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Archive for July, 2007

Ma Ying-jeou, Yue Fei, and Chinese media

July 19th, 2007 5 comments

A story that’s been doing the rounds of the international Chinese press (example (in Traditional Chinese)) concerns Taiwan’s Kuomintang presidential hopeful Ma Ying-jeou: while touring the electorate, he was asked to autograph a fan’s shirt. He wrote “忠報國” (jin zhong bao guo), “serve the country with utmost loyalty“, a phrase reputedly tattooed on the back of Song Dynasty national hero, Yue Fei. Beside it he wrote “– Yue’s Mother, Northern Song Dynasty”.

Immediately, reporters pointed out his “mistakes”: that the tattoo had been “忠報國” (the first character being jing instead of jin), and that Yue Fei was of the Southern Song Dynasty. The story then spread across the world, carried by all major international Chinese media, all pointing out Ma’s mistakes.

What nobody bothered to check, though, is that Ma was correct – or at least, arguably correct. While there has long been a popular view that the first character of the tattoo is “jing“, there is no historical evidence for that view. The History of Song, the official dynastic hsitory, records it as ““, “jin“. The inscription on the wall of Yue’s tomb in Hangzhou (see my photo at right, larger photo here) also reads “忠報國”(jin zhong bao guo). Even if we can’t be sure of what was written 1000 years ago, all the historical evidence point to Ma being correct.

The second matter is whether it should be “Northern Song” or “Southern Song” dynasty. Yue Fei was born in 1103, and enlisted in the Song Army in 1122, and again in 1124. The Northern Song dynasty ended in 1127, replaced by the Southern Song dynasty. By that time, Yue Fei was 24 years old, and an Officer in the Song army of the 7th rank. If the story of the tattoo is to be believed, his mother gave it to him to motivate him to fight for his country. This would hardly be necessary after he had already achieved distinction – and pretty hard to achieve, considering that she was at home and he was fighting on the front! In all likelihood, Yue Fei received the tattoo when he was young – during the northern Song dynasty. Again, Ma is most likely right.

I have another point, though, in addition to vindicating the honourable Ma Ying-jeou, JSD (which is like PhDs for lawyers in the US). This whole story of “Ma Ying-jeou makes a mistake” is based on an erroneous understanding of history. A brief flick through any serious historical source will tell you this. However, it has travelled the world, and no media source has corrected the�error of the initial report. This shows up the poor quality of the international Chinese press. “What about the Chinese Chinese press?”, I hear you say. Well, such an error would not escape the rigorous checks of the PRC state media – or at least I would like to think so. But Chairman Ma being a Chinese nationalist, is viewed as “friendly” by the PRC government, and thus no negative news about him ever gets mentioned, let alone discussed.

As a result, the international Chinese media really has no authoritative, responsible source to look to for guidance, whereas here in the Anglophone world we know we can rely on, say, the BBC even if the SMH sometimes gets it wrong. In the Sinophone world, no media organisation has the resources or the expertise to be that ultimate authority except the Chinese state media; yet censorship and propaganda in the Chinese state media means that it often cannot provide this guidance. Even where it does, its message is often warped by political agendas, so that other media sources are reluctant to trust it.

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Starbucks leaves Forbidden City

July 14th, 2007 4 comments

image courtesy of Howard Yean

Media report (SMH, �Seattle Times) that Starbucks has closed its Forbidden City store. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s some background (speaking with self-conferred authority, having written most of Wikipedia’s Forbidden City article):

The whole mess

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the 15th century to 1911. It is now China’s most important historical site and museum, and a “must-see” tourist destination. Starbucks opened its store in 2000 in what was formerly the Nine Ministers’ Room, a waiting room for the imperial cabinet which sits across the path from (and is architecturally symmetrical to) the Grand Chancellery, and across a small courtyard from the Palace of Heavenly Purity, where the Emperor held court each day with his ministers.

