ICCS Newsletter Summer/Autumn 2021



1. Programme
2. A Zoom Spring.
3. January Meeting.
4. 24th February Chinese film. Close to the Sun
5. 24th March Traditional Chinese Instruments
6. 28th April Secrets Of The Great Wall | Ancient China From Above | National Geographic
7. 26th May The Forgotten Emperor Of The Seas | Zheng He | Absolute History
8. 2021 Autumn Programme.

1. Programme

For information on our programme, click HERE.   

Please note our meeting venue,

United Arts Club,
3 Fitzwilliam Street,

(just off Baggot Street,)
Dublin 2,

and meeting days,

the FOURTH WEDNESDAY (mostly!) of each month.

For information on our programme, click HERE.   

A Zoom Spring.

A Zoom Spring as we found our feet in the new era of pandemic restrictions. In fairness, there was nothing to it. A click of a switch and the ICCS meetings came into the comfort of our own homes, bringing some of the riches of Chinese culture with them in the form of a beautiful film, based in the Miao community in the South Western Province of Guizhou, videos showcasing the range of traditional Chinese musical instruments, and fascinating documentaries on the Great Wall and Zheng He’s voyages for us to learn about and discuss.

January Meeting.

In lieu of the annual Chinese New Year Dinner we emailed a video of Yanyi’s New Year Traditions talk, given in the Chester Beatty Library in 2018, to mark the advent of the Year of the Ox.

Chinese New Year – Nian Members were also emailed a link to a most interesting and informative talk on ‘The Linguistics of the Chinese New Year’ by Trinity College Professor Adrian Tien and a charming Chinese New Year tale about a little girl who counters fear with relentless curiosity, a father who fears her fearlessness, a mother who is willing to learn from it, and a monster (the Nian) with a taste for rice cakes!

24th February Chinese film. Close to the Sun.

Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t got around to watching the film which is available to view on youtube. Pauline is a French artist who has forgotten how beautiful all the colours of the world can be. Like Coleridge, she ‘could not hope from outward forms to win / the passion and the life whose fountains are within.’ In a depressed state, and afflicted by a mysterious illness, she decides to find a peaceful place to rest and wait for death but discovers instead a magical land and the warm embrace of a compassionate, gentle community (the real shape of Jinji - guiding spirit of the Miao people).The encounter allows her to fall in love with life again and emerge from under the cloud of her troubling malaise, albeit after a few serious bumps on the road, and river in this case.

At a key point in the film the Miao attempt to establish a healing connection between Pauline and Jinji via an act of physical nourishment (shades of the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation) but she will not cooperate. She will not eat their God. She confronts them with their own kindness and refuses to let Jinji’s supposed corporeal embodiment, the beautiful golden pheasant, come to any harm on her account. So begins her path to mental and physical well-being which involves the whole community in a far from ritualistic effort to support her in her struggle.
There is enough friction along the way to provide a key for this modern day fairy tale to take hold, and touches of humour to leaven it, as in the early scenes when the children wash the mud off Pauline to unveil a ghost who has somehow managed to evade Jinji’s watch! Not a ghost perhaps but a troubled spirit all the same, showing all the spikiness of a young lady who has closed her heart to the world. But the key is at hand.

Close to the sun is an enchanting film on many levels. The rhythms of life are hypnotic, even before we get to the music of the Lusheng and the birdlike movements of the Jinji Dance. Cooking the produce of the land in the biggest wok you’ve ever seen, dining with the smallest chairs but the most panoramic view imaginable, harvesting nature’s bounty, paper –making, flower art, the joy of teaching and learning, those close- to-the-sun moments when Pauline joins the silhouettes on the ridges in the mountain fields, all make for a deeply therapeutic ambience.
There is no wound in the relationship between human beings and nature in this other Eden. Maniao recounts how his grandfather told him of a mystical union between the land and their ancestors and indeed something of the gentleness of the verdant hills does seem to imbue the image we get of Miao culture in this film.

