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Saturday, December 30, 2017

An Interview with Dante

Photo: Wikimedia
I saw Dante in Florence just before the Ponte Vecchio bridge crossing the Arno river.

He has a rather small stature, with big eyes and a prominently hooked nose. He looks more like a common man, a man on the street. 
I hesitated for a moment whether I could greet him as he looked deeply in thought looking across the river. Surprisingly he is quite a friendly person and didn’t mind to talk to a stranger.

Nervously and unprepared, I then arbitrarily asked him: 
“What does this city Florence mean to you?”

Dante then cited Canto 26 of Inferno:
“Rejoice, O Florence, since thou art so great,
That over sea and land thou beatest thy wings,
And throughout Hell thy name is spread abroad!
Among the thieves five citizens of thine
Like these I found, whence shame comes unto me,
And thou thereby to no great honour risest."

Then I asked him:
“Despite its greatness, why did you say that your beloved city, Florence, is famous in Hell?”

Dante said:

“There are many prominent people of Florence living in Hell because of their sins.

Filippo Argenteni has hid horse shod with silver and has iron fists. He has a violent temper, one time he slapped me, and his brother took possession of of my confiscated property.

Farinata degli Uberti is a heretic, he believes that there is no soul and that everything dies with the body. He regarded the pleasures of life on earth as the highest goal for man.

Bocca degli Abati betrayed his Guelph countrymen at a decisive moment in the battle -as German mercenary troops attacked in support of the Tuscan Ghibellines- by cutting off the hand of the Guelph standard-bearer. Demoralized by Bocca's treachery and the loss of their flag, the Guelphs panicked and were roundly defeated.
Then there is my gluttonous friend Ciacco, the hog, spend his life gorging his appetites and living in excess.

There is also Francesca da Rimini, who was forced into a loveless political marriage with a guy called Gianciotto Malatesta.  However, she fell in love with her husband’s younger brother Paolo and had an affair with him. When Gianciotto discovered their adultery, he killed them both. Gianciotto is now in a deeper level of Hell, so did Francesca told me.”

I said:
“Some people think that you condemned people to be in Hell in your Inferno because you are bitter towards your enemies. You were once an influential and famous political figure and were then later exiled from Florence, with others from your political party, after you lost the political war. You were sentenced, together with four others, to a heavy fine and perpetual exclusion from office. Further, together with your two sons and others, you were condemned to be burned to death, should you ever come into the power of the Commune. You lost everything, your family, your properties, your way of life.”

Dante cited the opening of Inferno:
“Midway upon the journey of our life
  I found myself within a forest dark,
  For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
  What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
  Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
  But of the good to treat, which there I found,
  Speak will I of the other things I saw there.”

I said:

“Following your path in Purgatory Canto 30 you kind of confessed that you were unfaithful to Beatrice, the one you adore and love so much. You said you fell in love with her the first time you met her, and in Vita Nuova you wrote about her and declared “Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me”. 
It seems you are completely captivated by her after the first meeting, however at that time you were just nine and she was eight“.

Dante cited a sonnet from the book Vita Nuova (which means New Life) dedicated to Beatrice:
“In that book which is
My memory . . .
On the first page
That is the chapter when
I first met you
Appear the words . . .
Here begins a new life” 

I said:
“Then the second meeting you met Beatrice was 9 years later, and she got married to a banker 4 years later and died 3 years later at the young age of 24, in 1290. How do you view Beatrice after her death in later part of your life?”

Dante cited what Beatrice told him in Canto 30 of Purgatory:
“Himself from me he took and gave to others.
When from the flesh to spirit I ascended,
And beauty and virtue were in me increased,
I was to him less dear and less delightful;
And into ways untrue he turned his steps,
Pursuing the false images of good,
That never any promises fulfill;
Nor prayer for inspiration me availed,
By means of which in dreams and otherwise
I called him back, so little did he heed them.
So low he fell, that all appliances
For his salvation were already short,
Save showing him the people of perdition.”

Then Dante cited Canto 31 of Purgatory:
"Turn, Beatrice, O turn thy holy eyes,"
Such was their song, "unto thy faithful one,
Who has to see thee ta'en so many steps.
In grace do us the grace that thou unveil
Thy face to him, so that he may discern
The second beauty which thou dost conceal."
O splendour of the living light eternal!”

