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Enlightenment, Cell, Studio: Beijing, Berlin, and Ai Weiwei

Image courtesy Richard Kraus, University of Oregon

In its typically understated fashion of reasserting totalitarian facts, the Chinese government appears to have arrested the dissident provocateur Ai Weiwei in Beijing.  (Hat tip to Evan Osnos in Beijing for the full story.)

The timing of the arrest is a bit curious.  What serves as a trigger for such an arrest, after all, particularly given that this action seemed to be the work of China’s central government rather than an arbitrary action of local cops?

For me, two things:

1.) Ai Weiwei is building a studio in Berlin, and 2.) the German Foreign Minister just returned a few days ago from a visit to Beijing, where, among other things, he opened a much-celebrated “Art of the Enlightenment” exhibition at China’s newly-rennovated National Museum.

Are the Chinese Communists so paranoid that the “Enlightenment” theme — held in a museum once focused wholly on Party history, no less — prompts internal criticism and necessitates a conciliating step whereby an artist with deep ties to Germany is silenced?  It’s a speculative connection, but so is most of the reporting from Ai Weiwei these days.

Fortunately I am in Berlin this week to present a recital of Soviet and contemporary Chinese Cello Sonatas (and crank out as much book manuscript as possible, and get into some Nazi archives as regards relations with Japan in the 1930 and 40s) and can make a few inquiries into the question of Ai’s studio in the city.

Given the rising consensus on China’s increasingly confident external veneer, and Ai’s high international profile, it seems foolish not to place Ai’s arrest in the matrix of China’s foreign policy, a policy which has an explicitly cultural component.

How can China’s global cultural expansion be considered as viable of study and emulation when the homeland displays such a lack of fundamental freedoms for artists.  Doesn’t China gain much more by leaving Ai alone with his ridiculous Tweets, his children’s backpacks, his furniture salvaging all rumbling out the pedal tone of a harmonious society?

Or is harmony a synonym for silence?

Looking for truth in Party slogans is a fool’s game, but then again, the artist produces slogans, too, of a counter type.  “Im gegenteil…” A thesis which goes uninterrogated by a counterthesis emerges as weaker thereby, unforged, a tepid strength which can only be compensated for with quick bursts of arbitrary force.

Is China ever going to emerge beyond a situation whereby arbitrary exercise of state power is no longer a defining characteristic of the state?  Is it possible for a one-party system to maintain a legal system whereby one knows clearly when one is following the law and when one is breaking it?  Can’t China keep its Legalist, Qin-dynasty model of judgment and open punishments while ridding itself of the arbitrary and paranoid Stalinist elements?

Is paranoia a desirable cultural trait?  Perhaps China’s Public Security Bureau could use its vastly augmented budget (eat your heart out, “Department of Homeland Security”/Vaterland Staatssicherheitsdienst!) in order to host a series of seminars abroad, using foreign Confucius Institutes to explain to all the doubting foreigners why Ai Weiwei, in combination with a few hundred million mobile workers, several million prostitutes, gangs in Heilongjiang, a horde of hungry North Korean refugees, gangs of qi-gong prone grannies in Shandong, and whole swaths of nomadic/Islamic religious and ethnic minorities are in such dire need of a strong and paternal steel hand.  Take a lesson from your predecessors in the business, China: Justify the truncheon and it shall be celebrated.  Succeed in demonizing and defining the decadent foe and its elimination shall be tolerated.  But your Othering is miserable, lacking the strength to expel totally what you yourself have helped to absorb and recreate.

Veering back to analysis: It would be a little shocking if there weren’t someone in the Central Committee who thought it might be a good time to remind the Germans that no one in China’s government gives a damn when Germany makes waves about human rights issues.  In other words, the CCP tells Berlin, we can cooperate economically (China is Germany’s #2 trade partner, second to the U.S.) while you give us as much green technology transfer as you can, but your protestations relating to Tibet, human rights, freedom of speech, etc., are not only futile but counterproductive.

As in the case of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize ceremony, where Beijing made everyone crassly uncomfortable about attending and strong armed some smaller countries like Afghanistan into skipping the ceremony, the CCP will today use its punishment of an intellectual figure to reinforce its imperviousness to foreign critique.  For the CCP, the desired corollary of the arrest is the renewed wave of foreign opprobrium, which, after the facts of the matter are sufficiently spread via oral rumor, acknowledged and redigested by such leading organs as the Huanqiu Shibao, can then be fed into the nationalistic echo chamber of the Chinese internet, thus reminding the lobotomized-of-Locke (John, not Gary) netizens that external criticism of China’s path forward is just unfair.

So expect another predictable cycle to begin.  Perhaps that was the goal in any case.

Relevant Links and Sources

This recent Frontline documentary, “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?”

