This week we’re talking about the guns of August, fired one hundred years ago this month. And we’re wondering what kind of century we inherited from the First World War. Alongside power politics and industrial killing, there was a revolution in art, in the novel, in music and in antiwar ideas in exhausted Europe and over here.
Our question this week: How do we like living in the world that the Great War made? Leave us a message. This week we’re talking about the guns of August, fired one hundred years ago this month. And we’re wondering what kind of century we inherited from the First World War. Alongside power politics and industrial killing, there was a revolution in art, in the novel, in music and in antiwar ideas in exhausted Europe and over here.
This week, we’re talking with the historians about the causes and consequences of what you might call the war that poisoned a century. We’re still putting out fires that were set in 1914 — and it’s tempting to imagine that it could have gone differently.
Stephen van Evera, the MIT historian of great powers and author of The Causes of War.
There’s too much to read and think about this August, but we’re immersing ourselves in Christopher Clark’s TheSleepwalkers, the work of Yale historian Adam Tooze, and Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory. And thank heavens to the Internet — our best links on the war are below:
• The Economist put forward a version of the “war that poisoned a century” argument here.
• The Wall Street Journal counts one hundred things we pulled out of the trenches: from Pilates to Poland to passports (and 97 more).
• Alan Taylor, of The Atlantic’s “In Focus” photo blog, went long on the first war photography this April — see more here.
• and Tony Barber reviewed three big centenary books on the causes of the war in the Financial Times. It wasn’t ‘inevitable’, is the conclusion of most writing today:
Could the immense tragedy of 1914-18, in which 65m men fought and about 8.5m were killed, have been avoided? By July 1914 most of Europe’s political and military leaders felt the defence of national power and honour was worth the risk of war. Yet as MacMillan concludes, those who were against war could have stood up more firmly against those who denied there were other choices. “There are always choices,” she writes.
It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language.
It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language. So I’m re-posting that enlightening moment, and linking to a few of our conversations with Arab artists that, after so many reversals, feel still current: the novelist of The Yacoubian Building,Alaa Al Aswanyand the historian, Khaled Fahmy. My brief season in Cairo in 2012 was also a grave crisis moment in Gaza.
CAIRO — A coin dropped yesterday as I was looking at Ganzeer‘s painting of a wounded cat in the stylish little Safarkhan Gallery on Brazil St in Zamalek. This is what I came for — the painting and the feeling it induces. Out of an Egyptian tradition of cats and calligraphy, it’s a stunning large (guess: 8′ x 4′) canvas of a cat: fur painted in red; left eye shot out and bandaged, right eye on the horizon. It’s an irresistible image of suffering and survival in a revolution. In an all-Ganzeer show just being taken down, called “The Virus is Spreading,” the cat painting is the piece I would steal. Ganzeer himself is in Berlin, doing a month’s workshop — which tells you something about the spreading of his insight and his touch. Not yet 30, he is exemplifying and teaching defiance in his young generation in the face of every establishment, though in a familiar Egyptian language. Mona Said, daughter of the gallery founder, says Ganzeer (aka Mohamed Fahmy, aka Mofa) was a painter before he was a graffiti artist, and always more humanist than painter.
Immediately, I thought, here’s a statement that will keep, or is keeping, the revolution deeply alive in the world, a current more charged than politics or journalism or social media, finding its own network and resonance. Ganzeer as I imagine him has something in common with the young rockers and rappers in the decorated Egyptian film “Microphone” about the music underground pre-revolution in Alexandria; except that Ganzeer has a much grander talent and now global reach. The musicians remind me of our own Amanda Palmer — defiant energy and confidence to “make art every day” … and then? Ganzeer reminds me more of the late Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986): “every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself.” Ganzeer’s work looks more considered, more beautifully executed, older, newer, more political, more universal than anything new I can think of. It’s worthy of a book project to decode this work, and find the others. Part of the fun of his work, specially this cat, is the element of old “Pharaonic” Egypt about it: the semi-sacred cat who symbolizes freedom and endurance, not to mention the Egyptian tradition of formalist painting on the walls of tombs. The words in the stylized Arabic script come from the cat, in a vernacular Egyptian expression: “One day he entertains me. The other day I’m on my own. And I can work with that.”
I’m going to China next month, and I’m looking for your encouragement and leads. It’s my first trip to the mainland after exactly 50 years of vivid dreaming about it. I land in Shanghai on June 15, to extend a radio-podcast series over several years and many countries we’ve called “parachute radio.” The recurring question is always something like: “What are we going through, you and I?”
August 8: At Peking University: the Rising Generation
We call ourselves the 90s generation. The late 90s — not so much the rising generation as the boasting generation, the blossoming generation — about to open up ourselves and explore the outer world.”
Max, a student from Hong Kong at Peking University in Beijing.
Future leaders of China, from left to right: Max, Rebecca, Flora, Nick, Payton.
What I went least prepared for was the openness of Chinese people in what we call a closed society. So the last audio postcard from this trip is a 10-minute distillation of a conversation that sprang up like music to my ears in a dormitory room with five students at the venerable Peking University in Beijing. These are aspiring middle-class kids – a random sample of the top of the heap. Nobody here is bent on being a billionaire. All voiced versions of a searching interior life. Nobody mentioned political participation as they listed their ambitions. But social idealism infuses their talk. Several volunteered that inequality – of incomes, education, opportunity – is the blight on their society, a problem their generation will have to address. None expressed the slightest confidence in ideological communism. They sounded more embarrassed than outraged by official controls on information (of which they have plenty) and expression (in which they feel individually free). They credit their government with overall effectiveness. And they all spoke comfortably of loving their country and their moment in its history.
