Friday, October 31, 2014


Rainy day! I had to take the bus so I had to brave Shanghai's all-Chinese public transit website. (It worked, tho' that's not quite the route the bus took...)
Later in the day I went with a friend to the 中华艺术宫 China Art Museum, a grandly silly red pile stacked on top of a nice but hard-to-find museum, and the main relic of Expo 2010. When we emerged it was raining cats and dogs. Not a fluke...! On the way home I bought a 雨披, a rain poncho for cyclists. Ready for tomorrow!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

How WeChat

Here's one of the ways 微信 WeChat, China's FB/twitter, works. You invite your Chinese teacher over for dinner and she takes some pictures of your bean chili, as well as of some of the photos you show her on your laptap from last year's Tibet trip. When she gets home she posts them with some flattering words about your prowess as cook and photographer, so you post a half-self-mocking emoticon. She adds a coda: she had no idea an American professor might share her love of snow, highlands and ethnic music; her emoticon weeps with joy. A flurry of emoticons might follow, as well as assorted humorous gifs which express more and less obvious emotions. I've been availing myself of these frequently, since they require less typing (and vocabulary!), but recently had misgivings. Why assume that the gestures suggest the same thing in China as they seem to to me? I asked a friend with whom I'd had a particularly vigorous exchange of silly gifs and he said the whole point was that they were vague. As a social media newbie I don't get that part yet.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Political optimism

Bai Tongdong, the cat-loving professor teaching Pre-Qin Political Philosophy, has an interesting thesis. The context in which Confucianism and other early Chinese philosophies emerged was enough like that of the early modern West - trying to find a social glue and legitimate governance structures in post-feudal "societies of strangers" - that it should be thought of as modern rather than ancient philosophy. It's a clever move which makes Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Han Feizi and the others natural interlocutors for Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke and contemporary political theorists. On his reading the early Confucians are in various ways egalitarian and democratic, thinking that anyone might be good and wise (although in practice few are able to be), and that government exists to serve the needs of the people. A "hybrid" political system that combines democracy with a meritocracy seems in order.The structures of liberal democracy seem ill-suited to discern the common good (my term), which might involve, as Bai points out, non-voters such as past and future generations, foreigners, and the environment. Far-sighted and compassionate government is needed; is democracy the best way to get it? I find myself quite sympathetic with many of his arguments; my line has long been Churchill's "democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others"! But his book has helped me see that there's a big difference between seeing government as a "necessary good" or a "necessary evil," the least bad check of flawed humanity and itself requiring constant vigilance since power corrupts. I sigh with communitarians and dream of the former but my instincts are still with the latter. It's rather fun to see a commitment to democracy as harboring the less optimistic view about human nature!

Tongdong Bai, China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom
 (London and New York: Zed Books, 2012), 66, 79, 81

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

8 week mark

Today's the eight-week anniversary of my arrival in China. That's both a long time and not a very long time. It's amazing how many people I've met in this short time, and downright astonishing how comfortable I feel in "my life in China." On the other hand there's much I haven't yet figured out - like how to get invited exotic places to give talks! One thing that I have determined is that in this English-friendly place I need to be forced to speak Chinese, and so - starting tomorrow (really!) - I've signed up for daily Mandarin lessons at a well-regarded school nearby.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

From the barrel of a gun

The Chinese President recently gave a talk to artists that has been likened grandly to talks by Mao Zedong in 1942: "Socialist literature and art," he said, "must reflect well the people’s wishes" and should be pretty and patriotic; they should foster "correct" views on Chinese history, nationality and culture, and help "clean up undesirable work styles."

In the talk he also singled out two bloggers for praise. Evidently the Chinese bloggosphere's been having a field day shredding the work of one of them, an enthusiastic young nationalist with a penchant for staggering hyperbole in accounts of the wretchedness of life in America, whom they call "cutlassfish Zhou." But as the report on the most recent gun violence in America on the subway news (above) reminds, he needn't try so hard.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


On a clear autumn day I stuck my camera out a window on the 25th floor of Guanghau Tower and look what colors I found! This is looking northwest, and Wenhua Huayuan, the settlement I'm living in, is just visible at the upper left, the pink buildings top the left of the tall light blue one; the curved complex in front of it is Fudan dorms (the tall light blue one is the passport-required foreign students' dorm).You can pretty much see every part of my 10-minute cycle commute here, though my destination is usually the south-facing eighth-floor ICSCC.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Awful languages

There's an essay every American student of German reads (or at least used to read), by Mark Twain, called, "The Awful German Language." Its most quoted words:

My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. ... it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.

