Growing up in ancient India, I thought cars were either white or a dull grey. Doctors were subject to a different rule; they could have black cars. My grand uncle was an iconoclast. He would emerge with his stethoscope in hand from a dark blue car with cream coloured leather seats. That was it. Until the advent of red cars much later.
So I’m still taken by surprise when I see pink cars. They have to be special. The pink car which I saw on Valentine’s day in Chicago was clearly special. It stood in one place for hours, while the dull traffic flowed around it. The tarmac on the road was the grey of charcoal. The buildings surrounding it were dark and brooding black, or the brutal colour of concrete. The pink Valentine car was a touch of joy in the morning.
In the colourful and boisterous traffic of Bangkok you might not be surprised by cars coloured bright greens, yellows and blues. But when I see taxis in pink I’m still shocked. I was taken aback at the Bangkok airport when I saw a whole line of taxis in pink, as I got into a green and yellow cab. After that I kept my camera handy, and managed to take the featured photo while we were stuck in traffic next to one of these flamingos of the road.
On a walk near the Bell and Drum Towers of Beijing I saw a pink car parked primly on the road bordering the plaza between the two towers. I’d begun to get used to seeing pink cars on the road in India by now. I took a photo and asked my Chinese colleagues the next day about pink cars. It turned out that these colours were also relatively new in China. My colleagues had roughly the same reaction to pink cars as me.
I’m happy to see pink slowly diffusing over the world.
The Family and I visited the Forbidden City on a hot day of May last year. We’d not really anticipated how hot Beijing can get, and this day was a special scorcher. We passed the three main audience halls in the central courtyard and turned into the section called the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, looking for the famous nine-dragon screen in front of the quarters of the famous Qianlong emperor. The sun was almost directly overhead. We had run out of water to drink. After admiring the dragons, we started looking for one of the food stalls inside the palace grounds. As a result, we did not pay too much attention to this guardian lion in front of the Qianlong emperor’s palace.
I was drawn back to my photo of this Tongshi, as bronze guardian lions are called in Mandarin, by an interesting article which connects it with Platonic solids, the design of footballs, and certain chemicals called buckyballs or fullerenes. A football is made by stitching together panels which are either pentagons or hexagons. Regular solids of this kind are called buckyballs. In the picture of one hemisphere of a football you see 6 pentagons. Since a football is symmetric, the half that you can’t see will have another 6 pentagons. It seems that mathematicians can prove that there must be exactly 12 pentagons on any structure that looks like a buckyball: and that the standard issue football is one such. The football, these new molecules, and Platonic solids like the dodecahedron are all tied together by these 12 pentagons. From the article I learnt that the shape of the modern football was anticipated in the year 300 CE by a man names Pappus who lived in Alexandria. This figure was later discussed in a book published in 1509. The book was written by Luca Paccioli and illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci. In China such solids were first discussed much later, probably for the first time by Wending Mei in 1692.
The lion was made during the Qianlong emperor’s reign, so sometime between the years 1740 CE and 1800 CE. However, when you look carefully at the details, in the featured photo, of the ball held by the lion, you notice that it is not a buckyball. I can see only one pentagon. The article has photos of the bottom of the ball, and counts a few more, but nowhere like the 12 needed to make a buckyball. So it seems that the artist who made this deformed the shape of the ball quite significantly but could not dispense with pentagons. Still I like the fact that this shape brings together Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Qianlong emperor.
Into each life some rain must fall, and the last five days have been a bit of a record for the twenty million people in my city. So I decided to spend my time indoors in moving some of my older photos from my laptop into a backup disk. And, of course, I got distracted by my first photos of Shanghai.
The Family and I landed in Shanghai in early May last year late in the afternoon. We’d flown out of Mumbai in the night, changed planes in Chengdu, taken the maglev train from the Shanghai Pudong airport, changed to a Metro, and eventually found our hotel. We did not speak or read Mandarin. Our hotel was off East Nanjing Road, and I’d selected it to be close to the Bund. After a shower we took our first walk in China.
It is hard now to recall our feelings, although The Family and I have talked about it now and then. China was still an unknown, even walking on the road was an adventure. We bought a bottle of water, tried out a local sweet, and eventually reached the Bund. I no longer remember what I’d imagined it to be. But it was not the wide promenade full of people at complete leisure. It was so familiar, but, at the same time, so totally different.
