In the steps of Marco Polo

10 Nov

Dear readers of this blog, thank you for your visits and comments.

I am now settled back in Melbourne, and my relation to China will become virtual for a while. I’ll be concentrating on developing the Marco Polo Project , a collective translation platform providing access to contemporary Chinese writing in English, French and Spanish. If you’re curious to learn more, visit the Marco Polo Project website.

If you were more interested in travel writing than China, I am also working on a project called ‘Australian Aesthetics‘, exploring Melbourne through text and images.

You can follow my other projects on julienleyre.wordpress.com.

East and West

8 Nov

During my time in Tianjin, I saw quite a lot of Arabic script. Not only on the Yuan bills – Arabic script is used by a few minority languages represented on the Chinese currency – but also on the front of the many Muslim restaurants. Islam is very present in China – with Japanese- and Korean-ness, it may be the most visible sign of contemporary China’s multiculturalism.

From Aaron and my students, I gathered that there is a variety of Chinese muslims: Hui people and Hans who practice Islam (I could never really understand how these two were distinguished), but also Xinjiang ethnic minorities, with distinctive Central Asian features. These were painted as dangerous by most of the people I talked with (the discourse reminded me of how Europeans talk about Roms). Yet Aaron took me to a XinJiang restaurant once for lunch. It was a strikingly exotic experience. For my host, the place was Chinese as much as, to me, a basque, Alsatian or Breton restaurant are French. But the taste of the food and the decoration corresponded much more to my idea of the Middle East. It brought up images of people riding camels across the desert and organising ram-mechouis on the go, before reaching the next oasis.

When I migrated to Australia, Philip and I decided we should somehow connect Paris to Melbourne, and so decided to travel overland all the way to Singapore, last stop on the Eurasian continent before the big southern island. There were three possible roads. The Southern road went via Turkey, Iran, India, and Bangladesh, avoiding China altogether – but the war in Irak made it highly impractical. The Northern one, which we ended up taking for convenience, ran along the Transsiberian, entering China from Harbin or Oulan Bator, then heading south from Beijing. But there was a third one, the ‘silk road’, which from Moscow would take us through Kazhakstan and Xinjiang, before turning south via Lanzhou and ChongChing to Vietnam. The central stretch of this road crossed a zone in-between, in-between Europe and Asia, in-between Islam and Buddhism, in-between what for me then where distinct cultural areas, where China touches the confines of the Islamic world.

‘Oriental’, in English, refers to people from East Asia, somewhat indiscriminately, and derogativly. In French, the word has a different meaning, and is more likely to conjure up images of a Lebanese merchant eating loukoums in front of an Egyptian belly dancer. On my migration trip, I felt I was passing through successive ‘Doorways to the East’ untill, in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, I found myself at a cross-over of the Chinese, Indian and Arabic worlds. But somehow, I became aware of that layering of the Orients as early as Berlin, and throughout my time in China.

The East itself has its Orients. I remember, when I first read the 1001 nights as a kid, feeling a strange fascination for India as imagined from Bagdad. Later, that interest for the ‘East of the East’ took the form of a certain fascination for films featuring travels across Asian countries. But on that migration trip, as I was radically moving myself from Europe to the Antipodes, I became more able to mentally shift across Eurasia, and start thinking of different Wests. As a Mediterranean, of course, I kept repeating how Americans, North Europeans and South Europeans have different spontaneous ways of relating to China, and how this should be articulated more. When I visited the Asian Museum in Singapore, I was confronted with something more radical. The place I’d always known as ‘Middle East’ labelled ‘West Asia’ on a map. The word ‘West’ resonated as much as the word ‘Asia’. That label asserted a unity between what I was now calling ‘the three Orients’ of East, South and ‘West’ Asia. It also, somehow, conflated Europe, America and the Arab world as ‘Western’.

Among Europeans, it’s commonplace to talk of China as ‘the big other’. Yet I remember, from a very early age, how I thought differently. I had a Chinese baby-sitter, DanHan, when I was sevent. She was finishing a PhD in Strasbourg and, during the holidays, she would take a bus back to China. That bus trip had a clear meaning for me then – and still does now. If China’s at the other end of a bus line, no matter how long the trip, it can’t be that radically different from Europe. Riding overland from Paris to Singapore, and exploring aspects of cosmopolitanism in Tianjin and Beijing on this blog were means for me to pursue that arbitrary childhood intuition – the result on my parents choosing a Chinese woman to baby-sit me. I’m not sure, therefore, if I uncovered something real, or only used all my rheorical tools to confirm an hypothesis. The fact is, I am now convinced, there is no radical essence of China to be found, along the coast, or inland. It’s just a big, fascinating country, across Eurasia, this side of the mountains.

