transmediale buzz

The Berlin transmediale is, to my knowledge, one of the very best annual conferences (a “convergence” is more the appropriate word) which exist on Planet Earth.  I was very fortunate to have been able to attend the 2011 sessions, where, among other things, I was able to learn about “book sprints” (whereby a book, having been researched, is collectively authored and printed by 5 or 6 people in three or four days in a single city), “Facebook hacking” (imagine meeting someone whose life obsession is creating a “dislike” button for Facebook users), digital democracy, and electronic music triggered by facial impulses (see Daito Manabe, below right, with the author).

Now that, in the intervening year, revolution has swept the planet and North Korea and China are both still standing tall, East Asia watchers can catch the live stream, on February 4, 16:30 Berlin time, 2012 of Katrien Jacobs’ evocative and timely presentation entitled (in truly bracing transmediale style, and surely to the approval of all the “hacktivists” there who have not yet seethed within the Great Firewalls of the Middle Kingdom), “Patriotism, and Paranoia on the Chinese Internet.”

Not to be perceived as lightweight or merely sensationalist, Dr. Jacobs, who is on the faculty of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (香港中文大学), has produced a book on related themes and blogs about her work approximately bi-weekly.


Cultural Power Battle Threads

From the May Fourth Generation to Today

- The Telegraph reports in alarmist fashion about Hu Jintao warning, as the newspaper headline puts it, of “cultural warfare from the West”

- A closer examination of the story indicates that Hu Jintao’s “battle cry,” above, was a speech given on October 18, 2011, that was republished yesterday in the preemminent journal for CCP theory, Qiushi (Seeking Truth / 求是).

In fact most of the speech is not at all about the West, but the need for more powerful socialist culture.  However, the key detonating sentences in this long and rather boring speech are, after a discourse on China’s rising soft power, as follows:

同时,我们必须清醒地看到,国际敌对势力正在加紧对我国实施西化、分化战略图谋,思想文化领域是他们进行长期渗透的重点领域。我们要深刻认识意识形态领域斗争的严重性和复杂性,警钟长鸣、警惕长存,采取有力措施加以防范和应对. At the same time [that we develop our cultural industries and gain international advantage thereby], we must see with utmost clarity that hostile international forces are currently stepping up the implementation of Westernization in China, attempting to do so via in a variety of strategies; their long-term focus is on infiltration [渗透/shentou] in the ideological and cultural fields. We should thoroughly understand the seriousness and complexity of this ideological struggle, remaining vigilant (lit. “always keep the bell ringing“), ever alert, and taking effective measures to prevent and respond to [the challenge of cultural infiltration].

The full text of the article is available in rough English via Google Translate here.

- My own evidentiary contribution to the discourse on Hu Jintao’s retrograde and conservative tendencies with regard his extensive work in “socialist culture” are described in this essay about some materials I found about Hu Jintao in East German archives in 2009.

- As usual, with reference to cultural diplomacy and the soft power discourse, JustRecently is already well ahead of the curve.  His website has the most extensive open-source translation available of the Party’s “cultural document”, a document which stemmed out of the same meetings at which Hu Jintao weighed in above.

- In reading headlines about Hu Jintao’s fear of Western “infiltration,” I think it’s important to note that there are far more nuanced Chinese examinations of soft power out there.  PRC scholar He Zengke published a rather wide-ranging article this past December 23 in a reformist journal surveying French and German modes of exerting soft power, noting:

France was one of the first countries to understand the role of cultural soft power. Napoleon once said that a pen was equal to 1,000 Mauser rifles*), and a former French minister of culture said that culture and the economy are one and the same battleground. French people believe that a cultural mission can take the place of a country’s military power.[9] In 1883, France established the Alliance Française to promote French culture. Starting in 1959, France began to define the “First Five-Year Plan for the Expansion of French Cultural Activities”, and afterwards, 25- and 35-year plans etc. were gradually developed. From the total amounts spent and per capita, France belongs to the first-ranking countries worldwide.[10] From that, it can be seen that France attaches great importance to the development and use of soft power.

法国是最早懂得文化软实力的地位和作用的国家之一。拿破仑曾经说过,一支笔等于1000支毛瑟枪。法国前文化部长曾经说过:文化和经济是同一场战斗。 法国人认为,文化使命可以代替国家武力。[9]1883年法国就建立了法语联盟,在世界各地讲授法语,推广法国文化。从1959年起,法国开始制定“关于 在国外扩张和恢复法国文化活动的第一个五年计划”(1959-1963),后来又陆续制定了“二五”、“三五”计划等。法国的国际文化交流支出从总数和人 均来看都居于世界第一的位置。[10]由此可见法国对发展和运用文化软实力的高度重视。[Translation here by JustRecently]

He’s essay reminds us again:

-For all the huffing and puffing about Confucius Institutes, the “hanban” is still behind such institutions as the Alliance Française when it comes to enrollments and influence globally, a fact which I reported in July 2010 (from a cafe in Seoul, awash in K-pop, WiFi signals, kimchee and bubble tea) via a translation of a Huanqiu Shibao interview with the Hanban head.

