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August, 2012

  1. Charming Snobs: a Weekly Reading of The Spectator

    August 26, 2012 by Fan

           The Spectator magazine’s chatty style is surely enjoyable: its essays are still “essay” in a more or less Montaigne sense, as opposed to “essay” as understood by contemporary university careerists. That probably explains the magazine’s charm despite its consistent conservatism and occasional racism.

          Common sense prevails in John Bradley’s observation of Arab Spring and human rights: the slogan chanted in Tahrir Square was ‘bread, dignity and social justice’, and the greatest of these demands was bread. But psychedelic truth matters as well: Andrew Brown reports LSD and MDMA’s coming back in medical labs when psychiatry is seeking “empathogen”. The post-scientific optimism in the immediate aftermath of WWII re-emerges.

          But London’s arts scene is still (rightfully) drenched in the sentiments of WWI. Will Self’s turn-of-the-century new novel Umbrella is described as a modernist masterpiece comparable to Ulysses. BBC produces a new series based on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End with the help of Tom Stoppard, who as a playwright unsurprisingly but erroneously thinks “it is through words we become fully human”. Glyndebourne’s #RavelDoubleBill proves otherwise: it’s through musical and visual stimulations we become human.

          Grieg’s conspicuous Piano Concerto is at the same time praised and panned, as its curious performance by a certain “honky-tonk” Winfred Atwell from Trinidad, “the first black person to have a Number One hit in the UK single chart”. Taki, in enjoying Switzerland’s snow-white countryside, keeps his distance from its multicultural cities. Toby Young, meanwhile, celebrates British nationalism’s revival during the Olympics, especially when it is expressed by Mo Farah, a British subject from Somalia.



  2. Weekly Reading of the Economist: Unifying Contrasts

    August 22, 2012 by Fan

          Makoko, the 150-year-old fishing community and slums around Nigeria’s Lagos, is going to be reclaimed by a modernizing government. The Economist, while seemingly sympathetic to the fate of its residents, approves the government’s action. Similar thing occurs in the outskirts of French cities when roma’s tent cities are cleared by the socialist government. The magazine cynically observers that the leftists are quiet about human costs this time. Rio’s Olympic dreams are now officially undergoings. How well could they do? Some interesting cultural observations: the Brazilians are sloppy public workers but good at parties; they are good at team sports while sloppy in individual sports.

           In Paul Ryan, the Economist sees an individual with big ideas, detailed planning, consistency, common sense and “athleticism” (why does it matter any way?). In the Chinese Olympic nationalism and in contemporary drinking cultures across the Islamic world, the magazine detects both irrationality and rationality, or ambiguity between engagement and detachment. Individuals are not individuals but dividuals after all, which can also be seen in the fact that human body is a colony of contrasting microbes. The unification of  human contrasts, however, is beautifully manifested in late Bernard Lovell who played church organ in his local parish for 40 years when he was not studying physics. Sir Bernard believed in the ultimate superiority of metaphysics:

         “I am no more surprised or distressed at the limitation of science when faced with this great problem of creation than I am at the limitation of the spectroscope in describing the radiance of a sunset or at the theory of counterpoint in describing the beauty of a fugue”

  3. “Die Sitting, Die Standing, Die Making Art”

    August 5, 2012 by Fan



    “Die Sitting, Die Standing, Die Making Art” – Feng Zikai’s Artistic Life as Rites of Passage

    Fan Zhang



    In discussing the death rituals of Zen Buddhism, Ronald L. Grimes in his Deeply Into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passages (2000) notices Soto sect’s dictum “Die sitting, die standing” (Grimes 2000:224). The point of this dictum is to evoke a kind of ritualistic mindfulness that connects everyday life to death: “life is inextricably wed to death [here and now]” (ibid). In other words, the continuation of one’s life passage from one’s birth to (a prepared) death is embodied in the serious and continues attention paid to everyday life. Rites of passage, as Grimes also points out in the conclusion of his book, are acts at the same time embedded in and transforming ordinariness (Grimes 2000:345). Much attention in his study of rites of passage has been paid to performed acts, such as naming ceremony (Grimes 2000:80), comprehensive initiation education program (Grimes 2000:146), wedding invitation (Grimes 2000:211) and retirement party (Grimes 2000:324). However, art, a major component in the rites of passage in probably all great religions, is also crucial in connecting everyday experiences to the mystic passage from life to death. This essay intends to discuss the art of Chinese cartoonist and essayist Feng Zikai as his personal acts of rites of passage.

