Friday, August 29, 2008

On "London Eight Minutes"

Even before the Beijing Olympics curtain fell completely, fans had already turned their eyes to London. However, London's 8-minute show during Sunday's closing ceremony did not seem to generate much favorable feedback. Not all the criticism deserves serious attention, for example the "fake handicapped" performer in the wheelchair – it merely provided a weak bullet for a few pugnacious Chinese youngsters to return fire. However, a good question raised by some of the British audience is whether pop music represents England's long history and rich culture, or whether the idea of "a big party" is a good one for the London Olympics.

A British cyber friend, Paul Armstrong Taylor, wrote me from Shanghai on this (quoted with permission):

Consider this quote from an article about Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the London Olympic Organizing Committee:

Coe kept mentioning two words -- creativity and fun. Both, he claimed, are representations of Britain's unique culture. Creativity, he insisted, is "Britishness in the very best sense of the word."

As far as the fun part goes, London knows how to throw a good party, and that is what they plan to do, Coe beamed. "We're actually quite good at partying," he said. "Let's turn it into a giant party."

Citing the famous string of British pop music and West End stars that are part of the planning team, Coe seemed quite certain that the organizing committee will be able to put on a great super-fun show.

This fills me with foreboding. After Beijing and China put on a dramatic and immense performance inspired by three thousand years of history and culture, London is going to put on a "giant party" inspired by pop stars and musicals. Apparently, the closing ceremony in which Beijing hands on to London, London will be represented by Leona Lewis, the winner of a TV talent series and now pop star; Jimmy Page, guitarist for out-of-date rock band Led Zeppelin; and David Beckham, the pop star of soccer/football. Honestly, I feel sick about this. I am not a particularly patriotic person, but I do think the UK has some things to be proud about and I do not want to see it embarrassed on a world stage.

If they continue down this route, it will be a complete disaster for at least two fundamental reasons:

a) Pop culture is shallow, temporary and very much subject to fashion. It is a flimsy foundation on which to build a presentation to the world. Every country has pop stars and they all change with the whims of teenagers (which change often). The Olympic opening ceremony is about presenting what is unique and fundamental to the culture of the host (as well as the obligatory spirit of world unity). Pop culture can simply not achieve this.

b) Politicians and Olympic committees can not be creative and fun by their nature. Even the Beijing ceremony was not particularly creative, but it was immense and powerful. I think this is what you have to aim for. A few years ago, the British government tried to create a "Cool Brittania" brand. It became a joke because anything a politician says is "cool" instantly loses any "coolness". I suspect the Olympic ceremony will end that way too if they are determined to follow this route.

The London segment [in Beijing Olympics' closing ceremony] was more or less what I expected. The frightening thing is that this sort of MTV-pop music approach should be relatively well suited to an 8 minute segment, but will be practically unwatchable for most people if stretched to an hour or more. I really hope they change direction before 2012, but it seems they are set on taking the "Cool Brittania" route. Obviously, they should not try to out-Beijing Beijing - they simply can't compete with the numbers of people China can commit. However, I think there are other ways to come up with a display that captures some of the uniqueness of Britain's character, culture and history.

So, what do you think?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hidden Code in the Opening Ceremony

A friend who recently returned from Beijing told the story of how Beijingers decoded the Olympics opening ceremony.

The first element was uncovered based on the widespread suspicion of the way "harmony" was displayed. Several times during the performances, the character appeared without its usual accompanying . The only explanation was that this was intentional. On the other hand, though the word is normally pronounced as "he," when playing mahjong it appears on a tile and is read as "Hu" - .

Then came the picture of a silk weaver, followed by scenes of the Silk Road. Well, the traditional Chinese word for silk is - Jin.

Next, ocean waves carried many boats, and formations showed Zheng He leading a team of voyagers into the Pacific. What is the Chinese character for "waves"? - tao.

Do you see the code now?

I am truly fond of the street wisdom of Beijingers and their fun-seeking nature. No doubt more messages will be unraveled in the months to come. :-)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Funny Bits from Beijing Olympics

I was away last week and did not get the time to share with you a few funny notes sent by friends in China. In my 20 years living in the US, one big cultural pity is that I rarely laugh at English jokes. I'm sure those of you "foreigners" who have moved to China have the same problem. A translated joke is often even worse – we'll all be lost in translation. Nonetheless, lets try a few here.

"加油!" – gas up!

A foreigner in Beijing asks a Chinese: "Gas prices are rising like crazy, why do all the Chinese keep shouting 'Gas Up' in the Games? Chinese are too rich."

The Most Welcome Athlete

Chinese sports fans elected US shooter Matt Emmons as the most welcome Olympic athlete.

In Athens, with Matt Emmons far ahead in the 50-meter three-position Olympic rifle final, his last shot went into someone else's target and he gave up the gold medal to China.

In Beijing, in the exact same position, with a huge lead going into the final shot of the same event, Emmons didn’t hit the wrong target; he missed. Again he gave the medal to China.

Heraclitus said, "No one steps in the same river twice." But Chairman Mao said, "A foreigner, coming to China from ten thousand miles away, treats the Chinese's liberation cause as his own, what is the spirit? It is the international spirit, it is the communist spirit, everyone should learn this spirit."

An old friend of the Chinese people, Matt Emmons proved Heraclitus wrong by following Chairman Mao's instructions.

Chongqing Idioms Forbidden during Olympics

Two Chongqing tourists A and B arrived at Beijing. On a bus, A looked at the map and said, "Lets first kill to Tiananmen, then Chairman Mao's Memorial, then Zhongnanhai." B answered, "Good, we'll do what you said, kill all the way along this route." (Chongqing idiom: "kill the way" 杀过去 means "go there.") Alarmed Beijing passengers reported their dialogue to the police and the two Chongqing men were arrested as soon as they got off the bus.

After several hours interrogation and detention in the police station, they were released. Walking to the Tiananmen Square, the two men kept silent. They just looked at each other and sighed. At last, A said to B, "Why don't you shoot?" B replied, "You didn't shoot, why do I dare to shoot?" (Chongqing idiom: "shoot" 开腔 means "talk.") Before they knew their arms were twisted by plain-clothe police.

