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Photo: via Wikimedia Commons and Hyperallergic.
Unknown artist, “Mummy portrait of a young woman named Eirene from Egypt” (c. 1st century BCE), encaustic on wood panel.

Isabella Segalovich at Hyperallergic recently had a lot of fun surveying women’s eyebrows in art.

“Being a public persona on the internet means that my face is looked at almost constantly by strangers,” she writes, “leading to uninvited comments about one feature in particular: my eyebrows. On TikTok, the more viral my video, the more ‘feedback’ my bushier-than-average, Ashkenazic brows receive. Reactions range from applause to truly unhinged amounts of anger and disgust. 

“I started wondering: Have people always been this weird about eyebrows? … Let’s take a quick tour of how [eyebrow] ideals have shown up in art across civilizations throughout history: from bushy, to bold, to completely bare. 

“Ancient Egypt: No matter the gender, many people in Ancient Egypt took special care to bolden their eyebrows with kohl or mesdemet. Like other Northern African and Asian cultures, the face was understood to be sacred, and thus, it required protection: kohl and mesdemet both served to guard against infections around the eyes. Kohl is used by many to this day around the eyes, both for adornment and for spiritual protection or devotion. This preference for strong eyebrows combined with traditions of carved reliefs resulted in highly defined, expressive arches in many Ancient Egyptian portraits. [Check Hyperallergic to see that the] wooden Inner Coffin of the Singer for Amun-Re is a beautiful expression of this high-contrast aesthetic. …

“Nigeria: From 1500 BCE to about 500 CE, a culture in Nok, Nigeria left behind now-famous terracotta sculptures with particularly detailed faces. Researchers Peter Breunig and James Ameje observed Nigerian craftsman Audu Washi, who showed them how to make these terracotta features using traditional methods.

A sharpened, sanded-down piece of wood is gently pushed into the clay to create fine details including the very distinct, graphic [Nok] eyebrows.

“The arched outlines of the eyebrows in these sculptures are similar across the portraits, but subtle tweaks in their shape and the space between them conjure vastly different personalities.

“Ancient Greece and Rome: While it’s hard to imagine with today’s inaccurate images of pristine white sculptures, many women in Ancient Greece and Rome were also unibrow fans! In some settings, a hairy unibrow was not just considered beautiful, but viewed as a sign of wisdom. Victoria Sherrow’s Encyclopedia of Hair recounts how Ancient Greek women used powdered antimony (also known as kohl) or even patches made of goat hair glued onto the forehead to achieve this look. A fresco of Terentius Neo and his (unfortunately anonymous) wife was a unique find in Pompeii because they are displayed as having equal status. Many may have been envious of her pair of prominent eyebrows — or really, just the one. …

“China: Women of the Tang Dynasty in China (618–907 CE) painted their eyebrows in dozens of different fashions, long, short, thick, thin, and wavy, depending on what was in style that year. Well-off women would use qingdai, a blue-ish pigment made from indigo. The woman in the portrait [here] has her face painted with additional decoration on her forehead — huadianor plum makeup. In 5000 Years of Chinese Costume, Xun Zhou writes that women would even decorate between their brows with luminous materials like ‘specks of gold, silver, and emerald feather.’ 

“Europe: Women in late medieval art display a very distinct hairstyle; that is, no hair at all! John Block Friedman writes that ‘misogynistic scientific writing had made female body hair a psychic and physical danger to men.’ So when it came to eyebrows, some women would pluck them until they were almost nonexistent. This plucking extended to thinning out hairlines to reveal large, bald foreheads. Petrus Christus’s 1449 painting ‘A Goldsmith in His Shop’ shows a wealthy woman bedecked in sumptuous fabric. She may have even used harsh chemicals to help rid herself of unsightly hairs. …

“Japan: Eyebrow fashion had an especially unique moment in the Heian period of Japan (794–1185 CE) where, in a manner similar to Chinese trends, both men and women would pluck out their eyebrow hairs completely, drawing new ones an inch above the natural browline. One of these styles was known as hikimayu (引眉) in which both thumbs were dipped in black makeup pigment and then used to create mirroring prints far up on the forehead. This print actually comes from many centuries later in 1876, and is a part of Toyohara Kunichika’s dazzling print series titled Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties, which are portraits of ‘good and evil’ women throughout Japanese history. …

“Iran: At the beginning of the Qajar dynasty in Persia (1785–1925), male and female ideals of beauty grew closer and closer together, and so did the eyebrows! [Scholar] Afsaneh Najmabadi has shown that women would darken their eyebrows and even decorate their upper lips with mascara to show a faint mustache. Men often took on stereotypically feminine features, sometimes appearing beardless with slim waists in paintings.”

For fabulous pictures from those locales/eras and others, click at Hyperallergic, here. There is even a lovely eyebrow photo of a robot called Kismet. No firewall at Hyperallergic; donations encouraged. PS. Check out the author’s eyebrows here.

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Photo: Guangxi speleology research team 702 via the Guardian.
Cave explorers have come across a sinkhole, or karst, in a semi-autonomous region of southern China. Previously known only to locals, it is 306 metres (335 yards) in length, 150 metres (164 yards) wide and 192 metres (210 yards) deep. It has a forest at the bottom.

When I was a kid spending summers on Fire Island, we all thought the Sunken Forest the most magical place ever. But just imagine if a forest were so removed from the world that it harbored previously unknown species! Scientists in China are beginning to study a forest of tantalizing possibilities at the bottom of a huge sinkhole.

Stephanie Pappas reports at Live Science, “A team of Chinese scientists has discovered a giant new sinkhole with a forest at its bottom. 

“The sinkhole is 630 feet (192 meters) deep, according to the Xinhua news agency, deep enough to just swallow St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. A team of speleologists and spelunkers rappelled into the sinkhole on Friday (May 6), discovering that there are three cave entrances in the chasm, as well as ancient trees 131 feet (40 m) tall, stretching their branches toward the sunlight that filters through the sinkhole entrance. 

” ‘This is cool news,’ said George Veni, the executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) in the U.S., and an international expert on caves. Veni was not involved in the exploration of the cave, but the organization that was, the Institute of Karst Geology of the China Geological Survey, is NCKRI’s sister institute. …

“Veni told Live Science, [that] southern China is home to karst topography, a landscape prone to dramatic sinkholes and otherworldly caves. Karst landscapes are formed primarily by the dissolution of bedrock, Veni said. Rainwater, which is slightly acidic, picks up carbon dioxide as it runs through the soil, becoming more acidic. It then trickles, rushes and flows through cracks in the bedrock, slowly widening them into tunnels and voids. Over time, if a cave chamber gets large enough, the ceiling can gradually collapse, opening up huge sinkholes. 

