Thursday, March 8, 2012

Drones in China?

Yemen? Most American kids cannot pronounce it, let alone point to it on a map.

What if I was plotting to overthrow Obama in coastal China? Would he be sending drones to get me? I am not plotting that, by the way, but I won't send for an absentee ballot if he does not reverse the Holder holding. The Attorney General of the United States, in the long tradition of John C. Yoo and forsaking the long tradition of RFK, stood before a group of law students and dared to say that there is a difference between judicial and due process? Is this even defensible, Professor Dycus?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

More Thoughts on Thinking

Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
Zhou Youguang's Take

In today's New York Times there is a remarkable profile of an incredible man. Zhou Youguang should be a household name in China. He is 106 years old. As a Chinese language learner, I have immense respect for this man, who invented Pinyin. According to the Times, "Mr. Zhou is the inventor of Pinyin, the Romanized spelling system that linked China’s ancient written language to the modern age and helped China all but stamp out illiteracy."

This is what he had to say about fostering creativity in the Communist system in a 2010 book of essays: “Inventions are flowers that grow out of the soil of freedom. Innovation and invention don’t grow out of the government’s orders.”

Responses to readers responses

Remember, my question was, "What do you think about how we think different [sic] than one another?"

Chris Nevins response was anthropological:
My short answer is yes and no, but the 'no' is second intentionally. Yes, there are social and cultural differences that account for meaningful differences among the ways all sorts of differing groups think, let alone nationalistic ways. But, no, we do not think differently in more existential ways. There is a universal culture that trumps other essential frameworks in ever so slight ways. 'Emic' versus 'etic,' and I guess I come down on the 'etic' side, though if you ask me tomorrow I might have a different answer.
Chris references something I don't know much about so I will simply provide the reader a bibliography--"emic" vs. "etic":
  • Creswell, J. W. (1998), Qualitative Enquiry and Research Design: Choosing among Five Traditions, London, UK: Sage.
  • Goodenough, Ward (1970), "Describing a Culture", Description and Comparison in Cultural Anthropology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press): pp. 104–119, ISBN 978-0-202-30861-6.
  • Harris, Marvin (1976), "History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction", Annual Review of Anthropology 5: 329–350.
  • Harris, Marvin (1980), "Chapter Two: The Epistemology of Cultural Materialism", Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture (New York, NY, USA: Random House): pp. 29–45, ISBN 978-0-7591-0134-0.
  • Headland, Thomas; Pike, Kenneth; Harris, Marvin (eds) (1990), Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate, Sage.
  • Jahoda, G. (1977), "In Pursuit of the Emic-Etic Distinction: Can We Ever Capture It?", Basic Problems in Cross-Cultural Psychology (Y.J. Poortinga, ed.): pp. 55–63.
  • Kitayama, Shinobu; Cohen, Dov (2007), Handbook of Cultural Psychology, New York, NY, USA: Guilford Press.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1987), Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate, ISBN 978-0-691-02714-2.
  • Pike, Kenneth Lee (ed.) (1967), Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of Structure of Human Behavior (2nd ed.), The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.
Donna Schnur Birholz wrote an anthropological response, as well:

I think the question which needs answering first is what you mean by "think." Are you speaking of values, beliefs, hierarchy of principles inherent (for the Chinese, and then conversely, for Americans)? Are you speaking of the actual steps in one's reasoning process, or of the rationale for those steps?

And then of course, there's the acknowledgement that there are significant differences in the way those within a group will order their values/beliefs/hierarchy of principles. Some of that reflects subculture membership, and sometimes even with a control for those subculture memberships, we will find that there are differing values/priorities.... Although we are more likely to find agreement about what the "general you" should be prioritizing/valuing (whether the individuals would be making the same choice or not).

