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Posts Tagged ‘China’

Embankment House

December 16, 2015 | by

Lessons from a building in Shanghai.

Shanghai’s Embankment House.

Among Shanghai’s many architectural gems is a sprawling, curved edifice that was once the largest apartment building in Asia, a building that more than half a century ago played a role in saving many thousands of lives. It’s set just on the north side of Suzhou Creek, a small river whose course has been hemmed in by concrete, and whose polluted contents are still routinely netted by illegal fishermen—mostly, to judge by their catch, in search of the famous Shanghai hairy crab. On the southern bank, there’s a small section of a walking path, which in the fall is hung with the heavy sweet fragrance of osmanthus blossoms, and which attracts elderly taiji practitioners, smoking office workers out for their lunch break, young couples, and a lone tenor saxophonist, who shows up every morning before eight and doesn’t leave until just before dark. Behind them is the heavy stone architecture of the Bund and a pair of neon gods, the Oriental Pearl Tower and the gigantic trapezoidal Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s eighth tallest skyscraper.

All this I can observe from a window overlooking the creek, the only window in my tenth-floor studio. The unrenovated apartments are stacked up next to one another, so only the apartments on the ends and around the curved courtyard have more than one window. The building draws breezes through central airshafts that have cleverly been left open, providing essential ventilation in the muggy Shanghai summers. People stack plants on the sills there and hang their laundry to dry in the spiraling wafts from below. Read More »

The Most Mysterious Hyphen in Literature, and Other News

December 14, 2015 | by

“The Voyage of the Pequod,” 1956. One of twelve literary maps based on British and American literature produced by the Harris-Seybold Company.

  • Punctuation was once the stuff of radical experimentation; today it tends to be the site of tired grammatical debates, the kind that feel antiquated a mere decade or so after they first got people riled up. David Crystal’s book Making a Point hopes to assuage our punctuation anxiety: “In Old English manuscripts, punctuation is idiosyncratic; to denote word divisions, writers tried a variety of strategies: dots, spaces, ‘camel case’ (that is, using capital letters rather than spaces ToMarkTheBeginningsOfNewWords). Then the rise of printing created the demand for a standardized system … A 2007 Daily Mail article titled ‘I h8 txt msgs’ had declared that ‘SMS vandals’ were ‘pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ Crystal rebuffed these drastic claims: the supposed ‘innovations’ of texting, he notes—abbreviations, omitted letters, ideograms, nonstandard spellings—have been features of the language for centuries.”
  • Melville must’ve been an intimate of punctuation anxiety; Moby-Dick has a hyphen that seems to disappear and reappear at will. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Did he intend to put it there at all? “Thomas Tanselle writes that Melville’s brother, Allan, made a last-minute change to the title of the American edition. ‘[Melville] has determined upon a new title,’ his brother wrote. ‘It is thought here that the new title will be a better selling title … Moby-Dick is a legitimate title for the book.’ The American edition went to press, hyphen intact, despite the fact that the whale within was only referred to with a hyphen one time … It’s still unclear whether Melville, who didn’t use a hyphen inside the book, chose a hyphen for the book’s title or whether his brother punctuated the title incorrectly. Whether you chalk it up to typographical error, long-obsolete custom or authorial intention, the hunt for the true story behind Moby-Dick’s hyphen continues.”
  • Living life on the Gregorian calendar is okay—the days go by, the weeks go by, the months go by, the years go by. Break up the tedium by overlaying some other markers on your worldly existence: by reading fiction, say. “Memorable novels have a way of affixing a secondary story to themselves, a plot that touches tangentially, if at all, upon the plot of the book. Sometimes you recall a novel chiefly for the circumstances under which it was absorbed … It’s one of the keenest and least replaceable pleasures I know—the sense, native to a capacious novel, of existing simultaneously inside two calendars. One plot steadily proceeds and it is called Your Life; it’s the old, ongoing, errand-filled business of your datebook. The other plot is new; it’s called The Novel You’re Reading, and it unfolds with its own errands, its own weather and its own zodiac.”
  • Today in cover judging: hats off to our art editor, Charlotte Strick, whose design for the reissue of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge is among the New York Timestwelve best covers of the year.
  • China’s approach to film ratings (it doesn’t have them) and censorship (plenty of that, though) reflects a nervous ideological tension—and it results in some programming choices that feel frankly bizarre to a Western audience. “Its constraints on what may appear on screen represent a laundry list of the state’s anxieties. Content must not ‘endanger’ China’s unity, security or honor. It also should not ‘twist’ history, feature explicit sex or gambling, advocate ‘the supremacy of religion’ or ‘meticulously describe fortune-telling.’ Playing up violence is prohibited, in theory … A Chinese film released in 2006, Curse of the Golden Flower, was given a rating in America that required those under seventeen to be accompanied by an adult because of its violent scenes. But these scenes were left uncut when it was screened in China. Viewers were given no warning about them. On TV The Patriot (Yue Fei), a popular historical drama, commonly features long fights with bloody swords, arrows through the heart and dripping corpses. It currently airs on one channel in the early afternoon.”

