The Silicone Sage in Shanghai

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.


Is Occupy Wall Street Preoccupying Beijing?

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.

Mao, Confucius, and Louis Vuitton in Tiananmen Square

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.

Confucius on Today’s Food Scandals in China

June 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

There are times when the remarks of a long-dead sage can seem especially relevant.

More than 2500 years ago Confucius gathered around him a group of dedicated disciples who listened fervently to his teachings and then passed them on to later generations in an edited volume known as the Lunyu, conventionally translated in English as the Analects.  I’ll be teaching the text this coming fall and so was re-reading it yesterday afternoon.

Earlier in the morning I had been browsing China news on the internet and came across a video report from Al Jazeera, claiming that when you eat beef in China you may not, in fact, be eating beef.  What you could be eating is pork, or some other cheaper meat, that has been marinated in a beef-flavored chemical additive.

Consequently, a passage in the Analects, one that I had never given much attention to, for the first time jumped off the page.  A disciple, describing Confucius, said,

“He wouldn’t drink wine bought from a wine shop or eat dried meat bought in a market.” (Bk. 10.6)

To be sure I wasn’t reading into the passage what the Al Jazeera piece had earlier put in mind, I turned to the standard commentaries on the passage.  They all agreed on its meaning, expressed best perhaps by Huang Kan of the 6th century:

“As for wine that one hasn’t prepared oneself, one can’t be sure that is pure and clean; as for meat that one hasn’t prepared oneself, one can’t know the animal from which it has come.”

Confucius here seems to presage Al Jazeera’s findings.

Could the Sage possibly have anticipated as well that this past December Chinese authorities would close down three large-volume Chinese wineries for adulterating their wines—one of them used only water and chemicals to concoct its drink—and putting counterfeit labels of famous and best-selling brands on their bottles?  Or that in 2006 fake bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild would sell for $4000, while 12,000 counterfeit bottles of Mouton Cadet would be put on the shelves for $10 apiece (Forbes)?

The moral is clear: be careful about the wine you buy in China and the beef you eat there.  And read your Analects.  Confucius is still relevant—sometimes.

China’s One-Child Policy: What Does the Future Hold?

May 27, 2011 § 6 Comments

The preliminary 2010 China census figures are in—and they are eye-opening.

Some numbers (Science):

1. Total population in 2010: 1.34 billion

  Total population in 2000: 1.27 billion

2. Percentage of population 14 years-old and younger in 2010:  16.6%

  Percentage of population 14 years-old and younger in 2000:  22.9%

3. Percentage of population 60 and over in 2010: 13.3%

  Percentage of population 60 and over in 2000: 10.4%

4. Sex ratio of boys to girls in 2010: 118.1 to 100

  Sex ratio of boys to girls in 2000: 116.9 to 100

I’m not a demographer or a statistician, so the observations here will keep to the obvious.

China’s population is still growing and is still the largest in the world, but at a growth rate of only 5.8% since 2000 (vs. 11.7% between 1990 and 2000), China is on track to cede its “most populous nation” ranking to India by 2025.

Because of the low birth rate, associated with the one-child policy instituted more than 30 years ago now, China’s work force has been shrinking for the past decade; the current census indicates that the shrinkage is set to become more pronounced.  Analysts have been noting for some time that the supply of cheap labor in China is drying up, as the ever smaller labor force demands ever higher wages.  With wages increasing, companies have begun “going west,” seeking cheaper pools of labor in the less developed inland regions of China (where wages can be half of what they are on China’s more prosperous east coast).

International companies, looking at the growing costs of labor, are leaving China altogether, offshoring and outsourcing their manufacturing to countries still less developed, such as Vietnam and Cambodia.  Recognizing this trend, the Beijing government has made accessibility to higher education and the development of indigenous higher-tech industry key planks of the current Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).

China is getting older, the census figures also tell us.  And this is a major problem.  As a result of the one-child-policy fewer children are available to take care of aging parents.  In the past, it was assumed that children would be responsible for the well-being of their parents—and grandparents.  This was all part of the family compact: parents were to raise, feed, and shelter the young and, in turn, as part of their reciprocal filial obligations, the young were to nurture and care for their parents in old age (and even in death).  The one-child policy means, of course, that there are not multiple children to share the responsibility.

But that families are down to one child is only a piece of the problem.  As more and more young people move to the cities in search of economic opportunities, they now commonly live at rather great distances from their parents and grandparents.  Parents tell of not seeing their children for a year or more at a time.  An epidemic of elderly depression has been tied to the consequent loneliness experienced by the elderly, especially when the spouse dies.  How to provide for the elderly, materially and psychologically, is thus an enormous issue facing China today.  The country’s social service system is hobbling as it is—which may explain why the leadership has floated the novel, but curious, idea of writing filial piety into law, requiring children to care for and visit their parents “regularly,” allowing parents to sue their children if they don’t comply–whatever “regularly” might mean (see sampling of netizens’ views in China Daily article).

