A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Shhh! It's secret!

Who says women can’t keep a secret?

Long, long ago, in a country far, far away, women were not allowed to be literate.  So what, you say.  That could be anywhere in the world if it was long, long ago.  True, but the place I am talking about is China from the fourteenth or fifteenth century to the early twentieth century, roughly what is considered the feudal era of Chinese history.

Items with the Nüshu script.
Image courtesy of Life Magazine.

In the Yongming river region of Jiangyong County (Hunan province) women developed a secret script that was passed down to younger women.  Much of what has been written about this script, called Nüshu, is that it was a secret language.  This is not true.  It was not a language, but a writing system used for the local language that both men and women spoke.  There were strict rules about never using it front of men or revealing its existence to them.

Yellow figure marks the area within Hunan Province where Nüshu was used.
Map courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was customary in some areas at the time of the development of Nüshu to bind the feet of young girls from the age of seven until they were married off at age seventeen.  Those ten years amounted to imprisonment, and the girls were now hobbled and illiterate.  Their mothers would find similar girls and form groups called “sworn sisters”.  They would be taught Nüshu, write diaries, and prepare books for each other called three-day wedding books.  These would be given to a bride three days after her  marriage when she had moved to another village, and she could read the messages of hope from her sworn sisters.

Besides diaries and three-day wedding books, typical writings included folk songs, tales, and monody.  Sometimes the characters were disguised as decorative marks or artwork.  Poems and lyrics were often handwoven into belts and straps, or embroidered onto clothing, fans, handkerchiefs and other everyday items.  Women had their Nüshu items burned at their gravesites as a necessity for secrecy and as a symbolic rite.

Photo courtesy of Kaleidoscope/Cultural China

But actually the writing system wasn’t so secret.  Men knew about it but ignored it as being beneath them, and made fun of it.  Scholars are doing as much research as they can about it, but it is difficult as there are no accounts in historical records or local annals, no inscriptions, and it’s not in any genealogies.  The last woman who was proficient in it died in 2004 at the age of 98.  Yang Huangyi spent three years with seven sworn sisters, even though she was not one of them, to learn the language, and became the only surviving writer when the last sister died in the late 1990s.  She was totally illiterate in standard Chinese.  Because of this her writing in Nüshu was considered more definitive and original since it wasn’t affected by standard Chinese.

Yang Huangyi.
Photo courtesy of Lisa See.
During the Japanese takeover of China in the 1940s Nüshu was surpressed in fear of it being used for espionage or sending encoded messages.  During China’s cultural revolution (1966 – 1976) the Red Guard collected and destroyed Nüshu artifacts.  Since women were now being educated there was no need for it and it started to fade away.  It wasn’t until 1983 that outside scholars became aware of it, and it has received keen attention from linguists and anthropologists alike.

Nüshu characters are light and wispy, a stark contrast to standard Chinese characters.  The script is read from top to bottom, or horizontally from right to left like traditional Chinese.  It is a phonetic script, whereas standard Chinese is logographic, each character representing a word or part of a word.

When Nüshu items were systematically destroyed, a subculture was destroyed as well, including the idea of sworn sisters.  But the current generation of women is still benefiting in a sense from Nüshu.  It has become a tourist attraction, and one which the government is avidly supporting.  Items are being made for the tourist trade, a museum constructed, and a school was founded in Puwei where the language is being taught.  Women are often making more money in this new industry than men can make from more traditional modes of employment. Unfortunately, the purity of the writing system is being degraded as some characters are being redesigned to be more artsy, and competency in Nüshu is not necessarily a prerequisite to be involved in the industry.

Photo courtesy of Kaleidoscope/Cultural China

But time marches on, and Nüshu goes on, once serving women's needs, now providing financial renumeration and a glimpse of a particular rural history.  A case of the word being mightier than the sword.

Author Lisa See's novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan features Nüshu 
and is the story of two young girls growing up in feudal China.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Kung Hei Fat Choi! Xin Nian Kuai Le!

In English, that is equivalent to "Happy New Year!"

Image courtesy of www.koreanpress.com.

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year (the Year of the Rabbit), also known as the Spring Festival.  It begins on the first day of the first month of the Chinese traditional calendar, and ends on the fifteenth day with the Lantern Festival.  It is the longest and most important celebration in the Chinese calendar, and one that is centuries old.  The dates are consistent when determined by the Chinese calendar, which is lunisolar - a calendar whose date indicates the time of the solar year and the moon phase.  In the Gregorian calendar the event falls on different dates each year, between January 21 and February 20.

