Posted by: Mm | January 13, 2008

Tintin in Leuven

The incredible adventures of the young Belgian reporter Tintin (and his white fox terier) were one of the most famous comic books’ series of the 20th century. Drawn and written by Belgian artist Hergé (1907–1983) the stories were set in different exotic locations of the world, Soviet Union, Congo, Tibet and many more.

Hergé’s early work was characterised by obvious stereotypes, the most (in)famous example of this is considered to be “Tintin in Congo”, where the native inhabitants are portrayed as ridiculous primitive savages – in contrast to the sophistication of the colonialists, of course.

Tintin in Congo

The turn in this type of narrative occurred in quite interesting circumstances. After the publication of a similarly stereotypic “Cigars of the Pharaoh” Hergé announced that next Tintin’s adventure was to take place in China. In response to that, father Gosset, a chaplain of the Chinese students at the University of Leuven, wrote him a letter, advising him to portray China more realistically. In addition to that, it was through this connection that Hergé was introduced to a Chinese art student in Leuven, Zhang Chongren (张充仁, 1907-1998). Zhang provided Hergé with information about many aspects of Chinese reality of the time: the culture and history, the aesthetics and art, and -perhaps most importantly- about the political situation of China in the thirtees.

The story of The Blue Lotus is thus set in the 30’s Shanghai and is admirably accurate in its portrayal of the city in its “golden age”. The criticism is directed towards the colonial powers (focusing on the caricatures of British and Japanese, but NOT the French). This picture, for example, shows two British policemen, cleverly “disguised” as two anachronic Chinese:


Apart from showing that the representatives of the foreign powers fail to understand Chinese culture and tradition, Tintin’s Chinese friend and helper, Chang Chongchen (a tribute to Zhang Chongren), also warns him against the stereotypes that Europeans have about the Chinese, some of which are still scaringly often heard seventy years later:

  • that they are “all cunning and cruel and wear pigtails, are always inventing tortures and eating rotten eggs and swallows’ nests”
  • that they “all have tiny feet and even now little Chinese girls suffer agonies with bandages designed to prevent their feet developping normally”
  • that “Chinese rivers are full of unwanted babies, thrown in when they are born”

    A surprising insight for 1936.

    Posted by: Mm | December 29, 2007

    July 1st – The Day of Intercultural Lapses

    With all the festive spirit(s) in the air, this seems a good occasion for a proposal of a similar kind. While everything and everybody, including the most bizarre phenomena deserve their own special day in the calendar (my personal favorite being July 26th “All or Nothing Day”), no date is reserved for the brave bunch, the pioneers of intercultural miscommunication. These were people that went somewhere but ended somewhere completely different, that searched for one continent but found another, that thought they were translating texts while they were actually making them up.

    The Day of Intercultural Lapses would be a day to remember this widely criticized but very common situation (an attitude we don’t forgive others for but are very apologetic of when it is us who display it) . It would be an occasion to reflect on the experience of those that entered a dialogue of cultures with high hopes and false presumptions and came out bravely mistaken and misunderstood – and who despite all this continued to get themselves involved in similar situations. A day of Columbuses, Voltaires and Schopenhauers, to name but a few.

    The festive day proposed is a likely candidate, July 1st, the date of a great intercultural nonsense that occurred in 1798. Namely, this was the day when Napoleon Bonaparte during his Egyptian campaign issued the Déclaration du général Bonaparte au peuple égyptien and proclaimed himself – with the obvious worldly ambitions – to be the true Muslim:

    “Peuple de l’Egypte, on vous a dit que je ne suis venu ici que pour détruire votre religion; cela est mensonge; ne le croyez pas; dites à ces diffamateurs que je ne suis venu chez vous que pour arracher vos droits des mains des tyrans et vous les restituer, et que, plus que les mamelouks, j’adore Dieu et respecte Son Prophète et le Coran.”

    So, what do you think?

    Posted by: Mm | December 15, 2007

    The “Oriental” influence on Orientalism

    In Said’s view of the Orientalist discourse, the “experts”, i. e. orientalists are generally portrayed as the creators and manufacturers of the object of their research, the Orient. Whether it is the biblical lands or China, “Orient” was invented as a discursive justification for the relations of hegemony and dominance. In doing so, they often reached for earlier European narrative sources (adventure novels, travelogues …) and copied their patterns of exoticism.

    The phantasm, however inadequate and fictional it might had been, still contained some information on the alleged subject of their research, the Asians and Asia as they were. Even more, in the aspects of narrative sources, they also referred to local literature and written sources. In their attempt to invent the East (as Said claims) they were, as funny as this might sound, incidentally “influenced” by the Asians and their cultural production.

    A great contribution to the rethinking of Said’s notion of Orientalism is being done by a British scholar Robert Irwin, who tries to introduce a much needed nuance in the Saidian claim. In his lecture Oriental Discourses in Orientalism he traces the impact of Asian literature or information on great names of Orientalist tradition and shows, strangely enough, how “Orient” sneakingly influenced Orientalism.

    Posted by: Mm | December 9, 2007

    Lost in translation


    Since then which it is the famous name of the film, this interests ” of translation” that something is; Destroyed; It is always, but, if – this author of blog has the subordinate ulteriorly in the same mark of the time one for is, – of which it is interested for something takes to traverse. Since then that even watches 牵强陔ae¼š with the condition of the conversion of the cultivación of Europe, of that interests them that the shutdowns this
    printing of the conversions of the subsidy and something he are given, of the predetermined rotation luminous of the defect, of that the numbers, integrated fact 10 are not presumptions the copy-primitive one. But of a pagination in the second station of the work: Queest of, of, of which everything is the copy originates them more later?


