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Category: China

SACRI MONTI

Kyoto, 26 November 2016

Two weeks ago, my wife and I visited the temple on mount Kurama, a mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto. We took the train to the mountain’s foot and then climbed – well, “climbed” is perhaps misleading, since rather than toil all the way up using the path that snakes its way to the top we took a cable car to very near the summit and toiled lightly the rest of the way. It was the Fall colours which had brought us there, and indeed the red of the Japanese maples and the yellow of the ginkgoes were a sight to behold.
mount-kurama-2

mount-kurama-3
Since it was a cool, rainy day, the surrounding landscape was enveloped in drifting cloud and mist, strongly reminiscent of painted Japanese landscapes.
misty-japanese-landscape
At the top, we walked around the temple

and enjoyed the view.
mount-kurama-1
After which, we walked down the other side of the mountain
mount-kurama-4
to take a well-deserved lunch at the bottom.
mount-kurama-5
A week later, when our daughter joined us for Thanksgiving, we took her to the Fushimi Inari Shrine on the hilly eastern edge of Kyoto and hiked up the mountain behind the shrine, passing through the famed tunnel of torii on the way
Torii gates—Fushimi Inari Shrine
(although when we passed through the tunnel, it was packed with people – the disadvantage of visiting Kyoto at this time of the year).

After admiring the view at the top and inspecting the small shrines sprinkled along the path, all of which were smothered in small votive torii
http://regex.info/blog/2008-06-19/841
we made our way down again and had a well-deserved bowl of rahmen at the mountain’s foot.
noodle-shop-inari
Ours was an admittedly very secular version of a pastime as ancient as civilization itself, the climbing of mountains to pray to the gods. I suppose it makes sense. Gods often have been thought to reside up in the sky somewhere, and mountains were as close to the sky as we humans could get before the age of aviation. And before there were 7 billion of us, working our presence into every nook and cranny of the planet, mountains were remote, mysterious places, where our ancestors could more easily commune with the divine.

So it comes as no surprise to see that all religions have their mountains. Several degrees of longitude to the west of Kyoto, the Chinese had their Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism and their Four Sacred Mountains of Daoism, and scholars sitting at the foot of mountains is a common scene on scrolls.
scholars-under-mountain
Hinduism, along with Jainism and Buddhism, has its Mount Meru, a mythological mountain, which for many believers, though, finds its material incarnation in Mt. Kailash in Tibet.

Processed by: Helicon Filter;

Many Hindus and Buddhists make the arduous journey to the mountain. Once they reach it they will reverently circle it (I highly recommend the book “To A Mountain In Tibet”, in which that great travel writer Colin Thubron relates his journey on foot to this mountain up through the high valleys of Nepal).

Moving further west, Judaism has its Mount Sinai, traditionally thought to be this mountain.
mount-sinai
The Bible tells us that Moses climbed it to commune with Yahweh in the Burning Bush, and from its top he brought down the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. Charlton Heston gave a great performance as Moses in the Hollywood film epic “The Ten Commandments”
charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandments
although I personally prefer Michelangelo’s splendid Moses.
michelangelo-moses
Islam also has its holy mountains; since it is a religion of the Book, many of these are linked to stories in the Bible: Mt. Sinai because of its link to Moses, Al-Judi, reputed to be where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Flood, the mount of Olives, where the righteous will be chosen and evil abolished. But it also has mountains which are holy because of events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. One such is the Temple Mount, the scene for Muslims of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven in his Night Journey, and on which they built the beautiful Dome of the Rock.

dome-of-the-rock

Another is Jabal Al-Nour, on the outskirts of Mecca.
jabal-al-nour
This mountain houses the Hira Cave in which Muhammad began receiving the revelations which became the Qu’ran. The cave is extremely popular with Muslim pilgrims who make the arduous trek up the mountain to reach it.

As for Christianity, Jesus was crucified on a hill, Mount Golgotha, outside Jerusalem. It’s really quite a modest hill, a hillock really, which in Christian art, though, grew into a respectable hill, as shown in this painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
procession-to-calvary-by-pieter-bruegel-the-elder
Imagining a good-sized hill gave later generations of Christians an excuse to bedeck local hills with a Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, which would wend its way up to the top of the hill and along which would be dotted the fourteen stations. The faithful would climb the Via Crucis, stopping and praying at each station (I remember well doing this as a young boy). UNESCO has canonized as a World Heritage Site nine such hills, the Sacri Monti or Sacred Hills, which are strung along the alpine foothills of Lombardy and Piedmont, not too far from Milan where we now reside. Their Vie Crucis were all created in the 16th-17th centuries.
sacri-monti-1
sacri-monti-2
I’m trying to persuade my wife that we should go and climb a couple. To make the suggestion more palatable, I’m suggesting that we now wait until Spring – and that we choose sacri monti that have good restaurants at their foot to which we can repair after the climbs.

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Misty Japanese landscape: https://loganbalstad.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/japanese-landscape-painting/
Mount Kurama temple: http://apdl.kcc.hawaii.edu/roads/18_temples.html
Other pix of Mount Kurama: ours
Scholars under mountain: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2013/fine-classical-chinese-paintings-n09009.html
Mount Kailash: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kailash
Torii Fushimi Inari Shrine: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Torii_gates%E2%80%94Fushimi_Inari_Shrine_(9977683204).jpg
Fushimi Inari mouintainside shrine: http://regex.info/blog/2008-06-19/841
Noodle shop, Fushimi Inari shrine: http://www.picrumb.com/best-restaurants/inari/
Mount Sinai: https://www.lds.org/media-library/images/mount-sinai-egypt-moses-1244104?lang=eng
Charlton Heston as Moses: https://theiapolis.com/movie-20AU/the-ten-commandments/gallery/charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandments-1081961.html
Michelangelo’s Moses: http://syndrome-de-stendhal.blogspot.jp/2012/04/der-moses-des-michelangelo.html
Dome of the Rock: http://www.123rf.com/photo_42141970_aerial-view-the-dome-of-the-rock-on-the-temple-mount-from-the-mount-of-olives-in-jerusalem-israel.html
Jabal Al-Nour: http://dreamzs338.tumblr.com/post/132478018857/jabal-al-noor-the-mountain-of-light-in-makkah
Pilgrims to Hira Cave: http://mapio.net/pic/p-16183166/
“Procession to Calvary” by Peter Breugel the Elder: https://mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/the-procession-to-calvary-by-pieter-bruegel-the-elder/
Sacri Monti-1: http://www.unescovarese.com/Sacri-monti-in-Piemonte-e-Lombardia
Sacri Monti-2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacro_Monte_di_Varallo

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RINGING BELLS

Milan, 13 September 2016

It wasn’t until our first Sunday back in Milan that I realized what it was we had been missing all those years we had spent in China and Thailand: church bells. The carillon that pealed out from the campanile of the nearby Church of San Giorgio
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for morning mass startled my senses, and I found myself actually listening. Probably Italians, after a lifetime of hearing church bells, simply shut them out: “church bells? what church bells?”

It’s not as if the soundscapes of the cities we have lived in these last seven years have been very different from what we were used to in Europe. Like for everything nowadays, there was a depressing uniformity.  The noise of traffic predominated; given China’s building craze, construction noises came a close second in Beijing. The one typically Chinese noise which we often heard in Beijing was the machine-gun sound of strings of firecrackers going off to celebrate the opening of a new business.
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Since the economy was doing nicely, this happened quite often. The noise of firecrackers grew to a huge crescendo as the Chinese New Year rolled around.

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We were always in awe of the massive amounts of firepower, in the form of firecrackers, fireworks, and other noise-making products, being sold on the streets in the days leading up to the New Year.
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Bangkok was more interesting, noise-wise. From our balcony, as we admired the view over the Chao Phraya river, we would often hear the local muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. Muslims are a more-or-less tolerated minority in Thailand and as a consequence tend to be very discreet. The Muslim community in our area was no exception. So discreet were they that I never located the minaret and its associated mosque. Was it this one, I wonder? I saw the sign once or twice but never went down the narrow lane to investigate.
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These calls to prayer were counterbalanced by the morning chanting from the Buddhist monks in the temple across the river.
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In Thailand’s current politically charged atmosphere, where an aggressive Buddhism is emerging, one has to wonder if the loudspeaker-enhanced chanting was not calculated to remind the local Muslims of who was in charge, just in case they had forgotten.

