dragon boat festival preparations

This past week I have been in Shuiwei learning to wrap zongzi (粽子) for the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival. What is apparent is not simply the re-invention of tradition, but also the unpaid work that women do to create that solidarity. The zongzi making takes place over 10 days—two prep days and then 8 days of wrapping and boiling. The hours are long: 6:30 a.m. to midnight or later. Of note: Continue reading

shajing oysters

Today I learned about cultivating oysters. I also visited Shajing, the town that oysters built even though oysters are no longer cultivated here. Instead the oyster babies are sent to Taishan where they are raised and returned to Shajing for processing. It’s almost like assembly manufacturing, except its agricultural production. Continue reading

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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anxious masses: Thinking about Gu Wenda´s Ink Alchemy

Yesterday at the opening for experimental ink artist Gu Wenda, I was struck by the unfolding of scale in his work. His early work could be completed by one person. There were large paintings, like Surreal Horizon (超现实地平线) or images from Lost Empires (遗失的王朝) but nevertheless the actual works themselves conformed to a human-sized world as I have come to know it. I felt myself and the art to be at the same scale. Indeed, often I was larger than the pieces and some, like the Red Heart Series (红心系列) of seals on small, abstract ink paintings, I could hold in my hand. However the later work, such as the Ink Alchemy Series (水墨炼金术系列 – above image) was large scale industrial. As such, these pieces could not be completed by any one person or even by a group of people working with their hands. Instead, the artist became both an industrial designer and an organizer of human labor and machines over time.

Made entirely of died braids of human hair, Gu Wenda’s most recent installation Black Gold (黑金)  fills the entire OCT Art Terminal. In the middle of the cavernous room, a large rectangle of ink powder lies flat beneath a canopy of black braids. To the left and right of the canopy, evenly spaced sections of died braids hang from ceiling to floor in fine, delicate loops. The installation is deceptively simple – blocks of color shimmering neatly beneath gallery lights. However, Black Gold took three years (2008-2010) to complete and thinking about what would be necessary to complete such a project left me feeling both frightened and exhilarated. Frightened because I imaged thousands of woman, who had given several years of their lives to grow their hair, scalped to make an epic statement. Exhilarated because the level of coordinated precision needed to execute Black Gold spoke to me of how one might go about representing Chinese society – massive blocks that from a distance seem a well-organized whole, but which upon closer inspection dissolve into idiosyncratic anonymity.

Neatness or tidiness (整齐) of large groups or objects is one of the mass aesthetic values that I have had difficulty appreciating. Not that I don´t enjoy watching several thousands of people making the same motion at precisely the same time, but when I think about the level of work that is necessary to achieve such precision, I feel the same anxiety that I felt upon seeing Black Gold. Several examples of mass coordination come to mind: military marching, classrooms full of Chinese students taking tests over and over and over again to prepare for the gaokao, highways full of cars, miles of grazing pasture in the American West and wheat fields in the Mid. Massive, national bureaucracies. Each of these instances of mass coordination exemplifies the human potential to submit to external hierarchies that take sameness and repetition to be the signs of unity and belonging.

And here´s the rub: one what?

Military marching and mass test-taking provide living metonyms for the modern, industrial state. Nevertheless, these mass exercises also remind me of feudal traditions, in which being born into oneś place enabled large societies to hold their form for generations. In other words, for many to become one, for each to find her ¨place¨ takes a lifetime of practice. This taking one´s place in a larger order is natural insofar as to be human is to belong to various groups of various sizes. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this is the whole point of education – helping young people figure out how to inhabit diverse sets of coordinated relationships.

The anxiety I feel when thinking about Black Gold, specifically and mass coordination, more generally has to do with the means and goals of mass practices. Military marching, mass test-taking, driving on the highway, planting acres of wheat: each of these practices takes an abstract idea of what it means to be human and imposes it on the diversity of the world, creating conditions of idiosyncratic anonymity. Moreover, these practices aren´t particularly healthy. Armies go to war, Chinese students become test-taking machines, carbon monoxide kills as do the pesticides necessary to maintain wheat fields.

In contrast, if there is such a ¨one¨ out there, I’m Buddhist enough to believe that the point is to create conditions of mutual recognition. Creative collaboration rather than mass coordination, so to speak. I’m not sure what this means in terms of reorganizing nations or highway systems or college entrance requirements. Yet I trust the process. When I take the time to understand each of my students, something happens between us. And that state of sharing between – elusive, delicate, and quite beautiful – could transform mass culture in unexpected and wonderful ways.