China is searching, the China we see today is shaped by different factors: traditional Chinese civilization, and also the western culture since 1840, when Great Britain launched a trade war and broke the gate of the Qing empire. [By now] it’s another aspect of tradition… also the communist ideology… The problem for China is we lack a national philosophy. We as a people, as a nation. We lack a philosophy that supports the spiritual life of our citizens. It’s a problem in the whole country.”
Nick, a philosophy major, whom I’ll remember specially for his short list of cultural treasures for the proverbial desert island: Collected Poems of the Tang Dynasty, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.
There’s societal pressure, and family pressure, to do financially at least as well as your parents. That’s one of my anxieties, and a big anxiety of a lot of my friends. You’re supposed to do well and your parents have paid a lot for your education. But you don’t know what you want to do. I haven’t declared a major yet. I’m focused on finding something I really enjoy doing.
Rebecca, a rising sophomore at Carleton College in Minnesota.
I think it’s not difficult for us to find good jobs. To earn money is not important for us, we can earn so much money. The most important thing is to find ourselves, to be ourselves.
Flora, pursuing a double degree in law and Chinese literature.
I read American books, we talk about the system of American politics almost every day. America is everywhere. I want to have my graduate education in America. It’s necessary to get to know and understand America — necessary to understand the whole world. I don’t like nationalism, and I don’t like to emphasize enemies. I think we have to cooperate, but we are not genuine friends. But we have to cooperate with each other.”
Payton, who rounded up his friends for us at the University of Peking.
Special thanks to Jiang Xueqin, an activist teacher and school reformer, for introducing us on campus.
August 4: Ai Weiwei: At Home With China’s ‘Second Government’
Not perhaps since Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Gulag has there been a dissenting artist who got to be as famous as the government that hounds him. But Ai Weiwei’s situation is one-of-a-kind.He’s a scathing oppositionist who argues with me that China’s moral, natural, aesthetic, philosophical and family foundations have been “completely destroyed.” At the same time he is a celebrity, the virtual mayor of an industrial district in Beijing that’s become a thriving village of modern painters, sculptors, studios and galleries.
At one cheerful turn in our gab, he’s reminding me about the Chinese gift for breaking rules, for thinking outside the box, for double thinking, even under Communism: “Yeah, that’s the culture. Chinese are quite intelligent, witty, and create their own liberal space. Even in very extreme conditions, they still can achieve some kind of happiness or self, some kind of confidence, so that makes Chinese culture very different from others.”
Ai Weiwei is China’s official scare-word and favorite non-person. He’s what Solzhenitsyn called a “second government.” But let’s remember: the embattled democrat and artist of ideas was a star consultant in the design of the “bird’s nest” stadium built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He sees himself naturally as a leader and a patriot. He’s mastered what people say is a very Chinese use of paradox and contradiction. He refers to his testing of the limits as a kind of performance art.
We met his wary sort of humor and warmth on the way into his walled garden. He parks his bicycle at the gate with a basket full of fresh flowers as a greeting each morning to the government spies who ‘mind’ him and who, it turns out, took our picture on the way out.
For almost an hour the conversation flew around a big table in the traffic of Ai Weiwei’s studio. Maybe the worst disaster in China, he said, is the flood of migrant workers out of farm villages into cities where they have dangerous jobs, small pay, no benefits and no residency rights – no rights to city schools, for example, for their kids. “This is just modern slavery” for the migrants, said Ai Weiwei. For the broken families left behind, it’s a desolation.
He says our friend the novelist Yu Hua is “absolutely right” about the continuity between Mao’s brainwashing Cultural Revolution and the booming Market Revolution today. The key links, he concurred, are violence, lying propaganda, and a tiny monopoly of political power. Just off the high-speed train from Shanghai, I confessed I was dazzled by the smooth ride at 300 kpm and by the orderly green abundance in the farmlands. “Wouldn’t this government be good for – say – Egypt?” I asked. But he’s heard the line that China is developing faster than Brazil, or India, or Egypt, and he’s not impressed. “How do you give young people hope, imagination and creativity,” he asked. “Those are the inner structures I think a lot and worry about.” As we wrapped up, he said I’d made him sound like a complainer, just a critic. We could have talked about the weather, he said, “or food, or sex.” Next time we will.
And what did I take away? Mainly gratitude to this brave man for his stubborn, almost fearless attachment to the soul questions: he’s reminding us all what it costs to stand out as an individual, and for a society to stay free, alive, critical, human.
July 24: Yu Hua and China’s Revolution Addiction
Everybody loves Yu Hua, a giant of the literary life in China today. He’s a free spirit with a critical eye, and a popular touch, a tragic vision, an easy laugh. We’re in the snazzy new Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, video-recording a long conversation for Harvard’s ChinaX course on modern China. As soon as Yu Hua walks in (with his striking 20-something son Phineas) his presence is magic, alike with the Chinese film crew and the young Harvard scholars. I know Yu Hua as much as anything through the long-suffering hero of his novel that became the movie masterpiece To Live. The film and its central character, Fugui, reminded me somehow of Charlie Chaplin, as I said to Yu Hua. He smiled and said, well, of course, he had studied the Chaplin archive. Were Fugui alive today, Yu Hua said he would most likely be among the victims of the Capitalist Revolution. Fugui would have lost his land and been displaced as a farmer. He might be living precariously in a tiny, unsafe apartment in a city, but he’d still be thoughtful, tidy, maybe cheerful, and indestructible.