” ‘Because of local differences in geology, climate and other factors, the way karst appears at the surface can be dramatically different,’ he said. ‘So in China you have this incredibly visually spectacular karst with enormous sinkholes and giant cave entrances and so forth. In other parts of the world you walk out on the karst and you really don’t notice anything. Sinkholes might be quite subdued. … Cave entrances might be very small, so you have to squeeze your way into them.’ 

“In fact, 25% of the United States is karst or pseudokarst, which features caves carved by factors other than dissolution, such as volcanics or wind, Veni said. About 20% of the world’s landmass is made of one of these two cave-rich landscapes. 

“The new discovery took place in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, near Ping’e village in the county of Leye, according to Xinhua. Guangxi is known for its fabulous karst formations, which range from sinkholes to rock pillars to natural bridges and have earned the region UNESCO world heritage site designation.

“The sinkhole’s interior is 1,004 feet (306 m) long and 492 feet (150 m) wide, Zhang Yuanhai, a senior engineer with the Institute of Karst Geology, told Xinhua. … Chen Lixin, who led the cave expedition team, told Xinhua that the dense undergrowth on the sinkhole floor was as high as a person’s shoulders. Karst caves and sinkholes can provide an oasis for life, Veni said.

‘I wouldn’t be surprised to know that there are species found in these caves that have never been reported or described by science until now,’ [team leader] Lixin said.

“In one West Texas cave, Veni said, tropical ferns grow abundantly; the spores of the ferns were apparently carried to the sheltered spot by bats that migrate to South and Central America.

“Not only do sinkholes and caves offer refuge for life, they are also a conduit to aquifers, or deep stores of underground water. Karst aquifers provide the sole or primary water source for 700 million people worldwide, Veni said. But they’re easily accessed and drained — or polluted.” More at Live Science, here. No firewall.

The Washington Post offers more on the forest. Reporter Marisa Iati writes, “Large sinkholes are known in Chinese as ‘tiankeng,’ or ‘heavenly pits.’

“The sinkhole near Ping’e village is known to local residents as Shenying Tiankeng, or ‘the bottomless pit.’ From a distance, the cliff looks like a pair of soaring wings, the Guangxi Daily newspaper reported.

“The researchers arrived at the sinkhole May 6 and saw dense trees blocking the bottom of the pit, the newspaper reported. They used drones to explore the area and then rappelled and hiked to the bottom for several hours, passing dense thorns and fig plants. They found three caves in the wall that may have formed early in the sinkhole’s evolution, Zhang Yuanhai, senior engineer at the Institute of Karst Geology of China Geological Survey, told Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.

“While trees exist in other sinkholes, Veni said they can only grow if the hole is shallow enough and has a big enough opening to let in sunlight. The newly explored sinkhole is almost definitely home to small animals, such as insects, that are currently unknown to scientists, he said.”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: China Highlights.
“In ancient China, lanterns were used to provide light and as aspects of worship. Today, they are used only for decoration,” says China Highlights.

There is something about candles and lanterns that seem to take one back in time. If I light candles in a hurricane when the electricity goes out, I don’t think of lighting candles last week for a dinner or a birthday party, I think of being a little girl in a long ago hurricane. Lanterns also take me back in time — to my college’s traditions and our night-time processions with the lanterns of our particular year and the songs we’d learned to sing in ancient Greek.

Rebecca Kathor at Public Radio International’s The World reports on how China passes the ancient tradition of lantern making to new generations.

“Sixty-five-year-old Li Jianguo grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution,” she writes. “He remembers not always having enough to eat when he was young and having to drop out of school. Yet, his happiest memories as a child were during the Lunar New Year.

“ ‘That was when we had new clothes to wear and good food to eat,’ he said. ‘After dinner, [we] kids would run outside and play with our lanterns in the alleyways.’

“In China, the tradition of children playing with handmade paper lanterns during the Lunar New Year has been passed down for generations. During Lantern Festival, the last day of Lunar New Year celebrations, families gather for a meal of dumplings and light lanterns together. …

“Today, most lanterns are manufactured, but when Li was a boy, everyone had simple bamboo and paper ones. His was made by his father who learned from his own father. It was lit by a candle and had four wooden wheels and a string to pull it along.

“ ‘At the time, the streets in Shanghai weren’t well-paved and our rabbit lanterns would bump along behind us as we ran,’ he said. ‘If the rabbit fell over, the candle inside would burn up the lantern. The other kids would laugh at you, but it was also considered good luck — like you burned up all your bad luck and could start fresh in the new year.’

“These days, Li doesn’t play with lanterns anymore. He makes them. Li is one of the last remaining lantern craftspeople in Shanghai. His cramped apartment is covered floor to ceiling with paper lanterns shaped like rabbits, dragons and lotus flowers. He and his wife spend the entire year making 600 lanterns to sell during the 15 days of the Lunar New Year. Sometimes, he’s so busy, he said, that he doesn’t have time to sit down for a meal.

“ ‘This isn’t the busiest time of the year for me. Every day, I’m busy,’ Li said. ‘If I don’t keep up the pace during the year, when it comes time to sell my lanterns, people will be disappointed if I run out too fast.’ …

“Li demonstrated how to make a rabbit lantern. It takes 60 intricate steps to build the bamboo frame and decorate each one — a nearly six-hour process that he learned from watching his father. Each sells for $15. …

“Craftspeople like Li are disappearing, though, in a rapidly modernizing Shanghai.

“Zhou Qi is the author of a book featuring 60 of Shanghai’s remaining craftspeople. Over the course of eight years, she searched out artisans who make everything from handspun cloth to woven bamboo shopping baskets to hand-stitched cotton shoes.

“ ‘They all make everyday things I used as a child growing up here in the ’80s,’ she said. ‘But they are more than just things we use, they are also a part of our culture.’

“Many of the craftspeople in her book are elderly. And they haven’t passed down their skills because there are few people who want to learn these crafts. Zhou said that she found only four lantern makers in Shanghai. …

“The craftsmen are tough to find — most of them don’t have a storefront and aren’t on social media.

“One place you can find lanterns is at Yu Gardens, in Shanghai’s Old City. Every year at this time, crowds flock here to take photos of the massive lantern displays near the City God Temple.

“Rabbit lantern maker Li is here too, but … many people are buying their children cheaper, mass-produced plastic and paper versions instead. And these days, they are lit up by battery-powered light bulbs.

“Li said that he doesn’t make lanterns for the money. He and his wife live off their retirement pension.

“ ‘I want my children and grandchildren to have a memory of playing with rabbit lanterns just like I did,’ he said.”

More at the World, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Feature China/Barcroft Images.
“There are 17 vine ladders on the 800-metre-high way home, but the most dangerous part is a path on the cliff without a vine ladder.In 2016, the Guardian reported this story on children as young as six going to school from Atuler village in Sichuan.

In one of the online English classes where I volunteer, the teacher likes to provide unusual news stories for our adult students to practice their reading on. Recently she gave the class an article from 2016 that astounded us all. After class, I searched online for a follow-up.

