Thursday, June 6, 2013

Headed to Xi'an

Just did a quick Twitter search for "Xi'an." Came up with a couple funny items.

First, is this insane traffic jam:

Second, is a rap called "We Livin' in Xi'an:"

Good stuff, these.

Qian is in Xi'an now and I'm leaving to join her tomorrow. Excited to be back in China for the first time in two years(!). Hopefully I'll have some photos and stories from the next two weeks.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

More on Chinese Art in Kansas City

Frequent commenter on this blog and blogger himself, Ramesh, in the last post I made on the Nelson-Atkins Museum's Journey Through Mountains and Rivers asked me, "Why Kansas City? Why does Kansas City have such a great Chinese art collection?"

My generic response was that Kansas City is a great arts town. With the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (among others), it's safe to say that Kansas City is punching above its weight in terms of world-class art per capita.

That's not the entire story, though. Earlier this week, I was looking up some information on the scrolls currently being displayed at the Nelson and came across, what I think, are more specific answers to Ramesh's questions.

I'm going to post an entire article from the site I normally wouldn't post the entirety of an article like this, but ViaMei - a website highlighting the Xi'an/Kansas City sister-city relationship - appears to be a defunct enterprise. Their last post was in 2007.

Here is an article giving a nice introduction to how and why Kansas City is home to one of the very top collections of ancient Chinese art in the world:
Ancient China Lives in America 
By Scott Stuart 
Kansas City is the gateway to Asia.

From where Asian art expert Marc F. Wilson sits in his position as Director and CEO of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, this is not an audacious claim. Though situated in the center of the continent, Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins connects visitors with a comprehensive collection of treasures from China's long, unbroken artistic tradition spanning from Neolithic times to the 20th century.  

Masterpieces among the museum's amazing collection of 7,500 works of Chinese art include:

- A polychrome wooden Avalokiteshvara, "Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva," possibly the best-preserved and most magnificent sculpture from this period of Chinese Buddhist art:
- A limestone frieze from the Longmen Grottoes, "Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court," whose counterpoint "Emperor as Donor" resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

- A painting from circa 1049, Xu Daoning's "Fisherman's Evening Song," scholars hail as perhaps the greatest Northern Song landscape handscroll in existence:
- A rare, nearly complete earthenware "Tomb Model of a House" from the Han dynasty (25 to 220 C.E.):
- A precious ritual disk, or bi, some consider the most beautiful piece of jade to have come out of China:

Scholarly superlatives aside, what can visitors to the Nelson-Atkins glean from their individual encounters with these rare masterpieces and how did this amazing collection of 7,500 works of Chinese art in every medium and from every historical period, including tomb figures, sculpture, porcelain, furniture and scroll paintings, come to the American Midwest in the first place?

The short answer to this last question lies in the person of Laurence Sickman (1906-1988), the Asian art specialist who advised the Nelson-Atkins on purchases of Far Eastern art when the museum's collection was being assembled in the 1930s. Acting as the museum's agent in Beijing, a young Sickman exercised a keen eye and a shrewd business sense to send Chinese art works to Kansas City. Sickman went on to become the first curator of Oriental art at the Nelson-Atkins, and led the museum as its second director, from 1953 to 1977. His book with Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of China, first printed in 1956, remains a classic work on the history of Chinese culture.

Sickman's legacy of collecting Chinese art of the highest quality is unmistakable in the Nelson-Atkins' holdings in two areas in which he specialized: ancient bronzes and Chinese paintings. A series of ceremonial bronze vessels, weapons and chariot fittings range from about 1200 to 500 B.C.E. The museum's collection of Chinese paintings is among the best outside of Asia, including Ming dynasty masterpieces by Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming and Lu Zhi.

Although the entire collection of fine Chinese art cannot be on view at any one time, a handful of star works representing the highest achievements can convey the creative impulse, cultural context and visual solutions across the ages.

