can shenzhen evolve from “suck it up theory” to creativity?

I have come to think of “theories” in Chinese political culture to function like guidelines to acceptable behavior. The difficulty for folks in Shenzhen arise from contradictions between extant theories and changing social condititions, or what might be called “double bind theory”; General Secretary Xi Jinping has tightened the space of critical thinking and debate, even as his government, especially Premier Li Keqiang is exhorting people to be creative. But there’s the rub; people need to take critical stances in order to create new solutions to entrenched problems and critical stances have been routinely discouraged throughout the Reform and Opening era, begging the question: can Shenzhen evolve from “suck it up theory” to creativity? Continue reading


bounded histories

Yesterday, I went to the Bao’an Archives Office (深圳市宝安区档案馆) and met with one of the editors of the Bao’an Gazetteer (宝安史志).

The conversation turned to the paradoxical dependency of historical narratives on a sense of immortal China and actual historical archives. This paradox might be glossed as a contradiction between “emotional” and “documented” history. On the one hand, patriotism, tradition, and the deep history of Han settlement anchors the idea of “Shenzhen history”. The emotional sense that Shenzhen is and has always been part of “China” is created through a narrative that links the history of Xin’an Ancient City, for example, is written with respect to the area’s integration into the Eastern Jin Dynasty and the development of the imperial salt monopoly. Thus, ongoing political restructuring — beginning with contemporary Shenzhen and arriving at the Eastern Jin via Bao’an, Xin’an, and Dongguan — is rewritten as evidence of the city’s ongoing participation in something that might be glossed as “eternal China”.

This map is of the Eastern Jin when Nantou City was the prefectural seat of the Guangdong Eastern Prefecture (东晋东官郡), including present day Dongguan City, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.

On the other hand, the actual archives to which a historian has access bureau is an artifact of political restructurings and the concomitant shifting of administrative borders. The question of land titles (地契) that were issued during early land reform (1950-52) is an interesting case in point. Originally, all Bao’an county land titles were held in Huizhou City, which administered the county from 1950-1979. These land titles, of course, became void during collectivization movements (second half of 1950s) and land holdings shifted from individuals to collectives. Consequently, during the 1980s household responsibility system (家庭联产承包责任制), land rights were redistributed via collectives. Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, the land titles were sent to Bao’an, where they are incomplete, but nevertheless have been increasingly used by villagers to make land claims.

The ongoing construction of Shenzhen has further complicated the actual practice of creating viable historical archives. Theoretically, archives have followed administrative hierarchies. In practice, this means that when an administrative unit is promoted and/or redistricted documents have to be moved from one building to another. For example, the transfer of Bao’an land titles from Huizhou to Bao’an. Moreover, the ongoing construction of Shenzhen municipal and district offices means that these archives have not only been packed and sent to another building, where they may or may not have been unpacked, but also during the redistribution boxes of material have been lost.

Our conversation concluded with the recognition that history — as we are writing it in Shenzhen and I suspect elsewhere — turns on context. Are we responding emotionally to patriotic calls? Or are we developing arguments out of extant documents? In either case, here on the ground, the tension between these two extremes serves to buttress both emotional and documentary uncertainties. When we lack a document, we can turn to the hyperbolic understanding that Shenzhen has always been part of China and when we need to assert the truth of our feelings, we can point to these maps, which although now virtual, continue to reassure us that history is not just of our own making.

shenzhen publications

In the hope that they may be useful, I am uploading five academic papers from the dark ages of Shenzhen studies. Be aware: much has changed, although much has not. In chronological order:

1999: Path Breaking(on how gendered nationalism facilitated the construction of SZ)
2001: Becoming Hong Kong (on how Shenzhen emerged through globalizing urbanization)
2006: Cultural Supplement (on political power as a cultural value in contemporary SZ)
2006: Fox Talk (on the emergence of neo-liberal urban identities in SZ)
2008: Vexed Foundations (on cultural continuity in SZ urban villages)


tianmian celebrates 20 years of incorporation

Yesterday evening, Tianmian Industries Ltd (田面实业股份有限公司) celebrated 20 years of incorporation, simultaneously confirming the group’s new status as a corporation and the corporation’s status as the continuation of Tianmian Village. The celebration achieved this sense of historic continuity through the sequencing of socialist and traditional customs, including the presentation of and speeches by Tianmian, Fuhua Precinct, and Futian District leaders, which was followed by singing and dancing performances, a demonstration of Bruce Lee style kongfu by one of Bruce Lee’s students, and pencai, a local specialty that is only eaten at collective ceremonies. The speeches and performances took place on a stage in the vip area, while two large LED screens had been set up throughout the common area so that guests could watch the entertainment while eating.

Another important ceremonial function was to demarcate borders both within Tianmian and between Tianmian and outside communities. The 137-table event occupied  most of the main road into the village (directly off Shennan Road) as well as adjacent public areas, dividing Tianmian into two sections: the ceremony area and the rest of the neighborhood. Importantly, only Tianmian Ltd has the authority to cordon off public areas for private ceremonies. The ceremony area itself was subdivided into a vip area for leaders, their families and guests and a common area for Tianmian stockholders, their families and guests. Tianmian guards prevented non-guests from passing the red cordons.

Rituals such as these and the concomitant right to occupy public space are perhaps why we continue to speak of Tianmian Village as a village. In point of fact, we were celebrating the dissolution of Tianmian Village and its reconstitution as Tianmian Ltd. In ritual terms, however, the celebration clearly established Tianmian Village as the host and hegemonic subject of this territory and Tianmian Ltd as the contemporary manifestation of the village. What’s more, throughout the evening the gaze of outsiders — many of whom live in Tianmian housing stock — reinforced the sense of Tianmian as a vibrant and recognizable collectivity.

These rituals are particularly important in Tianmian because the corporation has not built traditional village buildings, such as an ancestral hall or a temple. In obvious contrast to Tianmian’s appropriation of public space, when larger village-corporations hold pencai ceremonies, they set their tables in designated village plazas that are surrounded by traditional buildings. In Xiasha, for example, the large village plaza includes an ancestral hall, a temple, a public theater, a traditional garden, and a path to the Xiasha Museum. Consequently, where Xiasha relies not only on ritual, but also on the built environment to reinforce communal solidarity, Tianmian’s village identity remains as such primarily through what is commonly called “non-material culture (非物质文化)”, or rituals.

It will be interesting to see, say in twenty or fifty years, how strong Tianmian’s sense of village solidarity remains and to compare that solidarity to that of a village like Xiasha, where the construction of village architecture sets the stage for village rituals. In other words, although Shenzhen has been seen as a laboratory for economic and social experimentation, we might specify further, and watch the ongoing reconstruction of traditional solidarities despite and within the maelstrom of modernization. Impressions from Tianmian’s 20th anniversary celebration, below.

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deng xiaoping’s inscriptions

Deng Xiaoping was born Deng Xiansheng (邓先圣) on August 22, 1904 in Guang’an, Sichuan (四川广安). To commemorate his birthday, below I have translated his calligraphic inscriptions, which suggest the contours of reform and its social terrain.    

October 1, 1983 for the Beijing Jingshan School: “Education must be oriented to modernization, the world, and the future (教育要面向现代化、面向世界、面向未来)”.

January 1, 1984 for the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone: “Shenzhen’s development and experience proves that the policy decision to establish Special Economic Zones was correct (深圳的发展和经历证明我们建立经济特区的政策是正确的)”.

February 16, 1984 for the then under construction Shanghai Baoshan Steel Factory: “To grasp new technology, one must not only be able to study, but also more able to innovate (掌握新技术,要善于学习,更要善于创新)”.

October 15, 1984 for the first Chinese exhibition to the South Pole: “Use the South Pole to contribute to humanity and world peace (为人类和平利用南极做贡献)”.

February 1986 for the Tianjin Development Zone: “The Development Zone has great hope (开发区大有希望)”.

May 30, 1987 a general inscription: “Unite Marxist truth with the actual situation of the country, so that China will walk its path (把马克思主义的普通真理和本国的实际情况结合起来,走自己的路)”.

