Posts Tagged ‘Chinese preservation; Weishan; Dali; Center for US-China Arts Exchange; SAIC’

Another three weeks in China: Weishan 2012

June 10, 2012

Another three weeks in China, my third trip in a year, with eight SAIC students who did a great job refining the SAIC plan for the Weishan International Arts Center at the Dong Yue Temple complex, which we first got involved with back in 2004.


The Dong Yue temple itself was restored in 2008, and the plan we developed last year is to convert the adjacent Tai Bao and Shi Wang Palaces as an arts center, restoring the buildings themselves as historic monuments while integrating new arts uses around them, including artist-in-residence studios, kilns and wheels for ceramics, printmaking, forms and machines for fashion, easels and stands for painting and sculpture; facilities for photography and looms for fiber.

Great rendering of the complex by Tony

Nice overlay sketch of Tai Bao Palace by Beatrice


The great advantage of our group this year – our fourth SAIC Study Trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley – was the breadth of arts experience our students had, which allowed them to SEE the site in this multivalent way.  This would not be SAIC’s exclusive domain, by any stretch.  In addition to other universities in China and abroad, the facility has community uses.

Adam and Liza’s drawing of the complex


Kudos to students Anthony Wasmund, Megan Tyndall, Grace Ann Watson, Emma Weber, Beatrice Collier, Michelle O’Young, Adam Garcia and Liza Poupon.  They were fabulous, and fun to be with.  Kudos also to my fellow faculty member Stanley Murashige and Han Li, whose involvement was invaluable and toured us around the wonderful restored courtyards up in Pingyao, Shanxi.

Is that a yaodong or is that a yaodong?  Really!


I go to China to see the past and the future, and no country in the world has more of either.  From ceramics and oracle bones and a writing system stretching back five millennia to more megalopoli and highrises than anywhere in the world.

tons of old

and tons of new

From the thousands of over-life-sized soldiers of QinShiHuangDi to the thousands of highrises that sprawl across Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and a dozen other massive cities, the past and future are both bigger and vaster in China.


The myth that the Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from outer space is like all myths, a untruth that contains a true insight: we need to believe it because China’s impact on the planet has always been outsized.

The byword in China for some time has been “social harmony” which is both an ancient Confucian concept and a concern of the ruling CCP, what with the rise of the middle class.  We all know that China makes all of our stuff and also owns all of our debt; what is less obvious to those who don’t visit is the fact that we have exported our middle class there.

This is actually quite relevant to the Weishan Heritage Valley project I have been working on the last 9 years, and the Global Heritage Fund project in Pingyao I have been involved with the last 4 years.  In both cases, we pursue modern conservation science in an effort to preserve architectural and cultural authenticity, and thus provide an attraction to those international tourists who seek out such authenticity.

The limits to that approach are now apparent as the international tourist is well nigh irrelevant in a nation with the world’s largest middle class.  The tourists in Pingyao and Weishan are overwhelmingly Chinese.  What both the Weishan Heritage Valley and the Pingyao project have had to do is adjust to this reality.  Part of my work in both places has been to insure that conservation is serving the local population, with or without tourists, whether domestic or international.

Dali’s main drag is an endless parade of the same five tourist shop types


This is actually better for heritage conservation planning because it insures that historic buildings and intangible heritage are conserved not simply as tourist sites, subject to the whims of a singular economy, but as vital elements of the indigenous and contemporary everyday.  This is a more sustainable model.  It also acknowledges the value of culture as a driver of development in the largest sense: place-based assets that inspire continued human and financial investment in place.

The primary economy of this town is driven by those who live in the area

As I have said over and over, modern heritage conservation is a decision about the future, even if its raw materials are of the past.  Modern conservation incorporates economic and community development and partnerships between various public and private entities.   This is the idea of heritage areas since they were first created in 1984, and it is the idea behind Global Heritage Fund, whose projects require partnerships and community development as fundamental components.

It is a lesson in how heritage conservation works that is not understood by all.  But it was exquisitely and creatively understood by our students in China this summer, who envisioned a rich future for a rich historic site.



