Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Number-plate Fetishism...

It would be fair to say that I have a preternatural obsession with number plates. I recall fondly the implementation of the UK's new number plate system in 2000. From that point on, all newly-issued number plates began with a two letter prefix denoting where the car was from. So if the numberplate started with NY, it was from Stockton, North England. Or if it started with LA, it was from Wimbledon, London. Or at least this was the theory behind it. But because of the UKs small size, and the fluid nature of integration between cities, it is not entirely inconceivable a Londoner could go to Scotland to get a cheaper deal on car. Though the plate identifies the car as coming from Scotland, there is a Londoner driving it, and so there is less fun to be had in the detective work.

The ideogram on the left demarcates this car as originating from 苏州 (Suzhou, A province is South-Eastern China) Note the multiple 8s. Chinese superstition and love of this digit makes this number-plate one of the most expensive in Chinese history.

But China is a whole different ball game. Where many people have never left their provinces, generally speaking the prefix of the province on a car plate truly is where the owner is from. And China has such a massive range of different plates it is wonderful. Sections of the military, government, embassies, public institutions, all have their own prefixes. There is such a diversity it is fascinating and breathtaking. I nostalgically look back on a range of books from when I was younger called 'Michelin I Spy.' They were a wonderful collection of books, encouraging children to keep their eyes open looking out for the objects listed in the books. If someone could produce one related to Chinese number plates even I would buy one...A number plate goes on a car, Michelin tyres go on a car, Michelin produces the books; there must be something in this...
I make no excuses for my youthful love of cars, and the above book was no doubt my favourite one of the series

Because I find my eyes often trailing towards the number-plate area of a car, it means occasionally I find myself noticing strange things. One thing I noticed recently pertains to a certain brand of car called Infiniti. To give their brand that little edge, it seems they have started offering number-plate facades which deviate slightly from the norm.

Here the brand name is emblazoned upon a gold plaque

Here the customer has gone for the bling Swaroski look

And last but not least, the classic two-tone petrol style...

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Communist Propaganda, Capitalist Lifestyle...

During my time in China I have frequently seen Maoist style graphics reinvented within a modern context, each time used for different reasons, and leading to differing end-results.

Modern Chinese pop-art seems to be particularly adept at invoking symbols of communism and inverting them in order to mark out and delineate the change in China’s direction, political standpoints, and economy. Chinese art is awash with using this style of propaganda print as a form of contemporary cultural communication.

In advertising its use is also far from clear; often it gives artistic simplicity to the ad which presents a visual emphasis on the product on display, as well as adding a bold adding a bold desirability to the product on offer. Of course, the use of it within advertising is particularly interesting:a style formerly a tool for lauding communist ideologies reinvented as a tool of capitalism.

In other kinds of situations I have seen this style used in public messages and displays (non-governmental), presumably where the strength of simplicity still manages to fulfil original aims. I have seen it painted on the walls around schools, bringing up a kind of idealism to the educational environment, and on entrances to bars and restaurants frequented by older clientele where the propaganda style image brings up a different recollection to the younger generation.

The government also still invokes a kind of stylistic simplicity in it’s public messages which seems redolent of government messages from 40 years earlier. However, often certain colours are softened, figures are given more of a realism and the characters within the poster look forwards to give more of an amiable and less of a non-personal look to the image.

Maoist-era Propaganda

Modern-era propaganda stylism

Above I have noted a couple of contrasts (and similarities) between communist posters and contemporary propoganda style posters which I have come across in the last week. Note the eyeline focusing away from viewer, the striking simplicity in terms of design and colour. The first pair are posters intended as public encouragement posters. Of the later pair, the first is part of Nike's Running Assets Campaign (Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai), the second is a picture taken at the entrance to a building site.

For those interested in original style propoganda posters, there is a wonderful selection worth looking at here.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Busking in China

Recently met up with some friends around 798 Art District in Beijing, an interesting enough place which gives a good place to start if interested in getting some kind of understanding about Chinese art, even though the place is becoming increasingly commercialised.

The area is brimming with local artists of both the musical and artistic kind displaying their wares and strumming their tunes. By chance my friend had his guitar, and I had my bike. If ever the stage was more set for some impromptu busking, this was it.

