Ming + Bauhaus: Tan Dun’s Water Heavens

zhu(Zhujiajiao village. Credit: Alexandru Velcea)

Composer Tan Dun: Raised in rural Hunan, rusticated by the Cultural Revolution. Joined a traveling Peking Opera as a teen. Eventually, Columbia fellowship and prominence in atonal music. Today he’s avant-garde and massively popular (Grammy; Oscar for “Crouching Tiger” score). We heard an astonishing Tan Dun piece recently by the Shanghai String Quartet. Wildly varied and dramatic, noisy shamanistic ritual cries and bangs from the sounds of his childhood. Last week, his”Water Heavens,” for strings, vocals and water, opened at a new venue–called Water Heavens, too–built for him.

It incorporates monks’ normal evening chants (at a monastery on the opposite riverbank) and musicians splashing in the canal water. It’s in ‘water village’ Zhujiajiao (photo above), one of the canal- and riverside towns on the outskirts of near Shanghai, along the Qingpu River’s path to the sea–insanely beautiful, well-preserved, highly touristed, miraculously intact.

The space began as a Ming-era house. Add a “lower story reminiscent of an industrial space fashioned after German Bauhaus style… The stage is partly submerged in water, and as musicians rock their bodies and move their feet while they play, the sound of splashing water becomes part of the performance” (Shanghai Daily.com ). The river itself flows into, through, and out of the hall, which becomes another instrument.

water palace

Credit: Tandun.com

“The combination of the Chinese Ming house and German Bauhaus styles, as well as the contrasting sounds of water, iron and other natural elements, completes my architectural music wonderland,” Tan told Shanghai Daily reporter Zhang Qian.

Tan Dun’s major works include operas (“Marco Polo,””Nine Songs” –with 50 original ceramic instruments created for the piece), the Beijing Olympics ceremonies music, and a symphony for the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong using tomb bells cast about 2,500 years ago. Theatrical, often watery, combining Western canonical and Henanese folk. The sounds of nature, a Taoist influence. China’s reanimation of extinguished religious life is subtle (hiking holy mountains for “exercise”; secret often Korean Christian missionary potlucks, popular among youth) but it’s there.

“My ultimate goal for Water Heavens,” he said of the piece, which has scheduled an open-ended run, “is to create a space where music can be seen and the architecture can be heard.”

(The architects were from Japan’s Isozaki Studio, with offices in Beijing and Barcelona.)

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US-China Cooperation: Restoring Qianlong’s Secret Garden

Thirty women, China’s best embroiderers, in Nanjing, worked for one year to embroider the richly brocaded upholstery. Papermakers, working with a traditional and especially tough pulp from the mulberry tree, recreated the paper strong enough to support the Italian trompe l’oeil ceiling painting, from their papermaking studio in rural Anhui. Bamboo craft masters, recruited after a national search, prepared inner skin bamboo carving and bamboo thread marquetry with their grandparents’ tools. During the Cultural Revolution, many of these craftsmen’s parents, or grandparents, had their tools smashed. Some buried them and they survived. Many tools had been handed down for generations.

They chosen to were repair the emperor’s secret garden, Juanqinzhai. (The book🙂

juanqinzhai book

I learned about the project from a lovely documentary, The Emperor’s Secret Garden (by Mandy Chang and Zhou Bing, 2010, BSkyB Masterpiece productions). The Qianlong Emperor, who ruled around the American Revolution, was the richest and most powerful man on earth. As a highly cultured man, Qianlong wrote calligraphy, and we actually saw his handiwork on auction in NY a few months ago:

At Sotheby's Chinese calligraphy auction, NYC, Spring 2014

My son and I pretending we could afford Sotheby’s Chinese calligraphy on auction, NYC, Spring 2014. A few of Qianlong’s panels were set to fetch half a million dollars.

Qianlong, already living in earth’s largest palace, having sucked (as emperors do) the continent’s wealth, commissioned a secret garden where he envisioned retreating for a fashionable, scholar-monk-style retirement: 27 buildings, grottos and rockeries, a garden, and interiors of textile, friezes and woodwork, silk brocade so delicate it’s transparent, woven on looms 2 storeys high; a level of craftsmanship that blows the mind. Somehow, the retreat was locked up, and discovered dusty and crumbling in the early 2000s. It had been undisturbed since the 1700s. As WMF explains, it sparked one of the most awe-inspiring international  restoration projects ever.