There was also a period when a government institution across the river would blare out the royal anthem twice a day, at 8 am and 6 pm, to remind the populace to venerate their king.
image
Mercifully, from one day to the next, the loudspeakers fell silent. We never figured out why. But we were thankful for the respite.

Noises from the new religion of our time, fitness, would assail our ears in the early evening, as an aerobic class would start up in the nearby park at Phra Sumen fort, with the disco music booming out over the river, interspersed with the trainer’s shouted instructions and encouragement.

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Memories, all memories now. From now on, our soundscapes will be made up, at least in part, of church bells. Christianity may be fading in Europe, but the bells will remain. They will be ringing out the hours of the day and night (even as I write this, the nearby church bells are striking seven pm). They will call the few remaining faithful to Mass on Sundays. They will toll somberly for our brethren who have departed from this world (“Cold it is, my beloved, since your funeral bell was toll’d: / Cold it is, O my King, how cold alone on the wold!”). I may even witness once more, in a Catholic nation somewhere, the bells of a whole city ringing peel after peel in a mad cacophony to speed the soul of a dead Pope on its way; I heard this in Vienna when Pope John Paul II died.

Yes, these sounds are part of my Christian heritage to which I return after many years of absence.

_______________________
San Giorgio: http://www.milano24ore.net/cityinfo/churches/church_of_san_giorgio.php
Fire crackers: http://yourenotfromaroundhere.com/blog/firecrackers-evil-spirit-beijing-china/
Chinese New Year: http://chinesenewyearblog.com/cny-fireworks-victoria-harbor-hong-kong/
Sellers of fireworks: http://iainmasterton.photoshelter.com/image/I0000OGZzPAzdPPM
Mosque Masjid chakrabongse?: http://zlynn17.blogspot.it/2010/02/halal-food-in-banglamphoo.html
Buddhist monks chanting: https://monotonundminimal.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/day-240-bling-bling-bangkok/
Thais venerating the king: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/asia/thailand-king-bhumibol-gallbladder/
Aerobic class Phra Sumen Park: http://www.iamwannee.com/a-nice-walking-path-from-tha-phra-chan-to-tha-phra-athit/

MIRROR, MIRROR, ON THE WALL

Bangkok, 28 February 2016

Every morning, I stare at myself in the mirror as I shave, a ritual which has enslaved me these past forty odd years. And I stare at myself in the mirror as I brush my hair, or brush my teeth, or – more lately – inspect that suspicious mark on my face (is it melanoma?). And I watch as the face which stares back at me grows rounder and more creased, as the hairline recedes and the temples grow greyer, as the lips thin with the loss of back teeth, as the skin begins to sag under my chin.

I grow old, the mirror remorselessly reminds me every day.

I can’t escape my reflection. It follows me everywhere I go, staring back at me from all the mirrors which we have scattered with wild abandon over our urban landscapes: the bars, the restaurants, the public toilets, the elevators, the shops, the lobbies, … My reflection even beckons to me from the smooth, shiny sheathing and coated windows of our fancy modern buildings.

It was not always so. There was a time, not so long ago in the great arc of human history, when we hardly ever saw our own faces. We saw the faces of others: our mothers, our fathers, our siblings, our tribe, our village, and the few strangers who came from the other side of the mountain and passed through. From time to time, when drinking in a still pool, we would have seen a tremulous reflection staring back at us. But it’s not easy to see one’s reflection in water. Water bodies have this infuriating habit of giving a beautiful reflection of things far away but of being blankly clear at one’s feet.

Numa and Rainbow Peaks Reflecting in Bowman Lake, Montana

This young girl has managed to capture her watery reflection quite well

reflection in water

but I think this picture is more typical of what most of us see when we peer into water.

reflection in a puddle

That’s why I’ve never really understood the legend of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who caught sight of his reflection in a pool, fell in love with it, and died at the pool’s edge unable to drag himself away.

Narcissus-Caravaggio

What reflection could he possibly have been so enamoured with? In my experiments in the kitchen with various pots and pans of different colours, the best reflection I got was from a black frying pan

image

and even that reflection was, as readers can see, murky in the extreme. How could anyone, however beautiful he or she may have been, have fallen in love with this evanescent reflection? Perhaps the original teller of the tale had seen a reflection of a person in a dark pool or vase from a distance, like this photographer has

reflections in a bowl of water

and invented the story around that.

Be that as it may, eventually our ancestors found other ways to see themselves. Obsidian, that beautiful, black, glassy material, product of volcanic activity

imagewas used in the first attempts at non-aqueous mirrors, in Turkey. The country was famous in the pre-metallurgical era for its obsidian, which could be used to make razor-sharp arrow heads – such arrow heads have been found hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away from the mother lode in Anatolia. But large obsidian pieces could also be split open and the faces given a high polish to act as a mirror.

obsidian mirror

Obsidian may be beautiful, but it gives a dark reflection, almost as dark as the water in my frying pan. I am reminded of St. Paul’s famous phrase in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly”.

The metallurgical age brought us one step closer to seeing ourselves, in polished copper or bronze mirrors, like this Egyptian copper mirror.

copper mirror egyptian

Copper mirrors would have given reddish reflections like those we see in highly polished copper pans, such as this

reflections in a copper potor this.

reflections in a copper pan

(If nothing else, both photos show the need for a uniformly flat surface for a good result …)

The Chinese especially made mirrors out of polished bronze. These would have given yellowish reflections, like this one

bronze mirror-2

or this one, from a Japanese bronze mirror.

bronze mirror

Mirrors such as these were very expensive – indeed, the Chinese turned the backs of their mirrors into admirable works of art, such as this 9th Century one from the Tang Dynasty with its admirably carved dragon.

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So only the rich, the ancient world’s one-percenters, could afford to peer – curiously, vainly, or dolefully – at their reflection. The man and woman on the street still could only see their reflection in water.

It seems that it was the Egyptians who first thought of coating glass with metal to make glass mirrors, but their reflectivity was poor. As for the Romans, Pliny the Elder mentioned mirrors where gold leaf was applied to glass. I don’t know if any such mirror has survived the ravages of time, I certainly didn’t find a trace of one on the Internet. But very fancy gold-plated mirrors such as the one in this photo are now made, for high-tech applications.

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I suppose a bleary-eyed Roman plutocrat staring at himself in his gold-plated glass mirror after a night of orgies would have caught such a yellowing reflection as this of his face.

It is the Venetians we have to thank – or curse – for bringing us the modern silvered mirror, which finally allowed humanity to see its own reflection in glorious, embarrassing, or painful technicolour. The glass-makers of Murano figured out a way of making flat – and clear – glass as well as depositing a thin coating of silver on the back of it (my professional self cannot but help notice that they used a silver-mercury amalgam to do this; the mercury inevitably sickened and killed off a good number of Murano mirror-makers – an interesting twist to the French saying “il faut souffrir pour être belle”, “one must suffer to be beautiful”, which here becomes “you suffer, and I admire my beauty”). Once again, it was initially the one-percenters of the European courts who enjoyed – or suffered from – a much clearer reflection of themselves. Venetian glass mirrors such as this one were worth a king’s ransom.

old venetian mirror in good shape

The French one-percenters couldn’t stand the idea that they were sending so much of their wealth southwards to the misbegotten Venetians for glass mirrors. They tried mightily to worm the secrets of mirror-making out of Murano. But La Serenissima, fully appreciating the gold mine they were sitting on, passed draconian laws forbidding these secrets from leaving the lagoon. Eventually, though, the French suborned a group of Venetian mirror-makers, persuading them to bolt from the lagoon and set up shop in the St. Gobain works. Among many other things, this gave us the Hall of Mirrors at the palace at Versailles.

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This hall has impassively reflected the fun and games of the French monarchy, but also two crucial moments in recent European history: the declaration of the German Empire in 1871 after the Prussians trounced the French in the Franco-Prussian War

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and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 between the Allies and the new-born German democracy

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that humiliating “diktat of Versailles” which Hitler used to such good effect in his rise to power.

Alas! The silvering process which the Venetians invented, and the French copied, did not last forever. With time, it would crack, it would peel, it would dull, so that reflections would become evanescent once more. How many old houses contain mirrors like this one!

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Even our apartment in Milan holds a mirror where Time has inserted its bony fingers into the silvering and has started to strip pieces off.