The "think differently" argument often made about the Chinese, is that they prioritize the general good, rather than the individual good - family/ancestral respect, rather than separate, individual accomplishment, and that any individualization must be justified by the benefits for the greater good of the group [family, region, country] .... I'm not sure how much anthropological research has been done in the area, I suspect very little peer-reviewed work since the revolution, although work prior to then might be illuminating .... and of course, the question would also be how that has been changed by generations of communist rule. [/anthrogeek rambling]

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Counterfactuals: Thoughtful Thoughts on Thinking

“It’s impossible to think different [sic] in a country where you can’t speak freely. It’s impossible to think different [sic] when you have to worry what you put on the Internet will either be confiscated or you will be arrested. It’s impossible to think different [sic] where orthodoxy reigns. That’s why we remain the most innovative country in the world.”
-Vice President Joe Biden
The New York Review of Books has a fascinating interview with Chinese public intellectual Ran Yunfei this weekend. Mr. Ran says that the way to combat a society where everything they teach you is fake is, "to learn how to argue. Too few public intellectuals in China have learned to argue logically. They don’t know how and end up cursing each other all the time." Ironically, he makes a condescending, ad hominem observation about dissident artist Ai Weiwei in the next sentence. If you can overlook this irony, which is difficult, then you might accept his simple statement that logic is a powerful tool for combating mythology. I think Mr. Ran's own logic is faulty. He seems to be saying that if you use logic, you can effectively combat mythology. In fact, in the example that Mr. Ran uses of Ai Weiwei, it is truth and moral consistency, not logic, that are really the powerful weapons. "To defend freedom you can’t use methods that destroy freedom."

As an aside, it is worth noting that public intellectuals in the United States are really no better than in China, except that many of them are not intellectuals at all--Rush Limbaugh, Larry Summers, Newt Gingrich, Tom Friedman, etc. They savage their ideological opponents and participate in internecine skirmishes, too. They frequently throw logic to the wind and invent their own Lei Feng-Wang Jie-Liu Wenxue-Lai Ning tales, too. Think Christopher Columbus-George Washington-Horatio Alger, Jr. Howard Zinn did a good job at pointing out some of the pervasive mythologies of our own education system.

Before I precede, it is necessary to define what a counterfactual conditional is. In short, it is a conditional (or "if-then") statement indicating what would be the case if its antecedent were true (although it is not true). An example, provided in the Wikipedia article on counterfactual conditionals is, "If Oswald did not shoot Kennedy, then someone else did."

Joe Biden's counterfactual proposition is that, "If China did not suppress certain kinds of speech, then it would be the greatest innovator in the world. Since the United States is the most permissive with speech, we lead the world in innovation." Besides the total lack of logic here and the Vice-President's differently [sic] use of grammar, this statement (in the epigraph above) betrays a dangerous simplification of thought that rather exaggerates the impact of impairing freedom of the press/assembly/speech/religion on the freedom of thought.

As I am about to begin teaching a skills development class that seeks to prepare Chinese students for college and deft engagement in the world of ideas, I am intensely interested in the question of whether Chinese people actually think differently than Americans. Linguists have made such claims for decades and foreign experts here in Changchun frequently parrot some version of what Biden purports. I must say, I do not feel constrained. This is a topic that must be discussed publicly, not just in Sichuanese tea houses.

It is already being discussed by many talking heads. The insufferable, smug Tom Friedman, who is foreign affairs' columnist for the New York Times, recently interviewed Bill Gates on exactly this topic. After Mr. Friedman got done self-plugging his six year-old book, I was no longer really listening, but I did play through the whole interview.  Mr. Friedman has long believed that, “In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears-and that is our problem.” (Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat. 2006) The recent passing of Apple's chief innovator showed that in China, Steve Jobs was Justin Bieber and that Britney Spears like Bill Gates is just not that important. Or, as Heather Chandler put it, "Grow up Heather, bulimia's so '87."

Clyde Prestowitz offers a good analysis of this big interview--"big" mostly for the egos involved. He observes that Steve Jobs was the innovator and that Gates "knows about negotiation and standard setting and business strategy, but he's never been an innovator." In other words, Gates is more like Harvard's Larry Summers, a privileged opportunist who aptly sits on the board of a company called Square, than Albert Einstein, who was, unarguably, one of the most innovative modern minds despite being a product of one of the most repressive regimes in human history (aka Nazi Germany). What do you say about that, Joe Biden? Is Einstein the exception that makes the rule or does, as I might posit, repression of expression breed innovation? Do China's policies, in fact, have the unwanted effect of creating people like Ai Weiwei, Zhang Ping, Ran Yufei, and Gao Xingjian? That is an inquiry Li Changchun might want to fund.

