Category: Just for Fun

Just For Fun: Dunhuang Caves – Who Owns This Art?

By , September 17, 2015
Sand storm in Dunhuang, April 2015

Dunhuang Expert, Dr. Neil Schmid

Today, the Mogao caves are are UN World Heritage Site.  But for a few hundred years the caves fell into oblivion.  Few knew of their existence and none visited.  It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the caves were “re-discovered” by a Taoist abbot named Wang Yuanlu.  Quickly word of his discovery reached some of the Western archaeologist-explorers traveling through Central Asia. Understanding the significance of this art, many of these Western explorers descended on Dunhuang to see this all for themselves.

As a result, many of the greatest pieces of Dunhuang art are in various museums in the West.  Was this art taken legally?  Do the Chinese want it back?

Dunhuang expert, Dr. Neil Schmid answers these questions and more in Part 2 of his interview with China Law & Policy.  If you would like to hear Dr. Schmid speak live, join him next week as he speaks on these issues on September 23 at 7:30 PM at the Courtyard Institute in Beijing.

Read the transcript below of Part 2 of this two-part interview or click on the media player below to listen:

Length: 12:29 minutes

To read or listen to Part 1 of this two-part interview series with Dr. Scmid, click here.


Sandstorm in Dunhuang, April 2015

Sandstorm in Dunhuang, April 2015

EL: Just to move away from the art to the political. I know when I visited the Mogao caves, it appears that for foreigners visiting the caves, part of the tour is a stop in a separate building documenting the Western countries’ purchasing and taking of the Mogao’s manuscripts and cave art at the turn of the 20th century. We know that in the case of the British, they purchased from the monk in charge of the caves at the time, the world’s oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra. They had examples of an American explorer also purchasing some old Buddhist manuscripts, as well as physically lifting some of the cave art out of the caves. In that period, why were Westerns so interested in the Mogao caves and how did they even know about it to go out there?

NS: Great questions. So the first visitors were before 1900 and they were typically involved in exploration and survey. This has to do with what was called the Great Game, the machinations between the United Kingdom and Russia, the Russian Empire, to control Central Asia.[1] So it was through that process that Central Asia began to be known. While we have these military and quasi-military figures in Central Asia, the first sort of striking discovery was something called the Bower Manuscript. This manuscript was a shock because here in Central Asia we find a birch bark manuscript from the 4th to 6th Centuries in what’s called Hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit or Prakrit.

Before nobody ever thought that we would find these types of materials. What it means is that the Indian civilization in many ways reached into Central Asia. This got people very excited. Number one because these materials don’t exist in India for the most part because the climate is much too moist.

Sir Aurel Stein, 1909

Sir Aurel Stein, 1909

So what happens is after they discovered that manuscript you began to have so-called scholar-explorers, archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein is a perfect example of that combination, come in and began to do surveys and archaeological surveys of Central Asia.[2]

It was during this period that they began to get word of this great Buddhist site and also a site with lots of manuscripts and that got them very, very excited.

EL: Based on the fact that the tours with Westerners in Dunhuang make it a point to recount this history of the Western explorers and the purchasing of many of the manuscripts, is China making any efforts to get these manuscripts back? Especially the Diamond Sutra.

NS: Not on a large basis. So what we have is a lot of scholars working together, e.g., Chinese scholars with British scholars or French scholars, on an increasingly large basis. Also museums and institutions working together. So what we find now is that on the scholarly end of things, a lot of these materials have been digitized by the International Dunhuang Project. It’s a remarkable project for the amount of material and it is based out of the British Library. They in the process, over the years, have gotten a number of other institutions on board – the Chinese, also the French, the Russians, the Germans – to begin to digitalize their materials, manuscripts and paintings. So this is one thing that has sort of lessened the desperation for return finds because scholars have access to the materials world-wide now.

The Dunhuang Mogao Caves from Afar

The Dunhuang Mogao Caves from Afar

Regarding so-called plunderer, Aurel Stein is often labeled that, but as you mentioned, he actually purchased the manuscripts. Of course that is controversial. Also there was Langdon Warner, who is from your alma mater [Harvard], and he is notorious for having used a technique which he felt was innovative. Basically to use tape – I am simplifying it – to put on the murals and rip them off. In the process some were damaged. He actually has a receipt for these. So Harvard’s response might be, for example, “Oh, we have a receipt, they were paid for, we bought them in good order.”

EL: So it’s all very legal.

NS: It’s all very legal, exactly. People might disagree with the methods and the authorities he spoke to actually purchase the materials. Of course, there is a lot of room for debate on this issue.

EL: I think in a talk you gave previously, you had mentioned that the Abbot [at the Mogao Caves] had tried to get the Qing Dynasty and the Emperor interested it. Could you just talk a little bit more about that?

NS: Yes. Wang Yuanlu was the person who was renovating the cave site in around the year 1900 when he discovered the cache of manuscripts. And it is a fantastic cache of manuscripts. He recognized that they were important, he wanted to get in touch with the authorities in order to know what to do with these manuscripts. And in fact the Qing Dynasty authorities weren’t that interested. Part of the slow response by the Chinese government at the time was that it was dominated by Confucian elites. They saw Buddhist materials as simply not that interesting. So this is one reason I believe that the process was slowed down for the Chinese government to recognize the value of this incredible find.

