Ilkka Remes

“At times, his speculations cleave so closely to the headlines of the day that they risk being parsed not as possible futures, but as fake news.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up Ilkka Remes, the best-selling Finnish novelist of the last 20 years.

Templed Out

In Buddhist Tourism in Asia, editors Courtney Bruntz and Brooke Schedneck assemble a team of contributors determined to address the turning of temples in Japan, Cambodia, Thailand and beyond into sites that somehow entertain tour buses full of fair-weather Buddhists, people who are just there for a selfie, and the truly devout.

For tourists from both inside and outside China, far too many trips are joyless trudges around identical precincts, accompanied by sullen ruminations about where they are going next, what’s for lunch, or how soon they can duck out and go for karaoke. The sense of being “templed out” is a common malaise. On occasions when I have shown visitors around China or Japan, I have always taken care to make sure that we are never approaching a redline beyond which wherever we are is “just another temple.” Even with those clients for whom a visit is little more than box to tick on a grim series of compulsory sites, I try to limit the number of locations, and to make sure that they mean something for the visitor. Otherwise, why are they there?

Inevitably, there are elements of farce, particularly in accounts of Buddhist tourism in the People’s Republic of China, where the state is professedly atheist, but still supports immense religious pilgrimages in the name of cultural and historical tourism. This leads to bizarre contradictions like Niushou Mountain outside Nanjing (pictured above), a lavish cathedral-like space to rival La Sagrada Familia, knocked up in recent times to house a piece of Buddha’s skull. It’s a breath-taking multi-level sacred space, staffed by “guides” in monks’ robes determined to tell everybody that precisely zero religion is going on, because that would be superstition in the eyes of the Party. It is emphatically not a temple; it is apparently a “cultural tourism zone.” All the chanting, processions and ceremonies you see are hence mere theatre, although whether it is to appease the gods or the Party, your guess is as good as mine.

The powers that be in China want to encourage their own tourists to spend more money locally, and are particularly keen on sacred mountains. After noting that the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China drew three million visitors in 2012, some bright spark wondered if China shouldn’t create a fifth sacred mountain in order to increase the revenue. As Justin Ritzinger notes in his chapter, “Marketing Maitreya,” Buddhism doesn’t have a Vatican that can rule on such notions – instead, in the ultimate test of propaganda, the authorities have to make one up and hope that the public fall for it.

Ritzinger recounts his visits to the two top-runners in the competition to be the hot new new holy hill, one in Zhejiang and the other in Guizhou, and the strong-arming of visitors into making “donations” that are purportedly devotional, but actually compulsory. They don’t care if you are a secret believer or a committed Marxist, they just want a “voluntary” gift of £100. Smartly, Ritzinger relates the whole affair to the work of Pierre Bourdieu – there are “three kinds of capital” in play here, social, economic and cultural.

Courtney Bruntz offers a more optimistic account of modern monasteries, suggesting that a faction within the Buddhist world is playing the propagandists at their own game, taking to digital media like ducks to water, offering online enlightenment and a prolonged, subtle crusade against irreligiosity.

Brian J Nicholls takes things even further, questioning whether there is anything really wrong in the first place with the commodification of religious experience, bearing in mind that the selling of indulgences and, for want of a better word, lucky gonks, has been commonplace for thousands of years. “Running a vegetarian restaurant or a tea-shop is not something so radically new,” he observes, drawing an important distinction between marketing to devotees (xiangke) versus cash-ins for the tourists (youke), and noting, like Ritzinger, that even in the forking over of donations, the capital we are talking about is not necessarily merely money. Nicholls even quips that being able to tolerate the occasional tour bus should be an exercise for monks in comprehending the doctrines of non-attachment and impermanence. Maybe somewhere among the myriad Chinese hells there is a Hell of Trying to Stop People from Taking Photographs of the Mummified Abbot and a Hell of Running the Ice Cream Concession Near the Holy Fountain.

Nicholls points to the Shaolin Temple as the most extreme example of commodified tourism, although speaking as a commodified tourist, for me it was also the best value for money, where a single day was really not enough time to see everything it had to offer. Shaolin is an important site in the history of Zen Buddhism, but also in the history of the martial arts, and I paid for an expensive but deeply rewarding private tour, taking in the temple’s role in Tang history, Chinese medicine, and the spread of kung fu.

If I might lean for a moment, like many of the book’s contributors, on Bourdieu myself, I might even suggest that the main issue at hand is not capital at all, but “distinction”. If you’re the kind of idiot who travels for three hours through the Chinese countryside to see a famous temple, and then jumps for joy because there are hawkers selling plastic machine guns in the courtyard and a cosplay stall that will let you dress up as an emperor, then I don’t much care if you think your ticket was over-priced. In fact, I rather wish that it were a little bit more expensive, enough to discourage such numpties from showing up in the first place.

Which brings us back to the central tensions manifest in many a chapter in this book, that nobody has a casting vote on precisely what the temples are for, and for a certain class of trader (like the man who sells plastic machine guns in the courtyard), the ideal visitor is a fractious ten-year-old, bored out of his mind after a long coach trip, and demanding immediate parental appeasement.

Spider-Man mask now; enlightenment later.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Buddhist Tourism in Asia is out now from the University of Hawaii Press.

Sight & Sound

Out today, the latest issue of Sight & Sound magazine, an anime special featuring my article on the seeds of the anime business in the post-war period.

I have been a subscriber to Sight & Sound for over thirty years, but this is the first time I have actually appeared in their print edition as a paid contributor. Although I have written rants to their letters page on a couple of occasions, once memorably about the correct way to translate the theme song of Kekko Kamen.

The February Manifesto (1939)

In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte (Ossi Elstelä), offers Finland to Tsar Alexander I (Leo Lähtenmäki) Finland as part of a treaty negotiations. The Swedish crown is chipped off Finnish buildings, and the people of what was the eastern Swedish marchlands are now suddenly Russian subjects. Oh dear, you might think, except Alexander II (played by the statue of him that still stands in the centre of Helsinki), is the “Good Tsar”, who offers his new Finnish subjects freedom to keep their language, their currency and their right of self-rule.

It is Alexander II’s dastardly, feckless grandson Nicholas II (Arvo Kuusla) who proclaims the February Manifesto of 1899, announcing that it’s time for the Finns to shut up, learn Russian and kneel before Zod. Don’t make the Finns angry; you won’t like them when they’re angry.

Helmikuun manifesti is the first film I’ve seen which boasts a “military uniform expert”, Bure Litonius, on the credits, but his influence is palpable from the earliest scenes, when the camera lingers momentarily on a perfectly recreated Chevalier Guard in the Tsar’s council chamber. The Finnish historian is apt to wonder what the chances were that one Lieutenant Mannerheim was indeed standing guard on the day that Nicholas II decided to shaft his most loyal subjects, undoing all his grandfather’s good deeds and creating an upswell of anti-Russian sentiment.

Cue a lot of scenes of Finns sitting around reading the words of the February Manifesto and getting annoyed about it. As the evil Governor Bobrikoff (Aku Korhonen) imposes increasingly draconian restrictions on journalism and the media, the men of Finland refuse en masse to answer the Tsar’s conscription call for the Russian army, chanting: “GOD IS OUR FORTRESS!”

The film gradually zeroes in on the middle-class Jaakko Kotka (Tauno Palo) and the working man No-first-name Sihvola (Eino Kaipainen), two very different patriots, united in their desire for Finnish independence, and cunningly integrating them into moments of crucial Finnish history. So it is that when they are practising their marksmanship at a shooting range, they run into a man with a pistol who is way, way better than them. Aino Sihvola (Regina Linnanheimo) is more interested in the young man’s dog, while the menfolk struggle to remember his name. Oh yes, it was Eugen Schauman… played here by Runar Schauman, a distant cousin of the man who would assassinate Bobrikoff in 1904. This is just one of many sensationally realist touches in this film. It’s not just that Schauman plays his own relative, or that Korhonen is a dead ringer for Bobrikoff, it’s that the killing is filmed in the actual spot in the old Finnish senate building where it happened.

Mika Waltari’s script for The February Manifesto is wonderfully, provocatively nuanced. Finns, then as now, are often surprised to hear how popular the Russians once were in Finland, despite the evidence offered by Alexander II’s statue in Helsinki, where well-wishers still leave flowers to this day. Nicholas II is not presented as a snarling baddie, but as a fretful milksop, wringing his hands as he signs away all the goodwill his ancestors built up. “Niin alkuu,” he writes – so it begins. Implicit, but not quite stated outright, is the idea that Nicholas II lost his last, best friends on that day, and effectively signed his own death warrant 18 years down the line. A voice-over suggests that such cultural artefacts as the Kalevala, regarded today as an early step in the move towards Finnish independence, were harmless entertainments until they were co-opted into the anti-Russian movement. In other words, the February Manifesto claims to mark not just the beginning of the end for the Tsar, but the beginning of an independent Finland.

