Monday, April 28, 2014

The Real Ghost Street: A Trail of Dry Tears

Imagine that President Andrew Jackson, in preparation for a bid to get the Olympics to come to the United States, constructed a museum of Native American cultures. Summoning every hand available, every coolie he can find, he erects a park of 50 hectares. The Summer Olympics of 1840 come and go. Jackson is no longer President (his term having ended in 1837), a Civil War looms, and it will be another 40-60 years before the end of the Indian wars. The park falls into ruin. There is not enough money for programming, except a couple girls dressed in feathers who offer you a slab of buffalo meat, and a few Sioux dancers strutting about in an empty square.

Most of the wickiups, wigwams, longhouses, pueblos, and tipis are padlocked shut, but the signage indicates that for a year or two this place was a restaurant serving Inuit whale meat soaked in seal oil and that place was a Mahican grocery; this place was a drum circle with live Lakota drummers and that place was a Three Sisters demonstration project, where kids could plant beans, corn, and squash.

Has Andrew Jackson's Injun Park dilapidated because the white people don't like museums about the red people that they are still trying to subdue? Was this a case of bad central planning and the Jackson Administration should have considered what would happen after 1840? Is it sort of a national embarrassment now for people from other countries to visit this place. What do you think they say to each other when they leave?

Now, let's go to the China Nationalities Museum and the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park. For 90 RMB, you can enter the northern gate into the North Park and traipse along a cement path with 27 ethnic landscapes and 36 scenic views. Almost the only human contact you have is with a Korean, or somebody pretending to be a Korean. She asks you in Mandarin to take off your shoes to see the exhibit, but you decide not to, because you can see almost everything from where you are standing. You cross over bridges that span the fake river, but these bridges give you the true-to-life feeling that they might collapse and deposit you into the "river" below.

The flowers are beautiful, though, because it is Beijing and it is springtime. The most beautiful time of year there.

Eventually, you take a pedestrian bridge across the highway--a very special bridge, labeled the National Bridge, to which nearly all signs point--and you enter the South Park with its 30 ethnic landscapes and 24 scenic vistas.

You read the "English" brochure more closely, which optimistically declares:
  • 100 scenic views
  • 200 ethnic buildings
  • 100,000 pieces of historic and cultural relics
  • 200 subject exhibits for ethnic groups
  • 1,000 kinds of ethnic commodities
  • 200 kinds of ethnic food
  • 800 staff members of national minority origin
You realize that the employment numbers are still probably correct, but the only place you saw any food was in "Inner Mongolia."  In "Inner Mongolia", there were five or so brightly-dressed, early 20-something docents sitting around, only one of whom took an interest in you when you stepped into the yurt. She offered you a menu of five different kinds of Mongolian food. You chose the horse milk liquor, which refluxed for the next hour or so, as you continued to trot (and then canter) around the grounds.

Tibet had more people than anywhere else. In the shadow of a faux lamasery, people were dancing. Almost all onlookers appeared to be staff or friends/family.

In a dimly lit room there was an exquisite exhibit of 80 to 150 lamps spanning more than a thousand years of Chinese history, but who's counting? You wonder where the other 999,850 relics were hiding. Then you remember the big room, called the Main Exhibition Hall. A whole room of trunks. A row of sedan chairs in different styles. "Windmills" for separating the wheat from the chaff. Some of the rooms in this part full of "treasures" were closed, but you could have helped yourself to some of the farm implements. There was one other family there and only a handful of docents. 

Sign after sign declares, in passable Chinglish, something to the effect of, "These people believe in the primitive religion" or "These people believe in ghosts and gods."

The brochure, also in passable Chinglish, says in 6-point font:

The China Nationalities Museum, as the first project completed in the National Olympic Park, is a crucial venue to honor the spirit of "New Beijing, Great Olympics" and display the theme of "Green, High-tech and People's Olympic Games". ...The museum promotes the new concept of "going into daily life, history, culture and nature', to guide the museum's future development and explore the new way of exhibition.

You want to ask: how is that working out? You came to learn about the 少数民族 in Yunnan because you will go there for six days. You come up pretty much empty.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bedside Manor? Not really

Earlier this week, I appeared at the clinic near Yonghegong Temple for my annual physical. It was a sight to behold. With an appointment for 8 AM and advice to get there early, I was still surprised to find upwards of 70 septuagenarians waiting when I pedaled up to the area. There were very few other young myself. (This was supposed to be the last year of no prostate check.)

