China, Travel

Not Just a Pillow

We visited the Southern Yue King Mausoleum in Guangzhou over the weekend. The Nanyue was an ancient kingdom, established in 204 BC, of which present-day Guangdong province comprises a significant part. The tomb of one of the kings was discovered and made into a very nice museum. Also in the museum was a collection of ceramic and porcelain pillows, carefully collected and then donated to the museum by a Hong Kong couple.

I can’t imagine being a porcelain pillow collector and I must admit that I entered the museum with a slightly derisive smile lurking in the corner of my mouth. Oh, yes. The pillow exhibit. Must see this!

Not only does collecting of pillows seem a bit like collecting footstools or chamberpots, but the use of a porcelain pillow sounds like the closest possible thing to torture. However, the average pillow in the collection was actually quite nicely painted with animals, flowers, and sometimes children. (Children are restful?) The designs were attractive and I found myself enjoying the exhibit far more than I expected to. The pillows forced me to put aside my derision. I was won over.

One pillow in particular featured a poem which postively delighted me. My delight was such that I took the entire poem down into the notepad feature of my Kindle, key by tiny key. It was just too good to leave behind.

To read this poem is to become a porcelain pillow convert.

Here is the pillow
Made in the style of the Emperor of Shen Nong,
Incorporating elements of the ancient past
And produced in the region on Xiangzhou.
Meeting precisely the potters’ standards
It shares the perfection of the universe
And accords with the pattern of creation.
It has the luster of the precious jade,
But avoids the ostentation of brocades.
Clay was thrown on the wheel to made the biscuit,
Shaped in a rectangle and made hollow within,
Coming from the kilns of emperors of Yu and Shun on the riverbanks
It is completely free of blemishes
As the extinguishing of the vigorous and steady
Flame of Boyi was precisely timed,
Having come from the hands of poet.
It is proudly placed in the chamber of books.
It makes precious coral artifacts look vulgar
And decorative amber items appear philistine.
At a distance it captures the attention
And at close quarters it dazzles the eyes.
He would never exchange it even for a massive jade disc,
Nor would he sell it for myriad taels of gold.
Placed in a pouch of finest brocades from SiChuan,
Within a box made of hardwood from Yuzhang.
It is stored likes precious jade
And handled with the utmost care.
In the hottest season of the year,
The heat rages to the nine heavens.
In the northern studio the guest bed has been prepared
And as the southern wind blows against the bamboo bed
The poet falls fast asleep.
His body and soul enjoying the blissful cool
Deep in sleep his mind is at ease
While in his dreams his desires are fulfilled.
It is as if he is strolling in pavilions on the moon
Or sauntering in an icy grotto.
He suddenly awakes to find his white hair again dry
And the burning heat dispersed.
This brings to mind the diligent scholars of old
Who used a round tree trunk as their pillow
And Confucius who slept on his folded elbow.
If we are to fully appreciate this ancient ware of Shen Nong,
How can we simply regard it as a means to avoid
The discomforts of the summer heat?

My favorite lines are It shares the perfection of the universe/ And accords with the pattern of creation. When the heat soon “rages to the nine heavens,” I believe it would be wise of me to turn to a porcelain pillow. So that I too can have all my desires fulfilled and stroll on the moon.

China, Travel, Weather

Hong Kong: Second Time’s the Charm

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I went to Hong Kong for only the second time last weekend.

My first visit to Hong Kong was on Christmas weekend. Yes, the actual Christmas weekend. And while the visit on the whole was good, the number of people in the city made everything more difficult. I remember fighting up this terrible street in Kowloon, trying to get to the ferry station. Literally fighting. I felt like a salmon swimming upstream. But when the real salmon do that they have safety in numbers. There were only 3 of us in this scenario. And of course when we arrived at the ferry station there were no tickets back to Zhuhai for hours, which was our fault for not reserving them ahead of time. We squeezed into the back table of a Starbucks and didn’t move until it was time to go.

And of course food had been quite expensive as well. Christmas Eve we were wandering the city in search of an affordable meal and finally found a tiny noodle house. Outside a large group of students were singing Christmas carols as we slurped our noodles. Christmas morning we stumbled on an underground Irish pub for breakfast. Not very cheap, but Christmas breakfast is a Van Gundy family tradition and I felt that I was honoring my own Christmas traditions by indulging in a large British breakfast.

