Erenlai - Paul Farrelly (范寶文)
Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.

Friday, 11 June 2010 17:42

Falun Gong protests in Taipei: An interpretive slideshow

In April 2010, Paul Farrelly visited Taipei 101 and Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall to observe the various ways that Falun Gong adherents protest against the Chinese government.  The actions of these protestors transform these popular venues into contested spaces, where tourism, spirituality and politics intersect.  His photos and commentary aim to illustrate the uneasy balance that these powerful forces somehow maintain.

Monday, 07 June 2010 18:14

No one whacks a tabla like Waka

Born in Japan, Waka is now based in Taipei where he teaches and performs the tabla, a well known Indian drum.  He has spent much time in India learning the tabla and now travels throughout Taiwan and Asia performing with all types of musicians, from Indian classical to rock.

In this interview Waka talks about his journey and experiences as an exponent of the tabla.

Watch part II: Tabla, Tala and the Universe

http://tablawaka.blogspot.com/

 

 

 
Wednesday, 19 May 2010 00:00

Sino-European displacement: the circulation of prints between Europe and China

On Friday 16 April 2010, Professor Nicolas Standaert S.J. presented to a full house at the National Central Library of Taiwan.

The audience assembled to hear Professor Standaert elucidate upon the circulation of religious prints between China and Europe in the seventeenth century. As part of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Matteo Ricci’s death, this talk was an opportunity to learn about Ricci’s spirituality through the concept of displacement and the use of visual culture as a communication medium.
 
An elaborate world map formed the foundation of Professor Standaert’s presentation. In drawing this map, and other prints, Ricci and his collaborators created a space where the dialogue of displacement could take place. Such displacements occurred in the minds of readers, who while they may have been sitting on a stool in Europe, would be able to visualise a scene on the other side of the world. Ricci drew upon the established knowledge in China and reflected this in these maps. Places that might seem laughable to cartographers of the 21st century (‘The Land of Birds’, ‘The Land of Women’) were presented just as earnestly as China and Europe were. Ricci undoubtedly believed that these places really existed.
 
Professor Standaert emphasised that the flow of images and ideas was not all in one direction; it was a dialogue. Biblical scenes were reproduced for Chinese audiences in a manner that would resonate with them: buildings reflected Chinese architecture and were furnished with local items. Likewise, prints designed for Western audiences incorporated aspects of Chinese culture. Over time, ideas and images were adopted and reinterpreted in both Europe and China. During the audience discussion, Professor Standaert clarified the use of isometric perspective (favoured by Chinese artists) and geometric perspective (favoured by European artists). These two perspectives are evident in seventeenth century prints from both areas. However, it is not an issue of who influenced or admired whom, but rather a chance to consider the many ways ideas travelled at the time.
 
The fantastically ornate maps and gifts that circulated during this period vouch for the importance of this global dialogue. Compared to the present day, the almost glacial speed at which the transfer of ideas occurred is remarkable. One book took 20 years to arrive in Beijing from Europe. Despite this slow delivery time, the contents must have remained relevant as the Emperor was impressed with what he read.
 
Those present at Professor Standaert’s talk were fortunate to hear a fascinating insight into the early stages of a religious and cultural exchange that will continue long into the future.
 

 

Dr. Nicolas Standaert got his Bachelor and Master's degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Leiden in 1982. Later he spent a year in studying Chinese history and philosophy at Fudan University, Shanghai. In 1984 he got his Ph.D Chinese Studies at University of Leiden. He also got a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy and Theology at Centre Sèvres, Paris in 1990. And in 1994 he got his Licentiate in Theology, Fujen University, Taipei.

Now a professor of Chinese Studies, K.U. Leuven (Belgium). He worked as a research assistant in Sinological Institute Leiden in 1984 and collaborator of China News Analysis, Hong Kong from 1990 to 1992. Since 2003 he has been a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Belgium.

 

 

 
Wednesday, 19 May 2010 15:03

Tabla, Tala and the Universe (Part 2)

Born in Japan, Waka is now based in Taipei where he teaches and performs the tabla, a well known Indian drum.  He has spent much time in India learning the tabla and now travels throughout Taiwan and Asia performing with all types of musicians, from Indian classical to rock.

