red earth, red river. yunan.

Visiting the Honghe Vineyard in Mi Le, Yunan, I am reminded how necessary a full sense life is; yes, it is beautiful here, but even more than visual, this is a beauty of open ears, nose, and mouth. Birds sing, flowers entice, spices and herbs tempt the tongue, and the breeze lightly touches open skin. Yet, in the middle of it all, my guide points to an “urban village.” The form has been generalized, something else that we have learned from Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Can there be meaningful rural life when urban consumption of the rural has pre-empted actual villages as the presumed mode of living, even here.

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mountain retreat

Enlightenment is where we find it. Today, the mountain village of Zhanglang, Menghai County, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. Impressions, below.

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daoist china: weibaoshan

Another commercial center on the Tea and Horse Route, Weishan (巍山) is located about 75 minutes from Dali. Weishan was the first capital of the Nanzhao, but was soon replaced by Dali, which has a more temperate climate because located on the banks of Lake Erhai (洱海).

One of the main Weishan tourist sites is Weibaoshan (巍宝山), which literally means “Treasure Mountain Wei”. The mountain has been designated a national park and walking paths that thread from and between Daoist temples have been laid. Contemporary Daoists have occupied many of these temples and it is possible to stay the night there for a donation. However, the architectural treasure is the Long Spring Retreat (长春洞) which was constructed between 1779 and 1799 and is dedicated to the Jade Emperor, the Lord of the Underworld.

Sites like Weibaoshan vex me. I studied Chinese language and history in order to experience places like Long Spring Retreat, as if the poetry and philosophy of classical China still animated everyday life. However, 17 years in Shenzhen have taught me that even if the contemporary cultural mix includes Daoism, nevertheless capitalist forms and modern desires more obviously structure human relationships and desires in China.

And yet, if not for capitalist forms, I could not have visited Long Spring because I not only needed to purchase a ticket to enter the park, but also get myself from Shenzhen to Dali, Dali to Weishan, and then from Weishan to the mountain. Alas, none of those plane rides and car trips  manifest the Daoist virtue of regulating my life by according to natural rhythms. Instead, they more properly manifest the US American virtue of satisfying individual desires through post-industrial convenience.

The point seems to be remembering to take time to reflect on our place in the world, not only as individuals, but also as a species. What does it mean to be human? What does Long Spring Retreat teach that we cannot learn through Shenzhen’s rush to reproduce and exceed the material wealth of North America?

Impressions below.

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fengyu: at the periphery of the periphery

The two hour trip from Dali to Fengyu Market Town (凤羽镇) eases senses overstimulated by tourist crowds, let alone Shenzhen’s urban crush. Nestled within extensive rice paddies and surrounded by mountains, Fengyu stands in provocative contrast with Shenzhen’s industrial parks and reclaimed housing estates. The town’s crumbling architecture evokes past elegance and stately lifestyles, while elderly women dressed in traditional Bai costumes maintain local religious traditions, setting up small altars at the entrance to the town. Here, at the periphery of urban China’s periphery, I slip into forms of rural nostalgia — once upon a time, a stately, elegant society of noble warriors, rural scholars and happy peasants resisted both Tibetan and Han incursions.

And yet. Where Shenzhen streets bustle with young migrant workers, Fengyu’s main street and side alleys shimmer silently. Whatever remains of the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms, today, young Bai must choose between agricultural labor and life elsewhere, in Shenzhen, for example, where one of my favorite restaurants serves Yunnan delicacies that are flown in daily to tempted jaded palates. A walk through Fengyu, below:

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thoughts on multi-culturalism

two events this week that have me thinking about the global mix in shenzhen.

event number one: a group of elementary teachers from xishuangbanna (yunnan) visited the school. this was interesting on several counts. first, they arrived in “native” costumes which they wore the entire week. as far as i could tell, they weren’t wearing traditional clothing, but actual costumes that one would wear on stage to perform one of china’s 56 ethnic groups. these costumes included christmas garland and plastic flowers to adorn the women’s hair. nevertheless, several of the han teachers told me that this is how ethnics dress, even when working in the fields. when i expressed sceptism, it was as if i had challenged something fundamental about being chinese.