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Like my face, mirrors age. But as men have found ways of making faces last longer, so have they found ways to make silvered mirrors that last longer and reflect better. And through the genius of industrialization they have found ways to make these much better mirrors much cheaper, so that 99-percenters like me can also stare, once vainly and now despairingly, at the reflection of our crumbling selves.

I need to escape from my reflection. My wife and I could have ourselves shipwrecked on some remote islet in the Pacific Ocean. Yet even there, I fear that I would find a shard of mirror on the beach, washed up together with all the plastic bottles and other flotsam and jetsam of our consumeristic life that now fill up our oceans.

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Reflections in a lake: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get2/I0000WnV35_OekPk/fit=1000×750/Numa-and-Rainbow-Peaks-Reflecting-in-Bowman-Lake.jpg (in http://bretedge.photoshelter.com/image/I0000WnV35_OekPk)

Reflection in water: http://www.aheadworld.org/wp-content/gallery/reflection-in-the-water/bellareflectionwater-1.jpg (in http://www.aheadworld.org/2014/07/15/reflection-in-the-water/)

Reflection in a puddle: http://www.nambya.com/wp-content/uploads/image6.jpg (in http://www.nambya.com/gallery/photography/image-7/)

Narcissus by Caravaggio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_%28mythology%29#/media/File:Narcissus-Caravaggio_%281594-96%29_edited.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_%28mythology%29)

Reflection in a black pan: my photo

Reflection in a bowl of water: http://inapcache.boston.com/universal/site_graphics/blogs/bigpicture/reflections/bp12.jpg (in http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2012/02/photo_reflections.html)

Chunk of obsidian: https://www.thinglink.com/scene/504686617127026690

Obsidian mirror: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/a0/77/4e/a0774e9d5c812c328852a4850ea59899.jpg

Egyptian copper mirror: https://assets.paddle8.com/510/266/21339/21339-1380672291-Coburn-Item%2033-xl.jpg (in https://paddle8.com/work/egyptian/21339-hand-mirror)

Reflection in a copper pot: http://www.jeffclaassen.com/photos/2013/11/copper_pot_05.jpg ( in http://jeffclaassen.com/blog/2013/11/copper-pot-selfies-in-the-kitchen-after-dinner/)

Reflection in a copper pot-2: http://www.jeffclaassen.com/photos/2013/11/copper_pot_02.jpg (in http://jeffclaassen.com/blog/2013/11/copper-pot-selfies-in-the-kitchen-after-dinner/)

Reflection in a copper pan: https://40.media.tumblr.com/e295593980f36d1411e869333c84b63f/tumblr_mgbmbnhFJl1rjg7f0o1_500.jpg (in https://www.tumblr.com/search/loppapeysa)

Reflection in a Chinese bronze mirror: https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2601/3810835438_947331566d_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisckemp/3810835438)

Reflection in a Japanese bronze mirror: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_WxoUP_Y9N1A/RysHFDtbP1I/AAAAAAAAADo/smZF2ussZLo/s320/te-kagami2.JPG (in https://kgtou.wordpress.com/2007/11/02/te-kagami-hand-mirror/)

Chinese mirror – back: https://www.flickr.com/photos/asianart/405662049

Mirror coated with gold: http://www.epner.com/processes-and-products/laser-gold/

Old Venetian mirror in good shape: http://www.antiquario-dellapiana.it/esposizione-antiquariato-alba/dipinti-antichi/

Galerie des Glaces: http://www.historylines.net/history/17th_cent/versailles.html

Proclamation of the German Empire: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galerie_des_Glaces

Signing of the Versailles Treaty with Germany: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galerie_des_Glaces

Old Venetian mirror in bad shape: http://www.juliamarkert.com/galleria-riproduzioni-cornici-antiche-firenze/cornici-antiche-firenze/specchio-veneziano/

Reflection in Milan mirror: my photo

 

LONG LIFE!

Bangkok, 12 February 2016

I saw my doctor recently, for my annual check-up. After all the tests and probings were over, we sat down and talked over the results. Then came the awful verdict: I had to cut out coffee, tea, Coke, anything with caffeine in it. So here I am, sitting at the breakfast table, mournfully sipping water. My body has let me down. It is getting old. It needs maintenance but there are no spare parts. As T.S. Elliot’s Alfred J. Prufrock lamented, “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”. The grave yawns ahead of me!

Sitting here, bathed in an existential funk, I am reminded of another poet, Chinese this time, by the name of Tao Yuanming, who wrote this poem in the year 409 AD, during the Double Ninth Festival, so called because it falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.

Slowly, slowly,
the autumn draws to its close.
Cruelly cold
the wind congeals the dew.
Vines and grasses
will not be green again—
The trees in my garden
are withering forlorn.
The pure air
is cleansed of lingering lees
And mysteriously,
Heaven’s realms are high.
Nothing is left
of the spent cicada’s song,
A flock of geese
goes crying down the sky.
The myriad transformations
unravel one another.
And human life
how should it not be hard?
From ancient times
there was none but had to die,
Remembering this
scorches my very heart.
What is there I can do
to assuage this mood?
Only enjoy myself
drinking my unstrained wine.
I do not know
about a thousand years,
Rather let me make
this morning last forever

The wine Tao Yuanming is alluding to is chrysanthemum wine, made by blending chrysanthemum – flower, leaves, stalks and all – with millet and letting it ferment. It was made during the Double Ninth Festival, with chrysanthemums picked that day. It was left to sit for a whole year, to be drunk at the next Double Ninth Festival.

“Chrysanthemum” in Chinese is pronounced “ju”, which sounds similar to the word for “long”, “jiu”. By that strange Chinese habit of giving deep meaning to homophony, the chrysanthemum was therefore believed to be imbued with the spirit of longevity, and thus – through an animistic belief in sympathetic magic – its consumption would help the consumer live longer. It helped that the chrysanthemum is a flower of the autumn, a flower which blooms when other flowers are withering. Surely such a flower, which defies the dying of nature all around it, must be imbued with the spirit of longevity? “Chrysanthemum” also sounds like the number “nine”, “jiu”, therefore it seemed divinely ordained that this flower should play a central role in the Double Ninth Festival. Drinking chrysanthemum wine at the Festival was an affirmation that, even as winter started to close in, Death did not yet have us in its grip.

I suppose, then, that at this moment when my body betrays me, when I have doubts about my own longevity, I should drink long drafts of chrysanthemum wine. But even in my current brown mood, I don’t think I could drink this brew. It sounds distinctly unappetizing. I shall plump instead for chrysanthemum tea, which can happily take the place of my coffee and tea. In a coincidence which I’m sure the Chinese would find significant, my wife and I recently bought – in Bangkok’s Chinatown – a packet of dried chrysanthemum flowers: not the big, showy chrysanthemums you see in flowerbeds, but small, almost daisy-like, flowers.
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I will use these flowers to prepare myself infusions of a very delicate taste.
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And I will peer deep into my cup, drowning my existential sorrows in that lovely pale yellow liquid. Who knows? Maybe the Chinese were right, maybe I will live longer, and, like Tao Yuanming, “I will pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge / And gaze afar towards the southern mountains.”
image

Or maybe, as my wife and daughter have very sensibly suggested, I should start drinking decaffeinated coffee and tea instead …

____________________________________
Dried chrysanthemum flowers: http://www.botanicalspirit.com/chrysanthemum-flowers
Chrysanthemum tea: http://kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com/en/8Kaleidoscope2197.html
Tao Yuanming: https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/T%27ao_Ch%27ien

SPADES, CLUBS, HEARTS, DIAMONDS

Bangkok, 8 January 2016

In a previous post, I sketched out a rough agenda for my retirement. I think my wife was pleased with it. But she does have certain anxieties about this upcoming event. She has recently been reading about some Japanese syndrome called Retired Husbands Syndrome which attacks Japanese housewives. Suddenly, this guy whom you’ve hardly seen in the last 40 years – being a good Salaryman, he’s been leaving the house at 6 am and not getting home till midnight – is now constantly hanging around, getting in your way, messing up your routines, and expecting you to do things for him. Not unnaturally, the stress levels rocket up. While we’ve maintained a more balanced lifestyle, she does have fears of me moping around the house, lounging around on the sofa, eating natchos and watching TV all day. This dystopian view of hers is not helped by a number of films we’ve seen recently, describing exactly this situation. Nor is it helped by my fondness (my wife thinks more obsession) for playing Spider Solitaire on my iPad. She’s afraid that come retirement all I’ll do all day is compulsively play Spider Solitaire, with a little Freecell on the side.

