Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: urban studies
Monday, 23 December 2013 14:17

The "Minuit" Sonata

Photographer and journalist Hubert Kilian shares his experiences documenting the side of Taipei behind the glitz and the glamour in black and white, a side of Taipei that is often forgotten.


Sunday, 01 December 2013 19:15

In Search of Utopia

As observed in the mass media and our own personal experience, the Earth's habitat is facing an unprecedented crisis. We clearly realize that the problems and disasters caused by global warming cannot be avoided by any country: one infectious disease after another quickly spreads across national borders, acid rain floats over the seas, even China's sandstorms affect Taiwan. When humankind causes an imbalance in the natural order created by other species, the retribution always ends up coming back and affecting humankind. Never in human history has humankind realised, the way we do today, just how inextricably connected all life on this planet is, forming one big symbiotic entity.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013 14:05

A Tale of Two Syrias


The Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival is a biannual festival, organized by the Taiwan Association of Visual Ethnography and held in Taipei. I was very glad to attend this year’s festival, and over the five-day event I saw many interesting and inspiring films. One that immediately stood out for me was the documentary A Tale of Two Syrias.  I studied Arabic in Damascus, and later returned there for work, so for me the film had a very personal appeal. Nevertheless, A Tale of Two Syrias makes interesting viewing for anyone who wants to know more about the region.

The film switches between two locations and two people.  In Damascus, we follow the story of Salem, an Iraqi fashion designer who fled from Baghdad during the Iraq war and hopes to seek asylum in America.  In Mar Musa, a remote hillside monastery in the Syrian countryside, we follow Botrus, a Syrian monk.  The film weaves between these two stories to paint an intimate portrait of a country that despite the recent media coverage, most people know very little about.   By capturing the difficulties faced by ordinary Syrians in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and also their vision of a better, freer life in the future, in some ways the film pre-empts the current conflict.  However, through the beauty of Mar Musa and its inhabitants’ belief in inter-religious dialogue and mutual respect and tolerance, it also shows a vision of what that future Syria could be like.

I caught up with the director, Yasmin Fedda, whom I first met in Syria during my time there, and this is what she had to say:

eRenlai: It was great to see a film with a Middle East focus at the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival.  How did it happen?  Did they approach you?  Did you approach them?  What was the deal?

YF: I had heard of the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival through the Visual Anthropology networks that I am connected to, so I applied to them. They accepted, which was great!

eRenlai: Aside from your family links to the region, what was it that drew you to make a film about Syria?

 YF: At the time of filming, in 2010, there were still a very limited number of documentaries made in Syria, both by Syrians and internationals. I felt that it was important to make a film about regular- but unique- people's lives in a country that was largely misunderstood by the world's media.  

 eRenlai: "A Tale of Two Syrias" is an intriguing title. What are the "two Syrias" you tried to capture while you were filming? 

YF: I wanted to reflect the 2 stories of 2 individuals, the city and the country, the official and the unofficial, the before and the after.

eRenlai: Your film shows Syria through the perspective of two very different people, but nevertheless your two interviewees are both male, both Christian, and one of them is an Iraqi only recently arrived in Syria.  Why did you choose these two people in particular to represent the Syria of 2010?  Some people may question why you did not choose a Muslim or a female voice for example….

 YF: Good question. I realised after finishing it that some audiences have assumed that Salem, the Iraqi, is Christian, but in fact he is Muslim, but not very religious. At the time of editing I decided I didn't want to spell out what religion he is because he didn't either.  The only person's religion I did mention is that of Botrus. In Syria it wasn't strange for people of different religions to visit the shrines of other religions. I also think it is important to see that people’s religious beliefs and practices can be expressed in multiple ways, and being Muslim or Christian is not just done in one particular way that defines it for the rest. I also chose to have a story of an Iraqi refugee because up until 2010, up to 1 million Iraqis had gone through or settled in Syria and I wanted to humanise one of these experiences.

As for a female voice, I did try to find a female story, but after several different leads the stories didn't work out for various reasons (either bureaucratic, or difficult access to their particular stories). So yes I did intend to have a female voice.  But ultimately I was attracted to both Salem and Botrus’s stories as neither of them are your typical person in Syria and I think that gives an interesting perspective on life there at the time.

eRenlai: It was surprising that you managed to capture so many Syrians expressing their political opinions on camera (I am referring in particular to the discussions at Deir Mar Musa).  Was there any suspicion on their part?  Did you have to do much persuading? 

While people were discussing in Mar Musa I was allowed to film, due to being accepted by the community and also because I think people felt safe to speak there, so I didn't need to do any persuading. However the two discussions I filmed there now seem to reflect not only a different time, but also the issues that are pertinent today, like what does freedom look like and how do you share that and accept others?

eRenlai: Has the film ever been screened in Syria or the Middle East?  If so how was the film received?  What kind of comments did people have?

No, I haven't screened it in Syria or the Middle East, as it is difficult to do so at the moment. But many Syrians have seen it and have given me great feedback, which has been valuable to me. 

eRenlai: Could you talk about your changing emotions as the revolution in Syria started, then after a few months when it became clear there was going to be no quick toppling of the regime as in Libya or Tunisia, and finally when the revolution became a bloody civil war.

