New Norcia: A Retreat is not an Advance

The above is a quote that my college chaplain said when I was on retreat with the Episcopal Chaplaincy in New Hampshire, and it is very true. I packed myself off for a four day three night writing retreat at New Norcia, a monastic town two hours away from Perth, and just got back yesterday. It was a productive time, being by myself in the great Australian loneliness, and I got on track with my novel, The Utopia Machine, again. I’m on my fourth draft now, and I have been working on and off on it since 2011, so it’s been a long haul. However, for the first time in a long time, I’m feeling optimistic about it.

New Norcia is filled with 200 year old buildings in the Spanish style – it was settled by Benedictine monks seeking seclusion in the desert and in order to convert the aboriginals and educate the local population – it ran four schools altogether in its heyday. Although there are murkier patches in its history (including being involved in housing “orphans” who were not actually, part of the Stolen Generation), it is a peaceful and beautiful place today.

The monastery runs a guesthouse, where people are offered traditional Benedictine hospitality – room and board, for a suggested donation of $80 a day, which is eminently reasonable. The food is hearty fare, with thick soups and roasts and breaded fish and potatoes, as well as pudding during lunch.

I spent most of my time in the reading room, an upper room lined with books and comfortable armchairs. Mostly I glued my butt to a wooden chair and desk, typing away or scribbling in my notebook. Although a little cold in winter, it was excellent for concentrating on the work at hand! No wifi, which is a plus in my book, as it prevents Facebook timewasting…

This armchair is incredibly comfortable. I got through about a third of Liu Cixin’s Death’s End, the third book in the Three Body Problem trilogy, in this chair. Yup, one can’t write ALL the time, even at a writing retreat.

Here is the view from the window of the inner room of the reading room, of the little church that is in front of the guesthouse.I even managed to take a break from novel writing and pen a poem…

From New Norcia

 

I hear a Kookaburra

going hoo-hoo-hoo-haa-haa

 

I hear a passing car

like a shooting star

 

arcing suddenly across

the cross

 

of New Norcia.

 

I have no guitar

to serenade these stars

 

but wide

is their silence.

 

I have no breath

to describe the depth

 

of how far

they are

 

from New Norcia.

 

The bunny and the erhu

 

My little friend Jane came over again tonight during my dinner break to play with and cuddle my bunny, Momo. It may be one of the stranger friendships I have struck while here in China.

My friend Marcelo from my Bible study told me he had a student in his English class who was completely mad about bunnies and he had told her about my bunny and showed her pictures of him. He said she needed a bit of cheering up, and asked whether she could come visit my bunny.

Why not, I thought. I am still flush in the new joy of having a bunny and have been showing him off at every opportunity, and if I could bring someone a little happiness, that’s nothing to sniff at. So naturally we got connected on Wechat, and set up a date for her to visit me.

According to Marcelo, Jane was a high school girl, and when she arrived at my doorstep I instantly understood why he had been mistaken. Even though she is really in university, Jane dresses and acts like a high school kid. She’s tiny, has Chinadoll bangs, hides behind her glasses and has a habit of sticking her tongue out whenever she feels awkward – which is almost at the end of every sentence.

Her bunny mania was also readily apparent – she had cartoon bunnies embroidered on her jeans, a bunny on her backpack and even her water bottle was shaped like a carrot. She came bearing three large carrots as a gift for Momo. Each carrot was larger than the bunny itself.

The moment she got into my apartment, she instantly leapt towards the bunny, eager to pet it. She cooed at how soft and cute it was, and longed for it to stay still to let her scoop it up. As we fussed over the bunny, I got to know a bit more about her.

She is studying at Minzu University of China, the ethnic minorities university in Beijing, and her major is erhu, that most difficult of traditional Chinese instruments, named for its two strings from which any melody may be coaxed with a bow.

She is Tibetan – her Chinese name is Hua Dan Zhuo Mei – and has been playing the erhu from the time she was a preschooler. But she lamented that it was difficult to make enough money playing the erhu. Whereas Western music lessons were in high demand, traditional Chinese instrument lessons were less than half the price, at about 200 yuan per lesson (of which half goes to the music school). And it was fiercely competitive to get into an orchestra, so most music students have to make a living as a teacher.