EL: Just to fast-forward a bit in time, when you go to the Mogao Caves you still see a tremendous amount of art

Tang Dynasty cave art peeking out of an entrance at Mogao caves

Tang Dynasty cave art peeking out of an entrance at Mogao caves

on the walls, you still see a tremendous amount of the carvings. How were these cave arts able to survive the Cultural Revolution as well as the campaign against the Four Olds that sought to destroy a lot of Buddhist art?

NS: Mogao and Dunhuang was fortunate because they had a powerful patron if you will, Zhou Enlai, Premier Zhou Enlai. He was hugely supportive of the renovation project, the project to stabilize the cliff face, to begin the catalogue process and also research in general. He specifically said that Mogao Caves were not to be damaged. And I have to put in a plug here also for the Dunhuang Research Academy and the people there, scholars there, who had been working on the materials for literally dozens of years at that point, they made a serious effort to talk to Red Guards, to discuss the value of the materials.

EL: And what about today, what’s being done to preserve the caves and will preservation be successful especially as more tourists come to Dunhuang?


Camel on the Silk Road

NS: Part of the problem with the caves today is that moisture and also carbon dioxide is beginning to deteriorate the caves. There’s also ground water coming up because there’s a lot of irrigation to make pretty gardens, if you will, in front of the attraction. So that water is seeping up into the caves so that the lower level of caves, at the bottom of the murals, they’re beginning to completely deteriorate.

So what’s been done over the last three decades is that the Getty Conservation Institute has gotten involved – of the Getty Museum in L.A.. That’s since 1985. It’s been their longest running project of conservation, heritage conservation. They have been instrumental in working with the Dunhuang Research Academy and also the Chinese government in creating, number one an analysis, a very detailed analysis, of the materials involved in the construction of the caves, how they deteriorate, why they deteriorate and ways to prevent it. On top of that there’s also a digitalization project going on [and a major upcoming exhibit on Dunhuang caves May 2016 at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

Part of that, along with the visitors center that recently opened, is to provide tourists with an alternative experience. So through the digitalization or the immersive digitalization of the case themselves at the vistor’s center and then to decrease the number of visitors actually going into the caves.

Mogao Cave #98, Uighur retinue

Mogao Cave #98, Uighur retinue

EL: The visitor’s center is very, very impressive and a lot of fun which leads me to think they’re hoping a lot more people come to visit it. For people who aren’t China people, China scholars, what do you think is the significance of these caves? Why should just regular Americans, when they take a trip to China, why should they go out to Dunhuang?

NS: The caves which span in their creation 1,000 years are the largest repository of Chinese art. Maintain and contain items and designs and styles, aesthetics, and also the very space itself that doesn’t exist anywhere else in China. So in terms of this kind of immersive experience, you can’t get better than Dunhuang to see how people experienced Buddhism in the Tang, for example, period. So that’s a major reason. Dunhuang itself and the Mogao caves, the site is stunning and gives you a sense of what the power of trade that unfolded over 1000 years on the silk roads or silk route if you will. The caves themselves have a cosmopolitanism. Dunhuang at that time we know from manuscripts was incredibly mixed and well-integrated. So there is a fascination with that as well.

EL: Finally, can you describe your favorite cave and why it is your favorite cave? You have to have a favorite.

NS: [laughter]

EL: You can’t love them all.

Mogao Cave #98, King of Khotan and retinue (c.920)

Mogao Cave #98, King of Khotan and retinue (c.920)

NS: In spite of its formulaic nature, there’s a cave, Cave 98, which is remarkable. It’s quite large; it’s a large family cave, it’s an elite’s cave. But what’s fascinating for me is it’s well preserved but it also lays out the political nature of the caves, the political nature of Buddhism also. You have large donor portraits of the King of Khotan and his relations to the Dunhuang elite. Its remarkable for that reason that here we have a sort of detailed outline of political alliances that were being constructed and set in a ritual space, which is a cave. This sort of liturgical moment that in some ways is frozen in time. That’s what these caves do, they maintain relationships both among people and also with the Buddha forever and forever. I find that fascinating and Cave 98 is particularly rich in the historical-political elements.

EL: Okay, well, thank you again Dr. Schmid for your enlightening explanation of the Mogao caves. Hopefully, more people will go there but not breathe on the caves. Thank you.

NS: Thank you very much

[1] See, for example, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (London: Kodansha International, 1992).

[2] Peter Hopkirk, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980)


For Part 1 of this series, please click here.

A selection of Dr. Schmid’s publications and talks can be found by clicking here. Or join Dr. Schmid at the Courtyard Institute in Beijing on September 23, 2015 at 7:30 pm.

Further Reading:

Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

Rong, Xinjiang, and Imre Galambos. Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Whitfield, Roderick, Susan Whitfield, and Neville Agnew. Cave Temples of Mogao at Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road, Second Edition. Second Edition, Revised edition. Los Angeles, California: Getty Conservation Institute, 2015.

Just for Fun: The Buddhist Art of Dunhuang – An Interview with Dr. Neil Schmid

By , September 16, 2015
Dunhuang Expert, Dr. Neil Schmid

Dunhuang Expert, Dr. Neil Schmid

Tibet is considered the Buddhist capital of China, causing many not familiar with China’s geography to believe that Buddhism came to China from India through Tibet. But with the highest mountain peaks in the world, the Himalayas, separating India and China, Buddhism had to take a different route. Instead, it entered northern China through what has become known as the Silk Road. As a result, some very early Buddhist art can be found in remote northwestern regions of China. One such example are the Buddhist cave art in Dunhuang, an oasis town situated in the Gobi Desert which with its desert climate was able to preserve this art. The Mogao Caves are probably the best known.