It is true that I tend to play the game whenever I have a spare moment. I do admit that it can get a little out of hand. But I’m sure it’s good for my aging brain to carefully plot my strategy for getting the cards out. And those little electronic cards, with their glossy black spades and clubs and glowing red diamonds and hearts, and kingly Kings and queenly Queens and knavish Jacks, are really very pretty.
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I was thinking about their prettiness the other day during a Spider Solitaire game, and when it became clear that I was dribbling towards defeat I decided to quit and do a little research on the history of playing cards, principally to understand where the suit design of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs originally came from. I was very pleased that I did so, because I discovered that what we have here is yet another example of the Great East-West Exchange which took place along the Silk Road and other trade routes that once criss-crossed the Eurasian continent. Of course, most of what was exchanged was traditional goods, but ideas also flowed along these routes. So did less obvious things, like the the willow tree and the pomegranate, both of which I’ve had occasion to write about in the past. Now I can with pleasure write about a third such item, playing cards.

Our story starts in China. Some time in the Tang Dynasty, around the 7th-8th Century, it seems that someone in the Imperial Court came up with the idea of a pack of playing cards, divided into four suits. The suits were Coins, Strings of (1,000) coins, Myriads of strings (10,000), and Tens of myriads. Like our modern cards, each suit contained cards with different numbers of pips. Here we have a Three of Coins and a Three of Strings-of-coins.
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These packs also included face cards, like this one from the Ming dynasty.
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These ‘chi-pai’, which is Chinese for playing cards, are still in use. This next photo shows the cards from a three-suited variant. Note how the design of the suits became highly stylized – this is important for our story.
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I’ve no idea what games exactly were played with these cards back in Tang Dynasty times, I’m not sure anyone knows, and actually it’s not important for our story. What is important is that the use of cards spread westward. This could have happened through trade; I can imagine Chinese merchants whipping out a pack of cards to while away their down time in the caravanserai that dotted the Silk Road.
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Alternatively, it could have happened through conquest, with conquering soldiers picking up new habits from the conquered. In this case, the Mongols, who conquered China in the 13th Century, seem a very good candidate. At its height, the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Ukraine.
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Any new fads picked up by Mongol troops in China could have spread, through many an evening around soldiers’ camp fires, all the way to Kiev.

I don’t think the two diffusion mechanisms are necessarily exclusive. I could imagine that the Mongol conquest also amplified diffusion of card playing through trade. The two maps above superimpose quite well, and in fact the period of the Mongol Empire brought political stability to Asia which in turn encouraged a surge of trade along the Silk Road.

Whichever way, Chinese playing cards diffused westward. Some time in the 13th-14th Century, maybe earlier, so-called Ganjifa playing cards started being used in Persia. The etymology of Ganjifa is uncertain. Some see its root in the Persian word gunj, which connotes treasure, treasury, or money, and suggest that this connects them to the money-suited Chinese playing cards. Others see a more elaborate etymology, proposing that Ganjifa is actually a corruption of ‘han-chi-pai’, or ‘Chinese playing cards’. In this case, there would be a very clear line of descent from China. In any event, variants of Ganjifa playing cards began to be used throughout the Muslim world, as well as in India (brought there in the saddle bags of the Mughal conquerors). What interests us most is the variant used by the Mamluk in Egypt.

The Egyptian Mamluk were an interesting bunch of people. Initially, they were slave soldiers recruited by the Ayyubid dynasty. For the most part, they were drawn from the Cumans-Kipchaks, a nomadic group who controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea. They were conquered by the Mongols and then absorbed into the Mongol Empire as the Golden Horde. Some time in the 13th Century, the Mamluk slave-soldiers kicked the Ayyubids out and reigned in their place. This happy state of affairs continued until they were in turn defeated by the Ottomans and their territories subsumed into the Ottoman Empire. Luckily for them, the Ottomans kept them on as governors of Egypt.

Perhaps because of their Mongol connection, or in some other way, the Mamluk picked up this new fad of card playing and brought it to Egypt some time in the 14th Century. What is of interest to us here is the fact that Mamluk packs of cards had four suits: Coins, Polo-sticks (the Mamluks were great polo players), Cups, and Swords. In addition, each suit had three face cards, the king, the first vizir, and the second vizir. Some clever people, who know more about the history of playing cards than I do, see a link between these four suits and those used in Chinese playing cards. Their thinking goes as follows. There is no problem in seeing the Mamluk Coin suit being derived from the Chinese Coin suit, that’s an easy equivalence to envisage. After that, it gets trickier. The clever people propose that the Chinese String-of-coins suit was transformed into the Mamluk Polo-stick suit, on the grounds that a String-of-coins pip could easily be misinterpreted as a stick to those unfamiliar with this very Chinese way of dealing with coins. It is true that the String-of-coins suit in the photo of Chinese playing cards above has been so stylized as to look stick-like. Then the clever people suggest that the Chinese Myriad-of-strings suit became the Mamluk cup suit, on the grounds that the Chinese character for myriad, 万, which was often used as a sort of pip, was simply inverted by the Mamluks, at which point it does indeed look cup-like. Finally, the clever people suggest that the Chinese Tens-of-myriads suit, where the Chinese numeral for ten, 十, was often used as the pip, was simply interpreted as a sword by the Mamluk and so gave rise to their suit of Swords. The ice over which we have been scrabbling these last few sentences is indeed thin, but the romantic in me is willing to believe this wonderful story of Central Asians scratching their heads over these strange-looking cards which had come all the way from China and giving their own interpretations to the drawings on them. To enliven all this text, I throw in here a photo of one of the rare Mamluk playing cards to have survived, a Six of Coins, found in Istanbul’s Topkapi palace.
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The next leg of our journey is somewhat easier to envisage, the transit of the Mamluk playing cards to Italy. I’m guessing that Venice was the entry point, although there could have been more than one. Until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made for the Spice Islands, most of the spices which Europeans lusted for entered Europe through Venice, which in turn picked them up in Egypt. In addition to picking up spices, I can imagine Venetian sailors and merchants picking up packs of Mamluk playing cards to while away the long journeys back to Venice. Once in Italy, the use of playing cards spread rapidly, with each region having its own particularities. Here, for instance, is a pack of cards from Bergamo.
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Italian playing cards basically adopted the Mamluk suits, except that they changed Polo-sticks to Clubs – polo was an unknown game in Europe at that time and I suppose the polo-sticks looked club-like to the Italians. They also adopted the idea of three face cards per suit but Europeanized them into king, upper marshal, and lower marshal.

There followed a fairly rapid diffusion of playing cards throughout Europe as the craze for card playing caught on. The Southern Europeans – Spain and Portugal – kept to the Italian design for their suits, with some minor modifications. The Northern Europeans instead experimented with a lot of different suit designs. Given the aristocratic background of many players, the suits were often hunting-themed like this pack from Flanders.
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Through the newfangled technology of printing, in which they were leaders, and through which they were the first to produce cheap packs of cards, the German lands popularized the use of the following suits:
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Personally, I don’t see much connection between these suits and the Italian versions. I think the Germans just used their fantasy. In any event, here are some old German playing cards with suits of Bells and of Acorns.
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Not to be outdone, the French came up with a somewhat different set of suits.
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The Hearts suit was taken as-is from the German suits. The Spades suit seems to be a slight modification of the German Leaf suit. The Clubs suit could be considered a geometric transformation of the Acorns suit – the sides of the acorn shell pulled out, the acorn itself shortened. The circular Bells suit of the Germans was replaced by a different shape, the diamond. As the cards above show, the French also introduced Queens, who displaced the upper marshal.

The French suits have since become those most used worldwide. Why that should be is not completely clear to me. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that the French suits are easier to read; I would have got really confused using those German cards I show above – “wait, is that an Eight of Acorns I have in my hand, or a Nine?” Or perhaps it was because the French were the arbiters of good taste in Europe until World War I. Or perhaps it was because the British adopted the French suits and happened to become the most powerful country in the world with the biggest colonial Empire, which allowed them to impose their choice of card suits and card games on their colonial subjects. Or perhaps it was because the Americans, who took over the title of the most powerful nation, followed them in choosing French suits for their playing cards. For any or all of these reasons, or maybe others again, French suits now stare up at me from my games of Spider Solitaire and Freecell.

Well, now that I’ve figured all that out, I can go back to what I was doing and actually win my Spider Solitaire game.

