Net Bar

May 13th, 2009

Having ones own computer is a luxury among Hubei University students.  There are a few scattered around in the library and dormitories for general use; old PCs with slow network connections.  But if you’re out for some serious surfing, the ubiquitous net bars are the place to be.

That these establishments run all night, I came onto in a roundabout way.  It didn’t take me long to learn that we international teachers were expected to be snug in our beds by eleven, enforced by locking the gate to our apartment block.  So it was not from direct experience that I learned that the whole university campus is shut up come 11:30; no slit chain-links to crawl through.  The next question, obviously, is what happens if you miss curfew? The simple answer: you spend the night in a net bar; it’s only ten kuai, in at 11 out at 7.

But straits don’t have to be that dire. Sometimes your surfing deficit outweighs your sleep deficit,netbar01 and the only way to put yin-yang back into balance is a night at the net bar. Since I’m here to experience Chinese culture, how could I miss this opportunity?  So I tell my informant, next time she’s headed that way, give me a ring.  Seriously?  Seriously.

Next thing you know I’m on the street. past the hour of no return to my apartment, headed for the “Everyday Net Bar”, a dingy establishment, with rows and rows of PCs – I estimate five hundred.  We just managed to get two seats at 11:15; a few minutes later the house was full.  Our 15-minute tardiness is explained by our making a stop at some street vendors to stock up on junk-food and sugar-water.

As any American would do, I went straight to PBS Nightline, and began catching up on some netbar02good investigative reporting that I’ve missed is leaving Atlanta. But it’s Chinese culture I’m supposed to be soaking up, and, since I’m not too swift with Chinese menu-clicking, I just leaned back and gawked at my neighbors’ screens.  Video games seemed to be attraction number one. Not a video-game-critic myself, I maybe missed the fine points of the art, but “phrenetic” was the fist descriptor that came to mind.  But apparently enthralling, for the players kept bonking away for hours. Even vicariously, my neurons were scrambled in no time.

Movies were popular.  Cynical bastard that I am, I have to believe they were all pirated, though as near as I can figure out from the screenful of Chinese characters, they seem to be purveyed by household names in Chinese ISPs.  Email, Face-Book-look-alikes, photo albums with a superabundance of V’s, MP3s with animations or stills.

Lest I seem prejudicial against the tastes of Chinese youth for web offerings, I should confess that I haven’t endured the night with American college students in front of their browers.  Still, even in China, where raunchiness, political and otherwise, are filtered out, attractions like Wikipedia, the NYTimes, PBS are to be had.  But with few takers, at least not in the Everyday Net Bar.

By three or so, I was zonked out.  Frontline still blazing on the screen.  Actually, a more comfortable night than, say, on a jumbo-jet to China.  Plenty of leg-room, large chairs with lots of tilt, and thanks to earphones, pretty quiet.  Still, I haven’t complained about eleven o’clock gate closings since.

Proletarian Sensitivities

May 9th, 2009

The premise behind my being in Wuhan is simple and sound.  My earlier sojourn was in Hangzhou — wuhan_montagewiki2a town which I really come to like.  But it is clearly not your typical Chinese city, nor is Zhejiang University your typical Chinese university.  Both are among the elite in their class.  If am I to use these post-retirement teaching stints as an opportunity to get to know China, hobnobbing with the elites won’t suffice.  I need to mix with the masses. Wuhan fills the bill better.

Wuhan is an industrial city that sits astride the mighty Chang Jiang, a few hundred kilometers downstream of the Three Gorges Dam, and at its confluence with the Han River.  Indeed, this tributary from the north originally defined three cities:  Hanyang, upstream of the Han; Hankou, downstream of it; Wuchang, on the right bank.  Altogether, a city of industry and commerce, of about nine million, sitting in the heartland of Han-China.

A city with a gritty past and a grimy present. Following China’s defeat at British hands in the infamous “Second Opium War”, Hubei Province was forced to give “concessions” in Hankou to foreign powers — British, French, Russian.  These extra-territorial areas of foreign sovereignty left not only their architectural marks on the Hankou waterfront, but indelible marks of shame in the Chinese collective consciousness.

