Landscapes shaping people

July 27, 2009

I just started reading River Town, by Peter Hessler, and thought this passage right at the beginning was interesting.

I often heard remarks like this, [that all the women of Fuling had a reputation for being beautiful due to being from an area with both water and mountains, or that people there had bad tempers because it was hot and there were mountains,] and they suggested that the Chinese saw their landscapes differently than outsiders did. I looked at the terraced hills and noticed how the people had changed the earth, taming it into dizzying staircases of rice paddies; but the Chinese looked at the people and saw how they had been shaped by the land.

-Hessler, 6

This reminded me of conversations I’ve had at various points with people from the Midwest. I am from the East Coast (or the Southeast, if you are one of those people who strangely thinks the East Coast only extends as far south as DC, or possibly Virginia,) specifically the piedmont area of North Carolina, and I am very used to being surrounded by hills and trees. In the days when I was frequently having to drive home from Iowa or Michigan during school breaks, I had a definite sense that “home” did not start until I entered the Appalachians and was surrounded by forests again. By contrast, several friends who grew up in the plains stated that they would find it a little scary not to be able to see for miles around. Hills and too many trees would give them claustrophobia. Whereas I found the first description of the plains in the Little House on the Prairie books terrifying and never really understood why they moved out of the Big Woods.

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Life in the Hutong

September 22, 2008

Hutong 2

Central Beijing used to be filled with hutong—single story courtyard homes on narrow lanes. They started in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) but the current structures mostly date from the earlier part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Expansive compounds, where several branches of the same family had multiple courtyards have since been divided and subdivided into small, cramped apartments. The hutong neighborhoods are known for their communities and for their historic architecture.

They’re also known because the Beijing government is using eminent domain and razing large swaths of them in order to build fancy high rises in their quest to become a modern metropolis.

China watchers mourn the loss of Beijing’s old-world charm.

Lonely Planet: China (2008) says:

“Hutong may still be the stamping ground of a quarter of Beijing’s residents, but many are sadly being swept aside in Beijing’s race to manufacture a modern city of white tile high-rises. Marked with white plaques, historic homes are protected, but for many others a way of life hangs precariously in the balance… Old walled courtyards are the building blocks of this delightful world. Many are still lived in and hum with activity. From spring to autumn, men collect outside their gates, drinking beer, playing chess, smoking and chewing the fat. Inside, trees soar aloft, providing shade and a nesting ground for birds.”

It of course, glosses over the extreme (but picturesque!) poverty of the situation: Read the rest of this entry »

More Local China-Tibet Protest News

April 17, 2008

Not to make this blog all East Asia, all the time, but hey, it’s what’s catching my attention right now. It turns out there was a lot more fallout from the local NC protest/counter-protest I mentioned last week. A Chinese undergraduate somehow ended up between the two groups, apparently trying to get them to actually talk to one another rather than just competing over who could yell slogans loudest, and, well, things went downhill for her from there.

Some people posted an account of her actions to the Chinese student and scholar listserv I mentioned before as having organized the counter-protest. Outraged messages followed calling her a traitor. Then people posted her picture… and her name, her Chinese identity card number, her US address and email, her parents home and work addresses in China, a map to their house, and pictures of their front door. One of my colleagues has friends in the student’s hometown, and they called over the weekend to ask what the student had done to get rocks thrown through her parents’ windows. News of this has now made:

Interestingly, the two articles that came out today do not mention at all the event that took place last night, which the NY Times reporter attended sitting next to the threatened student. It was a panel discussion set up to address the contentious issues surrounding Tibet (and to some extent the Olympics as well) in a calm, rational setting. Though seven campus police officers had been arranged for security, the entire thing went very smoothly, with no heckling or interruptions of any kind during the speakers’ presentations, nor during the Q&A. The campus paper has a reasonably good report of the overall points that speakers made here: Panelists Stress Trust, Sincerity.