(Perhaps it will amuse you to tell you that we then went and saw Mission Impossible IV. Well, it was either that or go shopping. I astounded my students by telling them that I went to Hong Kong and didn’t buy anything. In their eyes that is the entire purpose of Hong Kong.)

And our hotel on that trip. Wow. Hong Kong currently takes the cake for most deceptive Internet photos. Our hotel was supposed to be a reasonable looking room with 3 beds and our own bathroom. What we got was a closet-sized room with bunk beds, thread-bare linens, and soggy shared bathroom down the hall. For the rock-bottom price of 975 HKD. Outraged? A bit. Leaving Hong Kong, my feelings were somewhere along the lines of “good riddance”.


I knew that we’d chosen to visit Hong Kong on a quite significant weekend, where crowds, high costs, and general inconvenience should’ve been expected. So, though that trip had been a bit of a challenge, I wanted to give Hong Kong another chance in the spring. And after having done so I can happily report that that was a wise decision. I had a great time last weekend.

Saturday we went to Lantau Island. Though we were disappointed to hear that the cable cars were not running, it may have been a blessing in disguise as the bus ride around the island was gorgeous. We went to Ngong Ping to see the Big Buddha and the temple around it. Endless mirth because the infamous university orientation game “Big Booty” was quickly supplanted by “Big Buddha” and I had a hard time not breaking out into the chant as we circled the Buddha. Also some flashbacks to the terribly irreverent “Buddha’s Delight” song used in the movie Music & Lyrics. We had lunch in the vegetarian restaurant on-site and then explored some of the trails leading off into the hills. The hills were green, the skies blue, weather balmy. A truly excellent excursion.

The following day we went to Stanley Market on the south side of Hong Kong Island. Another gorgeous drive hugging the coastline which felt positively Californian. It could’ve been Highway 1, possibly even prettier at points. The bus deposited us at the market and we were promptly delighted by the market’s offerings. We made an initial circuit and popped out on the harbor. I was glad we’d passed up the nice, but chain-y looking café we saw in the market as there were several lovely waterfront cafes there. We hadn’t “broken our fast” yet so I was very inclined to treat ourselves to a wonderful breakfast with a fantastic view. So we did.

After breakfast we roamed the market. Suddenly everywhere I looked there were things I wanted to buy. Zhuhai has been a shopping famine for me other than food and bootleg DVDs. So I feasted a bit in Stanley. I bought some linen clothes in preparation for the coming heat. A new colorful, but sturdy bag. A scarf. It was fun.

Unfortunately soon the clock was tolling for us. Not 12, but half past 2. We’d booked tickets on the 4:30 ferry to prevent the problem we’d had last trip. We scurried back to the bus stop, multiple shopping bags each, for the beautiful drive back. After some intense power walking we made it to the ferry office to reclaim our tickets on time and just had time for iced coffee (with real cream!).

The biggest surprise of the trip was just how beautiful Lantau and Central were! Nothing like what I’d expected. Hong Kong had taken on grimy, urban tones in my mind based on the first trip. Kowloon was not that different really from Zhuhai; everything was just on a somewhat larger scale. But the coastline—wow! Already contemplating my next trip.

China, Weather

It’s a Jungle Out There

I turned on my air conditioner today. That feels momentous. March 6th—Day One of Air Conditioning.

More momentous is that I turned it on shortly after 7 AM. Waking up today everything felt slightly damp and sticky: bath towels, kitchen towels, even supposedly clean clothes straight from the closet. Bathroom floor is still wet from my shower the night before. Even the dust bunnies are damp, as evidenced by the way they clump together and then stick to the broom. And this isn’t just today. It’s been like this for awhile.

I taught my 8:00 to 9:35 AM class, walked back, and took a cold shower. I see many more in my future.

China, Travel

Edjakashun, or Why I Travel

Being in another country—if you are paying attention—really helps you learn things. Something I was oblivious to before coming to China was the antipathy some Chinese still have towards Japan. If you’re like I was, you’re essentially in the dark as to why. Dredging up some high school world history might give you at least an inkling of the cause. Japan. Empire. WWII. Leading you possibly to the ….Nanking Massacre. Remember that? Probably at least a little light bulb for most of you. While Americans focus almost exclusively on Pearl Harbor as the sign of Japanese aggression, Chinese have their own terrible tale of woe. And it truly is a terrible tale.