The oppressors have not all been foreign. In the 1860’s the Taiping Rebels held sway in these parts, but the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace wasn’t, and the Qing Imperium exacted its retribution.  In 1911 supporters of Sun Yat-sen launched the “Wuchang Uprising”, which ultimately led to the fall of the Qing, but not before some local head-bashing. In the 20’s Guomingdang upstart Wang Jingwei set up shop here in opposition to Chiang Kai-shek, who also wreaked revenge. In 1938 the Japs did a Nanjing-Rape redux, while in 1944 the U.S. firebombed to flush out the Japs. In 1967 the Cultural Revolution unleashed the bloody “Wuhan Incident”.  And in between, God himself scourged Wuhan by way of the mighty Yangtze periodically flushing out what was left — all but that sturdy European granite.

Ah, but there have been better times, too.  Avid swimmer Mao Zedong braved the River on a few occasions, and even wrote a poem about it in 1956:

I have just drunk the waters of Changshamao_swimming1
And come to eat the fish of Wuchang.
Now I am swimming across the great Yangtze,
Looking afar to the open sky of Chu.
Let the wind blow and waves beat,
Better far than idly strolling in a courtyard.
Today I am at ease.
“It was by a stream that the Master said–
‘Thus do things flow away!’ ”
Sails move with the wind.
Tortoise and Snake are still.
Great plans are afoot:
A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare;
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.
The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.

Those promises that “a bridge will fly” and that “walls of stone will stand” were not idle.  The “Great Bridge” here is the first to span the Yangtze and thus link northern and southern China with direct rail and road traffic.  And the Three Gorges Dam, for better or for worse, is reality.

Truly a city of steel, a Gary, a Cleveland, a Buffalo.

Given this proletarian grittiness, what is there to miss in the teahouses of Hangzhou?  In its lakeside promenades where imperial feet once trod?  In its tales of butterfly lovers and peony pavillions?  Of its fatty Dong-Po pork?  Of its lush tea plantations?  Of its silks and satins?  Of its beautiful women under their parasols?  Of its grottoes and temples?  Of its pervasive scent of camellia?

Public Displays of Disaffection

April 30th, 2009

In these beautiful spring evenings Hubei University campus is alive, indeed, writhing with couples enjoying mutual affection.  In some of the (never very) secluded areas innocent pedestrians have to step carefully as they would to avoid squashing earthworms after a saturating spring shower.

There is considerable public discussion on the impropriety of such “public displays of affection”.  Enough so that the student radio station invited me for an interview on the “problem”, and what might be done about it.  Perhaps it was a bit of a set-up.  I suppose the Dean of Students’ views on the subject might not be as liberal as mine.  Maybe I was being used as a Trojan horse (no pun intended.)

I assume that the hormonal status of Chinese students is no different from that of American students.  So far as I know, that assumption is untested in the strict physiological sense.  After all, every systematic biologist knows that there are scads of human proteins whose isoform distributions correlate closely with ethicity.  Could the same be true for various peptide hormones?  You never can tell what one amino acid replacement might do for your Qi. Certainly a plausible hypothesis, at least as worthy of funding as some “Golden Fleece” grants have been.  Maybe the authorities could be swayed by a “disease model” of excessive, exhibitionistic libido:  “But, sir, I carry the ‘eel’ mutation. I need condolence, not cajolement?”

In the interview, I didn’t dwell long on the nouns in the topic-title, but on that adjective “public”.  Privacy in this socialist country is a scarce commodity, reserved to cats of whatever color who are good at catching mice.  Imagine:  four to eight students living in a gender-segregated dorm room; no off-campus apartments; no automobiles; a strict eleven-thirty campus curfew.  I suspect a poll of those exercising affectionate behavior in public would show that most would really prefer to carry out the exercise in private.  Also a worthy hypothesis for social scientists, presumably as yet under-researched.

