Archive for the ‘General Socio-Cultural China Matters’ Category
This is just a brief Note that includes an extended extract from an article that I just read in The UK Guardian. The article was published in the wake of the recent disappearance, in Britain, of 5 year-old April Jones. Up until the time of writing April’s body had not been recovered, though a man has already been charged with her murder. The article resonated with me not only for the fact it relates to such a tragic story, nor simply because I am just a few months away from becoming a father myself, but particularly for the way the author, David Wilson (a professor of criminology), talked about “childhood”. He referred to childhood’s intrinsic value – where children play for playing’s sake – but also to its instrumental value in terms of child protection. David’s comments made me think about how, for so many Chinese children, this childhood space is restricted by heavy workloads and constant pressure.
David talks about how parental and societal pressures, like those so common here in China, inhibit young people’s ability “to determine for themselves how they would like that [childhood] space to be filled’. This prevents an environment from developing where children feel free enough and confident enough to be able to voice their views and concerns- which is instrumental in terms of children’s protection (not to mention the process of development into adulthood).
With this in mind, it is quite disconcerting to contemplate the number of times I have heard young people here in China refer to how their hobbies, their school and university subjects, their actual choice of university and their jobs have been chosen by their parents. As well as the frequency with which I have listened to more explicit, first-hand accounts of people’s childhoods being affected by physical and emotional abuse. The lack of space for self-determination in China and the effect this can have on a person’s ability to develop a sense of self-worth, and the confidence to speak out about their cares and concerns, is – given its relevance to child protection, let alone the process of simply growing-up – concerning.
During my time in China, I have been fortunate to have spent a good amount of time around young Chinese kids. And I can safely say that they are a joy to be around, exuding such a wonderful spirit of innocence and fun- even when faced with so much work and pressure. But, it is sadly true that we do not always see in the classroom and playground what is under the surface, especially as these children get older. This is particularly worrying in China when early warning signs, if visible, are quite often not picked up on.
It is one of those times again; time to reflect in another’s glory. A good buddy of mine, Reto Winkler, has just moved from Xi’an to Hong Kong. He has also just started off his own personal blog (superbly named chilling in the pressure cooker) which, if his early posts are anything to go by, is going to be a good read. I asked Reto if he wouldn’t mind me re-producing his most recent post here, as it says a great deal about Shaanxi life (Xi’an is the Capital of Shaanxi Province), but is also a nicely positive twist on the living in China story. In my last Note, I was referring to the fact that no matter how long we live here in China it is difficult for us foreigners to be seen by the Chinese as being locals, we are always simply “the laowai” – even if we foreigners do actually feel quite at home. Reto celebrates this latter point in a resounding manner. I will let him speak for himself:
1. We just had an enormously epic meal. Indeed, it was more than epic: It was transcendent.
It brought me home in an instant. It made me see the yellow clay of Shaanxi stretching in endless layers towards the horizon, made me smell the dust again, hear the voices of yelling peasants in restaurants filled with plastic chars and smoke and laughter, feel the frosty winds on rocky Qinling mountain passes, that taste of pork fat and rough bread and cold noodles and sprouts and garlic, topped with a can of the inimitable ice peak orange lemonade, sweet as sin. Almost too good to be true.
Relishing it, I saw it all passing by again, these faces that looked like they were made of the very earth underneath their cotton shoes, in the eternal dust, these faces altogether impossible to forget, the faces of friends and family. I could see down all the generations gone by, working the dust in this most inhospitable of places – home. I could see my old friend He Si throwing his hands up high when he saw me trudging up his mountain again, laughing, yelling my name in his funny way, letting me know that just as I was about to say goodbye I had truly arrived at this place, since I had moved it, and it had moved me.
2. It’s been about four weeks since we arrived here in Hong Kong, and we people from Xi’an have finally gotten together for our first meal.
Mark Kitto wrote a challenging piece in Prospect Magazine recently that highlighted a few realities about life in China today. Not least was the issue bound up in the title of his article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese”.
Now, Mark, as he explains, was never trying to don the cap and gown, or learn to spit in places that really should never be spat in. What he did want to do, however, was build and live a life in China with his family, and live it “normally”. This seemed to mean to him a life where wealth and status, and the “Great China” narrative didn’t infect all forms of social interaction, all business opportunities, and all educational institutions. It also meant a life lived with the laws of the land applying equally to all, no matter their background.