I was, of course, excited by the potential in Syria for change from dictatorship, and I still support this change. It became clear that this would not be easy as soon as the regime’s forces started killing people at protests and funerals, imprisoning and torturing thousands and using indiscriminate force in various parts of the country.

It is very sad and distressing to see the violence and destruction occurring in Syria today, and a strong solution to end the violence is needed as soon as possible, and then a transition to a different system of governance needs to be built.

Because of events in Syria today, the whole film has a sense of irony, tension and impending disaster it might not have had otherwise.  Had there been no conflict in Syria as you were editing the film, would you have made your film differently? What would you have changed and why?

I am sure it would have been edited completely differently, and my perspectives would have been different. It is difficult to know what would have been different as making a film is also very instinctive, and I was editing whilst the revolution was gaining ground and there was increasing repression and violence. I could not separate those things from editing. But in saying that, the Syria I filmed in was run by an authoritarian regime with much structural violence, rising poverty, crony capitalism, and many other problems. It was far from being a non-conflicted country even then. So I feel that this sense of disaster was there, even in 2010, but it wasn't clear where it was going exactly. The tension was there and I re-found it in the footage as I was editing.

eRenlai: At what stage of the editing process did the revolution start?  How far had you got with the film?

The revolution started just as I started editing, so it was difficult to see the footage of a few months before with the current news of what was happening in Syria. It took a while for me to edit after that as I could not edit the film easily due to these changes in Syria and the effects these were having on friends and family there. I took a few months off from editing, and then returned to it, knowing that the situation there had changed dramatically.

eRenlai: Before the conflict, Syria was not often talked about in the media.  Now, because of the conflict, Syria and films about Syria are getting far greater public attention.  As a film-maker, could you describe your feelings when faced with this reality?

While there is a lot of media attention about Syria I feel that there is not enough that deals with it more deeply, as most of the work is about war, which can be quite frustrating. That being said there are more and more great films being made there and they are slowly being filtered out into the world.

eRenlai: With the escalation of the conflict into a civil war between a multitude of actors, some of whom have shown themselves to be just as brutal as the regime, can we still call the conflict a "revolution"?  Can we still say that all factions of the rebels in Syria are fighting for freedom?

I think we can say that there is a lot happening in Syria and one of those things is a revolution. There are many other conflicts and fights going on at the same time but that does not mean we must sideline those that work non-violently or who focus on a change from dictatorship or for democracy. Silencing or ignoring them is dangerous, as is understanding the conflict in Syria in narrow terms, such as a conflict made up only of fighting factions, or of extremists, or full of brutal leaders. In reality there are many opinions and approaches.

Also it is important to keep things in perspective. The regime has, and still does, have majority of control of violence. The majority of destruction has been due to the regimes shelling and attacks, as have been most tortures, arrests and killings.

What is happening in Syria can also be called 'uprisings', a set of political processes that are occurring at the same time, trying to work out what they are and where they are going.  Also the term 'Freedom' depends on your definition of it, so yes, many factions may be fighting for that, and the challenge is reconciling those different interpretations of the term.

eRenlai: What do you think when you hear what some Syrians interviewed in the media –both in Syria and outside the country- are saying; that they preferred things as they were under Bashar al-Assad to the chaos reigning in their country today?

I hear a variety of opinions coming out of Syria but I cannot say that I have heard this opinion very often at all. On the contrary, I hear the opposite much more. Many people ask for an end to the chaos and violence but recognise that the regime has been the driving force for this chaos from the start in order to win popular support and to become even more entrenched. 

Some people do say they prefer Bashar al Assad, and others that they support someone else or some other group, and many others still that they prefer neither of these options.  I think this reflects the diversity of experiences and opinions across the country and I think this variety needs to be acknowledged and a space for it created in the future.

eRenlai: Christians in Syria today- and the village of Maaloula in particular where some of your film was shot- are not being persecuted by the regime, but rather by Islamist factions of the opposition. How does this affect Christians' place in the struggle against the regime?  They must be in a difficult position now...

I think the premise of this question is wrong and you cannot assume that Christians as a whole are being persecuted.  Many Christians have been persecuted by the regime pre and post conflict. At the same time there were individuals that were close to the regime and have favourable positions because of this. Sectarianism was used by the regime as a tool to consolidate power, both before and during the uprising against it. So this is a very complicated situation, as it is for Syrians of all backgrounds, including for Muslims, Druze, or atheists.

I think it is important not to see Christians as one homogenous group of people. There are many differing opinions and experiences which affect people's decisions so I don't think it makes sense to phrase the issue as the 'Christians' place in the struggle against the regime. It is about Syrians as a whole, people all over Syria are being targeted.

eRenlai: What is the best scenario for religious minorities in Syria?  At the moment things do not look good either way for them...

I don't believe this is a healthy way to see this issue. I think the best thing is to treat everyone as Syrians, as this is isn't a sectarian conflict, and is still one based on power struggles.  By saying that religious minorities are having a hard time, you are ignoring that the fact that the 'majority ' of Syrians, many of whom are Sunni Muslims, are also having a very hard time.  Everyone is affected by the conflict in deep ways and this must be recognised for everyone.

