Friday, January 30, 2015


I'm off for a six-day trip to Beijing! As ever, I don't know if I'll be able to access this blog from there (you might have heard that the government's attack on VPNs came out in the open this week) but I'll do what I can! I'll be back in Shanghai next Thursday evening.

Global Harbor

Global Harbor, Shanghai's newest shopping center, is so big you could live there. Indeed, I quickly got lost. Part Crystal Palace, part Space Station, its endless layers above and below finally remind me of Borges' Library of Babel. Chris Markeresque dinosaur just made sense...

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Last Fall I bought myself a kettle so I could rinse my market-bought vegetables in distilled water. It served me well, and then it broke. The lid wouldn't stay shut. My friend D, who likes to think there's no problem he as a native cannot solve, undertook to get it repaired. We went to a tiny storefront electrician, no luck. I suggested one might just hold the lid down with a bicycle chain, so we went to one of the little stalls that service bicycles, but first D gave the guy a chance to tinker with the kettle, which he did for a good fifteen minutes before declaring, 没办法 nothing to be done. In the end, the bicycle chain solution works just fine - but it took this quixotic excursion for me to think of it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Hilarity at Ehu

And this happened... My friend taking the photos had taken so many selfies at Ehu that, when it came time for our official commemorative pose, he'd run out of battery battery. Or so he said!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tour of the country

My two days tagging along as a delegation from Fudan visited sights in Xiangxi Province at the invitation of a local worthy were enjoyable in all sorts of expected and unexpected ways. (The four day trip was abbreviated because of people's schedules.) Some snaps...
We came by overnight train (11 hrs) in an old Soviet-style sleeping car.
Jiangxi is poor but full of beautiful, nearly wild landscapes.
My suite in a hotel closed for the season but open for our host's friends.
Our first trip was to another of our host's projects, a free range chicken farm in a mountain vale. The languid Chinese lute music provided by occasional transistor radios was drowned out by the fowls' gossip about us - or maybe they sensed that three of them would star in our lunch.
Cultural pride on display in an artisanal highway toll plaza.
The picturesque terraces at Yuyuan are yellow and purple in Spring.

Across the valley, the town of Huangling, which you already know, in mid-transition to becoming a heritage destination. The villagers don't live here anymore, but the basking trays are carefully maintained.
The land here is poor for agriculture but rich in wood.
Inside one of the most impressive houses.
Shrine to an ancient tree; some in the area are 1000+ years old.

Pretty river scene
Shop floor of our host's shoe factory
Rugged mountains
Characteristically opulent meal (giant fish dish yet to arrive)
Gate of Ehu, a school which started its life in the 8th century as a Chan temple. Eight centuries ago it played host to a famous debate involving Zhuxi, one of the founders of Neo-Confucianism.
More of Ehu
Trip home was by bullet train (under 3 hrs). Shangrao's station's is less than a month old (Guangzhou-Shanghai line), so hard of vehicular access and not yet served by my cell phone operator.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Baskin' in Huangling

Greetings from Wuyuan 婺源, which fancies itself "the most beautiful country in China." This old town (called Huangling 篁岭) is pretty fetching, I have to admit - and this picture doesn't show that it faces across the valley a mazelike landscape of terraces. More pictures, and more about the color disks (chilis, pumpkin slices, maize, etc., put out to "bask"), when I get back to Shanghai tomorrow. (Yes, tomorrow: the trip to the country's been truncated. But I think 48 hours will be plenty.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sojourn in the country

I might not be able to post on this blog for the next few days - I'm joining a little caravan of Chinese historians from the institute hosting me here on a little trip into neighboring provinces. I sort of know where
we're going, well, when I insisted, someone drew me this map. I believe our destinations include the charming village where Zhuxi (Chu-Hsi) was born, an old school, and a small sacred Daoist mountain. We'll see!

Saturday, January 24, 2015


My photographer friend L took this picture today at the newly built Tang dynasty 知也禅寺 Zhiye Chan Temple in Songjiang, west of Shanghai. The young folks are my undergrad friend and his girlfriend. Nice shot!

Here are a few of my photos. Guangfulin is a big area with 5000 years of historical artifacts. We were in the "Relic Park," which is just about ready to open as a kind of theme park of Chinese culture, and will offer a Ming-style island along with its Tang temple, old halls of various kinds, commemorative carvings, futuristic museums... Some of its new halls are designed to look like they're submerged, but I was particularly charmed by public lavatories designed to look like a ruined bridge.

