Sunday, September 09, 2007

An Asian Journey - part one

All right. We're home in California, after a grueling but fascinating three weeks in China and Japan, spent hauling and herding three (three!) American kids through Asia. (I must be crazy, as well as near-bankrupt... but they learned a lot and had a great time.) We visited four cities in each country and saw some countryside, as well as making many new friends.

First, Beijing. While I was in town to attend a science fiction summit, hosted by Professor Wu Yan at Beijing Normal University, I also found time to join the family in some sightseeing to the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, etc. It was (as expected) hot, humid and hazy/smoggy. But we happened to be there when the government was testing pollution-abatement measures, for use during the Olympics, next year. Some factories were shut down and cars could only enter the city on alternate days, depending on even/odd license numbers. As a result, on our third day, while the university folks were taking me to lunch at a Sinkiang-style Muslim restaurant, I looked up and saw... blue sky!

How about that. Maybe they'll pull it off next year, after all. And maybe the people will like what they breathe. Enough to ask for more..

Beijing itself is simply amazing. I'm told that people who left the city just ten years ago can barely find their way around. Nearly the only remaining landmarks are Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and Beihei Park... all tourist attractions... and the ring roads. Everywhere else, the hutongs and Stalin/Mao-era apartment blocs have largely been torn down, making way for immense office buildings and hotels, each of them designed by some fancy international architectural team to shout "look at me!" There is no comparison with, say, Tokyo's starkly utilitarian towers or the moderate and practical approach to the building surge that's taking place in regular Chinese cities, like Chengdu.

(A surge financed by all you WalMart shoppers. Keep up the great work.)

Of course Beijing is the nation's capital and the Olympics are their coming-out party, so you can expect that some extravagance is natural. Wherever the new has not already pushed out the old, scaffolding (much of it made of bamboo and woven reeds) covers nearly every monument undergoing refurbishment. And overhead, towering cranes fill the skyline. Later, we saw the same thing happening in Shanghai, the nation's commercial capital.

In preparing for this trip, we all watched videos and read books about both China and Japan, a practice that I highly recommend. Wherever our family travels, the local tour guides seem surprised that our kids point and say "Oh look! Yes, that's_____" And yet, it only seems natural to prepare, before going somewhere. If I am spending $thousands to take children to this or that historical site, they had darn well better know what they are looking at! Alas, the surprise that is expressed by our guides does not reflect well on American intellectual torpidity. A disturbing laziness to which I referred in my speech about science fiction and its future in Asia.

(SF is a literature of energy and wary ambition. It will rise wherever people are facing the future with courage. And it fades wherever people lose their nerve and turn away from tomorrow... as has been happening in the USA, ever since this #$@*! century began.).

At one level, all of our preparations for the trip helped us to realize the staggering scale of change in China. Take one 1978-era documentary we saw, the first made by westerners right after Nixon's visit -- a time when everyone in China wore Mao jackets, when there were still Red Guards roaming and chanting, and when the narrator could say "there are no private cars in all of China." That revolution-drenched and hysterically egalitarian (though poor) Beijing of 1978 seemed light years from the city of psychotically indulgent aristocratism that you see in THE LAST EMPEROR. But, turning the other way, it also seems like another planet, many parsecs away, than the Beijing you'll see today. Transformations that might normally take a hundred human lifetimes, all packed into one.

Of course we took in the obligate Wonders. As one might expect, there are several choices when you go to see the Great Wall. We gave the nearest and most crowded site a skip, traveling instead two hours from the city, to a more remote locale, but one that's well-restored. It felt eerie having a lifelong goal achieved. And somewhat tingly... if for no other reason, from hauling this old carcass up a mile or two of almost sheer steps. And all the way, I felt my usual contrary schizophrenia at work. At once, I could admire the skill and craftsmanship of those Ming-era builders, their determination to achieve a prodigious goal...

...while, simultaneously, another portion of my mind -- the same one that fumes whenever I walk through the Schoenbrun or Versailles -- kept humming La Marseiillaise and pondered how many other good things China might have achieved, if the same resources that were spent on an ultimately futile static fortification had only been applied, instead, to building schools, colleges and water mills. A China thus strengthened would have had little to fear from Mongolian or Manchurian invasion. (Just offer scholarships to their best and brightest. Cultural conquest is the best kind. Especially when it is earned.)