 It is important to point out that the regime has aimed since the start to make this a sectarian conflict, and this kind of narrative supports their aim. Sectarianism exists, but the uprising did not begin as a sectarian uprising.

eRenlai: Going back to your title, “A Tale of Two Syrias”, what "two Syrias" (or more than two) can you envisage in the future when this horrible conflict has come to an end?

It will take a long time to rebuild Syria but I hope it will be just one Syria after the conflict. One that is based on dignity, equality and able to accept diversity of opinion, whatever it might be. 

eRenlai: Will you be returning to the Middle East for another filming project soon? 

I am going to be working in Jordan very soon, filming a theatre production of The Trojan Women by Euripides, set in the modern Syrian conflict and made with Syrian refugees who now live there. 

 

For more information about Yasmin please visit her site, http://tellbrakfilms.com/

 


Tuesday, 15 October 2013 13:18

Seeing through the haze: The truth about smoking

 

"...but as the world grew more and more affluent, laws and restrictions multiplied, discrimination increased, and somehow we lost our freedom. Why did this happen?"
Yasutaka Tsutsui, "The Last Smoker"

In Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui's 1987 novel "The Last Smoker", he depicts a fictitious Japan in which the anti-smoking movement has become powerful, leading eventually to the extermination of smokers. Even though this piece is classified as science fiction, the descriptions found in the novel, such as the unwillingness to understand smokers, their plight of being loathed, and the general state of discrimination against them are all too present in the real world.


Monday, 07 October 2013 15:00

Film Review: The Queen has No Crown


The film
The Queen has no Crown was shown as part of the five-day Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival 2013. It's being held at the Wonderful Theatre, just opposite exit 6 of Ximen MRT - the last day is tomorrow, so try and catch at least one of the fantastic documentaries being shown. If you missed out on this film, you can catch a screening of I Shot My Love on the 9th October at the Freshman Classroom Building 102, Taipei at 18:30


Friday, 30 August 2013 10:19

Uniting the Sea of Islands

Epeli Hao'Ofa, the most significant Pacific scholar of his age, wrote a momentous paper Rediscovering our sea of islands, in which he laid out an indigenous vision of the Pacific, one in which the people were united by their "sea of islands" rather than constrained by the seas, the passport system implemented by the colonial powers and acquired linguistic differences. I experienced these words in all their emotional and symbolic power during the six weeks that my newly discovered siblings, Fijian Ledua Setaraki (Seta) and ethnic Samoan New Zealander Tupe Lualua, spent in Taiwan, where they had been invited to engage in exchange with Taiwanese aborigines to explore with one another their common Austronesian heritage through the mediums of dance and navigation, both revived traditional forms of indigenous wisdom which they had employed to re-engage with the contemporary world. Indeed, Seta had been a part of a navigation team which had put into practice 'uniting the sea of islands' by sailing the breadth of the Pacific using the traditional navigational methods of their forefathers.

Pacific scholar Vilsoni Hereniko once told me in this 2010 interview that the important point was that indigenous communities were empowered with 'cultural autonomy' rather than them to be perceived as 'culturally authentic'. From then on I always maintained some doubts when participating in or researching cultural projects commissioned by the government that are inevitably imbued with a self-congratulatory character and language and often have a superficial focus on supposedly authentic regalia, song and dance that seem detached from the real everyday lives and struggles of the participants, who are nonetheless often obliging due to the pride that cultural recognition furnishes them with and the jobs provided by the indigenous cultural revival industry. I often find these projects like to blow their own trumpets in terms of the diversity that they supposedly foster and their focus on praising Taiwan as the source of migration to the Pacific, a claim that is underlain with domestic political and geopolitical functions. I had heard too often indigenous peoples adopting and internalising the Han Chinese trope of the "indigenous person with the great sense of humor", or what one could term a "stage aborigine", commonly found in different media representations of the indigenous community. The tendency to focus on rediscovery of lost cultural traditions I feel often clouds contemporary social justice issues between the ethnicities in Taiwan and within the individual tribal groups. For example no cultural exchange group has ever received government funding to come and see the urban indigenous communities such as the Sanying tribal village or the Sao'wac Amis who suffered the full violence of the state machinery with the demolition of their riverside communities.

Another doubt I have harboured relates to the ethnic and racial historical burden. Although I generally try not to think in racial terms, having experienced being marked as a clear and obvious racial group, in a relatively racially homogenous island, being viewed sometimes in both an unfairly positive and unfairly negative light, in the context of this trip, I couldn't help having a discomforting nagging feeling that led me to question my very role in this trip. What was I, an English national, the very same English who had once been colonial masters and profiteers over both the Fijian and Samoan peoples, doing assisting in this project, translating between one colonially-received (or acquired?) language to another colonially-received (or acquired?) language forced on the local indigenous populations during their centuries of Han Chinese domination and marginalisation, for a project which was commissioned by the same ROC government (albeit from the Council of Indigenous Peoples) and being implemented by the Ricci Institute in which the main organizers were Han Chinese? Was this empowerment? 