Friday, January 23, 2015


Despite being miles from all but my newest friends, I managed to have a very nice birthday indeed! I decided to relax my boycott of Facebook's birthday notifications, and gratefully received cheery one-line greetings from people from every continent and every stage of my life (but for college). Nice to be reminded anew that these not-so-few years have been full ones... And there's one more if you're in China (I'm at the point where Confucius 而知天命 knew the will of heaven!). On the Chinese end I helped a friend who was moving pack some of his limitless hoard of ESL texts, and he hosted a little birthday celebration in his new place - where these "eight treasure rice" 八宝饭 appeared. Thanks, all!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Three begot the ten thousand things

Had one of those wonderful serendipitous experiences which I guess we call yuanfen 缘分 over here. I was due to meet M, the French dancer-anthropologist researching qigong movements in Shanghai, in one of the parks where he conducts his fieldwork, but he had to attend a meeting at the Shanghai Municipal Qigong Research Institute 上海市气功研究所, so I got to see the Institute, and indeed meet the Director and Assistant Director. It was also my first chance to try to explain myself in Chinese. 我的专业是宗教哲学,可是我越来越看起来宗教不是哲学的事儿,比哲学人们得生活是重要,和运动,关系,跟人们意外的事儿的关系。I also said I was here looking for 研究朋友, research friends. I'm not sure it scans... but it seems to have been well-received, whatever it is I actually said. I got an invitation to attend a not-open-to-the-public day of presentations in March.

But that doesn't really describe the magic of what was going on. With M were his Catalunyan wife E (also a dancer) and their five-month-old daughter. E's Chinese is good, M's workable and beautifully accented, mine baby-steps. The Institute folks didn't speak English but the deputy, it suddenly emerged, is fluent in German - he spent two years at hospitals there, the first European country to take qigong seriously as medicine and even to include it in national health insurance. So our conversation swirled around in Chinese, English, occasional volleys of German - and the international language of baby love. At first E translated Chinese-English but eventually we realized we were getting by pretty well without it!

The Institute is 30 this year, and as I came in the Director was just unrolling some congratulatory calligraphy an 85-year-old retired professor had sent them. One was a text from the Zhuangzi, the other, in the glorious script of the most ancient Chinese inscriptions, the opening of chapter 42 of the Daodejing. We visitors marveled. It somehow completed the moment when, a little later, in a book M had been given by some researchers in Hong Kong, I found an English translation of Daodejing 42, and passed it to the Chinese, who puzzled through it with a kind of perplexed delight. It was something like this:

Tao begot one. 
One begot two. 
Two begot three. 
And three begot the Ten Thousand Things. 
The Ten Thousand Things carry yin and embrace yang.

 I have a feeling we're all going to be very good friends!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


My Chinese teacher Susan (the one who laughs with me) has decided that I've made unexpected and sudden progress in my 声调 shengdiao, my tones. Not in recognizing them (that's often still like guessing in a cantron exam for me), but in pronouncing them. If I know what tone I'm pronouncing, I can apparently give it just the right spin! What did I do, she asked? I might have said: you asked me to practice telling a paragraph from a fairy tale, and exaggerated pronunciation seems less contrived here. What I said was: 因为我感冒了!yinwei wo ganmoa le (because I caught a cold). But the real reason, I think, isn't what I did
but what she's been doing. She's taken me systematically through all twelve different combinations of tones - you'll be as appalled as I was to learn that the tones change in combination - composing the materials herself. (Above is an example, third tone followed by second.) After we go through them she records them and sends me the sound files to imitate. I've still got miles to go but I'm in good hands! 多谢,老师!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sensitive but Unclassified

I went to the American Consulate General today to get some new pages for my passport. Chinese visas require a 2-page spread, and I’ve only one left—but another four years on the passport. The receipt for the charge used a phrase which is not a bad fit for what I’m up to here. I work on religion, a “sensitive” subject, but not on any particular tradition or within the bounds of any discipline well established here: Sensitive but Unclassified indeed! Maybe I should add the letters SBU to my name!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Communist youth

Between two churchy things yesterday I happened to find myself on Middle Huaihai Road where a tiny little sign pointed to something called the Communist Youth League Central Authority Site Memorial Hall 青年团中央机关旧址. It was down the classic but unprepossessing alleyway at left and filled with predictable blow-up photos of young prophets and martyrs. The obligatory cut-away building with scenes of actors reenacting historic events was broken. But there was the exciting clay scene of young people forming a human dam above, and the stairwell was graced with a spectacular chandelier.

When I got home, an old high school had posted (on FaceBook) some photos she'd turned up from a Hallowe'en party back in the day (1980, anyone?). I reposted this one on WeChat, to which I'd early posted some images from the Youth League place, with the caption 我也小的时候参加了共产主义青年团 I too was part of a communist youth group when I was young. One friend who posted a delighted response said I sounded quite Chinese - but it turns out he thought it was an image from another diaorama. I guess it does have that classic, faded feel to it...!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

369 days

Rats, I missed the anniversary of my starting Chinese! That happened January 14th last year. Who would have thought I'd come so far? Not that I'm that far. I've started volume 4 of New Practical Chinese, so am roughly where students in intensive college classes are at the start of their fourth semester. Not bad! But conversations remain halting at best. But there are starting to be some... Now, can I write that in pu tong hua?! Let's see.  