I said:

“Back to Inferno Canto 26, you found Ulysses, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer's epic poem, you found him in Hell. Yet during his lifetime this man had the approval of heaven. The goddess Athena, the daughter of the highest god aided his journey, and even ushered the bloody slaughter. The wind king Zeus the highest of gods is another reinforcement of his connection with heaven. On his journey, Ulysses also received favor from divine figures like Circe and Calypso, even as he received rancor from figures like Poseidon. 
Why is he now suffering in Hell, the place you said Inferno Canto 3 "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”, and where “Loathsome maggots and worms at the sinners' feet drink the putrid mixture of blood, pus, and tears that flows down their bodies.” Then why is this great hero condemned to Hell?”

Dante said citing Homer:
“Ulysses murdered all suitors of Penelope. Leodes pleaded for his life but was met with a sword blow, so that his head went down to mouth in dust. After murdering all suitors of Penelope, he directed the murder of Penelope’s handmaidens. But, before that the dead bodies of the suitors must be disposed first, and the handmaidens had to clean tables and chairs of blood of the suitors. He wanted to humiliate these handmaidens before he had them butchered,  let them see the dead body of their lovers with the full knowledge of their own impending doom. After the handmaidens cleaned the tables and chairs, scrubbed with sponges, rinsed and rinsed again the blood of the suitors, they were hacked with sword blades cutting the life out of them. Ulysses is undoubtedly the ringleader of atrocity.”

I said:
“Ulysses is known as a great warrior king and strategist. He cleverly discovered Achilles disguise and convinced him to clutch a weapon to join the war against the Trojans. Ulysses has been viewed as Achilles' antithesis in the Homer’s Iliad, while Achilles is consumed by anger of a self-destructive nature, Ulysses is frequently viewed as a man of the mean, a voice of reason, renowned for his self-restraint and diplomatic skills. Ulysses is not only tactical warrior, as evidenced by his idea for the Trojan Horse, but also a good speaker.  He is considered the most clever Greek hero, finding smart solutions to every problem. He is also a great warrior and very charismatic leader who often inspired his people.”

Dante said citing what Ulysses said to him in Inferno Canto 26:

‘Not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty
Toward my aged father, nor love I owed
Penelope that would have made her glad
Could overcome the fervor that was mine
To gain experience of the world
And learn about man’s vices, and his worth…
I and my shipmates had grown old and slow
By the time we reached the narrow strait
There Hercules marked off the limits,
Warning all men to go no farther.”

I said:
“It seems this way Ulysses is behaving like Adam, the first human on earth, whom despite his everlasting happiness living in paradise has the longing to search for more, for the forbidden knowledge. Likewise Ulysses whom despite his happiness found back home in Ithaca island, living in peace with his family  has the longing for more adventure, to conquer the world where “no one has seen”, which ended in the dashing to pieces of Ulysses ship and his death which represents the final separation from any divine connections.”

As the evening was getting dark, Dante concluded the conversation by saying he had to go somewhere and turn his back following the path along side the Arno river.

This an imaginary interview in memory of Dante Alighieri

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Liu Sanjie Show at Li River

The Liu Sanjie show is an outdoor performance set in real mountains and rivers in Yangshuo. Yangshuo is a county at the end of the magnificent Li River tour (read my previous blog) from Guilin, in northeastern Guangxi, China. 

 The Liu Sanjie show is staged at the 2km stretch along Li River with 12 mountain peaks as the background. So unlike performances with traditional stage, here we get a show with natural background. This picturesque scenery with various mountain peaks, reflections in the clear water, misty rain, and bamboo forests along with the sound of animals in their natural environment are unique to the performance. 
The Liu Sanjie show is directed by the famous film director Zhang Yi Mou.  He is a Chinese film director, producer, writer and actor, and has won numerous awards and recognitions in international film festivals such as  Silver Lion and Golden Lion  at the Venice Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and the Golden Bear . Zhang also directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games, which received international acclaim.
It took Zhang Yi  Mou three and half years to finish preparations for launching the Liu Sanjie show. The performance lasts for 70 minutes and more than 600 actors and actresses are involved. All the actors of the show are local  villagers and fishermen, particularly local minority groups as Zhuang and Yao, who have practiced meticulously. At March 20, 2004 the premiere of the Liu Sanjie lightshow was a huge outdoor performance with 1800, now there are about 3000 seats. Three shows daily, all fully booked during peak season.
Liu Sanjie is a story that originates from the Zhuang minority people (read my blog about Longji Rice Terraces). The story is about a legendary Zhuang woman singer called Liu Sanjie, which means “third sister”.  The legend tells the tale of Liu Sanjie who had a beautiful voice at very early age.  Her voice is so beautiful that attracted a gangster named Mo Huairen. The gangster falls in love with Liu Sanjie and wished to make her his concubine. As Liu Sanjie refuses, Mo Huairen attempts to kill her.
Liu Sanjie’s boyfriend, Li Xiaoniu,  and his friends in the village free her and the couple escape turning themselves in a pair of larks (a small bird with beautiful singing).
This Liu Sanjie show is also called Impression Show, as it is focused on impressions rather than the plot, characters. We can watch a bunch of impression, these impressions from the landscape and people's life, with the back ground of mountains on the river stage. The magnificent ligthing system, music and modern visual technology makes the show a magical impression of the Liu Sanjie story. Zhang Yimou uses the natural resources of Yangshuo to give his show a maximum effect. The usage of lights and water emphasizes the beauty of the Li River and the limestone mountains in a way never seen before.
At March 20, 2004 the premiere of the Liu Sanjie lightshow was a huge outdoor performance with 1800, now there are about 3000 seats. Three shows daily, all fully booked during peak season.

