The Hermit Life of Modern China

The challenges of modernity — in terms of alienation, empty consumerism, and over-stimulation — are becoming a universal problem (which, in fairness, is in some sense a good thing, since it means more parts of the world are industrializing and being lifted out of poverty and deprivation). Few nations are struggling with these issues more than China, which has been thrown into modernity at remarkable speed, thrusting hundreds of millions of citizens into the bittersweet life of material abundance.

An eleven-minute documentary, Summoning the Recluse, by Beijing-based filmmaker Ellen Xu, follows several young, middle-class Chinese who are embracing  meditation, spiritual quests and monastic asceticism in an effort to find peace and meaning in a difficult and more complex world. They are tapping into a millennia of rich spiritual, philosophical, and lifestyle traditions — such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism — that have long sought to address these issues. Their relevance today speaks volumes about the inherent struggle of the human condition.

I can’t embed the video here, so click here to view it. I felt more peaceful just watching it. Plus, I’m reminded of how much amazing Chinese philosophy and thought I need to brush up on.

Credit: Aeon

The World’s Largest Radio Telescope

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Credit: NPR/STR/AFP/Getty Images

Pictured above is the  largest radio telescope in the world, which officially opened this past Sunday and is based Pingtang County in southwest China. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is, as the name suggests, 500 meters in diameters, which is 40 percent larger than its predecessor and now runner up, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

FAST will be utilized primarily to observe pulsars, the imploded, highly magnetic cores of old stars that emit intense radiation. Locating and understanding pulsars can yield a lot of important information about the universe. FAST is reportedly sensitive enough to detect radio waves from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away; for a point of reference, a single light-year is 9 trillion kilometers, or 6 trillion miles. So, needless to say, this is an impressive display of technological ingenuity, especially from a country that only relatively recently joined the exclusive (though ever-expanding) club of space exploring nations.

As NPR reports, FAST’s incredible capabilities will be applied to more than just pulsar:

Like radio telescopes in other parts of the world, FAST will study interstellar molecules related to how galaxies evolve. For example, this summer a team using data from the Very Large Array, a collection of radio antennas in the New Mexico desert, picked up what scientists describe as “faint radio emission from atomic hydrogen … in a galaxy nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth.” In the paper describing their findings, the team writes that the “next generation of radio telescopes,” like FAST, will build on their findings about how gases behave in galaxies.

As for FAST’s final use, studying interstellar communication signals, it could be more simply referred to as searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life. “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar … is approaching us,” Qian told Chinese state media, according to the science news website Phys.org.

[…]

In an interview with the BBC, the deputy project manager for the new Chinese telescope, Peng Bo, said the project was exciting for Chinese scientists. “For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope,” he told the BBC.

FAST is only the latest demonstration of China’s scientific prowess in astronomy. In addition to being able to launch its own satellites via domestically designed and build rockets, it is only the third country to send a human into orbit and is also third in independently developing and launching a space station (the second of which was recently and successfully launched). China also has plans for another, more permanent space station by 2020; a manned mission to the Moon, which is to be followed by a permanent lunar base; and  a rover expedition of Mars, to name but a few projects.

China’s contributions towards advancing our understanding of the universe is a welcomed one. As I have noted before, we should set aside nationalist sentiments — however much they are motivating such endeavors — and welcome as many different participants in space exploration as possible, if not for higher ideals of human cooperation than out of a sober acceptance that such efforts require all the resources, capital, and knowledge humanity can pool together.

The Unknown Chinese Woman Who Helped Find a Treatment for Malaria

Among the three scientists awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work against parasites was Tu Youyou, an octogenarian pharmacologist whose work led to the development of the most effective treatment against malaria. But despite her invaluable role in saving millions of lives from this public health scourge, her contributions remained largely unknown, even in her own homeland.

Vox.com recounts the amazing story that led up to her breakthrough discovery.

In 1967, Chairman Mao Zedong set up a secret mission (“Project 523”) to find a cure for malaria. Hundreds of communist soldiers, fighting in the mosquito-infested jungles of Vietnam, were falling ill from malaria, and the disease was also killing thousands in southern China.

After Chinese scientists were initially unable to use synthetic chemicals to treat the mosquito-borne disease, Chairman Mao’s government turned to traditional medicine. Tu, a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, had studied both Chinese and Western medicine, according to a New Scientist profile, and was hand-plucked to search for an herbal cure.

By the time I started my search [in 1969] over 240,000 compounds had been screened in the US and China without any positive results,” she told the magazine. But, she added: “The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life.”