But any trip to the Mogao caves by a Buddhist art novice leaves one with many questions on the art, the history and its significance. Fortunately, China Law & Policy had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Neil Schmid, an American expert on Buddhist Studies and Dunhuang.  If you are in Beijing, Dr. Schmid will be speaking on these issue next week, September 23 at 7:30 PM at the Courtyard Institute.

Read the transcript below of Part 1 of this two-part interview or click on the media player below to listen:

Length: 10:00 minutes


EL: Thank you for joining us today. First, can you give us a little bit of background on the caves: when were they first constructed, why and by whom?

NS: Elizabeth, thank you for inviting me. So there’s a story, maybe apocryphal, that in 366 [CE] a monk by the name of Le Zun had a vision. This is a vision that happened outside of the oasis of Dunhuang, in a small, small ravine with a cliff face. There he had this vision that he was basically to build a cave. This is, again maybe it is apocryphal, is the originating story of the Mogao caves.

EL: And what year was that again?

NS: 366. So he was followed by another monk, Fa Liang, and then a series of monks after that.

EL: So can you explain more why these caves were created?

NS: As I said initially they were dug out as meditation spaces. Spaces where monks could live relatively distant from Dunhuang or some sort of urban or town center due to spiritual practices. This is the origin of these caves. Then what happens over time, over the centuries, is that the site becomes a pilgrimage site and with these powerful monks – spiritually that is – people began to patronize them. In doing so, they began building caves themselves. These people were typically the elites or also groups of people who would gather together and fund the digging and the construction of a cave in Mogao, in this area.

You asked about whom they were actually built by. So they had funders, they had donors, but there was – and we have a lot of information especially from the 10th century on. We know that it was a professional class of artisans who actually did the construction work – painters, sculptors, metal smiths, textile workers. [1]  They were organized hierarchically according to their expertise and their titles reflected their skill and their standing. So these are the people who actually built the caves and we can talk a little bit later about that process of building itself.

EL: So that’s interesting that you talk about the professional class of artisans and also just the changes over who was sponsoring the building over centuries. When you go to the Mogao caves themselves, you do see some changes to the art when you visit different caves. Can you explain more or highlight what some of those changes are from the beginning to the later parts. And do you believe there’s a high point to the art itself?

NS: The earliest caves we have are from the Northern Liang and that’s 397 [CE] to 439 [CE]. These caves are very, very heavily influenced by Indian and also Central Asian styles. The motifs, the iconography, the sculpture, is very, very much dominated by something other than Chinese. Over the years, these artistic forms and iconography and also the ritual space itself begins to shift away from monks towards an increasingly lay-oriented perspective. What the caves also take on in terms of transformation of the artistic styles and ritual styles is an increasingly sinicized, i.e. Chinese aesthetic. So for example what happens later, you have stories about Indian, about the Buddha done completely in Chinese costume, in Chinese-like settings. It naturalizes in some ways Buddhism for Chinese. We see this very clearly evidenced in the caves.

Mogao Cave #275, Northern Liang (397-439)

Mogao Cave #275, Northern Liang (397-439)

EL: I know some art historians believe that some dynasties have better art than others or higher-end art than others. Do you agree with that? I think everyone always thinks the Tang Dynasty but how do you deal with that?

NS: That’s a good question. I could talk about my personal favorites.

EL: That’s okay.

NS: I particularly like Tang, what’s known as high Tang style. But it is very, very difficult to say one style is a high point. Obviously it depends on the reference points of what you consider a high point. There’s amazing artistic skill that goes into the creation of earlier caves in terms of actual painting styles which are now lost in China. So in some ways you could say that due to their introduction and disappearance, these were high points in particular artistic styles.

EL: That’s fair. I guess the other thing is when visiting the caves you can’t help but wonder how starting in 400 AD, people were able to paint and build such amazing art. In particular, there is that one awe-inspiring Buddha. Do we know exactly how these caves were built? How the painting was put onto the walls? How many people it took to build these caves? I think you were already talking a little bit about the professionalization of the artisans. If you could go into a little bit more depth about that.

NS: So what happens in the Tang, the Five Dynasties period, and also in the Song, is that you have elite families funding the construction of caves and in the process they create what is essentially a painting academy. At this painting academy you have trained artisans. Note that they are laity; they are not monks, they are not clerics. We have lots and lots of documentation from this period and detailed manuscripts about what they were paid, how often they were paid, were they lived, the types of work, individual specialties. We know that laborers were typically paid in food, so cooked meals. Also oil, also grains. This was a typical form of payment.

How the caves themselves were actually constructed, they were constructed by starting at the top of the interior of a cave and then digging it out and down. So what they would do then after it was dug out is they would begin to furnish the walls and then apply a straw and stucco mix. Then on top of that begin the painting process.

In this period, again very late Tang, Five Dynasties period, Song period, it became very programmatic, very organized in terms of the pictorial program of the caves themselves. And very standardized. They used a variety of drawings for example to create on a regular basis the paintings in the caves. They also used something called “pounces” which is a piece of paper with dots cut in that they would then typically blow a paint across to get an outline. Then they would color that in. One of the motifs you see again and again at Dunhuang in the Mogao caves is the Thousand Buddha motif.

Mogao cave 249, Western Wei (534-556AD) Early version of Thousand Buddha motif.

Mogao cave 249, Western Wei (534-556AD)
Early version of Thousand Buddha motif.