It is a main theme in much of Yu Hua’s work and our conversation that China is hooked for a century now on something like an addiction to Revolution. And a revolution, he reminds me with heavy irony, quoting Chairman Mao, is not a dinner party. It’s an insurrection, an act of violence. The market revolution, he’s saying, is more like than unlike the notorious upheavals that preceded it: the war of “liberation” that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949; Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 50s, a headlong rush to industrialize that ended in famine and death for 20-million or more; then the know-nothing Cultural Revolution of the 60s into the 70s. The problem with all the endless revolutions is that they’ve been run by political monopolies. They’re invariably violent, mobilized by propaganda, not participation. And they’re generally heedless of long-term results – even in the market revolution that has made so many Chinese people rich.
Yu Hua reminds you that China is still a poor country – median income between ninety and a hundred in the ranking of nations, in the zone with Cuba, Angola, Iraq.
The wealth revolution that we’re conditioned to celebrate has been a hardship for most Chinese, he is saying. The divorce rate goes up on the same curve as the GDP. A “simmering rage” is the ruling popular emotion, he wrote in an invaluable collection of essays, China in Ten Words (2011). The capitalist revolution has been bad for human-rights awareness. “This revolution has made the Chinese people profit-driven… They care less about other people, less about the country.” Our people are losing their health, he says. And what about their minds? “People’s minds are chaotic, schizophrenic,” he replies. “I can’t figure them out.” The last resource is the Chinese people, I say, and surely they are not destroyed. “I was half joking, half telling the truth,” he grants, with a laugh.
So we end on a Chinese paradox. Yu Hua sums up China’s contradictory rules and symptoms today with the point that when guests enter a hotel room in China, they see a “No Smoking” sign and, under it, a gift package of cigarettes. He lives with such anomalies every day. His novel To Live is sold in bookstores in China. The movie version is banned. “The book is like the cigarettes,” he said, “the movie is like the ‘No Smoking’ sign.”
It was a high-point in China so far to feel Yu Hua’s presence.
July 5: Whose Shanghai Is It?
Wang Anyi + Chris Lydon (Photo: Adam Mitchell).
The great modern novelist of Shanghai, Wang Anyi, is coming to feel like a stranger in her city.
The enclosed alleyways of Old Shanghai — the distinctive “longtang,” in a peculiarly Shanghainese word — were the living background of her classic tale, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. The longtang, with their cement pavements and iron balconies, their pigeons and their gossip, their card games and cooking smoke, their romances and unsavory goings on, “the intimacy of flesh on flesh, cool and warm, tangible and knowable,” are almost gone, being bulldozed in front of our eyes for the new high-rise and Western commercial Shanghai.
The local joke, she is telling me, is that in fashionable downtown today, the likeliest language is English. In the next ring out, you’ll hear Mandarin spoken. Only in the outskirt third ring, newly settled by “longtang” refugees, will you hear Shanghainese. The women of Shanghai, she says, are more independent than they were, but not quite happily so. They miss being taken care of by men, and their ambition is typically overwhelmed by romance.
Shanghai still lives in something like Jane Austen time, Wang says. “What women are most concerned about is a good marriage.” Women are still being “consumed” as products, consumed by the malls where she observes 70 to 80 percent of the branded luxury goods are aimed at women, in a market designed by men. She herself is still happier to have the man in her life pick up the dinner check.
Wang Anyi was still shaken, she confided, by the movie she’d seen the day before, Spike Jonze’s Her, about Joaquin Phoenix’s infatuation with the computer voice of Scarlett Johannson inside his phone. She was troubled to see that so much of the film was shot in the new Shanghai. Was this a joke, she wondered: thirty years of modernization in China to become a prop in a Hollywood take on the American way?
July 2: China’s Bling Thing
The Chinese in their prosperity have become fantastic shoppers. In colossal shiny-white malls all the high-end Euro brands are here: Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier and Co. The customers are mostly Chinese, the models on display invariably Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the hand manufacturing of more and more high-end Italian shoes and bags in these outlets is said to take place in Asia.
A certain aesthetic imperialism has met a ravenous acquired Chinese appetite for a lost season of their lives in Tuscany, or a year in Provence. Almost by accident I spent an afternoon in a made-up retail village outside Suzhou, a couple of hours on the road from Shanghai.
Opened by American entrepreneurs the village is built, in the Las Vegas style, around a Venetian canal. There are bridges and a mix of stores in buildings designed to represent the variety of towns Marco Polo might have stopped in, back and forth to China at the end of the thirteenth century. The game at Suzhou Village will be to draw visitors not simply to buy but to share an “experience,” a spokeswoman told me.
I’m digging through my notes from Singapore a decade ago, to recall a conversation with the architect Tay Kheng Soon. He is the designer of some of Singapore’s finest buildings, but ever out of step with the non-tropical, non-Chinese roots of the celebrity high-rise towers on his island.
“Kitsch is very big in Asia,” Tay Kheng Soon said to me, driving around Singapore one morning in the summer of 2002. “It’s the architecture of Disneyland. It works as a narcotic. It dulls the senses in a pleasurable way. It’s an anesthetic, in that it prevents you from knowing what is going on, and so it has political value.”
He anticipated the unease in the malls of the new China: “We know now from a lot of history,” said Tay Kheng Soon, “that the human spirit is invincible in the face of adversity. But I’ve decided that the human spirit is defenseless in the grip of wealth.”