The child actors playing Erhuan and Baini deserve special mention for the key role they play in realising this optimistic vision of a gentle, welcoming society where ‘all those who can walk can dance and those who can speak can sing.’

24th March Traditional Chinese Instruments.

We discussed Chinese music having watched 2 videos in advance. The first of these videos gave us an overview of Chinese traditional instruments which are divided into 8 categories viz. silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd, and hide and can be blown, struck, plucked or bowed.

One of the more dramatic clips in the videos featured a performance of fou (缶 or 缻; pinyin: fǒu) an ancient Chinese percussion instrument consisting of a pottery or bronzeware crock, jar, pot, or similar vessel, which was struck with a stick and used in rituals which don’t come much bigger than the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Among the other instruments featured, the Bian Zhong stands out as an extraordinary metal creation with a 3000 year history, featuring 16 to 65 bronze bells, but despite its intimidating appearance it seems to be a very gentle giant, musically speaking.

The yu qin is a special instrument literally ‘beyond instrument’ which is usually reserved for slow and elegant music. In ancient China the player was required to have a bath and change clothes before playing it while incense burned to aid the musician’s mind in banishing all evil thoughts.
It is also the source of a metaphor in Mandarin signifying ‘soul mate’ which derives from an encounter between a celebrated exponent Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi who responded to Boya’s music with a sigh saying ‘how grand the mountain and how great the river was’. Yu Boya was delighted to meet the first person whom he felt understood the grandeur of his music. When Zhong Ziqi died he broke his yu qin in honour of the bond of friendship between them but that bond lives on in the well-known idiom gao shan liu shui.

Another instrument associated with spiritual purification is the fish-shaped wooden slit drum mu yu which is used in Buddhist chanting.

In this Tang Dynasty (618 -907 A.D.) clay figurine of a lady playing the pipa you can see the resemblance to the lute but around this time it began to be played vertically as the style of playing changed, the plectrum was abandoned in favour of the fingernails, and the number of frets on the body was increased. Apart from Riverdance probably the most famous interaction between Chinese and Irish traditional music involves the visit of the Chieftains to China in 1983. Sun Sheng, the vice chairman of the Musician's Association of China at the time, said of the visit ‘Music knows no boundaries for it is a unique and comprehensive language.’ He might have added ‘not even the Great Wall’ as the Chieftains actually played on one of the Ming Empire’s Watch Towers!

Many people in China associate the er hu with blind people due to the fame of the musician known as A Bing who lost his sight when he was in his thirties. His playing was recorded for posterity in 1950 shortly before he passed away. That recording of "Er Quan Ying Yue".is available on youtube and it is easy to appreciate how the mournful strains of the er hu were deemed a suitable accompaniment by musicians seeking donations from the public.

We also watched a video of the 12 Girls Band playing Reel of Light from Riverdance which was very enjoyable to listen to, and the musicians’ expressions suggested they really enjoyed playing it. In this performance we witnessed a much jauntier version of the er hu.

Apart from Riverdance probably the most famous interaction between Chinese and Irish traditional music involves the visit of the Chieftains to China in 1983. Sun Sheng, the vice chairman of the Musician's Association of China at the time, said of the visit ‘Music knows no boundaries for it is a unique and comprehensive language.’ He might have added ‘not even the Great Wall’ as the Chieftains actually played on one of the Ming Empire’s Watch Towers!

28th April Secrets Of The Great Wall | Ancient China From Above | National Geographic.

The magnificent Jiayuguan fortress which marks the western extremity of the Ming Empire’s Great Wall didn’t start with a single brick but with a vision of such engineering sophistication that the architect Yi Kaizhan was able to compute the precise requirement of 99,999 bricks which would be needed to complete the project. The single brick is still there, lying on top of a wall, but only to showcase Yi’s precision!

