Digging a Hole in China

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the Digging a Hole in China (事件的地貌) exhibition, curated by Venus Lau. the exhibition features a range of works that were produced from the mid-1990s forward, roughly a decade after the idea of land art had been picked up by Chinese artists and only a few years after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, where he confirmed that China would continue to liberalize its economy. The stated goal of the exhibition, which positions itself between China and the West is,

[T]o expose and analyze the discrepancies between this genre of work and ‘conventional’ land art understood in the Western-centric art historical context, thereby probing the potential of ‘land’–as a cultural and political concept–in artistic practice.

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revising the classics, or confucius encounters neoliberalism

Shenzhen parents worry about education — it’s quality, content, methods, and test results. Indeed, I have yet to meet a parent unwilling to spend several hours discussing their child’s education, while activists raise social problems in terms of education.

I have recently received a revisinist version of the childhood classic, “Kong Rong Shares a Pear“. The rewrite is fun and illustrates one of the ways in which the United States (as a symbol) has been put to work in contemporary Chinese debates about the contradiction between a society that values an integrated whole at the expense of individual desire and a society that values individual desire at the expense of social integration.

Kong Rong Shares a Pear

For thousands of years, the moral tale of “Kong Rong Shares His Pear” has been told, becoming the standard for parents who want to teach their children manners. But how do American kids think about this story? Below is a transcript from a class of American students who are studying Chinese. The students range from 8-12 years old.

Teacher: When he was young, Kong Rong was an exceptionally bright student. When he was four, he could already recite many poems. He was polite and courteous. One day, his father’s friend brought a box of pears to the family. His father asked Kong Rong to share the pears with his brothers. Kong Rong took the smallest pear for himself, and the shared the pears based on age rank, giving the largest pear to the oldest, the second largest pear to the second oldest and so on. As he distributed the pears he said, ” I’m the youngest, so I should eat the smallest pear.” His proud father heard him and asked, “But you’re older than your baby brother. Why didn’t you give him the smallest pear?” Kong Rong said, “I am older than him, so I should give it to him.”

What do you think of this story?

Student: Why did the father’s friend give the Kong family pears?

Teacher: they were a gift.

Student: If it was a gift, then all the pears would be good. Why were there obviously big pears and small pears? Why weren’t they all the same size?

Teacher: Ahhh…

Student: Now, if there were big pears and little pears, why did the father put all that responsibility on a four year old’s shoulders? What would have happened if Kong Rong had made a mistake? Would the father have taken back the pears and distributed them correctly?

Teacher: Ahhh…

Student: Why did everyone have to eat a pear? Couldn’t alone leave the pears and let those who wanted a pear choose for themselves?

Teacher: That might have been unfair.

Student: But Kong Rong didn’t necessarily distribute the pears in a just manner. All the brothers had to accept whatever pear Kong Rong decided to give them. Their right to choose was violated. The brother who received the largest pear might have been the brother who hated pears.

Teacher: That’s correct. This story is based on the premise that everyone likes pears.

Student: Why did Kong Rong give pears to the oldest first? If he was going to use age rank, why not start with the youngest?

Teacher: He was being polite.

Student: But after he took the smallest for himself, he didn’t give anyone else a chance to be polite. Why didn’t he give anyone else a opportunity to share pears?

Teacher: So what do you think about Kong Rong?

Student: I don’t like him. What he did wasn’t fair to others, taking away their right to choose and their chance to be polite. Kong Rong isn’t sincere.

Teacher: Why?

Student: This matter is internally contradictory. What if Kong Rong didn’t like pears, so he chose the smallest for himself? Nevertheless, his behavior earned praise? This is hypocritical. On the other hand, if he really liked pears, he should have said so. Otherwise, giving the biggest pears away wouldn’t have made him happy. When we like something we should bravely say so.

I also didn’t like his father.

Teacher: Why not?

