The Art of The Steal (Again)

Ren Jingwen, a man in Xi’an, China, who spent over 40 years collecting ancient artifacts, and particularly things related to “Ox Culture,” built his own museum in Xi’an. The birth of new China (October 1, 1949) was in the year of the Ox, and 2009 was the hugely important 60th birthday of China and the year he planned for this museum to open, displaying his collection to the public. This museum opened on September 12, 2009.

Here is a run-down about the museum

I just happened to be  with an alum group that month, and had arrived in China on September 17; we got to Xi’an on Sept 21-23. The provincial museum was closed on the day we were supposed to go, in preparation for the October 1 celebrations, and our guide had heard about this new private museum, so we went. Here is a link to my full set of pictures.

This place was not only physically magnificent, but the collection (and I have seen a few Chinese history museums) was at least as good if not better, in many of his items, that I have ever seen… examples that I had only seen broken and repaired, he would have five pristine versions of them.

He was there that day, and took us around – I am pretty we were the first foreigners, and among the first visitors ever.

Apparently, creating this palatial and privately held museum and putting on this display – EVEN though it was all in deference to the country and the culture – was too much for the provincial government, who decided they needed the land, and demolished the museum and parsed some of the collection to three smaller museums.

I am so upset to hear about this! It sets my social justice neuron to firing when you mess with art. I have a super-special sense of privilege to have seen this place during its short lifetime.

And if you are smirking and telling yourself that “this is China, and this could never happen in the United States,” then you do not know about the story of the ca. $25B (B!Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, and I urge you to watch “The Art of the Steal” (2009) sometime. There is a copy on YouTube.

“Walking Monk”

“Walking Monk”  (2015)
by Bill James (1943-)
20 x 30 in., oil pastel on paper
Coppola Collection

Bill James is a talented artist whose range covers oils, watercolors, and pastels. His work is quite reasonably priced and he does commissions. I had been looking for the right person to translate some of the images that I had taken in Tibet, particularly of the local people and the monks, and Bill struck me as the guy to try. That sense is just an instinct more than anything else, about the style, color, tone, and mood with which the artist presents. All I can say is that I think I am pretty good at seeing the match.

Here is the original image that I took. There is an intrinsic graininess to everything in Tibet, so your pictures can end up looking like paintings to begin with.

Tianjin Culture Street

If you ever find yourself in Tianjin, China, make time to spend at the merchant-filled “Ancient Culture Street” called Guwenhua Jie. Among the street snacks and the calligraphy, there are some high quality carvers and other artists.

Near the north end on the main drag, about 4-5 shops back and to the west, there is a terrific stone artist whose surname is Sheng. He does some great work in verigated stone.

Here he is, getting ready to engrave his signature into that same piece, next to an extremely cool incense burner/sculpture he did (see how the smoke comes out from the dragon’s mouth).


Outside of a small circle of friends

Opening up my curmudgeonly bag for a moment (does not seem like this image would imply that, would it?).

A surprising number of years ago, during the late 1990s, a silicon-valley tech and educational tech innovator and developer, whom I know, was pushing me to try out something that, in retrospect, was an early version of a computer-based social medium. I would, she assured me, love to create a small circle of friends to post notes and pictures and chat one another up, telling some immediate story going on in my life at that moment. Try it… you’ll like it.

At the time, it struck me as an utter waste of time. And given my singular disinterest, to this day, in the comings and goings of funny cats or what anyone is eating for dinner – or what our current President decides to fart at 3AM that gets interpreted by the press and headlined in time for counting clicks at 8AM – I still do. I’m in the diminishing demographic that contemplates before running my mouth or posting my — well, not posting a bunch of stuff that I would just as soon keep to myself.

I am swimming against the tide. Any urban or slightly-urban setting you go to on this planet is overwhelmed by humans with their noses glued to their mobile devices. My driving has gotten more defensive than ever, because the roads are filled with these people. The self-driving cars cannot come fast enough to suit me.

The comprehensive platform called “WeChat” has functionally taken over China in the last couple of years. I absolutely think they have gotten this right (I can admire the achievement of a goal without advocating for it)  for the same reason the smart phone was the revolution it was, namely, it is truly integrating all the current things people think they want… and it is giving them things they did not know they wanted, but it turns out they did… and it has made it easy to do.

Beyond the social media stuff (groups of friends, chats, picture posts, micro-blogs), people can exchange huge amounts of information through QR codes by passing their phones over another person’s screen, and WeChat has integrated commerce – paying for lots of stuff out in the world, nailing discounts of all kinds that show up all ready to use, grabbing taxis, and so on. I am assured (and by the looks of it I have no reason to doubt it) that WeChat represents a user-friendly one-stop-shop for all this stuff that, in the interesting words of a colleague in Hefei, looks like it was designed by Apple.

What I have seen on this trip that I did not see 3 months ago – faculty members who are as on-board with WeChat as 10-year-olds were with Pokémon Go not that long ago.  Here are two of my colleagues (one from the US, one from China) during two (of many) “hold on a second” time-outs.

Interestingly enough, there is a belief that “WeChat makes things so efficient,” but what I observed was simple and frequent distraction from whatever it was we were supposed to be doing at the time. WeChat was not more efficient for the task at hand, was it? At every meal I was at, and during every meeting I attended, all of which had agendas, the people were hopping up and down and running out of the room to attend to whatever beep, blurp, or ping was ringing in at that moment.

The title for this post is borrowed from a song title by one the 1960s protest singers, Phil Ochs, which appeared as a track on his 1967 album Pleasures of the Harbor.

Ochs’s composition is incredibly ironic. Played to the joyful honky-tonk upbeat tempo of a piano, a banjo, and tinny percussion, with a few added cowbells thrown in for fun, Ochs tells the story of the murder of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death just outside of her Queens home in 1964, while, according to reports, the neighbors ignored her pleas for assistance.

Forgive the comparison, but I find a comparable irony in the effects of social media – people spend more time navel-gazing on the me-centered micro-verse and increasingly miss the big picture.

Outside a small circle of friends
by Phil Ochs
Pleasures of the Harbor  (1967)

Wikipedia: After years of prolific writing in the 1960s, Ochs’s mental stability declined in the 1970s. He eventually succumbed to a number of problems including bipolar disorder and alcoholism, and committed suicide in 1976.

I was introduced to Ochs in 1978 by a friend who would end up succumbing to AIDS about 15 years later.

Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed
They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game

And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends.

Travel: Stonehenge, Salisbury, and London (May 2004)

Stonehenge and Salisbury are located about 100 miles and 2 hours SW of London. The history here just oozes from the pores of the stones.. whether they are the monoliths at Stonehenge, which go back about 5000 years…stone001


…or at the Cathedral of Salisbury, which goes back 800 years and is home to the Magna Carta.




From one rock concert to another (hahaha). The long-running “Mamma Mia!” – 5 years in the  London West End. I saw one of the last performances here at the Prince Edward (Old Compton) before it relocates to the Leicester Square area.


A magnificent fountain in Trafalgar Square.


A magnificent bird… a falcon I think… on display in Trafalgar.


Travel: China (March, 2004)

Spring Break in China. We started in the Shanghai area with a day trip to Suzhou, a garden city to the northwest of Shanghai. Although it would be spectacular here in full bloom, this national park is still quite nice in its late February browns and buds.


The elements play a huge role in classical Chinese culture, including with the familiar “feng shui” (literal meaning: wind-water). These concepts of harmony and balance are embedded everywhere. And there are usually cycles. Wood feeds fire… fire creates earth…earth bears metal…metal collects water… water nourishes wood. And there are the overpowering connections (water extinguishes fire… fire melts metal… and so on). As in most cosmological myths, the planets, the seasons, and human body parts are connected (Wood goes with Spring, goes with Jupiter, goes with a variety of things such as anger, determination, the liver, the gall bladder, tendons, tears, sight, sour… and so it goes for the rest).