A week later the two Chongqing men came out of the detention house. They looked at each other. A said, "This is good. My pockets are all empty. Where should we go to get some bullets?" (Chongqing idiom: "bullet" 子弹 means "money.") The armed guards at the gate charged up and pinned them down on the ground.

Eventually, the Public Security Bureau issued a nationwide notice: "Chongqing idioms are strictly forbidden during the Beijing Olympics."

(Note: the story is not real but the idioms are)

English Signs in China

船到桥头自然直:The boat will become straight when it comes to the bridge

注意安全小心路滑:To take notice of safe. The slippery are very crafty

夫妻肺片:Husband and wife’s lung slice dish

童子鸡:Chicken without sexual life

Monday, August 25, 2008

Thank You, Matthew!

I'm (very pleasantly) surprised to see a nice review of Apologies Forthcoming on the Waiguoren Critic of South China blog. I wonder why Google alert did not bring it to me -- because the blog is in China?

I believe this review is the first one that has appeared in China. As Matthew pointed out, the topic of the Cultural Revolution is still sensitive there. When an entire generation -- a whole nation -- actively participated in something that later became their biggest shame, what could anyone say? This is why today you can only hear "the victim voice," not the participant's, even if the victim had been a participant himself.

Apologies Forthcoming will also be exhibited at the Beijing International Book Fair, September 1-4, 2008, ironically in Tianjing, not Beijing, because of the Olympics. If you happen to be there, you should be able to find the book on a shelf of the Combined Book Exhibit. I would be very curious to see if and how a Chinese publisher would react to the image of the once familiar hand-written enthusiastic slogan shown on the book cover: "Ardently acclaim the publication of the New Year Day Editorial!"

Sunday, August 24, 2008

BBC's James Reynolds on the Closing Ceremony

This one is hilarious: "Sacred ceremony ends Beijing Games"

Olympics Closing Ceremony Live Broadcast

I returned from a week in Kansas last night, in time for this morning’s live broadcast on China’s Olympics channel CCTV5 (through TvAnts). My sister emailed yesterday that her husband, a usually thrifty man, spent 8000 yuan (over $1,000) on the ticket and flew from Haikou to Beijing just to see the closing ceremony. He had wanted to attend the opening ceremony, but was unable to get tickets.

He is sitting in the audience in the Bird’s Nest right now then.

After a dramatic opening ceremony, the closing ceremony seems more subdued, but is still on a grand scale. The count-down to the 8:00 opening was done with fireworks forming numbers in the air above the stadium. The first set of performers ran in wearing red costumes and bicycle helmets. More lighted outfits, red and silver, formed a large bell with two concentric rings. The shape then changed to present different images and the logo of the Beijing Olympics. About 8:18 the flag bearers of 204 countries came in, each accompanied by a Chinese man dressed in white. The Chinese broke off to form the container that welcomed athletes from all the countries.

Only 18 minutes of performance? I hope there’s more. Otherwise my brother-in-law will be deeply disappointed. So will I.

Added at 10:00 am: After an hour of formal procedures including official speeches, the performance did resume at about 9:11 , beginning with "8 minutes of London." After that mostly just singing, giving the feeling of an ordinary performance, kind of uneventful. Perhaps I was too spoiled by the peculiar opening ceremony. The only thing that was a bit different was an opera piece titled "Flame of Love," sung by Domingo and Song Zuying, alternatively in English and Chinese. Not sure what to make of the mixed languages. It didn't particularly touch me.

At 10 am, fireworks went off again -- the end.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Book Review: The New Chinese Empire

by Aaron Gardiner, guest blogger

The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means For The United States by Ross Terrill
Basic Books, 400 pp., $16.95

"Leninism piggybacks on a selectively salvaged autocratic tradition."

Ross Terrill

Ross Terrill first visited China as part of an Australian delegation in 1972, and has been a China scholar pretty much ever since. He has fallen out of favor with the Chinese government, and was expelled from the PRC in 1992 for meeting with democracy activists. The New Chinese Empire is his take on how the Chinese State has developed, and where he thinks it is headed.

In the preface, Terrill writes that only internal Chinese dynamics can reform China in a positive way. I agree, and I think that western people systematically overestimate the impact that outsiders have on Chinese politics. His basic contention is that the Chinese government as we recognize it today will be unable to survive for much longer because it tries to monopolize the "truth" that Chinese people are exposed to. He wisely doesn't make any predictions about when this might happen.

The first couple of chapters (“The Problem of China,” “How the Chinese Imperial State was Formed,” “We are the World”) are very strong, and very readable. Terrill talks about the nature of the Chinese state in history and the influence that the legacy of a powerful, unified state retains in Chinese culture. A few points are worth examining in detail. I find it fascinating that over time the Chinese abandoned the idea of an anthropomorphic god to adopt the impersonal concept of "Heaven". Terrill's explanation of this is very helpful. He also gives several examples to support the idea that the Chinese sense of superiority to foreigners was, and continues to be, explicitly racist (Not, as some Chinese claim, cultural). This had a big impact on the ability of foreigners to identify with Chinese - Westerners are unable to become Chinese, no matter how much they embrace Chinese life. This is quite different from the situation in British India, where many noted Englishmen converted to Islam, or, less often, Hinduism, and "went native" (William Dalrymple's excellent book White Mughals gives a full account of this phenomenon). The flip side to this is the Chinese government's refusal to accept that people of Chinese ancestry can ever be free of obligation to China.

Terrill's take on Falun Gong in the chapter titled "Autocracy's Last Legs" is overly generous; I think the government's persecution of the FLG is heavy-handed, but when the Chinese government says FLG is a millenarian cult with pretensions to political power... Well, from everything I have ever seen of them, the FLG is in fact, a nasty millenarian cult, with pretensions to political power. One needn't look too far back into Chinese history to see how other millenarian cults expressed themselves upon seizing worldly power. Yes, you can argue that other countries have freedom of religion and everything is fine, but I bet if the Mormons had killed 20 million people settling Utah Americans wouldn't be so blase about it. The last big religious awakening in China, the TaiPing Rebellion, managed to throw half the country into anarchy. Terrill deals with this indirectly, conceding that the collapse of the CCP would produce a "confusing array of semipolitical, apocalyptic , and province-level movements emerge." I would say this is a best case scenario, and that the alternatives are mighty frightening.