It's silly to try and assign customs and traditions to an ethnic or cultural group and think that they apply to everyone in it.  In any group there will be a wide variance by region.  This is no less true with Chinese New Year.  There are some commonalities, however, that can be found all over China and the Chinese communities all over the world.

New year items for sale at a Chinese  market.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the legends regarding the beginning of Chinese New Year is that it began with a mythical beast called the Nian.  It would come on the first day of the new year and devour everything; it especially liked children.  People began to put food out in front of their doors, hoping the Nian would eat it and leave.  One day the Nian saw a child wearing red and it ran off, so the villagers learned that it was afraid of the color red.  So now every new year red lanterns, red scrolls, and red coverings on windows and doors are hung.  Firecrackers are also used to scare the Nian away.  The Nian was eventually captured by a Taoist monk who used it as a vehicle.

Red is the predominant color and is associated with virtue, truth, and sincerity. The word for red in Chinese is also the word for prosperous, making red an auspicious color with an auspicious sound.  Fireworks, invented by the Chinese, are an old custom.  They are banned for private use in many areas though, because of the injuries that have occurred.  Municipalities often put on a public fireworks show.

Fireworks in Sydney Harbor, Australia.
Image courtesy of  www.mymym.com.

On the day before the celebration starts, people thoroughly clean their homes.  Bad luck is swept out to make room for good luck.  Doors and windows are sometimes given a fresh coat of red paint.  Family altars are cleaned, and the decorations put up the year before are burned and new ones added.  Banners are hung stating "happiness", "wealth", "longevity" and other positive affirmations.  In addition, people buy new clothing, shoes, and get haircuts in order to make a new start.  The day before is also a big cooking day.  Food is prepared for a big family dinner that night, and the food for the following day is prepared, as it is bad luck to make fires or use knives on the first day.

Image courtesy of The Baltimore Sun.

During the two weeks of the festival the emphasis is on family and honoring the gods and the ancestors.  Every day has its prescribed activities.  A lion dance troop may be invited to scare bad spirits.  It is traditional to give gifts, usually food or sweets, to friends or relatives of different households.  Oranges, cakes, biscuits, or chocolate would be a typical gift.  Married members of the family give out red envelopes containing money to kids and teens.  The amounts can range from a couple dollars to hundreds, but are always even numbers (uneven amounts are given at funerals).  Odd and even numbers are determined by the first number, hence 10, 30, or 50 would be odd numbers.  Bosses give bonuses in red envelopes to their employees.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Near the end of the celebration, on the thirteenth day, people eat vegetarian food to clean out their systems from eating too much rich food the past two weeks.  On this day, organizations and businesses honor the Chinese god of war, General Guan Yu.  Because he won so many battles, he is considered a symbol of wealth and success.  On the fifteenth day, the Lantern Festival signals the end of the festivities; families walk the streets carrying lit lanterns to guide wayward spirits home.

This chart shows the twelve animals of the Chinese calendar.  Although they represent individuals born during their respective cycles, they are not the same as astrological signs.  Chinese astrology, like Western, is complex.  Western astrology uses one's sun sign as only part of a person's character - the moon sign, rising sign, and positions of houses are also some of the things considered when casting someone's horoscope.  Likewise, Chinese astrology - which does not calculate the positions of the sun, moon and planets - uses the five elements (metal, wood, water, earth, and fire), inner animals and secret animals, Yin and Yang, and other considerations.

Today begins the Year of the Rabbit.  May your new year be prosperous!


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Rodent Arises...

Punxsutawney Phil from Gobbler's Knob.
Image courtesy of Groundhog Org.

Today is Groundhog Day.  It is customary in the U.S. to wait for and watch a groundhog poke its head out of its burrow to check out the weather.  If he sees his shadow, then we can expect six more weeks of winter.  If not, then we will have an early spring.

The groundhog is not a hog.  It's formal name is Marmota Monax, and it is a rodent of the family Sciuridae, basically just a large ground squirrel.  It is also known as a marmot or a woodchuck.  Woodchucks do not chuck wood, despite the tongue-twister.  Since they burrow, they don't have anything to do with trees.

The groundhog is a rodent belonging to the family of large ground squirrels.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

"Woodchuck" is a word we borrowed from the Algonquian language, "wuchak", along with chipmunk, raccoon, opossom, moose, caribou, and squash.  Various tribes of the north and east parts of the U.S. spoke dialects of Algonquian, including the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Mohican, Powhatan, and Ojibwa, among others.