Mark’s discussion does not, though, simply orientate around his own personal experiences but attempts to outline a few worries he has about Chinese society generally. His views are particularly noteworthy given that his love affair with China – nearly 25 years in the making – has, in his own words, now died. You can read his article to get a much clearer and more nuanced sense of his experiences and where he is coming from.
I will briefly note a couple of my own thoughts on Mark’s basic premise: that one will never be Chinese.
First, it seems to me that the sooner one acknowledges to oneself this reality the better. No matter how long we foreigners stay in China, we will always be perceived – by a majority – as coming from outside and treated as a visitor. If we can assimilate this fact it into an “it is what it is” worldview, then we should be able to go on with a “normal” life, quite happily. In this way, we will be more equipped to bear the ubiquitous reminders of the fact that we are “not from around here” without high levels of surprise or frustration, disappointment or anger.
I remember quite early on in my time in Xi’an becoming very conscious of having this feeling: that no matter how long I lived here, how much I did here, or how well I spoke Chinese, I would always be the alien, the “not from around here” guy, even if I felt happily at home. And, that feeling hasn’t changed. It may turn out that one day I have a more subtle appreciation of ancient Chinese philosophy than some, use chopsticks with the dexterity and precision that many can only dream of, and I may even be able to speak Putonghua better than a fair few; but it won’t matter. I will always be to many the “where do you come from, how long have you lived here, wow, you can use kuaizi” guy, who can be easily disparaged with a quick laowai quip.
I am presently on a Notes From Xi’an sabbatical, although, it is an unplanned one and I have no idea how long it is going to last. Over the last couple of months, I have found myself enjoying a pretty-much Internet free lifestyle, this, coupled with a recent lack of desire on my part to comment on life – whether one here or elsewhere – offers the reasons why there is a distinct lack of new Notes finding their way here. The few that are already up will hopefully still be of some use to some (see the archive section). If nothing else, I will in due course write the piece on Chen Guangcheng that I promised below. In the meantime, and with the help of my old mate Chris, I will just add a few pictures to help keep us on the straight and narrow. They are taken from Chris’s “Rebuilding A Nation” set.
Here also is a link to Danwei‘s “Model Workers 2012“, a useful list of “websites, blogs and online sources of information about China”. A pretty comprehensive list, even if it does suffer from one glaring omission. * Coincidently, Danwei has also just included a selection of Chris’s images.
And I’ll just add a quick “God Bless” for good measure.
This Note just gives me a chance to enjoy another moment of reflected glory (previous opportunities were found here and here), although, it does mean I cannot claim any ownership over the images I have included below. The pictures are all courtesy of Dutch photographer Anton Hazewinkel, of Chinesense.com. A few weeks ago, I came across his photographic blog over at The Haohao Report and quite fancied getting a few of his pictures up here. Anton was happy to oblige.
After getting the all clear, I spent a fair bit of time going through Chinesense’s back catalogue of posts and images – and I am glad I did. I think Anton’s photographs do an excellent job of letting aspects of Beijing life – which one may not otherwise have come across – seep into the viewer’s consciousness. I still carry around in my mind now the faces and lives of some of the people he included in his articles, which is a good thing, and impressive.
Anton also seems to have the ability to draw out the person inside his subjects. They all seem to be at ease and offer, in different ways, an inner sense of themselves: we are able in some way to see into them. What he also manages to do, in my opinion, is achieve his fundamental aim of introducing the lives of a whole variety of Chinese people without burdening them with, or using them to carry, an underlying ideological or political message. And, there is certainly something to be said for that.
Originally, I was intending to write a longer introduction or a more comprehensive review of his blog, but I decided it might be better if Anton actually explained his own motivations, and his intentions for Chinesense. He has thoughtfully noted down for us some of the ideas that surrounded the origin of his site, what he is trying to do with it, and how he comes to find such a cross-section of interesting subjects.
I have broken up his words and placed them between the various images, instead of first adding a whole chunk of text and then a batch of photographs. This way, we get a more encompassing sense of Anton’s work. [All the pictures included below can be clicked through to their original stories over at Chinesense.]
