Closing the Furnace

The ritual of offering money to ancestors and deities is well established in Taiwan. Adherents of traditional religions acquire special money, sold at temples especially for this ritual purpose, and burn it in a furnace.

In recent years public health officials have begun confronting the environmental toll exacted by the widespread practice. The smoke, now known to be full of carcinogens, goes up in vast amounts during holy days with little thought given to dissipation. The smoke has plainly negative effects on the health of people exposed to it.

The Taipei Times reports that a temple in Taoyuan County found its furnace closed last week.

Citing air pollution, the Taoyuan County Government's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) posted a notice sealing a Land God Temple's (土地公廟) furnace that was used for burning 'ghost money' on Wednesday, shocking many locals.

The temple, located in Bade Village (八德) in the county's Lungtan Township (龍潭), has been there for almost a century, village chief Chang Yun-huan (張運煥) said.

'For the Environmental Protection Administration to seal the furnace is not only hard for the villagers to accept, but how would the Land God feel about it?' he asked.

Although the temple does not have an administrative board, it represents the religious beliefs of nearly 1,000 village residents, Chang said, adding that the sudden sealing of the furnace upset villagers, as it prohibited them from practicing the traditional, everyday ritual of burning ghost money and incense.

The bureau fined the temple NT$5,000 for violating the Air Pollution Control Act (空氣污染防制法).

The bureau said a notice was posted at the temple at the beginning of the month, requiring that an administrative board be organized to maintain the temple and prevent pollution if the furnace were to remain in use. However, in the three weeks prior to Wednesday, no one took on the responsibility, forcing the EPA to seal the furnace, it said.

A number of temple administrators will take the closing of the furnace in Taoyuan County as a cautionary signal. Next month brings the Chungyuan Festival (中元節), or Ghost Festival, when huge amounts of smoke are produced. The Taipei Times reports that bureau officials are making suggestions for environmentally safer practices 'such as worshipping without incense or virtually burning incense or paper money via the Internet.'

The suggestion may be naive (I'm new here), but I've always wondered if an environmental improvement couldn't be made as the ritual is still observed by changing the form and denomination of the currency. Could a worshipper offer a suitably vast amount of money in a more compact form? One sheet of paper is prefereable to a stack, certainly. Could a coin, made of some suitably environmentally friendly material, do the work of a paper stack?

It willbe interesting to see how things work out. It's another situation of long-standing traditions being challenged by modern awareness. Every culture gets its turn at jolts like this, as attested by the number of people in the United States who still find it hard to accept that they live on a planet four billion years old. The Taiwanese have often proved adaptable and resilient, though. The new transition, though as difficult for some, is unlikely to prove as chronic.



Taipei Performing Arts Centre

The Taipei City Government yesterday announced plans to find top international architects to design the new Taipei Performing Arts Centre.

The 2.2-hectare venue will be located on Chengde Road near Shilin Night Market. It will meet a need in the city for a facility that accommodates large and long-running performances by Taiwanese performing arts organisations. The structure will house a 1,500-seat theatre and two smaller 800-seat theatres. Construction of the Taipei Performing Arts Centre is scheduled to begin in 2010 and be completed in 2013.

An international competition will be held next year and the winning design team will be chosen by a committee headed by Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. The city plans to allocate NT$4.3 billion (US$140 million) for the project, with around 15 per cent of that amount going to the winning architectural team.

The city government will also invite international architectural teams to design two other cultural facilities — the Taipei Centre for Popular Music and the Taipei City Museum.



Mo Yan-chih. Taipei Times. 2008 07 25.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur. 2008 07 24.


Cloud Gate 2's 'Oculus'

Cloud Gate 2 will present Oculus at LIberty Square. The dance performance takes place tomorrow evening (Saturday) at 19:30. Admission is free to the public.

Details are reported by Diane Baker of the Taipei Times:

It is almost impossible to watch Oculus and not think of what might have been, for its creator died of leukemia just as he was making a name for himself as a choreographer. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 2004, only months after becoming artistic director of Germany’s Staatstheater Kassel Dance Company.

Cloud Gate founder and artistic director Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) established CG2 in 1999 to foster young choreographers and dancers and provide education and outreach programs for schools and communities throughout the country. Under the leadership of the troupe’s late director, Lo Man-fei (羅曼菲), Wu was one of those young choreographers tapped to create works for CG2.

