Friday, April 13, 2012

Types of Calligraphy

Eight Dragons- eight different cursive representations of the character 龍 (dragon), from Compilation of Cursive Characters (《草字彙》), authored by Shi Liang (石梁) of the Qing Dynasty. The artists are: 1 Sun Guoting; 2, 3 Huai Su; 4 Yan Zhenqing; 5 Zhao Mengfu; 6, 7 Zhu Zhishan; 8 anonymous.
For the last few months, I have met periodically with my Chinese teacher and another friend to learn calligraphy. One of my best friends here just sent me the following information, which was unattributed. I have added more detail, and am sharing it in full because it will interest scholars and neophytes alike, I believe. I don't have time today to do more extensive research.

If you want to learn Chinese Calligraphy, you’d better learn about the development of Chinese characters. Chinese characters, beginning with jiaguwen or Oracle Bone Script, used in Shang Dynasty (about the 16th –11th century B.C.), have a long history of around 3000 years. Generally, we think jiaguwen is the oldest Character because it is the earliest, mature and systematic Chinese writing system we have found, thus far. In its long history, Chinese writing evolved continuously. The scripts of Chinese characters are jiaguwen, jinwen, xiaozhuan, lishu, caoshu, xingshu, kaishu and so on. Kaishu and xingshu are used often, now.

I have not modified or corrected the English for the following paragraphs.


This kind of Chinese character is the one discovered from the remains of shang Dynasty. Because these Characters were carved or written on the tortoise shells and the bones, it was called jiaguwen. It is the oldest Chinese character, we found. The square turning is the main way of writing (or carving), and smooth turning is rare. Its lines are thin mostly.


Jinwen is the one mainly used in shang Dynasty,and Zhou Danasty and sometimes in Han Dynasty. It was discovered on the bronze wares, so it was named jinwen. These verses cast on the ancient zhongs(bells) and dings (the ancient Chinese cooking vessels with two loop handles and three or four legs) were almost the ones to put down the contributions of the kings and their officials in those times, so this kind of script has another two names, zhongdingwen and mingwen( the script of inscriptions). The style of jinwen is the same as jiaguwen, but neater and more well-balanced, and its lines are thicker, too.


When Chinese history came to Qin Dynasty, Qinshihuang made China a union. He launched the first reform of Chinese character. The character used by Qin kingdom was sorted out and simplified and used in the united country, and the other (six) kingdoms’ characters were banished. This reformed character was named xiaozhuan or Qinzhuan which was originated from the former characters, but its lines are the neatest and most well-balanced, and the shapes of it are even firmer. It is very important, for it is the end of the ancient Chinese characters (jiaguwen, jinwen, xiaozhuan) and the beginning of the modern Chinese characters (lishuu, caoshu, xingshu, kaish).


Lishu was developed from xiaozhuan in Qin Dynasty, and mainly used in Han Dynasty and Wei Dynasty. Compared with xiaozhuan, the strokes of lishu are straighter and squarer, and it removes the feature of picture of Chinese character. Since then, the shades of Chinese characters have almost been stabilized. Of course, there are some differences in different scripts.


Caoshu is from lishu in Han Dynasty, and grown up in Jin Dynasty. It is the fast writing form of lishu, called zhangcao first. Its developed type is called jincao (modern caoshu).


It is also known as Zhengshu Script, and evolved from seal characters. It is simpler in structure and square in shape. To be specific, it is more standardized horizontally and vertically. The integral feature of formal script is neatness and orderliness, for which reason it is widely used and favored today.


Xingshu and kaishu are also developed from lishu in Han Dynasty and are popular in Wei Dynasty, Jin Dynasty and South-north Dynasty. They are very practical, and used widely till today.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Greed and Corruption: Not Just a Problem in China

A Breguet watch on Patriarch Kirill I, left, vanished in a
doctored photo, but its reflection on the table remained.
The story of Patriarch Kirill I and his $30,000 watch was fodder for a New York Times article.

The retention of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, as a staffer and ex officio board member of the Central Asia Institute was also written about in the Times.

Finally, the story of Michael Harrington's recusal refusal was carried on NH Public Radio.

I have three different reactions to these stories. The first story, of course, is one of extremely bad taste. I don't much like the helmet or the vase or gilded doorway, either. What is notable in the story is that the Patriarch endorsed the re-election of Vladimir Putin.

The second story is sad. Mortenson, despite Jon Krakauer's continued sniping, has done a lot of good things with his life. This is a story, unlike the first, that raises deep questions about forgiveness and the role of our justice system. It also raises questions about nonprofit structure and management.