I begged her to bring her erhu the next time she visited, and she did. After fussing over how my bunny had grown and following him around my apartment for twenty minutes, she sat down and pulled the little instrument out.

It was as diminutive as she was, and rustic looking. Its body was made out of python skin. She had mentioned that her father made erhus, and had even sold some when the family was a little worse off, but she said this one was bought from an instrument store. The little instrument looked humble and unimpressive, but the moment she drew her bow across it, it began to sing in the most winsome of ways.

There was something aching, something yearning about the strains that came from those two strings. As a lilting Chinese melody filled my apartment, the shy little girl swayed with confidence and grace as she drew the bow horizontally across the strings.

There was something exquisitely elegant about her movements now, something bold and abstract. The music vibrated the air around us, the air within us, speaking of something both far away and incredibly close.

The moment the last strains of music ended, Jane rounded her shoulders and instantly stuck out her tongue, the bashful little girl once again.

The bunny, who was in my arms throughout her performance, was completely relaxed except for his ears, which were extended fully. His eyes were wide and alert, and I whispered to him that he was probably the most privileged bunny in China, to have a private erhu recital performed especially for him.

Contemplating the rabbit

 

Sudden imaginary rains come pouring down before my eyes. I can hear my bunny pattering around the room, his little feet thumping  rhythms, now fast, now slow, as he hops and sprints alternately.

Bunnies change direction constantly. They twist first one way and then another in a complex, slightly arbitrary pattern meant to throw off predators. Though sometimes the twisting freedom simply expresses a bunny joy of movement, a happiness that comes from being a free-range bunny going about its own special business.

In its more quiet, contemplative moments the bunny sniffs at things, rubbing its chin against things to “own” it, or grooms itself by systematically licking itself – paws, back, chest, haunches. Not quite as flexible as a cat, there are some parts they miss. But generally rabbits are clean creatures, and there’s nothing cuter than a bunny washing its face and ears. They let down their ears and use both paws to “comb” them, licking them with their tiny pink tongues, looking like little maidens brushing their hair in the evening.

I am absolutely besotted with my bunny. I eat faster at lunch break so I can spend an hour with him at home, letting him run free around the house, scattering his little pellets.

Sometimes I scoop him up and place him on my chest, lying down so he has firm footing, and stroking his little head and ears while he clicks his teeth approvingly.

There is so much joy to be had in having a bunny. They are independent minded creatures, never aiming to monopolize your time, and sometimes contemptuous of your attempts to snuggle.

Momo is active, curious and insatiably hungry. He wanders the house in search for my stashes of bunny food, and it is only because he hasn’t discovered how to open drawers that I don’t have bunny food spilling everywhere.

As he gets older – he is only a few weeks old at present – he grows larger, stronger and sleeker. The short nose and “chibi” face of babyhood is giving way to an elegant, aquiline nose, more streamlined body and powerful hind legs.

It is an incredible joy to watch a bunny bound from one end of the bed to another in a single leap, sometimes twisting in the air in a binky. It speaks of strength, power in propulsion and pure joy.

I do not generally allow animals on my bed, or to nibble on my lower lip, but bunnies are my soft spot, and I allow Momo to do both. As he has gotten older he has come to understand that peeing on the bed is not okay (at least that’s what I hope he’s learned), and neither is attacking his human.

Somehow one’s threshold of disgust is lowered when it comes to a creature one loves. What I would have found revolting – animals on the bed or animal saliva – just seems a natural extension of the furry bundle that I love and accept. Perhaps I see my bunny as an extension of myself. Love is a mysterious thing indeed.

Spring in Beijing

Spring in Beijing means willow fluff riding on the breeze, rolling in little dust bunnies on the grey pavements, the bright young green of willow leaves filtering the flat sunlight.

For a glorious month or two in March and April the temperatures are balmy, requiring only a light coat. Wave after wave of flowers bloom in extravagant masses – first the yellow yingcunhua, then the cherry blossoms, tinged just slightly pink, then the crabapples, the peach blossoms on their curious upright sticks and finally the generous peonies.

