Nothing like a woman skinning a rabbit...

I've gotten a few more hikes in, and had a pretty lively night on the town, all of which would be interesting to blog about, but I realize that I haven't talked much about classes, which may leave you all with the impression that I'm not studying that hard. Well, I assure you all, and Uncle Sam too, who generously supported this trip, that there is indeed a whole lot of learning going on, though, as you are about to see, some of that learning is pretty fun, too.

Having no shortage of language teaching experience, I can be pretty critical of language teachers, but I have to say that the teacher I've had here at NTNU's (National Taiwan Normal University) Mandarin Training Center has been top-notch. She keeps things structured, sets a good pace, and makes sure that our assignments are truly relevant and appropriate to our needs. So far quite good, but she also posseses the rarer skill of knowing, and responding to, the mood of the classroom, and when the last-hour blahs set in, she can get us back in the game with a lively discussion. Thus in the midst of our unit on changing family values in contemporary Taiwan, we embarked on a discussion of dating practices in our various countries of origin, which then became a discussion of the latest outrageous dating shows. I'm not sure if this will be a relief to you all, or a cause for dismay, but the degeneration of television into an repugnant mixture of reality show voyeurism and talk-show sleaze is already a global phenomenon.

My Japanese classmates reported on the "Love Bus" show, which apparently aims to have something for everyone. 7 single men and 7 single women started out on a bus with a camera crew 5 years ago, and since then the bus has visited every inhabited continent and produced 80-something happy couples. Once you are selected to be on the show, there are only two ways off of the bus: 1. You fall in love with one of your counterparts and leave together, or 2. you get voted off by the opposite sex because they've judged you unworthy and want you replaced with someone else that might have more partner-potential. Part travel show, part reality show, part dating game. The setup gaurantees a steady level of angst and infighting. Do you hold out for the next round and see what new options arrive, or shack up with the best of the current lot? When the one you like gets voted off do you seek revenge and conspire to vote off someone else's sweetie?

As intriguing as I found the "Love Bus" concept, I'm afraid that the Russians outdo it with their own unique hybrid: dating and survival. The lucky contestants are stranded in remote tract of Russian wilderness and get to shop around for romantic fulfillment while pitching their huts and scavenging for sustenance. There is a certain romantic appeal to dating in the great outdoors, but it simply can't hold up once everyone has acquired a 3-month cake of dirt. Just ask yourself, how alluring would your partner look while gutting a rabbit without a knife? I never did get the mechanics of the show because class ended in the midst of my classmate Andrei's description, though he was very clear on the fact that the shows main appeal is watching nature operate as the great equalizer. The model-perfect good looks of the participants are slowly eroded by the elements, until the point that the hoots and hollers that might accompany bold gestures of romance on other dating shows are transformed into squeels of disgust. Obviously, we'd all have to see it to know exactly how far they let their looks go, but Andrei's pantomimed mask of horror and shudder seem to indicate that it gets pretty bad.

Those two were the standouts. There you have it. The global race to the bottom will be televised. We've come quite a way since the last blog about forms of Chinese opera. Yet, even the most refined forms of Chinese opera had their critics in their day. The open depictions of romantic feelings were a bit too much for many Confucians. Who's to say that todays reality shows won't one day be regarded as national treasures, paradigms to be studied and imitated?

OK, I don't believe that for a second.


Opera minus the viking helmets and pigtails

As promised I took in some opera last weekend. Well, more than some. Two performances and one rehearsal's worth, encompassing two disctinct opera traditions: the more familiar Beijing variety, and the older Kunqu style, purported to be the mother of all forms of Chinese opera.

In case you're now wondering exactly how many forms of Chinese opera there are, I'll tell you now that I don't really know, but it seems that nearly every major dialect group in China has their own style, so there must be quite a few. I've listened to CDs that showcase twelve or so different forms.

But Beijing Opera is the best known outside of China, and that is how I started my weekend, attending the Saturday morning reahersal of an amateur musical group. In this style, the music is driven by drums, gongs and cymbals, but the percussion isn't incessant, rather percussion sections act as punctuation between bits of singing accompanied by two fiddle-like instruments (erhu) and a round and flat plucked instrument like a banjo with a wooden face (yueqin). Even as a world music afficianado, I have to admit that Beijing opera, with it's shrill timbre and use of harsh metallic percussion, has taken me a long time to develop an appreciation for. Something finally sunk in at this rehearsal, which I had never noticed before, namely that the cymbals and wood block drums each have two tones. Thus the clash and clatter of the percussive sections began to take form for me as a dialogue of sounds. Just like the drumming in a rock group is largely a matter of play between the contrasting tones of the snare and the bass drums, so chinese opera percussion plays with two cymbal crashes, and two different pitches of wooden clapper type sounds. With music, just as with language, the ear really does take time to develop a sensitivity to the logic and feel of a new culture.