Tu’s dedication included first testing the promising treatment on herself, to ensure that it was safe. Once it was proven to have no side effects, she organized clinical trials for people with malaria, all of whom were incredibly cured of the disease within no more than a day. Continue reading

China’s Ecological Apocalypse

An article from TruthOut.org, obtained via the Daily Kosoffers an in-depth and sobering look at China’s impending environmental crisis, and the foreign business and corrupt government officials responsible. Written by Richard Smith of the London-based Institute for Policy Research and Development, it combines damning research with equally damning accounts from those having to live with the degradation of their air, land, water, and public health.

The following excerpted vignettes, courtesy of the Daily Kos, should alone be enough to arouse alarm and concern.

The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he could not believe his eyes. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their factory compound without a word. . . . When the dumping began, crops wilted from the white dust, which sometimes rose in clouds several feet off the ground and spread over the fields as the liquid dried. Village farmers began to faint and became ill. . . .Reckless dumping of industrial waste is everywhere in China. But what caught the attention of The Washington Post was that the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company was a “green energy” company producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world.

But China’s rise has come at a horrific social and environmental cost. It’s difficult to grasp the demonic violence and wanton recklessness of China’s profit-driven assault on nature and on the Chinese themselves. Ten years ago, in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine in March 2005, Pan Yue, China’s eloquent, young vice-minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) told the magazine, “the Chinese miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.” Pan Yue added:

We are using too many raw materials to sustain [our] growth … Our raw materials are scarce, we don’t have enough land, and our population is constantly growing. Currently there [are] 1.3 billion people living in China, that’s twice as many as 50 years ago. In 2020 there will be 1.5 billion … but desert areas are expanding at the same time; habitable and usable land has been halved over the past 50 years … Acid rain is falling on one third of Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens do not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner … Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn’t include the costs for health … In Beijing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment.

As the Daily Kos points out during its own assessment of the report, China’s government, let alone the foreign companies it colludes with, has done little to address the problem (setting aside minor “green” initiatives and official pronouncements).

Members get rich by corruption-generated loot provided by underlings, and security is generated by passing a portion of the loot to patrons.  And that loot is generated by exploiting the country — its natural resources and its people — through industry as thoroughly and harshly as possible.  There are no incentives for reining industry’s polluting ways in, or for environmental protection generally, amongst those in control in China, only incentives to loot.

These incentives have also led to the numerous bizarre construction projects in China – the building of ghost cities, modern airports for flights that don’t exist, intercity freeways for vehicular traffic that doesn’t exist, and so on – all designed to generate income and support existing networks of guanxi, and all of which encourage more environmental destruction.

Also as a result, with respect at least to the environment, China has no functioning regulatory state, legislature, or judiciary. The ruling class essentially is a mass of completely unregulated capitalist enterprises, a legion of polluters with absolutely no brakes.  And yet, the ruling class, the Communist Party members, live very well compared to the people they exploit.

And China’s people, the day-to-day workers, farmers and villagers?  They have no voice.  They live in the world created by the CCP members, and suffer.

At 45 pages, it is a long and often heartbreaking read, but it is well worth your time. Not only are over 1.5 billion lives — close to 17 percent of the world’s population — threatened by this crisis, but so are hundreds of millions more people around the world. An ecological disaster on this scale cannot be localized within any one country’s national borders. The world has practically exported all of its most hazardous and polluting industries to far-off places like China, failing to account for the bigger picture: the impact on the global climate, let alone the immediate effect on hundreds of millions of people.

How Politeness Can Be Seen As Rudeness

Many outsiders, particularly from the West, tend find Chinese to be too direct and terse, interpreting this as rudeness. But as an article in The Atlantic reveals, the opposite is true: in China, too many pleasantries are seen as denoting a lack of familiarity and closeness (a sentiment that applies to other cultures as well, such as India).

…among good friends, the contrasts between the politesse of what you do and the bluntness of what you say can seem baffling. At a restaurant with friends, a delicate choreography will have one person carefully select a few choice morsels from the common bowl and place them on a neighbor’s plate. It is a small, perfect gesture. Another person will pour tea or beer for everyone else before even considering pouring his own. And then another will announce “Gei wǒ yan!”, literally “Give me salt!” with no sign of a please or thank you involved. I’m always taken a little aback and bite my tongue to stifle a “Say please!” after so many years of training children in Western table manners.

