Archive for the ‘Chinese History’ Category
This is just a quick Note to introduce a few pictures I took of the Dàzú Rock Carvings at Bǎodǐngshān (宝顶山), or maybe more importantly it is a quick Note to remind anyone heading to Chongqing that this UNESCO World Heritage site is worth checking out (link, link, link). We nearly did not make it ourselves, as time was short, but Ling got us signed-up on what was to be my first Chinese tour. And, I am pleased she did, even if they did do their best to devalue the process, but I will leave the amusing anecdotes for another day. Suffice it to say, I was very glad we rose early on our last morning in Chongqing and got on that bus to Dàzú. For future reference, if we had had more time – and now we know the area is worth it – we would have taken the option of staying in Dàzú itself and organising the local transport from there. This would have given us the opportunity to spend more time at Bǎodǐngshān (宝顶山), while also allowing us to discover one or two more of the other 4 sites that are in the Dàzú area.
As it is, I feel lucky that we got out there at all. My overwhelming feeling as we walked around the site was that the work on Bǎodǐngshān (Bǎodǐng Mountain) really is something of a wonder of the world. And, this was not just because of the scale, detail, creativity and variety of the work, or how amazingly it has been preserved, but that a man – monk Zhào Zhìfèng (赵智凤) – had spent 70 years of his life – 800 years ago – in this beautiful gorge creating these varied and intricate sculptures. It felt good to contemplate Zhào spending the vast majority of his life in this beautifully secluded and idyllic mountain grove, both as sculptor and curator of this spectacular synthesis of Buddhist, Daoist and Confucianist imagery. When I sat back and looked at this small gorge with its u-shaped rock faces over-hung with shrubbery, curving around a swaying canopy of bamboo and wild flora, and with a beautiful river valley running below, I could not help but think of the joy (religious or otherwise) that must have been involved in this creation. To rise every morning in this natural environment to continue your calling, to create something of meaning and beauty, must have been quite something – even if a fair bit of hard work also went into the process. I am glad that I got a moment, however brief, to appreciate it.
The spirit of Zhào Zhìfèng‘s life was very clearly highlighted as we exited the compound to find a chap sitting at a little stall haphazardly cutting out identical- looking stone souvenirs; that he was readying to sell for a few kuai. The juxtaposition of these two lives and creations stressed quite profoundly all the things that are wrong with our world. It was a moment to truly glory in the value of long-term commitment, slow progress, creativity and dedication, to savor the value of true craftspeople, educationalists, visionaries, philosophers, dreamers, idealists, environmentalists, artists, writers, poets, even believers of various guises. And, it was a moment to shun the extraordinary abundance of mass-manufactured crap that everywhere surrounds us. I recommend a trip to Dàzú.
What follows comes, in part, from reading Philip P. Pan’s: Out of Mao’s Shadow, and in part from dwelling a little on a recent Note of mine, that referred to the issue of understanding China. In it I noted two main points, which were built on my reading of Sam Crane’s article Understanding China- Or Not, which was itself built on Wang Qishan’s comment that Americans are “simple people” and that it “is not easy to really know China”. The two points I made were, one, most peoples’ knowledge of other cultures and societies is limited and thus could be perceived as being simple. Two, that while I recognize that understanding China can be seen as being multifaceted, I was seeing it as meaning understanding the mass of Chinese: the group Crane defines as lacking knowledge due to “limitations on knowledge within China itself”.
I will start here however with a brief anecdote that has coincidentally helped tie Pan’s book and those thoughts together. I was sitting quietly in the Village Café, tapping away at my computer, with Pan’s book sitting on the table next to me, when a youngish Chinese woman quietly asked if she could take a look at the book. (It should probably be noted that Pan’s book has the ‘Mao’ of the title written in large capital letters, while a statue of Mao also sits prominently on the front cover)
I looked up and handed it to her. Suddenly, a scenario began to play out in my mind where the book was being passed between silent shifting hands until it ended up in the possession of an undercover policeman, who was standing somewhere not far behind. The security official, after a quick inspection, nodded to a few of his security staff who swiftly lifted me from my seat.
As it turned out the young girl simply returned the book to me a few minutes later, smiling happily. And, I wasn’t to feel a shadowy hand land upon my shoulder. I did ask her what she thought, though. She said that it was the first time she had seen a foreigner reading about Mao. She continued to tell me that she had heard that most Americans thought Mao Zedong was a great leader, especially the generation of 1950’s America. I replied: “mmm”. She also animatedly informed me that her family thought of Mao in almost god-like terms; that he was not only a great leader but, in her own words, also a “genius as a personality”.
I was back on a high-speed train again this week and returning to another of those ancient Chinese centres of historical significance, Zhèngzhōu, with its pre-dynasty stories, Luòyáng grottoes close by and modern day Henan Provincial Museum. All of which can help fill the gap between our modern day sense of what China is (a quick look around Zhèngzhōu certainly gives due reminder of what that is) and our knowledge of the epic historical layers upon which it is built. It was great to be up with the March morning sun, out across town, and wandering in through the gates of the museum with a handful of other early birds out there catching the proverbial worm.