From the World Monuments Fund slideshow on the project: A painting of the garden complex itself, and of one mural, of the royal family:

the emperors garden painting

wood panel showing royal family

The work was part of Forbidden City’s first international collaboration — and China’s first large-scale interior conservation project. The effort became a lab, and a classroom for training a young generation of Chinese conservators. But first, restoring the emperor’s secret garden required searching for what had  nearly disappeared: highly skilled traditional craftsmen and women.

Together with architects, engineers, scientists, archaeologists and curators, conservators and conservation scientists, helped by the World Monuments Fund, the hideaway was restored. Cultural heritage was strengthened. Traditional craftspeople fired up their shops. And the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing created, through Jinqinzhai, China’s first degree program in interior conservation. Which means preservation according to international standards, can begin to take hold here.


To see, as we have, the scale of destruction (even to this day) of the treasures scattered across mainland China is to understand what a huge big deal it is. The project also forged new levels of cooperation and trust between U.S. and China preservationists, a positive part of this emerging, fraught relationship. I expect it won’t be the last: Large sections of the Forbidden City are still in disrepair.

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

If you’re in China, you can go and visit, though the rooms open only part of the time.

Heritage, Rangoon

from The Economist. Downtown Yangon's heritage, a unique architectural legacy & identity downtown in need of preservation after years of isolation, now threatened by rapid economic boom

from The Economist. Downtown Yangon’s architectural legacy & identity downtown need preservation after years of isolation, & threat now from boom times

I’d like to go to Burma. Soon. Thant Myint-U, Burmese hero-in-the-making, grandson of the former UN Secretary General, a handsome youngish Oxford-trained historian-turned-preservationist, spoke in NY a while back. He described the ongoing battle in Rangoon (Yangon) to save the city’s beautiful heart: uniquely Burmese colonial architecture. He founded the NGO Yangon Heritage Trust.

In the 1700s, Yangon was the king’s port. The earliest known map, from before the  British annexation in the 1800s, shows Rangoon highly cosmopolitan: home to a globe’s worth of houses of worship: Armenian churches, Roman Catholic Cathedrals, Baptist and Methodist churches, over a dozen Sunni and Shia mosques, Hindu, Parsi and Sikh temples, Jewish synagogues, and of course Buddhist shrines. Jews made up  1/20 of the population. Solomon’s Mineral Water Depot appeared in his slide show.

Colonial conquest: the British extending / defending the occupation of India. I’m not clear on how much of this was voluntary and how much was forcible relocation/slavery but Rangoon soon became Indian-majority. BP annexed Burma Oil. There’s much history to Yangon…Pablo Neruda lived there. Home of Tiger Balm. From 1948-1962, a short-lived democracy; Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, assassinated in 1947, was central to that period in history, before the military coup. Fast forward to the junta’s last days…the city was overtaken, Thant said, by a cheap-building boom in the 1990s that began destroying the 4,000 buildings with historical value. In the city center, dozens of wooden mansions and stone banks, often crumbling or full of  poor families – or owned, all these years, by the Army. None had been renovated in 70 years, leading to dangerous conditions for the many families crammed into them. A chintzy glass-mirrored tower now sits beside a block-long favorite turn-of-the-century department store. The city-center architecture that matters are in some cases European buildings, Chinese, and some uniquely Burmese.

Today, with market liberalized, a car boom is underway, and road expansion is helping drive the destruction, to accommodate cars. narrowing sidewalks are destroying a vibrant street life. These are Jane Jacobs-type issues, Beijing issues where the battle was mostly lost decades ago.

Japan bears a bit of blame, as it’s helped update infrastructure (sewage, transport) and as its multinationals & banks have stepped in, preservation was on no one’s agenda.

Today YHT is involve din advocacy at the highest levels with the president & top ministers, surveying and inventorying, leading tours, actual building restoration, and city planning, including training Burmese in preservation and planning, overseas. They have managed by force of will and lobbying to stop further demolition, saving a few dozen buildings. They’re trying to save the view of the great ancient pagodas, green space, and the waterfront. Standing in their way: developers who bribe. Small homeowners who are poor, who could sell for $50 million to developers…and why shouldn’t they, really? One lynchpin will be arranging land swaps elsewhere, if a preservation zone is established, or letting them move back in after restoration. That’s the so-called ‘human fabric’ that’s slowly gone missing, displaced as Beijing’s surviving hutong became uber-gentrified.