In 2016, Tom Phillips wrote at the Guardian, “To attend class, backpack-carrying pupils from Atuler village in Sichuan province must take on an 800-metre rock face, scrambling down rickety ladders and clawing their way over bare rocks as they go.

“Images of their terrifying and potentially deadly 90-minute descent went viral on the Chinese internet [after] they were published in a Beijing newspaper. The photographs were taken by Chen Jie, an award-winning Beijing News photographer. …

“Chen used his WeChat account to describe the moment he first witnessed the village’s 15 school children, aged between six and 15, scaling the cliff. ‘There is no doubt I was shocked.’ … Chen, who spent three days visiting the impoverished community, said the perilous trek, which he undertook three times, was not for the faint of heart.

‘It is very dangerous. You have to be 100% careful,’ he told the Guardian. ‘If you have any kind of accident, you will fall straight into the abyss.’

“So steep was the climb that Zhang Li, a reporter from China’s state broadcaster CCTV who was also dispatched to the mountain, burst into tears as she attempted to reach Atuler village. ‘Do we have to go this way?’ the journalist said as her team edged its way up the cliff face. ‘I don’t want to go.’

“Api Jiti, the head of the 72-family farming community which produces peppers and walnuts, told Beijing News there had been insufficient room to build a school for local children on the mountaintop.

“But the perils were evident. The villager chief told the Beijing News that ‘seven or eight’ villagers had [died] after losing their grip during the climb while many more had been injured. He had once nearly fallen from the mountain himself.

“The trek to school is now considered so grueling that the children have been forced to board, only returning to their mountaintop homes to see their families twice a month.

“Villager Chen Jigu told reporters the wooden ladders used to move up and down the mountain were, like the village, hundreds of years old. ‘We replace a ladder with a new one when we find one of them is rotten,’ he said.”

In the Insider follow-up story, we learn that the government came to the rescue, although not everyone agreed to move. Michelle Mark wrote, “The Chinese government has resettled 84 households who once lived in a remote village at the top of a 2,624-foot cliff.

“The village made international headlines in 2016, after harrowing photos showed young children climbing down the cliff to go to school, descending rickety ladders made of vines and scaling narrow paths without any guardrails or safety devices.

“The villagers have since been moved into apartment buildings near the town center of Zhaojue County in the province of Sichuan, according to the state-run broadcaster CGTN.

“The broadcaster quoted one villager who said Atule’er residents drew lots for their new homes — [the villager] said he was allowed a 1,076-square-foot dwelling because there are five people in his family, and that he was looking forward to accessing services in the new area that were previously unavailable to him. …

“The resettlement of the Atule’er villagers is reportedly part of a broader campaign to house impoverished families in remote villages. The Zhaojue County site is expected to soon house more than 18,000 residents from 4,057 households, according to CGTN.

“Despite the efforts, not all Atule’er villagers were willing to leave their homes. CNN reported that 30 households intended to stay in their clifftop homes, partly due to a newfound tourist economy. Roughly 100,000 people visited Atule’er in 2019, creating some $140,000 in revenue for the village”!

More at the Guardian, here, and at Insider, here.

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Photo: Library of Congress.
Shanghai in the 1930s.

Something worth remembering as the need for asylum in our world grows every year, is that Shanghai accepted many Jewish refugees in the 1930s, where they joined an already thriving community of Jewish immigrants from Baghdad.

And as most immigrants do, these transplants made valuable contributions to their new country. Today’s story is about one such contribution in Shanghai: an unusual ballet.

Susan Blumberg-Kason writes at the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Jews in Shanghai have been the subject of many memoirs and novels. … Kirsty Manning’s The Song of Jade Lily (2018) and Rachel DeWoskin’s Someday We Will Fly (2019) are two recent novels that tell stories of Jewish refugees who fled to the Chinese city, one of the only places in the world that didn’t require papers back then.

“Other books have told of a Jewish community in Shanghai before the refugees arrived. Taras Grescoe’s Shanghai Grand (2016) and Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai (2020) center around Baghdadi Jewish families like the Sassoons and Kadoories, families that arrived in Shanghai a century before the onset of World War II. …

“Judaism is not a monolithic culture, as the different communities in Shanghai before and during the war show. Besides the refugees and the Baghdadi businesspeople, Shanghai was also home to Jews in the performing arts. Very little has been written about their contributions to Shanghai before the Japanese took over most of the city in 1937.

“These contributions centered around two people: Russian Jewish composer Aaron Avshalomov and American Jewish theater producer Bernardine Szold Fritz. …

“Avshalomov left Russia to study medicine in Zürich before the Bolshevik Revolution. … But by the end of the 1910s, he had decided to leave medicine and the US, and pursue a career in music. He moved to Shanghai.

“At the time, customs in this port city were not administered by Chinese officials, nor was it managed by French, British, or American authorities, all of which held local concessions. Because of these loose arrangements, Shanghai became a refuge for anyone seeking a new home. It attracted Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and Jews escaping pogroms. In Shanghai, Avshalomov worked with other Jewish musicians.

“Bernardine Szold Fritz was a Jewish actress-turned-journalist who fled three husbands before the age of 30, arriving in Shanghai in 1929 to marry her fourth husband, an American silver broker. Born in Peoria, Illinois, she had acted at Chicago’s Little Theatre before moving to New York and then Paris. …

“In Shanghai, Bernardine started a salon, bringing together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, musicians, and actors. In early 1933, she invited Avshalomov and learned that he had written a ballet, The Soul of the Ch’in, while living in Peking in 1925–’26. The ballet had been performed in Portland, Oregon, in the late ’20s, but had yet to be produced in China.

“Suddenly Bernardine envisioned a new project that inspired her to think beyond her living room. She convinced Avshalomov that the two of them together could produce his ballet right there in Shanghai. Not unfamiliar with the dance world, she was friendly with Ruth Page, the American ballerina, and her partner, Harald Kreutzberg, a German pioneer in modern dance.

“Avshalomov’s experience in China — he had already lived there for almost 15 years — and Bernardine’s theatrical background allowed the duo to bring a ballet to Shanghai that would appeal to all arts enthusiasts, both Chinese and expat. Bernardine also tapped into her connections in Shanghai’s financial, political, and artistic communities. She and Avshalomov knew members of the influential Soong family, including Madame Chiang Kai-shek (or Soong Mei-ling) and Madame Sun Yat-sen (or Soong Ching-ling), both avid patrons of the arts. The performance ran on May 21, 1933, at 9:15 p.m. at the new Grand Theatre. …

The Soul of the Ch’in was possibly the first Chinese ballet performed on a grand scale in China. … The event was even more remarkable because the cast of dancers was all Chinese, as were the set designers, dramaturge, and stage manager. In fact, the only foreigners on the crew were the costume designer and the person managing the lights.”

More at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here. There’s a full description of the ballet’s rather wild plot.