The second week of April I remembered that when I came to visit Xuwen in Beijing in 2014 it was right after my birthday, and we went to Jingshan Park where the peonies were blooming. Looking more like bowls or balls than the typical flower, these heavy blossoms are as big as a hand, or even a face. Their multiple petals form complex plays of light and shadow.

They come in magenta, crimson, pale dusty pink and the purest white and sit in rather short rounded bushes with large green leaves shaped like a duck’s webbed foot. At Jingshan Park, or “Scenic Hill” Park, so called for its panoramic views of the Forbidden City, they are planted on the ground level and also in belts along the hill, so you would encounter clusters of blossoms as you ascend to see the glistening orange rooftops of the Forbidden City.

On the serene tiers of the park are gnarled pine trees, twisted into sinuous shapes from extreme age. They frame the views of the orange tiled roofs that shimmer in the distance in the setting sun. The view of the Forbidden City is still awe-inspiring in the 21st century, even though it is no longer the seat of power in China. It is a view of great, ancient grandeur that millions of Chinese looked up to for millennia, and not even the space-age egg of the National Grand Theatre of China looming some distance away detracts from its power over the landscape.

As I climb the hill, Chinese holidaymakers make their way up alongside me in groups of three or four. Elderly Beijingers haul their fancy SLRs from flower to flower, like oversized, technologically enhanced bees. They pick out the freshest blossoms, shunning the ones that have been overblown, each intent on curating only the best of reality.

Younger women in unfashionable clothes hold their cellphones on selfie sticks, either to get closer to the blossoms (a fence separates us from them) or to position their faces in the same frame as the bountiful petals. I know the kind of photos they are aiming to produce – with sharp chins and large eyes formed by the angle the camera, tilting down on them from above. Some Chinese smartphone cameras even automatically smooth away blemishes on your skin, or tell you what age you appear to be while taking selfies. Definitely not to my taste, but apparently there is a market for that.

Just a week before going to Yunnan for my birthday the crabapple blossoms were in full bloom along the banks of the canal running through the Yuan Dynasty Park (Yuan Da Du) along the stretch around An Zhen Men subway stop. They were a magnificent sight, all shades of pink and dark red, some with many whorls of petals and some simple five-petal affairs.

There was one particular patch of stately crabapple trees which formed a pink forest under which happy Chinese people wandered, their cellphones never leaving their hands.

One woman was doing a roaring business selling corn puffs – long cylinders of crunchy corn, some of which were bent into a spiral like a lollipop. Both adults and children munch of them while appreciating the flowers.

Other enterprising people hawk flower bands made of plastic to wear on your heads like a crown and take pictures in. Girls with red, pink, yellow or blue flowers on their hair pose in front of the real blossoms, showing their best sides to the smartphone cameras.

Every time I walk down a flower-drenched street, I am filled with a sense of terrible urgency to record what I see. It almost robs me of the joy of seeing the flowers to know their terrible fragility.

One week hence, and it will all be gone, thus the desperate need to take as many snaps as possible. I wonder if we enjoyed the blossoms better before the universal access of cameras, particularly these disposable digital ones, which we store away on our phones and in the cloud barely to be recalled again.

Anna: the grandeur of the insignificant

Not much is known about Anna the prophetess except the roughest sketch of her life. But nevertheless there is a hint of enormous pain in what we do know, as well as great joy.

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke 2:36-38

What was it like to have been married seven years (doubtless from when she was very young) and then live as a widow for some six or seven decades after? On a human scale it is tragic, and given the social structure of first century Israel to be husbandless was to be marginal in society. We do not know if she had any children, but we do know that she dedicated her time and energy to the temple, “worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day”.

When I thought of Anna, an image of her as a Chinese “Dama” came to mind. These middle-aged to elderly ladies are often the butt of jokes here in China, as people poke fun at them for investing in the stock market (because it is assumed they can’t possibly know what they are doing), for dancing en masse in public squares, for sporting unfashionable threads, for being generally dowdy and unhip. People find them “cute”, but in a dismissive, condescending kind of way.