The middle chapters (“Red Emperor,” “Your Mother is Still Your Mother”) bog down somewhat and don't offer too much insight. One good thing I did take away from them was the "Chinese World Order" as being a euphemism for the Chinese political order, and how this reflects the idea of China as a world unto itself.

The weakest part of Terrill's argument is his take on modern China's foreign relations. China has not, especially in the last two hundred years, been able to sustain alliances with foreign powers. Terrill posits that this is a sign of weakness and inconstancy. I suspect it reflects both racism, and a better understanding of realpolitik than other nations are able to summon. The CCP leadership has made a decision not to commit to alliances; the recent experience of Georgia (And South Vietnam, and the Kurds, and Bosnia, and.... ) suggests that such alliances are not the cure all they might seem. The singular exception is the relationship between China and North Korea, which China likens to the relationship between brothers. I would say North Korea is the retarded brother who keeps stealing food off other's plates and trying to set the house on fire, but China keeps on tolerating it.

New Chinese Empire's bibliography is a horde of great books related to China. An African Student in China, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, Taxing Heaven's Storehouse"… I want them all!

There are lots of interesting points in the book that I haven't mentioned, and despite all my criticism and disagreements, I think it is a very worthwhile book overall. One finishes with a strong impression of the author's love of China and Chinese culture. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Reaction to Liu Xiang's Withdrawal

Yao Ming consoles fallen Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang
Chinese sports fans have been in mourning since the nation's 110-metre hurdling hero Liu hobbled away from his Olympic heat with a foot injury earlier this ...

Sobbing Chinese smash misconceptions of inscrutability - UK
... what it has done to change the world's view of China. The noted anthropologist, who had been discussing the subject that morning on a Chinese TV show, ...

For Chinese, Liu's withdrawal caps rethinking of gold obsession
Xinhua - China
More and more Chinese are taking the attitude of enjoying sports. China is far away from the period when it has to prove its national strength with gold ...

Chinese fans crushed when injury halts Liu Xiang's medal hopes
Seattle Times - United States
On Monday morning Liu bowed out of the competition because of an injury, and Chinese fans immediately felt his pain. Some cried in the stands. ...

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Rich Collection of Chinese Art and Literature

China: 3,000 Years of Art and Literature
Edited by Jason Steuber
Welcome Books, 240 pp., $60.00

A book review by Xujun Eberlein

At the opening of this 10.5" x 14" classy book, fully spread imperial sails shoot across swirling waves on two facing pages. Seeing this famous 17th century painting so closely for the first time, its inconceivable combination of magnificent scale and meticulous detail fascinated me. Having just watched the impressive boat formation made up of thousands of sailors during the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony, I wondered whether Zhang Yimou had copied this painting.

This detail, from the collection of The Palace Museum, is part of the 12 hand-scrolls titled "Emperor Kangxi's Southern Inspection Tour" - 康熙南巡. Led by the Qing Dynasty artist Wang Hui, the entire set took several top artists three years to finish. According to the Chinese Masterpiece Appreciation Dictionary, five of the 12 scrolls are in Beijing's Palace Museum, one in New York's Metropolitan Museum, one in the hand of a Danish collector, with the fate of the remaining five unknown.

These two pages alone make this book worth it. Because I don't have the rights to reprint the particular detail here, I found several other details on-line from the same work, and one of these is shown below to give you a hint:

(You can also go here to see a few more details of "Emperor Kangxi's Southern Inspection Tour" that are not included in the book.)

As I turned the pages, I was (pleasantly) surprised to find the Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo's popular mocking lines, known to the Chinese as the "Poem of Bathing Son":

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister

– from 170 Chinese poems, translated by Arthur Waley

Or in Chinese:

洗儿 ·苏东坡


Su Dongpo's derision of ignorant and stupid court officials, as well as the cynical lamenting of his unfulfilled ambition, appears vividly in the words. This poem reminds me another line of his: “Life’s misery begins with literacy.” This truism, while well drawn from Su Dongpo’s own bumpy life of trepidation, has since become a tag line for many Chinese intellectuals.

Accompanying Su Dongpo's playful "poem," on the opposite page, is a beautiful ink and color painting, a Song Dynasty hanging scroll titled "Children at Play in a Garden" by anonymous, from the art collection of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

Apparently, in Southern Song Dynasty, playing children was a popular subject in paintings. I don't have the rights to reproduce the above work here, but it can certainly compare with a work of the same period's representative artist Su Hanchen (1094 ~ 1172):

Because Su Hanchen did not leave signature on many of his paintings, I dare to say it is possible that "Children at Play in a Garden" is his given the similarity in style.

The juxtaposition of artistic and literary works in this book presents a rare beauty. Not only is each piece of literary work accompanied by a piece of artwork from the same or nearby period, every now and then you will run into a pleasant surprise from a folded inset of exquisite painting opening to several pages.

I have a fair sized collection of English translations of ancient Chinese poetry and prose, but none is like China: 3,000 Years of Art and Literature. "This volume incorporates scholarly translations that have appeared over several centuries," editor Jason Steuber points out. The variation in translation styles is a great joy for a reader like me. I only wish the book had included the Chinese originals to compare with.

Though it contains a large body of ancient writings as early as Shijing (ca. 11th century – 221 BCE), the book also includes excerpts from contemporary writers such as Ba Jin, Mo Yan, Amy Tan, and Gao Xingjian, and the contemporary artworks that go with them are a delightful addition to their exquisite ancient counterparts.