We started off with a song we had invented more or less on the spot: slightly uninspired, lacking any strong or variable vocals, playing excessively upon repeated chords, and drawn together by three guys devoid of any discernible music talent. Nonetheless, it sounded O.K., and I think we were unlucky not to earn so much as 1 kuai. The lyrics translate roughly as "Tomu loves Zhongguo (China)", and "Shenlin loves Riben (Japan)"

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

State-Sponsored Graffiti

As I was returning back to my Chinese homestay family's house recently, I took a route slightly different to normal. I got a little lost, and ended up cycling past a (kind of) Great Wall of stenciled images and painted figures, all resplendent in colour. Graffiti walls are nothing remarkable. They are a feature of any major city I can recall having visited; a creative output for the artistic, a political output for the disillusioned, an illegalistic output for the subversive.
But after having passed the wall, I began turning something over in my head. For I had never seen graffiti in Beijing before. Perhaps as an attempt to assert dominance over the masses, stamp out individualistic expression, and re-enforce the strength of government, any graffiti is covered up and painted over as quickly as it is discovered. So I couldn't help myself but turn around and go back to take a second-look.

And it was more than worth it. The images are pro-China, in fact their profusion of feelings are not even subtle. But I find the contrast between images which on the surface have such an insouciance and freedom to them, and the underlying message of support for the government, disarming. Of course, China doesn't conform to anything which is imaginable in the West, but imagine a truce between graffiti artists and the local authorities to lay down pro-Conservative Party graffiti on British walls!

In this image a family is drawn together in harmony, expressing their positive outlook through the ubiquitous V-sign gesture, symbolising cheerfulness and indefatigability. Of particular interest, this model Chinese family is twisted slightly from the norm, two cute children lurking behind instead of the normal one. A clever subtle note of defiance from the graffiti artist?

Here we see three Chinese red lanterns, emblazoned with the golden figures "60", "周" and "年"

This indicates the time origins of the wall: 2009 - a celebration of 60 years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
Here there is a celebratory image of the successful Chinese space mission of 2003, which propelled China as the third-nation to enter space. There is a blissful innocence to the image, which discounts the globo-political motivation for the mission. Of further interest is the image of two astronauts next to each other. In fact, China has only sent one astronaut into space, Yang Liwei.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Who Holds the Power?

Last night the power went off at midnight. Which is nothing to get too upset about, except that no-one knew anything about it. Televisions and clocks reset, computers ran out of power, electrical appliances went uncharged, and freezers leaked all over the floor. About two minutes after it happened I angrily stormed down stairs to find out what was going on.
The security guard was sitting there, reading under candlelight. I asked if this was unexpected. He said that he knew it was going to happen due to engineering works. His supervisors had told him. It just so happened that him and his colleagues had not bothered to tell anyone else. Whether out of laziness, unwillingness to enter into conflict and anger, or orders from above; we were left, well, in the dark.
And what a marked difference this is from the UK, where a letter is sent out months in advance of any power cut (in fact this is a legal requirement). British Method: Warn before, deal with the consequences and complaints, then cut the power. Chinese method: Give no warning, cut the power, then shrug off the consequences and complaints saying that what's done is done and there is no going back.
Still, there were rare advantages. It was incredible to see all the student accommodation plunged into blackness; but even better still was to hear all the student accommodation plunged into silence. No televisions, no microwaves, no air conditioning, no speakers, no computers. Just the gentle brushing of the wind across the trees and through my window.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

What's a Gift and What's a Bribe?

When I originally intended to move from my home-stay family to live in accommodation at university halls of residence, I was quite convinced that I wanted to stay in a room of my own.Knowing that single rooms were in high demand and hoping to curry favour with the accommodations office, I gifted a box of Rose chocolates to sweeten the dialogue. The ruse worked, and I have hardly thought any more of it since.

Until my friend recently decided that he too would like to live in the Halls of Residence. On account of being in the middle of term time, and realising that single rooms would now be as rare as hens teeth, he took my idea and upped the ante a little, gifting a bottle of Japanese Saké. And it worked...

Furthermore, a Chinese friend recently showed me the gift which she was planning on giving to one university department with the intention of receiving favourable treatment in changing her major. As if the perfume were not enough, inside was a gift card for 2000RMB (£200)

In itself this gift card is of particular interest. There is no name attached to it, so it is clearly not for personal use like a credit/debit card. But it is also not the same as a store gift card (i.e. for sole use in HMV, Topshop, Waitrose...) Rather it is issued by a bank, to be used in the same way as a credit card, to be given as a gift, and which can only be topped up in large denominations. If ever there was a card more conducive to being given as a bribe (in lieu of cash, of course, which is too overt is its sinister implications) then this was it.

There is an interesting point to be made about what the difference is between a gift and a bribe. Is it dependent on some kind of fiscal trait? Or is it a moralistic difference based on intent? Perhaps it may be considered that a gift is given out of innocent kindness, whereas a bribe has the expectation of something in return. But this is no doubt an overly simplistic simplification, and it has also been said that nothing is a purely selfless act, and gift-giving provides feelings of self-contentment and one-upmanship. What if there is no devious intention at the outset, but the giving of gifts merely provides foundation for latter requests?

