classical shenzhen

Last night had dinner with Lai Guoqiang (赖国强), his wife and Miss Liang, a friend, who organized the dinner. Miss Liang is from Hunan, where she was an area (地区) first place (状元) and provincial subject first place in the college entrance exam. She graduated with a degree in French from Fudan University and now works in an international company. Mr. Lai was a Jiangxi district second place, but because his family was poor, he studied IT at a military school and was then assigned a job in Guangxi, where he met his wife. In terms of the gaokao system, both Miss Liang and Mr. Lai succeeded (出成绩).

Nevertheless, Miss Liang and Mr. Lai share a sense that their education failed to teach them how to be human (做人). They said that Chinese classical education prepared students to understand their place in the world, their obligations, and how to handle unexpected challenges. In contrast, modern education only prepared them to handle technical problems, but left them feeling empty. In different ways, both have spent the past decade trying to figure out how they can remedy this situation and help the next generation avoid a similar tragedy.

Mr. Lai’s quest began with the birth of his daughter. When she was three years old, he began having her listen to classical recitations. However, he realized that these recitations didn’t help children learn because there wasn’t a space for imitating the adult. Instead, Mr. Lai transferred these recitations from tapes onto computer and then slowed them down, leaving spaces in which his daughter could repeat after the adult. After nine years, his daughter can recite from memory, the Dao De Jing, the Yi Jing, many Tang poems and Song ci, in addition to many other classics from the four books and five classics (四书五经). Mr. Lai says that when children are young, they can memorize. When they are older they will realize (悟) the rich meaning of these classics. According to Mr. Lai, if students don’t memorize the classics when they are young, they have missed the window of opportunity, and will grow up in a state of ignorance similar to the one in which he finds himself.

This situation motivated Mr. Lai to develop a series of classics on CD that are recorded to facilitate memorization. The accompanying text has characters and pinyin. Importantly, this method of education does not require the students to understand or write the characters of the classics. Instead, the first step to learning is to memorize. And that is all they have to do. Individual lessons are organized to be completed within five minutes. Students listen and repeat (跟读; literally follow recite) for five minutes everyday, each lesson is repeated for one week, and then they move onto the next lesson. There is no pressure to recite, to write, or to interpret the texts. Mr. Lai has divided the lessons into three three-year chunks, so that after nine years, students will have the classics in their hearts, waiting to blossom as students’ understanding deepens over time. His company, 育心经典 is online.

I have been thinking about the implications of this method for pedagogy. It seems appropriate for texts that were originally transmitted orally, and indeed, were written parallel couplets that are easily memorized and beautifully recited. The goal, of course, is 变通 (biangtong: to adapt one method to different contexts) and (by implication) solve problems (处理事情). I remember when I was first learning Chinese in college. My teacher, Mr. Jiang told me that if I memorized poems, reciting them every morning, there would come a day, when I would be sitting on a park bench and a poem would come to mind. I would 悟 (wu) the poem’s 意境 (yijing, a word that has been badly translated as “artistic concept”, but seems to me to be more “the imaginary world” of a poem or painting). This experience would be both the interpretation and fulfillment of the poem; I would truly understand. At stake in this understanding of education is not simply a moral order, but also an understanding of creativity as being able to apply the lessons of the past to the present; this is biantong.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure how easily this pedagogy enables biantong. My uncertainty arises because this kind of learning too easily becomes rote memorization for tests, such as the gaokao and not because biantong isn’t a form of creativity often used in the arts and scientific discovery. Clearly, memorization is an important element of any pedagogy. The question is whether or not it is the only or highest form of learning. That said, the detrimental effects of the gaokao system are part of the problem that Mr. Lai is trying to solve through this turn to the classics.

More significantly, both Mr. Lai and Miss Liang understand memorization of the classics to be a method for rectifying current social problems. They see corruption, disillusion, cynicism, and indifference to be symptoms of a society that has lost its moral bearings. In order to live prosperous and happy lives (幸福), people must understand their place in the moral order. Once they have understood their place in the moral order, any job that they take, any role that they assume will be a vehicle for expressing this truth and society will naturally become harmonious.

I have discussed this conversation with two friends, both of who were educated abroad and have Master’s degrees. They agree that Mr. Lai’s understanding of and proposed solution to the problem of childhood education makes sense (有道理). They agree that to understand Chinese philosophy and history it is necessary to wu and the precondition of wu is having memorized the texts. They also agree that China’s social problems arise from a fundamental failing of the educational system to teach moral values. Generally speaking, they believe that the system succeeds in teaching fundamentals, but fails to prepare students for life.

So grassroots neo-Confucianism has come to Shenzhen, city without recognizable and therefore recoverable history. Ironies abound.

儒商: classical fantasies

one of the more interesting figures to haunt the landscape of chinese reforms is the “confucian merchant (儒商)”. there is an online club and international confucian merchants association. according to an article written by dean of the confucian academy and chair of the hong kong confucian merchants association tang enjia (汤恩佳),confucian merchants approach commerce in the spirit of confucious, conducting their affairs in accordance with the five central values of confucianism: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and trust (仁、义、礼、智、信). for the confucian merchant the greatest of these is trust (诚信), which shares an uncanny etymology with “credit (信用).”

i have my doubts about the possibility of mercantile confucianism, in part because confucianism strikes me as decidedly feudal and current business practices decidedly capitalist and also in part because the figure of the confucian merchant seems to legitimate all kinds of inequality, much in the same way that romances about tormented, but ultimately good-hearted tycoons justify unequal social relations. but mine could be a cynicism born of reading too many text messages, like the one currently circulating about wang shi (王石), the ceo of shenzhen’s mega-real estate development company vanke 万科. googling “wang shi vanke” brings up all sorts of capitalist self-congratulatory stories in english, including an article in nytimes real estate magazine. googling 万科王石 brings up even more, including his blog.


[mock classical chinese] wang shi, a person from liuzhou, guangxi. his mother was a barbarian, so he had a fierce personality. as a child he was unusual, as an adult, he operated a real estate company, realizing his dream of great wealth. shi liked to mountain climb, and spent a great deal on every climb. even the smallest detail of every expedition was engraved in stone. in the era of harmony, there was an earthquake in sichuan. the people were left destitute and homeless and there wasn’t anyone in the country who didn’t open their purse to send relief. shi only gave two [million], and ordered his subordinates not to give more than ten rmb. some starting sarcastically calling shi “wang ten”. when the people reproached him, shi defended himself: disasters frequently befall the country, this is nothing new, i’m saving my money for a later day. he also said: helping people in disaster zones is voluntary, how can i be forced? the people evaluated him thus: even though his body has reached the highest summit, his heart has already died to the people!

shi has responded to the criticism by promising 100,000,000 rmb to rebuild a sichuan market town. so yes, public humiliation has its uses…

update may 31, 2008: wang shi remains near and dear to many shenzhen hearts. when i mentioned that i had translated this message to a friend, who works in advertising, he immediately said he analyzed the whole wang shi-wenchuan phenomenon.

according to my friend, in order to understand wang shi’s response, you have to understand how the chinese media works. the first time that the earthquake was reported, the chinese press simply mentioned that there had been an earthquake in sichuan. he explained that the chinese press doesn’t proactively report, but instead waits to see how the central (or provincial or municipal) government is or is not going to respond, before it does or does not report. on my friend’s interpretation, wang shi had responded to the first reports, by the time the other reports came out, he didn’t have enough time to actually respond appropriately, leaving himself open to misunderstanding.

another friend pointed out that wang shi did the whole tycoon thing better than anyone else in china. he has charm and charisma, so that makes people want to see him fall. my firend then pointed out that the wenchuan earthquake proved [once again] that the chinese people are good (很善良), but unwise (没有智慧). wang shi, he suggested, wasn’t totally off base when he suggested that there would be need for money next disaster.

in another wang shi event, my new boss has used wang shi as an example of how to be single-minded and focused. vanke doesn’t do anything by upscale housing; a school should only have one pedagogical mission.

so here in shenzhen, we continue to watch wang shi and the development of the ethics of the city’s emergent elite. this returns me to the persistence of confucian merchants. i don’t think that wang shi qualifies as a confucian merchant in the strict sense of the term, specifically as he has self-presented as a kind of hip, smart, and living life to the fullest self-made millionaire. nevertheless, the way he has been positioned vis-a-vis wenzhou suggests that its quite alright to be hip and go mountain climbing, but in times of national disaster, the people might use the confucian merchant to call the elite to heel.

大鹏所城: on cultural history

dapeng suocheng inner garden

Once or twice a decade, I want material proof–as opposed to theoretical reconstruction and anthropological speculation–that Shenzhen has more than 30 years of culture. Usually, I go about asserting long term cultural occupation of the area as if it were a self-evident truth. Even if the landscape isn’t what it was or the buildings are less than ten years old, I say, there are deep histories histories here: listen. However, as I just mentioned, once or twice a decade, my resolve falters and I wonder: is it possible that what my informants and friends say is true? That Shenzhen doesn’t have any culture?

Now 文化 (wenhua) seems to me tricky to translate because its tied up in understandings about history and accomplishment in ways different from the english word, culture. For example, a maid explains that she hasn’t culture (我没有文化) because she didn’t go to high school. Or when I say I like hakka food, a friend agrees that Hakka culture is rich (客家文化很丰富). Or again, when someone asserts that unlike Beijing, Shenzhen doesn’t have any culture (深圳没有文化) because it is a young city. In hese three examples, the meaning of culture ranges from education through culinary traditions to imperial history.

