Podcast • August 29, 2014

WWI, In 12 Photos

The World War I photographs are as horrible as any current-events coverage Taylor might post, but they're also weird. They have a mood; they are uncanny. You don't know how to dismiss them, and so you can't. Looking at the French priest blessing a prop plane in the mire, you have to ask, “What was he thinking?”

By Max Larkin

This spring a series of more than 400 photographs from the First World War appeared  on “In Focus,” The Atlantic’s photography blog.  It was spread out across ten thematic parts, and it bespoke an enormous amount of curatorial effort by Alan Taylor, the blog’s editor.

The World War I photographs are as horrible as any current-events coverage Taylor might post, but they’re also weird. They have a mood; they are uncanny. You don’t know how to dismiss them, and so you can’t. Looking at the French priest blessing a prop plane in the mire, you have to ask, “What was he thinking?”

When I spoke to Taylor, he said that this was what had driven him to do more than a year’s worth of work on the series was this quality: the strangeness of these images, many of them found on postcards printed for a world transfixed by the war that was tearing it apart. Taylor’s photographic record is so great that it seemed an invitation to go further and to get lost, in a few of these images. It may be that this is how we get to know war: not by fighting it, but by seeing it again — as strange.

This is a series of interviews on a few images or trends in images, conducted with three experts. Thanks to all of them for their participation.

Alan Taylor, on a waste of a war

w_35 Taylor comes at these images not as a expert not on war but on photography. He was struck by the jerry-rigged quality of the war’s technology, its planning, and the tentative efforts of all parties to get ahead of each other. They are ‘like us’, but they are also like their grandparents — people we have forgotten.


Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade walk on a duckboard track laid across a muddy, shattered battlefield in Chateau Wood, near Hooge, Belgium, on October 29, 1917. This was during the Battle of Passchendaele, fought by British forces and their allies against Germany for control of territory near Ypres, Belgium. (James Francis Hurley/State Library of New South Wales)

Passchendaele was the most hellish scene of the entire war. This was taken in 1917, after years of fighting at Ypres, by Frank Hurley, an Australian photographer and one of those actual adventurers the early twentieth century produced. (He was the cameraman during the long marooning of the Shackleton expedition to the South Pole, and managed to live until 1962.)


A German communications squad behind the Western front, setting up using a tandem bicycle power generator to power a light radio station in September of 1917. (National Archive/Official German Photograph of WWI)

Here is that blend of old and new worlds, consummated by ingenuity in the service of the fighting. Taylor also described an image of rockets tied with twine to the struts of a biplane. It was an age before precision strikes.


On the Western front, a group of captured Allied soldiers representing 8 nationalities: Anamite (Vietnamese), Tunisian, Senegalese, Sudanese, Russian, American, Portugese, and English. (National Archive/Official German Photograph of WWI)

This photograph has an ethnographic quality to it. It is a staged lineup of soldiers imprisoned by the Germans. It leaves no doubt about this being a “world war”.


The British Aircraft Carrier HMS Argus. Converted from an ocean liner, the Argus could carry 15-18 aircraft. Commissioned at the very end of WWI, the Argus did not see any combat. The ship’s hull is painted in Dazzle camouflage. Dazzle camouflage was widely used during the war years, designed to make it difficult for an enemy to estimate the range, heading, or speed of a ship, and make it a harder target – especially as seen from a submarine’s periscope. (National World War I Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, USA) #


A Marine kisses a woman during a homecoming parade at the end of World War I, in 1919. (AP Photo)

Taylor ended his entire series with this image: different year, different peace, same kind of kiss.

Ann Thomas of the National Gallery of Canada, on propaganda

Thomas, the museum’s curator of photography, put together “The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography“, an exhibition running through November 16. The exhibition is designed to show photography at work in wartime: as tools of state power, as symbol of military organization, or as a keepsake for loved ones at home. One captured Canadian soldier even used his personal photographs to remind German captors that he had family waiting for him. Thomas accentuated the tense relationship between the scenes in the “epic mode” described by Susan Sontag and the personal portraits of soldiers.

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William Ivor Castle (Great Britain, 1877–1947), 29th Infantry Battalion advancing over “no man’s land” through the German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917, 320 × 610 cm. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa (a001020).

