A Christmas tree on a university campus in Tainan, decorated with students' handwritten wishes for each other.

From the isle Formosa, Merry Christmas.


Tainan University of Technology
Tainan, Taiwan

2006 December
© Alton Thompson

Putting Saturn back in the Saturnalia

Two Christmas seasons exist. One is the Christian religious season, observed in the western European liturgical calendar for twelve days between December 25 to January 5. It is preceded by the season of Advent, traditionally a period devoted to quiet activities and inner reflection. The other Christmas season is a secular holiday. This holiday corresponds with a merchants' marketing season that builds in a frenzied crescendo across a span of roughly two months to end in a flurry on the evening of December 24.

Every year one observes the citizens of Western countries working through some tensions that exist between the two. Observant Christians often express the desire to get their holy day back and complain of the 'Christ being taken out of Christmas.' When I lived in the States I regularly encountered articles in which someone endeavoured to explain the 'original' Christian meanings of holiday symbols such as the wreath, the evergreen, the holly and the mistletoe. Meanwhile, the nature of a pluralistic society makes it polite to acknowledge that not everybody observes the hooiday in a religious sense. It remains a time for friends and fun anyway, and it is always in order to wish others well. For this holiday the more secular images, being more inclusive, dominate. As always, the most inclusive people of all are the merchants, who welcome the business of all comers.

However one observes the holiday, if indeed one does at all, the fact remains that the original meaning of the holiday is pre-Christian and its symbols traditions in a variety of ways. Many good sources of information exist. For an informative thumbnail sketch on the web, check out John Steele Gordon's essay in the latest Wall Street Journal.

My friends in other parts of the world often ask about how Christmas is celebrated in east Asia. In Taiwan our cultural equivalent is really the Lunar New Year that we celebrate, depending on the moon phases, somewhere between mid-January and late February. That's when shops close and families feast and children get presents. This holiday entails the largest movement of people in the world.

Christmas is a fun but relatively minor holiday. It is a harbinger for the new year season here and gets people in a festive mood. We don't get off work, but it's a great excuse to slap on a Santa hat and gather with friends at a restaurant or karaoke place (called KTV here) and enjoy yourself.

Concerts devoted to Christmas music in Taiwan are usually charity benefits sponsored by Christian organizations. Performances of Handel's Messiah often fall into this category. Most concerts in December, though, are normal concerts. We hear all kinds of music; the holiday doesn't have the same effect on programming as elsewhere. Taiwanese people enjoy their touches of whimsy, though, so for a concert on December 24 or 25 performers often evoke the spirit of the season in some way: performers wearing Santa hats, ushers wearing reindeer antlers.

Christmas in Taiwan is just festive enough. You can have fun without drowning in it.

(For drowning, we have Lunar New Year!)



Everything's Great

Photo: Everything's Great
Tainan University of Technology
Tainan, Taiwan
2006 December
© Alton Thompson



Unnecessary Provocation

We think that Taiwan's referendum to apply to the United Nations under the name 'Taiwan' is a provocative policy. It unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage.

Condaleeza Rice
US Secretary of State

Dear Secretary Rice:

Like many Americans living in Taiwan I think your recent statement is a provocative action. It unnecessarily raises tensions between the democratic ideals we cherish and the policies of your administration. The statement promises no real benefits on the international stage for the people of America, Taiwan, or even China.

The moment was not worthy of you, Ms Rice. History has recorded your name already as a crucial player in the advancement of democracy. You were your country's Russia expert during the fall of the Soviet empire. The people of central and eastern Europe did not achieve democracy in those years because America sent mixed messages. Your motto then was peace through strength, not status quo.

Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.

Ronald Reagan

Compromise is inevitable in day-to-day governing. But it becomes betrayal when it gives away too much. Your statement, a payoff to Beijing after its help with North Korea, does just that. To say Taiwan's referendum is not helpful to you, to say you don't support the move, is one thing. To say you oppose Taiwan holding one is another. It gives away too much.