____________________
Old Chinese cards, coins and strings of coins: http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/Archives/Wilkinson/Wilkinson.html
Old Chinese cards, face card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card
Chi-pai three-suited cards: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_playing_cards#Money-suited_cards
Silk Road: http://archive.silkroadproject.org/tabid/177/defaul.aspx
Mongol Empire: https://mapcollection.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/the-mongol-empire/
Mamluk card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card#Egypt
Bergsmasche deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_playing_cards#/media/File%3ACarte_bergamasche.jpg
Flemish hunting deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flemish_Hunting_Deck
German suites: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_playing_cards
Old German playing cards, acorn: http://www.spielkarten24.de/flohm.htm
Old German playing cars, bells: http://deerbe.com/unt/59680-___alte_spielkarten_playing_cards_dondorf_301_deutsche_spielkarte_1868___.html
Old French playing cards: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde_fr?ACTION=CHERCHER&FIELD_98=AUTR&VALUE_98=BERGERET%20Pierre%20Nolasque&DOM=All&REL_SPECIFIC=1

CHRISTMAS CHEER

New York, 2 January 2016

There was a habit in China that I always found strange – dissonant perhaps is the better word – and that was the locals’ enthusiastic adoption of typical Christmas decorations. One would enter any self-respecting mall at the end of the year and there, standing proudly in the foyer, would be a resplendent Christmas tree.
imageA tree was sort of OK. Pine trees grow in China, right? and one could imagine the Chinese covering them with colorful baubles. I could even live with the muzaked Christmas carols that invariably were being played in the malls. Seeing Father Christmases in China, though, was really strange to me.

A man dressed as Santa Claus walks past two security guards in downtown Shanghai December 23, 2010. Officially recognized by the Finland government after a four-year training, the man is one of 50 officially registered Santa Clauses who is paying a visit to Shanghai, warming up the Christmas holidays. REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY IMAGES OF THE DAY)

I mean, Santa Claus has his roots deep in Northern Europe, in some place like this
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and not in the arid plains of northern China.
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Luckily, I never saw any Santa elves while in China. That would really have been too much, I would have had to take to my bed.

My Chinese office staff always got enthusiastically into the swing of things in the first weeks of December, sprinkling the walls and other surfaces with Christmas decorations.

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I tolerated all this Yuletide good cheer à la chinoise, although the first year I found it somewhat disconcerting that one of the secretaries kept her decorations up around her workspace way after Christmas: a cheerful Santa ho-hoing away and a couple of reindeer-drawn sleighs as I recall.
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In July, I finally got around to asking her why she kept them up. They were cheerful, she replied. OK, why not? My role in running the office did not extend to policing the interior decorations, so long as they didn’t offend public morals.

Luckily, now that we no longer live in China I don’t get this weird feeling of something not quite right around Christmas time. In fact, this year, in Brooklyn, I get the feeling that everything is absolutely right. In this part of Brooklyn (Carroll Gardens), many of the brownstones have small gardens in front of them. Their owners have enthusiastically filled them with various Christmas-themed stuff, many of them lit up at night. The result is a very pleasant walk for me and my wife from the subway stop down to our daughter’s apartment. I throw in here a gallery of the community’s efforts in Christmas son et lumière (actually lumière only; there was no son except for the wind rattling the branches of the trees above our heads).

Here we have a bare-bones offering, although the lights do give off a cheerful glow.
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In these next few photos, the owners have created somewhat more complex tableaux
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whereas in the next cases the owners have made some serious efforts
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All these efforts culminate in a wonderful series of tableaux where compressed air (I guess) has been used to create large and exceedingly cheerful balloon-like sculptures, which wave gently with every passing breeze.
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But a whip around the web shows that all these efforts are nothing compared to what some people have done. Here, for instance, is an unutterably cool house somewhere in Queens.

The owners should get a medal for their efforts.

All things considered, my feelings of discomfort about seeing such cheery Christmas scenes in China are silly. In this highly globalized world of ours, where we all dress the same, eat the same, buy the same furniture and furnishings, see the same movies, and play the same videogames, where’s the harm in the Chinese decorating their apartments, houses, offices, and malls with Christmas paraphernalia? Especially since it’s all made in China.

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_____________________
Christmas tree, China: http://www.ocweekly.com/news/south-coast-plaza-looks-a-lot-more-chinese-these-days-and-its-not-by-accident-6781849
Father Christmas, China: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/what-china-loves-about-christmas-and-doesnt/250488/
Winter, Sweden: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/snowandski/8355017/Skiing-in-re-Sweden-the-place-to-go-for-Europes-best-snow.html
Winter, Inner Mongolia: http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-winter-grassland-inner-mongolia-china-image50804885
Christmas decorations in office, China: http://godfatherstyle.com/creative-inspirational-work-place-christmas-decorations/
Santa Claus wall decoration: http://www.aliexpress.com/store/product/2Pcs-28x21cm-Merry-Christmas-Santa-Claus-Wall-Stickers-Christmas-Decoration-Random-Pattern-Christmas-Stickers/532381_32242806520.html
Garden Xmas decorations: my photos
Highly decorated house: http://indesignss.co/best/best-christmas-decorated-house-in-queens

A STUDY OF FEET

Bangkok, 19 October 2015

One of the interesting side-effects of living in Bangkok is that I can carry out a comprehensive study of feet. The climate here is such that the wearing of open footwear is exceedingly widespread, so I can examine – surreptitiously, of course – a very large number of feet as I walk around, sit in public places, or – as was the case when I started this post – sit in buses stuck in Bangkok’s perennially dreadful traffic. Since so many foreigners come to Bangkok, the study is very cross-cultural: I study not only the feet of the Thai, but also – judging from the shards of phrases I overhear as the foreigners walk by – Australians, Europeans of all stripes, North Americans, some Latin Americans, quite a number of Middle Easterners, a sprinkling of Africans, and of course Asians from every corner of Asia. I am now ready to report back on the findings of my study.

Let us first set the benchmark against which I can compare the feet I see. This would be a foot in its natural state, that is to say a foot that is perennially shoeless. This photo, which I’ve used before, gives an excellent example. What we have here is a band of Amazonian Indians who are coming into contact with the modern world for the first time. Their astonished and somewhat fearful faces upturned towards the helicopter (I guess) are fascinating, but I would invite the reader to focus on their feet, feet which have never been shod.

amazonian Indian feet

As the readers will quickly agree, these feet are in the state that most human feet have been in for 99.99% of the time we have inhabited this planet.

I throw in here an older photo, taken – no doubt by some amateur anthropologist – to deliberately show a natural foot. And of course it has to be an old photo, because wearing shoes is probably now the norm rather than the exception. Finding a foot nowadays which has never been shod must indeed be hard.

natural and baby feet

Note the way the toes in the natural foot, especially the big toe, are splayed out. A minute’s thought will show that of course this is the way it should be. By spreading out like that, toes are giving the foot a wider footprint and therefore making it easier for the person on top of those feet to balance.

In this photo of a baby’s feet, the reader will notice that they naturally take this splayed form

baby feet

Only later, through imprisonment in shoes, do the toes come closer together

feet with toes close

sometimes too close together.

toes too close

I am reminded of TS Eliot’s poem Animula, which tracks the evolution of a person’s soul from birth to adulthood, but which actually describes very well the fate of our feet: “‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’ …Issues from the hand of time, the simple soul … misshapen, lame, unable to fare forward …”.

But back to the matter in hand. Having set the benchmark, I can now report the results of my pseudo-sociological field experiment in the streets and other public spaces of Bangkok.

Generally speaking, the feet of Thai people look in considerably better shape than those of foreigners from “civilized” countries. A good number have quite splayed toes, fruit no doubt of hardly ever wearing shoes at home. In fact, it’s quite common to see their little toes falling off their flip-flops or sandals. Clearly, the basic “chassis design”, if I can put it that way, adopted by shoe manufacturers simply ignores the natural form of the foot with splayed toes. Shoe manufacturers take as their starting point an already somewhat malformed foot. Well they would, wouldn’t they? After all, it is their products which have malformed out feet in the first place. Other Thais have moderately straightened toes, fruit of some level of constriction by shoes.

thai girl's feet

I detect a social element here. It is clear from their dress and occupation that the Thai owners of feet whose toes are splayed come from the poorer strata of society, while those with feet with straight toes come from the richer ones. And I also detect a gender element. Young Thai women show more evidence of constricted toes than do the men. I will come back to this in a minute.

