Scotland/China articles

Interview - Dance + maths = innovation

by Website Editor, 18 February 2013

This is the fourth in a series of interviews focusing on individuals from Scotland who have spent a lengthy period in the other country, or are very involved in Scotland/China exchanges.

Janis Claxton has been engaged with exchanges with Chinese dance and performance since 2009. She has choreographed for Beijing/Dance LDTX, Beijing Dance Academy and Beijing Song and Dance Company. Her works have been presented at the Guangdong Modern Festival, Dadao Live Art Festival (798 Art Space), Shanghai Expo, Beijing Dance Academy and Beijing Dance Festival and in Scotland, at Edinburgh Zoo. After she gave a fascinating talk to the SCA Edinburgh branch in January, we caught up with Janis and her team of Scottish and Chinese dancers during rehearsals for her next project, 'Chaos and Contingency', to be performed in March at venues in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

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The dancers performing in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 23 March 2013

“'Chaos and Contingency' is about structure and pattern”, Janis explains, “I wanted a complete change after doing several projects that were more about emotion”. To prepare, she began to explore relationships between numbers and music ; looked again at John Conway's 'Game of Life' from 1970 ; and worked with David McCarthy, professor of philosophy and mathematics at Edinburgh University, to create a performance based on a grid of nine squares.

The performance is based on the study of emergent mathematical patterns. Small variants initiate change – like the famous butterfly wings of chaos theory – and patterns evolve and dissolve revealing both simplicity and complexity. The performance offers its audience different ways of seeing dance, and is designed to be viewed from different angles, including from above, something that the choice of venues will allow.

But as well as the normal challenges of preparing for a performance in three different venues the length and breadth of Scotland, Janis also has to integrate the skills and styles of four Chinese and four western dancers into a cohesive whole. “Coming from Australia, I'm more influenced by eastern styles of dance to start with”, she explains, “and Chinese dancers seem to adapt easily to my style – in general their bodies are more fluid, their movements more flowing and circular than most westerners”. The style of dance that is predominant in the UK is “more linear and more tense”.

Wan Shi Ming, one of the Chinese contingent, told us he was “very interested in how Janis creates the idea of the dance”, adding “I did not expect to be thinking like a scientist !” Ming, who is from Guangdong Modern Dance, said he hoped to bring “my own inspiration” to the performance, and to “collect and combine experiences and take movements from each other”.


The dancers performing at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, photo by Roy Campbell-Moore

Janis explains that the Chinese style of performance development is somewhat different from what she is used to in the west. “In China, the dancers tend to get their material from the choreographer, and to focus on technical performance, while western dancers tend to generate material for the choreographer, and to focus on ownership and individuality”. Bringing these two tendencies together in a productive way is one of the most challenging, and potentially one of the most rewarding, aspects of the rehearsals.

Janis is finding fascinating new insights in the scientific aspects of the performance. “In fact, we are discovering that patterns are deep and meaningful”, Janis says, “and that chaos is everywhere around us – I hope SCA members can come and see for themselves !”

For more on 'Chaos and Contingency' and Janis Claxton Dance, see Janis Claxton's website.. The dancers are Liu Chang (刘畅), Liu Bin (刘斌), Tan Yuan Bo (谭远波), Wan Shi Ming (万诗铭), Tamsyn Russell, Adrienne O'Leary, Fiona Jeffries and James Southward. The performances were at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, 2-3 March ; Aberdeen Art Gallery, 16 March ; and the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 23-24 March, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. We went along on the 23rd and the show was watched by a large, appreciative - and perhaps intrigued - audience of all ages (see photos at top of article). You can see the dance being performed at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery here and here.

Scottish Mandarin - Reginald Johnston

Reviewed by Website Editor, 5 November 2012

Sir Reginald Johnson, diplomat in China, scholar, and, rather more famously, tutor to the last Emperor, the young Puyi, did create a substantial personal archive. “He had kept not only his notes of all his travels, but also his manuscripts, finished and unfinished, and a huge number of letters. These included letters from Puyi, written since his childhood in the Forbidden City and continuing through to his enthronement as emperor of Manchukuo...Johnston wrote to an enormous circle of people, Chinese and European ; his correspondence presented a unique picture of forty critical years in the history of China”.

