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.
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!
May 9, 2011 § 3 Comments
The Red Army fears not the trials of the Long March,
Holding light ten thousand crags and torrents.
The Five Ridges wind like gentle ripples
And the majestic Wumeng roll by, globules of clay.
Warm the steep cliffs lapped by the waters of Golden Sand,
Cold the iron chains spanning the Tatu River.
Minshan’s thousand li of snow joyously crossed,
The three Armies march on, each face glowing. (The Long March)
Written by Mao Zedong in October of 1935 to commemorate the Red Army’s legendary 6000-mile trek (1934-1935) that broke the Guomindang blockade, the “Long March” is being read avidly today—at least by members of the Chinese women’s Olympic volleyball team. During practice, the team works on their spikes, stuffs, sets, and line shots; after practice they come together to read the “Long March.”
Why do they read and recite the “Long March”? The China Volleyball Association website explains,
Through these kinds of activities, the Chinese women’s volleyball team…learns from the old Red Army, stays brave when facing difficulties, devotes itself to daily training, works hard, raises standards and prepares for the London Olympics with the momentum that Chairman Mao had when leading the Red Army throughout the Long March.
Never mind that we can’t know how genuinely inspired team members are by their reading of “Long March” or whether the Chairman’s poetry will provide sufficient inspiration for them to win gold in London in 2012. What’s notable here is that Mao is enjoying a renaissance. That the Olympic volleyball team holds study sessions to discuss the poems of the Chairman, much as youths 50 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, studied the sayings of Mao in the Little Red Book, is but one indicator of his renewed popularity.
Another, more telling indicator is to be found in metropolitan Chongqing (pop. 30 million). Tune in to Chongqing Television (CTV) at prime time and you’ll no longer see the lineup of popular soap operas and sit-coms; instead you’ll be able to watch epic films or sing along to one of 36 “red songs” (selected by the government) that extol the achievements of Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party.
Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai ordered the change in programming–as part of his “red culture” movement. For Bo, and others like him– dubbed the “new left”–China has strayed too far from its “red” roots and needs to recommit itself to the revolutionary values of the early People’s Republic.
In the first couple of decades of the PRC (1949- ), the new left maintains, the Mao-led government guaranteed economic security—jobs for all at equal pay; a safety net—where the elderly and infirm were to be provided for by the state; and a social equality—where distinctions between the privileged and unprivileged, the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural were not indelible. Zhang Jiedong, a recent graduate of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, says this message resonates now, especially with older generations, in its nostalgic appeal to an era where “there was less stress; income was guaranteed and competition for status symbols was almost non-existent.” (Bloomberg)
Where is all of this–the reading of the “Long March,” the watching of revolutionary films, the singing of “red songs,” and the calling for government policies that hew more closely to the founding ideals of the PRC–headed? Hard to say. But that the Chairman’s voice–35 years after his death–is vibrant and influential in China today—is certain.
December 15, 2010 § 1 Comment
Here’s a picture that appeared on the front page of Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily (Nanfang dushibao) on Sunday, December 12, under the headline, “Asian Paralympic Games to Begin Tonight .”
What do you see? Three chairs and five cranes, right? Online activists saw three chairs as well, but three “empty chairs,” “empty chair” being a term now banned by Chinese internet censors for its apparent reference to Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Prize winner who, imprisoned in China, was represented at the Oslo ceremony by an empty chair.
Now here’s a picture of that empty chair:
What do you see? Looks a lot like flying cranes.
An editor at Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s most popular–and outspoken–news outlets, explained that red-crowned cranes were to be part of the opening Paralympic ceremonies that evening, hence the picture. Those reading anything more into it, he insisted, were “overinterpreting.” (The irony here is that the red-crowned crane is an endangered species. A sly reference to Liu and human rights advocates?)
So, are Chinese online activists letting their imaginations run a little wild, as the paper’s editor suggests? Or is the paper sending a coded message of support for Nobel winner Liu, as a bevy of bloggers insist (see China Digital Times for English translations of comments by Chinese bloggers)?