The United States government, which announced a “return to Asia” in October 2010, has yet to comment on Ai Weiwei detention.  You can, however, get a quick overview (via both text and video) of U.S.-East Asia policy via this short testimony summary by Kurt Campbell at the State Department.

Although the author of The Party and the Arty does not seem to be a blogger, Richard Kraus‘ writing on matters relating to the specific cultural borrowing by and the specific political nature of the CCP is highly recommended.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s short statement on Ai Weiwei’s detention.  Is it possible that China wants to put so much egg on this man’s face that he, already embattled domestically, just gives up?  But as we already know, weak and embattled Parties will sometimes do desperate things.


My friend and colleague Paul Manfredi, who has written quite a lot about Ai Weiwei on the bookmark-worthy blog China Avant-Garde, gets the last word in a prescient December 2010 essay:

…on balance, I’d say we’re approaching the point when Ai Weiwei transitions from artist to activist.  Of course, the zero-sum, or mutually exclusive implication of that sentence is questionable—how many the venerable artist-activists in human history, and how many of them in China.  Indeed, the literati figure, well schooled in classics and fully imbued with a “art for society’s sake” 文以載道 mentality, is by definition (or at least by some definition) a social activist.  Yet, in the contemporary Chinese setting, the artist, particularly one as globally inflected as Ai, often curtails his or her ability to connect with a constituency.  I don’t mean just a Chinese constituency (which is commonly the argument against their legitimacy), but ANY constituency.  This is because by and large in the Euramerican West what Ai “means” is thorn in side of the Chinese government regardless (indeed, without “regard”) of his actual works.  In this case his status as activist amounts to a kind of barrier, obscuring his works from engagement or even the visibility they often deserve.

Of course, less than “curtailing” this can certainly be more a suspension of Ai’s contribution to the world of art per se.  He no doubt knows what he’s doing, and exchanging hats (because wearing these two simultaneously does not work) is certainly his prerogative. I just find myself wondering how much good (call it “better”) work might otherwise appear if Ai were to shift activities from politics back to making art.

Successful Musical Diplomacy

One area of research competence and interest for me involves musical diplomacy, particularly as it has effected the US-China bilateral relationship.  I spoke about the topic at this State Department conference in 2006 where I met Christopher Hill and got in his ear (and those of other State officials including Asst. Secretary of State for East Asia Tom Christensen) about using music as a channel with the North Koreans.  It took about 18 months for the North Koreans to welcome the New York Philharmonic after these conversations.

More stuff is in the works along these lines pairing my work on US-China relations in the 1970s with ongoing interests in North Korean music (including its educational uses as well as for military mobilization and function within North Korean-Chinese relations).

Today I was somehow gifted with the concurrence of three things, and strangely so: the deadline for resubmission of a revised article to Acta Koreana on musical diplomacy and North Korea, my Cleveland Institute of Music alumni magazine (with a profile of model composer, educational thinker, and eurhythmics proponent Ernst Bloch, no less), and a completely random e-mail from the Juilliard School in New York.

It appears that Juilliard will be cashing in on some earlier contacts with Chinese music administrators and going for broke with an unabashedly pro-China extravaganza this fall.  When the New York Philharmonic has gone native, hiring a (Japanese-heritage) American music director for the first time in forever, what’s a conservatory to do?  Go the the well, that’s what!

The thing I love about this is the normalcy of it all.  Kurt Sassmannshaus and Cincinnati Conservatory have their festival every year in Beijing, Chinese music is more and more prevalent in this country, and exchanges happen every single day.

It seems that Beethoven beats Mao.

Would that thirty years from now, Pyongyang students are working their tails off in Juilliard, and that Cleveland Institute of Music faculty (and alumni) can go to the old Kim Il Sung University, or the Fine Arts department at Kim Chaek, to give more masterclasses or learn something new about pan’sori, and that we can all hear Shostakovich in Sinuiju.

Until then here is the press release from Juilliard.  Note the language of ancient diplomacy whereby we, the barbarians, pay homage to the greatness of the kingdom in question.  Because I can’t help myself, I will make little descriptive comments in brackets:

