December 2009

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China Beat will be going on vacation for the next two weeks, and will return in 2010. Before we sign off for the holidays, here are a few stories that have caught our eye lately:

1. In the Business Standard, Pallavi Aiyar writes that the “Ghosts of Beijing Lurk in Brussels.” Moving from Beijing to Brussels, Aiyar was anticipating a departure from the relentless cycle of urban destruction and construction that had marked her years in China:

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at Schuman, the headquarters of the European Union and a 10-minute drive from downtown Brussels, to scenes right out of the rubble of Beijing’s incessantly re-wrought cityscape.

Box-like structures of glass and chrome glinted dully through the fog of dust flying about the carcasses of half-demolished older buildings. Bulldozers blocked traffic and passers-by had to resort to mime to communicate over the cacophony of construction clatter.

This piece of Beijing in the heart of Brussels was the home of the thousands of European Union bureaucrats that run the 27-member bloc’s affairs. The centrepiece was an orange coloured fortress-like hulk of a building called the Berlaymont which I was later to find out was more often referred to as the Berlaymonster.

Built in the 1960s, the “Berlaymonster” was constructed upon the ashes of the Dames de Berlaymont, a 300-year-old convent. The surrounding area, once a pleasant residential neighbourhood dating back to the 19th century and teeming with neighbourhood stores, churches and parks was also laid waste to make way for other lacklustre EU institution buildings.

What had happened in this part of Brussels was in fact exactly what was happening across China today: the wanton destruction of heritage in the service of the desire of an arguably mistaken concept of modernity.

2. Friend of the blog and Philadelphia Inquirer writer Jeff Gammage has a recent feature about the tensions between the past, present, and future in Shanghai as Expo preparations continue. One of the sites mentioned in Gammage’s article, the CCP First Congress Memorial in Xintiandi, has also been explored in depth by Samuel Liang in a China Beat post earlier this year, which you can check out here.

3. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker conducted a live chat with readers about climate change and China, which has been archived and is available here.

4. Earlier this month, we heard about the “garlic bubble” in China, and now China Daily is reporting that the rising price of cooking oil and other products has consumers concerned:

The price of 5-liter bottles of cooking oil, such as soybean oil and peanut oil, increased by 10 yuan on average this month, the China News Service reported yesterday. Some residents in cities such as Shenyang, Chengdu, Shanghai and Fuzhou, began hoarding cooking oil last week.

(h/t Danwei)

5. For an explanation of global economic trends since 1849 that is both entertaining and informative, check out this video featuring Hans Rosling titled “Asia’s Rise — How and When.”

Thanks to all our readers and contributors for being part of China Beat in 2009!

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham


I took this photo on my first day in Hangzhou when I arrived there in July 2005 for a six-week Chinese language course. I didn’t find the billboard especially interesting, but one of my friends hails from Kohler, Wisconsin, and I thought he might enjoy seeing that his hometown is known in a Chinese city that I’m fairly certain he had never heard of before I announced I would be spending the summer there. At the time, I didn’t give much thought to the billboard itself, or the thousands of other advertisements affixed to the sides of buildings, encircling construction sites, or coating the exteriors of Hangzhou’s buses. They simply surrounded me, providing a backdrop for the city’s more compelling sights; the moody and misty West Lake, I thought, was far more photogenic than the façades of the luxury car dealerships lining its shore.

In a photographic collection titled Learning From Hangzhou (Timezone 8, 2009), however, Mathieu Borysevicz places the focus squarely on those car dealerships, as well as innumerable other signs throughout the city. Images of billboards, store awnings, and digital marquees fill the book, which is beautifully printed on high-quality glossy paper (although that paper makes the book quite heavy — it’s not a good candidate for airplane reading).

Learning From Hangzhou, though, is not only concerned with advertisements — Borysevicz’s work examines the ways in which public spaces are filled, as well as how city residents appropriate and change those spaces through their interactions with them. As he explains in the volume’s introductory essay,

The goal of this case study is to index a moment in China’s evolutionary transition as it occurs in Hangzhou; to index through an extended visual essay the physical manifestations accrued by economic transition and to examine where sociological change and urban development overlap (23).