Our timing happened to be right, the sun was setting behind us, and lighting up the wonderful high-rise buildings of Pudong new area (see the featured image). Later we would learn to distinguish the buildings. Now we just gawked. It was a mysterious and exciting city. Over time we got to know it better. We still find it exciting, but a less mysterious. That’s the unfortunate side of travelling: the world becomes a tiny bit flatter.
I more or less finished a one semester course on elementary spoken Chinese and another which taught me how to write about 50 characters, and build words with them. Now that the end of the course is about two months in the past, I realize that I’m back where I started: I can barely read and write Chinese. Last week I tried to say a few words to a couple of Chinese friends and failed miserably in communicating with them.
So I was happy to read what I understand is a famous article: Why Chinese is so damn hard. If you are struggling with Chinese, it is good to read this article.
The high point of my travels in the past year was my first visit to Xi’an to see the famous terracotta army. I’d expected to be somewhere between impressed and overwhelmed. My response was roughly half-way in between. I was in a bit of a daze, trying to focus on the individual members of the army, while being distracted by the ranks upon ranks of warriors. Were they all different? Perhaps. There were several different facial types, but very small changes are often sufficient to make faces look different. I looked closely at some sections and came to the conclusion that it is possible that several figures could be based on the same model. You can see an example in the group whose photograph is above.
The terracotta army was breath-taking, but it was not the epiphany.
The epiphany came as I walked around the huge pit and came to the portion where the restoration is going on. Suddenly I realized that the figures were not dug out of the ground whole. They were a jumble, and many were shattered into pieces. It is the painstaking work of an army of modern archaeologists which is piecing them together. In the photo above you can see one of these warriors being reconstructed. Until then my lazy impression was that India has its Taj Mahal, China its terracotta army. I understood that the differences are enormous: the Taj Mahal and the Forbidden Palace are complete artefacts which only need care. The terracotta army needs to be reconstructed. In that moment of epiphany I realized the truth: China has created technical expertise to actively restore its past glory.
I find that Chinese images of horses are subtly disorienting. Perhaps I’m too used to the use of images of horses to depict freedom, grace and wild spirits: this is ubiquitous in advertising. Indian art also sees the horse as a symbol of grace. Chinese art, on the other hand, seems to see the horse as a symbol of power. The muscles of the chest and haunches are exaggerated. The photo above is a typical contemporary depiction of a horse; this is a piece in the art museum in Wuhan. Of course, contemporary art exaggerates. But the exaggeration says something about the artist’s notion of the subject.
How far back did this iconography emerge? I flicked through the photos that I’d taken during my recent trips to China and stopped at the image of the oldest horses I’d seen. The photo above is a famous piece, one of the two chariots dug up from near the tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shih Huang. It can be seen in a special exhibit in the enclosure with the famous terra-cotta warriors of Xi’an. One can see a fairly realistic depiction of a horse. If there is an exaggeration of the chest and haunches then it is mild. So the current Chinese concept of a horse is not two thousand years old.
That’s a long enough time for an academic to research and build a thesis upon! I’m happy enough just looking at these strange Chinese horses.
This is a simple sign from the tomb of the first emperor (Qin Shih Huang) in Xi’an. The Chinese characters in this sign read minzu jiliang. Minzu is accurately translated as national. Jiliang could be translated as either back or spine. So, the translation is rather accurate. But what does it mean?
I visited an old friend, The Pleased, now living in Shanghai and went out for lunch. She’d picked a restaurant in the French Concession: very chic, all daylight filtered through bamboo groves and undressed concrete walls. After a week of large dinners, I was ready for the modern China. It is different. Take the dish above: not a chocolatey dessert. It is smoked eggplant, with bacon shavings on top. I liked the presentation. The taste is familiar to any Indian who has eaten baingan bharta, but the smoky tone of the original is no longer available in most restauarants in Mumbai. This was very definitely smoky. The black bean sauce was a good addition. I liked its pungency.
The restaurant was a nice introduction to the new China. I’d only seen its art work till now. This lunch introduced me to its food. I’m sure I want to explore more of this.
I passed Wuhan’s museum of contemporary art on the way in from the airport. I’m extremely fond of contemporary Chinese sculpture, so I went to look. How wide is contemporary art in China? In Beijing and Shanghai I’d seen photography, paintings, calligraphy, as well as metal and ceramic sculpture. During a brief chat in Shanghai with a ceramics artist called Liu Ping, I discovered that the art of porcelain has been transformed by the new glazes which utilize the new high-temperature kilns.
