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Posts from the ‘China’ Category


Odds and ends: some random book reviews on China, Marriage… and Auschwitz

So, there’s been seriously long radio-silence from Q in recent weeks. But this is not the result of inactivity. Far from it. Regulars will be pleased to hear that my book is seriously under way – with 5 out of 10 chapters now completed in draft. Phew!! There’s going to be lots to blog on when it’s done – but I don’t have the energy or brain to do both at the same time! Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping up reading and stuff. Here are a few reviews of recent freebies I got on the Amazon Vine programme. There might be something of interest to someone… Read more »


Friday Fun 31: The Traveller’s Life lost in translation

Never one to lose the momentum of a bandwagon, here are some more great moments from Charlie Croker’s Lost in Translation. All very silly and as I said last week, very unfair.

But quite fun nonetheless.

Read more »


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 29 (February 2011)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure


Yang Yongliang’s Artificial Wonderland

Every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. And recently, I’ve found this happen more and more with contemporary Chinese artists. Q regulars may remember the powerful impact of Xu Bing’s work with his meaningless words. Well here’s another…

As this picture above illustrates, Chinese classical art is world-renowned for its stunning landscape painting (especially for the ways that the natural world is evoked by the slightest of brushstrokes).

But check this out.

Here are a few variations on the theme by the remarkable artist, Shanghai-based Yang Yongliang. At first sight, they seem to follow closely the path and styles of the old masters. But look closer – and you see that all is not as it first seems – for a start, they’re actually produced on an inkjet printer. Then he’s presented an incredibly powerful subversion of the style, as a way of exposing the way that aggressive capitalism and environmental exploitation have destroyed so much of the uniquely beautiful Chinese landscape.

No wonder that they have been appropriated by the China Environment Protection Foundation. No idea who or what they’re like, but i sure hope they’re able to stop at least some of the insanity.

Artificial Wonderland by Yang Yongliang


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 18 (March 2010)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

  • Ushahidi – the power of the net at work in Kenya and beyond…
  • Twitter tweeters beware… Never keep a running update of where you are because burglars take note as well
  • One of my favourite screenwriters is Andrew Niccol (e.g. Truman Show, Gattaca, Simone) – i’ve given talks on his stuff in various places. But one film that is needlessly underrated is The Lord of War (perhaps because of the silly title and because protagonist is played (reasonably well) by Nicolas Cage). But here is a fascinating article about a real life arms dealer, of whom Cage’s character could almost be a cardboard cutout: Monzer al-Kassar, recently imprisoned.

Quirky Treasure


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 10 (July 09)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure

  • Facebook/Twitter/Myspace addicts should check out this mental health advisory! (HT Visual Culture)



It’s not all Greek to them…

Nice post from one of my favourite blogs: Strange Maps.

In English, if we don’t understand what someone has been saying, we tend to react by saying ‘It’s all Greek to me’. But what do the Greeks say? Or for that matter, anyone else? Well, someone has done some research, and come up with this nice little flowchart.

It’s seems that Chinese presents problems for the most languages; while the Chinese are the most spiritual, since they refer to the language of heaven. Is this an extraordinary Asian outbreak of glossolalia by any chance?  

Here are some of the other phrases in use:

  • In Italian, one can ask: “Parlo italiano o turco ottomano?” (”Do I speak Italian or Ottoman Turkish?” It has a nicer cadence in Italian)
  • One reported German expression for something incomprehensible: “Mesopotamisch”. Another one: “Kauderwelsch” (possibly referring to the Rhaeto-Romance language spoken in Switzerland)
  • Older Taiwanese refer to youthspeak, internet slang etc. as sounding “Martian” to them.
  • Even Esperanto-speakers have been endowed with their own expression, pointing the finger at another constructed language: “Estas Volapuk al mi!” (”It’s Volapük to me!”)
  • In Finnish, “Siansaksa” (”Pig German”) is the word for incomprehensible gibberish. Notice the similar English expression “Pig Latin”.
  • In Icelandic, one could say “Þetta er latína fyrir mér” (”This is Latin to me”) or “Þetta kemur mér spánskt fyrir sjónir” (”This looks Spanish to me”).
  • “Das ist mir Böhmischer Dörfer” (’That’s Bohemian villages to me”)  – this German reference to the incomprehension (or at least impronouncability) of Bohemian (i.e. Czech) village names is mirrored in the Slovak expression “Je pre mňa španielska dedina” (”(That) is for me a Spanish village”), and in the Slovenian one “To mi je španska vas” (”This is a Spanish village to me”) . Other related expressions, not just dealing with incomprehension so much as just plain chaos, are “Czeski film” (”Czech movie”) in Polish, for a kafkaesque situation, for example in dealing with bureaucracy. German has “polnische Wirtschaft” (”Polish economy”) for a chaotic situation and “Fachchinesisch” for technical jargon.

