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I was hired by a national magazine to write a little biography of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, whose meteoric rise from penniless beggar to the most powerful man on Earth is scarcely comprehensible.   Indeed… Zhu’s history apparently really wasn’t comprehensible to the editors of the magazine, who never published my piece (although they certainly delighted in making me rewrite it and then editing it into incoherence). Naturally, I blame this failure almost entirely on the ignorance, cupidity, and general moral failings of these self-same editors.  However, in their defense, Chinese history is a baffling maelstrom of horrifying wars, subtle political machinations, and names which are transliterated differently into English in different sources (not to mention the lives of countless millions and millions and millions of people).  It is difficult to make any sense of any of it without knowing Chinese, an ancient exquisitely beautiful language of perfectly baffling tonal sounds and thousands of impossible-to-memorize logograms.

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Chinese porcelain vase, Zhengde mark but from the Wanli (1573-1619)

All of which is to say, this biography is now mine and I am going to publish it here this week as the centerpiece of Ferrebeekeeper’s “Ming Dynasty Week” a celebration of the art, literature, and history of one of my absolute favorite eras.  This will include a special look at the famous ceramics which are synonymous with the period as well an examination of some of the less-well-known but equally dazzling highlights of this amazing time.  Get ready to learn about all sorts of Ming things.  This week is going to be great!

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Torus-shaped building by Italian architect Joseph di Pasquale in Guangzhou

There is disappointing aesthetic news from the internet today: The People’s Republic of China is trying to reign in weird architecture.  A CNN article provides the basic facts, “A statement from China’s State Council Sunday, says new guidelines on urban planning will forbid the construction of ‘bizarre’ and ‘odd-shaped’ buildings that are devoid of character or cultural heritage. Instead, the directive calls for buildings that are ‘economic, green and beautiful’.”

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The great teapot of Wuxi. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Based on this language, one might hope for a future of soaring super pagodas covered with solar cells and hydroponic forests, however I think it is much more likely that we will see lots of boring giant rectangles designed by committees (like the new World Trade Center…or Freedom Tower…or whatever it ended up being called). Communist China had its own history of creating dull monoliths.  This was interrupted by a spate of crazy fun building projects, but it seems like the party is cracking down on the architectural effervescence (probably as a symptom of the vast market correction now under way).

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The China Central Television building in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.

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Sheraton in Huzhou

During the last quarter century China has seen outrageous economic growth.  Along with this boom, strange giant edifices popped up all along the Chinese coast like weird mushrooms from outer space.  I have put pictures of some of my favorites in this article.  I particularly like the Shanghai World Financial Center (which has always reminded me of a broken off piece of some cool mystery awl) and of course the many torus buildings.  However the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium and the Shanghai Tower and the “Giant Pants” and the huge teakettle were all good too.  There were some less famous but more charming sculpture buildings at a local level which I have also included here.

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Rendering of the Shanghai World Financial Center with the Jin Mao Building at right

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I did not realize how much I liked these buildings until I read the news today and found out they now belong to the past.  These buildings went hand in hand with eye-popping double digit growth percentages for the Chinese GDP.  I wonder if, now that the buildings are going to stop going up, the stupendous growth will cease too.  Mandarins from all cultures have a way of forgetting that just as art reflects society, society reflects art too.

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The Emperor Hotel in Yanjiao may legitimately be counter-revolutionary

 

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Here in America, November 11th is Veteran’s Day, but elsewhere 11/11 is a very different holiday indeed.  China celebrates November 11th as Singles’ Day AKA 光棍节 or “bare sticks holiday” (a sad metaphor for flowerless & fruitless family tree branches).  The day is an opportunity for Chinese singles to party and hang out together…and buy crap online (more about that in a moment).

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China has ancient romantic holidays with roots stretching back thousands of years into the mythic past.  Singles Day is not like that at all—it was invented in 1993 as “Bachelors’ Day” at Nanjing University when some guys without girlfriends realized the calendar date consisted of four ones.  They decided to go out and try to meet women, or, if that failed, to at least treat themselves to fancy dinners and little luxuries. The holiday gradually spread to the sprawling cities of the Chinese coast and then was popularized by Alibaba, an online merchant.  The hallmark of the holiday is a giant orgy…of consumption (sigh).  People spend a ton of money on online deals and at karaoke clubs, bars, and restaurants

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Perspicacious readers may be starting to note that this seems a lot like other lame contemporary holidays such as “Cyber Monday” &“Black Friday”(which it to say not really a holiday, but an excuse for selling stuff that nobody needs).  That seems about right: the main holiday tradition of Single’s Day (other than bemoaning one’s singleness or buying discount goods online) is eating fried dough sticks in the shape of the number 1.

