Archive for Olympics

What’s in a Vowel? Why We Should Care about Huns and Hans in Western China

Posted in Central Asia, Liz Hager, People & Places, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by Liz Hager

Uighur silk textile fragment, Xinjiang, 10th-11th century (photo courtesy One Central Asia)

In hosting the Olympic Games, China has once again opened the proverbial kimono for inspection by the outside world, offering us a rare opportunity to gain insight into a country in the process of becoming a dominant world power. Harmony is an ancient component of the Chinese identity. Paradoxically, separatist conflict percolates throughout present-day China.

The Chinese “occupation” of Tibet has been well publicized for years, in part because the Dali Lama is able to travel and educate the world. Another, less publicized, ethnic conflict pits the minority Uighurs (pr: WEE-ger) against the majority Han Chinese in the far western province of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Uighur’s historic homeland. The conflict has simmered for centuries. It became an international news item in the beginning of August, when 16 Chinese paramilitary police officers were killed in Kashgar, alledgely by Uighur “terrorists” under the supervision of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).  A string of “incidents” have been reported since then; many say the Chinese government is inflating the group’s importance, as an excuse to tighten control over the beleaguered peoples. 

Why should those of us who live half a world away care about the Uighurs, a poor and historically nomadic people? Their beautiful textile tradition is reason enough for me, the artist. The map below suggests a more compelling reason for the rest of us.

Xinjiang sits in already volatile region, which includes the sovereign nations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Mongolia. The well-documented conflict over Kashmir rages still after 50 years, the danger to the world heightened by Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities.  In Afghanistan, each superpower in turn has painfully relearned the difficulties of containment in a land of porous borders.  As part of the ancient Turkic (i.e. Hun) tribes that migrated over centuries from Mongolia to Central Asia, the Uighurs spill over Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We should know from history that tribal loyalties and animosities do not necessarily respect artificially-drawn national borders, so a conflict in Xinjiang eventually ripples outward.

Further, the march to modernization in this area necessitates that all these countries meld numerous tribal identities (not to mention Russians and Chinese) into singular national identities. Tricky business in places where tribal loyalties die slowly. Forcing “harmony,” while disenfranchising the native population, is certainly flirting with danger.

Xinjiang is an energy paradise—lots of sun, wind and, yes, oil. Something on the order of 60% of the province’s GNP is derived from oil and natural gas production. And this of course is the reason the rest of the world should really care about the Huns and the Hans in Western China.   

Need more?

Textiles in Oil Rich Countries

Analysis: August Incidents in Xinjiang

Der Spiegel on events in Xinjiang

Tarim Mummies

Fantastic grassland in Xinjiang province

Short history of the Huns

Uighurs—A Dying Race

High Noon in China’s Far West

A(nother) Great Leap Forward?

Posted in Architecture, Music & Dance, People & Places, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , , , , on August 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

photo ©Emilio Naranja

Like much of the world, I was riveted to the television for 3 1/2 hours last night as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics unfolded. The cynic in me noted the overt propagandistic nature and shear economic cost of the evening. But the artist in me experienced moments of undeniable viewing ecstasy—the lighted batons of 2,008 drummers moving in unison in the dark; the undulating rectangle of character blocks; the tai-chi masters, whose movement from above resembled a swarm of bees; and the pièce—those “lighted dot” suits, flashing together at one point like a giant neon arrow. “This way China!”  It was an evening of Peking opera, Cirque de Soleil, and Jackie Chan all rolled up together. 

As one commentator remarked near the end: “they should retire the trophy for opening ceremonies.” Indeed, I am hard pressed to think how Vancouver or London, next on the list of host cities, will come up with programs that top not only the shock and awe technology on display last night but the colorful, graceful, well-choreographed, and often quite sobering symbolic elements of the program created by Zhang Yimou (pr: john-ee-moe). Nor should they perhaps: the extravaganza was rumored to have cost the government as much as $300 million. 

Not too long into the program, I developed a real fondness for its backdrop, the Bird’s Nest stadium.   We San Franciscans now have automatic affinity with Beijing through our two Herzog and de Meuron buildings; we’re the little guy city in a worldwide club of bigger venues (London, Munich, Beijing) and that’s good for an often-parochial city like ours. Our own de Young Museum is one of the few joyous exceptions in a skyline full of repetitively dull versions of the modernist glass box motif.  I completely understand why the Chinese have latched on so quickly to the Bird’s Nest as their 21st century icon. Nicolai Ouroussoff covers the details of this topic much better than I could in his article this morning in the NY Times. Additionally, Gordon Raynor of the UK Telegraph focuses on the symbolism of the structure very nicely in his 8/7 post “Guide to the Birds Nest.” 

Certainly director Zhang Yimou deserves huge kudos for conceiving and pulling off a spectacular show that had to have included thousands of logistical nightmares. (For starters, think about fashioning and fitting 15,000 costumes.) Obviously, he didn’t do it by himself; the international “concept” team included Steven Spielberg and choreographer Zhang Jigang. But in the end, it was his show. I’m not conversant enough with Zhang Yimou’s films (Judou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern) to offer meaningful commentary in that vein about last night’s extravaganza, so I’ve listed some other linkages below. Suffice it to say, he’s a master of visual symbolism.

In the final analysis, though, what better symbol of 21st century China than the army of human performers that were required to execute Zhang’s vision?  Not just marching mind you, but dancing, twirling and running, all in lock-step precision. These perfectly-harnessed masses were a sobering and disquieting reminder of the inherent force of a nation with 1.3 billion people at its disposal.   

In a telling moment, when asked about the huge number of people involved, Zhang is reported to have smiled demurely and said: “Well why not? We have them.”   

And that might just be the real point of last night’s entertainment. 

 Need more?

For those of you who missed the program (or just want to see it again), play the “Opening Ceremony: Sites & Sounds”  at NBC

Zhang Yimou and State Aesthetics

Interview with Zhang

“Marriage” —Look Down!:IWP, SF#6

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on August 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/08/08

Time: 8:48 am

Location: Duboce & Guerrero, NE pavement

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: The SF Chronicle carried a story this week about the 16,000 or so couples in Beijing rushing to get married today, 08/08/08 being a highly-auspicious number in China. Apparently, there were more than a few who were even trying to squeeze in a little extra good fortune by scheduling their marriage vows at 8:08 am. It’s also the reason the Olympic officials planned the opening ceremonies for today; I suppose they were hoping to offset all the “bad luck” surrounding the upcoming games—appalling pollution, for starters.  

I happened upon this piece of wisdom on the pavement while on my way to a meeting this morning and a carpe diem moment materialized. Although the shot is 40 minutes late to cash in on the super Vegas jackpot, I’m hoping that at least hitting the 8-8-8- trifecta will bring some luck my way.   If that happens, I promise to pass along a little to you, dear reader!

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