Tag Archives: beijing

Impressions of “The Three-Body Problem,” by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem was a landmark for me. It is the longest novel I’ve read in a half decade, since John Derbyshire’s historical fiction Fire from the Sun. I’ve been away from fiction for a long time. Three Body Problem is a great way to return.

By genre, Three-Body is hard sci-fi, with philosophy of science, history of science, and political history thrown in. It evokes both 5GW and the religion. Structurally it is a combination of mystery (the modern-day scenes, beginning in Beijing and concluding in the Chinese countryside) and drama (historical scenes, with the reverse progression). It has a third thread, a narration of experience in a computer game, that ends up being critical to understanding both main threads.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember discussions on the “5th generation of war,” or 5GW — a type of war that is fought with one side not knowing who it is fighting. The military action within Three-Body comprises all three kinds of 5GWinsurgent 5GW of a small armed group against a society, a state-within 5GW where a clique inside the host society attempts to transform it, and state-without 5GW where a government attacks a society.

The author is an engineer who was born and lives in the People’s Republic of China — an officially atheist society. So the discussion of religion were especially intriguing. Buddhism seems to be disparaged, described (unlike Christianity) as not being person-centric, and with pilgrims who appear to be in a daze. By contrast St. Joseph’s Church is one of the landmarks of Beijing held out for special admiration. The definition of ‘God’ used by characters tends to be deistic (belief in an orderly universe created by a minimally involved God). The religious feeling and looked-for purification created by certain interactions in Three Body recalls the supernatural struggle the Book of Ezekiel and other second temple literature.

Three Body problem reminds me of primarily of other books: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and John Derbyshire’s Fire from the Sun. There is also similarity to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, as well as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. That Hideous Strength is so similar to the mystery thread of Three Body Problem I wonder if it was intentional: the character known as the “the Commander” in Three Body is a composite of the Head and the Deputy Director in Strength. Like Fire from the Sun it is a beautiful and tragic look at the experience of Chinese youth who came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Rainbbow Six contributes an interesting ecological narrative, while Red Mars is a clear inspiration in hard (or technically plausible) science fiction.

It was quite the treat to discover this book, a great mix of history, science, and fiction that ties into so many of my interests. No wonder it won the 2015 Hugo Award.

Now, on to the sequel…

Impressions of “The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City,” by Jeffrey F. Meyer

The Dragons of Tiananmen was the most meaningful and emotional book in the last year. I can’t guarantee anyone else will have the experience. My visits to Beijing, including one where I attempted to visit all the Imperial Altars (not all are open to the public), and my recent attempt to understand the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, play a role here.

In short, The Dragons of Tiananman describe the life of the now-dead Chinese Imperial Religion, how the Emperors created Beijing as a Sacred City, and how the Lord of Heaven and his creatures were worshiped there.

The organization of the book is straight forward. Meyer first describes Holy Cities (cities which are religiously important because of historical events that happened in them) and Sacred Cites (those which are religiously important because they are designed to reflect heaven). He then outlines the Chinese Imperial Religion, centered on the Most-High (??), the Lord of Heaven(??). The Chinese word for Emperor (?) itself derives from characters meaning “Pole,” which is fitting because God was associated with the Pole Star, around whom all other stars revolved. In later days some Christians would find this idolatrous — future Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen famously smashed an idol of the Pole Star in his youth. Other Christians theorized a partial discovery or revelation to the Chinese in ancient days, as attested by Matteo Ricci’s The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (AD 1603) and C.H. Kang’s The Discovery of Genesis (AD 1979).

As I read The Dragons of Tiananmen I thought back to the Chronicles, that sad record of the degeneration of the Temple in the Kingdom of Israel. There are parallels, both in how the capital (whether Jerusalem or Beijing) became a “sacred city,” in the nature and style of the sacrifices, and even in some ritualistic debates. But Temple Judaism was saved through the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like) and their insistence that the law be written in the heart. The Imperial Religion was not written in the heart — at least, not in the end. Just as other gods than the LORD were worshiped in Jerusalem, other Gods than the Lord of Heaven were worshiped by Emperors. There were Buddhist Emperors and Taoist Emperors, and mayn more indifferent Emperors. When the Babylonians dragged the Jews into exile, the religion of the LORD survived in spite of the corruption of the temple in Jerusalem. When the revolutionaries dragged down the Great Qing, no one was left to mourn the end of the sacrifice.

