Thursday, September 18, 2008


We visited Shanghai last weekend, as the Mid-Autumn Festival gave us a useful 4-day weekend. Cherry hadn't been there for about seventeen years, so I imagine the city she has vague, childhood memories of is almost entirely gone.

With the exception of the Bund, with its nineteenth century banks and hotels, the city has been reinventing itself yearly, even monthly since the mid-1990's. Pudong has sprouted shining stalagmites in the new financial heart of the city across the river from the neogothic and art nouveau edifices in the Bund. Pudong was cabbage fields when Cherry last visited this city.

We visited a Turkish restaurants--so that I could get my fix--and ascended the Pearl of the Orient tower to get views, as high-flying scavenger birds might, of the spiny caracass below. We enjoyed breakfast with Uighurs in a beautiful old neighborhood north of Suzhou Creek that has mostly disappeared beneath the hubris and shadows cast by glass-encased towers. I felt very sad to see some of these unique streetcorners vanishing beneath cement and marble facade.

Facade is, in fact, the best way to consider Shanghai. This is a city that sells and buys everything, but half of that everything is a fake. That includes the shining towers that project above the underlying swamp, mist, and miasma. Statistics say that at least 60% of the business real-estate in Shanghai is empty, tenantless. So beautiful and (hopefully) structurally sound, these skyscrapers may be, but they are still mostly false-fronts for a wild west business environment that snares the unwary and the gullible. I imagine--in my more hopeful moments--that this will eventually change, that the real-estate market will eventually slow to more realistically model demand, and that the skyscrapers will fill up with busy little amoebas in suits. I imagine that real-estate owners may also take more pride in the upkeep of their buildings then. Currently it seems that new locations are projects pop up so quickly that landlords have little incentive to take care of their previous acquisitions. Even simple things, like dusting off their glassy hides, just doesn't seem to happen. More worryingly, interior fixtures rapidly crumble because corners were cut and cheap furnishings furnished. Quality has been sacrificed for speed and quantity.

That said, there is also plenty of quality to be found in Shanghai as well. Substance and false-fronts seem to coexist here. Dining with Cherry's relations in a high-class restaurant in the oddly named 'Super Brand Mall' in Pudong, we enjoyed subtle dishes (a nice change of pace from the blaring spice and oil of Chongqing/Sichuan cuisine) and a night view straight across the river to the Bund and the city center beyond. The expat element is also worth mentioning, as Shanghai is one of the few genuinely cosmopolitan cities I've encountered in China. And Shanghai, unlike many others, is very comfortable in its role as a portal between China and the outside world. This is not just a sycophancy upon world trends, an addictive dependancy, or a parasitic seller of cheap goods. Shanghai gives the impression that it will soon (if not already) become a setter of trends, rather than a follower. Shanghai has been given an almost unique opportunity by its history as an international concession where no one sovereign ruled. In more than one way, this is a place where cultures blend, and one of China's very few spots where cultures melt together into something new, rather than assimilate. This is New York in China.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Speaking of Massacres...

We visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial (the actual name is much longer, much more unwieldy) last weekend. This had been my second visit, the last being in spring of 2006.

The spot was chosen carefully--the museum lies atop a mass burial site used by Japanese troops to dispose of some grisly Chinese remains. I remembered that part of the memorial quite well: there just aren't so many places in the world where you can come face to face with a moldering pile of massacred skeletons. Literally inches between the skin of your nose and a rictus smile of polished bone.

The new setup seems well-designed, reminiscent of Yad Vashem or the Vietnam War Memorial. The enclosure is a barren sea of gravel, baking under the sun. That alone would make most visitors begin to feel uncomfortable (which might be the point). If that didn't get the point across, the entry point through a jagged, cleaved boulder, or the burnt remnants of dead trees standing vigil near the excavated skeletons would probably do the trick. A massive statue dismembered into two parts, (another part I remembered well from my last visit) a hand clawing up from beneath the gravel, and a despairing woman's face certainly make one wonder whether a race of giants was also subject to Japanese torments. Also, some aspects--like the aforementioned trees and boulder, or a large bell--actually seem more mysterious than germane.

The walk to the entrance has been transformed, with a serene stream passing beneath horrific statues depicting: a raped woman holding her dead baby son; an old man reaching out in a physically-impossible bent postures with zombie-like hands clawing at the distance, a dead baby frozen to its dead mother's chest by a mixture of blood, milk, and tears; a teacher holding the falling body of his ghostly wife, etc. Captions explain, somewhat poetically, each episode of the horrors contained within the museum.