But I am also thinking of a particular “Dama” I know who has a pure and intense faith. When she prays, it is with a fervent, intimate voice to a God who she knows so very well, who has seen her through thick and thin. Her education was truncated by the Cultural Revolution, and yet instead of resenting this she still returns to the village where she was sent down to the countryside, bearing gifts and chocolates for her old neighbours. In her I see the very special grace of the humble, and doubtless her diminutive frame hides the soul of great strength.

Anna fasted, worshipped and prayed with anticipation. It was not just for herself, but for all of Israel, and even the world, that she waited. At eighty-four, she could not have lived long enough to see Jesus, the infant, so full of promise like any other infant, fulfil his mission and come into power in his ministry and resurrection. But her faith, and her prophetic gift, showed her that he was indeed the One.

What a wonderful thing it must have been, in the twilight of her life, to see the beginning of the world’s redemption! And what a wonderful thing that God rewarded her faithfulness with this strange and sweet foretaste!

I think of all the Annas –ourselves perhaps to be included – who look forward to the second coming of Jesus, in the world today, in all our various guises. We are of every race and nation, every socio-economic class. We may not look significant. We may look silly, or our outlook too otherworldly, to hope for such grand and infinite things as the salvation of the world.

But perhaps that little, insignificant bundle is precisely the thing that will change the world, in all its dirty, human potentiality. Because his name is Jesus – and he was born on this earth so that the meek would inherit the earth.

Love (III) by George Herbert

Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt (1648)

Love III

by George Herbert

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;

Love said, “You shall be he.”

“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.”

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,

“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.”

“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

“My dear, then I will serve.”

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

So I did sit and eat.

 

I first read this exquisite, mysterious, powerful puzzle of a poem as an unseen poem for my written test to get into Cambridge. I wish I had the exam I wrote about it then, but as I read it now, it is still so fresh and so simple and yet so difficult and complex at the same time.

How ingenious it is to name God, or Christ, simply “Love”. How often we hear the statement that God is Love, but the simple substitution of “Love” for “God” personifies that ultimate Love, that overwhelming, gorgeous, enormous Love that created all things. It is not personification in the literary sense; it is more like an embodiment. It is, in fact, the incarnation. God, Love, in the person of Christ who stands at the door and lets the persona in.

Love is gentle and kind, quietly observant of the persona’s hesitancy, and his questioning is not interrogative but “sweet” – it invites the persona to bare his insecurity. It is such a revelation that we feel unworthy of love, especially of Love, its bright burden of perfection against which we are “dusty” and “sinful”. The discomfort and feeling of unworthiness is the appropriate response, and yet Love condescends to the persona, coaxing him gently and drawing out truth with every word.

When the persona protests that he “cannot look on” Love out of his feelings of unworthiness, Love asks the rhetorical question of “Who made the eyes but I?” In that line, the rhyme of “eye” and “I” echo the relationship between “looking” and the purpose of the “eye”, drawing attention to the fact that the eyes were made for looking – and in particular, most truly, to look upon the maker of the eyes. The truth of this relationship rings in the rhyme. Love is insisting that this is the relationship the persona was made for. The “marr’d” eyes, before they were marred, were created to look with joy upon God. So in this stanza we delve into the mystery of the relationship between the Creator and the created.

In the final stanza the persona pronounces himself fit only for hell – “where it doth deserve”. And this hell is out of the presence of Love. The loveless realms, out of relationship with Christ, away from the welcoming stranger who is at once so sweet and familiar – outside the room, into the darkness. But Love bids him closer again. In his admission of guilt and confession, the persona is converted. Love questions again – “who bore the blame?” Another rhetorical question: it is Christ who bore the blame for the sin that has marred the persona’s eyes, and his very self.

The persona’s response to his forgiveness is increased intimacy – he calls Love “my dear”, and his response is to “serve”. And then the poem climaxes with the Eucharist – Christ offering His flesh to the persona, and the persona finally accepting the invitation of the beginning and consuming it. It is a mystical, mysterious moment: the ultimate intimacy, in which Love enters the persona. The persona experiences Love, not merely by sight, or by hearing, feeling or smelling, but by actually tasting it, ingesting it, taking it into his own body. He becomes of the body of Christ, and Love dwells within him.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God… Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

(1 John 4:7, 8, 10-11)

Gone Native

When George Orwell was in Burma, he had a special interest and affinity with the Burmese, so much so that he got a set of tattoos that stayed with him for the rest of his life – little circles on his knuckles that the Burmese believed protected one from bullets and snake bites. It isn’t a matter of record how much he believed in the efficacy of the tattoos to really protect him from these things, of course, so one can only speculate how much he believed in Burmese spirituality. But it marked him out as different from the other sons of Empire. He had taken a step towards the culture of the land he lived in in a deeply intimate way.