June 30: Kaiser Kuo, King of Chinese Media
Listen to some of Chris’s conversation with Kaiser Kuo below: Kaiser Kuo was born in New York, but he has remade himself many times in Beijing by now: as a guitarist for the pioneering metal band, Tang Dynasty, in the 1980s and ’90s, as a blogger and podcaster, and most lately as a global marketer for Baidu, the Chinese search giant, with a star turn on This American Life with our guest, Evan Osnos. For a few hours on my last night in Beijing, we ate and spoke as fellow broadcasters, talking about his second home. Kuo told me to prepare for “paradox after paradox” on the ground in China. It’s a practical nation that drifted, for decades, from calamity to calamity in the Maoist spirit, he said. Today China is still Communist, but its city-dwellers are getting used to sitcoms and mass consumerism — and the ‘spiritual vacuity’ that comes with them. To Kuo, Beijing itself seems to be bustling or depleted, depending on which angle you approach it from. Kuo pointed me toward a song-and-dance number from this year’s televised New Year celebration, sung from a treadmill by the comedian Huang Bo, on the subject of the ‘China dream’, a political concept introduced by the new premier, Xi Jinping, in 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di-qATFK3WM The song is called “My Desires Aren’t Too High”, or “I’m Not Too Demanding”. Kuo asks us to take this song as evidence that our title, “China rising”, may have a moderate meaning against the backdrop of saber-rattling and Sinophobia in the West. The expectations of its people are rising — for cleaner air, for a seat at the table globally, for a little more say in their civic lives — and they still have a way to go in meeting them.
June 26: DUMBO East
Chris moved on to Beijing to meet with Ai Weiwei, Kaiser Kuo, college students and others. Hear his conversation with the curator of UCCA, Philip Tinari, here, and come subscribe to our podcast on iTunes to hear China conversations with Yiyun Li, Evan Osnos, Ambassador Chas Freeman, and more:
The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in 2007, calls itself a “catalyst for contemporary culture in China.” It’s a linchpin location in Beijing’s 798 art district, a world of converted warehouses and artist spaces. (Think of it as an oversized version of DUMBO in Brooklyn or Boston’s Fort Point.)
When I visited on Tuesday, gray works by the Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer were spread around the gallery space. But I was drawn to the corner of the 70-foot-long shoebox of the room where everyone’s allowed to paint. Little jars of the primary colors and brushes are laid out on a table in the center of the space. There’s a metal movable industrial ladder that allows you to pick a spot well over your head.
The rest is up to you — or, as it happened, me. So of course I inscribed our name, OPEN SOURCE, on a small patch of floor. Alongside it there are portraits of Michael Jackson, catchphrases and slogans in many languages, and icons all over. Every so often the wall gets refreshed with a new coat of white paint, and the painting starts again.
In forthcoming conversations with Ai Weiwei, China’s dissident artist #1, and the novelist Yu Hua, I was told that China is stuck in a centuries-old cycle of revolutions, one that isn’t learning liberal ways of being, still stuck in patterns on violence and suppression.
Looking at the wall in the Ullens, I see the question from another side — is this what the slow birth of a new culture of pop expression looks like: the visual riffs on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and a free-for-all wall in an art district? I put that question to UCCA curator Philip Tinari, who has his doubts but still comes to work everyday, seeking the next artist to carry the conversation forward in China.
June 24: A Piano Lesson
Listen to Chris’s conversation with Tian Yang about his mother, who started him playing piano when he was three years old — and still teaches: Getting on thirty years ago, in his mid-teens, the prodigy pianist Tian Ying migrated from Shanghai to Boston to study with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory. At the time I was able to help Tian find a small apartment in town, and we always joked that he’d return the favor by showing me around Shanghai someday.
While still in his teens, Tian went on to become a finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. From there he’s proceeded to an international career as a piano soloist and a tenured professorship at the University of Miami.
No sooner had I made my plans to go to China this month than Tian told me that he was going home himself, on the same weekend, to present his year-old son to his mother (and first teacher) back in Shanghai. True to his word, he’s been walking me around the home precincts of the French Concession, where he grew up.
It’s been a blessed reunion; the timing still feels miraculous. Perhaps the sweetest moments of my time in Shanghai were in his mother’s apartment, where she still teaches serious pianists, young and old, with an extraordinary flair.
Listen to a conversation Chris had with Ben Wood in the DR Bar here: The DR Bar (DR for ‘Design/Research’) in the Xintiandi section of old Shanghai was the third stop that Prof. Eugene Wang said I must make in his favorite city in the world. It’s the trendy martini bar a stone’s throw from the historic first meeting-place of the Chinese Communist Party. All around it, Xintiandi is a growing neighborhood of global boutiques and a sign of China’s capitalist makeover marching on.
A wax recreation of the First Congress of the Communist Party.
It was Benjamin Wood, a very New England sort of American, who designed both the bar and the shopping district that surrounds it. He was a protégé of the late Ben Thompson, the man who famously rescued the Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston. Thompson designed and built many buildings around Boston, including the five-story, concrete-and-glass Design/Research Building on Brattle Street in Harvard Square, where locals encountered Marimekko fabrics, midcentury-modern furniture, and everything else in the windows beginning in 1969. Ben Wood told me that his China project is a kind of tribute to his mentor, who didn’t live to see it. He repurposed two blocks of the city’s old shikumen courtyard houses, slated for destruction, into an airy, luxury shopping district that sees 82,000 visitors a day.
Ben Wood’s original plan for the Xintiandi district.
Now he serves as a consultant to many of the major and minor cities around China about their own dreams of a new urbanism. Wood is at war with the soulless, high-rise reality of those cities, as he recounted to me over his famous martinis in the DR Bar. He favors “Monkey Gin” from Germany, which he says is the critical ingredient of the best martinis made today. I’ve come to believe him.
In the Shanghai Museum, we’re standing in front of a bronze hu-vessel, a wine urn from roughly 2,500 years ago — from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), not so long before the first emperor Qin unified the country.