[ . . . . ]

Oculus explores the very human desire for love and acceptance. Wu’s unique choreographic language is a mixed bag of tics, flat-footed shuffles and scurrying, hunched shoulders, clasped hands and awkward leaps — it is not the graceful, airy movements so often thought of as dance. Wu’s movements, like Lin’s, are more firmly rooted in the earth and draw energy from it, even as he appeals to the heavens. He set a frenetic pace for the dancers, interspersed with moments of stark stillness. The 12 sections are divided into carefully structured solos, duets and ensemble work.

Screens will be set up to ensure a view for the entire audience. Still, early arrival is recommended. Cloud Gate performances routinely sell out and free performances can draw crowds of over 10,000.

Parental advisory: the performance features 'bare breasts.' (But that's nothing your kids haven't seen before, is it?)



Ai Weiwei

China's most famous living artist speaks his mind in 'Cultural Revolutionary,' an interview in today's Guardian (UK).
In the West, Ai's name was once known only in art circles. After his collaboration with the architects Herzog & de Meuron on Beijing's Olympic stadium - it was his idea to make it look like a bird's nest - his fame spread, especially when he gave an interview in which he announced that he had 'no interest' in the Olympics or in the Chinese state's propaganda - and that, no, he would not be attending the opening ceremony. Even so, it remains hard to convey the extent of his fame in China. .... Ai Weiwei is not only an artist but also an influential architect, a publisher, a restaurateur, a patron and mentor, and an obsessive blogger (he is read by 10,000 people every day).
And then, on top of everything else, there are his politics. Ai Weiwei's father was Ai Qing, the great poet who, during the Cultural Revolution, was exiled to a desert labour camp for being the wrong kind of intellectual. For many years his son lived in another kind of exile, in America. Then, in 1993, Ai returned to Beijing to the bedside of his dying father. But if the authorities imagined he would now retire quietly to his studio, they were wrong.

Ai says that people who think he now 'hates' the stadium he designed are mistaken. He feels fine about the quality of the design. But, as he tells Rafi Cooper, the planning of the city, and the nature of the regime behind that planning, is another story.

While some gasp at Beijing's extraordinary new skyline, with its statement buildings and rows of cranes, Ai remains singularly unimpressed. 'It's like another revolution,' he says. 'The speed of it. But if you look at the scale of it, you can tell that no time has been devoted to thinking. It has not been done gracefully. It's rough and short-sighted and temporary. Cities always reflect human history. We can't really judge it now but I'm sure there's going to be a lot of saying sorry later. [What we need to know is] who's building it? How do the developers get the land? It's so political. In 1949 most properties lost their owners. They were either kicked out or killed. The nation owned the property. Since then the state has just sold it to people who can afford it. So property should be [according to the government] for the whole nation, yet the government takes the profit. No political, philosophical or moral aesthetic is involved. It's just: let's be rich first. Except that people are finally starting to question: who is getting rich?'

In the past Ai has likened the government to the Mafia. Does he worry about saying such things? He looks quietly dismissive. 'I will not be held back. Not saying things is not good for anybody. I believe every citizen should state their mind. China has never been a democratic society, so candour and responsibility have never been encouraged. People feel hopeless, even about trying to take part in the political process, and they have done for generations.'

More than anything else, Ai believes that the nation is still paying a price for having collectively punished the intellectual classes during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. 'The nation is in bad shape,' he says. 'We are still paying the cost in terms of public discussion. We are still paying in every respect.'

Ai describes his life in America fondly. He returned to China in 1993 when his father became ill.

'Friends had told me how it had changed. Yes, there were new roads, more products, cars. But some things had not changed. No freedom, no exchange of ideas. It's still like that today, and it makes me sad. I don't mind material change but how people's minds change is the most precious thing.'

Will this ever change? 'Eventually.' In his lifetime? He grins. 'I will never die when there is not democracy!'

The complete article provides a compelling description of life in three environments: China in its Cultural Revolution period, America in the closing decades of the twentieth century, and China today. Ai Weiwei is a telling observer and chronicler of humanity. Rafi Cooper provides a chronology of the artist's life and work.