However, all this was burnt at his Argyll estate of Eilean Righ after his death in 1938, against Johnston's wishes, by the woman he had planned to marry. As author Shiona Airlie says, “the loss of these papers is, even today, inestimable”. But even so, she has written this biography, despite beginning “with nothing ; no record of the family nor a Johnston archive”. So just how do you write the biography of someone whose own papers have been lost ?

As Shiona says, “laying bare the life of Reginald Johnston was a long arduous journey”, which took her “from the suburbs of Edinburgh to the far west of China...simply the most marvellous adventure”. What that exciting introduction disguises, of course, is an awful lot of hard work and careful archival digging. This book has clearly been, like her previous one on Johnston's great friend, colleague and mentor, Sir James Stewart-Lockhart, a labour of love.

The first two keys to unlock the history of Johnston came, appropriately enough, from Puyi and Stewart-Lockhart. During his own rehabilitation, Puyi wrote his story in the late 1950s, and began to put Johnston back into the historical limelight. Closer to home, the Stewart-Lockhart papers, now housed in the National Library of Scotland, include some 600 letters from Johnston to his friend. With these starting points, Shiona has been able to locate other collections of correspondence, notably that of the Johnston family lawyers, and other leading British diplomats and China experts of the early 20th century. Combined with Johnston's extensive official paper trail in the files of the Colonial Office, his own publications, and much more, she has woven this into a story that is probably as complete as it can be, told, wherever possible, in his own words.

So what do his words tell is ? The picture that emerges is, as Shiona says, that of a “strange, difficult and eccentric man”. Johnston was “clever and foolish, amusing and annoying, liberal and prejudiced...predictably unpredictable”. He was able to irritate everyone from his long-suffering Colonial Office masters to eunuchs in the Forbidden City. However, he was equally able to entertain and indeed charm his close friends, male and female, with his wit and irreverence.

For example, he noted in his first Annual report from Wei-hai-wei (now Weihai), where he began work under Stewart-Lockhart in 1904, that one of the reasons he had to hear so many civil cases as District Officer was that “the number of hen-pecked husbands in the territory of Weihaiwei is exceedingly large...” In the same report, he also noted “I am happy to be able to report that by the registration of three [European] marriages during 1904 the reproach of celibacy has been forever removed from this corner of the British Empire”. The latter remark did not survive Colonial Office editing in London.

Photos of the rendition of Wei-hai-wei to China in October 1930 - left to right - Johnston (top hat, second from left) arrives with the Chinese Commissioner, Wang Jiazheng (top hat, far right), Admiral Sir Arthur Waistell, Commander in Chief of the China Station and Lt Col Colchester-Wemyss of the 2nd Battalion, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who were providing the guard of honour ; Johnston speaking during the ceremony ; and the Argylls Guard of Honour

It seems, in fact, that the Chinese mandarinate respected Johnston much more than its British equivalent. They were impressed by his knowledge of the language and their culture, and by his understanding of how to rule in the Chinese way, firmly but fairly, as he did in Wei-hai-wei. This is perhaps why he was asked, in 1919, to become tutor to Puyi, then 13 and subject to a stifling and anachronistic regime in the Forbidden City while the new Chinese republic seethed with political intrigue around him. The strangeness of his position was very clear to Johnston, who wrote in his own book on this period, Twilight in the Forbidden City, “the Chinese republic might have been ten thousand miles away instead of a few hundred yards”. He went to become a close confidant of Puyi through the difficult years of the 1920s and beyond.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that a version of this biography has, in fact, already been published in Chinese. But this new book from Hong Kong University Press has taken the story even further, and it is also much more detailed than Shiona's earlier short biography, Reginald Johnston : Chinese Mandarin, published in 2001, which some SCA members may already have.

Shiona concludes that “to the very end, he was an enigma”. However, thanks to her diligence and entertaining writing, he is now considerably less of an enigma – and the bonfire of Eilean Righ has been substantially redeemed.