Located in Longgang District on Daya bay,大鹏所城 or Dapeng Garrison is an anomaly in the Shenzhen landscape–by all counts it is culture of the highest kind. The garrison, which gives Shenzhen its nickname “roc city (鹏城)” is one of only 2,351 national important cultural relics (全国重点文物保护单位). Throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, soldiers stationed at Dapeng protected the area from pirates and colonial forces. Architecturally, was a walled garrison city, including housing for roughly 1,000 people, at least five temples, a school, and several large family compounds, which belonged to the resident general. Socially, it represented one of the military innovations of the ming. the soldiers stationed at dapeng were also farmers; the garrison was economically self-sufficient.

So yes, Shenzhen has culture. Why, then does it go unrecognized? And not only unrecognized, unvisited. Many of my acquaintances have never heard of Dapeng and most have never visited the garrison (even as part of their patriotic education). Unsurprisingly, all the parts and tourist attractions within the garrison are closed for want of visitors.

In part, I suspect that Shenzhen’s so-called lack of culture is a product of the city’s unfettered drive to modernize; no one actually notices historic relics as such. In part, I also think that Shenzhen’s lack of culture has been a rhetorical devise to produce the area as a tabula rasa; if there was nothing here, then the space is clear for all kinds of development. I’d also argue that by claiming that Shenzhen lacks of culture, urban immigrants assert their superiority to local rural residents. But in the end, I sometimes think the answer to the question, why doesn’t Shenzhen have culture is simply practical — most inhabitants lack of the time to be curious about where we are and how we got here. Most in Shenzhen are too busy making ends meet to think beyond their immediate concerns. So we’re stuck here in a present that keeps repeating itself–build, raze, build taller, faster, bigger, raze.

Culture, it seems to me, like education, good food, and history, grows in, through, and over good time, and that is precisely what Shenzhen lacks.

Pictures of Dapeng Garrison.

仙湖植物园: Fairylake

yesterday, seema and i went to the hongfa temple (弘法寺) in honor of grave sweeping day (清明节). the temple is in the eastern part of the fairylake botanical garden.

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.

玩品味: shenzhen antiquities market

yan ling shopping for jade

yesterday, i went with two friends to the shenzhen antinquities market (深圳古玩市场), which is located in huangbeiling (黄贝岭). now we hadn’t started out in huangbeiling, but rather langxin (浪心) and it took us an hour to get from langxin, which is in baoan district to huangbeiling, which is luohu. at lunch, a jun had offered to take me to the antiquities market because i was interested in old things. true enough, but i was content to prowl around langxin. only later did i realize that he had been wanting to go to the antiquities market all morning. a piece of jade had his heart itching (心痒痒) and he just had to have it. while at the market, a stone carving caused yan ling’s heart to itch and after much negotiating, walking away and returning to the peddler, she also just had to have it. i left with a small stone chop. yan ling promissed to introduce me to a man who could carve 马丽安, the characters for my chinese name into the stone.

a jun became interested in jade about fifteen years ago, and began seriously collecting about three years ago. i asked him what he does with his jade. he said he goes home, listens to music, brews some tea, and takes out the pieces to admire, rubbing them into oily smoothness. “jade,” a jun explained, “should be moist (润).” yan ling laughed, teasing, “you’ve started to play with taste (玩品味).”

as i understand it, “play with taste” means not simply to cultivate good taste, but to start consuming various items associated with good taste; learning through trial and error, which tasteful objects satisfy an itching heart. players need knowledge to distinguish fakes from the genuine and they need passion to take the time to sort through everything out there. and there’s a lot of it. two levels in fact.

on the first level of the antiquities market, peddlers spread their wares out on blankets, having paid 50 rmb to rent the space for the day. yan ling liked this area especially because she assumed everything was fake, and therefore cheap. however, she stumbled upon a fujian peddler, who had some genuine but low quality stones for sale. a jun encouraged her to buy if she liked because even if it cost as much as a dinner, it would give more than one evening of pleasure. a jun, however, shopped on the second level, where ostensibly song dynasty ceramics and expensive jades were on display. he had made friends with several dealers as well as with other afficionados. they would sit together with a dealer examining and debating the merits of each object. i stood on the side an listened, occassionally adding little to the conversation except to say, “yes, it’s nice,” or “how can you tell the jade is that valuable?”

my last visit to huangbeiling was in 2003 with fat bird as part of the “human city” series of guerilla performances. that particular day, we were interested in visiting the pet market and using the cages of inappropriately fuzzy dogs as our stage. what occurs to me know, is how pets have become a way that shenzheners play with taste. as are the paintings at dafen village, at least if the publicity is to be believed.

so i come to the point of this entry. eleven years ago, when i first came to shenzhen, not many people played with taste. most were busy pursuing the shenzhen dream: a shenzhen identity card, a full time job, and a house. however, now, those who have achieved the shenzhen dream are pursuing other interests, including the cultivation of good taste. as in other parts of the advanced capitalist world, shopping has become an important way for individuals to create, express, and experience themselves as both part of and different from society at large.

photos of us playing with taste are now up in my galleries.