China's abusive leadership needs to understand that your country's commitment to democracy is not a chip to be traded. It needs to understand that the rights of free people, in Taiwan or elsewhere, are not the property of others to trade.

Please inform your counterparts in Beijing that they will have to collect America's IOUs with different currency.


Photo: Banner at Taipei Main Station
Taipei, Taiwan
2007 October

© Alton Thompson



Polish-German Border Dissolves

Nicholas Kulish reports in The International Herald Tribune on a quiet but historically remarkable development due to take place just a few hours from now.

As of midnight Thursday the once contentious border between Poland and Germany will be thrown open. For the most part, it has been more whimper than bang for the fall of one of the most historically fraught and violently fought over frontiers on earth.

Traveling along the 450-odd kilometers, or about 280 miles, of the border - from the German town of Zittau in the south, where the German and Polish dividing line ends at the border of the Czech Republic, to the Polish port city of Szczecin in the north - what is most striking is the relative indifference along the way to the change.

For centuries Poland was Europe's marching ground - when it was not dismembered and wiped off the map entirely by some combination of Germany, Austria and Russia. The Kingdom of Poland battled the Teutonic Knights as far back as the Middle Ages and memories of Hitler's Blitzkrieg storming into the country in September 1939 are still alive in the minds of the elderly and the imaginations of the young.

Once Hitler's army was defeated, millions of Germans were forced out of major cities now in Polish territory, like Breslau, now known as Wroclaw. Cities along the rivers Neisse and Oder that form most of the border became divided towns like Frankfurt-Slubice or Görlitz-Zgorzelec.

That the peaceful dismantling of border posts is largely a ceremonial nonevent testifies to the quiet success of the often-criticized project of European integration.

The report goes on to examine some of the challenges that remain. But they are the normal challenges: linguistic, economic, practical. (More here from the BBC.)

I was impressed during my own travels in Poland with the horrors that beautiful area of the world has endured. It seemed that every locale, no matter how urban or wooded, idyllic or bustling, is the scene of a past massacre. Poland's geographical placement seems to have guaranteed as much: at the crossroads of traditionally imperial powers.

Now, as Europe's peoples continue to join in common purpose, comes this almost unnoticed closing of the book. Here's wishing peaceful days ahead for both sides.


Taipei PM

©2007 Alton Thompson
Taipei, Taiwan


How China Builds the Firewall

At the top of the news today is the crackdown on another blogger in China for disagreeing with his government. I highly recommend taking a look at the interactive feature CNN appends to the story: 'How China Controls the Internet.'

The CNN feature puts you in the shoes of a person trying to navigate the Net behind the Great Firewall. China's people have no privacy rights. They must register to use the Net, providing the government with their names and passwords. Their activity on the Net is monitored. Businesses providing Internet service are required to keep records of all that goes on.

The technology for blocking and filtering sites is provided by firms like Yahoo and Google China and, more than any other, Cisco.

What is China's government afraid of? A look at a few of the taboo subjects tells a great deal.

Here's a short list of keywords that will trigger the filtering system and block access to content:

  • Revolution
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Justice
  • Taiwan
  • Tibet
  • Falun Gong
  • Dissident
  • Democracy
  • STD
  • Human rights

  • If you have participated in Internet forums and chat rooms where some participants are from China, you have likely noticed the surreal reaction you get whenever a subject comes up that remotely questions whether China's leaders always knows best. The Chinese participants will quickly declare their loyalty to the party line and insist that the subject be dropped. They shame others for bringing up the subject at all and declare their unwillingness to continue further. If the conversation proceeds anyway, they disappear.

    Those who are naive about the oppression that exists in China find these reactions surprising, disproportionate and baffling. They often misinterpret it as the expression of a passionately held belief on the part of the individual. This is, of course, a matter of habit. It's the way we normally register such reactions in democratic societies, where the right of all participants to express their feelings openly is a given. So it strikes them as amazing that Chinese friends should 'feel so strongly about' this or that subject.

    What their Chinese friends feel strongly about, though, is not the banter; it is about keeping themselves and their families alive, out of prison, and employed. On any subject where their government has staked a position there is only position they may take. To say anything different, to even treat the question as open, is to open oneself to the charge of subversion. And that government has staked a position on a vast array of subjects, including how many children to have.

    You see the phenomenon occur frequently on networking arenas such as Flickr. I have seen the reaction occur with subjects as innocuous as whether it is practical, in a keyboard texting age, to continue using simplified Chinese characters. No sooner is the question raised than Chinese participants declare the subject inappropriate and say they will leave the discussion if it continues.

    Not a political issue, you say? China's Communist Party has already ruled on the matter. Simplified characters appear on all the street signs because that is the choice the government ruled to be best. Nothing exists now for a Chinese person to discuss. To act as if options still existed, even to sit idly by as other opinions are expressed, is to take risks the discussion is hardly worth.

    Announcing their intention to boycott a conversation serves another practical purpose. The Chinese participants in Internet discussion know (even though their foreign friends often do not) that the discussion will soon end for them anyway. Their Internet content is filtered. The comments you and others make on a subject, even the thread in which those comments appear, are destined to disappear soon from their screens. It was accident that they saw it at all. They know that, unremarkable as the discussion seems to you, their government intends to deny them access to it. The safest thing they can do is go on record as supporting the Party line before the curtain falls, as it will, on the whole subject.

    Why don't they tell you that they can't continue the conversation simply because it puts them in a bad situation and is certain to be filtered? They don't tell you because their government's filtering of the Internet is itself another taboo subject. Big Brother knows it makes Big Brother look bad when Chinese citizens tell their international friends how much he watches.

    It is thus naive to assume, when Chinese colleagues quit an Internet discussion, that you have 'caused offence.' Your friends in China have far more urgent concerns than your humble opinion. They are performing for the camera. The authorities are always watching. They are giving the only show those authorities care to see.

    All in all, it's a sobering situation as we head into the year of the Beijing Olympics. China was only awarded the games, after all, because its government pledged to make significant progress by 2008 on human rights.



    Music by Ma Shui-long

    The music of Ma Shui-long will be featured in three concerts by the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, according to a report by Taiwan's Central News Agency. The concert dates and locales:

    December 15 Saturday 19:30
    Kaohsiung Cultural Center

    December 16 Sunday 19:30
    NTSO Recital Hall
    Wufeng Township, Taichung County

    December 17 Monday 19:30
    National Concert Hall
    Taipei, Taiwan

    Works by Ma to be featured in these concerts:

    Liao Tian-ding Suite

    For zheng (also called the guzheng), a traditional Chinese zither.

    The Invisible Temple of God
    For orchestra and male chorus.
    The work's 'Jade Mountain theme' draws on the music of Taiwan's Tsou and Bunun peoples.



    Olivier Messiaen

    Ninety-nine years ago today Olivier Messiaen drew his first breath in Avignon, France. We remember his birth today because of his signal achievements as a composer and organist. Expect to hear more of this composer's works in the concert hall in the coming months as we approach the centenary of his birth.

    Messiaen (1908-1992) is perhaps best known for his Quartet for the End of Time, composed during his imprisonment in a Nazi camp during the Second World War. The instrumentation was dictated to him by the availability of instrument at the camp. The piece displays the hallmarks of the composer's style: a mystical outlook, octatonic scales, and evocations of birdsong. Other landmark works in his oeuvre include Visions of the Amen, Turangalîla Symphony, and the opera Francis of Assisi. His style profoundly influenced subsequent generations of composers, including Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen and Gubaidulina.