“no, you don’t understand,” one of the teachers said, “they really are this simple and honest [my translation of the constant use of “朴实” to describe our guests].”

then, at dinner, the han official who led the delegation admitted that the yunnan minorities prefer to wear western clothing. he added that he constantly encouraged them to maintain their tradition in the face of modernization. now why ethnic minorities should be any different from the han, who don’t wear traditional clothing except when waitressing or making an artistic statement, i don’t know. however, i sensed that the official and his han audience felt an intense yearning for the minorities to be traditional.

so, during picture taking, the han all wanted their pictures taken with the minority teachers in costume. indeed, the han teachers borrowed the minority teachers’ hats for the pictures. for their part, the minority teachers wanted their picture taken with me, who wore chinos, a bright shirt with scalloped sleeves, and a hot pink scarf.

second, two fifth graders got into a fistfight because a mainland student called a korean student “hanguolao (韩国佬).” the teacher who reported this event to me was shocked.

“i thought our school was innocent and naive [my translation of “天真,简单” to describe children],” she said.

i was more surprised by her shock and obvious distress than i was by the fight. not surprised by the fight because (a) i’m a foreigner and so have more understanding of how foreigners experience chinese stereotyping than do chinese, (b) i read my students’ journals and know that many students have naturalized their mutual resentments through cultural difference, and (c) some little boys do try to resolve problems by fighting.

i was surprised by the teacher’s shock because i hadn’t realized how separate many of our teachers remain from the foreign students and teachers at the school. our student population is half foreign (including hong kong and taiwanese students), and there are eleven foreign teachers at the school. yet, it seems many of the han teachers really have no idea about the strangers in their midst. (this is of course the inverse on the foreigners who have no idea where they are!)

the xishuangbanna visit has me wondering about the ways in which we deploy stereotypes to bring coherence to new experiences that might otherwise open new understanding. for the xishuangbanna delegation as well as for the school’s teachers, this visit was something new. however, tourism to xishuangbanna informed how the minority teachers self-presented and were received. this emphasis was confirmed in the songs and dances that the teachers performed during their stay. most of the songs had already been translated into mandarin, and the dances were all “typical” of a generalized minority rather than specific to any one minority.

the fighting boys have me wondering about what lessons we are actually teaching our children. both knew the character “lao” was less human than “ren”. both experienced themselves as culturally distinct even though both had been classmates for several years, communicating in native mandarin. and neither had been taught more appropriate ways of handling conflict other than name calling and punching.

the other thing that i’ve noticed is that with the influx of foreigners and more ethnic minorities in shenzhen, there is emerging a more coherent sense of what a stereotypic shenzhener is: primarily mandarin speaking but fluent in cantonese; hip and urbane; aware of europe and america rather than the rest of asia. indeed, as far as i can tell, hong kong is no longer the shining star it once was and shenzheners are aiming to build a city that is vaguely western. previously, the fact that most migrants were han chinese from other provinces (or cities in guangdong) meant that most residents self-identified through hometowns. however a generation later, their children have a sense of themselves as belonging to an overarching chinese community that is defined mandarin (and therefore most do not think of themselves as being from guangdong), urban culture, and global dreams. this new identity is being simultaneously defined against stereotypes about rural china, guangdong, ethnic minorities, and large number of asian sojourners, whose presence is everyday stronger.

thoughts from kunming


artist area, kunming

Yesterday, I arrived in Kunming to spend some time with my old friend, Sasha. We are staying in a factory area that is being converted into an art area, with studios, restaurants, and cheap overnight housing. Just around the corner is an art center set up by a group of Scandinavians.

When the cab driver dropped me off here he sighed and asked, “What are the workers going to do?”

And that’s part of the question that’s posed by the abrupt transformation of Shenzhen factories into upgraded productive areas, like the creative technologies in Xiasha, design offices in Tianmian, and bohemian art facilities in OCT loft: even if it isn’t the artists’ fault that factories are closing and moving to new areas, what are the workers going to do?

I find this question, along with questions about the salience of a workers’ revolution muted in Shenzhen. Or perhaps its more accurate to say, the questions seemed forced because there’s little (left) in the environment that directly references what gentrification has meant for workers’ quality of life or how the Shenzhen experiment grew out of issues raised by the revolution.