But it can be hard to face the future with boldness. Indeed, back in Beijing, I learned about another contradiction. One hears that the urban boom has created resentment in the countryside, where most Chinese still dwell -- and there are efforts underway to disperse industry and jobs. Only, then I learned that the building frenzy you see in most cities does not seem to include universities! I was told that very few new ones had been opened in recent years and few were planned. Now that surprised me. America's rise directly correlated with the burgeoning of land grant colleges. Heck, the University of California is establishing new campuses, even today.

Still, the one campus in China that I did see - Beijing Normal University - was profoundly impressive. Totally rebuilt and gleaming, right near the urban core. Moreover, BNU has the only post-graduate program in science fiction in all of Asia! A proud statement -- tempered somewhat by the fact that it resides in the Department of Childrens' Literature. During the SF Summit that was graciously hosted there, I met professors and writers who seemed enthusiastic about the future of SF in China.

On the other hand, the two film producers in attendance told us (with admirable frankness) that they doubted they would ever be funded to create science fiction movies. So low is the reputation of SF among those actually in power.

I told them (confidently) that this would change. No nation that assertively seeks the future can for long avoid literature that thinks about the future. Indeed, that weird reflex to despise SF -- which is shared by most postmodernist or neoMarxist lit departments in American universities -- seems so nonsensical that it has to be supported by crude stereotypes of the genre. Caricatures that portray ALL of the field as silly and childish... just like Star Wars, the example that is cited over and over again, to the detriment of the entire genre. Yes, in China, too. (This may constitute the worst of many ways that George Lucas harmed a field he supposedly loved.)

In my speech - which I delivered with some modifications also in Chengdu and Yokohama - I tried to explain that SF is about much more than simply waving magic swords and/or encouraging children to like science. (A pair of traits that, ironically, nobody seemed to find contradictory.) Rather, science fiction - at its best - is about seeking wider perspectives and deeper horizons. All else - from aliens to spaceships to time travel - is mere furniture, and not even necessary, at that.

I explained that only one in ten anglo SF authors knows much about science. But nearly all of us read history. Devour it. Perhaps our field should have been called speculative history instead of Science Fiction, because it is really about the panorama and tragicomedy of the human story. Only with one added ingredient -- a brave willingness to ponder change. To do mental experiments about possible pasts, alternate presents, extrapolated futures.

To illustrate, I offered an example to those doubters at the Beijing conference. "What if --" I began with the sacred phrase of our genre -- "What if Admiral Zheng He, who sailed a Chinese fleet to Zanzibar when Henry the Navigator was still sucking his thumb, had been allowed to continue his voyages? Perhaps sailing into Lisbon with a hundred ships, just as Henry was getting ready to dispatch one or two? How might history have changed?"

"That is science fiction?" One of the film producers asked, expressing some excitement. "Why don't you write that story for us!"

(Later that very day -- I learned that a Chinese SF author has already done exactly that, extrapolating Zheng He's voyages into an imagined circumnavigation of the globe, long before Magellan.)

Ah well. I made some introductions. We spread some memes. My wonderful Beijing literary agent, Jackie Huang, added her own voice. Who knows? Maybe some minds were shifted, a little.

Upon leaving Beijing, we entered China's interior, traveling to the fabled city of Xian, home of the legendary Terracotta Army of the First Emperor -- clay soldiers, two millennia old, that have stirred imaginations worldwide, including my own. (Along with the golem myth, they helped to inspire my novel KILN PEOPLE.) Our kids met two of the men who actually made the archaeological discovery of the century, while digging a well, back in 1974. A stirring and unforgettable visit... and, of course, I felt the same schizophrenic mix of admiration and resentment. La Marseiillaise played again, softly, in the background. Old Chin sure did a lot of interesting thing... but he was a terrible bastard. Oh. Stay tuned, maybe for a hundred years, till the Chinese government finally allows excavation of his actual tomb. It may be stunning.

Xian also has the largest intact city wall and moat in the world -- truly vast. An impressive place.

We then took a train across Sichuan, in order to be able to see and experience some of China proper, outside the hazy cities. A jostling, gritty style of travel that put us much closer to the people. It was a time when I might wish that I had more than a smattering of the language. The tour guides and intellectuals and SF fans could reach out to me in English. But the folks who got on and off the train... it was the one time I went wistful for that long ago time when Cheryl and I took months to wind our way around the world, just us, with time enough for adventure.