In 2004 or thereabouts, the Chinese blogging public seems to have suddenly discovered the presence of the store. An internet-based campaign (see a photo of the store in this link, too) appeared, calling for its removal. The campaign was led by an English-language CCTV host, and was met with waves of support from the Chinese cyber-community. The campaign was run on the premise that 1) Starbucks, as a chain store, detracts from the dignity of the Forbidden City because of its commercial flavour; 2) Starbucks is a foreign enterprise, and the Forbidden City is a bastion of Chinese cultural orthodoxy, which makes this foreign cultural invasion; 3) to cap it all off, (according to the store’s opponents), the whole episode was a “joke” among the “upper strata” of society in the “Western world”.

At first, the global juggernaut of overpriced coffee appeared to stand firm. Yesterday, however, Starbucks announced that the lease for the store would be terminated. The ostensible reason cited was that the Palace Museum wished to assume management of all commercial enterprises in the Forbidden City. But it probably isn’t a giant leap of faith to suppose that the controversy is part of the motivation for the decision.

But…

As a reluctant patron of Starbucks, I of course think it’s good news – I don’t think you’ll find Maccas tucked into the centre of the Louvre or Easyway operating inside the Lincoln Memorial. However, the arguments adopted by the campaign, and the public perception of the whole episode in China, reveals some worrying aspects of contemporary Chinese culture.

First, cultural dignity. There is no doubt that Starbucks, as a symbol of commercialism, should not be at the centre of the Forbidden City. However, even without Starbucks the Forbidden City isn’t exactly a pure and holy shrine of Culture. Sub-standard t-shirts and electric toy cars – complete with sirens – are sold from the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Shoddy reproduction antiques fill gift stores. Some areas have been described as more theme park than museum. Given this, the cries about cultural dignity seems a bit hollow, and one wonders whether there would have been such an outcry if it had been a Chinese coffee house chain.

Which brings me to my second point. Ultranationalism and xenophobia is a constant perverse undercurrent in China, especially in the online community. It is fueled by indoctrination dished out in schools and via the government media, but held in check by the government’s control of the media, especially the internet. By twiddling these two valves, the government uses these sentiments for its own purpose, as we saw with the anti-Japanese riots. I think that the size and prominence of the anti-Starbucks campaign reflects these sentiments – no doubt the�Chinese blogsphere will be celebrating this triumph of the Chinese nation. Like any expression of nationalism, it is treading a dangerously fine line.

This facet of the protests poses an interesting contrast with the campaigner’s appeal to the authority of Western “high society” (citing such worthies as Bill Gates), and reflects a dilemma faced by Chinese culture: the simultaneous worship and hatred of foreign things. Let’s not forget that the Starbucks store was set up at the invitation of the Museum management, not the company’s instigation. Let’s not forget, also, that Starbucks (along with lattes and cappucinos) is a status symbol in China – and who can blame them, when a cup of their coffee costs 4 times the average worker’s hourly wage? For every self-appointed cultural campaigner who decries commercialism, there is at least another self-appointed petite bourgeoisie clamerring for more frappucino.

It would be dangerously simplistic to see this outcome as the triumph of culture over commercialism. More worrying is what it reveals about a national psyche afflicted, perhaps, by an inferiority complex. If not properly funneled, such sentiments can lead to disaster, as we saw with Germany in the early 20th century and Japan’s attitude towards China and the rest of Asia during its rise in the 19th to 20th centuries.

Photo courtsey of Howard Yean

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Transformers (film)

July 12th, 2007 3 comments

It’s taken me two weeks to start writing something about Transformers, but here it is.

The Transformers were a part of my childhood like no other TV show before or since, and my Darkwing toy remains my all-time favourite. If there’s one movie that I can say I’ve waited all my life for, this is it. And yet, from the moment that Michael Bay (of Pearl Harbor and The Lionel Richie Collection: Do it to me fame) was announced as the director, my anticipation of the movie was very much mixed with dread. Early images of movie characters circulating the net – especially that of Megatron – seemed to confirm my worst fears.