As a further value, the works of art elegantly reproduced in this book come out of museum collections from around the world. Chances are you haven't seen many of them even if you are a frequent museum-goer. For anyone who is interested in Chinese art and literature, this book is a definite collectible.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Book Review: The Coming China Wars

BlogCritics, Xujun Eberlein, Published: August 14, 2008

The Coming China Wars by Peter Navarro is probably one of the most advertised China-related books this year. For weeks it nailed the small Adsense box on my Inside-out China blog (apparently Google did a good job of matchmaking), and I got so tired of seeing it all day everyday that I deleted Adsense. The book thus made my blog ad-free.

The question is whether it is worth the advertising money or a reader's time.

In all fairness, this book does highlight some extremely difficult problems that are facing not just the United States, but the entire world. Resource, especially energy shortages, environmental degradation, the threat of international conflict and widespread poverty and inequality are very real and very serious issues.

It is strange, though, that Navarro would attribute so much of the cause of these to China, given that all of these issues have been pointed out again and again by many people since the original publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972. Certainly at that time nobody was expecting that China would be what Navarro repeatedly calls "the world’s factory floor."

What is true about China, is that it has been remarkably fast in its track to catch up to the United States. Again, at least since 1972, people have asked the question “what would happen if everyone in the world had the consumption habits of the average American?” Now, with the world’s most populous country about ¼ of the way there, perhaps the answer is clearer, and it is certainly frightening. With India, and other countries in Asia, also getting ready to rocket ahead, stopping China in its tracks, as this book admonishes, even if it were possible, is not a good answer.

The world is faced with some real tough times and some very creative solutions are going to be called for. Telling people in China, or any developing nation, to give up getting rich quickly is much like telling American’s to give up 80% of their wealth. It generates anger and outrage, but doesn't accomplish anything. The book recommends a very serious effort by the United States government to deal with energy and environmental issues. That is laudable advice, but the American centric focus is not productive. The things being talked about above are global in nature and no single country can carve out a solution in isolation. There is a strong need to cooperate and share human and information resources. More importantly, and this will be very difficult indeed, huge investment by developed countries into developing countries may be the only viable solution. Unfortunately, the book does not provide any useful suggestions for progress on these issues.

It has always amazed me that the people who are most critical of China are precisely those that don’t seem to be able to break from the one literary form perfected under Communism. The Coming China Wars, with the exception of the last chapter, reads very much like the official texts I recited as a child during the Cultural Revolution. No tarnish or impurities have been introduced in this Made in America diatribe against the horrors of the red enemy in the east. Chapters open with quotations from, usually, respectable people or publications, then continue on in declarations that are not backed by any evidence. Presumably the quotations were imbedded in writings that did contain evidence, but Navarro dispenses with that.

In keeping with this form, little that is said in The Coming China Wars is explicitly false, it is simply somewhat twisted in its logic. If America does something it is good. If China does something it is bad. It matters little what the thing is, or if it is the same thing. I got a real kick out of the statement: "Whereas the United States focuses on ensuring the security of the international oil market, China has adopted a 'bilateral contracting approach' in which it seeks to lock down the physical supplies of the oil-producing countries." That focus on ensuring security is probably not apparent to most people living outside the United States. And of bilateral agreements, it is best not to forget the Shah of Iran and the response to his ousting that brought Saddam Hussein to the forefront.

If you are going to read the book anyway, you'd be better off skipping the first eleven chapters and going straight to the 12th. After struggling through the text, the last chapter seemed like a breath of fresh air, but it is only in comparison to the rest of the book.

What the last chapter contains is a sequence of policy recommendations that, though rather twisted in their presentation, do have some coherency. To save you a little bit of pain, let me summarize them here:
  • Consumers should shy away from products made in China and let retailers and manufacturers know that they are doing this.
  • People should pressure government officials to get serious about dealing with issues related to China.
  • Businesses should diversify manufacturing away from China and increase quality control on products made in China.
  • As a nation the United States should learn to live within its means which means not running a trade or budget deficit.
  • The federal government should
  1. Push for strict adherence to the principles of free trade.
  2. Pass laws making currency manipulation strictly illegal.
  3. Prosecute to the full extent of the law anyone involved in piracy or counterfeiting and closely monitor internet sales of pharmaceuticals.
  4. Increase the inspection of foods and pass laws to increase accountability for any tainted products.
  5. Undertake a massive program to remove the dependence of the US on foreign energy supplies.
  6. Condemn China for its abuse of veto power on the UN Security Council, then remove China as a permanent member of that body.
  7. Increase spending on programs such as the Voice of America and do more diplomatic work abroad.
  8. Agree to strict carbon controls and impose a corresponding carbon tax on all products regardless of country of origin.
  9. Prohibit US companies from working with Chinese authorities to identify internet users.
  10. Pay more attention to Taiwan and pressure China to decrease its nuclear arsenal.
  11. Increase the budget spent on counter espionage.
  12. Increase NASA’s budget and focus funding on private space ventures.
This was not really put forward as a 12 point plan, but all that expanded spending does seem appropriate for a campaign year.
I have, of course, saved the best policy recommendation for last. This actually falls under the heading of what voters should do and it is:
  • "Help spread the word! Give your copy of The Coming China Wars to a friend, or donate your copy to your local library."
And such self-promotion is not out of character with the rest of the book.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On "Fake" Fireworks and Singers

I saw a post on a Chinese immigrant forum yesterday.

At work, someone expressed regret at missing the Olympics opening ceremony's TV coverage. Two American colleagues taunted that he only missed fake firework, adding they "can't believe the Chinese government used fake firework!" Hearing this, the writer of the post, a Chinese immigrant, argued that it wasn't a big deal, the show was beautiful anyway. A wrangle began and the American colleagues went ahead to accuse Chinese killing dogs, that there were protests outside the Bird's Nest, etc. The wrangle then, not surprisingly, progressed to arguing about Tibet and human rights. At one point the Americans said, "Every Chinese says the same thing. That means it's not your own opinion," as if they themselves had their own opinion and had not been echoing the mainstream media.

