Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Few Anecdotes about My Hexagonal Pavilion

On its last day, let me end 2011 with a personal note.  After two laborious years, the hexagonal pavilion (六角亭) Bob and I started in September 2009 is finally finished (actually, I can only take credit for the inspiration, design and quality control; Bob is the one who built it):

To compare, here is a photo of it in the first winter:

From the beginning I racked my wits trying to come up with a good name for the pavilion. After many failed tries, the name arrived without effort. In December 2009, I emailed the above photo to a friend, Wang Yan, in China. He replied:
In translation:
In the Song Dynasty, whenever a pavilion was built, notes were written to record it.  I love such notes as those for "Happy Rain Pavilion," "Huangzhou Pleasure Pavilion," etc, but what I love the most is Su Dongpo's "Notes on the Terrace of Transcendence."
Terrace of Transcendence,  Shandong

I had forgotten all about it: The Terrace of Transcendence (超然台), in Shandong Province, was where the great Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo wrote his eternal verse "Bright Moon, When Was Your Birth" (明月几时有). (Some translate the poem title as "When Will the Moon Be Bright," which is clearly incorrect to me as the poem itself indicates that it was written during a full moon.)

The word "超然," besides "transcendence," can also be translated as "detachment,", "aloof," and so on.  "Transcendence" seems to fit our mood the best and, on reflection, it must be more than coincidence that we live in the area where the 19th century "transcendental movement" originated.  It was sitting by Walden Pond one day in 2010, for example, that Bob wrote his letter of resignation to the company where he had worked for two decades. (Later, when discussing the pavilion name, I asked him, jokingly, what we are transcending, and he said, "The chaos of office politics." In that case, I “transcended” seven years earlier than him, when I quit my job as an algorithm developer with steady income and became a writer with two sleeves of clear wind (两袖清风). :-))

Looking back, my whole life seems to be a struggle between aspiration for some sort of transcendence and failure in achieving it. No matter.  Don't you know a classic Chinese saying, "Though unreachable, my heart longs" ("虽不能至,心向往之")?

Thus we settled on the name for our pavilion:  超然亭, or "The Pavilion of Transcendence."

The last touch to complete the construction requires an engraved plaque, or (bian), with the name inscribed.  I decided to use seal script (篆字) for the inscription, and easily found an on-line generator for the three characters. But the color combination for the background and the characters was a bit difficult to figure out, even with computer simulation.  I asked around for opinions among Chinese friends, but they were as varied as our own.  Alas, one friend convinced us that "only black characters on a wooden background would match the meaning of the words."

I sent the specification for the plaque to my sister and solicited her help to have it made in Shanghai. She took my request seriously.  A few days later, she wrote back (in translation):
At first I thought this would be simple, because on Puxi's Fuzhou Road there are all kinds of culture and art stores that make anything and everything. When I went to the store that made frames for my paintings, however, the wood-master who has worked on this 'culture street' for more than 30 years told me no store makes bian (). 

I didn't believe him, and walked through the entire Fuzhou Road to look. I found several engraving shops that make metal or plexiglass seals.  The workers, all young men in their 20s, had their mouths gasped in the shape of the question mark on hearing the word bian (), clueless as to what kind of thing it is. A nice young man called the storeowner for me. The owner asked, 'What is bian?'  I had no choice but say, 'It is a piece of wood engraved with words.' 'Aha,' he said, 'store sign!' I was speechless.  He then said if I provided a piece of wood he could engrave the words for me, 60 yuan a character.  Well, where do I go to find the wood?  Not to mention the wood for a bian requires certain machine processing.

I called directory information asking where to find a store that makes bian.  The operator was even more amazing. "Bian?" she said, 'you mean shoulder pole (bian dan 扁担)?'

I hadn't thought that Shanghai, the so-called international cosmopolitan center, would be so culturally ignorant.

I searched the internet with no results. An entire day was wasted.
The next day, my sister (who lives in Pudong) went to Puxi again and randomly looked around.  When she almost gave up, she ran into an auction store, above its door hanging an antique plaque with the inscription of "青莲阁," looking cultured.  She ran to the third floor asking if anyone knew where that plaque was made, and everyone thought her absurd. Fortunately she ran into a passerby, Mr. Dai, who said he knew which contractor made the plaque, and he helped to find their phone number. The very kind Mr. Dai also advised her that elm would be the best material for making a bian.