In addition to thousands of color photographs taken between 2003 and 2008, Borysevicz reflects on Hangzhou’s constant state of flux in small essays — some only a paragraph long — throughout the book, which are printed in both English and Chinese, making Learning From Hangzhou a truly bilingual work.

As I paged through Learning From Hangzhou, I was struck by the fact that while each vibrantly colored photo spread verges on sensory overload, Borysevicz’s book is also tightly organized. He pulls the pictures into double-page spreads that revolve around a particular object or theme, grouping together, for example, sixteen different shots of water dispensers that call attention to their ubiquity while also demonstrating the range of brands and models available to consumers shopping at different price points (144-145). Water dispensers are shown to be objects that reside in a variety of locations throughout the city: standing alongside a leather sofa in an immaculate home, shoved onto an already-crowded kitchen counter, and squeezed into the narrow space between a door and stack of crates. Time and again, Borysevicz’s camera is directed at everyday items that are, like the ever-present billboards and bus ads, more often than not overlooked by the casual glance.

The book itself is divided into six sections, moving from the ground up and from the inside out: Part 1 features demolition and construction sites (portraits of construction workers create a particularly striking spread on pages 44-45), while Part 2 examines the architectural styles of the structures built on those sites. In Part 3, Borysevicz  emphasizes “The Performative in Architecture,” looking at how activities such as hanging clothes out to dry changes the landscape of the city. Part 4, the book’s longest section, is devoted to signs, beginning at eye-level with paper ads pasted onto buildings and lampposts and gradually moving up to the billboards that rise high above our heads. While people are present in the first four sections of the book, human figures are not the focus of photo spreads until Part 5, which spotlights the urban canvas. Borysevicz initially assembles collections of constructed figures — mannequins, women in beauty advertisements, couples posing for wedding portraits — before he moves into a sub-section on ordinary “Hangzhou-ers” as they go about their daily business. Part 6 looks at the city’s markets, from hidden DVD stores to massive Carrefour.

While Learning From Hangzhou certainly highlights the increasingly globalized nature of Hangzhou, the book does not argue that Hangzhou is becoming more Westernized, or Americanized. There are few obvious foreigners walking through Borysevicz’s pictures (I must confess, I looked for my own face among the crowds), and his photo spread on coffee shops shows as many local brand names as international. Nowhere does Borysevicz call attention to poor English or strange pictures on the signs he photographs; he is not interested in capturing the weird or outlandish, but rather the omnipresent urban clutter that pervades cities around the world. Borysevicz normalizes Hangzhou, taking what might be seen by outsiders as an alien or exotic metropolis and revealing it to be just another globalized city:

. . . it could’ve also been “Learning from Omaha” or Manila or London or the many other cities of the world permeated with outdoor signage. . . . The idea is not to present what is novel, but on the contrary, to codify what is ubiquitous and subsequently what has become invisible to us (319).

Learning From Hangzhou prompted me to revisit my own Hangzhou photographs, which primarily center on tourist attractions. I see, however, that around the edges of my photos, the subject of Borysevicz’s work often intrudes, as signs and billboards hover alongside snapshots of the West Lake and Lingyin Temple. If I had edited the photos immediately after taking them, I would have probably cropped out those snippets of commercial life, attempting to preserve a particular (certainly romanticized) image of Hangzhou that is still the first to come to mind when I think of the city. Learning From Hangzhou, however, fills in the negative spaces of my photographs, as Borysevicz aims his lens at the objects that I overlooked or avoided. His book is a fascinating glimpse into the city, and one that, I am sure, will prompt me to think more carefully when I raise my camera in the future. If I shift my attention a few feet in any direction, I realize, an entirely different archive can be created, and a different city comes into focus.

1. On December 14-15, the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California will be holding a “Colloquium on China Media Studies” (RSVP required). For those not able to attend, the event will be live-streamed at the above link, beginning at noon PST on December 14.

2. Ken Pomeranz will be giving two talks in Japan next week:

December 16, 2009: Kyoto University. Participant in the “Changing Nature of ‘Nature’: New Perspectives in Transdisciplinary Field Science” conference sponsored by the Global Center of Excellence on a Sustainable Humanssphere.

December 18, 2009: Tokyo University. “Land rights and long-run Development patterns: the Lower Yangzi in comparative perspective.”

