Beijing, 24 May 2014

As readers of my previous post will know, every time I go back to Europe now after four years of living in China, I am intensely aware of physical differences between Europeans and Chinese. In the previous post it was differences in nose size that I dwelt on. In this post, I will dwell on ears. Or more specifically what people in Europe are doing to their ear lobes.

Let me explain.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Chinese person here with ear lobes looking like this


whereas it is a common enough sight now in Europe for it to impinge itself on my consciousness: “hang on, didn’t I just see one of those?”

young woman with stretched ear lobes-2

When I was young, the most that people pierced of their bodies, at least in Europe, was their ears, and even then it was only women. And even then, many women didn’t – my mother didn’t, my sisters didn’t, my grandmothers didn’t; my future wife didn’t, my future mother-in-law didn’t. I suspect it was a social thing. Nice Young Ladies didn’t pierce their ears, Gypsies and Peasant Girls did. When I was at University, I once voiced the idea of having my ear discreetly pierced and wearing a small ring; it was beginning to come in as an alternative fashion. My then-girlfriend decisively nixed the idea – I would look queer, she said (“queer” being then what “gay” is now). Then, quite suddenly, in the early 1980s as I recall (my wife and I were recently discussing the timeline), we began to see young people with multiple rings in their ears, then sporting rings or studs in their noses, then in their eyebrows, cheeks, tongues, belly-buttons, … we even read about people piercing more intimate parts of their anatomies, the mere thought of which I find too horrible to contemplate.

At the beginning, piercing, whichever part of the anatomy was concerned, was very much an alternative lifestyle, the sort of thing squatters and punks would do.

Pierced punk

But slowly it entered into the mainstream. I mean, didn’t Mathew Broderick, in the 1997 film Addicted to Love, discover, when he kissed his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend,  a primary school teacher and therefore quite mainstream, that she now sported a tongue stud?

matthew broderick and kelly preston

Or look at Zara Phillips, granddaughter to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (to give the old lady her full title). She has a tongue stud

zara phillips with tongue stud

as well as a belly-button stud. More mainstream than that is difficult to find.

But this stretching of ear lobes seems quite a new phenomenon in the piercing movement (although I read somewhere while preparing this post that it started back in the 1990s; if it did, it was happening in parts of town that I didn’t visit). I was particularly struck by it because it is undoubtedly more spectacular than many other forms of piercing, but also because it reminded me of a book which I had read long, long ago, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island, by Thor Heyerdahl.

When I was young and still dreamed of becoming a polar explorer or finding the long-lost El Dorado in the Amazon forest or accomplishing some such feat of derring-do (although exploring the moon was never on my bucket list; my feet were always planted firmly on this planet), I loved Heyerdahl’s book The Kon-Tiki Expedition, the story of his 1947 trip across the Pacific on a balsawood raft, to prove that the indigenous peoples of South America could have sailed to Polynesia. So I eagerly read Aku-Aku when I came across it in the library at school. The book is about an archaeological expedition which Heyerdahl led to Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. The book is quite light on serious archaeology, but it is full of exciting “discoveries” of one form or another. What I particularly remember, though, was Heyerdahl’s description of what the first European discoverer of the island, Admiral Roggeveen, found when he arrived. The Admiral was greeted by a chief:

He was ornamented with a crown of feathers on his head, which otherwise was close-shaven, and he had in his ears round white pegs as large as fists. This man showed by his bearing that he was a prominent person in the community, and the Dutchmen thought that he might be a priest. The lobes of his ears were pierced and artificially lengthened so that they hung down to his shoulders, and the Dutch noted that many of the islanders had ears artificially lengthened in this manner. If their long ears got in the way when they were at work, they just took out the pegs and tied the long flap up over the upper edge of the ear.

Heyerdahl’s book contained a picture of a drawing made at around the time of these first European trips to Easter Island. I don’t know if it was this particular one, drawn in 1777, but it’s close enough.

Easter Islander with long ears

And to show no gender bias, I include a photo of a companion drawing, of a woman.

Easter Islander woman with long ears

The idea of looping the extended ear lobes over the top of the ear to get them out of the way flipped me out.

These “long ears” seem to be reflected in Easter Island’s famous stone heads.