May 11, 1988 for an anthology of essays on true standards that was published by Guangming Daily: “Praxis is the only standard for investigating truth (实践是检验真理的唯一标准)”.

October 10, 1989 a general inscription:”Nurture successors to the proletariate revolution who have ideals, morals, culture, and self-restraint (培养有理想、有道德、有文化、有纪律的无产阶级革命事业接班人)”.

September 5, 1990 a general inscription: “Project Hope (希望工程)”.

March 1991 for the 10th Anniversary of Arbor Day: “Green the Motherland, Create Riches for 10,000 Generations (绿化祖国,造福万代)”.

April 23, 1991 for a national meeting: “Develop high technology, realize industrialization (发展高科技,实现产业化)”.

deng mice

cat theory: contextualizing deng xiaoping’s pragmatism

The historical background to each of the three guiding theories of early reform —  feel theory, cat theory, and don’t debate theory — illuminate the dialectic of political debate and economic reform in and through China more generally and Shenzhen specifically. Importantly, the moral rhetoric of the debate reminds us that the Chinese revolution and its subsequent transmutations has taken place within the ongoing cultural context of feeding the Chinese people.

Previously, I noted that “feel theory (摸论)” had been part of an early reform debate between more conservative Chen Yun and Deng Xiaoping. Today, a brief history of “cat theory (猫论)”, which appeared in an earlier Party scuffle over the same question: should China integrate capitalist means into socialist production? And, if so, how so and to what extent?

The Great Leap Forward(大跃进) aimed to simultaneously accelerate Chinese agricultural and industrial growth through mass mobilization of rural and urban areas. In rural areas, this meant meeting grain quotas and building “backyard furnaces”.  The goal had been to deploy China’s population to compensate for its lack of industrial infrastructure, but the means were coercion and terror and the result was catastrophic famine.

The Great Leap Forward had been scheduled to run from 1958 through 1963, but was discontinued in 1961, when Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Chen Yun presented an 8 character guidelines to rectify the mistakes of the Great Leap: adjustment, consolidate, enrich, and improve (调整、巩固、充实、提高). The debate over how to organize rural production continued through 1962, when Deng Xiaoping advocated the household responsibility system (包产到户) in contrast to Maoist Communes. On July 2, 1962, Deng Xiaoping responded to the question of whether the household responsibility system was capitalist or communist with a Sichuan proverb, “It doesn’t matter what color the mouse as long as it catches rats (不管黄猫黑猫,只要捉住老鼠就是好猫)”.

18 years later, after seizing power from Hua Guofeng and the Gang of Four, Deng Xiaoping returned to the ideas and inspirations of this earlier debate, reasserting economic pragmatism over and against political ideology. One of the key results, of course, was the establishment of Shenzhen and the three other Special Economic Zones. What also remains clear is that Mao asked the right questions, even if his answers often justified brutal inequality and unfreedom.

Economic decisions are political decisions and thus the question facing political leaders is always already moral: what kind of society do we want to build?

szu nostalgia

return to [human] nature: nostalgia at and around shenzhen university

Yesterday, I participated in an organizational meeting for a public talk on Shenzhen University. The meeting was held at the Qinghua Park (清华苑), the design firm headed by Luo Zhengqi former SZU president and members of the original SZU design team that left the University when he did (in post June 4th restructuring).

The planning of the SZU campus interests because it represents a unique moment in the Municipality’s history. Members of the Architecture Department as well as students in the first graduating classes actively participated in the design and construction of the campus. Indeed, Teacher Luo held on campus competitions to design dormitories and other buildings on campus.

According to Teacher Liang, who was in charge of the project, the animating principle of the design was a “return to nature (回到自然)”. She defined this return to nature in terms of freedom of spirit . For Teacher Liang, “nature” meant “human nature” as an extension of natural order.

Teacher Luo joked that the reason the design of the SZU campus had succeed was because they hadn’t done anything, a reference to the Daoist value of “no action (无为)”. On Teacher Liang’s understanding, freedom allows human beings to express and recognize human nature or art through the creation of material objects and the modification of the environment. She emphasized that neither economic nor social limits determined the form and meaning of an object or space, but rather human intention and the liberation of the human spirit.