Both Jerusalem and Beijing were “sacred cities,” in the sense the were intended to be house of a Temple and the site of an Altar. The primary worship site in Jerusalem was the Temple built by Solomon. The primary worship site was the Altar of Heaven, built by the Yongle Emperor. Both religions held that God was surrounded and assisted by a heavenly communion, comprised of both a military Host of Heaven as well as a civilian counterpart. While Judaism in general rejected worship of the Host of Heaven, the repeated condemnations of this practice in the Scriptures imply the Host was still often worshiped. The Chinese Imperial religion, by contrast, formalized the worship of lessor spirits, through such subsidiary alters as the Alter of the Moon and the Alter of the Goddess of Silkworms.

Both Temple Judaism and Chinese Imperial religion faced the same dilemma: should God be worshipped in doors? God himself presents both sides of the argument in the Hebrew bible, rejecting the House built of cedar

Now it came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies all around, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains.”

Then Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

But it happened that night that the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Would you build a house for Me to dwell in? 6 For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle.
2 Samuel 7:1-6

but later, walls of cedar were not so bad:

Then the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying:  “Concerning this temple which you are building, if you walk in My statutes, execute My judgments, keep all My commandments, and walk in them, then I will perform My word with you, which I spoke to your father David. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.”

So Solomon built the temple and finished it. And he built the inside walls of the temple with cedar boards; from the floor of the temple to the ceiling he paneled the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the temple with planks of cypress.
1 Kings 6:11-15

; likewise the Chinese held both that “when one sacrifices on an open altar, it is considered the worship of heaven, while sacrifice under a roof is considered the worship of imperial ancestors,” while later holding than an “outdoor” Altar could nonetheless be surrounded by building. To this day the Altar of Prayers for Good Harvest is made of Oregon fir. The Christian religion also finds a middle ground here, for while the Sacrifice on Cavalry was of course out-side, its re-presentation (and even pre-presentation) in Lord’s Supper is of course indoors

But being celestial and purely “priestly,” the Chinese Imperial Religion did not have a moral core. The sons of the current dynasty may be elected, as surely as Saul or David or Cyrus were, but there were no Imperial prophets who called for the law to be written on the hearts, or warned that Heaven would scourge Chinese with foreigners in the way Israel was punished. Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, may have been on worse than King Jeconiah. But the Book of Kings hopefully notes a King of Israel still lives, even if far away. Who looked to the Manchus to return?

The Chinese Imperial Religion, like Judaism, had Kings and Priests. But no prophets.

This strikes me as really important. The Gospel of Matthew is the story of what the Imperial Religion would call the “Mandate of Heaven” passing to Jesus. The relationship of the Son of Heaven and Most High is likewise a feature of the Imperial Religion. But Christianity provided other dimensions to that story, the salvation of souls and bodies, concern for the weak, and spiritual introspection. While Imperial China had similar writings, the Imperial Religion did not. And that four-fold gospel itself depended on the four-fold destruction of the Temple in books like Lamentations and Ezekiel — in the Imperial Religion the overthrow of a dynasty was always the cause of the end of the dynasty, not the stern but love care of God.

Or, as I said in my impressions of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:

Chesterton is a Catholic author, but his argument here is effectively secular: before Christianity there were mythologies in the sense of epic stories about the gods, and there were philosophies that provided an outline of the universe and a moral framework, but no mythic philosophy. Plato may have talked about Forms, in other words, while the priests sacrificed to Zeus, but no serious attempt was to combine these concepts. Thus, the New Testament is truly new, the “good news” really is news, because while dictatorship, democracy, art, puns, cosmology, and all the rest reach beyond history, the combinations of the roles of the Priest and the Philosopher have a definite beginning, in first century Palestine

While Judaism approaches this with The Wisdom Books and early rabinnical commentaries, it was not a religion with any Holy Cities, but only Sacred Cities. Meyer makes a distinction between a “Sacred City” intended to house an Altar for sacrifice, and a “Holy City” upon which divine figures trod. Beijing was only a Sacred City, but in Christianity it became a Holy City. Indeed, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ occurred in and around Jerusalem, just as the Imperial Religion sacrifices were made in and around Beijing. But there is even more to it than that.

