the violence of rural (re)construction (4): what gets preserved

Monday I joined the Meizhou preservationists in Enning Neighborhood Guangzhou, where we met to talk about how we could intervene in what was happening in Meizhou. There were two issues at stake. The first was straight-forward lay human rights–how do we help people keep their homes or guarrante a replacement home? The second was more abstract–what kind of buildings and spaces “ought” to be preserved for their historic value? Continue reading

the violence of rural (re)construction (2): hoodlum government

In everyday conversation, forced evictions and demolitions are thought to be widespread.
However, except through site visits and conversations with local people it is difficult to ascertain which cities are most widely affected because there is a moratorium on reporting about actual cases. The Chinese media “reports happy things and not things that cause worry (报喜不报忧)”. In a situation like Meizhou this means that it is easy to find building plans and economic projections, but nearly impossible (except through more privatized forms of communication such as blogs and we chat) to find any reportage on actual events in real time.

The silence about the actual situation not only isolates vulnerable communities from larger social help, but also obfuscates the government’s role in the process. In a word, because there is no independent source of news, there is also no way of confidently reading a situation. Rumors fly, fear spreads, and the expression “hoodlum government (流氓政府)” is used when people know that they are being threatened in the name of a government program, but do not know if those threatening them are members of the police force, a particular government bureau, or actual thugs-for-hire.

Unfortunately, with respect to rural construction (乡建), hoodlum government is supposed to be the norm rather than the exception because we’ve stopped giving the government the benefit of the doubt.

Reported detained are: Gu Zhengqi (古正q奇) and Gu Wenchang (古文昌). Villagers barricaded the road into their village to prevent bulldozers from entering. The barricade stretched between Gu Zhengqi and Ge Wenchang’s neighboring houses.

Reports of hoodlum government in Meizhou include:

1. Threatening to have a student’s college acceptance revoked if the head of house doesn’t sign over property rights;

2. Allowing for the destruction or decay of houses because there is no compensation for unusable buildings;

3. At the same time, preventing villagers from repairing their homes;

4. Refusing to give fair compensation for property when villagers do negotiate;

5. Filling in waterways to create roads. This gives government officials and their proxies access to villages and makes it impossible to maintain rice paddies, which require regulated inundation and drainage;

6. Disrupting village elections and appointing grassroots level leaders who support government policy;

And 7. Destroying villagers’ cellphones, cameras and recorders to prevent documentation of the process, which in turn also makes reporting on the situation a “he said, she said situation”.

Below are images from our trip to Meizhou. Villagers hold pictures of detained family members and receipts for hospital care after a beating. They are standing in front of there houses or where their houses used to stand. The documents show a villager appraisal of his home and government response. The standard rebuttal, “too expensive”.

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The other five entries in this series are:

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

Part III/ Meizhou: Living Genealogies

Part IV/ Meizhou: What Gets Preserved

Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

meizhou: the violence of rural (re)construction

This is the first part of a six-part essay, Meizhou: The Violence of Rural (Re)construction. Rural construction (乡建) is currently one of the most important debates in Shenzhen specifically and China more generally. As China’s “first city without villages”, Shenzhen has an important place in this debate. In fact, Shenzhen is held up by social progressives, real estate developers, and Party officials alike as a model of what rural construction should be. More locally, civic groups are beginning to organize around this issue in order to promote more just visions of the city.

Friday, September 19, 2014, we made the five-hour bus trip from Shenzhen to Meizhou. We were an assorted group of scholars, architects, and journalists, but we had joined documentary film maker Deng Shijie in common cause–to visit the Meizhou suburbs in order to bear witness to the human suffering that has resulted from current development policies. Shijie and his allies are central to a small, but meaningful citizenship movement in Shenzhen. Many of Shenzhen’s second-generation have become active in what we in the United States would call social justice issues, but which in Shenzhen operate under the glosses of philanthropy (公益) or social renewal (社会创新).

We arrived well past midnight, but were greeted warmly by villagers who are trying to voice their demands. Some want to maintain their current homes, others want more equitable compensation, and all want the government to bring out a viable and legal relocation and compensation plan. And that, of course, is the crux of the matter. The government’s plan to construct a new city notwithstanding there has been no release of a relocation plan. Instead, villagers are being bought and when that fails forced out of their residences. Two of the nastier strategies of displacement are (1) using the police and/or local thugs to harass and beat villagers until they sign off and (2) razing homes and then transferring money to villager escrow accounts. If the villagers use the money, the action is interpreted as acceptance of the government’s terms. If however the villagers do not use the money, after a five-year period the money will be returned to the Ministry of Land. There are also reports of villagers having been detained at local police stations in order to compel village heads of household to sign property transfer agreements. (For an introduction to China’s duel system of land ownership by way of Shenzhen, please see “Laying Siege to the Villages“).

The crude background to this travesty is the Chinese state’s commitment to making urbanization central to economic development and (more importantly) a criteria for promotion within the Party and government. In 2011, Meizhou began planning a new city on the rural land that was traditionally held by villages. However, urbanization directives accelerated in March this year when China released its National New Type Urbanization Plan. Subsequently, in September 2013, the Meizhou government released the Meizhou Jiangnan New City Detailed Plan (梅州江南新城详细规划) for public debate. The official discussion period was from September 24 to October 20, 2013. The plan was made available in three sites: the Meizhou Government Building, the plaza of the Jianying Park, and the municipal urban planning. However, according to villagers, the City continued to raze homesteads during this time. Additionally, the City also targeted traditional Hakka compounds and ancestral Halls. Architect Ye Yikun (叶益坤) has been the leading voice of opposition to demolishing historic architecture.

Below are images from our trip to several villages in the Meizhou suburbs.

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The other five entries in this series are:

Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government

Part III/ Meizhou: Living Genealogies

Part IV/ Meizhou: What Gets Preserved

Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

is shenzhen history a good investment?


On December 28, 2013 Da Ken Art Center (大乾艺术中心) opened an exhibition on the Devout and Chaste Girls School (虔贞女校), which was built as part of the Basel Mission. The opening brought together a strange but uncannily representative demographic — young Shenzhen gallerists (Da Ken specializes in early photography), Dalang officials, Hakka Christians, aging villagers who went or taught at the school, activists in Shenzhen’s literacy movement, and representatives from the Basel Mission in Hong Kong. There were also a good number of public intellectuals who came out to show support ongoing efforts to re-member Shenzhen history, Christian, nationalist, and pedagogical.

After the opening, Yang Qian and I had coffee with Zhang Yibin (张一兵) and Li Jinkui (李津逵), two of Shenzhen’s more active public intellectuals. Their interventions, however, take very different, albeit supplementary forms. Zhang Yibin is interested in objects — blunt and silent, stubborn bits of matter and how they become meaningful through archaeological speculation and what might be glossed as “cultural capitalism”. Zhang Yibin was responsible for rediscovering the school, which had been closed in 1986 and making its historic importance known to the Dalang government. He has been involved in the reconstruction and preservation movement for over six years.

In contrast, Li Jinkui is relentlessly and charmingly verbal. An economist by training, Li Jinkui came of intellectual age in the 1980s, when “economic reform” was a code for “social liberalization”. For several years now, he has organized a salon at Yinhu, where intellectuals gather to debate issues that range from urbanization through phenomenology and economics to the historic meaning of Shenzhen and include pedagogy in all its permutations — the social role of education, the importance of raising the level of education throughout Shenzhen specifically and the country more generally, the history of education, and the need to reform the Chinese system of education. In fact, Li Jinkui gently moderated our after opening coffee talk, which focused on the historic production of cultural ecologies.

Zhang Yibin’s analysis of the current Shenzhen preservation movement hinged on a two-pronged analysis of (1) non-material culture and (2) 闲钱, which can be translated as spare money, disposable money, or leasured money. Zhang Yibin noted that most cultural history is non-material, composed of stories and impressions and feelings and suppositions, while less than 1% of the archaeological record is actually material. He then reminded us that although the shapes, textures and sizes of objects vary, there is no meaningful difference between them in terms of historic preservation. Instead, we distinguish between relics and garbage, because of the stories we tell and how much “disposable money” is at hand; the more disposable money, he emphasized forcefully, the more we invest in objects and their social transformation into relics. The way disposable money mediates the social transformation of objects into relics clearly frustrated Zhang Yibin, who has failed more often than he has succeeded to bring Shenzhen’s archaeological record into the public sphere. Instead of an intellectual pursuit that helped to enrich a society’s cultural ecology, he suggested, historic preservation has become yet another instance of collecting relics. As such, it hinges on the whims of leaders rather than on a consensus over what constitutes history and archaeological research.

The background for his frustration is the robust Shenzhen antiquities market and concomitant disinterest in the area’s history. In Shenzhen, there are two primary agents accumulating relics — individuals and state cultural institutions, such as the Dalang Street Office. As elsewhere in the world, wealthy Shenzhen individuals collect for personal reasons that range from desire and taste to economic investment. At the same time, municipal cultural institutions have shown little interest in the area’s past, preferring to showcase the Municipality’s role in modernizing Post Mao China. Moreover, attempts at historic preservation at Nantou Old Street, Dapeng Fortress and the Hakka compounds, for example, have not been embraced by the general public, which remains largely ignorant of Shenzhen’s modern and imperial history. Indeed, even the call to preserve old Hubei Village, an example of a wealthy late imperial and republican architecture (located immediately east of Dongmen) has slipped well under public radar.

This background also explains Li Jinkui’s support for the collaboration between the cultural bureau of Dalang Street Office, the Lankou Christian community, literacy activists and Da Ken. Li Jinkui advocates a broader and more ethical understanding of public culture. To achieve this, he sees an important place for non-material cultural — not simply story-telling, but rather and fundamentally, education. For Li Jinkui, one of the roles of government is to use its disposable money in order to curate the City’s historical understanding. Although he agreed that only stories and money allow humans to differentiate between relics and garbage, it did not follow that all garbage ought to be transformed into a relic because not all stories were worth telling; we define ourselves, he suggested, through these stories. Moreover, the choice of how to dispose of one’s money, especially at the level of government, is for Li Jinkui and like-minded intellectuals a question of public ethics and the concomitant creation of social value. In this sense, the Dalang Street Office decision to preserve a school as well as the history of extending education to girls was a story that should be commemorated with objects and disseminated in public forums, such as Da Ken. In turn, Christians and literacy advocates can use this history and its objects to shape an ethical and heterogeneuos public sphere.

The exhibit itself integrates photography, examples of Republican textbooks, blue shutters from the school, and a virtual model of the planned reconstruction. The curatorial statement comes from a Christian apology for girls’ education:

China favors boys over girls. It is a custom with a long history. Many say that a lack of education is a virtue in a woman. But they do not realize that God made men and women as one body. God did not only give souls to men, but also to women. There were men, and then women were created. However, there were women, and then boys and girls could be born. In front of God, men and women are equal. Men strongly love education. But women love education even more because they are the nation’s mothers and they carry a heavy responsibility for the country. The country is made of customs. The people can have high or low character. Their words can be true or false. Their morality can be complete or lacking. All of this is created by the country’s mothers. The responsibility that women carry is therefore extremely heavy. It is an important moral obligation, which must be at the front of all future efforts to create the best model of moral words and deeds. We must work until we succeed.

For the curious, Tengxun has uploaded 22 photographs from the exhibition, which documents the cultural geography of fin-de-siecle South China. There are young Hakka girls, Western missionaries and their families, as well as impressions of the already globalized rural landscape — traditional row houses, fields, and the new school, shimmering white beneath elegant hills. The show itself is up at Da Ken Art Center, located in the northern section of Ecological Park, OCT (just above the AUBE offices and row coffee shops and restaurants). Hours, 10:00-6:00. Unlike the online exhibit, the actual exhibition includes objects and a model of the restored school and church.

the difficulty of representing shenzhen’s urban “villages”

Talking about Shenzhen’s urban villages is difficult because legally they are not villages, but “communities (社区)” that have been integrated into the urban state apparatus. Moreover, depending on their location, these neighborhoods have different social functions — slums, gateway communities, and affordable housing for both the working poor and recent college graduates.

Mark Leung‘s photo essay,  Welcome to Wuwucun, a Village in the City offers a detailed and sympathetic look at life in Wuwucun, a Shenzhen urban village and is well worth checking out. However, the images beg contextualization, illustrating the difficulty of interpreting images  in the absence of historical knowledge. Is Wuwucun poor? Are these villagers? Is manufacturing a good thing?  On the one hand, a shorter version of the same essay, for example, explained that these images showed how manufacturing in Shenzhen was providing small steps forward to improve the lives of China’s rural millions. On the other hand, these images depict one of the more peripheral villages in Shenzhen, where the level of poverty depicted justifies ongoing campaigns to raze working class neighborhoods in other parts of the city. In other words, these images can be used either to show that industrial manufacturing in Shenzhen has been good for the country or to justify the Municipality’s ongoing program of razing urban villages in the inner districts. Continue reading

gaoling: shenzhen’s eastern periphery

Episode 13 of The Great Transformation, takes us to Gaoling Village (高岭村), which is located on Qiniang Mountain at Shenzhen’s eastern most edge on the Dapeng Peninsula.