ShanZhai

6 Nov

China is famous for making fake stuff – Gucci belts, iphones, or DVDs. ‘ShanZhai’ is the local word for them. I told Aaron I needed a belt and underwear. He took me to TaoBao – a kind of online shopping mall, with a huge range of products at highly discounted price. I bought what I needed, it was cheap, and decent quality. Belt and underwear happen to have a ‘Calvin Klein’ label. They may be fake, or simply last season. The seller had a ‘good reputation’, whatever that means. I simply went for it.

While I was in China, Juliette’s boyfriend was investigating ‘fake’ Apple and IKEA stores for the French news. was just back from Chengdu, where he visited a recently opened ‘fake’ IKEA store. The store sold exactly the same type of furniture as IKEA, it followed exactly the same concept for display, and used the same colour pattern on the logo – the products even had weirdly nordic names with ‘รถ’s and ‘Hrtj’s. Yet the name of the store is not IKEA, nor is it run by IKEA. The other big ‘fake’ retail chain is Apple. Apple only has few ‘real’ stores in China. But you can find a large number of ‘authorised retailers’, as individual shops or inside malls. They sell Apple computers – yet are not officially Apple stores, or so I heard.

This lack of care for intellectual property may be partly what makes China so dynamic: in the age of the internet, to not care about copyright gives a real competitive advantage. That is true of clothes and retail, but it is mostly true for cultural products. DVD stores in Chinese cities generally sell ‘fake DVDs’. But they have a great collection, and offer cheap access to the best of international cinema – which people download anyway. The pirate party, which is becoming an important political player in Sweden and other European countries, would no doubt approve of that business model.

Ultimately, why would anyone buy ‘real’ DVDs, rather than the cheaper fake ones – except for quality control, and the fear of repression. As for the first of those, it may not be an issue. Factories making fake DVDs – I heard – are the same that make the real ones. Is the same true for fashion? In his beautiful Gomorrah, Saviano shows how fake and real Guccis are tailored in the same camorra-run workshops. Ming, my Chinese fashion friend, taught me there were various categories of fake – and said sometimes, category A+ fakes are better than ‘the real thing’.

Making ‘fakes’ gives a competitive edge to an economy, true. But I would like to think of a more metaphysical explanation as to why China specialises in the fake market. In the Western canon, Plato’s Republic is the key reference to understand the relationship between original and copies. In this text – both in the myth of the cavern and, later, in the analysis of art as copy, a hierarchy is established between the essence of the thing, the thing as it exists in the world, and its copies, reflections, or shadows. Benjamin re-articulates this hierarchy when studying artworks in the age of mass production: for him, as for Plato, copying leads to a dilution of substance, a loss of aura.

I wonder, does China share that metaphysics? I do know enough to ask the question, if not give an answer (which you’re welcome to discuss in comments). Maybe, in implicit Chinese metaphysics, copying does not result in any loss of substance? Reflection on Chinese Painting, as far as I know, does not articulate the relationship betweem the object in the world and its two dimensional image. Rather, it insists on how a two dimensional construction on paper can stimulate imagination – in particular through the balance of masses on the scroll, and the suggestive presence of clouds, rocks or waterfalls hiding elements of the landscape from the eye. Maybe the main function of these ‘fake’ objects, like that of a Chinese landscape painting, is to suggest another world, and invite imagination to wander.

Or maybe, these copies must be interpreted with the I-Ching in mind. If everything changes all the time, nothing is substantial. Maybe China does not believe in unchanging truths and essences. And if there is no absolute, if everything is in constant movement, a world of shifting appearances, then – what’s the point of a real Prada bag?

Walls and doors

4 Nov

The main function of most official buildings is to symbolically structure space. Distinguish an inside from an outside, or establish a cosmic centre point.

The main point of focus for tourists in Beijing is a door – Tian An Men, the door of Heavenly Peace – which leads into the – walled in – Forbidden city, under the auspices of late President Mao.