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices, a festival celebrating [ancient and mysterious] Chinese culture, presented by [the ghost of Isaac Stern] Carnegie Hall.  The concert takes place in [gorgeously decadent and autumnal] New York City from October 21 – November 10. The festival [and I could not make this up] pays tribute to China’s [happy, shining minorities including Tibetans with refrigerators full of beer] diverse and vibrant [mass line] culture and its [soft power and Confucius Institutes] influence around the [otherwise budget-cutting] world with 21 days of events [which will certainly not correspond to any major earthquakes, anti-CNN campaigns, Dalai Lama visits to anywhere, or upsurges of Chinese nationalism]. As [supplicant] partner, Juilliard presents an all-[Qin Shihuang] Tan Dun [HOLY SHIT] program on Monday, October 26 at 7:30 PM in [that renovated yet still poor substitute for “The Egg” in Beijing,] Alice Tully Hall.  The [half-Korean] Juilliard Orchestra [who would be NY Phil members but for the fact that none of the unionized dead wood will retire] will be conducted by the [bald and dashing] composer [as he sweats like James Levine into a Chinese tunic, hands bereft of baton or any discernible ictus].  The program features [giant Chinese drums and] the world premiere of Tan Dun’s [Giant Gong and] Violin Concerto with [treble-clef fluent yet red-faced-and-puffing-and-strangely-unable-to-just-let-his-arm-weight-pull-on-the-string-thus-resulting-in-a-pressed-tone-in-spite-of his-gorgeous-Strad-which-is-owned-by-HSBC] soloist and Juilliard faculty member and [debtor] alumnus, Cho-Liang Lin [whose familial relations with the mainland will not be described here]. Chamber works by [the incredible Oriental mystic] Tan Dun – Concerto for Six [Giant Drums], [mysterious and Chinese] Secret Land [with program notes about bamboo forests which will surely evoke flying kung fu artists] for orchestra and 12 cellos [Holy Bacchianas Brasiliaras!], and Silk Road [no! snap! he didn’t just do that!]- complete the October [dear God we are all going to be ruled by Xi Jinping soon] 26 program. FREE tickets are available [and will no doubt be scalped by someone named “Jimmy”] two weeks [in the mad and disorganized scramble] before the event [outside a certain fragrant restaurant].

On [the very auspiciously-numbered day which portends great wealth for all participants]  October 28 at 8 PM [after the initial proposal for a April 4 at 4 p.m. was declined as a portent of mass carnage], Carnegie Hall [longing for the body of David Robertson instead] presents [the resurrection of Leonard Bernstein] conductor [educator, and self-admitted spotlight hog who nevertheless plays in Florida with conservatory graduates who, but for their non-union contracts with the New World Symphony and occasional Pops run-outs to Miami golf courses, would be eating Ramen noodles in a frigid 1993 Nissan Sentra on their way to a $70 gig in Erie, Pa.] Michael Tilson Thomas [of San Francisco] leading the [almost-professional yet undeniably tuition-paying] Juilliard [half-Korean] Orchestra with guest [northeastern Chinese 东北人/活雷锋/你干啥呀] artist pianist Lang Lang [and his humble erhu-playing father who shockingly once applied pressure to his only son] in the world premiere [not including the dress rehearsal for a few select donors, a serious-looking-graduate student with a score, and the Chinese consul general] of a new work for [Lang Lang’s profile and] piano and orchestra by Chen Qigang; Lou Harrison’s Pacifika Rondo; Chinese works for solo piano [e.g., whatever the hell Lang Lang wants to play off the top of his big head] ; and Gustav Mahler’s [hallucination/fin de siecle Viennese pastiche on T’ang poetry] Das Lied von der Erde [Song of the Orc] with soprano Anne Sofie von Otter [who is unknown to me but obviously from Otter, and Teutonic, and thus must possess qualities of Gretchen, and who will radiate great healing beams of tone outward so powerful as to be rested upon by the id of a thousand aging and nostalgic males as a temporary personification of the perfect ewige Weibliche while she suffers the submerged wrath of said men’s spouses as a perfidious Alma Mahler who will no doubt come up in the shawling aftermath of chit-chat, but at no point will anyone imagine her to be a willowy Chinese lass as imagined by T’ang poets whose translations she has studied] and tenor Gregory Kunde [who wishes he could be doing Siegfried at the Met as Seattle turned him down last year and he had to settle for this gig with a student orchestra who themselves might rather be eating hotpot in Seoul’s Samcheongdong but at least they are not unionized and just gazing at the clock which is kind of endearing anyway]. Chen Qigang recently directed the [totally communist and totalitarian/very inspiring and patriotic] music program for the opening [rite] ceremony of the 2008 [eternal] Beijing [Berlin] Olympics.

See you there?

April 2009 Seattle apartment

Seattle, Chinatown, 2009

Chinese Cellists rehearsing Mendelssohn Octet (the same piece played by NY Phil/NK student quartet in Pyongyang Feb 2008) at Great Wall Music Festival, Beijing, 2009 (thanks to Fang Fang Li and Kurt Sassmannshaus)

Cellists rehearsing Mendelssohn Octet (the same piece played by NY Phil/NK student quartet in Pyongyang Feb 2008) at Great Wall Music Festival, Beijing, 2009 (thanks to Fang Fang Li and Kurt Sassmannshaus -- please contact if there are any issues with me using this image on my site!)


Pyongyang -- Imagine this sunrise to the opening of Shostakovich's 8th Symphony and a key will turn