The Dragons of Tiananmen helped framing my thinking about Beijing. Being both a sacred and planned city it had an architecture unity which was damaged over time. The Temple of the Moon is marked “NOW GONE” in a mark from before the Communist Revolution, and part of the old City Wall was knocked down for a railway line during the last days of the Emperor. In more recent days the widening of Changan Boulevard re-oriented the city along a definite east-west axis, while only recently have the old temples been respected at all. The Beijing that I first fell in love with was itself a Beijing in transition. Most of the hutongs I suspect are now gone. Jerusalem survived the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. Will the city of the Alter of Heaven and quiet neighborhoods survive this long?

I read The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City in the hardcover edition.

Lessons Learned While Traveling

In Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character gives a monologue about the ins-and-outs of air travel. Here is my, much shorter and more idiosyncratic,  version:

Beijing Airport is pretty good

So is Singapore Airport

Xiamen Airport is the most chaotic place in the world

the Kindle app for iPad makes time go by much quicker when you are standing (or sitting besides, as the case may be) the line

Learning that Thomas Ligotti is from Detroit makes everything make sense

A World, Lost and Found

A World, Lost and Found

Catholicgauze has a great piece on the Ricci Map, a world map (including the fabled land of Ka-Na-Ta) composed as part of the Jesuit’s intellectual work for the Ming Emperors of China. The lead Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, defeated Muslim astronomers in predicting heavenly events, and rapidly gained the trust of the Imperial Household.

The Jesuit program in China included the Chinese Rites, the recognition of the deep cultural and emotional similarity between Chinese “ancestor-worship” and Catholic prayers for Intercession from the Saints. The Jesuits installed in the churches the characters  天主, “Lord of Heaven,” to ease the conversion of Chinese, just as the early Christians had adorned their saints with halos, using the iconography of an old order to emphasis a now revealed truth. Sadly, the Taliban of an earlier era did not approve, and in the bowels of Church politics the conversion of China was forgotten.

I feel blessed to have been married in the South Cathedral of Beijing, standing on land given to Matteo Ricci and the Church by the Wanli Emperor. While the current building dates to reconstruction after the Boxer Rebellion, the land on which it stands has been the site of a Catholic Church since Ricci’s time. The church, after suffering during the Cultural Revolution, is rejuvenating.

Catholicgauze concludes: “The Ricci Map is undeniably a Chinese map. It shows the combination of European knowledge with a Chinese worldview. It shows a lost world.

Beijing, after 1976 and 1989

In China, Deng won. In Iran, "Deng" is certainly on the side of the protesters. For all the talk of an Iranian Tiananmen, the dynamic in Tehran is much closer ot 1976 (where the Communist government crushed demonstrators, and lost all legitimacy) than 1989.

The fruits of both the 1976 Tiananmen Incident and the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre are on display in Beijing.

Canon EOS5DmkII, One night in Beijing. from Dan Chung on Vimeo.

The hope for pro-globalization reforms in Iran depends on the current government in Tehran losing its credibility and legitimacy. If Tehran will ever be as synonymous with growth and openness and Beijing, the Supreme Leader should face the same road as Madam Mao.

The View From…

The most recent edition of The Economist has, as its cover, the view from Beijing:

how_china_sees_the_world

Which reminded of me the famous New Yorker‘s view from 9th avenue:

how_new_york_sees_the_world

In the Beijinger map, you can clearly make out the Birdnest Stadium, the Imperial Palace, Beihai and Houhai (where Zhonghai and Nanhai should be), Tiananmen Square, Mao’s mauseleum, the Temple of Heaven, the Beijing Railway station and and its track to the south-east. More detail is available from Strange Maps.

