The Scholar’s Stone: Miniature Worlds

 

scholars rock from met collection

山形靈璧石  (Rock in the Form of a Fantastic Mountain) Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

We saw “Museum of Stones” at NY’s Noguchi Museum, a vast survey of elements, mass, earth, flights of cosmic abstraction — weirdly, since solid rock seems at odds with airy thinking. Not so. Not to Noguchi, seminal modernist sculptor, not for the collectors of scholar’s stones, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. Where “rock and water rub up against each other, in a river gorge, along a coast…Rock is the sculptor and water is the material. Expand the timeline a bit, however, and the relationship reverses; water becomes the sculptor and rock the material” (said the exhibition catalog).

The traditional Chinese veneration of these pocked rocks always mystified me, at temples, palaces, gardens (below, Shanghai’s famed classical Yu Garden, Yuyuan). Hollowed-out, craggy — unlike Kyoto’s smooth rock and sand gardens, these stones are furrowed, wrinkled, honeycombed, twisting. What I found ugly is exactly why they’re valuable. Only now do I understand why.

China’s literati collected Scholars’ Stones, gongshi (gong=spirit; shi=rock) for thousands of years. First in gardens; then Taoist monks wanted them inside for meditation and inspiration, small enough to put in their studies. They loved those that resembled mythical creatures, actual beings, or “the magical peaks and subterranean paradises (grotto-heavens) believed to be inhabited by the immortals,” the Met explains. The immortals — the many gods of the Taoist pantheon — live in the holes. Stones may also resemble earthly islands, caves, mountain landscapes. They appear in so many classical paintings, and millennia ago, in Tang dynasty (618-907) poems.

 

I should add that some got drilled, improved a bit, to evoke more. They’re “Rorschach blots in three dimensions,” a Times critic wrote. “In the blink of an eye they move from abstract to representational, conjuring a great deal of Western sculpture as they go…. One thinks of Rodin, Giacometti, Henry Moore, Dubuffet, de Kooning … Michaelangelo.”

The best are perforated, full of emptiness, “worlds within worlds” (as the Asia Society titled a past scholar’s stone exhibition). In them you find creation, time, nature’s forces. The underlying concept emerges from Taoism. Pu — ‘the uncarved block,’ i.e. the power of the thing in its simple, natural state. These are thing and metaphor at once. As Artist John Mendelsohn wrote about scholar’s stones, “Nature made art in its own image, an eccentrically evocative fractal of itself… for tabletop contemplation of the universe.”

 

 

 

scholars stone noguchi museum.jpg

Now I get it. Stones. Battle (David and Goliath). Danger (Scylla and Charybdis). The grab at eternity — how our tomb stones and memorials, as the catalog says, “try to deny the insignificance of a biological lifespan on a geologic timescale.”

scholars stone reclining figure

 

“You Can Call Me ‘Mr. Wong’ “

kenny with hisBeats by Dr DreThere is no photo of ‘Mr. Wong.’ Not his real name.

He does have a business card (black). Black card, black market.

His stall in Qingdao‘s largest indoor flea market sells counterfeit electronics. China, yes it’s true, is home to rampant illegal trade in counterfeit goods. Violating copyright is illegal & I’m totally against it. But — yes. My son bought some fake beats by Dr. Dre headphones in China. They retail in the U.S. for $250. Worn around the neck, I am told, beats are the ultimate (middle school) status symbol.

At his market stall, “Mr. Wong” said he’s got “real” ones. They will run you RMB850 (about $120). What he calls “class C” copies will run you RMB150 (about $20–choose from red, black or white). He also has what he calls “class A copies” that will run you about $60. You can listen to the difference, feel the leather vs. plastic. They were indistinguishable to me. (Apparently there is no class B copy.)

I actually think “Mr. Wong” made up this A/B/C copy classification system so we’d pay $60 for the $20 ones…(but who knows?)

He ships to America, he says.

He sells without U.S.-to-China customs fees/import tax: they come from Canada, he says. Uh, that makes sense… (?)

My Qingdao business students wrote, one night this summer, on “Will China move from copycat to global high-tech power” and if so, when and how? We discussed a new ebook, excerpted here (“Beta China: The Dawn of an Innovation Generation,” by Hamish McKenzie, a PandoDaily contributor). McKenzie is very optimistic about China’s emerging high-tech future, citing the success of (cult) mobile handset maker Xiaomi, which makes China’s homegrown answer to the iPhone and is run by 43-year-old Lei Jun, called “China’s Steve Jobs.”

Students’ consensus: China is great. So it will get beyond copycat to real tech leaership. But first, they wrote, education has to change, to nurture creativity rather than memorization. And some wrote, too, that financing (start-up funding) and legal mechanisms (copyright protection) — basic manufacturing infrastructure — must mature, to fund and protect inventors.

The students all seemed to conclude that there’s reason for optimism, but China also has a long way to go.