    Those seeking an introduction to the composer and a guide to recordings will be well served by a visit to the BBC Olivier Messiaen Music Profile. It never hurts to drop in on Answers.com, of course. This omnibus reference site draws upon a number of resources, including Britannica and Wikipedia. The blog by Alex Ross of The New Yorker offers fascinating discussions of the Quartet and Saint Francis in particular. An international Messiaen conference will be hosted this summer (June 20-24) by the Birmingham Conservatoire. The Boston University Messiaen Project recently updated its web site. Among the many resources offered by the Project is a performance calendar listing significant events worldwide leading up to the big anniversary.

    Appréciez votre voyage.


    Liberty Square

    The sky opens over the main gate of Taiwan's newly christened Liberty Square (自由廣場) yesterday, on the eve of International Human Rights Day.

    Viewers familiar with the appearance of this landmark will notice that the new characters display a different calligraphy style than those they replace. Though still traditional, the style of the present characters is more open and looks more obviously like brushwork. In a departure from ancient Chinese tradition, but in keeping with current practice in Taiwan, the title is read left to right.

    The commemorative hall opposite the square is due to acquire a plaque this morning proclaiming its rededication as Democracy Hall. After that the barricades will be removed and crowds admitted.

    The opening of the square and the hall today coincide with the dedication of Jingmei Human Rights Park on the site of a former military detention center.

    Happy Human Rights Day.


    Photos by Alton Thompson
    Taipei, Taiwan 2007
    December 9
    All rights reserved.



    Transition in Taipei

    The times they are a-changin.

    The site originally dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek by his Kuomintang successors is being rededicated to the ideals of democracy. In the years following the Generalissimo's death in 1978 the site bearing his name became the scene of numerous demonstrations calling for reform. The most notable of these, the Wild Lily student movement of 1990, led to Taiwan's first island-wide popular elections. Recalling these events, Taiwan's national government recently designated the square, the hall and the surrounding gardens historical landmarks and rededicated them to the island's peaceful achievement of democracy.

    The original Chinese characters over the entrance archway recalled Taiwan's late dictator in words fit for a Chinese emperor: dazhong zhizheng (大中至正) . Yesterday workers took down the characters. When the last one came off the wall at 5:26 pm the crowd cheered. Cries went up: 'Taiwan ten thousand years!' 'Long live democracy!'

    New characters designating the landmark as Liberty Square (自由廣場) are due to be mounted today.

    A crowd of several hundred looked on, took pictures, and shared stories about life under Chiang Kai-shek and the developments since. There were songs as well. One knot of protesters waved ROC flags and sang 'Remember Chiang Kai-shek' repeatedly throughout the day. The Chinese-language anthem, once taught in schools, declares the singer's loyalty to the Generalissimo's goals of 'opposing Communists' and 'retaking the mainland.' Another small group, supporting the change, broke out singing 'Taiwan the Formosa' as the last character dropped from the wall. This Taiwanese-language hymn praises an island 'once subdued under foreign rule, now free at last to be its own.'

    The Taipei Times reports that in the next week the plaque designating the monument across the square as 'Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall' (中正紀念堂) will also be removed. A new plaque will be put in place bearing the characters minzhu jinianguan (民主紀念館): 'Democracy Hall.'


    Photos by Alton Thompson
    Taipei, Taiwan 2007
    December 7
    All rights reserved.


    Stockhausen 1928-2007

    The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen died on December 5th at at the age of of 79 in his home in Kuerten-Kettenberg, according to worldwide published reports. The news was announced on the official Stockhausen web site by Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer, longtime companions of the composer who often performed his compositions.

    David Ward of the Guardian Unlimited UK describes the mystically-minded Stockhausen as 'a composer who never courted popularity or convention and in his later years continued to plough a lonely furrow.' He reports:
    Prolific, whether in fashion or out of it, he composed 362 works, including the world's longest opera, Licht [Light], a sequence of seven pieces, one for every day of the week. The work lasts 29 hours. . . .