Anton Hazewinkel April 2012: “I started working on the Chinesense project in November 2010, and launched the site at the end of March 2011. The objective was to show the daily life of Chinese (Beijing) citizens “as is” and without personal comments; which could be complementary to, or sometimes opposed to, the main flow of information presenting China from a political perspective or in distant clichés.
My personal motivation is that I’m always curious about the personal motives of people. The photography and interviews are a perfect excuse to get into the hearts and minds of people without being perceived as intrusive. I find pleasure in portraying people, and presenting them with dignity, especially when their social status and living conditions are far from dignified.
I would like to balance my blog with more portraits of the rich upper classes, and representatives of the party or government, but it is hard to get into the secretive parts of the Chinese society. They don’t want to be photographed. The closest I have come is an interview with a PR spokesman for the government, who kindly permitted me to take a photo of his aquarium full of goldfish.
In the last couple of weeks I haven’t had time to take a meditative breath let alone gather any kind of thoughts together to get a Note down here, which, I must say, is rare for this particular brand of laid-back Xi’anite. I have been keeping busy with existing work commitments, my new study routine of 3 Chinese classes a week, the checking out of a new voluntary role, my continued dedication to a ‘new’ running regime, as well as the ongoing work that goes into being a modern husband with Chinese characteristics.
I have also made two flying visits to Wuhan over the last two weeks. And, as the pollution on display during those visits was so bad, I thought I would dig around the web for a few representative images that could then kick-start another Note here. There was even one moment on the Chang Jiang 2nd Bridge, while we were traversing the great Yangtze River, where we became incomprehensibly aware that we were unable to see the river at all for the sickly, grey smog that engulfed it. Further, as I have only managed recently to keep abreast of developments in China by briefly dipping into The Guardian’s China pages, I thought I would give a bit of context to these pictures and pay a small homage to the UK paper’s environmental journalists, and in particular Jonathan Watts (of When A Billion Chinese Jump fame).
Watts noted in his December 7th piece in The Guardian, with reference to Beijing, that: “The smog persists because factories in neighboring provinces release pollutants, construction sites fail to manage dust, traffic grows on the roads and power stations burn ever greater mountains of coal.” These are the same factors that explain our own environmental worries here in Xi’an. However, until recently a very strange situation has existed in China – noted by Zhong Nanshan, President of the China Medical Association – a situation where: “Air pollution is getting worse and worse, but the government data showed it was getting better and better.” Zhong, in his March 16th interview with The Guardian, went on to say that of course people do not actually believe that the air pollution is getting better, but that this disparity between official facts and reality exists because the government hasn’t been monitoring particularly important pollutants. Zhong added, somewhat dispiritingly, that: “If the government neglects this matter, it will be the biggest health problem facing China.”
The main problem – the pollution itself aside – has been that authorities nationwide have not been measuring ozone or small particulate matter known as PM2.5 in the air quality index, when in reality these two pollutants are major contributors to breathing-related health issues. PM2.5 particles are able to directly penetrate lung tissue, causing damage that can lead to serious respiratory problems. PM2.5 refers to pollutants that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter, about 1/30 the width of human hair. Recently, however, the Chinese government has initiated changes to the way in which these pollutants are measured. The situation as it stands at the moment is that major Chinese cities are required to include this particulate matter in their air quality index results.
The government has at the same time been trying to lower expectations ahead of the publication of these new readings, by publically acknowledging that it will take decades for the pollution levels to fall within more widely recognized standards. Wu Dui, a haze expert from the Guangdong Meteorological Agency, observed that: “It took the US and Europe 50 years to deal with their problem. Even if we cut that in half, it will still take 20 to 30 years.” At present, 70% of Chinese cities fall within the existing national standards. However, as Jonathan Watts highlighted in his Guardian piece in January this year: “[D]eputy environment minister Zhang Lijun has warned that 70% will fall below acceptable levels if PM2.5 is added to the index.”
