Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sunday dinner!

Just over a month from my return stateside I can feel my center of gravity slowly coming dislodged from Shanghai. But I think China's going to be part of the picture for a while, so it was very nice to bring the hallowed Brooklyn tradition of "Sunday dinner" here. Not a lot of dishes and just for two, but a (re)start!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Back to school

After most of a year away from the teaching enterprise (I've missed it!) I am excited that the coming year won't just take me back to my vocation but give me a chance to contribute to an exciting larger pedagogical project. MetroCITI, run by Teacher's College of Columbia University, convenes a year-long seminar annually which brings together liberal arts instructors from different kind of New York city colleges and universities to share experiences, insights, problems, strategies and best practices. And I've been accepted as one of their 2015-16 Fellows! We start team-building with four meetings in mid-July. It makes me happy to think I'm not just returning to The New School, renewed and refreshed though it doubtless is after a markless year, but to this project, too. As you know I care deeply about the ideals of liberal arts education, and have worried that it's being redefined out of existence as a vanity product only for rich schools and their students. Liberal education can't just be for the economic elite, for all of our sakes. But how to teach it, support it, defend it? MetroCITI faces these challenges head-on. I'm really grateful to have a chance to contribute - and learn.

Friday, May 29, 2015


Fudan just celebrated its one hundred tenth anniversary! Why haven't I mentioned it? Well, first because ordinary folk like me weren't invited to the festivities, so I don't even really know what happened, though there were gaggles of alumni about, and at one point I had to share a road with a Rolls Royce. And then, well, it emerged that the anniversary logo was plagiarized, and the anniversary video too (from the University of Tokyo, no less)! I'm not sure it's quite, as one of my friends says, the most humiliating moment in Fudan's history, but it is 也许非常别扭.


Making a final go-through of the room that's been my base most of my time in Shanghai I came across a pile of admission ticket stubs I was keeping in the Fall. Nanjing feels like years ago! (In fact, I was going to go back to that amazing museum... Can I squeeze in a final day-trip?)

Thursday, May 28, 2015


And now for something completely different (and/or because the gods have decreed that no website is complete without pictures of cats): my friend D took me to a cat café in Xujiahui. In a converted apartment on the second floor of a residential tower, seventeen purring cats (and their minders, who make coffee and other drinks) share their space with purring people (who pet them, feed them and take pictures). I played my part: purr, click!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Powerful strings

To celebrate a friend's 30th birthday (many of my friends here are around 30) a group of us went to hear 当今最伟大的弦乐四重奏, the greatest string quartet of our time, which is of course the 70-year-old 鲍罗丁 Borodin! The program went from a worn out-sounding 鲍罗丁 Baoluoding #2 through an electrifying 肖斯塔科维奇 Xiaositakeweiqi #8 to end in the unfamiliar sweetness of 柴可夫斯基 Chaikefuseji’s #2. Surely you've heard of those other Russian greats? The concert took place in the Shanghai Recital Hall, which is a storied place of its own. Once the Nanking Theater, it was renamed and,
in 2003, relocated in an unprecedented feat of civil engineering: raised 3.38 meters it was moved, whole, 66.46 meters across a street to the southeast. Remarkably, its acoustics are said to have improved, too!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

New view

At least in the late afternoon of a sunny late Spring day, the view from my friend X's place is not bad at all. X came early enough to this complex - two years ago! - that he could choose a flat with a view between the rows of towers and even into the distance beyond. (Incidentally none of the towers you see here were open yet then.) I'm a little impressed, but also a little appalled, that I've learned to see some beauty here. How far I've come to be able to take forests of identical residential high-rises for granted as the new urban normal...!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Speaking in tongues