Seated majestically in a reconstructed Chinese temple in the Nelson-Atkins, "Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva," is the destination for pilgrims from around the world. This monumental image of the deity of compassion and mercy appeals to those within its gaze today, just as it would have in the 11th to early 12th centuries. Designed to make supplicants feel enlightened, beings were accessible to the living, the Guanyin's emotional approachability offers a sense of calm and inspiration.

"Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court" is from the Binyang Cave chapel at Longmen, Henan Province. Besides being important as a work of sculpture, the large, 7-by-9-foot limestone frieze reveals clues about Chinese painting techniques in this early period of Chinese Buddhist history. The composition of the eight figures and the modeling that provides maximum effect from light filtering in from the cave entrance demonstrates the great skill of the unknown sculptor. Its Kansas City installation, anchoring the museum's gallery of Early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, attempts to recreate this sense of directional light.

The handscroll format of "Fisherman's Evening Song" allows a close-up encounter with the viewer. Although nearly 7 feet long, the landscape scroll was meant to be seen only about 2 feet at a time. By focusing on a single section, the viewer can appreciate painter Xu Daoning's virtuosity with ink washes and directness of line. Taken as a whole, the 11th-century painting has been likened to a musical composition, with calm passages swelling to dramatic crescendos, expressing the overwhelming vastness of nature.

The jade "Ritual Disc with Dragon Motif" is among the best-known objects in the collections of the Nelson-Atkins. Although its exact function or meaning is lost to the ages, the delicate, 6 ?-inch bi is remarkable from a technical standpoint. Jade, which the ancient Chinese valued more than gold or jewels, is so hard that it must be ground instead of carved. The space between two rings of nearly transparent jade is filled with small, spiral bumps the size of kernels of grain. Two tigers on the outer rim befit this object's likely role in the grave of a great prince or statesman.

Besides promising a rewarding experience of visual enjoyment, the Chinese collection in The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art invites a better understanding of human nature and the creative impulse to Western and non-Western visitor alike. Via the Nelson-Atkins -- in the words of Wilson, who began his career there as a Ford Foundation Fellow under the tutelage of Sickman -- Kansas City is the gateway to Asia.
There's still a lot I don't know or understand about the Nelson's collection of Chinese art and Kansas City's relationship with China in general. Seeing that I'm a China news/history/culture junkie living in the middle of America, these topics are something I'll probably be exploring more in depth as time passes.

I was born and raised in Kansas City. It's also where Qian and I have ended up after moving from Xi'an to the US in 2009. Kansas City isn't the most amazing place on Earth, but it's a surprisingly interesting place in a lot of respects and I'm proud of where I grew up and currently live. I'm excited to learn more about its relationship with my other favorite place on the globe - China.

I'll surely be posting whatever more I find on these topics here.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Journey through Mountains and Rivers

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art - probably the biggest treasure in Kansas City - has a wonderful, free China exhibit going on now until April 28th - Journey through Mountains and Rivers: Chinese Landscapes Ancient and Modern.

On display are some of the museum's most prized Song Dynasty (960 - 1279AD) paintings and scrolls that "because of their fragility, will not be displayed again for ten years." And then, as the centerpiece of their China exhibit, one tremendously large modern painting by Xu Longsen done on an epic scale.

I didn't try to take photos of the old Song paintings. I knew that they are sensitive to light and am pretty sure that they wouldn't come out well on this blog. Here is a video from the Nelson highlighting the pieces of this exhibit, though:

Several of the pieces on display are scrolls that span several feet when laid out. Moving from right to left, the scrolls tell a story. Mountains, rivers, pagodas: the paintings are the ideal that many think of when they envision centuries-old Chinese art. The detail and great condition of the pieces are mind-boggling. I could hardly believe what I was looking at. Having a dozen or so master works laid out in a small, quiet room (that Qian and I were the only people occupying for a few minutes) is simply awesome.

It was hard for me not to think when viewing these ancient works that it's a good thing that these pieces left China in the late-19th and early-20th century. It's much better, in my opinion, that these pieces be on display in Kansas City than burned up during one of Mao's chaotic, anti-intellectual campaigns.