EL: Right, right. You see that it is painted like in an assembly line.

NS: Exactly. There is this whole modularity to the construction and also the painting process. Then the paint themselves typically use things like -the expensive ones – lapis lazuli and malachite. The painting was done on dry stucco and again through a series of artisans. The construction of a cave, or a large cave, during this period would be perhaps a year. It would take a year.


[1] On the construction of the caves and guilds, see Sarah Fraser’s excellent overview, Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (Stanford University Press, 2003).


To read Part 2 of this two-part interview series, please click here.

A selection of Dr. Schmid’s publications and talks can be found by clicking here.

Or join Dr. Schmid at the Courtyard Institute in Beijing on September 23, 2015 at 7:30 pm.

Just For Fun: Art Review – China Through the Looking Glass

By , June 17, 2015


China Through the Looking Glass

China Through the Looking Glass

Picasso did it with Africa; Gauguin did it with Tahiti; Remington with the American West  And, as we learn from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s amazing new show, China Through the Looking Glass, many of the West’s greatest fashion designers have done it with China.  What is the it?  Using another culture for inspiration for your art.

But as the first room in this exquisite exhibit demonstrates, this show is not about China.  It is about the fantasy that China is for many of the West’s most famous designers: Paul Pioret, Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent.  Each of these designers have looked to China for inspiration, using their interpretations of China in their designs.  This is strikingly clear in the first room of the exhibit – an incredible display of mirrors, movies, music and clothing.  Each of the Western dresses are showcased next to a traditional, Chinese imperial piece of clothing (graciously on loan from Beijing’s Palace Museum), showing that while there are similarities, the two are far from the same.

The Looking Glass Gone Wrong?  Backwards Chinese Characters on this Chanel Dress

The Looking Glass Gone Wrong? Backwards Chinese Characters on this Chanel Dress

Fortunately, the Saturday I attended the exhibit, I was accompanied by an American fashion designer friend who could not get enough of this exhibit.  As she explained, what is exciting about “China” is that for Western designers, they can “add another layer of creativity because they do not carry the cultural context” that Chinese designers would have.  In many ways, these Western designers are more free to create new concepts.  Silk, manchu robes, the qipao, the mao suit, often shorthand for China in the Western fashion, can be taken to another level by Western designers while maintaining something “Chinese-y” (of course the French have a word for this: chinoiserie).

But at what point does homage become stereotype and in today’s globalized world, does that stereotype become a harmful public view? Those questions are asked, but left largely unanswered, in the portion of the exhibit featuring Anna May Wong, an American actress of Chinese descent who served as a muse to many fashion designer.  Wong repeatedly received ecstatic reviews of her performances, but in America, she was constantly typed-cast to play one of two roles: the Lotus Woman or the Dragon Lady.  The clothes in this gallery – inspired by many of Wong’s movie outfits – are juxtaposed with pictures of Wong in many of her stereotyped roles.  At what point do Western apply their interpretations of China to more than just clothes, but also to people?  These questions are raised in another gallery on the floor, the one dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent’s 1977 campaign “Opium.”  Would such marketing fly today?

Anna May Wong and a dress inspired by her

Anna May Wong and a dress inspired by her

On one level, China Through the Looking Glass is sublime and should not be missed – beautiful, Chinese-inspired fashions are artistically laid out (by Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai no less) throughout the show, surrounded at times by traditional Chinese artifacts.  The fantasy-feel permeates the show, giving an otherworldly excitement to many of the outfits.  But Looking Glass is more than just a pretty show – it is a show that challenges and questions just how far that looking glass should go.  At what point should our short hands for China stop?


Rating: ★★★★½
China Through the Looking Glass
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art
On Display until August 16, 2015

Just For Fun: Capital Spirits – Beijing’s First Baijiu Bar

By , April 8, 2015
Cozy Capital Spirits in Beijing

Cozy Capital Spirits in Beijing

For most foreigners in China, baijiu (pronounced bye gee-oh) is a joke, or at the very least, the key element in any story about passing out, blacking out or vomiting up your banquet dinner.  But for the Chinese, baijiu, a strong, traditional grain or rice wine, is a must at any celebratory outing.  While foreigners often turn up their noses at baijiu, the Chinese really seem to enjoy it.  And have so for around 2,000 years.

Capital Spirits, a new bar in Beijing’s Dongzhimen neighborhood, successfully bridges

Bartender David gives an introduction to a flight of baijiu

Bartender David gives an introduction to a flight of baijiu

the gap between foreigners’ misunderstanding of baijiu and the Chinese love of it.  Showcasing some of China’s finest and smoothest baijius, Capital Spirits gives the uninitiated a reason to respect – if not begin to love – baijiu.  The bar offers a number of baijiu flights, where for 40 kuai (around $8), you can taste and compare four or five different baijius from around the country.  Each drink in the flight is introduced to you by the bartender, highlighting the differences and history of each brand.

But for those who cannot yet face pure baijiu, Capital Spirits also offers an eclectic and inventive baijiu cocktail mix.  That is the menu my friends and I ordered off of when we were there one recent night.  The cocktails were familiar – the hutong hound, a mix between grapefruit juice and baijiu was similar to a greyhound; the pineapple express had elements of pineapple and Malibu; and the ma-la rita, like a margarita.  But the taste of baijiu was evident if not in the strength of the cocktail alone.  While each was refreshing and tasty, especially the ma-la rita which had an enjoyable Sichuan peppercorn kick to it, because of the baijiu, these were sipping cocktails, not downing ones.  If you do want to down drinks in a more traditional manner, Capital Spirits has a full bar (two men were drinking whiskey when we showed up) and a non-baijiu cocktail mix.

