how do shenzheners map covid elsewhere?

A friend from northern China once said (and I’m paraphrasing a long ago memory of Shenzhen, circa 1995), “If you want to see Chinese culture, go to Beijing, Xi’an or Shanghai. Even Tibet has more culture than Shenzhen.”

Her pointed point was: if you’re doing cultural anthropology (and I was!), go to a Chinese city with actual culture. Even the ethnic minorities have culture. Shenzhen, not so much. In fact, she also explained that Taiwan felt more ‘Chinese’ than Shenzhen did. When asked to elaborate, she explained that in Taipei, she had been able to speak Mandarin. In contrast, in Guangdong it was difficult to find people who willingly spoke Mandarin, let alone fluently.

Of course, nearly thirty years (!!!) later, Shenzhen has come to represent China in ways that Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai do not. Moreover, Shenzhen is often held up as the most open of the first-tier four (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). Shenzhen isn’t China’s past, my friends assure me, but its future, which is why, Shenzhen’s response to Covid-elsewhere is worth noting. How are Shenzheners positioning themselves and their city vis-a-vis perceived failures of Covid management in Shanghai?

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chimerican geographies of opportunity and despair

This year I was in the Chinese northland during the first week of the Trump presidency, a fact which had me thinking about national geographies of opportunity and despair. (Honestly, how could I resist when we were celebrating the Year of the Cock?!) Of note? The pride and resentment, wellbeing and jealousy that I encountered in the Chinese interior resonated with my experience of the American heartland, where my parents were born, even as the valuation of Shenzhen and other southern cities seemed much like American valuations of  the progressive northeast, where I was raised.
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of theme parks and the contemporary state

I have been showing my 12-year old niece the sites in Beijing, including the Great Wall. As we wander, I have free associated between these experiences and previous theme park experiences, most recently in Ocean Park, Hong Kong, but before that the original Disneyland in Southern California, the iconic Knott’s Berry Farm, the Jersey shore, its boardwalks and miniature golf courses, as well as several Six Flags and Disneys elsewhere. (Years ago I even visited the uncomfortably super-mini Disney in Hong Kong.)

There are, of course, perhaps more explicit connections to be made with Williamsburg, Jockey Hollow, and other historic sites that I have visited (and actually in Shenzhen I have been involved in promoting historical preservation of local sites), but.  In terms of pageantry and intent to re-present the world, my mind keeps returning to Disney. Continue reading

the violence of rural (re)construction (3): living genealogies

If you google “Hakka” all sorts of information comes up, ranging from Wikipedia’s Hakka People brief through the overwhelming comprehensive blog 客家风情 to more academic takes such as “The Secret History of The Hakkas: the Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise“.

These articles emphasize that the Hakka left the central plains for Southern China in a series of migrations. Hakka literally means “Guest People” and in the anthology, Down to Earth: The Territorial Bond in South China, for example, David Faure, Helen Siu and their colleagues nicely track the differentiation of Han Chinese into various ethnic groups, including the Dan (boat people not allowed on land), the Hakka, and dominant Cantonese.


Over time, the Hakka developed a distinct culture and history, including unique roles in the Taiping Rebellion (Hong Xiuquan was a Hakka) and subsequent Chinese Revolution; Sun Yat-Sen, the Soong sisters, and Deng Xiaoping, for example, were all Hakkas. Distinguishing features of Hakka identity include language, food, architecture, and a commitment to tradition and education that is said to exceed that of neighboring groups. Importantly, however, given the geographic range of Hakka settlements both within and outside the Chinese mainland, there is much diversity within the group. The Hakka standard is set in Meizhou, the county seat of Meixian, which brings us back to what’s at stake with the forced evictions in Meizhou.

The Hakka have lived in large compounds, where extended patrilineal families resided in organized proximity. These complexes have functioned as material genealogies with hierarchy emphasized through one’s room(s) within and location relative to the ancestral shrine, which has pride of place in any Hakka homestead. Indeed, even after compounds have been abandoned for newer buildings, often the ancestral shrine continues to host rituals and family matters, such as death memorials.