I was surprised, then, to find the movie relatively awesome, relative to my expectations. Partly, I guess, it was the sheer magic of talking alien robots that transform into cars, and seeing Optimus Prime and other familiar faces in 3D. The filmmakers did well in expressing this aspect of the Transformers concept, especially in charming scenes – like Sam seeing Bumblebee transform in the trash yard, or Sam’s “Gentlemen… let me introduce you to my friend, Optimus Prime” to the ultra vires government agents.

The humans were memorably portrayed, and the computer animation of the robots was seamless. Added to this, the humour and the rather camp references to the original series, like the rusted VW Beetle or the repeated references to “more than meets the eye” helps to carry the viewer along the fantasy rollercoaster ride.

Of course, I was disappointed to find the designs of the characters changed. Optims Prime retained his characteristic mouthguard (except it became retractable), earpieces,�colour scheme, and breast plates. Bumblebee, too, looked generally yellow. What I didn’t like were the new designs for Megatron, so alien and slimy, and Starscream, fat on top but with spindly legs underneath. The crafting of the villains as disgusting was unnecessary, and detracted from the depth of the message of the original series: that life is about choices, and you can either look cool (and fly, and play loud music), or you can be good and save the world.

However, what left me feeling cheated was the frequent and obvious product placements. Michael Bay had claimed that Bumblebee was to be a GM Camaro instead of a VW Beetle because of “copyright issues”. That all the Autobots turned out to be GMs (except for Optimus Prime, who was a Peterbilt; but then GM doesn’t make semi trailers)�makes me suspect�that Bumblebee was changed from a Beetle in order to secure a larger cheque. Michael Bay’s insistence on a long-nosed form for Optimus, on the basis of mass-conservation and realism, is also ridiculous. I saw a movie-version transforming toy today, and it is clear that the long nose adds excess mass to the figure, and the toy-makers had to deal with it as a big block behind Optimus’ back, so he looks like he’s carrying a washer board.

Aside from the fandom rants, though, I had two issues with the film. First, too many humans. I’m here to see Optimus Prime, dammit, not Sam Witwicky and his supposedly-hot girlfriend. Second, too much blurred action. I’m here to see the fights, dammit, not to get disorientated. I have the same complaint with Batman Begins and other movies. What’s the point of an action sequence, if the camera is moving so much taht you can’t see what’s happening? Maybe I’m just getting old.

Overall though, a great movie. Keep the CGI, keep the actors, dump Michael Bay, and we’ll have a great sequel or two, too.

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USS Kitty Hawk

July 8th, 2007 No comments

USS Kitty Hawk is in Sydney! Went to see the aircraft carrier at Wooloomooroo today. American military hardware was mightily impressive. While no public tours were allowed, visitors outside the fence could see the carrier from about 20 metres away, so fairly “up close and personal”. It’s the first time I’ve seen an aircraft carrier in the flesh, and I am impressed! The looming bridge/control tower hung with gadgets like a Christmas tree, all the planes parked on the flight deck with their wings folded up, destructive power beneath behind sleek streamlines, the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze before the Harbour Bridge — I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so (Americanly) patriotic! If only they’d allowed tours, I’d be out there campaigning for the Republican Party right now!

If there was ever any doubt that Sydney is a boring place, then the reception of the big ships (QE2 and QM2 earlier in the year, now Kitty Hawk) proves it. Half the town turns out just to walk up to and look at these ships – without even being able to touch it or go aboard. But at least it was good news for the local business. Woolloomooloo and the Botanic Gardens were packed with people, and Harry’s Cafe de Wheels had a line that wound around the block — all on a rainy Sunday morning. It was also good to see the Art Gallery (and the Islamic Art exhibition) getting a massive boost in attendance — though at least a fair percentage of those present were there just to escape the rain.

See a large video (WMV 1.62 MB) or a small video (AVI 353 KB) here.

Kitty Hawk bridge

See other photos here.

In other good news, Forbidden City makes it to Good Article status on Wikipedia, and I’m discovering the joys of tracing diagrams on Inkscape =D.

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