My acquaintance with Chinese art is so new that I was sure I would find interesting new media in Wuhan. I was not disappointed: the ground floor contains a gallery of video installations. They ranged from the extreme abstract to ones which had the look of modern animation cartoons. I liked one in which a video was projected from inside on to a spherical paper lantern (photo on the left). A gallery on the second floor had beautiful lacquer work. This is something I don’t know much about, so I was not sure what was new about the pretty pieces which I saw.
The sculptures were as innovative as those I’ve seen elsewhere. There was a field of paper mushrooms (above) stretching out to great distances. It was a sculptural equivalent of calligraphy. The form of each of the mushrooms was fairly well fixed: the artist did not invent a new type of mushroom each time he rolled the paper. The art was in how the whole was put together. You could step back and look at the scale of the whole thing, in which case you did not see each figure. Or you could bend down and look at each mushroom, and lose sight of the whole.
There was a stunning piece of woodwork elsewhere: a long table with a steamship sailing through it. The wooden steamship belches out wooden smoke, and throws up a wooden wake as it plows through a wooden sea. My dinky little phone does not really do justice to the sculpture. Part of the fun is in the fact that it is a long table, which could be usable as a table. The far end of the piece (not seen in the photo) looks just like an ordinary, but good, piece of furniture. You might admire the grain and the polish, but you could just use it as a table. The other end of the long piece is the end in the photo above. The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the unexpected is part of the fun here.
I’m sure I have other photos. More about Chinese art as I discover them.
The hazy memory of my school books was that the Yangtze river is among the world’s longest. Before going to Wuhan, I checked that it is actually the third in the world, behind the Nile and the Amazon. I’d passed over Wuhan’s Second Yangtze Bridge on the way in from the airport. On the way to see the river a few days later, as the taxi negotiated a traffic tunnel, the driver told me proudly that it is China’s longest: a three kilometer long tunnel under the Yangtze (Changjiang in Mandarin), connecting the Wuchang and Hankou districts of the town. We emerged into Hankou, and turned past a river boat terminal into the mouth of a pedestrian entry.
Yangtze river cruises through the Three Gorges have been heavily advertised in recent years, and are increasingly popular with foreign tourists. These boats dock at the interesting looking terminal we passed. I got off the car and walked past the levees (which were raised in 2005 to protect the town against flooding) to the river. No large cruise boats were to be seen. But there were these interesting looking boats moored to a quay. They seem to have a very shallow draught. I wondered whether they are floating docks or boats, until I went close and found that they are boats. They have so many cabins that they must be used for short cruises. In the photo above you can see the Second Yangtze Bridge behind the boats.
It was late in the morning of a working day, so there weren’t too many people around. I walked down to the water. There was a lone swimmer near the bank, far from him were a couple of anglers. This is a nice lazy pastime. One angler was leaning on a barricade and chatting with another person: a friend or a passerby. You could see from here how wide the river was. It was hard to make out any details in the towers of Wuchang one could see on the far bank. As always in China, things were under construction. You could see cranes poking their necks out over the skyline.
Barely have I drunk the waters of Changsha,
Now I am eating fish in Wuchang.
I swim across the great Yangtse River
And see the sky of Chu unfolding before me.
The Yangtze has inspired poetry from some of the most famous poets of China. Even Mao Zedong wrote about it, after swimming from the Hankou side to Wuchang. This is something that people in China still talk about. I can understand it now. Swimming across this river is a pretty impressive feat. It also helps that Mao was a reasonably good poet in the classical Chinese tradition. The Yangtze attracts Chinese tourists, perhaps in greater numbers than foreigners. I’m happy to see that even on this fairly empty morning I’m not the only tourist toting a camera. At the back you can see the piers where the cruise boats dock, and the passenger terminal building.
I climbed back up to the levee. On the landward side is a long garden where grandparents had taken their grandchildren for an outing. There were vendors selling glittery kites and a few children were trying to fly them. As I wandered through the garden I heard music. I tracked it down to a person sitting and playing a small stringed instrument which I did not recognize. After he had finished, he packed the instrument into the carry-box of the scooter above, slipped his arms into the gloves built into the blanket you can see in the photo above, and drove off. Electric scooters in China are treated as pedestrians. I’d not seen this interesting blanket before, but it makes sense that they are being brought out in Autumn. I didn’t think it was cold enough for protection, but then I’m from hot and sweltering Mumbai, where the autumn temperature exceeds Wuhan’s fabled summer heat.