Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Begging to Differ

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

The majestic mountains, the intensely deep blue sky with its blotches of white clouds, the grand architecture of Lamaist monasteries and temples, the distinctly handsome features of the Tibet people, their nomadic tents with herds of yak, sheep and goats — who cannot be impressed?  Words fail me, as they often do, so I suggest a trip there yourself, or perhaps just a high-price, coffee-table book.

Our guide Dawu, at age 15, slipped across the border without passport or permission to join the 14th Dalai Lama’s community-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, for three years.  There he learned very serviceable English and a deep regard for Tibetan Buddhism before slipping back to Lhasa, where he now supports his family of two young boys as tour guide.  If only within the confines of our tour mini-van he talks about his experiences and political feelings openly.  An eminently reasonable and pleasant man; certainly not a firebrand. And a Tibentan through and through.

It doesn’t take a guide to point out the Chinese military presence; it is obvious and obscene.  In the Tiben quarter of Lhasa there are armed, riot-geared, five-man posts literally on every-other street corner, observation stations on many a roof-top, long convoys of military trucks clogging the twisting highways radiating from the Capital.  Having grown up with the Kent State and Tiananmen Square killings, I suffer a viceral response to the sight of a country’s military force ready to turn it fire power on its own people.

Chinese economic imperialism is scarcely less obvious.  Lhasa during the summer tourist season, at least, is 2:1 Chinese to Tibetan.  The administrational talent and money behind Dawu’s organization, I suppose typically, was a friendly Chinese guy with an effective, entrpreneurial pitch on the Internet, and to whom I rendered my sheckels without a wince.  I have no idea what proportion of the fee ended up in Dawu’s pockets.

There are serious problems with the relationship between Tibet and China, but I beg to differ with the “Free Tibet” crowd as to the solutions.  For one thing, I have reservations that the notion of self-determination implies that every ethnic group is entitled to its own nation-state.  The Kosovo model is not a good one.  There are practical problems arising from the ancient mingling of peoples.  Half of Tibetans live outside of the borders of the present “Tibetan Autonmous Region”, in provinces like Yunnan, Sichuan, Xinjiang and Qinghai — undisputably parts of China.  Where does a free Tibet leave them? China is certainly not about to acquiesce in four additional provinces being dismembered to achieve a Greater Tibet.  Which state would?

There are sound arguments under international law supporting the hegemony of China over Tibet. The Brits, who tried themselves to invade Tibet in 1911 — and failed to establish any but a transient presence — concede the point.  Lest you regard the brutal 1951 invasion by the PLA (the Chinese refer to the “peaceful liberation”) as a tick in Mao’s twisted brain, know that, had the Guomingdang previaled in the Chinese Civil War, they too would have reasserted Chinese control over Tibet by armed means as necessary.  Both sides of the Strait, which agree on little else, agree on that.

My inspiration for an appropriate resolution comes from the Constitution of the United States.  That document provides for federal authority in a remarkably few matters:  national defense, foreign affairs, minting money, postal services, interstate commerce, including transportation — with other powers left to the states (read “autonomous regions”) or to the people. Tibet’s being an integral part of China in those senses is not a bad idea at all.  (No need to point out to me that the Beijing power elite doesn’t share my regard for the U.S. Constitution: thank you, I’m keenly aware of that.  But that does not disqualify it as a model of appropriate resolution.)

The U.S. Constitution also requires the federal government to guarantee democratic forms of government of the States.  And that, to me, is the crux of the problem.  Restoration of a Lamaist theocracy in Tibet would be even more reprehensible than the current sham-socialist autocracy.  No sane European considers restoration of European medieval Christianity as essential to the preservation of “European Culture”: preservation of its cathedrals, performance of its music, display of its art, and free exercise of its rituals (for the maybe 5% of European “Christians” who choose it) is sufficient.  But all that in the context of a robust, secular rule of law, free of church domination, even if tainted by the smell of “Christian” political parties.

That is what is needed in Tibet, and, even as the Chinese are wide of the mark, the Lamaists are wider. Democratization of Tibet will follow in the wake of democratization of China — and that process will not be accelerated by the creation of an Iranian-style theocracy in a “free” Tibet.

Of course, I snapped my tourist photos of the flagellating pilgrims (not literally, but crawling prostrate to holy places strikes me as a psychological equivalent) and mendicant monks, even stuffing a few jiao into their beggars cups — though not in sympathy or support, but out of a sort of pruriency of which I am especially not proud.