Many of the large homes that have been or are threatened with forced demolition in the Meizhou suburbs are low-income realizations of the larger ideal of bringing one family line together in one place. Overseas family members have contributed funds to build the homesteads, where several generations do live together. Importantly, those at home hold it for family members who are working either overseas or in cities like Shenzhen. Indeed, memories of and anticipated arrivals of absent family members characterize these homes. As does the cherished expectation of reunion, when the homestead will be filled and the family complete.

Also of note, many of the people standing guard over a family’s living history are women, who have married into the line and are therefore not considered part of the genealogy. So when the householder is female, she holds it for her sons, rather than explicitly for her husband. It became clear in conversation, that many of the women wanted a house for their families–children and maternal relatives, rather than explicitly to continue a particular line. Moreover, while the women told stories of their lives in these homes, the men would emphasize how these homes held a larger family together. Thus, the 5 or 6 women I spoke with were spoke of the need to keep a place for memories and future visits, while the men were more likely to demand compensation that would allow them to reproduce the building itself.

The unmaking of the multi-generational family has been one of the most obvious consequences of rural urbanization. After these homes are razed, they are replaced by smaller homes for China’s version of the nuclear family–an elder or two who take care of the only child of two working parents. In terms of traditional history, this breakdown clearly causes suffering and disorientation as family members try to make sense of a life without a shared root, even as it is also clearly that another uprooting has already taken place; the young people spoke Mandarin while their elders spoke Hakka. The results of centralized education and migrating populations contextualize the violence of rural reconstruction with respect to an ongoing state project to remake the countryside in Beijing’s image.

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Part I/ Meizhou: The Violence of Rural (re)Construction

Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government

Part IV/ Meizhou: What Gets Preserved

Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

mapping Chinese creativity–shenzhen vis-a-vis beijing

Several weeks ago, Shenzhen hosted the Maker Faire, bringing tech savvy makers together to explore, discuss and extend hardwire creativity and innovation. This past week, Beijing has hosted Social Innovation Week, bringing changemakers together to explore, discuss and extend social creativity and innovation. In Chinese one character separated the two events. The Shenzhen hosted 创客 or “maker guests” while in Beijing the guest list comprised 创变客 or “make change guests”.

Inquiring minds might paraphrase Gregory Bateson and ask: is this a difference that marks an important cultural difference between the two cities?

As in English, the Chinese shift from the vocabulary of “hacker” to “maker” has signaled the increasing respectability of the techno-nerds. The Chinese is even more explicit in this respect. To my knowledge, the earliest translation of “hacker” was 黑客, literally “black guest”. The term highlighted the outlaw romance of hacking at (at least) two levels. First the obvious 黑 which describes renegades and their possibly illegal activities as in the expressions “mafia (黑社会)”, “no hukou child (黑户)”, and “black heart (黑心)”. Second, 客 refers not only to guests in the modern sense of the term, but also clients in the medieval sense of the term, the dependents on a lord who would provide service in return for protection. Unlike, the English, however, the expression “changemaker” is more obviously related to the hacker movement because the word is made (!) by inserting the character 变 or change into the net-popularized expression 创客.

The more pertinent question, however, seems to be: Almost a decade after China began promoting creative industries, do the respective localizations of these two events tell us anything interesting about how Beijing and Shenzhen function within the Chinese cognitive mapping of creativity and innovation?

The pomp and circumstances of the two events did not differ radically–both were located in marginal spaces (Anhuili and Shekou, respectively) that are nevertheless within the city center, broadly defined. The demographic of the organizers was similar, with generations 80 and 90 running the show, and a shared emphasis on networking nationally and globally. The staging of talks was different. Beijing opted for TED style talks, with speakers having 15 minutes to share their projects. This was supplemented by round table discussions. In contrast, Shenzhen opted for more traditional keynotes, with salon style question and answer sessions.

The important difference seems to coalesce around funding sources and industry support. Beijing garnered support from not-for-profits and international foundations. In contrast, Shenzhen had industry support, generally through China Merchants, which is rebranding Shekou and specifically through Shenzhen based companies and international think tanks that focus on techno innovation. In other words, while young people of both cities deployed creativity to claim a space for and to legitimate the status of Generations 80 and 90, the Beijing event constituted itself with respect to society broadly defined, while Shenzhen defined society with respect to entrepreneurship narrowly defined.