Primarily serving as a translator and guide for the visiting Pacific guests, our entourage spent much of our time dining, drinking, singing, dancing, swimming, capsizing, crashing and generally living together as a swiftly improvised family and support network. In the host of parties and welcomings we were jovial partners in celebration. On a personal level, Seta shared with me some of his local knowledge, helping to reignite a passion for re-immersing myself in nature and all the daily survival struggles in the age of pre-convenience, as he taught me how to make my first sling spear, to ferment coconut and pineapple based alcohol which bared an uncanny resemblance in taste to indigenous Taiwan's infamous millet wines and finally to prepare and serve Kava, a tree root based powder mix, in the traditional way they drink the mix in his native island of Fiji. "Ta-kii" Seta called, and he clapped twice before I handed him the coconut half-shell cup, which he drank and clapped once more before handing the cup back to be passed on to the next person. And in that moment I felt a tingle of belonging and my own status doubts were somewhat resolved, as I realised that to live together in a globalized world, we are filled with both a need for universal fraternity in the goals of peace, love, unity and respect, and also a sense of belonging in a community of familial love and understanding.

Indeed on the trip certain doubts were assuaged, especially after seeing the reaction of the children in the schools where Tupe's energetic and inclusive singing and dancing, such as the mosquito swatting dance, brought smiles to the faces of all the school children and the tales and video footage of Seta's two year boating trip left the children staring in awe, filling the kids with a sense of adventure and a sense of their own potential to achieve their dreams. THIS was empowerment. That some of Tupe's works bring up contemporary social issues was also enlightening, and people did question to what extent Tupe's dances were similar to the dances of old, to what extent had they overturned the thorough religious, linguistic, cultural and artistic colonization and to what extent their revival had a positive effect on society. Furthermore Seta's talks and demonstrations always contained a strong environmental message, "my grandpa used to say, every second breath that you take in comes from the ocean", he went on to build awareness of the state of the ocean, with his gripping tale of his experience saving a huge sea turtle that had been dying, stranded on the masses of plastic waste irresponsibly left there from humanity's excesses. These children of Formosa, and Orchid Island, I believe will never forget that the stewardship of the oceans is one of their great missions and perhaps a generation later they will be the ones leading the fight to clean the Pacific.

I still had some doubts, however. For example, while Tupe often mentioned how some of her dance works could also function as a critical art medium to express social problems in marginalised communities, in general it seemed to draw little attention from the audience, with still too much attention on selling an 'authentic look' to improve their economic benefits. Furthermore as expected the group did not visit the controversial settlements mentioned above, and barring the unavoidable exposure to Orchid Island's nuclear waste dump, these politically sensitive aspects still tended to be glossed over in the sea of dance and cultural display. I would hope that in addition to cultural renaissance, future projects could also put more emphasis on ocean wide Austronesian land rights and community inequalities. The Pacific, must be 'united as a sea of islands' facing a common set of environmental and social struggles.

nick seta zijie


Tuesday, 27 August 2013 16:13

Dance from Samoa to Taiwan

On June 8th, the Pacific workshop organized by the Taiwan Society for Pacific Studies brought Saloan dancer Tupe Lualua and Seta Ledua to Hualien County on Taiwan East Coast where they met with the renowned Formosa Aboriginal Song and Dance Troupe (原舞者). This video records Tupe's interaction with three members of the Troupe, including a section in which they teach each other dance moves.


Tuesday, 28 May 2013 18:34

Gender and Weddings in Taiwan

Red candles, ceremonial cannons, fresh flowers, everybody coming together to celebrate, but with all the throwing of fans (the bride throws a fan on the ground to represent that she's leaving her youthful temper behind her), the bride's mother throwing water at the bride's departing car (spilled water can't be retrieved, which signifies that the daughter should not go back to her old house just like the water can't be unpoured) and walking over broken tiles (which represents overcoming the past and expelling evil deities), the bride can't help but be a little overwhelmed. "Rites" are a kind of standard or a restriction, if a wedding is supposed to be for both the bride and the groom, then why are all the restrictions during the marriage rite imposed on the woman?

Translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart



Tuesday, 28 May 2013 18:26

Keening: Taiwan's Professional Mourners

Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photos courtesy of Liu Junnan and Wang Zhengxiang

When did keening become so forced?

A Mei: 'There was always someone there saying: Now you should cry... You can't cry now...My brother and I often got mixed up, "Do we have to cry now? Or not cry?".
                                                                                                                 -Seven Days in Heaven (2010)

The film, Seven Days in Heaven (Fuhou Qiri) from the short story of the same name, describes the experiences of A Mei, the female protagonist who has been working in the city for many years, on her return to her rural hometown for her father's funeral. There was a montage in the film with a lively Spanish dance track playing in the background, in which the 'keening' during the funeral preparation process is satirized – at one point A Mei hasn't finished eating, and later hasn't finished brushing her teeth, but hears the call "the girl should come and cry", and she has to don her mourning clothes and sprint to the altar to cry – in a very memorable scene. This scene must have made a lot of Taiwanese watching laugh (at least that is what happened with my friends and I), not just because of the comi-tragic sorry figure she cut, but also because we've all had similar – even if not quite as dramatic – experiences and sentiments.

Funerals, always touch on death and separation. Being grief-stricken or crying, is a natural emotional and physiological reaction; however, having to cry or 'keen' under the strictures of a pre-formulated ritual, is hard to think of as 'natural'.

How old is traditional? How new is modern?