My sister then called the number Mr. Dai gave her, and found a Mr. Shen, who said he wasn't the right person and provided another number. Through that number my sister reached a Ms. Li, who told her to meet at a far place, nearly an hour's subway ride away. It turns out Ms. Li is a Fujian migrant worker in the business of antique imitation. My sister had finally found someone who is not a Shanghaies and knows what a bian is.

And certainly, the bian is made of elm, just as Mr. Dai advised:

I can't wait to hang it up on the pavilion next spring.

Btw, Bob is writing a series of posts on the process of building this beautiful monster.  His first post is already up here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in Shanghai

by Maple, guest blogger,  December 25, 2011

[in translation, 中文原文附后]

At Jing'an Temple in Shanghai
I don't know when it started, but my Chinese countrymen have increasingly lost feeling for traditional festivals and become more and more heated up by Western holidays. Even economic depression and "End of the World" panic can't hold back Shanghai's fervor to welcome Christmas.

At a mall in Shanghai
In a place that always leads the fashion trend and where there is no shortage of foreigners and foreign enterprises, it may not be so strange for some people to take this ride for a bit of fun, but when an entire city collectively goes crazy for a foreign holiday, it is a different matter indeed.  Here is the humility that goes with Christianity—such respect for others' cultures must be an overwhelmingly pleasant surprise to the 0.5% of the population in Shanghai that is foreign. So harmonious.

In Shanghai's Zhengda Square
 Each year, when Christmas approaches, the joyful atmosphere seeps to every corner of the city like overflowing water. When nights fall, the city is ever so gorgeous with lit-up trees, silver flowers and colorful embroideries of light, while Christmas music incessantly drones on. Excited young people dress exquisitely, like flowering branches vying for attention. No matter a big department store or small supermarket, no matter a bank or restaurant, no matter a foreign-invested or domestic enterprise or even a government organization, at every building's door there is a Christmas tree fully decorated with neon lights and bags of  presents. Even small residential enclaves and ordinary hospitals are not spared. So what if you are a Buddhist or Muslim, when you go home or go to the hospital, you get to celebrate Christmas.

In Shanghai's hotel
A while ago there was a joke circulating on the internet: in a contest for the most enigmatic department on the earth, the winner is China's "relevant department" ("有关部门").  I suspect, to place Christmas trees in every corner of Shanghai is the glorious mission of a "relevant department."
In a residential enclave of Shanghai

Perhaps people so exhaust their enjoyment during Christmas, that when it actually comes time for our own spring festival, the reaction from both businesses and the populace is fatigued.  Besides the dull red lanterns, sausage and smoked pork, plus the CCTV Gala Show that gets worse and worse every year, there is nothing else. Compared with people's enthusiasm for Christmas, spring festival no doubt is cast in the shadows.

In Shanghai's supermarket
Nowadays when commenting on something interesting, the Shanghai idiom goes, "That has some tunes" ("老有腔调的").  Is it because we Chinese are so insipid and constrained in nature that our traditional festivals are spent with fewer and fewer tunes?  Otherwise why, when the fun and relaxing foreign holidays such as Halloween, Valentine's Day, and Christmas are introduced,  do we progress from fascination to enthusiastic talk  to glad acceptance?  As to why Halloween involves masks, where Valentine's originated or whose birth Christmas is celebrating, no one cares as long as there are big meals to eat, discount goods to buy and colorful decorations to see.

But let's cut the cackle. On Christmas day, real Christians go to church to hear sermons, sing hymns, and read the Bible. There you will again run into situations between laughter and tears.  At the gate of the following church, for example, a bunch of Henanese sit there begging—

On Christmas Day, beggers at a Shanghai church

Even beggers in Shanghai know today is Christmas. That adds some tunes. They must have their simple logic – merciful Christians probably won't refuse to give charity on this special day.  That is why they deploy the most primitive ruse of bodily suffering:  on a frigid winter day, sitting on icy cement ground, wearing patched clothing and a faint smile, they languidly chant to the church goers: Please do something kind, bosses, please do something kind!

The foreigners pass by unfazed, but how can the fellow Chinese bear it? One digs into his pocket and hands money to a begging woman.  The woman takes the bills and says loudly, Thank you, you the good heart! You really are a living Buddha!