Mr. Krakauer continues to be right on the facts, but one wonders if he has a board in his own eye. An increase in the number of board members for CAI sounds like a prudent decision and Montana Attorney General Bullock seems to have handled things well.

The last story is horrifying. As a former employee of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, I am dismayed that Commissioner Amy Ignatius added her signature to an order that closed the door for further procedural objections to Commissioner Harrington's recusal. What is more disturbing is that Mike thought it appropriate for his signature to be on this order!

How much benefit does one need to accrue before the law is obeyed? Who developed the standard of “a sufficient appearance of partiality to merit disqualification”? Some very good further analysis of this decision can be found on REAL's website. I agree that this makes a mockery of the process and does not build the confidence of the public.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Three pieces of art

I took these photos at 798 in Beijing. These are three of the most famous sculptures at the art district and a poster for a coming exhibit of autistic artists. The last one is my favorite. It is funny on so many levels. If you look carefully, it says, In English, "Made in China" on the end of the gun barrel.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Making Idols of the Dead: Tomb Sweeping Day

One of my current projects is some research on Matteo Ricci. An open-minded, early Jesuit missionary to China, who helped convert famous agronomist, mathematician and astronomer Xu Guangqi to the Catholic faith, Ricci wore the robes of the Chinese gentry and suggested that it would be okay for Chinese Catholic converts to continue with some of their traditional spiritual practices. Initially, this idea had some papal support. In a decree signed on 23 March 1656, Pope Alexander VII accepted practices "favorable to Chinese customs", reinforcing 1615 decrees which accepted the usage of the Chinese language in liturgy, a notable exception to the contemporary Latin Catholic discipline which had generally forbidden the use of local languages. The Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians disagreed, however. Subsequent Popes opined and, ultimately, around the time when George Washington was born, China's longest reigning emperor was so infuriated by the papal bull that he himself made an announcement:

Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the Westerners are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China. There is not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works, and their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous. To judge from this proclamation, their religion is no different from other small, bigoted sects of Buddhism or Taoism. I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.
So what are Chinese rites? The main bones of contention were what to call God, whether Chinese Christians coming from a Confucian background could participate in the season rites, and whether Chinese Christians coming from a Taoist and Buddhist background could use tablets with the forbidden inscription "site of the soul" and to follow the Chinese rites for ancestor worship. Veneration of the dead on Veterans' Day and other holidays throughout the West, including All Saints' Day, is not alien to Catholics. Indeed, one could make an argument that the elaborate process for the induction of saints comes dangerously close to idolatry if easily misinterpreted by practitioners. Nevertheless, these foreign practices of the Chinese were not to be tolerated...and so Christian preachers, in turn, were not to be tolerated.

Today is Tomb Sweeping Day. Wikipedia reports, "The Qingming Festival is an opportunity for celebrants to remember and honor their ancestors at grave sites. Young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper accessories, and/or libations to the ancestors. The rites have a long tradition in Asia, especially among farmers. Some people carry willow branches with them on Qingming, or put willow branches on their gates and/or front doors. They believe that willow branches help ward off the evil spirit that wanders on Qingming.

"On Qingming people go on family outings, start the spring plowing, sing, and dance. Qingming is also the time when young couples start courting. Another popular thing to do is to fly kites in the shapes of animals or characters from Chinese opera. Another common practice is to carry flowers instead of burning paper, incense or firecrackers." In the old days, people would bring a whole rooster to the site of their ancestors' graves.

I am going off to throw clay pots and play badminton. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Starbucks, Sun Tzu, and Wei Chi

On my way back from a  three-day jaunt to Beijing (yes, I just can't stay away!), I sat across from an investor. He is going to America soon--to Seattle and LA--to see five companies. One of them is Starbucks.

Shenyang, a slightly larger city than Changchun, where I live, already has a few of these franchises. Beijing's most prominent Starbucks sits in a stunning building at the foot of Qianmen. Last week, the news was filled with stories about the ways in which Starbucks will seek to re-design its European stores in an effort to conquer the cafe culture. Now, are they about to invade China and replace tea with the little brown bean? The Wall Street Journal reports that they already have 10,000 employees here, but that number is about to grow.