Student: He didn’t take responsibility and asked a four year old to do something he couldn’t do. Also, he had no standards, he praised Kong Rong for being polite, but we’ve already seen that Kong Rong was disinterested in sharing the pears.

Teacher: Ahh…

Student: This was a bad story. It encourages subjective standards and praises one for violating democratic rights. This kind of twisted logic story praises a child for developing unhealthy psychology.

Teacher: So what do you think Kong Rong should have done?

Student: Put the pears on the table and let people who wanted to eat pears take what they wanted.

Postscript: From the perspective of an American student, a Confucian classic becomes a tale of twisted psychological motivations. Where do you think the problem lies?

renting, home ownership, and rights to the city

When roughly 100,000 people were evicted from Dachong, there was little if any public outrage.The migrants, recent college grads, and low-income families who lived in Dachong seemed inconvenienced by the evictions, but not outraged. My friends and colleagues also expressed dismay at the evictions, but not did not take to the streets in protest. Instead, the general response was one of resignation.

I have been pondering what to make of this lack of attachment to Dachong specifically, but the urbanized villages in general.

The SEZ prides itself on its openness to outsiders, boasting that arriving in the city makes one a Shenzhener. What then to make of the fact that the majority of migrants first live in the urbanized villages, yet don’t consider them homes worth fighting for? Is living in the village a kind of social limbo between neidi and Shenzhen? Is “arrival” contingent on property ownership rather than experience and tenure?

I finally realized that as an American, I have assumed that living — whether as a renter or a home owner — in a neighborhood is a process of inhabitation through which one accrues rights to the city. One of these rights would be compensation for eviction, presumably based on one’s length of residency. But living in a neighborhood would also grant one the right to shape the neighborhood through different associations and to promote neighborhood cultural events.

In contrast, it seems that in Shenzhen not only the majority of people living in the urbanized villages, but also intellectuals, officials, and real estate developers consider renting to be a temporary state; renters do not “naturally” or “inevitably” accrue any rights to the neighborhood and by extension to the city. Instead, only village members have rights to compensation, to organize village events, and shape neighborhood culture.

In this context, the political question becomes one of affordable housing, rather than renters’ rights. As I understand the political ethos, Shenzhen inhabitants believe that the government has the obligation to provide all Shenzhen residents the opportunity to buy a condo. For intellectuals, urban planners and even liberal real estate developers the mass evictions when an urbanized village is razed do not constitute a major scandal. Instead, they see the real source of social unrest to be the fact that even working their entire lives, most people will not be able to purchase a condo.

In short, the government has defaulted on its moral obligation to house the people. The replacement of urbanized villages with upscale housing estates just rubs salt in this very open wound.

how chinese is weixin?

This past year, I have noticed that the age of text messages seems already over. Instead, the sarcastic couplets and stories that used to come by text, now come by weixin groups. On the face of it, it seems a case of new technology beating out a less convenient model. Afterall, weixin groups allow senders to conveniently send out targeted mass mailings.

Interestingly, Tricia Wang has suggested that their are cultural reasons for the popularity of weixin. Specifically, the “shake” and “nearby” functions, which allow young people to meet strangers through a virtual introduction. Indeed, Tricia has also translated rules for using weixin to set up a one-night stand. Tricia makes the point that

One of the most important things to understand about Chinese apps is that the successful ones make serendipitous communication with strangers really easy.

I’m wondering, however, if the cultural gap is as much generational than cultural? After all, young people who spend a great deal of time online are already habituated to virtual introductions. Moreover, I’ve seen groups of teenagers in both the United States and China, hanging out together while they chat and go through messages received on their smartphones. That said, I highly recommend visiting Tricia’s blog, Bytes of China to explore the ways in which social media and new technologies are shaping and being shaped by China.

mama troll

The Mandarin expression for internet trolling — visiting sites, but not actually participating — is scuba diving or 潜水. Last night, I heard it used in the context of parental supervision. Apparently, there are mothers who have requested that their children give them their qq, we chat, and other social networking account passwords so that they can supervise them. The person describing the mother in question joked she was as “mama troll (潜水妈妈)”.