It seems to me that Prestowitz's greatest service is pointing out that, "If America is suffering from declining competitiveness and rising trade deficits, innovation, according to the elite, is the philosopher's stone that will turn everything around." Poppycock though it may be, I do not want to be distracted by this more serious discussion about whether America's culture of innovation, if it exists, is likely to lead to further national success. As I mentioned, I am concerned mostly with the question of how most Chinese people think differently than most Americans, if they do think differently at all and if such generalizing is even a worthwhile exercise.

Before I go further, though, let me ask you, my reader: What do you think about how we think different [sic] than one another?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Er Yue Er (二月二)

On the second day of the second month of the lunar year, you should eat a dragon's head and get your hair cut. Don't worry Uncle Bob and Uncle John, I did not cut my hair during the first month and day of the lunar year. Such a decision would not portend well for your futures, but on Thursday, I did get a haircut and eat a pig's ear!

Since dragon's are hard to come by, the Chinese have decided that eating any part of a pig's head will suffice.

Look at the size of that ear!

As regards the haircut, the unfortunate part is that it cost me 50 yuan. I asked for san shi (30 yuan), but when I came out of the place where they wash your hair they seated me in a 50-yuan chair. I mildly protested, but I did get the best haircut I have ever received. You can't tell from this picture!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beware of the Chinese Censers, They Stink

My father's great phobia is being trapped in a Yankee Candle or soap store for more than ten minutes. He hates scents and smells. My friend Theresa is no different. After a few minutes at an incense peddler's shop in the Pangjiayuan Antique Market, which is Bejing's most famous flea market, she needed a break. I was in seventh heaven. The shopkeeper summoned a woman who spoke English and when I told them that I just wanted to learn about this, they began the ritual.

There are many ways to burn incense. It comes in coils and sticks, which are commonly sold in the places that sell funky turquoise jewelry and patchouli in the West. It also comes in a powder form. Before some bright person figured out how to make the sticks and coils, one would simply light a trail of powder on fire or...

The elaborate way to burn incense, to which I was happily exposed, involves seven tools and a comparable number of jars and dishes. In this picture below, the blue dishes each have a unique purpose. The one that the man is using has a screen upon which you set the charcoal and then you heat the charcoal.

Obviously, in ancient times the coal was probably removed from a fireplace, but today he uses a lighter that is akin to a blowtorch.When the coal is ready, he uses special metal chopsticks for moving it.

For over two thousand years, the Chinese have used incense in religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration, Traditional Chinese medicine, and daily life. Agarwood (沈香; chénxiāng) and sandalwood (檀香; tánxiāng) are the two most important ingredients in Chinese incense. Copious amounts of each were on hand at this little shop. The two little blue dishes of the same size in this picture below are for these two substances. The cup next to them holds seven tools. I am not clear on all of their uses.

When the coal is hot, you bury it in another pot full of fine sand. The flat golden tool here is for tamping it down into a pyramid and then you use another tool to make a hole, like a volcano, at the top of the sand pyramid, down to the burning coal.

Finally, a little screen is removed from the smallest container and set on top of the "volcano." The sandalwood or other incense is sprinkled atop and the room is soon filled with a wonderful smell. 

To learn more, I suggest that you visit Peace & Harmony: The Divine Spectra of China's Fragrant Harbor.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Latin Mass in Beijing

Credit: DIY China Travel
It was 4:59 when I rolled over and the alarm was set to go off in a minute. I was bunked above a Chinese-American who lived somewhere in San Francisco, but not in China Town. Across from me on the top bunk in this hostel was a Guatemalan. "Are there a lot of Chinese people in Guatemala?" I asked, displaying my ignorance.

"Yes...and Koreans. So many Koreans now," he tells me, but that was last night and now it is time to get up and do something I am not sure I am allowed to do so I put the book, which I am not sure I am allowed to be reading, into my backpack and close the locker. I check out of the hostel, which involves waking the man on the couch in the lobby. He, in turn, wakes somebody else and I am awarded my fifty yuan security deposit. The room itself was only fifty yuan for this one night--a steal for Beijing. The man at the desk says, with his hands more than his mouth, "Go out the door and turn right." I do this, which means that I am headed in the wrong direction.