The story of Overseas Chinese Chen Jiageng (陈嘉庚) opens the episode, connecting the history of Shenzhen’s eastern periphery to early modern Chinese nationalism. An ethnic Hakka, Chen Jiageng raised funds among to construct the Jimei School in his hometown Jimei Xiamen. For his nationalist efforts, Mao Zedong referred to Chen Jiageng as being “the banner of Overseas Chinese, the glory of the race (华侨旗帜,民族光辉)”.

Settled over 400 years ago by Hakka migrants, the layout of Gaoling reflected the founders need for safety and arable land. The village houses were located deep in the mountains, while village fields were located at the foot of the mountain. Every morning, villagers went down the mountain to work their fields and every evening, they returned to the relative safety of their homes.

The architecture of Gaoling reflected the agonistic relations between Hakka and local (本地 boon day [H], bendi [M], pundi [C]) peoples during the 19th Century. In fact, between 1855 and 1867, relations disintegrated into open conflict during the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars. During the early 20th Century, the village housed anti-Japanese troops, who were led by Hong Kong born Liu Peidai.

As in Xiamen, Gaoling villagers who lived overseas donated funds to build a school in their hometown. Over the course of the village’s history, Gaoling villagers immigrated to Singapore, Holland, the United States, and Canada, and many more lived in Hong Kong. Importantly, the Overseas Chinese funded improvements to their hometown, including modernizing the water system. The Euro-Chinese style of the school architecturally reflected these migrations and returns.

The White Lady of Shiyan

Last week, I met Ye Enling, a 70-something Shiyan native. Mr. Ye worked in Overseas Chinese affairs for over twenty years, and his current interests include calligraphy, linguistics, architectural design, and social philosophy. Of note, Mr. Ye is a Hakka and has devoted much time and energy to promoting Hakka culture by collecting Shiyan mountain songs (石岩山歌), compiling vocabulary lists, recording Shiyan history, and composing essays on diverse topics. In fact, he has published three collections and a book of calligraphy.

Below, I have translated Mr. Ye’s retelling of The White Lady’s Temple on Yangtai Mountain (叶恩麟者《闲雅集》111-2页. Online Chinese versions, here and here). I find the story interesting because it places singing within the sentimental context of gendered yearnings, which continue to shape family life and personal desire. The fact that the story continues to circulate suggests that even if most Chinese professors have opted into modern academics and concomitant specialization, traditional intellectual life and knowledge production may be fading, but are nonetheless still kicking.

I also find the story interesting because when contrasted with Shenzhen’s contemporary arts or traditional culture fairs, the White Lady of Shiyan reveals the extent to which expressive creativity has been alienated from everyday life, an ongoing lament in modernist art. The living presence of this tradition dovetails with the Municipality’s ongoing promotion of Neo-Confucian mores as a strategy of governance. I had tended to think of Neo-Confucianism’s appeal in terms of an invented nostalgia for “good old days” sans hunger, warlords or opium. However, my meeting with Mr. Ye has me thinking that there may actually be a popular basis for Shenzhen’s decision to disseminate Confucian sayings at bus stops and other public places, cultural revolutions notwithstanding.

The actual content of the White Lady story is far more disturbing and has me thinking about structural analogies between the 1920s and contemporary Shenzhen. In Diary of a Madmen, which was published a mere ten years before the white lady’s story is said to have taken place,  Lu Xun gives a chilling representation of human desperation in which the only way to survive is to eat other people; the clearest Lu Xun overlap is, of course, Medicine. Similarly, today, we keep hearing stories of illegal transplants and the shady sourcing of human organs. Less than a hundred years separate workers of the south China diaspora from the neidi migration of workers to Shenzhen. And it seems that rumors of cannibalistic medical treatments continue to emerge out of the experience. Families are fractured, bodies broken, and loved ones vanish.