When they called my number (#9), I was shuffled from one room to the next in a remarkably efficient process akin to what one imagines happens at a factory farm at milking time. The kindly old doctor whose job it was to examine my nose and ears was the closest to having a bedside manner in the whole process, probably because he gets to look at . That is not so much a complaint, but rather a clinical observation of an awe-inspiring, smooth process that included an X-ray of my spine (which I ought to have refused), taking of blood, peeing into a cup, weighing in, measuring of height, recording of blood pressure, an ECG, a finger in my ':', inspection of my recently cleaned teeth, and much more. Actually, there was one pink-clad nurse who seemed to take special interest in making sure I found the next location on my scavenger hunt. She, in particular, felt like the only person who was interested in the people. Even the friend who accompanied me spent most of the time listening to an iPhone with a headset.

Still, there was precious little chance for a careful physician to detect anything else about what might be going on with any of the chattel in this massacre of being "injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected." The only room it seemed that we were not automatically funneled through was one labeled "Chinese Medicine," a big empty room with its door wide open and one medical staffer seated in the corner. Still wondering what happens in there.

We all got a breakfast or heated milk in a baggie, an apple-butter filled roll, and a hard-boiled egg. I am glad I only have to do it once a year...and I am glad that I am outwardly healthy. We shall see what the report says next week. Meanwhile, I am playing with the pencils.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Agricultural Tour in China on the Horizon

On Monday, May 26, an old college friend of mine, who just received tenure as a professor of history at the University of Kansas, will click her heels and land in Shanghai without her dog Toto. I am honored to be her travel companion and guide. 

She is coming, eventually, to a conference in Beijing that will feature William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The focus of her trip surrounding the conference is learning about agriculture and history so we are making plans to go to Guilin to see them fish with cormorants beneath the terraces of rice paddies, cut into the spectacular hillsides of that unique geographic region. 

We will also make a sojourn to a tea-growing region, quite possibly Huang Shan, or Yellow Mountain, which is not too far from Shanghai. I hope we get a chance to see some sericulture and aquaculture, as well. Sericulture is the making of silk. Aquaculture is the way a large percentage of the fish we consume are grown. 

I have coached her to read about Xu Guangxi and look for his Nong Zheng Quan Shu, an agricultural treatise that deals with irrigation, fertilizers, famine relief, economic crops, and empirical observation with early notions of chemistry. It is an enormous work, some 700,000 written Chinese characters. Although the final draft was not completed  by the time of his death in 1633, the famous Jiangnan scholar Chen Zilung assembled a group of scholars to edit the draft, publishing it in 1639.

The topics covered by his book are:
  • The Fundamentals of Agriculture (Nong Ben): quotations from the classics on the importance of encouraging agriculture
  • Field System (Tian Zhi): land distribution, field management
  • Agricultural Tasks (Nong Shi): clearing land, tilling; also a detailed exposition on settlement schemes
  • Water Control (Shui Li): various methods of irrigation, types of irrigation equipment, and the last two chapters devoted to new Western-style irrigation equipment
  • Illustrated Treatise on Agricultural Implements (Nong Chi Tu Pu): based largely on Wang Zhen's book of 1313 AD
  • Horticulture (Shi Yi): vegetables and fruit
  • Sericulture (Can Sang): silk production
  • Further Textile Crops (Can Sang Guang Lei): cotton, hemp, etc.
  • Silviculture (Chong Chi): forestry preservation
  • Animal Husbandry (Mu Yang)
  • Culinary Preparations (Zhi Zao)
  • Famine Control (Huang Zheng): administrative measures, famine flora

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Guiding Ladies (?): Opening or Reform?

Today's English version of China Daily features some pictures of guiding ladies. We also frequently "get to see" airline stewardesses and models at fashion shows and car shows, etc. as the pictures of the day. Nobody is disputing the beauty of Chinese women, but I think it cheapens the publication to indulge its reader's thus. Worse, it objectifies women. 

Guiding ladies wear identical red work uniforms on the opening day of the 2nd Session of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country's top political advisory body, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 3, 2014. About 2,200 members of the CPPCC National Committee will discuss major issues concerning the country's development during the annual session scheduled to conclude on March 12.[Photo/]
"...will discuss major issues..." seems oddly juxtaposed with the chosen image.

Today, National Public Radio had the following story: Corruption Blurs the Lines of Chinese Mistress Culture.* It mentions James Palmer's article Aeon Magazine and anthropologist Tiantian Zheng, who spent two years studying sex workers in China and wrote the book Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Post-Socialist China

I am reading the Pope's first solo apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, where this celibate primate writes with compassion: 
I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labour? Let us not look the other way. There is greater complicity than we think. The issue involves everyone! This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity.
Appearances are everything! 

*The Stitcher app, I believe, picks podcast stories that it thinks I might like to hear. How they arrived at this "suggestion" from my listening to 5 minutes of Garrison Kehler's Writer's Almanac, 59 minutes of Amy Goodman's Democracy Now!, and 4 minute hourly updates from NPR: Hourly News Summary is an open question.

Monday, March 3, 2014

When in Beijing...