In Taiwanese funerals the time to cry is appointed and when that time comes you have to cry, even if you have to fake it, and it's a loud keening wail – this is an element of Taiwanese funeral culture which is often criticized as a corrupt practice. When watching Seven Days in Heaven, A Mei's embarrassment, and the laughter of the audience, reflects the distance that people nowadays feel towards funeral rites.

For the past 20 or so years, a trend towards modernization in funerals has gathered momentum; the customs surrounding the funeral rites, often seen as esoteric were rebranded under the new moniker 'the study of life and death' (a field of study in the Chinese speaking world: shengsixue), advocated in the context of Metaphysics. A milestone in this trend has been the regulatory impact of the 'Mortuary Service Administration Act' promulgated by the Taiwanese government at the end of 2002, an act that states its purpose as essentially advocating conforming funeral customs to reflect the demands of a modern society.

If one compares the funeral model listed under the Citizen Ceremonies' Model ratified by the government in 1970 and similar models offered by funeral businesses today, one discovers that there's not much difference – clearly we haven't completely gotten rid of the old, and welcomed in a new way of doing things, but rather we've adapted and reinterpreted some of the finer details. So, before we rush to accept the traditional/modern dichotomy, perhaps we should ask ourselves what is this tradition that we are talking about? How old is it really? And what about the meaning of it should be reformed?

The shift from secular to religious funerals

To continue the example of keening, let's do a bit of historical research.

Normally people from Han culture think of funeral rites as pertaining to three separate traditions, the Confucian school, Buddhism and Daoism, at the same time, different characteristics sprang up in different localities. The fact that a funeral rite is called a rite () implies that it not only a religious activity; comparing the Confucian, the Buddhist and the Daoist traditions, the relationship between rites () and the Confucianism is much older and much deeper.

Very early on, China already had the concepts of ghosts, deities and ancestor worship, however, from the time of Confucius and Mencius, the rites, although they took their origin in belief and sacrificial rituals, developed by Confucian intellectuals from the rites of Zhou has always been secular, the main thrust of which was concerned with governing the behaviour of man. Confucianism tends to a belief that improving one's own sense of morality can give order to society, and allow one to accept one's place in life; they didn't feel the need search for consolation in imagining ghosts or deities. Therefore, the funeral rites and customs Confucianism advocated didn't include religious mysticism, but rather they reflected the 'normal' social order and social contract.

Pursuing harmony and rationality in this world, cannot ease the primal terror that people feel when faced with death, and this pursuit is unable to answer people's questions or speak to their imaginings of the afterlife. The narrative of life and death in Confucian thinking, advocating the ideas of putting the service of man before the service of spirits and that of keeping a respectful distance from ghosts and deities, is not enough to satisfy these questions; so, as Buddhism, which had come from elsewhere, and the home-grown Daoism came to fruition in the Wei, Jin and North-South dynasties, the system of rites surrounding funerals associated with Confucianism became intertwined with those of Buddhism and Daoism; with the changes in the way people think about the world, the secular Confucian orthodoxy has gradually become less dominant, under attack as it was from modern ways of thinking; supernatural religious belief was able to come to the fore in funeral rituals, revealing even more clearly the shift towards thinking from a religious perspective.

哭喪04Restraining Grief, a Thousand Year Old Ritual

However, in the midst of this trend, keening is considered an example of a more 'classic' ritual.

As the Chinese equivalent to "I'm sorry for your loss", which translates roughly as "Restrain your grief, so that you can adapt to the loss", which people today still use regularly, can attest to, the main tenet by which the Confucian system of rites deals with crying or keening during the mourning period emphasizes mediating grief by controlling one's physiological reactions. The passage 'Questions about Mourning Rites'in the Classic of Rites (Li Ji) is an early record that, even in the case of mourning for parents, the mourning period shouldn't last more than three years, the purpose of this is in the hope that people will gradually be able to exercise emotional restraint, and return to their customary life in society. This current of thought continued until after the Song (960–1279) and the Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties, when Confucian scholars gradually compiled Family Rites wherein the role of crying as a stage in funeral rites was laid down more clearly in writing, this included instructions like the following: on the death of a relative or a friend, you cry loudly (the person is dead so you can cry); throughout the period when one is offering sacrifices for the dead, one can cry if one feels sad (there's no appointed time for crying, when grief comes one may cry); but once the body has been interred, during the 'Enshrining the Spirit' ritual, one can only cry in the morning and in the evening (crying at dawn and at dusk); after a year of mourning, one should stop crying – this is where the idea of appointing the times when one could and could not cry came from in part.

As well as this, keening in this context, isn't simply 'crying', but rather it involves singing a keening song (dirge). From the perspective of the Han people, the folk keening dirges can be sung in several different ways, some are freestyle with no limitations on content, others, however, have words, but most are sung by women, such as wives and daughters on the death of an elder; during the funeral rites of the Zhuang, the Yi and the Jingpo peoples, all minority ethnic groups from the South West of China, one can always find rituals which fuse dance and keening dirges to express and relieve grief.

Can grief-stricken keening be carried out by proxy?

We can say for sure that keening is a part of a funeral culture with a long history, and it had a rich significance, and not a negative one, so is it right to label keening as a aberrant practice?