Rangoon also has fragmented & contested building ownership. Lack of development guidelines. The government’s own multi-billion dollar real estate portfolio of crumbling, empty structures is a lot to dispose of. There’s even a lack of craftspeople in the old building trades for repairs.

pagoda view rangoon

YHT is tackling all this with a total budget of $200,000 a year. To learn more, visit the website of the Trust: From them: “Yangon boasts one of the most spectacular and diverse urban landscapes… The city retains one of the most complete ensembles of colonial architecture in the world and is endowed with splendid parks and lakes. Long the centre of Myanmar’s political, economic and cultural life, Yangon has played a critical role in the country’s history.  It was in Yangon that the Myanmar people first become ‘modern’ and interacted with the world and it was through this process of exchange that Yangon’s history became internationally linked to the history. Visitors from Mahatma Gandhi to Graham Greene travelled to Yangon alongside an array of historical figures, from the last emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. These layers of history are still evident in the architectural legacies of the city.

Today, Yangon’s built heritage is at risk from decades of neglect and, more pressingly, a new wave of intense pressure for rapid urban development. An immediate need exists for a comprehensive urban plan that integrates Yangon’s existing urban fabric with the needs of a rapidly developing city. Century-old buildings in the downtown area are being demolished with alarming speed. As new structures rise without a regulatory vision, intact architectural blocks and iconic views of the Shwedagon Pagoda are being lost. It was to address this growing concern that Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) was founded in March 2012 by Dr Thant Myint-U and a group of like-minded architects, business people, historians, and others dedicated to preserving the city’s unique architectural legacy.”



Tiny Travelogue, Israel-Palestine

Thank you, whoever you are, we are getting 50, 100 hits a day. Who are you all? Send us notes! Thanks so much for reading!!

I’ve run out of words during this latest Israel-Gaza war. I’ve said the same thing for 33 years. Here instead is a tiny visual travelogue, from Turkish sultans battling Crusaders in the Middle Ages to Brits carting off Egypt’s patrimony, to Palestinian painter. I don’t know if he’s Gazan but I first saw his work in a cultural center there.

The Belzoni head removal pretty much needs no commentary. For China heads, the incredibly cosmopolitan ‘Persian’ miniature painting (maybe not this one but many) visibly integrate Chinese elements, particularly in depictions of nature (swirling clouds, steep mountains, shapely trees).

Hunername Vol I. "Night attack of Sultan Bayezid I on the crusaders besieging the fortress of Nigbolu in 1396." (Topkapi Saray Museum library)

Hunername Vol I. “Night attack of Sultan Bayezid I on the crusaders besieging the fortress of Nigbolu in 1396.” (Topkapi Saray Museum library)

Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) Head of a colossal Egyptian statue being removed for shipment to the British Museum. Hand colored lithograph 14" x 21". 1822. Oriental Division (c) the New York Public Library.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) Head of a colossal Egyptian statue being removed for shipment to the British Museum. Hand colored lithograph 14″ x 21″. 1822. Oriental Division (c) the New York Public Library.

Sliman Mansour – the contemporary Palestinian artist of liberation – it’s worth inhabiting his eyes for a few moments.

Sliman Mansour: Palestinian Life and Culture

Sliman Mansour: Palestinian Life and Culture

To complete the tiny journey, Fink’s, which is no longer there on King George Avenue in Jerusalem (it closed in 2006: “This intimate, exclusive restaurant was one of the most prestigious dining addresses in Jerusalem.”) i lived nearby in ’92. “One of the best bars in the world. (Newsweek). Golda had a reserved seat. No more goulash in this wonderfully atmospheric, legendary, sexy European hideout.

Fink's Bar - Restaurant, King George Ave., Jerusalem Israel

Fink’s Bar – Restaurant, King George Ave., Jerusalem Israel

The wildly improbable, world changing creation of a state of Israel for we people of the Biblical land, nonetheless can’t be separated from the larger context of colonial conquest. Those hiding from missiles in a tunnel, that’s no matter to you now. So be safe in there. And for the innocents going through a slaughter we can hardly imagine, here’s all I’ve got. Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, recipient ot Charity Navigator’s highest 4-star rating, founded by a friend & run on a shoestring. PCRF organizes and runs hundreds of volunteer surgical missions from all over the world to Palestine and Lebanon’s camps, providing children with free care and local medical personnel with free training. It arranges medical care all over the world for sick and injured children from the ME who cannot be adequately treated in their homeland. Including trying to get out kids, against Egypt’s blockade, for care overseas who will die otherwise. We are giving and hope you might, too.

