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Art: Liu Xiaodong
“Thank you 2020.4.9” (2020), watercolor on paper, at New York City’s Lisson Gallery.

People from around the world often perceive New Yorkers as brash, rude. But if you have spent any time in the city, you know there’s another side, a side that is helpful and kind, that will drop everything to give a stranger detailed directions to the Empire State Building or a place to buy the freshest lychee nuts.

During the height of the pandemic, artist Liu Xiaodong seems to have seen the generosity, humanity, and vulnerability of New Yorkers and to have captured it in his watercolors.

John Yau writes at Hyperallergic, “Charles Baudelaire said in his 1863 essay that the ‘painter of modern life’ is the ‘passionate observer’ who can be ‘away from home and yet […] feel at home anywhere.’

“Among contemporary artists, the Chinese observational painter Liu Xiaodong is the closest embodiment of Baudelaire’s ideal that I know. For years, he has been, in the words of Baudelaire, an ‘independent, intense, and impartial spirit’ who observes the ‘ebb and flow’ of the world around him. This has led him to set up a temporary studio near an orphanage in Greenland and one among Uyghur jade miners in China’s harsh northwest. …

“In 1978, when Liu was 15, his family sent him to live with his uncle, who had studied Western painting at the Jilin Academy of Fine Arts and had gone on to become the art editor of a magazine. His uncle taught him watercolor, and showed him the books he had about English watercolors, European oil painting, and the Peredvizhniki, a group of late 19th-century Russian realists who believed that Russia and its people possessed an inner beauty.

“The date of 1978 is significant: it is two years after the death of Mao Zedong, the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the Tangshan earthquake, which devastated the region where he and his family lived. Born in 1963, Liu belongs to a generation that has both witnessed and been directly affected by the convulsive social, political, and economic changes that China has undergone during Mao’s lifetime, and since his death. …

“His instinct to respond to what is directly in front of him with whatever medium he has on hand endows his views with an unrivaled propinquity. He is, to cite Baudelaire, at the very center of the world he is depicting, and unseen by it. …

“[A recent exhibition provided] a visual and written record of a specific area of Manhattan, determined by what he can walk to.

Liu made his watercolors during an extreme period in New York’s history, starting with the empty streets during the first months of the COVID-19 quarantine, and including the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations in response to the video-recorded murder of George Floyd.

“Even in this acute moment in our history, he is able to slow down his looking to find and celebrate the beauty of human determination, as well as recognize feelings of wariness and displacement. …

“The watercolor ‘Kitchen Paper cannot be flushed down the Toilet, right, 2020’ [is] a wonderful tonal view of a roll of paper towels resting on a toilet tank, a quick yet careful placing of pale yellows, blues, off whites, and grays. …

“[But] the range of subjects and views underscores a person who is remarkably open to the world, from a blooming tree, to children’s toys left at a park, to an evening view of the top of the Empire State Building, seen between two buildings, to a homeless man’s legs sticking out of a doorway. … You never get the feeling that he is looking for something; there is no hierarchy to what he chooses. …

“As Manhattan transitioned from the largely empty streets of the quarantine to demonstrations and large groups of police, Liu kept looking, kept going out, and kept making watercolors and taking photographs, to work on later.  His attention to detail, to the color and light, is masterful and precise. … The merging of mark and color, and his sensitivity to light and dark, feel effortless, though we know they are not. This is Liu’s genius; there are no signs of hesitation in his work.

“In Liu’s watercolors and painted-over photographs, the viewer encounters scenes in which hand, eye, and intelligence work in astonishing tandem. … We are the lucky beneficiaries of a vision at once candid and sophisticated, open and sincere, witty and compassionate — an unlikely combination in this dark, nerve-fraying, and isolating period in history.”

To see an array of Liu Xiaodong’s New York paintings, go to Hyperallergic, here. And fall in love with that city all over again.

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Photo: Greeka.com
In every language people use some expression to indicate they think certain words are impossible to understand. Many say, “It’s all Greek to me.”

In the early 2000s, I worked at a magazine that was going through a redesign. Having not been involved in anything like that before, I was startled when the designer used the word “Greek” to refer to dummy text that helped illustrate the layout.

“That’s not Greek,” I found myself blurting out. “That’s Latin”! Turns out that in the design field any incomprehensible dummy text is called “Greek” because everyone is supposed to know that means you’re not expected to understand it.

(Except that I read Greek. Or used to to.)

Today’s post is on the notion that every language has some expression for the impenetrable, and many use “Greek.” A runner up is “Chinese.”

Dan Nosowitz wrote about this phenomenon at Atlas Obscura.

“It’s a curious thing when there is an idiom — structured roughly the same way and meaning essentially the same thing — that exists in a large number of languages. It’s even more curious when that idiom, having emerged in dozens of different languages, is actually … about language. That’s the case with ‘It’s Greek to me.’ …

“These idioms all seek to describe one person’s failure to understand what the other is trying to say, but in a particular, dismissive way. It’s not just, ‘Sorry, I can’t understand you.’ It’s saying, ‘The way you’re speaking right now is incomprehensible.’ And it specifically compares that incomprehensibility to a particular language, a language agreed upon in that culture to be particularly impenetrable.

“Sometimes that original cultural peg has been lost. In English, the phrase doesn’t really indicate anything about the way modern English-speakers feel about the Greek language or Greece in general. … So where did the phrase come from, and why is its sentiment so universal?