Baijiu cocktails @ Capital Spirits - the Hutong Hound, the Ma-la Rita, and the Pineapple Express

Baijiu cocktails @ Capital Spirits – the Hutong Hound, the Ma-la Rita, and the Pineapple Express

Capital Spirits’ goal is to convert the doubting to the gospel of baijiu, a task that it appears to be slowly winning.  But what it truly does best is create an intimate neighborhood vibe in this small hutong space.  This is a crowd willing to try new things, and as a result, willing to talk to strangers.  By the end of the night, we had bantered with many of the other customers.  David, the bartender that night, was also hospitable, explaining all the different drinks.  But if you want to be left undisturbed, that is an option too in this dimly-lit space.

I am probably not going to become one of the converted.  Baijiu is still a mean spirit, especially for yours truly who thinks Mailbu and pineapple juice is a strong drink.  But I am going to go back to Capital Spirits.  It’s a great place to enjoy a drink – even a non-baijiu one – with a fun group of a people.




Rating: ★★★★☆

Capital Spirits

大菊胡同3号 (DA JU HUTONG #3)
Beijing, China

Although in a hutong, Capital Spirits is easy to find. Take Line 2 to Dongzhimen and get out at Exit B. You will be on Dongzhimen Nei Dajie and the Second Ring Road. Walk west along Dongzhimen Nei until you hit Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie. Cross to the otherside of Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie and immediately turn left. Pretty much the first hutong on your right will be 大菊胡同 (Da Ju Hutong). Capital Spirits is pretty much five feet in on your right. There is no sign, but there is the address painted on the front: 大菊胡同3号

Note that the bar does not open until 8 PM.

恭喜发财!Welcome Year of the Horned-Sort-of-Something?

By , February 17, 2015
Happy Lunar New Year!

Happy Lunar New Year!

On Thursday, the world says goodbye to year of the horse and welcomes year of the…..what? Is it a sheep? A ram? A goat? For this Lunar New Year, it’s okay to be confused. And walking down the streets of Chinatown does not make things any clearer. Fuzzy stuffed sheep abound, as do cute little billy goat statutes and the occasional muscular ram. What in heaven’s name is going on with this Lunar New Year?

The confusion stems from the Chinese word used to describe the upcoming year – 羊 (yáng). Each of the animals – the sheep, the goat, the ram – use this character in its name. In Chinese, sheep is 绵羊 (mián yáng), literally meaning “soft, horned, hoofed animal;” goat is 山羊 (shān yáng), a “mountain, horned, hoofed animal;” and ram is 公羊 (gōng yáng), meaning a “male, horned, hoofed animal.” For sure if you go into a Chinese restaurant and order a dish of yang, it will be lamb meat. But the same doesn’t hold true for the Lunar New Year. Does yang mean sheep, goat or ram?

In Vietnam, a country that also celebrates the Lunar New Year (known there as Tet), they dispensed with this

Year of the Sheep, Goat or Ram?  You decide!

Year of the Sheep, Goat or Ram? You decide!

problem a long time ago, declaring the zodiac sign a goat. But in China, the debate still rages. While many feng shui experts declare that goat is the more fitting translation (because of the “horns” that appear a top the character yáng), the attributes given to a person born under the Yang sign resemble a sheep: kind, polite, creative, filial, timid in nature, and sensitive.

It is these sheep-like characteristics that have caused couples in China to delay having a baby for a year. For those couples who get one bite at the apple, they do not want their only child to be a “follower.” As a result, the Chinese state-run media has launched a campaign encouraging couples to have sheep babies. CCTV ran a segment entitled “Hardly a Terrible Sign if People like Bruce Willis and Whoopi are Sheep.” Others listed, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner (both sheep!). Unclear if this will do the trick.

What's so bad about being a sheep?  These guys are fun!

What’s so bad about being a sheep? These guys are fun!

But at any rate, year of the sheep, with its more docile personality, should be a bit calmer than last year’s horse. As every year is on its own five element cycle (wood, fire, earth. metal, water), this year is year of the Wood Sheep, However, each zodiac animal is associated with its own element – here, sheep’s intrinsic element is earth. Unfortunately, according to feng shui master Raymond Lo, wood – 2015’s element – conquers earth – the sheep’s internal element. Thus, the two are in a destructive relationship causing disharmony, but given the nature of the sheep, while 2015 will be filled with conflicts, these conflicts will be easily resolved through compromises.

But what Year of the Sheep has in store for you depends on YOUR sign. How will you do this year?  Check out your personal horoscope here (note you may have to do a Bazi test to determine the strength of your birth year element.  You can do that here – note that birth date is entered day-month-year).

To all of our friends who celebrate the Lunar New Year, may you have a healthy, happy and prosperous Year of the Sheep!

Just for Fun: Uptown & Downtown – Different Perspectives on the Chinese in America

By , October 30, 2014
At the NY Historical Society - Photo from American actress Anna May Wong's identity card that she had to carry with her at all times

At the NY Historical Society – Photo from American actress Anna May Wong’s identity card that she had to carry with her at all times

It is rare to see an exhibit exclusively on the Chinese experience in America.  Rarer still to have two shown simultaneously in the same city.  But that is precisely what is happening in New York this fall with the New York Historical Society’s Chinese America: Exclusion/Inclusion and the Museum of Chinese in America’s (“MOCA”) 35th anniversary show, Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving.

