go home, young cadre!

Neo-Confucianism continues to show up in unexpected places. Most recently, cadres are told that “going home for dinner is honorable.” Of note, with the window and the parked car outside the window, “home” suddenly seems uncannily US suburban. I know, inquiring minds continue to wonder: just how “American” is the Chinese Dream?

the shenzhen anti-terrorism campaign

Although China has been strengthening its anti-terrorism campaign over the past year or so, the Shenzhen anti-terrorism campaign is recent. Ideologically, the campaign promotes a Neo-Confucian message of family first–a value that terrorists are purported not to share. Unfortunately, terrorists are more or less consistently represented as Muslim. In fact, the stereotypes used in the campaign are familiar from conversations I’ve had with friends over the past decade, when I have been told that Islam is not a religion but a terrorist organization. More alarmingly, as in the United States, Chinese anti-terrorism feeds anti Muslim sentiments and justifies increasing militarization of public life. Sigh.

Of note: the May 22, 2014 attack (in which men in ski masks jumped out of two vans to attack people in Urumqi) has become the stereotype of terrorist attack in the campaign. The following Inside Story by Aljazeera attempts to understand the increasingly violent situation.

礼貌 and 文明, thoughts

The difference between 礼貌 and 文明 matters because I bumped into a group in the Shekou Sihai park. They were members of 格 (RGLove). the charitable fund of the Shenzhen based high-tech company, 荣格科技集团. RGLove had brought in people from all over the country to explore and develop their civilization levels through Confucian studies. The goal, of course, is to intervene in the world by expressing correct relationships, that of course included 礼 which maybe 礼貌, but I’m not for sure. Meanwhile, inquiring minds want to know: just what does all this mean? Continue reading

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?

the right to depend on one’s son

In Xintang, Baishizhou, this 60-year old gentleman has been protesting for a month. His demand? He wants the right to depend on his son for his old age care.

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In Shenzhen, parents can transfer their hukou from hometowns to the SEZ based on their children’s hukou status. Once they have this hukou, they can take advantage of subsidized medical care from their 65th birthday. The problem? This gentleman’s son does not have a Shenzhen hukou. In addition, he does not own a house and is facing eviction upon the completion of negotiations to raze Baishizhou (admittedly at least two or three years in the future). At such time, he will loose his shop, and without equity in the building, will not receive compensation. So he is facing a perilous retirement.

The wording of the protest is of interest. 投靠 (tóu kào) literally means “throw oneself to depend upon”. It can also be translated as “become a retainer of”. Within the rhetoric of this protest, this gentleman is demanding the right to become his son’s retainer.

The form of his demand is similarly coached in feudal language; indeed his banners function as petitions to leaders rather than as social demands. He asks Xi Jinping, for example, if the General Secretary realizes that although in Beijing old people have welfare, the old people in Shenzhen have a different situation. He then asks Xi Jinping to visit Shenzhen and see the situation. Likewise, he asks Shenzhen Secretary Wang Rong and Shenzhen Mayor Xu Qin where the Communist Party is.

The moral economy of noblesse oblige gives these questions their oppositional force. The question put to Xi Jinping implies that if the General Secretary understood the true situation in Shenzhen, he would rectify it. The question put to Wang Rong is even more pointed: has the Communist Party abandoned its responsibility to take care of the people?

In order to make this moral claim, the gentleman also demonstrates that he has upheld his end of the moral contract between government and the future. First, he followed the one child policy and only gave birth to a son. Second, he came to Shenzhen twenty-three years ago to make a better life for himself and his family. During that time, his son was back in his hometown to go to school. Third, he never broke any other laws.

Shenzhen has been at the forefront of reforming its pension system. In practice, this has been the commodification of services. For those with Shenzhen hukou, there are still some benefits. However, as this gentleman reminds us, in the present real security comes through family ties and home ownership.

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christmas in shenzhen

Yesterday on weixin, members of one of my livelier circles debated whether or not Christmas should be translated as “圣诞节 (shèng dàn jié )” or “耶诞节 (yē dàn jié )”. At stake in the debate is whether or not “Holy Birth Festival” — a literal translation of 圣诞节 — should refer to Jesus or to Confucius.