    Born in 1928 in a village near Cologne, he trained with the Swiss composer Frank Martin before making one of the key decisions of his life: he headed to Paris in 1952 to study with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud.

    Works hailed by enthusiasts (among them the Beatles, who included him on the cover of the Sergeant Pepper album) as masterpieces included Gruppen (1955-57). The work is written for 109 players divided into three groups laid out before and to either side of the audience.

    Stimmung, his 70-minute piece for six voices, was said by Paul Hillier - whose new recording of it was released last month - to have "completely refashioned the very idea of what a vocal ensemble might do and be".

    Reviewing the disc, Guardian music critic Andrew Clements described the work as "a vast elaboration of a single six-note chord based on the overtones of the note B flat" and added: "Stimmung is one of the masterpieces of the last half century. Like all the greatest music it is unclassifiable - part meditation, part gigantic motet, part phonetic game - and totally resistant to imitation".

    Ivan Hewitt in the Telegraph admits the difficulty facing anyone wishing to take stock of Stockhausen.

    Few composers in history have attracted such furious controversy as Karlheinz Stockhausen, the composer who claimed to be descended from astral beings and described composition as "listening to the vibrations of the universe".

    Some say he was just a high-class charlatan, his grandiose visions indulged by the generous German subsidy system and protected from the world by a bevy of ministering women and starry-eyed followers. Others say that he was the really the best of that great generation of composers who were born in the 20s and moulded by the traumatic experiences of war.

    Hewitt regards each view as too extreme. He describes the composer's 'great period' as ranging 'roughly from the mid-1950s to the mid-70s.' The compositions dating from this period display 'one great radical leap after another', says Hewitt, and showed a new generation of composers that anything was possible.

    Like his great contemporary Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen was inspired by the 12-note method created by the great Austrian/Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, and wanted to take it further. But unlike Boulez, his vision of music was essentially mystical. "May God help me to find the true path", he once wrote.

    Stockhausen viewed serialism as a 'democratic' way of making music that acknowledged 'relativity' in the universe. Ward notes that 'the world moved on but Stockhausen refused to have anything to do with minimalists and postmodernists. And they chose to have nothing to do with him. '



    Nikolaus Harnoncourt

    Art is not a nice extra – it is the umbilical cord which connects us to the Divine, it guarantees our being human.

    - Nikolaus Harnoncourt

    Today marks the birthday of a remarkable cellist and conductor. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, born in Berlin and raised in Graz, began his career as a student and orchestral cellist in Vienna. He and his wife Alice grew increasingly interested in performing of Renaissance and baroque repertoire using the instruments and performance practices of the period. They founded the Concentus Musicus Wien ensemble in 1953 to explore the possibilities. Harnoncourt began collecting antique instruments and writing articles on the ideal of 'Music as Rhetoric' commonly encountered in the writings of seventeenth and eighteenth-century theorists.

    And the rest, as they say, is history. In the 1980s Harnoncourt's pioneering approach to music of the past became the norm. He has been widely sought after as a conductor of opera and symphonies. Today he is renowned for performances of daring originality and perceptive musicality. His interpretations combine heart and mind in a way that identify him as a true servant of his art.



    DG Downloads

    Deutsche Grammophon has launched a new web site featuring DRM-free downloads of classical music. The imposing DG catalogue makes this development an exciting one for music lovers. Gramophone magazine reports that DG will make around 2,500 releases available in MP3 format encoded at 320 kbps. This includes hundreds of releases that are already unavailable in CD format or on other web sites.

    The site serves a number of countries (such as Taiwan) that are not served by iTunes. Customers can buy single tracks at the DG shop as well as complete albums. Downloading purchased files into iTunes is accomplished by easy drag-and-drop into the iTunes jukebox. And in one of those thoughtful 'Why didn't anyone do this before?' moves, DG provides liner notes for each release in PDF format.

    UK music lovers will also want to investigate the Universal Classics and Jazz store.