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Symbols: Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize

9 Oct

Liu Xiaobo is, and now is probably much more so after Friday’s announcement, one of China’s most well-known dissidents — or activists, depending on the term you prefer. Most people who have heard of him know about his hand in penning part of Charter 08, a manifesto based on Charter 77, which advocates broad democratic political reform and human rights protections in China. Those who are more familiar with Liu’s name know of him for his hunger strike in Tian’anmen, or his prolific number of essays published in print and on the Internet.

For his role in drafting Charter 08, and writing 6 essays, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on December 25, 2009 for state subversion. The sentence is an extraordinarily harsh one, considering other noted activists like Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia were also sentenced for state subversion, but received sentences of 3 and 3.5 years, respectively. (For more on “incitement of state subversion,” see Article 105 of PRC Criminal Law.)

There is a well-known phrase in Chinese, 杀鸡儆猴 (shā jī jǐng hóu). Literally, it means “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,” but should be more properly understood as “punishing one to warn the others.” Arguably, the state used Liu’s heavy sentence as a lesson to others as an example of what happens when one fails to adhere to Party ideology. In so doing, Liu was recast not only as a criminal, but as a pedagogical symbol.

Never mind that some people find the particular 6 essays to not be particularly reactionary, or wonder about whether Liu contributed so much to the Charter that his name appeared at the top, or if he just acceded to hedging the blow to come. These hinge on personal opinion and speculation, and are therefore moot. However, because Liu’s wishes for political change and human rights have not yet come into being, I think these documents remain firmly within the realm of political thought and speech. Though — or because — they are not concrete, they hold a lot of symbolic power, regardless of one’s subjective reception.

In some ways, the December 2009 sentencing seemed to be a layering of one symbol on top of the next. Now, the 2010 prize conferral appears to be yet another layer. This is largely because the goal of the prize is unclear. From Alfred Nobel’s will:

“The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

The prize is in large part, a recognition of an individual’s or group’s efforts. However, it has either had, or has come to have, other purposes as well. I use the following quotes to probe more deeply at this issue.

From Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Nobelprize.org:

An article [Liu] wrote for the South China Morning Post in February 2010 contains the statement “Opposition is not equivalent to subversion”. This sentiment was echoed by the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s remarks, following this year’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement, regarding the sign that they hope this award will send about the importance of supporting debate, and those who champion it, in all countries of the world.

See also the Nobel Peace Prize press announcement:

China’s new status must entail increased responsibility.

Given the prize’s stated prescriptive aim (“this award will send about…”) and its instructive claims (“must entail”), it is arguably also a type of pedagogical symbol.

***

Symbols lie within a tricky territory because they are so open to interpretation. Earlier, I wrote that Liu’s work has a lot of symbolic versus concrete power. That is not to rob it of its value in the least. If anything, I think it speaks to the might that is harnessed by a seed of thought, as made manifest through open — while not yet free — speech.

So I do find it somewhat ironic that while the prize is a recognition of freedom of speech advocacy, there won’t be much human rights dialogue going on.

First, because many of Liu’s ideas are rather broad-based, there is no settled understanding of what kind of human rights need to be discussed, or what China’s “entail[ed] increased responsibility” is. Nobody disagrees that China should have better human rights, not even its central government. The points of contention are which specific rights should be protected, how following legislation should be implemented, and in what time frame reforms must take place.

But who are the actors to make such decisions? The international community, or the Chinese state itself? If this prize conferral does not bring human rights dialogue to the table, it will provide heated discussion on national sovereignty and international relations. For one, you will be hard-pressed to find news on Liu’s prize in Chinese-language newspapers. But you will find governmental condemnations of Liu as a criminal, as well as questions over the validity of the Nobel Peace Prize more generally.

Notably, these same articles refer to fractured ties between China and Norway; Norway has effectively become conflated with the Prize Committee. Granted, the Committee’s members are appointed by the Norwegian parliament (Storting), but I think most people conceive of the Nobel Prize Committee as being a supranational entity. Perhaps that is too naive. In any case, clearly the Chinese government does not perceive it as a supranational entity.

Not only this, but Chinese activists have hailed Liu’s selection as indicative of the “West’s recognition.” In this case, the Committee is the West.

Most recently, the U.S. has also been implicated in this symbolic fray; see an Associated Press report “US-China Ties Strained by Dissident.”

