Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: benoit vermander
Monday, 21 June 2010 16:40

Spiritual experience and interreligious dialogue

Religions are not only made of rituals, creeds and cultural expressions. They provide different paths for one’s spiritual experience and growth. For sure, spiritual experience can happen and develop outside religions but religions provide written traditions, guides and beliefs that lead one along the way. Religions are not only spiritual experiences, and spiritual experiences are not only religious in nature. But there is a strong connection between the two.

Different religions provide different kinds of religious experiences. The way the Absolute is conceived, the cultural context where these religions grew or still the styles of prayers and liturgy proper to different religious traditions shape the spiritual experiences that a given religion allows. But this does not mean that one religion would allow for only one type of spiritual path, nor that there is no communication possible among these paths. Actually, spiritual experiences are also determined by the psychological characteristics of the pilgrim, or maybe, even more basically, by human nature itself. Said otherwise, spiritual experiences are anthropologically determined.

In fact, studying spiritual experiences in their variety makes us able to investigate both things at the same time: (a) the nature of Man as an animal capable of praying, meditating, and investigating what he cannot see or touch; (b) and also, maybe, the nature of the Absolute itself, since dialogue among different spiritual traditions might reveal common insights. For using a crude comparison, the nature of Man and the nature of the Absolute are the hardware on which can play the various “software” of the spiritual paths. Spiritual experience, when lived and reflected upon, has much to tell us about the ‘hardware” of human and divine nature.

Seen in this light, religious dialogue, when anchored into dialogue among spiritualities, is also a way to explore our common human condition. It is an investigation, a way of growing into one’s spiritual identity, and not only a way of building more harmony and peace among religions. When seeing interreligious dialogue as the cross-fertilization of various spiritual experiences, a few interesting insights might occur to us. For instance, spiritual traditions put a special stress on some basic virtues that are anchored into our everyday experience and that prove to be fundamental for starting the spiritual path: the most important of these qualities is to be deeply attentive to Life within us, to the Other and to the world. This is the way to develop “pure attention”, which, in many traditions, has often been defined as the essence of prayer. “Attention” goes along a growing awareness of the richness of the our world and of the inner mystery of the things and beings that surround us.

All spiritual traditions also develop a paradoxical language that mixes metaphor of “summit’ and “abyss”, of fire and water, of awe and deep confidence. They try to subvert our ordinary categories and experiences so as to open us to the novelty of the Absolute. They make us see the spiritual path as a pilgrimage that we are called to undertake.

A third characteristic of spiritual cross-encounter is that all spiritual traditions develop ways of transcending the limits of the Self, so as to abolish the distance between “subject” and “object.” They want us not to concentrate on ourselves but rather to open us to a transforming reality. Becoming more familiar with the object of our quest and being progressively and deeply transformed by it is one and the same operation. In this respect, spirituality is a form of experimental knowledge. It aims at experiencing and revealing the inner world within the external one by making us dare to be transformed by the reality we investigate. Spiritual writings can thus be seen as “maps”, as itineraries. Among them, mystical writings are of a special quality, as they are personal testimonies on life-long experiences that have led their authors to the very limit of their humaneness. Mystics can be seen as “explorers” on the boundaries between human and divine nature.

Finally, there is a post-modern twist in the way inter-spiritual encounters are lived today: many people do not live only an experience of inter-religious dialogue but also of intra-religous dialogue; they can internally refer to various traditions (for instance aboriginal religions and Christianity), due to the fluidity of cultural contexts. This can enrich their own spiritual experience and the one of all Humankind. Spiritual pilgrims do not live their experience for themselves alone but for the community of which they are part - and ultimately for the whole of Humankind searching for its nature and destiny.

Photo by B.V.


Friday, 21 May 2010 00:02

The lesson of Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi

To mark 400 years of dialogue and cultural exchange set off by Matteo Ricci, on May 11th 2010 Michel Camdessus opened the Inauguration International Forum on the "Dialogue among Civilizations and Global Challenges" held by the new Xu-Ricci Dialogue Research Center at Fudan University Shanghai. He explains to us why he is so delighted that the new institute has been jointly named after Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi and how they are still relevant today.

[dropcap cap="I"] rejoice in the fact that the new Centre organising our forum has been placed under the twin names of Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci. Through this patronage, its founders are inscribing their academic endeavour into the domain of humane friendship – and more specifically of intercultural friendship. For sure, solitude plays a part in scientific research as well as in all human pursuits. But friendship plays a role at least as important, especially in our time where most research endeavours are collective ones. I would say that, besides the quest for pure truth, friendship and rivalry – sometimes associated with one another – is another important driver – if not the most important - for humane and scientific achievements.[/dropcap]

Ricci opened a new world to the curious mind of Xu Guangqi. However, it is also true to say that without Xu Guangqi, without his welcoming kindness, his ardour to study, his questions, his patience in revealing to Ricci the Chinese ways of thought and cultural treasures, there would not have been a Ricci. Their interaction is a fascinating chapter in the history of scientific, cultural and spiritual encounters. The four hundredth anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci, is marked by a number of celebrations – including our forum - that show how relevant and inspiring the lives of these two pioneers remain today. This anniversary has implications for the future interaction between China and the rest of the world, it helps one to reflect anew on the role of China in the era of globalisation and on the ways to develop meaningful intercultural exchanges for our times.

