Greetings fromBorderless Journalfor all Asian New Years!Click here to read our message along with the video and a translation of a Tagore song written to greet the new year, with lyrics that not only inspire but ask the fledgling to heal mankind from deadly diseases.
Ratnottama Sengupta, a well-known senior journalist and film critic lives through her past to make an interesting discovery at the end of recapping about the silk route. Click here to read and find out more.
Over 150 Authors and Artists from five continents have written on mental illness in an anthology called Through the Looking Glass. Candice Louisa Daquin, a psychotherapist and writer and editor, tells us why this is important for healing. Click here to read.
Philosophers and theologians warn us about the danger of becoming distracted and misled by images. In the age of the selfies, with photography being used to sell us so many things we do not want or need and convincing us that smiling celebrities are gods and goddesses, we have reason to take their warning seriously.
But what of images that warn us of the same danger, even while they enchant us? I ask this question while looking at a beautiful wall-hanging of the gopis seeking out Krishna in the forest of Brindaban.
The wall-hanging is composed of 38 episodes, each framed by a woodland glade, laid out in six horizontal lines of 7,6,5,7,7 and 6 frames. At the top, Radha and seven other gopis leave the city, pots of curds on their heads, and wave farewell to their husbands as they enter the forest of Brindaban. After their many encounters with Krishna, the story concludes with Radha and Krishna haloed and seated together in a pandal beside a lotus-filled River Yamuna.
The trouble is, when you try to follow the story of their search for love’s fulfilment line by line, top-to-bottom on the wall-hanging, the frames don’t follow one another in any recognizable sequence. Almost all the frames show three gopis confronting Krishna, apparently arguing with him and either turning away or being turned away but in no particular order.
The gopis emerge from the city in the third frame of the top line. Amid scenes otherwise always sylvan, the towers and rocks of the city are seen in the first frame of the third line and the rocks alone in the fourth frame of the final line. This phased departure from the city suggests these may be the first three frames of the story. Yet the gopis, who accompany the protagonists in each are in different-coloured saris and, apart from this glimpse, don’t appear again. We are left without a clue as to what might be the fourth frame in the sequence.
It seems it might be easier working backwards. The last frame of the last line is so obviously the culminating frame and the one before it has Krishna and Radha, both haloed, walking through the forest. But then the only other frame with the pair haloed is fully a line before this and they are seated on a rather different pandal decorated as if for a wedding and with a more ornate base. Something is not quite in order.
The colour of the saris is one obvious determinant. Most prominently, there’s Radha in her green-and-red sari and her friend Lalita (let’s call her that) in green-and-yellow, often with a third gopi in blue-and-red behind. But sometimes there are suddenly gopis in brown-and-yellow and black-and-yellow instead and once or twice gopis in blue-and-yellow and black-and-red. Sometimes the figures obscure one another and we have a glimpse of just one colour of a sari and this may belong to the eighth (otherwise missing) gopi. And why, if the colour of the saris is indicative, does Radha once appear twice in the same frame? And why, when the gopis emerge from the city, are seven of the eight figures wearing Radha’s colours?
These concerns may appear rather silly: after all, the painter’s palette may account for such occasional discrepancies. However, the larger picture may suggest we are being deliberately misled by an artistic representation of the magic of the Ras lila. We try to make sense of what is going on in the pursuit of love’s goal and we simply get lost in the forest?
It is not totally baffling. There is some downward and, less obviously, left-to-right movement in the development of the story. Right in the very centre of the wall-hanging there is a frame where Radha steps out to engage with Krishna. This is in the third frame of the five-frame third line and given that the story culminates in the sixth frame of the sixth line, it is tempting to construct a diagonal across the matrix: Radha in the first frame of the first line engaged in a conflicting hand-to-hand pull-and-push with Krishna; in the second of the second, Lalita approaching Krishna, hand on curd pot, whether as confidante of Radha or as rival – or both – is unclear; in the fourth of the fourth, three gopis, two in Radha’s colours, turn away from Krishna; and, in the fifth of the fifth, Radha, now potless, submits herself to Krishna. This diagonal might serve as a plot for the whole story, however jumbled the frames all around.
Radha and her two main friends figure most prominently in the frames of the first line but there is no easily discernible order to the frames. The first four frames of the second line foreground different gopis and it may be that the particular story of each in turn is to be tracked, however tentatively, zig-zag down the wall-hanging before we return to the next frame as a starting-point?