Located on the Upper West Side, the Historical Society is removed from any of the city’s Chinatowns and unfortunately, that removal is felt throughout the show.  The exhibition centers on the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a 1882 act of Congress that essentially barred all but the few Chinese from entering the United States and prevented the naturalization of Chinese immigrants for the next 60-plus years.

Exclusion/Inclusion does a great job of presenting the history of Chinese immigration in America, American’s backlash with the passage of the Exclusion Act, and the Act’s eventual repeal in 1943 (although a  quota remained for Chinese immigration until 1965 when the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act eliminated quotas).  In particular, the show makes clear that “exclusion” in the title of the Act was a misnomer.  With the stated goal to keep out Chinese laborers, the Act permitted other classes of Chinese citizens to immigrate: officials, teachers, students, merchants (although not laundry or restaurant owners), and their immediate families (wives and children).  As a result, an industry falsifying documents began and the modern U.S. immigration bureaucracy – needed to verify the accuracy of the immigrants’ documents and keep as many Chinese out – was born.

But throughout the show, the history feels whitewashed.  While the exhibit is about Chinese and Chinese Americans, little of their voices come

MOCA's New Show -Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving

MOCA’s New Show -Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving

through.  Sure the show uses the usual method of quotes and diary passages from Chinese men and women held for years in Angel Island, but it is more didactic than it is inspiring.  It isn’t until the end, with a blown up graphic novel of Bronx-born Amy Chin describing  the continued impact of the Exclusion Act on her family that the exhibition takes on an emotional gravitas.

The Chinese voice is particularly absent in expressing the community’s role in actually changing the law that impacted it or in shaping its own future.  Scant attention is paid to the Chinese-American community’s continued activism in agitating for acceptance as Americans.  Instead, the show ends with a feeling that “inclusion” has already happened.  There is no mention of the 2011 suicide of Private Danny Chen who, prior to his death, was tormented daily because of his Chinese heritage.  No mention is made of the 1982 hate-motivated murder of Vincent Chin whose murderers received a mere three years of probation.   These incidents and many others show that full inclusion has yet to occur.

But what Exclusion/Inclusion lacks can be found in MOCA’s Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving.  Commemorating the museum’s 35th anniversary, Waves is a modest but compelling show.  MOCA, located in Chinatown itself, was very much a community-created institution and it is that sense of community that is felt throughout the exhibit.

Waves is not a lineal procession through history like Exclusion/Inclusion; instead, it is much more innovative.  MOCA’s impressive collection of community artifacts, photos and oral histories are laid out by answering a series of questions:  “who founded MOCA and why?”; “what does it mean to be Chinese?”; “how do you become American?”; “how does memory become history?”; “where does Chinatown end?”  None of these questions are directly answered by the artifacts and multimedia that accompany the section.  Instead the viewer is forced to engage with the objects and draw their own conclusions.  The McDonald’s Shanghai McNuggets promotion that you might fondly remember from the late 1980s, how do we – and should we – place this in our, shared American history?

Shop in Chinatown days after Sept. 11, 2001 (c) Corkey Lee -

Shop in Chinatown days after Sept. 11, 2001
(c) Corkey Lee –

And that is perhaps the biggest difference between Waves and Exclusion/Inclusion.  The latter, by its very title, presupposes a separate society that Chinese Americans are either kept from or allowed to enter.  Waves on the other hand demonstrates that Chinese American history is – and has always been – as much a part of the greater American history as the American Revolution or the Southern Civil Rights Movement.  Perhaps the portion of the exhibit that demonstrates our shared history the most is the section on the impact of the September 11th attacks not just on Chinatown itself which sat in the shadows of the Towers, but also on its people who, like all New Yorkers, saw those anchors of their lives fall before their eyes.

Chinese America: Exclusion/Inclusion, with ads plastered on almost every subway station, is getting the most attention.  But if you go see that show, be sure to follow up with Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving for carefully curated exhibit by the community itself that will engage the viewer.


Chinese America: Exclusion/Inclusion
Now through April 19, 2015
Rating: ★★½☆☆New York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY
Admission: $19; FREE Fridays 6 pm – 8 pm
Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving
Now through March 1, 2015
Rating: ★★★½☆Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street
New York, NY
Admission: $ 10; FREE Thursdays All Day

Just for Fun: Movie Review – Ghina

By , July 29, 2014


Every year, over 10,000 Chinese immigrants arrive in the oil- and gold-rich West African nation of Ghana, all with the aspiration to hit it rich. But what does such a huge wave of immigration followed up by the Chinese government’s low-cost loans and aid mean for Ghana? In Ghina (pronounced Gee-na), director Christine Choy attempts to answer that question by looking at the inter-personal relationships between a few Ghanaians and their Chinese bosses. But by focusing only on these select impressions and not examining the bigger macro issues at play, Choy fails to achieve her goal and instead, the movie is a disjointed, hodge-podge of interviews and scenes that merely perpetuates stereotypes of the Ghanaians rather than enlighten the viewer to any cohesive point.

Ghina opens with the Chinese construction of a hospital in the capital. As we learn from the English-speaking Chinese boss, this hospital is a donation to the Ghanaian people.   While the undercurrent is clear – that China is likely getting something in exchange for this “donation” – the movie fails to ever explain what that exchange is. There is vague reference to “Chinese illegal mining” but the movie never explains just how illegal and damaging to the environment that mining is to a country that still largely relies on agriculture and thus is sensitive to environmental pollution.

