Commentary: Mahjong on the sea – A reinterpretation of Lui Lui’s ‘Beijing 2008’

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First of 2 parts
ONE of the paintings I’ve always wanted to see in person is Chinese-Canadian Lui Liu’s ‘Beijing 2008’a.k.a. “Women Playing Mahjong”—an evocative portrait of geopolitical struggle. The painting was finished in 2005 and exhibited at the 2006 New York art fair. It fetched 19.55 million yuan ($3.24 million) during the Poly 2012 autumn auction. It features four women playing strip mahjong, while a little girl watches them. Its eroticism aptly limns the seduction of power struggle in international politics.

Women Playing Mahjong’s most famous interpretation, which focused on its supposed geopolitical message, was a short essay by an anonymous writer. Adapting that anonymous essay, I will re-contextualize the painting using post-2012 events.

On the left is Japan, looking intently at her tiles. On the right is Russia, lying seductively supine. Right in front is an Asian lady with pigtails and a tattoo on her back. Her name is China. Across China is USA; she’s looking sideways. Standing by the side is Vietnam, wearing a red cheongsam halter top.

It’s apt that mahjong is the game symbolizing their geopolitical struggle, not only because mahjong involves skill, strategy, and serendipity, but also because China, where the game originated, is also the longest surviving player in this geopolitical theater. China—her rise, decline, and re-emergence is arguably the longue durée [long, slow process] shaping the geopolitical history of this region. In this mahjong, losing entails removing one item of clothing. A player gets booted out of the game when the only thing to remove is her presence.

Among them, Japan is completely naked. If she loses, she’ll have to leave and let another player take her place. This reflects the status quo post-bellum that the US imposed on Japan. Her ability to parlay her economic gains into military might is being constrained by her pacifist Constitution. Yet despite her utter nakedness, her pacific face shows no trace of defeat. She keenly examines her tiles, perhaps looking for a way to rearrange it so she could boost her strengths. Indeed, Japan is slowly breaking away from the post-World War 2 order. In September 2015, the Diet, Japan’s parliament, passed a law that would allow their military to fight overseas, a reinterpretation of their Constitution’s prohibition against it.

But Japan is not taking any chances. As she slowly breaks free from her post- World War pacifism, she might as well hedge her chances and seek some form of crisis management mechanism with China. As Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, Chief of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff, once suggested: There must be a “communication mechanism [covering]both the navies and air forces. Enabling such communication would be a great step forward in avoiding an unexpected situation. We have been pushing for an early implementation all along” (Japan Times, November 29, 2014).

In the game, Russia is left with only her panties. This reflects the post-Cold war political order, ushered in by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Russia may appear indifferent but it is far from that. Her foot is stepping on US’s leg, her right hand extending far to her right side, gesturing the US-led NATO to stop—stop expanding. Her face looks worried. She feels insecure, threatened and betrayed because according to her diplomats, during the reunification of Germany, the US promised the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand eastward. According to Russia’s version of events, the US reneged on this promise “as NATO added 12 Eastern European countries in three subsequent rounds of enlargement.” As Ukraine’s political axis tilted more to the West, Russia’s fear worsened. Ukraine is simply not just one of the New Independent States comprising Russia’s “near-abroad.” Ukraine’s significance to Russia is all-encompassing: historical, political, strategic, religious, and emotional. As Kissinger said:

“The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil. The Black Sea Fleet—Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean—is based by long-term lease in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia” (Washington Post, March 5, 2014).

As Russia’s right leg and arm blocks the West’s further advance, her left hand reaches out to China. As the Crimean crisis unfolded in 2014, Russia forged an energy deal with China, estimated to be worth $400 billion. This was followed by a second deal in November 2014. And in March 2017, Bank Rossii, Russia’s central bank, opened a branch in Beijing, its first branch abroad. The South China Morning Post viewed it as “a small step forward in forging a Beijing-Moscow alliance to bypass the US dollar in the global monetary system” (“Moscow and Beijing join forces to bypass US dollar in world money market,” March 17, 2017).

In Part 2, I will focus on China, USA and Vietnam, as well as the significance of mahjong being played on the sea.

(Published in The Manila Times, 6 June 2017)

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