Up-date on Hong Kong

As the situation in Hong Kong becomes more serious the focus is on university students. They provide the energy and ingenuity for the campaign but the unexplained element is their violence.

So far one of their five demands has been met, the extradition treaty with the mainland has been scrapped. The second (resignation of the Chief Secretary) is possible (she probably wants to resign anyhow), as is release of those arrested.  However the other demands (independent enquiry into police brutality as well as greater democratic freedom) are not so simple as the enquiry would bring up Beijing’s involvement in policing and the plan is to bring Hong Kong closer to mainland laws, not to make it more independent.

Since at least two of their demands won’t be granted, why do the students continue?

It could be that they are making a point: in the future Beijing will be more careful and slow down its plans to integrated Hong Kong fully into the mainland’s system.

When I was there recently I noticed that the word ‘revolt’ was appearing more in the slogans plastered on walls. Previously the demand was for greater self-governing, a non-threatening desire most of the population would share.  

The spirit of Tianmen Square is in the air but the outcome could be much the same, it has not changed China much. Some believe that real change comes only after a violent clash between two dominant social groups though that has never provided a long term solution.

The situation in Hong Kong is coming to a head and another section of the people, who sympathise with the students but not their methods, is waiting on the side-lines to see how it will affect them. More about them next time. 

Photos: 1. Calls to revolt.  2. The peaceful Hong Kong tourist knew.

Youth Impact

Did you notice the connection between Hong Kong, Chile and Cork?

In Hong Kong I saw the determination of teenagers rioting against the lack of democracy in the city as the Chinese government tightened its grip on freedoms.

In Chile, teenagers stormed and wrecked metro stations to protest a rise in fares and deteriorating social conditions.

In Cork a hundred young people answered a called to gather, masked, in the city centre to loot a sports shop. Fortunately they were stopped by the Gardai.

In all three cases, the young people dressed in black, wore masks or balaclavas, were mobilised by social media and engaged (or prepared to engage) in destruction.

In Hong Kong they said they were protesting for their future and that of their birthplace. They were highly organised and courageous. It was the task of one young girl to go around with a bucket of water into which she would put gas cylinders fired by the police in order to extinguish them. If she were stronger, she said, she would join those throwing stones.

Their parents, in most cases, knew what they were doing and sympathised.

In Chile the methods used were much the same and the protest was on behalf of those suffering financially despite an improving economy.

In Cork, it was different. The young people just seemed to want some exciting activity as part of an anonymous group.

Young people are idealistic and now easy to mobilise through social media. While their goals are usually laudable they can be manipulated by older people with less positive agendas. The ‘flash gatherings’ are likely to spread. I saw them in Hong Kong, but Chile and Cork bring them closer to home.

Back from Hong Kong

I am just back from Hong Kong where the disturbances (or riots) are still in full swing at weekends. Shops and hotels were complaining about fewer tourists but locals and visitors had no trouble getting around and enjoying the cooler weather (though it was still a hot 28 degrees.)

The city itself has not changed much in the past three years but soon I recognised a change in the people.

The initial sense of inevitability and mild optimism with which Hong Kongers had greeted the Handover in 1997 was gone. In its place was a sense of rebellion, dissatisfaction with social conditions and a fear for the future.

I tried to understand the different grievances: those who were unhappy about housing, schools and medical services did not necessarily want independence and the young people who called for independence seemed more interested in their future than in present issues.   

There seemed to be three different groups involved: those dissatisfied with the way Hong Kong had been managed in recent years and the social problems this caused, the young who did not want to see semi-free Hong Kong become another tightly controlled Chinese city and the hard core rioters who seemed intent on bringing matters to a violent conclusion.

There is another group too, but they do not appear on the streets. They are anxious about the damaged caused by the riots but are content to let the city continue drifting closer to China until it became too uncomfortable for themselves. Many of them have foreign passports as a safeguard and some assets overseas.

Everyone I met asked, ‘What do you think of the disturbances?’ and had their own interpretation of what was happening. I’m still trying to sort out my own impressions. By next week they should be clearer.

Photo 1: Waterloo Road outside the Columban apartment near Mongkok, a center for protests. Rioters ripped out railings along the street to use in barricades and lit a fire in the middle of the road.

Photo 2: Slogans are daubed on all the main streets. This one says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’

A Chinese Dish — Humble Pie

At the launch of ‘The Irish and China’ book in Trinity last week, I was asked why so many Irish who had lived in China found resemblances between the two peoples.

I have come to the conclusion it is something very human that was preserved in both traditional cultures. In neither civilisation is boasting seen as ‘cool’, people feel ashamed if they hurt another‘s feelings and indirect speech is common in order to show respect for the person you are talking with.