When I read the CNN report about the prerecorded images of the footprint-shaped fireworks, I didn't feel it was a big deal either. After all, fireworks were indeed lunched at the time, and a counterfeit image is different from a counterfeit event. I agree with some critics that Zhang Yimou needn't be such a perfectionist – so what if some actual fireworks couldn't be captured perfectly on the screen? That shouldn't be a big deal either. But considering his responsibility with such a big event, his over-caution is forgivable. The show is a work of visual art after all; the artist has license to manipulate his objects. Even if you regard the "fake" image as a flaw, to be fair the entire performance is still 瑕不掩瑜 – "one blemish doesn't mar the jade."

But the artist should exercise a lot more caution when extending his creative license to human beings. To "fake" the singing girl is a quite different matter because now it involves a person. And human beings, especially their feelings, can easily get hurt. We Chinese have a saying, 人言可畏 – "people's words are a fearsome thing." First, "the girl in the red dress" at the opening ceremony was hyped by the media and she developed a huge fan base as unsuspecting Chinese netizens cheered everywhere for her. In fact, many of the fans were touched by "her" voice. Then they found out the voice wasn't hers, and felt – rightfully – cheated. With their anger came all kinds of words, fearsome words. How would this sudden change impact 9-year-old Lin Miaoke? Would she feel a thousand-foot fall from honorable performer to cheater? All she did was to follow the arrangements of those respectable adults, in the name of serving the country's honor. Now people, with their fearsome words, are making her feel as if she cheated them.

It seems to me that this is another case of bureaucratic stupidity. The decision to show one girl's face with the other's voice was apparently made by "leaders from the Politburo." But, as you can see from the photo, the actual singer, Yang Peiyi, is a lovely little girl. I would think a girl as young as 7 years old with such a beautiful voice would be even more attractive to the audience. Who cares about her imperfect teeth? What 7-year-old is not changing teeth?

I hope this backfire will teach the stupid politicians something. Sometimes appearance, whether a child's or a country's, is not the most important thing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Watch Live Broadcast of the Olympics

For you sports fans out there: the best way to watch live Chinese coverage of the Beijing Olympics online is to use TvAnts. You can download TvAnts for free here:

The Games are being broadcast on CCTV5 , CCTV1, CCTV2, and CCTV7, each channel covering different events. You can find the broadcast schedule (in Chinese) here:

So far I've found that CCTV5 (the Olympics channel) has the best signal quality.

Olympics Opening Ceremony Torrents

In recent days, many readers have been looking for a replay of the opening ceremony. Now you can have it. Thanks to Paul Armstrong-Taylor in Shanghai, who uploaded a zip file of torrents and sent me the following link:

The zip file contains three torrents: the Chinese CCTV coverage of the opening ceremony, the BBC coverage, and an interesting Chinese documentary called 筑梦2008 from the "Film Bureau State Administration of Radio, Film and TV" (国家广播电 影电视总局) on different aspects to the buildup to the games (Chinese women gymnasts, Bird's Nest security team, etc).

Paul says the BBC coverage "is pretty good (and the sound / picture quality is better in my view). For those looking for an English language version which is not cut, has no commercial breaks and sensible commentary it might be a good choice (at least better than NBC)."

Click the link above and then "Request Download Ticket" to download the torrent(s) of your choice. A word of caution: the two torrents for the opening ceremony are pretty big and will take a long time to download – so consider doing it overnight.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lin Hao and Yao Ming

Some readers expressed interest in knowing more about the small boy, Lin Hao, who paraded with the giant Yao Ming , flagbearer of the China team in the Olympics opening ceremony. In fact I myself was very fond of that cute boy's smartness. There is the story that, at one point during the march, Yao Ming, the tallest athlete in the Chinese team, bent down to tell the boy, "You must eat more, so you can grow tall like me." The boy, surprised by the advice, replied, "I am going to Tsinghua University!"

The tallness of Yao Ming and smallness of Lin Hao indeed provided a delightful contrast, which was exactly Zhang Yimou's intention. Sichuan recommended several children heroes from the earthquake, and Zhang Yimou picked the smallest – and apparently a very smart – boy. The boy was supposed to join the rehearsals during August 1 –5, but somehow arrived at Beijing too late and missed them. So he just walked in for the opening ceremony without any practice, and I have to say his natural, relaxed manner really touched me.

Apparently, there had been a bit of miscommunication between Zhang Yimou and the march-in coordinator who refused to let the little boy in. Zhang Yimou had to have the co-director of the performance to go to the gate and "drag in" Lin Hao.

When the earthquake occurred in May, Lin Hao was a student in a school in one of the most damaged towns – Yingxiu. After the boy escaped from the collapsed classroom building, he went back to rescue two classmates and endured a head wound. In the march-in, the hairless spot on his head was very visible. When interviewers asked what motivated his bravery, Lin Hao said, "I'm the class leader. One can't be a class leader without classmates." Among thirty-plus of his classmates, about ten survived the earthquake, including the two rescued by him.

According to reports, Lin Hao was elected the class leader because his grades were always on top. It looks like the boy does have the chance to fulfill his wish to go to China's best science and engineering school – Tsinghua University.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Drum that Opened the Olympics

In the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, the first performance was 2008 men beating square drums, and chanting up a line by Confucius: "有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎" – Friend came from faraway, how joyful!

While we were watching NBC's belated broadcast Friday evening, Bob asked me if the shape of the drum was real, like a type of those from ancient China. Though the NBC broadcaster had claimed this, I wasn't sure, as I had never heard of a square drum. Afterward I saw a CCTV5 interview with Zhang Yimou, and learned that the drum was meant to be ‘缶’ – pronounced as "fou."

The earliest mention of 缶 as a music instrument is probably in the Book of Songs (诗经), an anthology of ancient poems compiled by Confucius ca. 600 BC. Several Chinese dictionaries cite the original meaning of 缶 as a type of clay pot for holding water or wine, with a small opening and bigger body. In ancient times, when people worked in a pottery shop, they would tap the pot and sing, and such a pot gradually evolved into a drum-like music instrument.