Easter Island Statues

So when I began to see these extended ear lobes around me in Europe, I was transported in my mind’s eye back to Easter Island (which I’ve never visited, by the way; some day maybe …).

I may be wrong but I think it will be a long time before a granddaughter of the Queen of the United Kingdom etc. has stretched ear lobes and even longer before we see this on an Obama or a Cameron or a Xi Jinpin. A discreet tongue stud is one thing, a large in-your-face ear lobe plug is another. This will stay in the alternative life style for a while.

Yet it was not always so. I mean, King Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the forms of Re, Strong bull, Perfect of birth, He whose beneficent laws pacify the two lands, He who wears the crowns, who satisfies the gods (King Tut to you and me) had stretched ear lobes if his mummy casings are to be believed


And it seems to have been common among the rich and powerful in Mesoamerican cultures. For instance, Olmec stone heads show clear evidence of ear lobe plugs

olmec head

as do Mayan bas-reliefs such as this one from Bonampak

maya bas relief

(I don’t think you had your head sculpted in stone if you were a peasant …)

The Buddha also had stretched ear lobes. His statues always show long ear lobes, such as this one in Japan


and this one which I just recently saw in Bangkok

bangkok buddha 003

In his early life as a rich aristocrat the Buddha had worn heavy jewelley in his ears as a status symbol, the weight of which had stretched his ear lobes. When he eventually renounced his wealth and discarded his jewelry, his ear lobes were permanently stretched. By showing the Buddha’s stretched ear lobes without jewellery, images of him memorialize his renunciation of worldly wealth. Nice idea …

So anyway, one day maybe the rich and powerful of the world will sport ear lobe plugs (and loop the ear lobes over the top of their ears when they are working). But for the time being the best we can hope from them is a bright tie.



Young woman with stretched ear lobes: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/aa/Young_woman_with_stretched_ear_piercing.jpg/634px-Young_woman_with_stretched_ear_piercing.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stretching_(body_piercing)%5D
Young woman with stretched ear lobes-2: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-FBF5-mgmLZY/T7Z9s5JL_OI/AAAAAAAAAcI/ri7vlCt8CtQ/s1600/Tina-1.jpg [in http://www.urbanfieldnotes.com/2012/05/dream-of-90s-is-alive-in-philadelphia.html%5D
Pierced punk: http://www.lilies-diary.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Punk-Iro-Piercing.jpg [in http://www.lilies-diary.com/festival-in-berlin/%5D
Matthew Broderick and Kelly Preston: http://www.hotflick.net/flicks/1997_Addicted_to_Love/997ATL_Kelly_Preston_006.jpg [in
Zara Phillips with tongue stud: http://www.hellomagazine.com/imagenes/royalty/201012224698/zara-phillips/life-in-pictures/engagement/0-14-900/tongue–a.jpg [in http://www.hotflick.net/pictures/997ATL_Kelly_Preston_006.html%5D
Easter Islander with long ears: http://www.chauvet-translation.com/figures/Figure006.jpg [in http://www.chauvet-translation.com/figurelegends.htm%5D
Easter Islander woman with long ears: http://www.chauvet-translation.com/figures/Figure007.jpg [in http://www.chauvet-translation.com/figurelegends.htm%5D
Easter Island statues: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/597/cache/easter-island-statues_59766_990x742.jpg [in http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/365-photos/easter-island-statues/%5D
Tutunkhamen pierced ears: http://www.jobananas.com/images/Tutankhamen-stretched-ear-lobe.jpg [in http://www.jobananas.com/ear-stretching.html%5D
Olmec statue: http://ruedasdetiempo.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/img_1033.jpg [in http://ruedasdetiempo.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/skwinkles-milch/%5D
Maya ears: http://maya.nmai.si.edu/sites/default/files/null/bonampak_s2.jpg [in http://maya.nmai.si.edu/gallery/bonampak%5D
Buddha Japan: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-5wZTLBPOMWY/T5zMran9GwI/AAAAAAAAP5M/ZTe32OseUs4/s1600/buddha-of-kamakura-japan.jpg [in http://bonniesbooks.blogspot.com/2012_04_01_archive.html%5D
Buddha Bangkok: my picture
Obama with red tie: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-LTcV1taYCGc/UXM3OME3p7I/AAAAAAABHRA/w42CCIaMczI/s1600/1.jpg [in http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2013/04/chairman-jared-speaks.html%5D


2 June 2013

On our last visit to Hong Kong, my wife and I wandered into an antiques shop to poke around among the offerings. The owner, an ethnic Chinese, struck up a conversation with us. After discovering that I came from the UK, she lit up and became positively garrulous. It turned out that her son was completing a Masters at Oxford University, and she described, lovingly and in great detail, a trip she had recently made to the UK to see him. It soon became clear that she regretted Hong Kong no longer being British. In short order, her misty-eyed regrets over the UK leaving turned into a rant against the “Mainlanders”, Chinese from mainland China. This is a common topic of converstation in Hong Kong, where many of its ethnically Chinese residents determinedly stress that they are different from the Mainlanders. This determination is becoming fiercer as Mainlanders come in ever larger numbers to Hong Kong to gawp, buy, and generally get in the way. For this lady, there were two things which symbolized all the differences between Her and Them. She proceeded to tick them off on her fingers with disdain: “they spit, and they squat”.

I think we can all agree that the generalized Chinese habit of spitting is really quite revolting, particularly when it is preceded by a noisy hawking of the throat and – most disgusting of all – a blowing of the nose without a handkerchief. And it is true to say that you see very little of this in Hong Kong.

Our interlocutor’s hostility to the prevalent Chinese habit of squatting is more interesting. Everywhere in China – on pavements, in malls, at bus stops, in railway stations; anywhere, really, where people stand and wait – you will see people who have dropped down onto their haunches for a rest

squatting men beijing-wangfujing

reading, more often than not these days, their text messages.

squatting woman-5

I have to say that I also find this habit disquieting. It seems such a … humiliating posture, is the only way I can describe it. Every time I see people squatting, I scold them mentally: “Get up, get up! You are not a slave!”

And yet … when you think about it, in a world where chairs didn’t exist, which must have been 99.9% of the time that we have been human beings, it was really quite natural for us to drop down  onto our haunches when we were tired of standing and when there wasn’t a nice log or large stone to sit on. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I think the way I do about squatting because of the chair.

The chair, or rather the throne, was obviously an instrument used by Kings and Emperors, from the earliest times, to overawe their subjects. Here we have an Assyrian emperor lording it over some subject of his

throne-assyrian throne

And the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt must surely be the epitome of rulers lording it over their lands while sitting on thrones

throne-abu simbel

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which I quoted in an earlier post, comes to mind when I look at these statues.

Egypt’s dry desert air, in which buried things do not rot, allows us to contemplate today a real Egyptian throne, this one from King Tut’s tomb (“Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the forms of Re, Strong bull, Perfect of birth, He whose beneficent laws pacify the two lands, He who wears the crowns, who satisfies the gods” to you, mere mortal, and don’t you forget it …):

throne-king tut-1

Even in more modern times have thrones played their part in elevating the splendour of the sitter, as in this case of the Qing emperor Kangxi

throne-Qing Emperor Kangxi

And of course Chinese emperors, along with many copy-cat Asian emperors, liked to have their subjects not just squat in front of them but to really debase themselves by kowtowing:

kowtowing before the emperor

Which led to the famous diplomatic incident of 1793, when, Lord Macartney, King George III’s envoy to the Chinese Emperor, refused to kowtow but did accept to get down on one knee as he would have before his King:

kowtowing before the emperor-English ambassador

Even more recently, thrones have played their part to prop up monarchies. The last Shah of Iran, for instance, was fond of using the Naderi throne to impart some sheen to his tawdry reign.

throne-peacock throne-Shah in front

And of course we in the UK have our venerable King Edward’s Chair in which all English, and then British, monarchs (bar two) have been crowned since 1308 – by the way, King Edward I commissioned the chair to house the Stone of Scone after he stole it (a.k.a. war booty) from the Scots.

throne-king edwards

Those of us who have the seen the film The King’s Speech will recognize the throne, which appears at some point in the story and whose portentous humbug is mercifully taken down a peg or two by the egalitarian Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by that wonderful actor Geoffrey Rush), who slouches around in it provoking a burst of monarchist anger from King George VI:

throne-king edwards-Geoffrey Rush in it

Luckily, Lionel Logue’s egalitarian comments about the chair in question was preceded a century or so ago (not more, I suspect) by a move to make the chair a product of mass consumption, which meant that I (but probably not the Chinese of my generation) have spent my whole life sitting on chairs and not squatting on the ground. I try to remember the chairs of my childhood but fail. A chair’s a chair, some of you might say, it’s a functional object. True, but even functionality for the masses can be beautiful. It took my wife to introduce me to Italian furniture design and to make me realize that a chair could be both beautiful and functional. The moment we could – in the early 1980s – we bought ourselves a set of dining chairs. My wife has scoured the internet for photos of the model of our chairs but has found none. This photo of the spaghetti chair is the closest I can find:

chair-sled based-spaghetti

I designed and put together a dining room table to go with our chairs, the only thing I have ever designed in my life. All slumber in a warehouse in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

Later, when we were living in New York, we came across Shaker chairs (and other furniture) during a weekend trip in upstate New York which took us to an old Shaker colony. Beautiful things.


We would have bought some reproductions if we hadn’t already had our chairs – and if they hadn’t been so expensive.

Over the years, we’ve seen some “trophy” chairs (chairs which don’t just sit quietly around a dining room table) which we wouldn’t have minded buying, if the price had been right (and if we’d had the space).

The Danish harp chair:

chair-danish harp chair

The Mondrian chair (this would have been more my choice than my wife’s):

Chair-Mondrian chair

Chairs designed by the Glaswegian architect, designer and artist Charles Mackintosh (again, my choice I think):

chair-Mackintosh chair

Here in China, chairs from the Ming period:


The reader will have noted by now that our tastes in chairs (indeed, all furniture) lean towards the simple and clean line …

I suppose that with consumption on the rise in China, the habit of squatting will disappear, as will – I fervently hope and pray – the habit of spitting.  In the meantime, I will continue to mentally exhort my fellow Beijingers to stand up straight and proud every time I see them squatting on the ground.


Squatting men: http://mattchalmighty.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/beijing-wangfujing-men-squatting-large.jpg
Squatting woman: http://www.shunya.net/Pictures/China/Beijing/BeijingWoman.jpg
Assyrian throne: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/images/essentials/kings/sh5-til-barsip-large.jpg
Abu Simbel: http://famouswonders.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/abu-simbel.jpg
King Tut throne: http://comeseeegypt.com/images/tutthrone.jpg
Qing Emperor Kangxi: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/12/China,Qing,Emperor,Kangxi,Painting,Color.jpg
Kowtowing before the emperor: http://www.mitchellteachers.org/WorldHistory/AncientChinaCurriculum/Images/legendaryemperors/ImperialRobesOfficialsPayingRespect_large.jpg
English ambassador Lord Macartney before the Emperor: http://images.printsplace.co.uk/Content/Images/Products/92648/89219/Reception_of_the_Diplomatique_and_his_Suite_at_the_Court_of_Pekin__c_1793__1.jpg
Shah of Iran in front of peacock throne: http://filelibrary.myaasite.com/Content/26/26343/29921747.jpg
King Edward’s Chair: http://www2.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Visitors+Look+Coronation+Chair+Westminster+Wk0GK7SFdXnl.jpg
Geoffrey Rush sitting in King Edward’s Chair: http://v020o.popscreen.com/eGhxd3hrMTI=_o_st-edwards-chair.jpg
Spaghetti chair with sled base: http://img.archiexpo.com/images_ae/photo-g/commercial-contemporary-sled-base-stacking-chair-50648-3267845.jpg
Shaker chair: http://www.jkrantiques.com/_images//ShakerCounterChairWeb.jpg
Danish harp chair: http://shard1.1stdibs.us.com//archives/upload/1stdibsA/071607_sb/arensojoldHD/19/xHudJuly07_398.jpg
Mondrian chair: http://www.dorotheum.com/fileadmin/user_upload/bilder/Presse/Gallery_of_Highlights/Rietveldstuhl.jpg
Mackintosh chair: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-_ZjHHv_Nzls/UOP0yApjC4I/AAAAAAAAAI0/yTahn5EI7q0/s1600/1.Charles_Rennie_Mackintosh_Hillhouse_Chair_rfd.jpg
Ming chair: http://www.easterncurio.com/easten%20curio/Afurniture/ItemForOn-Selling/A1S152101.jpg