In the film Seven Days in Heaven, as well as the 'genuinely' filial daughter, A Mei, who feels bewildered by the keening ritual in the process of the funeral, there is also another classic role associated with crying: the 'fake' filial daughter A Qin, who keens professionally. In the film, A Qin is a larger than life career keener who can turn her tears on and off at the drop of a hat; the idea behind this character comes from the Chinese expression for a professional keener 'Xiaonvbaiqin'(孝女白琴 literally: filial daughter Baiqin), which formed a part of Taiwanese funeral processions (zhentou 陣頭) ten or twenty years ago. Somehow, compared to the relatives of the dead not knowing how to cry, spending money to hiring a perfect stranger who is in this profession to keep up appearances for them by 'performing' grief, seems a lot harder to reconcile with the practice of 'rites', but in Taiwan, this phenomenon has really taken off.

In fact, as well as "Filial Daughter Baiqin", another element of the parade tradition (zhentou 陣頭) with which Taiwanese readers will be familiar is the part called "Five sons cry at a tomb" (Wuzikumu 五子哭墓), these all play a part in "orthodox" Taiwanese funeral customs: the latter takes its origin in a Hoklo folktale; the former, on the other hand, is derived from the character 'Filial Daughter Baiqiong' in the 1970s' Taiwanese popular classic puppet theatre The Great Confucian Knight-Errant of Yunzhou (雲州大儒俠) – so these are all relatively "new traditions", so to speak. That's not to say that these more performative examples of keening don't have an element of filial piety or that they don't count as an expression of grief; however if one really goes back through historical records it becomes clear that these performances were actually invented by Taiwanese funeral homes – another relatively "new tradition" which only really started to become popular from the 1960s onwards.

 Because of its close connection with the rise of local funeral home companies, most of the professionals performing as"Filial Daughter Baiqin" normally work for relatively small organizations, often with staff shortages, and they're often responsible for weddings and other celebrations in addition to funerals - working in a variety of different roles, not just in the funeral sector, like performing as show girls on dance floats at weddings - a common sight at local weddings, celebrations and sometimes even funerals. For that very reason, the "Filial daughter Baiqin" profession is one of the most denigrated within Taiwan's contemporary funeral cultural industry, indirectly reinforcing people's negative impressions of this keening custom at funerals.

Overcoming the diametric opposition between "traditional" and "modern"

From another perspective, however, no matter if it's the services performed by the undertaker, the"Five sons crying at the tomb" (Wuzikumu) or "Filial daughter Baiqin", given that the structure of society has changed over time, the way funerals are held has adapted accordingly, making up for something that is now missing from our society (the popularization of funeral homes reflects the weakening of the bonds between people living in the same area and within families, as well as the scarcity of people familiar with rites; the rise of this kind of performative keening by professionals is not unlinked to the shrinking of families and the decline in the number of children), that reflects the psychology and demands of a bygone era. The custom does not take its origins in temples and it does not have a long history, but compared to the esoteric mysticism of the religious conception of rites, it is perhaps closer to the true essence of rites as they relate to the life of the ordinary man.

With the tide of modernization concerning funeral and burial customs, people have advocated freeing ourselves from the corrupt practices of traditional funeral customs and rites: they should be more solemn, there should be no loud mournful keening; they should be simplified and adapted to the times, there shouldn't be such extravagant decorations; one should follow religious practice, and not indulge in petty superstitions... however, these imagined "traditions" cannot be so easily homogenized, and one cannot break away from them simply by constructing modernity in opposition to them. Using the example of keening, we can even go far as to say that 'modernity' surfaces in order to resolve that which seems to be a contradiction or an aberration in any given society – here it would be the aberration would be the idea of a stranger being paid to mourn for one's relatives, but often in problematizing this aberration we flippantly iron out the creases in history, and simply thrust upon it the term 'tradition'. In this way we often remain ignorant to how the same practice, in this case keening, in a different time and place can change in the way it is carried out (i.e. from family members to professional keeners); and how this kind of aberration is a product of historic shifts within a society, and shouldn't simply be banished as a corrupt traditional practice.

Ghosts and deities remain outside of the grasp of human perception, and so judgement of whether something is good or bad is simply a product of our way of thinking and we shouldn't ignore the historical realities that lie behind apparent aberrations.

 

 

 


Thursday, 16 May 2013 00:00

Amateurs in Tokyo - Reasonable Riots

Study, graduate, work, start a family,
I've tried my hardest, but I've always been down and out. Whose rules am I supposed to be playing by? What course have I been put on?
Let's break the rules! Take the piss, to get back a bit of logic!

by Zijie Yang, translated by Conor Stuart and Julia Chien from the original Chinese, photos by Park Swan


Tuesday, 05 March 2013 16:59

When did we all turn into a bunch of numbers?


Good afternoon everyone,

It's the time for the Wednesday experience sharing session once again. When this time comes around, everyone surreptitiously breathes a sigh of relief that the week is already half-over do they not? Thanks to everyone for staying this late to hear a younger colleague share with you how to calculate accurately the C/T value of your life. I see a lot of people have come, a lot of whom are older colleagues with substantial experience under their belt, you're not only higher up in the company than me, but you've also been here a lot longer, you've worn out a lot more swiveling chairs than me too, so you're probably curious about two things, the first is as to why it's me standing here today, the second is as to what C/T value is.

The two questions actually have the same answer.
The answer is my wife.