Chinese economic colonialism is a trickier matter.  Chinese investment in the remarkable engineering feats of highway and railroad construction along the roof of the world obviously facilitates military logistics and the easy movement of Chinese in and out of Tibet, but these transportation links are also indispensible infrastructure for tourism, which, in turn, is essential to the preservation of the artifacts of Tibetan Buddhism. It would not take a huge leap of imagination to insure involvement of Tibetans in Tibetan prosperity, for the Chinese need look no further than their own, effective techniques of blunting the insidious intrusion of Western capital into China.  Chinese requirements for joint-venture arrangements have had phenomenal effect on retaining the proceeds of overseas investment within China’s borders:  witness the economic expansion, the rising standard of living, the enormous dollar reserves.  The model ought to transfer nicely to Han-Chinese investment in Tibet, giving Tibetans a real stake in their land’s business and economy.  Implementation of such a model ought to be within the authority of a truly autonomous government in the TAR.

At present, apparently, it is not.  Mild mannered and heavy-handed President Hu Jintao spent a couple of years in Tibet as Communist Party chief (Are there no good Tibetan communists up to the job?); his hard-line is not out of bureaucratic ignorance of that remote place. Even so, I believe the route to preservation of the unique Tibetan culture and society is not with the separatists, but with those who can argue persuasively and cogently with the thickheads in Beijing at a truly autonomous Tibet, ruled by civilians, according to civil law, by and for Tibetans, is the most economic (an obsessive idea in China) and harmonious (a favorite term of the central government) solution to preserving Tibet while retaining it as an integral part of China.

Pain in the Wrist

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

My earlier bout with tenosynovitis had cooled off several months, but had announced its return soon after my arrival in Wuhan.  After a month of tolerating it, I decided it was time to seek medical help. Secretly I hoped Chinese physicians might have some alternative approaches of coping with the malady — which I believe, without much supporting evidence, to be an autoimmune glitch.

In fact, Chinese medical practice is of two minds:  traditional and Western, without a lot of overlap.  Zhejiang Medical School (where I taught for a year in 2007) is decidedly Western in its M.O., with traditional studies relegated to a separate Institute.  In effect, treatment options are already settled by the time you walk in the door of a particular clinic.

Nor did I choose which door.  That was built into the mission of the Girl-Friday in the International Office commissioned to assist me.  But that’s alright, because the point of this note is not to compare traditional vs. Western outcome in the treatment of tenosynovitis, but to narrate my trip to the clinic.

I’ll begin with the forty-minute bus ride on a typically crowed, bumpy, swerving Chinese bus, which afforded standing room only.  My reasons for including this detail will become obvious later.

A short walk beyond the bus stop brings us to the outpatient clinic of a major, right-bank (of Yangtze) hospital.  Outpatient clinics are the standard mode of primary medical care; private or small-group practices are not permitted, and nobody has thought, apparently, to market HMOs to the Chinese.

Being a newcomer to this clinic, the first queue was to get a “clinic book” — my new, portable medical record.  Five yuan was the fee.  Next queue was to sign up with a particular clinic, based on your complaint.  A quick chat between my interpreter and a nurse (hanging around for the purpose?) suggested “internal medicine” was appropriate.

We find our way to the internal medicine clinic, where a nurse points out the consultation room.  The door was open, and a consultation in progress, but it soon became clear that to maintain ones place in the queue, I had to jostle my way into the room and deliver my appointment-slip to an assistant, who, awkwardly, was sitting at a table on the far side of the physician and his on-going consultation, and that in a none too spacious room. Thus, my appointment slip was put to the bottom of the assistant’s pile, with perhaps three or four above it.

An exact number is hard to ascertain, since body counts are deceptive.  At any one time, there were several people in the room — beyond the physician and his assistant — some, probably most, of whom were on-lookers.  I would surmise that a typical patient was accompanied by several family members, quite willing to add their commentary to the information flow of the consultation.  But I also deduce that there was more than one such patient-plus-entourage groups in the room at a time, for the simple reason that, as one group left, another patient took his seat in the examination chair from among those already in the room.

In fact, I waited in a chair just outside the open door, and was eventually invited in — along with my entourage, Girl Friday.  Her interpretive services really weren’t needed, for the physician spoke excellent English.  This didn’t surprise me, since, from my experience at Zhejiang University Medical School teaching medical students, I knew of the generally high level of English among these students.  Indeed, I got the feeling that he was proud-as-pink of rendering his judgements in English.

That judgement was a high-fidelity echo of the American physician’s pronouncement:  you must immobilize that wrist; it will never heal if you continue to use it.  Though, unlike my American physician, he did not prescribe or suggest a splint to help me with that unrealistic discipline.  He did, however,  scribble out two prescriptions, one for an anti-inflamatory drug, the other for an over-the-counter cortisone creme. The scribblings were mostly not Chinese, but in that quasi-Latin used to describe drugs and dosage.  I daresay any American pharmacist could have dealt with it.  The entry into my clinic-book is in Chinese.