Liu Sanjie is divided into four main parts.
The first is called the Red show with long red silk flowing on the river, giving the impression of fisherman throwing out their nets and drawing them in again, as they balance precariously on bamboo rafts. It is an amazing act.
Then followed by the Green show which give the impression of the daily life of the people of the Li River. Smoke curling upwards from cooking pots, women washing, in the fields, fishing, all the everyday things in their lives.
Then followed by the Blue Impressions, love song of Liu Sanjie the bathing bride in the river, even the moon caught up in this love song. 
Knowing that Mo Huairen will surely get the magistrate’s support and attempt at Liu Sanjie’s life, the villagers urge her to keep herself from harm’s way for the time being. Liu Sanjie says goodbye to them and embarks on her journey with her lover Li Xiaoniu.
Lastly the Silver show, the grand finale, in gold and silver costume change,  giving impression of Liu Sanjie and Li Xiaoniu living happily ever after. .
That is the touching Liu Sanjie legend about Liu Sanjie, performed along the Li River with the background of mountains, enhanced by excellent sound and lighting system. It is a great combination of legend, nature, technology, singing, choreography, and the Zhuang culture. What a fantastic show it is ..! 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Journey along Li River

What to say about Li River, it is just fantastic.  Li River is also called LiJiang in Chinese, as “jiang” is the Chinese word for “river”, so it is wrong to say Lijiang river as used on many articles in English.  However people ignore it as it is so famous, everybody knows. 