In Mandarin, 圣 (shèng) functions as both an adjective “holy” and also a noun “sage”. In contrast, 耶 (yē ) is a phonetic marker, appearing in Chinese expressions for Jesus (耶稣), Jehovah (耶和华), and the Book of Jeremiah (耶利米书). 耶 also appears in the transliterations of Yale, Jerusalem, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Lamentations. Advocates for putting the “耶稣” back in the translation for “Christmas” had two culturally relevent points. (1) historically, Chinese have used the character 耶 to designate words and institutions from the Judeo-Christian tradition; and (2) the Chinese sage was and remains Confucius. Consequently, they believe that the expression “holy birth festival”, which also means “the Sage’s birth festival” should designate Confucius’ birthday, September 28. The Center may or may not agree with those in the cultural right, after all they recently decided to move Teacher’s Festival from September 10 to September 28 in order to honor China’s original teacher.

The 圣 or 耶 debate is a contemporary example of intellectuals attempting to rectify names (正名), a quintessentially Confucian endeavor. Confucius explained that when we clearly perceive reality we call things by their proper names. It followed that by misusing names, we muddy the perceptual waters and make it difficult for people to understand reality. Importantly, for Confucius, moral relations infused reality. Consequently, to rectify names was in fact an effort to bring the world into harmony through proscribed relations. For the Confucians there was a great deal at stake in the rectification of names — moral certainty, harmonious society and the proper administration of punishments, i.e good government. Nevertheless, the difficulty of rectifying names, even translated names and even when one holds the cultural linguistic high ground, is that language does in fact spin out of control because each of us lives and uses and experiences words and names in divergent contexts and for different purposes.

So what’s at stake in the contemporary 圣 / 耶 debates?

In Shenzhen, Christmas is an international holiday, celebrated by non-Christians. Lovers and friends exchange gifts and eat together. The shopping malls offer all sorts of discounts and there is a general sense of happy consumption without the angst of family reunions. In fact, a Shenzhen Christmas has a particular demographic — high school and college students, as well as young white-collar workers. They still go to school and must go to work, but they use the day to celebrate themselves and their non-familial relationships. In other words, Christmas and its commodification have been appropriated to celebrate young modernity.

In contrast, the older generation emphasized the winter solstice (冬至), which was marked this past Sunday with sweet rice ball soup and noodles. In the north, they ate dumplings. The solstice was not marked by the level of Christmas consumption. Certainly, the Santa Clauses, tinsel and trees, candles and presents had nothing to do with the actual gatherings that took place around family tables.

Thought du jour: At stake in the 圣 / 耶 debate may be the extent to which commodity and youth cultures overlap in these globalizing times. Indeed, the recognizable Christmas traditions — gifts and trees and cookies and candles — didn’t actually come from the early Church, which maybe why they have so happily adopted in Shenzhen.

dream of a red china

On November 29, 2012, in one of his first appearances as the General Party Secretary of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping defined “China’s Dream”, saying, “everyone is debating what China’s Dream is. I think that since the modern era, the greatest dream of the Chinese nation has been the renaissance of the Chinese people (大家都在讨论中国梦。我认为,实现中华民族伟大复兴,就是中华民族以来最伟大的梦想。).”

In support of Xi Jinping’s exhortation, the walls surrounding Shenzhen’s construction sites have been covered in posters that define this dream in terms of Chinese tradition. Visually, this is achieved through folk paintings of children learning to use a calligraphy brush or symbols of new year’s prosperity. However, given that folk nationalism was such an important part of early Maoism, these posters also reference the joys of labor and strengthening the country.

Shenzhen’s take on the campaign interests me because the posters reference Maoism indirectly through a visual rhetoric that reiterates 1950s folk nationalism. Traditional activities and visual styles further evoke a nostalgia for the good old days. Moreover, these posters explicitly celebrate Confucianism. All this to say, the current Shenzhen interpretation of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream takes the form of nostalgia for a past that ever happened creates a Chinese identity that is explicitly cultural, rather that political.