Given this history, it's unlikely the drum in the Olympics opening ceremony replicated the ancient instrument. Zhang Yimou also mentioned in the interview that, when the drummers (who were army volunteers) practiced for the show, they were originally given round drums. The square drum was a later change. Zhang Yimou did not elaborate the reason, but I had the impression it was due to aesthetic considerations.

The performance was indeed impressive, a great joy for the eye. The grand scale formation with resplendent colors appeared to be a combination of Zhang Yimou's artistic taste and a Chinese tradition of craving for the grandiose.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Killing Mars Olympics Opening

Update - Sunday Aug. 10, 8 pm: Chinese police reached the preliminary conclusion that Tang Yongming lost his will to live due to personal adversity, and took his anger out on society, which produced his extreme action.

Saturday morning: I was going to write about the Olympics opening ceremony, which evoked all kinds of reactions from American and Chinese alike, but the news this morning about the stabbing death of an American tourist shocked and deeply saddened me. The killer's motivation is a mystery as attacks on foreigners in Beijing are extremely rare. The attacker's name is 唐永明 (Tang Yongming), and there is speculation by Chinese netizens – someone on has found an internet profile of a man whose name, age and hometown match the attacker's. The profile shows the man as a stock market regular. If this proves to be the same man, then his action might have something to do with the falling stock market in China.

Added at 10 am: now all Chinese posts I saw earlier about this incident have been removed.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Olympics Opening Ceremony Live Broadcast

Like many Chinese who live here, I'm deeply disappointed that the US media does not broadcast the Olympics opening ceremony live. Not being a sports lover, the opening and closing ceremonies are what I'm most interested in. I just don't understand why NBC can't broadcast it live then replay it during prime time.

A few days ago, a smart guy named qiaka, who apparently has been watching China's sports programs for quite some time, posted a set of methods to see live broadcast on-line. The number one recommended method is using TV Ants. I installed TV Ants two days ago and it worked fine. However when I tried to watch CCTV5 this morning, there was no signal. Fortunately CCTV1 is still working, but the signal is very halting, perhaps from too many people trying to watch.

Despite all the problems, I'm watching the opening ceremony right now at 9 am EST. The performance is simply amazing. Because of the poor signal, I will have to watch it again tonight for a more satisfactory effect, but the glimpses of the live show I am getting are quite something.

Added: apparently many readers of NY Times shared my frustration with NBC - see comments under "Live-Blogging the Opening Ceremony."

Thursday, August 7, 2008

In and Out of Christianity with a Chinese Immigrant

by Ji Haidong

Introduction: The
spiritual journey presented in this article is quite representative of what many Chinese immigrants go through. It raises questions on the modern role of religion, and whether churches serve primarily social or spiritual needs. For almost everyone from China, western religions have been unknown, and it is interesting to see how perceptions evolve as that novelty is explored.

I found this article in Chinese, posted in four parts, on I translated parts of this into English with the author's permission. If you can read Chinese, the original posts have more humor and flavor. Too bad certain things always get lost in translation. – Xujun

[In translation]
For a period, from middle school in China till a few years after I came to the US, I held in my subconscious admiration for Christianity. Perhaps this had something to do with the Western world's advancement and the reverence evoked by the Chinese translation of names from religious literature. Sometimes when I was a poseur or dubious or unsure about things, as part of making selfish wishes I would add the words "God bless." In Xiamen University, where I was a undergrad, the library, near to the Chemistry College, had a foreign language reading room on the second floor. There I once read American Presidents' English speeches. When I read the ending line “god bless America,” I felt my heart throb from the appeal of America. (America, like every country in the world, has many good things we can learn from, but also many lessons that we can draw from.) Now, whenever Junior Bush has a chance, he adds "May God continue to bless America." Please note the word "continue," as if America were God's favorite. A few years ago I asked my Swedish wife, in the more democratic, freer Sweden, would leaders say "God bless Sweden" in their speeches? She had a flabbergasted look of incomprehension: "Are you making sense? Such irrelevant fudge would make most citizens laugh to death."

During my undergraduate time at Xiamen University, the feeling of novelty made me turn the pages of a Chinese translation of the Bible, but it did not convert me. In 1997, after receiving my Master's degree in the US, I worked for a consulting company. Through a customer I met a lady from Hong Kong, who – with her husband – was an eager proselytizer. During the 1998 Memorial Day weekend, a few Chinese churches organized a Gospel camp in Indiana, which provided free food and board. They invited me to join. I happened to have time at hand, and was somewhat lonely and bored. That made a few free meals and an opportunity to make friends sound pretty good. In addition, my new Dodge Neon hadn't had a chance to travel far from home.

So I went. Those were okay days. The preachers were mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, while the audience was mainly Mainland Chinese. The attractive things to me were the food to eat and the basketball games to play, plus other outdoor activities and more or less acceptable music. But, of course, more time was spent listening to preaching and "testimonies" proving that God, and the resurrected Jesus, loved and cared for them, and fiddled all kinds of miracles on their torsos. At emotional points, some clapped hands, some sobbed, some said "amen." Any little thing would cause people to pray. The pray was formative – thank the Father in the heaven and his son on the earth; hope you bless this thing we are about to do together. At this point the prayer would insert his or her personal wishes and views, but still say it all in the name of God. Thank my Lord for bringing the strayed sheep Ji Haidong here; then again thank my Lord. Then "amen"; the prayer ends. If the prayer is before a meal, now it's time to pick up your chopsticks. Though I haven't participated in other Gospel camps, my guess is the format is largely identical (perhaps without the chopsticks).

The day before camp finished, a Ph.D. in physics who emigrated from Mainland China joined us. It seemed he had just gotten a theology diploma, now single candle serving the Lord having abandoned science. He was an older man, who spent his youth during the Cultural Revolution. He talked about his experiences and struggles, and the calmness of his soul after converting to Christianity. At times he even choked with sobs. I don't think he was acting, but in retrospect he seemed to have too much self-pity but lacked self-examination, self-renewal, or self-determination.