Boris the Flagwaver: makes ya proud, innit… ya

No one else could have done it with such aplomb. Boris Johnson’s performance as major of the new host city at the closing ceremony of Beijing 2008 was second to none.

  • A stadium full of the world – everyone dressed to the nines or looking immaculate or both. But Boris – well he looked scruffy, even in a suit.
  • And then there was the stage-managed procession with Beijing’s mayor – but Boris seemed in a bit of a rush, and so bounded up the dais steps two at a time and got there first. Perhaps he’d forgotten that this was the only Olympic race whose result had already been decided – it was definitely London’s for the taking. But perhaps we should give him a gold medal anyway, for effort.
  • Then the question of the flag-waving itself. Boris had claimed he’d been practising for his big moment for weeks. Fortunately, he was not the only one who found it quite tricky. Having been handed a half-unfurled Olympic flag by a PRC soldier (who’ll probably be court-martialled for his efforts) the Beijing mayor struggled – as did IOC president Jacques Rogge. But Boris manfully manged to unfurl his banner – and London could breathe a sigh of jubilant relief. Their mayor had not dropped it nor speared someone with it. His rehearsals come into their own.

All in all, it made me feel proud to be a Brit and a Londoner (in contrast, i should say, to the sight of aging rock stars and footballers on top of a fake London bus). Roll on 2012.


TYPHOON – a new spy-novel that pulls no punches

Every now and then a book comes my way which gets under my skin – and I instantly feel a blog coming on. I love historical novels on the whole, and of course, they are in vogue – not only do they transport, but they can (should?) also educate. But from the novelist’s point of view, they provide great opportunities for invention and speculation since the periods they choose to inhabit are the preserve of only an educated few. Who’s to know where fact ends and fiction begins?

But to take very recent history, especially very public recent history, and then weave a credible narrative through it, takes some doing. Cumming has already proved his worth in this respect in previous novels. But this book, set first in 1997 handover-Hong Kong and then in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, ratchets up his ambitions. And the results couldn’t be more topical. This is no private or obscure corner of history – it’s a matter of wide public record and even more widespread concern.

Of course, such ambitions could merely lead to a worthy but barely gripping journalistic account. But Cummming is a master of narrative suspense and intrigue. This is truly a page-turner and therefore deserves wide readership. The characters are finely drawn and credible – the relationships and tensions acutely (even excruciatingly) observed: in particular, the triangle between MI6 protagonist Joe, CIA agent Miles and the profoundly sympathetic but tragic Isabella. But we’re also taken on a whirlwind tour of Western expats in China muddling through with contradictory agendas and the seemier corners of Chinese lowlife, populated by wheeler dealers, thugs and (a very few) idealists, each drawn with skillful economy. As ever, however, in common with all great espionage writing, trust is the holy grail – and as ever in such circles it is in short supply.

But this is no airport pot-boiler – far from it. It offers an intelligent entry-point into complex affairs which rarely (if ever) make the headlines, let alone foreign affairs columns.

TYPHOON poses vital questions:

  • Since 9/11, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has obviously been at the forefront of international politics and diplomacy. But to what extent are groups like Al Qaeda the products of ill-informed, short-termist and ultimately doomed policies of covert American action? TYPHOON traces a similar trajectory – of how separatist Islamic terrorists in China wreak havoc funded by the western operatives.
  • Issues of Chinese human rights abuses abound today – especially because of the Olympics. But to what extent is raising the subject mere hypocrisy? Especially if the British and American do so?
  • What actually IS the role of the British secret service in a post-imperial world, especially when the CIA dwarfs its ‘cousins’ in resources, manpower and reach?
  • Isn’t ALL foreign policy and undercover action only really about OIL FIELDS in the end?