It isn’t quite on the same level as getting a tattoo, but I felt like I crossed a threshold in my interaction with Chinese culture on Monday, when I experienced moxibustion for the first time. I have a complex relationship with Traditional Chinese Medicine. To the extent that I am culturally Chinese, it is supposed to be part of my culture, and since I feel some affinity to Chinese civilization in general I feel it is to some extent mine to claim. But I was brought up by two Western-trained doctors, and my childhood illnesses were all cured through the empirical, scientific methods of Western medicine. Interestingly, my mother, who was brought up with Chinese medicine, is pretty skeptical about it despite the fact that it saw her through her childhood, mainly because of just how unpleasant the treatments were. Growing up I received a very small amount of Chinese medicine in the form of certain foods and drinks that I ate when sick, since TCM places a strong emphasis on nutrition (a fact that makes it much more holistic than Western medicine really).

Anyhow, I went to a TCM practitioner with a friend to get a massage (who doesn’t love a massage?), and winded up getting talked into doing moxibustion as well. I have to admit, I was pretty scared. Traditional moxibustion involves burning mugwort on the skin to create a vacuum which sucks your flesh on your back into a small glass cup. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it) the lady didn’t use the traditional way of creating suction but rather had a modern machine which she attached the glass cup to. As I lay down on my front, she applied the contraption to my back in long strokes. It was a curious sensation, like being eaten by a giant octopus or a vacuum cleaner, and was painful when she repeated the strokes over the same flesh. And when she was done, I was left with angry, lurid, purple bruises on my back.

It wasn’t as though I didn’t expect to be bruised – I had seen the ugly cup marks on people’s backs before, and that was why I had been scared when presented with the moxibustion set. But I really hadn’t expected to get such angry looking bruises. I really looked like somebody had beaten me up with a huge bat. So it didn’t feel too bad at first, but by the time evening came around, my back was seriously sore. I couldn’t push my shoulder blades back to sit up straight because my flesh hurt when it touched the bruised parts. Lying on my back to sleep, I tried to stay as still as possible so I didn’t rub my back against anything, and I felt horrible the whole next day too.

There is something about allowing your body to be touched, or in this case, vacuumed, on the principle of another system of medicine that takes you to a whole other level of immersion in a culture. I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with this level of immersion. On the one hand, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe that this process was truly unblocking my qi, or getting rid of my toxins, cleansing me of some mysterious blockages in my system. But on the other, my empirical suffering and my skeptical parents cautioned that if the cure was worse than the disease, it made no sense to do something. I am in a liminal space between believing and not believing, between this culture which is both mine and not mine, and the one I was brought up with. On the one hand is a rich, mysterious heritage that promises a complete alternative understanding of the body, and on the other is a scientific, proof-based system that my parents trained in, but has its own limitations and flaws. So do I go native, or do I not?

Cultural Learnings

It’s been a whirlwind week of non-stop socializing with Christina here in Beijing, and it’s been a blast. I feel like I’ve met so many interesting people, both expats and locals, and learned so much about China just from having great conversations with people. I realized as I was talking to my parents last night just how happy I was because I couldn’t keep the joy out of my voice as I described things and people I had met.