Your 60th birthday is huge in China. It represents the turning of one full life cycle, the course of the 12 zodiac signs through each of the 5 elements. At 60, you are reset and rebooted.



Hefei is the home of Lord Bao, also known as Judge Bao, a major judicial figure from the Song Dynasty. On the southeast part of town, where we stayed, was the extremely nice Baohe Park and Judge Bao Memorial, situated along a riverbank with arched bridges that went back and forth between river islands and the opposite bank.



Beijing: another day, another direction at another segment of the Great Wall.




Oh, please… don’t tell me you would not do this, too.



Beijing: taking in a martial arts show.

Arts01 Arts02 Arts03 Arts04

Beijing: a trip to the Imperial Palace, and my buddies who line the rooftops.

Beijing07 Hefei01



Beijing: a visit to one of the Ming Tombs.
Ming01 Ming02 Ming03

Beijing: another trip to the Peking Opera

Opera01 Opera02 Opera03 Opera04 Opera05

Travel: China (March 2002)

wall3At the BaDaLing Section of The Great Wall

My first trip in China was to Beijing in February 2001. Afterwards, I wrote the following when I got back to the US:

It is fair to say that whatever impression most people have about China and the Chinese people is probably out of date. The rate of westernization for both the country and the people is impressively high. In many respects, staying in Beijing was exactly like a visit to any large US city and not to a West-adapted place where the familiarity falls apart when you scratch the surface. After getting to know the chemistry students we interviewed, especially those we invited to dinner, it is clear that they are also quite modern in their behaviors, goals and ambitions. A person who thinks that working with a Chinese graduate student means supervising an obedient, 100-hour per week technician is going to be increasingly surprised by individuals who will soon be indistinguishable from US graduate students.

Doing science still has challenges in China relative to the U.S. Peking University graduates about 160 BS chemists per year, and about half of them go on to study in the US. Peking University probably has the best resources of all the Chinese chemistry departments, and the laboratories we saw were probably at a 1980-85 level of sophistication. Although the students are still assigned to a research project (rather than selecting), most of them appear to be quite knowledgeable about their work. These students generally had lots of outside interests and, while they worked hard on their chemistry, they also valued having a broader life. They were thoughtful about their careers and many were interested in returning to China after their PhDs for positions in higher education. A number of the faculty at Peking University received their PhD degrees in the US, which might account for some of the contemporary perspectives we heard from the students.

Recruiting issues. Establishing people-to-people relationships is the right thing to do, and possibly historically strategic, because of the emerging independence in China. There were many off-handed comments about the brain drain that were borderline derogatory, so we would say it is becoming increasingly insulting to be perceived as removing the best students to the US by less humanitarian methods. At Peking University, we are the first chemistry faculty recruiters who have actually visited the department, given a seminar, and held an open discussion afterwards. There were 88 students who attended the seminar. Everyone stayed afterwards for the Q&A session, and the speakers were swamped with individual students once the official program ended. The timing of the visit (before the interviews) was also strategic and positive.

wall5 Professor Coppola is known to like to shop

In 2002, we visited Shanghai and Beijing.

Impression from Shanghai. The rate of Westernization appears to be even higher than in Beijing. Many parts of Shanghai are virtually indistinguishable from any international city. Students and the people in general were comfortable and open with us. For instance, students we interviewed openly expressed their disinterest in (and dislike of studying) politics during casual conversation, which is a departure from (what I hear it was) a decade ago.

shanghai1Shanghai PuDong skyline, February 2002


shanghai5 shanghai4

Our hotel (the Sofitel) was located in the center of a km-long pedestrian mall that is a core tourist attraction for the local people. In the morning, on the main central square, dominated by its huge electronic display showing advertisements and history programs, merchants stocked their markets and stores while groups of (mainly) older citizens got morning exercise.


The stores and shops opened by 9 am, and by the end of the day the street was a crowded combination of Las Vegas style light displays illuminating 8-story restaurants, small family diners, department stores, and little food and merchandise shops. At 11 pm the lights were mostly out, but the street was still active.



Because the city was mainly catering to native tourists rather than only accommodating English-speakers, it would have been more difficult than where we have staying in Beijing to meet basic needs as a non-Chinese speaker. A significant fraction of signs and service people could communicate well enough to get you from here to there, but without a native speaker it would have been significantly more challenging to do some things outside of the hotel.

Unlike Beijing, Shanghai has little in the way of long-standing history. It was a non-descript fishing village that happened to be sitting at the entrance of an important waterway. After the first Opium War, China ceded Hong Kong to the British and created a set of treaty ports on the mainland as part of reparations. The port of Shanghai area still exists (the “British Concession” or “The Bund,” directly across the Pu river from the PuDong… the PuXi district… which houses an old but elegant financial district). There is also a French Concession and an American Concession, all of which combined early on into an international zone. All of which means that the modern history of this area, and its development, really only dates to the 1850s.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, a visit to Tiananmen (Tian = heaven, An = peace, Men = gate, so “heavenly peace gate,” or “gate of heavenly peace”) Square. The actual gate, which is behind me, carrying the picture of Chairman Mao, is the entrance to the Imperial Palace (Gu Gong) where Mao declared the founding of the PRC in 1949.
uforbiddenBPC upagoda
The importance of the Imperial Building increases with the number of “the sons of the dragon” that adorn the edge. All of them are various creatures from ancient Chinese mythology. And as with most mythologies, there are multiple versions of the same story. I love the guy out front. As far as I can tell, no one is quite sure about him and what it is he is riding and why he leads the parade. The most common story is that it is a rooster, which makes sense.

By crowing come the dawn, the Rooster Spirit chases away evil spirits. The Chinese assign the Rooster as a proverbial mascot to the five virtues – civil responsibility, marital fidelity, courage, kindness, and confidence. This creature’s dependability at dawn gives it the additional meanings of punctuality and constancy. Feng shui practitioners paint a red Rooster on a house’s walls for protection from fire or a white one to safeguard the home from demons (and these wooden structures were known for getting ignited by lightning strikes).

Other tales say this is a Phoenix, the female counterpart to the Emperor (the Dragon who brings up the rear of the procession). The poor fellow up front, in the line of fire, was a minion of the Emperor who fell out of grace and was hung from the edge of the rooftop – now and forever leading the procession under the watchful eyes of the Dragon and his sons should he get out of line again.


There are only a few instances where the historical name “Peking” is sanctioned over “Beijing” (“Peking” or “PeiPing” being the pronunciation of a former dialect). One of these is “Peking Duck,” one of these is “Peking University,” and the third of these is the “Peking Opera.”

The thousands of folklore stories are told in a highly stylized combination of voice, music, dance, mime, and acrobatics/martial arts. The sound is an acquired taste, but it is worth seeing a few times.

zpainted zhands zfullpose

Travel: NYC (November 2001)

Ground Zero – NYC – 11/16/01

The most disconcerting thing about my first post-911 trip to Manhattan was below ground. When the No 1 subway line got to the WTC stop, it went on through. The tunnel was butressed with two-by-fours and other timber, and the lights were the caged, single-bulb construction type, dangling from the rafters. The sensation was that this was some distorted Universal Studios ride through an abandoned future world, which conflicted with the earnest reality of knowing that compacted rubble was sealing off the transit to ground zero, somewhere extremely close by.

You could not get very close, of course, yet there was already a prescribed and active walkway around the entire perimeter where hundreds of people were peering down the 2-3 block distance to the former WTC site. There was still something of a sting in the air, literally, and coatings of dust that were visible. Here: a cluster of balloons, marking I don’t know what, “floats” over the wreckage in the distance.


On 09/11/01, I was returning from the Central Campus Recreational Building at around 9 am. Walking back to my office, I noticed members of one of the research groups clustered around a television in the lab… along with their research director. One of the WTC towers was billowing black smoke in an inset image on the screen, while in the foreground was a blurred picture of the Pentagon from some extreme distance. “There’s been some kind of attack on the Pentagon building,” my colleague said.

