The poverty of the institutional imagination: The case of Beijing’s moats and canals

Tucheng Channel (土城沟)

Beijing’s lost water transportation system

The major river in the Beijing area, the Yongding River (1 off map), was discovered to be too fast and prone to flooding to afford urban habitation, so the city was built some ten kilometers northeast of the river when founded in the late Liao/Jin Dynasty (mid-12th c.), and thereafter shifted further northeast in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The first moat formed a square around the city’s walls. Today, the northern section of the moat has been restored and beautified and renamed the Xiaoyue Moat (2). Its former name, Beitucheng (north wall), is now given to a stop on subway Line 10, which runs alongside the moat.

水系-01 (3)
Beijing’s canal system within the 5th Ring Road (map by Isham Cook)

_____  existing canals and moats
………  former canals and moats
_ _ _ _  former Inner City and Imperial City walls


Multiply, cascade, explode: A theory of literary fiction

Mutually voyeuristic shower stall overlooking pool in a public bathhouse in Wuhan, China

1. Texture

Let’s take Franz Kafka as a starting point for doing literary analysis. Kafka attracts interest for a host of qualities: the originality of his macabre vision, his premonitions of totalitarian state bureaucracy, his inimitable dreamlike style. These qualities combine into something greater than the sum of its parts. What other author of so modest an oeuvre—unfinished drafts of three novels published posthumously (against his wishes), a novella and a score of short stories—can approach Kafka’s universal appeal? I would add another quality contributing to his compulsive readability: the seamlessness of his narratives. Break off a snippet of his writing at almost any point and you are left with the most intriguing material, as if discovering a fragment of some long-lost ancient manuscript, leaving you eager to find the rest.

Questioning China’s “5,000 years” master trope

“About four or five thousand years ago, numerous tribes began mobilizing in the Yellow and Yangtze river basins…” begins this chapter from volume one of the national junior high school history textbook.

The name “China” straddles two different entities, Zhongguo (中國), the Chinese state, and Zhonghua (中華), the Chinese nation. The state, i.e., the Chinese Mainland, consists of one dominant ethnic group, the Han, and 55 or so officially designated non-Han ethnicities or “Minority Nationalities.” The nation refers solely to the Han Nationality. A huge diaspora of Han Chinese live outside the borders of the Mainland, with some 50 million in Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, and perhaps another 50 million in other countries around the world. The Mainland government secures the most legitimacy when these two concepts of “China” are confused and conflated in the public mind. To most Mainland Han Chinese, the terms Zhongguo and Zhonghua together constitute a “Greater China.” Not all in the diaspora identify with the Mainland government, of course; many are hostile to it. Within the Mainland itself, not to mention Hong Kong and Macao, there are divisive fault lines: nationalists who support the government, nationalists who don’t, and people who are averse to nationalism and jingoism altogether, who while they may love their country don’t much care about politics.

But what most Chinese of whatever political persuasion agree upon is the figure used to mark the extent of their lineage: “5,000 years of civilization” and “5,000 years of history.” It’s the most repeated phrase you’ll hear the Chinese use to describe their country. The notion of ancient civilization in the Chinese mind is inseparable from China itself. Thus a statement once leaped out at me from a Mainland publication in an otherwise informative article on recent archeological finds:

A modest proposal regarding sex work: Why all sex should be paid for

“Split second rippling for an instant” (“刹那摇滚涟倏”) by Xiao Dayuan (萧大原). What you’re looking at is indeed what you think it is. Those disturbed by this image or graphic depictions of sex in general need not read the following essay.

Maizidian, the old “wheat sellers” street in Beijing. This neighborhood near the embassy district hosts the largest concentration of massage parlors within the city, both good and bad (many more such establishments can be found in the suburbs). The main locale of German businesses, it’s known to foreigners as Germantown; the Japanese are also active in the area. One of the more popular restaurants in Maizidian is Baoyuan Dumplings. It fills up fast during the lunch hour, though you can reserve one of their private dining rooms, as personnel often do from the American Embassy a short taxi ride away. The dumplings are succulent but their unique attraction is your choice of orange, green, or purple wrappings—the dough infused respectively with the juice of carrots, spinach or red cabbage. Like the colorful food, the waitresses change into a different folksy costume each day. Their cheerfulness and low turnover bespeaks good management. The owner plays cards with friends at a table out front on the sidewalk when the weather is warm. Since I order the same thing every time and the waitresses know me, I need merely sit down at my favorite table and am soon served.