The U.S. custom began with the Pennsylvania Germans in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The largest Groundhog Day celebration is held in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, about 84 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where it has been celebrated since about 1886.  In Alaska the holiday is called Marmot Day, a holiday created by a bill in the Alaska legislature that was signed in 2009 by then-Governor Sarah Palin.

Punxsutawney Phil giving his prognosis.
Photo by Gene J. Puskar, AP

Some European countries have similar customs, such as Serbia.  On February 15 Sretenje is celebrated.  On this day a bear will wake up, and if it sees its own shadow it will get scared and go back to sleep, which means a longer winter.  If it doesn't then winter is almost over.

In England, Candlemas is celebrated either February 2nd, or the Sunday between January 28th and February 3rd.  If bears or wolves emerge to inspect the weather and return to their dens and lairs, there will be at least another 40 days of severe weather.  Italy has the same custom called Candelora.

Imbolc, or St. Brigid's Day is an ancient Celtic festival marking the beginning of spring.  It is commonly celebrated on February 1st or 2nd.  It is traditionally a time of weather prognostication, and there is an old tradition of waiting to see if badgers come out of their winter dens.  It is also the day the Cailleach, or hag, gathers firewood for the remaining winter.  If she intends to make the winter last longer, she will cause the weather to be sunny and bright so she can collect plenty of firewood.

No celebration of Groundhog Day would be complete without a clip from the eponymous movie.  And so, without further ado, here is Bill Murray as Phil Connors....


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

When the Saint comes beboppin' in...

John Coltrane
Image courtesy of www.flickr.com

"My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music.
If you live it, when you play there's no problem because the music is
part of the whole thing.  To be a musician is really something.  It goes
very, very deep.  My music is the spiritual expression of what I am -
my faith, my knowledge, my being."

John Coltrane

John William Coltrane (1926-1967) was arguably the greatest tenor saxophone player in jazz history.  "Trane" was at the helm of bebop and hard bop, and helped pioneer the use of modes in jazz.  He was a prolific composer, and explored and developed a harmonic progression variation known as the Coltrane changes, among other names.  A jazz musician's improvising ability is measured by how well s/he can solo over the Giant Steps/Coltrane cycle from Coltrane's 1960 Giant Steps album.  (For a detailed explanation of this, click here.)

Seeing Charlie Parker play, in 1945, was a momentous occasion for Coltrane.  He told DownBeat in 1960, "the first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes."  They played together in the late 1940s.  In the early and mid 1950s Coltrane played with Dizzy Gillespie, among others.  But he had a longer association with Miles Davis.

From the summer of 1955 until April of 1957, Coltrane was in Davis's band the "First Great Quartet" which showed Coltrane's increasing ability.  They disbanded because of Davis's heroin addiction.  Coltrane then played with Thelonious Monk, and went on to make what is widely considered his best album from this time, Blue Train.  He and Davis played together again from 1958 to 1960.  It was at the end of this period that Coltrane composed Giant Steps.  Not long afterward he began playing the soprano saxophone, an instrument that had not been used much in jazz before.

From 1960 - 1962, Coltrane took a new direction, playing the most experimental music ever, influenced by modal jazz, free jazz, and even Indian ragas.  However, he did not receive much critical acclaim for this.  This new kind of jazz was perplexing to audiences, and Coltrane was even booed off the stage playing with Davis in France.  DownBeat in 1961 pronounced Coltrane as one of the players of "Anti-Jazz".

Coltrane in 1960, photographed by Francis Wolff.

It was in his "classic quartet" period from 1962 - 1965 that Coltrane's spiritual concerns came front and center.  From this time forth, he became more and more involved with experimental jazz, pushing the limits and often becoming incomprehensible to much of his audience.  It is suggested that he might have been experimenting with LSD in 1965, which may have influenced his music.  He died of liver cancer at the age of 40.  His death was unexpected, as few knew of his illness.

Coltrane's maternal and paternal grandfathers were both ministers of an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Zion Church.  His first wife was Muslim and it was from her that he came in contact with Islam.  He was very interested in religion, studied Hinduism, the Kabbalah, Buddhism, and the philosophers Plato and Aristotle.  He had problems with heroin addiction and alcoholism, but claimed a religious experience caused him to overcome his addictions.  In the liner notes of his 1965 album A Love Supreme he stated, "During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.  At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music."  In 1966, Coltrane was asked by a journalist what he would like to be in five years.  His answer:  "A saint."

St. John Coltrane
Photo by Heidi Schumann for the NY Times.

Well, he got his wish.  Archbishop Franzo King and Reverend Mother Marina King began a church, inspired from hearing Coltrane perform in San Francisco in 1965.  They say they knew the presence of the Lord when they heard his music. They make it clear that they are "not dealing with St. John the man, but St. John the sound and St. John the Evangelist and Sound Baptist, who attained union with God through sound".  They call their church the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

Members of the church include jazz musicians who play for the
congregation each Sunday.  (Archbishop King is on the right.)
Photo by Heidi Schumann for the NY Times.
Sunday services, which begin at 11:45 A.M. and last until 2:30 P.M., are part revival meeting and part jam session.  Besides the unusual hagiography and music, the church's activities include personal "witnessing" and various social activities. Each week the church features "sound baptism" using St. John Coltrane's later albums, after he saw the light and quit drugs, referred to as the "Risen Trane". Although Coltrane's music is the focus, all types of music are played, including funk, reggae, and gospel.  Members are encouraged to bring their own instruments.

The highlight of each week's sound baptism is the choir reciting Psalm 23 over the track "Acknowledgment" from the A Love Supreme album.  There is a call-and-response participation as the audience calls out "a love supreme" during selected moments.  The musical ministry is delivered through the "Ministers of Sound" aka Ohnedaruth (Sanskrit for "compassion"), a group that has played internationally, and can be booked for events.

Sunday service at the St. John Coltrane church.
Photo by Heidi Schumann for the NY Times.

And if you are not in San Francisco but like the concept, just listen to Coltrane. Not many people who aspire to sainthood make it.  It must be the music.


Monday, January 31, 2011


This book advocates rebelling against authority, and
 has been referred to as reflecting the "yippie zeitgeist".

Bibliokleptomania has existed for as long as there have been biblios to klept.  Of course, it’s a lot easier to sneak a small paperback home than a large illuminated manuscript, but that’s only a small deterrent to a determined bibliokleptomaniac.  Scrolls could be easily hidden under robes, capes, and togas, and as for large tomes, well, where there is a will there is a way.

Take Dr. Elois Pichler.  He was a German librarian who worked in the Russian Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg.  In 1871 he was caught with around 4,000 volumes stolen from the library – the largest known amount of books stolen in Europe.  He had a large overcoat with a special sack in the lining.  He was an eclectic thief, and stole both rare volumes and ordinary books.  He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to exile in Siberia, presumably without any books.

The Imperial Public Library in St. Peterburg, 1884, engraving by
De La Charlerie, image courtesy of this site.

I know the anguish of Don Vincente, although I don’t condone how he assuaged it.  He was a friar at a convent whose library was plundered during the reign of Queen Christina of Spain in 1834.  He went to Barcelona and established himself as a book dealer.  But he fell in love with his books and was only able to sell them when absolutely necessary.  When he was outbid at an auction for a copy of a rare and perhaps unique book, Ordinacions per los Gloriosos Keys de Arago, Don Vincente set the successful bidder’s house on fire, killing him but making it look as though the victim’s pipe caused the fire.  More mysterious murders followed.  Finally Don Vincente’s shop was searched.  The Ordinations volume was found there, which begged the question of how it escaped the fire.  Don Vincente finally confessed to all his murders, including customers to whom he had reluctantly sold books, and sought to get them back.  At his trial his defense lawyer claimed that there was a copy of Ordinations in the Louvre, so it wasn’t so unique, and there may be more copies.  At that Don Vincente cried.  Not at his heinous actions, but because the book was not unique.

Stephen Carrie Blumberg may have the distinction of being the greatest book thief in history.  Holding a high school diploma, he passed as a Professor Matthew McGue from the University of Minnesota at university libraries.  He, too, wore long coats with long pockets in the lining, but had many ways of stealing books.  He stole 23,600 rare books from 268 libraries, totaling a cost estimated to be $5.3 million.  He took very good care of them, housing them in an old house with floor to ceiling bookshelves.  To him it wasn’t stealing, but rather building a great collection of books.  To carefully remove the glue of the library card pockets, he would lick them.  He tried for 100 books a day, or until he got sick from the glue.  His lawyers unsuccessfully pled insanity, but to no avail.  I have to wonder if the glue impaired his brain.

