mapping ignorance

Was conversing friends about political succession since Mao and how to interpret reports coming out of Beijing and Guangzhou with respect to Shenzhen’s political status and symbolic valence within the national imaginary. Their 15 year old daughter was at the table, politely ignoring us, when someone mentioned Hua Guofeng (华国锋). She lifted her eyes and asked, “Who?”

Her father explained Mao’s appointed heir had been at the center of a political struggle with Deng Xiaoping to decide if China would continue Maoist policies or pursue reform. This struggle ended with a coup d’etat and the Sino-Vietnamese War as Deng Xiaoping gained political control by securing support of military leaders and high-ranking Party commissars. We then mused about the relationship between violence and political succession, even if indirectly, because Jiang Zemin (江泽民) only became Deng’s appointed successor in the aftermath of Tian’anmen and Zhao Ziyang‘s (赵紫阳) fall.


All this to say, that dinner I experienced a We Didn’t Start the Fire moment with post Cold War Chinese characteristics — recent history actually is this easily forgotten. Or more to the point, I realized (again!) the extent that what we know of recent history comes only as events disrupt our daily lives.  Continue reading

the generation show

Currently, Shenzhen satellite tv is broadcasting “The Generation Show (年代秀),” a trivia game show based on Shenzhen’s four generations – Maoist, 80s, 90s, new millennium. Their advertising caught my eye because it speaks to how “modern life” and “urbanization” are popularly understood in Shenzhen.

The Mao era is filmed in sepia browns and shows a tractor pulling a cart with several people in it, a person peddling a bicycle, and several others walking on the road. They are being urged to go forward. The 80s clip was filmed in color and shows two youths wearing bluejeans and large sunglasses, dancing to music coming from a boombox. The 90s clip is of an architect directing construction workers to raise a piling; they are going up. Finally, the new millennium era is empty of people, just glass steel, reflecting a beam of light.

So, yes, a ruthlessly literal interpretation of the generations: Shenzhen has gone from moving forward and dancing in the streets, to building skyscrapers for nobody. Sigh.


Yang Qian, our florist and his son.

Much happiness throughout Shenzhen. Children play, families stroll, and friends meet for dinners and laughter. Our florist has been exceptionally busy, bringing in orchids, daffodils, and lucky orange trees. Indeed, his sidewalk stand has grown several times its usual size as people purchase New Year’s flowers.

All this bustle is a sign both of how settled Shenzhen has become and how commercialized Spring Festival. On the one hand, many families are not only staying for the Spring Festival, but also bringing in relatives from neidi. In this sense, Shenzhen has become a “hometown”. On the other hand, businesses are staying open, especially restaurants, themeparks, and supermarkets. The malls hum, the parks sparkle, and department stores offer great deals. In other words, consumption is a key element of the celebration and thus, many migrant aren’t going home for the festival because, well, they’re still working.

Of note: the themes of Shenzhen identity, holiday spirit, and consumption all come together in Zhou Bichang’s (周笔畅) version of “The God of Wealth Arrives (财神到),” which was released in 2008, but is still played throughout the city.  Zhou Bichang (笔笔 to her fans) was the city’s representative and runner-up (to Li Yuchun) in the first Super Girl contest and she both appeals to and represents the city’s generation 80; she’s cute, fashionable, and comfortable moving between Cantonese and Mandarin. Moreover, the values she represents are unabashedly neo-liberal or possibly even protestant (pace Weber):

财神到财神到     好心得好报  God of wealth arrives, god of wealth arrives, good hearts get good rewards.
财神话财神话 揾钱依正路  God of wealth says, god of wealth says, earn money on the proper road.
财神到财神到 好走快两步  God of wealth arrives, god of wealth arrives, walk a little faster.

To be rich may or may not be glorious, but come New Year’s in Shenzhen, it’s definitely a good time.

玉历宝钞:return of the repressed, reworked for the current age

old museum entrance

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

Recently I have noticed that buddhist iconography is seeping into local shrines, which have been growing stronger this past decade. At the Daxin Tianhou Temple, for example, Guanyin (boddhisattva of compassion, but also the Goddess of conception) and 天花娘娘 (Tiānhuā niángniáng the Goddess of pox -cow, small, and vaccines thereof, who also heals disease in general and is somehow related to conception) have joined Tianhou on the alter. Also, popoular Buddhist texts and sutras are being distributed in local shrines and temples. In fact, the Shenzhen Hongfa Temple in Fairy Park is actively publishing and presumably delivering these tracts. Other sutras are published by very local printers, whose addresses include place markers such as “side alley”. Continue reading