- Finally, the magazine Monocle (which I fittingly tend to read in international airports; this one was in Tokyo) recently did some comprehensive “soft power ratings” in which the US was #1 but France not far behind.  China, by the way, was #17.

Two New Essays on China Beat: Sino-German and Sino-Korean Relations

I’ve got a few more changes in store for Sinologistical Violoncellist in the new year (most of them involving the bass clef and Japan, not necessarily in that order), but in the meantime, readers may appreciate being directed to two longer essays I recently published on China Beat, cited here in modified Chicago style:

Adam Cathcart, “Bow Before the Portrait: Sino-North Korean Relations Enter the Kim Jong Eun Era,” The China Beat, December 23, 2011.

Adam Cathcart, “Soft Power Struggle: Ai Weiwei and the Limits of Sino-German Cultural Cooperation,” The China Beat, December 15, 2011.

For those who have not been introduced, China Beat is the top-flight blog headed by Jeffrey Wasserstrom.  As a widely-published public intellectual, head of the History Department at University of California-Irvine, editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and author of several important historical studies on student nationalism in Shanghai, Wasserstrom is someone I draw a great deal of inspiration from, so I’m particularly delighted to have a chance to write for him, as well as for some of his readers.

Consecrated: New French Embassy in Beijing

The next time you encounter someone caterwauling about the rapid expansion of Chinese cultural institutions abroad, Chinese companies taking over contracts in Algeria, or complaining about the size of the American embassy in Baghdad, I suggest you counter with the following statement: “Sure, but have you seen the French Embassy in Beijing?  Don’t you think the Chinese are terrified by the cultural footprint that it represents, this, this kernel of expansionism, this architectural gauntlet thrown down with such hubris and weighty largesse?”  Or perhaps we could all settle down and admire the architecture and the architect:

Full story via Aujord’hui en Chine.  Now, towards a cathartic architecture!

courtesy Aujourd'hui en Chine

New European Perspectives on North Korea

North Korean elites attend a football exhibition practice for German guests in Pyongyang, April 2011 - image courtesy Claudia Roth, German Green Party -- click image for her photo gallery from Pyongyang

North Korea watchers are having a bit of a dry spell of late: the biggest stories of Kim Jong Eun’s succession are now a year in the rear view mirror, 38North is precisely unlike a good methadone clinic (it acknowledges one’s addiction but is frustratingly irregular in slaking it), the Daily NK keeps churning out pieces about rice prices, and the reliably crotchety, pro-rollback, and better-read-than-most blog of choice — One Free Korea — appears to have vacated the trenches for the foreseeable.  What’s a North Korea watcher to do?

Well,that is, besides read Noland and Haggard’s outrageously-well-informed stuff, or hunt for Andrei Lankov, or peruse Richard Horgan’s Twitter feeds, or peck through Korean Central News Agency dispatches, or tail the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang?

For solid analysis and copious links, I recommend the blog Nordkorea-info (today’s entry is on cellular and internet technology in the DPRK), a blog which recently carried a very interesting entry about a German football delegation to Pyongyang.

Although the aforesaid football delegation did its legwork back in April, the reports have just become public, and they are fascinating reading.  I did some interpreting of the report in English on Nordkorea-info, which can be accessed here.

Thanks to the serendipity of the Internet, I managed to run across this rather interesting combination-documentary about some foreigners in Pyongyang, which readers may find as interesting as I have:

North Korean Metaphor War: Whether Adrift or Storming Forward in the Post-Cold War Epoch, the DPRK Remains Not So Much an Enigma as a Deep Cultural Bunker Into Which One, Generally Speaking, Can Only Enter By Pounding on a Piano

If I had a nickel for everytime I read the words “according to Kim Jong Il’s former Japanese chef” I could buy enough rice to feed entire boatloads of squid fishermen in the sea whose name was called Korea by an Italian in Mongolia in the 1250s.

Which is to say that the repetition of data, after certain repetitions, becomes not data at all, but a blockage.

Accrochage: phalanges of the trained musician bring plangeant glissandi to those pleasantly-drifted into halls named for dead dissidents, the only kind we truly respect.

A melismatic turn in North Korean music would be a sign that Syrian friendship has finally inflected itself upon the layered harmony of that so-called “friendship” which fails to share a common tonal intercourse!

But let’s just talk about books, specifically, this one:

Hartmut Koschyk, ed., Deutschland, Korea: Geteilt, Vereint (Munich: Olzong Verlag, 2005). 

In which Bonhoeffer in Korea is discussed and Doris Hertrampf, the former German Ambassador in Pyongyang, reminds us of certain basic facts; a book in which Uwe Schmelter, on page 311 of her essay (“Ist die deutsch-koreanische kulturelle Zusammenarbeit eine ‘Einbahnstrasse’?”  pp. 301-312) brings down my house-of-cards-mind with a real revelation that undermines, to modify a Rumsfeldian phrase but to shear from it the referent to the cultural destruction of Iraq, “what I thought I knew about what I thought I knew.”

This fact, which opens up a wide swath in an enigma that originated as a great wound some decades ago, is that the Goethe Insitut opened in Pyongyang in 2004 and promptly screened the film Goodbye Lenin under title “Never Cheat Your Mother.”

Were that not enough (were that not enough? what is this “entry”, some kind of Dickens novel? facts mere gruel for the uncared-for yet consequently insatiable?), the book moves on into even more fertile cultural territorium:

Alexander Liebreich, ”Kulturarbeit in Nordkorea,” in Deutschland, Korea: Geteilt, Vereint, Hartmut Koschyk, ed., (Munich: Olzong Verlag, 2005), pp. 313-329.

In which it is established that Liebreich is chief director of Munchen Kammerorchester [Munich Chamber Orchestra]  and a kind of musicologist [Musikwissenschafter], and that he took three trips to Pyongyang from 2002-2006.

What’s that I hear you saying?  You want something unique from this man?  Perhaps, a pebble of data that, when shifted and ground down among other pebbles, portends a thunderstorm, a tidal wave, an upsurge, an Aufschwung of analysis worthy of being gripped like a newspaper on that terrible morning?

The man is a musician, and he notes the unbelievable quiet in Pyongyang in a way that none other would.  Instead of harping on the lack of cars in the North Korean capital (“Shame! Shame! on you for not purchasing our Hyundai-Toyota-Mercedes-Chrysler-Shares-in-Our-Failing-Companies, Shame, North Korea, for clearly the measurement of your damnable system is now complete!“), on page 314 Liebreich says simply:

“Wir unterschaetzen, wie wichtig das klangliche Umfeld fuer einen Menschen, vor allem aber fuer einen Musiker ist (We underestimate how important the sonic environment is for a person, but above all for a musician).”

Yes, by God, yes.  Riding in the back of the Maestro’s tiny red Japanese sportscar between his Baltimore mansion and his millions-dollar symphony hall, I, as an twelve-year-old soprano about to be baptised into the cult of Mahler, had this point driven home by David Zinman.  Recollecting his castigation of a winter audience, Zinman said so pointedly, so naked in both his dependence and his power: “The artist starts from nothing, and must start with a blank page, a white canvas.  Sound is my medium.  I ask merely that you provide me with a blank canvas.”

Giving master classes in Pyongyang, the young German maestro/author now realizes how important the culture of note-taking is in Pyongyang.  Would that he would analyze the national anthem!

And then he does Bruckner’s 8th Symphony in a huge hall.  An absolute rush of North Korean string talent is made available to him.

Defection is not an option and there are too many hours now logged on this fine side of Checkpoint Charlie to mitigate against anything other, but every so often one feels as if one has washed the face of an ancient statue or an inscription on the tomb of a king (buried of course with his concubines), so nobly and so unaffected is a truth expressed.

Humans need silence in order to understand themselves, but when braided up into strands of sound marshalled by Brucknerian successors, no system — even full of the most paternal insticts and their most coercive extensions — can stand up and honestly say “We have nothing, nothing to offer you.”

So let the octaves thunder in Pyongyang, because we have hungry souls.

Inside North Korea: French Edition

I found this French film, apparently shot in spring 2010, to be better than most treatments of the North Korean tourist experience.  Among other things, a young North Korean “rapper” is encountered in an amusement park (at 12:31), North Korean rallies are accompanied by music by Philip Glass, and the piece benefits from the use of some selected extracts from North Korean film archives.

In Part II, one gets a sense of how French tourists experience the Korean War museum in Pyongyang, a visit which begins with one of the visitors writing an inscription about her father, who left Korea in 1950 for France, never to return, in the museum’s visitor’s book.