The dark purple means very unhealthy and the rust color, hazardous:

On Saturday afternoon, when the weather (and the air!) was good, I took a walk and went quite far away to a big, famous plant shop that was nowhere near as large as Changchun's market. I went equipped with a list of  plants that clean indoor air, which I found on the Internet.

I ended up buying a couple of off-list items, including an orchid and a little kumquat tree like the one my paternal grandmother used to have--only mine is so small it sits on my desk now!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Two Pictures, One Window

This is a window on to the life in Beijing when the AQI (air quality index) for PM 2.5, the particulate matter that is quite dangerous and linked to lung cancer, is at roughly 500 and 50, respectively. Particles in this category are less than two and half microns in diameter.

The first picture was taken yesterday morning and the second, this afternoon from my home office window.

It was a late evening rain storm of minor proportions (a shower) that cleared the air and a switch in the prevailing winds. Somebody asked me what could be done and I, tongue firmly planted in cheek, said that the easiest way to avoid the inversions would be to fully mine the mountains until they are flat. Looking out the train window at China's mountains, they are well on their way to creating a moonscape within a generation in several parts of this gorgeous country.

Let's hope that the leaders here act before we get suffocated by another week of this "weather." While geography is king and much of the pollution we get comes from elsewhere on the "tradewinds" and then gets stuck here because of surrounding mountains, there are things that can and must be done.

The mood in Beijing today is ecstatic. One woman said to me that this is the first time that she has been made happy merely by blue sky. That is a sad commentary on how she has not heretofore derived pleasure from the quotidian; however, it is also indicative of a prevailing giddiness here at seeing the sun (unclothed) for the first time several days.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mei Li: A Real Story

Seventy-five years ago, a book about a small girl in China won the second ever Caldecott Medal, today widely regarded as the "Nobel" for illustrated children's literature. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

The book was called Mei Li and was written and illustrated by Thomas Handforth. The first edition was published in New York by Doubleday, Doran & Co. in 1938. At that point, China was already overrun with Japanese invaders and Europe was bracing for war. The disputed "Rape of Nanjing" (about as disputed as the Holocaust) had taken place and there were executions happening as Kuomintang forces battled it out internally with the forces of Li Jingwei and Mao Zedong, as well as their common Japanese foes. It would not be until Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941--"a date that will live in infamy"--that the US forces would be fully engaged.

While Handforth was making children smile in this hard time with his handiwork, he was also documenting what was going on around him. Some of it was whimsical, such as the acrobats he captured in their gyrations.

These, in turn, became images in the book.

Some of his images were gruesome and depressing. He made a lithograph of an execution happening outside the walls, as well, which I shall not share here today.

Over the last few months, I have been fortunate to take up a correspondence with Peggy Hartzell, a Pennsylvania denizen who is the niece of Mr. Handforth. She is the source of all this wonderful information.

In a recent dispatch, she reports, "Connie Tan has been translating [the book] into Chinese. Her mother-in-law is Mei Li's older sister." Mei Li herself passed away about 15 years ago but one of her sisters is still alive and lives in China. Her son and daughter-in-law plan to visit her this fall. They live in California.

Peggy sent me more real pictures of the real Mei Li (being held on far left). The girl holding Mei Li is still alive, maybe living in Beijing. The girls were all adopted by Helen Burton. "I think the oldest daughter's mother lived and worked at Helen's home," explained Peggy.

Helen Burton ran the Camel's Bell Gift shop in the Peking hotel and was famous for her hospitality. Her guest book at the hotel has the signatures of every culturally-connected Westerner who passed through Peking in the 1930s. After she was captured by the Japanese and interred in Weihsien for two years she settled in Honolulu.

"Born in 1891 in North Dakota, her father and brother both rose in state politics. She wanted to venture off to exotic places. She wound up in Peiping looking for secretarial work and it turns out she was a bit of an artist and entrepreneur. It was not long before she started her shop with candy, clothing, art and gifts of her design that she arranged to be made by locals. People from all over the world stopped by and signed her guest book." (from an account on the web)

The artist and illustrator Tom, as Peggy refers to him, lived in Beijing. Below are pictures of his door as it was in the late part of the 1930s and as it is in this new millennium.

Then there is the door of Mei Li's house as depicted by Handforth's talented hand. Maybe this was the door of Helen Burton. (Doors had great significance in the Qing Dynasty. You could tell the class or rank of one who lived behind it by various attributes. The Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall has a great explanation, if you find yourself there, but it is beyond the scope of this post.)

He was a gifted photographer and Peggy has shared with me a trove of his older photographs. Among the images she sent are two more of Mei Li. She writes, "[Here is] a photo of Mei Li with her book in hand and one about 60 years later with husband in hand. I heard that she gave one of her children to his brother who had none. Love how her smile is the same and that she didn't disappear during the Mao period."