I was to scheduled to meet another colleague at Starbucks in a few minutes, so I headed down to my office, dropping off my workout gear, and took off towards State and Liberty. People were crowded in strange ways: clustered around monitors and televisions that were turned on inside of stores, listing and reporting to each other on what they were hearing on their radios.

I got to Starbucks and informed my colleague about what little I had gleaned over the last 15 minutes or so. I recall clearly the odd fellow who frequented this Starbucks armed with all kinds of electronic gear: he had a small portable television with him. The volume was turned up. People sat quietly and listened.


I distinctly recall Peter Jennings saying “the tower has collapsed…” as well as clearly dismissing the idea as some hyperbolic way of reporting whatever was actually happening.

A short time later, he reported the collapse of the second tower.


We edged our way over to the small crowd of people looking over tv-guy’s shoulder. The towers had indeed collapsed, of course.

About an hour later, back at the chemistry building, the general news was now well known. One of the graduate student instructors came up to me and asked if she should meet her class that afternoon. You can debate the wisdom of this reply, but I answered that this was a decision that the University needed to make, not us. If there were students who were going to show up as scheduled, then we needed to be there unless the institution said otherwise.

About noon, the Provost cancelled classes for the rest of the day. Within a few hours, the University had assembled links to advice and resources for instructors to use in the classroom.


By early evening, the faculty were informed that classes would be held as scheduled on 09/12/01. The Provost also instructed the faculty to devote the 09/12/01 class day to discuss, reflect, and give students a chance to decompress from the events of the day.

And while I understood the spirit of this message, I was strangely troubled by it.

In my opinion, the Provost had stepped over an incredibly important line. Regardless of the good intent, directing what the faculty do in their classes is a problem in academic freedom. Where’s the line, I wondered? I often wonder where the line is. Under what circumstances can the Provost direct what goes in during the time when I am responsible for carring out the prescribed responsibilities for giving my course? Ironic, I guess, given that I had recommended to that GSI that we needed to wait for word from the university about holding classes that day.

I was not intending to make a Federal case about the Provost’s actions, but I also could not help but think about it as a precedent that I, as a professor, was not particularly overjoyed to have experienced.


At 9 am on Wednesday, 09/12/01, I was in the first group of courses that met when the University re-opened. Did I retool my course that day? Did I take the 300 or so mainly first-year college students, who had been in school for a week at that point, and redirect the content of the course to the discussion directed by the chief academic officer of the University?

Would you?


At first I was not going to say anything; that was my decision. Then I changed my mind.

I thought about that graduate student’s question: should I meet my class? I said that we should, because it was not our decision to make: the university needed to provide the intellectual and moral leadership for this question. I tranferred that idea over to my class. The students would be looking to me for leadership of sorts. I needed to let them know where I was at, and why. It is not their place to make those decisions and figure it all out on their own; I needed to decide and share this decision with them.

So, I took the first 5 minutes and told them about history and how the events they were living during this last 24 hours would forever frame their lives. How I had grown up with the assissinations of Presidents and other public figures who, in some odd way, represented clear and obvious targets. The tragedy of their generation was how the violence had become unstructured: whether it was Columbine or the WTC, people who were no one’s speciffic target were now general targets, and that this could be deeply unsettling.

I urged anyone who needed to take care of themselves to do so, and directed them to the growing resources that the university was providing for them. I urged anyone who needed these services to go, now, and take care of his or her mental health if it seemed like that was the thing that needed to be done.

I also said that while the University had instructed me to turn this day over to an open discussion of the events from the previous day, that I did think it was the right thing to do, that we had all been thinking about nothing else for 24 hours, and that I thought that a chance to think about something else was an even better idea. I offered a time that I would be available, however, outside of class, for anyone who wanted to come by and talk with me.

And so I gave my normal class on 09/12/01, but I also integrated into it about 5 minutes of the sense of leadership and moral responsibility that I hold towards my students as their professor. It was gratifying (of course) to have a large number of students come up after class and thank me for both what I had said, and also for trying to shoehorn a little normalcy back into their lives by simply going ahead and holding our scheduled class.