I could go on about the countryside of Sichuan -- the mountains and villages, the poverty and glimmers of rapid development, the colors of rice and water and steep hills and bamboo -- but I have already stretched this out too long.

Arriving in Chengdu, we re-entered the world of SF, as a crowd of fans wearing the same conference t-shirt waved signs to pick us up from the station. Cheryl and the kids then visited pandas while I attended convention hosted by SF World Magazine, the science fiction periodical with the highest circulation in all of history. The event was much bigger than expected, with 5,000 people attending! What an experience to look out from the red-carpeted steps of the Sichuan Museum of Science upon such a crowd, while the science minister introduced us under one of the last, huge statues of Mao left standing in China. There followed endless toasts and banquets, punctuating speeches and spells of wading through autograph seekers (a "star treatment" that you sure don't get from blithe North American fans, who - of course - have seen it all.)

Wonderful hospitality. And you could feel the intense hunger of so many young people for the kind of thoughts and excitement that science fiction has to offer. (It's still a little risky in China, where some stodgy bureaucrats still call SF "spiritual pollution." Hence, there is also a bit of a courage-high, I imagine, just like I sensed from eastern eurpoean fans, before the Iron Curtain fell.) In any event, I hope that the fans and organizers got everything they wanted and needed from the event.

After that, starting at 6am, we Brins made a quick dash for the airport in order to attempt the impossible. A quick - but surprisingly comprehensive - one-day visit to Shanghai. A blitz through that bustling, legendary city in time to catch an afternoon flight to Tokyo! It was risky and perhaps foolish. It might not even have been possible without the amazing mag-lev passenger train - the only one open to public use in all the world - running from Pudong to the airport. We watched the in-car spedometer climb to 430 kilometers per hour, approaching half the speed of sound, before falling to 330 as the other car rushed by in the opposite direction, in a whoosh and blur. Probably the biggest product of speed, closeness and mass that I have ever experienced. (Oh, and Shanghai was amazing, too.)

And that was part one of the trip....followed by more tourism in Japan, returning to see friends and sights in Tokyo, Nara, Kyoto... all of it leading up to the World Science Fiction convention, in Yokohama!

But more on that, later.

For now, let me conclude that - while exhausting - it was also a terrific experience, especially getting to know many fine friends, both old and new, and broadening our horizons a bit. Our view of the world. It is important to hunger for fresh - even disturbing - perspectives. We learned so very much, about cultures and different ways of viewing history, the present and the future.

Above all, seeds were planted. Roots nurtured.
For the spirit of SF needs many homes.
Especially if American civilization continues its funk, its decline into nostalgia, silly grudges and lost confidence.

In that case, some other land will pick up the spirit of adventure that we fumbled and dropped. Some other people will become the 21st Century's new "Chung Kuo"... its new central kingdom.

For the sake of humanity and a better future, we had better hope that the leadership they show will be one of tolerance and eccentric wisdom.

Those, too, are lessons taught by a literature that rattles assumptions and turns the head, focusing our attention on tomorrow's undiscovered country.

David Brin


Anonymous said...

Great stuff!

As I think I've written before . . .

. . . turn this into an article for Salon!

Maybe two of them!

The "value add" -- distinguishing it from this blog entry -- could be more observations about / from your kids.

P.S. Bankrupt? Time to write a new novel!

Ron said...

It's great to read items in my RSS swamp with actual content. Thank you for sharing your adventure (I kept up a little bit on Mr. Gaiman's blog).

Anonymous said...

Hi David. Actually, there has been a huge boom in new universities, and in expanding the existing ones, across China's cities. Most of the attention (and money) goes to the computer science and engineering schools.

Unknown said...

You were in Beijing at the same time I was! You also got one of the three sunny days I had in six weeks (except when I left Beijing for Xinjiang, which had wonderful blue skies).

Friends who are native Beijingers tell me if you don't go to a neighbourhopod for six months, you will probably have to ask for directions as it will have changed. Possibly an exaggeration, but I would have been lost around Jingfan's house, even though I've walked that neighbourhood for the last two summers -- too much changed this spring.

