January 14, 2011 § 9 Comments
In an historical twist that ranks pretty high on the irony scale, Confucius and Mao Zedong are now going mano a mano in Tian’anmen Square.
In this Square, atop the Tian’anmen Gate, Mao in 1949 proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China to to the Chinese people and the rest of the world. And in this Square hangs the iconic 15-by-20-foot oil painting of Mao—the one that has long been beamed into our living rooms by the nightly news.
In this Square, too, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s, a key part of which was an anti-Confucius campaign calling for the total obliteration of the “feudal” thinking and feudal social practices associated with the Confucian tradition. Loyal Red Guards, heeding Mao’s call, wrote in the People’s Daily (1/10/67): “To struggle against Confucius, the feudal mummy, and thoroughly eradicate …reactionary Confucianism is one of our important tasks in the Great Cultural Revolution.” And then, to make their point, they went on a nation-wide rampage, destroying temples, statues, historical landmarks, texts, and anything at all to do with the ancient Sage.
But now, just two days ago (on Wednesday January 12), in this same Square, an imposing, 30-foot bronze statue of Mao’s old enemy–and China’s ancient Sage–Confucius, was erected.
It stands at the northern gate of the National Museum of China, facing Mao’s dimpled portrait.
It’s safe to assume that the Great Helmsman would not be happy sharing his space with the ancient Sage. But what’s this statuary-portraiture showdown at Tian’anmen about?
It’s certainly not one that could easily have been imagined even a few short years ago. But Confucianism is now enjoying a revival. Government officials quote from the Analects of Confucius, the publication of books about Confucius and his teachings is flourishing, and the study of Confucian thought and writings has taken hold in universities—as well as in primary and secondary schools.
How sincere and how enduring is this so-called Confucian revival? We can’t know–yet.
But what we can know is that by placing the 17-ton bronze statue in such a favored, almost sacred, space, the Chinese government is lending its unambiguous endorsement to the Sage’s resuscitation.
September 26, 2010 § Leave a Comment
I’m posting here an op-ed piece I wrote for the LA Times in August on the devastating environmental effects of disposable chopsticks:
China’s Ministry of Commerce, together with five other ministries, issued this warning in June: “Companies making disposable chopsticks will face local government restrictions aimed at decreasing the use of the throwaway utensil. … Production, circulation and recycling of disposable chopsticks should be more strictly supervised.”
With summer floods devastating southern, western and northeastern China, a massive oil spill smothering the Yellow Sea off the port of Dalian, 3,000 barrels of chemicals bobbing aimlessly but threateningly in the Songhua River in the northeast, and nearly half a million newly registered cars – just since January – on Beijing roads spewing who knows how much additional carbon dioxide into the air, you may think that the government is unnecessarily overreaching in waging a war on the disposable chopstick.
But start doing the math and the disposable chopstick, made largely from birch and poplar (and, less so, from bamboo, because of its higher cost) begins to look deeply menacing – an environmental disaster not to be taken lightly.
Begin with China’s 1.3 billion people. In one year, they go through roughly 45 billion pairs of the throwaway utensils; that averages out to nearly 130 million pairs of chopsticks a day. (The export market accounts for 18 billion pairs annually.)
Greenpeace China has estimated that to keep up with this demand, 100 acres of trees need to be felled every 24 hours. Think here of a forest larger than Tiananmen Square – or 100 American football fields – being sacrificed every day. That works out to roughly 16 million to 25 million felled trees a year. Deforestation is one of China’s gravest environmental problems, leading to soil erosion, famine, flooding, carbon dioxide release, desertification and species extinction.
If the disposable chopstick has to go, you can be sure that its death will be a slow one. Calls to abandon the use-and-toss type began more than 10 years ago and have since persisted unabated.
By 2006, the activism had become more strenuous: Citizens launched a BYOC (Bring Your Own Chopsticks) movement, which continues to gather momentum.
In 2008, endangered orangutans (OK, they probably were just guys dressed as orangutans) took up the cause, bursting into cafeterias in China of large companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Intel to remind diners of the ecological perils of chopstick deforestation. Yet, more than 10 years later, the targeted disposable remains with us. Why?
First, while we in the West don’t give much thought to a chopstick “industry,” in China, where 100,000 people in more than 300 plants are employed in the manufacture of the wooden utensils, it’s most definitely a flourishing enterprise.
And just as jobs trump environmental issues in the West (think the coal, oil and logging industries), the argument that 100,000 jobs are at stake is a refrain that carries considerable weight. As Lian Guang, president of the Wooden Chopsticks Trade Association, told the China Daily in 2009, “The chopstick industry is making a great contribution by creating jobs for poor people in the forestry regions,” adding that melamine-resin chopsticks are hardly a sanitary substitute with their “high formaldehyde content.” His mention of melamine resin is an effective touch, I admit.
Then there are the restaurants. The alternative to wooden disposables is sterilizing the tableware (plastic, metal or durable wood chopsticks) after each use. But the cost differential is significant: Disposables run about a penny apiece, while sterilization ranges from 15 to 70 cents.
The warning issued by the Ministry of Commerce would appear to be a step in the right direction. Realistically, though, it offers scant hope; it simply has no teeth. It doesn’t address the specific restrictions to be imposed, nor the nature of consequences for violations.
That the Chinese leadership is now taking sides in the war over disposable chopsticks is nonetheless heartening. But in the end, the outcome will be determined by the people who will decide whether carrying their own sticks and bearing the costs of reusables is too large a price to pay to protect China’s quickly disappearing forests.