A chilling scene in a brilliant recent film sticks in my mind. In Syriana (George Clooney et al), a small team of frankly inept and profoundly ignorant, meddling CIA agents meets in a cocooned, air-conditioned office in Langley to plot the future of the Middle East – with absolutely disastrous consequences. TYPHOON describes a not dissimilar meeting, in Washington DC. When will we ever learn?

But don’t be put off by such intellectualizing! This is a cracking read – and in a work of fiction, that in the end is the acid test. To be stimulated by such vital questions on top of that is just a fantastic bonus.


When words mean nothing… even to the Chinese…

The horrors of China’s earthquake are rightly dominating the news – and what with the disaster in Burma, it has been a gruesome few days. For those who have been bereaved, their lives will never of course be the same. But what of the wider societies in which these disasters have occurred? When the dust has settled, and the semblances of normality return, what of the regimes that have desperately clung to respectability and authority during these disasters? Well, the Olympics are certainly placing the Chinese government under the microscope. Which brings me to a unique exhibition I visited over the weekend.

I hadn’t really appreciated the fact before, but once it was pointed out to me, it made sense. For in the history of Chinese art, calligraphy has played a hugely important role. The reason is simple: the Chinese language doesn’t have an alphabet as such, but is of course made up of hundreds of symbols or characters (their origins having often derived from pictograms or images taken everyday life). The resulting creative dynamic between Chinese characters and imagery (even abstract imagery) is then not hard to understand.

I had a few hours spare on my own on Saturday (a VERY unusual experience!) and so pottered just down the road to Asia House, where there is currently an exhibition of Khoan and Michael Sullivan’s private collection of Modern Chinese Art. She was herself Chinese and thus gave Michael access to an amazing range of artists over the second half of the 20th Century, and together they built up a staggering collection (despite, for example, the horrors and traumas of Mao’s cultural revolution). He subsequently became an internationally respected Chinese Art historian. It was a small exhibition – but fascinating.

A handful of artists stood out – one was Xu Bing. Xu Bing was born in 1955 and grew up in Beijing. When he was 20 he was ‘relocated’ to the countryside during the cultural revolution. 2 years later he returned and enrolled in an art college. He now works in New York and has become well known in various circles, especially because of his wood engraving. And he seems deliberately to play on the relationship between Chinese language characters and imagery. The top left picture is one of a series of his – called LANDSCRIPT. Its significance is lost on most of us – for the picture is made up of words (inspired from a trip into the Nepalese Himalayas), the words for the features which they form (like forest, wood, river, mountain etc). So not only does it depict features of a landscape – it tells you what you are seeing, at the same time!

But the scale of Xu Bing’s most extraordinary work could only be hinted at in the Asia House exhibition – with photographs and a few sample pages under perspex. For over a period of 4 years, he created The Book From the Sky. He painstakingly created wooden blocks for the characters (above right) – and then printed them by hand on sheet after sheet of parchment (above left) – hundreds in fact. And the original intention was for the pages to be then draped from a gallery ceiling and spread across a floor (as in the image below taken from the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa).

Book from the Sky - Xu Bing

It looks stunning. But again, despite the aesthetic beauty of a photograph like this, its significance will be completely lost on those of us who can’t read Chinese. Because, you know what? It is all MEANINGLESS. None of the characters means anything at all, because each one was invented by Xu Bing. All 4000 of them. So not even a fluent Chinese reader will be able to make head or tail of it. It is therefore making a profound political and philosophical statement.

It has the air of a religious document, an ancient holy book. The awed hush its display inspires would certainly befit that. As a westerner, you can only look at it and imagine the centuries of wisdom compiled and preserved – if only you could read it… But it is inaccessible – not even its author understands it. And when you do discover the point it is making, it makes you question every other text. Sure we can understand the ‘meaning’ of the words – but what do they signify? Anything? In a country which has suffered at the hands of harsh ideological government, can you take anything they say seriously? For a man who experienced 2 years ‘relocation’ it would be hard to, don’t you think?