I’m not sure if Shenzhen’s take on China’s Dream is the same as in other cities. A quick google of 中国梦, for example, brings up illustrations that are more scientific and futuristic that these colorful posters. Thus, there is something determinedly anti-socialist realism in the Shenzhen campaign, which might lead us to think that Shenzhen’s leaders are ambivalent about the Party. Certainly, it leaves me wondering just how far the current regime will distance itself from its former incarnations in order to maintain hegemony without sharing power.

Examples of these posters, below:

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轮侯制: economizing moralities

In the United States, we make an economic distinction between “needs” and “wants”. We teach children (here, here, and here, for example) to recognize and manage the difference between their needs and wants. Subsequently, we re-code these management skills in terms of individual ethics — good people recognize their needs and wants, and then make rational choices to live within their means. In contrast, bad people make irrational choices based on uncontrolled desires that lead to debt and bankruptcy.


The flip response — “one girl’s need is an aging man’s want” — to this statement merely confirms the underlying double bind of this economizing morality. In this financial literacy exercise, for example, only the social facts of suburban car culture, supermarkets, and fast food restaurants conspire to make white bread, bottled water, and a tent vacation “needs” in contrast to the “wants” of a bicycle and a pizza. What if our built environment depended on bikes for transportation? What if we were homeless and the best we could cobble together was a tent made of discarded plastic and corrugated steel? In these situations, the economizing morality is to recalibrate our personal needs and wants rather than to challenge the inequality that poses this choice as reflecting real world conditions.

All this to say: the economizing morality of individual needs and wants is the elementary school version of neoliberal ethics.

I’m thinking about individual needs and wants and neoliberal immorality for two interrelated reasons. At the level of urban planning, given the prime location of urban villages and the lack of developable plats in Shenzhen, the villages were targeted for redevelopment (or renovation — 更新 as a verb). In turn, the need for neighborhoods for the working poor has been recoded as the need for individuals with Shenzhen hukou to find affordable housing. A shift of hand, and the debate ceases to be about communities and becomes one of individual economies. Moreover, convenience, access to schools and social infrastructure, as well as economic opportunities are concomitantly transvalued as wants to be satisfied through economizing.

res01_attpic_briefOn January 31, 2013 for example, the Municipality made available 13,496 units of public housing. Of that total, all are located in the outer districts (guanwai) and the majority (11,111) are located in Longgang, roughly 35 kms from the city center. To allocate these units, Shenzhen will be testing what is known as the 轮侯制 or “revolving wait system”. Basically, this system entails meeting conditions, including hukou status, time in Shenzhen, and maximum income to apply for a residence. When any of these conditions change, the family has to move out of the unit, thus opening it for another. The family also has to find another place to live.

In Shenzhen, those opposed to urban renovation projects have been reminding the Municipality out that urban villages like Baishizhou already provide low-cost housing and small scale economic opportunities for working poor families. Moreover, the given the Municipality’s demographics 13,496 housing units are sufficient to absorb displaced populations only when those with hukou may apply. Point du jour: locating public housing far from urban centers only makes moral sense (cents!) in a world in which individual economizing ideologically justifies disrupting neighborhoods for the working poor in order to pave the way for developers. And yes, this is just more evidence that China and the United States really are the same country.

it’s not in the mail — hee!

The other day, the department secretary attempted to mail copies of Architectural Worlds and two packs of playing cards to a friend in Switzerland. The journal went through, however, the cards did not. The reason given was that it is illegal to send playing cards through the post because they are used for gambling. Who knew?

It is legal to print, transport, and sell playing cards in China. Indeed, there are decks designed specifically for collectors. But there are no decks of cards in Chinese post offices — except perhaps for those in the hands of postal workers who are relaxing over a game or two!