Universal in scope, the message given by the life of Ricci also has special implications for the way we can have intercultural encounters and conduct research projects as individuals and as teams of persons dedicated to common objectives. A fellow Jesuit, Nicolas Trigault, kept vivid for us the memory of the last days of the life of Ricci, depicting him joyfully conversing with his fellow Jesuits and the nascent Chinese Christian community.

To one of the priests asking him how they could repay the affection he always showed to his brothers, Ricci replied by asking them to do likewise for the Jesuits coming from Europe, “in such a way that they receive from you, more friendship than they could receive from the ones from outside.” Ricci’s care for his fellow Jesuits had started early, he was known for helping - with particular zeal - foreign Jesuit students arriving in Rome during the time of his studies.

Thus, from the start, the secret of Ricci’s life, spirituality and success is revealed to us: His is a spirituality of friendship, first anchored in the way he experiences his relationship with a God, to whom, according to an expression found in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, we are able to speak “as a friend speaks to his friend.” Ricci would extend this sense of friendship to the people he met, making himself the neighbour of the ones he encountered along the way.

[inset side="right" title="MIchel Camdessus"]Ricci and Xu Guangqi’s lesson is still valid today: friendship is both the starting point and the fruit of a dialogue pursued in truth and reciprocal respect[/inset]

Of particular significance, are the subject-matter and the title of the first booklet he published in China, a booklet composed on the basis of his recollections of Greek and Latin authors: “On Friendship.” The fact that this is his first published work makes it resonate like a program; from then on, friendship would be at the root of his communication strategy.

By deliberately choosing this approach, Ricci would also prove to be a peace-builder of particular historical significance. The way he introduced Chinese classics to the West also contributed in this endeavour. Later on, relationships between China and the West would be marred by the rise of imperialisms and cultural misunderstandings. Still, the living memory of Ricci and of the first Jesuits who followed in his steps has continued to reassure the Chinese people that the message and ways of interacting they were bringing with them, could go along with respect for one’s culture and national dignity as well as equality in partnership.

As a peacebuilder, Ricci is also a pioneer of dialogue. “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven” - the work of natural theology he wrote in his later years - is conceived as a dialogue between a Confucian scholar and a sage from the West, and this dialogical form is not only a rhetorical device but also reveals his deep-rooted confidence in Man’s ability to communicate in truth and spirit with the help of reason and of the other qualities he is endowed with. The same confidence in dialogue, communication and reason also explains his commitment to the lifelong study of the Chinese language and classics. It is not the natural gifts of Ricci, his uncanny linguistic abilities, that should draw our attention, but rather the respect for language and serious learning that he displays. In an age where communication seems sometimes oversimplified and globalised, Ricci’s example rings as a reminder: we can never stop immersing ourselves in the language and mindset of the Other, untill these somehow becomes our own. Short cuts in apprenticeship and communication eventually lead to a watering down of the quality of the exchange – sometimes with dangerous misunderstandings.

Ricci and Xu Guangqi’s lesson is still valid today: friendship is both the starting point and the fruit of a dialogue pursued in truth and reciprocal respect. And if we are not able to nurture such a spiritual attitude then we will not be able to tackle the challenges that define our common destiny.

 

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Thursday, 04 March 2010 00:00

What is 'dialogue'?

The use of the word 'dialogue' is remarkably elastic. Does this mean that it should be abandoned in favour of a more rigorous concept? Actually, the flexibility of the term might stem from the variety of our experiences of exchange and communication, while finding within them some commonalities.

The very term dialogue introduces us into the field of verbal exchanges. Exchanges test knowledge; they check the agreement of stakeholders on the content of the knowledge they are supposed to share and in some cases they are testing the validity of knowledge itself. Knowledge may be of two kinds - either it refers to a given science such as physics, or else it refers to human beings considered in their nature and their social setting. In the first case, dialogical exchanges are at the same level of reality as those induced by mathematical formulas by which the progress of knowledge on the material world is ensured. In the second case, the truth is not primarily mathematical. The locus of truth is set into histories and cultures, a setting to which only dialogue gives access. Thus, dialogical exchange is no more a mechanical process, it centres on establishing relationships between "Others": verbal exchanges imply experiencing listening as a transformative process that cannot be separated from the one through which truth is reached.

[dropcap cap="I"]n other words, the determination of 'categories of truth' is intrinsically linked to that of dialogical styles. Let me suggest the way through which categories of truth may be associated with an array of dialogical styles:[/dropcap]- Dialogue understood as a logical exercise will generate propositions that are meant to be universally valid and part of a truth system based on the principle of non-contradiction. It does not differ fundamentally from the soliloquy that a scientist would lead with himself in order to determine the truth of a scientific demonstration.

- Dialogues within philosophical or theological schools work along similar principles except that the reference to 'universal' principles grounded on the natural light is replaced by a reference text - the one accepted by the school. The principle of non-contradiction is exercised within the reading of these texts.

- In contrast, the type of dialogue initiated and exemplified by Confucius’ Analects is first a dialogue of life which seeks to ensure that the disciple’s deeds coincide with his system of moral and cosmological beliefs. Dialogue is the gateway through which to match truth and life.

- The Gospel’s dialogical style is somehow similar to the preceding category, with the difference that the stress is put less on acquired wisdom than on the transformative process through which a decision is to be reached by the one who enters into a dialogue of life.