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Photo: The Home Depot.
Easy-care succulent plants are media stars in China.

A new craze in China shows a revealing side of the natural character, including the determination to find online fun that no government could possibly object to. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone objecting — unless the fad were to lead to depletion of the planet’s succulent plants.

Rebecca Tan writes at the Washington Post, “There’s a group of burgeoning new stars on China’s live-streaming scene. They’re painfully photogenic, diverse in age and origin, and offer up vividly different performances as the seasons change.

“Succulents.

“The thick, fleshy plants have been growing in popularity in China for nearly a decade, but only recently collided with live-streaming in e-commerce, a $60 billion industry that got a massive boost during the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people are logging on daily to admire these vegetating celebrities, oohing as chattering hosts turn and twirl them around, showing off blushes of new color, entire centimeters of growth, or — what a treat! — some velvety new leaves.

“ ‘For me, it’s a must-watch every day. I can’t not watch it, I’ll feel like I’m missing something,’ said Yang Weichun, 39, of Zhejiang province. Before live-streaming drew her into a passion for succulents, or ‘duorou’ in Chinese, her phone used to be filled with pictures of her two sons, 13 and 16. Now, her phone has space only for pictures and videos of her several hundred plants, which she scrolls through daily to feel at peace. Unlike teenage boys, she noted, succulents never throw tantrums.

“ ‘My sons say, “mom is silly to buy so many succulents, what is it for?” But when I look at my succulents, these useless things, I feel really happy,’ said Yang, a business executive with 14-hour work days. ‘It’s like unconditional love.’

“Yang is a top client at Gumupai Succulents — one of the many succulent nurseries in the mountainous region of southwest China run by 30-somethings fleeing their former lives in cramped cities. Equipped with selfie sticks and ring lights, these online-only merchants are part of what Chinese media calls ‘new farmers.’

“A former fruit-peddler who auctions off fruit online as ‘Brother Pomegranate‘ garnered 7 million fans. A once-struggling beekeeper found riches through Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

“Succulent sellers have found their success through live-streaming, described by Forbes as ‘the Home Shopping Network, but with charismatic, trendy anchors.’ On platforms like Taobao Live, sellers host videos that last 16 hours a day or more, blurring the lines between commerce, entertainment, and social media.

“Jialu Shan, an economist who studies China’s digital market at the International Institute for Management Development, said live-streaming caught on because it cut out the middleman between buyer and seller, offering more transparency and intimacy in a country often short of both. Instead of relying on Photoshopped or filtered images, buyers can examine products in real time, pose questions to sellers and swap notes with other users. …

“In China, home to nearly 1 billion Internet users, there are some unique outgrowths to traditional plant-rearing.

“Demand is on the rise for ‘succulent fostering,’ merchants say. A growing number of (wealthy) clients want to own succulents but aren’t in a rush to get them right away — or ever, actually. They prefer to outsource the parenting part of plant parenthood, content with watching their wards grow through pictures, videos or maybe the occasional visit.

“According to state-run broadcaster CCTV, more than 80 percent of succulent sellers now provide fostering. One seller told local media that when he started fostering mid-pandemic, he only wanted to take care of a few succulents on behalf of friends in hotter places. Now, he has 5 acres of land and 270,000 foster plants. A 37-year-old seller from Yunnan, who asked to be identified by her live-streaming name Queen of the Strange Flower, said she has 600 clients who have left plants under her care — some for as long as four years. …

“Yang is Gumupai’s biggest foster client, with hundreds of succulents under their care. She wants eventually to retrieve all her dourou — she recently bought a house with a large garden expressly for this purpose, she said — but she’s in no rush. She’s working toward retiring at age 50, at which point, her succulent-rearing skills will be more up-to-mark, she said. And in the meantime, she can see her plants whenever she wants, a collection of pin-sharp pixels on her phone screen.

“ ‘In the past, I wanted to travel and see all of China’s grand rivers and mountains. Now, I don’t have any of that desire at all,’ Yang said. ‘I just want to be in my garden, raising my succulents — just that simple.’ “

More at the Post, here.

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Yu Hua in Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue. The film documents life in rural Chinese villages over the past seven decades.

There’s a new documentary covering 70 years of life in China. In an interview at Hyperallergic, Jia Zhangke, director of Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, tells Jorden Cronk about some of the challenges of extracting personal memories from elderly people raised with a group mindset.

“Moving fluidly between fiction and documentary, the work of Chinese director Jia Zhangke assumes many forms, often within the same film. His latest, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, is a documentary portrait of rural China, told through the lives and words of four authors — Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong — whose work collectively spans from the 1949 communist revolution to the present day. Combining reflections on each era’s politics with memories of the authors’ rural upbringings, Jia charts the cultural evolution of China in intimate strokes. … Jia and I connected on Zoom to discuss hidden histories and the generation gap separating today’s Chinese youth from their rural roots.

Hyperallergic: I’ve heard you refer to the new film as the third in your ‘Artists Trilogy.’ At what point did you begin to conceive of the film as such?

Jia Zhangke: I shot the first two films in the trilogy back-to-back. In 2006 I made Dong, about the painter Liu Xiaodong, and in 2007 I made Useless, about the fashion designer Ma Ke. Immediately after I thought I would make the third part, about artists who are either architects or city planners. … I had found quite a few architects and city planners that would be perfect for the project, but they didn’t seem to want to share on camera the things I wanted to capture, so we postponed the project.

“It wasn’t until recently that I started to think again about the third installment. For the past few years, I’ve been going back and forth between Beijing and Jia Family Village [Note: no relation to the director], and while I was there, I noticed that they are facing many issues — and not uniquely Chinese issues, but global issues in terms of the younger generations leaving rural areas for urban settings. Nowadays in these rural areas, you tend to see mostly older people; younger people don’t stay in these areas for long. So now when these younger generations have children, they will have no connection or memories or understanding of their rural or agricultural roots. …

They’re very old. … We had to spend a lot of time during post-production finding a coherent logic and structure in what they were saying, to properly distill their memories.

H: How did you come to the four main subjects of the film? Do they have certain characteristics or writing styles that you felt were particularly suitable to the story you were trying to tell?

JZ: As I was thinking about who I could call on to tell these rural histories, one particular element in Jia Family Village stood out: a literary tradition with very strong connections with the first writer depicted in the film, Ma Feng. He was born and raised in Jia Family Village, and he often wrote about the region. I thought I could use writers born in similar areas who have been writing about these regions as a way to make this documentary come alive. …

“Ma Feng, he was born in the ’20s and most prolific in the ’50s and ’60s, while Jia Pingwa mostly wrote in the ’70s and ’80s, Yu Hua about the ’80s and ’90s, and Liang Hong about anything from the ’90s until now. So it made sense for me to put these authors together as a kind of relay to talk about their formative years, and even though they have some overlap, the most important eras for each of them represent specific moments in time. …

“But more interesting for me was that I could capture each author’s unique way of storytelling and their worldview through the way they talk through their memories, lives, and history, as well as how they depict their characters. … In addition to learning about the last 70 years of rural history, you’re witnessing the evolution of Chinese literature.