I've just learned that there's a comparable essay for Chinese, not as old or quite as witty, but in its way as delightfully discouraging, David Moser's "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard." The author was a graduate student when he wrote it, 5-6 years into intensive study of the language, and found he still couldn't read even a paragraph of a newspaper article without significant dictionary assistance.
Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves "Why in the world am I doing this?" Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say "I've come this far - I can't stop now" will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

We'll see how I fare! Doggedness isn't one of my character traits, but I'm finding learning Chinese, at least for now, a pretty joyful experience. The absurdity of it, well described by Moser, is part of the pleasure... he persisted, too! These essays have, I imagine, two lives - for those who gave up the ridiculous language in a huff, and those who have embraced their inner ridiculousness for continuing with it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Once and future Nanjing?

Wanting to buy something at the Librairie Avant-Garde as they were closing, I grabbed a set of "hand-drawn postcards" of Nanjing. I'm glad I did, and not just because they're quite pretty (and refreshingly Sun Yat-Senless!). Without indicating it, the artist depicts not just present Nanjing - the towers built for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, for instance - but past Nanjings, too. The two impressive pagodas, for instance, are the so-called Porcelain Tower (top, green), built in the 14th century and known as the eighth wonder of the world, and Tongtai Temple (bottom, red), built in 521 CE. The thing, though, is that the former was destroyed in 1856. And the latter? It lasted just 26 years, disappearing in 547 CE! What's it doing here? What is this all about? The presentness of history or its irreality in this shattered city?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


I've returned from my whirlwind tour of Nanjing and find myself at a loss for what to say. So here are pictures from most of the places I went in my very full and exhausting days in the order in which they happened.

You know about all the Sun Yat-Sen business I saw Sunday as I explored Purple Mountain. Did I mention that I got lost between "scenic areas," at one point discovering a forgotten amusement park?
At Linggu Temple happy coexistence of Buddhist and Communist flags
and some memorials for which two dimensions were too few.
Swanky mall in the valley below had a bizarre interreligious sculpture.
That night I got lost in the shopping mall around the Confucius Temple.

On Monday I went to the vast expanse of the Presidential Palace, seat of China's first Republican government, many of whose rooms have
apparently not been disturbed since (more than a little hard to believe).
Before that it was the center of the Taiping Rebellion: throne room!
There are endless pretty courtyards and passages between the.
The extensive gardens are older still.
I haven't seen bamboo in a horzontal trellis like this before. But I was most charmed by this humble view in one of the old stables.In the afternoon I went almost to the end of one of Nanjing's 17 planned metro lines (the rest are already on the map, almost) to the
rather industrial new campus of Nanjing University, to meet a scholar.

Tuesday morning, a moist relief from the muggy heat and poor air of my first two days, took me to the linked islands of Xuanwu Lake, one area festooned with scores of red votive ribbons, anotherwith a misty view of Purple Mountain off in the distance.
Lunch - vegetarian! - was at Jinang Temple, the view of which from atop the ancient city wall is at the very start of this post.
From there I went to meet some French friends, and we took a journey into hell, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial with its vast cavernous museum. This is one of a series of sculptures you pass on your way in. December 13, 1937, Began the inhuman massacre! Unarmed and defenceless civilians, Flee, it implores, the only hope to survive!
A thirteen-year-old carrying his
grandmother who has died in the bombing.

Their hotel was just across the street from a famous bookstore, Librairie Avant-Garde, that occupies a whole underground parking garage.

This morning, finally, I went to the Nanjing Museum, just reopened after a four year expansion, the most impressive one I've seen yet in China. It has treasures from every era, beautifully presented.
Some butterflies found their way to the potted flowers placed out front.
And finally home - here the bullet train arrives at Nanjing South Station.
Scenes from the trip - water and cities to the east, hills to the west.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Sun never sets...

Nanjing has 2500 years of history, often as the center of things, but its current center is Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China. In the buildings around the enormous mausoleum (above) as well as in the Presidential Palace where he briefly held office he is omnipresent in every genre you could ask for. The number of scenes are fixed and rather limited - but in the final hall I saw at the Palace artists had departed from convention and made the religious veneration explicit. I won't bore you with details about these (offered roughly in the order I encountered them), just thank me for not having taken a picture of every one. (No photos permitted within the mausoleum itself.)
And here come the unconventional ones: