A ghost city, and a horror story

ghost city china

 

 

Just a few days prior, China has officially surpassed United States to become the world’s largest economy based on purchasing power parity (PPP) level. While the country still has a long way to go to completely replace US as the planet’s future superpower, China has started to face numerous problems that are increasingly deteriorating, all of which are the decades-old by-products of its breakneck economic growth. One of them is the existence of ‘ghost cities’ – gigantic, splurge urban areas with dozens, even hundreds, of building blocks which are apparently uninhabited and even unfinished – and Kangbashi (pictured above) is the poster child for this phenomenon. Supposedly built to accommodate 1 million people, the city has now no more than 20,000 people living in this territory. Something must have definitely gone wrong with the way these cities are built.

Konrad Kaestner creates a short, 15-minute film titled ‘Cathedrals’ about this ghost city. Using the sceneries he records throughout his journey in Kangbashi, he creates the entire sceneries, using a poetic, and oftentimes Edgar Allan Poe-style narration to depict the whole pictures, which he recreates into a Kafkaesque realm of existence (and sometimes reimagining the enactments from Silent Hill). Watch his short in Aeon, and listen to his narrative very seriously.

Looking at death the other way around

when i die

When Philip Gould was diagnosed with cancer and had only 6 weeks to live, he decided not to fight the disease back. He was, instead, doing something what much of the public would term as ‘surrendering oneself to ultimate fate’, or ‘giving up’. Gould, nonetheless, offered an interesting perspective about it. He would rather call death as ‘life’s ultimately most extraordinary journey’, a journey to somewhere unknown, unbeknownst by human understanding.

In this 9-minute video recorded in 2011, Gould spun the yarn about his last days before dying, and how this experience completely alters his perspective about life, and attempts to make his last stage in life ‘as exciting and enjoyable as possible’. Watch the full video in Aeon.

Balinghou

balinghou

 

Believe it or not, no country has encountered – and created – such a huge, formidable wave of change in such a short eon of time as China does.

In Mao Zedong’s era, China was labelled as one of the world’s poorest countries, with virtually nearly 1 billion of its people lingering on state jobs, rationed welfare, and the so-called ‘iron rice bowl’ principle. Employment was guaranteed for life – albeit with very little possibility for ‘status upgrade’, and pot-luck income. Waves of revolution even further disrupted – and reshaped – the whole society’s mindset. The 50s’ generation has witnessed how Great Leap Forward – one paradoxically interpreted to propel China into an ‘equal’ partner as Europe and US had done – led to the deadliest famine in human civilization. The 60s’, and the 70s’ altogether, had also bore the brunt of Cultural Revolution – when culture was entirely destroyed, where children, students, workers, and all ‘revolutionaries’ alike were forced to persecute their own parents, siblings, neighbors, teachers, professors, intellects, party members, or any other dubbed as ‘bourgeoisie’.

And the 80s’ generation, the balinghou – those born in 1980 and beyond – are faced with material greed that has been domineering in nearly all aspects of life in the contemporary Chinese society.

With the introduction of market reforms and the enforced one-child policy (which has recently been significantly relaxed after warnings of population decline and rapid aging), China has rapidly seen its status changing; one transformed from a very huge ‘sick man’ into the world’s second most significant economic powerhouse, now challenging the legitimacy of its long-time rival, United States. With family size reduced and incomes improved, the society’s living standards have risen to an unprecedented level never imagined before by prior generations.

Nevertheless, the economic success of China itself comes at a list of disproportionate costs, one of which is the social crisis that is penetrating towards the society. The children are becoming more spoiled than their parents, a culture of ‘money fetish’ has flourished among bulk of its populace, and individualism has been rampantly misused as ‘all-for-me’ mindset. A huge generational gap is now taking place between the balinghou and their predecessors, those who had been faced with severe hardships throughout Mao’s rule.

A writer attempts to explore deeper the brand-new world of these ‘balinghou’, and the consequences left behind to the overall societal relationship among the society. Read the full article on Aeon Magazine.

 

Excerpt:

 

Immigrants often have a stable set of values from their home culture from which to draw sustenance, whether religious or cultural. But for the children of the Cultural Revolution in China, there’s been no such continuity. They were raised to believe in the revolutionary Maoism of the 1960s and ‘70s, and then told as young adults in the late 1970s that everything drilled into them in their adolescence had been a terrible mistake. Then they were fed a trickle of socialism, rapidly belied by the rush to get rich, and finally offered the hint of a liberal counter-culture in the 1980s before Tiananmen snatched it away. In the meantime, traditional values condemned as ‘counter-revolutionary’ in their youth are being given a quick polish and propped up as the new backbone of society by the authorities.

The young get slammed for their supposed materialism, but it’s a set of values their parents hold more dearly still, since the one constant source of security for their generation has been money. Money — at least the fantasy of it — has never abandoned them. ‘The Chinese love money,’ the PhD student Zhang told me, ‘because it has no history’. Having gone through the gangster capitalism of China’s rush to wealth, the older generation’s bleakly amoral attitude toward how to get by can shock their children. Huang Nubo, a poet, rock-climber and billionaire property developer, now in his fifties, has been one of the few people to talk about this openly, speaking of the ‘devastated social ecology’ in an interview with the Chinese magazine Caixin. But Huang is a rarity, and cushioned by his own wealth; far more parents are concerned that their children aren’t doing enough to get on.

While immigrants dream of their children becoming doctors, lawyers, or professors, domestic Chinese ambitions mostly lie elsewhere. Doctors are poorly paid, overworked, and unpopular, thanks to a flailing and corruption-ridden medical system. Lawyers are bound to the vagaries of the ever-shifting judicial system. Professors earn marginal incomes and rely on outside work to get by. The priority for Chinese parents isn’t professional standing or public achievement, but money and security, regardless of what the job involves.

The meaning of life, as explained in doing laundry

Washerwoman

 

 

Collect the clothes, collect the shirts, collect the underpants, get them to the washing machine, dry them, iron them neatly, and fold them in your wardrobes, and this is what most of us (but quite a few bizarre exceptions may apply in this world) will end up doing for the rest of our lifetime.

Or take it to a broader scope. Imagine a scenario like these. Wake up, take a bath, grab a breakfast, chase a bus, get to work, 9 to 5, go back home, take another bath, have a dinner, complete your assignments, and go to sleep, or what have you, probably on weekends you are either going to focus solely on your family or on your own solitude, and again, this is also what most of us (unless you are going to be artists) will end up doing for the rest of our lifetime. Until we age, or perhaps until we get our coffins done.

Stop! One moment, probably driven by your existentialist mind-questioning riddles, you start, at one point, to feel a complete irrelevance, a striking absence of meaning manifested in life itself: what sounds utterly absurd, either that I continue with such mundane, inside-my-box, well-arranged pre-programmed life, or that I commence abruptly ending my daily life rituals, and adopt something most will never do?

Maybe at one point you start envisioning that you should get someone else to complete all your tasks, or to imagine that a scientist somewhere create a robot (say, a real-life Doraemon) that grants all your wishes and does all your jobs while you go on and enjoy your day, or even that you wish something else – whoever that being is – to finish what you have yet completed. But, as time goes by, you recognize the absurdity in your thoughts yourself, and as it goes deeper, deeper than Freudian icebergs, you also start to feel, again, the tastelessness of life, this time on a more abyssal level. You find yourself barely reconciled to the fact that all of us, no more than mundane creatures struggling to survive in such cold and indifferent universe, willingly or not, have been entitled to all these ‘obligations’: we can’t always get it completely done. That you once believe you could really solve all the world’s problems, but you won’t. That you think the world, one day, will end up in a happily-ever-after, merry-going state, but that is only what your mind wishes for. That you believe universe itself has been fine-tuned for life, but that is only what we personally conjure. Slowly, you are reconciled to the fact, that you can’t find the peace outside; it all must be sought inside.

Heather Havrilevsky wants to explain, beyond the mundane task of dirty laundry, literally and figuratively, the philosophy of life itself. Read the full article on Aeon Magazine.

Excerpt:

Of course, back when you were single and untroubled by laundry, were you actually progressing steadily toward greatness? No. You were trying to decide whether to order the pastrami or the roast beef for lunch, or you were getting your hair highlighted while flipping impatiently through a heavy fashion magazine, or you were neurotically reviewing your drunken conversation with a guy you met the night before for clues as to whether or not he was interested.

But this is the strange gift that laundry brings to our lives. Its sheer mass, its magnitude, its ceaselessness make us aspire to greatness, even as such aspirations become less and less possible. When faced with such awesome power, we want to rise up, to harness the best within ourselves, to create something inspiring and wise! Why, then, must we spray stain remover on this little white smock instead? Why must our brilliant thoughts lie fallow, as we gather armfuls of laundry from hampers? One thing stands between you and the enviable career, the lasting legacy that you so richly deserve: dirty laundry.

Dirty laundry also prevents you from communing intimately with your spouse. Surely you’d be uncorking a nice bottle of red, pouring it into glasses, and having a gentle and rambling talk about your day, if not for the numbing, impenetrable nothingness of piles of clean laundry, those folded stacks crowding you on your own bed, rendering impulsive affectionate gestures or intimate touches an impossibility.

 

The ups and downs of solitude

A-Sarah-Maycock-illustration

 

 

Solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature. – Albert Einstein

One should not confuse the notion of solitude with that of loneliness – solitude refers to a point when one chooses to refrain from being in the center of the crowds, or merely wants to keep oneself deeply tranquil, while loneliness is perceived as an acute lack of social contact. At times, solitude can help individuals to think more calmly, to envision ideas more obviously, and to get engaged in mind games more creatively. Most authors, painters, and other artists, for instance, are notable for having utilized solitude as a means of accomplishing their magnum opus. Solitude itself, in addition, helps to reconnect a person with the inner self one aspires to discover. Hermits, monks, or any other spiritually inclined individuals, get acquainted with the nature – mostly forests – as means of achieving inner peace for themselves. 

Nevertheless, solitude itself may have its own drawback. When one clings to this concept for too long, loneliness is the consequence, frequently, that may result. He or she, upon returning to the societies, is more likely to get detached throughout the circumstances. With a significantly distinct point of view, one may find oneself alienated by the dominant sense of ‘commonness’ prevailing among majority of the individuals. Or that he or she may be entrenched in guilt for having failed to trigger them to enter their own solitude, where the inner peace rests in. Or end up disappointed by societies’ unchanging flaws. It can be anything.

John Burnside, writing for Aeon Magazine, wants us to make an equipoise, regardless of how uneasy it sounds to be, about the fundamental concept of solitude by itself. Read the full article here

Excerpt:

For many of us, solitude is tempting because it is ‘the place of purification’, as the Israeli philosopher Martin Buber called it. Our aspiration for travelling to that place might be the simple pleasure of being away, unburdened by the pettiness and corruption of the day-to-day round. For me, being alone is about staying sane in a noisy and cluttered world – I have what the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould called a ‘high solitude quotient’ — but it is also a way of opening out a creative space, to give myself a chance to be quiet enough to see or hear what happens next.

There are those who are inclined to be purely temporary dwellers in the wilderness, who don’t stay long. As soon as they are renewed by a spell of lonely contemplation, they are eager to return to the everyday fray. Meanwhile, the committed wilderness dwellers are after something more. Yet, even if contemplative solitude gives them a glimpse of the sublime (or, if they are so disposed, the divine), questions arise immediately afterwards. What now? What is the purpose of this solitude? Whom does it serve?

The wonder of parallel worlds

Babel-2

 

 

There could be a parallel world by which the global lingua franca is Swahili, or one in which there exist 200, or 300, million Jews, and Holocaust never took place, or one in which women are countless times far more superior to even the most able-bodied men. Or even one in which there is an alternative version of homo sapiens, that is us, but with height surpassing over 10 meters, wings to roam the sky (that means airplanes do not exist) and IQ scores exceeding 500. And all these take place in an alternate Earth over 10 to the power of 100 to the power of 1000 light years away from us.

