December 15, 2013
December 14, 2013
What’s this? Not only have the Chinese arrived on the moon, when it comes to cultural references their recent space mission has also landed a few doubles.
- Inside China’s lunar lander there was a lunar rover named ‘Yutu’ (as in ‘U2’ but with cute spelling), which is now frolicking across the surface of the moon using ground penetrating radar to look for minerals. The dear little creature looks like Wall-E, but even Pixar would have to admit that ‘Yutu’ comes more trippingly off the tongue; especially when you discover that in English it means ‘Jade Rabbit’.
- In Chinese mythology the mother of the Jade Rabbit is the moon goddess Chang’e; hence the name of Yutu’s mothership. That is, lunar rover = Jade Rabbit/Yutu; lunar lander = Moon Goddess/Chang’e. Bob Dylan couldn’t have said it any better: with China’s arrival on the moon, the times they are a-Chang’eing.
Although the Chinese have arrived on the moon in some style, in cultural terms there is still a way to go. Their mission control room seems to have been lacquered into shape – too much dark wood evoking Imperial tradition or perhaps Art Deco; either way, according to the global etiquette of mega-event branding, it doesn’t translate into 21st Century Technology: The Image.
Likewise, the rocket which brought the Chinese payload to the moon really is called a ‘Long March’ – here’s hoping the pun is intentional, but even then it’s as quaint as a Jimmy Stewart movie. Under this name, China’s rocket cannot be propelled into global consciousness as a cutting edge icon.
Furthermore, it was as if China’s mission controllers haven’t yet understood the significance of the bon mot. This can hardly be the case – not after all those centuries of Confucianism. So why no ‘one step….’ to mark the occasion? Only a CCTV (state television) broadcast which made the lunar craft descending look like soap on a rope, followed by a few techie types being seen to shake hands with each other. Because of lack of attention to the mise en scene, the event came close to becoming a non-event. To some Western eyes it will have come across as a low-budget re-make of Capricorn One (N.B. Hollywood film suggesting Apollo landing was really a studio set-up).
On the other hand, if their considerable technological achievement wasn’t fully presented as a descent to make the spirits rise, perhaps that’s because, unlike the West (in the week when Obama and Cameron went to Mandela’s memorial to make themselves into a better selfie), China is not yet fully occupied with self-presentation.
Better you don’t know how much they’re manipulating you.
Wannabe statesmen want to retain you as their Madiba – ancestor of the nation, guardian of the world. Your closed casket is their open season; now they can arrange you any way they like.
Madiba, embodiment of elderly wisdom, also serves to outlaw the idea of Mandingo, i.e. ‘look at those huge fists, see the terrifying cock on that black bull’. The magic of Madiba dispels the fantastic dangers of the flesh (skin, boner and bare-knuckle fighter) conjured up in swart gevaar (Afrikaans for ‘black threat’) mentality.
Meanwhile Tutu does a twirl because your political party, the African National Congress, has wrapped you in its flag and drawn up the guest list for your funeral – minus a certain archbishop. He has a point: the sight of your grandson Mandla harvesting Madiba’s reputation – your most vital organ – is hard to watch.
But this is too one-sided. Any story which refers only to other people’s machinations, is bound to be simplistic. Postcards from your boxing days – bare-chested with stiletto-thin moustache – suggest that the idea of Mandingo was not entirely alien to you. Your ‘dignity’ was never docile nor disinterested; even in your prison cell, you always worked the room. Machiavelli might have written The Prince with you in mind; rather, he need not have done so, since you were already mindful of it.
Conversely, I bet the dodgy geezer currently trading on Tata’s persona, would still stake it all in order to play the grandson’s traditional role: having accompanied his grandfather during the days leading up to the funeral, speaking alone to the dear departing as he goes gently into the night.
Machiavelli, Mandingo, Madiba: Nelson Mandela has been something of each of these; he was only as complex as the rest of us.