The other highlight of the Nelson's China exhibit - Xu Longsen's contemporary piece - is similar in some ways to these ancient scroll paintings. Xu is strongly influenced by nature and the Daoism. His abstract work, which took years to complete, is quite a sight.

Below are photos I snapped of Xu's piece:

If you'll be in Kansas City or the midwest over the coming few weeks, you need to come check out this exhibit. I'd be happy to go with you! Entry to the Nelson is always free and this special exhibit is as well. Qian and I are going to go on a tour of the museum to see these pieces again tomorrow. I'm looking forward to spending a little bit more time learning about these pieces since my first trip, when I snapped these photos, was a little rushed.

Edit - The Kansas City Star has two pieces today about these China exhibits. Here is the one on the centuries-old master works. And here is the one on Xu Longsen's mammoth painting.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What Does China Think? and The Beijing Consensus

I've purchased a number of cheap used books on over the past couple years. Access to low-priced titles on very niche topics - like Chinese politics - is one of the many wonderful benefits of the internet. I've found some really nice gems doing this. What I'm finding often times, though, is that there's a reason books are available for a dollar or two.

What Does China Think? by Mark Leonard and The Beijing Consensus: Legitimizing Authoritarianism in Our Time by Stefan Halper are a couple cheap books that were misses for me. They're not really about the same thing, but I'm going to discuss them together since I don't have much to say about either.

Leonard's What Does China Think?, published in 2008, is a survey of intellectuals spanning China's ideological spectrum. Leonard, the executive director of the European Council of Foreign Relations, thinking that the balance of power was moving east turned his attention towards China around the turn of the millennium. Over the course of several years, he developed an impressive rolodex of relationships with influential Chinese thinkers and profiled those thinkers' ideas in his book.

Halper's The Beijing Consensus, published in 2012, is about how China is creating a new world order that eschews traditional western notions of democracy. Halper, a Henry Kissinger acolyte, like Leonard, has an impressive resume that spans academia and government service.

Leonard and Halper both know their stuff. Their books are intelligent, well-researched, and full of information. I didn't enjoy reading them, though.

What Does China Think? and The Beijing Consensus are too wonky and theoretical for me. I took away little from them. All of the talk in them about the "new left," the "Washington/Beijing Consensus," think-tanks, soft power, etc. wore on me. I was simply bored as I read page-after-page and chapter-after-chapter. I struggled getting through both of these books (even though they aren't particularly long), was happy when I finally finished them, and couldn't remember much about either after having just finished them.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Lost Graduation

My brother, David, self-published an e book a couple months ago - The Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis.

David's book is a recount of what he's gone through since graduating from college in May, 2008 interspersed with interviews and analysis of the Great Recession. The book is about two-thirds David's story of graduating from a good US university at the precipice of the financial crisis and one-thirds about how the US and world economy has affected young people beginning their careers.

David's dream upon graduation from college was to become a sports journalist. Growing up reading award-winning columnists at the Kansas City Star like Joe Posnanski and Jason Whitlock, David has wanted to be a sports writer for as long as I can remember. I know people who've fantasized about owning their own business and others who've wanted nothing more than to become a doctor or a lawyer. David's ideal working life, on the other hand, consisted of going to the storied venues of college and professional athletics and analyzing the games and athletes that play in those stadiums.

Unfortunately for David, on top of the general economic malaise that awaited him at his graduation was the complete free-fall of the journalism industry as a whole. David's dream job - which is not particularly well-paid, prestigious, or, in other times, that difficult to attain - became at the time he entered working age an impossibility.

*     *     *     *     *

There are several familiar characters to me in David's book. My Mom, my Dad, our extended family, my brother's friends, and, of course, myself.

I make an appearance about half-way through the 250 to 300 or so page book (this is only an E Book so I'm not sure exactly how many physical pages it would be printed out).