Worker piles up manufactured goods at a plastics factory in China

Worker piles up manufactured goods at a plastics factory in China

This is disappointing. The Chinese are not prudes—they have no trouble with freaky sex stuff, and I was hoping to highlight some of that in this entry, but alas, everything I have found out about Singles’ Day emphasizes online sales numbers and the potential buying power of China’s vast middle class.  It’s too bad, I have “The Carnal Prayer Mat” right here on my shelf (a hilarious and horrifying bawdy Chinese novel from the 17th century), but I guess I need to write about online shopping at Alibaba instead.

Speaking of which, I have found things I like online on Alibaba, but I have never been able to figure it out—it seems like a wholesale site where one could buy multiple 2 ton stone garden fountains or a shipping container of paper lanterns (?).  But it must be a lot different in Chinese, since Alibaba sold 4 billion dollars worth of goods in the first hour of 11/11/15 alone. However, I am not a toymaker anymore…I have no skin in marketing and sales.  I don’t really care about how much junk sells online…not here and certainly not in China.

Oh, well that explains it then...

Oh, well that explains it then…

If you Chinese ladies get sick of buying discount hotpots and eating sticks of dough, give me a call.  I’ll be right here in my luxurious pajamas reading “the Carnal Prayer Mat” [opens book, reads sentence, and blushes]. *Cough* Splutter* Oh my goodness! Then and again, I guess I could use a shipping container of paper lanterns….or maybe I’ll just give up on Singles’ Day and reminisce about the heroic sacrifices of America’s proud military veterans or about the end of World War I.  This is a strange day worldwide.

Get your act together, humankind

Get your act together, humankind

In the middle of the 14th century China was convulsed with famine, plagues, drought, and peasant revolts.  The central government was made up of Mongol outsiders who were both unable and unwilling to do much about the horrors going on throughout the vast land.  Into this maelstrom stepped a penniless apprentice monk, Zhu Yuanzhang.  Within 16 years he made the most remarkable personal ascension in human history, rising by his own hand from beggar to officer, to warlord, to prince, to Emperor of all China.  He threw the Mongols from the country and founded the Ming Dynasty, arguably China’s greatest.   Zhu Yuanzhang took the reign name of Hongwu.  He is one of history’s most perplexing and divisive figures.  Indeed I have personally had great trouble with the Hongwu Emperor, which I will recount later on—I have a story which is about this guy…and about my writing and about our time.

The Hongwu Emperor was not a handsome fellow!

The Hongwu Emperor was not a handsome fellow!

But that is for later.  This is Halloween week—and our horrifying theme is flaying!  Zhu Yuanzhang’s story of rising to the throne is a Disney style tale. But alas it does not end with his coronation. When Hongwu had crushed every rival and consolidated the land under his rule, some bad things started to happen.  After defeating every real enemy, the Hongwu emperor started to see enemies who weren’t actually there among the ranks of his loyal friends and subjects. He had started life as an illiterate peasant and he imagined that the scholars were laughing at him.  He had known terrible privation and so he thought his ministers were stealing from him.  The Hongwu emperor believed that every person should be an extension of his will, and he saw people doing things he did not care for and acting in ways which were off-putting or alarming to him. He fell into the habit of micromanaging—a terrible fault for a manager.  He also fell into the habit of killing everyone around him and purging their families and retainers from existence (although my management handbook doesn’t actually list this as a leadership flaw—which tells you something about the problems inherent in human understanding of hierarchy).

The Hongwu emperor purged his oldest friends.  He purged his concubines.  He purged monks and scholars.  He purged merchants and financiers.  He killed lords and commoners, farmers and fighters. Fortunately he was a very gifted micromanager and he managed to make credible agricultural reforms and administer China largely on his own, but there were times when the business of China bogged down because every miniscule decision had to be reviewed by the emperor (and it is better if we don’t talk about his currency reform).  There was also a steep human toll, which became ever more dreadful as the emperor began to devise cruel new ways to kill people for imagined slights. It was almost as though he wanted to punish them for having their own will.

