during the early eighties, anthropologists noticed that there was a religious revival in china, with many temples being restored. however, in 1985, when construction began, hongfa was the first new temple built since 1949. another shenzhen first. indeed, construction work began five years before china’s first macdonald’s opened in dongmen.
i was struck by the bright orange glazed tile roofs and took a lot of pictures. during imperial times, glazed tiles were used exclusively on the buildings of the imperial palace or the homes of nobles and high ranking officials. chinese architects used yellow (orange), green, blue, and black tiles. each color had symbolic meaning. the yellow (orange) tiles signified the emperor and were only used on the roofs of royal palaces, mausoleums, gardens, and temples.
during the 1980s in shenzhen, architects used glazed tiles to adorn homes, walls, arches, hotels, museums, and restaurants. these remnants of an earlier aesthetic, which is often dismissed today as being “provincial (土)” encourage speculation about how early shenzhen residents borrowed from the past in order to imagine and create the future. on the one hand, the use of glazed tiles speaks to a democratic impulse–what’s good for the emperor is good for the common person. on the other hand, they also speak to totalitarian ambitions–i want to be king. indeed, the experience of freedom and release from convention that early shenzhen residents once described to me as that “shenzhen spirit” seems rooted in this contradiction.
an example from fieldwork, many years ago. in 1996, my mother visited and we went to beijing. we wanted to visit the beijing university campus, however, it was early july and so there were active restrictions on who could and could not enter. that same year, same month, i walked into the shenzhen municipal government without signing in. the guards knew me and waved me through. i then went to my friend’s office to continue interviews about population and urban planning.
this, of course, remains shenzhen’s central contradiction. on the one hand, many of china’s earliest critical magazines and journals were published here. on the other, shenzhen continues to produce some of the most dogmatic propaganda. on the one hand, there is a great deal of choice because everything here can be bought and sold. on the other hand, because choice is reduced to market choice, the political significance of many items is effectively blunted.
most visitors to shenzhen see either the limitless possibility that markets promise or the lack of social movements. in this way, shenzhen is either praised as an examplar of the benefits of capitalism or condemned as lacking any kind of public culture, depending on whether the visitor’s point of view. it seems to me more helpful to think about how this contradiction has been lived in the everyday life.
people who have come to shenzhen do experience a loosening of the conventions that govern behavior inland. however, this loosening has produced many individual efforts to bring about new possibilities for themselves and their families, rather than collective change. what remains to be seen is how this might open itself to a more egalitarian society, rather than remaining an egalitarianism defined by the idea that everyone has a chance to get rich.