In the winter of '08/'09, my brother was working 15 hours a week at a library and living back at my parents' house in Kansas City. He'd been so close to finding jobs at newspapers in Colorado and Lawrence, Kansas in September of 2008. He was the number one candidate to fill two positions - David thought he would have a choice of jobs for a few fleeting days - only to find out at the last minute that Fannie and Freddy being nationalized and Lehman Brothers going bankrupt really did affect "Main Street." Neither paper hired for the positions my brother seemed so close to filling and, instead, started cutting staff.

When David was living at my parents' at this time in late '08/early '09, I was living in Xi'an, traveling, studying Chinese, and working a cushy job. In my opinion, I was "living the dream." Life was good. I was enjoying my day-to-day existence in China very much with my, at the time, fiancee, Qian.

One day during an email back-and-forth about his difficulties finding work and living with my parents, David recalls in his book that I dropped the line: "Well, there's always China..."

David had no real interest in moving to China. He'd visited me in 2007 and despite liking traveling in China didn't really see it as a place he wanted to live. He was still doggedly searching for work as a journalist too. Living at my parents' and not finding any open doors for months did something to David, though. As time went on and he kept spinning his wheels, he knew that he needed a change. What bigger change could he have than moving to China?

China ends up making an appearance in The Lost Graduation. David in September of 2009 moved to Jinan in Shandong Province to be an English teacher at a private English training school. He goes into great detail about what life and teaching was like in a polluted backwater in central China. His lucid stories China brought back many memories for me.

China only plays a minor role in David's book, though. He never quite got into China as much as I did. He stayed there for a year and then moved on to graduate school in Aarhus, Denmark for one year and then Amsterdam for the second year.

Throughout documenting his personal trevails, David does a real nice job of framing his employment problems within the larger context of the world economy as a whole. David interviews dozens of journalists and academics to get a clearer picture about what the down economy is meaning to people entering the work force as well as what it will mean for their careers after the recession ends.

It's not a pretty picture.

Young people's future earnings are largely shaped during their first few years in the work force. As David discusses with thinkers in his book, not only is life now difficult for young people looking for work, it will be in the future too. The millions of young graduates today really are going to be a "lost generation" or workers. Since so many have not and, at this point, will not develop the skills necessary for the advancement of their careers, the effects of the current economic crisis will be felt by the young people not lucky enough to find work for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately for David, he has persevered. I'll let you find out exactly how he innovatively improvised with the bad cards he was been dealt by reading the book. He's done a commendable job that, I think, is a good model for other young people living in western societies struggling to get on their feet.

My favorite part of David's book is the end. Instead of dwelling on the sad and gloomy prospects that face him and his generation (my generation too, although David explains why there was a big difference in graduating in the class of '05 like I did and when he did in '08), David by the end of the book is able to discuss the positive, unique experiences he's had - living in China, living in Europe, meeting people he never would have in a more traditional career path, traveling, etc.

There is one point in the book where David is emailing with a journalist who has the job that David wants writing about the NBA for a national website. David is insanely jealous of what this guy is getting paid to do. But instead of sensing joy from this journalist's email, he sensed jealousy. The journalist told David that he is envious of David since David is living abroad in a different culture with a, relatively, stress-free life. This was a realization for David that life could be much worse and that he's been afforded many opportunities that others would love to have.

The Lost Graduation is an impressive book and a complete success.

When David told me he was working on a book about his life and the Great Recession, I was honestly skeptical of it. The premise of the book - talking about his struggles and how bad young people have it - didn't seem like something that would come out well. It just sounded to me on the surface like it would come off as complaining and full of "woe is me."

I have to say that David skillfully avoided falling into the traps that I thought he might. David does not come across as entitled or complaining and, in fact, makes very convincing arguments that won me over. My perceptions about my generation and the economy as a whole have changed.

The Lost Graduation is available at for $6.99. I implore you to check it out. I'm biased, but it's a very worthwhile read.