There was a tragic moment on the news the other night when Hu Jintao was doing the post-earthquake rounds of the dislocated, dispossessed and distressed. There was the pathetic sight of a young girl in tears, utterly distraught and disorientated. Her home was gone… what of her family? The Premier could only say, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be OK; the government will build you a new home’. The classic response of the state machine. (Though in the capitalist west, we would expect nothing less than the same – e.g. federal aid (such as it was) after Hurricane Katrina.) But can you trust it? Or was that just spin for the western media? Will we ever know if that girl finds a home? A house, perhaps. But a home?

Spin is pervasive. But has it ever been different? Haven’t words always been just a game, truth claims just power claims (as Foucault chillingly rammed home)? We’re groomed now to be suspicious of anything anyone says, not just when it comes from politicians. So even if the Book from the Sky had been made up of intelligible Chinese characters, would it have represented, or been, a guide into reality? Many would doubt it.

Which is why I keep coming back in my mind to a profound sense of gratitude and relief that our ultimate benchmark of reality, truth and the world is not actually the written word (shock horror). It is not a matter of words strung together – but THE Word strung up on a Cross. For one of the Word’s most impressive characteristics is his integrity. Many tried in vain to dig around and expose his flaws. But his renunciation of spin, manipulation and power trips was absolute – the cross proved that once and for all. The cross not only gives him credibility in a suffering and anchor-less world, but also provides us all with access to a reliable reality. And so Xu Bing has a profound point – as does Foucault – if human words are all we are left with. We do need to be suspicious of human intentions – but the Bible has always known that. It has a special word for it – sin. Which is why the message of the Sinless Word brings such revolutionary joy.


Tibet, Truth & Tolerance – or is that impossible?

img_0241.jpgimg_0244.jpg I go past this place several times a week. And there’s the same rather motley, and to my unenlightened eyes, peculiar crew who hang out on the opposite side of the street. But in the last few days, they’ve been augmented by another group (taken this morning, right) to fight the good fight. For this building is none other than the Chinese Embassy in London, which houses those diplomats and representatives that British and other Western politicians constantly tiptoe round. ‘What do you know about it?’, our venerable British leaders might say to me. ‘This is realpolitik’, they might add. ‘You’ve got to take the broader picture’, they’ll suggest. Doing that is somewhat difficult, though, when we are honestly expected to believe that the recent troubles in Tibet have been provoked and caused by The Dalai Lama! Such was the headline we were greeted with on the BBC online news this morning. I mean, come on!?!! Who you trying to kid? (FYI, see the BBC’s excellent range of reports and analysis on the Dalai Lama’s role and the whole situation).



Now despite the political incorrectness of saying this, for all its nobility, ethics and undoubtedly impressive advocates, I do find Buddhism a worldview of dark hopelessness and depersonalizing despair. You might question that interpretation. You might suggest I’m misguided. But whatever you do, you must never doubt my right to say so. And our generation perhaps more than ever before needs to learn this.


You see, I’ve been thinking a lot about tolerance recently. I was speaking on Real Tolerance at All Souls on Sunday night as the conclusion of our 3D Life in Perspective week. And these famous words of Voltaire (who was by no means a friend of religion – that’s him below!) have been ringing through my mind, and I quoted them in the talk.

I may detest the things you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say them.

Tolerance begins at disagreement not unanimity – for if you are unanimous, tolerance is entirely unnecessary. In fact, tolerance almost presupposes disagreement. But the politically correct crowd wants to stifle views (even obnoxious views), in the name of a completely reinterpretated (even deconstructed or revisionist) concept of tolerance. This D A Carson quotation is helpful (I paraphrased it in the talk as it was too complicated for that context).

It used to be that a tolerant person was one who insisted that those who disagreed with him had rights no less than his own to speak their own positions freely. The slogan was, “I may detest the things you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say them”. The tolerance in other words, was directed toward people, not their ideas. In fact, the idea implicit in this notion of tolerance is that the tolerant person DISAGREES with some idea or other: that is precisely why tolerance is needed. One does not “tolerate” someone with whom one is already in perfect agreement!