The White Lady’s Temple on Yangtai Mountain

All Shiyan elders remember that there was once a small temple on Yangtai Mountain and have passed on the following story about it.

In 1928, a Ye family lived in Shiyan Market. The man had gone to Indonesia and not returned. At the time, parents arranged marriages and in his absence he was married to another Ye. A year after their parents had organized the marriage, the wife prepared to go to Indonesia to be united with the husband she had never even seen. But the sea voyage was rough and the road long, and being afraid to travel alone, she looked for a companion. The Ye woman discovered that in another Shiyan village Liguang there was a white woman whose husband was also in Sanbaolong, Indonesia. The white woman was also preparing to join her husband. This white woman had skin the color of kneaded dough, with a hint of pink. No one knew if she had Caucasian blood or a skin disease. After so many years, we no longer know what her surname was or who her people were.

The white woman didn’t have a son and her husband had been overseas for many years. She decided to build a temple on Yangtai Mountain in order to pray for her husband’s safety abroad. While building the temple, she could also stand on the mountaintop and gaze toward Indonesia. It’s obvious how much she yearned for her husband! She said she would do it and she did. The white woman bought a load of bricks. Everyday, she shouldered four bundles of bricks on a carrying pole, and made the difficult trek from Liguang Village up Yangtai Mountain.

Whenever she paused to rest, she sang a mountain song in her beautiful, high-pitched voice, “Older Brother has drifted away on the sea, and hasn’t returned the years; I know the years of time and swallow them whole, no one understands how to open my heart. Standing beneath the mountaintop pines, tears, only tears. I have only one question of Heaven: When will my man return home? (阿哥出洋漂大海,三年五载不回来,线纱打结吞落肚,无人解得崖心开,崖在高山松树下,眼泪汗水落泪花,崖向苍天问句话,崖郎几时转屋家。)

When she reached the peak, she sang in a loud voice, “No one smokes these cigarettes, no seedlings growing in these fields. Younger sister dares climb these roads, younger sister dares view these skies” (无瘾唔食这支烟,无秧唔莳这块田,阿妹敢登这条路,阿妹敢看这重天。)

When the sun set in the west of the mountain, the hope of another day was extinguished. The white lady was deeply saddened and she cried while singing, “From dusk to dawn, I think of you, and my tears endlessly role down my cheeks, they water the mountain grass and drown the people below (黄昏想郎到明天,眼泪滴滴流不停,流到山上草变绿,流到山下浸死人).”

Her melancholy songs reverberated in the mountain valleys, startling birds and causing those who heard to cry. The white lady used her songs to relieve her yearning for her husband, and in this way, day after day, without any help she forced herself to shoulder the burden of bricks, ceramic tiles, lime, sand, and beams and carry them up the mountain. Only after bringing all the necessary materials did she hire a a builder. The temple was finally completed and although it was only several meters big, it brimmed with the white lady’s hard work, blood, sweat, and tears. The white lady also placed a censor and an idol in the temple. The first and fifteenth of every month, she climbed the mountain, undeterred by inclement weather, to pray to the gods and bow to Buddha, saying, “Every 15th or 16th the moon is full, I hope my heart is the same as my husband’s. I pray that the Lord of Heaven protects my husband, insuring that Older Brother makes a fortune (十五十六月光圆,崖同情郎心相连,崖求天公来保佑,保佑阿哥赚大钱).”

The white lady’s story spread throughout Shiyan, her spirit and will-power moving villagers, and many began climbing the mountain to see and burn incense. After many years, this place became rich with incense.

Later, the Ye woman received a letter from her husband saying that she should not go to Indonesia because he was returning to Tang Mountain. Accordingly, the Ye woman changed her plans and the white lady left alone for Indonesia. The white lady’s husband waited for months on the coast, but his wife had vanished without a trace and his heart was aflame with worry. He searched for her and finally got word that his wife suffered from motion sickness on the trip. As she thrashed unconscious, an evil person took advantage of the situation to kill her for her gallbladder because he had heard that white people’s gallbladders could be used for medicine. After removing her organ, he threw her body into the ocean. On hearing what had befallen his wife, the husband was overcome with grief.

To commemorate the white lady, the named the temple she had built “The White Lady’s Temple”. Unfortunately, during the Cultural Revolution, the temple was razed. Nevertheless, the moving love story of a devoted wife continues to be told.