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!
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.
April 18, 2011 § 2 Comments
In the past week, China’s English language press–China Daily, Xinhua, Caixin, Global Times–has seen an explosion of articles highlighting China’s plans to move ahead in the development of clean, renewable energy. Here is a small sampling of headlines, with the lead paragraph or two of the articles:
1. New energy industries to fuel China’s green growth (Xinhua) April 9 — With China’s ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions for a greener economy during the 12th five-year plan period from 2011 to 2015, new energy industries are becoming even more significant than in the past. These industries will be responsible for serving the country’s growing appetite for energy to feed its rapid development.
2. China Said to Mull Drastic Solar Power Increase (Caixin) April 12 — China may significantly raise its target for installed capacity for solar power generation over the next decade as the country steps up efforts to tap alternative energy.
China Solar Energy Association plans to present a proposal to the State Council, China’s cabinet, to lift installed photovoltaic capacity to 15 gigawatts and 50 gigawatts by 2015 and 2020 respectively, from the currently planned 5 gigawatts and 20 gigawatts, an industry insider told Caixin.
3. Pledge for more hydropower by 2015 (Global Times) April 11 — China will put more hydropower into use over the next five years, in an effort to transform the country’s energy consumption model, according to the Bureau of Energy under the National Development and Reform Commission.
By the end of 2015, China will have begun work on projects providing an extra 120 megawatts in hydropower capacity.
4. State Grid to Boost Wind Power Delivery Capacity (Caixin) April 15 — State Grid Corp. of China plans to lift its on-grid capacity to more than 90 million kilowatts by 2015, under a new target to reach over 150 million kilowatts by 2020.
5. Inner Mongolia becomes China’s first region with 10GW grid-access wind power capacity (Xinhua) April 10 — Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in north China has become the country’s first province-level region to have over 10GW of wind turbines installed and connected to the power grid.
This makes up about one third of China’s total grid-access wind installed capacity, according to figures from the autonomous regional government.
With this media barrage the Beijing leadership is underscoring for the public that its campaign to promote alternative forms of energy is real. Just-released figures from March 2011 appear to have prompted the blitz and intensified Beijing’s renewable energy efforts: the nation’s energy consumption increased more than 13% over the same month last year, alarming a government that has made reduction of energy intensity and carbon emissions the centerpiece of its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).
Wind power, solar power, water power and nuclear power–the development of which is currently on hold in China–are the country’s most promising alternatives to the coal that now keeps it running (70%-80% of its electricity is coal generated) but at the same time has made China the world’s leading emitter of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Cleaner sources of energy are essential, so Beijing believes. And, because cleaner energy serves only if it can be transferred from where it’s produced to where it’s needed, the government is doing all that it can to promote and expand the country’s power grid.
No one, however, should conclude that China’s aggressive development of renewable energy and green technology is simply about meeting China’s domestic energy needs or cleaning China’s own air and water. Look at the 12th Five-Year Plan: Beijing leaders now see green energy—wind and solar power, in particular—as key to building a more sophisticated, high-tech, export economy. No more blue jeans, no more cheap throw-away cigarette lighters—no more “workshop of the world” low-tech economy. The Chinese seek global leadership in the 21st century in the nurturing and trade of clean energy technology.
Americans who aren’t moved to support investment in green energy and technology by the argument that fossil fuels cannot be sustained indefinitely—and may slowly be killing us—perhaps can, and should, be moved by a baser, less scientific one. To paraphrase President Clinton, “It’s about economic competitiveness, stupid!”
That was U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s message—put more subtly and gracefully–in his speech to the National Press Club in November 2010. I recommend you read it (here).