A Shakespeare sex-and-violence starter kit

“Civitas Londini” panorama of 1600 by John Norden, Southwark section. The Swan theater is visible on the left, the Beargarden, Rose and Globe theaters on the right (with permission of the National Library of Sweden).

London’s entertainment district in Shakespeare’s time was to be found in the suburb of Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, a bohemian enclave burgeoning with artists, poets, dramatists, craftsmen, migrants from the countryside and abroad, foreign agents and spies, and pretty much everyone kept or spat out of the city limits and its stringently regulated daily ordinances. The numerous inns and bawdy houses on Bankside in Southwark were more than willing to accommodate them, but the suburb’s main attraction was of course the theaters for plays and animal baiting. These were open-roofed amphitheaters for daytime use, nighttime illumination using candles or oil lamps being unfeasible for wooden thatched-roof firetraps packing in several thousand spectators.

Another reason favoring daytime performance was that the suburb turned into a scary place at night. In the face of minimal constabulary and little accountability, an inordinately high criminal element came out of the woodwork. If you look closely at the Southwark section of John Norden’s Civitas Londini (dated 1600), the era’s most topographically reliable map (despite the skewed perspectives of individual buildings), you can just see in the lower right-hand corner the top of the Globe theater jutting out of the trees; the Rose theater is more clearly visible a hop, skip and a jump the northwest. That Southwark was shrouded in tree cover is likewise confirmed by a sergeant-in-law at the time, one William Fleetwood, who described the area at night as “so dark and obscured by trees that a man needed ‘cat’s eyes’ to see.” I suppose it would have been like finding yourself in an American inner-city ghetto during a power outage with no streetlights, while gangs operated freely under tree cover thick enough to block out the moon. Southwark swarmed with all manner of cutpurses, cutthroats, cony-catchers, ravishers, and the growing ranks of the unemployed. To put some perspective on the crime rate, your chances of being murdered in London 400 years ago has been estimated at anywhere from ten to fifty times greater than your chances of being murdered in that city today.

On harpsichords and white pianos: The challenge of music in China

B0009I8PWS.08.LZZZZZZZHit your pause button for the day, slow down, clear your head. Splurge on a bottle of good Bordeaux and listen to some music to match, like the opening track of the recording pictured at right, master harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt (1928-2012) playing a pavan in A minor by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd (ca. 1543-1623). I could have come up with countless other examples of music as beautiful as this, but there is no music more beautiful than this. Now, let me reiterate that I am not singling out this particular piece by Byrd as the greatest thing ever composed; only that like any music of the top caliber, of which it is but a mere instance, there is a concentration of talent and energy resulting in a perfectly realized, diamond-like creation that cannot be improved upon in any way.

“How do you know this?” I am typically asked.

Music appreciation is a highly subjective affair, and we all of course have our favorites. You simply have to trust that I speak from long acquaintance with Western classical music, and with that comes a refined and discriminating faculty.

Theatrics of Japanese Noh, Kabuki, and the mixed-bathing Onsen

Elusive and enigmatic, the Japanese konyoku onsen, or nude mixed-bathing hot springs, is forbidding enough of access as to retain a quasi-mythical status—somewhere between the zebra and the unicorn—not only for foreigners but for Japanese as well. Information about naked onsens is spotty even in the Internet age and often requires word-of-mouth or a personal guide. I presume the literature in Japanese is more extensive, yet it’s still an esoteric topic for most natives. Places that are said to allow mixed-sex bathing turn out not to when you arrive, while rumors swirl of countless onsens which allow it yet don’t advertise the fact; there are even onsens that let guests set the bathing rules during their stay. You may succeed in getting to one only to discover you are the sole patron, and then what’s the point? If you’re traveling without Japanese help, you need to master the complicated travel routes and times, as most hot springs are located in rustic or mountainous retreats. If you want or need to stay the night in the onsen’s ryokan (tatami inn—there may not be other accommodation nearby), you need to establish beforehand whether there are any vacancies. All this makes konyoku onsen hunting one of the more challenging of travel experiences, more akin to trekking in the Third World than in one of the world’s most developed countries.