Eventually, at about 5:45, I get my bearings and I am one subway stop (di tie zhan) from where I need to be, a station called Xuanwumen. I decide to keeping walking. I am going to Mass.  This, I am sure, is permissible. The Lonely Planet (damn, I hope they are right!) announces a Latin Mass at 6 AM daily. Where I am cloudy is whether there will be Chinese people there or all foreigners. Am I allowed to worship in the same place as Chinese Catholics? Are these really Catholics? For my part, I am a tourist--a voyeur of the praying class, attending something greater than a charade and something less than a consecrated Mass. I arrive on time. I decide not to talk to anybody. Then, if somebody decides that I am not supposed to be there, I can say that I never had any fellowship with my Chinese brethren.

I sit in the pew in the back, which allows me a good view of the altar and of the elderly woman who comes in close to 6:30 and douses her hair with the holy water in the font by the door. She fixes her hair and waddles down the side aisle, vaguely conscious that she is being watched. There is a white cupboard in the back that looks like a top-loading freezer. It, too, is full of holy water and in the midst of the Mass another woman comes back to fill her bottle. She looks at me as if to say, "What are you doing here and why I are you looking at me?"

They are already chanting in Latin when I arrive. I am the only white person. There is a woman also in the back pews who is as old as Mary. She never gets off her knees and never opens her eyes. Everybody else rhythmically chants and sits, stands, bows, etc. according to the order of the Mass. I am unfamiliar so that even when I go to receive the Eucharist, I don't know what to mumble except, "Amen." There is no wine--only a wafer that fills me with the Holy Spirit. I sit down and wait for the other communicants to eat this bread, drink this blood. Another Mass (in Chinese) is set to commence at 7:15PM. People are coming in and people are going out. Fairly certain that this whole alien experience is through, because the priest and deacon have momentarily slipped out of view, I myself slip out the door and into the courtyard.

God is there to meet me. I have taken a photograph of God once before--in 1996, while photographing a rainbow and milli-seconds before I was hit by lightning. The negative came back and there was a brown streak in the air. Today She is here in her fullness as the moon, shining through some tree branches, above the cross. You can't tell that she is there from this photograph, which I took with my shitty new Nikon. Sometimes you just know. He doesn't tell me to run for President of the United States. He does not bellow at me, "Repent, sinner." No, She just watches quietly and there is a peace that settles on Xuanwumen.

I left my gloves on the pew, which I don't realize until I am on the subway to the Military Museum. When I had announced my plan to my friend of Latin Mass at 6 AM ("insane!") and then a visit to the Military Museum, he reacted sarcastically, "Onward Christian Soldiers." He then needled, "The Reformation passed you by, didn't it?" It was not really a question. We re-visit how Thomas More burned people at the stake and Isabella y Ferdinand carried out the Inquisition. I say that I admire Catherine of Aragon and sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree.

This devout atheist friend is in the midst of a sympathetic biography of Thomas Cromwell and half-way through the Showtime series, called The Tudors, which appeals to the prurient interest. I am unashamed; I, too, have watched More burn heretics and Henry VIII masturbate into a tray. It was delicious rubbish; history enlivened.

Is it really any wonder that there are so many atheists when you contemplate the atrocities that have been done in the name of the Father and the Holy Ghost?

"Běijīng’s South Cathedral was built on the site of the house of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who brought Catholicism to China. Since being completed in 1703, the church has been destroyed three times, including being burnt down in 1775, and endured a trashing by anti-Christian forces during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900." Read more:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Official Trailer: Drying for Freedom

Infamy Headed My Way 

Someday I might be famous. Yesterday, I taught Todd. He is twelve and very famous.

"Where are you famous?" I asked the middle schooler who attends Northeast China's most prestigious middle school.

"At my Primary School I was famous," he said. "I enjoy the feeling of being famous."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because all of the teachers say hello to me," he said.

"How do you know it is not that you are just very friendly?" I asked this budding car company designer and entrepreneur, who came to his first class with a portfolio of pencil drawings of new cars. "Is it that you are tall or maybe very good at English?"

Anyway, I might be famous, too. Drying for Freedom has been accepted into its first film festival. Details are coming Monday. Please watch the new, very excellent trailer:

Drying For Freedom: Official Trailer from WhiteLanternFilm on Vimeo.