Clearly the sex imbalance of 118 to 100 is well beyond the normal.  No doubt this has much to do with the one-child policy in a country where the preference for males who could carry on the family line is deeply rooted.  Some of the imbalance is likely owing to underreporting of female births by those who’d like to have another child; but mostly it’s owing to selective abortion, illegal but quite common.

What might this imbalance foretell?  As females in the marriage market decrease, competition for them will increase.  The challenge for males will be to be successful in a market where demand is high and supply is low.  Recent years suggest that the formula for success is to promise the would-be bride that the male comes complete with house and car—which has driven up consumption, inflation, and the housing bubble.   Yes, I think there is a connection to be made between the one-child-policy and the current, seemingly uncontrollable, housing bubbles.  Families regard the investment in a home as a necessary investment in the continuation of the family line.  Recent surveys have shown over and over that marriageable females rank housing and a car as the most desirable assets a potential husband can bring to a marriage.

It might seem that women, at least, would benefit from the sex imbalance.  But it has also encouraged the growth of a market in women: poor peasant girls, kidnapped or lured from their homes by brokers, may be transported to distant provinces and sold as wives to men unable to find brides.

And what about the slew of males who come up empty-handed?  It is estimated that, by 2020, there will be 30 million more men than women in China (China Daily article as well).  Traditionally the Chinese government has always been worried about such “bare sticks”—family-less young men dissatisfied with their lot—and the danger they pose to social order.  The current government is no different—China’s leaders are painfully aware of the impact that bands of unhappy, partner-less, high testosterone 20-something males could have on the “harmonious society.”

There’s, of course, much more that could be said about these census numbers.  But I hope that these few, brief observations help to explain why in China today there is ongoing debate over whether to continue the one-child policy or not.

Watermelons Exploding in China: Maybe the Teachings of the Sages Are Still Relevant

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!


Arranged Marriage in China: Matchmaker Li vs.

May 13, 2011 § 3 Comments

In China, at least well into the twentieth century, it wasn’t chemistry that brought boy and girl together in marriage.  It was the local matchmaker.  Shrewd and deliberate, she would take great care in engineering favorable partnerships. The compatibility of boy and girl (soon to be husband and wife) was of little account to her; neither was the potential for mutual affection between them.  For she knew that marriage wasn’t principally for the purpose of bringing these two individuals together–it was an alliance between their two families.

Li Haoren of Fujian province was an especially good matchmaker, responsible for most of the matrimonial unions that took place in Dan’ning village during the 1550s, including the one between Lingbo of the landowning Fu family and Xiaomei, the daughter of the Wang family from neighboring Jinling village.  Lingbo had never laid eyes on Wang Xiaomei; likewise, Xiaomei had never before caught sight of Lingbo.  But that didn’t matter.  It wasn’t their wishes that were at issue

A matchmaker, to be successful in her trade, had to have her ear to the ground.  And Li Haoren was very successful.  She had heard that a certain Wang family in the neighboring village of Jinling had a daughter, approaching her thirteenth year; perhaps she’d be a good match for the Fu family’s Lingbo.  Lingbo had just turned sixteen and Matchmaker Li imagined that his parents were becoming somewhat anxious about finding him a wife.  The task Li now set herself was to get the Wang and Fu families to see eye to eye.  Her livelihood depended on it.  Further, a successful match here would be good for her reputation, which in turn would be good for business.

The Fus were people of means, with an estate of a few hundred acres; and Lingbo, having been tutored since the age of six in the Confucian Classics, had earned a reputation as a bright scholar with a bright future, certain someday to earn the prestigious civil service degree.  With this degree he could look forward to winning an official appointment in government, and great fame for himself and his family.  Yes, a handsome dowry is something the Fus surely expected: a nice sum of silver, a few rolls of silk, and perhaps a cow or two.  Fortunately, the Wangs, a merchant family with ties to the salt trade, certainly had the means.  No problem there.  But there was still more Matchmaker Li needed to offer the Fus.

Lingbo was the Fus’ only son, their only hope to continue the family line.  The choice of a wife for Lingbo was surely the most important one they’d ever make.  For it was Lingbo’s wife on whom the survival of the Fu family would finally depend.  And this is where Matchmaker Li had some especially auspicious news for Lingbo’s parents.  Not only were the Wangs a family of means, but the Wang women were notoriously fertile.  Xiaomei herself was but one of seven children.  And her two older sisters, married off a while ago, had together already produced five children of their own.  This, Li would tell the Wangs, boded real well for the likelihood that the Wangs would soon have grandchildren.  But there was better news still: Wang women had produced an abundance of sons–Xiaomei herself had four brothers, while her two older sisters had together produced four sons. They were real adept at conceiving boys.  The Fus now were beginning to warm to the prospects of making Wang Xiaomei their daughter-in-law.  If she could produce a son for them, and the odds were looking pretty good–never mind the role of the Y chromosome–the Fu biological line would be assured, as would the well-being of generations of Fu ancestors. « Read the rest of this entry »