Here, Canadian Corps soldiers are shown after a 1917 victory over German forces on Vimy Ridge on the Western Front. Those are German bodies in the foreground. This image was used as a massive window on the war in a state-sponsored exhibition in London, which Thomas recreated at the National Gallery. Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian businessman, first organized these exhibitions as a tool of persuasion, putting an image like this one — an image of a decisive victory, printed 10 feet by 20 feet — in front of a public that might have come to question the purpose or the hope of victory.

Panoramic Camera Company, 122nd Overseas Battalion, C.E.F. –Port Carling, Muskoka, Ontario 1914–18, gelatin silver print, 24 × 90.2 cm. George Metcalf Archival Collection, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa (CWM 19910241-005).

This is a group portrait of the 122nd Overseas Battalion taken in rural Port Carling, a small township about four hours from Ottawa. There are officers on horseback, bandmembers, a stream of soldiers running back over the bridges: then one old man in the middle who may not, Thomas surmises, have known he was going to be in the very center of this panoramic photograph.

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Unidentified photographer, Unidentified Soldier 1914–18, gelatin silver print, 13.5 × 8.7 cm. Private collection.

The caption says it all: this is a portrait of an unknown German soldier from an unknown year, one of hundreds of small keepsake photographs that adorn one entire wall of the National Gallery’s exhibition. We don’t know anything about this image, or what it’s supposed to be saying, except that the soldier himself has a face worth studying.


Catharina Slautterback of The Boston Athenaeum, on war posters

At the Athenaeum, Catharina Slautterback presides over a collection of thousands of posters from the First World War, which make for an interesting parallel case to the war’s photography. Select posters are being presented starting next week through January 2015 as part of an exhibition entitled “Over Here!: World War I Posters from Around the World.”

Ms. Slautterback chose three posters that seemed to her to show how Britain, Germany, and France established themselves as fearsome war powers on the homefront.


C. R. W. Nevinson (1889-1946), Now. Back the Bayonets with Your War Savings Certificates., 1918. Color lithograph. London: Printed by the Dangerfield Printing Company. Boston Athenaeum. Gift of Bartlett H. Hayes, 1985.

This one stands out because of its high-design aesthetic, not in the conservative magazine style of most of the war posters. It might just as well come from the Summer of Love, except for the array of knives on it. And Slautterback points out that we miss the violence of this poster because of its modern look, even to the point of forgetting what the bayonets are supposed to do.

8164 This German poster touts “Our Smashing Success” in 1914: the wreck of Liège, Belgium, using shells just like this one, in the first battle of the war. Throughout the Germans preferred the blackletter typefaces and monochrome compositions seen here, which make for a harsh contrast with some of the rainbow-colored optimistic American examples on show at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Howitzer that fired this shell (depicted at Originalgröße, or full size, on the poster) came to be known as Dicke Bertha, or “Big Bertha”. It was so named, some say, for Bertha Krupp, the heiress and director of the Krupps corporation, which then made armaments and today makes coffee machines.


Slautterback’s last poster was intended to celebrate, or at least raise money for, an army of black Africans fighting fiercely alongside French and Vietnamese soldiers. But what is this drawing supposed to do: amuse, impress or terrify? And why did all those feelings seem to lie so close together when it came to this war, and not to others?

This Week's Show • August 28, 2014

WWI: Remaking Music

In the last show in our series on the Great War, we're listening to the sounds that emerged from its ashes. In Vienna concert halls and New York jazz clubs, from Maurice Ravel’s piano elegies to Igor Stravinsky’s explosive symphonies, we’re coursing through the composers who defined a modern era, reacting to the terrible violence of total warfare through art.

Georges Braque, Violin and Glass (1913), charcoal and oil on canvas.

Guest List

• Virginia Eskinpianist, artist, and lecturer.

Gil Rose, conductor and founder of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

• Loren Schoenberg, artistic director, National Jazz Museum in Harlem; band leader and musicologist.

• Stephan Pennington, assistant professor of music at Tufts University, specializing in jazz, African-American, and queer music studies.

How did composers react to the violence of The First World War? In the last show in our series on the war, we’re listening to the sounds that came out of the ashes.

It’s a twenty-year-long journey that begins in Paris in 1914, as bombs began to fall and mass media began to rise, with composer Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau, a swirling piano suite dedicated to friends of Ravel who died in the war. We’ll hear George Antheil’s bombastic Ballet Mécanique, which brought an army of plane propellers, sirens, and player pianos into the concert hall. Finally, we’re making the great transatlantic jazz connection: how Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, and others found a new way out of the destruction.