Of slightly older vintage (but with the same North Korean Francophone guide, and a far more vigorous and hirsute traveller) is this French documentary from 2008, which concludes, around 2’30″, with the main TV personality sprinting across a field to batter a plywood cutout of a big-nosed American soldier, which prompts some humorous dialogue with the locals.

In the following section, a man gathers edible grasses on Kim Il Sung’s birthday.  Then, in section three (below), the host laughs — he has finally lost his guides, who refuse to enter the church along with him in Pyongyang.

In Part 4, the viewer can enjoy (what else?) spectacle, as the French man goes into an extended discussion with his hosts about the sex habits of ostriches, including the possibility of bisexual ostriches.  This is as far from the dark and paranoiac music of Lisa Ling’s National Geographic DPRK documentary as possible!  As with everything else, it seems that the results of a journey have much to do with the proclivities of the traveler.

On the more geopolitical side of things, there is this in-depth French look at current events through a historical prism, including interviews with (among others) Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation which begins with a look — which I had never seen before — at the immense American flotilla sent to intimidate the North Koreans in summer 2010.

There are, somewhat less helpfully, long discourses by Jerrold Post, head of psychoanalysis [?] for the CIA, about Kim Jong Il’s cognac habits, and Klingner goes on about how the current generation of North Korean children are “mentally stunted.”  But the documentary takes Kim Jong Il’s film history seriously, and, for the cultural historian, part 2 begins with extracts from the 1985 North Korean remake of Godzilla.

Not to be missed (besides the wonderful contrast between the personal stories of the casual and goateed bandana biker-styled Kenji Fujimoto and the statistics of Marcus Noland in his precisely fixed suit and tie) are North Korean television depictions of George W. Bush, seen here at 6’30″.  What I find remarkable is the extent to which the continuity of the North Korean graphic styles manages to make Bush look like John Foster Dulles in 1950.

Finally, the obligatory refugee documentary, “Han, la prix de la liberte [Han, the Price of Liberty]” by Alexandre Dereims in 2009.  Like Mike Kim’s book Escaping North Korea, “Han” traces the path of refugees from Yanji down to the Chinese borders with Laos/Thailand and takes them into Seoul.  This is a well-known arc to anyone who follows news about North Korean defectors, but there is one point of fact which I found particularly interesting, if not happily so.  At about 1’40″ of the following segment, a young woman refugee being interviewed in an apartment in Yanji describes the years of famine — 1994, 1995, 1996, she enumerates them off one by one as if to recount each as an entity deserving of individual weight — and matter-of-factly recounts that people resorted to cannibalism.  Then, she says “Things are presently on the path for it to happen again.”  Not good news from inside North Korea.  Incidentally, although in the wake of the Laura Ling/Euna Lee debacle which managed to break up at least one network dedicated to extracting refugees from the North, the defectors’ faces here not pixelated out because they made it to Seoul, where, presumably, they are presently.

The Dalai Lama in Toulouse: On Soft Power, Le Pen, and Unfallen Shoes

Back in July, while on a late-night stroll through the 5th Arrdondisment looking for Rue Oberkampf, I chanced upon an announcement of the Dalai Lama’s mid-August trip to Toulouse, France, a city which appears to have become a kind of new Buddhist heartland.

To follow up: The Dalai Lama indeed went to Toulouse, and a short clip from a French television station captures very well the local excitement and the huge crowds (over 10,000 attendees, each paying over 100 Euros) garnered by the visit.

Although his speech is a touch impenetrable, I personally enjoy how the 20-something guy standing in line in his sports gear is there to learn from the Dalai Lama about compassion, a value which I also felt exuding from the somewhat drunk but indisputably kind (pre-Buddhists/sloshed Boddhisattvas?) of French origin who I sat next to while taking in the fireworks and getting an earful of Leonard Bernstein and Sinatra on Bastille Day near the Ecole Militaire.

Now that I mention it, there is a working paper to be written somewhere about the battle for hearts and minds, the soft power struggle, undertaken by the Chinese government and the Tibetan Government in Exile amidst the semi-employed post-collegiate white and French-born segment of Europe.  (I say “white and French-born” because it may be that among African-born Francophones in France, Sino-African relations is the terrain upon which China is judged and found wanting, or exemplary; this may be speculation on my part, but a quick glance at the newsstands in France and the predominance of African affairs there argues for my correctness in this small argumentative vector.  Of course white French readers of the press are also concerned with Africa — as are France’s armed and thoroughly multi-ethnic forces — but that is another debate altogether.)

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Toulouse is also an opportunity to contrast how French politicians handle such a visit, as opposed to their American counterparts.  When the Dalai Lama visits Washington, American Republicans waste no time in smashing the administration for not showing His Holiness more respect.  Tibet policy is one of the great unstated, but unquestionable, areas of extreme left-right agreement in the U.S.