“The last of the old Tibetan towns will be gone”

The Old Town that got renamed Shangri-La (& maybe it was), aka Zhongdian, ha burned down. In Yunnan, on the old Tea Horse Road. An electrical fire. Water was shut off– it’s at a frozen 10,000 feet and the BBC reported the town fathers were concerned about burst pipes. (Really?) We visited in Jan., 2012, the empty, frigid winter off-season. Chinese & foreign implants–passionate preservationists– were responsible for restoring this Tibetan treasure, worn down nearly to rubble, finishing in the’00s, explains Paul Mooney (2010, South China Morning Post.)


And now — ashes. First I heard zongdian11/4 burned; now that most is gone.

I’m so sad.Here are my boys,two years ago, in the Old Town.

A Bengali expat, ecotourism specialist whom Mooney quotes: “How many old towns on the way to Lhasa are still intact? If we don’t save this, the last of the old Tibetan towns will be gone.”

zongdian door

Like most tourists,we came from Lijiang and Dali  — (we blogged about highway and power grid development, how suspect and demeaning our yearning for “Old” felt, finally, although we treasured meeting legendary herbalist Dr. Ho). But I came to this blog to remember Zhongdian–and it wasn’t here. So here it is.


Some pictures below are the massive Ganden Sumtsaling monastery there — but not in the fire’s path, that I know of.

zongdian women
This is part of the old Kham. These Khampa women were finishing a morning visit to a temple above the Old Town.

zongidan monastery
The Ganden Sumtsaling monastery, which looks a bit like a miniature Potala.

zongdian monatery middledistance
The monastery, Qing era, being restored now for tourism – huge Chinese cranes on the horizon.


zongdian ethanzongdian monast curtains

For Temple Lovers Only: A Beijing Temple List

Chengde Puning Temple

Chengde Puning Temple

Baijynguan Taoist monk

Baijynguan Taoist monk

We have a joke (actually serious) about visiting active temples / monasteries: ‘It’s time to leave when you reach the monks’ underwear.’ Drying on a line, I mean. There comes that point. You can go no further.

We love that. We couldn’t see enough temples.

Beijing, having sucked the wealth from a continent, for millennia, has unknown minor temples that would be cover stories anywhere else.  There is Yonghegong & the Temple of Heaven. And there are many more. Here is the list had — and didn’t quite finish. Our 14 Beijing Temples List.

1)    Guanghua On HouHai/Shichahai, beautiful, very active Buddhist temple. 31 Ya’er Hutong, Xicheng, Beijing. The boys were given amulets there by the abbot.

IMG_59062) Zihua. At certain times, the monks play ancient Buddhist music. It is the only place of its kind.  A bit hard to find in Dongchen, about 14 blocks below Jianhuomen on Line 5; about 15 blocks above Chaoyangmen. Below Lumicang hutong, above Dafangjia hutong.

3) Mentougou 1 hr. outside Beijing. Best hire a driver for the day. The temple complexes are Tazhe Si, and nearby Jietai Si, from 600s & also very famous.

4) Chengde (many temples) ‘Little Tibet’, about 3 hours’ drive. Summer getaway of the Qing. Main palace in a vast forest park, plus (even better) the many outlying Tibetan-style temples built in tribute, and to rein in faraway lands. Need a car. We went in one too-long day. Best for a week-end. Less crowded at the outlying temples. Many under construction…or should be.

5) Dazhong Si (Great Bell Temple) Right in Haidian, buried in urban craziness. Huge bell! Has its own subway stop. Great.