And that is the major problem with Ghina. It barely scratches the surface and as a result, fails to explain, either on the micro or the macro level the complexities of China’s investment in Ghana. It is not all bad. As Ghina points out, roads are being paved, hospitals are being built and ambitious Ghanaians are learning new skills and technology. But at what cost? And ultimately, at what benefit? Is China just another colonial-like power in Ghana, intent to strip it of its resources and go, leaving Ghana worse off than before? Or is it committed to the development of Ghana, where the country and its people can share in the prosperity?

Ghina also fails to adequately address the fact that many of these new Chinese construction projects aren’t job-creators for Ghana.  Instead,

Chinese boss leading a work group in Ghana

Chinese boss leading a work group in Ghana

the Chinese company often imports the Chinese labor with the construction materials, giving only a few jobs to the locals.

Only in one scene – where what appears to be an NYU professor traveling with the film crew interacts with one of the Ghanaian professors (who judging from his wardrobe is doing quite well) – do we see the kernel of the greatness that Ghina could have become. In that exchange, the Ghanaian professor defends the Chinese actions, acknowledging that the Chinese are only taking advantage of loopholes that the Ghana government allows. And on some level that is true. However, in the case of Chinese mining in Ghana, these aren’t loopholes. These are largely illegal actions that since the summer of 2013, the Ghanaian government has begun to crackdown on, deporting thousands of Chinese immigrants.  The movie fails to point that these referenced loopholes are actual illegalities.

Unfortunately, with an issue like Chinese investment in Africa, it is difficult to tell a coherent story just by looking at a few vignettes of individual people’s lives. While Ghina attempts to do that, it largely demonstrates that this type of storytelling ends up telling little to no story at all. Instead, check out the Guardian’s 15 minute video on illegal mining in Ghana for a more nuanced understanding of the Chinese in Ghana.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Just For Fun: Art Review – Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?”

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

For sure the best part of the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition of Ai Weiwei‘s (pronounced Eye Way-Way) retrospective – “According to What?” – is that it was able to obtain the six dioramas Ai made of his 81-day detention by Chinese authorities. The dioramas visually demonstrates the utter absurdity of the Chinese police state. This alone mandates that this exhibit not be missed.

But the second best part? That the Brooklyn Museum did not place Ai’s works in a vacuum. Instead, Ai’s exhibit is one of four fascinating exhibits concerning art and social activism. Any visit to Ai’s exhibit should be accompanied by a viewing of at least one of these other shows. If you get there before July 13, definitely check out “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” as a contrasting exhibit to Ai’s and as a powerful reminder of America’s own checkered past and unclear future concerning civil and human rights.

“According to What?” is not just a retrospective of Ai’s art but also an explanation of

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

his activism. One of the most revealing parts of the exhibition is Ai’s photographs from 1980s New York City, covering the decade when Ai lived in the city. Through Ai’s photographs, we see what he saw: constant protests in various city parks, face-to-face confrontation with the police, the beginnings of the AIDs crisis and its activism, the grit of 1980s New York City. When later on in the exhibit you watch a video of Ai challenging the Chinese police and demanding accountability, you can’t help but think back to the photos of bloody protesters in Tompkins Square Park and wonder if this is what influences Ai to be the agitator that he has become.

But Ai wasn’t always such an agitator. Unfortunately the exhibition gives only short shrift to his prior – and government-accepted – work. In overlooking this aspect of Ai’s career, the exhibit also fails to fully explain the spark that radicalized his art – the Sichuan earthquake. After an 8.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Sichuan province, Ai traveled to the region and saw the hundreds of shoddily-built schoolhouses that completely fell, killing the children in them. All the while surrounding government buildings remained standing. Seeing the thousands of children’s backpacks lying in the rubble and the fact that the government-controlled press was not acknowledging the “tofu-dreg construction,” Ai took matters into his own hands, undertaking a “Citizen’s Investigation” and uncovering the names of the 5,196 children killed.

The gallery with Ai's Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including "Straight"

The gallery with Ai’s Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including “Straight”

In “Sichuan Name List,” Ai lists the name, age, school and address of every single child killed.   It is the layout of this work – the 5,196 names line an entire wall of the gallery, from top of the ten foot wall to bottom – that forms the art work. Only in seeing this can one even begin to attempt to understand the enormity of the loss. The work is accompanied by “Remembrance” a three-and-a-half audio recording of strangers from around the world speaking the name of every single child that perished. Lying in the center of the gallery are the steel rebar from the shoddy construction – all of which have been straightened back to their original form.

Ai’s homage to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake is powerful. It is also the reason why Ai is so dangerous to the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”).   To maintain its power, the CCP needs to retain its monopoly on Chinese history. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, it is the CCP that writes the country’s history; not its people. Tiananmen? Never happened. Mao Zedong? Only 10% wrong. The Cultural Revolution? Not a descent into madness, just a little blip on the radar screen. Here, Ai – who is an influential figure since his father, Ai Qing, was a well-known and respected poet – is attempting to write the people’s history. It’s that attempt that the CCP sees as an assault on its rule.

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

But if you think that is overreacting, then check out the six half-life size dioramas that Ai made of his 81 day detention. In 2011, Ai was detained by the public security bureau allegedly on tax fraud charges although the general consensus is that it was the government’s failed attempt to silence his activism. Ai designed each five-foot tall diorama with a window where the viewer can look in and see Ai in his room. In the first room, things don’t look so bad. It looks more like a hotel room than a jail cell. But as you progress and look into each scene, you begin to realize the absurdity of what is going on here. Two guards are with Ai at every moment, watching him. As he eats, as he sleeps, even when he showers. The guards are there, standing over him, watching his every move. Is this jolly, chubby man really that dangerous?