H: Ma Feng is the only writer who’s no longer alive. How did you decide to have his daughter speak for him?

JZ: For me, to put together a comprehensive understanding of these rural areas during Ma Feng’s time, it wasn’t sufficient to rely only on his daughter, because I really needed that firsthand account. That’s the reason why, in addition to the daughter, I included two village elders, both in their 90s. These elders had direct experiences and interactions with Ma Feng that I relied on to offer eyewitness testimony to what happened during this period. All three of them talk about the collectivization of society that occurred during Ma Feng’s time. When we look back and rethink the ideas from that era, we might now have different assessments, viewpoints, or understandings of these concepts, but what I want to articulate with the film is that we have to admit that this happened, no matter how we interpret what happened. Through these three people, I wanted to capture the social and historical contexts for these things.

“However, this also posed a couple of problems with regards to interviewing them. They’re very old, of course, but they also come from a society that focused on collectivism rather than individualism, which means that it is very difficult for them to talk from a first-person, or ‘I,’ perspective. It was a challenge to interview them in such a way that they would open up in front of the camera and share their private and subjective memories. And since they are old, they tend to not talk in chronological order, and instead jump around, skip ahead, and flash back in a way that isn’t always coherent. We had to spend a lot of time during post-production finding a coherent logic and structure in what they were saying, to properly distill their memories.

H: Is this hesitancy to talk from a first-person perspective one reason you chose to shoot the interviews from multiple angles and from what seems like a quite a distance?

JZ: For me, the compositions evolve in a natural way within the film’s structure. For the first interviews, I wanted to things to be impressionistic, so we started with images of old people eating, and through that group concept slowly but surely segue into individual memories. In other words, I wanted to locate a visual concept that would take us from the collectivist to individualist way of viewing memories.

H: Much of the film is about the official record of Chinese history and the personal experiences of each author, and how those are quite different. In general, what is the public’s understanding of these events?

JZ: In terms of the grand narrative, the ‘official’ version of history is pretty much the same for everyone, at least in terms of how people understand the big historical junctures. However … everything is stated in such an abstract or statistical way. That’s why I think films like this are very much needed. You can’t feel abstract or statistical histories. There’s no impact — it’s meaningless. What’s missing are visceral connections with history. Of course, there are many ways you can hide certain parts of history. But what’s more important to realize is that what’s often hidden is not necessarily what happened, but how things happened.”

More at Hyperallergic.

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Map: Wikipedia.
Map showing the location of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Before the pandemic, I had a conversation with a friend in her 80s who was raised in the Sephardic Jewish tradition. Along with others in her age group she has gone online to try to preserve the Spanish-based language Ladino, which goes way back to 15th century, when there was a large Jewish community living in Spain.

This blog has often covered the topic of endangered languages and efforts to protect them. Sometimes the danger to a language results from the dying out of aging speakers. Sometimes the danger comes from government policy, as was the case for many years with America’s indigenous tribes.

Filip Noubel writes at Global Voices about the language of a Muslim community in China whose proponents are working to adapt it to online use.

“Languages need to adapt to the modern world to catch-up with new technology and concepts if they want to remain competitive, particularly among younger speakers. This is particularly true for Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken in Western China that is under threat due to targeted discrimination conducted by Chinese authorities in the hope that Chinese may appear more attractive and technology-friendly among Uyghur youth.

“Uyghur linguists have long been aware of the fact that Uyghur, a Turkic language with an estimated 10 million speakers, written in the Arabic alphabet in China, and with a rich tradition of intricate poetry, philosophy and songs written in that language, needs to include elements of modern life to serve the needs of the younger generation, as well as of social media where more and more conversations are taking place.

“To have a rare insight into those efforts, Global Voices spoke to Elise Anderson, an expert on Uyghur language and music who spent years in Xinjiang, and now works as a Senior Program Officer with the Uyghur Human Rights Project. Anderson, who spent most of her time in Xinjiang from 2012 to 2016, was invited in January 2014 by an Uyghur linguist friend to join their WeChat group called ‘Tilchilar’ (Linguists) as she was herself studying the language in-depth as part of her doctoral research on Uyghur music and songs. Here is how she describes the group hosted on China’s most popular social media platform, WeChat:

” ‘The group had around 100 members at any given moment, most of whom were highly educated native speakers, including academics, translators, bureaucrats, and even a few officials from regional-level institutions. We discussed persistent “problems” in the language, including spelling, grammar, translation. Most often, our conversations centered on terminology and whether we could replace Chinese loanwords to preserve the “purity” (sapliq) of Uyghur. A group member might say, “I noticed teenagers are using [Mandarin word]. What could we say instead?” We would then cycle through possibilities: Was there a word to “resurrect” from pre-modern Uyghur? No? What about “borrowing” from other Turkic languages? No? What about ‘importing’ from a more distant language? And so on. In a few cases, we settled on terms, which more influential group members then attempted to lexicalize. But discussions of single words could last days and often went unresolved.’

“As Anderson explains, the group was also trading examples of bad translations, some of which were comical, but also raised an uncomfortable questions such as why would there be unedited translations in Uyghur in a territory inhabited by millions of native speakers of the language.

“For languages that do not have a dominating position in a country, or have a small number of speakers, their digital footprint is often an indicator of their chances for long-term survival. For Uyghur language, WeChat offered a unique opportunity with its voice messaging feature. As Anderson explains, the platform became so popular it was given an Uyghur name, ‘Ündidar,’ a portmanteau word made of the Turkic word ‘ün’ which means voice, and the Persian term ‘didar’ which refers to encounter. The poetic term was coined by the poet and intellectual Abduqadir Jalaliddin, who disappeared from his Ürümqi home in 2018 and is currently incarcerated. …

“Today the Uyghur diaspora living outside a Beijing-censored internet is probably the most active user of Uyghur language over social media. Microsoft has offered full operating systems in Uyghur since 2016, and most smartphones allow Uyghur on their keyboard. In February 2020, Google also added Uyghur on its free translation platform, expanding the space for Uyghur online. …

“According to Anderson: ‘The Uyghur web, most of which was hosted inside the borders of China, used to be a vibrant space, where popular message boards gave users space to discuss everything under the sun (or at least everything under the sun that made it through the censors). … Since 2016, authorities in the Uyghur region have managed to scrub that web nearly completely, such that today there are very few Uyghur-language sites left. …

” ‘The way to keep anything alive, including a language, is to create space for it to live and provide material support so it can thrive. The Uyghur language will survive if it is put it on equal footing with other languages, if it “counts” in professional and formal settings, if it has support as a language of literary and scientific production.’ “

More at Global Voices, here.

Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters.
Workers walk along the fence of a fortification thought to be a Muslim detention center in Xinjiang, China, on September 4, 2018. Read more at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Photo: Raph_PH
Juliana Hatfield in concert, 2019.

Musicians and other artists who are not big names don’t get paid what they’re worth in the best of times, and a pandemic is not the best of times.

At the online magazine Slate, William Ralston and Niko Seizov suggest that fans in large enough numbers can help musicians survive by making micropayments. The writers point to a model in China.

“Back in July, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek caught flak for saying it’s no longer enough for artists to record ‘once every three to four years’ — that they need to pump out more product if they want to make a living streaming their music on his platform. As the man cutting their modest checks, Ek would know.

“Streaming on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora accounted for 79.5 percent of the $8.8 billion total global revenue for recorded music last year. But … while these platforms generate mammoth revenues through advertising and subscriptions, they pay out negligible amounts per stream, and only a portion of this ends up in creators’ pockets. To make it even worse, Spotify has proposed a new feature that will enable artists and rights holders to boost specific tracks in the platform’s recommendation algorithms provided they agree to a lower royalty rate for those streams. It’s a race to a bottom we didn’t know existed.

“The shortcomings of the streaming payment model have long been blunted by a swelling live music industry: Streaming barely paid for most artists, the argument went, but at least it facilitated audience expansion so that musicians could better make a living on the road. The pandemic has killed that argument, at least for now — and now many artists must wonder where their next paycheck will come from. It has underlined a profound need to restructure, so that artists can depend on selling their art as well as their time. …

“An integral part of any solution may exist within China’s walled-off internet. On several streaming platforms under the umbrella of China’s Tencent Music … micropayments from fans help compensate artists where royalties fall short. …

“What’s interesting is that only around 30 percent of Tencent Music’s revenue comes from subscriptions, music downloads, and advertising revenue; the lion’s share comes through a commission on one-off payments given to artists by listeners, called micropayments. These can be straight-up donations, or given in exchange for virtual goods. …

“There’s no reason why Tencent Music’s model can’t be applied beyond China. We all inherently crave a deeper emotional bond with our favorite artists, and we will part with money for it. …

“The on-demand streaming model has ruptured the audience-artist relationship. There’s no longer a traditional exchange of X record for Y; instead, platforms like Spotify have become gatekeepers, and music has become more like a utility: unlimited supply for a monthly charge. We listen to curated playlists with the creators demoted to the background, their work consumed by a detached and disengaged audience. With its micropayment features, Tencent Music bridges this gap, and provides artists with a toolkit to foster and more importantly monetize deep fan loyalty.

“Skeptics might say that the Tencent model wouldn’t work in the west because there isn’t the same culture of tipping over the internet. … But western platforms like Anchor and Twitch have been successful in implementing micropayment features in podcasting and gaming, and the same could be true of music. There just has to be a convenient mechanism.

“Social media platforms like Facebook have capitalized on this dynamic … without rewarding artists for their efforts for their own contributions to these networks. Not only are the artists not rewarded, but they must invest in advertising to reach the followers they attracted to their page in the first place.

“The toolkit in the west is materializing. Bandcamp, the independent-focused online music store, has offered the ‘pay what you wish’ model for years. Artists set a minimum purchase price for goods, but leave you free to add more. And during the coronavirus crisis, major streaming platforms have started to tip-toe toward this model. Spotify, for one, has launched ‘Artist Fundraising Pick,’ which allows listeners to make donations via artists’ profiles … but it’s not enough. …

“On Patreon, on the other hand, around 4 million fans, or patrons, subscribe to their favorite creators in return for rewards like exclusive songs, physical merchandise, or private lessons. There are no micropayments per se, but the platform is monetizing the direct artist-audience channel, becoming a digital incarnation of a fan club. …

“One major barrier for Patreon is that it exists as an isolated ecosystem separate from where you actually go to listen to music. … It’s a lot to expect listeners to jump to another site, but Patreon does provide a foundation that could feasibly be integrated into a major streaming platform. …

“In the meantime, we must support artists in any way we can. … When you purchase a record, as opposed to streaming it, a larger amount of money ends up with the artist.” More at Slate, here.

Over at Will McMillan’s blog “A Musical Life on Planet Earth,” the cabaret artist/music teacher has been pondering the same issues. Read him here.

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Photo: Kevin McGill
A view of the Terracotta Army in the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. In normal times, several million people visit the Xi’an, Shaanxi province, site each year.

I save links about interesting happenings to share later on the blog, but when coronavirus hit, some of the happenings in my pipeline seemed out of date. Archaeological finds are different. Anytime’s a good time to read about the excavation of terracotta warriors in China.

As you may know, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China is a designated Unesco World Heritage site. The online Unesco description says (with prescience), “No doubt thousands of statues still remain to be unearthed at this archaeological site, which was not discovered until 1974. Qin (d. 210 B.C.), the first unifier of China, is buried, surrounded by the famous terracotta warriors, at the centre of a complex designed to mirror the urban plan of the capital, Xianyan. The small figures are all different; with their horses, chariots and weapons, they are masterpieces of realism and also of great historical interest.”

In January this year, Taylor Dafoe reported at Artnet that more statues had indeed been discovered. “The Terracotta Army,” he writes, “just got a little more formidable.

“More than 200 additional funerary sculptures have been uncovered near the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in Xi’an, the capital of China’s Shaanxi Province. The relics join the 8,000 already unearthed soldiers that constitute the Terracotta Army, created 2,200 years ago to protect the emperor in the afterlife.

“The discovery, first announced by the country’s state-run news agency, came during a decade-long excavation of the first of four pits at the mausoleum. … Archaeologists uncovered roughly 200 new warriors, 12 clay horses, and two chariots, as well as a number of bronze weapons, over the past 10 years.

“According to Shen Maosheng, the archeologist who led the dig, the new findings provide researchers with a clearer picture of how the ancient Chinese military operated. For instance, Maosheng notes that most of the newly uncovered figures are depicted either holding poles or bows — a clue that reveals the soldiers’ battlefield roles and responsibilities.

One of the world’s most treasured historical artifacts, the army was first discovered by a group of local farmers trying to dig a well roughly a mile east of Emperor Qin’s tomb in 1974. They stumbled upon a vault that held thousands of human-sized military figures, each unique in appearance, all lined up in battle formation. …

“Researchers believe it took 700,000 laborers as much as 30 to 40 years to complete the army and its tombs, and that there are still likely more vaults and warriors to be discovered.” More.

Have any readers visited the mausoleum? I was in China once, when my husband was working there, but for the 10-day visit, I stayed in Shanghai and environs. Xi’an would have been too far, and besides it was Spring Festival (or Lunar New Year) at the time, and the whole country was on the road. If you have seen the terracotta warriors, I would love to know your personal reactions.

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Photo: Taobao / JD.com.
Livestreaming has brought some Chinese farmers badly needed customers during the pandemic.