Eyes sparkling, Teacher Liang illustrated her understanding of the kind of freedom at SZU with a joke, “There was no summer vacation at SZU.” Everyone was busy at one of the many construction projects, none of which were landmark buildings. Instead the campus layout reflected the ethos of communal construction toward a common goal — education for a new kind of citizen, one who made creative break throughs rather than repeated standardized forms.

For example, the main gate was set at an oblique angle, rather than along a cardinal axis, which was and remains a standard design practice for a university. In addition, early SZU was not walled off to create links between the campus and society. Moreover, the library held pride of place in the university commons, rather than a Ceremonial Hall for university meetings. In this sense, Teacher Liang defined freedom not as “freedom to do whatever I want (自由放肆)”, but rather a self-regulating freedom that creatively responded to community needs (自由自律).”

The second planning value that Teacher Liang emphasized was humility (谦卑). Humility took two explicit forms. First, layout emphasized users’ convenience, rather than centralization. Thus, staff offices and classrooms were located on either side of the central library, while student dormitories were placed adjacent to classrooms and within a 10-minute walk to the library. Staff housing and facilities were located furthest from the central commons. To further promote cross disciplinary conversations, students were not housed by major, but by year.

Second, large swathes of land were left open for future use. This open land, which included a large section of Mangrove forrest along pre-landfilled Shenzhen Bay, included extant Lychee orchards (and yes, students and teachers participated in early harvests) as well as planting garden areas and an artificial lake. According to SZU architectural student, from the outside the campus looked like waves of trees and low-lying buildings, while inside one could leisurely walk on shaded paths without the oppressive sense of skyscrapers or the disorientation caused by too many landmark buildings that stood apart from an integrated urban whole.

Participants agreed that early Shenzhen University reflected larger social goals to reform and open the Maoist system. They had been proud that SZU was not like Beida or Qinghua, they wanted to educated students who learned through doing, and they believed that universities had an important place in leading post Mao China. Indeed, they were not simply nostalgic for early SZU, but also and more profoundly, nostalgic for the Special Zone, when Shenzhen was a synonym with “experimentation” and “difference”, and “freedom” defined as a “return to [human] nature”. To this end, Teacher Liang made a point of quoting Liang Qichao’s Confucian motto for Qinghua University, “Strengthen the self without stopping, hold the world with virtue (自强不息厚德载物)”.

Early SZU’s socialist /Daoist / neo-Confucian hybrid culture stands in marked contrast to the Municipality’s ongoing campaign to promote neo-Confucian harmony. The meeting ended with further comparisons to then and now; SZU, one of the participants maintained, had represented an architectural expression of educational values. Indeed, he lamented a fundamental change in attitude. Previously, SZU administration, teachers, and students had taken it as a point of pride that early reports criticized SZU as “not conforming to the standard (不和规矩)”. In contrast, today’s SZU was so busy trying to play catch-up that it had lost what made it special.

The comparison was explicit; just as SZU had become second-rate by relinquishing its experimental and creative mandate, so too had Shenzhen lost what once made it the epicenter of reform and opening a moribund system and thus a special zone.

This organizational meeting was part of the Shenzhen Design Center‘s (深圳市城市设计促进中心) series of public talks, Design & Life (设计与生活). The format begins with an architect led tour of an interesting Shenzhen building or site. This tour is open to the public, and then edited into a short film. The film is shown at a two-hour public talk, which includes a viewing of the short film and talks by three or four guests, concluding with a question and answer session.

The first two sites were the Nanshan Marriage Registration Hall (南山婚礼堂 by Urbanus) and the Shenzhen Music Hall (深圳音乐厅 by Irata Isozaki). Architect Meng Yan led the tour of the Registration Hall and Hu Qian, a Chinese architect who studied in Japan led the Music Hall Tour. The SZU talk will take place on August 25 at the Civic Center Book City.

Luo Zhengqi will be the guest of honor.