You probably didn't have time to see the docks at Shanghai. This year I managed a cruise from the Bund to the Yangtze River -- 1.5 hours each way, and the river was lined with docks and shipyards the whole way. I lost track of how many hundred freighters we passed. Impressive, and a gut-level reminder of the sheer scale of China's economy.


Anonymous said...

kept humming La Marseillaise

You would not have liked the people who wrote and sang "La Marseillaise", trouble makers and rabble rouser the lot of them, not a moderate bone in their bodies.

La Marseillaise - lyrics in English

Anonymous said...

Reading this made me think of a Western city that strikes me as a slower version of beijing: East Berlin. The massive, ultramodern structures there are the most impressive I've seen in the west, and they're still going up, albeit not nearly as fast as in China. Combine that with Germany's archaic and autocratic education and finance systems and you have a little bit of China right in the middle of europe.

Anonymous said...

Only now, after you're back, do I think of one of the better books I've read recently about China, American Shaolin by Matthew Polly. He dropped out of college for two years, back in 1994 to go to China and find the Shaolin temple and study Kung Fu. Which he did. It's fascinating not only for the fact he went to China to train to be a Shaolin Monk, but in what he saw in China there, just as the China Boom was starting. In his afterword, he talks about how the Shaolin Temple's changed since then, into more of a tourist trap and cliche of what people would expect.

It sounds like a fascinating trip. Can't wait to hear more.

Enterik said...

I am left wondering what you saw in Shanghai with your one day?

Mark said...

I'll read your post a bit later when I have time, but I thought you would be interested in this article in the LA Times: Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain

Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

The results show "there are two cognitive styles -- a liberal style and a conservative style," said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected to the latest research.

Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

David Brin said...

Quick replies:

Nate, we watched a touristy but flashy-fun “kung fu dinner show” about a Shaolin monk who forges his body into a weapn (of Bhuddist detachment, of course) then spends many dance numbers fighting off temptation from his fantasy girl. Great kitschy leaping about.

Enterik, I cannot claim to have “done” Shanghai. No museums or street life or anything that makes a city real. But we did blitz the main tourist stuff. Pudong, the Bund, Yew Gardens, sampled the local food and shopped, then took the mag-lev. Certainly worth the risk of missing our Narita flight. We hope to come back another time, at leisure.

Mark, I saw that article. What boggles me is why this should have anything at all to do with cultural or regional distributions... at the root of america’s geographic culture war.

What it does support is my theory of horizons. That a combination of factors like satiation and satiability plus the right cultural memes CAN foster a steady expansion of our horizons of inclusion, of citizenship, of tolerance, of alliance and trade, of worry and planning. Foremost among these factors is a continuing and reliable reduction in levels of fear. Not all cultures in hiostory proved capable of translating full stomachs into satiation or reduced fear, let alone tolerance.

Liberals tend to like to ride this wave. They look outward toward the next outward horizon expansion, sometimes even crossing over into tolerance fetishism. Meanwhile, conservatives view such horizon expansions with suspicion and cling to older loyalties. In extremum, both can become quite detached from reason and reality. Though of course I prefer the former because at least they believe in progress.

Which points out one essential stupidity of liberalism, of course. When it forgets to get the joke: the irony that their cries of hyper-tolerance are essentially super-patriotic wavings of a particular cultural flag. (One that I share, but at least I perceive the irony of intolerantly promoting an intolerance of intolerance!)

In focusing fetishistically on the next expansion, people like Don forget that there is no contradiction in maintaining some of the the old loyalties, as well. I am not a limited person, who must (for example) diss America while promoting values that America principally invented.

Indeed, if we are clever, and make patriotism for the better face of America a paramount political issue, we might thus help to empower the expansion of horizons, especially if those who feel uncomfortable can be reassured that this process won’t spurn or abandon all tradition.

I ran into this same fear in China, where some authors saw a zero sumtradeoff. Explore change only at cost of abandoning a valued past.

What is pathetic is that a toe-the-line dogmatist like Don, who will not even imagine thoughts outside of a rigid catechism, cannot (like more zero summers) even imagine that non-zero contrarians are the rebels. Constantly poking at assumptions of all kinds. Well, our kind of militant moderation is not easy for such people to grasp. So they insist on imagining us as tepid fence-sitters.