I originally heard this reassuring tale at the radio show called The World, which is great about covering news from around the world, not just the US. If you’d like to listen to the broadcast, click here.

As Karen Hao reported at MIT Technology Review, some Chinese farmers hurting from the Covid-19 lockdown have been saved by technology.

“A few years after Li Jinxing graduated from college, he returned to his rural hometown to become a flower farmer. The days were long but the routine familiar: rise early and tend to the blossoms in the morning; trim and package those in bloom during the afternoon; deliver the parcels, delicately stacked in trucks, to customers by late evening.

“Where the flowers ended up, Li was never quite sure. From his fields in Yunnan province, China, he sold them to national distributors who sold them to flower shops who sold them to end consumers. … It all threatened to come to an end with covid-19.

“Li, 27, remembers the exact moment he heard about the viral outbreak: it was past midnight on January 20, 2020. The Chinese New Year was only five days away, and he had spent the day harvesting flowers in preparation for the expected holiday bump in sales. As he swiped through Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, he saw a fleeting mention of the disease. Li wasn’t sure what to think. Wuhan was nearly 1,200 miles away — the problem felt distant and intangible. …

“But as lockdown protocols swept through the country, panic began to set in. The logistics company that Li relied on had shut down for the holidays, and now the drivers were stuck at home. Without any way to carry out deliveries, Li watched as his flowers plummeted in price and still couldn’t be sold. In the end, tens of thousands of blossoms waiting in storage spoiled. …

“Then, on February 11, he received a message from an old friend, Ao Fenzhen, the COO of a flower distribution company. JD.com, one of China’s largest online retailers, was offering to help farmers use live-streaming to reach consumers, she said. It would involve broadcasting a few hours of content each day on its app, JD Live, to show off different products and answer questions from potential buyers. The company would provide access to its delivery networks — one of the few that had survived the lockdown — and take a small percentage of sales. Did Li want to join in? …

“Both JD.com and Alibaba-owned Taobao … helped farmers and merchants set up online stores with expedited approvals and showed them how to design the content of their broadcasts. They made their apps more intuitive and used their logistics networks to ship the products directly from farm to home. …

‘Most farmers didn’t know how to live-stream; even fewer understood e-commerce,’ says Zhang Guowei, the head of JD Live.

“But the pressure of the crisis — and the unique scale of China’s consumer base — provided the necessary catalyst. … Growers who had once sold 90% of their products offline have now flipped to selling 90% online. Live-streaming has not only helped the industry weather the crisis — it’s forged an entirely new way of business that is likely to continue long after the pandemic is over.

“Li’s friend Ao had been with her family for the holiday when news of covid arrived. … It was through an ad that she learned of JD.com’s live-streaming initiative. She didn’t have any experience with the medium, but she also didn’t know what else to do. She contacted the company and messaged Li. He was onboard.

“The first week of live-streaming was largely a blur. Ao set up an online store for consumers to make their purchases, and prepared scripts for one to two hours of content per day. Li then used JD Live to broadcast from his fields. He gave a tour of where the flowers grew, showcased their characteristics, and explained how to care for them. Li worked even longer hours than before … but when he sold 100 orders on the first day, he knew they were on to something.

“Through JD’s initiative, Ao and Li also connected with live-stream influencers who offered to help them promote the flowers for free. The pair provided the expertise, teaching the influencers the properties of the flowers and how to arrange them. Once, an influencer’s broadcast surpassed 1 million viewers.

“More orders came flooding in, and Li began to gain his own following. At one point, he remembers, he barely had enough farmhands to fulfill the sales. … By the end of the harvesting season, he had sold several hundred thousand flowers. His and Ao’s businesses had survived.”

More at MIT Technology Review, here.

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Art: Wei Man Kow

While many of us feel crushed under the weight of stories about Covid-19, cartoonists have been addressing the coronavirus in their own way, mostly trying to be helpful.

Jason Li writes at Hyperallergic, “No corner of the globe experiences the epidemic in quite the same way. … Cartoonists and illustrators have taken to the public squares of social media to express statements of solidarity, share experiences (and grievances), and laugh a little. [We’ve] collected our favorite works from around the world — taking care to include as many perspectives and geographies as we could, while still centering those in China, who remain most impacted by the virus. …

“[One] viral illustration by momo shows that Wuhan, ground zero of the epidemic, carries the support of everyone else in China. Wuhan is represented by a caricature of its famous food, hot dry noodle, while those cheering them on are drawn as foods from other regions of China.

“On a gentler note, the 3×3 comic [by] Wang XX is a fantastic encapsulation of the tenderness and care that people in China are feeling for one another during this calamitous period. In it, a seal, octopus, walrus and mouse help each other don their face masks and then hug it out. …

“[Another] comic about the shortages in Hong Kong by Ah To shows a person keeping toilet paper them in their safe along with their gold bars and surgical masks. …

“Many in and outside of China criticize its authorities for handling the crisis poorly and for muffling early warnings from medical experts. [A] mini-comic by A ee mi in Taiwan weaves a fantastical yet blunt critique of China’s healthcare system. In it, a coronavirus carrier is sent home without proper treatment, spreading the virus to their friends and community.

“While many airlines have suspended flights to China, the authorities in Hong Kong, which shares both land and sea borders with Mainland China, have staunchly refused to close off its borders. This has left its citizens incredibly anxious and angry. [Toballkidrawing] aptly depicts how the issue is viewed in Hong Kong — that the government is handing out a free pass for the virus to move in. …

“One genre of responses that’s been common across the globe is illustrated health advice. Some are comedic, some pithy, but the most popular are detailed and instructional. The above example by Wei Man Kow in Singapore was an unexpected hit and was subsequently translated into seven different languages by various strangers on the internet. (The artist has also made the instructional available for free download, including coloring book versions in Chinese and English.) Meanwhile, veteran cartoonist Sonny Liew (also in Singapore) teamed up with local doctors to put out [a] calming, animal-themed strip combating paranoia and disinformation.

“The breadth of these illustrated responses mirrors the myriad lived realities of the coronavirus. While none will argue that the virus is not a global epidemic or phenomenon, few agree on how serious the problem is, and people around the world are experiencing and interpreting its impact in vastly different ways. ”

Check out all these comics and more at Hyperallergic, here. If you have seen other good cartoons on this topic, please link to them in comments.

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Photo: Hanjun
Music director Long Yu with the Shanghai Symphony  This orchestra carried on straight through World War I and World War II. During the Cultural Revolution, they had to play folk songs and songs of revolution. But they played.

This past August the Shanghai Symphony came to Chicago. And thanks to coverage of the visit, I learned something new about a Chinese city I visited in 2007.

Howard Reich interviewed the symphony’s conductor at the Chicago Tribune. “When the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra makes its Chicago-area debut Aug. 16 at the Ravinia Festival, no one will be prouder of the occasion than its music director, Long Yu.