The remarkable survival of a collection of bamboo slips gives us a unique insight into the sophisticated defensive system which the Han Dynasty Wall constituted over 2000 years ago. These slips contain detailed instructions for the guardians of a series of watchtowers, precursors of a phenomenon most familiar to us through our own Martello Towers, but also of the Ming Dynasty Watch Towers we associate with the Great Wall today
These Han Dynasty Towers employed flags by day and fire by night to send warnings of enemy encroachment hundreds of kilometres down the line to wherever troops were garrisoned. The vocabulary included a special signal to warn that over a 1000 huns were on the march. What a chilling message that must have been to receive!
It is interesting to note that flag semaphore systems are still with us today especially in the maritime arena and are acceptable for emergency communication in daylight or using lighted wands instead of flags, at night. Plus ca change!

A striking feature of the Ming Wall are the perfectly preserved doorway arches marking exit points which enabled search parties to spy on the enemy but Professor Li Zhe of Tianjin University found a different kind of portal: one that allowed soldiers hidden in tunnels within the wall’s structure to break through a false façade of brick and ambush the enemy, its jagged outline conveying just a hint of that ancient ferocity into the peaceful rural ambience of the present-day Wall.

In the documentary digital highlighting sharpens such effects, and, in like manner, a digital reconstruction allows the remains of the Han Wall (quietly slipping back into the landscape of the Gobi Desert for over a thousand years), to rear up like a laser barrier from a dystopian future, and helps us to imagine the intimidation which must have been felt by soldiers in a nomad army confronted by this 20 foot high rammed earth and reed based barrier. Surely the ultimate line in the sand! But that sand turned up a further dimension of understanding in relation to the Wall at that time as Han Dynasty coins from merchants trading on the Silk Road suggest its important role in protecting this vital trade route.

As we made our way back in time past the Ming Wall and the Han Wall we arrived at the rule of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who brought all the walls of the Warring States together to create the first Great Wall of China, on the backs of a mind-numbing quotient of human suffering it must be said (in a more poetic universe the names of the labourers would be engraved on its sides.)

In any case it seems valid to adapt Kierkegaard’s dictum about life having to be lived forwards but understood backwards and apply it to history in general and the Great Wall in particular. As we move further away from the iconic structure in time and in space also, via the vantage points of drones and satellites, we begin to see it more clearly, in its various iterations, and to register the scale of it for the first time. With the help of cutting edge technology Chinese archaeologists are revealing the true scale of the Great Wall of China and no doubt will continue to uncover more of its secrets far into the future.

26th May The Forgotten Emperor Of The Seas | Zheng He | Absolute History.

I came to this story when, on a visit to the Forbidden City some years ago, I saw a notice about the presence of a giraffe there in the 15th century which had caused quite a stir among the local population. Seeing it through the eyes of its Chinese admirers rekindled my own admiration for this most exotic of creatures but I knew nothing about how the animal came to be in the emperor’s summer retreat. The film we discussed on Wednesday filled in that gap in understanding with a backstory that takes some beating!

The maritime adventures launched by the megalomaniac emperor, under the command of his favoured general, Zheng He, a man of exceptional gifts who was familiar with Arabic Buddhist and Taoist culture, and manned by a crew of thousands, can only be regarded as the most extraordinary trade delegation in history doubling up as a maritime expeditionary force on an unprecedented scale.

The film uncovered some of the layers of human ingenuity, spanning centuries, which made the whole enterprise possible. We learnt of China’s precocious feats of nautical engineering, the dry docks in Nanjing’s Dragon Shipyard (400 years before the technique was known in the West) which facilitated massive ship production levels and the knowledge of triple-planked hulls and water-tight bulkheads allowing for the construction of such massive wooden vessels. Experts differ on the actual size of Zheng He’s ships but safe to say they were larger than anything that sailed the oceans until the 19th century.

The project also saw a harnessing of the expertise of Arab navigators (China had invented the magnetic compass but the Arabs refined it for use at sea) and although not conceived of as voyages of discovery Zheng He’s journeys were just that, amongst other things, and have left a significant legacy to human civilisation and interconnectedness.