Now dismissed from consultation, and clutching a few addition sheets of paper, we made our way back downstairs to the cashier queues.  Total charge: 55 Yuan, about $8.00, along with a receipt that enabled me to collect the prescribed remedies from the adjacent pharmacy.

The first challenge to the immobilization discipline presented itself on the bus ride home.  Packed as usual, with the inertia of erect bodies lurching in unison with the linear and centrifugal accelerations of the bus, my common-sense prescription overrode the professional one:  hold tight with both hands.  We arrived back on campus just at lunch time, and soon faced challenge #2: chopsticking with my left hand. Admittedly, chopstick action does irritate that thumb tendon. But faced with the choice of sinister starvation vs. dexterous pain, I succumbed again to practicalities — though for the subsequent month I walked around campus with a soupspoon stuck in my shirt pocket, which utensil handles Chinese cuisine reasonably well, even with the left hand.

So much for process.  What about outcomes?  Well, eventually my American physician sent me to an orthopedist, whose course of two injections of cortisone gave relief for a few months. The Chinese physician’s anti-inflamatory-plus-external-cortisone gave partial relief as long as supplies lasted.  But, now depleted, the problem is back.  Perhaps it’s time to time to seek out a back-alley acupunturist.  In any case, I just jotted down the Chinese for Ibuprofin in preparation for my next encounter with an apothecary.

As for my indignation regarding medical confidentially, I just swallowed it as I mouse-clicked to publish my medical record on the world-wide-web.

Valedictory to my Students at ZheDa

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

My Dear Students:

My year of working with you in Hangzhou has come to an end, and I am back at my home in Atlanta.  Inevitably, these first days far away from the year’s events demand my reflection and analysis, catalyzed by the questions of my friends and colleagues here: “So, how is life in a Chinese university?”

My valedictory begins, naturally and sincerely, with my expression of gratitude at having had the opportunity to work with you.  It afforded me not only the adventure of a different life style in a venerable culture, but the more personal satisfaction of having come to know and respect many of you as friends and colleagues.  I was impressed by your intelligence and diligence, and by your friendliness and openness.  Constrained to my own limited ability in Chinese, I was also impressed by the level of competence in English many of you have attained, without which getting to know you and to work with you would have been impossible.

At a grander scope, I have an inkling that I have witnessed China at the dawn of an era in which she will make a significant impact on world science.  The American media regularly reports on China’s “tiger economy”; will try to look past the GNP statistics for evidence of your “tiger science” — and take a little undeserved pride in watching it develop.

In keeping with my own frequent exhortations to you to “think critically”, I would be remiss not to include words of concern, as well as words of praise.  As I attempt to formulate my concerns, I need   first to discuss concepts of intellectual honesty and of the scientific dialectic, both deeply ingrained in my Western upbringing, and inextricably related to each other and to my notion of the mission of a university.

In the 1980’s, American President Ronald Reagan, in dealing with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, coined the slogan”trust, but verify”.  This attitude may be prudent in international relations, and it certainly applies to the “market place”, where exaggerated, misleading or outright counterfeit claims are commonplace.  But it has no place in the university, where the measures required for “verification” would create a virtual “cold war” between professors and students.  A university community is a unique institution with a unique purpose:  to promote individual and collective knowledge.  Privilege can be obtained fraudulently; knowledge cannot be.  A community that is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge can function only on the basis of mutual trust.  William Shakespeare’s advice is better suited than Reagan’s to the University:” This above all: to thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day; Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Those coveted letters “Ph.D.” embody this tradition of intellectual honesty.”Doctor of Philosophy”, translated into plain English, means “teacher of the love of wisdom.”  Love of wisdom, just as love of another person, relies on trust.  And that reliance on trust extends from the university to the whole realm of science.  When I read a scientific paper, I may — I must — question the authors’ interpretations or the appropriateness of their methodology.  But it never enters my mind that their data might be fabricated.  I trust the authors.  We practice intellectual honesty not out of fear of being exposed, but from the realization that it is the only feasible mode of action that can lead to “wisdom”.  Of course, there are occasional exposés of scientific fraud, but these shock and dismay us just because they are so unexpected.

I introduce this philosophic discussion in hopes it will help you appreciate my strong, negative reaction to some examples of student behavior I encountered while at ZheDa.  Without generalizing guilt, nor pointing to specific offenders, I note two such examples, both taken from my “Professional English” class.  One involved my attempt to measure student attendance by use of a “check-in sheet”.  On several occasions there were far more “checks” on the sheet than students in the classroom.  Another involved a student’s written “critical review” of a paper.  The review was written in very excellent, sophisticated English.  The trouble was that the student’s oral English was marginal at best; it was difficult to imagine that the same person who gave the oral report wrote the review.  In fact, he didn’t.    He later explained that, because his English was not so good, he had asked a friend to write the review.