I had a really sobering conversation with Sarah, a girl from Guangzhou who went to Beida to study Chinese literature and who works for a theatre company now in Beijing. She was describing her hometown, a small town in Guangzhou which she described as “wild”. When I asked what she meant by “wild”, she talked about how some outsiders came to town to do business and were killed by the locals, or how a school principal just stood by and didn’t do anything when one of his students was killed on the school premises. It isn’t safe to walk around holding your cellphone because someone might just come and snatch it away from you, and there might be gunfights on the street because there is a military garrison nearby and an illegal arms trade where the local gangs get guns from the military. She said the town was ruled by two large local gangs who have monopolized the bus routes out of the town, and that when the local government tried to build a public bus network with bus stops along the route, the bus stops were destroyed overnight by the gang. She also said that there was a 6-year-old girl who was murdered on the way to school because her father had gotten in trouble with one of the gangs. It was really quite shocking because my impression of China had been one of a strong state, not one with such “brown areas” of lawlessness. I guess I do project a lot of Singapore onto China, thinking of it as a giant version of my home country, when the truth is really very far from it. A systemic part of the problem is also how corrupt the officials are, allowing the gangs to continue their reign of terror and turning a blind eye to the grevious injustices that are perpetrated on the populace.

She was also describing the local traditions and cultural practices, in particular the religious parade during Spring Festival, in which children are dressed up as gods and paraded down the street, and the spirit of gods enter a particular person during the parade so that he acts crazy and other people worship him. While in this trance, he might pierce his mouth with a stick and not bleed or feel pain. Sarah was lamenting that these cultural practices are being increasingly abandoned by younger people and the turnout for the parade is smaller each passing year. It really made me wonder what I thought of such practices and whether I thought they were desirable or not. I think on the one hand as a consumer of traditional culture – as a tourist, in other words – I would lament the loss of such practices, because of the urge to experience something different or ‘authentic’ about a foreign country which I am visiting/living in. But that requires a certain remove from the culture, to appreciate it only on the level of performance. As a Christian, on the other hand, I cannot ignore the spiritual dimension to these cultural practices, and to me they sound like demonic possession, which I can only say unequivocally is undesirable. Am I, then, as a Christian, for the spread of monolithic culture and against diversity and cultural heritage?

It’s easy to approve of culture when it is divorced from its spiritual content – when theatre has been secularized and is no longer an offering to the gods but rather a commercial product for consumption, or when parades are held by the state and emptied of religious content (like Chingay in Singapore). But much of traditional culture is intrinsically linked with traditional religion and spirituality. It’s not easy to divorce the two, and converting away from traditional religion often means cutting yourself off from community and its cultural practices, which is why Chinese Christians face a heart-wrenching choice when they choose to convert, and also face the criticism that they are turning their back on their culture. The easy answer to this is to Christianize the cultural practices, to let Christ redeem the culture, but what does that look like in practice?

Tangentially related was Kate’s question to me about praying for our ancestors, as she prepares to sweep her grandmother’s tomb in Sichuan. She asked me how I pray for my ancestors because I mentioned that I did, and I told her my logic for doing so. I believe that God, being outside time, can take prayers of future generations into account for people who have already passed, since he is not constrained by time the way we are. So I think it makes perfect sense to pray for people who lived on earth before our time, or who have already passed away, much the same way that you can pray for future generations who have not come into being yet. So I don’t pray to my ancestors, but I do pray to God for them, for their souls, for their knowledge of God and for blessings in their lives. It is my way of honoring them and loving them, even the ones whom I’ve never met. After all, time and space are mysterious things which we do not entirely understand the working of, and I am certain that my prayers have an effect and power. Being in China I increasingly wonder about the people who generated me who lived in this country and were part of this culture, and wonder how similar their minds were to the people I meet here today.

I was just describing the flexibility and pragmatism of the mainland Chinese people to my parents, and how different it is from rigid, law-abiding Singaporeans, and my mother mentioned that her mother’s generation thought in the same way as well, and that it was only with Lee Kwan Yew’s imposition of law and regulations and rule through fear that the mindset of Chinese Singaporeans changed. It is a pretty remarkable feat to change the wiley, rule-bending, loophole-finding flexibility of a Chinese into the rigid, sometimes one-track-mind, law-abiding, rule-following straight-forwardness of a modern Singaporean, and my mum pointed out that it’s only something that could have been accomplished through fear. Being in China has opened my mind to a whole different way of doing things, the flexibility of grey areas, the arbitrariness of rules and a certain….creativity. While Americans are open to the vastness of possibility out of a sense of boundless optimism, the Chinese are open to possibility because they refuse to believe that the rules apply to them – they can always be bent if one has the right connections and approach. There is more than one way to do things, and you never take no for an answer.