“For to him, the Shanghai ensemble will be more than just a visitor from the other side of the world – it will be bringing with it a legacy stretching back to 1879, when it was established under a previous name.

“ ‘This is the first orchestra not only in China, but in the Far East,’ says Yu, speaking by phone from Hong Kong. …

“In effect, adds Yu, this orchestra ‘introduced most of the classical music to China and to Asia.’ …

“ ‘There is something wrong about how the Western world – I don’t speak about the United States only – the Western world is taking for granted our culture,’ [Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti] said. ‘In China, where we performed in this big (arts) center – where they have theater, concert halls and drama – that is so modern and fantastic, they told me that they are building a new hall!’ …

“Few could have envisioned such an embrace of Western classical music when the Shanghai ensemble was founded. But equally remarkable is the fact that it has survived through so many political, social and cultural upheavals.

“ ‘You can see this orchestra for 140 years, you can find all the programs through the First (World) War, Second (World) War, Cultural Revolution and till today – they have not stopped playing concerts,’ says Yu.

‘Especially during the Cultural Revolution, they still played! They did function in the Cultural Revolution – Chinese folk songs, but they still played. …

“ ‘Today it sounds like a very crazy idea. But during the years of the Cultural Revolution in China, it was fashionable to punish people for learning too much Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. I graduated from high school (in 1970) having been trained as a pianist, but my studies were interrupted, and I was sent to the rice fields for four years of physical labor. The government felt they needed to purify my soul, and they believed physical labor was the best way.’

“Musicians who nurtured Western culture suffered severely. Yang Bingsun, the Central Philharmonic Orchestra of China’s concertmaster, spent ‘nine years and four months in prison, my fingers constantly being injured because I was forced to work in cement,’ he told me in 1987. …

“What a difference a few decades make: In May, the First China International Music Competition launched in Beijing with an unprecedented first prize: $150,000 plus professional career management for three years (second and third prizes were $75,000 and $30,000). … Why have the Chinese put so much muscle behind classical music?

“ ‘To be placed on the international music map in a very serious way,’ Richard Rodzinski, the contest’s general director, told me earlier this year.

“Which helps explain why conductor Yu and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra are bringing their wares here. …

“For his Ravinia program, he’ll feature cellist Alisa Weilerstein in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Qigang Chen’s ‘Wu Xing (The Five Elements),’ a kind of East-meets-West program. But unlike some observers, Yu sees fewer distinctions between music-making in the two hemispheres.

“ ‘I don’t like to put Western music or Eastern music, Western culture or Eastern culture’ in categories, he says. ‘People ask me what is the difference between Chinese orchestras and Western orchestras? Basically, no difference. Eastern and Western orchestras do the same things, we teach every orchestra the same way, we rehearse the same way, we do the same programs.’ ”

More at the Chicago Tribune, here.

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A saxophone made in China.

I’ve always liked the sound of the saxophone, and when I listen to my favorite jazz station, WICN.org, I often try to identify which kind I’m hearing — alto, tenor … Identifying instrument sounds is not my strong suit, but I’m working on it.

Recently Javier C. Hernández published an unusual story about saxophones at the New York Times. It turns out the mellow instruments are quite popular in China, especially in the village that makes them.

“By day,” he reports, “the factory workers pound sheets of brass into cylinders and slather metal buttons with glue. By night, they take their creations to the street and begin to play.

“The soothing melodies flow through cornfields, street markets and public squares. They interweave with the shouts of street vendors hawking tofu and men playing mah-jongg.

“This is the music of Sidangkou, a northern Chinese village of 4,000, where one sound rules above all else: the saxophone. …

“The saxophone has never had a large following in China, in part because it was long associated with jazz, individuality and free expression. After the Communist revolution of 1949, officials denounced the instrument for producing the ‘decadent music of capitalists.’

“But here in this town, the saxophone is king.

“Sidangkou, which calls itself China’s ‘saxophone capital,’ produces about 10,000 saxophones per month at more than 70 factories, according to Chinese news media. ..

“Factories in the region now produce thousands of oboes, trumpets and tubas each year. Yet nothing seems to have captured the imagination of people here like the saxophone. …

“Assembly line workers began trying their hand at the instrument, mimicking famous players they saw on television. By the mid-2000s, saxophone fever had broken out.

“Fu Guangcheng came to Sidangkou in 1995 to work as a polisher on an assembly line. He quickly fell in love with the sound of the saxophone and started formal studies.

“ ‘It’s my career, it’s my life,’ said Mr. Fu, a factory worker. … ‘It’s a miracle that even rural people who are used to holding hoes in our hands can make Western instruments.’ …

“Many of the players are self-taught or follow along with online tutorials. … Some of the more advanced players in the village now use live-streaming apps to broadcast lessons online.”

As I was looking for photos, I discovered that Chinese depictions of Santa Claus nearly always show him playing a sax. Max Fisher of the Washington Post wondered why and discovered that no one knows. Maybe, one reader suggested, it’s because the saxophone is “cool and romantic”!

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Dinghua Yang/AFP/Getty Images
This pregnant Dinocephalosaurus, a long-necked marine reptile, didn’t lay eggs but instead gave birth to live young 245m years ago.

After uncovering new evidence, surprised scientists are revising a long-held understanding of the pre-dinosaur Dinocephalosaurus.

According to a Reuters story at the Guardian, “An extraordinary fossil unearthed in southwestern China shows a pregnant long-necked marine reptile that lived millions of years before the dinosaurs with its developing embryo, indicating the creature gave birth to live babies rather than laying eggs.

“Scientists said [in February that] the fossil of the unusual fish-eating reptile called Dinocephalosaurus, which lived about 245m years ago during the Triassic Period, changes the understanding of the evolution of vertebrate reproductive systems.

“Mammals and some reptiles including certain snakes and lizards are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young.

“Dinocephalosaurus is the first member of a broad vertebrate group called archosauromorphs that includes birds, crocodilians, dinosaurs and extinct flying reptiles known as pterosaurs known to give birth this way, paleontologist Jun Liu of China’s Hefei University of Technology said. …

“ ‘I think you’d be amazed to see it, with its tiny head and long snaky neck,’ said University of Bristol paleontologist Mike Benton, who also participated in the research published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Its body plan was similar to plesiosaurs, long-necked marine reptiles akin to Scotland’s mythical Loch Ness Monster that thrived later during the dinosaur age, though they were not closely related.

“Not laying eggs provided advantages to Dinocephalosaurus, the researchers said. It indicated the creature was fully marine, not having to leave the ocean to lay eggs on land like sea turtles, exposing the eggs or hatchlings to land predators.” More here.

I admire scientists for continuously revisiting accepted wisdom when they find new data. The only complaint I have about the story concerns the Loch Ness Monster, an old friend of mine. Should one really call it mythical? Perhaps the data just haven’t floated to the surface yet.

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