Something big clicked for me in the comparative theology seminar today. Our Korean theologian (theodaoian) Heup-Young Kim reviewed the early christological controversies resulting in the Nicene and Chalcedonian formulations - one nature or two? if two, in what relation? He framed them as efforts to answer the question of the Christ in the often ill-fitting Greek philosophical language which was the "lingua franca" of the early Church. Even as it honors the Fathers' success in transcending the dualism and substantialism of the language they inherited an Asian theology need not embrace these hellenized formulations, he said. In fact, it should not! Asian Christians shouldn't have to give up their own language, let alone take on someone else's!
So far so good, indeed very good. These are ideas I've encountered before, for instance in the claim that Christianity has from the start been a religion in translation, as Lamin Sanneh taught me to see in Whose Religion is Christianity? Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic but the New Testament is in koine Greek. Unlike other religious traditions, Christianity can't assert untranslatability. As you know I've also been intrigued by recent discussions of "multiple religious belonging." But I needed I to be reminded - no, needed to be told - that these are two accounts of the same reality. If Asian Christians are dual belongers for their commitment to articulating Christian truth in their language (the language and what Kim calls its "root metaphors" and his Fudan host Benoît Vermander calls its "lexicon"), no less so are Neoplatonist, Aristotelian, or for that matter Marxist Christians in the West!

Kim's suggestions are rich and provocative; I'll tell you about them some other time. Not so easy to articulate... For now, here's a little taste:

“Toward a Christotao: Christ as the Theanthropocosmic Tao,”
in The Chinese Face of Jesus Christ, Vol. III,  Monumenta Serica Monograph Series
(Institut Monumenta Serica and China-Zentrum Sankt Augustin, 2007), 1457-79, 1473

Kim wouldn't mind my saying: serendipitous pneumatosociocosmic theanthropocosmic trajectory of the Christotao of the crucified and risen T'aeguk, ouch! Of course, nobody said this was going to be easy. The Dao which can be spoken isn't the true Dao after, all: 道可道 非常道,名可名 非常名. Language is being used for and against itself. And we're working with the refraction of multiple languages.

How many? Listening recently to a paper about a course at the Qigong Institute, where what Chinese teachers say about essentially unverbalizable qi  is Englished for predominantly francophone audiences, I thought "this is Shanghai!" But that was just an hors d'oeuvre. Today I was the only native English speaker in a room where a Korean presented his understanding of East Asian and Christian traditions in the English lingua franca of the (North American) inter-religious dialogue to a room of mainly Chinese students, his most important points regularly paraphrased in accented English and Chinese by a French Jesuit, both referring back to Hebrew, Greek, Latin and occasionally - since Kim is after all a Barthian - German.

It's enough, I can hear my friend M (no sympathizer of claims of easy translatability) say, to make my head explode... and we haven't even got to the Trinity yet. Oy. But also: how exciting! As I just learned from my new Chinese textbook (and am doubtless misusing): 别提多有趣了!

Sunday, May 24, 2015


My new Shanghai digs are in the northwest district of 普陀 Putuo (the last was in 杨浦 Yangpu, close to the border to 宝山 Baoshan, in the northeast). A publication of the district office (above) apprised us of the existence of a Yuan-Dynasty Buddhist temple not far from my friend's

place named 真如寺 Zhenru, so we headed off to have a look. Neighborhoods around have been entirely replaced by housing complexes and the nearest landmark is a vast fish market but Zhenru is alive and well. It boasts a 650-year old hall (along with an equally ancient ginkgo tree which has recently produced new branches.
Everything else is, predictably, new - like the ten-storey pagoda, erected in 1999, and the stacked Avalokitesvara and blubbery Maitreya (above right and left). But what a pleasure to visit a functioning Buddhist temple in a less famous part of Shanghai, and how impressive to see the long rosters of supporters. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Virtually uncharted

My friend X's place, my base for the rest of my Shanghai sojourn, is new enough that it's off the map. Well, sort of. Baidu (below), the Chinese Google-substitute, has an up-to-date satellite picture: I've marked our building (number 8) with a red circle. But Baidu has circled where it thinks #99 should be at upper right - because it hasn't registered that the road was extended to the south, with new numbering in the opposite direction! Meanwhile Bing (above, like Google maps) has the street address but hasn't yet recognized there are buildings there...