Hey, Are You Really Dead? And Other News

November 30, 2015 | by

Christian Eisenbrandt’s 1843 design for a “life-preserving coffin,” with breathing holes and an easy-open lid, to be used in the case of the doubtful dead.

  • Primo Levi died in 1987, after he tumbled over a railing in his apartment building in Turin. The consensus held that this was a suicide, but the publication of The Complete Works of Primo Levi has, at least in some quarters, renewed the debate. Tim Parks has chosen his side: “The three biographers—Ian Thomson, Carole Angiers, and Myriam Anissimov—who worked intensely on Levi’s life, interviewing most of those who knew him, all speak of his suicide as fact. The police on the scene concluded that the death could only have been suicide, this for the simple reason that one does not take a ‘tumble over a railing’ in a Turin apartment block … Given that Levi’s instinct was always to encourage the reader to confront the hardest of facts and not take refuge in any comfort zone, we owe it to him to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of the way he died. His suicide does not diminish his work or his dignity.”
  • While we’re on matters of life and death—when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she drew on a fierce and as-yet unresolved debate between two surgeons, John Abernethy and William Lawrence, about the blurry boundary between the living and the dead: “Questions were asked about how to define life, and how living bodies were different to dead or inorganic bodies. Abernethy argued that life did not depend upon the body’s structure, the way it was organized or arranged, but existed separately as a material substance, a kind of vital principle, ‘superadded’ to the body. His opponent, Lawrence, thought this a ridiculous idea and instead understood life as simply the working operation of all the body’s functions, the sum of its parts. Lawrence’s ideas were seen as being too radical: they seemed to suggest that the soul, which was often seen as being akin to the vital principle, did not exist either.”
  • Today in Propaganda for Kids™: in China, publishing for children is still geared to less-than-subtle ends. “Parents and the state still believe the primary role of such works is to shape young minds, not amuse them … The moral is often laid on thick. One provincial publisher (state-owned, like all of them) has titled a six-volume set of nursery rhymes ‘A Good Father Is Better Than a Good Teacher.’ Chinese-language versions of foreign classics often proclaim their didactic worth: Paddington, a marmalade-loving bear from darkest Peru, is a model of ‘thoughtfulness, modesty and self-discipline.’ ”
  • Marlon James believes the publishing industry panders to white women, pursuing fiction that “panders to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’ … If I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particularly older white female critics, I would have had 10 stories published by now … Though we’ll never admit it, every writer of colour knows that they stand a higher chance of getting published if they write this kind of story. We just do.”
  • Some have claimed that poetry today has no appeal to the common man. If that’s true, why has Kobe Bryant chosen to announce his NBA retirement in verse? Featuring such lyrical turns of phrase as “my dad’s tube socks” and “garbage can in the corner,” Bryant’s poem, “Dear Basketball,” may well show up in anthologies before his jersey number has been retired.

Western Culture Claustrophobia, and Other News

October 23, 2015 | by

Performance view of Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bonjour, 2015.