However, not only did I have a few thousand years of ancient Chinese artefacts waiting for me in all their peaceful and inspiring splendour, within what is an Indiana Jones-esque, pyramid-like structure of a museum, but I also had Laszlo Montgomery along for the trip. He was to accompany me around these great halls of everyday Xià (夏), Shāng (商) and Zhōu (周) Dynasty artefacts, and around those precious Suí (隋) and Táng (唐) Dynasty treasures, giving my time there a more uplifting feel.
Laszlo Montgomery, for the un-introduced, is a curator of sorts but not one of the museum kind. He is the creator, producer and custodian of a super set of Chinese History Podcasts which he presents in his own idiosyncratic American and Putonghua ways, broadcasting from down in: “lovely and quaint Claremont, California”. His series of podcasts have covered Chinese history from the Xià to Mao in very manageable chunks, easily accessible to those unaware of the complexities that make up ancient and modern Chinese history, a group I am certainly a member of.
It’s always a bit too easy to get exhibit-overload on a first and singular visit to a large museum or gallery, and as I had known a couple of trips to Zhèngzhōu were coming up, I had resolved to check out one floor each time I came to town (there are only 3). This time I decided to get Laszlo’s knowledgeable articulations to accompany me. That way it was easier to be introduced quickly and in a lively manner to the Warring States, Liú Bāng (刘邦) and Xiàng Yǔ (向隅), and a host of dates, other characters, bizarre rituals and battles that this museum and geographical area celebrate. (more…)
There were three points that particularly stood out for me when reading Rob Gifford’s China Road atop train, bus and dormitory bunks while travelling around Xinjiang this summer, and which led me to a surprising conclusion. The first point was the reality of the historical context that present day Chinese governance finds itself placed within. That ever since the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, created a unified China; a centralised, autocratic form of governance has been required to keep the whole thing together.
The second point that stood out, was that the tributary system, and the sense of control it meant to Chinese officialdom, really did mean that the European led pressure to turn a civilization into a Nation State, with the need to delineate borders and protect them, would lead the Chinese government to naturally see the Tibetan plateau, the Xinjiang land mass and the outer reaches of Inner Mongolia as Chinese, and necessarily so.
Third, that it is a Han Chinese government, and not any of the minority groups, that leads this contemporary, unified Chinese State. And that this same government is doing its best to Hanify this huge country, to the extent that a majority Han population does or will exist at least down to the size of major urban centres, with the consequences this may have for political reform.
Taking these points together we get all the contradictions and paradoxes of present day China, as well as reasons behind the contrasting predictions of what future China will be. I might as well throw in my own two cents worth, as I try and work out a little for myself what is bound up inside these fluid, or not so fluid borders that I am living within.
So, National Day is upon us and the geese have gotten fat. The roads have been rebuilt, shop frontiers have been homogenised in gray, buildings; whether old, new, run-down, falling down or in the process of being built, have been painted and we are all being told to wear gray pants, shirts and a cap. Ok, the last point strays slightly from the truth but maybe not too far from the essence of life here at the moment. In fact, the Chinese teachers at my school have, after practicing for weeks, just put on a public performance singing two passionate anthems dressed as a China Work Unit from a period past. During these days the past has been impacting on the present but I suppose, more so, the present is influencing the past- the Party of Mao Ze Dong being justified by the results of today.
There has been debate circling around for months about the reasoning behind the re-developing, upgrading and most certainly improving of the main trunk roads in Xi’an, particularly Chang’an Lu. First, it seemed a consequence of the subway construction process, then I was told it was part of the 60th anniversary celebrations, and with the work only now coming to a close that seems about right. However, I had assumed there must be some huge procession going to take place, maybe something similar to the military/ firework extravaganza about to take place in Beijing.
Not so. There is nothing planned to take place on the streets of Xi’an. Thus, it seems that these recent upgrades of main route shop frontiers, building face lifts and of course the huge main road re-construction process have all been in the name of psychological well being: of a nation, for a nation, by the love of the people, for the love of the people – or something like that.
When I was questioning my teacher about all these recent developments and how some seemed a touch superficial and homogenising, she was about to respond with something but did not, explaining that she could not tell me. Of course, I now felt she possessed some interesting secret or insight and I certainly wanted to know what, so I pointed out that she cannot dangle such a statement in front of me and then not come through with it. In the end she pointed out that she should not be saying this to a foreigner – at which point I became concerned that I was to be bearing a state secret or two and things may never be the same again – we continued anyway. She told me, slowly and not particularly directly, that Chinese people are very concerned about maintaining face and that all this money invested, arguably wasted on superficial projects (my point not hers and which didn’t include the road re-development), was actually to do with this maintenance of face. Now, I am not sure what was more worrying: the reality, the symbolism, the known, the unknown, the secrets or the not so secret secrets?
However, we have a new road and it is Great and China is Great and I love China. So, that’s all alright then. Happy National Day.