 

Beauty, Crowds, Wealth, Beauty (West Lake, Hangzhou)

Hangzhou on West lake

Hangzhou on West lake

West Lake, Hangzhou Lotus Blooming in Garden

West Lake, Hangzhou Lotus Blooming in Garden

West Lake, Hangzhou: lotus and pavillion off Su Causeway

West Lake, Hangzhou: lotus and pavillion off Su Causeway

This province (Zhejiang) is rich (for China); this town Hangzhou is money, money, money. But also…between the Lamborghini dealerships and babes in heels at glass-mod bars, it’s also full of it’s renowned beauty — sung by poets for centuries. China’s postcard.

west lake kenny on bridge stairs
west lake willow and bridge

If you don’t take these kind of photos, you can be arrested.

That is a joke. Here are some of our obligatory beauty shots.

I have edited out the fact that it’s incredibly crowded. Almost impossible to bike through the throngs of tour groups. Party black sedans pulling up here and there and extruding lovely things in summer dresses, a grandma and cute one kid in Hawaiian shorts.

Hangzhou temple on West lake

Hangzhou temple on West lake

Ate in an old alley away from the lake (pickled bamboo, and — they have it in Zhejiang!!!) what we never had in China before, what we would previously have called “American Chinese Food”: ‘General Tso’s’ candy-coated meat! They love sweet here.

Just dont’ get run down by scooters, cars, bikes, buses.
west lake island pagoda view

hangzhou west lake boatman

hangzhou west lake boatman

West Lake, Hangzhou: Too many waterfront gardens to tour...

West Lake, Hangzhou: Too many waterfront gardens to tour…

Hangzhou new and old

Hangzhou new and old

Hangzhou's West Lake for real: the new city!

Hangzhou’s West Lake for real: the new city!

Teacher, Friend, Son of Artists

Xiao Xiao's mother's art

Xiao Xiao’s mother’s art

Kenny art vincents mother2art vincents motherhad a wonderful “tutor” in Qingdao who took care of him while I was teaching, a part of the university compensation (which was also room & board and a lot of lovely perks like trips, and kindnesses like dinners); you could say it that way. Or it was a part of Chinese hospitality. Or it was part of an authoritarian system we saw in Beijing, where students are ‘volunteered’ time-consuming institutional duties that are anything but voluntary.

Upshot, this magnificent young man, a grad student (they say “post-graduate”) in translation specializing in the petroleum industries, and his fiancee, same field, were our companions and especially, Xiao Xiao and Kenny were often together. He kicked Kenny’s ass in badmitton, and recruited guys to play basketball at all hours of the day and night. They ate in Sichuan, Dongbei, and local restaurants around campus. They made silly movies using an iPad app.

And we learned Xiao Xiao’s parents are both noted artists: his father has a studio at Beijing’s 798 and runs an art complex there. His mother’s work (above) is traditional style, and she’s a calligrapher.

And his father’s work is below. His grandmother in Fujian was a village teacher. His grandfather hid the village’s “cultural relics”–treasures from the temple — during the Cultural Revolution, and suffered terribly as a result. Now the relics are in temples and museums.

art vincent's father

The Rape of Nanking, Remembered

Massacre Musuem, Nanjing

Massacre Museum, Nanjing

China has its Yad Vashem. Nanjing’s Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre is experiential architecture. You are funneled through tight spaces, traped in black granite chutes. (Architect Qi Kang is one of the leading figures in Chinese architecture).

Exterior, memorial hall to the victims of the Nanking Massacre

Exterior, memorial hall to the victims of the Nanking Massacre

It’s an immersion in nationalism and grief. And most noticeably, in insistence — there hasn’t been widespread acceptance that the massacre here in 1937 occurred — particularly by the right-wing in Japan, which denies the massacre vehemently, including in court, and has attacked (even murdered) those who’d tell their stories. Such as remorseful Japanese veterans, whose testimony is moving here. And Chinese memoirists, sued for libel.

nanking rape 300000

This is the “wall of witnesses” — as if they need to be documented as much as the victims.

Wall of witnesses

Wall of witnesses

You ponder the monstrousness that overtook invading soldiers, who gang raped and then mutilated — the bestial madness, and the uniquely vicious victimization of women (estimated 20,000 rapes, from children to the elderly). And then one thinks of Japan. I’ve spent a few weeks there, and love so much about it. Not to dwell on cliches but there’s no denying the often exquisite aesthetic and manners and cleanliness and love for beauty and so many cultural heights. And then you struggle to comprehend what occurred in this dark time.

Kenny in Peace Park, outside Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, Nanjing

Kenny in Peace Park, outside Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, Nanjing

And one thinks: The day will come when China honors the victims of its own (domestically perpetrated) atrocities.

And the day will come when the U.S. does.

Nanjing massacre hall Japanese solidarity

Nanjing massacre hall Japanese solidarity

Many Japanese figures — authors, industrialists, and trade unions (and presumably the Communist Party, on the plaque pictured above) have expressed solidarity, memorialized and honored the victims. A manufacturing family gathers flower seeds from Nanjing and has planted them all over Japan in an act of honoring the victims.