The last two lines of the wall-hanging are distinct from those before in that all their frames (bar those of Radha-Krishna haloed) show a gopi approaching Krishna with a pot no longer on her head. The fifth line starts with a frame where Krishna is himself removing the pot from (if not replacing the pot on) Radha’s head (presumably as a token of his choice); in the next frame he is fanning a potless Lalita; and in the others receiving gopis who have discarded their pots. Should we take this to be an act of collective submission following Krishna’s choice of Radha or are they the final frames of individual stories that have threaded their way down through the thickets further up the wall-hanging?
Images from nature are also tricky. Initially monkeys, one springing in from the left and another from the right, promise to show us a sequence: in the end they at best indicate only mood. This may also be true, given their place in Indian iconography, of trees and flowers. Perhaps like the ever-shifting designs on the saris, changing from dots to dashes to crosses to ovals, they too are decorative, deceptive only in a suggestiveness that ultimately reveals nothing?
We do not know whether or not the painter is following the poet he has placed seated on the rocks in the top right-hand corner of the painting, he has wrought cunningly. Looking to piece together individual stories of the search for love, we have been baffled by their erratic course. But, however erratic, the course is perhaps common to all the gopis, however much or little we can see of each. The advantage of a closer look, however bewildering, reminds us that, instead of being distracted by a surface that leads us to a merry dance, we should discover the common pattern that underlies all and is concentrated in the composite figure of Radha, one that is ultimately subsumed in that of Radhakrishna.
We may then tell ourselves that, even though we cannot say how we got here, we are no longer lost in the forest.
While the impasse over the McMahon Line continues and the outgoing POTUS rages over not only the election results but also the Yellow Peril, John Drew gives us an interesting perspective on the perception of both these giants, US & China.
Many centuries ago, Chinese pilgrims came up the Bay of Bengal on their way to Buddhist sites in the Subcontinent. We have no record of their conversations with the people of Bengal but it was the accurate accounts of early Chinese travellers that enabled archaeologists in the 19th century to rediscover the lost Buddhist sites like that inside a hill at Paharpur (Bangladesh).
A more modern Chinese settlement in Bengal that has left us the word chini for sugar was largely curtailed sixty years ago by the dispute over the Himalayan border, the McMahon Line above Bengal, a remnant of aggressive British imperialism earlier in the 20th century.
Today, Bangladesh, like other sub-continental countries, has its Chinese neighbours within the gates, driving the building of the prodigious rail bridge across the Padma, developing a port hub at Chattogram and proposing a rail link across Myanmar. The Celestial Empire is once again a superpower but this time expanding as never before to the Indian, and perhaps every other, ocean.
The people of the Bengal delta have suffered greatly from empires, whether Persian, Portuguese, British or Pakistani: empires are not a win-win situation and never will be. But while it is as well to be wary of empire-building, also important is to be wary of the stereotypes that invariably accompany it.
When the Japanese were at the gates of Imphal in 1944, they presented themselves as liberators, a clever, ingenious people who were successfully freeing Asia from European rule. The British rulers of India pictured them as cunning and cruel. Both images were stereotypes that served the purposes of those producing the propaganda for or against.
What images does Bangladesh have of the Chinese? No doubt, given the colonial legacy, some of these have, willy-nilly, been bequeathed to us by the West. It is instructive to see how the stereotypes change with the times.
For Europe unlike India, China remained off the map until the 13th century when Marco Polo, among others, made his epic journey to Cathay and reported on a China full of marvels. This report chimed nicely with a superstitious, religious European culture already given to believing in the miraculous and fantastic.
The European Enlightenment in the 18th century ridiculed this farrago, offering a very different view. Leibniz, Voltaire and Quesnay, most notably, canvassed the idea of China as an ideal Confucian state where civil harmony and stability prevailed. Ironically relying on the researches of their opponents, the Jesuit missionaries, rationalist European thinkers used this image to show that a society did not need any religious sanction to be ethical.
Oliver Goldsmith wrote his Letters of a Citizen of the World (1760-1) in the guise of a Chinese visitor, satirizing Europeans for preferring to acquire Chinese frippery rather than to try and understand China. He mocked the way that even the uses of fashionable trinkets, including the pots for infusing a popular new herb, tea, were generally misunderstood.
The idealised view of Chinese civilisation was never uncontested. Moreover, the older images often resurfaced. Coleridge, famously, in his poem “Kubla Khan” returned to the medieval travellers’ image of China as a marvellous place: “It was a miracle of rare device/ A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”.
Likewise in the 20th century, Lowes Dickinson, following Goldsmith’s epistolary method with his Letters of John Chinaman (1901) adopted the 18th century Enlightenment outlook on China. So did Vikram Seth in his mannered sonnet sequence, The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985).