- We can group together several cultural and literary settings in which dialogue is meant to lead to enlightenment, as shown in the peculiar dialogical styles found in Zhuangzi, in Zen writings and in some Indian schools: the dialogue is pushed to a breaking point that challenges the principle of non-contradiction, bringing one of the participants to a sudden transformation of his consciousness or worldview.

- And there is of course the broad category that gathers variants of 'democratic dialogue', which applies not only to politics but to some models of inter-religious dialogue for example: the point here is that the process of listening is supposed to be mutually transformative for the partners once they enter an empathic understanding of the argument and experiences vis-à-vis the other, this in order to find a position on the basis of which to allow a common decision or, at the very least, ensure continued coexistence.

[dropcap cap="I"]n conclusion, true dialogue is always 'performative'. It does not merely determine one true position among all the ones championed; other procedures might lead to this result better than dialogue does. Instead, dialogue leads to a change in worldviews, practices and situations - and the depth of the change that dialogue generates is the real measure of the 'truth' it contributes in bringing to light.[/dropcap]

 

 

 

 

Monday, 28 September 2009 21:25

As small and immense as a soul: gardens of Suzhou

If gardens are the hidden paradises of China, Suzhou is the paradise of gardens...

Among those she hides within her walls, eight are now included into the world heritage sites. The "Humble Administrator Garden", the "Garden of the Master of Nets", the " Blue Waves Pavilion ’, the “Lingering Garden" are among the most famous of them. Often, they were created by scholar-officials aspiring to escape the worries of their offices Suzhou leads us towards the secret of Chinese gardens: a mystical place, a dream land, a fragile and tenacious Utopia, a garden is also and ultimately a living body, complete with orifices, vessels and limbs.

Orifices, first ... The garden, a small and secluded place, endlessly increases its size through its internal divisions - mounds that break the perspective, walls running along the walkways, partitions all around its pavilions. But these partitions are pierced by openwork windows, round doors and numerous small openings through which the walker can appropriate space and sight, reconstructing the scenes and dividing anew the world ... The space actually occupied by the garden must be kept modest - its bends, its curves, its openings extend it towards infinity, till it spreads over the extent of a soul.

The openings suggest the paths to be followed. Windows and doors gradually reveal the garden to our senses, as the painter’s hand unfolds with pride and caution the scroll on which he made the roaring waterfall, the trail on the side of the mountain, the grove pines and the sea of clouds come to life ... The garden indeed is a scroll, a miniature world opened up and enlarged by our walks and our whims. For whom wanders from one window to another, to the peaceful bamboos, to the banana trees gently whistling in the wind, succeed a rock mimicking the peak of a cliff, a hill of which the summit is hidden, the corner of a roof, or a cut of the sky speaking only of emptiness... Through its countless orifices, the garden multiplies the eyes and the dreams of the one who walks in its midst, till our visions are gathered in an unique glance that plunges into the secret and double soul of the garden and his dweller.

Pierced with orifices, the garden is irrigated by vessels through which circulate life, breath and seasons ... Water animates a garden - water collected in a pond and divided into channels that flow in its interior; water that makes small garden rocks the mimes of the formidable mountains that the sponsor and the creator of the place have marveled at during their travels before suggesting their majesty in their private compound. The passer-by crosses over miniature seas fringed with dwarfed vegetation on tiny suspension bridges... Ethereal scents mixed with the sounds of faint waterfalls whisper around – the garden stammers our dreams between the lines of day and shade. Nearby the water, are scattered small and pensive trees, and pebbles that speak of the shore and are strung like a string of islands. A flute, a bird leaving traces of their absence...

Irrigated by the vessels that make it a living body, the garden can deploy its limbs, taking the form of a lying dragon, a unicorn, or perhaps one of these Taoist immortals of whom we do not know whether they are men or gods. Its limbs are made of its eminences, these modest mountains that transform the pond into a sea, the channels into giant rivers, and the courtyards into continents. They are also its paths lined with plants and flowers that speak of the virtues shared between the garden and who called it to existence: temperance, courage and longevity ...

And yet ... Though it covers the full extent of a soul, the garden can not forget that it is also so tiny – a grain that condenses the world, but all the same a grain, perishable and insignificant ... And Chinese gardens, throughout history, were often destroyed, burned, redesigned and re-emerging ... Ultimately, the garden is perhaps a boat, the boat which leads us gently to the sea of things impermanent, and which, for a moment, makes its bitterness more bearable...


Tuesday, 11 August 2009 00:00

Hercules and the Hydra: the Seven Crises of Humankind


 

When I was a child, I enjoyed reading the tales and legends from the Greek mythology. Young boys are especially mesmerized by the Twelve Labours of Hercules, a hero not so smart, but so brave and enthusiastic… Among the Twelve Labours he had to accomplish, Hercules fought a hydra with seven heads – or nine heads according to the different versions. In fact, there are several different tales of the fight. The most common one tells that the seven heads of the hydra would grow back after being cut and Hercules had to sever the heads one by one to prevent their growing again. One of these heads was even immortal and Hercules had to bury it under a rock. Curiously, the version I kept in my mind is different: each head would grow up if cut separately, and Hercules had to sever the seven heads at the same time to defeat the hydra… Each version of the same myth has its own coherence and its own significance, thus it is the latter version that I choose, to make Hercules be the symbol of mankind struggling with a multiplicity of crises and challenges…

 

The Crises are systemic

 
The lesson to be drawn from the Hercules’ story that I recall, is that we should view and tackle problems in their globalism. Nothing is more dangerous than the international community twirling around the crises, without solving any of them, while leaving aside a universal view of the planet’s situation.

