January 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Confucius is back again and, at 10 meters tall, is bigger than ever. Why the continued preoccupation with the ancient Sage (551 B.C.E.-479 B.C.E.) in today’s China is still unclear (see here and here). Only time will tell whether the current interest in him has real staying power. In this particular incarnation, Confucius is a statue constructed of silicone and steel, complete with pulsating heart, submerged from the waist down in a pool of water.
Q Confucius No. 2, as it is called, is but one piece in Zhang Huan’s solo show, Q Confucius, now on display at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. I haven’t seen it–but wish I could. (It runs through January 29.) Zhang Huan, who works out of Beijing, Shanghai, and New York, explains that the images in the show have their origins in a series of questions he’s been pondering:
Faced with rapid economic and societal changes and energy and climate challenges, how can we achieve sustainable development? What responsibilities come along with China’s rise in international importance? Where is the sense of spiritual belonging for contemporary Chinese?
Where indeed? Confucius No. 2, half submerged, half emerged, invites us to consider whether the iconic Sage has a sustained, moral-spiritual role to play in China today. How fully will his age-old teachings and ideals connect with the needs of a country undergoing sweeping social, economic, and cultural changes? Will an updated, vital Confucius emerge from his relative insignificance in the 20th century–from the pummeling of the May 4th movement and then Mao’s cultural revolution–to serve as spiritual guide to the Chinese people in the 21st century?
Zhang Huan offers no answers. But that he, one of China’s edgiest avant-garde artists, feels compelled to ask the questions, to contemplate the meaning of Confucius in China today, is sure indication that Chinese today are searching for meaning.
November 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
Occupy Wall Street protests have not spread to China, but Beijing’s crackdown on media coverage and Internet activity related to OWS isn’t surprising. What’s less predictable are ways that Occupy protests could shake up China’s internal politics, especially among neo-Maoists.
Occupy Wall Street protests have not spread to the People’s Republic of China. But word of the protests has, and the Chinese authorities are trying to figure out how to respond.
Their reactions have run the gamut: from gloating denunciations of American capitalism, to a crackdown on all media coverage of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Of course, there is no real surprise in this sequence of responses. More interesting, and less predictable, are the ways in which the Occupy Wall Street protests could substantively shape China’s internal politics.
In the early days of the OWS movement, when protests were confined to US cities, a China Daily OpEd (Sept. 30) harshly attacked the American media for journalistic hypocrisy, for not giving coverage to protests in their own country even as they had relished covering protests in the Arab world just a few months earlier. A couple weeks later, state-run Xinhua News was harsher still, arguing that the protests in New York’s Zuccotti Park “laid bare malpractices of the US government and ailments of its political and economic systems.”
But as the Occupy movement spread globally, the Chinese response shifted. Assault on the silence of the American press gave way to anxiety about the possible effects Chinese media coverage might have on their Chinese audience.
On Oct. 17, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, after remarking that the issues raised by OWS may be “worth pondering,” cautioned the Chinese media, saying that their “reflections should be conducive to maintaining the sound and steady development of the world economy.” On the same day, editors of the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times called for people to “calmly observe the protest movement and the global situation, and not be confused by extreme points of view.”
A few days later, on Oct. 19 and 20, Beijing authorities – setting aside any ambivalence they might have had about the Occupy movement – issued an order to the Chinese media to cease all reporting and commenting on the OWS movement.
What happened? Perhaps Beijing had examined the numbers in the intervening three days, and been reminded that as high as the income gap in the United States is, China’s income and wealth inequality is right up there as well, even higher according to some estimates. Or perhaps recognition had set in that China’s elite 1 percent just might – like America’s 1 percent elite – be open to charges of greed and corruption.
Given, too, that 36 percent of the Chinese people (that’s 481 million people) live on $2 a day or less, the Beijing leadership might have become worried that the Chinese would not remain as “calm” in the face of news about the US protests as the Global Times might wish.
Cyberspace censorship quickly followed after the media gag order. Searches for “Occupy Wall Street” and, more pointedly, for “Occupy Beijing,” “Occupy Shanghai,” “Occupy Guangzhou,” “Occupy Zhongnanhai,” and “Occupy Lhasa,” among a growing list of banned terms, now yield blank screens on microblogging sites like Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter).
Such a crackdown was predictable. Since the Arab Spring uprisings, the Chinese leadership, vigilant about any signs of civil unrest at home, has been aggressive in promoting the “harmonious society” that is the Community Party’s mantra.
