Friday, September 01, 2006

Chinese Chess

I recently bought a Chinese Chess set. Chinese chess is not a modern faddish attempt at modifying a European game and calling it Chinese. Rather, chess, invented in either Persia or India, spread both east and west, changing as it went in each direction. It was originally a battle simulation of sorts, with chariots (rooks), horsemen (knights), elephants (bishops), soldiers (pawns), and an advisor (queen) protecting the king. The elephants were positioned head-up, which is what the pieces look like today, without the trunk and tusks. Someone in Europe at some point suggested it looked like a bishop's mitre, which is how it got associated with a bishop. Eventually in medieval Europe the names started to change to reflect a royal court instead of a battlefield.

In China, this game developed differently. For one, the pieces stay on the intersections, not the squares. Most of the pieces are like the Persian original, but have more limitations on their movements. But there's also a cannon, which moves like a rook (horizontally or vertically any number of spaces) but when it captures, must jump exactly one piece (your own or your opponent's) along the way of taking your opponent's piece.

In Mandarin, the name of this game is Xiangqi (pronounced something like "shong chee"), and in Cantonese it's Jan kei (pronounced something like "Junk kehy").

When it spread to Japan, it became Shogi, which added a new rule that completely changed the game: when you take a piece, it becomes your piece to place anywhere on the board.

But back to Xiangqi. I was in Mong Kok, looking at random clothes stores. Stores in Hong Kong seem to be clustered according to type. All the shoe stores are on one street. All the cell phone stores are in one complex. All the stereo stores are in one area. So I was surprised to see, in the middle of the shoe store area, a small stall selling Mahjongg sets (another game). I went to the stall, intending to get a Mahjongg set, and saw that they had Xiangqi sets, which I became more interested in, since I didn't know how to play it.

I asked the salesperson if they had instructions in English for this game, and he said no. I asked about the difference between the sets, and he pointed out the materials, eventually suggesting I get the cheapest one, for HK$3.50 (US$0.50), which had wooden pieces and a paper board. Here it is:

Without an instruction book, I learned the rules using the ancient Chinese meditative technique of looking it up on the internet.

You're looking through black's perspective. The middle of the board, between the red and black sides, is a river, which is not an obstacle, but it does come up in the rules. The forwardmost 5 pieces are the pawns. The character on the pieces means "soldier". Red's pawns have a different character that also means "soldier". They move forward one space each move, even when capturing, until they cross the river, when they can also move (or capture) left and right. Nothing special happens when they reach the far end.

On the first row, there are lots of pieces. The outermost pieces have the Chinese character for "cart" or "car", and are the rooks. They act just like rooks, moving horizontally or vertically any distance. The next pieces in have the Chinese character for "horse" and they move like ordinary knights except they cannot jump. The movement is considered one step in a horizontal or vertical direction, then one step in a diagonal direction. The next ones in are the elephants (red's characters are different but they are both pronounced "Xiang"--in fact, this is what the game is named after) and they move diagonally like bishops, except they must move exactly a distance of two each move, and may not cross the river. This makes them, in my view, very weak pieces, but maybe that's because I don't yet know how to use them strategically yet.

The next pieces in are the guards. They cannot leave the "palace" (the region marked with an X) and move one space diagonally. Then there's the king, who also cannot leave the palace and moves one space horizontally or vertically each move. There's also a special rule that the two kings cannot "see each other". That is, the kings cannot be on the same file with no pieces intervening. Any move that results in this is illegal. This gives the kings a kind of distance "attack" or at least influence, sometimes preventing the other king from escaping, and sometimes pinning a piece.

Between the first row and the pawns are two cannons, described above. You win by checkmating or stalemating the opponent's king. Rules are found here.

I tried playing against myself a few times, just to figure out strategy. The problem with this is that I might come up with what I think is a clever attack, and when I'm playing the other side, I'm still in the mindset that the clever attack will actually work, and so I don't always see what the correct response should be. Still, I've found a few ways to get a checkmate, and some interesting uses of pawns and cannons. Pawns are a bit more powerful because they can't get "blocked" by another pawn, and because they "promote" fairly quickly, when they cross the river. They're also useful in being the intermediate piece in making an attack with a cannon.

In contrast, the "bishops" are pretty useless, except for protecting one square two spaces in front of the king. But since nothing naturally protects that square, it's not that useful for blocking checks. The knights are a bit less powerful because they can't jump. And the guards and the king are very much restricted because they can't leave the palace. In fact, only rooks and cannons can make really long-range attacks in this game. And knights, bishops, and cannons can be "blocked" from moving in some direction without being able to take the thing that blocks its movement.

I did get the chance of playing a live person. Aaron is from Chengdu, the main city in Szechuan province (famous for pandas and for spicy food), and has been studying at the City University of Hong Kong for the past few years, and just graduated. He's been going to Kowloon International Baptist Church (see an earlier post below), even though he's not a Christian. But he does like the friends he's developed there in the college group. After church last Sunday, we played a game. I won, but it was close.