The rehearsal was just music, but, of course, the point of Beijing opera is that it is a performance that combines music, singing, acrobatics, dance and dialogue, and that is what I took in Saturday night at the Taipei Eye. This venue is half theater and half living museum. As you enter you get to watch the performers as they apply their make-up in the lobby, accompanied by the musicians as they warm-up. During intermissions and after the show the performers chat with the audience and will pose for pictures.

While Beijing opera is something of a dying art, it retains a foothold in Taiwan due to a significant level of government sponsorship. Those familiar with the politics of the Taiwan straits will understand why the Kuomindang, or nationalist party, made a point of cultivating the quinttessential Chinese performance art form after their relocation to Taiwan. Now that the Kuomindang is no longer the sole voice in Taiwanese politics, and the new voices of the younger generation assert their Taiwanese identity in opposition to the Chinese identity imposed by the Kuomindang, the status of government funding for preserving Chinese heritage may come into question. But for now, new generations of actors and musicians are being trained, and were even exported to the mainland during the period after the Cultural Revolution when native lineages of opera-masters had been cut-off.*

Well enough about politics. On to the performance, which was fantastic! Kudos to the venue for supplying the orignal text and both English and Japanese translations on screens adjacent to the stage. The performance was a section of the opera version of The Journey to the West, which is one of the major classics in Chinese fiction. It's an allegorical tale of Buddhist enlightenment, following a monk as he travels from China to India to collect and translate Buddhist sutras. Along the way he picks of some magical animal guardians (very Joseph Campbell) who become his disciples on the Buddhist path. The most famous of these guardians is the mischievious and nearly invincible Monkey King. This character is the favourite of generations of Chinese readers, and truly comes to life on the Beijing opera stage. In the segment I viewed, he has to save the monk from a spider spirit and her minions. The level of acrobatic skill that these actors and actresses possess is beyond astounding. Backflips, front flips, hand springs and cartwheels become ho-hum after the first three minutes. The audience saves its oohs and ahs for things like double flips that land in the splits. The biggest crowd pleaser was a fight scene in which the actress playing the spider spirit leapt into the air and unleashed a double kick, neatly knocking two thrown spears out of the air into the hands of her minions. She did this about 10 times in a row, and only once did a minion even have to take a step to the side to receive her pass. The Monkey King prevails in the end, of course, but I think the spider spirit won the hearts of the audience by a slight margin.

In contrast, Sunday afternoon's viewing of Kunqu opera was very tame, though the setting was for more authentic than the targeted-for-tourists performance at Taipei Eye. Kunqu is considered the most refined of all opera forms, and the music will quickly capture the hearts of most listeners. Yes, the singing is quite shrill, but highly melodic and expressive. The real allures of Kunqu, however, are the romance, lush costumes, and the poetry of the lyrics. This performance, true to the roots of the form, took place in a tea house setting. Given the slow pace of Kunqu, it is best to enjoy it with refreshments and company. Quite talking during the performance is acceptable, though everyone comes to attention for the best passages, and for the climax. Fortunately, some of my acquaintances from Saturday's rehearsal were there to offer some polite conversation. Another stroke of good fortune was that this opera was based on a famous historical tale that has been recreated in countless literary forms, the tale of Yang Gui Fei. The plot follows the love affair of an Emperor and his favorite concubine, Yang Gui Fei, until her execution at the hands of some soldiers in revolt. Knowing the plot ahead of time is key, because Kunqu is sung in an archaic dialect, and even with the text projected on a screen, modern audiences have trouble with some of the characters. Obviously, the challenge is multiplied for us non-Chinese, and this time there was no translation. Still, it was very enjoyable, and in the passages that I could make sense of, the poetry of the language was quite evident. If you can get your hands on a documentary film about Kunqu, or video of a performance with subtititles, I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a feel for the acme of refinement in Chinese performance. For those who need a little more kick in their entertainment, a video of Beijing opera might be the thing. Of course, if musical theater has never been your thing, the brief intro I've provided here is probably all you need, if you happen to have even made it this far, that is.

Well, that's it for the big opera weekend. I think next weekend involves more hiking, but I'll have to check with my activities coordinator to be sure. Classes continue as usual, and my only regret is that I don't have more time to keep learning this thorny language. Only 3 more weeks in Taiwan, then I'm off to mainland to see Lianting. She promises to keep my language skills sharp once classes end, but I do like the feeling of progress that one gets from this intensive study format.

* Upon further investigation, it turns out that the real opera professionals are not in Taiwan, but still hanging out on the mainland, despite the cultural revolution. The Taiwanese did play an important role in revitalizing many Chinese art forms by acting as patrons for mainland masters who were at best ignored, and at worst reviled, during the cultural revolution. Many were paid to come to Taiwan to perform and teach, which allowed them to financial freedom to continue to practice and promote their art back home. Thus, the oft-heard myth that opera masters in Taiwan saved opera on the mainland is false, but probably emerged as a misunderstanding of the more complex relationship between artistic production and patronage.