As for the feet of the foreigners, those of people from more developed, richer, more “civilized” countries show toes much more tightly squeezed together

white feet in flip flops

along with more extreme signs of foot distress: bunions

bunions

hammer toes

hammer toes

calluses and corns.

Like in the case of the Thai, women’s feet seem more malformed than men’s. Which gets us of course to the cause of all these foot problems: canons of accepted (feminine) beauty.

Let’s face it, for hundreds if not thousands of years, there has been this insidious idea that those members of society who are more civilized, more refined – and richer – have delicate (for women) or well proportioned (for men) limbs and features. Hands, of course, have always been a particular object of this odious social creed, because having big hands, and especially having big fingers, meant that you were poor and so did a lot of manual labour.

working hands

If you were rich, on the other hand, you could pay people to do your manual labour for you, leaving your hands and fingers slim.

slim hands

With feet, it must have been a little different. Like grand clothes, the fact that you wore shoes showed that you had money to burn, not like that bum on the street who had to run around in his bare feet all day. And of course, slim, petite, shoes (that is to say, narrow, horribly constricting, shoes) showed (or pretended to show, since your feet were actually squashed into the shoe) that you had slim, petite, feet, not broad feet like that bum on the street etc.

Woman's_silk_brocade_shoes_1770s

This last pair of shoes, with their modest heels, allows me to segue smoothly into that terrible habit of wearing high-heeled shoes. As we all know, it’s mostly women who wear them, but men do too, depending on the state of fashion. I am ready to reveal at this time that when I was young and foolish I went through a phase of wearing platform boots, one black pair and one brown, which looked like this.

platform shoes

Apart from feeling pretty cool as I walked around Uni, I found a most satisfying side-effect to be that I was taller. No doubt that’s one reason why women do this to their feet

high heels

which when you strip away the shoe looks like this.

foot in high heel position

Modest heels I could understand. I mean, I fell for them. But why subject yourself to the pain of excessively high heels, not only a pain that comes today but also a pain that dogs you for years to come? Because men still rule the world, and they like to see the accentuated swish in a woman’s gait caused by walking in high heels, or maybe they like the fact that her legs look longer, or that her feet look smaller, or her toes shorter, when wearing heels. Or maybe it makes women take smaller steps, to avoid falling over (my wife still remembers her father exhorting her to take small steps, because that was more ladylike and refined). Or maybe because it makes men feel strong to see women tottering around on heels, not able to walk very far before complaining of sore feet and needing help.

Fanciful? Perhaps. But consider this. For nearly one thousand years, from early in the Song dynasty, about 1000 AD, to the early 20th Century, many Chinese women were subjected to the unbearably painful process of foot binding. To appreciate the full horror of this practice, let me give the readers a quick summary of what girls were subjected to. The process was started when girls were between the ages of 4 and 9, that is, before the arches of their feet had had a chance to develop fully. First, after softening the feet and cutting back the toenails, the toes of each foot were curled under and then pressed with great force into the sole of the foot until – the – toes – broke. But it didn’t finish there. While the broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot, the arch of the foot was also broken so that the foot could be drawn down straight with the leg. So you basically smashed the little girl’s feet. Then you started the binding. The idea was to pull the ball of the foot ever closer to the heel, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath the sole.

As the readers can imagine, a girl’s broken feet required a great deal of care and attention if she was not to die from this process; it is estimated that 10% of girls died from gangrene and other infections due to foot binding. So their feet were regularly unbound, they were washed, the toes unfolded and checked for injury, and the nails carefully trimmed. The broken feet were also kneaded to soften them and the soles of the girl’s feet beaten to make the joints and broken bones more flexible. Then the poor girl’s broken toes were folded back under and the feet rebound. Every time the feet were rebound, the bindings were pulled even tighter. The ideal was to end up with a “foot” no more than 10 cm long.

The Chinese are nothing if not eminently practical. Recognizing that mothers might well be too sympathetic to their daughters’ pain, it was generally an older female member of the family or a professional foot binder who carried all this out. Oh, and the process was usually started during the winter time since girls’ feet were more likely to be numb from the cold, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme. How nice of them.

This was the result:

crushed bound foot

Chinese lady with bound feet

Of course, no-one except the persons caring for the feet ever saw this. What they saw was this, these oh-so dainty little shoes.

Lotus-ShoesAnd why were Chinese women subjected to this horrible procedure for a thousand years? For beauty, of course. Men ruled China (they still do), and crazy as it might sound to the modern reader, men considered bound feet to enhance a woman’s beauty by making her movements more dainty and “ladylike”. As readers can imagine, it was difficult to walk on broken feet. Women with bound feet tended to walk predominantly on their heels. As a result, they walked with a cautious, unsteady gait, taking tiny, swaying steps. And, of course, that most important thing where women were concerned, well bound feet helped her parents contract a good marriage for her. It could also be that it was found to be an effective way of forcing women to be housebound and completely reliant on men. In this view, traditional societies forbid women from leaving the house; the Chinese simply broke their feet.

So what is the moral of all this? Look after your feet! Stop obsessing about narrow, dainty feet. Celebrate splayed toes. Go to the office in flip-flops and take off your shoes the moment you sit at your desk (which is what most Thais do). Put on sandals until the dead of winter; our feet can tolerate quite a lot of cold. Throw away all your high-heeled shoes. And if a man ever asks you to wear high heels, cut him mercilessly out of your life; he is clearly a swine.

_____________________

Amazonian Indian feet: http://birthdayshoes.com/media/blogs/bdayshoes/2013_Photos/.evocache/human_feet_look_like_if_you_never_wear_shoes.jpg/fit-640×540.jpg?mtime=1386261566 (in http://birthdayshoes.com/what-a-natural-human-foot-looks-like-if-you-never-wear-shoes)

Natural human feet: http://origin.ih.constantcontact.com/fs096/1102283092773/img/101.jpg?a=1102864935304 (in http://www.sukiebaxter.com/could-your-feet-be-the-source-of-that-pain-in-your-neck)

Baby feet: http://naturalrunningcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Screen-shot-2012-02-26-at-5.30.11-PM.png (in http://naturalrunningcenter.com/2012/02/27/enhancing-natural-pronation-control-feet-designed-that/

Feet with toes close: http://www.guide2health.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/bare-feet.jpg (in http://www.guide2health.net/2012/08/life-long-immunity-to-disease/bare-feet/)

Feet with toes too close: http://i.imgur.com/aURQcnm.jpg (in http://www.inquisitr.com/931111/lebron-james-feet-picture-of-stars-messed-up-toes-goes-viral/)

Thai girl’s feet: http://www.zeefashionstore.com/ProductImage/18391/1.jpg (in http://www.zeefashionstore.com/womenshoes.php?brand=79&section=6)

White feet in flip-flops: http://blog.diagnosticfootspecialists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/flip-flops.jpg (in http://blog.diagnosticfootspecialists.com/)

Bunions: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Hallux_Valgus-Aspect_pr%C3%A9_op_d%C3%A9charge.JPG (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunion)

Hammer toes: http://images.medicinenet.com/images/slideshow/diabetes_foot_problems_s13_hammertoes.jpg (in http://www.medicinenet.com/image-collection/hammertoes_picture/picture.htm)

Working hands: https://scpeanutgallery.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/working-hands.jpg (in http://scpeanutgallery.com/2015/02/04/morning-prayer-4-feb-heb-124-7-11-15-mk-61-6-get-a-grip/)

Slim hands: http://hoocher.com/Agnolo_Bronzino/Portrait_of_Lucrezia_Panciatichi_ca_1540.jpg (in http://hoocher.com/Agnolo_Bronzino/Agnolo_Bronzino.htm)

Woman’s shoes 1770: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/Woman’s_silk_brocade_shoes_1770s.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1775%E2%80%9395_in_Western_fashion)

Platform boots: http://img3.etsystatic.com/000/0/5381238/il_fullxfull.291560419.jpg (in http://galleryhip.com/platform-shoes-for-men.html)

High heels: http://www.glamour.com/images/fashion/2013/08/heels-w724.jpg (in http://www.glamour.com/fashion/blogs/dressed/2013/08/check-out-this-3d-scan-of-what)

Women in high heel position: http://www.tellwut.com/uploads/media/image/12607e1398914701o270.jpg (in http://katherincruikshank.blogas.lt/tag/hammer-toes)

Crushed bound foot: http://www.buzzfeed.com/hayleycampbell/lotus-feet#.vj027qN6E (in http://www.buzzfeed.com/hayleycampbell/lotus-feet#.eegdQJg3y0)

Chinese lady with bound feet: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_binding#/media/File:A_HIGH_CASTE_LADYS_DAINTY_LILY_FEET.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_binding#Variation_in_practice)

Lotus shoes: http://www.top5ives.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Lotus-Shoes.jpg (in http://www.top5ives.com/top-5-most-weird-shoes-in-history/)

PÉTANQUE

Bangkok, 29 August 2015

I wrote a post a year or so ago where I listed all things French. One of the things I didn’t list, though, was the game of pétanque. Anyone who has spent any time in France will eventually have come across a scene like this

petanques in France

especially if you’re there for the summer holidays; it seems that it’s all the French do during their summer holidays at the beach.

Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice

In truth, my memory of pétanque leans more in the direction of the following photo, the game on the village square ringed with those poor plane trees that the French love to massacre, with ten times more spectators than players – and all looking so serious!

petanque old photo

So French is pétanque that it played a major role in that magisterial compendium of all that is French, Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix.

Asterix et le tour de Gaule

The scene takes place in Masilia (today’s Marseilles) – a nod to the Provençal roots of the game – where a Roman patrol is threatened with riot, revolution, massacre, war, in brief general catastrophe, if they disrupt a game of pétanque started especially to let our heroes get away.

petanque in asterix

To further slow down the game and impede the Roman patrol from advancing, the classic question is being heatedly debated: “je tire ou je pointe?” Should the bowler try to knock away the adversaries’ bowls close to the cochonnet (jack in English), or should he try to get his bowl even closer than theirs to the cochonnet? Extremely delicate question, which explains the serious expressions of everyone in the black and white photo above. It was also the object of serious fights between my French cousins when we played the game at my grandmother’s house. The games normally finished abruptly with them running after each other through the garden, screaming.

Yes, so French: a Gauloise cigarette in corner of the mouth, a glass of pastis in one hand, a petanque bowl in the other, and the pondering of that existential question: “je tire ou je pointe?”

Imagine, then, my astonishment when, during a visit a few Chinese New Years ago to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, I noticed a group of locals playing a game of pétanque. So astonished was I that I took a photo to memorialize the scene. Alas! I cannot find the photo anymore, but no matter, others have memorialized the playing of pétanque in Laos on the internet.

petanque in Laos

After some thinking, I concluded that perhaps it was not all that surprising that Laotians should play pétanque. After all, they had been a French colony. No doubt they would have watched their colonial masters while away their afternoons playing the game and perhaps played it themselves in the mother country while there on scholarships and plotting revolution. And it’s a great game for a hot climate, no frantic running around under the broiling sun.

But imagine my even greater astonishment when several months ago I noticed a group of Thai playing pétanque, or petaung in Thai (my transliteration of what my office colleagues called it). I was so gobsmacked that I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photo, so I throw in here one that I found on the net. As we can see, the players are obviously debating the question, “je tire ou je pointe?”

petanque in Thailand

How did they pick up the game? Could it have come through Laos? Or Cambodia, or even Vietnam, also ex-French colonies and where the game is played? Or was it brought by Frenchmen in the service of the King or Government? Whatever the origin, the fact is they play it well. In preparing this post, I discovered that there is an International Championship of pétanque which has been held every two years since 1959. The French, of course, have dominated the event, with French teams winning 27 golds, 12 silvers, and 14 bronzes. But, surprise, surprise, the Thai have won 3 silvers and 3 bronzes, all this since 1991. They seem to be creeping slowly up the medal tables; gold no doubt awaits them soon.

Thoroughly intrigued, I did a rapid internet zip around the world, and discovered many more places where pétanque is played. Just in Asia, I found traces of it in India

BAKEA9 India, Pondicherry Territory, Pondicherry, French consulate, Petanque game

although I suspect it may be limited to the old French enclave of Pondicherry

Japan

petanque in Kumamoto Japan

the hats are an interesting stylistic addition

China

petanque en chine

although I never saw it being played in my five years there, and if this picture is anything to go by the Government has infiltrated the game and officialized it: where are the villagers playing in the shade of the trees?

I didn’t find a picture of anyone playing pétanque in South Korea although there seems to be national federation of pétanque and bowls. What the Koreans do seem to have done is to invent a video-game of pétanque – it figures, I suppose, given South Koreans’ passion for video-games.

petanque video game screen

A number of my posts have touched on the issue of globalization. I suppose this is another example of that. I wonder if the French have ever tried making pétanque an Olympic sport? They could win a few more gold medals for a while, until the rest of the world beat them at their own game (like the Japanese with judo).

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Pétanque in France: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/zjJAcu2o03U/maxresdefault.jpg (in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjJAcu2o03U)

Petanque on the beach: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c2/Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice.jpg/500px-Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pétanque)

Pétanque old photo: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/160702255-albert-debarge-marries-josianne-rousset-in-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=GkZZ8bf5zL1ZiijUmxa7QRb3elaikB0wsuIje6LZ5qIlZFwr4Iyt%2bAtEtk63h7vGHw9WDtPuEHn0XScy7CdEvPc6MFA3lWBXE1Yr5pP3Qlg%3d (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/albert-debarge-marries-josianne-rousset-in-saint-tropez-news-photo/160702255)

Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix: http://www.asterix.com/bd/albs/05frx.jpg (in http://www.asterix.com/la-collection/les-albums/le-tour-de-gaule-d-asterix.html)

Pétanque in Laos: http://blog.uniterre.com/uploads/f/frchazelle/576704.jpg (in http://www.uniterre.com/album-photos-voyage-21819.html)

Pétanque in Thailand: http://il2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/9605459/thumb/1.jpg?i10c=img.resize(height:160) (in http://www.shutterstock.com/de/video/clip-5718971-stock-footage-petanque-sports.html)

Pétanque in Kumamoto Japan: http://blog-imgs-50.fc2.com/a/k/a/akazawamitsuishi/img_1715696_52818299_2.jpg (in http://akazawamitsuishi.blog59.fc2.com/blog-entry-1676.html)

Pétanque in Pondicherry India: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/BAKEA9/india-pondicherry-territory-pondicherry-french-consulate-petanque-BAKEA9.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-india-pondicherry-territory-pondicherry-french-consulate-petanque-23785281.html)

Pétanque in China: http://www.boulistenaute.com/uploads/thumbs/4757.jpg (in http://www.boulistenaute.com/modules/newbb/viewattachment.php?topic_id=24172&post_id=692310&forum=37)

Petanque video-game screen: http://a4.mzstatic.com/eu/r30/Purple6/v4/2d/9a/0d/2d9a0d66-5b26-79d9-7d31-21b3b2e2340c/screen340x340.jpeg (in https://www.apptweak.com/petanque-2012-pro/iphone-ipad/kr/en/app-marketing-app-store-optimization-aso/report/497991055)

 

筷子, OR CHOPSTICKS TO YOU AND ME

Beijing, 6 September 2014

In our dying days in China – we leave for good in a week – it seems appropriate that I should write my last posting from Beijing about that most Chinese of utensils, the chopstick. I have a feeling that chopsticks and the Chinese food they pick up are probably the first contact which most Europeans have with Chinese culture (in the very broadest sense of that term), down at their local Chinese restaurant

Chinese restaurant UK

where fun is had by all trying to figure out how to use these two sticks

trying to use chopsticks

and where in recent years helpful instructions are printed on the paper wrapping around the chopsticks to help us ignoramuses figure this out.

instructions to use chopsticks

Certainly, I rapidly found out when I arrived here that the Chinese generally didn’t expect me to be able to manipulate chopsticks and always solicitously asked me at the beginning of meals if I wanted a knife and fork. But after years of experimentation in my local Chinese restaurants back home and after hours of carefully studying the instructions on my chopsticks’ paper wrappings, I felt that my chopstick skills were good enough and I would grandly wave away these offers of help. Generally speaking, it’s worked and I have not made too much of a fool of myself, although slippery food still defeats me completely, and I do tend to end up with numerous stains on my trousers.

Although I am a firm believer in the adage “When in Rome do as the Romans”, and will therefore use chopsticks when in Beijing, in my heart of hearts I think forks are so much better than chopsticks. I mean, it seems so much more efficient to spear pieces of food

Picture 566

rather than tweeze them

Cooked tiger shrimp with thyme twig in chopsticks

while also having available the secondary possibility of scooping if needed (for peas, for instance).

peas on a fork

And twinning a fork with a knife means that cooks can turn over the pesky work of cutting up the food to the eaters rather than to have to do this work themselves in the kitchen.