Weishan 2011

August 22, 2011

This is Dao, written on the side of a temple on Weibaoshan, the “quietest mountain in China” deep in Yunnan. Dao means the way, which can be as simple as a road or path or as complex as all of the doubts and triumphs within the human psyche. As one of the two 2,500 year old Chinese traditions, Daoism is the one that looks inward at the self, both in an attempt to follow right action (to borrow a Buddhist phrase) and to seek contemplative truths.

This temple on Weibaoshan was built without a permit – hence no one visits it – violation of karma/social contract

The other tradition is of course Confucianism, which is directed outward, at human behavior in groups, at families and the extension of the family that is society. It is about ethics and moral behavior and in many ways quite different to its inward-looking contemporary. Both influenced the adoption of Buddhism by the Chinese almost a millenia later, and both can be worshipped in the 22 temples of Weibaoshan, a place I returned to yesterday after an absence of two years.

Chang Chuen Cave (temple), a national landmark on Weibaoshan

The Way is clearer than it was two years ago, and not only because of the new signs that tell you the history of sites like the Nanzhao Yi temple, where I ran into some new friends, a stem-cell biologist and a historian and banker and geologist celebrating a 30-year class reunion,

or the amazing Wen Chung palace with its mural of the Yi people dancing under the pines and smoking tobacco, a mural sitting in a pool that I have watched slowly fade and delaminate for the last eight years,

as has the story of the Fairy of the Luo River on the other side

or the Yong Lingquan temple with its 400-year old camelia

or the Jade Emperor Temple

This year I was thanking the Jade Emperor more than pleading with him as I did in 2009 when on this cloud-shrouded mountain I got a phone call from Felicity because cell phones are part of the Way in China, and easily reach the most mystical places. That is the way, though it may not conform to the aesthetics of difference central to the lingering colonialism in our own consumer culture. But as anyone will tell you, I am not skilled at difference.

quick test: do you see contrast or harmony?

The mystical is not merely the otherworldly but also the simple pleasures that can escape you when you lose the Way, like the unfettered pleasure of crossing the bridge beef noodles for breakfast on Saturday or watching the man on the food street pulling the noodles for breakfast on Sunday and Monday.

Deputy Mayor Bi quoted the Buddha as he opened our conference on the restoration of the Dong Yue Temple complex (including the Tai Bao and Shi Wang Palaces) on the edge of town, historic places my students and I and SAIC and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University have been working to save since 2004.

Here is the delegation with our hosts in Weishan, near a reflecting wall.

Here we were again, Jingjing Gao and I, with SAIC Historic Preservation Director Anne Sullivan and Facilities VP Tom Buechele surveying the temple walls as we plan a permanent studio and student center here in the pristine depths of Yunnan, completely antipodal from our home but I place I have called home some seven times over eight years.

Dong Yue temple

Here is the view of Weibaoshan, from room 3004 where I always stay, where I have spent some five or six weeks of my life, although there is a new floor and new furniture and I have internet access because that is the Way.

My students often “complain” that I am constantly running into people I know when I tour them around Chicago, and it happens in China too – I ran into my June tour guide friend Jiajia Huo in the busiest airport in the world and of course the monk Xiao, and of course I visit with my Global Heritage friends in Beijing and doubtless I will run into someone in Dali.

I love the food here – nothing is refrigerated because it is picked and cooked within a few hours and there are dozens of wonderful mushrooms and vegetables and meats and no cheese thank god

There is a lot of eating and drinking in Chinese culture, which is why it is the civilized culture and all of the rest of us are barbarians. Indeed, they call me the Uighur which at least brings me into the geographic orbit of historic China without civilizing me completely, but I can drink and sing with the best of them and thus our negotiations proceed with mutual sincerity and propitious signs of success. Tom and Anne are doing pretty well at this too. The toast is “Gombei” which means “empty glass” and believe me, they check.

The town has improved as well, with new signage and more shops and more prosperity, but as I told the international ICOMOS conference in May (as I had in 2007) Weishan is still authentic and it is still a real place with real people, which means it has not lost its soul: it has not lost the Way. We walked through the market, a narrow alley of mushrooms and tea in big sacks and umbrellas and light bulbs and underwear and fake Crocs and then emerge into a vast market of raw meat and giant squash and vegetables they don’t even recognize in Beijing and Shanghai.

The new road opened and more tourists are coming but what they are coming to see is real history: continuous history that is not frozen or unmalleable but constantly changing. Change is not good or bad but it is inevitable and it is history and it forces us to constantly readjust our prejudices and even our aesthetics. Managing change is keeping the best of the past and repurposing it, giving room to grow creatively, staying in the flow of history. You cannot dictate change and you cannot fully anticipate it, hence the virtue of the heritage conservation field is its individuated process, which manages change by incorporating the deep character of a place into its future.

Creativity. That is our plan for the restoration of the Tai Bao and Shi Wang palaces -a studio space for students from SAIC and wherever else. What we do in heritage conservation is creative re-use, because we try as hard as we can to avoid the dumb solution, the simple-minded solution that works in dichotomies rather than the reality of the Dao, which is both-and.

Moon gate and part of Tai Bao palace courtyard

Shi Wang (Ten Generals) Palace

For years I have felt that the only breakfast is beef noodles, but there is room for other breakfasts just as there is always room for exoticism as long as you realize in can be found as easily in your own everyday as in the everyday of Weishan. And there is room for the cell phone on the sacred mountain as we learned in 2006 when the monk Xiao completed his mesmerizing tai chi chuan demonstration only to have his cell phone ring and we laughed at the contrast between technologies, but you must remember that all civilized behavior is a form of technology and technology is not a thing but a relationship (see next blog). You do not plan the future like you design an object because it is never that simple, but if you maintain the relationship the future will emerge in the appropriate way.

again: contrast or harmony?

this one is in Dali, but you get the idea

I feel at home here because it is familiar but also because the culture is so deep. Not old, not unchanging, but deep as in having reserves of understanding that allow you to stay in the flow of history. Sometimes you will fight it and people will die and sometimes you will push it and elements of culture we thought were permanent will be exposed as historical.

Managing change is staying on the path, the Way, the Dao and I am not – I insist – being mystical but simply trying to describe efficiently that living and contributing requires that you hold your beliefs and your culture as Jane Addams did, loosely in your hand.

the recently improved tie dye factory in Weishan – stencilling

Clinging tightly to anything – past or future or any other false dichotomy – can not lead to success or enlightenment or prosperity or even a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

North Gate, Weishan, a national landmark. 1390. 2011.

6 years. 348 posts. Thank you for reading!

2012 UPDATE: We are going again! Stanley Murashige and I will be leading a Study Trip to Weishan starting May 20, joined by the incomparable Han Li of the Global Heritage Fund. For more info, email me at

Yunnan Study Trip 2011

February 12, 2011

We are preparing for our fourth Study Trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, this summer. Each trip has focused on preserving the historic resources of this unique city, which dates to the founding of the Nanzhao Empire in the 7th century, and which includes numerous landmarks from the last several hundred years, including the stunning North Gate, the second largest gate in China after Tien An Men. And it is older. Here is Felicity Rich’s 2006 photo of this national landmark.

The trip begins in Beijing, with visits to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

We then fly to Xi’an to see the famous terra cotta army of Qinshihuangdi…

That amazing 1980s discovery is contained in 3 buildings and an expansive museum, but everyone forgets that Xi’an was the capital for several empires, including the golden age empire of the Han (roughly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire) and the T’ang (7-9th centuries when Europe was NADA). The city has a fabulous city wall, a stunning mosque

Xi’an city wall

this is a minaret

and two of the oldest pagodas in China, dating from the 8th century, known as the Da Y’an Ta (Great Wild Goose Pagoda) and Xiao Y’an Ta (Small Wild Goose Pagoda) and an excellent museum adjacent to the latter.

Da Yan Ta

Xiao Yan Ta

and then there are the famous dumplings, which tourists go nutty for, but to be honest, the food gets MUCH better down in Yunnan, where we head next, first to Dali, home city of the Bai people

Yunnan is unusual in that the minorities (Bai, Hui, Yi, Lisu, Miao, Dai, etc.) are actually a majority in comparison to the Han, a very rare situation in a Chinese province. Dali also has a nice architectural connection to Xi’an in the Three Pagodas, the oldest of which is probably by the same architect as the Xiao Yan Ta in Xi’an (I mean look at it, come on!) and is contemporaneous, roughly 9th century:

We then proceed to Weishan, that lovely town on the Southern Silk Road and the Tea Horse route (the one that brought the good Pu’er tea up from south Yunnan to Tinbet). Unlike Dali, which has gone all touristic in the center, or Lijiang, which did the same, Weishan has not been overrun by tourists. But it has been preserved.

The coffin makers and noodle makers and tailors and food shops still serve the local people from the valley. Tourists are very few and far between. The food is plucked off the mountainside in the morning and you eat it for lunch. No refrigerators to spoil the taste.

The other amazing thing about this trip – unlike most Study Trips – is that we spent a week to 10 days in Weishan and work with the local officials and people to actually do a project in the historic town. My colleague on all of the trips to Weishan (with students and without as consultants) has been Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao, and she has proved amazing at securing access to inaccessible sites as well as getting us INCREDIBLE value for money on every trip.

In 2004 we planned a restoration of the Dong Yue temple complex. in 2008 it was restored, largely according to our plan. In addition to our partners at the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University, we have had support from SAIC’s Barry Maclean, who made the temple restoration possible.

Over 8 years, we have developed strong relationships with the local officials and a level of trust and cooperation that is unprecedented in other (more expensive) study trips. In 2006, we documented 16 buildings (12 courtyard houses and 4 temples) in Weishan with large format and digital photography. In 2009 we developed plans for modernizing courtyard houses because in cities like Lijiang, courtyard houses are preserved and empty, because they don’t have basic amenities like plumbing.

image by Racquel Davey

The project for 2011 is really exciting. We are going back to the Dong Yue temple and the adjacent Tai Bao palace, a century-old structure of pavilions and moon gates that we want to convert to a residential arts/scholarship center.

The government of Weishan has agreed to give SAIC the site and we are assembling support and partners to help make it happen. This type of project is not found in other student study trips.

We will present our project work and findings to the local officials, and then we will proceed to Shanghai, where I will do my famous tour of the Bund (it looks just like Michigan Avenue in Chicago) and we can marvel at the incomparable treasures of the Shanghai Museum.

The trip will leave Chicago May 31 and finish in Shanghai on June 21.

Curious? Email me at or visit the study trip webpage. My colleague and faculty expert on China, Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao is also available for consultation. Weishan has been one of the culminations and highlights of my preservation career, and I would be happy to share it with you.

Hello Again China

June 27, 2009

This is my longest absence from my blog since it began a little shy of four years ago. The first three weeks I was unable to access wordpress to post while I was in China on our SAIC summer Study Trip to Weishan, our wonderful Southern Silk Road town in Yunnan. The subsequent two weeks of inaction we can attribute to a combination of jet lag, illness and procrastination. But now, the wait is over, so a little about our trip to Yunnan and the excellent work of the 14 students who made the trip.
SAIC working late2
There they are – 3 teams of four students, including architecture grads Traci Wile, Racquel Davey and Rebekah Ison, working to develop plans to modernize a traditional courtyard house. This is not the first time this project has been attempted, but it is an important counterweight to the traditional tendency – in China as in the U.S. and Europe – to preserve buildings as museums. Buildings are only saved for long if they are used. In Lijiang, also in Yunnan, they kicked everyone out and made all the shops into tourist boutiques and all of the houses into museums and hotels. Consequently, the place has a Disney amusement park feel to it. Weishan, as yet less trammeled by tourism, is still a real place with real people doing non-tourist things every day. If we can demonstrate ways to make traditional houses competitive with the new construction going up on the periphery, we have a chance to shake an old and unsustainable model.
66 group talking
This is the group talking to the residents at 66 Bei street, whose ancestors were Ming officials that were banished to the relatively remote Yunnan province at some point. Everyone in Weishan was incredibly nice to us – granting us interviews and serving us tea as we tried to assess what modern conveniences were most important to people. The answer wasn’t always what you would expect. We assumed indoor bathrooms would be highest on the list, but that wasn’t always the case.
incense grp measr2
The trip would be IMPOSSIBLE without our faculty member Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao who serves as chief translator, negotiator, problem-solver and logistical maven as our group of 16-18 boarded overnight trains, planes, and buses as we wandered from Beijing to Xi’an to Kunming, Dali, Weishan and a place called Jianchuan we hadn’t seen before. There is a wonderful restored temple at Shaxi and some pretty unusual grottos in Jianchuan – including one to the female sex organ, which looks pretty much exactly as it sounds. Pictures aren’t allowed of the grottos themselves, so here is the setting:
grottos best
I can’t finish today everything I want to say about yet another trip to China and Weishan, but I do have to comment on the food, which is always the greatest joy in China. My wife said I looked fit when I came home. That was because I ATE AS MUCH AS I WANTED ALL THE TIME. How so? Simple. All the food is fresh in Weishan, and there is no milk, cheese or dessert. Try this experiment – go to a restaurant in the U.S. (or Sweden, where it is even creamier) and order everything on the menu that DOESN’T have milk or cheese in it. You won’t get much.

The problem and beauty of China

June 21, 2006


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

The problem and beauty of China is that nothing stays the same. This is why it is the middle kingdom, the sensibility and experience of all humanity.

We are just back from a 3-week preservation trip to China. We go to Weishan, one of the few communities there with a true commitment to preservation. It is in far southwest Yunnan province, in the Mekong Delta, and it shares many cultural groups with southeast Asian nations like Thailand, Laos and Burma. It is a beautiful place, but also very real and everyday. The food is better than anywhere. They have 50 kinds of mushrooms. We ate three meals a day and each meal was 10-12 dishes and it took the better part of a week before we saw a dish repeated. Nothing the same, but always good. We had enough clout to get two formal dinners with Mayor Zhang of Weishan, which consists of a lot of toasting with rice wine and gifts and the best food.

China changes and changes are challenges. Our first was money. Despite double-checking our budget in January, we still ran over and had to up the program fee. But there was still a gap. We limited faculty salaries and faculty Jingjing Gao worked the locals for every nickel. The trip still came in at 25% less than the other trip to China.

We had the challenge of overnight train rides to Dali, and the nonstop rain once we got to that scenic walled city, center of the Bai minority culture and a must-spot on the backpacker route. It is very nice, but compared to Weishan, quite touristy, with shops dedicated to the foreigners and Chinese who visit. We saw the Three Pagodas, millenia-old pagodas outside town and then, shockingly, a massive $2 billion rebuilt temple that must have included 25 buildings and a hundred gold statues.

I guess that’s the difference between China and America: a country run by businessmen versus a country run by lawyers. We scream when the government offers to give money to a church. Atheist China builds a massive Buddhist temple because it will attract tourists.

Then we were on to Weishan and saw real temples – the old ones that dot Weibaoshan, Taoist masterpieces. Chang Cheun temple is restored but not too much (as is often the case in Asia). They left many of the old paintings alone, which is better than tarting them up like that behemoth in Dali. Mr. Xiao, the monk, again demonstrated flute and tai chi for us on the temple grounds. Thank god his cell phone didn’t ring until he finished the demonstration.

We then spent two days touring the best courtyard houses in Weishan, which is 1300 years old and while some of its temples go back to the Ming era 600 years ago, most of the courtyards were 80 or 90 years old. But they were great. We crawled through them – many occupied by four or more families. Beautiful dragon and phoenix-headed brackets, reflecting walls decorated with stunning paintings, and all of those features we learned to love as chi’h-wei, liang, qiuwen and tang wu. Some of the houses were lovingly restored, some were decrepit but stunning. We measured and drew and described and photographed them. It was hard work by all 13 students and the Weishan officials were impressed at the end.

The biggest challenge was typical China Changes. Our hosts asked us to photo document courtyard houses, so we got a field camera. One of our hosts – a real power broker – was preparing a book on Weishan’s courtyard houses and invited us to submit images. He insisted that the images be digital, so we bought three digital cameras. We decided to go ahead with the large format as well, for the learning experience.

Day 2 of the documentation of 16 buildings in Weishan: Our host calls and asks us what film we are shooting and we say digital and he says the digital isn’t good he wants medium format. Turns out he changed his mind in April. Nothing stays the same in China. We know medium format is better – that is what we wanted to use in the first place.

A week later he shows up with a bus for all of the students and buys us all breakfast in Kunming after an all-night train ride. It was wild – giant crocks of chicken soup at scalding temperature – you cook meat and veg and noodles by dropping them in. One of our students does not eat chicken but ate it, reckoning (correctly) that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

So then the faculty go to meet the power broker. We meet in his publisher’s office and see the book layout and the lovely medium format transparencies. Yes, we know that these are better, says Felicity. Always did. Would have done it that way if we weren’t told otherwise. She critiques the book for cramming too many pictures too close together. It was a slightly tense meeting, us feeling twisted for not hearing that the Boss changed his mind, him feeling a little defensive because we clouted him into promising us representation in the book. Felicity is also refusing to give full size images unless he is going to use them, trying to protect the artist/students. China is not Country Number One when it comes to copyright-protection. She later physically protected the students’ large format work as we tried to get it through airport security in Kunming and later in Shanghai.

Another challenge was the beta version of Adobe Lightroom. This software would allow us to organize the images by historic site for the Weishan officials and by category for the book publisher in Kunming. Lightroom ran perfectly in tests but started to chug and choke mid-week as the library expanded to 2000 images. The poor students on the later teams had to deal with an increasingly buggy beta software and an increasingly impatient faculty member (me.) We finally had to give up and spend a sleepless night on the train to Kunming reorganizing the student photos into the categories for the book publisher.

Shanghai marked the more relaxed coda to the trip, but even there nothing stays the same. I was doing my regular tour of the Bund only we couldn’t cross over into Huangpi Park because the government closed it for a meeting of leaders of Central Asian oil nations. Can you imagine? In Chicago we would never close a park for heads of state – only for Toyota executives. The meetings also closed museums and galleries, which was a bummer for many of the students.

Despite the changes, the trip was a success. We had a great Powerpoint (a little delayed by recalcitrant computers) for the Weishan officials and a video from student Ryan (Dong Geun) Oh. We celebrated birthdays, climbed the Great Wall, had Peking Duck and ate sticks and leaves and went to the dressmaker and tailor and perhaps even the bars and everyone had their turn with the gut rot but we saw things no one else does. We crawled over 13 courtyard houses, documenting and measuring and photographing them in the midst of people’s lives. We got to know the place a bit.

We were in Weishan 10 days before we saw a Westerner. Of course, the book and our work will help promote Weishan and perhaps it won’t be so unspoiled in the future. Or maybe they will do the best of both – a true heritage tourism that looks out for the locals first.

I miss Weishan and China, despite all of the twists and turns. Especially at mealtimes. I could kill for a bowl of beef noodles right now. With lots of chili. It isn’t breakfast otherwise.

Through a Glass Darkly

May 22, 2006


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

What rant shall I leave you with as I head to China? How about the past and the future….

Twenty years ago, I spent the better part of a year backpacking around South Asia. My goal was India, and I had this idea that I could see the past – steam locomotives, teeming early Industrial metropoli, a populace caught between agrarianism and urbanism like Chicago in 1880.