A quote from Ma Ying-jeou that states the award is for all Chinese people around the world also lends no clarification to this extremely tangled topic.

In essence, if any human rights dialogue is to happen, we need to know what is going to be talked about, and who is going to talk about it. These very important components have become obfuscated in the past two days.

***

In the short-term, I don’t expect any constructive developments. The long-term is of course the big question. But I hope that in the years to come, Liu Xiaobo will not be seen merely as a contentious symbol, a tool utilized by various powers for condemnation or glorification purposes, but as an important human being who had something to say.

 

Note: My thoughts on this have been highly influenced by Lydia Liu’s The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004), and to a lesser degree, James Hevia’s English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China (2003).

Making Di San Xian 地三鲜: Sautéed Eggplant with Potatoes and Green Bell Pepper [Day 16]

25 Sep

Since my favorite vegetarian foods are fairly easy to make, I’ve been cooking a lot more often. One of my favorite foods is di san xian, or 地三鲜, a northeastern Chinese home-style dish (东北家常菜). The first time I had it was one year ago, when my friend Vishal serendipitously pointed at the ‘di san xian’ photo in the restaurant menu.

Transliterated, ‘di san xian’ means ‘earth three fresh,’ no doubt because it incorporates 3 fresh elements: eggplant, potato, and green pepper.

I’m notoriously wacky — er, okay, bad — at giving cooking instructions, so I hope the following recipe will be fairly comprehensible.

Di San Xian: Sautéed Eggplant with Potatoes and Green Pepper

3/4 medium Chinese eggplant
80% Russet potato, or 2 small potatoes “borrowed” from your roommate
1/2 green bell pepper
3/4 green onion
2 cloves diced garlic
1 smidgen of minced ginger
1.5 Tb-ish of soy sauce
Corn starch
Oil
Water

  1. Peel the potato, then slice it and the eggplant into thin chunks. (See 1:14 of this video for an example, or see the slices below.)
  2. Place the eggplant pieces in a bowl, sprinkle with salt to get rid of excess water. Wait for 10 minutes or so, then pat dry with a paper towel. (See Photo 1)
  3. Put some oil in a pan. Once it gets hot, carefully put in the potato pieces. I recommend using a slotted spoon (see Photo 3) to avoid crazy oil/water splash catastrophes. Start the heat on low, and once the potato starts looking cooked, turn up the heat.1 Remove the potatoes, place on a plate with a paper towel to absorb oil.
  4. While you’re waiting for the potatoes to fry, you might want to make a slurry of soy sauce, corn starch, and water. I can’t really tell you the proportions. But you’ll get it right. Also, I added a few drops of sesame oil the last time around. I’m not sure if it made a difference or not.
  5. Shallow fry the eggplant on medium heat. Look at how vibrant the purple is! Once the eggplant chunks starts looking translucent, transfer them to the same paper-towel lined plate.
  6. Chop the green onion, dice the garlic, mince the ginger, cut the green bell pepper into whatever shape you’d like. I recommend chunks about the same size as 2/3 of your index finger, assuming you have normal hands. Also, don’t chop off your finger while thinking of my size referent.
  7. Get rid of most of the oil in the pan, and use what remains to sauté the green onion, garlic, and ginger. Once it starts to get fragrant, add eggplant and potato on medium to high heat.
  8. Add the slurry, stir it around. You’re done! (See Photo 5). Serves 1.3 people as a main dish, 2 as a side dish.

1 Low heat will cook the potatoes, high heat will give it a nice browned exterior. This method, as well as the double-fry (one pan on low heat, another already on high heat), is also the key to good french fries. (See Photo 4 for the beginning of the process)

Why Being a Vegetarian Sucked [Day 6]

16 Sep

I have some theories as to why vegetarian foods weren’t so popular in the recent past, but I’ll share those another time.

That quote, from a previous entry was unclear. Better put: I have some theories as to why being a vegetarian sucked, prior to the popularization of the diet/lifestyle. But first, let’s start at the very beginning.1

My problem with the word ‘vegetarian’ has to do with its etymology: veget(ables) + -arian.2 And vegetables, in my mind and in the minds of many others, translates to leafy greens.

Lettuce. Kale. Okra. Spinach. Arugula.