By contrast, the new tolerance is directed not to people who are permitted or even encouraged to articulate repugnant views, but to the ideas themselves: under the priorities of postmodern ideology, it is wrong to say that any worldview or set of ideas or religious opinion is wrong or untrue or evil. Ideas alien to us may be “bad” in the relative sense that our own system sees the other system as flawed. But (postmodern tolerance urges) it is wrong to say that a contrary view is wrong, at least in any objective or absolute sense.

… As a result, genuine tolerance withers and dies. The most compelling evidence that this is the case lies in the fact that postmodernists are notoriously intolerant of those who do not share their epistemology. And this fierce intolerance is often directed against the PEOPLE whose views are disliked, not simply against the views themselves.

From D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places, Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2002) p147.


Now, what has been going on on the other side of the globe is an important test case. I may not agree, or even approve, of some of the things the Dalai Lama says, but I will defend his clear right to say them. That is what true tolerance must be all about. And if we don’t stick up for him in this, we are failing to be truly tolerant (even though there are elements of the bandwagon and the ‘easy cause’ about supporting him from our western armchairs and computer screens). It still has to be done. For otherwise speech disintegrates into a conformity with whoever holds the political whip hand. It might be the communists today, the gay lobby tomorrow and the Christian or Muslim fundamentalists the day after that. Despite the politically correct lobby, tolerance is not about kowtowing or being afraid to say unpalatable things. Tolerance is about not being afraid of the quest for truth, not being afraid to speak out the truth (albeit one’s own limited grasp of the truth) and not being afraid to have those claims rejected / criticised / analyzed / rebutted. Otherwise, such a society will bear all the hallmarks of fascist / marxist / fundamentalist oppression.


So as I walked past those silent and puny-looking protesters on Portland Place this morning, I could only offer an even more puny smile and thumbs up to encourage them in the wintry and political cold. No doubt an embassy curtain across the road twitched and somebody noticed and noted, so that any future possible visa application is rendered more complicated. Or am I just being paranoid?


It is no accident that this is all happening now, of course. The run-up to the Olympics was always going to heighten the tensions as well as the protest opportunities. For sure, one suspects that these blips will make not much difference in the long term. 6 months after the Olympics have been packed away to await their London visit, will there really be a change. And will the rest of the world have really shifted their fundamental economic imperatives? Probably not. But because it is a matter of principle, it is all the more reason to shout out loudly now. Which is why i think this Amnesty ad campaign is so brilliant and deserves wider coverage. For tolerance demands it. Just contrast this subservient, but actually quite sinister, Chinese Adidas ad (I mean, isn’t it the ultimate collectivist nightmare, where the countless millions get trampled to serve the greater good of the nation’s kudos in order to produce a single athlete?) with Amnesty’s hard-hitting European sequence:


Impossible is nothing, eh? Well how about trying a little genuine tolerance for a change…



life after death: the general, the comic genius and the terracotta emperor

You may have seen the brouhaha that (eg picked up by Ruth Gledhill’s blog) recent remarks of General Sir John Dannatt has caused. He is Chief of the General Staff in the British Army and therefore the most senior soldier in this country. The reason for the fuss – not just the fact that he is a Christian, but the fact that he thinks this has an impact on his job. This is what he said at the recent Spring Harvest Excellence in Leadership conference.

In my business, asking people to risk their lives is part of the job, but doing so without giving them the chance to understand that there is a life after death is something of a betrayal, and I think there is very much an obligation on …a Christian leader to include a spiritual dimension into his people’s preparations for operations, and the general conduct of their lives. Qualities and core values are fine as a universally acceptable moral baseline for leadership, but the unique life, death, resurrection and promises of Christ provide that spiritual opportunity that I believe takes the privilege of leadership to another level.

Of course, similar convictions have been open to abuse over the centuries – people have been urged to die/be martyred for dubious if not downright immoral causes over the centuries: eg Crusades or 9/11. But given that armies are necessary in the modern age for national defence or prosecution of injustice (the official MOD page outlining the many countries where the British Army is currently deployed is fascinating), surely it is appropriate for someone facing death all the time to face it with eyes open? The risks for a soldier serving in Helmand province or on the Kuwait border are huge. Of course, no one should be compelled or deceived into believing anything (which is a ludicrous and totally counter-productive notion anyway); but it would be a total dereliction of duty if an army padre failed to spell out the claims and promises that the Christian faith makes about death.