When I mentioned that I found this behavior highly disturbing, my friends responded that yes, it was a bit excessive, but what could you do? Children are an extension of their mothers, and if I didn’t understand this cultural root, I couldn’t understand Chinese mothers.

What’s more, another friend added, many of these mothers have nothing to do. They sit around and worry about who their husbands may or may not be seeing. They chat with friends and imagine all sorts of situations that their daughters might encounter. The most worrisome problem would be young love, especially because young love adversely affected grade point averages.

I then did another of my highly selective surveys, where I told this story to friends and cab drivers and the odd waitress to get their take. I asked if they thought it possible that a mother would go to such extremes? The 100% answer: yes. Most agreed that this kind of supervision was excessive. However, they pointed out that many mothers worry about their children, especially their daughters and so the concern was natural. Others remembered that when they were younger, their friends’ mothers might read their diaries for similar reasons.

I then asked why didn’t the children just sign up for another email or we chat account? Here the responses varied — maybe the children lived at home and their mothers paid for their cell phone and internet access; maybe the children always did what their mother asked them to do, and; maybe it was just easier to put up with the intrusive supervision than it was to set up independent accounts.

After all, another friend pointed out, as long as a child is living with her mother, her options are limited because sometimes teachers will request parents to increase supervision over a child. “It’s a conspiracy,” she then said half jokingly, “Teachers and mothers work together to make sure that children do what they should.”

thinking about the southern weekend event

It’s called “the Southern Weekend Incident (南周事件)” in Mandarin and refers to a standoff between the Guangdong Provincial Minister of Information, Tuo Zhen and the editorial board of the Southern Weekend News Weekly (南方周末). If you’ve been following the story in the western press, you are well aware that at stake in the standoff is the question of just how free China’s press should be. However, if you’ve been following the story in Chinese, you’re also aware that what the Incident has revealed how serious disagreement between the two main factions in the central government are.

So what happened and what might it mean?

At the beginning of the year, the Southern Weekend editorial board decided to use “China’s dream, the dream of constitutional government “中国梦,宪政梦)” as the headline for their social commentary page.  With the support of the National Minister of Information, Liu Yunshan, GD Provincial Minister Tuo Zhen change the headline to read “China is closer than it has ever been to achieving its dreams (我们比任何时候都更接近梦想)”.

Apparently, Tuo Zhen made the changes after the editorial board had gone on holiday to celebrate the new year. On January 3, when they discovered what had happened, they went to weibo and announced that “After the Southern Weekend had already decided on its final draft, the editorial board left work, and thus were completely unaware that the Guangdong Provincial Standing Committee Member and Minister of Information Tuo Zhen directed the New Year’s words to be change and altered, leading to many mistakes. On January 4 the editorial board went on strike to protest Tuo Zhen’s heavy-handed intervention, garnering widespread support.

Importantly, the content of the two editorials represent different factions within the central government. The expression “China’s dream, the dream of constitutional government” are quotations of current General Party Secretary Xi Jinping. In contrast, the idea that “China is closer than it has ever been to achieving its dreams” reflects the position of the Jiang Gang, who are supporters of the former General Party Secretary Jiang Zemin.

Thus, the stakes in the conflict were two-fold: (1) the formal question of freedom of the press and (2) the political question of the Jiang Gang’s blatant challenge to Xi Jinping’s reforms.

The day after the Incident became public, Xi Jinping gave a talk that went after one of the primary conflicts with the Jiang Gang — dismantling the labor camp system. Liu Yunshan responded by way of “The Southern Weekend‘s ‘to our readers’ Really Makes one Reflect (南方周末“致读者”实在令人深思)” an editorial that was published in the Global Times (环球时报). Subsequently, the Ministry of Information demanded that all subordinate newspapers print the editorial, supporting Tuo Zhen and attacking Southern Weekend. Not unexpectedly, there were different levels of cooperation with the Ministry; the editor-in-chief of New Beijing Times (新景报), Da Zigeng resigned in protest.