My wife is Jian Mei-en who has just been promoted to head of her section. We joined the company at the same time, and now I'm still at the same level as a rookie, but she's already set the best sales record 13 weeks in a row, raised her unit's performance by 0.5 percentage points, and after just a year and a half in the job the completion rate of every project she's worked on has increased by an average of 45%.

How was she so successful, you might ask? It's because found a way to raise her C/T value. At this point, you're probably even more curious as to what C/T value is? How can it change our lives?

OK, thanks for the applause. If we want to understand what C/T value is, we have to start from C/P value. I assume you all know what C/P value is: capability/price. The higher the performance of a product, and the less funds you need to invest, the higher its C/P value. As for C/T, this ratio was invented by my wife. One explanation of C/T value is that T = time and C = capability, then if we invest less time but are highly capable, then the figure we get will be larger. You're probably thinking that this is stating the obvious. The less time you spend, and the more you get done, the more effective you'll be. The pursuit of a high C/T value is what every company looks for in their prospective employees. The problem with this is, however, how to reduce the time value.

Please take a look at the screen. This is my daily schedule from when I'd just joined the company:

7:00 Get up
8:00 Walk out the door
8:30 Clock in
12:00 Lunch break
14:00 Work meeting
18:00 Off work
19:00-22:00 Leisure time
22:00-00:00 Prepare the following day's reports
01:00 Bedtime

If we consider that today is Wednesday, then the leisure time we might change to 'sharing session', this is the highlight of my otherwise dull week, everyone loosens their ties, changes into casual shoes and exchanges their feelings about work, be they important or not. However, as everyone looks at this schedule, I suspect you'll all be thinking that this is a model for a low C/T value. It's perhaps typical of how a new employee would organize their time. There's so much time wasted at each stage. 

But what I want to tell everyone is that so called 'waste' is necessary. Although this is my schedule, my wife's was the same. Man and wife are often in sync in this respect. From getting out of bed to getting to work, they stick together, if one of them forgets something the other one will wait for them, one to two hour delays aren't out of the ordinary. If you go to eat lunch together then you're going to take two hours from 12 to 2, but I'd like to ask, if your boss offers to treat you to a nice meal would you be able to refuse? Sitting at your average restaurant on the street you'll spend around an hour and a half. Considering that everyone else will go, if you stay behind at the office, do you know what they'll say about you? Not even just that, aren't you curious what the office gossip is? I'll can tell you now, in just two hours over lunch you can get a fix on the gossip in each department, isn't that well-worth the investment? Another thing is in regard to leisure time in evening. To be realistic about things, we live with my mother and she loves watching local TV dramas in the living room, would you feel OK asking your wife to tell your aged mother to turn the volume down or turn the TV off altogether? It's hard not to watch along with her, and everything else naturally gets put off until later. Not to mention, if I'd known on this particular Wednesday that I would be making a presentation to you today, would I have needed to stay up for the last few days preparing this flashy powerpoint? This is not just a problem of numbers. With a calculator, you can switch between different currencies and units of measurement, with excel, you can accurately predict the output value of different projects, after all the struggle of getting into this company, you know that you'll get your end of year bonus that will be four times your monthly salary and a performance related bonus on the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Spring Festival, and that your life is worth almost a hundred days holiday per year, and as your position in the company rises, all this will be adjusted accordingly; but lots of things cannot be so accurately calculated. Tell me, how can one put a value on the relationship between husband and wife? Is it as simple as just dividing everything by 2? Now tell me, how would you would plot the emotional exchange and cost of care of watching a local drama on TV with your mother for two hours on a profit loss statement?

However, how can we change things?
The answer is C/T Value.

I don't know how she came to the realization. One morning I woke up and the other half of the bed was empty. There was still the depression of her body left on the mattress. I shouted her name, but there was no answer. On the dining table, however, there was some warm milk. My suit pants had been ironed and were hanging on a chair, and my briefcase was ready by the door.

It was just her that was missing.

I thought I should give her a call on her mobile phone, but when I picked up the phone I realized I remembered my own number, I remembered her employee number and account, I remembered our company's Business Registration Number; but somehow I couldn't remember her mobile number.

When was it that we became just bunch of numbers?

When I eventually got to the office, as soon my head was through the door, behind the partition, wasn't she sitting there typing out a report in front of her computer like it was the most natural thing in the world?

Her eyes were gleaming as she turned her head. She said that she'd found a way to increase C/T value.

'The secret is to get up out of bed two hours earlier and to eat lunch an hour later.'

What? I stuttered. That's the secret of increasing C/T value? Get up two hours earlier? Can that be the secret to success?

It was only some days later that I understood. It was all as simple as that. However, at the same time, it wasn't as simple. I had misunderstood what she meant.

There is another way to interpret C/T value, C = Customary and T = Time. The slash in the middle indicates separation. So it means essentially to stagger your time from that of everyone else.

She got up two hours earlier than I did, so she did everything before me. Heating the breakfast, getting everything prepared, sorting out everything to be done during the working day. In comparison, I got up later, so I couldn't delay her, I couldn't try to sweet talk her. I could only follow in her footsteps, without my interference, she got things done a lot quicker.