We are not only living a time of recession. We are not only going through one crisis. We are facing an era of crises. Their complexity and their overlapping are entirely part of the challenge met by the global community now, at this time in history: the crises of the global financial system, global warming, natural resources, cultural diversity, great poverty, migrations and world governance… All these crises are systemic, they retroact on each other and they require us to think and ponder on a global level in order to really confront each of these crises in their entirety.

Certainly, technical solutions must be defined and adopted for each particular challenge. But when their interactions are ignored, the problems that appeared solved just re-emerge even more acutely. The present recession is a good example of this phenomenon: after the alert of the Asian financial crisis and the “Internet bubble” collapsing, around year 2000, the economists were professing to understand so perfectly the international system that another recession was not conceivable. But the lack of concern for ethics (the exhaustion of our “cultural resources”) and the excessive deregulation (sign of the global governance deficit) have broken this unwarranted self-confidence.

And yet, humanity has proven its capacity to reflect collectively as a global community on the significance of the times. An important step for this reflection on a global spectrum was taken with the ‘Millennium Goals’. Here, international institutions stated, in unison, the planets situation then they came to an agreement on priority goals, designing an action program for a period of time following the symbolic year 2000. Their striving to make judgements and the common will, were demonstrated with vigour and inventiveness. Nevertheless; while the global community has shown its aptitude and volition, it has also shown its limitations. These are also our limitations when it comes to taking action, and more importantly acting in unison. They did not make an error with the diagnosis or the objectives as such. However the means were simply not there to put the goals into practice. Admittedly, some efforts have been made to remedy the scandalizing situation where millions of people are suffering without access to clean water, to eradicate great poverty, to promote the sharing of educational resources and in the fight against epidemics - but the resources freed up for the tasks still remain minor compared to the challenges we are confronting…thus, it may not be enough to attempt to tackle each crisis one by one, rather it is a matter of apprehending, as a system, all the different challenges presently faced by the international community. Here, I have split these challenges into seven: the struggle against global warming, the need to overhaul the international financial system, the management of natural resources, the exhaustion of cultural resources, the crisis of structural poverty which nurtures the crisis of migrations and intercommunity tensions, and the reform of global governance.


 


Monday, 23 March 2009 00:00

The Chinese Paradox

 
In these times of crises, there is something like a Chinese paradox.

On the one hand, Chinese is doing better than most nations when it comes to economic resilience: China has not been at the origin of the crisis; it does not experience a financial breakdown, though its stock market has been devastated and unemployment is increasing quickly; it has fiscal and financial means far superior to the ones of any other nation for engineering a stimulus; if its exports are falling, its imports are following on the same rhythm, letting its commercial surplus intact; once the crisis is over, it will most probably become the number two world economy, and Japan will be relegated to number three; its stimulus might actually come at the right time, helping it to achieve the infrastructure it still needs; its foreign reserves make it able to buy world-class industrial assets at unheard-of prices and to secure its energy and raw material supply for a long time. Summing up, the present world recession might actually be one decisive step in the accession of China to world prominence.

But there is the other side of the equation…

If China’s economic and financial bases are comparatively sound, Chinas’ social and political sensitivity to the crisis is extremely high. Years of growth as well as the citizens’ acute perception of inequalities and corruption make society prone to rebel if revenues fall or unemployment continues to grow. According to unofficial reports, urban unemployment is already above 9 percent. The arrival of university graduates on the labor market is a source of tension, nurtured by parents’ expectations after having overpaid for ensuring that their children receive education and the job that used to be almost automatically attached to a university degree. Chinas’ higher education system proves to be very ill adapted to current economic needs…

When it comes to the stimulus, a significant rise in consumption will be extremely difficult to achieve, with consumers’ anxiety and expectant attitude linked to the cost of healthcare, threat of unemployment and necessary family investment in education. Vouchers can only achieve a very temporary effect. Public investment is easier to stimulate, but the problem here lies elsewhere: China is still not able to ensure quality spending where it needs it most – water sanitation, green buildings and green industries. “White elephants” types of projects and mere dilapidation of funds are still attached to sudden increase in public spending. If banks are now lending money more easily, they seem to do so preferentially to state industries (maybe recreating rampant bad loans), which is not where China needs to invest. So, stimulus might impede rather than hasten the necessary shift in China’s economic logic. Sustainability still remains a dream rather than a strategy.

In the countryside, the coming back of migrant workers makes the problem of land scarcity and degradation even more acute than before. Actually, the fact that millions of rural workers are left jobless (there will probably be more than forty millions people in this situation at the end of the year) has consequences that might be even more difficult to estimate. Part of this population comes back to the fields, where it will be mostly idle. Another part will stay in the cities, looking for an opportunity and constituting a growing lumpenproletariat. Finally, many of them will establish themselves in prefectoral-level and county-level cities, somewhere between their village and bigger metropolis, in several cases thus creating social tensions. In some parts of Chinas’ West, unemployment might already be a factor in the rise of animosity between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities.

Finally, there are several anniversaries this year that make the whole situation even more sensitive… The most important of these anniversaries is the foundation of the People’s Republic on October 1st. Some analysts see dissensions brewing within the Party’s leadership ahead of this celebration as to the course of action to be taken. Nobody knows yet in which mod China will celebrate the sixty years of the regime. The hydra of the crisis might be already largely vanquished, but the most plausible scenario is that China by then will enter into full struggle with its tentacles.