Yesterday, in his first public appearance since the Southern Weekend Incident, Tuo Zhen was unrepentant. He opened the Guangdong Ministry of Information Meetings by announcing that the meetings transmitted the spirit of the national Ministry of Information, rather than the spirit of the new General Secretary’s reforms. The opposition to Xi Jinping was straight forward because on January 4 during its meetings, the national Ministry had made it clear that the mission of the Ministry of Information was to “continue to be guided by of Deng Xiaoping theory, the three represents thought, and the perspective of scientific development (要坚持以邓小平理论、‘三个代表’重要思想、科学发展观为指导)”. Thus in his opening speech, Liu Yunshan explicitly invoked Jiang Zemin’s political project (the three represents) and did not mention Xi Jinping’s project (constitutional government).

So what happens now that Tuo Zhen has backed off, but not really, and an abbreviated version of the Southern Weekend came out as scheduled yesterday? Well the two meetings (两会) are upon us. The Chinese People’s Consultative Committee (全国政协) will meet March 3, 2013 and the National People’s Congress (全国人大) will convene on March 5, 2013. As important government positions are filled, inquiring minds are curious to see how successful the Jiang Gang’s attack on Xi Jinping will be, or whether Xi Jinping and the Princelings will solidify their authority. We’re also wondering whether or not the embattled General Secretary will be able to wrest control of the Ministry of Information away from the Liu Yunshan and Jiang Gang supporters, or if no matter what he does, it will be at odds with the truth that the Jiang Gang is putting forward.

All this to say, more freedom of the press would be welcome precisely because we need open debate about these two positions — constitutional reform versus maintaining the status quo. Indeed, open debate would also allow for alternative voices to enter the conversation, allowing us to see how deep and far-reaching Xi Jinping’s reforms might actually be.

cultural tendencies: how do we teach stupidity?

As we live it, one of the most important functions of an education system is to cull genius. However, given that genius — like stupidity — exists only to the extent that others recognize it, this means the educational system does not simply cull genius, but must also produce it. And one of the easiest and certainly most effective ways of culling genius is to cultivate stupidity.

In the US, for example, math classes provide a key site for the production of stupidity. Our math pedagogy consistently churns out students who have difficulty with mental math, are intimidated by word problems and conceptual reasoning, and regularly underachieve. This remarkably low level of math skills — even after ten years of math classes — is considered “normal”. Those who survive the lack of drills, out-dated curriculum, and their teachers’ ever lower expectations are designated geniuses.

Similarly, in China, English classes manufacture stupidity. The Chinese EFL curriculum relentlessly produces students who have difficulty participating in simple conversations, are intimidated by novels and poetic meaning, and regularly underachieve. This lamentable low level of English skills — even after ten years of daily English lessons — is considered “normal”. Those who survive the lack reading exercises, test driven curriculum, and their teachers’ ever lower expectations are designated geniuses.

However, when we turn our gaze away from our respective home fronts, it is obvious that elsewhere in the world it is possible to teach English (or in the US a foreign language) well. Likewise, Asian and Indian programs cultivate excellent general math skills. More tellingly, US American math and Chinese EFL teachers share the belief that a particular form of knowledge (math or English, respectively) cannot be taught. Also, in both the US and China, the social effects of low math or English scores are disproportionately high with respect to the actual knowledge obtained. In US schools, for example, low math scores mean that a student may be kept out of higher level science classes, while in China, English scores are a graduation requirement. Indeed, the US situation is even less extreme than the Chinese, where English tests also determine graduate school admission and job opportunities.

All this to make a simple point du jour. Both US American and Chinese students learn when we provide adequate training, interesting curriculum, and challenging standards. The question, of course, is not so much — can we teach math or English? — but rather, what social purposes do horrific pedagogy serve?