Anyhow, regardless of race, complexion, nationality, or financial condition, who doesn't have anguish, struggle, and vacillation? Listening to him, I did feel a certain resonance and was somewhat touched. Following his speech was the usual process of showing resolution: those who would accept the unconditional love from Jesus and gain rebirth and eternal life etc., etc. were called on to raise their hands.

I sat there, feeling the gaze from the family who brought me in and the imperceptible influence from the benefits of Christian belief, and I bashfully raised my hand.

Years later I discussed this with my wife and she asked if it was because the unconditional love has so much emotional appeal for me. This makes some sense, but isn't it also true that, to most of us, the love from our parents is unconditional? Have we gotten it wrong somewhere in the way we express love? Isn't it also true that making a person feel shame, guilt, and humiliation are all means of controlling?

After returning from the Gospel camp I often drove to the Chinese church. Though it was a bit far from where I lived, it was good to chat with the others I had met there. I felt that, for most Chinese, belief was due to loneliness and social need, in this sense an alumni association or townsmen association might actually do better than the church.

I was also interested in some local churches but was told not to go to a Catholic Church.

Later we moved, so I joined a Baptist church in northern Chicago, which didn't have many Chinese. This church was more interesting: beside the rostrum was a bathtub. A converted "sinner" was to soak in the bathtub, to wash off sins and live anew. Of course there wouldn't be a pedicure or massage, otherwise its door would be as crowded as a marketplace.

During my visits, I didn't see one person baptized.

I also joined the church's Sunday school. The instructor was quite good. I liked to chat with the black, Philippine, and Latin American members. Objectively speaking, it was beneficial, because communication is always a good thing.

Then we moved again. Where we live now, within 500-meters there are as many as ten churches. Next to our apartment is a small church, each Sunday it offers three services, and every time it is overcrowded, so much so even our car can't park in the church's parking lot. A mega-church, its believers are well-dressed in suits and ties or elegant dresses. Every Wednesday evening members of a study group gathered for discussion. In addition, the church runs a kindergarten, an elementary school, a middle school and a high school, with the priest's wife the principal, to ensure that religious roots are ingrained from a young age.

The priest's voice is as sonorous as a large bell, the tune can linger around the beamed ceiling for three days. Standing on the stage, he talks bombastically, nothing he doesn't know, nothing he can't address. Before preaching he will issue an outline, similar to the handouts for Mao Zedong Thought or Dialectic Materialism classes we had in China, only the content is switched. On the pages of the outline are blank spaces for believers to take notes. By the time he finishes, his face is radiant with red and he is soaked with sweat. He instructs the multitudes to hold up high the flag of Jesus Thought, follow his instructions, and pray the way we Chinese did with our "morning request for instructions" from Mao and "evening reporting" to him everyday during the Cultural Revolution.

Then someone will sing a song, signaling that it is time to give money. Usually a tray is passed around. The Bible says you should contribute 10% of your income. When the tray reaches me I would throw in bills from $3-$10. You don't have to pay, but you might suffer a supercilious glance. Some churches are even equipped with ATM, to put an end to excuses that you forget to bring money with you.

I went to this marvelous church several times, but soon lost interest. After the service, seeing flyers of anti-abortion and unconditional avocation of gun ownership everywhere, my appetite was spoiled. I also went to different churches but found the priests hypocritical. Later I drove to the Baptist Church again, but the feelings had changed.

Gradually I saw some church members' obscenity, selfishness, hypocrisy, and menace: self-righteous, intolerance, fierce attacks of dissenters. There have been men who are a human scourge in the guise of moral authority, and evil people who molest children and rape young girls and boys. Further, history shows no shortage of wars and killings in the name of religion.

So now I’m again an atheist for most of the time. Sometimes I still feel the existence of a higher power or powers that might be taking care of us, but that is only a temporary consolation. George Carlin put it very nicely here in this performance: George Carlin on religion

Though I am an atheist, I firmly support freedom of religion. Whether or not to have a religion, or which religion to choose, is a personal matter. Everyone needs love, care, tolerance, and relief. Religion, at its best, can provide such relief. Many of my friends and family members are Christians or Buddhists. When they gather together for a religion-related activity, I often join them. When touring temples, I light incense to pay respect. Relax, that makes me feel good. I don't mind others trying to convert me either, though I gently decline. In fact I look back with gratitude on the Hong Kong couple who brought me to the Gospel camp, because I can still feel their good intentions.

However supporting religious freedom does not mean supporting all activities that take place under the cover of religion. No need to mention the many cults in America, because we Chinese already have a conspicuous example – the broken wheel cult (Falun Gong). I deeply abhor its ugly performance in the United States. Let me state this clearly – I'm not an "angry youth." But when I see broken wheel's poorly trumped-up propaganda, baseless rumor mongering and slandering in the newspaper and on the TV, it makes me puke. During my last visit to China, I learned that a high school classmate of mine went berserk after joining that cult, and he ended up chopping his wife to death then killed himself. Frankly, I feel the cult members are pitiful and lamentable but also hideous. I wonder where they get so much money to support their filthy activities here.

Returning to the topic of the Bible – there is both cream and dross in it. Speaking of its cream, I like this passage about love very much:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Last but not least, I feel many of my countrymen in China are very ignorant about religion. I think the Chinese textbooks for middle and high schools should include the basics on the world's major religions. That will certainly help the understanding of, and communication with, different cultures, races, and nationalities.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"Imperfect Mates"

The Rap Sheet, August 2, 2008

"Unfortunately, there seems no end to the blithe willingness of publishers to present previously used artwork on the jackets of their new books." Continue reading >>

Tan Dun and Robert Wells on Olympic Music, August 6, 2008

"Both Academy Award winner Tan Dun and world-renowned pianist Robert Wells agree: Beijing's Olympic music must have Chinese tones.

The two composers were on hand on Tuesday to talk about their cooperation and involvement in creating Olympic music to be used for demonstration events and medal ceremonies during the 2008 Summer Games." Continue reading >>

Monday, August 4, 2008

Animal Rights: "A Disease of the Bourgeoisie"?

by Aaron Gardiner, guest blogger

Introduction: There is a story that, on being asked about gay rights, an official spokesman for North Korea replied, "There is no homosexuality in North Korea. It is a disease of the Bourgeoisie."