  • The artist Ragnar Kjartansson lives in fear (and bemused disgust) of what he’s dubbed “Western culture claustrophobia.” “It’s everywhere!” he’s said: “The same desire for this Western properness is everywhere—it’s like a big block of marble that is hanging all over the world and it’s getting bigger and bigger.” He’s doing his part to chip away at that marble sky with the most radical force of destruction known to man: performance art. His new piece, Bonjour, “takes place on a faux-outdoor set conceived to be as generically French as possible … Real-life actors play two characters, a man and a woman who live near one another and are brought together by a chance encounter at a fountain … The man and the woman say the only word of dialogue, ‘Bonjour,’ to each other … After their greeting, they return to their respective homes and go to sleep, and the piece, which will be on repeat during the duration of the exhibition, begins again.”
  • Proust had his madeleine. Nell Zink has her Friskies: “It had been a long while since I’d seen cat food up close. I opened the bag and crouched to pour it into a bowl on the floor. Instantly I was transported back to my earliest youth. The pantry floor in our house in Corona. My face close to the cats’ food dish. My hand in the dish. The sharply disappointing flavor. Greasy dust integral to crumbly, salmon-pink x shapes, crosses faintly reminiscent of a game of jacks … I knew the brand very, very intimately.”
  • Mind-body dualism: like, is there any bigger drag in all of philosophy? Most analytic philosophers subscribe to some version of physicalism—the theory that the mind is made of the same stuff as the body, and that indeed everything in the universe is made of physical stuff—but dualism remains dismayingly prevalent out among laymen. Where did it come from? “The idea of separation between soul and body may have assumed cultural dominance because of the new importance of political rhetoric within the large urbanized city-states that were formed in fifth-century Greece. The rhetorician and philosopher Gorgias, who was a generation older than Plato, wrote a virtuosic essay arguing that Helen was not to blame for the Trojan War because she was the victim of rhetorical persuasion. This piece … is the earliest surviving evidence of a Greek author making a systematic distinction between body and soul. Gorgias argues that the soul may be powerless against the body—an argument developed in awareness that people often act against their own best interests.”
  • You’ve probably been reading the old, unannotated Bartleby, the Scrivener, haven’t you? That’s why everyone’s laughing at you. They’re all reading the slick new annotated version, which features glosses of criticism by everyone from J. Hillis Miller to Gilles Deleuze—and which airs, on at least one occasion, the theory that Bartelby may be dead for the entire novel, in a kind of Sixth Sense­–ish way.
  • In which Chen Li talks to an old Chinese blacksmith about his working life: “One year, a typhoon blew a foreign ship from the inner to the outer bay, slashing it in half and leading to the death of several foreigners. The coffin shop sent for him and had him deliver some thicker iron nails to the shop to fasten the coffins. Two weeks later, he returned to collect his due. While he was walking into that dark, long, and narrow shop—Oh my, what the heck—someone climbed out of a coffin! Turned out that was the master of the shop; he said it was a cool place to take his midday nap.”

More Sweetly Play the Dance

October 6, 2015 | by

William Kentridge’s elaborate danse macabre.

William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, eight-channel video installation with four megaphones, 15 minutes. All photos © William Kentridge, courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Dance has always been aware of death: it lingers just off to the side of the stage, waiting for the performance to end. William Dunbar’s 1508 poem “Lament for the Makers” describes two “state[s] of man”: “Now dansand mirry, now like to die.” In other words, you’re either dancing or dead. Death in the poem is personified as a sort of efficient businessman, doing his best to knock people out of the dance. The more familiar character of Death—the cloaked, scythe-bearing skeleton who fulfills his duties like an overworked godly employee—was around even before Dunbar, an invention of the medieval period, which remains the most productive time in human history for imagining deathly personifications. People then seemed less resistant to death than they are now, perhaps because the threat was omnipresent: one could die from the plague, childbirth, decapitation, infection, or even of indigestion, as Martin of Aragon did at a feast in 1410.

The danse macabre, or death dance, another medieval invention, was an allegorical way of resisting as well as respecting the force of death. It comprises a chain of dancers, some living and others skeletons, moving together toward a grave—death being the equalizing force that brings all of us together, finally. Some more modern dances, like the tarantella, present themselves as assertions of survival, proving that one is still alive despite mortal injury. When we dance, the thinking goes, we are at the most alive we can be. Likewise, when we stop dancing, we die. Read More »

The Blue-shirts

September 29, 2015 | by

Xi Jinping at the China Victory Day Parade in Beijing earlier this month. Photo via Jalopnik

China’s president Xi Jinping has just left the U.S. after his first state visit, though you’d hardly know it to read the papers; his stay was overshadowed by a certain pontiff. Americans, if they know Xi at all, have likely seen a certain image of him from earlier this month in Beijing: he’s standing in a sleek open-roofed black car, riding past a huge crowd of people waving tiny Chinese flags. He looks almost sheepish, or bored, or, more likely, hot. The weather that day pushed ninety degrees, and Xi is wearing a high-collared black jacket that toes the line between a traditional Chinese tangzhuang and a Western-style suit.

The occasion was a massive military parade (perhaps better translated as a showing of the troops) in Beijing, in early September, which marked the seventieth anniversary of the Chinese defeat of invading Japanese forces, known in the West as the end of the WWII and here as the “Anti-Japanese War.” There were two main articles about the parade in the English-language China Daily at the time, one about the “beautiful lady” troops (with a special photo spread of smiling young women in uniform) and one a feature on a pair of older generals who had lost more than ten kilograms each in their effort to get into fighting shape for the parade.

The Chinese coverage was more along these lines: “On the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the victory, we commemorate the heroic and indomitable Chinese people, fighting bloody battles and making tremendous sacrifices, defeating ferocious Japanese invaders and safeguarding China’s independence and national pride.” (That’s from the People’s Daily.) Read More »