So, even though I am donning my shorts and regularly getting out for run, cutting back on cheese and bacon burgers and the Village Café’s damn good apple pie, Zhong Nanshan’s concluding words highlight a sad reality: “We all have to breathe. It’s no longer enough just to have a good lifestyle. A green environment is one of the most important elements in deciding people’s health.” I, for one, will still stick to my own new health regime as I am certainly gaining short-term benefits, but sadly the longer-term consequences could be rather serious. Let us just hope that we will wake up one day able to halt the forces that are pushing our world’s countries and economies down this particular path of development. Then, maybe, our kids might get half a chance of being responsible for their own health. I can only hope that I will, a few years from now, still have the respiratory capacity to be able to share in a bit of banter with them. Time will tell.
A week or so ago as I got bogged down in trying to protect this site from a malware attack – no easy task, I can tell you, for this computer illiterate fool - I did pay attention to the fact that a reasonable amount of content has been added here during the last three years, now over a 100 Notes. So, for my own simple pleasure, and as I have not given myself much time to write recently, I will pick a few Notes that I have liked for whatever reason and put them up in two parts – 5 Notes in each. The first 5 of Part I can be found here, and were written during 2009. The second 5 included below in Part II all come from the last couple of years.
1.Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, Is It Really You? 2. Chinese Conceptions of Time (Part I) and a Question of Western Maturity 3. NoNo Cafe: An Apology, a Cathartic Process and a Less Than Turquoise Hue 4. Mr. Lǎo Bǎi Xìng, A Bit Of Income Inequality, An Archbishop And Some Social Solidarity 5. Master Orwell, Garton-Ash, Facts, Politics And The English Language
Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, Is It Really You?
This is just a Note that has been brewing for a while.
*Cháng’ān Lù 长安路
We have grown up together side-by-side but now your behaviour has gotten to a point that I cannot abide, nor simply hide or ignore that which crosses my mind. But, first I gotta ask: “Sweet Cháng’ān Lù: Is it really you?”
I am sure, back then, it wasn’t just me who revelled in the criss-crossing mass of humanity, which descended on the Junction of Shi Da Lu; like some joyous, incongruous stew. No matter spluttering car or steaming truck, we strode out with a little good luck and little regard knowing, in fact, it was we who would pass.
Halting the traffic in our wake we grasped our long fought for humanitarian stake. But, make no mistake Chang’An Lu, you must take responsibility for the lack of humanity that now resides at your gate, you leaving us simply to wait and to wait. But, I ask… for what?
Back then buses would halt as an aged old lady would take to the street, simply sweeping a broom made from plastic bagged sheets, while motorcycles still weaved between pockets and sleeves. But, the time most enjoyed was when we all at once directed and objected from the centre of stage, before being forced to turn the page: losing that urgent, organic, glistening spell which storybooks will never be able to retell. We all halted, we all moved, the life was all there at that crossroads at Shi Da Lu.
A tear now crosses my eye for the deep sadness of goodbye and a progress more reminiscent of a creational mess than a strategic game of post-war chess. The shiny black wasteland that one-day you will be now carries eight high-speed lanes of immovability, directly dissecting our community.
Oh Chang’An Lu, I stood there at your side as the last roll of new tar was itself applied, giving your potholed visage a life a new. That night we watched as an aged old man not far from his grave, contributed his last efforts for you to be paved. So hot, it was steaming in the dark of the night, but we, a few, gathered in the future knew, one life had passed and another… who knew?
You changed then Cháng’ān Lù, you were never the same once this glistening black coat was tied at your neck. I wanted to believe it could be as before but now the reality has sunk in, there is no drop of that past left for us to draw. Today, we are no longer allowed even to gather at your side. “Take a chance” I hear you say, but sweet Cháng’ān Lù that’s a thing of the past, it just wasn’t able to last. A fact we cannot hide, if only you knew, no chance now, unless of course we are ourselves taken for a ride.
Don’t look back I hear wise words say but it was actually you who taught us that way, back in the day: “Don’t look back, stride out, you are Kings on my road”, you would say, and we believed you. Because be sure back then, as those who travelled with us knew, looking back was not something we knew how to do. We strode with criss-crossing glee, oh yeah, really quite free. May be some say it is not the case to be true, but today is a place less free: to be true, to be true. Oh Cháng’ān Lù what has happened to you?
Just a day or so ago, I was thinking of you as I held up a bus, of course, not wishing a fuss, but when I looked out from the North to the South do you know what I could not see Cháng’ān Lù? It was you. I could not see you, for a continuous, sickening metallic hue, which had morphed into one almighty incomprehensible queue: that quite simply had obliterated you.