With both the ghost-written review and the bogus check-ins, student response was, in essence “I’m sorry, I didn’t think it was such a big deal.” To me it is a “big deal”, because it erodes what I consider the fundamental premise of a university — intellectual honesty.  That it was unintentional or inadvertent makes it all the worse.

So, how does intellectual honesty relate to the intellectual skepticism that is absolutely essential to progress of the dialectic of science?  A currently accepted hypothesis is not “true” — even if it is articulated in the highest of high-impact journals — nor false.  It is merely a model which is offered as best fit to the current set of data.  Its “antithesis” usually comes as new data which do not fit the hypothesis, and thus requires rethinking the model, the “synthesis” — which, in turn, gives rise to a new hypothesis, and a new round of challenge and refinement.  In this dialectical process lies the success of science, and the excitement of scientists.  Some 400 years ago, new data on the revolution of the moons of Jupiter, revealed to Galileo Galilei by use of his new telescope, forced the science of astronomy to abandon the hypothesis of an earth-centered universe in favor of a better-fitting model, the sun-centered solar system.  That was the reaction of scientists; the reaction of the Catholic Church, in contrast, was simply to declare Galileo wrong, and to put him under house-arrest.  Science thrives because scientists constantly challenge existing ideas and dogma.

My dear students, although I give you “A” for your intelligence, knowledge and diligence, I’m afraid I have to give you “B” for your skepticism.  Never accept a paper silently, passively.  Always raise questions:  Do the authors’ conclusions outstrip their data?  Do the methods employed yield sufficiently precise data?  Are there alternative models to explain the authors’ data?  What sort of new data would put the current hypothesis to a critical test?  No matter whether listening to (or reading) a Nobel Prize winner, a visiting scientist, a fellow student, your own boss, or (perhaps most importantly) in considering your own research work, ask probing questions.  This is not a sign of disrespect towards the speaker or author, but an obligation of any scientist, fledgling or seasoned.

I wish each of you personal success in your careers, as research scientists or medical practitioners.  And I wish you collective success in enhancing the stature of Zhejiang University among the international community of scientists.

Bob Wohlhueter
Atlanta, 3 March 2008

The Ambitious, but Honest, Rat

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

bang!family feastHangzhou showBANG!

[click on photographs to enlarge them]

It is no coincidence that my arrival in and departure from China a year later are linked to the Lunar New Year. The festival is the most important in China, such that its vacillation with respect to the solar calendar — for all official purposes China uses the Gregorian calendar — is respected in setting the academic program. The break between Fall and Spring university semesters is centered on it.

“Spring Festival” is how it’s dubbed in China, though a quick look at the Chinese weather charts will convince you that that terminology is somewhat optimistic. China, southern and central China, are just now cleaning up after disastrous winter storms, which left some places without electricity and water for days, and generally bogged down the whole transportation system at this peak travel time. Sadly, it was the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who were frustrated in their attempt to return to home villages from places of work — and of isolation from their families — in China’s booming cities. Heroically, it has been the focus of national pride and encouragement to those workers who have cleared the roads and railroad tracks and mended the snapped transmission lines. Just why the next new moon was not settled on as the herald of Spring is not clear to me. But then Pope Gregory’s reasoning behind declaring January as the first month, instead of March — as the Romans had it — isn’t clear to me either.

The Rat — characterized as ambitious, but humble — begins a twelve year cycle, each year associated with an animal in the Chinese “zodiac”, which, in turn, ratchets through five super-cycles, completing the whole in 60 years — a human life span, more-or-less. The start of the year, and the celebration of it, “commemorates” some ancient time when the terrible beast Nián would emerge from his den and scarf up a score or two of humans as breakfast after his winter’s slumber. The ultimate solution to this scourge was to make a horrific noise, by burning bamboo, which scared the hell out of Nián. Guò Nián — making it past Nián — in modern Chinese means “celebrate the New Year”.

Now I was brought up in a time and place where amateur use of firecrackers was considered imprudent, sophomoric behavior, worthy of the benighted Bubbas of Alabama and the like. Yet in China, whose 5000 year history includes the invention of “black powder”, it’s hard to imagine New Years without fireworks. They were impressive. Beginning already before dusk on New Year’s Eve, and culminating in the last minutes before midnight, the sky was alight continuously with the explosion of skyrockets. Not supervised my the local fire brigade, nor confined to a designated site, but from all quarters of Hangzhou, including the driveways in my apartment complex. It scared the hell out of me.