Music from the Program

Reading List

Two essential book-length treatments of that beautiful, movable-feast-in-music moment: Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues and Alfred Appel, Jr.’s Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce.

    • The war took the lives of notable composers across Europe, including Albéric Magnard, Enrique Granados, and George Butterworth. German broadcasting company Deutsche Welle compiled a list of the many injured;
    • “Deceptive Cadence”, the NPR classical music blog, collected musical responses to the war from Ravel, Ives, Holst, and others;
    • New Yorker music critic Alex Ross details composers of the era—Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, and others—in a chapter in his primer to twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise (a rich audio guide to that chapter is online);
    • CBC took on popular and classical music during The First World War, in an exceptional episode of Ideas, with Paul Kennedy;
    • If you didn’t catch it last year, WNYC broadcast a special about art in 1913, a “mad, Modernist moment” before the war, with a focus on Stravinsky and Schoenberg;
    • Finally, hear BBC’s “World War One: Cradle of Jazz,” a special on the musical evolution of ragtime into jazz during the war.
    • And we’ve got a playlist of ten pieces that gives the shape of the evolution in music after the war:

Podcast • August 17, 2014

WWI: Adam Tooze Reviews “The Deluge”

In 1916, two years into the war, Americans reelected the president who’d kept us out of the battle. But by the summer of 1917, the same Woodrow Wilson had committed the US to fighting alongside Britain and France against Germany. For me the hair-raising fascination in our conversation here, on the eve of publication, is in the foreshadowings — of a century of horrific hot and cold sequels of the Great War, but also of the very-2014 tensions between democracy and capitalism, and of course the rise of a new giant in China.

Photo Tooze 4

Adam Tooze’s new history of World War One, The Deluge, makes a crackling, cautionary tale of the zig-zag course of the young economic giant in America, drawn toward the center of a new global order between 1914 and 1918. In 1916, two years into the war, Americans reelected the president who’d kept us out of the battle. But by the summer of 1917, the same Woodrow Wilson had committed the US to fighting alongside Britain and France against Germany.

For me the hair-raising fascination in our conversation here, on the eve of publication, is in the foreshadowings – of a century of horrific hot and cold sequels of the Great War, but also of the very-2014 tensions between democracy and capitalism, and of course the rise of a new giant in China.

Adam Tooze is an English-trained historian now teaching at Yale. Over a phone line to Paris, on the eve of American publication of The Deluge, Tooze is recounting the “truly extraordinary” role of Wall Street’s J. P. Morgan, serving as banker to Britain, France, Russia and then Italy, “effectively the financial agent for far-and-away the largest coalition of military powers the world had ever seen.” Morgan made a colossal bet on a war that Americans voted not to enter. Paris and London panicked at the election returns and the popular indecision about the war into 1917. What turned President Wilson, Tooze argues, was not J. P. Morgan but the Germans’ cynical (maybe mad) decision to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare (like the torpedo attack on Cunard’s Lusitania which had killed a thousand Americans and shocked the country in 1915). Among the endless counter-factual questions: what if the Kaiser had held back his U-boats and Wilson had held back the American fighting forces, as he wanted to? The Germans might well have won the European war, but we might never have known Fascism, state Communism, World War Two, the Holocaust, the Cold War or nuclear weapons.

Americans seem still to be ambivalent about Wilson’s ambivalence – between the “muscular Wilsonism” (that led us into World War One and the botched peace of Versailles) and Wilson’s dream of “peace without victory” and an American “liberal internationalism” that policed the empires without becoming one.

And then there are the China questions that Adam Tooze says he felt “hanging over me” as he wrote his centennial history of World War One. So many analogies between the US then and China today: rising industrial and financial powers, yet to be partnered into managing the world system. China is vastly older and bigger than the US ever was – a sixth of the world’s population and “an ancient empire coming back into itself,” as Tooze put it. This is the great drama taking place before our eyes, “an epic shift in world affairs we’re living through.” The trick, the historian says, is to realize that there is no succession of empires, no simple repetition in history. Stay tuned!