    Feng Zikai, born in 1898 to a gentry family, is a Buddhist layman (or “at-home” monk who marries but otherwise follows Buddhist way of life including vegetarianism). A popular cartoonist and essayist,  Feng is less known for his Buddhist engagement partially due to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s taking over power since 1949. Feng’s public art, however, is deeply imbedded in his private Buddhist sensibility. In many ways, his cartoons and essays are performed and performative objects mediating his life as a private individual and a public figure. They are also used by him, consciously or unconsciously, to commemorate his passage of life.

    An overview of Feng’s life shows that abstract doctrines have no strong impact on him, not atypical of Chinese literati (Dong 1983:35). Many of  his life-long Buddhist practices such as vegetarianism was not results of faith and discipline but visceral aversions to otherwise: “I have never been against eating animals on principles. The only few times I tried when I was a child, I would feel sick and depressed afterwards.” (Feng 1988:60). Similar sensibility is seen in his intuitive conception of  passage of time. In one of his earliest (and finest) essays, Gradual Change, Feng mediated: “Time for me is more magical than space. We can always hold on to tangible objects in space, limitless as it is. The efforts to grasp time, however, are always futile – and the only way to do is to see time in the calmness and tranquility of things and objects.” (Feng 1988:3, my translation).

    This desire to grasp the intangible time by tangible objects – and the awareness of its difficulty is the essential dynamics prompting Feng Zikai’s artistic engagement which I see as acts of performative rites of passage bridging the otherworldly and everyday life, or using Durkheim’s terms, the sacred and the profane. The key to this ritual bridging is Feng’s ability to see the extraordniary in the ordinary, to see the grand in the small and to see the serious in the humorous.

    Feng’s cartoon career began at a very young age. His initial artistic experience was closely associated with a Ming-Dynasty  drawing book Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manuel (Barme 2002:21) . One of Feng’s first attempts at painting occurred on his first day in the grade school when he was asked to draw from a superimposition of a  woodblock depicting Tang Dynasty sage Liu Zongyuan’s grand gesture after spiritual revelation. However, in tracing and coloring of this woodblock, instead of seeing profound spirituality, a young Feng found it amusingly resemble his father’s big yawn (Feng 1988:83).

    This episode occurred on his first school day would be completely mundane and trivial if the motif of this grand gesture/big yawn dualism doesn’t persist later in Feng’s art. In fact, Feng recycled the very imagery of the Sage gesture repeatedly later in his adult cartoons including the one entitled “I raise my gaze with a big yawn”  (figure 1, reprinted from Garme’s book). This recreation of the cartoon imagery, thus, can be seen as the recreation and preservation of an important moment of childhood memory – or using Grimes’ words, ritual enactment by selective remembering (Grimes 2000:191). If we view the first school day of a child as some kind of initiation rite in modern secular  societies, a salient observation would be: for ordinary people, initiation rites (as well as other rites of passage) are bestowed externally; but for artists, they can be self-motivated and occurred repeatedly throughout their lives – if they have the psychological needs to do so.




    Figure 1: (left) Sage Liu Zongyuan’s grand gesture, Qing woodblock; (right) “I raise my gaze with a big yawn”, by Feng Zikai, Shanghai, 1947.



    Initiation rites in the so-called “primitive societies” often held in a prolonged period of time and often repeated in different periods of a young person’s life (Newman 1982:239-286). If the first school day as a child is Feng’s first initiation experience, the second one, as far as we know, occurred when he was visiting Tokyo as a young artist: it came as an artistic revelation bestowed by the art of Meiji painter Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934).

    If the influence of the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manuel is somehow reactionary in that Feng saw unintended humor in seriousness, Yumeji’s art and personality are more sympathetically evocative: besides Yumeji’s casual yet articulated visual style, which was appealing to Feng, Yumeji embodied a new spiritual and social identity particularly attractive to the young man: he was aloof, not bound by strict social and religious order and an outsider of the master-student hierarchy essential to both Japanese and Chinese traditions (Barme 2002:56). In art, Yumeji crossed thematic boundaries of the Western and the East freely with one picture showing kimono, the other tuxedo. He was constantly juxtaposing and reinventing, yet he never truly betrayed the Eastern spiritual and artistic traditions when he constantly quotes Buddhist mantras and imagery in his creation (Barme 2002:75). His paintings always incorporates the art of calligraphy quintessential to both Chinese and Japanese art and spirituality.