With Russian clampdowns on the press, the Kotka family become instrumental in the distribution of the underground newsletter Vapaita Sanoja (Free Words). The Tsar’s gendarmes, a not-so-secret police, hunt down would-be rebels, and destroy dangerous propaganda like prints of Eetu Isto’s controversial painting The Attack. In one emotional scene, Jaakko’s dissident father (Yrjö Tuominen), banished from his homeland, waves goodbye from the back of a train leaving a rain-swept station. The crowd that has come to see him off breaks into song, singing “Maame”, which would ultimately be adopted as Finland’s national anthem.

Jaakko and Sihvola get involved in gun-running, supervising the landing of a boat full of rifles from the infamous John Grafton – about which I shall one day be writing a book of my own. There also some wonderful glimpses of Finnish traditions, including a Yuletide sequence of the Kotka family melting tin in a fireplace ladle, and then flinging it into a bucket of snow to see what prophetic shapes are formed. This, incidentally, is what a Finn probably means if he tells you he has been to a New Year’s party ,”looking at some slag.” In this case, the flash-hardened tin forms the shape of a Cossack on horseback, cutting straight to a scene of cavalry riding through the streets of Helsinki.

The womenfolk are a little under-used, forced to largely stand at the side-lines and react, although Sihvola’s sister Aino (Regina Linnanheimo) does get the chance to play an occasionally comedic but largely, cringingly tense scene as she attempts to sweet-talk a bunch of Russian soldiers intent on searching her house for Jaakko.

Waltari is good on the liminal moments of resistance and collaboration. There are Finns prepared to stand idly by; Finns prepared to make a stand; Finns ready to join the resistance when a hero moves among them, but cowed before Russian might when they lack a leader. There are Finns who hate the Tsar, and Finns who are ready to support the Bolsheviks that replace him. Such confusions are entirely, historically accurate, and are echoed in 1939’s rival resistance film, The Activists.

The story ends with the great tragedy of Finnish independence, that it came hand-in-hand with the bloody catastrophe of the Finnish Civil War. Jaakko and Sihvola both seek help for Finnish independence from different, doomed sources – Jaakko runs away to train in Germany with the jaegers, while Jaakko comes to believe not in Tsarist Russia, but in Russian Communism. Jaakko and Sihvola inevitably end up on opposite sides, with Jaakko fighting for the Whites while Sihvola is duped into supporting a Red revolution, only to be gunned down by Russian soldiers.

Jaakko and his jaegers march through the forest in distinctive white camouflage, foreshadowing what the Finns would be wearing themselves in the Winter War to come. The scenes are intercut with rushing waters, and suddenly it is not clear if we are watching Finland in 1917 or 1939.

Jaakko brings home Sihvola’s personal effects.

“So high is the cost of Finland’s freedom,” says his mother (Irja Elstelä), practically turning to the camera and staring pointedly at the audience.

“And we are only halfway there,” says Jaakko, putting his arm around his betrothed, Aino Sihvola.

Both this film and The Activists would be banned in Finland for several decades after the Second World War, for fear that they would offend the Russians. I’d say that The February Manifesto in particular, in its treatment of sustained resistance to oppression, would still struggle to get a public release in some parts of the world today. I can think of several places where a screening of The February Manifesto would be liable to start a riot.

But the context for The February Manifesto in 1939 was about something else – the palpable threat that war would soon break out with Russia, and that Finland would face the threat alone. Nowhere is this clearer than in the closing shot of Suomenlinna, “the fortress of Finland”, where a still-extant inscription on the King’s Gate reads: “Eftervärld, stå här på egen botn, och lita icke på främmande hielp.” Those that come after us, stand here on your own foundation, and trust not in foreign help.

It’s a surprisingly moving film, not only in its account of the bravery of the Finns, but of the human drama contained within, such as one desperately sad moment when Eugen Schauman, knowing that he will not come back from his mission alive, fondly kisses his loyal dog goodbye.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Eurovision Shouty I-Spy 2020

Since there is no Eurovision this year, there is also no Eurovision Shouty I-Spy, but that doesn’t mean that your correspondent hasn’t been enjoying the usual surfeit of mentalism among the entries that would have competed. If you ask me, and you didn’t, but if you did, Efendi’s Cleopatra (lost I-spy opportunities STEALTH BUDDHIST CHANTING) was my pick for third place, with Athena Manoukian’s Chains on You (lost I-spy opportunities: “HURT ME!”) would have been a shoe-in for second runner-up. But despite all you online pundits in love with Iceland’s dork-off, my pick for the top would have to be Little Big’s fantastic Uno.