The images of those vegetables alone, firmly planted in the bed of my consciousness, made the vegetarian diet seem decidedly unappetizing. For a long time, my understanding of the archetypal vegetarian was the giraffe — someone who extends his long, almost serpentine neck towards thorny branches just to pluck at some bitter leaves with his black tongue.3

But if you think about it, that kind of green and leafy arched framework does not fit around what most vegetarians practice in their daily diets. A looser and more realistic definition of ‘vegetarian’ is one who eats leafy greens as well as fruits, nuts, grains, mushrooms, and more.

When I realized this, I had a complete paradigm shift: being a vegetarian means eating anything that doesn’t move on its own, is fair game. The world of food possibilities less fins, wings, and legs is still a very rich one. So now, I have a renewed sense of appreciation for the classical cornucopia:

Look, people! It’s the horn o’ plenty! And it’s vegetarian!

There’s more to say on this topic, but I first need to catch up on my reading. It seems that as a student, I always have promises to keep, and pages to go before I sleep. And pages to go before I sleep.

1 A very good place to start.
2 -arian: indicating a person or thing that advocates, believes, or is associated with something. I am not even going to try and define “vegetable,” which sounds like an easier task than it actually is. (For an introduction to the debate, see vegetable’s Wiki page.) This ontological ambiguity gave rise to the confusion I expand on above, in the main body of the text where the real meat of my argument lies. Whoops, did I say ‘meat’?
3 I almost want to apologize to my real (i.e., not 1-month spree! whee! people like me) vegetarian friends, but why should I? The giraffes would probably be among those most grievously offended, and very few of them read this blog anymore, if I’m to trust what the traffic stats are saying.

Vegging Out [Day 3]

12 Sep

From September 10 through October 10, I plan to be a vegetarian. Just as the dates are almost completely arbitrary, so are my reasons.

I’ve written about my quasi-vegetarianism, or “vaguetarianism,” in the past. I haven’t changed my stance on meat since that entry, but after having a few conversations with vegetarians, I decided it would be interesting to join them for a month.

For one, I think I’ll become more conscious about my food choices when I eat out. Second, it’s an incentive for me to cook more since most vegetarian things I get at restaurants can be made at home, and at a cheaper cost. Third, I’ll take my overall nutrition into account more often, now that I have to be more conscientious of where I’ll get my iron, protein, etc.

But honestly, the biggest factor in the decision was the first one. The interest in vegetarianism became a commitment (albeit only a month-long one) shortly after I ate a big cheesesteak at Vinnie’s. A month-long form of dietary penance for the quarter-cow I ate, I suppose.

My friend Laura suggested I blog about whatever physical/mental changes I have during this month, which I think could be a valuable exercise. I’ll admit that I don’t foresee any big disruptions to my lifestyle. All it means is no more occasional mushroom burger at Bongo Burger, no more bimonthly-ish chicken burritos, no more hunting wildlife on the weekends. This is doable.

This is doable.

But maybe I don’t have to try and convince myself. In the past few days, I have had corn chowder, vegetarian tacos, chocolate chip cookies, a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, among other things. If this is penance, then I haven’t quite had feelings of contrition yet.

Today I made ratatouille.

This is not ratatouille. This is the most grotesque cutting board I have ever seen in my life. We inherited it from the previous tenants.
It has become the designated hot plate mat.

Fresh out of the oven!

You can’t really go wrong with nice veggies, tomatoes, romano cheese, and mushrooms. I added some sun dried tomatoes, which in retrospect was a very wise decision.

I have some theories as to why vegetarian foods weren’t so popular in the recent past, but I’ll share those another time.

Antediluvian Cell Phone Pics

5 Sep

Signs of the times:

Cool limestone formation:

North Berkeley: (1) detour with Harmony, (2) a small dog sighting

There’s a journal for everyone:

Well, whaddya know:

Housewarming flowers from Dit:

Grandparents

18 Aug

Portrait of Ms. P

26 Jul

My cousin’s daughter is an amazingly talented artist. Here she is, busy at work, and sucking on her second or third lollipop of the day:

Today, within 5 minutes, she drew this picture of me:

Isn’t this awesome? She’s only 6. I’m enormously proud of her.

Although, erm, I will admit that the glow slightly faded after I noticed a slight resemblance to a certain celebrity.