The structure of the Chinese capital is clearly centered on the Forbidden city, the real and symbolic centre of imperial power. Yet, in imperial times, the religious centre of the country was slightly further South, at the Temple of Heaven. Also the forbidden city itself does not have a clear centre point – godly statue, tomb, or the emptiness of an inner shrine. Visiting it is more like a pilgrimage inside a maze, walking by a succession of temples and houses, along courtyards and through doorways, without ever reaching a clear destination, or feeling ‘that’s where it is’.

The Chinese word for China means ‘the Middle Country’. Accordingly (?) the main symbol of the country is not a centre point, but a great wall, marking the limit of that ‘middle ground. That wall, itself, may have served a symbolic function, as much as one of defence: it runs along mountain tops, underlining the natural landscape surrounding China.

The Great Wall is not one continuous piece of masonry, but a scattering of constructions, built at different periods in different places, which make sense as a defence mechanism, but only roughly connect. Even in the core sections, in the Northern section of Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, the wall is not continuous. Sometimes a moutain was high enough to be deemed inpassable, and the wall stops half-way down its slopes.

Walls and doors may the ultimate symbolic monuments of continental cities. Along the coast, in seaports, people are more likely to build up – a lighthouse or a Colossus, to serve as a beacon indicating the safe harbour for incoming ships. The Pearl of the Orient, in Shanghai, may have that symbolic function. And we may monitor the shift of China from a continental to a sea power – if it happens – by following the dominant imagery: walls and temples on a mountain top, or beacons and skyscrapers along waterways.

Or, maybe, the maze like quality of the Forbidden city and the Great Wall will combine with the intricacies of the Chinese natural and artificial river system, and give rise to a specific Chinese space symbolism, adapted to the information age and in line with a a certain national tradition, with no central point of focus – but a network at the core.

East Asia

2 Nov

China has a number of concession cities along the coast: Shanghai, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Macao, Qingdao, Dalian. In simplified Western historiography, these cities were ‘built by Europeans’. And indeed, they often have a significant number of buildings in European style. Yet rather than ‘European enclaves’, these cities should rather be thought of as cosmopolitan hubs where, in a European decor, East Asians were trading among themselves. In any case, this is a true descriptions of today’s Tianjin, where ‘foreigners’ come from Japan and Korea much more so than Europe or America.

According to Francois Gipouloux’ extraordinary book on ‘the Asian Mediterranean’, at their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, Shanghai and Tianjin were cities where Chinese people exchanged goods with the rest of Asia. Europeans benefited from that inter-Asian trade, where they could act as middle-men. But mostly, the European presence and administration benefited Asian merchants (Chinese or Japanese), who settled in the concessions, and controlled their trade empire from there.

Throughout his book, Gipouloux explores the history of the China sea, which he paints as a complex interlacing of commercial trade routes, emporias and diasporas. From the middle of the 19th century, this maritime empire – or china sea system – started revolving around Shanghai. Beijing was the capital of China, Shanghai the capital of the China sea. Hong Kong and Singapore replaced it in this role during the second half of the 20th century, but Shanghai is coming back, and reasserting its position as the capital of that fluid commercial world. Before it, Malacca, Guangzhou or Nagasaki had similar functions. There is a long history of commercial cities cities developing along the coast of the China sea, at the periphery of the big empires, with multicultural Asian diasporas (and a few Europeans). Tianjin falls in that category today. I heard Aaron answering the phone saying ‘moshi moshi’. We often had sushi, Bimbimbap, or ramen.

Since I decided to move to Australia, and adapt to life on the Pacific rim, I’ve been particularly interested in these inter-Asian movements. One crucial ‘haha’ moment came as I watched a Chinese film where one of the character goes to Japan. Dumb as it retrospectively sounds, I remember how radical it was for me to think of a Chinese person moving, or even travelling to Japan. I had never before thought of such inter-Asian travel.

I started collecting a mental list of films set in that East Asian space – a group of Hong Kong men helping a Chinese man escape from Vietnam (A Better Tomorrow III), a couple of Chinese people getting fat in Japan (Love on a Diet), or a Hong Kong woman exploring the original Thai village of a girl she received a cornea graft from (the Eye). I also made a mental list of real life stories – my friend Ming going to Pu Khet with her parents, my host in Nanning talking about her trip to Malaysia, or the groups of Japanese tourists I saw in in Angkor Wat.

And I’m also wondering: is there a place for Australia, among that web of global East Pacific metropolises? Should we start making a mental list of films where Asian characters explore Australia – Main Aur Mrs Khanna, Permanent Residence, or Japanese Story? Should we, as writers, build fiction set in that East Asian sphere, and through the power of fiction, inscribe Australia as a full part of that imaginary space? Or at least, as cultural consumers, be alert to Asian productions where Australia features – and encourage them, as much as we can?

