[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.”


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.


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.”



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.”


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.

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

Yemen: America’s Next War Zone?

Old Sana'a, Yemen

Old Sana’a, Yemen by Jill in 1992

The U.S. shut down embassies around the Middle East based on (we now learn) communication from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula out of Yemen. Hundreds were freed in a prison break. Anti-American violent leadership is now Yemen-based. Militants are flooding in to Sana’a, from around the region, the BBC reports, as part of a (foiled?) plot to attack perhaps ports, oil installations, or U.S. diplomats. In return or in anticipation, U.S. drone strikes have been increasing, and drone surveillance to intercept more terror communication. Yemenis are said to be suffering post-traumatic stress from so many buzzing drones carrying death.

Is Yemen America’s next war zone?

spectacular row buildings kawkaban 1sanaa 1

This painful set of developments has me thinking of Yemeni friends I made there 20 years ago — a young couple. He was mid-20s, training to run his family’s mid-range hotel in Sana‘a, the capital, the old part of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (…for now)….will it go the way of Aleppo? His wife was a teenage girl, living with her parents, not really wife yet, she’d get there later. They seemed happy hanging out.

my friends indoors 1my friends young couple 1

The people are what we miss in war stories, with notable exceptions like Anthony Shadid‘s incredibly rich and profound coverage from inside Iraq.  The people, their culture, the experience of exchange that comes from being places and immersing in conversations…

(…sometimes stoned out of your mind on the local stimulant of choice, qat, chewed with a mint or while sipping tea. Below, my friend is buying.)

Buying qat to chew in Sana'a, Yemen

Buying qat to chew in Sana’a, Yemen

The war against terror informs — distorts — inflects, effects, all we do overseas and how we experience the world as Americans. Who are these people of Yemen but harborers of terrorists? Al Qaeda’s new haunt?

So, I share my 20-year old photos of Yemen & some Yemeni people.

market stall sanaa 1Terror movements need 3 things: alienated constituents. People willing to be complicit. And a legitimizing ideology. This isn’t me; this is scholarship (Louise Richardson formerly of Harvard, now Vice Chancellor of the University of St. Andrews). It is motivated by 3 goals: revenge, renown, and reaction from the enemy.  By this logic, massive military campaigns, ours (and Israel’s, in many cases) simply give the enemy, here Al Qaeda – both the great renown and the horrific overreaction it seeks. There are “the stimulants it needs to prosper” (Richardson).

buildings kawkabam street 1man with jambiya 1

Yet, scholars like Richardson tell us, what  anti-terror campaigns prove (Turkey’s against the PKK, Peru’s against the Shining Path, Britain’s with the IRA) is that what is fundamentally a political challenge can only be addressed politically. By separating the terrorists from their base in the community, by addressing their grievances seriously.

Success requires maintaining the moral high ground. Which, to me, means remembering people. Faces, friends. We haven’t met them (yet). We don’t know eachother, most Yemenis and most Americans. But they will bear the consequences if we take the war to yemen. If we are to be fully human, let’s at least try to connect before we destroy.

grrain seller sanaa 1herb seller 1

Buddhist Business Advice

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

A powerful Buddhist abbot runs Lingyin Si (monastery) near Hangzhou (in wealthy Zhejiang province, southeastern China, one of the places where capitalist “reform & opening” first took hold). It’s the top Buddhist temple, of the Chan (Zen) tradition, in southeast China. This July (2013), with China’s booming economy teetering, alarming the world — the abbot gave, according to the Temple‘s website — a dharma talk & interview to the journalists & editors of CEO Magazine.

Said Venerable Guangquan:

Buddhism should [not stay in the past, but should] advance … into the market economy…to [uphold] the level of morals and ethics, enlightening the people and purifying the mind and heart.

Buddha cliff carvings

Buddha cliff carvings , Lingyin Si

buddhism business grottotryptich closeup

Karma doctrine is useful in business management.

Entrepreneurs should treat employees as they were brothers and sisters, just like all creatures are equal.

In return, they gain employees’ loyalty and gratitude, thus creating a more meaningful and successful organization.

“The moon waxes only to wane, water brims only to overflow” [an old saying goes]: The natural cycle is decline after flourishing. [So]… As wealth is accumulated, contribute actively to benefit society. This balances the self and gives wealth a purpose.

buddhism business grottowith boy

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang