Chinese Team Searches Museums for Art Treasures

Insightful article with probably one of the better quotes of the year:

“China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids. It has suddenly become big but it finds it hard to coordinate and control its body. To the West, it can look like a monster.”

Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese studies at Duke University.

December 17, 2009

Chinese Team Searches Museums for Art Treasures


China’s “treasure hunting team” descended on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last week, and James C.Y. Watt, the patrician head of Asian art, braced for a confrontation.

For the past two weeks, the delegation of Chinese cultural experts has swept through American institutions, seeking to reclaim items once ensconced at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, which was one of the world’s most richly appointed imperial residences until British and French troops plundered it in 1860.

With a crew from China’s national broadcaster filming the visit, the Chinese fired off questions about the provenance of objects on display, and when it came to a collection of jade pieces, they requested documentation to show that the pieces had been acquired legally.

But then, with no eureka discovery, the tension faded. The Chinese pronounced themselves satisfied, smiled for a group photo, and drove away.

“That wasn’t so bad after all,” Mr. Watt said.

Emboldened by newfound wealth, China has been on a noisy campaign to reclaim relics that disappeared during its so-called century of humiliation, the period between 1842 and 1945 when foreign powers subjugated China through military incursions and onerous treaties.

But the quest, fueled by national pride, has been quixotic, provoking fear at institutions overseas but in the end amounting to little more than a public relations show aimed at audiences back home.

At its core, such mixed signals are an outgrowth of China’s evolving self-identity. Is it a developing country with fresh memories of its victimization by imperial powers? Or is it the world’s biggest exporter, eager to ensure good relations with the outside world to protect its trade-dependent economy?

“China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids,” said Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese studies at Duke University. “It has suddenly become big but it finds it hard to coordinate and control its body. To the West, it can look like a monster.”

Recounted in Chinese textbooks and in countless television dramas, the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan as it is called in Chinese, remains a crucial event epitomizing China’s fall from greatness. Begun in the early 18th century and expanded over the course of 150 years, the palace was a wonderland of artificial hills and lakes, and so many ornate wooden structures that it took 3,000 troops three days to burn them down.

“The wound is still open and hurts every time you probe it,” said Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer and a driving force in the movement to regain stolen antiquities. “It reminds people what may come when we are too weak.”

Stoked by populist sentiment but carefully managed by the Communist Party, the drive to reclaim lost cultural property has so far been halting. While officials privately acknowledge there is scant legal basis for repatriation, their public statements suggest that they would use lawsuits, diplomatic pressure and shame to bring home looted objects — not unlike Italy, Greece and Egypt, which have sought, with some success, to recover antiquities in European and American museums.

“The ideal scenario would be for the holders of these relics to donate them back to China,” said Chen Mingjie, the director of the palace museum, whose grounds include a shabby exhibition hall and an evocative pile of stone ruins that are instantly recognizable to any Chinese elementary school student.

The Communist Party has long used the narrative of foreign subjugation as a binding force, one that has become especially useful in recent years as the credo of market economics overruns the last remnants of its Marxist ideology.

But arousing nationalist sentiment, Chinese officials have learned, is a double-edged sword. In 2005, officials allowed public ire against Japan, over territorial disputes and textbooks that glossed over Japanese wartime atrocities, to boil over into violent street protests. After some of the anti-Japanese slogans began morphing into demands for action by Chinese leaders, the authorities clamped down.

The delegation traveling to United States museums appears to have been caught up in a political maelstrom. The relics quest intensified this year after Christie’s in Paris auctioned a pair of bronze animal heads that had been part of a fountain on the palace grounds; the sale was met with outrage in China. In the end, a Chinese collector sabotaged the auction by calling in the highest bids — $18 million for each head — then refusing to pay.

The United States scouting tour — visits to England, France and Japan will come early next year — quickly turned into a spectacle sponsored by a Chinese liquor company. As for the eight-member delegation, a closer look revealed that most were either employed by the Chinese media or were from the palace museum’s propaganda department.