In fact, I would have been a forefront revolutionary against Louis and his corrupt cronies... then turned to try and stop Robspierre from spoiling it all with insipid and murderous left-right rage.

Anonymous said...

hmm, methinks that the history of the mongols indicates that the Chinese leaders of the time were more probably correct to erect a wall, than to allow the "hordes" to overrun them.

Tall piles of skulls are a grim reminder that some people don't want to be "civilized" ... in either sense of the word.

David Brin said...

Um... The walls weren't very effective even without the universities and industry I recommended as an alternative. If China became more modern and industrial, they'd have had little to fear from the Mongols. Proof? The Russians did precisely this in turning tables on the Tatars. Lacking a wall, they turned to technology and made it trivial. Within 100 years they were at the Bering Strait.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

This post has been removed by the blog administrator.

Truly unfortunate...

Anonymous said...
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David Brin said...

Typical. He not only steps over the line into becoming an abusive spite-blogger, but assumes, without even a moment's hesitation or doubt, that there's not a scintilla of self-examination called for.

Don is still welcome here. But I will not be as patient, in future. Every single time he mocks or ridicules or howls about ROTFLMAO like a buffoon... out he'll go. I think my record - only doing this every 6 months or so - speaks for itself.

Anonymous said...

come on david be fair lots of us read the blog for what don has to say

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

As to the 'Great Wall of China'... it didn't work very well. China did better absorbing invaders than repelling them, anyway.

"Fixed fortifications are monuments to the folly of man." George Patton

Anonymous said...


Philip K Dick is a far more influential Scifi writer than George Lucas.

And far more accurate..

Anonymous said...
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David Brin said...

Keep it up. I showed patience by allowing a comment that did not deliberately offend. (Although it most definitely bore your trademark refusal to consider context or meaning, utterly ignoring how the TOPIC was the perception of SF by Chinese producers.)

But if you continue as you are going, I will make jettisoning your "remarks" a matter of routine. This is my house.

Anonymous said...

come on at least tellus whatyour removing!

David Brin said...

Deliberately offensive donkey dung by a person who was apparently too poorly raised to know even simple rules of courtesy, when in another person's house.

It would be one thing if the remarks were cogent or - indeed - were contextually related to the topic at hand. Or - indeed - expressed any intellectual curiosity or interest in learning new things.

The way I have shown curiosity and patience by welcoming Don here, remaining interested in his perspectives despite offensive behavior. But he's gone too far.

Enough. Clearly, there are "allies" who would be Robspierres to our Danton. Be wary of all who actually choose extreme sides of the insane left-right axis. And I'll not give him the respect of further discussion.

Unknown said...

I have to propose that the reason for the geographical divide in America is precisely the reverse of what you suggest - to wit, that those of a "liberal" mindset tend to migrate to the city, while those of a "conservative" mindset tend to migrate away from cities.

It'd be interesting to see a study measuring the political affiliation of people who've moved from one to the other, and contrasting that with the affiliations of those who have remained in place - I predict that should such a study be done, the affiliations of those who remained in the same type of place as they were born are rather even, while those who moved from one to the other will be more skewed. (and of course, in the obvious directions.)

Anonymous said...
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David Brin said...

Repeated, offensive remises are infantile. But they do make me reflect back realize. I've long put up with Don's snarls, in part because of curiosity and because I found in them occasional gems of useful citokate.

But can anyone cite a time - even once - when he conceded an opponent's point, or said "I stand corrected", or even expressed curiosity about views other than his own?

Incuriosity is sometimes called GW Bush's most fundamental intellectual sin - a hallmark of dogmatists. While we may scratch our heads over what makes them tick, they will never reciprocate.

Enterik said...

DAVIDBRIN: Enterik, I cannot claim to have “done” Shanghai. No museums or street life or anything that makes a city real. But we did blitz the main tourist stuff. Pudong, the Bund, Yew Gardens, sampled the local food and shopped, then took the mag-lev. Certainly worth the risk of missing our Narita flight. We hope to come back another time, at leisure.

ENTERIK: I was hoping you went to YuYuan (Yu Gardens). I thought it a hidden gem in Shanghai.

First, you're whizzing around overcrowded streets in a VW Santana, then you're dumped onto a sidewalk of shops selling all manner of gee-gaws. Surely, this can't be your destination. But then you duck through a gap in the shops, and there's the zigzag bridge (to keep the ghosts out) angling across the Lotus Pond to the Pavillion (where Bill Clinton is reported to have eaten the white eyebrow dumplings). A quintessentially chinese experience.