For the time being, though, I remain oblivious to the number of injuries stemming from the use of fireworks, and of the tons-of-TNT-equivalents ignited these past few days country-wide.

Allow me a Jungian speculation. I recollect the Teutonic version of Mardi Gras, Fasching, in which the object was to drive out the evil spirits of winter, thus to prepare the world for the coming of spring. The means: make a lot of noise by banging pot covers and thumping inflated pig bladders and generally acting raucously until the spirits retreat to the deep forest, not to venture out again for many moons. I see deep commonalities in the human soul.

Of course, there are family reunions and feasting. New Years wishes include a custom which anthropologists would likely classify as “sympathetic magic”. The Chinese word “abundance” is homonymous with the word for “fish” — yŭ­, though the characters are different. For the first time in my life, so far as I can remember, I presented my host with a desiccated carp. What more efficacious way of wishing one prosperity?

But ponder for a moment what it may mean to focus a national celebration on an “event” which nobody recalls or really believes in. In Christendom, Jesus’ birthday celebration is an overlay on the Roman Saturnalia, and its Yule components co-opted from Nordic solstice lore. Easter is not coincidentally related to Passover, but supplants its significance, while the eggs are extracted from pre-Christian, spring fertility rites. Secular holidays recall historic events, like the American 4th of July or Chinese National Day. Harvest festivals, in whatever coloration, mark not an event, but a recurring event, crucial to human survival and unique to humans’ relationship to nature. That solar New Years Eve party we don’t pretend to “rationalize” with anything more profound than scrapping last year’s calendar or starting new fiscal records. But imagine some mythical cataclysm, or the blessing of being released from it, that so grips a civilization’s imagination that it persists through millennia of chaos, prosperity, dynasties, revolutions and political ideologies, to remain the defining celebration of that society.

Have a nice fish.

Lutheran Karaoke

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

karaoke |ˌkarēˈōkē| noun
a form of entertainment, offered typically by bars and clubs, in which people take turns singing popular songs into a microphone over prerecorded backing tracks.
ORIGIN 1970s: from Japanese, literally ‘empty orchestra.’

To add to the general festivities at year’s end, Prof. Yang sent his minions off on a Friday afternoon, at his expense, but in his absence, to “Party World”, a downtown Hangzhou establishment, which lives up to its name by providing private party rooms, with free access to a very well laid buffet (no smoking or alcohol, please), including excellent espresso. Only God and the proprietor know how many such rooms — dozens, at least, maybe a hundred, and all seemed bursting with non-alcoholic party-makers.

But unlimited food and a space you don’t have to clean up afterwards, is not sufficient catalysis for a Chinese party; the true attractions here are a large display screen, two microphones on long cables, and a computer console for selecting among countless thousands of karaoke titles. The songs are not with ’empty orchestra’, but void of solo voice, which the party-goers themselves fill in, prompted by color-coding each successive word of the song lyrics, in synchrony with the music. That’s it: a high-tech delivery system for an ancient group entertainment, singing.

Of course, I participated, and had fun doing so. Not with the Chinese songs, though it occurred to me that the slow rhythms, dumbed-down vocabulary and repetitive nature of some songs might make a great Chinese language learning tool. But occasionally an English language song was conjured up, and the microphone pushed in my direction, as if I were the only one there who could read/sing English. This was doubtless done as a sort of rite of initiation, to earn my credits as a bona-fide karaoke singer. My fellow karaokites seemed satisfied with my efforts, and politely refrained from noting that my English diction is better than my sense of pitch or rhythm.

One such moment with me as star, was to render the 1970’s Eagles song, “Hotel California”, with a slightly forlorn ’70s tune and lyrics which were only vaguely familiar to me. As the words unfolded, it seemed clearly to be an allegory to marijuana intoxication. Or should I say, it seemed hazily so? Maybe I was the only one old enough to pick up on it.

I had lived the first 67 years of my life without going to karaoke halls, and, though I confess to enjoying this party, I probably could bear another 67 years without repeating the event. The very neutrality of my reaction, however, compared to the avidity of my Chinese friends, convinced me that some profound difference between the Eastern and Western soul must lie at the root of the Chinese romance with karaoke.

Vicariousness seems to be the key attribute of karaoke singing. But gaze as I will into the Chinese soul, I don’t find evidence of a predilection for vicariousness: nothing vicarious about Chinese food, nor about their drinking customs, nor about their driving habits, nor in their entrepreneurial spirit. No vicars in China, unless you count the local Party secretary.

But perhaps I’m just singing the wrong tune. After all, what is that annual Handel-Messiah sing-along if not just Lutheran karaoke?