“These days even building a toilet at Yuanmingyuan would be front-page news in People’s Daily,” said Liu Yang, a researcher who joined the trip.

But the 20-day spin through a dozen institutions has not been especially fruitful. Wu Jiabi, an archaeologist and the leader of the delegation, said that meaningful contacts were made but acknowledged that the group had not discovered illicit relics.

The visit has had its share of mishaps. Not all the museums on the itinerary were prepared for the delegation. One stop, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., was scrapped after the group realized the museum was in the Midwest, not in the Northeast.

The art experts whom the group met along the way offered consistent advice: the lion’s share of palace relics are in private hands, including those of collectors in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. “The best thing would be to look through the catalogs of Sotheby’s and Christie’s,” said Mr. Watt of the Metropolitan Museum.

Although the Chinese public broadly supports recovering such items, a few critics have suggested that the campaign merely distracts from the continued destruction of historic buildings and archeological sites across the country. A government survey released this month found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been plowed under for development.

What’s more, said Wu Zuolai, a professor at the China Academy of Art, the obsession with Yuanmingyuan ignores the plunder of older sites that are more artistically significant.

“Chinese history did not start with the Qing Dynasty,” he said. “This treasure hunting trip is just a political show. The media portray it as patriotic, but it’s just spreading hate.”

Like many of the curators the delegation met last week, Keith Wilson, who oversees the Chinese art collection at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, both part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said that he was unsure what delegation members were really after. “They took a million miles of video, but in the end, I really felt they were not controlling their own destiny,” he said.

Mr. Liu, the researcher who was part of the delegation, seemed to admit as much, complaining that politics had upstaged scholarship. Even if he stumbled upon a palace relic, he said, he would be reluctant to take it back to an institution whose unheated exhibition space resembled little more than a military barracks. “To be honest, if you leave a thermos in our office, it gets broken,” he said.

“Maybe it’s better these things stay where they are.”

Li Bibo contributed research from Beijing.

Quebec language police nab Montreal bar for vintage posters

CBC News:

An Irish pub in Montreal will fight an order from Quebec’s language watchdog to take down antique advertising posters from its walls.

The Office de la langue francaise (OLF) issued the order to McKibbins Irish Pub on Feb. 6, informing the tavern it was violating Quebec’s language charter by displaying the imported vintage posters.

The wall hangings include vintage advertisements for Guinness and St. James Gate Dublin, imported from Ireland.

McKibbins owner Rick Fon told CBC News he will not take the posters down because they serve as decoration, not to advertise beer.

The OLF said it received a complaint about the pub and sent an inspector to investigate the downtown watering hole.

The inspector ruled McKibbins’ bilingual menu, bar service and vintage posters do not respect article 58 of Quebec’s language charter.

The OLF was not available for comment on Thursday.

Robo Love: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships.

December 2, 2007

A few months ago I wrote a magazine article about scientists who are building robots capable of a rudimentary form of sociability. As part of my research, I spent a few days at the humanoid robotics laboratory at M.I.T. And I admit: I developed a little crush on one of the robots. The object of my affection was Domo, a man-size machine with a buff torso and big blue eyes, a cross between He-Man and the Chrysler Building; when it gripped my hand in its strong rubbery pincers I felt a kind of thrill. So I was primed for the basic premise of David Levy?s provocative new book, ?Love and Sex With Robots?: that there will soon come a day when people fall in love with robots and want them for companions, friends, love objects and possibly even partners for sex and marriage.

That day is imminent, Levy writes, especially the sex part. By the middle of this century, he predicts, ?love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans, while the number of sexual acts and lovemaking positions commonly practiced between humans will be extended, as robots teach more than is in all of the world?s published sex manuals combined.?