    The text before babelization:

    As the famous movie title goes, something is always “lost in translation”, but – as the authors of this blog emphasize – something is also gained. As a far-fetched reference to the situation of Sino-European intercultural translations, this tool gives us an impression of what ten not perfect translations and few faulty dictionaries can do to the original text. But then again: what is an original text after all?

    Posted by: Mm | December 6, 2007

    “Asian values” for European interests

    A fashionable topic of “Asian values” has haunted the debate on the universality of human rights since the last decades of the 20th century. Presumably, the “Asians” (whatever this vague term might signify) had different value system than the European cultures. They were supposed to be predisposed to adopt authoritarian leadership (a faraway reference to the concept of “Oriental despotism“), to prefer the well being of the community over the rights and freedoms of an individual and to prefer socio-economic well-being to civil liberties.

    This idea sprung partly as a result of the rapid economic growth of certain Asian economies at the time and as a mirror of fear it repeated many stereotypes of the political and economic paranoia of the late 19th century. These preferences, “Asian values”, were thus again explained on the background of the essential difference between the “East” and the “West”, now prudently renamed “Asia” and “Europe”.

    I was reminded of this topic by a link a colleague sent me the other day. It is an article on the topic by one of the greatest critics of “Asian values” concept, Nobel prize winner, Indian economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen. He criticizes this simplification strongly in a brilliant text Human Rights and Asian Values:

    “To conclude, the so-called Asian values that are invoked to justify authoritarianism are not especially Asian in any significant sense.”

    “There is a great deal that we can learn from studies of values in Asia and Europe, but they do not support or sustain the thesis of a grand dichotomy (or a “clash of civilizations”). Our ideas of political and personal rights have taken their particular form relatively recently, and it is hard to see them as “traditional” commitments of Western cultures.”

    “The recognition of diversity within different cultures is extremely important in the contemporary world, since we are constantly bombarded by oversimple generalizations about “Western civilization,” “Asian values,” “African cultures,” and so on.”

    Posted by: Mm | December 1, 2007

    Confucian Powerpoint, Daoist Pastry

    Since 17th century, profound eternal wisdom, possibly in the condensed form of one or two short lines, was supposed to come from China. French Encyclopedie listed first “Chinese wisdoms” under the entry “Philosophie des Chinois” and ascribed them to Confucius.

    Lots of pseudo-Chinese wisdoms with the introduction “Ancient Chinese wisdom goes…” have been circulating ever since and in the Powerpoint business circles the trend seems to be doing particularly well. the phenomenon a bitter name “executive class linguistic chinoiserie“. Whether it is the infamous “interesting times” wisdom or Tao of Winnie the Pooh, as Victor Mair warns: whenever “Chinese wisdom” is involved, caveat emptor!

    But the real overproduction of the one-line pearls of truth begun in the early 20th century with the invention of the wisdom-generating dessert, the infamous fortune cookie, a pastry that includes a piece of paper with a “genuine” Chinese wisdom to guide your way.

    Far from being either Chinese or wise, these hybrid texts draw from every possible text source, from subway signs to Yi jing, as a fortune cookie text writer tells for The New Yorker magazine. So it is simple: when lack of guidance or wisdom gets to you, look around for a random piece of text, organize it in a 10-word sentence, ascribe it to ancient Chinese, pack it in pastry and here you are. May you have an interesting fortune!

    … could properly be called “news”. The phrase, allegedly coined by Kaiser Wilhelm II. in the last years of 19th century spread over US and Europe as a designation for the danger of the lethal invasion of the Asian population, a fear that marked many irrational excesses in the years to follow.

    I was recently reminded of this infamous heritage (even my grand grand mother was known to warn her friends of the yellow peril – typically enough, in total absence of any Asians) when reading an interesting “boas blog” on anthropology.

    It mentions a collection by Yoshio Kishi about the very topic which was displayed in NYU two years ago. Not really news anymore, of course. However, their internet site is very illustrative, and so is the story of its collector.

    Posted by: Mm | November 26, 2007

    Daoist Buddhism with a German flavour

    It is becoming a commonplace observation that European writers of the early 20th century often resorted to the mystified imagery of the “East”, to the “deep truths” of Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism etc. Interestingly enough, while trying to portray one of these, they often portrayed another, and in this misrepresentation the Indians became Chinese, Hinduism Buddhist and Buddhists became Daoists.

    Lately, I came upon an interesting article by Peter Heinz Herzog, expert on Hermann Hesse, who analyzes the extent and orientation of Hesse’s fascination with the Orient, a topic which was widely discussed in German by Adrian Hsia (Hermann Hesse und China).

    In the article, Herzog makes a good point in showing that Siddharta of Hesse’s book should much more righteously be named Lao Zi:

    Hermann Hesse and China I. Chinese Influence in the Earlier Works
    Hermann Hesse and China II. Chinese Influence in Siddharta

    Posted by: Mm | November 25, 2007

    Saddles, crosses and many more

    Alleged Genghis khan’s saddle, letter by the great khan Güyük to Pope Innocent IV., Nestorian crosses and many other interesting artefacts of the vivid connection between China and Europe in the time of the Mongol Empire can be seen as part of the exhibition Genghis khan and the Mongolian treasures in Ca dei Carraresi in Treviso (Italy) until May 4, 2008.

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