    Again, Feng enacted his artistic rites of passage by adopting the Yumeji motifs repeatedly in his own art. One of the most popular Feng’s Yumeji adaptations is about the meeting of two childhood classmates: one is doing well and another goes down. This time, Feng recreated lyrical and sentimental depiction of life, something beyond mere humor (figure 2, reprinted from Barme’s book).



    Figure 2: (left) “Classmates” by Takehisa Yumeji, Tokyo 1909; (right) “Primary School Classmates” by Feng Zikai, Shanghai 1945.


    Rites of passage are traditionally collective but more and more individualized in modern societies (Grimes 2000:289). Is this individualism absolute? Feng Zikai’s art, if treated as attempts at individual rites of passage, is at the same time individual and collective – its collectivity is expressed in its connection to Feng’s milieu. Friends and mentors were important to him as to other neophytes.

    Feng Zikai, in all his life, was attracted to authentically eccentric people – not unlike his artistic endeavors that were often inspired by the profound but peculiar objects or people. The very first person he befriended in his boarding school years in Hangzhou was an odd young man named Yang Bohao who was considered by many teachers and classmates as mentally disturbed. In the obituary Feng wrote decades later for Yang, he related a story: Yang was often absent at classes, but refused to tell teachers any lie as suggested by other students: “I won’t say I’m sick, because I am not.” Yang took a shy Feng to excursions around the West Lake –  a major scenic place with cultural significance – searching for secret but interesting spots, against the school principle’s advice. He told Feng to “have a mind of your own” (Barme 2002:30). Feng would hold on to this idea to the end of his life.

    Despite the fact that Yang is an unknown in modern Chinese history, his obituary has since become a classical piece of literature often published in essay collections. The question can be asked is whether Feng’s writing of this particular obituary can be viewed as an act of self-imposed initiation rite that fixates a certain core value in his life? If the answer is positive, it again demonstrates that initiation is not an absolutely individual– there is definitely a fraternal if not collective dimension to it.

    The individualization of rites of passage, if anything, allows individual reformation of tradition as seen in Feng’s art concerning marriage and family.

    Neither wedding nor family life is a common subject in traditional Chinese art in which landscape has the supreme importance, but Feng consciously bring them into his cartoons. Although his marriage is an arranged one – and he never spent much time dwelling on the weddings or other ceremonies related to the union, Feng decidedly used his art to explore other dimension of family life often overlooked by traditions. In particular, in his art he treated women as equal partners in family life. In one essay on painting – completely unrelated to family or women – out of blue, Feng criticized a so-called tradition of Chinese husbands: they show a lot of familiarity with friends, neighbors or even strangers, but when they saw their wives in public, they tended to keep some upright distance, sometimes to the point as if their wives were perfect strangers (Feng 1988:138).  Feng responded with quite a few “family outing” paintings and cartoon (figure 3). Seeing in the light of rites of passage concerning marriage, the creation of those unique family paintings within the genre of Chinese landscape brings new substance and meanings to traditional rituals and social organizations.

    Figure 3: Feng’s unique “family landscape”.


    Grimes remarks that “there is no word in English for a ceremony that might mark the event [of giving birth]” (Grimes 2000:16). The birth rites are also scarce in other societies for a variety of possible reasons (Grime 2000:20). One possibility he fails to mention is the male-centric nature in all rites of passage. Initiation rites in pre-industrial societies often focus on boys (Newman 1982:239-286). Wedding is probably one of the only that have equal participation of women but even this ceremony sometimes features brides being “given away” to the bridegrooms by male members of her family. Giving birth, on the other hand, sees the alienation (or sometimes irrelevance) of men – even Grimes describes vividly husbands’ looking passively at their birthing wives from behind (Grimes 2000:16-18).

    Again, if we treat Feng’s art as conscious efforts breaking boundary of traditional rites of passage, some of his cartoons, while not depicting birth per se, shows children (especially his daughters) in the glory of their innocence (figure 4)

    Figure 4: A Bao (Feng’s daughter)



    Except for one Buddhist album, most Feng’s art is not overtly religious, but they often commemorate small things in his life. There is a certain refreshing humor or tranquility in every single piece of his art, but there is also a consistent sense of passage of time in it (figure 5)



     (figure 5, “Party is Over”)

          Feng’s struggle to grasp the intangible passage of life and time with tangible things defines his Buddhist spirituality and his art. His art, in itself continuing a very Buddhist mindfulness and almost animistic in that it focuses not on a single deity but on small things and occurrences, can be seen as individualized rites of passage that is not restrained by the individual’s actual age.  The art of Feng Zikai and its recurring themes, are acts and artifacts of a unique kind of rites of passage. The Soto Zen dictum, thus, can be expanded as “Die sitting, die standing, and die making art”.