The Good Heart sighs looking up to the heavens, Oh my Lord!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Yang Rebuts Dikötter on Famine Research

[Note:  I don't know either Frank Dikötter or Yang Jisheng, but I have read both China's Great Famine (in English) and Tombstone (in Chinese), two books I'll be reviewing.

For research purposes, I'm intensely interested in finding out whether Mao really said "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill," and if he did, in what context.  According to Dikötter, Mao made the speech on March 25, 1959, in a secret meeting in Shanghai, but the source Dikötter cites in his book is "Gansu" – Gansu's provincial archive. If Dikötter can show us the complete speech of Mao that contains those words, or the complete context if they are words attributed to Mao by someone else, that would be a great help to all researchers of the subject. – Xujun]

Update:  my review for both books has been published in LA Review of Books in January 2012:  "The Teacher of the Future"

In Response to Mr. Dikötter's Comments on Tombstone

by Yang Jisheng 
Independent Chinese Pen Center, November 16, 2011

[In translation]

Not long ago, when I heard that Mr. Dikötter's book on China's great famine had been published, I was very happy: with one more comrade researching China's great famine, I felt in my heart the consolation of not being alone. Later, when I heard his book had received an award, I was again very happy, for our research field had attracted serious attention from international academic circles.

I got to know Dikötter in 2007.  I was visiting the Chinese University of Hong Kong, mainly to make use of its various chorographic resources for my final proofreading and correction of the Tombstone manuscript. Beijing’s Library on Wenjin Street also has chorographies, but does not allow open-shelf reading; one has to check out a single book a time to read, which is very inconvenient. 

One day perhaps in May 2007, through the introduction of Prof. Cao Shuji of Shanghai Jiaotong University, Dikötter found me at CUHK. I told him about my research.  He said, "You study about death; I study about survival."  I thought his angle was original.  We also discussed the number of [starvation] deaths. I said 36 million is only an approximate number; it is impossible to find an accurate count. Later I gave a talk at a lunch meeting on China's great famine; I remember Mr. Dikötter was also there.

Tombstone was published in May 2008 in Hong Kong by Cosmos Books, and it triggered unexpectedly strong reaction.  Sometime later, probably in 2009, Dikötter's assistant Ms. Zhou Xun visited me in Beijing. I gave her some information and methods for gathering famine data.  I half joked, "With your Chinese face and pure Sichuan dialect, maybe you could sneak into Sichuan's Provincial archives!" 

I have not read Mr. Dikötter's book (note: Mao's Great Famine has not been translated into Chinese – Xujun), and can't make comments except to congratulate. But I'll have to say a few words in response to his comments on Tombstone. I read his comments from the October 30, 2011 issue of Asia Weekly.  This is an influential journal; if I don't provide a bit of the necessary response, it will be difficult to clear up its many readers' misunderstanding of Tombstone.  A few things are discussed in what follows.

1.  Mr. Dikötter speaks of the causes of the Great Famine: "This is a system or structure issue, not that of a certain person.  That's the biggest difference between my book and Yang Jisheng's."  Anyone who read Tombstone knows that, from the introduction through every chapter, the book talks about the system issue; it never says the cause for the great famine was the problem of "a certain person." In addition, Chapter 26 focuses on analyzing systematic causes of the famine, and Chapter 27 explores the theoretic roots of the system. I always think that, to inculpate Mao Zedong alone for all China's problems in the 30 years before Reform, such as anti-rightists, the great famine, and the Cultural Revolution, is contrary to historical facts, and is superficial.

2. Mr. Dikötter says, "He [Yang Jisheng] writes Mao Zedong as very bad, the Communist Party as very good."  Tombstone neither says "Mao Zedong is very bad" nor "the Communist Party is very good," of course it does not say Mao is good either.  Not only are there no such words, but also no such meaning, in my book.  Readers who have read Tombstone must think Mr. Dikötter remembered wrong.  Tombstone just objectively writes the historical course as it occurred. When writing about several leaders of the Party central, the book does not give any evaluation of "good" or "bad," because that kind of simplified evaluation is not scholarly thinking, and is not scientific.  Especially for such a large-scale catastrophe as the great famine, the roots are in the system, it can't be the consequence of whether a certain person is "good" or "bad."