We’re here because Eugene Wang told me to start at the beginning in China, and to absorb a sort of “holy grail” of Chinese thinking. The exquisite inlaid design on the bronze vessel depicts frolicking paired animals on the domed lid and, below, a poetic treatment of four seasons: embryonic animals at the bottom in a symbolic winter, swallows returning and couples mating around a mulberry tree in a version of spring. We’re looking at a “cyclical blueprint of regeneration,” Professor Wang tells me, “attuned to the cycle of waxing and waning energies.” The master conceptual scheme “is premised on the belief and observance of the natural cycle of seasonal change and renewal.” So there’s inspirational beauty here, and irony as well. The blue heavens of Shanghai today are in the subway video ads — mostly gone from the smoggy sky over our heads. About sixty miles west of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, Lake Tai is dying. Endlessly celebrated by painters and poets as a symbol of China’s natural beauty (and by fishermen for its fish and white shrimp), Lake Tai is lined with chemical factories and covered in many places with green scum. An old story in China is getting radically more dangerous. The first serious wood shortage in China was noted in the 11th century. The Maoist period, with slogans like “Battling with Nature is Boundless Joy,” is remembered now as an natural catastrophe. Today rivers are still drying up; 90 percent of China’s groundwater is polluted. “To be Chinese today,” according to a Harvard Business School case study, “means being heir to both a great civilization and to millennia of environmental exploitation.” And the legend of the bronze urn reads something like a last warning.
A man skimming algae off Lake Tai, 2007. (AP Photo)
June 18: The Green House
Just a postcard from a house that wants a novel. D. V. Woo (or Wu Tongwen), who built it in the late 1930s, was the dye tycoon who put the color green in China’s Nationalist Army uniforms. László Hudec, his Czech-born architect, had escaped from Russian captivity in Siberia after World War One and had joined the flow of gifted strays (including many Jews) to visa-free Shanghai.Many Hudec buildings in Shanghai survive in one-off splendor, like his rough-hewn China Baptist Publication Society building and his Park Hotel. This Green House, deemed his masterpiece, was Shanghai’s first private house with an electric elevator (still working).The eve of World War Two was a high time for Americans in China: among the famous names (then or later) the young scholar John King Fairbank, Claire Chennault of the volunteer “Flying Tigers,” and Leighton Stewart, the China-born principal of Yenching (later merged with Beijing) University, who became FDR’s Ambassador to China during the war. Ambassador Stewart was caught in the post-war cross-fire between the “who lost China?” crowd in America and the Communists taking power; Mao denounced him in a venomous speech that Chinese school kids were required to memorize into the Sixties, and he is said to have died heart-broken.Meantime, the young nephew of D. V. Woo played in the gardens of the family’s treasure house and was seen to be developing an enthusiasm and flair for design. When he came to America his name was transliterated as I. M. Pei.On the show, our friend Eugene Wang observed the asymmetrical balance in the stories rising out of the Green House: Leighton Stewart was an American whose heart was in China. I. M. Pei was a Chinese man whose heart yearned for America. The Green House, impeccably restored, stands in a Shanghai visitor’s eyes for a modern cosmopolitanism, open to past and future still unfolding. On the weekend before I got to Shanghai, the Green House was opened to the public for the first time in 70 years. Ten thousand neighbors showed up and stood in line for hours to visit it. Chris and Yaping Shen, one of his Shanghai guides, discussed the Green House during the visit:
June 2: Scratches On My Mind
People ask: “What kinds of people are you hoping to meet and interview in China?” I answer: maybe people like Alaa Al Aswany in Cairo, the prophetic novelist of The Yacoubian Building, who’s also a full-time dentist. At the end of 2012, when protest was boiling again in Tahrir Square, I sat in Alaa Al Aswany’s dentist chair as he explained: “Literature and medicine are one profession with two aspects, in that novelists and doctors are both interested in understanding human pain.” And now it turns out that, Yu Hua, a dentist/novelist in China, writes in a similar vein, in the opening of his marvelous kaleidoscope, China in Ten Words. From his training years, Yu Hua remembers discovering the intense suffering that he was inflicting on factory workers, then children, when he injected them with barbed, worn-out needles that pulled out bleeding bits of flesh. His shock and remorse, he writes, “left a profound mark, and … stayed with me through all my years as an author. It is when the suffering of others becomes part of my own experience that I truly know what it is to live and what it is to write. Nothing in the world, perhaps, is likely to forge a connection between people as pain, because the connection that comes from that source comes from deep in the heart. So when in this book I write of China’s pain, I am registering my pain, too, because China’s pain is mine.”
“Poverty, misery, disease, hunger, famine, [and] ignorance…” were the controlling images of the China I met first in a Yale history class in the 1960s. Our background impressions of China, good and bad, had been outlined by MIT’s Harold Isaacs in his masterful Scratches on Our Minds: American Images of China and India (1958). Good China derived from Marco Polo’s 13th-century discovery of China’s ancient greatness and the remarkable intelligence, industry and stoicism of her people; also from Pearl Buck’s novels, read by billions and translated to movies for the multi-millions, about the simple, suffering good people of The Good Earth (1931). Bad China derived from the medieval, non-Chinese Genghiz Khan and his Mongol hordes – prototypes of faceless barbarism, brought vividly to life again in 1950 by Mao Tse-tung’s “human sea” flooding down across the Yalu into Korea, “massed barbarians,” as Harold Isaacs put it, “now armed not with broadswords but with artillery, tanks, and jet planes.”