Of course, what I would really like to see in China are a few public displays of disaffection.  My erstwhile condemnations of sound-byte political analyses notwithstanding, how glorious would the sight of a bumper-sticker be, with some pithy dart, well aimed at any of the abundant targets.  Affluence has brought a plethora of big, black Buicks to the streets, with expansive bumper real-estate.  I wouldn’t even curse at one coming at me, wrong way, down the bicycle lane, if only there were a juicy message plastered on it.

Alone the didactic potential for all those English-curious students seems worth public subsidy.  Bumper stickers are even denser than Haiku. An adequate exegesis of “F THE PRESIDENT” could become a class-filling lecture unto itself.

That’s an interview on student radio I really look forward to.  But, alas, no invitaion yet.

Scaring Crows in Wuhan

April 26th, 2009

The balcony of my apartment on Hubei University campus faces south, and overlooks a tract, of several acres I would guess, obviously serving some experimental agricultural purpose.  What purpose, or under whose aegis, I have yet to ascertain, but even the students from farm families agree, that, though the crops are commonplace, the personnel are not.  True, there are tillers-of-the-fields, with straw hats protecting from the sun.  But their activities are not routine — like tying plastic bags over the flowering heads of thousands of rape-seed plants to ensure, I would have to guess, that the plants don’t engage in promiscuous sex.

The real tip-off are the occasional gentlemen, in white lab-coat attire, who occasionally saunter about and probe the fields.

Most intriguing, though, are the human scarecrows.  I have encountered scarecrows in China before, more-or-less occidental in form, and I shall have to consult Joseph Needham on the possibility that scarecrows were invented here, as most everything of any use seems to have been.  But these are animate scarecrows, and not just humans flailing about to drive off birds, but specially equipped and disciplined artists.  There equipment is remarkable: kite-like creations with coloring and trailers, I guess, designed to resemble raptors, but mounted on long flexible poles, which, when whipped about, causes the bird or prey to climb and dive menacingly at altitudes 30 feet or 40 so.  And so these fellows — I use the term generically, becasue I cannot make out their gender — patrol the fields for hours on end, with their birds darting all about.

Most remarkable, though, is the birds’ call.  When I first heard it, I alarmingly misconstrued it to be the call of some tortured dog.  Having identified the source, and considering the setting, I revise my opinion to imagine it indeed represents the cry of some bird of — not that I’ve ever heard such.  The pitch is high (but providing no clue as to the gender of its originator), with an uncanny mixture of repeated cadences and startingly new modulations.  And amazing in its carrying power.  From the furthest corner of the field, it arrives through closed windows and doors into my apartment with chilling clarity.  And this usually commencing at an early hour, when I am apt still to be lingering in bed.

I can only hope some laryngologist has earned a Ph.D. by studying the mechanisms by which this sound is generated, and its spectral and energetic properties.  Unfortunately, though after some deliberation, I left my portable recorder in Atlanta, rationalizing that I was going to an urban jungle, not to a real one.

Macabre calls and darting kites aren’t the only implements of the anti-bird policy.  The occasional volley of shots, as if from a rifle, but probably retorts from fire-crackers, augment the attack.  Even more seldom a great crackling crash joins in.  Its generation would seem to involve striking a large, suspended piece of sheet-metal, akin to the thespian device for emulating thunder. But I have not actually seen the device; my only witness is auditory.

In fact, the whole ensemble recalls some of the features of Chinese opera.  And this, doubtless, is no coincidence.  Mao’s approach to preventing birds — as opposed to cadre — from robbing the peoples’ grain was wholesale slaughter.  The consequences of this ecologically intemperate policy have been ameliorated, to judge from the bird population in my relatively bucolic niche of the Hubei University campus.  The theatrical confrontations seem to hark to a time when the discord between heaven and earth was more raucous but less lethal than in Mao’s era.

I have no idea who is winning the battle, or how the outcome is measured.

Valedictory to my Students at ZheDa

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

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

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

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

December 31st, 2007

the scenean actor

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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

November 5th, 2007

a steam in Xixi wetlandbiodiverse habitatawe-full weapon

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“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.)