A bell tolls for the dead, as one enters the museum proper. Walls are duly inscribed with the names, some substituted with nicknames when the proper name is not known (Xiao Mao-mao, translated as little fur-fur, for example, is a suitable Chinese endearment for a baby boy). A drop of water falls into a pool every seven seconds (I think) to demonstrate the rate of loss of life during the period of Japanese occupation of Nanjing. A total of around 300,000 dead is claimed, some 16,000 of which are completely verifiable according to research recently compiled and released by the Chinese government.

The museum has an amazing collection, and does a very good job of taking its visitors through the immediate prelude to war, onslaught of Japanese aggression in and around Nanjing and Shanghai, the battle to capture Nanjing, a variety of Japanese war propaganda (much of it thoughtfully provided by the Japanese themselves, particularly the Sino-Japanese Peace Society), the occupation, the various horrors of that occupation--including special sections devoted to rape, pillage, arson, Chinese shot, Chinese burned, Chinese drowned, Chinese sliced by samurai swords, and a wax reenactment of a typical Chinese home with about ten various members of the family lying dead in various positions within--the foreign residents who set up an international safety zone for protecting Chinese refuges, the puppet regime, and the post-war attempts at truth and reconciliation on the matter of the Nanjing massacre*.

(*Note: some people refer to this as 'the Rape of Nanking' which seems like a typical news headline manner of description, and although rape is a terrible thing in itself, the name perhaps doesn't address the many other atrocities that occurred.)

Then--and at this point the museum was closing, so the security guards were not-too-subtly prodding the remaining visitors along--the museum recounts the entire history of Japanese aggression in China during WWII. That will be interesting to explore at another point in time (the museum is now free of charge, so I doubtlessly will visit again at some point), but didn't seem like a very good museum design choice, considering that most visitors are probably physically and emotionally exhausted by the time they get to that portion of the museum.

Overall a memorial well suited to truth and reconciliation. There was even a brief wall at the end of the museum detailing recent peaceful relations between the PRC and Japan.

This sort of museum--intentionally--puts one in a reflective mood. But my reflections may be somewhat controversial to many, including Japanese, Americans, Chinese, Turks, and Kurds. The question it puts in my mind is the unfolding, equal-opportunity nature of atrocity. Every human may find his or herself capable of atrocity. Situations change over the centuries, and an aggrieved people will suddenly find themselves in an opportune position to exact retribution, to ethnically 'cleanse' lands they feel are rightfully theirs, to right wrongs with further wrongs, or just to set aside the burden of compassionate humanity and indulge in an atavistic surge of rage, greed, or lust. Lest readers assume that I'm pointing fingers here, lets start with the US. We certainly have had our moments, in gifting small-pox blankets upon the natives of our beautiful land, in incinerating two Japanese cities (surely including vast numbers of civilians) rather than sacrificing committed soldiers, in the numerically smaller tragedies and travesties of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

So the Japanese have memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to commemorate the wrong done to them. The Chinese have this memorial to commemorate the wrong done to them. Perhaps the stateless Tibetans, Tatars, and Uighurs have meager memorials to the injustices done to them, lost among the sands of remote deserts or amongst the prayer flags strewn atop the Himalayan peaks. The Jews have Yad Vashem, yet they continue the madness of allowing criminal settlers to occupy Palestinian land and their security establishment to partition Palestinian villages and olive groves. The Armenians point their fingers at the Turks, and the Turks point their fingers at the Armenians. The Kurds helped to cleanse Armenians from eastern Anatolia, but their own identity has been until recently criminalized in those same parts. As my Kurdish friend Dino once stated to me, "The Turks like to kill. I don't know why." But in Iraq, the Kurds are also busy cleansing Turkomen and Yazidi from Kirkuk. Modern day Christians like to feel aggrieved in remembrance of 9/11 terrorist plots. Modern day Muslims still feel aggrieved by the rape and pillage they experienced at Christian hands during the crusades.

These are but a few examples, and I can already imagine the haranguing I might receive from Turkish, Kurdish, and Chinese friends for even stating this comparison. There is a basic hypocrisy inherent in our inability to recognize the genocidal impulse as a basic human impulse shared by all races, religions, creeds, and nationalities of man. Certainly every nation or ethnicity that has found itself in a position of strength has abused that position with any number of atrocities, merely a macrocosm to the corruption power accomplishes as well with individual people. Can there be such a thing as a great nation or great people, whose shining city was not built upon a hill of broken bones and angry ghosts? I've always felt that this is exactly the reason why modern day horror stories always make a strong tie between guilt and fright. The shambling form of Samara, faceless behind her long black tresses, confronts us with the knowledge that all of us were born through the forgotten acts of treachery and atrocity of our ancestors. History may have been written by those of us who survived off the flesh of our fellows during the hard times, the lean times, but the guilt of it cannot be shaken. We all own this.