Headlines since my boyhood have shuttled from the Sino-Soviet marriage to divorce; from Mao’s famine-inducing Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s to the mind-numbing Cultural Revolution of the 1960s; from Nixon’s opening to China in 1974 to Deng Xiaoping’s opening to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” in the 1980s and with it abandonment of equality as first principle. “Let some people get rich first,” he said, “and gradually all the people should get rich together.” We are transfixed in the present by China’s transformative growth as a manufacturer, the workshop of the world; by the vast and unprecedented migrations of peasants to cities (150 million in the last thirty-some years, 300 million more in the planning); and by China’s spectacularly uneven wealth.
Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes in his absorbing Age of Ambition that China today is going through something very like our own post-Civil War “Gilded Age.” (The U.S. had fewer than 20 millionaires in 1850, as he writes; 40,000 of them in 1900). China today, bristling with construction cranes, “is building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined.” China’s new billionaires are a primary market for Rolls Royces from the U.K. and Lamborghinis from Italy. Yu Hua observes that China’s makeover has upended the meaning of the “people,” the first of his Ten Words: “With the flick of a wrist Chinese history has utterly changed its complexion, much the way an actor in Sichuan opera swaps one mask for another. In the short space of thirty years, a China ruled by politics has transformed itself into a China where money is king.”
Ha Jin, the exiled novelist and poet celebrated in the U.S. for Waiting and A Free Life, tells me: “in the alleys behind the façade, a lot of the old ways have not changed. You must find the people playing chess and poker, drinking tea, as they always have. A friend says to me: ‘my grandmother in the countryside is still living like a peasant in China a thousand years ago.’”
I travel to China next month under the wing of the Fairbank Center at Harvard and its director Bill Kirby, having played a bit part in the production of their online course, ChinaX. My first landing on the mainland is fifty years late, but there’s a nice sentimental symmetry in all this. John King Fairbank was the founder of “China Studies” in American academia. Bill Kirby was the last of his brilliant protégés. Fairbank’s first star graduate students in the late 1930s were Arthur Frederick Wright from Portland, Oregon and Mary Clabaugh from Birmingham, Alabama. Married in 1940, the Wrights lit out immediately for Asia, first Japan and then China. Through the end of World War II they were interned in a Japanese camp in Shandong province. After liberation by American paratroopers, they chose to stay in China and traveled widely, encountering Mao along way. They came home first to Stanford, and then Yale, where I took their celebrated year’s survey of Chinese history.
Arthur Wright liked to say it was a two-part field: “ancient Chinese history and ancient-as-hell Chinese history.” Their star graduate student was Jonathan Spence, who graded our blue books on his way to becoming eminent in the profession. In their sabbatical year of 1962-63, just after my graduation, the Wrights needed a tutor-babysitter for their sons, then 10 and 11, on a round-the-world journey of research and family grazing. Grace alone got me the job – as grand a tour as Henry James could have imagined. But all the way, and especially as we got to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia (we skipped Vietnam), Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, the Wrights were itching and pulling every string they could to find a way under the fence and back to the real China. That mission failed, but unworthy as I am, I take it up again in their sainted names.
May 30: Getting Ready
Have I told you: I’m going to China this week, and I’m looking for your encouragement and leads. It’s my first trip to the mainland after exactly 50 years of vivid dreaming about it. I land in Shanghai on June 15, to extend a radio-podcast series over several years and many countries we’ve called “parachute radio.” The recurring question is always something like: “What are we going through, you and I?” Over and over I find that it’s artists broadly – novelists and story writers, actors and screenwriters, musicians, poets, architects and planners – who give me what I’m looking for: wide scope, the long view, and imagination about what’s coming. China is of course a wholly new story – terra largely incognita to me, which is why I’m going.
I’ll be sending back missives and postcards and sharing photos and bits of sound. The China watcher, Evan Osnos, will help send me off, on our program on June 12th. I’ll be talking with him and others about what I should be looking and listening for. Please help with your own questions and clues to the urgent mystery of China. What can I bring back for you? And please stay tuned as I prepare for the trip.
We're speaking with a hot name in disruptive innovation, Sebastian Thrun. He’s part of our conversation on hacking higher education. He’s the founder of the Google X lab, immersed in robotics and artificial intelligence, in building driverless car, but he’s more than all that. Three years ago he offered his Stanford University introduction to Computer Science class -- online for free -- and quickly had an enrollment of over 160,000 students from all over the world.
We’re speaking with a hot name in disruptive innovation, Sebastian Thrun. He’s part of our conversation on hacking higher education. He’s the founder of the Google X lab, immersed in robotics and artificial intelligence, in building driverless car, but he’s more than all that. Three years ago he offered his Stanford University introduction to artificial intelligence class — online for free — and quickly had an enrollment of over 160,000 students from all over the world. It was the start of a craze in so-called MOOCs – massive open online courses – a craze he’s still retooling. The company he started in his living room, Udacity, is now set on reinventing higher ed inside a computer on a billion-dollar scale. We asked him for his essential principles in remaking the university.
Continuing our series on higher ed, we're hacking our way to a better model; call it New U. There won't be a football team or a building and grounds department and maybe no president and no tenure. We might think of adjuncts with more power. We could surely MOOC up in order to spend way down and eliminate the frats, kegs, mixers and majors. Where would you start in reimagining the American university?
Continuing our series on higher ed, we’re hacking our way to a better model; call it New U. There won’t be a football team or a building and grounds department and maybe no president and no tenure. We might think of more adjuncts with more power. We could surely MOOC up in order to spend way down and eliminate the frats, kegs, mixers and majors. Where would you start in reimagining the American university?
When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.
The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.