Friday, May 22, 2015

Good bye, 文化花园!

My generous host, who has let me use her apartment lo these many months, has returned to Shanghai. I'm shifting my center of gravity westward to a newly developed area on the recently opened metro line 13, where I'll be living with my friend X. A new adventure! I'm quite looking forward to scoping out this new neighborhood, testing - consciously and unconsciously - what I think I've learned about how a Chinese city works; X has a bike at the ready for me to use! Though the rental complex near Qilianshannanlu 祁连山南路 is less posh than the slightly faded charm of where I've been saying near Jiangwanzhen 江湾镇, you might even say I'm moving up in the world: after 8 months on a 5th, my final 6 weeks will be on the 10th! I'll still be heading to the Fudan area most days - I suppose it marks me as a Shanghaier that the hour's commute (with two changes) doesn't faze me at all, or is that just New York shining through? (Btw, bought my tic: return to NYC July 1.)

Thursday, May 21, 2015


I've reached my target - finished volume 4 of New Practical Chinese! How disappointing that its final chapter has such dorky readings. One is about the Chinese space program, another about text messages (from the days when sending 30 a month was a lot). But the kicker is this, 公蟹,母蟹和鸡爪: He-crabs, she-crabs and chicken feet. It proceeds from contrasting Chinese and American crab preferences - Americans apparently prefer the male, where Chinese prefer the female - to a rhapsody on win-win international comity, by way of Americans' selling male and female crabs at different prices and exporting chicken feet to a grateful China. 美国人赚了钱很高兴;中国人吃到便宜的鸡爪,也很该醒。既然是大家都高兴的事儿,为什么不多做呢Americans are happy to make money, Chinese are happy to be able to eat chicken feet cheaply; since everyone's so happy why not have more of this kind of thing? 

Is that the best they can do? And what's with the picture of a dove of peace/friendship/development 和平/友好/发展 with faces looking more or less Arab, Indian, European and African? Where's the Chinese? For that matter, where are the dove's feet?!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Upcoming lectures

My time in China is winding down - six more weeks or so? (I've still not bought my ticket home, procrastinating!) But I have three more gigs, at least. Most exciting: On June 11th I'll be lecturing in Yang Huilin's class at Renmin in Beijing (this is a picture someone sent me of his announcing it to his students). Grandest sounding is this one, in not quite a fortnight. The title wasn't my doing; I was told I could talk about whatever I wanted! (I think I'll build on what I talked about at HKU in December.) But the most fun talk, probably, will be this coming Monday, in a Fudan class on Eliade's Sacred and Profane. The students need to hear criticisms of Eliade, the instructor my friend R said, could you talk about that? Can I ever!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Took my American friends to 龙华 Longhua - to the Buddhist temple and the Communist Party Martyrs Cemetery and Memorial Museum. Since my friends happen to be a scholar of religion and a landscape architect interested in memorials, they were as happy, one told me, "as pigs in heaven.“

Monday, May 18, 2015

And yeti

Right at the start of my stay in China I happened on a used book market at the Confucius Temple in Shanghai. I've been kicking myself ever since for not picking up one of the Tintin volumes I found in a stack of illustrated booklets. The little booklets have been available in the several used bookstores I've since found, but never the Tintins. Until Luzhi, one of whose little stalls had what may have been a complete set - including the one I barely dared hope to find, Tintin in Tibet, translated here in 1984 as The mysterious 'snow man'. The original is appeared as a book in 1960, before the West had processed the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The story is about Tintin rescuing his Chinese friend Chang, who was in a plane which crashed in the Himalaya. Vital assistance is offered by yellow hat Tibetan monks. In case you haven't read it, I won't give away the story and tell you how the yeti figures in it. There's more than I could ever have imagined to this, Hergé's favorite of his Tintin volumes, as I learned (where else?) at Wikipedia, including Jungian analysis of Hergé's nightmares of white. But the Chinese, possibly pirated edition (it's clearly redrawn, and often poorly) isn't mentioned. And what to make of the fact that the covers of my two volumes are switched, and the paper inside a bright white - a fake of a fake, prepared precisely for the likes of me today?

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Very pleasant weekend in an idyllic 1400-year-old water town (or canal town) between Shanghai and Suzhou called Luzhi 甪直. This whole region was long trafficked almost entirely by boat - you still see canals big and smal as you drive or train through - and it's nice to be reminded what life will have looked like then. Luzhi's not very touristic (yet, 
though it's trying to become so) and few people stay overnight. The more charming its canals and forty-one bridges after the tourist stalls were closed and children came out to play in the cobbled streets. I stayed with a friend in rooms on a courtyard (with a functioning well!) behind an old school converted into a museum dedicated to books and education (our courtyard is just out the window above) and it was enchanting, a voyage into the past! Today we bused to Suzhou to meet my visiting North American friends, and lost ourselves in the Master of the Nets' Garden. I've been to Suzhou only once before but was struck again by how different its energy is from Shanghai's...

Friday, May 15, 2015


Black and pinto beans doing their magic en route to becoming chilli.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Where it all began

Some good friends from the US were in Shanghai for a super-short visit today (they'll be back very briefly next week). They're interested in religion, history and, especially, monuments and memory so I took them from their Hudek-designed hotel in the former French Concession past the HQ of the TSPM (Three Self Patriotic Movement) to the Bund, including the martrys' monument at its north end with its little museum. On then to Xintiandi, where we experienced the shock of going from the room where the Communist Party had its first meeting, in a museum of "relics," to the the high-end shopping and entertainment center, built of reclaimed shikumen bricks, which envelops them. It was my first time for both museums... the rest of Shanghai makes it hard not to gloss over the eventful 1930s-1980s - the Mao years. Next week we go to Longhua!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fun house mirror

The Korean theologian visiting Fudan observed that Kant is placed above Confucius here, and he's right: where the bust of 孔子 greets people on the 24th floor, on 26 it's 康德.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Job in China

These last weeks have been quite Job-ful (the next too, details anon). After the undergraduate discussion came our faculty seminar, and then on Sunday a friend of mine presented his understanding of the Book of Job to a GLBT Christian group here. My friend's take, while making clever use (see below) of Socrates (苏格拉底 sugeladi!), came to the conventional conclusion that 我们需要学会:神能,在祂凡事都能,当我们信心动摇的时候,要把焦点重新放回到神的身上,留心看祂奇妙的创造,不要跟神争论 What we need to learn is: in God all things are possible, at times when our faith is shaken, we should put the focus back on God, behold his amazing creations, not argue with God.

When it came to choosing a passage for reading together he chose chapter 38, the start of the theophany. I was fresh from our seminar, which didn't touch on the divine speeches much at all - I'd emphasized that most of the book is taken up with the exchanges between Job and his friends, which, readers too quickly gloss over as insignificant. But the ensuing discussion didn't really engage the friends much, either. The force of the story of a man tested and then rewarded for his endurance (with or without explanation, depending how you read it) proved hard to resist. As I mentioned, it seemed that the Chinese church is more likely to see Job as representing a community enduring persecution rather than an individual suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
So, to protest or not to protest? A Chinese professor on Friday told of a Protestant church in Sichuan which appeals to Job in vindication of its own protest (against what she didn't say), as well as of a letter of encouragement from a cardinal to the Catholic bishop of Shanghai, who's been under house arrest for two years, citing (what do you know!) Job 38. A graduate student just returned from study in Germany said she was most taken by Job's "speaking from the bitterness of his soul" (23:1). But the Job in my friend's exposition on Sunday doesn't argue - except with his friends. As the summary of the story above says:

6. Then disaster suddenly befell Job, he lost his fortune and his children, and endured a serious skin disease. Three of his friends heard the news, they came to see him and an argument/debate 辩论 between them and Job ensued; then God in a whirlwind answered Job's questions, and humble Job and fell down before God and confessed his ignorance.