The second question engendered in my mind by the unsymmetrical halls of Nanjing's memorial: why should atrocity be controversial? Certainly it is horrible, and should be protested, should be ended and never again revisited by the humanity. But I wonder sometimes, why we put such special emphasis on the various genocides and massacres of the World War era. There is nothing particularly special about them, when ranked against the entire human history of civilizations.

Why should there not, for example, be memorials to the numerous cities sacked, raped, and burned to the ground... multiple times, no less... by such luminaries as Julius Caesar, Timurlane, Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, et al. Is this just the fading effect that history has on our memories? If you go back far enough, even the currently peaceable Tibetans were playing polo with the severed heads of their enemies. Rape and pillage are mentioned numberless times in the histories of all world civilizations, and genocide crops up fairly often as well, but why do these atrocities bear special mention when Hitler, Stalin, or various Japanese generals are at the head of the dirty deed rather than some forgotten Babylonian, Hittite, or Qin dynasty general?

Do we really have such a high opinion of 'modern man' that we would assume ourselves incapable of the basest human traits? Have we, by inventing light bulbs and Morse code and calculators that fit in one's pocket, somehow gone through some miraculous mutation that puts us above the obscenities seemingly hard-coded into our behavior? I think this is an utterly unrealistic lesson to derive from human history. Razed to the ground, raped into submission, enslaved generation upon generation, tortured or flayed or crucified when submission could not be had by any other means. These are descriptions of average towns and cities throughout the last 7,000 + years of human history that happened to get in the way of bored military men and spoiled god-kings. Atrocity, in this sense, is a banality. Taboo, but nonetheless a common thing.

Our modernity--our time in space, technological progress, and social development--no more than our religion, credo, nationality, or ethnicity, does not put us past the nightmares we are all capable of inflicting on the world. I don't question the need to memorialize horrors of modern times, or the need to put a stop to the horrors that are ongoing. I do think our denial of the universal nature of abomination is just as dangerous as would be forgetting the facts and origins of abomination. Not only is it petty and self-serving to trivialize the tragedies experienced by our rivals and enemies, but it is an extremely dangerous habit in such an overpopulated and overly weaponized world.

The memorial of our worst tragedies must also be a reminder of our worst capabilities, lest it become little more than a score-sheet from which to foster the atrocities of tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Nanjing Ninjutsu

Nanjing vs. Chongqing

I've moved from Chongqing to Nanjing for the coming year; I will be teaching at the Nanjing College of Information Technology, starting Friday. I figure a little background on my environs would be useful in understanding and imagining the stories I will tell.

Chongqing city proper has about 7 million denizens, Nanjing has about 6 million although it comprises a much smaller land area. Nanjing is a cleaner, greener city that has 22 universities and colleges, and numerous parks including a large lake near the middle of the city, the most complete ancient city walls remaining in China, and Zijin Mountain where famed first president of China, Sun Yat-sen lies buried.

Ancient Nanjing

One of my friends who lived here in Nanjing for a time told me this story:

When the first emperor to unite all of China, Chin Shi Huang, of the Chin Dynasty, had completed his conquests and lay tired on his throne in the ancient city of Chang'an (now called Xi'an), he asked that the greatest geomancer (Feng Shui expert) be brought before him to consult. The emperor wished to know the best location in China to establish the seat of the empire, and if there were any locations that might by their energy forces provide a rival to his throne.

The geomancer told the emperor that there was one place with such good feng shui that it could not help but to produce a rival to the emperor's throne: Nanjing.

The emperor, perplexed, asked if there was anything to be done about this possible threat. The geomancer, backed by the emperor's forces, built a canal to drain away the good feng shui of Nanjing. Thus, while several dynasties, including the Southern Song Dynasty, the early Ming Dynasty, and the Nationalist government (before retreating to Chongqing in WWII, and before retreating to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War) have made Nanjing their capital, few have lasted there for very long.

Modern Times

Today's Nanjing is a city of government (seat of Jiangsu Province), a city of gardens, and a city of students. With twenty-two universities, young people abound in the streets and exotic cuisine is available for the many foreign teachers and students who come to live here for a time. Some of the older universities (Nanjing U., Nanjing Normal U., SouthEast U.) will be exactly a hundred years old next year.

One key difference between Nanjing and Chongqing which we noticed almost immediately is that the air here seems fresher. That could be partly because the rather flatter landscape allows the winds to blow away smog at a faster rate than in the narrow, hilly river valleys that comprise Chongqing. Another reason is that this is a much greener city, with gardens and campuses seemingly around every corner. Walking along a tree-lined boulevard, I could actually smell some of the summer smells which I had grown accustomed to in rural Michigan. Speaking of the trees, giant sycamores overhang the main boulevards of the city. Some say these trees have been here since the days when Qing emperors may have passed by in the midst of their vast retinues.