(Photo: B.V.)

 


Tuesday, 30 December 2008 00:10

Chinese Painting Today

Chinese painting is a special and pervasive feature of China’s social and cultural theater. In this respect, it has to be acknowledged that Chinese painting often functions as an assertion of national pride and uniqueness, which results in endless repetitive motifs. This should not overshadow the remarkable achievements in Chinese painting in the last decades. Actually, when all is said and done, future generations might recognize the 20th century as one of the most creative periods in the history of the venerable artistic tradition called "Chinese painting." Names such as Huang Binhong (1865-1955), Qi Baishi 1863-1957), Li Keran (1907-1989), Shi Lu ( 1919-1982), Lin Fengmian ( 1900-1991) already stand among the best artists of our time, not only in China but worldwide, even if Western knowledge of Chinese art remains very poor indeed.

But what is "Chinese painting" (guohua) anyway? One must first note that guohua can also be translated as "national painting" if one does not simply consider it as an abbreviation of zhongguohua, i.e., "Chinese painting" stricto sensu. The distinction is important for the intent it conveys, if not for the reality to which it refers. "Guohua and zhongguohua commonly refer to works painted with traditional Chinese pigments on a ground of traditional paper or silk. The terms thus describe the medium and ground of the painting rather than the style."

Some critics plead for a much broader definition of “national painting.” Art historian Lin Mu (born 1949) writes:
“Ink work, rice paper and free-hand techniques came into being only during the last few centuries. Painting styles in China also include folk painting, various fresco styles, silk paintings, stone intaglios, from which much is to be learned. As for the traditional ink and wash painting, which takes the Chan school as its spiritual kernel, this simple, elegant and leisurely style may have difficulty surviving in our changing world, where the closed and stagnant agricultural society from which the tradition emerged is being rapidly swept into the past.... Modern society has good reason to demand of Chinese painting a totally new look.”

Like other historians, Lin Mu argues that Chinese tradition is much more diverse and heterogeneous than often acknowledged, and that different schools, materials, techniques and religious faiths generated various styles of painting. It is only in contradistinction to Western art that the literati school came to bear the label of "Chinese painting" and was set into a canon. The limitations in technique and materials proper to this school have long been recognized, by prominent Chinese artists as Pan Tianshou (1897-1971) and Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). To do "Chinese painting" today is to retrieve the diversity of China’s artistic traditions, with particular attention to religious art and the traditions of ethnic minorities. Lin Mu celebrates the "vagueness" (mohuqing) of contemporary Chinese painting—a vagueness he finds far preferable to the insistence upon any one standard or dominant tradition.

The views summarized above are not mere repetitions of the criticisms Chinese painting has endured over the last 40-some years, but may prove to be even more challenging. The history of Chinese painting since 1949 is a tormented one. Traditional painting was first omitted from the curricula of Art academies. Subsequently, Chinese painting was mobilized for a short period in order to celebrate the successes of the new regime. From 1963 on, artists like Shi Lu, Li Keran, Lin Fengmian or Pan Tianshou fell victim (the last posthumously) to violent criticisms aimed at the "wild, weird, chaotic and black" nature of their works, which could not but betray an essentially counter-revolutionary spirit. The re-emergence of the guohua tradition following the Cultural Revolution has been long and difficult. Although the renewed nationalist fervor has helped its rehabilitation, its artistic development has remained under the control of the cultural bureaucracy. In the past two decades, other media have been deemed to better express the spirit of adventure and protest that art can convey. The underlying question is whether "national art" brings with it a predetermined meaning or might conversely be able to express the diversity, contradictions and various pursuits of the whole nation at a given moment in its history.

The debate about Chinese painting is thus a debate about the essence of Chinese identity. A strongly-worded article by Huo Chunyang, responding to positions voiced by Lin Mu and others, says much about what is here at stake. Chinese painting, Huo argues, is a "(spiritual) universe" (jingjie)—an expression derived from the yijing concept, i.e., the "density" or "quality of soul" that one can find in a painting. In its essence, he argues, Chinese painting manifests the spiritual energy gathered by the man who relates to the universe, and, as such, is the pure emanation of ancient Chinese philosophy. "Although the Chinese people received the shock brought by cultures of other people, they have never changed the spirit of their own culture. On the contrary, they have eagerly welcomed, digested and transformed the cultures coming from outside." The aspiration to cosmic unity embodied in this original Chinese culture cannot be found in Western tradition, Huo Chunyang asserts. Nowadays, artists unfaithful to the original spirit of Chinese culture change their style in order to please the foreigners, thus showing a lack of self-respect and self-confidence.

Huo Chunyang’s position reminds one of what is sometimes called "new conservatism" in art history, by which ink and brushwork become symbols of ethnic identity. Although such a position is quite widespread, it is generally not accepted without reservation. A good number of artists and critics hold a middle-of-the-road position, regarding ink and brush as the best medium through which to connect with their own tradition, while experimentation with other techniques they see as a means of engaging with contemporary art worldwide. This has been the case for instance with abstract or semi-abstract ink painting.