Less happily, in the 19th century as European capitalism and imperialism destroyed the old feudal order at home, feudal China was increasingly dismissed as decadent and backward, its largely symbolic fleet destroyed by the British. Bangladeshis need no reminding of the wretched history of the cross-border trade in tea and opium.
Thereafter the dominant image of China that emerged was of the cunning peasant, especially following the “Boxer” uprising against the foreign imperialists and missionaries. Chinese labourers came to be used as cheap labour across the world, building the American railroads, for instance, and, after being conveyed secretly in sealed trains across Canada, providing labour battalions for the Allies in World War I.
Masters have a way of blaming slaves for their own condition and so was born the ugly racial concept of the Chinese as a Yellow Peril, perhaps a subconscious fear that the roles of masters and slaves might one day be reversed. In one frequently reproduced lithograph, even the meditating Buddha was enrolled as the Peril’s presiding genius!
The peasant figure that displaced the mandarin still belonged to the same feudal order. Ah Sin, a comic stereotype created on page (1870) and stage (1877) by America’s most celebrated writers, Bret Harte and Mark Twain, was shown as debased and thievish. Whatever the intention of the writers, the effect, at a time of anti-Chinese rioting on the West Coast, was pernicious.
Jack London’s portrait of the peasant Ah Cho in The Chinago (1909) was something of an exception to the general run. The French colonial authorities in Tahiti are exposed for the racism that hangs a man even when they find he is the wrong one, so cheap is the life of a Chinese coolie.
That the image of a sly Chinese peasant is not necessarily untrue can be determined from the way it was also used by Lu Xun, China’s foremost short story writer in the 20th century. Ah Q (1921) tells the story of a bully and coward who prevaricates in the face of, among other things, revolutionary change. For Lu Xun, a peasant uprising in China would not be successful until the peasantry was properly educated and genuinely spirited.
In the 20th century, while China underwent almost permanent revolution in an attempt to free itself from feudalism and foreign domination, the single most influential and lasting image Western culture threw up in response was that of Dr Fu Manchu who, with the manners of a mandarin and the craftiness of a peasant, was a perfect fusion of the two previous stock figures.
For almost the entire century Dr Fu Manchu filled the minds of first book and comic-reading and then film-going and television-watching public. Urbane and fiendish, he was involved in gambling and drugs as part of a plan to bring Europe and America under Chinese control. Historically, of course, the opposite had been true.
As Sax Rohmer admitted, he made his name as the creator of Fu Manchu because he “knew nothing about the Chinese” (depicted in his books as “the most mysterious and most cunning people in the world”). He got no closer to China than the East End of London but his fevered imagination has proved as contagious as any virus.
It is indicative, and also ironical given the British treatment of China in the Opium Wars, that such virulent dreams of a racist, imperialist China seem to have originated in the drug-fuelled nightmares of Thomas De Quincey, the English Opium-Eater.
Pretty Much Alike
When the incumbent President of the USA describes the racially-indiscriminate Covid-19 as the Chinese virus he is evidently trading on the 19th century image of the Yellow Peril, updated as that became in the 20th century to the Red Peril. It is an old trick to deflect attention from your own shortcomings by blaming somebody else.
The images of China they elaborate tell us as much about Western culture as about China. As we saw with the stock image of the peasant, the image is not necessarily untrue: it is that it is inadequate, incomplete. The real problem is that a stereotype essentializes a vast and various place. People and places are diverse.
Timothy Mo, in his novel Sour Sweet (1982), parodies the silly prejudice that “all Chinese look alike” by having his Chinese protagonist Lily complain that all the “bland, roseate occidental faces” look the same to her compared with “the infinite variety of interesting Cantonese physiognomies: rascally, venerable, pretty, raffish, bumpkin, scholarly.”
In the 21st century we could do worse than let an 18th century English mandarin have the last word. Lord Macartney, Britain’s first Envoy to China (1793-4), wrote: “The Chinese, it is true, are a singular people, but they are men formed of the same material and governed by the same passions as ourselves.”
Goldsmith, in the introduction to his Letters, had written: “The truth is, the Chinese and we are pretty much alike. Different degrees of refinement, and not of distance, mark the distinctions among mankind.”
But Macartney went further. He suggested that before we looked at others we had better take a good look at ourselves. If the English found the Chinese proud of themselves and contemptuous of others, it was because these were the characteristics the English themselves displayed when travelling the globe.
The world we see mirrors us. The first place to look for the Yellow Peril – and the Red and the Black – is in Whitehall and in the White House.
John Drew has been a university teacher on both sides of the Himalaya and of the Atlantic.
First published in the literary page of Daily Star, Bangladesh.
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