Realistically, it will only take a drop in the bucket in relation to the billions floating within the higher education industry. To exemplify how insignificant the support needed to reach individuals currently priced out of education is, take the recently launched $6 billion fundraising campaign at the University of Southern California and divide by 1000; the average $300 million university endowment in the U.S. and divide by 50; or the interest Harvard earned every 10 hours last year. Either way, the solution is $6 million: a tiny price in the world of higher education but a number that has the capacity to educate the world over.
Derek Bok is the only two-time president of Harvard University, which is to say he has twice reinvented the management of the oldest, richest, maybe the best university in the country. So he’s a qualified fixer of the university and a comprehensive student of the American system, from a vantage point at the very top of the heap.
We’re extending the conversation on Higher Education in America with the man who gave just that august title to his own fresh take on a troubled subject. Derek Bok is the only two-time president of Harvard University, which is to say he has twice reinvented the management of the oldest, richest, maybe the best university in the country. First time was 1971 during the Vietnam War campus uprisings. Second time, 35 years later, Derek Bok was asked back in 2006 after Lawrence Summers was ushered out of the job early. So he’s a qualified fixer of the university system; at the same time he personifies the high Ivy Establishment, the very top of heap.
He doesn’t blush about the quarter-million dollar price-tag on a Harvard BA. And he resists my bleating about student debt. The national average is under $30,000, he notes. Those infamous 6-figure loan burdens are are “outliers” and “self-inflicted wounds,” he says, given the amount of available financial aid and alternative schools and programs. Bok says the economic bonus for completing a degree is at historic highs in this country, but he sounds disturbed by that, too — by the fixation on high costs and big career payoffs.
Not for past loans but for the future, Derek Bok would like to make college debts “income contingent,” that is, sharply discounted for people who don’t seek (or find) big salaries for their work – in teaching, say. I found him disarmingly candid on a trend as worrisome as the money issues. Students on American campuses are not studying nearly as much as they used to; they’re not learning as much either! So says the honorary chairman of the board, Derek Bok, with a Cambridge view of Boston and the rebuilding of the Longfellow Bridge over the Charles River.
By Max Larkin We’re sending along some free advice for aspiring artists from the ones who’ve made it. Whether to go to school, and for how long? If not, what do you do instead? It’s a topic discussed online, on stage and off, and continuously ...
By Max Larkin
We’re sending along some free advice for aspiring artists from the ones who’ve made it. Whether to go to school, and for how long? If not, what do you do instead? It’s a topic discussed online, on stage and off, and continuously among the artists. Be sure to add your voice.
Peter Schjeldahl,New Yorker art critic
I’m one of those sixties college dropouts you hear about.
[As a teacher,] my aim is to help kids realize that they’re artists already, or that maybe they don’t really want to do it, which is more than fine. They’ve saved themselves a lot of grief, and they can get on with their lives.
I tell them that I’m not interested in educating their minds, I’m interested in sophisticating them, which is different. Sophistication is knowledge that’s acquired in the course of having a purpose. You know why you want the information at the moment that you put your hand on it. You’re not just storing it up for a rainy day.There’s nothing innately relevant or innately irrelevant to an artist. If their minds and spirits can’t put the stuff in order, then they’re not artists. Very often the flashiest, most seemingly talented person turns out to be not an artist at all, and some hopeless klutz ends up being Jackson Pollock.
I attended SVA but didn’t actually get my degree. Like many in a long tradition of dropping out, I was anxious to get to work. I was going into debt, working in art galleries and as an artist assistant, and making paintings in my own studio. I even organized a show for my work at a New York gallery. I was thinking that I was already doing the thing I went to art school to learn how to do. And why continue to go into debt?
What I didn’t take into consideration was how important the community was. It’s really hard to see the bigger picture when you’re 19 or 20 years old. And you have no idea how much your attitudes about things will change by the time you’re 40.
I fluctuate between being proud of my education (self-directed, experiential, and comprised of workshops, classes, and mentorships) and being defensive about my lack of official, institutional certification. But I’m still a painter and making some of the best paintings I’ve ever made, so maybe it doesn’t matter how I got here, just that I kept going.
Noah Bradley, environmental artist
I have a diploma from the best public art school in the nation. Prior to that I attended the best private art school in the nation. I’m not some flaky, disgruntled art graduate, either. I have a quite successful career, thankyouverymuch.
But I am saddened and ashamed at art schools and their blatant exploitation of students. Graduates are woefully ill-prepared for the realities of being professional artists and racked with obscene amounts of debt. By their own estimation, the cost of a four year education at RISD is $245,816. As way of comparison, the cost of a diploma from Harvard Law School is a mere $236,100.
Don’t do it. Don’t start your career with debilitating debt. Please. I beg you. Think long and hard whether you’re willing to pay student loan companies $3000 every single month for the next 10 years.
Lady Gaga, pop musician
I dropped out of NYU, moved out of my parent’s house, got my own place, and survived on my own.
I would make demo tapes and send them around; then I would jump on my bike and pretend to be Lady Gaga’s manager. I’d make $300 at work and spend it all on Xeroxes to make posters. Lady Starlight and I would spin vinyl in my apartment, sewing our bikinis for the show and listening to David Bowie and the New York Dolls. We thought, “What could we do to make everybody so jealous?” We did it, and everybody was so jealous. And they still are.
If I have any advice to anybody, it’s to just do it yourself, and don’t waste time trying to get a favor.
I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.
So what was the problem? Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs. That shit was too white.
Sometimes [people] say: You did an MFA. Did you ever think about dropping out? All the time.
Why didn’t you?