If you’ve ever seen Empire of the Sun, you remember that Shanghai was lost to the Japanese. A young Christian Bale does a fantastic job playing a young British boy who gets separated from his parents. Yes, yes, very sad. But while the foreigners seem to be having such a tough time of it all, you sort of lose sight of that fact that the Japanese continued pushing into China, arriving in the city of Nanking at the end of 1937.

In Nanking the Japanese committed numerous atrocities on the populace, including theft, arson, rape and murder. An estimated 200,000 women were rape, 100,000 people slaughtered in cold blood, with a possible total of 200,000 killed, including both civilians and POWs. Some of these numbers were difficult to verify due to how the bodies were disposed of, but eye-witness and survivor accounts leave little doubt of the atrocities being committed. It’s truly terrible stuff.

Understandably the Chinese still remember and grieve. And they will not brook any denial of the events or any cover-ups, which unfortunately has been the Japanese policy in the past. In 2006 the Japanese prime minister issued a formal apology to China and the rest of Asia, but many Chinese are not mollified. The actions of some Japanese to down-play what happened in Nanking or to outright deny them has enraged Chinese in the past. Think about how we feel about Holocaust deniers. Yeah. Not much patience for those types of people.

A Chinese movie was recently released about the Nanking Massacre, titled The Flowers of War in English. The director is Zhang Yimou, who has done a number of movies that Western audiences would be familiar with, including House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and others. The movie is based on a novel. However, one article states that the movie is also based on the journal of an American missionary, which records an event similar to what happens in the film.

I saw the movie when it came out and it is an understandably grim, tragic movie. I returned home to read up on the events surrounding the Nanking Massacre, to get a better understanding of the Japanese empire and their actions pre-Pearl Harbor.

I saw the movie with a friend, but also with two Chinese international students who were home for Chinese New Year. Before the movie, the topic of Japan was clearly on the mind of one of them as she made several negative comments about Japan. I was curious because this was the first time I’d heard this from any Chinese, but especially someone so young, which initiated me into this whole anti-Japan sentiment which still prevails to some degree today.

She was very adamant that The Flowers of War be nominated for the Academy Awards and she also felt that the film deserved to win. But from the way she talked about it, it wasn’t so much that the film deserved to win, but that the Nanking Massacre deserved to win. That it deserved and needed recognition on that level. A world-wide acknowledgement of China’s suffering and possibly Japan’s bad behavior.

While The Flowers of War was nominated for the Academy Awards, it did not win and some Chinese were very disappointed and/or angry about it. The producer of TFOW declared that the Academy was in the pockets of the Japanese, as they own several studios, and, even more seriously, that the United States was denying the Nanking Massacre. Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Fortunately this producer has a long history of flying off the cuff and making baseless accusations of this nature, so it doesn’t appear that anyone takes him too seriously. To accuse us of denying the Nanking Massacre is a bit much. Based on my personal response alone, I can’t believe any reasonably intelligent person would seek to deny what happened in Nanking. It is well-documented and well-researched. Maybe the totals for each crime and the overall number of deaths cannot be precisely verified, but there is no denying that these things happened on a wide scale. There are photos and films, eye-witness accounts and survivor accounts. There are Japanese soldier accounts. Newspaper articles from the time. It’s a ridiculous accusation.

The movie is emotional affecting, of course, but simply the style of the film didn’t lead me to expect it as an Oscar winner. Just something about the chronology of it, the character development, the script, etc. didn’t scream “Oscar!” Sorry, nice try. Though I highly recommend the film for anyone interested in getting a different perspective on WWII and the Japanese empire.

What is interesting to me about this whole exploration of Chinese feelings towards Japan and also the Nanking Massacre is two things. One, the fixedness of American attention on Pearl Harbor, possibly to the obliteration of all other examples of Japanese aggression. Meaning, I think the Nanking Massacre is worthy of maybe a bit more attention in our world history classes, as well as a need for more Sino-focus in general. Two, the fact that bad juju towards Japan has been passed on to the current young adult population. I can only compare this to what it would be like if my generation still harbored animosity towards Germany for the events of WWII and the Holocaust.

I appreciate being exposed to some of the different threads of through in modern China. I appreciate being made aware of things that I haven’t known before. In that regard, living abroad is invaluable. China is such a mysterious place to Westerners. Its portrayal in the media is all about the politics, the human rights violations, the currency manipulation, the economy, etc., etc. But there’s a very human side to China, to every country. And that’s what living in a country allows you to explore.