Category: Just for Fun

Just For Fun – The Getty Center’s Cave Temples of Dunhuang

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One of the cave replicas at the Getty’s Dunhuang exhibit

For close to 1,000 years, Dunhuang, an oasis town in western China, served as the crossroads of the world, with art that reflected its cosmopolitan nature.  Much of that art is found in the Mogao Caves located just outside of the town and reflect the development of Buddhist art in China from 400 AD to approximately 1400 AD.  Fast-forward to today and Dunhuang is a virtual unknown to most Americans.  Its hypnotic cave art completely forgotten by the world at large.

But starting this Saturday, the Getty Center will change this status quo, bringing the jewels of Dunhuang to North America in a magical exhibit that is not to be missed.  Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road contemplates the Getty’s 25-year history conserving this amazing art and supporting the Dunhuang Academy, a Chinese-based organization created in 1944 to preserve the Buddhist cave art of Dunhuang.

A westernized figurine in one of the earlier caves

A westernized figurine in one of the earlier caves

Cave Temples of Dunhuang is broken down into three parts.  The first portion is a perfect replica of three caves – Cave 275, Cave 285 and Cave 320.  Surrounded by imposing Buddhist statues and with walls covered with Buddhist art, together these caves show the development and siniciziation of Buddhist art.  In Cave 275, western artistic influence is apparent, with one statute displaying clear Western features.  Cave 285 includes Hindu deities as part of the Buddha’s court.  But by Cave 320, the art is clearly Chinese.  It is also the height of Chinese art.

After visiting the caves, you are escorted to the second part and it is likely this part that will serve as the biggest draw.  It is probably the reason why the Getty is extending its weekend hours.  Instead of physically replicating the caves, the Getty commissioned yU+co to create a 3-D, immersion copy of one of the Mogao Caves.  After donning 3-D glasses, you are escorted to a dark room and soon, you are flying around Cave 45, stopping periodically on a statute or painting on the ceiling, with the narrator explaining the religious significance of each piece.  It is a fun way to see this art and an amazing experience.  It is also likely the way of the future for museums shows.  Or at least those that can afford it.

But it is the third part – the most traditional – that truly showcases the gems of this exhibit.  After 1400, the Mogao Caves were largely closed, forgotten and covered by sand.  But in the early 1900s, western explorers re-discovered this area.  With China in the throes of dynastic decline and revolution, these explores absconded with some of the best art – paintings on silk, ancient manuscripts, instructions on how to paint the caves – all of which had been perfectly preserved in a sealed up cave known as the Library Cave.  These masterpieces largely sit in storerooms of British and French museums.  The British Museum, which has the most artifacts from the Library Cave, has none of these pieces on permanent display.  The French museums also rarely show their Dunhuang pieces.  While these museums argue that exposure to the light would destroy these delicate artifacts, one wonders if, in 2016, that is still the real reason why only a select few are permitted to see these amazing pieces of art and important relics of world history.

How did all those tiny Buddhas get to the ceiling? The Getty explains

How did all those tiny Buddhas get to the ceiling? The Getty explains

Fortunately, the Getty was able to borrow many of the treasures of the Library Cave and has displayed these for visitors to see.  The Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book, is on display, as are writings reflecting the various religions practiced in Dunhuang – Hebrew scripture, a Christian psalm translated into Chinese.  But the paintings on silk are truly mesmerizing, with bold colors and patterns that hold your attention.  One painting on silk seems more like an art deco piece of the 1920s than a piece from 700 AD, making one realize that some conceptions of beauty never go out of style.  Once the Getty closes this show and returns the art, these are pieces that will likely never see the light of day again which is truly a travesty.  This alone is a reason to see this show.  But the final part of Cave Temples of Dunhuang ends with an explanation of how these caves were built, the lives of the artisans and how exactly they did all of this, allowing the visitor to better understand the people who commissioned

1920s Art Deco or 700s Tang Dynasty?

1920s Art Deco or 700s Tang Dynasty?

and built these caves.

Through Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road, and the care that went into creating such a breathtaking show, the Getty Center’s dedication to preserving this important world cultural site and sharing its beauty is clear. And unlike its British and French museum counterparts, the Getty understands that this important art must been seen by the world at large.  Cave Temples of Dunhuang also does a wonderful job of explaining the religious and historical significance of the art and perfectly captures why Dunhuang is still an important site.  If you are in Los Angeles this summer, be sure to put this at the top of your list.  You won’t regret it.

Rating: ★★★★★

Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road
May 7, 2016 – September 4, 2016
The Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angles, CA 90049
***During the Exhibit, the Getty will stay open late on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays***
Note that tickets for the physical and immersion caves are timed but the exhibit of artifacts can be seen at any time.