    Barme, G.

    2002. An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai (1898 – 1975). Berkeley: University of California Press.


    Dong Qichang

    1983. Jingru Zhongguo Renwen Shijie [Entering the Chinese Humanisitc World]. Beijing: Sanlian Press.


    Feng Zikai.

    1988. Yuanyuang Tang Suibi [Notes from Yuanyuan Tang]. Hangzhou: Zhejiang Wenyi Press.


    Grimes, Ronald L

    2000. Deeply in to the bone: re-inventing rites of passage. Berkeley: University of California Press.


    Newman, Philip

    1982. The Making of Men: Ritual and Meanings in Awa Male Intiation. In Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiations in Papua New Guinea. Berkeley: Uinversity of California Press, pp.239-286.



  4. Space and Body Modification: Rebecca Popenoe’s Feeding Desire

    August 3, 2012 by Fan

         (For summary and sample, view the book on Google Books here)


          Spatiality is the central concept in Popenoe’s ethnographic interpretations of Azawagh female-fattening practices, which I will refer to in the local term lebluh in the following passages. It allows her a systematic approach in the interpretation of the phenomenon. The limits of her understanding of this concept might serve as a departure point for further contemplation and theorization. 
          In the beginning of Chapter 7, The Exterior Spaces of Social Life, Popenoe observes that spatial organization is an important element connecting Azawagh individual to social life:

     “Lines … run from horizon through tent to body and outwards again … keeping the concerns of the most immediate bodily activity … aligned with the forces and order of the wider world” (Popenoe 2004:154).

    It is salient in all aspects of Azawagh life, from east-facing burials to the direction of bed at home. It is also assumedly an element starkly different from her Western experiences: “People … asked me frequently in which direction America was … [but] I was never asked what my country looked like or how far away it was.” (ibid).
          She further generalizes the Western-native differences in spatial conception: “ Coming from a world where space is largely imagined in terms of grids and graphs, it took me some time to realize that space was … ordered … like a circle, with radii running out in all directions from the center.” (ibid)
           Popenoe then focuses on the gender opposition this spatial conception is associated with: “women constantly gravitate to and occupy the center, while men gravitate constantly outwards towards the wilder world” (ibid). The importance of this observation is crucial to entire book’s argument. It contrasts a “fattening” female body which is situated –in fact sits – at the center of domestic space with a lean male body which is moving outwards to engage economic activities such as herding and trade.
           In a single stroke, Popenoe puts her core puzzle of female body and Azawagh’s cosmological system (in its geometric representation), economic system and kinship system in one picture. While all those aspects are deliberated in details in separate chapters, this chapter on spatiality unifies the entire book into one system. In that sense, it is the central section of the book, just as spatiality is the central concept to understand Popenoe’s overall argument.
          Whether Popenoe herself is aware of the centrality of space to her argument is debatable. Her casual manner of writing suggests that she might have unwittingly demoted the topic of spatial organization to just one chapter among others, as if those other aspects of Azawagh life have equal weights with regard to her analysis: “The point I make here about the relationship between how space is inhabited and how the social world is experiences are not new.” (Popenoe 2004:159) The anthropologists quoted in her endnotes to this sentence are a loose bunch , from new Afrianist Réne Devisch to old-hand Comaroffs to the classic Michel Griaule (Popenoe 2004:205). However, Pierre Bourdieu is quoted in the main text: “the appropriation by the world of a body thus enabled to appropriate the world” (Popenoe 2004:155).
           Bourdieu, in fact, is Popenoe’s theoretical departure point. The above quote from his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972) expresses in a highly concise way his philosophical animism that attempts to capture the dialectical relationships between the self and the world, subjectivity and objectivity, practice/agency and structure. Popenoe finds it necessary to rephrase Bourdieu’s text: “In other words, by being socialized in spaces … individuals absorb deep knowledge about the cultural categories …” (ibid). But Popenoe’s reinterpretation actually makes Bourdieu’s words more obscure. A simpler and more powerful rendition can be made as such: “Body is the microcosm of universe.”
           Bourdieu is known to have based his whole system of philosophy on Claude Levi-Strauss’ structuralism (Miller 2005:45) which is itself an extension of the Durkheim school of sociology (Miller 2005:60). Indeed, a quick review of the history of the French school reveals deep concerns about the connection between physical body and spatiality which is key to Popenoe’s argument.
           An earlier example appears in Robert Hertz’s monograph The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity (1909). In the monograph, Hertz, a student of Emile Durkheim, tries to establish the religious origin of a physiological phenomenon: the universal predilection for right hand – a project not unlike Popenoe’s. In the study, Hertz says:

    “… in the Indo-European domain, the community forms a closed circle, at the center of which is found the alter … where the gods descend and the graces shine … outside it stretches the vast night, limitless, lawless, full of impure seeds …at the periphery … the right shoulder turned towards the interior … on the one side, there is everything to hope for, on the other, everything to fear. The right is the inside … the left is outside” (Hertz 2009:96)

    Here Hertz associates the right with center/inside (and the sacred) and the left with periphery/outside (and the profane). In a separate quote, Hertz makes the gender connection to this classification of body and space:

     “How could man’s body, the microcosm, escape the law [of religious opposition of the sacred and the profane] which governs everything? Society and the whole universe have a side that is sacred, noble, and precious, and another which is profane and common: a male side, strong and active, and another, female, weak and passive; or, in two words, a right side and a left side?” (Hertz 2009:35, my emphasis).

    Compare Popenoe’s project with Hertz’s, we see revealing similarities and contrasts as seen in the following table:






    gender position

    physical attributes


    religiosity of the center


    right hand dominance

    concentric circle


    male in the center






    concentric circle


    female in the center




          Let me first explain Hertz’s male-centric gender position which is only apparent if we associate the two quotes above with each other: in the first quote, he points out that the center of a community space is sacred (“where gods shine”); in the second quote, he associates this sacredness with male and his activeness, hence the male-center connection. This connection, in fact, becomes the central tool of analysis for Claude Levi-Strauss and his structuralism. Levi-Strauss uses extensive ethnographic examples to show that in a closed circular spatial arrangement of native villages, the central space is always exclusively male and public (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-163).
          Clearly, while both describe space in its circular form, Hertz and Popenoe have different gender conceptions: for Hertz, men are in the center; for Popenoe, women are in the center. For Hertz, the center is associated god’s grace. For Popenoe, the center is associated with domesticity. How do we account for the differences?
           One important omission of Popenoe’s ethnography is a detailed comparison of the female fattening customs of Azawagh people with their neighbours, many of whom have similar traditions. While Popenoe attempts to explain the phenomenon in terms of the totality of Azawagh way of life, she fails to pinpoint its uniqueness – comparative methods are inevitable if this uniqueness is to be established.
            If I’m allowed to take over her project, with my knowledge of the French school of anthropology (with which Popenoe doesn’t demonstrate her familiarity either in the main text or in her endnotes and bibliography), I will utilize the aforementioned Popenoe-Hertz discrepancy and make such hypothesis: the nomadic way life shifts the sacred center to the remote Mecca. The entirety of the desert environment and tents in it, as opposed to Popenoe’s female-domestic-center proposal, belongs to the periphery to Mecca which is where the ultimate sacred and public space is. This requires a major reinterpretations of her ethnographic data which is beyond the scope of this short review.
          Popenoe’s lack of comparison is part of her shortcomings of particularist approach. As the Hertz text reveals, the circular arrangement is universal – they are not only prevalent in the desert but also prevalent in Europe throughout history. Popenoe’s assumption that the Western space is in grid form is based on her modern urban living experiences, which account for many other problems in the book. Nevertheless, she provides readers with interesting materials and departure points for further critique and contemplation, as this very review demonstrates.






    Hertz, R.

      2009 [1909]. The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. In Saints, Heroes, Myth and Rites: Classical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society, edited by A. Riley, et al. New York:Paradigm Publishers.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

     1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Miller, Daniel

      2005. Materiality: an introduction. In Materiality, edited by Daniel Miller, Duke University Press. 2005.pp. 1-50.


    Popenoe, Rebecca

      2004. Feeding Desire: Fatness, Beauty, and Sexuality among a Saharan People. New York: Routledge.