A historical reenactment of a scene from the Hongwu Court

A historical reenactment of a scene from the Hongwu Court

Hongwu was greatly concerned with propriety and morality.  He started to feel that the 5000 serving girls of the Imperial palace were behaving improperly with outsiders so he had them all flayed to death. He then had their skins stuffed with straw, and put on display as a morality lesson (the eunuch gatekeepers of the palace met the same fate).  Chinese scholars argue about this story, which was related by Yu Ben, an officer of Hongwu’s bodyguard who later penned a primary source account of what he had seen, but they reluctantly concede that Yu seems reliable.

Hongwu was able to get away with such acts because the Mongols had largely done away with any aristocracy who could oppose him (and Hongwu himself did away with his other competitors during the civil war…and then with his pogroms).  Additionally his reforms were successful: China became a better place to live in the late 14th century (although maybe not if you were too close to the court).  Yet this dark murderous madness left long shadows over Chinese history.  The Ming dynasty was probably the most autocratic of China’s dynasties (which is really saying something) and it consolidated a troubling new extreme of concentrating absolute power in the sole hands of the emperor.  This remains part of Chinese culture:  the Hongwu emperor was a great hero of Mao’s.  In China, you don’t even have the skin you live in, it belongs to the supreme human authority. Indeed, this may always be the case everywhere.  If some angry kingpriest, paranoid emperor, or tyrranical god comes along, a human skin is weak armor against their whims.

Dangit, this is not as fun as writing about the undead–who are, after all, fictional–although it certainly is interesting and thought-provoking in its own way.  But stay with me, there is a reason I chose this topic–a myth I have become fascinated by. Also I promised a special treat on Saturday! Additionally I promise it is not as dark and horrifying as Chinese history (although, admittedly, there isn’t much which is so troubling).

The Ili pika photographed by Li Weidong in July 2014

The Ili pika photographed by Li Weidong in July 2014

Back during a week devoted to small furry herbivores, Ferrebeekeeper sketched in the general outlines of pikas—close relatives of rabbits. Pikas live in the mountains among high cliffs and alpine meadows where they practice a sort of rudimentary farming. They collect hay in order to dry and store it for the harsh mountain winters. You can read the general natural history here, however today we concentrate on a specific species of pika–the Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis) of northwest China. In 1983, a team of biologists and natural scientists discovered Ili pika in the rough and arid mountain terrain of western Xinjiang province. Then the animal was then not seen or documented by science again until last year (2014).

The Tian Shan Mountains, goodness help us...

The Tian Shan Mountains, goodness help us…

During the intervening years nobody necessarily thought the Ili pika was extinct (unlike the Gilbert’s potoroo which was thought to be deceased until rediscovered against all hope), instead the pika was not seen because almost nobody went into the remote mountain fastnesses where it lives. Having said that, almost nothing is known about the Ili pika. It was rediscovered in the bleak Tian Shan mountains but conservationists fear that it may have been extirpated from the Jilimalale and Hutubi mountains (even bleaker mountains which are subject to human resource extraction).

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Although we know little about the behavior or ecology of the Ili pika, we have pictures of it, and it is exceedingly adorable—like a cross between a terrier, a rabbit, and a tiny sage. It seems to have all of the charisma of the panda, the golden pheasant, the tragic baiji, and the gibbon. Perhaps Chinese mythmakers and cultural arbiters could surreptitiously slip it into the folklore pantheon. I would love to read some stories starring the Ili pika as a trickster or a magical mountain wise man.

I don't know what this is but I found it on the internet and thought it was compelling

I don’t know what this is but I found it on the internet and thought it was compelling

Quingbai Ewer (Song Dynasty, porcelain) Zetterquist Galleries

Quingbai Ewer (Song Dynasty, porcelain) Zetterquist Galleries

China has a long (and continuing) history of exquisite art, but many aesthetes and Sinophiles feel that the apogee of Chinese craft came during the Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD).  Now I am not sure I agree with the Song purists to that degree, but the work of that era is indeed particularly lovely. Additionally, Song creative forms became the standard templates followed and improved upon in seceding dynasties.  Here is a beautiful Song dynasty ewer with a pale blue glaze which illustrates the winsome delicacy of form characteristic of the time.  Note how elegantly the slender handle and spout curve into the flower petal body.  A little carnivore sits on the stopper: a dog or wolf or cat? This pale blue green color is known as quingbai (“blue-white”).  It is a pale translucent blue green over white and it is one of the characteristic trademarks of the era.  It is a wonderful little vessel!

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