Impressions from opening events, below.

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thoughts from beijing

Two Days in Beijing written on July 18 and 19

1. Embodied knowledge

Yesterday morning, Yang Qian and I came to Beijing by way of the Tianjin temporary train station, a hot, smoky, and crowded structure located in the semi-mangled space behind a Carrefour strip mall and a construction site. Two years ago, workers threw it together out of inexpensive bricks and cement; city officials designed the provisional station to be dismantled as soon as the new station opens on August 1. We approached the station along a clogged side street, walking past backed up traffic, stumbling over discarded bricks, and tripping when our suitcase wheels got stuck in a pothole. I bumped into a man who had paused to light a cigarette. We rushed through the main door, up rickety stairs, and into the airless waiting room, where several hundred people loitered restlessly.

I felt a drop of sweat run from my armpit to the crease of my elbow. Yang Qian used a tissue to wipe his forehead. A family squatted several feet away, playing cards. A cigarette dangled from the father’s lips as he considered his options. After decisively throwing down a five of hearts, he sucked deeply on the cigarette, pinched it between the index and middle fingers of his right hand, and removed it from between his lips, exhaling bluish smoke. His gaze turned to his son, who squinted at the cards carefully arranged in his hand. Two young women sashayed past us toward a concession stand. They wore sleeveless tee shirts, low-riding jeans, and spiked four-inch heels. Matching gold belts set-off flat stomachs and narrow hips. Several people slept on newspapers spread across the concrete floor, their heads cushioned on backpacks, their bodies arranged protectively over large, plastic bags. Another phone rang and I heard someone scream, “I’m at the train station, I’ll do it tomorrow.”

“Can’t be helped.”


The train boarded five minutes before departure. The crowd abruptly surged toward the platform door, carrying us through the narrow door, down metal stairs, and onto the sleek white commuter trains that connect Tianjin to Beijing. Our first-class tickets brought us into air-conditioned coolness. We stretched comfortably into our seats and within minutes fell asleep, only waking as the train pulled into Beijing station.

2. Spatial awareness

In Shenzhen, Tianjin, and now Beijing, I have been staying in new developments: City Square, Ruijiang Estates, and Fuli City, respectively. While in Tianjin, I was struck by the lack of amenities that have become standard in Shenzhen these past five years, including large malls, coffee shops, yoga studios, and clean restaurants. The apartments in Ruijiang Estates were large and comfortable. However, the shops downstairs were small and sold inexpensive necessities like soap and salt and beer, while the services provided were limited to standard haircuts. In contrast, the absence of inexpensive breakfasts and markets defined the Fuli City complex, where coffee shops, malls, Thai and western restaurants, as well as expensive spas and salons surrounded us. Our place in Beijing was two subway stops away from the China Television Building. Remnants of the capital’s socialist neighborhoods crumbled silently behind glass and steel towers that showcased sports apparel and Armani suits, gold jewelry and summer bright accessories, and we only discovered them by accident, when our evening walk detoured through a back alley.

Last night met a good friend at Jing Wei Lou (京味楼), a restaurant located near Zhongnanhai. We got on the subway underneath the CCTV Building station and off at Tian’anmen West (north exit), where across the street, the new National Theater shimmered in the evening haze. We walked past the red walls of Zhongnanhai and turned north at the next intersection. Traditional hutong’s still define this area, which serves China’s leaders, tourists, and locals who want authentic local flavors. Jing Wei Lou serves ordinary Beijing dishes—sesame toufu, peanut and cashew spinach, zhajiang noodles, stewed intestines, dai fish—of extraordinary flavor and reasonable price. In other parts of the city, like Fuli City, food of similar quality easily costs four times what it does at Jing Wei Lou. Indeed, in Fuli City, we often ate at chains simply because they were significantly cheaper than unique restaurants. Apparently, many leaders use Jing Wei Lou as their working canteen and so taste and price reflect market conditions.