I hope to find other opportunities to play this game. Meanwhile, the church college group told me we'd play Mahjongg at some point. I had learned the rules when I was a kid, but I never had 3 others to play it with. Mahjongg is like gin rummy in its rules, but like bridge in the seriousness and devotion to it by the players. More on that later.

Today the International Office is giving us a tour of Hong Kong island. I still haven't been there yet.

One of the Pepperdine students who's in the Hong Kong program, Jonathan Hippensteel, has a blog, too. It's got lots more pictures and has a very different perspective from mine. I'm actually going to require all the students to get a blog, come the beginning of classes (gasp) Monday.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Hurricane Katrina

The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina just passed, and it's an opportunity to revisit the decisions that were made one year ago in response to the devastation. There's a lot of talk about FEMA chief Brown, and whether Bush was really to blame, and whether New Orleans Mayor Nagin could have done more.

There's one point that I don't hear expressed very much, though, that seems almost obvious. You've got a political party in power that has said for years that the federal government has gotten too big, and that we need "smaller government". Over half of government spending is defense, but is this what is meant? No, typically Republicans want to increase defense spending. What about Social Security? While some Republicans want to cut government spending on Social Security, that's not a very popular position: among seniors, even conservatives feel that it wouldn't be right for their benefits to be cut when they paid into the system for years under the impression that they would get these benefits.

What's left to cut? Medicare. Food stamps. FEMA. There's more, of course, but we're talking the big ticket items.

According to Republican rhetoric, much of what the Federal government does should be done by the free market: companies and individuals that work on their own, deriving a profit for their work. What can't be done by the free market should be done by local control instead of involving the federal government.

So Hurricane Katrina comes along, and what happens? The Federal government waits for the private sector and for local government to act, and waits to see if they might be needed as a last resort. Surprised?

The Bush administration got caught in their own rhetoric, and now that their slow response garnered criticism nation-wide, they're trying to imply that their slow response was a one-time mistake, and not a natural consequence of their political philosophy. They tried to suggest early on that it was really the responsibility of local government to respond, but this stance was viewed as very unpopular.

This could have been the death knell of the "small government" mantra. But I'm not sure people are making that connection.

I got to thinking: What would China's response be to a major disaster destroying much of Hong Kong? China does not have a policy of "small government", nor does it really look for "local control". But it is sometimes out of touch with what is happening in a distant province. Numerous times, the news has reported a disaster, and Beijing has spent more time denying that the disaster happened than actually responding to the disaster. But Hong Kong is more public.

Hong Kong is a different story in many senses: it has quite a bit of money, which means that it might be able to do more on its own. That also means that China has an interest in making sure Hong Kong does well, especially since Hong Kong is one of the gateways through which the Chinese economy has been flourishing. Finally, it is a "special administrative region" meaning that it is a part of China, but Chinese laws don't directly affect it. It's not clear how this status would affect China's response to a disaster in Hong Kong.

Jared Diamond calls China's policy toward the environment as "lurching". This "lurching" is probably due to the fact that China would like to project a stance of unity in policy, so when they commit to some policy direction, everything goes that way. But in fact there are different people with different views, and a shift in power could make everything lurch in the opposite direction. And since power is concentrated so tightly at the top, it just takes the change of one person to make a big difference in policy. This "lurching" phenomenon makes it difficult to predict what China's policy will be on any particular point. The fact that China had a certain policy under Premier Jiang Ze Min does not imply anything about what the policy will be like under Hu Jin Dao.

In the United States, there are differences in policy depending on who is president (note the shift in policy toward global warming under Bush, compared to Clinton, for instance). But this is tempered by what Congress can do or what the courts decide.

What will China do in case of a natural disaster hitting Hong Kong? They might take some time to act, as they might be out of touch with what is happening. Any attempts to evacuate the population might be viewed with suspicion here, especially as people had tried so hard to immigrate to Hong Kong from the mainland. It's hard to imagine what China would do. It's also hard to imagine the results being particularly good.

We did get a Typhoon alert at the lowest level last week, but that disappeared after a day.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Roles reverse

I showed the Pepperdine students Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui, Sham Shui Po, and Festival Walk. I'm a tour guide now. I'm their "local contact". All after a week of being here. They're asking me questions about Hong Kong, assuming I know the answer. How did this happen?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Pepperdine students arrive!

The Pepperdine students arrived tonight. Christina, Jay, and I met them at the airport. Jay was a student from last year who specifically asked for a Pepperdine student as a roommate this year, because he had such a good experience in the past. He was excited to meet the Pepperdine students this year. Jay is a physics major from Xi'an, and would one day like to study in the United States.

We met them as they arrived out of customs at about 8 p.m. (their flight came in at about 7 p.m.). Well, we met most of them. Priscilla Tan came in from Singapore, but Christina's list didn't have that information, so I guess we missed her. Lewis, another student at HKBU, met us at the airport.

HKBU had rented a bus, which was pretty useful given how much luggage the students brought. We got to the dorms, and it was dicey trying to stop at the dorms because half the street was under construction. The bus had to circle around and pull into a parking lot.

9 p.m.: The students checked in. Jay found out that his roommate is Andrew Fay, and both are pretty excited about that.

10 p.m.: We meet and Lewis and Jay take us to Lok Fu, a nearby area that will hopefully have somewhere to buy sheets and pillows (the students mostly didn't choose to buy them from the dorm) and someplace to eat.

10:20 p.m.: We get to Lok Fu and find a store that sells linens that closes at 10:30. There's a bit of confusion about exactly what the dimensions of the beds are. By the time we're leaving, the store is closing.

Here's a picture of us going through a deserted shopping mall at Lok Fu, walking to get food. It's blurry because people are walking.

The person to the very right is Lewis, the HKBU student who's leading us to the food. I won't try to name everyone else because I don't know most of their names yet, and if I say some of them and don't say some of them, that would seem unfair. I'll just blame it on the blurry photo.

We had two options at 11 p.m.: McDonalds, and a Chinese restaurant. Lewis was unsure about the Chinese restaurant because it's a dive, and he's not sure everyone's stomachs would be ready for it and the lack of hygiene quite yet. I suggested that everyone's stomachs will have to get used to it sooner or later anyway. I also noted that McDonalds would be a better group meal several months in, when everyone is sick of Chinese food and want a taste of home.

We ate at the Chinese restaurant. We were clearly the only non-locals there. This was not merely a local place--it was a working-class local place. The food, of course, was excellent. Jay and Lewis regaled us with HKBU tips and thoughts about China. More about those some other time.

It's now 3 am and we agreed to meet tomorrow at 10 am. So I'm signing off.

The International Church

Yesterday I went to church at Kowloon International Baptist Church, which has services in English, and is right next to campus.

I, like most Evangelicals, do not see sharp distinctions between many Protestant denominations, so in case you thought I was a Presbyterian just because I'm a member of Malibu Presbyterian Church, and serve as an Elder there, be warned: when I was saved I went to a Congregationalist church, when I went to college I went to a Baptist church, and when I went to grad school I went to the independent Peninsula Bible Church.

What is an Evangelical? There seem to be many definitions out there. It's not a denomination. It's not an organization. It's not even a list of doctrines, per se. It's a vague term that people use to identify themselves with other like-minded people. We're Chrisians, first of all, but within the scope of Christianity, the main emphases of Evangelical Christianity include: the need for personal salvation, that this is available through the death and resurrection of Jesus through faith and not the believer's works, that this brings us into a relationship to Jesus, the ultimate authority of the Holy Bible, and so on.

When I say I am an Evangelical, I associate with these emphases. An Evangelical is also a subculture, in that we have some common jargon ("Are you saved?", "Are you in a small group?", etc.) and as evidenced by the fact that we hear the same urban legends, for instance.

The term also gets used for a bunch of things I don't identify with: Creationism, right-wing politics (in the US), the "I've got the answers because I'm saved and you have nothing to offer me because you're not" attitude that sometimes is the flip side to the emphasis on personal salvation, and so on.

So Kowloon International Baptist Church (KIBC) is definitely an Evangelical church. Definitely along the lines I agree with. I even recognized most of the songs we sang. In a way, it felt very much like churches I'm used to. In a way, comforting. In a way, puzzling.

I've been reading a book by Covell on the history of Christianity in China (I'll get the title to you later--it's not in front of me now). It was written in the 1980s, so it doesn't have the most recent developments which are new and surprising. But from his perspective, Christianity has failed to take hold of China. The reason he gives: from the Nestorians to the Jesuits to the Protestants to the 20th century house churches, they brought their own culture and tied it too closely with Christianity. They failed to create a Chinese Christianity. And thus, Christianity was always seen as "foreign", unlike Buddhism which was just as foreign, but became seen as truly Chinese.

Now, of course, KIBC is not there to serve the local Hong Kong Chrisitans as much as serve the people from abroad. But this includes Filipina domestic servants, Mainland Chinese, and even a few people with roots in Hong Kong but grew up in other parts of the world. There were even some Hong Kong people there. But in light of this, why should it have been as comfortable as it was? Why so American?

I got to know a few people there, especially in the college/post-college group, and we had lunch together. The new youth/college minister, Maik Friedrich, is from Germany (though he did his theological training at Baylor), and he led the group. He has theological depth and a kind of accessibility about him, and he is sure to do a good job. The group is mostly ethnic Chinese, though most were not born in Hong Kong. A few were, though, which I found a bit surprising.

This seems to be the story: In the 1970s, Hong Kong experienced a rapid growth in its economy, largely because of globalization and the opening of the Mainland Chinese market. This allowed a certain segment of Hong Kong society to grow into a kind of middle class. In the 1980s, as talk began of the handover of Hong Kong back to China, people were uncertain of the future and moved, or sent their children, to the West to get educated. Some of these kids came back to Hong Kong, though they were more comfortable with English than Cantonese. These folks preferred an English-speaking church.

More on the church later. I'm going to go with the HKBU staff to pick up the Pepperdine students from the airport.