But tensions in the ruling Chinese Communist Party have surfaced in recent years. New Leftists, sometime called New Maoists, have become more voluble about the widening gulf between rich and poor; corporate and official collusion; the state’s inattentiveness to the needs of the elderly, the infirm, and the impoverished; and the rise in “mass incidents” of protest against official corruption. It is time, the New Leftists suggest, to put the brakes on the liberal reform experiment launched in the post-Mao era by Deng Xiaoping. It is time to resurrect the revolutionary, egalitarian spirit of Chairman Mao.
Will the message or spirit of the Occupy Wall Street protests resonate with China’s 99-percenters and give momentum to China’s New Maoist agenda? OWS has already produced small demonstrations in nearby Hong Kong and Taiwan. If OWS endures and expands its reach to mainland China, savvy politician Bo Xilai, party chief of Chongqing municipality in China’s southwest, would likely have much to gain. The leading figure and public face of the New Maoists, Bo is angling – some would say campaigning – to win a position on the all-powerful nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2012.
Described as “handsome,” “outgoing,” and “Kennedy-esque,” Mr. Bo has made a name for himself as an activist party chief – even as he has ruffled feathers along the way. He launched a popular campaign targeting organized crime and official corruption in 2009. He also sponsored low-income housing projects and welfare programs for the working class and the poor in Chongqing. This summer, he inaugurated the Red Culture Movement, calling for a renaissance of the revolutionary spirit embodied by Chairman Mao.
Residents of Chongqing are encouraged to come together in parks and stadiums to sing “red songs” – songs extolling the achievements of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party – and to watch the revolutionary dramas that have replaced the soap operas on Chongqing TV. With such efforts, charismatic Bo has struck a strong populist chord in Chongqing and beyond.
But winning acclaim from the people and winning a place on the Standing Committee of the Politburo are two different matters. Bo’s flamboyant style is at odds with the staid style of present members of the Standing Committee (which in a process lacking any transparency will select the replacements for those retiring from the Standing Committee next year).
His support for a more tightly state-controlled economy is at odds with the more liberal state capitalism now in vogue. And his Maoist rhetoric is at odds with the liberal reform rhetoric embraced by the Chinese leadership for the past decade, and especially by current Premier Wen Jiabao. Bo’s words and actions have conjured up, at least for some, the specter of a return to Cultural Revolution days.
Still, in the words of the press, Bo is a “political rock star.” Excluding him from the Standing Committee may be difficult. But should China’s 99-percenters awaken to the call of Occupy Wall Street and coalesce around the movement, excluding Bo from the Standing Committee mix would be more than difficult – it would simply be too risky, even for China’s authoritarian ruling party.
This post first appeared as an op-ed article in the Christian Science Monitor on November 8.
July 5, 2011 § 2 Comments
The Setting: Tiananmen Square
The Time: January 2011-June 2011
The Players: Mao Zedong, Confucius, Louis Vuitton
Sounds almost like a Tom Stoppard play. But, no, Mao, Confucius, and Louis Vuitton have been mixing it up lately on China’s most renowned stage.
For decades now, Mao’s portrait has hung over the Tiananmen Gate at the far north of the Square, even as his embalmed body lies in the mausoleum built immediately after his death in the center of the Square. Mao, the Great Helmsman, founder of the People’s Republic of China, looms mightily over the Square reminding the Chinese people of the Party’s achievement in raising the country out of its “feudal” and impoverished past and restoring it to prosperity and global influence.
On January 13, Mao was joined in the Square by a figure of at least equal repute in China: Confucius.
Born in 551 B.C.E., the Sage, as he is known, left behind a set of teachings as influential as any the world has known. These teachings became the basis of state ideology by the second century B.C.E., and remained so, with some ups and downs, for more than two millennia. But with the opening decades of the 20th century, prominent intellectuals and political figures took aim at Confucian teachings, arguing that they were in large part responsible for China’s backwardness and weakness relative to the West.
Mao especially disliked what he believed to be the enduring effects of Confucius’ “feudal” practices on the people and, during the cultural revolution of 1967-1976, called on the Red Guards to destroy all texts, temples, sites, and statues associated with Confucius throughout China. No small irony then that, suddenly, in early January, a humongous 17-ton statue of the Sage appeared at the north gate of the newly renovated National Museum of China on the east side of the Square—facing, almost directly, Mao’s 15’ x 25’ visage hanging above the Tiananmen Gate.