If this seems a bit much, hang on. Levy, an expert on artificial intelligence and the author of ?Robots Unlimited,? builds his case gradually. He begins with what scientists know about why humans fall in love with other humans. There are 10 factors, he writes, including mystery, reciprocal liking, and readiness to enter a relationship. Why can?t these factors apply to robots, too? Even something as apparently human as ?reciprocal liking? can be programmed into a robot?s behavior, and if it acts as if it likes you that?s often all that matters.

Next, Levy points out that we?re perfectly capable of falling in love with non-humans, including our pets, our teddy bears, our computers and our computerized pets (remember the Furby and Tamagotchi crazes a few years ago?). Once you realize how easy it is to think of your own laptop as a sympathetic friend, how much more difficult is it to imagine having fond feelings for a robot programmed to interact with you in exactly the way your heart desires?

Humans, Levy writes, are hard-wired to impute emotions onto anything with which we?re in intimate contact, to feel love for objects both animate and inanimate. And robots, he argues, might turn out to be even more lovable than some humans. By 2025 ?at the latest,? he predicts, ?artificial-emotion technologies? will allow robots to be more emotionally available than the typical American human male. ?The idea that a robot could like you might at first seem a little creepy, but if that robot?s behavior is completely consistent with it liking you, then why should you doubt it??

When it comes to the even creepier prospect of a robot wanting to have sex with you, Levy takes a similar step-by-step approach. First, he explores why people have sex with other people (for ?pure pleasure,? ?to express emotional closeness,? ?because your partner wants to?). He then moves on to why we have sex with a range of artificial objects, from plain old white-bread vibrators to elaborate mechanical contraptions with names like the Thrillhammer and the Stallion XL. He begins with sex toys you hold in your own hand and progresses to ones you engage in with another person: telephone sex for starters, followed by dildonics (computer-controlled sex devices) and then remote-controlled ?teledildonics.?

Robot sex already exists, sort of, in the form of sex dolls ? generally slim, big-breasted females with pliable ?cyberskin? and a fake heartbeat that increases as the doll mimics arousal. Levy helpfully includes the addresses for Web sites where such dolls can be purchased today for several thousand dollars each. He also writes about the ?doll experience rooms? in many Korean hotels (25,000 won, or about $25 an hour), which sprang up after that country cracked down on prostitution in 2004. There was some debate over whether paying for sex with dolls was also illegal, but for now, according to Levy, the prostitution ban applies only to intercourse with other humans.

Throughout the book, Levy builds up his case almost clinically, as though he?s just trying to bring the reader up to speed on an inevitable social development. But despite my own brief robot crush, I would have appreciated a little ironic distance. Levy simply embraces the sexy robots in our future, whether they are a sensitive cybermale or an adoring female robot that is like ?a Stepford wife, but without her level of built-in subservience.? But it isn?t the subservience that makes the uniform, unthinking, unblinking Stepford wives so unnerving; it?s the fact that they are ? hello! ? robots.

In making his case, Levy cites the gradual shift in the public view of what is acceptable in terms of sexual pairings. People used to be widely appalled by such variations as oral sex, masturbation and homosexuality, but today these practices are ?widely regarded as thoroughly normal and as leading to fulfilling relationships and satisfactory sex lives.? All he wants is for us to open our minds a tiny bit more, and make room for the idea of having sex with the domestic robots that will soon be part of all our lives. In fact, he argues, the human/robot sex of the future promises to be better than most sex between humans is today.

Levy spends so much time laying out his logical arguments about how and why we will fall in love with robots that he gives short shrift to the bigger questions of whether we would really want to. I?d have liked a little less gee-whiz, and a little more examination about whether a sexbot in every home, a Kama Sutra on legs that never tires, never says no, and never has needs of its own is what we really want.

Robin Marantz Henig, a contributing writer for The Times Magazine, is the author, most recently, of ?Pandora?s Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution.?

Are Terrorists Using Second Life To Plan Attacks?


Duncan Riley

OK, so sensationalistic headlines targeted at Second Life are so last week; from FBI related gambling bans to animal sex, we’ve seen a lot. Now there are allegations being printed by News Corp in Australia that suggest that the next major terrorist attack on a Western country could be being planned in Second Life, and yes, as can be seen in the picture to the right, 9/11 is being used as a reference point as well.

The report describes in detail various griefer operations as being terrorist attacks and goes on to say that:

On the darker side, there are also weapons armouries in SL where people can get access to guns, including automatic weapons and AK47s. Searches of the SL website show there are three jihadi terrorists registered and two elite jihadist terrorist groups.

The fear factor is so thick, it can’t be easily paraphrased

With the game taking such a sinister turn, terrorism experts are warning that SL attacks have ramifications for the real world. Just as September 11 terrorists practised flying planes on simulators in preparation for their deadly assault on US buildings, law enforcement agencies believe some of those behind the Second Life attacks are home-grown Australian jihadists who are rehearsing for strikes against real targets. Terrorist organisations al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah traditionally sent potential jihadists to train in military camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. But due to increased surveillance and intelligence-gathering, they are swapping some military training to online camps to evade detection and avoid prosecution.

The terrorists must get broadband in their caves now.

Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qaeda, says it is a new phenomena that, until now, has not been openly discussed outside the intelligence community….”They are rehearsing their operations in Second Life because they don’t have the opportunity to rehearse in the real world”

Be alert, but not alarmed

“Community representatives are relied on to report suspicious or inappropriate behaviour to the owners or the SL authorities, just as in the real world.”

Woman dropped on head alleges ‘negligent dancing’

CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) — A woman is suing her dance partner, claiming he dropped her on her head after flipping her into the air at an office party.

Lacey Hindman, 22, was a victim of “negligent dancing,” says her lawyer, David M. Baum.

In the suit, Hindman claims that during a party at a Chicago bar and restaurant in April 2006, David Prange grabbed her by the forearms and tossed her in the air, and then she crashed to the wood floor.

“I was in the air, over him,” Hindman said. “I fell hard enough you could hear the impact of me hitting the floor over the sound from the jukebox.”

Hindman said in the suit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, that she suffered a fractured skull and brain injuries. She is seeking damages for medical bills and lost wages for time missed from work.

Hindman worked for Prange’s wife, Kate Prange, at Shop Girl, a women’s boutique.

There was no immediate response to a call seeking comment from David Prange on Tuesday.

Thai zoo to teach panda to mate with “porn” videos

 11 Nov 2006 02:56:34 GMT
Source: Reuters

BANGKOK, Nov 11 (Reuters) – A Thai zoo, which has hosted a couple of pandas for four years, will play “porn” videos for the male next month to encourage them to breed in captivity, the project manager said on Saturday.
The pair — living chastely together at the zoo in the northern city of Chiang Mai since arriving from China in 2003 — would be separated in December, but stay close enough for occasional glimpses of each other, said panda project chief Prasertsak Buntrakoonpoontawee.
“They don’t know how to mate so we need to show the male how, through videos,” Prasertsak told Reuters.
He said Chuang Chuang, the six-year-old male, would be shown the videos on a large screen when he might be feeling amorous. “We’ll play the video at the most comfortable and intimate time for him, perhaps after dinner,” Prasertsak said, hoping Chuang Chuang would then use the techniques on Lin Hui, a five-year-old female.
The zoo is hosting a four-day international panda conference that starts on Monday, drawing 200 wildlife and panda specialists from around the world.

Canada troops battle 10-foot Afghan marijuana plants

OTTAWA, Canada (Reuters) — Canadian troops fighting Taliban militants in Afghanistan have stumbled across an unexpected and potent enemy — almost impenetrable forests of marijuana plants 10 feet tall.

General Rick Hillier, chief of the Canadian defense staff, said Thursday that Taliban fighters were using the forests as cover. In response, the crew of at least one armored car had camouflaged their vehicle with marijuana.