August 13, 2014

WWI: The Shock of the New

Out of the wreckage of World War 1 come the incandescent modernists -- none burning brighter than James Joyce and his Ulysses. And don't forget Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso, too. It’s a rebel alliance of high-art anarchists. A century later, their lights are still on. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces?


Guest List

• Kevin Birmingham, author of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.

• Howard Eiland, modernist scholar, editor of the modernist philosopher, Walter Benjamin, and author of the biography Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.

• Eve Sorunprofessor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, currently writing a book on empathy and elegy in British modernism.

Out of the mire and death of World War One, even before the shooting stops, comes the strangest thing: the novel of the century.  It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, transposing the wily warrior of Greek myth into the buried consciousness of a single day in Dublin in 1904. The global war was only part of the nightmare from which Joyce was trying to awake. From his teens, he’d set himself against every orthodoxy of provincial Ireland, against the pieties of family, church and Empire. Even before pre-publication, Ulysses became the fighting flag of Modernism: a sort of cracked “true realism,” an anti-violent anarchism in prose, poetry and painting, too. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces: Mrs. DallowayThe Waste-Land? Have you made it through Ulysses? Is history a nightmare we’re still sleeping through?

Reading List

Where do we look for a short course in the modernist sensibility? You could return to Ezra Pound’s young, verbless days as an Imagist in “In a Station of the Metro“: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Or we could quote his solicitation letter to H. L. Mencken, republished by The American Reader: “At any rate, if there is impractical stuff, I want it.”
Virginia Woolf proposed the look and feel of modernism in three classic essays, including a call to a higher realism in “Modern Fiction”: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall…”
Joyce wasn’t much of a theorist, but he talked (and sang, and jigged) with his dinner guests: “What goes on in an ordinary house like this house in an ordinary day or night - that is what should be written about… eating, sleeping, all that we take for granted, not leaving out the digestive processes.”
A story about modernist books is in particular a story about modernist lives: how fun, desperate, original they were – “What a lark! what a plunge!” For that reason, we recommend Kevin Birmingham’s terrific group biography, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, once more. (We tested it as a beach read, and it passed with flying colors.)

August 11, 2014

WWI: The War of the Century

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.

Guest List

Stephen van Evera, the MIT historian of great powers and author of The Causes of War.

Isabel Hull, historian at Cornell and author most recently of A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law During the Great War. 

Adam Tooze, the Yale historian of the political economy of war and author of The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916 – 1931, available now for preorder.


Reading List

There’s too much to read and think about this August, but we’re immersing ourselves in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, 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 Story of a Global Conflict,” an interactive documentary from the web team at The Guardian — alongside a couple of lists of legacies.

• 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.

July 20, 2014

Artist in a Revolution: Ganzeer and his Wounded Cat

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 Aswany and the historian, Khaled FahmyMy 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.”

Ganzeer — painter, graffiti master, humanist — in Cairo. Photo Credit: Baldwin Portraits

On the Veranda • June 12, 2014

Chris’s Postcards from China

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.
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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.

Ai Weiwei SpyFor 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

yu hua 2

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.”

horns dress

June 30: Kaiser Kuo, King of Chinese Media

Kaiser Kuo2 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. KK at dinner 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

UCCA wall 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. Kid by wall

June 24: A Piano Lesson

Mrs-Ying-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.

Below, a clip of one of China’s 40 million aspiring virtuosos, under Mrs. Ying’s tutelage.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tP8nlEtP_Ho 2014-06-18 13.46.07

June 21: Shanghai 02138

220 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.

ben wood copy

Chris and Ben at DR Bar. (Photo: Adam Mitchell).

June 19: A Warning from the Bronze Age

Hear an excerpt from our China Rising hour about this vase:

Potter's hu vessel

Adam Mitchell / Suzanne Petrucci.

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.

China Algae

A man skimming algae off Lake Tai, 2007. (AP Photo)

June 18: The Green House

The Green House in Shanghai, previously owned by  Wu Tongwen . 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.greenhouse1On 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

shanghai longtang 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.

Podcast • May 22, 2014

Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs, Angry Birds, and Lifelong Learning

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.

May 22, 2014

The New U.

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?
Where Does All That Money Go?
Derek Bok: The View from the Top
Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs, Angry Birds, and Lifelong Learning


Guest List

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?

Reading List

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.

Podcast • May 21, 2014

Derek Bok: The View from the Top

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.

bok3_cropWe’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.