Well the last post was about poetry, here’s a post about art. Specifically a painting I had explained to me this weekend on a visit to an art gallery where a friend works. I think it might be one of my new favorite works, although “Nighthawks” still takes the cake.
The piece is “Beijing – 2008” by Chinese-Canadian artist Liu Yi, seen here.
Not the best quality version, but the original is about a six to seven-foot canvas corner to corner I would guess, and quite enthralling. Aside from the beautiful women in various states of undress, there’s a ton of political commentary here that apparently made some splash when the piece was first revealed to the world.
I was given a pretty in depth analysis of it by the guy showing us around, but I’ve filled in some gaps with this analysis reposted from somewhere by Mohanish Chopra, who wrote it in English better than I have, so anything in quotes is directly lifted from that piece, the link for I’ll put at the bottom.
First of all, who are these people and why are they playing mahjong? The one with her back to us is China, designated as such by the phoenix tattoo on her shoulder and the tiles laid down in front of her that say “East”. The “East” then hinting that China is on the resurgence, as at the moment she is ahead in the game (laid down tiles are completed sets you need to win), and has many unseen tiles or “hidden aces”.
To her left is Japan, with America across from her and Russia laying down on her back. To the side is Taiwan, denoted by the traditional Chinese red slip, which labels her as the true heir of traditional Chinese culture (traditional culture is much more prevalent there). She’s looking at China with an expression that mixes hatred, envy, and sadness. She can’t play in the game and is relegated to serving fruit (Taiwan’s got great fruit), while the paring knife represents the potential for conflict and the friction that occurs between her and the Chinese mainland. She cannot talk or air complaints as she is denied membership in the UN, “and can only give fruit to the victor”.
Gazing at Taiwan is America, “perhaps trying to read something in her face.”
“At first glance, America appears to be well composed and seems to be a good position, as all the others are in various states of nakedness. However, while America may look radiant, her vulnerability has already been exposed. China and Russia may look naked, yet their key private parts remain hidden.
Russia appears to be disinterested in the game, but this is far from the truth. One foot hooks coyly at America, while her hand passes a hidden tile to China, both countries can be said to be exchanging benefits in secret. Japan is all seriousness while staring at her own set of tiles, and is oblivious to the actions of the others in her self-focused state.
Something I can add here is that Russia has an absolutely abysmal hand that you can see on the larger original, while Japan is doing a motion that could be read as surrender or victory.
“Assuming the play of the game requires that the loser of each hand removes pieces of clothing, if China loses, she will be in the same state as Russia (similar to when the USSR dissolved). If America loses, she will also be in the same state as Russia.
If Russia loses, she loses all that is left. Russia acts to be disinterested and unengaged, but in passing tiles to China, is establishing a secret alliance. Japan has already lost everything, and will be out of the game if she loses again.
America may look well-positioned, but is in much danger. If she loses this round, she will give up her position as THE world power. Russia is playing both sides, much like when China was de-occupied, she leaned towards the USSR and then towards America; as she did not have the ability to survive on her own, she had to weave between both sides in order to survive and develop.” -Chodra
The first of two other small points is the backdrop, a stormy sea. This points to a brewing conflict between the nations, and today conveniently immediately calls to mind the South China Sea issue. Finally, on the wall on the left side of the painting is a portrait that combines features of China’s three founding fathers. The mustache is that of Sun Yat-Sen, the man who overthrew the Qing Dynasty and started the Republic of China (present-day Taiwan), and who is equally venerated in Taiwan and the mainland nicely enough. The bald head then evokes Chiang Kai-Shek, Sun’s successor and the man who took the R.O.C government to Taiwan where it remains to this day. He also had a deep deep hatred for the communists, and considered them an even bigger threat than the Japanese during WWII. The chin, mole, and general shape of the man’s head all come from the leader of said communists, Mao Zedong, who in one of the best examples of anti-Sunzian warfare won the Chinese civil war and established the People’s Republic of China (P.R.O.C.) in 1949.
Lastly, “The final victor lies between China and America, this much is apparent. But look closely; while America is capable, they are playing Chinese Mahjong, not Western Poker. Playing by the rules of China, how much chance at victory does America really have?”
Which is a very interesting point. Normally these kinds of pictures have nations playing poker. A quick briefer on the rules of mahjong: tiles are shuffled and then each player draws a hand of 13 tiles, with the first player drawing 14. The first player discards a tile and play passes to the left. The goal of the game is to get “sets” kind of like in the card game gin. You want to end the game with four sets of 3 (either three of a kind or three consecutive cards of the same suit) and one pair. The tiles are divided into three suits, coins, bamboos, and 10k’s (the character for ten thousand) that run from 1 to 9, and several other tiles featuring the cardinal directions that are not always used and can only be paired or trippled. You can draw each round, take the tile the player to your right discarded if it completes a set for you, and can at any time grab a tile another player discarded if it completes a three of a kind or wins you the game. Try it out some time.
But before we go, some of you might be wondering what I meant by “anti-Sunzian warfare.” Of course it means tactics that counter Sunzian warfare. Simple right? Or still confused? Sunzian refers to Sun Tzu, the author of “The Art of War”, a book written thousands of years ago and still taught in military academies all over the world today.
Sun Tzu urges the general to “be extrememly sublte, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of your enemy’s fate.”
To “treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.”
To “first attack your enemy’s alliances, then attack his plans, only then attack his forces, and only as a last resort should you attack his city.”
And lastly, a quote that I’d like to get a tattoo of in Chinese, English, and Russian,
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
This thing is full of amazing quotes and philosophy, great read in the original or translated, but back on topic. Most of the tactics in the book rely on your forces being larger than your opponents and you having more complete information than them. This is obviously not always the case, and certainly not the case for Mao who was severely outnumbered in the Chinese civil war. What Mao did instead then was more Fabian tactics (named after a Roman general from the Punic wars, the ones where Hannibal crossed the Alps) wherein you harass a stronger foe, and never directly engage until you have an immense tactical advantage. Also what George Washington did. And it won both of them their respective battles. Still nothing interesting at the internship, but almost done with my book which I’ll post a review of when I do. Great book. Have a lovely day!