Love & Death


“This thing reads like stereo instructions!”

I decided to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, motivated both by idle curiosity and by the fact that I don’t really have much else to read at the moment. I’m not a fan of religion, of course, but I am a fan of storytelling. Religious stories are almost always entertaining, and usually quite a good laugh.

The book is a little difficult to get through, not exactly suitable ‘metro lit’. It’s kind of like a real version of the handbook in Tim Burton’s Beetle Juice. At one point it recommends literally defecating on stuff or snorting your own jizz up your nose as a way to ward off vengeful demons (instead of, you know, just taking your chances really).

On a totally unrelated note that gives me a decent title for this entry, it was Valentine’s Day last week. In China, ‘lovers day’ is celebrated pretty much the same way it is in the west: with a cadre of bell ends rushing home to their partners with a single red rose they bought at the last minute outside a subway station.

I’m used to spending Valentine’s on my own, usually doing what Chinese people euphemistically refer to as “shooting the aeroplane”. This year, though, I was just as tempted by the saccharine music and buckets of flowers as every other Jinger. I bought the gf a couple of romantic DVDs from Sanlitun, including some absolutely carcinogenic- looking shite with Keanu Reeves.*

I’m currently prostrating myself in front of the 52 wrathful deities in the hope that she’ll somehow want to watch it alone.

*(In return, I received a knife and fork: a gift from one who knows!)


Paranoid Fiction


“Those who can’t handle drugs turn to reality.” – Tom Waits

I paid another visit to the Foreign Language Bookstore in Wangfujing recently and I was surprised to see a copy of The Psychedelic Experience, Timothy Leary’s counterculture retelling of the Bardo Thodal (or Tibetan Book of the Dead) as a manual for tripping balls. I was equally surprised yesterday evening to find a Chinese translation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at 798 Art Zone. I don’t pretend to understand China’s censorship laws (and it’s hardly beyond the realm of the possible that one or both of these books was an illegal import), but I was definitely under the impression that drugs were a no go.

Over the last few days I finally read Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, my fourth or fifth attempt at getting more than halfway through it. When I left Vancouver I made damned sure that Naked Lunch was one of the books I brought with me, for the reason stated above.*  My only other encounter with Burroughs had been reading his debut (short) novel Junky, often described as his most ‘accessible’ text.**

You may gather that I kind of like drug literature, despite my own philosophy on substance abuse being that I lean towards not pissing around with that sort of thing. I’m not saying that I lived in Vancouver without ever ending up one toke over the line, nor that my autobiography will be totally free of anecdotes about trying to buy cheesy wotsits and a single carrot at a 24 hour Tesco when the party was long since over.*** But these were single experiments with a handful of substances. I’ve been to one rave in my entire life, and it made me just as miserable as any other social gathering I’ve been to.

I certainly don’t buy the romanticized image of ‘the junky’ as some sort of tortured, WASPy middle-class bloke who goes on to clean up his act, fire a shitload of guns in the air and create Interzone. I’ve never met a druggie or a boozer who wasn’t an absolute wastrel twat.

I have never read The Psychedelic Experience, although I am tempted. Ironically, though, another ‘banned’ book that I made sure to bring with me was Penguin’s recent unabridged translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

* I also packed Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. A third volume of ‘drug lit’, The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, simply didn’t fit in my suitcase.

**(which isn’t saying much, and presumably ignores the inaccessible parts).

***(nor indeed of actually trying to prove to one long-suffering friend that I could dig a tunnel backwards in time to the 1960s).

Disputed Territory

“There is a place in China I would like to teach, but it’s a very poor part of our country.”
“What’s it called?”

I have always been fascinated by the country of Tibet, ever since reading Tintin comics as a kid.* Several years ago, on a whim, I bought a book to keep me company on a night shift: Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer.** Since then I’ve had a fairly powerful interest in Tibet and the people who live there.

In my first week here, I was surprised when I came across a Tintin in Tibet t-shirt at Yashow market, not only because it brought back childhood memories but because there’s a misconception in the west that Tibetan culture is suppressed in China. Not true. In fact, it is celebrated. Throughout Beijing there are lots of shops and stalls, a big bookstore and the ultimate Beijing status symbol – a trendy hutong bar in Yonghegong – all devoted to Tibet. But the reason there is so much pride in Tibet is because it’s considered a part of China.

Throughout Beijing there are lots of shops and stalls, a big bookstore and the ultimate Beijing status symbol – a trendy hutong bar in Yonghegong – all devoted to Tibet. But the reason there is so much pride in Tibet is because it’s considered a part of China.

I learned enough from Star Trek: The Next Generation to know that you can’t impose your own beliefs onto another culture without dire consequences, so when I found myself having the conversation that begins this entry, I simply said “Ah. The rest of the world doesn’t actually see Tibet as part of China. We see it as a country that China has invaded.”

It’s worth noting that the Tibetan bar, where you can buy Tibetan wheat beer and look at High Definition photographs of Tibetan landscapes and people, is not run by a Tibetan. It’s run by a Beijing hipster with a tidy little beard. When I asked him if he’s been to Tibet, he just shrugged and said “not for a long time.”

I’ve never been to Tibet. Ironically, it’s easier for me to go now than at any other time, because I have a Chinese travel visa.

As I’ve stated in a previous entry, there is something of a generational gap appearing in China. A lot of young people are starting to question things, and to wonder why they don’t have access to the same information that the rest of the world has. I met a young man who is livid because he only found out about the 1989  Tian’an’men Square uprising on a recent trip to America. A couple of days ago, I was wandering with a Chinese friend of mine through Beijing Zoo. We came to the paddock of a Tibetan yak and my friend said, in a way that struck me as sad, “Tibet is a country, isn’t it?”

I just said “yes.”

The world is not perfect. It’s full of Star Trek types who want to force their way of life on other people. Let me return once again to the conversation that opened this entry. When I explained my own view to the woman I was talking to, she simply cocked her head in a way that I often do when I’m trying to access the right information somewhere in my brain. Then she said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Ah. Like the North of Ireland, yes?”

*Actually, Tintin has been a pretty big influence on my life, because he always made me want to travel. Also, I have his mad wavy hair.

**If you’ve seen the film version with Brad Pitt, please don’t let that stop you reading this eye-opening book! It’s like Howard the Duck: brilliant source material turned into Hollywood uber-shite