I remember being told in Korea never to say ‘No’ to a request. Rather, say ‘I will think about it.’ We have much the same habit in Ireland. Some would criticise traditional Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Irish for this roundabout way of talking but it does show a commendable consideration for others.

Both cultures accepted that the individual should not be the centre of everything but part of a common effort to get on with each other and find happiness in the process.

In China, Korea and Japan this attitude was modelled and kept alive by Confucianism. In Ireland and Western Europe, up to recently, it was passed on through Christian practices and communities.

However modern culture, giving priority to personal emotions and urges, threatens this openness of ‘give and take’, of contributing to making society better for all and expecting others to do likewise.   

When I put forward these views at the ‘Launch’, no one contradicted me. Perhaps it is a sign that politeness has not faded from Irish culture!

From ex-teacher Garreth Byrne: The Chinese Guzheng

The guzheng [pronounced goo-djeng] is a distinctive musical instrument of China, resembling a zither with up to 25 strings. It is placed on trestles and plucked by the player with plastic plectra attached to the finger tips of the right hand. Its resonator box may be made of rosewood or mahogany.

The strings are stretched over the surface, fastened at the left end and at the right where there are pegs for tuning. A moveable bridge under each of the strings can adjust the string’s pitch. 

In ancient times it was a court instrument played by pretty daughters of the landed gentry and mandarin administrators dressed in silk kimonos. Ceramic designs and stylised wall scrolls seen in China’s museums often depict seated women playing the guzheng in dynastic buildings.

The instrument goes back about 2500 years and has evolved in size, the number of strings, the materials from which it is made and the elaborate playing techniques. Until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the instrument had a maximum of 15 strings.

To play this elegant instrument the learner-performer uses the right hand to pluck the strings, with the left hand pressing the strings on the left side of the bridge to produce vibrato, pitch alterations or slides. Advanced players can create sounds that resemble a cascading waterfall, horses’ hooves, and undulating countryside. By sliding a finger smoothly down over all the strings a player can produce a decorative flourish similar to glissando on the keys of a piano.

Practice makes perfect

The guzheng is sometimes an ensemble instrument accompanied by the long guitar-shaped stringed pipa, bamboo flutes, erhu (two-stringed violin) and gongs, but in modern times has really come into its own as a solo instrument. I have seen it played, in fine weather, in public parks, on university campus, at concert halls and in private apartments, often on public holidays. Sheet music enables players to perform to perfection. Parents with money hire music teachers to begin lessons with daughters aged 7 years upwards. I once walked along a city footpath in Jingdezhen in South-East China and happened to see a mother supervising her daughter trying the strings of a guzheng on a trestle table outside a music shop. I hope that lucky girl can now entertain her family and friends at holiday gatherings.

Expert musicians can play tunes with poetic titles like Autumn Moon over the Han Palace, Evening Song from the Fishing Boat, and Horse Bells ringing at Night. It is possible to buy quality CD recordings of solo guzheng or ensemble renditions of such evocative and relaxing meditative melodies.

The zither stringed instrument is found in Southern Germany, in the Swiss Alps, in Bohemia and parts of former Yugoslavia. Scandinavian emigrants to the USA introduced zithers and dulcimers which evolved into Appalacian dulcimer. The dulcimer is beaten with wooden hammers. It has found its way into traditional Irish music and features at festivals. Irish musicians still prefer the plucked harp.

* A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Ireland’s Eye magazine.

Learn from Strangers

I’ve already mentioned the book ‘The Irish and China’, published recently with an introduction by President O’Higgins. Finally, it is to be officially ‘launched’ (see picture).

It is a collection of chapters on different contacts between China and Ireland over the centuries. 

The curious thing is that the Chinese seem to have been more interested in Irish development, history, literature and culture than the Irish were in China.

It should be the other way around. China is a world power with a long history impacting on world affairs and culture while Ireland is a small island at the edge of Europe. At least twenty cities in China each have a far greater population than the whole of Ireland. 

I wrote the chapter on religious contacts over the years (the first Irish monk went to China in 1318) and used the opportunity to illustrate some of the things the Irish could learn from China.

My own attention was drawn to those features because they resembled something familiar to me from my Irish heritage. I discovered there is a human connectivity between cultures, even Irish and Chinese, because we are basically the same human beings with the same hopes, abilities and needs.

The questions we all ask about life are much the same and the answers we have arrived at, up to recently at least, are not all that different.  

If the book has one message it is: humans have to learn from each other to make any progress and we learn more from ‘strangers’ than from those like ourselves.

Beijing Initiative

At the recent European China Colloquium (see photo) near Cologne, there was considerable interest in the religious situation in China where the government is making determined efforts to  get Buddhists, Islamist, Christians and Catholics to promote its atheistic program of social and economic progress under the leadership of the Communist Party.