Historical forms of silencing or glossing over the question of working class politics in Shenzhen include:

1. Shenzhen workers are defined by their exclusion from the city. This exclusion is an overdetermined effect of hukou policies, urban design, and Shenzhen social protocols. First, migrant workers do not have Shenzhen hukou and are therefore technically not “Shenzheners”. Second, factories workers either live in dormitories or new villages. This means that they are either unseen (in the case of dormitories) or subsumed under the category of local villager (in the case of new villages). Third, if a migrant worker has earned enough money to move into white collar neighborhoods, that person is considered a Shenzhener. The key here is that, except for local villagers, everyone living in Shenzhen migrated to work. The class distinction between office and factory work is the pivot on which rights to belonging in the city hinge.

2. Shenzhen’s traditional “workers” were Baoan farmers, who have yet to embody either the revolution or reform. For most Chinese and foreigners the classic Chinese worker was defined by socialist industrialization during the 50s and 60s in cities like Harbin, Shenyang, and Dalian; the forms of industrialization that have taken place since 1980, do not fall under the same rubric and therefore have also produced a different understanding of workers. Indeed, post Mao urbanization has entailed transforming rural areas and rural people into cities and urban residents. In this process, the actual class relations defining industrial production get recast as “cultural”.

Specifically, after Liberation, Baoan County was designated for rural production. This meant that during the Mao years, villagers were not factory workers, who represented the socialist vanguard. Under Deng, Baoan county was elevated to the status of Shenzhen Municipality. As such, the ideal Shenzhener has been an urban, white collar worker. In other cities, like Kunming, the shift in social importance from factory to office workers represents a re-valuation of class relations internal to the city itself. Rural migrant workers and traditional factory workers embody different forms of lower class urban possibility. However, in Shenzhen, this contradiction has not actualized as such because there were never factory workers here. Instead, Shenzhen actualizes an intensification of the relative ranking of rural and urban lives. In this sense, Shenzhen’s recent history has been consistent with Maoism in ways that prevent urban residents from reflecting on the injustices that have come along with reform.

3. Shenzhen buildings have a half-life of seven years. It takes active searching to find, photograph, and categorize traces of history, both socialist and local. During the eighties and nineties Shenzhen produced electronics and textiles and toys and shoes and what-not, those factories have since been razed or transformed. In the SEZ itself, the few factories that remain are being upgraded into cultural industries centers like the design center in Tianmian or commercial areas like in Huaqiangbei.

A visit to a city like Kunming where it is still possible to find Stalinist architecture on a main street or still functional factories downtown highlights the Shenzhen impulse to erase all traces of manufacturing, instead projecting an image of already actualized upper middle class city that was never build on production. A city of two classes–white collar workers and their servants and servers. With manufacturing located offsite out of sight and their for out of mind.

The ironies and the difficulties that entangle workers and artists (even before complete capitalization of the Chinese economy) are perhaps represented by “The Materialist (唯物主义者),” a statue by Wang Guangyi (王广义) that stands in front of the Gingko Elite (翠湖会) shopping center. Want Guangyi’s work was once banned in the PRC because it combined socialist and pop cultural symbols. His resistance to the socialist state increased his marketability among Western collectors. That his work is now public culture in Kunming suggests both the extent to which China has changed as well as the need for reminders of why the revolution was and continues to be necessary.

The commodification of culture defines contemporary gentrification in Shenzhen. The difference I am noting is how the process remains built into Kunming’s urban space, while in Shenzhen this process is a glorified municipal policy to create a city in keeping with global standards. Although I could be wrong. However, the presence of the Scandanavians suggests a different kind of reliance on government funding for art.

In addition to manifesting socialist history through remnant buildings, Kunming also has monuments to the revolution. We visited the Yunnan Army Training School, just near Lake Cui. The large compound seems a popular tourist site, and I saw two brides posing for pictures within the compound space. Inside was an installation that wrote Yunnan’s Double Nine (重九) uprising into national history, indeed, an installation that positioned Yunnan at the forefront of the revolution. When I later asked some Chinese friends, they said they new about the War to Save the Nation (护国战), but not the Double Nine, which even had its own flag.

So points of comparison with Shenzhen.