Today, of course, we go to China to see the future, skyscrapers flashing bright video skins and a billion people taking capitalism to the next step.

I am going there on an historic preservation student study trip, so I guess we are looking to the past. We go to Weishan, an old Southern Silk Road town in Yunnan province 75 clicks south of Dali. Founding city of the T’ang era Nanzhao state some 1300 years ago. Weibaoshan (mountain) hosts 22 Tao and Buddhist temples. Almost no Westerners go there – it barely registers on Google. Weishan is also one of the few places in China practicing historic preservation – most of Beijing and Shanghai are developing so fast they make 1880s Chicago look like a backwater. Everything is new and everything old is being plowed under.

Chinese culture is so old and strong it doesn’t need tangible reminders of the past as desperately as we do in the West. You start looking back on Euro-American culture and before long you hit Crusaders, Vikings and Picts and the word “civilization” starts to catch in the throat. As cultural orphans we need more reassurance. We need to touch it. In China it is so deep that it can’t be erased by the actions of the physical world.

That’s point one. Point two is technology and capitalism, an interesting feedback loop if there ever was one. Capitalism makes all sorts of fabulous technology possible, like Microsoft Word 5.1. But it also requires the “churn” which gives us dreck, like every version of Microsoft Word since. The one I am using now is a ponderously ignorant nanny, unable to show me my footnotes, rigid in grammar, desperately urging me to make it easy for the slow ones.

Upgrades are the hay feeding the capitalist elephant. Technology must improve with each new car season, even if it doesn’t. Even if no advances are made, the marketing guys will convince us there have been improvements and we will buy them lest this house of cards we love collapse.

Replacement windows, which need to be replaced themselves every 10 to 15 years, are the same thing – trendy and temporary like the multi-million dollar McMansions made of formaldehyde and wood chips that sprawl across the country. The old planned obsolescence thing. Works a charm.

(BTW the thing about vinyl replacement windows is that in fires they give off this noxious smoke that will kill you way before the fire. But this is not the windows rant…)

We are going to China with three digital cameras and a field camera (made in China of course) which uses 4 x 5 inch film, which means we are caught between two technologies and heavily laden on our journey. CDs and film, film holders and flash drives, laptops and tripods. My previous four study trips were sans electronics, a beautiful thing.

This thing everyone forgets about technology is that it is basically additive. You got a microwave? Did you get rid of your stove? You got a vacuum cleaner? Did you get rid of your broom? Yes, your computer replaced your typewriter but don’t tell me there isn’t any pen and paper in your house. I suppose an Ipod and a dock could replace a sound system, and a flat screen could replace a tube telly, but hell TVs are getting so big nowadays you’d think it was 1948 when they were freaking armoires.

So, we are laden on our trip to far west Yunnan province, beyond even the hippie trail (which ends in Dali) A lot of stuff to carry, some 40 years after miniaturization. I guess miniaturization died with Hummers and home theaters…

I even got a cell phone for the trip. I know, every American has had one for five years, and every Italian got one in 1992, but I don’t really need it….

WHAT?! Send the marketing guys out! Beat this one down! Make him wear a large-character sign until he is re-educated! He thinks he doesn’t need a cell phone or replacement windows! Tell him he is endangering his wife and children even though he has never lost them on street corners and train stations from Midtown Manhattan to Tokyo to Kracow and Schonbrunn and even on mountain trails in the Cevennes and Tyrolean Alps without even a goddamn watch, much less a cell phone.

I like technology that actually makes my life better, like my 1979 soft contact lenses and this laptop which allows me to rant on the L without fear of having my train of thought interrupted by a ringing telephone, and the 14-year old version of Word designed for those who learned spelling and my 14-year old car that doesn’t need a computer to start the engine.

So we will take pictures of traditional courtyard houses in Weishan, many with marvelous details. We will capture them digitally so we can enjoy them and disseminate them in all of their richness.

We will also capture them on film, so that the next generation can see them too.

So I guess we are looking into the future.