On this note, one thing I have heard suggested is that corruption is engrained within Chinese culture, as this "Perceived Corruption Index 2010" map illustrates. Perhaps time spent here has biased my stance and made me apologetic of Chinese faults, but it is important to remember that there are few world economies with such growth as China, as well as associated high inflation. Wages in public and government institutions often considerably trail the increase in the cost of living; and the gift/bribe culture is a simple way of compensating for such discrepancy.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Do your ears hang low, do they waggle to-and-fro?

China has often been labeled as an expert at imitation, a master at infringement of copyright law, and inept at nurturing it's own creative voice. During my time spent in China I have learnt that whilst the first two accusations do hold water, the later suggestion is simply not true. I have seen artistic innovation here which can only marveled at...

However, there are indeed times when even I am taken aback at the invocation of Western culture. On the radio yesterday I heard this song by a Taiwanese pop-hip-hop group. I couldn't help but notice how the first 30 seconds had a remarkable resemblance to a tune I heard quite a lot when I was younger. Well, they do say imitation is the finest form of flattery...

UPDATE (30/06/11): Just the other day I was watching an online television show, and this ad came on. It is ostensibly for 黄金酒 (Huangjiu, A Chinese alcoholic beverage particularly popular in southern China) Yet despite the poor quality of the clip, the tune used is unmistakably familiar. Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells...!

Friday, 6 May 2011

(Chinese Periodic Table) There's 锑,砷,铝,硒...

For those of you interested, the Chinese above is the first line from Tom Lehrer's song "The Elements".
"There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium.." and so on, a song which I became very familiar with when I was younger. I have fond recollection of an event revolving around the chemical elements when I was in my formative years. At this time I was perhaps 12 years old, and I had just moved from junior to senior school. For the first time, instead of having a mixed science class, the three sciences of chemistry along with physics and biology were segmented into specialised subjects.

The chemistry teacher set us a paper in the first class as an observation of our understanding of chemistry, and there was one question imploring us to "Write down any chemical elements that you know of." Most students managed 10, some perhaps 20. I tirelessly wrote down more than 80 elements, in the exact order and more-or-less the exact lyrics of Tom Lehrer's song. I will cherish the bemused and surprised look on the chemistry teacher's face for the rest of my life...

And this brings me on to the topic of this blog entry. See, when I left school I thought that I was done with chemistry, but recently I have started to develop quite an interest in the Chinese periodic table. A while back I suggested that new Chinese characters could not just be created out of no-where since most people would not understand them. Well, in fact, I was wrong. In very specialist cases they can be, and one example of this is the periodic table.

Early Chinese characters had already been found for the Five Traditional Metals: Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron and Tin; along with Lead and Mercury; but around the industrial age there was a need for the creation of characters to depict the recently isolated elements.
And the technique used is a fascinating one. Depending on the state of the element at room temperature, firstly one of 4 different radicals (this is not the sound part, it just contributes to the meaning) were used. 钅(metal/gold) for solid metals, 石 (stone) for solid non-metals, 氵(water) for liquids and 气 (air) for gases.

Some of the time a sound is then given which most of the time would correspond to the Western description of the element.
For Example: Sodium, depicted in the periodic table as Na, when translated into Chinese derives it sound from 内 and its metal state钅to make 钠. This is pronounced na in Chinese, an intentional similarity to Na

Aluminium, in the same way, utilises the character 吕 for the sound and pairs it with the metal radical 钅to make 铝. This pronounciation is , with strong correlations to Aluminum.

Other elements are purely meaning based. Hydrogen for example, since it is the lightest of elements, takes the character for light (轻) and pairs it with the radical for air (气)to give 氢.

One other kind of elements invokes a concept I mentioned in an earlier blog article, that of re-inventing obscure characters with a new meaning. The characters 镤,鈹 and 鉻 originally meant respectively "raw iron", "needle" and "hook", but these meanings have long been lost to most people and re-invented by chemists/translators as protactinium, beryllium and chromium.

So, to come to some sort of conclusion; it is in fact possible to invent new characters, but only under certain conditions. The creations must come to represent something which is agreed on and definitive. As a representation of Western elements already in some finite structurural template it is do-able, if it was an advertiser wanting to invent a word not so easy. And in today's technological climate there are some strange reprecussions. Tom Lehrer at the end of his song pointed out that
"These [elements] are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, there may be many others but they haven't been discovered."

And indeed, some of the newly discovered chemical elements, and new creation of characters for them are just new. Copernicum, for example. This is simply too new an element and character, so new that it has not been added to my Chinese input system. Even if I wanted to type it, there is simply no way of doing so. Good thing I'm not writing a paper in Chinese on the discovery of Copernicum...