My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of pleases (qǐng) and thank yous (xiexie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please, as in “Please pass the salt”, actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

It makes some intuitive sense: compare how you interact with your closest loved ones versus distant relatives, acquaintances, or strangers. Though some cultures and societies are more imbued by this logic than others — hence the comparative dearth of niceties in their languages — the foundations of it seem intuitive.

This is important to keep in mind whenever you find your interactions with someone of another culture to be awkward or abrasive. It might simply be that they are coming from a totally different worldview shaped by language and custom. It might be an obvious point, especially in this increasingly globalized world, but it is still commonly overlooked.

The 26th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests

On this day in 1989, an over month-long, mostly peaceful protest involving workers, political reformers, and pro-democracy students — centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but later spreading across hundreds of cities around the country — was crashed by government security forces. Continue reading

Happy Chinese New Year!

Also known as the Spring Festival, this forty day event runs from New Year’s Eve, the last day of the last month of the Chinese calendar, to the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the 15th day of the first month. Because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar (taking into account moon phases as well as the solar year most Westerners are familiar with), and because this day is recognized as the New Year in other cultures (such as Tibet, Mongolia, and Korea), this day is also known as the Lunar New Year.

Chinese New Year celebrations are among the oldest, largest, and longest events in the world. The vast corpus of traditions, foods, rituals, and other practices it entails varies from region to region and even by individual communities (throughout both China and the world). An article in The Guardian captures the sheer scale of it:

3.6 billion passenger trips (slightly fewer than three trips for every Chinese citizen) will turn China’s roads, airports and train stations into congestion hotspots over the 40-day period, according to government predictions. The annual Chunyun, or “spring festival transport”, is the largest human migration in the world. Major cities empty, sleepy villages spring to life, and traffic jams on major roads stretch for miles.

In the context of a globalized economy, the impact of this event will be as wide reaching as ever, with factories shutting down, supply chains subsequently disrupted, and product markets booming in response to holiday related spending by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

See some wonderful photos of this colorful occasion here, here, and here. To learn more about the Chinese New Year, click here. To any celebrants out there, I wish you a safe and happy time!

 

The An Lushan Rebellion

On this day in 763, the devastating An Lushan Rebellion against the Tang Dynasty of China came to an end. Sanning seven years and three emperors, the revolt was led by General An Lushan, who declared himself emperor and established the rival Yan Dynasty in the north. The scale of the conflict was beyond the norm for most of the medieval world, involving the mobilization of 800,000 to 1 million troops in total.

Estimates of the death toll vary wildly, from 13 million to 36 million; because China accounted for about a third of the world’s population at the time, the higher figure — which is admittedly controversial — would represent one-sixth of all humans, making the An Lushan Rebellion proportionally the deadliest conflict ever (and even in absolute terms it remains in the top ten).

The world’s second-bloodiest conflict in total loss of life is another Chinese civil war, that of the Three Kingdoms era, which spanned almost one hundred years during the 2nd and 3rd century. Anywhere from 36-40 million people were killed, a number that would not be surpassed until WWII in the mid-20th century (though some estimates put the Mongol Conquests of the 13th-14th century at around the same amount as the Three Kingdoms).

A contemporary list of history’s biggest wars is dominated by China, including WWII (in which the country suffered 14-20 million casualties, second only to Russia), the aforementioned Mongol Conquests, the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century (20-100 million deaths), and the 17th century conquest of the Ming Dynasty by the Qing (25 million).

China’s Forgotten Contributions to World War II

Like the Soviet Union, China played a large but understated role in history’s greatest conflict, essentially doing to Japan what the Russians did to its German ally: draining Axis troops and resources through a constant and ferocious battle of attrition, all while the Western Allies opened up another invasion route. China had been fighting Japan long before the world war had even broken out, and its experiences were by far among the longest and bloodiest of any participant.

Yet this vital contribution is barely acknowledged among the more prevailing U.S.-centered version of events. At most, the Chinese — again, like the Russians — are footnoted as allies who did do some fighting, yet are not accorded due credit for the sheer scale and strategic importance of their contributions (not always purposefully, although the Cold War did not endear us to giving the Communist enemy much credit for helping end the war of all wars).

Oxford historian Rana Mitter has endeavored to resolve this problem with the new book Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945which explores the full breadth of China’s experience of the war, from the Japanese invasion that took place years before, to the political chaos the followed the conqueror’s expulsion.

