Horses

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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.

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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.

Chinese contemporary art in Wuhan

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.2015-10-07 15.03.37 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.

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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.2015-10-07 16.09.15

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 Yangtze river

I had hazy memory from my school books 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.

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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. If there were smaller boats I wouldn’t have minded spending a day drifting down this river. In the photo above you can see the Second Yangtze Bridge behind the boats.

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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.
–Mao Zedong

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.

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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.

The story of Lem the singer

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Lawrence of China is going slow on the Baijiu and is the first to notice that the bar has live music. Kind of; the singer has karaoke backing. Next to her a piano is covered in red velvet. A few of us keep aside the shots of sorghum liquor and listen. She has a good voice. It inspires several people in the party to do a Karaoke. During this I realize that she’s not Chinese.

China is a new magnet: even with its economic swings, even as skilled Chinese learn English and dream of settling in the US. The economic growth and the accumulation of money means that there are new opportunities for workers as well as entertainers. Some years ago Tash Aw came close to the Booker Prize with a novel about immigrant workers in China. Some are illegal factory workers, others relatively well-paid entertainers, and then there are the academics and stratospheric bankers. I’ve only met the high-earning Shanghai Pudong expats before. They are different, their backs rest briefly in China, their legs straddle continents. I have no idea what it is to be an immigrant struggling to make it in China.

Her name is Lem. She is from the Philippines. She’s happy to talk about her work and her experience of China. I learn that she always wanted to do music. Lem says that she was part of a band, all members of which have been in China for a while. They could not get a job together initially. She got a contract with this hotel in Wuhan, others in her band found work in Chongqing. Lem looks at me questioningly as she mentions this town. I nod. Although I’ve heard of it, I can’t recall how far away it is.

I ask how it is to live in China. She says, obliquely, that she liked her job in the hotel; it helped her to get experience in a smaller place in China. Wuhan has a population of 10 million; more than New York City holds. But I can see that for her it would be a small place. Bangalore has a similar population, but has more music pubs.

Outside of work? Lem evades this question. She says she has a room in the hotel, so she does not have to try to rent a place on her own. She has visited her band members several times in the year. They now have a contract to play together.

She perks up. Her contract here has ended and she will leave Wuhan after the weekend. She and her band have a contract to play together in Nanjing. She looks a question at me again. Yes, I know about Nanjing. Never been there. Is it better than Wuhan? She nods vigorously. I know that it is closer to Shanghai. She agrees. She eventually wants to go to Shanghai. I know how lively the music scene is in Shanghai. I wish her luck. Lem smiles broadly and thanks me.

I run into her in the lobby the next morning. She’s dressed for a sunny day, her last in Wuhan. She is bubbling and happy, ready for the next year of her life. I wish her luck. China, like India, is a hard and competitive place. She’ll need luck.

Wuhan’s east lake in two moods

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I arrived in Wuhan a couple of days after typhoon Mujigae hit southern China. It was raining in Shanghai and Wuhan. I checked in and looked out of the window at Wuhan’s famous East Lake and saw the scene in the photo above. Very dark and brooding, I thought to myself. Misty like a Chinese landscape painting. All I was missing in the photo was a man in the middle distance fishing.

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A couple of days later the weather had changed. The days were clearer than I’d ever seen in Wuhan before. The East Lake was a placid mirror reflecting the blue of the sky and the white fluffy clouds. The days were perfect for casual strolls by the lake. I liked these days better, but I liked that darker picture more.

Wuhan Art Deco

wuhanconcessionWuhan is a sprawling town which incorporates the three former towns called Wuchang, Hanyang and Hankou. Wuchang is famous for the revolution of 1911 which overthrew the Qing dynasty and eventually gave rise to Kuomintang China. Across the Yangtze river from Wuchang is the square mile of Hankou which was ceded to foreign powers by the 1885 Treaty of Tientsin. I went to see the Wuhan Bund which was built as a flood-protection measure on the Hankou side of the river in 2005. While exiting the Bund on to Yanjiang Dadao, I noticed that there seemed to be several Art Deco buildings on the other side of the road. In the photo above you can see the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank right in the center. In the photo it appears in front of the tall blue tower called the Jiali Plaza, once the tallest building in Wuhan. Next to the HSBC bank is the old National City Bank of New York, now the ICBC Bank. These two buildings are flying the Chinese flag.

wuhanportI crossed the road and realized that the massive building which was once the Port of Hankou was also an Art Deco structure. You can recognize it in the clean curves you see in this photo. I wish I could read what’s written on the facade; I’m still unable to read calligraphic Chinese writing. Other parts of the port have the straight lines and curving flares typical of this style. The discovery of Wuhan’s Art Deco past was a bit of a jolt. I had very little time to explore it. I continued walking away from the Bund and towards a building that I later realized was the Old Customs House. At the street level, shops had put up their own facades, but if you looked higher you could see several buildings with tell-tale Art Deco lines and trim. I was amazed. This part used to be the old British Concession, and I’d expected the heavy late-Victorian architecture of the late 19th century, not the light and playful Art Deco of several decades later. Afterwards, when I thought about it I realized I should not have been surprised. Even in Mumbai there is a mixing of these two architectural styles.

2015-10-09 11.57.38On my ten minute walk I also saw Art Nouveau in many places. One example was this neglected gate: the superposition of the playful vines on the straight lines of the grilles is a lovely piece of Deco. This was almost my last discovery. My walk ended at the Customs House, and the Social Realist style statue nearby commemorating the city’s protection from floods. I realize now, while browsing the net, that this period of Wuhan’s architecture is well-known but ill-documented. Certainly the neglected gate above, with its mixture of Art Nouveau and Chinese styles is an unique, but unremarked heritage. When I go back I must devote more time to exploring this area.

China again

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The yellow crane has long since gone away,
All that here remains is yellow crane tower.
The yellow crane once gone does not return,
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.
The river is clear in Hanyang by the trees,
And fragrant grass grows thick on parrot isle.
In this dusk, I don’t know where my homeland lies,
The river’s mist-covered waters bring me sorrow.
— Cui Hao

I’m off to China again for a week, this time to Wuhan near the Three Gorges on the Yangtze river. Wuhan was historically important, and is one of the oldest cities in China. There are a few classic poems about the Yellow Crane tower next to the river. The most famous is the poem by Cui Hao on the right. Hao died in 754, and his poem was inscribed on a wall of the tower. It is said that Li Bai, perhaps the most famous of medieval Chinese poets, tried to write a better poem about the tower, but was unable to. A famous story, often told, is about Li Bai dreaming that the walls of the tower were reconstructed without Cui Hao’s poem, and he being asked to inscribe something on the blank new wall.

The old wooden tower stood next to the river. It was destroyed to build the Yangtze bridge that you can see in the photo above. The new concrete building (photo above) is situated in view of the river, but about a kilometer away. Traffic which comes over the bridge passes by the new pagoda style tower. The photo also shows the incredible pollution which is one of the things this city is famous for. The last time I was at the tower, I saw a tea house which was closed. I hope I can find it open once now. Wuhan is a center of tea trade, and I would like to have a tea here before going on to one of the huge tea markets which were my first introduction to the incredible variety of Chinese teas.

I’m looking forward to being in China again, this time armed with a smattering of Chinese words, and the ability to form simple sentences. I’m sure that my vocabulary will run out in a couple of sentences, since I know very few verbs, but it will be good to try to speak. I’m not there long, so the spotty access to wordpress and google will be an irritant rather than a major problem.