But now, at the dawn of a new modern era, it does in turn dawn upon me what I probably always could see. You have gone Cháng’ān Lù. It is no longer you. I talk to myself now it does seem but if that is all I have left then what I wish say I wish to be clear, to be fresh, to be seen.
Oh consume, Oh swoon, Oh legitimate heir, Oh the reason so fair, Oh fair: the fair of fair rides, fair maidens and fair despair. Oh pollution, Oh evolution, Oh ignominious death, Oh development, Oh wither, Oh sickened river, Oh imbedded, hot headed, earnestnessness. Sweet love, sweet freedom and sweet redress.
Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, I really miss you.
With the help of my old pal 李文华/ Lǐ Wén Huá, aka Mr. Huá, I have collected together a handful of Chinese proverbs that can help keep our Chinese studies on the straight and narrow. I will begin with a couple of proverbs, 谚语/yànyǔ, which suggest that we take the long view during this learning process.
The first one is: 冰冻三尺，非一日之寒／bīng dòng sān chǐ fēi yī rì zhī hán. It basically translates, as one metre of ice doesn’t come from one day of cold. Or as us English-speaking folk might more likely interpret it; Rome wasn’t built in a day. It could be used in a situation where someone’s high level of Chinese is just being put down to the fact he or she is intelligent. The saying would stress that: “Yes, she might be clever, but… (cue phrase) it still took hard work to get to this level of Chinese. It didn’t happen overnight.” Indeed!
The second goes along the same sort of lines but emphasizes the need for the student to get the foundations right, and then to build upon them. This one is: 一步一个脚印／yī bù yī gè jiǎo yìn, and means to take things step-by-step, slowly but surely. It can be used when advising someone about how to approach their Chinese studies: 学汉语你应该～／xué hànyǔ nǐ yīnggāi~. With all the pinyin, annoying tones, different forms of de(的／地／得) and uses of le (了) that we face at the beginning (and beyond), this can be a tricky perspective to keep hold of.
The third phrase is the one I like most, due to its structure and emphasis. For me, there is nothing more important in teaching or learning than the aspect of review. But so many teachers ignore it, and many students let it slide, as we get bogged down in a never-ending stream of new vocabulary. This four character idiom, 成语/chéngyǔ, goes like this: 温故(而)知新／wēn gù (ér) zhī xīn. The literal translation is warm the past, know the new. It can be read in the sense of needing to understand history so one is able to understand the present, but for our purposes it just emphasizes the importance of review.
温/wēn is commonly used today as the adjective, warm. In the past it was used as a verb, to warm something up, which also carried the connotation of refresh or review. In formal writing today review can still be written as 温习／wēnxí. To hammer home this point about the importance of focused study, let’s consider the life of the diligent student. Everyday the conscientious student must: 埋头苦学/ mái tóu kǔ xué, which translates as bury head, hard study. This chéngyǔ can carry the negative meaning of being a slave to the teacher and the book. More fundamentally, however, it emphasizes the importance of getting your head down and putting in the hard work of learning – in this instance – Chinese. Something that I am sure we are all fighting with.
Before I take a summer sabbatical from life in Xi’an, and from checking into the world wide web, I will throw out a thought on Xi’an that has been nagging at me for a while.
The system here in China where cities are tiered in terms of their level of economic development has never been one I have liked. I have always felt that this system of stratification has sounded insulting, with the comparison it unnaturally makes between first, second, and third tier cities. (And, yes I do understand the reasoning behind the classifications.) Cities such as Xi’an, that are not first tier, are by categorisation inferior.
Xi’an was, in my opinion, always more than just an adjunct to those Chinese metropolises out East; it was a city with its own nature, its own identity and its own pace of life. Classifying Xi’an as second tier was always to say that it wasn’t quite what it could be, that it lacked something, the special something that would make it first tier.
Which, based on certain criteria, was greater economic development, with high levels of investment, a modern transport infrastructure, and so-called improved standards of living. But, in many ways Xi’an didn’t lack anything, it wasn’t nearly or not nearly something else, it was what it was and it was different to those first tier cities, and from my perspective better for it.
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”.