Another good question. I’m not sure I have a real answer. Answers yes but An Answer: no. Maybe it was immigrant shit. Maybe it was characterlogical—I was just a stubborn fuck. Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t want to move back to my mother’s basement for anything. Maybe I just got lucky—I didn’t snap or fall into a deep depression or get completely demoralized.
Coco Fusco, performance artist
The promise of a life-changing learning experience is only as good as what you actually get and how that sizes up with what you need. It’s up to you to ask, ask, ask in advance: your teachers, your mentors, and other art students. Instead of getting into tense conversations with recruiters about financial aid once you’ve been admitted, find out before you apply if your school of choice is endowed with resources that allow it to provide adequate support.
Make sure to ask about hidden costs. You may be lured into paying for a lot more than your peers while getting a lot less. It’s up to you to find out what your money will buy.
Jerry Saltz, critic
I think it’s great for young artists to go to grad school if they’ve got the time, inclination, and money — whether it’s Mom and Dad’s money or a trust fund. Artists seem to thrive during these two years of enforced art-making, staying up very late and learning things with each other long after the professors have gone home for the night. But I’ve also witnessed — and may have been responsible for — a lot of bullshit. Iffy artist-teachers wield enormous artistic and intellectual influence over students, favors are doled out in power cliques.
All this may be the same as it ever was. What’s different now is that MFA programs are exorbitantly priced luxury items. At the top-shelf East Coast schools like Yale, RISD, SVA, and Columbia, the two-year cost can top $100,000. This doesn’t include room, board, materials, etc. Add all that in, and you’re hovering near a quarter-million dollars. No matter how wonderful the M.F.A. experience, that’s straight-up highway robbery.
I believe that many of the less-expensive, non-marquee schools now have parity with — and are sometimes better than — the sexy top tier. Trust me; I’ve taught at them all. And should be fired.
College tuition is rising faster than medical costs, inflation, and certainly the income of 99% of Americans. Four years at a private university now costs as much as a new Ferrari, and a student at a public university can expect to graduate $25,000 in debt. But does anyone know where all that money is going?
By Kunal Jasty
College tuition is rising faster than medical costs, inflation, and certainly the income of 99% of Americans. Four years at a private university now costs as much as a new Ferrari, and a student at a public university can expect to graduate $25,000 in debt. But does anyone know where colleges are spending all their money?
Academic Support – Academic administrators, academic deans, libraries.
Instruction – “General academic instruction, occupational and vocational instruction, community education, preparatory and adult basic education, and regular, special, and extension sessions.”
Research – Funding for research institutes, laboratories, and individual research.
Public Service – “Activities established primarily to provide noninstructional services beneficial to individuals and groups external to the institution. Examples are conferences, institutes, general advisory service, reference bureaus.”
Hospital Services – All expenses at a university affiliated hospital.
Independent Operations – Expenses “unrelated to the primary missions of the institution (i.e., instruction, research, public service) although they may contribute indirectly to the enhancement of these programs.”
Other expenses – “The amount of money (estimated by the financial aid office) needed by a student to cover expenses such as laundry, transportation, and entertainment.”
Net grant aid to students – The difference in the money a school receives in tuition, fees, room and board, and the amount of scholarships and fellowships it awards.
For the perspective of experience and solid accomplishment, we're asking two pro’s in the middle of enviable careers what they learned in and out of school, where they’d be looking for training, how much they’d pay, if they were starting out again. Chris Cooper is a Hollywood hero in supporting roles. He won an Academy Award for one of them, in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. His wife Marianne Leone played the gangster mama Joanne Moltisanti in The Sopranos on HBO.
We’re digressing here from our ongoing conversations about higher education in general, and arts education in particular. For the perspective of experience and solid accomplishment, we’re asking two acting professionals in the middle of enviable careers what they learned in and out of school, where they’d be looking for training, how much they’d pay, if they were starting out again. Chris Cooper is a Hollywood hero in supporting roles. He won an Academy Award for one of them, in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. His wife Marianne Leone played the gangster mama Joanne Moltisanti in The Sopranos on HBO.
Show biz is center stage next in our higher ed series: Two venerable private art schools in Boston's Back Bay—Emerson College and the Berklee College of Music—are booming, if you can believe your eyes. Both have built major gleaming signature buildings in the Back Bay. Emerson has a satellite campus in Hollywood. Berklee is teaching in China and has a campus in Valencia. More students are chasing the dream and mastering a craft, under a load of debt, with maybe fewer job prospects. Where's the line between chasing a dream and betting on a bubble?
Show biz is center stage next in our higher ed series: Two venerable private art schools in Boston’s Back Bay — Emerson College and the Berklee College of Music — are booming, if you can believe your eyes. Both have built major gleaming signature buildings close to downtown. Emerson has a satellite campus in Hollywood. Berklee is teaching in China and has a campus in Valencia. More students are chasing the dream and mastering a craft, under a load of debt, with maybe fewer job prospects. But where’s the line between chasing a dream and betting on a bubble?
Harvard’s Helen Vendler, the preeminent poetry critic, is pushing the arts, period. At Harvard and everywhere, she wants to advise admissions officers about the value of creative talent. Would T. S. Eliot, Buckminster Fuller, Matt Damon, and Adrienne Rich have a tough time getting into Harvard today, as in fact they did back in the day? Today, Vendler says, “We need to mute our praise for achievement and leadership at least to the extent that we utter equal praise for inner happiness, reflectiveness, and creativity; and we need to invent ways in which our humanities students are actively recruited for jobs suited to their talents and desires.”
Who’s dreaming here? There’s a reason so many students chase finance: it pays, and many young people leave school in serious debt. At what cost to the students? And to expressive arts? And to our national culture and our reputation?