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Local Olympic Torch Protest Follow-Up

April 10, 2008

Well, I did indeed get to come to work today and find out how the planned pro-Tibet vigil and pro-China counter-protest turned out last night. Both the campus paper and the local paper reported on it. The basic description from the campus paper:

Crowds of upset protesters flooded the Chapel Quadrangle Wednesday evening, interrupting a planned candlelight vigil supporting freedom in Tibet.

Members and supporters of the Duke Human Rights Coalition, led by juniors Daniel Cordero and Adam Weiss, marched from East Campus to West Campus, Tibetan flags in hand, to advocate for the region’s freedom from the People’s Republic of China.

In response, protesters bearing signs and Chinese flags filled the Chapel Quad, expressing patriotism and criticizing Western media through chants and song.

When the pro-Tibet faction arrived outside the Chapel, protesters swarmed them en masse with chanting and shouting.

The pro-China students had recruited compatriots from the two other large universities nearby and had them carpool over. Fortunately, yelling really loudly and in large numbers was as far as things went.

A bit more from the local paper, highlighting the frustrations of the Chinese students:

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Thoughts on Olympic Torch Symbolism

April 9, 2008

At this point, I’m sure everyone has seen or heard news about the Olympic torch relay being interrupted in both London and Paris. In London, a protester even came close to grabbing the torch away from the relay runner. Today, the BBC put up this interesting feature presenting the opinions of one of the London relay runners and of the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, who plan to protest in San Francisco.

An excerpt from the relay runner’s side:

A peaceful protest on the sidelines – fine. But don’t try to stop the torch, because the torch is about more than the Beijing Olympics. It’s about the Olympic spirit and the importance of the Olympics in teaching youth, and teaching the world, what sport can do – how sport can bring people together, how it can overcome suffering, how it has overcome even wars in the past.

It’s a very powerful thing, and trying to stop the torch was trying to stop that message, so that was wrong.

The thing that made me laugh about this is not that I don’t think that’s a fine sentiment, but I had just finished listening to Frank Deford’s somewhat scathing comments on the Olympics on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the contrast with his opening part in particular was kind of funny:

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Mysteries of Modern China

October 16, 2007

Oracle BonesI recently finished reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones. As Jennie noted when she reviewed it on her book blog, Hessler does a remarkable job of not writing yet another “I was a foreigner in Asia” book. He also avoids making it either a book all about him or a book all about impersonal views of contemporary China. Instead, what we get is an excellent blend of his own story, the stories of people he meets, stories from recent history, and stories from ancient history. These smaller stories, which all seem quite disparate at first, get woven skillfully together into a very neat overarching panoramic story at the end, using the mysterious death of one of the first modern oracle bone scholars as the touchstone. And as an added bonus, his writing, as well as his life, is very entertaining, with occasional bursts of wry humor in unexpected places. (See here and here for examples.)

As you can probably tell, I liked it. A lot. It takes a huge amount of work and talent to turn that much information about a country as old and complicated as China into a comprehensible, interesting, and entertaining narrative, accessible to pretty much any audience. What’s more, it underscores my own thoughts on the way history influences culture, which seems particularly revealing in the case of China, where modern history is seen as so separate from the ancient. Hessler draws out how those connections still stand.

While I was reading Oracle Bones, though, I was occasionally struck by a sense of deja vu, as if I’d read that description, or something very like it, before. And then I realized it was from a mystery series I found in the library earlier this year: Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen novels. Now, I don’t know about you, but I love it when I find a series of fiction books that have enough actual facts in them that I can learn something while having fun. This is one of those series. The author, as you can probably tell from his name, isn’t a native English speaker, which gives his writing (while very fluent) a sometimes peculiar flavor, but he does an excellent job making the reader feel like they are in 1990s China with the characters. (Complete with tons of food description, an important Chinese detail.)

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Your Mao T-Shirt Won’t Get You Into Heaven

September 25, 2007

If you stand in the middle of Tian’anmen Square, and listen very, very closely, you can hear Chairman Mao spinning in his glass case.

Because, of course, to listen that closely, you need to tune out the hawkers trying to sell you such things as a watch or lighter featuring Mao’s likeness. (As an added bonus, some lighters play “The East is Red” when you open them.)

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