“The challenge is that marijuana plants absorb energy, heat very readily. It’s very difficult to penetrate with thermal devices. … And as a result you really have to be careful that the Taliban don’t dodge in and out of those marijuana forests,” he said in a speech in Ottawa, Canada.

“We tried burning them with white phosphorous — it didn’t work. We tried burning them with diesel — it didn’t work. The plants are so full of water right now … that we simply couldn’t burn them,” he said.

Even successful incineration had its drawbacks.

“A couple of brown plants on the edges of some of those [forests] did catch on fire. But a section of soldiers that was downwind from that had some ill effects and decided that was probably not the right course of action,” Hiller said dryly.

One soldier told him later: “Sir, three years ago before I joined the army, I never thought I’d say ‘That damn marijuana’.”

Dead Bachelors in Remote China Still Find Wives

October 5, 2006

New York Times

CHENJIAYUAN, China — For many Chinese, an ancestor is someone to honor, but also someone whose needs must be maintained. Families burn offerings of fake money or paper models of luxury cars in case an ancestor might need pocket change or a stylish ride in the netherworld.
But here in the parched canyons along the Yellow River known as the Loess Plateau, some parents with dead bachelor sons will go a step further. To ensure a son’s contentment in the afterlife, some grieving parents will search for a dead woman to be his bride and, once a corpse is obtained, bury the pair together as a married couple.
“They happen pretty often, especially when teenagers or younger people die,” said Yang Husheng, 48, a traveling funeral director in the region who said he last attended such a funeral in the spring. “It’s quite common. I’ve been in the business for seven or eight years, and I’ve seen all sorts of things.”
The rural folk custom, startling to Western sensibilities, is known as minghun, or afterlife marriage. Scholars who have studied it say it is rooted in the Chinese form of ancestor worship, which holds that people continue to exist after death and that the living are obligated to tend to their wants — or risk the consequences. Traditional Chinese beliefs also hold that an unmarried life is incomplete, which is why some parents worry that an unmarried dead son may be an unhappy one.
In random interviews in different villages across the Loess Plateau, which spreads across parts of Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces, everyone acknowledged the custom. People say parents of a dead son depend on an informal network of friends or family, or even a well-connected fixer, to locate a family that has recently lost a single daughter. Selling or buying corpses for commercial purposes is illegal in China, but these individual transactions, usually for cash, seem to fall into a fuzzier category and are quietly arranged between families.
In some villages, a son is eligible for such a spouse if he is 12 or older when he dies. None of the people interviewed considered the custom shameful or overly macabre. Instead, it was described as a parental duty to a lost child that reflected Confucian values about loyalty to family.
“Parents have a sense of responsibility for their son,” said one woman, Li Yinlan. She said she had attended ceremonies where the coffins were placed side by side and musicians played a dirge. “They have this custom everywhere,” she said of her region.
The Communist Party has tried, with mixed success, to stamp out beliefs it considers to be superstition. But the continued practice of the ancient custom in the Loess Plateau is a testament to the region’s extreme isolation. In other parts of rural China, it is difficult to know how often, if at all, the custom is followed.
The Loess Plateau, a dense warren of eroding canyons where some villages are unreachable by roads, is separated from much of the change stirring up China. Many young people have fled the arid hills, while those left behind struggle to raise a crop. Many of the men left behind also struggle to find a wife.
The reason is that many women have left for work in cities, never to return, while those women who remain can afford to be picky. No family would approve of a daughter marrying a man too poor to afford a dowry and a decent future. Families of the poorest bachelor sons sometimes pool their savings to buy a wife from bride sellers, the traveling brokers who lure, trick or sometimes kidnap women from other regions and then illegally sell them into marriage.
In the tiny village of Chenjiayuan, a farmer named Chen Xingwu, 57, stabbed a spade into his field overlooking the Yellow River and said minghun represented the final effort by parents to find a bride for a son. He said the parents of a local disabled man were so worried their son would die before finding a spouse that they recently gave a gold ring and earrings to a woman’s family to secure her as a bride.