At times its thinking seems not much different  from some advanced  Western economies which see religions, with their emphasis on people rather than economic systems, as obstacles to material prosperity and seek to soften their influence on society.

However, despite the pressure being put on religious believers in China, there was a report from a group of young Catholics in Beijing on how they are using social media to promote involvement in the Church.

They have launched an app which provides information on Catholic events and news in the Capital. All those involved are volunteers, most work in internet companies. On a daily basis, some do content, others design and others uploading.

The government is aware of their activities but permits them.

It may be that Catholics under direct pressure are more aware of their identity and what the Church has to offer. In China too, Church leaders have not always given good example, some have done the opposite, but it was good to have met the young Beijingers who could see through that and were still determined to share what they saw as the Good News.  

Chinese Autumn

This afternoon I was walking in the golden-brown harvested fields of Kildare when I remember that it was Mid-Autumn Festival in China, Korea , Japan and much of the rest of Asia. As a celebration, it is rivaled only by the (Chinese) New Year.

The harvest is almost over in Ireland, and there are free ripe blackcurrants in the hedges, but we no longer celebrate one of the most important occasion in the ecological year.

At the recent China-European meeting near Cologne, this topic came up, indirectly.  Drawing on the wake-up message of Pope Francis , Laudato Si, we were reminded that people, technology and nature are all bound up together. When one is emphasised over the other two, the outcome is not good. When technology makes us forget that bread comes for the earth, not machines, and people become objects which technology steers into consumption and politically approved patterns, it is time to wake up.

In Cologne, behind the magnificent cathedral, we were reminded of this.

There was a monument to Adam Schall von Bell, born in Cologne in 1591, who became astronomical advisor to the Shunzhi Emperor in Beijing where he died aged 75. He introduced new technology into China, not as a way of controlling people but of opening their eyes to a wider world.

There is also the grave of  Vitus Chang, first Chinese bishop of Xinyang but forced to leave his country in 1949. He spent the rest of his life in Hong Kong, the Philippines and, finally, Cologne where he died in 1982.  The modern technology he encountered along the way did little to improve his life, it was the kindness of the people he engaged with.   

Must walk in the fields more often!

Troubles in Hong Kong

Aitece teachers leaving HK in previous years

Scenes of the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong when the protestors took over the airport for two days, reminded me of the many hours I spent there (and its predecessor, Kai Tak). I was either waiting there to welcome new teachers on their way to China with Aitece, seeing them off to their placements on the mainland or going there myself to visit their various universities.

I got to know the advantages of the various coffee shops and the quiet places where one could spend time reading in peace.

Actually this is the time of the year when new teachers should be arriving in Hong Kong on their way to China. As it turns out, fortunately or unfortunately, this September we are not sending any new teachers from Ireland. 

The recent downturn in numbers is due to the many new opportunities for young Westerners to go to China to teach on a financial rather than volunteer basis. Also, the Chinese authorities are now making greater demands in issuing work visas.

It is understandable that they want to be sure that the teachers they invite are properly qualified and experienced. However the cost of certifying and double-certifying various documents can involve several hundred Euro. It can also take hours, if not days, to go to offices around Dublin and having to return days later to collect the documents.

Hopefully the disturbance in Hong Kong will die out soon. It is unlikely that the authorities will concede any ground and the protesters will not have the stamina to continue indefinitely. In the meantime life in Hong Kong (and China) will continue much as usual with little inconvenience to visitors or teachers passing through.  

By the time next March or September comes around we hope to have some new volunteer teachers for China and their time there will be as enriching for the students and themselves as ever.

A mysterious Chinese teacher

As probably the one most involved with the teaching of Chinese in Ireland, Dr Liming Wang of the Confucian Institute in UCD visited Dalgan recently in search of news about a Chinese gentleman said to have taught Chinese to Irish China-bound missionaries back in the 1930s.

Was he the first Chinese teacher in Ireland and what happened to him?

Further research is necessary to get the answers but one result of his visit was an invitation to a group from Dalgan to visit the Confucian Institute.

It is an imposing building, more Chinese inside than outside. It cost nine million Euro, with a third each coming from the Chinese government, UCD and the Irish government.

The number of Chinese leaders who have visited it shows their keen interest in Ireland. It is said that Deng Xiaoping, who re-opened China to the world economy and culture by establishing duty-free economic zones in three ports in China, was inspired by the Shannon Duty Free Zone.   

Whether Ireland has fully availed of its opportunities to be actively involved in China’s growing economy is questioned in a book entitled ‘Doing Business with China: The Irish Advantage and Challenge’ co-authored by Dr Wang and his wife Dr Lan Li.

I look forward to reading it as it discusses cultural and historical similarities between China and Ireland.  Dr Lan Li is a cultural anthropologist and obviously contributed much of the culture-related material.

That book is now on my summer reading list and I hope to share her insights and reflections soon.