Touring  by boat for 4 hours along the river surrounded by mountains and mountains, is an endless journey in tranquillity. We can look around during the tour and we can see a 360 degree of scenic landscape.  
The Li River tour flows through Guilin and Yangshuo with a total length of 116 km. Tourist cruises in different boats,  varying from small rafts to larger, air-conditioned boats. It is the major attraction for tourists who come to Guilin. Millions of people each year come to its jade waters, cruising between peaks and islands in search of the landscape beauty.  During peak holidays there are so many boats required to carry the tourists, such that the boats are lined-up sailing behind each other like a train on water. 
The whole length of the Li River is guarded by green hills and the scenic karst mountains. It has been visited by a huge number of artists, writers and poets to admire the river. It is also the most written about river in China. The Li River gives an authentic picture of countryside China.  Written and painted by poets and artists, Li River gives a picture book of karst peaks, ancient villages and bamboo. 
In the Song Dynasty, Guilin had begun to be famous for its natural beauty and said to be the best  "Among all the mountains and waters”. Guilin is well-known for its unique mountains and beautiful rivers. There are about 157 rock hills (now under first-class or second-class state protection),  21 major karst caves and several hundred smaller ones.  
Among the hills and protruding rocks of Guilin, flows the tranquil Li River (Lijiang), which gives a very scenic sight. The Li River flows through Guilin and Yangshuo with a total length of 116 km. Tourist cruises the river in different boats,  varying from small bamboo rafts to larger, air-conditioned boats . Millions of people each year come to its jade waters, cruising between peaks and islands to see the landscape beauty. It is the major attraction for tourists who come to Guilin. 
The whole length of the Li River journey is guarded by green hills and scenic karst mountains. It has been visited by a huge number of artists, writers and poets to admire the river. It is also the most written about river in China. The Li River gives an authentic picture of countryside China.  Written and painted by poets and artists, Li River gives a picture book of karst peaks, ancient villages and bamboo. 
Just round the big turn that the river takes at Xingping is the most iconic stretch of the river known as The Yellow Cloth landscape, which features on the back of the Chinese 20 yuan money. The money shows a fisherman on the river with Yellow Cloth landscape behind it. 
The place's name comes from a yellow flagstone, long and wide, whose reflection spreads itself on the river like a yellow cloth. The seven hills on the bank of Yellow Cloth landscape have been likened to seven fairy maidens who came from heaven to play at the bank and were so amazed by the scenery that they would not leave. 
More than the river itself, the landscape is awesome: alluvial plains rippling with 300-million-year-old limestone formations. The geological term for these  mountain is karst sometimes with odd shapes that look like something in nature, like the Yellow Cloth landscape. The people used their imagination to name the odd shapes according to the shapes such as : Watching An Apple, Calligraphy Brush, Eight Immortals, Elephant Trunk Hill, Folded Brocade Mountain, etc. Many of these fanciful names are tied to a local legend.  This habit of naming of a scenery and tying it to a legend is quite common in China, we encounter it in other places in China as well. Actually, the Chinese people in that way is very imaginative and creative. 
Among all of the odd shapes, Nine Horse Hill is an important scene not to miss during the Li River tour. Nine Horse Hill is located 4km from Xinping. The cliff face has images of what appeared to be a group of horses. In variation of yellow and white, dark and light, the horses assume a variety of poses: some seem to be running, some just lying there and others playing. These images have been present on the mountain side for centuries. 
In the Xingping area there is a hill named as Camel Hill. This hill is named Camel Hill as its shape looks like a Camel.  In Guilin, Yangshuo and other places in China, there are other hills named as Camel Hill because of its shape. So it is misleading to think that Camel Hill is the one located along the Li River tour, because there are other Camel Hills in China. 
The wonderful 4 hours boat journey then ended in Yangshuo, leaving us with memorable images of the landscape along the Li River, attached by the given fancy names of the landscape. May be that is the purpose of naming them like that. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Singing Dong Tribe

The villages of the Dong people are located among the hills on the Hunan-Guichou-Guangxi borders, China.
The Dong people live in villages of 20-30 households located near the rivers. There are also large villages of 700 households.
The Dong people grow rice, wheat, maize and sweet potatoes for consumption and cultivate cotton, tobacco, soybeans and rapeseed as cash crops. They also sell timber and other forest products.
Their houses, built of fir wood, are usually two or three stories high. Generally, people live on the upper floors, and the ground floor is reserved for domestic animals and firewood. In the old days, the houses of landlords and rich peasants were big and had engraved beams and painted columns.
Pathways inside a village are paved with gravel, and there are fishponds in most villages. Dong people are mainly farmers. They are good at growing rice, raising fish in their rice fields. For domestic animals they raise mainly hens and pigs. They live in huge forest, the forests have special spiritual importance for the Dong people but also provides with a source of income. The Dong people grow enormous numbers of timber trees which are logged and sent to markets. Tong-oil and lacquer and oil-tea camellia trees are also grown for their edible oil and varnish.
They are also famous for their unique carpentry skills which are displayed in beautiful wooden covered bridges. These bridges are called "Wind and Rain Bridges" because there are pavilions built on the bridge that provide shelter to people from the wind and rain. On a raining day, the pavilions on the bridge provide locals an excellent place to meet, relax, socialize, exchange ideas, and even amuse.
Wood, stone arches, stone slabs and bamboo are all used in erecting bridges. Roofed with tiles engraved with flowers, it has on its sides five large pagoda-like, multi-tier pavilions beautifully decorated with carvings. It is a covered walkway with railings and benches for people to sit on and enjoy the scenes around.
A specialty of these bridges is that no nails were ever used in their construction. Rather, the Dong carpenters used groove joints in structural members of the bridge to hold them together and transmit the load to the pier.
Other specific feature of Dong villages are the drum towers. Meetings and celebrations are held in front of these towers, and the Dong people gather there to dance and make merry on festivals. The multi-storey drum tower, the symbol of a Dong village, is usually built in the flat or high grounds of the village center. A square is built in front of the drum tower, and provides a venue for the entire village to come together for meetings, festival celebrations, and other public activities.
 Songs and dances are important aspects of Dong community life. All the Dong people can sing their folk songs. The  songs called the "Grand Songs" are most popular among the Dong folk songs, especially in the southern part of the Dong villages. The male voice is forceful and vigorous as against the sweet melody of the female voice. Each troupe is composed of members ranging from three to a dozen.
The Grand Songs has become famous throughout China for polyphonic folk songs. While some of these folk songs are accompanied by a string instrument called pipa ( a four strings China music  instrument) , most are sung without any musical accompaniment. The Dong ethnic minority have no written language, so they use folk songs to narrate their daily life, express their feelings, and keep a record of their history. All of Dong culture is preserved in these magnificent folk songs.
In 2009, the UNESCO World Heritage Commission formally recognized the Grand Song of the Dong Ethnic Minority as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Longji Rice Terraces