The debate on identity just summarized has been intensified by the internationalization of Chinese painting. "Internationalization" here refers to two concurrent phenomena: (1) even the most traditional style of Chinese painting has been deeply influenced by 20th-century Western art; (2) Chinese painting is no longer about China. A growing number of Chinese painters have opportunities to go abroad. As such, nowadays, the ranges of mountains that spill from their brushes sometimes do not evoke the image of Huashan, Huangshan or Emeishan, but rather remind one of landscapes encountered in the Northwest of the US, Western Canada, France’s Brittany or Australia’s South Wales. The first phenomenon is not new. Huang Binhong, who knew Chinese tradition better than anyone else, also learned a great deal from Matisse and Van Gogh. But the trend has taken on new dimensions, as many artists, while remaining faithful to the literati technique, apply it to a whole new range of subjects, or who, like Lin Fengmian, make extensive use of Western colors while maintaining the characteristic calligrapher’s line.

The second phenomenon is even more interesting. It separates the "identity" problem from its "territory" dimension, addressing in much more down-to-earth terms the question of the "Chineseness" of Chinese art. In addition, it gives people firmly rooted in tradition a new sense of universality. The cosmopolitan outlook of Chinese painting might have started among exiles, the most famous of them being of course Zhang Daqian, but others soon followed, sent on official missions. Li Keran’s paintings of East Germany in 1957 are testaments to the new horizons discovered by Chinese artists. Nowadays, the State is not the sole institution able to send Chinese painters abroad. Foreign universities or businesses are also inviting painters to give a Chinese flavor to American, Australian or European landscapes. The special relationship of artist Wu Guanzhong (born 1919) with France, where he has held several exhibitions, is a good example of this developing trend.

The trend towards globalization in Chinese painting should not mask enduring divisions among regional schools of painting—divisions sometimes accompanied by various rivalries and affiliation networks. Differences among regional schools are a pervasive fact of China’s art history. Back in 1961, the continuation of regional emulation was encouraged by Zhou Enlai, whose praise of the Jiangsu school of painting ensured its artists a privileged place for the following two decades. The Jiangsu school might indeed be the best example of a regional school of painting, with its history of several centuries and a distinctive style that nourishes but also sometimes confines the inspiration of local painters. Shaanxi artists offer another example of strong provincial affiliation. The Shaanxi school plays an important role in the cultural history of the post-1949 regime. Its founder, Zhao Wangyun (1906-1977), was an initiator of the new guohua, depicting scenes of contemporary life. After Zhao’s purging during the Anti-rightist campaign, Shi Lu became, for a time, the leader of the young, ebullient school. Here, indeed, artistic creativity and revolutionary fervor, if only briefly, were not seen as contradictory.

Regional differentiation can also have a great impact on the content of the works produced. The above-quoted art historian Lin Mu, for instance, is from the Southwest, and his views may indeed be seen to reflect the fact that most painters from the Southwest seek inspiration outside the mainstream Chan school-literati tradition, (many showing a special liking for the Taoist tradition, Tibetan Buddhism and southwest ethnic minorities’ “primitive” forms of art). The Chinese cultural stock is lived and interpreted in different ways by various schools of Chinese painting, a factor which may be even truer today than was the case 30 years ago.

Chinese painting is not only faced with the realities and opportunities of a market economy, but must also define itself in a global cultural environment. Values fostered by this environment can either render painting even more irrelevant to today’s Chinese society or can help it further to change and modernize its artistic language, giving it new impetus and appeal. Liu Chengji, who lectures at Zhengzhou University, offers an analysis of the aesthetic tendencies at work in the 1990s—an aesthetics that takes into account the dominant trends shaping secular society. Materialism is the first trend to be noticed, which Liu Chengji sees as the principal consequence of the consumerism encouraged by state policies. This stands in sharp contrast against the "humanist" view of culture and society advanced in the 80s. The primacy given to "feelings" is directly linked to the dominant materialism. "I feel, therefore I am" could be the motto of present-day China, and such a trend heavily influences the aesthetic criteria of the general public. A new "post-romanticism" derives from this trend and is best exemplified by the MTV culture. It is called "post-romanticism" because its characteristic "loss of innocence" distinguishes it from previous aesthetics. In the post-romantic (non)ethics, feelings are consciously produced and manipulated. Finally, "ethnicism" has been fuelled by political tensions with the US and Taiwan during the second half of the 90s. According to Liu Chengji, however, this trend is too much determined by political factors to enjoy a sustainable future. A look at the tendencies at work during the first decade of the XXIst century does not fundamentally challenge the description of these trends. One just have to notice that non-Chinese forms of art have taken even more importance, due to the globalization of the market where Chinese artists exhibit and sell their work. However, a stroll throughout the galleries gathered in the famous Moganshan road in Shanghai reveals the continuing and happy coexistence of Chinese painting with oil painting, video installations and other artistic media.

The painter Hu Mingzhe (born 1953), who specializes in popular romantic figure paintings, testifies to the aspirations often expressed by younger artists. She writes: "My soul aspires towards purity, liberation.... Art is a kind of religion, when you believe in it with your entire body and soul, when you fully associate with it, it seems that you are able to hear the voice of God, to feel the call of God.... Art wants to represent life, not social life, but rather spiritual life...." Another woman artist, Zhou Minghui (born 1954) paints motifs inspired by the daily lives of Tibetans living in Aba autonomous prefecture, Sichuan. This place, she says, "appears as a condensing point of human culture, philosophy, religion and history. It is the holy land where all life returns to nature.... What I paint seems to have been purified as well. My mind is serene and my thoughts enlightened.... The decayed is discarded and the original soul is retained.... Ultimately, culture and art will reach the other shore." Similar discourses and examples abound, which shows how a kind of religiosity pervades art. This religiosity has strong links with the dominant culture, in that it heavily relies on "feelings" and uses language and motifs also found in other contexts. At the same time, it expresses aspirations for new modes of life, which somehow transforms it into an indirect form of counter-culture. Not only has Chinese painting a future, but many of its features resonate with the aspirations of the post-modern mind... Through this medium also, China is entering and shaping cultural globalization.