Taiwan Surf Report

Yes, I went surfing last weekend. Rented a long board and totally destroyed some knee-high sets. Thrilling.

It was more of a cultural experience, I suppose. Unlike America, where it seems that one either is a surfer, or isn't, here there are a lot of folks who rent boards and goof around just because it's something to do at the beach. And when I say alot, I mean that in the Chinese sense of the word. A middle-school English teacher once told me that there are 3 basic plots in all of literature: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature and... what was the third? In any case, surfing in America is a man vs. nature sort of thing, while here it is man vs. man.

Not that anyone is violent, or even heavily competitive. It is just the sheer density of humanity afloat in the water that makes riding a wave feel like you're trying to wriggle your way to the source of an underground stream.

I was taken to the beach by a nice fellow named Jason, who I met under highly coincidental circumstances. He and his brother run a surf-theme restaurant in Taipei which I stumbled upon after getting off a bus at the wrong stop. These friendly guys were eager to help out a fellow surfer from across the globe, and tossed plenty of bar snacks and beers at me as we planned a trip to the coast.

While the waves were not impressive, the brothers assured me that there would be better to come, at least waist high. They also assured me that the crowds of rental-board newbies thins out considerably as wave height increases. If I don't see any bigger surf up here near Taipei, I will take a few days at the end of my trip to head south, where the waves are more consistent this time of year. Just like California, Taiwan gets its summer swells from the south.

This weekend I don't think I will try to surf again, as I caught a little cold and want to fully recover. However I do plan to catch a performance of Kunqu opera, which is like Beijing Opera buy older and less shrill. One of the main singers is actually a teacher at my school! I am very much looking forward to it though I fear I will not understand much of the archaic language. Let's hope that at least basic plot comes together for me.

Weekend Go!

Teapot Mountain

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

That's the name of the hiking club that took me up Chahu Shan (Tea Pot Mountain) the weekend before last. My prediction of 2 liters of water turned out to be right! What I wasn't prepared for is how much you need sugars and salts when you sweat so much. I though I was dying till someone shared some sweet hibiscus tea with me and brought me back to life (for Mom: the thing about dying was just a figure of speech). Other essential hiking food: Tea Eggs! That is hard boiled eggs that are cracked then soaked in salty tea. Wierd and good, full of protein, and easily purchased last minute at the 7-11. And finally, don't forget a towel. Yes, just as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy advises, towels come in handy in all sorts of situations. When hiking in Taiwan, a small hand towel is useful for mopping sweat off the brow, and for soaking in a cool stream and draping over the neck.

For obscure movie buffs: Chahu mountain is just a few miles from the town of Jiufen where they filmed City of Sadness (dir: Hou Hsiao Hsian). The teashop known as Little Shanghai in the film still exists. Though the narrow paths that make up the old town are still there, they are so festooned with snack stalls and the requisite flashy signage that the effect is spoiled. The snacks, however, are of deservedly high repute, and the views of the mountains and ocean that can be had from the tea shops is spectacular. Those willing to hike, however, will see better outside of town.
Just one of the spectacular views that reward hikers outside of Jiufen.

Last weekend I visited central Taiwan and visited two old friends, Larry in Taichung and Amber at Sun Moon Lake. Don't let the names fool you, they are both 100% Tawainese; they just take English names in the fashion of many young folks around here. Larry's family put me up and fed me and then we checked out another old town with snakey lanes: the infamous Lugang (Deer Harbour). They say you should be wary of ghosts when visiting but I think that has more to do with the way the crooked lanes channel the winds and block the sun to create odd little cool spots here and there. This place deserves its reputation, and has done a good job restricting the whirling neon signage to areas outside of the historic district.

Temple in Lugang's historic district.

Larry plays Vanna White at another old temple in Lugang.

Sun Moon Lake has seen some development since I saw it last. This is the place that I hung out most weekends during the year that I lived in Central Taiwan. I didn't do much touristy stuff this time, as I had done most of it already. Instead I dined on excellent Lasagna and lattes courtesy of Amber, my close friend and proprietress of February Cafe. We did a lot of catching up, exclusively in Chinese, and I was just as pleased with the success of February Coffee as with the fact that my Chinese was enough me to keep me abreast of the all the good news. Taiwan and China are still debating how to operated direct flights between the two, but when it is all worked out, Sun Moon Lake will be the major destination for tourists from the mainland, and Amber and her family will do even better business than they have now. Congrats to them!

This is the same picture I take every time I come to Sun Moon Lake!

Amber demonstrating her expertise with caffeinated beverages.

Back in Taipei now for more Chinese classes. I am loving learning tons everyday, and happy to be finally living my little dream of being a full-time language student in Taiwan!

The good photos are courtesy of WeekendGo hikers. The bad ones are courtesy of me and my disposable camera. Amber photo courtesy of Amber.