Scottish Mandarin – the life and times of Sir Reginald Johnston, by Shiona Airlie, has been published by Hong Kong University Press, ISBN 978-988-8139-56-9, as part of their Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Studies Series. It is now listed as available by online bookseller Amazon. The book has some 340 pages, including 16 pages of fascinating black and white photos, detailed footnotes and an extensive bibliography.

For a report of Shiona Airlie's talk to SCA Edinburgh Branch on her previous book on Sir James Stewart-Lockhart, see our earlier article.

Interview - an intercultural communicator

by Web Editor, 29 October 2012

This is the third in an occasional series of interviews focussing on individuals from Scotland and China who have spent a lengthy period in the other country.

James Brodie, originally from Edinburgh, has recently returned from six years in China and is now Scotland/China Business Adviser with the China-Britain Business Council, based in the capital. The CBBC is the leading organisation helping UK companies grow and develop their business in China, aiming to help UK companies of all sizes and sectors, whether new entrants or established operations, access the full potential of the Chinese market. We spoke to him about his wide experience in a variety of sectors in China and his new role in Scotland.

If things had turned out differently, James might have ended up as an expert on Thailand. It was an early “gap year” trip to that colourful country that got him interested in Asian languages and culture, before going to the University of Sheffield. “If there'd been a degree in Thai I'd probably have done that !”, he jokes. But there wasn't, so he took Chinese Studies, including a year studying in Nanjing, before spending time in Paris learning French and taking a course in intercultural communication.

He eventually landed in Beijing in 2006, and soon found a role with a local gallery specialising in Chinese contemporary art, Chinablue. “I got involved in developing their international programme”, he explains, “during what was a very exciting time for this sector – it was great to work with artists like Wang Qingsong and Liu Xiaodong”.

However, the financial crisis of 2008 caused this market to collapse temporarily, and James moved on to a variety of freelance interpreting and translating work. It was a job of this kind that had earlier taken him to the far western reaches of China, helping a French TV documentary crew filming at the source of the Yangtze River - “great fun, riding around on motorbikes near Golmud !” But it was not all exotic travel – James also had to pore over Chinese education policy documents to translate them for the British Council.

This language work took James into his final Chinese role with Davy Process Technology, a British company that develops and licences advanced process technologies for the oil and gas, petrochemicals, commodity chemicals and fine chemical industries. They had been working in China for some 30 years with significant success, but needed to open a permanent office in Beijing.

“I helped to get that started, and travelled to many of the 50 plants across China where Davy processes have been used”, James explains, “doing translating and interpreting work – this took me to Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Sichuan”. He notes that this experience, often working with Chinese state-owned enterprises such as Sinopec and PetroChina, was quite different to his previous roles with much smaller enterprises. “It was good to see a wide range of different kinds of China business”, he stresses.

This knowledge across many sectors now stands James in good stead as he begins to meet the 50 CBBC member companies in Scotland. “The diversity of our membership is striking”, he says, “I am finding myself going from a meeting about golf tourism to one about intellectual property, and then to another about the oil and gas sector”.

He's also finding some differences in business culture between Scotland and China, particularly the length of time it can take to make arrangements for meetings and events - “something that has to be set up six weeks in advance here, could be done in a few days in China – I spend a lot of time managing the differing expectations of business people from the two countries - intercultural communication is not always simply about language”.

Since he joined the organisation in August, James has been travelling the length and breadth of Scotland to have face-to-face meetings with members - “I've seen about half, and aim to see everyone by the end of the year”. These trips have taken him as far afield as Inverness, Ayr, Paisley, Broxburn, South Queensferry, Elgin and Dundee, as well as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The opening of an office in the Scottish capital is a first for CBBC, alongside their longstanding presence in Glasgow. “We want to give members and potential members more opportunities for face-to-face contact, and it's also good to be near the Scottish Parliament and Government, too, to keep on top of policy developments and for hosting inbound Chinese delegations”, explains James. And the CBBC presence in China, currently 11 offices, is to expand soon to 13 with the addition of Xi'an and Changsha.

“Despite the difficult economic conditions, there are still a lot of opportunities for Scottish companies in China, and indeed Chinese companies here”, James emphasises. And he's certainly likely to be a lot busier than if he had studied Thai !

For more advice on doing business in China, James can be contacted at this email.

The One Life, by Susie Leiper

by Website Editor, 24 October 2012

Susie Leiper is a longstanding member of the SCA's Edinburgh Branch, and author of the well-known book,
Precious Cargo : Scots and the China Trade in 1997. She is also one of Britain’s leading calligraphers, known both for her traditional skills in writing with quills on vellum and for her innovative use of the Chinese brush as a writing tool. Susie’s formative years as a calligrapher were spent in Hong Kong, where she developed her passion for Chinese art and language. Her second solo exhibition, The One Life opened at the Open Eye Gallery in the capital in mid-October, and we met to hear more about her work and the thinking behind this new collection.

John Ruskin, art historian and explorer, believed that mountains were the “great cathedrals of the earth”, and this is a belief that Susie shares. “I love being in them”, she says, “whether it is Munro-bagging in Scotland, crossing the Pyrenees or climbing Huangshan in China – so this is life and art coming together, if you like !”

Her deep appreciation of the world's great peaks comes out very clearly in the paintings and other artwork in The One Life. Some of her abstractions delve deeper into the details of the mountains, uncovering the patterns inherent in rocks, lichens and plants – for example the first five images seen here.

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Upper row - The immeasurable height of woods decaying, response to ‘The Simplon Pass’ by William Wordsworth, oil and plaka on board ; Radiant white, Chinese ink and colours on Wenzhou bark paper ; The homeless voice of waters, response to ‘The Prelude, Conclusion’ by William Wordsworth, oil and plaka on wood
Lower row - Celestial pines, oil and graphite on wood ; Mighty forms, from ‘The Prelude, Book I’ by William Wordsworth, Chinese colours, ink and pencil on paper

As well as painting on canvas and wood panels, Susie enjoys using a variety of Chinese materials in her work, especially Chinese paper. “Chinese paper is very different from western paper”, she explains, “being much too absorbent for use with the pens employed in western calligraphy”. Some of the works in this exhibition are painted on Wenzhou bark paper, made from the bark of mulberry trees, from the city in Zhejiang province more usually known for its large private-sector electric industry. Meanwhile, Xuancheng, in Anhui province, is the source of the best xuan paper.

Left to right - Green earth, text from ‘Tintern Abbey’ by William Wordsworth, concertina book, oil, plaka and pencil on board ; Midnight, concertina book in silk covers, ink and gouache on Wenzhou bark paper ; Elysian fields, concertina book in silk covers, oil, plaka and graphite on board

But as well as the physical form of the mountains of Scotland and China, Susie reflects, like Ruskin, on their spiritual nature. Her love of Wordsworth took her to his famous line from 'The Prelude', “...for in all things I saw one life...” Two millennia and two cultures separate this from the 5th century BC Daoist text, Daodejing, which contains a line that might be translated as “the dao moves in all directions at once...and gives life to everything under the sun”, but as she points out “both reiterate the same philosophical understanding that behind everything lies one universal force, or truth”. Chinese painters sought to reveal this truth or essence in their mountain paintings, and Susie aims to express this core message through works such as this third group.

Left to right - The one life 道, the character dao 道 underlies excerpts from ‘The Prelude’ by William Wordsworth, oil and plaka on canvas ; The one life, from ‘The Eolian harp’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ochre, ink and pencil on Wenzhou bark paper ; Workings of one mind, from ‘The Prelude, Book VI’ by William Wordsworth, ink, plaka and gold on board

As Susie explains, “calligraphy, painting, and poetry are the three arts most treasured by the Chinese, and I aim to marry western calligraphy, painting and poetry with the spontaneity and harmony of a Chinese master”.

She was also intrigued to find a reference to “that paradise of ten thousand trees, or Gehol’s famous gardens” in another part of Wordsworth's 'Prelude' – Gehol/Jehol (now Chengde) is the site of the Qing emperors’ summer residence in the mountains north-east of Beijing. “Wordsworth may have seen a painting of these formal gardens, but he didn't seem very impressed by them”, Susie guesses, “perhaps seeing them as too manicured“. His landscape preference, as a Romantic poet, and her own are for the wilder and more natural.