Paintings by Li Jinyuan

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Friday, 28 March 2008 00:00

A Matter of Poetry

Bob Ronald rhymes and Benoit Vermander's poems

A rhymer like myself finds beauty and harmony in the sounds and rhythms of words which he or she crafts into written melodies ready for recitation and enjoyment. There is a message hidden in the rhyme, but it was born giving life and purpose to the composition and versification.

A poet like Benoit Vermander, on the other hand, sees first the beauty and harmony in some insight and transforms it into a moving, stimulating expression of truth that we ordinary mortals have probably overlooked or did not appreciate. An eye on the world has been offered us without which we would go through life oblivious of the realms and the meanings deep down things. Sometimes the poet also instills the composition with rhythm and rhyme, making it even more striking.



Here are some examples. First some rhymes of my own.

The Way To Bounce

The adage is that
When falling, a cat
Will land on its feet.
No way that I can.
I’m only a man.
I’d land on my seat.

It’s the way that you bounce
Not the landing that counts.
If still you can stand
Right after you fall,
Not hurting at all,
Then the landing was grand.


Sky’s Secret

I look at sky
And wonder why
It doesn’t fall.
I know a lot,
But God I’m not.
My mind is small.
I know a bit
How some things fit.
I don’t know all.

I wish I knew
What makes sky blue.
I don’t know yet.
So much to know
Where does time go?
I mustn’t fret.

It’s not God’s plan
That people can
Become so wise
That they can find
What’s on His mind
Or in his eyes.

There’ll be no quiz
About what is
Or how or when.
But when I rest
From all my quest,
I’ll know all then.

Do what I ought.
It’s not my thought
That makes me true.
Just do my best,
I’ll pass the test
When life is through.

Every Second Needs A First

No fruit at the top
Is found on a crop
With nothing below.
Before that, indeed,
There must be good seed
To make it all grow.

The way to be bolder
Is stand on the shoulder
Of someone who’s already bold.
You’ll only be taller,
If once you were smaller.
For only the golden are gold.

No letter, no mail.
There’s only a sale
If something is sold.
No moisture, no hail.
There’s only a tale
If a story is told.

Numbers

Two plus two
Is quite a few.
Four plus four
Is twice as more.
Six plus six,
You’re in a fix,
For two hands then
Make only ten.
The proper sum
From toes must come.

The range of numbers has no end,
What each one means you cannot bend.
And then to add to all your cares,
There’s plus and minus, roots and squares.
How much nicer would it be
If there were only one, two, three.

Those are my rhymes. Here are Benoit’s poems.

Ghosts and angels

I will not wait on the threshold.
I will wander into wet fields and ghost mountains
Until I lose my way.
I will then call for help,
Hoping for the coming of green and grey angels
Escorted by wild beasts which they tame
If no other mission requires them.

We will all stay in the incandescent shadow
That covers and burns these bounties,
Watching over the luxuriant desert
Where one’s path is found once it’s lost.


Pocket landscape

The soul - as misty
As the winter hills -
Lies down, and the breeze
Soon bares her chest.
Once clouds are gone
Where will be hiding
The soul, the soul just as misty
As are the mornings on the hills?


Moving away

Be the curve of my sight and the touch of my hand,
You, crest of the Southern mountains
That floats from one ocean to the next
With the easy melancholy only mastered
By things that don’t need to stand firm,
The things in which dwells the spirit
Who knows how to move volumes and lines
Till they picture music to the eyes and the breath
- The breath that moves along the crest
of the Southern mountains.


Not moving anymore

Trees and peaks go briskly on the road
As I stand still. The tunes they hum,
I perceive them only vaguely, such is the speed.
The birds are at pain to follow, and finally decide
To gather around the salty dream I have become.
Fruits fallen on the way nourish me, and fonts
Born in my throat flow down towards the roots
Of the ground that transfixes me.


Speak low

A night as blue as a bird’s tail
Speaks low to the ear of the leaves,
Telling of immensurable spaces that are buried
- So says the night - into the cells,
the sand and the foam.

There is a well that collects the white secrets
The night is breathing away,
A well as deep as the palm and the pupil.

Purple is the sound of the sea
When morning comes
– the sea that at dawn returns to the caves
The secrets sung low to the leaves.


The biggest difference between my verse and Benoit’s poems is that strip the rhyme and meter from mine and there is practically nothing left, whereas his thoughtful inspiration without any rhyme achieves its high level of meaning and emotion.

As rhymer, I hope the readers will get a kick out of my plays with sounds and words. As poet Benoit hopes that others will encounter the realty and feel the throbbing pulse throbbing beneath the surface trappings that camouflage what lies below.