3. Temporal consciousness

I am differently aware of time in Beijing, where I have fewer distractions than in either Tianjin or Shenzhen: no internet connection, no urge to walk around in the afternoon sun, no relatives to hang out with, no yoga studio, no prepaid service at a salon, no membership at a swimming pool, no interviews to conduct, no deadlines to meet, no books to read, no movies to watch…In Shenzhen, appointments structure my engagement with the city grows out of shuttling from my home to work to the yoga studio to a restaurant to an interview and back home to write an article or blog post. In Tianjin, family obligations organize my time. I eat breakfast, hang out, eat lunch, take a nap, watch some television with my sister-in-law, talk with my mother-in-law, eat dinner, and then go out for a movie or a coffee or a dessert with my niece. In Beijing, I still think about eating and going out and taking pictures, but there are no immediate social consequences to my decisions and so how I feel at any given moment shapes my day. Am I hungry? Bored? Thirsty? In the absence of definitive feelings, I grow lazy, flipping through my dictionary or sitting at my computer writing blog posts that will be uploaded only after I return to Shenzhen.

This afternoon a five hour trip to Chengde with a good friend and a new friend.

短信文化: text message culture

dinner with beijing friends led, as it inevitably does, to conversation about why beijing and beijing people are the best. this time, text message culture (短信文化) was our point of departure.

according to wan ning and hu lin, all of a sudden people are text messaging their new year’s greetings to each other, rather than calling (as in years past) or sending cards through the mail (as in their childhood). moreover, the telephone companies, especially china mobile, encourage this behavior because every message sent is money earned. to that end, the said companies have allegedly hired couplet writers to come up with messages that will be mass forwarded to everyone on a particular calling list.

wan ning and hu lin also pointed out that beijing pizi write independent/non-corporate messages. (皮子: does anyone have a good translation for this term, which i understand as refering to rebels in the james dean way–young, disgruntled, hyper-individualistic men, who are also passionate, appealling to the rebelious heart beating beneath everyone else’s staid exteriors. yang qian adds that 皮子 are darker and more cynical than 愤青, angry young men, who grow up to be 大愤, big angries, which puns the express, big shits…) anyway, they said that if you’ve lived in beijing, you can always tell the difference between “factory eggs” and the “farm fresh”. i can’t so i’ve posted a few new year’s greetings in no particular order (again with the caveat, loosely translated and always in need of friendly correction):

友情提示未来社会:朋友比领导重要,能力比成绩重要,健康毕业绩重要,水平比文凭重要,情商比智商重要,交友比结婚重要,节日比上班重要。祝生蛋,新年快乐! (friendly reminder, future society: friends are more important than leaders, skill is more important than grades, health is more important than outstanding achievement, talent is more important than a diploma, making friends is more important that marriage, holidays are more important than work days. wishing you a merry christmas and happy new year!)

2007年到了。别忘了给孩子们讲讲很久很久很久以前的事:那时候天还是蓝的,水也是绿的,肉是可以放心吃的,耗子还是怕猫的,法庭是讲理的,结婚是先谈恋爱的,理发店是只管理发的,药是可以治病的,医生是救死扶伤的,拍电影是不要培导演睡觉的,照相是要穿衣服的,欠钱是要还的,孩子的爸爸是明确的,学校是不图挣钱的,白痴是不能当教授的,卖狗肉是不能挂羊头的,结婚了是不能泡MM的。祝你新年快乐!(2007 has arrived. don’t forget to tell the children about how things were long, long, long ago: in those days, the sky was blue, the water was torquoise, you could eat meat without worrying, rats feared cats, the courts listened to reason, marriage came after courtship, hair salons only gave haircuts, medicine cured illness, doctors saved the dying and cared for the injured, you could make a movie without sleeping with the director, you had to keep your clothes on in a photograph, loans had to be repaid, a child’s paternity was clear, schools weren’t profit-oriented, idiots couldn’t become professors, you couldn’t pass off dog meat as mutton, after marriage you couldn’t play around with young women. happy new year!)

wan ning’s commentary: this message had changed since he first saw it. he believes that people are editing and adding to messages before forwarding them to their friends.

