genghis-khan-documentary

[Photo: BBC]

GENGHIS KHAN AND THE QUEST FOR GOD: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom by Jack Weatherford completely revises our concept of Genghis Khan. Outside Mongolia (where he is venerated), he’s viewed as murderous, merciless, a monstrously insane warrior king who conquered the largest empire in history.

But Weatherford – a bestselling Macalester College anthropologist – finds Khan was a key influence on Thomas Jefferson and American religious freedom. Here is Simon Winchester (one of David’s favorite writers on China) in a book review last month:

“Though godless himself, [Genghis Khan] favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions, of many different faiths…[who should] ‘live together in a cohesive society under one government.’ …The Great Khan’s ecumenism has as its legacy the very same rigid separation of church and state that underpins no less than the American idea itself. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is, at its root, an originally Mongol notion…Many might think this eccentric in the extreme, until we learn that a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies was in fact a history of “Genghizcan the Great,” by a Frenchman, Pétis de la Croix, and that it was a book devoured by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.”

grasslands-yurts-clouds

We’ve written here about Chinese (Inner) Mongolia (2012, the time of these photos). The haunting music, devastating impact of mining, the demeaning commercial imagery.

grasslands-temple-exterior

The author Weatherford, a hero in Mongolia, lives there half the year with his wife, who is apparently quite paralyzed by MS. I was touched, in an interview he gave, his description of how she is received there:

“In Mongolia there are no special facilities for disabled people; the streets and sidewalks are a jumble of broken cement and open holes. Yet when we step out of our building, hands always appear. No one says, “May I help you?” They simply do it and disappear, expecting no thanks. I never have to ask for help. Every week a few musicians come by to play the horse-head fiddle and sing for Walker, in the belief that music is the best medicine. Pop singers and hip-hop groups have come for the same purpose, saying that it will keep our home warm. People from all over the countryside send us dairy products. Our kitchen is usually full of yogurt, hard cream, curds, mare’s milk, mutton, horse ribs, and wild berries. Lamas, shamans, and healers come by to offer prayers, incense, herbal teas, chants, massage, and other forms of traditional treatments. Even strangers send camel wool or cashmere blankets, shawls, and socks to keep Walker warm. Mongolia has welcomed us with a care and warmth I can scarcely comprehend.”

 

 

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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Resident in NJ: Shanghai Quartet

shanghai quartet

Dazzled by a Shanghai Quartet concert, A Night in Ancient and New China — more about what that means in a sec. Proud it’s our “quartet-in-residence” at Montclair State, the university down the block. (“Resident” artists in Beijing and Shanghai too…OK, we’ll share.)

shanghai quartet the men

Their playing gets called “pitiless,” “ferocious,” “charged,” “aggressive.” We heard the intense premiere of a new “Raise the Red Lantern“(1991)  film score (trailer here; it’s got everything: historic setting, sex and violence, Gong Li) revised by the composer Zhao Jiping’s son. (The father also scored “Farewell My Concubine.”) That was China new. Ancient: traditional folk pieces featuring pippa (lute) virtuoso Wu Man, pictured at top — two members knew her, as children in a Beijing music boarding school. She played Kazakh folk tunes, apparently popular in the ’60s; ancient Central Asian nomads are believed to be the original source of the pippa. You hear hoof beats, feel the openness of the steppe, as in Mongolian folk music (China’s bluegrass — having its moment when we lived in Beijing).

The Shanghai Quartet cross genres and geographies. My favorite piece was a shamanistic Tan Dun composition, “Ghost Opera (Chamber Version)” — more on Tan (his latest work puts musicians knee-deep in an ancient canal) soon. Meantime, have a listen or a watch:

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Angel in America

The Year of the Monkey begins in 11 days. I’ve been thinking about Angel Island, San Francisco Bay. Our kids study U.S. social history, reform and rights struggles, but not yet the Chinese-American story. America detained 500,000 immigrants on Angel Island, about half from China, 1910 to 1940, during the Chinese Exclusion Act . Some were solo children under 10. They were interrogated, inspected, often deported. A woman detainee without her husband saw her baby die, and was refused release to attend the baby’s funeral. A graphic novel tells these stories: Angel Island: The Chinese-American Experience, recently released by Stanford (buy one).

Detainees who’d fled famine and the fury of armies local and foreign (sound familiar?) carved hundreds of poems on Angel Island barrack walls. A park ranger discovered them in 1970.

angel island image

This is a message to those who live here not
to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast your idle worries to
the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.
Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.

*

The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting
and turning for a thousand li.’
There is no shore to land and it is
difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city
thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to
live in a wooden building?

*

In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon
seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.

*

America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is
nothing I can do

(Credit: Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, Island Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991)

You can hear the Angel Island poems read (via KQED), and visit the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Happy Year of the Monkey.

monkey-year_character

 

Natural Disaster Forecasting

August 1, 1971. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar joined on stage by friends Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston to raise funds for UNICEF relief in Bangladesh.

August 1, 1971. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar joined on stage by friends Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston to raise funds for UNICEF relief in Bangladesh.