What’s for Dinner II

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

[No prurient photos along with this posting]

In College, my favorite professor was an anthropologist, Earl Count by name, lately deceased, who also held a divinity degree. One of his hobby-researches was into the practice of placentophagia. The dots Count connected were these: 1. the abrupt transition from the pregnant state to the post-partum state requires a huge hormonal reprogramming; 2. in humans, this reprogramming frequently goes badly awry, with the consequence of post-partum depression or insufficient lactation; 3. non-human mammals, including primates, and whether herbivorous or carnivorous, eat their placentas, and don’t, so far as we can tell, suffer post-partum depression; 4. placentas are chock-full of steroid and peptide hormones, growth factors, immunological factors — the biochemical companies know this, and use placentas as a raw material from which to purify several of these substances for sale; 5. most human societies, particularly those you might think of as “primitive”, have strong views, either pro or con, that is either ritual or taboo, on placental disposition. I remember Count’s exposition of the theory particularly well, since it was delivered from the pulpit of the Hamilton College Chapel, with Count in his full ecclesiastic raiment. Not to prejudice the argument further, but I also recall our nickname for Prof. Count was “Noah” , Noah Count.

Not a typical dinner-time conversation topic in China, but, like a cue-ball sunk on an unanticipated cushion-bounce, there it was one day, hardly to be ignored. The upshot of the conversation was that the Chinese, or least a traditional seam among them, advocate placentophagia. Its advantages have been reputed by Chinese traditional medicine from time immemorial, and include promotion of lactation and prevention of depression.

A thorough literature search would require fluency in Chinese, in classical Chinese no less. But an aperitif may be had by googling for “placenta in traditional Chinese medicine”. Among the hits you will find descriptions of the biological bases (echoing Earl Count’s talking points), recipes and citations to National Institutes of Health research publications on the subject.

In reading some of this material, I detect few scruples as to whether it is your own or someone else’s placenta you are eating. Indeed, apparently men have been known to indulge, perhaps unwittingly, though the reputed benefits are hard to extrapolate to males. Who knows? A good dose of estrogen may be salutary in some males; Dick Cheney springs to mind.

Some of the recipes involve cooking or stir-frying. Maybe tastier that way, though most suggest chemically gentler forms of preparation, like drying or freeze-drying — a sort of jerky — with subsequent powdering and encapsulation for the more squeamish. Additional seasonings — ginger seems a favorite — are suggested, with a more or less explicit nod that some of the flavor components could do with a bit of camouflage. As a biochemist, I would concur with the gentler means, and note that even then, the many esoteric, peptidic components are not likely to survive the digestive process. But please don’t construe my view as a suggestion for parenteral administration.

Chinese regard for the placenta is such that it has prompted a recent law giving ownership of a placenta to its “mother”, and forbidding donation or sale to other parties without the owner’s consent. (Chinese laws should be seen as acknowledgement of existence of a phenomenon, not necessarily as a political will to abate it, unless the “phenomenon” is defamation of the government, in which case the opposite is true: it is not acknowledged, but strongly abated.)

As a member of a fairly primitive society myself, I cannot help not being neutral on the issue. So many ramifications! I can guess the “Choice” crowd’s answer, but am curious about the “Right-to-Lifers'” line on placentophagia. Or the Church’s. Or Oprah’s. Or George Bush’s. My dictionary fails to qualify its definition of cannibalism to exempt ingestion of placental tissue, cooked, dried, diced or otherwise. Yet I assume there are legal strictures against cannibalism in our fifty states — I can’t cite sections of code — and wonder if criminal code makes exception. Whether criminalized or not, placentophagia seems spiritually aligned with natural foods advocates: Would vegetarians partake? Vegans?

And the Health Care Industry, which I will have to regard as the major “producer” of placentas, what’s its role? Do they recognize the mother’s ownership? Offer it to her? Sell it without her consent? Cook them? Burn them? Trash them?

Ah, Count. Count on a good meal to stimulate a good discussion on eating habits.

Caught in the Act

Monday, December 31st, 2007

the scenean actor

[left-click on any image to enlarge it]

Now that the rampage of year-end feasting has subsided, I take time to consider the spectacular Chinese art of eating. Not of cooking, of eating.