Speaking of Mao Zedong, I will have to point out, one piece of information Dikötter introduced to prove "Mao Zedong is bad" is not reliable. Dikötter quotes Mao as saying "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill." Based on my many years of research on the great famine and Mao Zedong, I am positive that Mao did not say such words.

3. "He [Yang Jisheng] says Zhou Enlai is wonderful, Liu Shaoqi is wonderful, Deng Xiaoping is wonderful; as such this cuts apart the history of the relationship between Mao Zedong and the Party."  Readers of Tombstone can testify, my book absolutely does not have any such words as Dikötter says it has. Not even a hint of such. Tombstone only states historical facts and the systematic systemic causes that made them happen; it does not evaluate credits and faults of any particular leader. In addition to describing Mao's words and behavior, Tombstone especially spends many pages describing Liu Shaoqi's speeches during the Great Leap Forward, and then states: "When I list here a series of speeches by Liu Shaoqi that led to the 'Five Winds,' it is not to say that the source of the 'Five Winds' was Liu. It is also not to reduce Mao's responsibility; rather it is to illustrate that, after the criticism of 'countering rash advance,' the majority of the then Party leadership was in keeping with Mao’s attitudes and was supportive of Mao. Among them, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai were in tune with Mao; sometimes they even spoke more radically than Mao."

4. Dikötter says, "On the so-called three-year natural disasters, in fact there weren't big natural disasters." In fact, it is not that there weren't big natural disasters.  There were natural disasters. To research the impact of the natural disasters on farm crops, I went to the National Meteorological Administration five times to gather information and seek advice from meteorological experts.  My conclusion: "Natural disasters occur every year; those three years were normal years. The cause of the Great Famine was a man-made disaster."

5. Dikötter says, "His [Yang's] book rather emphasizes on how many deaths occurred in which province, which place. To use a not very appropriate word,  I feel that's a bit stupid (无聊)." 
Dikötter calls my research on each province's death numbers "stupid"; to this criticism I would rather not respond. Readers please make your own conclusion. But I do want to make clear that, for this "stupid" thing, I indeed expended great efforts. For example, I sought advice from many demographers, and had in-depth discussions with them. I collected nearly all foreign and Chinese demographers' research data on China's famine death figures, studied their methods, and analyzed their calculation results. Further, I hand-copied each province's relevant data, book by book, from the 30 books of  Population of China, drew up tables to organize the data,  and then calculated the data province by province.  Each day, I calculated the data after work; one evening was enough for only one province. Why did I devote such big efforts in such a "stupid" thing? I treasure life. Behind every figure is an array of lives from birth to death.

6. Dikötter said many times that, his biggest discover is that besides starvation deaths, many people were beaten to death.  Is this his new finding?  Readers of Tombstone know this well, readers of Ms. Qiao Peihua's Xinyang Incident know this well, too. Both books described many cases of peasants being beaten to death.  Tombstone was published three years earlier than Mr. Dikötter's book.  Xinyang Incident was published over a year earlier than Mr. Dikötter's book.

7. Mr. Dikötter said many times that China's archives are now opened, he visited China's inland archives and read over a thousand documents relating to the great famine, and said his book is based on the archive materials.  I went to 10+ Provincial Archive Establishments as well as the Central Archive, hand-copied and Xeroxed several thousand original documents; the hardship I experienced is unspeakable. I had the status of Xinhua Agency's senior reporter, and the help from many high-ranking friends, and still I ran into lots of trouble and setbacks; some provinces did not let me in. … As far as I know, China's famine archive is not opened. Some Archive Establishments opened other files, but those related to the famine have a small rectangular stamp on them with the word "restricted", and reading is not allowed. Mr. Dikötter is a foreigner with distinctive exterior and language, who'd have thought he could access over a thousand files of the famine archives!  There must be some tricks.  If he could tell of his experience, it would be a great help to all scholars of China.

Yang Jisheng, October 28, 2011

(Update: Thanks to  Joshua Rosenzweig for pointing out that Mao's Great Famine has been translated into Chinese  – Xujun)

(Update 2: My review for both books has been published in LA Review of Books in January 2012:  "The Teacher of the Future"   – Xujun)