Copies of Zheng He’s Star Maps (probably of Arab origin) survive as do detailed, terrestrial maps that allowed daytime navigation by shore from China all the way to Africa. There is also a small bowl of blue and white porcelain passed down as a family heirloom in an island off the Kenyan coast which DNA testing in China has reinforced as compelling evidence of Chinese descent among the people there, possibly as a result of Zheng He’s sailors being shipwrecked off the Kenyan coast.
Zheng He’s was undoubtedly the greatest fleet ever to take to the water with a flag ship carrying a crew of over a thousand, ‘treasure ships’ filled with highly-prized porcelain and silks for trading purposes and all sorts of specialized vessels for transporting food provisions, fish tanks, water, horses, livestock and other animals, including that extraordinary long-necked deer from Africa that set Chinese lexicographers scrambling for a name.

A 300 strong armada escorted the fleet for protection but also came into play as an enforcer in its mission to assert global hegemony. When you are charged with maintaining harmony between heaven and earth you tend to have an outsize appetite for receiving tribute from leaders of other nations. So it was with Yongle. But this was empire thinking stretched to breaking point. We can understand the bemusement of the authorities in Yemen who were being asked to show obeisance to an emperor from such a distant civilisation. But it was no laughing matter for those who refused to pay tribute to China and had to face the wrath of Zheng He’s forces or for the pirates they defeated in battle.

The draw of Yemen centred on its mythical status as the land of frankincense, fragrance of heaven, and another one of the most attractive trading opportunities brought the fleet to Calicut on India’s Malabar coast which was famous for a form of black gold in the form of pepper, a spice that could also serve as a remedy for stomach and heart problems and was so prized in China that it could be used in lieu of money. Actual gold also played a central role in this tale as Africa was China’s el dorado and African gold was used to pay for luxury goods such as the Indian pepper and Yemeni frankincense.

But the voyages came at a ruinous cost, the measure of that ruinousness made clear in the response of the Chinese authorities who burned Zheng He’s log books, made construction of a ship with more than 2 masts an offence punishable by death and basically turned their back on the sea in order to prevent any repetition of such maritime adventures in the future.

Zheng He left various inscriptions carved in granite to memorialise his travels, one of which speaks of ‘traversing savage waves as if we were threading a public thoroughfare’ and he thanks the sea goddess Tianfei for her protection ‘suddenly there was a divine lamp which illuminated the masts and sails, and once this miraculous light appeared, then apprehension turned to calm.’ We may call the blue plasma St. Elmo’s Fire, the electrical discharge from a ship’s mast that occurs after a storm at sea, but there is no denying the epic, Shakespearean quality of this image of a larger- than-life figure battling the elements on his journeys beyond the limits of the known world.

2021 Autumn Programme.

22nd September: Mid-Autumn Festival 2021 China Ireland Poetry Cultural Exchange Event. “中爱共婵娟” 2021中秋诗词文化交流会

“Sharing the Beauty of the Moon” Mid-Autumn

Festival 2021 Organiser:Love Actually Charity Co-organiser: Irish-Chinese Cultural Society Supported by: Chinese Embassy in Ireland, Literature Ireland Purpose of the Event: Firstly, it is an online cultural exchange event, using poetry as the theme, to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival 2021 with the Chinese and Irish communities by “Sharing the Beauty of the Moon”. Secondly, it is a not-for-profit event and will be open to the public for free. Last but not least, it is a charitable event and all proceeds (e.g. sponsorship and donation received) will be donated to Love Actually Charity (CHY22213) to support children with special educational needs in Ireland.

About the Event: To celebrate Mid-Autumn festival, the poems are selected based on themes including appreciation of the beauty of the moon, homesickness, family reunion, etc. 3 Chinese guest speakers and 3 Irish guest speakers are invited to interpret and appreciate the poems. Recital performers include children with special needs sponsored by Love Actually Charity, Chinese youngsters living in Ireland, Irish youngsters who have a basic knowledge of Chinese, poetry recital lovers, etc. Most recital performances will be pre-recorded with background music and then played at the event.

Email: irishchineseculturalsociety@gmail.com Website: www.ucd.ie/iccs

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