First of all disabuse yourself of your mother’s admonition that what goes into your mouth is not intended to come out. Your mother was not Chinese. This dictum simply propagates the cheap swindle Western chefs have put over on their eating public for a couple hundred years. The codeword, of course, is “presentation”. Like a pin-up-girl, food colors and contours are intended to stimulate salivation, but preclude really moving on to serious wrangling. All the fun of dissecting the tasty from the inedible is usurped by the chef, but with a coarseness that leaves the real morsels at the interface to their fate in the garbage can. Chinese cooks do not dissect, they divide, indiscriminately, for the sole purpose of convenience in transfer with chopsticks from dish to mouth. To the exquisitely articulate tools of the oral cavity is left the pleasure of microdissection, with only an occasional assist from that next most articulate human appendage, the digit. With tongue and teeth and palate, one plies the soft tissues from the hard, and then passes judgement on whether the hard might not indeed be amenable to molar crushing, as are the delicate bones of a near-term chick embryo, or needs simply to be ejected whence it came.

We do not talk here of the pretty or presentable, but of pure, lingual pleasures. God meant us to eat with our mouths, not with our eyes. The Chinese are not given to this Western sacrilege.

Of course, this eating-act is a little messy, emitting the occasional odd sound or awkward mandibular posture, and re-ejection is not always so deft as the initial transfer. But it is an all-engaging act, which mostly renders one oblivious to the antics of the other actors around him. Though, I note, that almost as pleasurable as the act itself, is observing others engaged in the act. For a human, that is; to the hypothetical-Martian-observer it must seem very peculiar indeed.

Shock and Awe in Hangzhou

Monday, November 5th, 2007

a steam in Xixi wetlandbiodiverse habitatawe-full weapon

[click on a photo to enlarge it]

“Xixi Wetlands” is a laudable attempt to preserve some of the original marsh environment in northwest Hangzhou. That has been the direction-of-choice for Hangzhou urban expansion — you’ll recall my earlier note that the new Zhejiang University campus is built on a swamp. The Xixi effort seeks to preserve the area’s biodiversity and to make the terrain physically more accessible with an extensive network of boardwalks and observation platforms.

Also preserved is the biomonotony of mosquitos. The infamy of Hangzhou’s mosquito population is not recorded in the travel guides — not even in the Rough Guide — though mosquitos are one of the roughest features of life here. That I am still doing battle with them in November says something; I killed 12 in my bedroom just this morning. Don’t even broach the topic with Judy!

The white wall next to my desk at the Medical School also sports a mural, “Le Rouge et le Noir” would be an apt title, of smashed mosquito carcasses, corresponding to those engorged and those not.

If the guide books are silent, the rest of China’s 1.3 billion seem to know about the problem, perhaps as a sort of sadistic counter-point to Hangzhou’s self-proclamation as the “most beautiful city in China.” And the local entrepreneurs recognize the problem by way of offering for sale an impressive anti-mosquito weapon. I know no name for this weapon, neither in Chinese nor English, so have only to describe it: it looks rather like a badminton racket, with rechargeable D-size batteries in the handle, and a wire mesh in place of the netting, apparently capable of generating a good wallop.

If you snare one of the little suckers in mid-flight with this device, particularly in the dark and quiet of the night, you are rewarded with a flash and a pop, as their tiny bodies are electrocuted by the hopped-up juice in the grid. I want to believe that the brighter flashes and louder pops are delivered by those filled with my blood.

Even so, the score is not good. I reckon that for every one that I have nailed, five have nailed me. And the spectacle of a 100-kilogram human flailing after a 100-microgram insect might invite speculation on whether the juice is worth the squeeze. I am reminded of an article I read in Scientific American years ago, written by a military historian and claiming that the musket, still four hundred years after its invention, was inferior to the long-bow in virtually every respect: range, accuracy, portability, rapidity of reload, cost of ammunition. Every respect but one — the flash-and-pop! This so enthused the user and terrified the enemy as to compensate for its deficiencies. DEET of course is highly effective, but so cowardly, not depriving the ogresses of their lives, but merely confounding the directions to the dinner table. Lethal injection is altogether too wimpy.

So I shall continue to flail until a God-given change in the weather finally allows the one in His image to triumph over the one with the proboscis (or I fall off a chair trying, whichever comes first.)

Of Mice and Matriarchs

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

bridal possession

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On my hotel room wall in Hanoi hung a print of mediocre artistic quality, but provocative content. Stretched out on the long horizontal axis was a bridal procession — I suppose in the Vietnamese tradition, but familiar to me as Chinese tradition. Ranks of musicians and well-wishers and sedan-chair porters, bearing the bride. The figures were all bipedal mice, in human attire. On the far right of the painting sits the expectant groom, with an appropriate gleam in his eye. Unmistakably a cat. Such an apt caricature of the dynamics of traditional Chinese marriage: the bride is virtually delivered up to into servitude, sexual and otherwise, to the groom and his family. What good are girls? You feed them until about the time they might begin to prove useful, and then they get married off. A boy or two, of course, balances things out, and puts you on the receiving end. With a little luck in the horse trading, you’ll end up with a filly of even stronger back and broader beam than you were able to spawn. But this one-child nonsense upsets the equilibrium.