Gu Wendaś Ink Alchemy retrospective is currently up at the He Xiangning Museum of Art and the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. Worth a visit.

what exactly is an urban village anyway?

Shenzhen’s urban villages confound easy categorization precisely because they are sites where Mainland Chinese distinctions between “farmers (农民)” and “city people (市民)” have been constantly negotiated and renegotiated for over thirty years.

In the 80s and early 90s, the question facing the Shenzhen government was: how to transfer collective land to urban work units (to establish urban patterns of property ownership) while providing villagers with a livelihood. The resolution to that problem took the form of “handshake buildings (握手楼)” and village level manufacturing and commerce. These villages were called “new villages (新村)” – as in “Guimiao New Village and Xiangnan New Village, for example. However, the economic success of both the new villages and the pace of Shenzhen’s growth has meant that new villages have constantly bumped up against more intensive forms of urban expansion. Consequently, since the mid-90s, the question facing Shenzhen’s government has been: how to integrate the new villages into the city. Suddenly, the government was pursuing a policy of “[urban] village renovation (旧村改新)”. Of course, the so-called “old villages” were in fact the “new villages” of the past decade. More tellingly, the “new villages” were now called “urban villages (城中村)”, an expression which might conjure images of a massive city surrounding and absorbing a small yet resistant village.

The project to renovate Gangxia [New] Village began in 1998 with a plan to construct the Shenzhen central axis along and through Gangxia. However, it was not until 2008 that the government began negotiating with residents of Gangxia Heyuan (岗厦河园片) to transfer land from villagers to city developers. By that time, Gangxia Heyuan had 580 buildings (mostly handshake buildings) and an estimated population of 70,000 people. Obviously, most of the 70,000 inhabitants were migrant workers and not Gangxia Villagers with landrights and property holdings. Nevertheless, the government had to begin a complicated process of negotiated the terms under which Gangxia Heyuan would be transferred from Gangxia [New Village / Juweihui – and there’s a whole ‘nother story told in another post] to Shenzhen City by way of Futian District.

The crux of the matter was, of course, how to define an equitable transfer because once Gangxia Heyuan became a part of the Central Axis it would cease being an “urban village” and become an “urban center”, with all the symbolic and economic capital implied. Consequently, city reps, the development company, and the Gangxia Heyuan villagers needed to work out the amount of ratio of replacement housing to actual housing and the compensation per meter of housing to which each villager was entitled. In the end, the ratio was established at 1:082 for first floor holdings and 1:088 for second story and above. Compensation was fixed at 12,800 per meter of housing space and 23,800 per meter of commercial space.

Inquiring minds want to know: just how much richer did some villagers become anyway? Well, it depended on how much housing one owned and where it was. A villager who owned one of the 580 buildings, which might have 6-800 square meters would be entitled to anywhere from 475-600 square meters of new housing and 7.5 million to 10.2 million rmb if they only owned residential space and much, much more if commercial. In total, there are figures as high as 9 billion rmb in compensation flying through the rumor mill.

Here’s the rub. All this money seems like a lot until we go back and start factoring in the 70,000 migrant workers and several thousand Gangxia villagers who had unequal access to handshake buildings less than 20 years ago. Thus, because Gangxia New Village included unequal redistributions of handshake buildings and landuse rights, some villagers are now much much richer than others. Rumor has it that one such villager had 6,000 square meters of space, while several others had 3,000 square meters. All told (in hushed voices, of course) Gangxia is rumored to have over 20 billionaires and at least 10 residents with over 10 million in property holdings.

And it doesn’t stop there. None of this takes into account how much the real estate developers are going to earn off the wheeling and dealing that re-building Gangxia into Central Axis luxury condos, high-end commercial areas, and business centers. There are a few non-villagers who will become even richer than the few Gangxia billionaires.

So yes, urban village renovation is not only creating new landscapes, but also accelerating the pace of economic polarization in Shenzhen.

If we include Maoist attempts to ameliorate differences between rural and urban settlements, we’re looking at over sixty years of concerted negotiation of Chinese identity as a debate about rural (tradition) versus urban (modernity). Such that its possible to think of the past 100-odd years of Chinese modernization as a process of rural urbanization and concomitant forms of inequality, legislated, negotiated, and otherwise.

For the curious, the Chinese web has facts, figures, and rumors: here, here, and here.