上星期四是我开始学习汉语的第一周年纪念,可是我忘记了!是去年一月十四号在纽约的China Institute的。我的进步真的不少。但汉语水平还没有太高。我现在读New Practical Chinese第四篇呢,跟美国很好大学里的第二年第二学期差不多。没不好! 可是跟中国人说话的话我说得还不流利。重要是,那种说话越来越多!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Mind the gape

Attended a seminar on body techniques in contemporary Shanghai today organized by a French dancer-turned-qigong specialist and anthropologist. The talk was at one of the city's countless French culture centers, this one called Campus France. (The doorway at right, a few blocks down the same street, used to say Joyeuses Fêtes.) The talk was in French, too. Well, not officially. But he told us he was deeply interesting in ombodiement (make sure to pronounce die as, well, die), dilating on anozzer way to distang the yuuman andividu. At ziss pwant in his research he's attending to how managing the breeth contributes to heels... The research is actually fascinating, focusing on gapes in transmission in the context of globalization, and surveys a remarkable range of institutional settings where qigong is taught. I'm visiting him at one next Thursday!

Yes, I wrote down those locutions - but as much in humility as amusement. The strange escapades of vowels when some French folks speak English may be the closest thing to what folks like me sound like to Chinese speakers when we mangle our tones. And maybe we are finally understood best by listeners who can hear the first language behind the second...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Beyond belief!

My talk at Shanghai University was a blast. (I almost feel guilty sometimes that I get to have such fun. It was nice to find a brand-new sculpture of deliriously shiny chrome guys just freaking out for joy just off the Shanghai University campus to capture my mood.) 

The talk was entitled "Theater and Ritual: Worlds of "Make-Believe" but theater and ritual turned out to be just part of a larger argument about how we should think about religion in the wake of new research on all the ways religion isn't about "belief." I set up the problem with recent studies of the American religious landscape, ranging from survey ignorance of one's own tradition and moralistic therapeutic deism to the "fake it til you make it" character of practices described by T. M. Luhrmann by way of SBNR and religious "nones." Can we make sense of all this without falling into categories of ignorance and self-delusion? I suggested that "lived religion" responds to these challenges but devoted the talk to my more far-flung experiments with new models: religion and theater, religion and fashion, and the online recipe network model too! (Along the way I also told the story of mizuko in America to give a transnational dimension, attention to ritual, and a reminder that religion engages serious issues - this, too, told as a "bottom up" story.)
Religion winds up being a community of people asking similar questions, testing and trading believable responses (not all or most of them in the form of beliefs), collaborating in various complicated ways as they produced and performed a livable world - you know what I think. The Q&A was illuminating, too. Was my approach Durkheimian? Was I just discussing "folk religion"? Or "civil religion"? Is belief harder than it used to be? What were my students like, and what did were they supposed to get out of the Religion & Theater course? What were my thoughts about the alleged "deprivatization" of religion described by my erstwhile New School colleague José Casanova? And did I think society could survive without religion? I fudged all those questions, of course.

And then, after everyone had left, a young woman in comparative linguist asked: "We know that there is no absolute truth. I sometimes find myself believing something, and also believe the opposite, and I am torn in two. What do you think I should do?" How would you answer that? I first set aside the question of absolute truth, and commended the "fake it til you make it" approach - if there's a community that seems to you to be moving in a promising direction, join it and let it shape you. If you think there is absolute truth, however (and who says there isn't?), this will be harder: what if you chose the wrong tradition? In that case, try to find other people asking the same questions you are. In any case, whatever you do, don't do it alone. Where did that come from?

I can't resist including a picture of a most unusual statue of Isaac Newton the grand boulevard at the center of Shanghai U. What to say?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I'm not the only to one to have got a winter trim!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dream on

I don't think I mentioned that i finished 红楼梦, A Dream of Red Mansions, all two-thousand four-hundred fifty-nine pages of it. (The last volume came with me to Japan.) It's certainly a lot of book! My friend Q, who recommended it, still thinks I need to read it in the original. My friend H, who works in Chinese poetry, was most impressed to hear I'd completed it, then asked, hesitantly: "you read the Hawkes translation of course?" Um, no...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Tea time

Some friends invited me to join them at a "Tibetan tea tasting/ ceremony" in the former French Concession. A tea trader from Sichuan they had met somewhere treated us to a few choice teas (he has 300),
each dispensed in tiny cups over many pourings, each pouring a subtly different experience. It was in a quasi "secret" location tucked away behind a fruit stand. The photo at top is the view out its door.
These little blocks of a compressed Pu Ehr-like tea yielded the cup below, in perhaps its sixth pouring. Enthused the trader as we left (after 2.5 hours): we're only halfway, you could spend five hours with this tea!