Judging from an interview with the author on Pacific Standard, the book seems both comprehensive and balanced, revealing modern China’s own complex relationship with its past (unlike the other Allies, the Chinese remain comparatively more reserved about their World War II experience, for reasons the article touches on).

I plan on reading the book soon, and I recommend you all check out the interview hyperlinked in the preceding paragraph. It really sold me on why this is such an important effort, especially the following quote:

The scale of China’s involvement in the war was massive. Chiang, for example, fielded four million troops at the Nationalist’s height, while China as a whole lost an estimated 14 million in the war. Had China folded, Japan’s capacity to fight the U.S. or even the Soviets would have been vastly amplified.

For point of reference, the U.S. suffered total of over 420,000 combat deaths in the entire war — a sobering contrast to China’s very different experience in the war (especially as half to two-thirds of Chinese deaths were civilians).

Christmas in China

Apparently, Christmas has taken off in the world’s largest nation, becoming both an amusing curiosity imbued with Chinese character, and a pragmatic excuse to shop, relax, and catch up with loved ones (not unlike in the U.S. and other Western countries). From The Atlantic:

The Western religious festival is so trendy, in fact, that it may be the second-most-celebrated festival in China after the Spring Festival among young Chinese, according to research conducted by the China Social Survey Institute (CSSI), which found that 15- to 45-year-olds are the most likely to observe it. The holiday’s popularity is an outgrowth of study-abroad programs, said Sara Jane Ho, whose Institute Sarita specializes in educating wealthy Chinese on aspects of Western culture such as how to properly pronounce “Hermes”—the brand, rather than the Greek deity (the ‘h’ is silent, and the second ‘e’ accented).

Christmas is “an excuse to party” whereas Chinese festivals are comparatively “solemn, serious and spiritual,” Ho told me over mulled wine and petit fours. Instead of gathering around the family table for a turkey dinner (“Chinese don’t entertain at home,” Ho pointed out), most go to “entertainment places”—movie theaters, bars, or karaoke clubs—or out to eat, the CSSI survey noted. “Christmas is just an excuse to go shopping, as there are many big sales at a lot of places,” admitted Mo, a 33-year-old sales executive in Guangzhou. “The theme is to have fun.”

And at the end of a long and stressful year at work, it’s an opportunity to take stock and kick back. The CSSI survey lists “relaxation after a busy year” and “experience the new year’s atmosphere” among the top reasons cited for celebrating Christmas, along with “be closer to friends and colleagues” and “use the romantic atmosphere of Christmas to spread love.” Some take the latter rationale quite seriously. “Have you heard of such a phrase in China, ‘Silent Night, First Night?’” asked Long Fei, an assistant pastor at an “underground” church in Beijing whose activities are not officially monitored or approved by China’s religious authorities. “Many young people choose to give themselves to their beloved on this eve and eat forbidden fruit.”

Meanwhile, China also contributes to the holiday in another big way: it is the source of over half the world’s Christmas decorations. It is impressive enough that a single nation (albeit one with a reputation for being the world’s factory) should have such an outsized role in the practice of a foreign holiday, but it turns out much of this production takes place in one town (really a cluster of workshops and plants). As the Guardian reports:

Christened “China’s Christmas village”, Yiwu is home to 600 factories that collectively churn out over 60% of all the world’s Christmas decorations and accessories, from glowing fibre-optic trees to felt Santa hats. The “elves” that staff these factories are mainly migrant labourers, working 12 hours a day for a maximum of £200 to £300 a month – and it turns out they’re not entirely sure what Christmas is.

Packaged up in plastic bags, their gleaming red snowflakes hang alongside a wealth of other festive paraphernalia across town in the Yiwu International Trade Market, aka China Commodity City, a 4m sq m wonder-world of plastic tat. It is a pound shop paradise, a sprawling trade show of everything in the world that you don’t need and yet may, at some irrational moment, feel compelled to buy. There are whole streets in the labyrinthine complex devoted to artificial flowers and inflatable toys, then come umbrellas and anoraks, plastic buckets and clocks. It is a heaving multistorey monument to global consumption, as if the contents of all the world’s landfill sites had been dug-up, re-formed and meticulously catalogued back into 62,000 booths.

The complex was declared by the U.N. to be the “largest small commodity wholesale market in the world” and the scale of the operation necessitates a kind of urban plan, with this festival of commerce organised into five different districts. District Two is where Christmas can be found.

It is odd to think that so much of what goes into Christmas comes from exploited laborers halfway around the world, most of whom do not even know what the holiday is — although their often better-off countrymen do. Such is globalization I suppose.