Would he say the friends made Job's ignorance clearer to him, or helped him articulate the questions God answers? I doubt it: his concern is pastoral, and the friends are just part of the set-up. It is from Job's encounter with God that we should learn. It's a little like something one of the Chinese Christian students who came Friday said, something which has stayed with me. Responding to the concern that Job's children are killed, and die without ever learning why, she said: Job is the main witness in the story, not the children. But this doesn't mean they are just props for Job's story. They might have their own book.


Meanwhile, back home...

Monday, May 11, 2015


In the Asian theology class (the first ever on this subject) at our Chinese University this morning, an amusing exchange about Karl Barth's mature thought, which is being related to the Neo-Confucian Yang Wang-Ming


Can you tell the class why Barth's thought changed?


He was a good man!

made me feel a strange delight to be in on this strange conversation...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Haw haw haw

In my Mandarin text (I'm in the penultimate chapter, #49!) we're reading about Chinese medicine. One of the readings tells of a student (Korean) who is persuaded to see a traditional doctor when she gets a stomach upset. He heels her pulse, asks her a few questions, then tells her to pick up some 山楂 shanzha, Chinese hawthorn (or haw) at the market and eat some when she has a chance. She does this, and is soon on the mend, though she wonders that the doctor prescribed no medicine. Of course - you've guessed the punchline already - shanzha is medicine (someone told me early in my stay that I must understand that in China food is medicine), and happens to be just what the doctor ordered for digestion. So that's what that entire aisle of red things at the supermaket is about, where you can shanzha in rolls, disks, sheets, etc.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Suspended animation

At the East-West Art conference in Beijing last month, a young professor from Beijing University called for the use of new media to help Chinese culture throw its weight around culturally. (He he moved beyond the usual complaint that China's cultural influence doesn't measure up to its economic to give specific examples of the disproportionate reach of other East Asian cultures: Chinese men are "entrapped" by the bimbos of Japanese animation, while Chinese women are entrapped by the unnaturally romantic and loyal heroes of Korean television series!) As examples of ways to make Chinese culture compelling to young Chinese people, and presumably non-Chinese, too, he mentioned something in Shanghai I'd meant to go see - and today went to see (in the China Art Museum 中华艺术宫). It's the giant computer-animated presentation of what is sometimes described as China's most famous painting, a Song-dynasty scroll called "Along the River during the Qingming Festival."The original depicts about eight hundred people of all walks of life and in this giant animation, created for the Shanghai EXPO, almost as many walk the streets, work, play, talk... The Beida presenter's slide, which made it look like a giant aquarium, in fact shows (in distorted colors) a further animation: over a four-minute loop the entire scene switches from day to night. A little corny? I wasn't sure what to expect
but found I really liked what I saw, and more the more time I spent there. The nocturnal scene feels a bit like a video game and the whole thing has replaced a kind of poised energeticness for something more like the gentle flowing of a brook (there's a computer-animated stream between viewers and the screens) and four minutes is just long enough to suggest stories without actually letting them unfold: these streets aren't crowded, pulsing with life but sleepy, like a town in the off hours.But, especially after going back to look at the facsimile of the original scroll in the entry hall and then returning to the animated one to check up on details, it was just more and more fun. From the original it's clear that the boat struggling to get under the bridge in the scroll's center is not going to make it, and in the animated version the frantic efforts of sailors are similarly fruitless. On the other hand successes accumulate: camel trains arrive with pleasing regularity, making their way through the city gate before fading tantalizingly into the city as night falls.After watching it through many cycles my friend and I decided we like the opening rural scene best, a simple country house in front of which the animator had imagined three young children playing. (At night they were gone, presumably fast asleep.) So beguiling was this image that I imagined someone becoming so enchanted by this spectacle with its sweet rhythms that he fled the clamor of the contemporary world to live there. Is this, I wonder, what the Beida person wanted? Entrapped! It may not be so far from the effect of much classical Chinese art...