玉律–thoughts on the shifting cultural geography of shenzhen urban villages

One of the driving forces behind cultural preservation Xinqiao (新桥) and neighboring Yulv (玉律) is the 新桥曾氏仕贵公理事会, which for the moment I’m translating as the Xinqiao Zeng Surname Council, rather than Zeng Family or Zeng Clan. The reason I’m opting for literal translation of 氏 is that during the times that I have visited Xinqiao and now Yulv, the emphasis has been on the family connection, rather than on explicit kin connections.

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qingming ramblings

It’s grave sweeping day, and the streets were empty. So my friend and I headed out to the Fenghuang Mountain Fenyan Ancient Temple. Neither of us have been and we were curious. However, it turns out that we couldn’t get into the temple because there were too many people burning incense and all traffic was being redirected. In the middle of the only traffic jam we encountered all day (including on Guangdong 107), I jumped out of the car and took a picture of the old pagoda at the Wen Tianxiang memorial; handshakes, many, many, many migrant workers, and a touch of something ancient. My friend mentioned that during the Cultural Revolution, they were only allowed to sweep the graves of revolutionary martyrs; no sweeping family graves. Today, however, although workers had the day off, most could not go home and so they had gone to the temple or to walk the mountain paths. Then, because we couldn’t find a parking spot from which to visit either the completely restored ancient village or the temple, we headed back to guannei. On our way to Shekou, we passed the former site of the Nanyou Building; once upon a time was an important landmark but is now a building site. We reminisced about how narrow and small Nanshan and Shekou used to be, as we approached the recently erected sign for the Shekou and Qianhai Free Trade Zone at the border between Shekou and Nanshan. Reading the sign, I realized that Shekou-Qianhai is not precisely a free trade zone, but rather a pilot free trade zone, which sounds ominously unstable, with the possibility of expanding or retracting at any moment. Ramble. Ramble. Ramble.

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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).

On the banks of the Newly Established — Peanuts

Yesterday, enjoyed a lovely walk and conversation with Sara, a young curator visiting from Canada. We took a bus to Fuyong, one of the Baoan precincts which abuts the old Guangshen highway and is now more commonly known as National Highway 107.  Guangshen / 107 is (in)famous for its factories, migrant workers, and more recently container dwellers, which have entered Shenzhen conversation as extreme examples of the SEZ’s cost of housing problems.

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Sara’s interest in urban gardening brought us into conversation with Aunt Xu, who migrated from Fujian to live with her son in Lixinhu (Establish the New) Estates, a 90s era housing development located next to the Lixin Reservoir. Aunt Xu had come to live with her son and take care of her grandchild. But five or six years ago, the grandchild started school and no longer needed childcare. Aunt Xu abruptly had time on her hands. Uninterested in television programs and full of energy, Aunt Xu decided to cultivate peanuts on the banks of Lixin reservoir.  Continue reading