Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
So Disney is filming a live-action remake of the 1998 animated Mulan, actually casting an Asian woman in the role of an Asian woman (because you never know with Hollywood).
This news prompts me to revisit the ancient source of the story of Mulan. Certain aspects of the source material now seem surprising in light of departures made in the Disney version, and I don’t just mean the little dragon Mushu that works as a cartoon character but in fact does not exist in the original.
The 1998 film sets the action during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the invading enemies are said to be the Huns. The Han Dynasty did fight protracted wars against the Huns. But these battles took place centuries before the figure of Mulan first appeared in Chinese literature.
Thor (the Norse god, not the Marvel character) is remarkably similar to its Chinese counterpart, Leigong, so much so that I intuit a long-lost cultural connection, even though I am unaware of any scholarship establishing it. If the distance between Scandinavia and the Far East makes you skeptical of this possibility, I’ll note that the Hellenistic inspiration for Asian Buddhist sculptural art is well-established.
Leigong, literally “Lord of Thunder,” is an important figure in the Taoist pantheon. He is, like Thor, depicted as a strong warrior type who wields a magic hammer with which he can send thunderbolts. He is a positive but blunt character, broadly on the side of right but sometimes blunders in rushing to judgment. Much as Thor stands opposed to Loki, Leigong is opposed to characters of mischief such as the Monkey King (who, incidentally, has been shown to be derived from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman).
In the early-15th century, the Chinese government sent the so-called Eunuch Admiral, Zheng He, on a voyage of exploration that reached East Africa and perhaps beyond. A muslim of Mongol-Uzbek extraction, he was often known by his honorific name “Sanbao,” and he may have been the inspiration for Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.
Six hundred years later he is the poster child of contemporary China’s foreign policy. Called “One Belt One Road,” the policy calls for China to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road across Eurasia as well as to build supposedly mutually beneficial relationships with many of the countries that Zheng visited. And the building of relationships mostly involves the construction of factories and bridges and roads and other capital projects for these countries. Zheng left a stele in Sri Lanka commemorating his visit, so now China has built an international airport and a deepwater seaport for Sri Lanka.
I’ve been seeing and marveling at many indications of China’s “OBOR” policy around the world for some time. There was the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, for example. And there were the children in Ethiopia crying “China, China” upon seeing me, which annoyed me until I learned that, with so much Chinese investment in that country, the children thought that all foreign-looking people were Chinese, even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes.
And most recently I have been in Kenya.
In the past three years I have visited three cities in three very different parts of the world that somehow nonetheless call each other to mind: Dubrovnik, Croatia; Khiva, Uzbekistan; and Pingyao, China. Each is a historic city with medieval walls that fortunately have been preserved. None is a grand imperial capital like Istanbul or Beijing or Rome, with all the attendant wars and conflagrations and changes in political power that inevitably paint over those cities again and again as palimpsests.
Below, then, is a point-by-point comparison of three wondrous places that you should visit when you get a chance.
I always wanted to get to Dunhuang, and not just because half of its name is half of my given name in Chinese. This summer I finally got there.
The Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang are located in the province of Gansu in northwestern China, once an important stop — and a wealthy town — on the Silk Road. For a thousand years starting in the 4th century, prominent local families sponsored artisans to paint and sculpt one cave after another at Mogao in Buddhist themes. Some of the painters and sculptors wound up spending half a lifetime there. So many caves were painted and sculpted that Mogao also came to be known as the place of a “A Thousand Buddha Grottoes.” Even today, 735 remain. Many caves are masterpieces of Buddhist art, and some reminded me of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
How an Italian Jesuit in China Relates to a Portuguese King in Morocco Relates to the Spanish Empire Relates to Brazil Relates to the Dutch East India Company Relates to Indonesia
In 1582, a 30-year-old Italian friar arrived in Macau. Matteo Ricci had dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel as a member of the Society of Jesus. And now he was on a mission to enter mainland China from this Portuguese outpost. Chinese authorities at the time frowned upon the presence of foreign missionaries. But in time Ricci would become one of the most important missionaries ever to work in Asia. In fact today a bronze statue of him stands in the heart of Macau, and he remains a household name in China.
Well, his name in Chinese, Li Madou. He chose it for himself as a rendering of his Italian name. But the middle character, 瑪 (“ma”), had a story behind it. It consists of two parts, 王, meaning “king,” and 馬, meaning “horse.” Ricci chose it in commemoration of his patron, Sebastian the Desired, King of Portugal.
With Netflix’s no good, very bad, culturally appropriating “Iron Fist,” Hollywood is again dipping into the martial arts genre that comes out of China, known in Chinese as “wuxia.”
I assume that the makers of “Iron Fist” had no idea that the genre in which they were working arose from a 10th century short story. Indeed, I assume that hardly anyone knows this to be true. The wuxia genre, in its cinematic incarnation, especially in those old Hong Kong films with low budgets and visible wireworks and obvious fight choreography, can seem risibly silly. But the fact is that wuxia is a venerable literary tradition.
And just as, according to Dostoevsky, all of Russian fiction came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” all of wuxia derives from a single story of under 2,000 words written in the late-9th or early-10th century by a Taoist priest.
For some months now, a phrase from Confucian philosophy has recurred to me like an ear worm: “neither obsequious nor arrogant.” (不卑不亢.) Then I realized why I kept thinking about this phrase — it’s a perfect lesson for today’s Americans.
The specific formulation dates back to the early 17th century: “The sages had their middle way, being neither obsequious nor arrogant....” But in substance it reaches all the way back to the time of Confucius and forms a part of Confucian ethics, which concerns itself with the question of how to be a junzi (君子), loosely translated as “gentleman.” I say loosely because the Western concept of “gentleman” devotes more energy to social manners than the Confucian concept, which is mostly about how to live as a good and complete person in a world full of knaves and villains. And although admittedly the Confucian term was gendered for usage in a patriarchal society, the moral concept is applicable to both sexes equally.
Much of America’s present difficulties would disappear if Americans would take this Confucian lesson to heart. The old culture war and racial animosities brought to the point of the astonishing act of self-immolation that took place in November would end.
The most interesting thing about The Lord of the Rings is that its chief hero, more than the great Gandalf, more than the dashing one-and-future-king Aragorn, is the diminutive hobbit Frodo, because he can hold the ring of power without being corrupted by it.
At the time of my birth, the country of my birth was a dictatorship. Martial law was in effect. Opposition political parties were illegal. And the sitting president had had the position handed to him by his generalissimo father.
So imagine how I felt hearing the news that this year’s Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report adjudged Taiwan to be freer than the United States. Taiwan, officially still the Republic of China and barely recognized by anyone internationally, scored 91/100 according to Freedom House’s methodology, while the U.S. scored 89.
We owe it in large part to one man.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."