She also misses the rush hour, and gets to work a little earlier, as well as this, as I'm not with her, or anyone to bump into her, she doesn't have to engage in the customary small talk and greetings on getting to the office, so she gets her work done a lot quicker. At lunch, she avoids the normal lunch hour, and doesn't have to undergo the hobnobbing of socializing with colleagues, which increases her productivity even more.

And what about the evening? To get up two hours earlier the next morning, she would have to go to sleep earlier, so there's no way she can even think about watching a local drama that starts at eight in the evening. Mum understands that she has to get up early the next morning, so turns the TV down so as not to disturb her, then without even washing her dishes, she goes to bathe and heads to bed. So just as I'm off work for the evening, her day is already over.

Oh, that's right! That's how my wife came to invent the time machine.

If one just reduces one's contact with other people, and don't let trivialities influence your mood or your state of mind, then everyone can increase their productivity. Her life is 2 hours earlier than everyone else's, and she wastes an hour less for lunch. Adding it all up, she lives in a time zone with a 27 hour day.

'You can do it with me,' she offered. 'Let's go to bed together,' she said. If it had been before, I would have probably assumed she was hinting at something a little more sleazy; but to tell you the truth, this is the first time on this planet that those words have been uttered in such a matter of fact, business-like tone.

'But,' I scratched my head, I could give up watching TV with my mum; but it would be more difficult when I got off work, what was I supposed to do for fun? It didn't really seem possible. And what would happen if my mates invited me to lunch the next day. If I stayed in the office on my own, I'd probably have no friends after a few days.

I'm tired after a long day's work, it's important to have a bit of time to wind down, no?

But the light in the room was already off. She'd gone off in her time machine again.

What I'm trying to say is, figures are funny things. My wife has the best sales in the company for a record 13 weeks running, she has raised her section's performance by 0.5 percentage points, and her personal productiveness has risen by 45%, she has a high C/T value and has successfully changed her life; but you don't know what she had to give up in exchange for this.

For example, my wife and I in a typical day only get a chance to talk about our household duties around the water cooler at work. What about after work, you might ask? Please! I'm lucky if I get off at 8, and by that time she's already asleep. We talk more at the office than at home. She missed this meeting, look at us here, we're having a little drink and chatting, as well as the entire day... the entire week's work, we found the time to relax and have some fun, maybe we can even head somewhere else later, then tomorrow we'll cradle our hangovers in the rush to clock in for the day, and spend our morning staring at the computer screen doing nothing but wishing the hangover would dissipate more rapidly. And my dear wife will already be making headway into Thursday or Friday. Wednesday has already gone altogether for her and I'm still here. I know, I'm losing my wife bit by bit. If I'm lucky, we'll continue to live under the same roof, but the date line will run through the middle, she is the letter C, and I'm the letter T. There's something between us, a forward slash, keeping us forever apart. I don't know where to find a time machine that will be able to balance our C/T values.

Ok, buddy, I'm not trying to laden you all with my sorrows. Wasn't that a song, 'Don't cry for me, Argentina.'? This is just what I wanted to share with everyone today, if my wife can be this successful, then why can't everyone? If my wife gets more time by avoiding the morning rush hour and having to interact with everyone by getting up on average two hours earlier, then why can't all of you?

No, I'm not joking, I'm saying, what if we all got up two hours earlier, and ate lunch later? That way, everyone could be successful. Or rather, we would successfully bring my wife back. Think about it, if some of us can come earlier to the office, and eat lunch later, it doesn't even have to be everyone, one or two will suffice, then they can go and chat to my wife at that time, it's best if you get her talking about C/T value. When she realizeds she can't avoid people and that she's surrounded by socializing once again, she'll start to get nervous, and the only way to raise her C/T value will be to bring everything forward another hour.

If my wife continues to bring her time forward, then I can remain still? Or if I push things backward, the effect will be even better, she's already getting up two hours earlier, if she gets up even two hours earlier than that? And I go to sleep four hours later, then, she'll be pretty tired, I'll be tired too, but it should be OK, her day would be about to start, and my evening will be just about to start, maybe we could meet in the middle, on a Wednesday that's also not a Wednesday, in that fold in time, then we could meet again, I could invite her to spend a little time in the time I'm in.

That's what I've got to say, and it's also a request, thank you to everyone who was willing to give up their Wednesday evening to spend it with me. If it's possible, I hope next Wednesday, we can meet again and that we can bring our partners with us.

chenboqing-1Born in the Summer of 1983, Sodom Chen obtained his Masters from the Graduate of Taiwan Literature. His work has been awarded the World Chinese Science Fiction Prize for a science fiction novel, the World Chinese Young Writer Prize for Taiwanese Literature, the China Times Literature Prize and the United Daily News Literature Prize. He also published the novel Little City (xiao chengshi) under the penname Ye Fulu (葉覆鹿).

Text translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart (to view the Chinese, you might have to change the language option)

Photo © Pony Pei, Licensed by Pumpkin Creative Co., Ltd - Caption: Using action to treasure your female coworkers will mean it will be easier to possess her Holy Mary-like expression.

 

 


Friday, 22 February 2013 00:00

China’s shadow cast upon the textbooks of Taiwan and Hong Kong

In recent times Taiwan and Hong Kong have both gotten caught up in text book controversies, although these have root in different political contexts, they are both closely tied to the "rise" of China and its expansionist policies.


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