In this fascinating interview Waka introduces the tabla and proceeds to elaborate on the philosophy of classical Indian music.

Thursday, 29 April 2010 13:50

堪培拉:戴维‧林区梦境再现

我热爱梦的逻辑。我就是喜欢梦的表达方式。

——戴维.林区(David Lynch),《戴维.林区谈创意》(Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity)

我在堪培拉(Canberra)长大,从来不觉得这座城市有什么特别了不起,就只是我住的地方而已。然而在十三岁的某天,我从地方报纸上读到一篇关于几位背包客的访谈。被问到对堪培拉的印象时,有人大概是这样说的:「这里很像戴维.林区的电影——一切整洁有序,可你总好奇平静表面的背后,究竟在上演什么样的故事。」彼时我还没看过林区——这位以超现实风格记录都市生活的知名美国导演——的任何一部作品,对这个比喻感到有点困惑;但随着时间过去,我逐渐了解到那个邋遢背包客的言下之意:我的家乡和别的地方不太一样,这样很好。

堪培拉位于澳洲大陆东南方的群山中,是澳洲的首都。人称当地为「丛林之都」,到处都是公园与空地,而一连串的高速公路与大型干道则将其一分为二;在这里,车子就是老大。1913年,美国知名建筑师华特‧柏利‧葛里芬(Walter Burley Griffin)赢得一场国际建筑竞赛后,开始在此大兴土木。澳洲政府之所以设置在这,为的是摆平雪梨与墨尔本都想成为首都的争执。


并非只有平静安稳

作为一个从无到有的城市,堪培拉让我们得以一窥昔日设计师构筑未来城市的方式:舍弃中央集权式管理、分散行政权力,并与自然融为一体。多年来无论是政府、财团还是建筑师,都不断挑战葛里芬的愿景;然而堪培拉即便与他当初设想大相径庭,却仍保有其独特之处。

由于堪培拉在兴建时,深知自己日后将扮演议会与官僚体系所在地的重要角色,因此长久以来总是沦为众人笑柄。这里常常被讥为无聊的地方——郊区点点散落在城市四周、城中充斥着无所事事的政府部门,整个堪培拉看起来就像是大而无当的绵羊牧场。而当地居民面对上述批评的典型响应听来更是同样老套:这座城市漂亮、干净、安全,很适合养小孩云云。但堪培拉并非只限于此;这些老掉牙的主张也透露出一些真相的蛛丝马迹。


canberra_04进入另一个世界

许多人抵达堪培拉后不禁会想:「天啊,这里是怎样?」跟其它城市相比,当地街道没有太多人类活动的迹象;如此人车稀少的情况很容易遭到误解。有天我骑脚踏车上学,过了五分钟都没看见半个人影或车辆,彷佛所有人都在一夕之间消失殆尽。虽然这种感觉有点毛骨悚然,但也令人振奋;我觉得整个城市好像都是我的。如同梦境会将熟悉的情景略作改变,我的学校之行常常会自发性地转向。正是此番片刻的静谧塑造了堪培拉的性格,或许也成为背包客燃起无边幻想的理由。政府所在地经常予人嘈杂忙乱的印象,但堪培拉并没有这种感觉。

林区曾说:「地方感(sense of place)在电影中占有相当关键的地位,因为你想要进入另一个世界。每个故事都有自己的世界、感受和氛围,你会试着把它们组合起来,利用微小的细节制造地方感。这和灯光与音响至为相关。」他的电影做到了这点:在呈现我们熟悉的日常景象与事态后,设法将其扭曲,让现实变得有点怪异。林区以卓越手法于世俗庸碌中注入一丝魔幻感,使得正常生活看来有如他方。

就许多层面而言,堪培拉感觉都像另一个世界,而这大致可以归功于当地的光线与声响。此地位居山谷和平原间,从附近群山看过来,这座为浓密树林笼罩的城市,其建筑看似随时可能突出绿荫外,最后却总是安份地待在厚重的枝叶之下。堪培拉四处可见的树丛、公园与自然保护区吸引了为数众多的野生动物(鸟类、袋貂、袋鼠、沙袋鼠等);如果你在城市里多待一点时间,特别是边郊地区,便不可能错失牠们的身影。此地大部分的善良市民一早都是在鸟儿的歌声中醒来,而这些歌一唱就是一整天。我还深情地记得冬天傍晚澳洲喜鹊在渥登(Woden,位于堪培拉南部的市区)商业区建筑间的彼此叫唤。至于城乡接壤的郊区街道上,蹦跳的袋鼠虽然没有那么常出现,却也并非罕见。此外,堪培拉可算是艳阳高照的城市;只要有一点温暖阳光,即便是寒风刺骨的冬日也能忍耐下去。


摄影/Stephen Dann(上)、Pascal Vuylsteker(下) 翻译/吴思薇

本文为节录,完整内容请见2010年5月号《人籁论辨月刊》


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Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:57

Canberra: A David Lynch film come to life

“I love dream logic.  I just like the way dreams go.”
David Lynch in “Catching the Big Fish: Mediation, Consciousness, and Creativity”

Growing up in Canberra, I never thought of it as being a particularly remarkable city.  It was just the place where I lived.  Then one day when I was about 13, I read an interview of some backpackers in the local newspaper.  When prompted for their views on Canberra, one suggested something along the lines of “it is like a David Lynch movie – everything is neat and tidy but you wonder what is really going on below the surface”.  Not having yet seen any movies by Lynch - America’s legendary surrealist chronicler of urban life - I was a bit puzzled by this comparison, but with time I came to see what that scruffy backpacker was alluding to.  My hometown was not quite like other places.  And this is good.

Nestled in the mountains in the south east of the continent, Canberra is the capital of Australia.  Commonly known as ‘the bush capital’, it is filled with parks and open spaces, and is bisected by a series of freeways and large arterial roads. There, the car is king.  Construction began in 1913 following an international architectural competition won by Walter Burley Griffin, the famous American architect.  Canberra was instigated to satisfy the grand ambitions of Sydney and Melbourne to be Australia’s home of government.  As a city built completely from scratch, Canberra offers a glimpse of how the designers of yesteryear envisaged the city of the future: decentralised, dispersed and blending with nature. Over the years governments, commercial interests and architects have all challenged Burley Griffin’s vision.  While the city has turned out considerably different to how he envisaged it, Canberra remains unique.

Built with its important role in mind – parliament and bureaucracy – Canberra has long being the butt of jokes.  It is commonly derided as being boring, a bunch of suburbs in search of a city, full of public service drones and a waste of a perfectly good sheep paddock.  And the traditional response from Canberrans is just as hackneyed – the city is pretty, clean, safe, a great place to raise kids and so on.  But there is something more to the city than these well-worn claims, all of which sprout some tendrils of truth.

It would be easy to arrive in Canberra and think, “Strewth, what’s goin’ on here?”.  Compared to other cities, there is not a lot of human activity on the streets.  This lack of traffic and pedestrians can easily deceive you.  One day when riding my bike to school, I managed to ride for 5 minutes before encountering any other traffic.  It was as if everyone in the city had vanished overnight.  This was slightly eerie, but energising - I felt like I had my own private city.  Just as a dream takes a familiar scene and tweaks it, so too was my trip to school flipped on its head.  It is such moments of serenity shape the disposition of Canberra.  Perhaps this is what caught the backpacker’s imagination.  The thrum and buzz so often associated with seats of government is not there.

Lynch once said “A sense of place is so critical in cinema because you want to go into another world.  Every story has its own world and its own feel and its own mood.  So you try to put together all these things, all these little details to create that sense of place.  It has a lot to do with lighting and sound”.  Lynch succeeds in doing this in his films.  While presenting everyday settings and scenarios with which we are familiar, but then managing to skew these in a way that puts a slight slant on reality, Lynch masterfully injects a sense of magic into the mundane, making the normal feel other-worldly.

Canberra-Mt-Taylor3_smallIn many ways Canberra can feel like another world, and much of that can be attributed to the light and sound there. The city is nestled in a series of valleys and plains.  Views from any of the nearby mountains show a reasonably low-rise city threatening but not really managing to poke out from beneath the leafy canopy.  Canberra’s generous endowment of trees, parks and nature reserves attract a great range of wildlife (birds, possums, kangaroos, wallabies) that are hard to miss if you spend any amount of time in the city and particularly around its fringes.  In most parts of town the good burghers of Canberra awake to bird song, songs which can continue throughout the day.  I fondly remember the calls of the Currawong echoing from one building to another on winter evenings in the Woden town centre. While not particularly common, it is not unusual to see a kangaroo hopping down a suburban street, such is the overlap between city and country.  And the sun shines an awful lot.  Even a bitterly cold winter’s day is made bearable by the warming rays of the sun.

 

At some point I came across the idea that Aboriginal designs are reflected in the street alignment.  I’m not sure how true this is, but it certainly is an intriguing proposition.  Australian Aboriginal art is often influenced by myths from the Dreamtime, the time in the past when the world was created.  These Dreamtime myths are reinterpreted on the canvas in a unique style, generally comprising dots and striking patterns.  When viewed from above, or on a map, the streets in the older and central areas of Canberra appear as a series of circles linked by straight lines, mimicking some aspects Australian indigenous painting techniques.  Canberra’s large circular roads, some of which are concentric, conspire to baffle out-of-town drivers.  But given that so many towns are built on boring yet functional grids, for some this lack of lineation offers a round type of respite, at least to those who know where they are going.

canberra_04And just how is the landscape of Canberra manifested in its residents?  Barring the odd traffic jam or booners[1] in Toranas[2] doing circle-work[3] in a suburban cul-de-sac, the city tends to have an air of calm about it.  Not unlike that of a country town.  For most residents it is not too far to get to a park and the surrounding mountain ranges are also conveniently accessible. But at times it seems like Canberrans think too much (on average, they are the most educated and highly paid in Australia), are too eager to complain and too prone to melancholy.  For those new to town, it can be a bit difficult meet new people as cliques prevail.  Like most places, there are many people struggling to make ends meet.  It is by no means an urban utopia.  And for a lot of people Canberra is not much more than how I saw it as a child: a reasonably pleasant city that while bland, is comfortable. To these folk I suggest that if you are willing to let it work on your imagination and dream a bit, like the backpacker did, Canberra can inspire.  Maybe not in the same way as a scenic mountain vista or a mega city bursting with life, but the potential is there in Canberra.  You just need to surrender yourself to it.

In referencing David Lynch, perhaps the scruffy backpacker was hinting that away from the quiet leafy streets and behind the front doors, lurks a seedy unfolding nightmare that is at odds with the well-manicured image that Canberra tends to display.  Think Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks or Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.  No doubt this is true, for if you look for it, human misery and intrigue is just as present in Canberra as it is everywhere else.

Who knows what that backpacker really meant?  He probably left Australian shores some time ago, undoubtedly more tanned than when he arrived, and hopefully enriched by having taken the time to let his mind wander, inspired by his days in Canberra.

(Photos by Stephen Dann, Andrew Schroeder and Pascal Vuylsteker)
04
by Pascal VuylstekerPascal Vuylsteker

[1] Unrefined people, often young, prone to ostentatious acts of stupidity.

[2] A late model iconic car produced by Holden, favoured for its muscular performance.

[3] Driving a car in a manner that the wheels spin and a large amount of smoke and noise is produced.

Friday, 26 March 2010 17:08

"Silence in the library, please!"

Paul Farrelly from eRenlai is a fan of information technology and of libraries.  He is yet to work out how the two can most comfortably coexist.

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Friday, 26 March 2010 00:00

Reflections on a decade of higher education in Australia

Paul Farrelly from eRenlai reflects on his experiences of higher education in Australia.  In particular, he talks about the changing role of information technology, student life and some of the skills he learnt.

Thursday, 04 March 2010 00:00

The great diplomatic balancing act of dialogue: Dalai Lama and the Cardinal

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan during August and September 2009 was ostensibly religious.  Accepting an invitation from the Democratic Progressive Party in the wake of Typhoon Morakot, Taiwan’s worst typhoon in 50 years, he arrived and explicitly stated that while he admires Taiwan’s democracy, his visit was non-political. And it appeared that way.  The Dalai Lama conducted prayers for the hundreds who perished in the typhoon and offered comfort to their family members.  Twenty thousand people attended the prayer service in the southern city of Kaohsiung.  Furthermore, the Dalai Lama held a public religious dialogue with Catholic Cardinal Paul K. S. Shan.  They discussed the ever-relevant values of mutual tolerance and respect and the importance of using shared religious values to reveal the qualities of humankind.  Both leaders noted that the material development of nations should not occur at the expense of religious or spiritual values, whether by neglect or by suppression.

As representatives of organisations (the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Catholic Church) with strained relationships with Beijing, this final comment carries some weight.  Even more so given the Chinese government’s strongly worded condemnation of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan.  These statements are routinely issued whenever the Dalai Lama visits, or prepares to visit, a foreign country. Given Taiwan’s delicate relationship with China, visits by the Dalai Lama are especially controversial.  Ignoring any political statements that the Dalai Lama may make, and most seem carefully worded to avoid antagonising Beijing, his visits routinely involve dialogue with local religious leaders and often luminaries in science, business or human rights.  He has even gone so far as to declare that the 21st century should be one of dialogue so as to avoid the bloodshed that typified the 20th century.

The Dalai Lama acts as a catalyst for dialogue among local religious leaders.  For the most part, these leaders would not get together too often to discuss matters of faith, community and tolerance.  When the Dalai Lama juggernaut rolls into town, all of a sudden the media spotlight focuses on religion.  Beyond any sympathy that the general public might have for the plight of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has a huge following, both through those who adhere to Tibetan Buddhism and those who find solace in his advice on life as published in a large number of easy-to-digest books.  It can be easy to scoff at these events as feel-good hyperbole.  Nevertheless, they are an opportunity for local religious leaders, in the company of a global religious superstar, to search for universal truths, and do so in front of audiences of thousands of people.

In recent decades China has become indispensable to foreign countries, both as a consumer of raw materials and as the world’s factory of manufactured goods.  Somewhat mirroring this rise, the Dalai Lama’s constant foreign jaunts have increasingly become diplomatic issues.  Foreign governments do not wish to offend China, but at the same time, do not wish to be seen to be denying the Dalai Lama freedom of speech and as being bullied by Chinese threats.  Whether or not trade balances suffer will be of concern to leaders, however the civil benefits are also worth considering.  Inspiring local communities to seek and recognise commonalities in large public forums is a role that the Dalai Lama has evolved into being rather adept at and one that can offer much to communities across the world.

 

 
Thursday, 04 March 2010 00:00

Cup of tea, TV and religious dialogue

The plane on which religious dialogue occurs is too often conceived as occurring at a high level.  Leaders of faiths occasionally meet in public, be it in front of an audience or a camera.  Within a community, a church may come together with a mosque or temple as part of a festival.  At a lower level, it is not uncommon for neighbours of differing faiths to discuss matters of faith with each other.
 
Dialogue within the family is an additional part of the spectrum of religious dialogue that deserves attention.  The construction of family units can be incredibly diverse.  While several generations might live under one roof, it is not uncommon for family ties to stretch across countries and even between them.  Within the myriad of family dynamics that exist, there are a few key concepts that I wish to focus on.

Whether through choice or destiny, many of our closest bonds are with our family members.  Our family members are the ones who we see on a daily basis, the ones with whom we share the tribulations and triumphs of day-to-day life.  For most of us, the support, understanding and care provided by family members is the necessary foundation for a happy life.  Shared religious conviction can form much of the basis of this stability.  When family members have a faith in common, religious dialogue can almost appear to be a given.  However, when family members have different beliefs or varying levels of commitment, religious dialogue can become an issue.  In the close confines of the family, this can be particularly acute.

In recent decades, religious mobility has become increasingly common, both in Asia and across the world.  New religious movements (NRMs) continue to appear, either offering fresh interpretations of established beliefs or something altogether new.  And beyond the more organised NRMs, there are the nebulous sectors of new age beliefs, self help and spirituality, concepts that are expounded in books and seminars rather than in more established places of worship.

Not only do religions continue to innovate, people across the world are switching their religious allegiance or modifying their beliefs, often in the face of long-established family tradition.  This is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

Such lofty ideals do not necessarily filter down to day-to-day reality.  Conversions can cause schisms in the family.  When someone—be they parent or child—converts to a new religious belief, the rest of the family can be traumatised.  The faith of the convert, something that had always been taken for granted, has changed, calling many things into question.  When a member appears to have turned his back on his family, it can be as if they are cutting off the chance for dialogue, rejecting an important part of the family’s identity.  In many cases, this is true, especially when the convert conscientiously chooses to distance himself from his family.

[dropcap cap="T"]he reasons for converting are manifold.  The once common notion that members of NRMs had unhappy relationships with family members has been debunked.  There is just as much likelihood that the convert is from a happy family as from a troubled one.When someone adopts a new faith, it is not always an attack on his family.  [/dropcap]While the convert might be more content with his newly chosen faith, family members too can be happy that their kin has found a faith that suits him better.  However, such realisations can only be reached through discussion and demonstrating the love that the family members hold for each other, not an inherently easy task.
 
 
Intra-familial religious dialogue is not limited to circumstances where one family may have members of two or more religions.  Tension can arise when members share a faith but differ in the extent to which they adhere to the set beliefs or scripture.  Agreement on financial matters and reproductive health are fundamental to family stability.  If one member interprets (or ignores) his family’s faith on a matter such as these in a way that upsets or alienates other members then it can be unsettling.  For the family to continue to remain together, or at least do so fruitfully, dialogue must occur.  Where one point of view is taken as an absolute, either through doctrinal definition or mere tradition, then it can be difficult to find middle ground.  However, when the long-term well being of the family is at stake, these absolutes should be given a bit of leeway, at least in as much as it can help reach a point of understanding.

Religion can be a powerful force for bringing families together.  However, if the stability of a family’s religion is shaken by a member either not sharing the same level of devotion or leaving the faith, and possibly converting, then there is a risk of a serious breakdown occurring.  For there to be continued coexistence and hopefully a point of agreement, the members must come together through dialogue.  For members to challenge, and possibly change, long held (or in the case of converts, newly acquired) beliefs is no simple task.  But to help ensure the chances of the family’s ongoing happiness, this dialogue is essential.

 
Wednesday, 03 March 2010 16:54

What are the challenges facing higher education in Asia?

Higher education (HE) is an ancient institution. Generation upon generation of students have graduated from all manner of HE institutes trained in the skills required to serve society. While fields such as biology, philosophy, religion and mathematics have long been taught, advances in technology, breakthroughs in research and societal change constantly challenge HE. In order to respond to the needs of society and reflect contemporary thought, HE must forever be adapting. Globalisation and the growth of information technology are two rapidly evolving forces that that HE must not only just respond to, but also influence.

In considering HE in the early 21st century, it is important to question what benefit it should provide. Is HE nothing more than a transition between school and the workforce, a repository of technical information that if absorbed correctly, makes graduates alluring to employers? Or do the (sometimes rarefied) halls of knowledge train students in more abstract disciplines, that while stimulating for the mind, are less focused on equipping students with the skills to work in a modern office? Being the broad church that it is, there is no reason why HE can’t do both, and then some.

HE has the ability to train students in life skills. Beyond problem solving and critical, independent thought, these skills should extend to the interpersonal realm (communication, negotiation) and even the personal (stress management, self awareness). Furthermore, ideally HE should assist in the creation of a modern civil society - the layer of interface between public and private interests. In shaping graduates who have both knowledge and the ability to reason, HE aids the creation and maintenance of a healthy civil society.

While globalization may appear to have ironed out many long held differences between cultures and nations, significant differences remain, both in opportunities and expectations. In HE, this difference is manifested in university rankings. These influential indexes are eagerly examined each year and are dominated by universities in America and Europe. Foreign students are courted by universities and HE is proving to be a boon to domestic economies. In the rush fill lecture halls with students, administrators must be cautious not to compromise that quality of education that their faculties deliver.

How far do HE institutions in Asia go in educating students, both academically and as people? How does education vary between China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and the West? Where do institutions fall short and what space is there for further development? Is there gender equality in Taiwanese education system? We ask foreigners studying in Japan, Taiwan and Singapore to talk about their experiences of higher education in Asia.

As always, we invite you to reflect on these issues and offer your own opinions.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 00:00

Celebrating the Monsoon

By late July, stepping out into the pre-monsoonal weather in Bodh Gaya was akin to wrapping oneself in a blanket that had been soaked in warm water. The thick humidity was inescapable, conspiring to prevent you from being cool at all times of the day. Nights were the worst, especially when the power cut out—a not infrequent occurrence in under-developed Bihar—with the sound of thirsty mosquitos buzzing outside the tattered mosquito net only just masking the discomfort being completely covered in sweat. 

As a visitor to Bihar, I was fortunate. The sticky heat was something I only had to tolerate for a short while, and would not have to do anymore once I had moved on. However for Biharis, and those all over northern India, this is their reality, summer after sweaty summer. That is until the monsoon rains begin, sweeping across the Gangetic plains, cooling sweating brows, stimulating farmer’s fields and reviving rivers from dusty plains to surging watercourses.

 

Last year the rains began in earnest one night at about 10pm. After an hour in an internet café, I stepped outside to discover that not only had it started pouring, but the previously barren road was now awash with water, in some places already well above ankle height. The change in atmosphere was palpable; for the first time in weeks I was outdoors and didn’t feel the need to go somewhere cooler.

The waiter in the café advised me to take care when walking home as the deluge was likely to pick all manner of unhygienic items into the torrent running down the street, and I should take care not to step on something unpleasant. Walking down the street I caught sight of some boys playing in the water.

Paul_Farrelly_Moonson1These boys were demonstrating no such caution. They had stripped down to their underwear and were thrashing around in the deeper pools, playing in the newly abundant water, something that a mere day before had been just a dream. One of the boys in the shadowy pools had the contortedly arachnid limbs of a beggar – his legs most likely broken at an early age as an entrée into a life of pan handling. I had seen this same boy hours earlier, shuffling along the pavement outside the Mahabodhi temple, desperately seeking small change from pilgrims and tourists. The grim determination that had infused his previous expressions had been transfused by the sudden downpour. A luminous smile spread across his face as he rejoiced in the first monsoonal rains of the year, cooling and cleaning himself by the side of the road.

His joy was undoubtedly shared by everyone else across the state who was waiting for rain. Relief was at hand and there was hope for the future: water and food supplies looked that bit more secure. However, everyone would be aware of the power of these rains. In most years floods cause considerable damage to property, livestock and people in Bihar, with human death tolls of more than 100 frightfully common. And in August 2009 the rains ultimately proved to be deadly once again, with more than 50 people dying. [inset side="right" title="Paul Farrelly"]Paul is a graduate (MA/MAPS) of the Australian National University in Canberra. While there, he researched new religious movements in East Asia with an emphasis on those based in Taiwan. Paul is now studying in Taipei.[/inset]

Just as celebrations mark change and transition, so too do they indicate that the new situation is also nothing more than another fleeting moment, an instance that will pass, just as what it has come to replace has already moved on. Being lifted up in the ecstasy of the celebration can be fantastic; the respite and abundance brought by the monsoonal rains of Bihar are fair cause for jubilation. But the monsoon did not just revive the countryside and refresh residents, it ultimately brought about destruction. The tragic inverse is always lurking and should never be discounted as a possibility.

 

 
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