But I will admit that chopsticks are aesthetically more pleasing than forks. Or at least they are to me (and here I pull out another venerable adage: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”). Used to the grotty pieces of balsa-like wood offered to us in Chinese restaurants, it came as something of a shock to my wife and I when we were offered two beautiful sets of chopsticks on our first trip to Japan. They looked something like this.

wakasa chopsticks

mother of pearl chopsticks

That was some thirty-odd years ago. They have travelled with us everywhere we’ve gone, like talismans. When we first got to Beijing, we visited Qianmen, which is a pedestrianized road to the south of Tiananmen Square. It’s very touristy, full of shops, generally pretty awful. But there was one shop which drew me like a magnet, a clearly high-end shop which sold chopsticks

chopstick-shop in qianmen

I went in and looked around. Beautiful, so beautiful – but hideously expensive. I was staggered by the prices and left empty-handed. I beg to differ with yet another adage, “beauty has no price”.

The shop taught me something I hadn’t known. Chinese chopsticks are blunt

Chinese chopstickswhile Japanese chopsticks are pointed

Japanese chopsticks

Weighing it all up, I think pointed chopsticks are more pleasant on the eye than blunt ones – and you can spear things if necessary.

I leave you with a beautiful sunburst of chopsticks. Enjoy!

circle of chopsticks

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Chinese restaurant UK: http://junk4lunch.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/wpid-img_20130808_hingloong.jpg [in http://junk4lunch.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/beef-brisket-noodle-soup-hing-loong-borough-high-street/%5D

Trying to use chopsticks: https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-GjkRDYGgO3Q/TWmPeRm9UMI/AAAAAAAADTc/CAllPWrsOCc/s1600/DSCN2786.JPG [in http://memoriesexpress.blogspot.com/2011/02/day-46-54cancun-vacation.html%5D

How to use chopsticks: http://www.askjohnenglish.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/chopsticks.jpg [in http://www.askjohnenglish.com/conversation/how-to-use-chopsticks%5D

Forks: https://retail.libbey.com/var/libbey/storage/images/retail-home/product-repository/appetizer-fork/211460-1-eng-US/Appetizer-Fork.jpg [in https://retail.libbey.com/Product-Repository/Appetizer-Fork/%28language%29/eng-US%5D

Chopsticks and shrimp: http://static5.depositphotos.com/1000383/493/i/950/depositphotos_4934044-Cooked-tiger-shrimp-with-thyme-twig-in-chopsticks.jpg [in http://depositphotos.com/4934044/stock-photo-cooked-tiger-shrimp-with-thyme-twig-in-chopsticks.html%5D

Peas on a fork: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/peas-fork-15791390.jpg [in http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-peas-fork-image15791390%5D

Wakasa chopsticks: http://blog.everythingchopsticks.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/315-700_LS.jpg [in http://blog.everythingchopsticks.com/wakasa-chopsticks/%5D

Mother of pearl chopsticks: https://www.everythingchopsticks.com/images/CHP194.jpg [in https://www.everythingchopsticks.com/bone-chopsticks-with-scattered-mother-pearl-pi-361.html?image=0%5D

Chopstick shop in Qianmen: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-kGrxQQwS1ZM/Tx0jpZHQnuI/AAAAAAAAA5Y/bgbpkFFt0Yo/s1600/chopstick-shop.jpg [in http://englishcoffeedrinker.blogspot.com/2012/01/happy-new-year.html%5D

Chinese chopsticks: http://www.silvermagpie.co.uk/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/c/h/chopsticks.jpg [in http://www.silvermagpie.co.uk/chinese-chopsticks.html%5D

Japanese chopsticks: http://blog.everythingchopsticks.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/315-709.jpg [in http://blog.everythingchopsticks.com/all-about-asian-chopsticks/%5D

A circle of chopsticks: http://www.thecuriouscreature.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/32.jpg [in http://www.thecuriouscreature.com/tag/sushi/%5D

PEOPLE ON THE MOVE

Bangkok, 27 July 2014

Well, I’ve received my transfer orders. I’m moving to Bangkok to take over our office there. So my wife and I have been down in Bangkok for the last week, looking for a place to stay. For the moment, we’re renting an apartment which we got through AirBnB. It gives right onto the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the middle of the city and around which the city grew. So as we have breakfast in the morning before we go out apartment-hunting we can watch the traffic on the river: the empty barges, riding high

ships on river 002

the full barges, with water to their gunwales

ships on river 005

the express boats crowded with commuters darting in between as they weave their way from bank to bank.

ships on river 001

But what also catches my eye is this temple on the other side of the river

temple across the river 001

and it always reminds me of … China. Or rather, a certain corner of China, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. This is way down in the south of Yunnan province, squeezed between Laos to the East and Myanmar to the West. A few years back, we spent a Dragon Boat Festival holiday in the prefecture’s main town, Jinghong, in a beautiful house which was built from elements scavenged from traditional houses that were being torn down in China’s rush to modernity.

Yourantai-interior

It too gave on a river, the Mekong in this case (although the Chinese don’t call it that; it’s the Lancang River to them), and there too we could gaze down on the river while having our breakfast.

Yourantai-view of the river

The temples in Jinghong are built in the same style as the one I see across my breakfast table, or at least the newer establishments are.

Mange-Buddhist-Temple-Jinghong-XishuangBanna

The older temples in the area are somewhat more sobre.

temple Xishuangbanna

This very obvious echoing of the Thai style has a simple reason. The Thai people (Dai people in this part of the world, hence the name of the prefecture) originally came from southern China. Then, for reasons which may have to do with the southwards migration of the Han Chinese, a portion of them upped sticks in the first millennium AD and started wandering south through Laos and Myanmar until they settled in what is now Thailand. But they left echoes of their culture behind, reflected in the designs of the temples but also in the language – many of the signs in Jinghong are in Thai as well as in Chinese.

The local culture (Thai and non-Thai; the ethnic mix in this part of the world is quite bewildering) is threatened with submersion in the Han culture – recall that this is why the Thais probably originally started migrating southwards. Until the 1950s there were few Han Chinese in this part of Yunnan – they were afraid of the malaria, which was then endemic. But the Chinese communists vigorously promoted programmes which eradicated the malaria. They then brought in poverty-stricken migrants from other parts of China and put them to work cutting down the jungle and planting rubber trees in its place, so now the hills around Jinghong are monotonously covered with acre after acre of rubber trees. These are all clones from the same genetic line. Those who know about these things predict that sooner or later (probably sooner rather than later) a rubber tree virus from Brazil will arrive here and wipe out every single rubber tree: an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

In the meantime, the descendants of the miserably poor Chinese who were sent to Xishuangbanna to plant and tap all those rubber trees still live in miserably poor Chinese villages, scorned and resented by the local populations.

As I look at the temple across the river and reflect on all these historic movements of people, I am reminded of the current tensions in Thailand caused by more recent movements, tensions between migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, who do the dirty, poorly paying jobs which the locals no longer want to do, and the Thais, who have conveniently forgotten (if they were ever taught) that they too were once migrants.

“Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, as Jean-Baptiste Karr, a French journalist and novelist, said back in 1849, and as my French grandmother was fond of quoting: the more things change, the more they stay the same. So true.

___________________

Chao Phraya river pics: mine

Yourantai-interior: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/b9/8b/a5/les-repas-dans-un-cadre.jpg [in http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g528741-d1749170-i28937125-Yourantai_B_B-Jinghong_Yunnan.html%5D

Yourantai-river view: http://www.cielyunnan.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Yourantai-24.jpg [in http://www.cielyunnan.com/hotels/hotels-xishuangbanna/xishuangbanna-yourantai-resort/%5D

Buddhist temple Jinghong: http://www.yunnanadventure.com/UploadFiles/Yunnan-Attractions/Xishuangbanna-Attractions/Mange-Buddhist-Temple-Jinghong-XishuangBanna.jpg [in http://www.yunnanadventure.com/attraction-p156-mange-buddhist-temple-jinghong-city

Temple Xishuangbanna: http://www.wildchina.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/img_8570.jpg [in http://www.wildchina.com/es/multimedia/wildchina-blog-details/yunnan-hiking-in-xishuangbanna%5D