The commercial rehabilitation of Yang Guifei

It seems that many of the people working in the tourism industry of Xi’an make their money from commissions on jade. At least, that’s the impression I got after spending three days there, during two of which Xuwen and I were hauled off quite against our will to jade emporiums via obvious tourist traps, once when we were on a Eastern tour to see the Terracotta Warriors and Hua Ching Chi, where we were dragged to an absolute rip off of a tourist canteen for lunch which had a jade emporium attached to it (the food was obviously made out of ingredients that assured the lowest cost price possible), a second time during the tour while we were at the Hua Ching Chi, and a third time the next day when we were driven to a jade emporium by our friendly black car, who had offered a suspiciously low rate to get us to Da Yan Ta, or Big Goose Pagoda, but had an ulterior motive.

Anyway, it was interesting to note that the famed Tang dynasty capital’s tourism industry painted a particularly glowing picture of Yang Guifei, which really surprised me as growing up I was fed the usual misogynistic stuff about her being the downfall of empires and whatnot by driving the emperor (Xuanzong) to distraction and being the cause of a rebellion. That is, until I realized that they were using her to, of course, sell jade.

At the Hua Ching Chi, where she had her own private bath in the hot spring that still survives today, in the shape of a beautiful lotus and purportedly lined in jade at the time, there stood an explicit, nude statue of her wearing nothing except two jade bangles. The tour guide assured us that she wore Fu Rong Yu (lotus jade – a pink, translucent jade) on her left arm and regular green jade on her right. Whether this is true or merely excellent marketing for Fu Rong Yu, I’m uncertain. But Fu Rong, or lotus, was supposed to be Xuanzong’s nickname for her, and that’s why the jade is named as such.

Yang Guifei is a natural match for the jade industry, of course, because her name, Yang Guihuan, () means jade loop. As a region with hot springs and fault lines, Shaanxi is also a region that produces jade, of which the Lan Tian Yu (蓝田玉)is most famous and celebrated in ancient historical writings.

The tour guide claimed that Emperor Xuanzong gave Yang Guifei Fu Rong Yu as a love gift, subtly hinting that any gentlemen in the audience should do the same for their women. In any case the marketing worked (although retrospectively, since I succumbed to the delicate prettiness of the milky pink stone before I went to Hua Ching Chi), as I am now the proud owner of a Fu Rong Yu bangle, which I bought in the first tourist trap. The jade saleswomen claimed it had all sorts of health and beauty benefits, including being good for the skin, the ability to whiten skin if you rinse it with white vinegar and use the vinegar to wash your face, and other dubious hokum clearly directed at modern Chinese beauty obsessions. It didn’t say anything about making you more fleshy, like Yang Guifei’s famously full figure (the nude statue was carved on 1990s beauty standards, and is quite slender).

It was interesting that Yang Guifei’s story has become one of an enduring love story, rather than the rather frightening political intrigue that I grew up learning about. Emperor Xuanzong, after all, ends up ordering her death under pressure from his guards when the rebellion breaks out, though he does mourn her death bitterly. A musical performance at the Hua Ching Chi was supposed to celebrate their enduring love, and a couple of trees supposedly planted by the pair up the mountain overlooking the Hua Ching Chi is strewn with red ribbons of other couples wanting to declare their undying love. I doubt any of them tied their red sashes to the grate hoping their love stories would also end in politically-required murder.

Is Yang Guifei’s commercial rehabilitation a good thing? Well, it probably is, at least for the jade industry and local economy. She is portrayed more or less like an ancient celebrity, whose outstanding taste and love of pleasure (lychees, hot spring jade baths, jade bangles) the rising middle class are encouraged to emulate and buy a little piece of. It is certainly nice that one of the few famous women of ancient China is portrayed in a more positive light rather than being blamed for the demise of a dynasty, seeing as the rise and fall of dynasties are multi-causal and quite inevitable (it seems) by a certain time.