Now, if Mao himself wasn’t agitated, loyal supporters apparently were. Confucius, after all, was an affront to all that Mao had stood—and fought—for. Consequently, Confucius, all 17 tons of him, disappeared on April 20, as suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared 3 months earlier. No one has yet come forward with a formal explanation of the statue’s comings and goings, but pundits assume, no doubt rightly, that Confucius’ appearance and disappearance represent behind-the-scenes political jockeying between different camps within the leadership.
So, Confucius has exited the square. Enter Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton has taken up a perch almost exactly where the bronze Confucius had been set down. But rather than outside the north entrance of the National Museum, Louis Vuitton is inside the National Museum. What’s he doing there next to rare porcelain vases and bronzes vessels. He is displaying, in a 4-room exhibition, LV luggage and handbags dating back to the 1860s, reminding museum-goers of all the luxury they missed out on since the country’s fall from power in the mid-19th century. Clever marketing, especially in a country where the world’s high-end brands are all competing for visibility among a newly consumerist population.
The question that comes to mind is this: Confucius has been chased from Mao’s square, but can Louis Vuitton, the representative of capitalist luxury and wasteful consumption, be any more palatable to the Chairman? Is Louis’ presence there preferable to the Sage’s? Some Chinese, among them no doubt Mao’s followers, have expressed displeasure with a Louis Vuitton show in a Chinese historical museum, of all places. Stores are one thing—there are now 27 Louis Vuitton stores in China—but a spot in the fabulously renovated National Museum of China in one of the world’s most historically rich squares?
Don’t assume, however, that Confucius has entirely left the stage. Having lost his much coveted spot outside the National Museum in Tiananmen Square, he’s moved on to Shanghai. For reasons that are not at all clear, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum decided that the great Sage, with his renewed popularity, deserved a show at the very same time the museum had planned to display “Albert Einstein (1879-1955),” an exhibition owned by the Historical Museum of Bern, Switzerland (currently on view at the Hong Kong Science Museum).
The Shanghai museum’s motive here is unclear. Did it see a comparative-sage exhibition as a potential blockbuster? Or was it a nationalistic decision? That is, we have our Eastern Sage too? Or maybe it was simply to fill gallery space. In any event, unhappy with the Shanghai’s proposal to merge the Einstein exhibition with a Confucius exhibition, the Bern Museum announced on Tuesday (June 7) that it had shelved plans to bring its show to Shanghai.
Confucius thus seems to have fared better against Einstein in Shanghai than against Mao in Beijing. Whether Confucius will have a solo show in the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum remains to be seen. And the meaning of the showdown between Confucius and Einstein is, if possible, less clear, at least at the moment, than that between Confucius and the Chairman.
What is clear, though, is that Confucius, however aged, is getting around these days.
A version of this post first appeared as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on June 29.
May 17, 2011 § Leave a Comment
One of China’s great philosophers, Mencius (4th c. B.C.E.), a follower of Confucius, told the story of a man from the state of Song in central China:
There was a man from Song who was distressed that his shoots of corn were not growing and so he tugged at them. Wearily, he returned home and said, ‘I have exhausted myself today; I have been helping the sprouts to grow.’ His son hurried out to take a look; the sprouts had all withered. Under heaven, there are but a few a few who do not help the sprouts to grow. Some feel that they can be of no benefit at all and thus neglect the sprouts entirely; they are the ones who don’t even bother to weed. Some actively help in the growing process; these are the ones who pull at the sprouts. It is not just that they are of no benefit—they even do harm. (Mencius 2A.2)
In telling this story, Mencius had a moral purpose, not an agronomic one. Still, it’s rather a shame that farmers today in the eastern province of Jiangsu didn’t take the agronomic lesson to be learned from Mencius more seriously.
In early May, farmers there, wanting to increase the size of their watermelons, sprayed about 115 acres of the crop with the chemical fertilizer forchlorfenuron, a growth accelerator. The chemical is legal, but, apparently, not particularly safe, especially when used in excessive quantity and in overly wet conditions. Beginning on May 7, watermelons in Jiangsu began, on their own, splitting open and exploding, sending rinds, seeds, and shrapnel of red flesh into the air.
No casualties yet, but one women in Jiangsu had a close call as the watermelon she was cutting up exploded in her hands.
Farmer Liu Mingsuo, the owner of eight of the landmined acres, has told China Central Television (CCTV) that he can no longer sleep at night, as he’s haunted by the vision of exploding watermelons. He told China Central Television, “On May 7, I came out and counted 80 (bursting watermelons) but by the afternoon it was 100. Two days later I didn’t bother to count anymore.”
The moral here for the Chinese is: listen to environmental advocates urging that the country reduce its use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides (China Global Times).
Also: read your Mencius!