classical thinking

Many have told me that the Yi Jing is always relevant, even in Shenzhen; it’s just a question of knowing how to interpret what is already there. Consequently, I have been wondering how I might use the Yi Jing as a way of understanding Shenzhen.

According to Yuasa Yasuo (2008) divination in the Yi Jing designates the act of knowing the dao or the way. One comes to the Yi Jing when one makes a decision that will determine one’s future, but in order for the divination to be accurate, one must come to with an ethical purpose and clear intention. So defined, divination as understanding is both teleological and practical. On the one hand, the Yi Jing counsels that we interpret any event in terms of both its origin and its telos, which is often unknown, but assumed to comply with the inner logic of the events that will have led to its arising. On the other hand, the Yi Jing provides strategies for harmonizing one’s particular intention with nature and society such that negative consequences of contradiction and imbalance might be ameliorated. Together, divine understanding and action constitute the dao, an ethical unfolding of natural processes, agrarian seasons, social mores, and human intention. Thus, the Yi Jing is a book about time, its possibilities and complications; it not only anticipated Shenzhen by two thousand years, but also provides a moral ecology for narrating both the city’s history and what this history might mean beyond the righteousness of facts.

In other words, interpreting the Shenzhen built environment would be an act of divining the new world order that Shenzheners are trying to realize by constructing the city. What then are we to divine from the self-fashioning of Shenzhen’s urban villages? What are the longings that have been built into an environment that prevents them from being realized?

Early into reform, the villages erected history arches at the village entrances. Monuments made of concrete and glazed tiles, these gates straddle two-lane roads and are tall enough to accommodate the passage of container trucks. Engraved characters on these entry gates recount village history in terms of two great events: the migration of an ancestor from China’s central plains to the southern coast and Deng Xiaoping’s 1980 decision to establish the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. Indeed, the parallel couplets on each gate define the vast changes of the past three decades to be the means of fulfilling ancestral desires and traditional dreams of communal prosperity. That is to say, according to the histories inscribed on the gates of Shenzhen’s New Villages globalization has been a non-traditional means of achieving time-honored values. The front of the Shangsha Village pailou, for example, states:



Following the trend and developing, a Shangsha Village,

Responding to the era’s call, a prosperous Shenzhen is constructed.

The couplet written on the back of the same pailou is even more specific:



Harmonious Upper and Lower Sha villages in making proper use of the earth and following heaven create a new world for the ancestors,

Beautiful sands and water flow from the mountain nourish coconut trees, preserving ancient streams in a new era.

Shenzhen villagers once cultivated lychee orchards, harvested oysters, or planted vegetables. They lived in strings of one-story buildings that hugged the edges of unpaved roads. Many left the muddy villages for the bright possibilities of Hong Kong, which glittered just across the Shenzhen Bay. Today, Shenzhen’s new villagers have incorporated village holdings, including factories, rental properties, and shopping areas. Some of the richest families in the city, new villagers live in six-story low-rise buildings, which cluster along Shenzhen’s expressways and behind expensive housing developments. In fact, many residents have returned from Hong Kong and overseas to enjoy the perks of village membership: air-conditioned condos, maid service, ancestral hall clubs, village health plans, stock options and dividends, delicious food, massage parlors, and beauty salons. There is a sense, then, in which new villagers have used entry gates to assert an identity based on a way of life that no longer exists.

The contradiction between the continuity of village identity and demise of a way of life is even more pronounced on the pailou for the new villages of Nanshan oyster farmers. For roughly one thousand years, groups of boat people held coastal rights for oyster farming and processing along the Nantou penisula, which juts into the Pearl River Delta. However, these groups did not have land rights. As part of Shenzhen’s western land reclamation project, the Nanshan government moved these groups on land, giving them housing space and a small area for manufacturing. The new villages of oyster farmers are smaller than those of land-established villages. Indeed, groups of oyster farmers were only constituted as sedentary villages through land reclamation policies that illegalized oyster farming. At Beitou Village (北头村), the commemorative couplet celebrates the results of this process:



From the country’s southern-most coast, we embrace China, ten thousand high-rises, the pride of Nanshan;

Our faces greet the reform spring, one thousand oyster farms, golden waves.

Thus, through the construction of gates new villagers have redeployed deep histories to contemporary cause, linking past and present through creative action. Linguistically, the couplets are written in traditional, rather than simplified characters, and the couplets themselves have been composed according to classical norms. Most are commemorative couplets (藏头联), with the first character of each line taken from the village name. Parallel grammar structures the relationship between the two lines. However, although the couplets all read top to bottom, many now read left to right, instead of right to left, combining classical and modern conventions. And yet before reform, Shenzhen’s original villages did not have independent pailou. Instead, gates strung along narrow roads marked village borders Thus, the creation of urban villages has (ironically) enabled villagers to commemorate precisely what urbanization has been erasing.

Each village pailou asserts the village as being the ultimate value of human action as opposed to Shenzhen or China as being the ultimate value of human action. However, pailou are not the most common form of village identity. Even villages that have not raised pailou have constructed and preserved architectural forms that reinforce the value of the village rather than the ultimate value of the city. The most recognizable form of village identity is known as the “handshake building”. Handshake buildings are known as such because they are built close enough together that residents in neighboring buildings can shake hands through their windows. Handshake buildings are square buildings that rise three to eight stories high, usually built one meter apart, and decorated with colored tiles. In other words, except for color, no external markings distinguish one new village building from another. Moreover, handshake buildings form a massive space in which daily life takes place. The first floor of most handshake buildings turned over to commercial purposes—restaurants, hair parlors, markets, and stationary stores, for example. That is, the group of handshake buildings is the material form of the new village, clustered together with an internal economy to support daily life. Importantly, unlike skyscrapers, which realize value through individual specificity, a handshake building only realizes value through proximity to other handshake buildings. In fact, the more handshake buildings, the stronger a new village. In other words, while Shenzhen Municipality has only recently attempted to represent itself through an arrangement of buildings, from the beginning, new villages have used collective architecture to represent themselves and reproduce their particular identity.

Not unexpectedly, handshake buildings have been the target of urban village renovation in Shenzhen. And as handshake buildings are razed, the impulse to assert an independent identity grows stronger and increasingly abstract. Thus, as part of Shenzhen’s urban village renovation, villages are building history boards (Shazui above), history corridors, and some, village museums. I wonder if an inverse relation holds: the more investment in monuments to village identity, the more abstract it actually feels.

This kind of immanent critique echoes Benjamin’s understanding of wish images. Pace Benjamin, fragments of past eras adorn our modern buildings. The purely decorative function of these remnants – a conch shell here, a descending political leader there there – allows us to see more clearly how these remnants symbolize unconscious yearnings for a better world. Indeed, these remnants suggest that the point of modernization is “fixing” the past. More importantly, these remnants remind us that modernization as only possible and meaningful within and out of the value systems that we are (still) trying to realize.

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