The Longsheng Rice Terraces, is located in Longsheng County, about 100 kilometres from Guilin, China.
Also known as Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces (Longji Rice Terraces) it is the most amazing rice terraces in China. Construction of the terraces began in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and completed in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces is constructed by the hard labor of the Zhuang people, which is now a minority ethnic group in this region.
It is hard to imagine that 800 years ago how the Zhuang and Yao people faced to the mountains and forests, and how they rely on ancient agriculture method to open the forest and to prepare the ground for the first field. 
The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces is a beautiful landscape. The rice fields is beautiful all year round, and the view of the rice terraces vary from season to season. In spring, the irrigation water reflects the sunshine on the terraces, and when the paddies are full of water it seems like the scales on the back of a dragon, thus it is named as Longji (Dragon Backed Mountain).
In summer the newly grown paddies cover the terraces like green carpet. In autumn the paddies turn into golden ready for harvesting, while in winter it is covered by snow. The rice fields are beautiful all year round.
Longji consists of Ping´an Zhuang Minority and Jinkeng Da Zhai Yao villages scattered in the middle of rice terraces.   People here kept their traditions, in the streets but also rice terraces, they are easily recognized by their traditional costume. 
The colors for Zhuang’s clothing are blue, black and brown. The Zhuang women are skilled at weaving and embroidering. They wear this unique and colorful costumes especially during festivals, to dance and sing in accordance with the tradition.
The Yao people also have distinctive clothing, and they are expert weavers, dyers and embroiderers. In the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD220), they wove with fabrics made from tree bark and dyed it with grass seeds. In the Song Dynasty, they developed delicate designs dyed on white cloth with blue indigo and beeswax. The product became famous all over the country later.
The Yao women also have distinctive hair styles and they are famous for having the longest hair in the world. They never cut their hair. Instead they wrap the hair in a bun on top of their head in a turban style. Their hair color remains shining black no matter how old she is. What is the secret? The secret is for generations of Yao women have been using fermented rice water, which has resulted in their impressively beautiful hair. Women from the tribe have an average hair length of 2.3 metres.
For the Yao people, their long hair is their most prized possession, believing that long hair symbolises prosperity, longevity, wealth and good fortune.
The way a woman wears her hair depends on her status:
A young unmarried woman will wear her hair covered by a black scarf.
A married woman with children will wrap her hair around her head like a turban and wear it with a bun in the front.

In ancient time, so to say, the wives in the Yao families were the ones who earned living for the family, and they had to work hard in the rice fields, carrying heavy stuffs in big bamboo basket at her back. While the husbands were laid back, staying at home playing cards and drinking beer. So laid back were the husbands that even sometimes a wife had to carry her husband in the basket to walk the hundreds of steps climbing the terraces, while the husband drank beer in the basket. 
However, nowadays we can see Yao men have to work to make a living, they provide the bamboo basket service for tourists, and the tourists in a big bamboo basket at his back to climb the 800 steps to see the scenic rice terraces.
Ping´an village is a Zhuang ethnic village built on the hillside amid stunning Longji rice terraces.
The Ping’an Village has the best preserved, oldest and largest wooden buildings  of Zhuang Ethnic style, more than five wooden buildings of which has over 100 years. The oldest one enjoys a history of more than 250 years, which is ancient and full of charm. 
Along the 800 steps we can the padi fields and the unique traditional style of houses. Built largely from timber, the houses are typically rectangular and three stories high. Each ascending floor is a little larger than the lower. The shingles, windows and beams are typical of other Chinese building styles.
One of the most famous scenic spot is the "Seven stars with moon". It is composed of seven small terraces and a large round terrace. When the terraces are filled with water during spring, we can see seven small terraces are like shining stars around a moon. 
Indeed the residence here are very imaginative and like to resemble shapes in the landscape with other shapes of nature. This habit we can find in other scenic places in China, like in Guilin. But that is another story….