3. Looking ahead to the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, to be held in San Diego January 7-10, 2010, we’ve gone through the meeting program and identified sessions that would be of particular interest to China-focused conference-goers:

Thursday, January 7:
“The Mandate of Heaven at the Local Level in Imperial China.”
“China’s Influence in Southeast Asia during the Cold War and Its Reflections in Today’s History Education”

Friday, January 8:
“Inventing China’s ‘Inseparable Parts’: Borderland Incorporation from Tibet to Taiwan in the Twentieth Century”
“Hidden Treasure: Literature as Historical Source”
“Globalizing the Middle Ages”
“Drugs in Chains: The Illicit Commodity in World History”
“Rethinking World History: A Roundtable”
“Domestic and Foreign Policy during the Cultural Revolution”

Saturday, January 9:
“Gender, Sex, and Slavery in East Asia”
“Carnal Encounters at the Edge of Sinophone Culture”
“‘Crossing the Beach’ in Southeast and East Asia: Redefining Sovereignty, Social Mobility, Vassalage, and Resistance, 1513-1777”
“Berlin, Taiwan, and Guantánamo: Cold War Islands of the ‘New’ New Cold War History”
“New Histories of Rice”
“The Political Economy of Chinese Development and Western Relations, 1940-80”
“Reconstruction beyond Black and White”
“Dissemination of Western Knowledge and Ideology in Late Imperial and Modern China”
“Construction and Reconstruction of Chinese Concepts of Self-Identity and Others at Four Historical Moments”

Sunday, January 10:
“Teaching U.S. History Abroad: Australia, China, Germany, Tunisia, Russia”
“Control, Discipline, and Order in Modern China”
“Mexico’s Chinese: Disputed Identities and Claims of Belonging”
“Bringing Peace and Life out of Chaos and Death: Christians in Republican China”
“Whither China: Intellectual Discourses on the Problems of the Urban and the Rural in 1910-40s China”

4. We’re hoping to see lots of China Beatniks at the 2010 annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, to be held March 25-28 in Philadelphia.

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As December moves on, assessing the highs and lows of 2009 takes up more and more of our time — and this year, we have the added task of summing up the entire “00” decade. Below, some recent stories that say goodbye to 2009 (a little bit early), and one that says hello to 2010 (also a bit early).

1. We’ve recently seen several “best books of the year” lists, but not many of their selections have links to China — reflecting the fact that 2009 was something of an off-year in the China-related publishing field (especially compared to the deluge of releases during the Olympic year of 2008). Of the “100 Notable Books of 2009” chosen by the New York Times, only Hannah Pakula’s biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek made the cut; Mathieu Borysevicz’s Learning From Hangzhou was featured in the NYT “Art and Architecture” holiday gift guide. Over at The Economist, Poorly Made in China by Paul Midler was picked as a best book of the year.

2. On the whole, though, China is a big story — more accurately, it’s the big story, according to calculations of the “Top News Stories of the Decade,” discussed at the Wall Street Journal’s “China Real Time Report”:

The results weren’t even close. GLM says the “Rise of China” (it searched the phrase itself and related word groupings) had a score 400% that of the No. 2 Internet story – the Iraq War. China also beat out the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the election of Barack Obama, the global recession, and even the death of Michael Jackson (No. 5). And actually, China placed twice: The No. 11 News Story of the Decade, GLM says, was the Beijing Olympics.

3. Thanks to UC Irvine student Anita Szocs for pointing out that three Chinese films were among the top ten on the New Yorker’s list of the decade’s best movies.

4. The Far Eastern Economic Review will end its 63-year run this month; the magazine’s final issue is available on newsstands now.

5. Mark your calendars for November 24, 2010, when a remake of the 1984 film Red Dawn will be released. In the new version of the movie, “the Chinese and Russians attack a small northwestern town and a group of teenagers take the fight to the intruders in an attempt to disrupt the invasion and save their home.” Photos from the set can be seen at chinaSMACK.

The Tibet Question

“A Peking University student takes notes at a lecture titled ‘the Tibet question’ (you can just make out the Chinese for that at the top-right of his page). This student hardly ever put his pen down, while a few seats down from him another dozed happily.”
—Alec Ash

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