“One theory ties it to medieval monks. In Western Europe at this time, the predominant written language was Latin, but much of the writing that survived from antiquity was in Greek. The theory holds that these monks, in transcribing and copying their texts, were not necessarily able to read Greek, and would write a phrase next to any Greek text they found: ‘Graecum est; non legitur.’ Translated: ‘It is Greek; it cannot be read.’ …

“Shakespeare’s version is a lot more literal than most of the uses of this idiom. In Julius Caesar, the Roman character Casca describes a speech made by Cicero, a scholar of Greek. Casca, one of the conspirators who assassinates Caesar, does not speak Greek. So he says, ‘Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.’ …

“English is not the only language to rely on Greek as a shorthand for gobbledygook. Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Afrikaans do as well. You’ll notice those are all European languages except for Afrikaans, and Afrikaans is Germanic in origin.

“Harry Foundalis, a cognitive scientist who studies Greek linguistics, says many Greek people know that in English and other languages, Greek serves as an indecipherable tongue, and many Greek people, especially young ones, speak English anyway, so they’ve encountered it before. ‘How do we feel about it? We find it funny,’ says Foundalis. …

“There are, however, an awful lot of other languages that have some version of this phrase that doesn’t use Greek. Some of these are weird in their own right. What’s up with the Baltic countries, which think Spanish is so impenetrable? Why do the Danish use Volapük, a short-lived Esperanto-type constructed language created by a German in 1880? When a Bulgarian says ‘Все едно ми говориш на патагонски,’ which uses ‘Patagonian’ instead of Greek ,,, do they mean some extinct indigenous Chonan language, or Spanish, which is the dominant language there, or Patagonian Welsh, which also apparently exists?

“And what, you might ask, do the Greeks say?

“ ‘Εμένα, αυτά μου φαίνονται Κινέζικα.’ … ‘To me, this appears like Chinese.’ Chinese happens to be the most common replacement for Greek in the idiom around the world — and the language that tops polls as the most difficult natural language to learn. …

“In Chinese, for what it’s worth, there are a couple of different sayings in the ‘It’s Greek to me’ family. A Mandarin speaker might describe incomprehensible speech as Martian, or being like the sound of birds. The way you can tell you’ve reached the peak of language difficulty is when you don’t even bother with a human language in your version of the phrase.”

It’s a long article with lots more curious factoids. Check it out here.

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I had just cut out this story for the blog, when a colleague from northern China stopped by my office. He said it was the fifth time he had come upstairs to see if he could find another friend who was getting laid off. He wanted to give her a hug. I said, “Hug? Look at this.”

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, who writes dispatches from China for the NY Times, had just filled me in on a change among my friend’s former countrymen: “Of all the changes to sweep China since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 — stock markets, private cars, fashion — one thing seemed not to have changed: No hugging. Chinese were physically reserved. That’s changing now.

“Recently, it seems like everyone is hugging. Friends are hugging. Family members are hugging. In hugging between Chinese and non-Chinese, it was non-Chinese who once foisted physical affection on the Chinese. Today it may be a Chinese initiating contact. The tables are turning. …

“Teachers are joining in. In Nanjing, the Liuhe District Experimental Elementary School began a class in emotional intelligence last fall, concerned that children lacked it and would thus be held back in the world, the newspaper Modern Express reported.

“The third graders’ homework: Hug your parents tonight. Sixty schools in the district now have emotional intelligence classes, the newspaper said.”

My co-worker’s first reaction to the news clipping was, “They are always trying to copy Americans.” But then he got a funny look on his face.

“Actually, the last time I went home, my uncle hugged me. I was really surprised. He’s my father’s generation. We were always taught to show more respect for older people.”

I’m happy to see hugs are catching on with nontraditional huggers. As they say of chicken soup, “It wouldn’t hurt.”

(A thank you to John’s family for all the hugs this morning!)

Photo:  Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

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The website of radio show “Studio 360,” here, offers a glimpse into an intriguing new graphic novel. Check out the slide show illustrating:

(1) “The covers of Gene Luen Yang’s two-part graphic novel Boxers & Saints.

(2) “A page from the book. The author describes the Boxers, depicted here, as poor villagers who believed they could summon the Chinese gods from the skies, who would grant them superpowers. ‘I grew up reading superhero comic books,’ Yang says. ‘And that was one of the ways I found a connection with these Boxers.’

(3) “Boxers transformed for a battle.

(4) “Four-Girl, who isn’t accepted by her family, converts to Catholicism — but she has many questions about the new religion.

(5) “Yang, a practicing Catholic, says he ‘grew up within a tension of Western belief systems and Eastern culture.’ Aspects of the book reflect ‘an ambivalence I have about my own identity.’

(6) “American Born Chinese is Yang’s semi-autobiographical story of a kid desperate to fit in. At one point, the story turns into a sitcom with a laugh track and comic relief courtesy of the grossly stereotypical Chin-Kee. Yang says he wanted make his readers squirm.”

I heard the radio interview with the artist. He said it worried him when people told him they loved the character Chin-Kee in American Born Chinese. Kind of made me want to see the show — and figure out how his message could have gone so wrong. Find the whole interview here.

Photo: First Second Books
The covers of Gene Luen Yang’s two-part graphic novel Boxers & Saints.

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