Susie on her 60th Munro, and two views of her exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh

Guests attending the opening of the exhibition on 19 October were certainly fascinated by Susie's expressions of these ancient ideas. Calligrapher Chi Zhang, with whom Susie has studied at the Confucius Institute at the University of Scotland, commented that "her recent works get more influence from traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, with a suggestive Chinese style and also a contemporary approach". Another viewer spoke of feeling “such a lovely calmness” surrounded by the works.

This exhibition seems to have allowed Susie to take her artistic development to another, very personal level, merging her Scottish and Chinese influences - “this is what I'm about”, she says.

The One Life was shown at the Open Eye Gallery, 34, Abercromby Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6QE in October-November 2012. For more details, see Susie's own website. It's also interesting to compare her work, as a Scottish artist incorporating Chinese elements in her work, with that of Chi Zhang, a Chinese artist incorporating Scottish elements in his work – see our earlier article. And she has also made it into 'Critic's Choice' in The Scotsman.

Postcard from Beijing

by Keith Adams, Edinburgh branch, in Beijing, 14 August 2012

My last day in the Chinese capital. I’ve been here for a month now, with embedded trips to Nanjing and Xi’an, and I’m not looking forward to the Edinburgh rain. Beijing has been, as always, a feast for the eyes and the taste buds, if not the lungs ; the pollution does vary from day to day but when it’s bad, it does mean persistent coughing.

Each time I return the city seems to have gone through another step function in growth, with new tower blocks sprouting where previously there had been only hoardings bearing often incomprehensible (but, I’m sure, intended to be inspirational) messages - “Drink until the last minute, then meeting !”

But in the face of all of this progress, Beijingers still maintain ownership of their public spaces in a uniquely Chinese way. Regardless of how big the buildings are, or how sophisticated the new shops selling Prada and Louis Vuitton, the locals never seem deterred from populating the pavements with their furniture to sit out and chat, or draping their washing from the roadside trees. Office forecourts are taken over in the cooler early evening for group “tennis tai chi” classes and the parading of one of the newer status symbols – the pedigree dog. I’ve never seen a dog in Beijing not perfectly groomed.

Left to right - my zodiac sign - the Ox ; going by "tube" ; dancing in the park

Left to right - grapes on the go ; musicians in the park ; ready for take-off

And although more often found in the parks, one of my favourite experiences in walking the city is to come upon musical gatherings. These can be groups of musicians playing traditional instruments together or simply two or three older folk ballroom dancing to a scratchy portable CD player. Sociability on the streets for the Chinese is assumed of everyone, and there is something greatly cheering in seeing people so comfortable with and enjoying this communal outdoor life.

No note on Beijing would be complete without a mention of food and as always the new dishes tried greatly outnumbered the old favourites. I asked my son, who lives in Beijing, to take me for crayfish (known as mala xiaolongxia amongst other names), so the following night off we went to Ghost Street to tackle an enormous tray piled with these critters. Cooked whole and a deep red in colour, they were generously steeped in chillies and Sichuan pepper, and (tragically !!) required much iced Beijing pijiu as an accompaniment. No bib, as with lobster, but plastic gloves were provided and we set about working for our supper, by the time we’d finished I was dismembering them with the expertise of a Newhaven – or perhaps Qingdao - fishwife. Absolutely delicious, put them on your list to try if you haven’t already.

The central purpose of this trip was to practice my language skills, to support the Chinese degree I’m taking at Edinburgh University, an objective that only ever meets with partial success. Learning Chinese is a little like playing golf, where the one good hole you play in the eighteen provides all of the motivation you need to get you back on the course the next time. The rare occasion when someone fully understands your textbook Mandarin, and a conversation blossoms, makes up for all the puzzled faces and frustrated taxi-drivers and dark winter days staring at lists of characters. Now I have to pack and I’m sorry to go, but I’m already looking forward to the next time.

Zai jian Beijing !