The picture associates in my mind with a unit in my Chinese Reader on the strong Chinese sense of family, the prime example of which was the seriousness given to the matter of a girl’s latching onto a socially acceptable (= financially promising) guy, and, please, by all means (several specified), before 30.

Now think back to LIjiang, in Yunnan, the heart of the former realm of the Naxi people. In the good old days before Han-Chinese domination, the Naxi, so all the guides and guidebooks make a point of instructing us, was a matriarchal society. The girls, confident heiresses that they were, and freed from having to focus their major effort on glomming onto a financially stable guy, spend their spring evenings gamboling on Yak Meadow, granting and terminating audiences with would-be suitors like the Queen of Hearts flicking off heads.

Just imagine a latter day Naxi orphanage filled with cute, but useless, little boy babies awaiting adoption by an enlightened Occidental couple.

Where have all the flowers gone?

Monday, August 27th, 2007

Jade Dragon MountainLijiang Old TownTired festival folkFirst Bend of the JinshaNaxi musicianOne of those loose Naxi womenBaisha villageRapids in Tiger Leaping Gorge

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The tale goes like this. During the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals were sent to the countryside for a little re-education, Yunnan Province was regarded as the ultimate boondock, the place for the most incorrigible of intellectuals. Then the old guy died, and things began to relax, and the exiles drifted back into the universities and clinics of mainstream Chinese cities and societies. But not those sent to Yunnan. Being intellectuals, some were smart enough to know a good thing when they saw it. The climate was great (I left Hangzhou at 32 ºC and arrived in Kunming at 20 ºC), the air breathable, the landscape beautifully alpine, the people not really Chinese, and it was a long, long way from Beijing.

Thus was Yunnan discovered as the cool place to be. And there were other pheromones at play. There was the mystique of once matriarchal society, where finding an economically secure husband was not the only thing on a girls’s mind. The province is at the narrow end of the funnel for southeast Asian dope into China, and we all know that intellectuals are hippies at heart. You can get a decent cup of coffee there, presumably thanks to a Muslim heritage, instead of wimpy green tea. Or for the really hairy-chested, there’s yak butter tea.

So what if you can see the Great Wall from space? Yunnan’s the place for my holiday.

When I say I was not disappointed, don’t take me wrong. Okay, so Kunming, the provincial capital, beyond cool air and good coffee, is so-so, and its trademark Dian Chi lake so polluted it doesn’t make the charts. Okay, so the matriarchies have been replaced solid, Han patriarchy. But there are many charms. Its “Stone Forest”, though, a bizarre karst landscape a couple of hours drive from the city, impressed this traveler (who had not previously visited such geological formations.) And it gets better.

Lijiang is/was the heartland of the Naxi people. Separated from the new town by a low ridge is the old town, a warren of narrow streets and alleys, all off limits to motor vehicles, and lined with sturdy, wooden, two-storey structures, and flushed — I choose the word with deliberation — by mountain-fed streams, fanned out through all parts of the old city. There’s the Naxi music hall, which resurrects traditional music, with it roots in the 14th century or so, and which, if I counted correctly, boasts six octogenarians in a troupe of thirty.

One suspects a element of fakery from the Naxi-costumed sales girls in the over-abundant tourist shops (it would really have been nicer had they left a few structures in original shape as museum pieces, or, god forbid, as actual residences), but when, at the culmination of their mid-summer festival, thousands of traditionally bedecked natives descended on the town to parade and sing and dance, I was convinced the not even Cecile B. de Mille or Zhang Yimou could stage that.

The broader environs of Lijiang are spectacular. The “Jade Dragon Snow Mountain” dominates as the valley floor narrows to the north. The Jinsha River, the main tributary to what becomes the great Yangtze, rushes down from the Tibetan plateau, alternately in lush valleys and narrow gorges, in what “should” be a southerly course, taking it, in parallel to the Red and Mekong Rivers through Indochina to the South China Sea. But then does a one-eighty at the “First Bend”, and winds up traversing China’s midriff to empty into the Pacific at Shanghai. Just downstream, long before it enters the famous Three Gorges (infamously dammed), it negotiates the “Tiger Leaping Gorge” , enraged between ranges rising 3000 meters above its rapids, themselves at 2500 meters above the sea.

Granted, in August it’s all fog-bound and drizzly. But we modern intellectuals only get to the countryside during semester breaks, not like in the good old days.

When you really need to get away from the tourists, the druggies, the loose Naxi women, and the natural spectacles, you can always rent a bicycle, and zigzag your way up the valley floor. You’ll see things you’ll never see in Kansas.