Just For Fun – Restaurant Review: Tasty Noodle House

By , February 21, 2016
San Gabriel's Tasty Noodle House

San Gabriel’s Tasty Noodle House

The thing about Chinese food in California is the vegetables.  With cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco only a stone’s throw away from major agricultural areas, “fresh” takes on a whole new meaning there.  When you mix that with the fact that Chinese cuisine really plays up vegetables and lets them stand on their own, you can find some of the best Chinese food in America.

And some of the best Chinese food in America is exactly what I found last Friday night in a tiny little restaurant called Tasty Noodle House located in a nondescript strip mall in San Gabriel valley, just outside of LA proper.

With three other friends, one who is a vegetarian, we ordered large with a total of eight dishes.  While the waitress told us at dish six that we over ordered, the food is so amazing that, by the time we were done with our meal, not a single scrap was left. Some of this had to do with the fact that we were starving after a day of hiking, but also Tasty Noodle House goes light on the oil, allowing the flavors of the food to stand on its own.  But even without the heavy oil, the food is authentic and the place is perfectly Chinese – a bathroom that can only be found by walking through the narrow kitchen and Mandarin soaps on the flat screen TV.

The first dish to arrive was the sautéed green beans.  Ordinarily, this is a dish with pork but Tasty Noodle House does a different take: thick, succulent string beans, flavored with garlic and ginger with tiny little shrimps.  The ginger addition and shrimp were a pleasant surprise and really made this into a light, delicious dish.

Amazing Scallion Pancakes

Amazing Scallion Pancakes

But what came next is what I would term a little piece of heaven: the scallion pancakes.  These were thin little things, perfectly crispy and soft, and with only a hint of scallion, not the overpowering flavor that usually fill the pancakes in less refined Chinese restaurants.  These pancakes also did not have the grease of a takeout joint and instead appeared to replace traditional Chinese cooking oil with what my dining companions could only conclude was butter.  While not traditional, this addition of butter made these pancakes irresistible.

But the highlight of the meal was the Sichuan eggplant (鱼香茄子).  This is by far the best Sichuan eggplant I have had in a long while.  The tough purple skin was not to be found on this eggplant, allowing the eggplant itself to take on the flavors of the sauce which was exploding with flavor.  Although slightly oily than other dishes, this was eaten quickly by my dining companions.  If you like eggplant, this is a must order dish.

World's best Sichuan Eggplant? Yes!

World’s best Sichuan Eggplant? Yes!

And while Tasty Noodle House does amazing things with its vegetables, its meat dishes are not to be overlooked.  Because we were only ordering one meat dish, the waitress informed us that the best meat dish on the menu is by far the sliced lamb pan fried.  She was right.  The lamb, a good, lean cut, was delicately balanced by the very fresh vegetables that also came with the dish.  All too often lamb dishes in Chinese restaurants are nothing more than a vehicle for cumin, with the cumin overpowering all other flavors.  But not at Tasty Noodle House.  Instead, the chef truly understands subtlety and allows the flavors to work with each other.

Finally, while Tasty Noodle House has pretty amazing dumplings for a restaurant that is not a dumpling house.  These are not store bought dumplings either.  The waitress informed us that all dumplings are made on site, even the skin of the dumpling is made there.  We ordered the leeks and fish boiled dumplings and the filling to dumpling skin ratio was almost perfect, with the filling bursting with fish meat and skin adding only a supporting role.

Our other dishes were also all pretty amazing but these few stand out as truly spectacular. Tasty Noodle House is one of the best Chinese restaurants in America with an all around amazing menu.  This isn’t a place that specializes in one dish or a place where the heaviness of Sichuan’s “mala” flavoring is overly relied on to mask otherwise

Cumin Lamb!

Cumin Lamb!

flavorless dishes. The chef – from the Dalian region of China – truly understands how to play with flavors, allowing each to play its role in the carnival of flavors in your mouth.

Tasty Noodle House is a small space, with about 7 tables.  I would recommend going during off hours to ensure that your wait is not too long.  But if it is, that just means you will be even more hungry and will order more.  And that over ordering will not break the

Plates almost all clean

Plates almost all clean

bank.    For my three friends and me, the total bill with tip came to about $84.  Note that Tasty Noodle House does not serve alcohol and from what I could see from others, does not allow BYOB.  But you don’t need it here.

I will be returning to LA in the spring and rest assured, there will be another trip to Tasty Noodle House so I can order the rest of the menu.  I can’t wait to see what else the chef has in store.

 

Rating: ★★★★★

Tasty Noodle House
27 W Las Tunas Dr.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 284-8898

恭喜发财!Happy Year of the Monkey!

By , February 4, 2016

Happy Year of the Monkey!

If last year’s Year of the Sheep was a little too sleepy for you, have no worries because Monday, February 8 ushers in the more exciting, flamboyant, roller-coaster ride known as Year of the Monkey.