No snowmageddon in NY — though it’s nice, no school or work. After warnings of a snow storm of “historic proportions” it’s fun mocking the “state-of-emergency closure” of NY and NJ’s highways, bridges, tunnels, even the subway. Only 15″ snow total here (less than .5 meter), counting old snow from an earlier, small Alberta Clipper storm.

But forecasting is real, and it is saving hundreds of thousands of lives, I recently learned (in part through some writing for UN humanitarian-emergency agencies). Bangladesh suffered the Bhola tropical cyclone in 1970 (tropical cyclone, in American English, equals hurricane; Ghola was Cat. 3 in strength; Hurricane Sandy was just a Cat 1). Bhola was the deadliest storm ever recorded. Its storm surge was responsible for the deaths of 500,000 people, when their villages, in the Ganges Delta, were erased by the thousands. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh was organized for the survivors.*

Now compare that to an equally strong storm that caused disastrous flooding in Pakistan in 2014. Same-strength cyclone. Yet fewer than 500 people died in the disaster. Instead, because of investments in forecasting, 700,000 people were evacuated in time

[ * The 1971 Bhola cyclone hit millions of refugees uprooted by Bangladesh’s gruesome war for independence from Pakistan. The humanitarian crisis was worsened still more by larger-than-usual annual rains the next year, 1971, when the concert was held in NYC. ]

 

Chinese earthquake sensor. American Museum of Natural History.

Chinese earthquake sensor. American Museum of Natural History.

Second amazing thing: This ancient Chinese earthquake sensor (A.D. 132) (From “Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters,” a current special exhibition at the AMNH. Eight toads, eight dragons’ heads. This didn’t forecast or measure magnitude of the natural dissaster, but showed its direction. Depending on where the shaking was coming from, a ball would fall from one of the dragons mouths into one of the frogs’. Not bad for 2,000 years ago.

Of course (tragically), the most deadly natural disaster in human history is believed to be the 1931 flooding in central Chin of the Yellow River, (which we discussed in “Yellow River of Sorrows“) in which as many as 4 million people died.

Stay warm & dry.

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Chinese Police in the American Mosaic

Young Officer Wenjian Liu’s tragic murder in Brooklyn at age 32 gives us a chance to pause & marvel, at least, at how he was part of the dynamic, salutary building of America’s classic ‘mosaic’… new arrivals making NYC their home. My friend David Chen, fantastic NY Times investigative reporter, penned this front-page story today on the rather dramatic surge in Chinese- (& other Asian-) Americans in the ranks of the NYPD. Read it to find out why…

(Yahoo carrying images by Carlo Allegri of dignitaries & weeping cops, gathered by the thousands at the funeral, which included Buddhist monks, and citizens holding “We [heart] NYPD” placards in freezing rain.)

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Calligraphy for Wenjian Liu: “A vision left unrealized”

Outdoor calligraphy market, Xi'an

Outdoor calligraphy market, Xi’an: “To see far, you must climb to the mountain’s heights.”

"I love Wudang" by a calligrapher who stopped teaching high school after experiencing a sudden mystical calling.

“I love Wudang” by a calligrapher who stopped teaching high school after experiencing a sudden mystical calling.

The living art of characters drawn in a burst of inspiration — a Chinese funerary custom with poignancy at the funeral today of Wenjian Liu, a NYPD officer gunned down by a crazed madman in his squad car in Brooklyn in December. We read today in the NY Times (Calligrapher Brings an Elegant Touch To a Chinese Ceremony by Jeffrey E. Singer and Kirk Semple)   how the calligrapher wrote infused with the deceased’s moving spirit. (Of course, it takes lots of premediation, drafts, and many tries.) Then the finished scrolls play a sober, decorative role  honoring and giving comfort.

An Asia Society curator, a young white woman we met once, told us Chinese calligraphy sparked her life work when, as a teenager she fell in love with it studying in Taiwan. One Coplan received directions to study hard in calligraphy (phrased much more poetically-through an ancient stanza) —a gift from a calligrapher now hanging above his desk (left photo above). Another collects pieces, if he’s met the calligrapher. A Buddhist piece from a monastery in holy WuTai Shan, a Confucian saying picked off the sidewalk in his birthplace, Qufu, Shandong…and finally (photo above right), a bit of an odyssey but he tracked down a Taoist calligrapher (and tai qi master) in his little apartment outside Wudang Shan, tai qi’s birthplace, near Wuhan.

The New York Times presents local master calligrapher Zhao Ru, 73, an immigrant and sometime-restaurant worker originally from Toisan, who volunteered his services for Liu’s funeral. He used top-quality ink donated by a bookseller in Sunset Park (Brooklyn’s “Chinatown”). Officer Liu’s “spirit moved me to conjure this work,” he says. The funeral home’s Chinese consultant is quoted: Zhao’s calligraphy gave “the room the high quality of the life that he led.”

Photo by Karsten Moran for the New York Times. Zhao Ru, Brooklyn calligrapher, creating memorial scroll fo Officer Wenjian Liu's funeral today

Photo by Karsten Moran for the New York Times. Zhao Ru, Brooklyn calligrapher, creating memorial scroll fo Officer Wenjian Liu’s funeral today

Zhao’s calligraphy pieces read:

“In the sphere of law enforcement his vision is left unrealized”

“For his service to the people, his name will forever be cherished in our hearts.”

“A model for all police.”

Peace.