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.
In my attempt to read in both of my primary languages simultaneously, I recently read the short story collection Taipei People by the Taiwanese novelist Pai Hsien-yung, or Bai Xianyong in Pinyin transliteration. I’d grown up hearing about the book but somehow never got around to reading it until now.
The standard English translation of the book’s title is arguably not the best. I might have translated it as “Taipei’ers,” but for the unfortunate awkwardness of the apostrophe and cluster of vowels. Bai titled his book thus in clear allusion to Jame Joyce’s Dubliners, out of which the story “The Dead” remains the apparent gold standard for what the ideal short story looks like, at least according to the American academia.
And that is one reason that Bai Xianyong remains an interesting writer. Taipei People, written in the 1960s, is an exercise in applying Western modernism to classical Chinese literature, or in fusing the two, a point that Bai underscored by alluding to Joyce.
My post a while back on the real Mulan gave me an idea to do an occasional series on the most badass women of ancient China. You’d think that ancient China was all patriarchy all the time. But there were exceptions in the form of the most ambitious and most talented of women.
And the grandmother of badass Chinese women has to be Empress Wu Zetian, although I don’t necessarily mean this as a compliment. In over three millennia of monarchy, the emperor was always a man, except her. Although sometimes women dominated politics from behind the scenes, often in the capacity of mother of the emperor when the emperor happened to be a child, none but her openly took power for herself. You can imagine the level of political acumen and ruthlessness required to do this. Cersei Lannister is but a pale shadow compared to her.
Wen Tianxiang has been on my mind from time to time since the November 2016 election.
If you’ve never heard of him, that’s okay, I didn’t expect that you have. But like Chinese school children in the seven hundred years before me, I grew up reading about him as the paragon loyalty and patriotism, virtues that today’s Americans can use. To me, he was a Chinese Boethius.
So imagine the frown on my face when I came across this description of him: “[H]e was too inflexible to be a great politician — passionate, intolerant, arrogant and a complete pain to work with,” whose refusal to surrender to the Mongols even after all was lost, even when he languished in prison, was “masochistic.”
This is an old tale, and many of you may have heard it already. But as it is Hanukkah, I can be forgiven for repeating an otherwise well-known story about the Chinese Jews.
Jews might have migrated into China over the Silk Road since as early as the height of the Roman Empire. One tradition states that the first of them left Jerusalem after the Roman emperor Titus conquered the holy city, arriving in China eventually via Persia.
Ethnographers have also previously identified a population in China that they thought might be of Jewish descent. And because they did not observe Hanukkah, it was inferred that they left the Holy Land before the Maccabean Revolt. But this theory has turned out to be questionable.
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.
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."