忍养安,乐养寿,爱养富,善养德,诚养誉,礼养谊,正养胆,廉养义,古养今,和谐养文明,时光养友情,睡眠养容颜,运动养健康!恭祝新年好!(endurance nourishes tranquility, happiness nourishes longevity, goodness nourishes virtue, sincerity nourishes reputation, courtesy nourishes friendship, uprightness nourishes courage, honesty nourishes righteousness, the past nourishes the present, sincerity nourishes reputation, time nourishes friendship, sleep nourishes beauty, exercise nourishes health! happy new year!)

translation note: 养 is one of those characters rich in cultural meaning. in addition to meaning “nourishes”, it can also mean “breeds” as in endurance breeds tranquility. the important point is that whatever or whoever does the 养ing takes pride of place in that the 养ee (so to speak) depends upon 养er for its existance.

什么是爱情?色呗。什么是温柔?面呗。什么是幽默?贫呗。什么是艺术?脱呗。什么是仗义?傻呗。什么是朋友?你呗。什么人最记得祝你元旦快乐?俺XXX呗。(what is love? sex. what is tenderness? being a wimp. what is art? stripping. what is having principles? stupidity. what is a friend? you. who is most likely to remember to wish you a happy new year? me, XXX.)

hu lin: you can tell this is fresh off the beijing farm. only beijing people use the expression “面” to mean wimp.

translation note: 呗 (bei) implies a cyncial finality–last word on the subject. 俺 (an3) is funny because it’s a northeastern expression for “I”. northeasterners remain a source of constant amusement for the rest of the country, but especially beijing. as soon as they hear 俺, beijingers start laughing because they know the non-northeastern speaker is cracking jokes (耍贫嘴), a form of verbal spoofing (恶搞). one of the funnier practitioners of this art is xue cun (雪村) from jilin. his website includes the wonderful flash version of his breakaway hit “northeasterners are all living leifengs (东北人都是活雷锋)” as well as recent songs. a fun aside and in the spirit of xue cun is cui jian’s flash version of “net virgin”.

快年底了,地下的先烈们纷纷打来电话询问。江姐问:国民党被推翻了么?答:被阿扁推翻了。董存端问:劳动人民还当牛做马么?答:不劳动了,都下岗了。吴琼花问:姐妹们都翻身得解放了吗?答:思想解放了,都当小姐了。杨子荣问:土匪都剿灭了么?答:都改当公安和城管了。杨白劳问:地主都打倒了吗?答:都入党了。雷锋问:那资本家呢?答:都进人大和政协了!刘胡兰问:同志们都藏好了吗?答:都隐身上网了。毛主席问:大家现在都在忙什么呢?答:都在斗地主。毛主席:那我就放心了!(the end of the year will soon be here, and so the martyres from below are calling to ask about the current situation.

sister jiang,”has the kmt been overthrown?”

answer: by a bian (陈水扁, chen shuibian).

dong cunduan, “have the workers ceased to work like oxen and horses?”

answer: they’ve all ceased working.

wu qionghua, “have my sisters been liberated.”

answer: their thinking has been liberated and know they’re all young ladies (小姐 also means escort).

yang zirong, “have the bandits been erradicated?”

answer: they’ve changed status and jointed the security forces and city police.

yang bailao, “have the landlords been over thrown?”

answer: they’ve joined the party.

lei feng, “what about the capitalists?”

answer: they’re now in the people’s congress and people’s political consultative committee.

liu hulan, “are our comrades safely hidden?”

answer: they’ve hidden their identity and gone online.

mao zedong, “what is everybody busy doing?”

answer: struggling with landlords.

mao zedong, “then i can rest easy!”)

i leave it to the reader to make the relevant political and gender analysis.

人山人海:national day crowds

the forbidden city, october 3, 2006

mountains and oceans of people in beijing this national day vacation. my mother noted that the crowds felt differently than the crowds in the u.s. she had just been to disneyworld with my niece and nephew and there, she said, people seemed pushier, here, they pushed. she suggested it might be due to a different sense of personal space. but we chinese don’t like the crowds either, tian qinxin commented, we just don’t have any option. lao fan joked, 1.3 billion chinese and they all come to beijing on the same day.

dogwood journal

photos i took in beijing over the may day vacation have been published in the fifth edition of the dogwood journal ( you can visit the most recent edition of dogwood at