Bu dong

31 Oct

I’ve heard a few foreigners teaching English or French in China say: ‘My students are really dumb. They’re so passive. They never take an initiative.’ After teaching my first classes in China, I realised, indeed, that many students hated inductive hands-on learning methods. I would try to make them guess the meaning of a new word or describe a grammatical rule from an example I gave. Most of them stood silent; some entered a kind of error mode, where they just repeated ‘bu dong, bu dong, bu dong’ – ‘I don’t understand’.

It doesn’t take much to find out, these students were not stupid: they were terrified. Terrified of saying the wrong thing; terrified of guessing meaning, rather than memorizing and repeating. My intuition was confirmed in practice. I decided I would acknowledge their terror – rather than deny it. I strove to create a safe space, by mocking my own approximate Mandarin, and explicitly repeating that, yes, it was terrifying to learn a new language, and guess the meaning of a new word. It worked, I had nodding heads, first, and after a few weeks of extreme psychological cushioning, a class of smart, enthusiastic and funny students. The same who repeated ‘bu dong, bu dong’, were guessing meaning – and often got it right!

They were able, but it was not their spontaneous way of going about it. The Chinese way of learning is based on reproduction and repetition. There is a reason, beyond ideology: how else would you learn the characters? Most languages are transcribed alphabetically: a series of 20 to 30 signs is enough to reproduce all the sounds of the spoken language. Therefore, once a speaker has mastered them – and it’s not very long – they can start writing, and reading, and arguing. Not so with Chinese: each ‘unit of meaning’ – a syllable with a particular tone – corresponds to one character. There is no simple and diret relation between a character and the word it represents. Characters have to be learnt, through repetition and imitation. Before exploring individual thinking, people must go through the long and slow process of learning from the past.

This doesn’t mean Chinese people are incapable of verbal creativity. Chinese has developed sms abbreviations, like the funny ’3q’ – read ‘san kyu’, using the Chinese word for ’3′, ‘san’ – for thank you. But, traditionally at least, personal expression was more about embodying tradition in a particular way, than breaking away with it. The ultimate expression of this would be calligraphy. Calligraphy is an art of self-expression, achieved through the written interpretation of chracters on paper. Expression – the self – is not about making something our of nothing. It is about embodying what you received in a certain way; it is about relating to your own tradition.

Gernet, reflecting on the work of Chinese philosopher Wang Fuzhi, says China is about commentary and slow deformation, when the West is about Debate and frontal opposition. One particular expression of this is how historical writing form an important part of the Chinese canon of Classics – unlike the West, where fiction and philosophy dominate. The Chinese way of reasoning starts from the particular, from what happened, rather than what may be. History matters more than fiction. Is it still the case today? And how much does that inform the ‘Chinese worldview’? Also, how much do we foreigners need to know about Chinese history, before we can really start discussing and debating with Chinese people – rather than repeat ‘bu dong, bu dong’ – I don’t understand China? Comments are welcome!

Last Minute

29 Oct

China is a last minute country. The issue is not so much time keeping – arriving on time – as late arrangements. I wrote about how trains can only be booked a few days in advance. There might be an underlying logic to it. People wouldn’t bother booking them early, anyway. Because everything is constantly shuffled and rescheduled.

For some reason, this is correlated with a state of permanent distraction. People always forget things, or forget to tell you things. Is it the education system? A coping mechanism in such a complex environment ? Or just laziness? In any case, to the outsider, it makes the situation worse.

Coming from a culture where everything is planned in advance, this constant emergency reaction proved extremely tiring – at work in particular. I’ve always thought arranging everything at the last minute was a form of tyranny. To push their agenda, those in power – in private, corporate or public settings – use ‘emergency management’. If something is urgent, there is no time for negotiation and patient discussion. Things have to move, now, and Executive decisions have to be followed.

For some reason, the state of affairs was reminiscent of Paris. And I think I found a key to the French – or Latin – character; why French people are so attracted to Napoleonic ‘strong man’ figures. Why they will prefer to ‘follow Republican rules’, rather than engage in ‘Democratic debate’. Because democracy takes time, and effort, and foreward planning. Whereas you can be lazy all you like when things don’t have to be debated and discussed. You can live the moment fully. Then a wave of emergency comes; and you just obey.

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