Mr. Chen said his own marriage, at 35, was a lucky stroke, coming after he lobbied the family of a younger woman in another village. It allowed him to have three children and carry on his family name. But he said the pool of available brides was limited, a scarcity that increased their value — an irony, given that some rural families, conscious of China’s one-child policy, abort female fetuses before birth or abandon newborn girls.
“For girls, it doesn’t matter about their minds, whether they are an idiot or not,” he said. “They are still wanted as brides.” Dead or alive, he added, as he peered at the river.
“There are girls who have drowned in the river down there,” he said. “When their bodies have washed up, their families could get a couple of thousand yuan for them.”
Villagers and Mr. Yang, the funeral director, said a family searching for a female corpse typically must pay more than 10,000 yuan, or about $1,200, almost four years of income for an average farmer. Families of the bride regard the money as the dowry they would have received had death not intervened.
The existence of such a market for brides has led to scattered reports of grave robbing. This year, a man in Shaanxi Province captured two men trying to dig up the body of his wife, according to a local news account. In February, a woman from Yangquan tried to buy the remains of a dead 15-year-old girl, abandoned at a hospital in another city, to satisfy her unmarried deceased brother. She said the brother’s ghost was invading her dreams and demanding a wife, according to a news account.
Guo Yuhua, a sociology professor at Qinghua University in Beijing, an expert on folk traditions and burial customs in the Loess Plateau, said the minghun custom stemmed from both dread and sympathy for the dead. She said parents with dead daughters, like those with dead sons, were also carrying out an obligation to their child. They will sell their bodies as a way of finding them a place in a Chinese society where tradition dictates that a daughter has no place on her father’s family tree.
“China is a paternal clan culture,” said Professor Guo, who did postdoctoral work in anthropology at Harvard. “A woman does not belong to her parents. She must marry and have children of her own before she has a place among her husband’s lineage. A woman who dies unmarried has no place in this world.”
Pinpointing the origins of minghun is difficult, but scholars have found allusions to the practice in different ancient texts, including the Rites of Zhou, a guidebook of appropriate Confucian behavior written around the third century B.C. Commentators on the Confucian classics have argued that the ancient educated elite disapproved of the custom.
Yet Professor Guo emphasized that the values of Confucianism, later blended with Buddhism and Taoism, are the basis of folk customs like minghun, which share a reverence for family.
In the village of Qinjiagelao, where roughly one in four eligible men are unmarried, Qin Yuxing, 80, is a genial grandfather unashamed of the minghun practice or the fact that he bought living brides for both his sons.
His younger son, now 40, had tried to find a spouse but the family was too poor. The elder Mr. Qin saved his money and bought a bride from a man who showed up at a local market offering a woman for $500. The woman bore Mr. Qin’s son a child and then left three years ago to visit her family — and never came back.
“People aren’t willing to come here,” the elder Mr. Qin said to explain why he was willing to purchase a woman for his son. His village is perched atop a cliff and had no road until last year. Women often face backbreaking work. Mr. Qin said similar pressures weighed on a neighboring family after their unmarried son died in a gas explosion more than a decade ago. That family spent $500 for an afterlife marriage, he said. Mr. Qin’s wife, Cao Guoxiang, 76, recalled another case involving parents buying a dead bride for their unmarried son, a trucker who died in an accident.
She said the size of afterlife ceremonies depended on a family’s wealth. “Poor people just bring the bodies over and put them in the earth,” she said. “People with money will have a reception and slaughter a pig or a sheep for friends.”
She added: “It’s superstition and religion. People live as couples. If they die, they should live as a couple, too.”
And that is why families too poor to afford a minghun bride also follow a similar custom in some villages: They make a figure of straw and bury it beside a dead son as the spouse he never had.
Jake Hooker contributed reporting.