6) Wanshou (Temple of Longevity) 5-minute walk from Beijing Foreign Studies U., and from Purple Bamboo Park. Ming. 1578.  Before fall of the Qing, a rest stop for imperial processions traveling by boat to the Summer Palace and Western Hills (it’s on a canal). Managed by Beijing Art Museum, houses collection of Buddha images. Suzhou Jie, Xisanhuan Lu, on the north side of Zizhu Bridge, Haidian District

Dajue Buddha

7) Zhenjue No.24 Wutaisi Cun, Baishiqiao, Haidian District, Beijing. (Chinese: 24; pinyin: Bĕijīng Shì Báishíqiáo Cūn 24 hào). We did not make it here! It’s still on our list!

8) Dahui (Temple of Great Wisdom) Haidian. Ming dynasty. Dahui Lu Si near Xueyuan Nan Lu. Built 1513; restored 1757.   We did not make it here, either!

9) Biyun Si (Temple of Azure Clouds) (Chinese: Buddhist, eastern part of the Western Hills, just outside the north gate of Fragrant Hills Park (Xiangshan Gongyuan). Can also see Sun yat Sen memorial & Fragrant Hills (has a chairlift if you don’t want to climb) We walked up, chairlift down. Taxi works well.

10) Dongyue Si  (Taoist, mid-Chaoyang) – probably the most important Taoist temple in Beijing, Buried in Chaoyang. Near the Russian market.

Dajue Tea House

Dajue Tea House

11) White Cloud Temple (Bai Yungguan) in Fengtai (southwestern) district. Home to the Taoist Association, very large, active temple in the middle of an ordinary residential neighborhood. There is one English speaker (top photo) who was so helpful with explanations.

Near Baiyunguan: a buddhist pagoda not on the premesis

Near Baiyunguan: a buddhist pagoda not on the premesis

12) Xi Huang Si – Western yellow, best lamaist architecture ,1780. This is fantastic gem, unknown. We found it closed to the public but talked our way in. I think its northeast 2nd ring?


13) Bei Tai (White Pagoda) The temple atop the island hill in Beihai Park


14) Dajue Si  at foot of Yangtai Hill, 1498 – Lovely site built into a mountainside. Has oldest extant Buddha statue in garden. Hire a taxi but have clear directions, no one knows where it is. Out beyond the secret military installation, kind of past/near Fragrant Hills. Gorgeous expensive tea house.

dajue spring and building

Kenny’s Wudang Shan Album

kenny climbing stairs to golden peak

Kenny and Tingting

Kenny and Tingting

kenny by the quiet temple

It was “Karate Kid” (the Jackie Chan remake) that first made Kenny want to see Wudang Shan, the legendary birthplace of taiqi, in Hubei.

Truthfully, a recent watch of the movie suggests they actually shot parts of the Wudang Shan scene (where Jackie & Jaden Smith climb the mountain & he drinks holy water), at Hua Shan on the other side of the country, at Huang Shan maybe, and even some aerial shots over Guilin very far in another province! (Basically, a roundup of picturesque China!)

Golden Peak

Golden Peak

Be that as it may…he really wanted to see it, and I agreed. We took a 22-hour train ride there (new direct route, no need to stop in Wuhan) from our summer teaching base, Qingdao.

Incense burner projecting over cliff - (where the female master in the movie hypmotizes a cobra)

Incense burner projecting over cliff – (where the female master in the movie hypmotizes a cobra)

The Taoist holy mountain exercised a powerful effect. The legends of the immortals, who used medicine, meditation and mountain power to find life everlasting. Hiking through misty valleys to the rocky outcrops where they gained immortality, where now temples stand (small and large, built by the Ming emperors — unlike the Qing, who preferred to underwrite & practice Tibetan Buddhism).

Southern Cliff Palace

Southern Cliff Palace

The astonishing Ming palaces (Taoist word for temples & monasteries), which have been very , so it appeared to amateurs, tastefully, properly restored, or just shored up well, preserving their wood carving, stone work, amazing architecture, paintings.

"Holy Water"

“Holy Water”

More on all that later. Here is Kenny’s album. Studying tai qi with Master Gu at his school, WuDang Wellness Academy, and hiking around the many holy peaks. These are his selections for his favorites.

kenny doing tai qi

kenny in mist near golden peak

kenny near golden peak

kenny on misty stairs

kenny on steps to southern cliff palace

kenny sitting at temple

kenny with golden peak behind

kenny with others at golden peak

Southern Cliff Palace

southern cliff palace landscape

with master gu at the training grounde

chinese national interesting place It is, indeed, as the sign says, a “Chinese national interesting place.”