One interesting admirer and emulator of Yang Guifei’s taste was the rather unlikely Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), who also lived at Hua Ching Chi during the Chinese Civil War, and was in fact held hostage there. He was so taken by the lotus-shaped hot spring bath that Yang had used that he had one made in the exact same design for himself, though presumably didn’t line it with jade. It is amusing to think of the Generalissimo and self-styled emperor bathing in such a feminine bath, but then Yang Guifei does cast a long shadow.

Reading Kant in China

Went to Edwin’s courtyard school yesterday for his lesson on Kant, and it was a truly interesting experience for the insight into what Chinese teenagers think about morality. These were smart eighteen year olds on a break between their high school and entering top American universities, from top schools like Dulwich college (one of the most expensive private schools in China) and No. 4 Middle School. Their English was excellent – they were talking about Kant and understanding it – and it was clearly an enjoyable class for them.

What became very obvious from the beginning was that any appeal to God as a final arbiter of morality held no credence for them. “Did Kant believe in God?” asked Jenny, a younger girl. She was disappointed to hear that he did. “How could he believe in both God and reason?” – she found the two mutually incompatible. “What if God said one day that torture is OK, how would that be reasonable?”

They also found it difficult to get their heads around the categorical imperative. The idea of an embedded moral law  seemed not to appeal to Harry, a student who seemed to have the most experience reading philosophy. “My categorical imperative is that I want to be happy,” he said. “My genes make me seek my own happiness. I call it personal utilitarianism.”

His “personal utilitarianism”, or strategic selfishness, is based on seeking his own happiness and ensuring other people’s happiness to the extent that it does not interfere with his own. When it is pointed out that his imperative is hypothetical instead of categorical, because it is caused by something (i.e. his genes), he is profoundly dissatisfied, convinced he has come up with a completely workable system of ethics, informed, it seems to me, by a combination of evolutionary theory and Adam Smith’s invisible hand. He even illustrated it on the white board with the title “Harry” over it, in place of “Kant”.

Edwin remarked that they seem natural Republicans  – believing strongly in the need for free markets because self-interest would ensure individual efforts lead to wealth and success. In fact there is little consideration given to ethics at all. When asked if there was even a need for an ethical system, Harry paused and seemed to seriously consider whether there was a need for such a thing.

“Kant would have said that, if he observed your actual behavior, you would still follow a moral law,” says Edwin. Harry seems unconvinced that such a thing could live within him. “Perhaps tonight as you walk home and look up into the starry heavens above, you will find the moral law within you,” Edwin adds at the end of class, a little sardonically.

I wondered later what Kant would have made of Chinese teenagers in 2015. Would he have been so certain of himself about the universality of the moral law found within us if he had met them? I am a Kantian myself; I believe in the moral law. But in the face of the deeply self-assured, cheerfully amoral teenager perfectly happy to prioritize his own happiness and cynically keeping others just the right amount of happy in order for them to leave him be, I have to question whether this is truly something universal.

This is not to say that the students’ instincts are so different from my own. They don’t see the point in not lying to a murderer who would track down his victim to their door – “that’s a white lie, so the universal maxim for that is that it’s OK to tell white lies,” said Eric, another boy in the class. They would prefer to consult a dying person missing one vital organ before donating his four other organs to other dying people in need of organs; they wouldn’t kill him without asking him first. As for the famous trolley problem, they would probably pull the lever to direct a runaway trolley to kill one person rather than four, but would not push a fat man off a bridge to save them. Perhaps this speaks of a universally shared set of instincts? But of course each of these thought experiments are meant to manipulate one into thinking in a particular way.

There is definitely a sense of impatience at the abstract quality of philosophical puzzles. “Why can’t we just talk to them?” asks Harry of both the dying patients and the murderer at the door. “I don’t have enough information to make a decision.” The theoretical is dismissed as irrelevant because it doesn’t have any bearing on everyday situations, in which a decision would depend on many more factors. A certain flexibility and pragmatism is reflected in these responses.

I asked Edwin if any of them seemed at all influenced by Marxism, which is after all, taught to all students in school. “Their interaction with Marxism is only in the most superficial way. There is definitely no concern for equality of outcome whatsoever. When was the last time you ever heard a Chinese person complain about inequality?”