The thing is death must force us to ask what it is all about. It always has – and it always will. For it leaves nowhere to hide when it comes to life’s purpose. Death pierces every facade, shatters every mask and undermines all but the most robust of confidences. Take this quote from Woody Allen (who, it has to be admitted, has a bit of a one-track mind about death!)

‘Let me tell you, when I go for a walk in Central Park on a beautiful day I have to set myself mental tasks, prepare a speech, think about casting. Otherwise I know I will want to run up to people and shake them and say, ‘Why are you bothering to sunbathe? What’s the point of your pregnant belly? Why are you walking your dog? Toward what end? We’re all going to die one day. AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO SEES IT? Am I the only person in the concentration camp who knows what’s going on behind the hedge?’

He spreads his arms, fingers splayed. ‘I will look around the park and think, “We can cut to this scene 100 years from now and all these people will be dead.” Every 100 years a big toilet will have flushed and a new group of people will be in their place. The Islamic fundamentalists, the baseball players, the beautiful models, everybody who is here now will all be gone. ALL GONE. You and me. It is hard to combat this thought. It’s constantly nagging at me. Our seemingly busy busy lives ultimately mean nothing in this cruel and hostile universe.’
From an interview with Woody Allen, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 17 March 02

The weird thing about the timing of all this brouhaha (after all, the general made his remarks two weeks ago) is that Rachel & I managed to get to the Terracotta Army exhibition in the British Museum this morning (having booked ages ago). There’s been a lot of hype – on top of the queues and the not inconsiderable cost, the exhibition is pretty small (with too many crowding around the individual exhibits). They’ve borrowed only a handful of the 7000+ terracotta warriors found in 1974 in Xi’an. Still, despite all this, it is still well worth it. Ying Zheng, 1st Emperor of China, was by all accounts rather a nutter – and yet a pretty successful one. He was the first person to unite the warring regions of China and to impose unifying writing, legal and mercantile systems. He was not without ambition. For not only did he declare himself Emperor of China, but also Emperor of the Universe – building palaces around his empire to echo to the constellations in the night sky. But despite this, he was petrified of death. This is what the official British Museum book says:

The first Emperor of China controlled a vast territory and wielded enormous power. He ordered 120,000 families to move to the new capital, Xianyang; he summoned 700,000 men to build his tomb and other structures; and he was self-consciously aware of his authority and of the new era that this marked…

Yet this powerful ruler was assailed at the same time by his human frailty: he feared conspiracy and death by human or by supernatural forces. he consulted occult specialists and insisted that his whereabouts be kept secret. In search of eternal life, the First Emperor urged his officials and associates to seek out herbs and plants that would enable him to evade death and live for ever. Several fruitless exhibitions were sent out into the eastern sea to find the mythical islands of Penglai, Yingzhou and Fangzhang, where these plants were believed to flourish. None of these efforts succeeded. How then did the emperor resolve his fears of death and make them compatible with his claims to be a universal and eternal ruler? His solution lay in preparing a great tomb for himself on the slopes of Mt Li near present day Lintong to ensure his power on the journey into and throughout eternity.

What the First Emperor created astonishes us today with its haunting lines of soldiers, officials, acrobats and servants to do his bidding, frozen for all time in clay… It must have been astonishing for his ministers and officials as they laboured at the immense task to bring into being this universe for the emperor. Nothing on such a scale had been attempted before. In death, as in life, the First Emperor was unique.

From The First Emperor – China’s Terracotta Army chapter 4, by Jessica Rawson, p115-18 (publ British Museum Press)

But I think I would also want to add that in death, as in life, the First Emperor wasn’t unique at all. He was just like everyone who has ever lived – for death has always had a sting. And as General Dannatt believes, (and I of course agree with him), it would take an emperor of emperors (born only 200 years or so after Ying Zheng died) to remove that sting.