Stanislas Gosse, in 2003, admitted to stealing over 1,000 volumes of rare books from the monastery library of Mont Sainte-Odile, which sits 2,500 feet up in the Vosges mountains of France.  Mont Sainte-Odile dates to the 7th century CE, dedicated to St. Odile of Alsace.  Remote, the monastery/convent is surrounded by the walls of the ruins of old fortifications.  Its buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt many times.  Gosse learned of a secret passage from medieval times through a map in the city archives that seemed to have been forgotten.  He climbed the walls, took the passage and entered the library from a bookcase that swung open.

Mont Sainte-Odile

Gosse was a local teacher, who couldn’t resist the thrill and challenges of the task.  When the missing books were first noticed, it was a big mystery since the library was locked and off limits to the public.  It was only after two years, and the boarding of windows and replacement of the locks, that the police figured out there must be another entrance.  When they found the swinging section of bookcase and the secret passage, they set up hidden cameras. 

Mont Sainte-Odile

They caught Gosse in the act and he was finally arrested with rope and three suitcases of books in hand.  In his apartment they found all the books he had taken.  He had taken good care of them, even restoring some of them.  He confessed to “the thrill of the chase”, and stated his concern was also for the books.  He felt they had been abandoned – no one was reading them, and they were covered with dust and pigeon poop. 

Gosse was a former naval officer, and a teacher at a local engineering school.  He was charged with “burglary by ruse and escalade”.  The archbishop and the head of Mont Sainte-Odile forgave him, and stated they would like to see him continue his work as a teacher.  The court granted him permission to teach, a suspended prison term, community service helping the monks catalog the books, and a fine of approximately $20,000.  Which doesn't answer the questions of why no one at Mont Sainte-Odile nor the police knew of the secret passage or bookcase, but documentation was available at the city archives for anyone to see.  And why did it take so long to get serious about finding the culprit?

Image showing the careful cutting of a book by Hakimzadeh.
Courtesy of the Guardian.

Farhad Hakimzadeh is a wealthy, Harvard-educated businessman, who was also a publisher and an intellectual.  He also took a scalpel to 150 books from the British Library and the Bodleian Library over seven years.  He stole maps, pictures, and some pages out of rare books so carefully that the damage is only visible to a trained eye who is looking for it.

Map taken by Hakimzadeh from a book in the British Library.
Image courtesy of the Guardian.

It all came to light when a reader reported the book he was looking at had missing pages.  After careful examination, it turned out to be true, and the search for who had done the damage and what other works might have suffered began.  They found that books from the same period of history about European encounters in the geographical area of Syria to Bangladesh were also damaged - books that Hakimzadeh had contact with.  Soon it was discovered that of the 842 books that he had taken out, at least 150 had been cut up. 

Dr. Kristian Jensen, head of British and Early Printed
Collections at the British Library, examines a book
with cut page.  Image courtesy of the Guardian.

Forensic scientists analyzed the books.  A search of his home revealed that he had inserted the stolen pages in his own books, and others were found loose.  One of the pages was worth close to $51,000.  Since he was an expert in the field from which the pages referred to, officials felt that makes his crime even worse, since he knew the value of what he took and the books he defaced.  He is currently being sued for full compensation, but that may be difficult to ascertain, as many of the pages have not been found.  So far he has been sentenced to two years in prison on criminal charges and fined $11,000 in court costs, but faces civil suits as well.

It is interesting to note that those afflicted with this mania are not from the criminal element but from respectable and educated backgrounds.  Some have had prior problems and/or convictions.  Libraries have traditionally dealt with theft and mutilation quietly, either out of embarrassment or not to give out ideas.   It is reported that in the Middle Ages curses were used as a safeguard against thievery.  There is a famous oft-quoted, curse that is sometimes believed to be from these times, but has proven not to be.  (Click here to see more about this curse and the comments about it.)  Another punishment that was issued from the Middle Ages through the 19th century was forcible exile.  In the latter years, in Britain that meant being sent to Australia, a punitive measure that equated book thieves with hardened criminals.

Librarians and bibliophiles alike have been outraged at this kind of behavior, feeling it gives bibliomania a bad connotation, rather than denoting someone with a passion for books.  Some book collectors see this extreme form of passion as a romantic, noble thing.  Bibliokleptomania is more than a passion, it is a mania, a mental illness.  Current thinking is to send a strong message and publicly address the thief.  More advanced security and prevention is also being sought.  It is sad that this is necessary, particularly at a time when libraries are so ill-funded.  These rare and unique books belong to us all, and it is a privilege to have access to them. So do we spend available monies purchasing more books, or spend it on protecting what we have from selfish and somewhat demented individuals?  Not an easy choice...