One last haunting aspect: I read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, a breakthrough book that for perhaps the first time really told the story, as late as 1997 (compare that to Holocaust commemoration.). Her book recapitulates (and enlarges) the museum’s messages, reproducing many of its photos and testimonies. Chang, a Chinese-American journalist from the midwest, committed suicide a few years ago at the age of 36. And another heroine of this place– known as the Living Buddha of Nanking, American missionary Minnie Vautrin, a girls’ school director in wartime Naning who protected and hid tens of thousands of innocent civilians, also (after returning home to Illinois after the war) took her own life.

Some things are too great to bear.

(The Vautrin link above is to the extensive Yale Univ archives on the massacre, the most important repository of its kind.

Peace.

An American Boy in China (watch video)

Adventures of a third grader in Beijing for a year. All about having fun in China, the land and its geography, history and politics, and visiting China’s different regions and peoples. Do shadow puppetry, ride a camel in the Gobi, make dumplings on a farm, and cheer for the Guoan (World Peace) soccer team.

China Books for Kids

 

Year of the Tiger by Allison Lloyd

Year of the Tiger by Allison Lloyd

Before we went to China, we started purchasing books to read (& to bring, English kids’ books are hard to find — and if you can, they’re expensive in China). I’ve wanted to share this list for a long time.

Picture books: Nonfiction

A Time of Golden Dragons by Song Nan Zhang & Hao Yu Zhang, ill. A picture book about the millennial year coinciding w year of dragon, most powerful sign

 Chinese New Year Tricia Brown photogr Fran Ortiz. Preparations for, & meanings of, new year in US Chinatowns. Colorful.

Picture books:Fiction (mostly reinterpreted folkore

Little Plum by Ed Young – a Tom Thumb tale.

All the Way to Lhasa A tale from Tibet by Barbara Helen Berger. We enjoy this.

The Hunter A Chinese folktale retold by Mary Casanova Illustrations Ed Young. Love folk tales.

The Beggar’s Magic A Chinese Tale retold by Margaret & Raymond Chang Ill David Johnson

Red Thread written/ill Ed Young.Great one.

The Magic Horse of Han Gan by Chen Jiang Hong. An animal tires of war. A favorite.

Lon Po Po A Red-Riding Hood Story from China (Caldecott medal) Ed Young. Another enjoyable one.

The Terrible Nung Gwama A Chinese folktale adapted by Ed Young from the retelling by Leslie Bonnet Ill Ed Young.

 

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, a graphic novel (& an animated film)

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, a graphic novel (& an animated film)

Middle-grades Fiction

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai by Wu Lin We got this graphic novel in China, at the synagogue-museum in Shanghai. (Speakign of graphic novels: highly recommend the award-winning American-Born Chinese, which takes place in America; we read it later). A great book.

Shen and the Treasure Fleet  Ray Conlogue. Kind of slow.

 The Golden Key (Tangshan Tigers)   Dan Lee. I think an Australian series. Not bad.

Young Adult Fiction

Spilled Water  by Sally Grindley–Modern Yong Adult fiction, girl indentured, compares t Hunger Games. Enjoyed this. I think you can call it middle grades.

 Year of the Tiger  by Alison Lloyd– historical adventure like Percy Jackson. Really loved this. I actually would call this middle-grades.

 Dragon Horse  Peter Ward, 10th century China fantasy & adventure, catalog compares to Eragon. We found it slow and decided not to continue. Too many time, place- and flashbacks to ancient times, or myth, too soon.

 Golden Rat   Don Wulffson- Young Adult, dark adventure.

 Dragonwings  Laurence Yep*- Boys’ historical adventure like Percy Jackson. Part of Yep’s wrote adventure series, Golden Mountain Chronicles. The best. We couldn’t put them down. Set in America, mostly.

 The Serpent’s Children: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1849 Laurence Yep

 Mountain Light: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1855 by Laurence Yep

 Dragon’s Gate: Golden Mountain Chronicles, 1867 by Laurence Yep

 The Traitor: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1885 by Laurence Yep

Memoir & Nonfiction

Brothers: A Novel  Da Chen — Moving.

Colors of the Mountain  Da Chen – award-winning memoir. Moving and lovely writing. More so-called “scar literature” which some Chinese today find unbalanced and overly negative. We found it useful to understand earlier generations’ experience, even if it’s not what’s happening right now.

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution  Ji-Li Jiang.My middle schooler read this. I’d say it’s appropriate for middle grades. Excellent, searing, unforegettable “scar” literature about the damaging experience of growing up during the Cultural Revolution.

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party  Ying Chang Compestine, modern young adult set in 1972, teen & Maoism, Cultural Revolution. Everythign I said above. Hard to put down.

The Tao of Pooh is good for older kids, not just adults

The Tao of Pooh is good for older kids, not just adults

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff: both kids (middle grades) read it & really enjoyed it. Very simply written even though it’s an adult book on a complex topic.