To me YuYuan is at the zenith of chinese aesthetic idiosyncrasy, particularly the Geat Rockery and the Hexu Tang root furniture. We went during JuiHwa (chrysothemum) season, but even a sea of potted flowers couldn't help us get past the flies that guarded the restrooms (hopefully things have changed in the intervening years).

Can you say more about the Xinjiang-style restaurant? Was it a minority restaurant? Uyghur or Hui, perhaps?

David Brin said...

I believe it was Uighur. And YuYuan was, as you say, eye-opening. No one could beat the Chinese aristocracy at "gathering" the resources of others and then hiring some of them to fashion ornate, ostentatious curleques. Though I guess the Bourbons and Romanovs came close. Watch the riot scene in THE GOOD EARTH or the beginning of THE LAST EMPEROR. Dang, no wonder they had a revolution.

One other thing struck me. Along our way, we kept hearing from our guides about how this or that building had been built and then refashioned in such a way as to maximize its Chi - or positive magical energy. David Ivory, a Kiwi architect who works in Hong Kong and who traveled with us part of the way, described how even modern Chinese are often transfixed by notions like Feng Shui. Even modern office towers jostly each other, trying to face south and to maximize symbolic good over symbolic bad. It is a theme that pervades history, over there, a current that keeps running, despite all changes of dynasty or even technology.

Moreover, it has been embraced by ever larger numbers in the west, at least in a surface way. Not only eastern mystical symbolisms, but also a "return" to some that came out of the West's own symbol-drenched past. Fundamentalisms that posit the superioty of incantation over accountable verification.

Hence we have got to wonder if the tiger of the Enlightenment really is going to sway and change the dragon... or if it's going to go the other way around. Will the zeitgeist of pragmatic science prevail? Or be co-opted into ways of thinking that are far older and (I contend) far more inherently human?

Ways that credit far more power to symbols and subjectivity than symbols and subjectivity deserve.

Anonymous said...

Holy you know what...

Sorry to be way off topic, but have you seen this, Doc?

Radio Frequencies Help Burn Salt Water

Anonymous said...

Well, apparently this isn't really news, and no one has publicly stated for certain what the reaction is (if it's just burning hydrogen then there's nothing interesting here), so there's no good way of judging whether or not this is potentially meaningful.

Enterik said...

Dr. Brin, as a geneticist I find myself using the concept of evolution and it's corollaries to understand the myriad of cultures that have blanketed our planet. China was no exception, with its thousands of years of cultural evolution, it's china-centered worldview, it's almost complete isolation from the outside world, it is not surpising that much of what we know of as chinese culture is best adapted to the peculiarities of...chinese culture. Much of what we grok as China culture has a meaningful purpose even if it doesn't prevail when subjected to wider selective pressures (of globalization that are being fueled by the fossil remains of biological evolution) which began with the First Opium War.

For example, although I think YuYuan is historically meaningful as the epitomy of Ming-dynasty Han aestetic, with elements that are useful and inspired in a timeless way, overall it is chaotic, gaudy and difficult to execute. The Chinese I know have this reaction even if they know they are supposed to laud YuYuan as a historical achievement. So will Ming dynasty aristocratic garden sensibility expand it's influence in the population of gardens around the world, or remain a living fossil eeking by in an obscure niche? For now, it seems unlikely to catch on any time soon and the overall aesthetic will remain in it's Latimeria-like existance for the forseeable future. That is not to say that some of the design alleles it contains haven't already been carried into the present by meme descendants of Ming Gardens.

I look at Zhongyi Xue and Feng Shui in a similar way. Evolved in relative isolation, these collections of memes are currently undergoing wider selective pressure. Those practices which have utility will persist and increase their representation in the population of applied ideas in a Hardy-Weinberg-type deviation from expectation.

Over time, I expect worldwide common sense to encompass sensibilities from a wide variety of cultures, with some cultures syncretizing more quickly than others. Thus I take the apparent chaos of modern China to be an encouraging sign. The cultural revolution wasn't even enough to tamp out millenia of Han culture, so the influence of the wider world will take time. Even more so in places like Taiwan and HongKong where ancient ways are still revered, we see more dramatic shifts towards "external" cultures. All around China, I meet individuals picking and choosing from the ten thousand things that comprise world culture. Slowly, those old ways that are non-adaptable will become reduced in the population.