Actually I just heard this story from Aaron Gardiner, whom I have the pleasure of introducing you to today. Born in Australia, Aaron has lived in China, mostly Beijing, and has also spent times in other parts of Asia. Though we have never met in person, I have gotten to know Aaron in cyberspace, and asked him if he could share something on the cultural differences he perceives between Asia and the West (or whatever collective euphemism includes both the United States and Australia). The topic he chose, animal rights, will likely raise some disagreement among readers, and I would love to hear your views. Please feel free to chime in with a comment. – Xujun

Should we treat animals with dignity and respect? Not just yet.

Despite having lived in China for 5 years, I've retained a "Western" perspective on most issues—with one exception. On this one point, my compatriots and other foreigners regularly lock horns, making me feel, for want of a better phrase, partly Sinocized. Is it geopolitics, perhaps, or poverty reduction? No, the source of so many pained dinner conversations, nasty looks, and canceled second dates is rather more mundane: Animal rights.

Western folk, to a greater or lesser degree, believe animals have rights. They are rarely specific about what these rights are, but they are sure animals have them. Few of the Australians, Americans, or Europeans I went to college with think it is okay to kill gorillas for sport. A sizable minority of them would not think it permissible to kill a gorilla to provide food for people. They empathize with animals. They value animals as contributing something to our environment greater than their immediate utility to humans.

I don't. I feel the same way about gorillas as most Westerners feel about chickens. Dolphins? Yum. Dogs? Can't eat my fill. And don't even get me started on minke whales, the cockroaches of the ocean.

Feminist theorists talk about the "unconscious aspects of privilege". I think this is very much what has happened to Westerners with animals. I can recall being a young boy, loving animals, and believing it was okay to shoot rabbits for food (we have lots of rabbits in Australia) but evil for Americans to shoot black bears for food (so noble, so anthropomorphic). I think this was as aspect of privilege. After I had lived in Hanoi for a year or so, I had become thoroughly alienated from the idea of animals being anything other than property or food - because there was far too much human suffering going on for me to give up any of my concern or empathy for animals.

In Australia, there are, with the exception of Aboriginal folk who live far, far away, no poor people. But when I moved to Hanoi , there were many. People who lived on others' garbage. People who lived in others' garbage. People who didn't live, because they died from medieval diseases that no longer exist in the Western world. These poor people had, and have, no rights. They didn't have property rights; the police would smash and steal whatever vegetables or fruit they tried to sell by the side of the road. They didn't have a right to education; schools cost money and they had none. They most certainly didn't have a right to pride or self-worth; if they could, they sold their children into prostitution for a pittance. So would I, were I hungry enough, and so, very probably, would you.

Having seen all this, and knowing that many parts of the world are far worse places to live than either China or Vietnam , I now get angry that Western people spend so much time and effort trying to improve the lot of animals. It strikes me as profoundly unbalanced. That an enormously wealthy, educated man like Peter Singer would chose to devote himself to raising up the prospects of pigs inflames me with contempt. Who cares about cattle when real people, human beings, are dying like cattle?

You might say: Why can't we have both? But each person has a set amount of time, and a limited amount of energy and money. The opportunity cost of writing a letter denouncing cosmetics companies is not writing a letter to support refugees; doing one is making a conscious decision not to do the other.

Things are changing in China. As people get richer, and the choke hold of the state loosens, my younger Chinese friends have expressed their desire to see animals treated better. One even signed a petition asking the Beijing Zoo to treat its captive animals better - a significant commitment in a country where petitions signing is potentially illegal. But my friends are all Beijingers, and compared to most Chinese people, they are rich.

Gordon Gecko says to Bud Fox in the movie Wall Street, "One thing to remember about WASPs, kid: They love animals; they hate people." If Western people want non-Westerners to be nicer to animals, they should support things that create and spread wealth—for example, free trade and globalization. More global trade equals higher worldwide incomes, which in turn equals greater concern for animals. If it is true, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Krystof says in a recent op-ed piece, that "the tide of history is moving toward the protection of animal rights," it is only because global capitalism and free trade have lifted millions from poverty and enriched people in parts of the world that hitherto had known limited wealth. Once China's per-capita GDP gets high enough, Chinese, like WASPS, may love animals, too.

Friday, August 1, 2008

New Yorker on "Angry Youth"

I don't have time for a long post today, but there is something worth a brief note. Last week's New Yorker published a report by Evan Osnos titled "Angry Youth." This report is evidence that objective reporting about China by a Western journalist is still possible. Osnos also gives very good answers in his on-line responses to reader questions. At one point he says, "In fairness, other foreign writers I know in China profess no agenda beyond an intense curiosity about the place." I wish this were true, however in reality one does not see reporting like his very often.

It is understandable why Tang Jie's generation in Osnos' report adapts a less critical attitude toward their government than, say, people in my generation that are 20 years older. This is largely because the younger generation have benefited visibly from the economic reform during their lifetime. They certainly have a better life than I did when I lived in China, and the improvement relative to their parents is striking. Many of the people Osnos talked to are not yet "standing" (by Confucius' measure), and their views have holes and inconsistencies (whose don't?). Still they are understandable, even reasonable considering where they have come from.

One thing that they stressed again and again was the changes they have seen in terms of freedoms and civil liberties in their lifetime. I am always baffled by the failure of most Western commentators to acknowledge China's progress, economically and politically, during the past two decades. Don't they know such acknowledgment would make their criticisms more easily heard? Or, perhaps, they don't really care about results. To borrow from another writer, they may be just enjoying the sound of their thumbs on the keys.

A minor note: Tang Jie and his friends work hard to seek truth, and for this, despite the many flaws in their thinking, I do respect them. I got a real laugh, however, when Osnos quoted Grace Wang, basically an ignorant young lady, comparing herself with Deng Xiaoping. I am curious to know what Osnos was thinking when he wrote that sentence.