With so much of Ai’s art involving his interaction with the authorities, “According to What?” raises the question – has social activism become Ai’s art? And is this good for either: should activism merely be theater; should art be so much protest? By situating “According to What?” with other activist art, the Brooklyn Museum has largely answered those questions – art does not exist in a vacuum nor should we want it to.

Philip Guston's City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum's Witness Exhibit

Philip Guston’s City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum’s Witness Exhibit

For Americans, viewing “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” will demonstrate that art and activism go hand-and-hand and that we can and should respect the artist for both. It will also serve as an emotional reminder of our own dirty little past. But in the end, it will make you wonder – while these tactics worked in 1960s America, a largely democratic society, will they also work in Ai’s authoritarian China? One hopes that Ai’s art is not in vain, but, as China’s new regime even more violently cracks down on any purported challenge to its rule, only the future can tell.


Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” is only on view at the Brooklyn Museum until July 13, 2014. “According to What?” is on view until August 10, 2014. This will be the exhibit’s final stop on its international tour. While entrance to the Brooklyn Museum is a suggested donation of $12, “According to What?” is a required $15 ticket (which includes price of general admission). Note that the dioramas of Ai’s detention are on the first floor before purchasing tickets and thus can be viewed for free.

Just For Fun – Art Review: Xu Bing’s Phoenix

By , March 10, 2014

P1000203There are those pieces of art that are truly transformative; that can change the way you see the world and remind you of the humanity of this united struggle we call life.  Picasso’s Guernica is one such work.  Now there is Xu Bing‘s (pronounced Sue Bing) recent installation – Phoenix.

Housed in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Phoenix is nothing less than iconic.  Back in 2008, Xu, who had just returned to Beijing after 18 years in New York City, was commissioned to create an art installation for a glass atrium in Beijing’s soon-to-be-completed World Financial Center.  It was Xu’s visits to the construction site that proved to be the inspiration for the work.  After seeing the paltry conditions for the migrant construction workers and the primitive construction techniques, Xu used much of the scrap left over from the site to create two massive and powerful phoenixes, an homage to those nameless workers who built one of Beijing’s most modern skyscrapers.

For those who have spent time in China, the materials that create the birds’ gritty skeletons are familiar: faded red, white and blue plastic tarps serves as wings, bamboo poles as the ribs, and old hand cement mixers for the birds’ heads.  But the message of these phoenixes is fresh.  As one of my companions noted, the simplicity of birds’ frames monumentalizes the laborers and workers who built one of Beijing’s fancier skyscrapers and who have largely been left behind.

But this was not a message that Beijing was ready for.  Reflecting how far removed the People’s Republic is from its socialist

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

rhetoric, the real estate mogul who commissioned the work requested that Xu cover the phoenixes’ rough frames  with nothing less than crystals.  Fortunately, Xu, schooled in the Socialist Realism style, refused to change his art.

Since 2010, the Phoenixes, and Xu’s homage to those invisible workers who have literally built China’s new society, have traveled around the world.  But seeing the Phoenixes suspended in flight in the nave of a Gothic cathedral is truly spectacular.  It elevates an amazing piece of art – and the message that infuses it – to an almost sacred and divine realm.  As we walked the nave this past Sunday, studying all the construction site scraps that created the birds,  the choir practiced at the altar, giving the phoenixes an angelic feel.

Phoenix is on display through 2014 and should not be missed.  Admission to Cathedral is free but a suggested donation of $10 is politely requested (and well worth it to help support this piece as well as the Church’s important community outreach and services).

恭喜发财!Riding in on the Horse

By , January 29, 2014
Welcome to the Year of the Wood Horse!

Welcome to the Year of the Wood Horse!

Volcanoes, earthquakes, record high temperature.  Are you ready for Year of the Horse?  The horse might look like a gentle beast, but in the Chinese zodiac, it is full of fire and it is that fire that will make the new year a tumultuous, fun-filled ride.

After two years of reptiles – dragon followed by snake – the Chinese zodiac is back to the more fuzzy animals and the horse is one of China’s favorite.  People born in year of the horse are often prized – charming and intelligent, they are often the life of the party.  Oprah Winfrey, Joe Biden – both horses.  But they can also be strong-willed, refusing to be corralled or dominated.  Mike Tyson is a horse.

What makes 2014 a little bit bumpy is the fact that horse’s internal element – fire – is at odds with the year element – wood.  Every zodiac animal has one of the five elements – wood, water, metal, earth or fire.  But every year has its own element and this year’s is wood.  But fire burns wood, making international tensions – think Syria, South China seas, the Olympics – downright combustible.

But a lot of how the year will pan out for the individual will depend on your own sign.  How will you do?  Check out your personal horoscope here (note you may have to do a Bazi test to determine the strength of your birth year element.  You can do that here – note that birth date is entered day-month-year).

At any rate, your year won’t be worse than Justin Bieber’s.  According to Hong Kong feng shui master Alion Yeo, Bieber will have a very negative year. ” gongxiThere will be times where he will not be able to control himself” Yeo told the AFP.

Whatever the year may bring you, we wish all of our lunar new year-celebrating friends a happy and healthy new year!


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