On the other hand, France’s answer to the Tea Party, Marine LePen and her National Front, appear to have no comment on the Dalai Lama’s visit.  There is, though, this video of Le Pen holding forth in a small press conference in Toulouse (which includes complaining of the “Islamicization” of France) in which neither China nor the Dalai Lama comes in for discussion (for more on the Petainist origins of the present permutations of the French right wing, see James Shields’ detailed book from 2007).  However, this Marine Le Pen press release from spring 2008, singles out the main object of attack — following in her father’s footsteps of associating French left with the Cultural Revolution — is not the Chinese government but instead a French communist:

Mardi 08 Avril 2008

Du Tibet à Nanterre : le communisme incompatible avec la démocratie

Communiqué de presse de Marine Le Pen

Si les violences commises par le régime communiste chinois au Tibet ont été largement commentées et condamnées par la classe politique, pas une voix ne s’est élevée pour dénoncer les propos stupéfiants du maire communiste de Nanterre, Patrick Jary.

Réagissant le 7 avril dans les colonnes du Parisien au prochain déménagement du siège du Front national dans la préfecture des Hauts-de-Seine, l’édile communiste affirme “qu’il faut que les gens comprennent qu’il y a des lieux où le FN n’a pas le droit de venir”.

Au Tibet comme à Nanterre, le communisme, fidèle à sa vision totalitaire du monde, démontre une fois encore son caractère antidémocratique et la vision toute particulière qu’il se fait de la liberté …

Le Front National dénonce l’hypocrisie d’une classe politique qui sait être bruyante quand il s’agit de stigmatiser les violations des droits de l’homme à l’étranger mais reste étrangement silencieuse quand certaines libertés fondamentales sont bafouées en France.

So much for France.

A week after his Toulouse sojurn, the Dalai Lama was received at Goethe University in Frankfurt, an institution with an already-dynamic Asian Studies profile, particularly via its Interdisciplinary Center for East Asian Studies.  Video of the visit is available here, via Goethe University.

By way of comment: As I was in China during both of these visits, it very much interests me how routinized (which is to say, ignored) the Dalai Lama’s global work has become in the PRC press.  When a prominent French politician — say, the mayor of Paris — wants to make the Dalai Lama an “honorary citizen,” or an American mayor wants to commemorate Tibetan struggles in the month of March, a stink is raised, but by and large, the CCP lets these kind of appearances pass without comment, partially because they have already spent a great deal of their human rights pushback capital on cases like Ai Weiwei.  It may also be because the Dalai Lama is so apparently indefatigable, and there is little that the CCP can gain from railing against his every move.  It is one of the many instances in China where the “hard line” is in reality rather spotty, and applied only exemplary circumstances sufficient to inspire second thoughts about extending an invitation, second thoughts which are then rather easily pushed aside by the original impulse to broaden the scope of the inquiry and bend the ear towards the man in the crimson and gold robes from Dhramsala.


A Little Musical Diplomacy

China is presently thundering its way into some heavily-historically-documented commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the PLA’s arrival in Tibet, while at the same time bringing the rhetorical hammer down in a headline Huanqiu op-ed unsubtly entitled “The West, Sympathizers to ‘Xinjiang Independence’ Terrorism.”  As assertive nationalism and an emphasis on “social stability” (and the threats that forces external to China pose to the country’s unity) pose he only thing the Chinese Communist Party leadership seems to commonly and fully support, it seems likely we are in for a long summer and fall of the geo-political equivalent of baseball’s “brushback pitch,” the high fastball thrown at the head of the man with the stick, not in the hopes of knocking him out — for that might end the game altogether — but in the hopes of intimidating him, and his fellow onlookers, sufficiently so as to accrue the proper healthy respect for one’s opponent.

Perhaps it would be a good time for everyone to cool their jets and listen to some music.

I’ll be appearing at the US Consulate  next week and a bunch of other venues in that great city, including the celebrated Bookworm and the Danish Foreign Ministry project known as the  Nordic International Management Institute (NIMI) , with the pianist Andreas Boelcke.  As WordPress, last time I checked, was deemed an unacceptable infringement on the information sovereignty of the PRC (the very object of our musical affections!), I may have to be a bit creative with providing all the updates from the front, but rest assured, dear readers (and possible listeners?) that I will do my best to keep you appraised of the action and, the spirit of Hu Yaobang in 1982 willing, the achievements.

Swiss technician and Sinophile gremlin at Kristof Landon Violins, Berlin, July 2011; photo by Wang Yin/王茵, Freie Uni. Berlin