Maybe they need to read SunTzu's The Art of War to get it right. I bought an English version at the Beijing Foreign Languages Bookstore and ordered a second copy on-line that has the original Chinese text and an English translation. I also bought Peter Shotwell's Go Basics: Concepts and Strategies for New Players. The Game of Go is also called wei chi in Chinese and ba duk by the Koreans. In his introduction, he writes,
Beginning about 500BC, Taoist philosopher warriors such as Sun Tzu would have been managing the imbalances of yin and yang and the flow of qi that were coursing over the playing boards, as they thought these did in their wars, businesses, and the rest of their lives. On the other hand, the Confucians and probably the early Buddhists looked at the playing of Go as a waste of time and a corrupter of aristocratic youth because of the gambling involved.
Inspired by John Elder, my mentor and thesis adviser from Middlebury, who is so good he has to play people on-line, I wanted to learn a year ago, but nobody has been able to show me. Last spring, I went to Walmart (I know, I know, but it was cheap and it's buying local, after all) to buy the stones and board. Now I am going to get serious. The book even came with a CD-ROM!

Anyway, the fellow across from whom I was sitting, was reading a book of famous Chinese philosophers works. He told me that to understand Chinese thinking, I need to read Lao Tzu, which I have; Confucius, which I have; and Sun Tzu, which I am; however, he also claimed it can all be traced back to this one fellow whose Chinese name he wrote on one of my flashcards. I can't read it so I guess I will have to wait until I can to be enlightened!

My immediate strategy is to learn ba duk from a Korean math teacher friend and then maybe shift to wei chi with a Chinese friend or two. One piece of ancient wisdom is to lose your first hundred games quickly. I am off to begin my losing streak!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Post About China Post

Dear Postmaster,

My replacement driver's license, my replacement debit card, and a US$50 gift certificate are lost in the mail. I have been waiting for two months. Bank of America has sent me two replacement cards and neither one has reached me. My friend who sent me my license which I left at her house in New Hampshire, did not get a tracking number. Continental Airlines (aka United)--the scheisters who delayed me for a day in Japan and misplaced my bags for a day--may never have issued the gift certificate. 

What should I do? Does one of your employees with the last name 李 (Li) have a desire to take a joyride in the Granite State? 

What good is a debit card when you would have to torture me to get my PIN?

My father sent me a check once and it did not get here either. It did not reissue.

Finally, I am sure, there are about a million love letters that never arrived. 

Does all of this get gobbled up in some vortex of the South China Sea?


Alexander Lee

P.S. I am also waiting for a copy of The Way Things Work by David Macaulay so that I can teach a Chinese boy about lots of cool stuff. It was sent out weeks and weeks ago, but may not arrive till about April 15 so it's not late.

P.P.S. It could be the USPS. They are famous for their incompetence.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Learn from Comrade Li Zicheng, Maybe

Resurrection and Insurrection

The little-known Shun Dynasty, which lasted for about a year between the Ming and penultimate Qing Dynasty, was headed by a peasant shepherd named Li Zicheng, who declared himself emperor. The capital was Xi'an, where I went for summer vacation last year. I could wax poetic about the city wall in that amazing city, which is also near to where a much earlier emperor buried his terra-cotta army, but I am writing to talk about how Li Zicheng, not Lei Feng, seems like the ideal icon to resurrect during this time. 

First, a word about Lei Feng from the Wall Street Journal:
A sock-darning do-gooder Communist soldier who died 50 years ago isn’t ideal fodder for an Internet meme, but Lei Feng (雷锋) has been all over Chinese websites this week, as officials diligently work to promote his memory — once actively instilled in schoolchildren across the country — as a model of party loyalty and moral fortitude. This week, Xinhua journalists went to interview elementary-school students who are learning more about the “spirit of Lei Feng” in honor of the anniversary of his death, as well as family members who still recall an era when Lei Feng’s name had more power.”When I was a young worker, we’d all be called in the factory to learn from Comrade Lei Feng,” one woman in her 50s told Xinhua. Now, she says, her grandson says, “I want to learn from America’s Bill Gates.”

Feng is the subject of numerous propaganda posters and you can learn a great deal about the mythology that has sprung up around him on a website that sells those posters.

A well-written blog post by Jeremy Goldkorn offers a critique of the recent campaign to resurrect Comrade Lei Feng, though. Maybe, instead of agreeing or disagreeing with any particular perspective, I wish to offer an alternative. (Any English teacher here can tell you that "maybe" is how many students begin their declarative sentences.)

The Chinese government already issued a silver coin in 1990 with Li Zicheng on it. The portrait above has the feel of a propaganda poster. Nobody knows for sure if and how he died, but he may have ended his life as a monk at Shashan Temple in Hunan. There is a Beijing Opera about him called "Banner of the Daring Prince." He represents the ancient, traditional culture of China, but has that modern-day revolutionary spirit and may have even been a Cinncinatus.