China rethinks Tiananmen Olympics broadcasts – CNN.com

As the Tibet unrest continues, China “pulls an Obama,” reacting to a well-run opponent with fear and self-defeating insularity:

China rethinks Tiananmen Olympics broadcasts – CNN.com
Like the Olympics, live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square were meant to showcase a friendly, confident China — one that had put behind it the deadly 1989 military assault on democracy demonstrators in the vast plaza that remains a defining image for many foreigners.

“Tiananmen is the face of China, the face of Beijing, so many broadcasters would like to do live or recorded coverage of the square,” said Yosuke Fujiwara, the head of broadcast relations for the Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Co., or BOB, a joint-venture between Beijing Olympic organizers and an IOC subsidiary. BOB coordinates and provides technical services for the TV networks with rights to broadcast the Olympics, such as NBC.

Earlier this week, however, officials with the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee, or BOCOG, told executives at BOB that the live shots were canceled, according to three people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

“We learned that standup positions would be canceled,” one of these people said. “No explanation was given for the change.”

It’s obvious what China fears: some protestors will be videotaped being roughed-up on live international television. But Tiananmen is the largest city square in the world, in one of the world’s largest cities. Any brutality or protests in Tiananmen during the Olympics will be videotaped and will be broadcast to the world: this just guarantees that the footage will be grainy, and all the more disturbing.

Besides any westerners who may cause trouble, China’s showing her weakness and will attract attention from Tibetans, Uighers, and Falun Gong. This is a dangerous mix of very different protest strategies, that (combined with Communist media paralysis) will help embarrass that country.

Good.

Goofy Beijing

Is this merely the worst example of Chinglish I’ve ever seen — or the beginning of an epic poem?


At a Yoshinoya-DQ

The second floors sweep medium
The pause do business
Submit a comment below to finish the verse!

About an hour before that, a sign my friend Rob in Texas would enjoy:


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

And last (this one for Aaron, who predicted this event daily while we worked together):

My first car accident!


A thrilling 5 mph smash

China’s a fascinating country, even when not swimming in the Pearl Ocean or snagging a first-class train ticket.

Canton, From Chuhai to Peking

The worst thing about Canton

Is leaving. How can one not miss the beauty, sun, warmth, cleanliness, liveliness, and happiness of China’s most prosperous province?

On the last day we took a drive and went for a swim, but first…


Early morning rising, and exploring the area around the hotel.


But no open coffee shops!

Once we were both up, it was down for breakfast:


But no grand staircase!

Finally, the drive. We asked the taxi driver to take us to Zhuhai’s sculpture of the goddess who became human for true love.. Somewhat anticlimactically, it was a mile away, and completely inaccessible. Oh well.


Nice view, though

We drove around, but there was much beauty but little new. One area had a whole lot of little traditional boats, but the taxi drove by them too fast… The region is hilly, and for part of the way the Pearl Ocean was to one side and the green flowery hillside was to the other:

We had the morning to kill before we needed to be back at the airport, so one last dive in the water:

On my very last swim I took the digital camera in as far as I dared. The scene was actually a lot bluer than this. (Blame me, I guess). Still, a neat shot:


Description

But at last, it was time to say good bye to the beach…


Our (rented) beach camp

… and head home. Back to crowded Beijing. The bus from the airport let us off near a supermarket. It was rush hour, and we figured nearly everything was better than a two hour stuck-in-traffic commute home (as after our visit to the Arts District).


Jumping, over a gate, into traffic

A crowded bus

Still, the final day was not melancholy. Amidst all the people and vehicles we saw pack animals brining goods to market.


Seller of Watermelons

The day was extremely windy, and apparently the previous day featured rain. Thus everything was in place for the most gorgeous sunset I have ever seen in Beijing. As the light grew dimmer and dimmer


Description

The city grew more and more beautiful

Eventually the day ended. A perfect trip grew to a close.

I hope you enjoyed it!


Canton, a tdaxp travelogue
1. Peking to Chungshan
2. Yatsen City
3. Chunshan to Chuhai
4. Pearl Ocean
5. Chuhai to Peking