But how has this notion influenced our mindsets throughout the centuries? Read the full article on Aeon Magazine.

Excerpt:

Recently, physicists have been boldly endorsing a ‘multiverse’ of possible worlds. Richard Feynman, for example, said that when light goes from A to B it takes every possible path, but the one we see is the quickest because all the others cancel out. In The Universe in a Nutshell (2001), Stephen Hawking went with a sporting multiverse, declaring it ‘scientific fact’ that there exists a parallel universe in which Belize won every gold medal at the Olympic Games. For Hawking, the universe is a kind of ‘cosmic casino’ whose dice rolls lead to widely divergent paths: we see one, but all are real.

Surprisingly, however, the idea of parallel universes is far older than any of these references, cropping up in philosophy and literature since ancient times. Even the word ‘multiverse’ has vintage. In a journal paper dating from 1895, William James referred to a ‘multiverse of experience’, while in his English Roses collection of 1899, the poet Frederick Orde Ward gave the term a spiritual cast: ‘Within, without, nowhere and everywhere;/Now bedrock of the mighty Multiverse…’

Redefining differences

defining the differences

 

It is undeniable that we have learned, by our own instincts, to discover differences among individuals surrounding us. As babies, we begin the lifelong lesson by making preferences either with our family members or with peers of the same origin – say the least, of racial background. Maturing up, we make the differences all the more obvious: we configure our own circles, befriend those of the similar interests with us, of equal skills and capabilities, of the same hometown or skin color, and consider others different from us as adversaries, or something less than humane. Take that to a larger scope, either about schools, cities, ethnic groups, religions, or even nation-states. Unexpectedly, it brings tremendous effects to human civilization.

Wars have been fought because of political interests and differing ideologies; some countries end up shattered and others peak into the paramount victories of the superpower phantasm. Myriad lives have been lost due to conflicts, ranging from microscopic-scale inter-tribal wars (often fought simply because of differing cultures, languages, or even accents), until Armageddon-scale high-technology battles involving predominant world powers. We all envision the heavenly notion of ‘eternal world peace’, but the ‘notion of differences’ we all have formed in our mindsets contradicts in perturbing how we should progress to achieve this dream.

Can we really afford to remove the entire differences defining us as the human race? This essay on Aeon Magazine attempts to explain the complicated human nature regarding perceiving the differences. This is also worthy of a leadership lesson about group unity.

 

Excerpt from the article:

 

The idea of ‘us and them’ was crystallised in the 1906 book Folkways by the American sociologist William Graham Sumner. In his vision, it wasn’t just ‘us and them’ but ‘us versus them’. ‘The insiders in a we-group are in a relation of peace, order, law, government, and industry, to each other. Their relation to all outsiders, or others-groups, is one of war and plunder, except so far as agreements have modified it,’ he wrote. For Sumner, these relations demanded each other: ‘Loyalty to the group, sacrifice for it, hatred and contempt for outsiders, brotherhood within, warlikeness without — all grow together, common products of the same situation.’

He introduced the term ‘ethnocentrism’ to describe ‘this view of things’ in which one’s own group is ‘the centre of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it’. The term included the tendency for groups to regard others as less than fully human: ‘As a rule it is found that nature peoples call themselves “men.” Others are something else — perhaps not defined — but not real men.’ Sumner saw ethnocentrism everywhere, from Papuan villages in New Guinea ‘kept separate by hostility, cannibalism, head hunting, and divergences of language and religion’, to the great powers, each of which ‘regards itself as the leader of civilisation, the best, the freest, and the wisest, and all others as inferior’. Whether they wielded stone axes, like the Papuans who were still isolated from outside influence by the New Guinea highlands, whether they built ‘dreadnought’ battleships, as the great powers were racing to do, humans would always conjure up an Other to threaten with their weapons.