Actually, I am more than just a rhymer. I also compose poems that I hope are more than grand sounding songs, as the following suggests:

Some are quite funny;
Some of them sad;
Some full of wonder;
Some of them glad.
Some are pretentious
And meant to impress,
In others I try
To plainly express
The feelings that I
Found deep in my heart.
And sometimes depart
From meter and rhyme
To echo and show
The ebb and the flow
Of my mood at the time.

 

 

Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Friday, 28 December 2007 20:17

Millennium Goals or Global Warming?

The struggle against global warming has taken a new dimension during the year 2007. Though many concrete decisions remain to be agreed upon and implemented, financial and human investments are sure to increase dramatically during the years to come so as to tackle an unparalleled challenge. This is good news indeed. At the same time, this evolution reflects a shift in global consciousness that might bear some preoccupying counter-effects. Around 2000, the Millennium Goals were sketching a roadmap, the focal point of which was the elimination of extreme poverty for 2025. It was apparent enough that humankind had the means and the know-how for achieving what, in other times, would have seemed like an impossible dream.

Struggle against poverty is still very much on the agenda. At the same time, mobilization has been far below what is deemed necessary for achieving such a lofty goal. And we might now witness a subtle trade-off between two objectives: eradicating poverty and alleviating global warming. For sure, the two goals are not contradictory per se, they are even mutually reinforcing: eradicating poverty will prove to be impossible if natural disasters caused by climatic changes occur in Africa or impoverished Asian coastlines. Deforestation and water depletion diminish the meager capital that many populations have to rely upon for earning an income. However, international credit allocation obeys to bargaining laws and power games, and these games might actually benefit rising developing nations rather than the ones suffering from extreme poverty – the latest counting for around one sixth of the world’s population. Developing nations contribute to the rise in carbon emissions and rely on highly polluting technologies: subsidies for cleaning up the environment will go primarily to them. When poverty is such that you do not contribute to greenhouses emissions you might be left out of the new distribution mechanisms of global subsidies… Global warming would such become a pretext for developed nations to spread and sell their technologies, and for middle—income nations to profit from an array of international subsidies.

World governance is still suffering from a lack of comprehensive mechanisms that would allow people to arbitrate between priorities and policy choices. Still, from now on, the struggle against poverty and the one against global warming must be conceived and implemented together rather than risking to become, even partly, a kind of trade-off – in which case the losers of the game would be, once again, the poorest of the poor. This shows that the struggle against global warming cannot be considered as a mere technical challenge bur rather as a political and humanist endeavor. It is not enough of a Al Gore for tackling the issue. We also need a Gandhi who would remind us of the humane, social and spiritual issues at stake.

Photo by Liang Zhun

Saturday, 24 March 2007 18:10

Web 2.0 and the Diversity of World Catholicism

With some 1.1 billion members, the Catholic Church is the world’s largest single religious body. It is also becoming more and more universal. While, in the past, the majority or the clergy and the faithful, were of Western, especially European origin, the transformation occurred during the last fifty years have been astounding. Africa has seen the number of Catholics growing exponentially, and, because of demographic shifts, Latin America and, to a lesser degree, Asia have also increased their share within the Church. It can be safely predicted that the Catholic Church will be less and less a European one. These changes had been well prepared by the second Vatican Council, held at the beginning of the sixties, which opened the Church to the modern world and to the diversity of cultures.
At the sane time, the Church is undergoing a number of crises: in its former strongholds, such as Western Europe, its influence is faltering; in Latin America, the appeal of Protestant fundamentalist cults is growing; in the US and elsewhere the sex abuse scandal has weakened the clergy; new scientific challenges, especially in the bioethics field, oblige the Church to reexamine part of its teachings; women are looking for a more recognized role within the hierarchical structure of the Church; and the dialogue with other religions, especially with Islam, is not only as smooth as could be desired….

The future of the Catholic Church is not of interest for Catholics alone. As one of the biggest and most influential organizations in the world, Catholicism exercises an influence that goes far beyond the number of the faithful. This is very clear in Taiwan. Though the number of Catholics is very modest (a little over 300,000, as far as this can be asserted), the church has been extremely influential and effective in operating institutional and medical facilities, and its cultural reach is not limited to parishes. Its role in organizing and energizing aboriginal communities has been and continue to be important. At the same time, its has not fulfilled the hopes that it cold have in the xsixties when it started to spread around the island. The Church is older and less creative than it was three decades ago. In Taiwan as elsewhere the Catholic church is indeed at the crossroads.

Will we move towards a Web 2.0 model for the Church? However important the clergy might be, the Church is built around the “people of God’ – the faithful. Throughout the voice of ordinary Catholics we can also discern which road the Church has to take. Each day we have to decide anew tot ake on the road rather than standing at the crossroads…

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Thursday, 22 February 2007 16:06

Analyzing Political Mythologies

That the social sciences do not deal only or even primarily with “hard facts” should go without saying. Social sciences, however, like other related disciplines, show a tendency towards oversimplifying and systematizing so as to give their premises a more “scientific” outlook. As a way of introducing this paper, let us remember that the social sciences intermingle the study of objective data with the investigation of feelings, ideas and representations. The researcher will have to pass restlessly from one pole to another: realities expressed through quantifiable data such as income distribution, educational level or family patterns interact with the collective psyche and values in a way which makes unidimensional causal or functional analyses simply irrelevant. “Society” appears somewhere at the intersection of economics, culture and whatever field we might decide to include in the rather loose definition of human sciences.


Read the entire article (pdf)



Friday, 01 September 2006 00:54
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