One of the more famous attrocities of world history has made Nanjing (or its older spelling in English, Nanking) rather famous. The so-called 'Rape of Nanking' during the early years of World War II saw much of the city razed, at least 300,000 Chinese massacred, and plenty of rapes and maiming committed by the Japanese soldiers. This episode in the city's history has certainly been branded into the minds of Chinese school children, and is one of the reasons why most Chinese express hatred of Japan (despite the fact that Japanese cartoons and cuisine are often quite popular). The Nanjing Massacre Museum, which I have previously visited, lays open a mass grave so that tourists can view the tragedy firsthand. Even if other parts of China seem to have made their peace with the Japanese (notably Dalian, Qingdao, or Shanghai), I doubt that the Nanjingren will forget their historic emnity any time soon.

Living Situation

We will be very comfortable in our new life here in Nanjing, I'm sure. Our first evening we had some quite passable lasagna and pasta with roasted pine nuts. The next evening we dined at a putative Xinjiang (Turkic Muslim westernmost province in China) restaurant. I know there must be a Subway restaurant or two in the city, because I saw a girl walking down the street with a sub wrapped in the familiar logo-printed paper of that sandwich chain. I'm quite excited for that, and excited as well to see what other gems of international cuisine might turn up. The local supermarket giants (even the Chinese ones) seem well stocked with proper pickles, dijon mustard, tortilla chips, cheese, bacon, and even American hotdogs. For lunch today I roasted up some of those.

I should also be able to access plenty of English-language reading material. The ultra-modern central public library which I drooled over the last time I visited this city, a couple years ago, is now open, and I made a point of getting my very own library card. I'm allowed to take one book out at a time, and take a book for up to a month before fines start to set in. The English-language section isn't huge (and is mostly comprised of nonfiction), but I did spot a few gems, including that book about gnomes which spawned the 'David the Gnome' children's tv show which I watched when I was a child. The book isn't as suited for children as the tv show was, however, with a rather more European attitude on nudity being expressed in the drawings of the illustrator. For that matter, could it be that the version of that book which the public library in Berrien Springs stocked had been censored? I don't at all recall this section on Rusalki.... They do have lovely bodies, though!

Our apartment is at the northwestern edge of the city, an hour's walk from Nanjing University's campus, maybe a fifteen minute walk to the banks of the Changjiang (Yangtze River), and right next to a large forested park. Right across the street from us, there is a giant tower with a rotating restaurant clinging like a treefrog at the top of it (you know the sort). We probably won't be having much difficulty finding our way home from other parts of the city.
Across the other street (our hi-rise apartment complex is on a corner) one section of Nanjing's ancient city wall begins. It comforts me to think that in ancient days my abode would be situated right about where I am, and I might have more or less the same view of the city that a tower guardsman might have had.

Here's another view from the window of our apartment, looking south across a park towards the bright center of the city:
The apartment itself is much smaller than my apartment in Chonging, but that is expected in a more expensive city and a one-bedroom apartment. The bedroom duals as a living room, the kitchen (which is not much of a kitchen at that, with no permanent stove and very limited counter space) duals as an entryway, and the bathroom is small enough to have one hand in the shower, one hand in the sink, and one's butt on the toilet.

Working Situation

My college is located on in a 'university city' district out beyond the city proper, in what I'm sure was farmland not many years ago. This is a common trend in Chinese cities, what with city officials eager to sell off valuable urban campuses to developers, as well as develop research hubs on cheaply obtained (against the protests of farmers?) land in the countryside. Chongqing had set up something similar, and I'm sure that students here (just as there) dreaded being sent off to such modernist "learning" concentration camps. The architecture is uniformly modernist, with vast empty, sun-drenched squares, lawns no one is allowed to walk upon, and overall only a slight improvement on the socialist architecture of Soviet times. Form is addressed in ways that doubtlessly looked good on the drawing board, but less so with rust stains forming down the sides of the white-and-blue buildings, and a distinct lack of comfortable places for students or faculty to hang out. In reality, all the faculty and staff live in the city proper and arrive on campus via an hour-long shuttle ride. Only the students are required to live in such bland surroundings.

As to the students, I'm sure I'll know more about that on my first working day--this Friday. The director of the BCIT program informed me, in a wry aside, that my students are a bit rowdy and not terribly bright or studious. I suppose thats why they ended up in this educational ghetto, and not on the gladed campus of Nanjing University.

These things aside, I'm sure life in Nanjing this year will be pleasant. Once again I will re-iterate my welcome for any of you who might like to see China this year and come visit. I hope this invitation will not continue to fall on deaf ears, as China really is worth seeing and certainly won't be getting any cheaper than it is. Now's the time to see this vast land!