Living the Taiping: Interview with James Lande

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Last century China experienced one of its periodic mid-century blowouts, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong and tens of millions die in senseless slaughter. The Chinese Civil War of 1927-50: 2-8 million dead. The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45: up to 26 million dead. The manmade Great Chinese Famine of 1958-62: 15-45 million dead. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76: 1.5 million dead by the time the worst was over in 1969. The total from the conflicts over these 40 years ranges from a conservative 35 million to an upper estimate of 80 million. The true figures will never be known.

The mid-century blowout of the century before that, otherwise known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), was not quite as bad or was even worse, depending on which sources you consult. The estimates range from 20 million to up to 100 million dead. If the latter figure is valid, it means one quarter of China’s population (at the time) was killed in the conflict. Once you realize the casualties took place over a narrower time frame, the destruction clearly looks proportionately more catastrophic than China’s 20th century (the only previous mid-century blowout of comparable scale was during the Qing conquest of the Ming 200 years earlier, with 25 million dead). Not to mention that it would count as the most destructive manmade event in recorded history; and it happened a mere century and a half ago.

The Taiping holocaust is so astounding in its magnitude that the psyche can’t deal with it. Its sheer incomprehensibility puts it beyond the pale of discourse, to be ignored or trivialized. Mainland Chinese high-school history textbooks devote no more than a page to it, much less than to the loose bookends to that event, the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), which the Communists found the perfect surrogate for shouldering the national burden of shame, China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” With casualty figures amounting to around 50,000, however, the violence at the hands of the Western powers does not even begin to merit the term negligible — in comparison to the nuclear war in slow-motion going on in the Chinese interior.

The Kitchens of Canton Ch. 6: Gwongzau

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Sender, message, signal, receiver: the standard model of communication. Or simply: sender, signal, receiver. There is usually a message, but it’s often hard to distinguish from the signal. Some messages are obvious — the time of day, the price of something. Or the words “I like you”: the message, fondness for someone, seems to be contained in the signal, the words. Or consider the glance of a person who likes you. The message is contained in the signal: the gaze, the eyes. The signal is so instantaneous it’s practically invisible, and what remains is the message. The message is the only thing we notice. Since the signal is so insignificant, we might be tempted to revise the model to: sender, message, receiver.

The problem is, without a signal, there is no communication; while on the other hand, a great deal of signaling — communicating — goes on without a message. The message is not necessarily crucial, or even important. Indeed, you can’t understand the nature of communication until you realize the message is not important. If the “message” could be defined as a specific packet of information, what we discover is that people withhold information more often than they give it. And they may wish to communicate this very fact. There may be signals to this effect: the empty message, the anti-message. There may be signals with no message. There may be contradictory messages. The message is redundant. It is just a distraction, an interpretation, something you think you understand. What stands in its place is more basic: mutual acknowledgment and reassurance.

The Kitchens of Canton Ch. 5: Xinluoma

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“Tirare verso l’alto di più. Arricciare le dita. Più veloce. Non così in fretta. Più ritmicamente.”

“I’m trying.”

“Ritmicamente. Rapidamente.”

“My hand’s getting tired,” said Malmquist. “I can’t do this forever.”

“Buxing. Lidao yao junyun wenjian.”

Malmquist withdrew his hand and shook it. “Please, I have to stop for a minute. My hand is too tired. I’ve never done this before.”

“Nushi, ta buhui shuo hanyu,” the slave boy told the Chinese lady on the massage table.

“Ta butai wen. Ni gaosu ta yao wenxie.”

“Wo zhidao. Keshi ta ye buhui shuo yidaliyu.”

“Ni weishenme buhui shuo yidaliyu?” she yelled at Malmquist. “Ni bushi nuli ma?”

“I’m telling you I don’t understand.”

“Weishenme ta buhui shuo yidaliyu? Ta naozi shi bushi you wenti? Ta jingshen zhengchang ma?”

“Torna al lavoro!”

Malmquist beaked his hand and with a sigh reinserted four fingers into the woman’s vagina.

From Van Gogh to the Camino de Santiago: Symbolic travel and the modern pilgrim

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Pilgrims at Santiago de Compostela making crafts to sell.

Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there’s nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what’s the odds?
We’re bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!
— Baudelaire, “Travel,” Flowers of Evil

O errant traveler, by your spirit of adventure that has caused you from tenderest years to leave behind father and mother…by the dignity man gains through voyages over distant territories and uncharted seas…
— Lautréamont, Maldoror

In late 2015, I was one of 1,900,000 visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, its busiest year yet (2016 will presumably pass the two million mark). I don’t know the attendance figures in the early years after it opened in 1973, but only a trickle of people were evident on my first visit to the museum in 1976. What a change. I recall being a bit embarrassed for the place at the time, such a sad and forlorn little museum, much like the painter himself, forever destined to be misunderstood and ignored. The 2015 museum had undergone extensive remodeling and expansion, and I didn’t recognize it. The first floor, previously displaying Van Gogh’s early “potato eaters” paintings and a series of biographical displays on his life, now served primarily to orient visitors to the two upper floors. I had no recollection of the upper floors on my previous visit. That was due to the many museums around the world I had seen over the decades since, not a few of them with Van Gogh’s paintings of their own (along with several traveling exhibitions of the painter). All his paintings had coalesced in my mind into a montage detached from time and place. I needed factual confirmation from the staff — on the first floor — that it was indeed the same building. Meanwhile, a huge new wing of temporary exhibits pairing Van Gogh and other artists (Edvard Munch on my visit) had risen behind the original building; an airy atrium and elegant cafeteria joined the two buildings.

The Kitchens of Canton Ch. 4: Chicago

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“There we go.”

“Hi, honey.”

“He’s still spacing.”

“Where am I?”

“You had a little knock on the head, buddy.”

“Jesus, a hospital?”

“It’s a whole lot better than a morgue. How many fingers?”

“Four.”

“Excellent.”

“Now how many?”

“One.”

“Abby, would you kindly enter Einstein?”

“I was really hoping — “

“I know what time it is. We’re spread thin tonight.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jeff Malmquist. Would you please tell me where I am and what I’m doing here?”

“You banged your head.”

“On what?”

“A bullet.”

“I got shot?”

“You’re very lucky.”

The Kitchens of Canton Ch. 3: Zigaago

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The officers sat for a while regarding Malmquist with placid expressions.

“Keoi zoekdou houci go gudoijan.”

“Here we go again.”

“Bei ngodei gimcaa jathaa keoi.”

They gestured to him to remove his clothes.

“What?”

One of them went up to him. She lightly bit his earlobe, blew into his ear and whispered, “Zoeng neidi saam ceoiloklei.”

“I don’t understand.”