My parents just got back from a business trip to Beijing. They have been to China before, but it was interesting to hear of their experience in the city, and how much it has changed since I was there in the early 1990s.
Development, haze, traffic -- these things have been noted by others and I see no reason to repeat it here. But I will talk about a few observations and encounters they had in the Chinese capital:
Han Meilin: My mother is an artist, and through a contact in China, met Han Meilin (韩美林) at his five-story studio in Beijing last week. This man is an incredibly prolific artist, with an interesting history. Han suffered greatly in the past -- he was tortured during the Cultural Revolution -- he showed my parents the scars where his tendons had been cut, rendering his thumbs inoperable (later repaired with surgery). Now, he is the artist China's public and corporate leaders turn to. He designed the phoenix logo that appears on the tail of Air China aircraft, and, as we will soon see, Olympic-related art for the all-important 2008 activities in Beijing.
Han practices in multiple mediums, ranging from traditional calligraphy to worked metal sculpture. Samples of his painting, calligraphy, and sculpture are here. Han and his crew even make incredibly ornate furniture. And they also designed the cartoonish Olympic mascots for the 2008 games in Beijing.
Their names are Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying, Ni Ni, which, if you remove the duplicate syllables, is a homonym for "Beijing Welcomes You" (北京歡迎您). Han mentioned to my mother that he was working on this project at the time of their visit, and said there were two potential sets of designs, but absolutely would not show them to her, as the unveiling was just a few days away. There apparently has been some controversy about them, as noted here. But what was so incredible to me was the fact that Han can shift from traditional Chinese art to modern sculpture to pop culture so easily. I remarked to my wife that it was as if Rembrant started dabbling in Cubism, and then designed Hello Kitty on commission. He gave a signed book of his work to my parents; his pottery glazes, calligraphy, and certain sculpture are absolutely incredible. I don't think I'll be buying commemorative Olympic dolls, however.
Tiananmen protest: My parents experienced a weird, one-man demonstration in Tiananmen last week. They were there with a small group of Americans and a tour guide when a "well-dressed, handsome man" started shouting something about 10 feet away. Immediately a plainclothes security officer tried to get him to shut up, but he wouldn't. Six more men came over and hustled him away. The tour guide was freaked out by this, and when asked by the Americans, said the protester had been shouting something like "Down with Communism." No way to verify the exact words, or if the man had deliberately made his protest while foreigners were nearby.
Beijing Opera: One night, my parents' hosts took them to see Beijing Opera. The production was very fine, and in a giant hall that could hold many hundreds of people. But only 20 people were there, including my parents. Most of the Chinese were bored, said my parents. It doesn't surprise me -- when I lived in Taiwan, the only people I ever saw watching Taiwanese opera or even live Taiwanese opera puppets (布袋戲) were people over the age of 60. My father-in-law loves Beijing and Sichuan opera, but he is 80 years old, and was schooled in the traditional way (Chinese classics) and brought up on traditional opera.
Meanwhile, Pavarotti is coming to China at the end of this year, and I've heard the Beijing show is sold out. I doubt a reverse situation will occur in the West; traditional Chinese opera is, frankly, very screechy and hard to appreciate musically.