Of course the apparent progress of such mixing is tempered by west-east and rural-urban disparities that have the potential to revisit a Taiping, Nien, Hui, Yìhetuan Yundong, Xinhai or Communist type rebellion upon China that were so common in the long twilight of the Qing dynasty. For I see the return to prominence of the landlord class in China and with it those ancient tensions so well documented by David Hinton in Fanshen and Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. The Central Committee has a delicate balancing act to perform...

Enterik said...

The cultural revolution wasn't even enough to tamp out millenia of Han culture, so the influence of the wider world will take time. Even more so in places like Taiwan and HongKong where ancient ways are still revered, we see more dramatic shifts towards "external" cultures.

To clarify what I was trying to say. Taiwan never had a cultural revolution to stamp out the old ways, in fact, many there pride themselves on such and many cultural practices remain entrenched. At the same time, Taiwan has been far more open to the outside world and has co-opted a fair ammount of alien technology and culture. What results is a cultural duality, where both aspects seems intensified, truely, Long Hu

David Brin said...

Very good points. Informative and I learned a lot.

Still, I ask that you step back and see YuYuan NOT as an intrinsically Chinese thing, but as an expression of decadent excess that is always displayed by ruling classes who have stolen vastly more from the peasants than they know what to do with.

Similar decorative excesses are seen in the European Baroque... in Tsarist Russia... and indeed, in Ancient Egypt and Mayan civilization. (The Greeks and Romans seemed culturally inclined to resist, as did the Japanese, perhaps because Bushido-like macho culture emphasized some degree of "manly simplicity.)

Yes, these tendencies will evolve away... IF the culture trends toward egalitarian and pragmatic world views. But if aristocratism and romatnticism continue rising....

Enterik said...

I think we can agree on a recombinant definition of YuYuan as an intrinsically chinese expression of decadent excess associated with the plutocratic mentality see across the globe and through time, from the neolithic Maeshowe of the grooved ware people to the Pacific Lodge of Bill Gates.

JDsg said...

Hi, David! First-time commenter, long-time reader of your books. I enjoyed reading this particular post because I'm an American expat who's been living in Asia (Korea and Singapore) for six years now. I haven't had the chance to get up to Beijing just yet, but I'm very happy you took your kids out here to see this part of the world. Asia's going to be the hub of the world for the next century or so.

Anyhoo... I found this particular comment to be very interesting:

And it fades wherever people lose their nerve and turn away from tomorrow... as has been happening in the USA, ever since this #$@*! century began.

I'd have prolly said the early to mid 90s, my self, but that's neither here nor there. This is something I've wondered about for a number of years now, why this shift away from SF. From my perspective, it has seemed like SF has been a dying genre since the 90s. Granted, some of that has been the dying off of the "Golden Age" generation, and the retirement of a number of authors from the "Dangerous Visions" era. I'd have also said a factor has been a lack of interest in science among young people, up to and including people my age (mid-40s), but perhaps the lack of interest should include other topics as well, such as history. (As you had brought up, most Anglo SF authors are voracious readers of history as opposed to science.) But this comment of yours, that SF has dwindled because people have lost their nerve, has a ring of truth to it too. This is something to ponder.

Thanks for all your writings!

Anonymous said...

(a "star treatment" that you sure don't get from blithe North American fans, who - of course - have seen it all.)

As a reader/fan, I'm sorry this is how fandom has treated you. Waiting on autograph lines is a small price to pay (one I've paid many times 8-) ) to show ones appreciation..

Anonymous said...

I prefer Shanghai to Beijing. Shanghai is more compact and upward built city. Thus, it is easier to get around in. They have several subway lines, and are building many more so that it will be like Tokyo. Like Tokyo, you can find convenience stores and other necessities within walking distance.

The problem with Beijing is that it is too spread out, meaning that you either have to have a car or hire taxis to take you where ever you want to go. Even then, it still takes awhile to get to where you want to go.

Also, Beijing has bloody-cold winters and is just as hot (if not humid) as Shanghai in the summer.

In all, I think Shanghai is better than Beijing.