For those born under the monkey sign, you are considered clever, energetic, playful, rarely embarrassed and the life of the party. With the desire to lead, sometimes the monkey can be self-centered and bossy, and at times arrogant. Monkeys always believe that they are right. Which can be dangerous as such a winning personality can often convince others to follow along even if it isn’t the best idea. But with a monkey, you will always have a lot of fun. Some famous monkeys: Julius Cesar, Danny De Vito, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Hanks, Delta Burke, Will Smith, Eleanor Roosevelt and Leonardo Da Vinci. Maybe not all party animals but certainly influential.

2016 – the Fire Monkey!

But what does the Year of the Monkey mean for the world at large? To understand that, we need to understand a little bit more about Chinese astrology, or what Feng Shui master Raymond Lo has called a “fascinatingly accurate system.” The year’s animal sign only tells us so much. What also matters is the internal “element sign” of the animal and how it matches up with the element for that year. Each one of the 12 zodiac animals has an internal element from the five Chinese elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water). For monkeys, the internal element is always metal. But each year also consists of an element. 2016 is fire. Hence, 2016 is known as the Fire Monkey.

And here in lies the rub. According to Raymond Lo, fire, the element for 2016, and metal, the internal element of the monkey, are in conflict, so 2016 will be no barrel of monkeys. Instead, expect international conflicts and clashes, but not to the level of 2014 and 2015. Because fire sitting on metal is also considered a “setting sun,” bringing optimism and warmth, expect conflicts to peter out quickly and end with successful treaties and agreements.

Happy New Year!

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). But at the very least, to ensure that the good luck of the New Year stays with you all year, here are some things to avoid on February 8 and the 15 days after, when the “Spring Festival” is ultimately concluded with the Lantern Festival: avoid sweeping (to avoid sweeping away your good luck), no collection of debts, avoid borrowing money (if you start the year borrowing money, you will be doing that all year long), do not use scissors or knives on the first day, don’t do laundry and never chop wood.

So to all our East Asian friends, we wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year! For our Chinese friends: Xin Nian Kuai Le! (pronounced Sin Nee-an Kuai Le!). To kids in New York City’s public schools, enjoy your first (hopefully of many) Lunar New Years off!

Just For Fun: Film Review – The Assassin

By , November 11, 2015

There are scenes from Hou Hsiao Hsien’s (pronounced Hoe See-ow See-en) new movie – The Assassin – that are breath-taking. As the camera silently holds the scene, you are transported – even if just for a moment – to the actual place: fog rises slowly off a lake on a cold fall morning; a group of itinerant government officials march on horseback to their new assignment, tiny against China’s karst mountains; in bright blues and reds, a grandfather sips his evening tea as the sun fades. It is these sublime scenes that justify Hou’s best director award at this year’s Cannes because, as one of my film companions noted, “the cinematography is quietly masterful” but at the same time, mind-blowing.

But if it is a simple story line that is your favorite part of a movie, you will be sorely disappointed. Every beautiful scene is matched with some ill-described plot development. The film opens in 9th century China with the return of Nie Yinniang to her family home after studying to become an assassin. For some reason – which never becomes clear – at a young age, Nie Yinniang was sent away to a nunnery where it turns out, the nun who took her in was trained in wuxia (martial arts and pronounced woo see-ya) and decided to use her talent to kill people. The nun instructs Nie Yinniang to avenge her family’s pride and assassinate Tian Ji’an. At some point, the movie attempts to explain why her family’s pride must be avenged, but as post-film conversations proved, none of us fully got that part.

Nie Yinniang contemplating her choices.

What develops next is Nie Yinniang’s internal struggle. She doesn’t want to kill Tian Ji’an but she is loyal to her nun-master who has instructed her to do so. It is this struggle, and all the female characters that propel this movie forward, that makes this a feminist movie. The male characters play second fiddle to their female counterparts while the women break traditional female roles.

But those excited to finally see a true feminist wuxia movie will also be disappointed. Unfortunately, wuxia is missing from a lot of the scenes. While Hou hearkens back to the golden age of wuxia – where the actors do their own stunts without strings and special effects – the wuxia is minimal, much like the plot line. As one film-goer and a wuxia fan dryly stated after the movie “this is a Hou Hsiao Hsien interpretation of a wuxia movie.”

No plotline, very little wuxia. But still a film worth seeing for the sheer beauty of every single scene. Hou is a master director who, in The Assassin has made every scene into a master painting.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Assassin is still showing at select, “artsy” theaters throughout the United States.  Check Fandango to see if it is showing near you.

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.

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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?

Camels on the Silk Road

Camels 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)

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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

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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.

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[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).

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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?

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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 - http://911chinatown.mocanyc.org/album/CorkyLee.html

Shop in Chinatown days after Sept. 11, 2001
(c) Corkey Lee – http://911chinatown.mocanyc.org/album/CorkyLee.html

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

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