According to Item 37 of the Chinese Postal Code (第三十七条  任何单位和个人不得利用邮件寄递含有下列内容的物品) the list of seven types of materials that cannot be mailed are: (1) treasonous materials; (2) state secrets; (3) false information that contributes to social unrest; (4) materials that inflame inter-ethnic hatred; (5) propaganda on behalf of cults or superstitions; (6) smut, gambling, and terrorist materials, and (7) any other content that is not in compliance with Chinese law. The complete postal code, along with the list of items that cannot be shipped in the Chinese post  is online.

东方村:the modern politics of traditional villages

Today, I recount and comment on the 11th episode in The Transformation of Shenzhen Villages (沧海桑田深圳村庄三十年), Dongfang Village (东方村), which is interesting because it illustrates current concerns with rewriting urban village history as the continuation of Confucian values in a new environment.

In 1978, border police captured several refugees from the Dongfang Brigade, who were trying to cross the Sino-British border and enter Hong Kong illegally. The organizer of the group was none other than the brigade party secretary, Wen Zhixiang, who was sentenced to four years in jail for his crime, but did not actually attempt to go to Hong Kong. Instead, he decided to send his daughters to Kong Kong, while he remained in Dongfang. After his release, Wen Zhixiang shifted sand for use in concrete and died four years later of liver cancer.

The story of Wen Zhixiang is presented as a story of sacrifice that links present-day Dong Fang to the Southern Song official, Wen Tianxiang (文天祥). In 1278, Wen Tianxiang committed suicide rather than serve the conquering Yuan. However, in order to insure that his family line would continue, he made sure that his younger brother would escape to have descendants. Accordingly, the two brothers fulfilled their Confucian obligations to both their Emperor and family, in Mandarin their decision has been described as “one loyal and one filial (一忠一孝)”. In fact, Wen Zhixiang was a descendent of Wen Tianxiang’s younger brother, Wen Bi. The Wen family descendants have been living at Dongfang Village for over 600 years.

During Wen Zhixiang’s incarceration, then Baoan Party Secretary, Fang Bao petitioned to have him released. However, the higher ups continually denied to release Wen Zhixiang, but also to approve more than the official quota of border passes for visits to Hong Kong. In his interview for the documentary, Fang Bao emphasized that policy placed local farmers in a difficult, but understandable position. On the one hand, Baoan residents knew life was better across the border because they had family there. On the other hand, they also had worked hard for the Party. This was a question that tested the contradictions between one’s loyalty to the Party and family responsibility.

Not unexpectedly, the film asserts that Hong Kong investment in village-owned factories resolved the contradiction that Wen Zhixiang faced. Good government, it suggests, means enabling citizens to have a high quality of life, so that they are not faced with the decision of remaining loyal to government or their family.

For me, the juxtaposition of Wen Tianxiang and Wen Zhixiang’s respective stories elides important differences between Confucian and neoconfucian understandings of loyalty, and the role of individual consent in traditional and modern hegemony. Wen Tianxiang, for example, did not choose between to extant political orders. Instead, once the Song had been defeated, he chose to die rather than serve the new dynasty. For Wen Tianxiang, loyalty was absolute. This is a traditional political value. In contrast, Wen Zhixiang chose between socialism (and subsistence farming) in Songgang or wage labor in Hong Kong, basing his decision on the quality of life in the two places. In other words, his neoconfucianism allowed for conditional loyalty, which is a highly modern political value.

In other words, the story of Wen Zhixiang reveals the modernity of “traditional” famers, rather than their blind repetition of tradition. From the perspective of local Party Secretary Fang Bao, Wen Zhixiang’s decision was understandable. Even if Wen Zhixiang broke the law, he did not deserve imprisonment. Indeed, the man who replaced Wen Zhixiang as Dong Fang Village secretary reiterated this point; they tried repeatedly to reintegrate Wen Zhixiang into the village after his release. In other words, by making the stories of Wen Tianxiang and Wen Zhixiang analogous, the film reveals the explicit modernity of “traditional” Baoan, where citizens give or withhold loyalty to a government based on their quality of life (however defined), rather than, committing their lives to the government they happened to be born to (as did Wen Tianxiang).