April 2010

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“Qingmu, a Japanese DJ who moved to Beijing shortly before the Olympics, spins an evening away in his Nanluoguxiang home – which also doubles as the headquarters for a Tibet tour company. The Chinese hip-hop scene, Qingmu says, is ‘just beginning’.”

— Alec Ash, Six

Urbanatomy expo guide coverWhen the Shanghai World Expo officially opens on Saturday, visitors will have to negotiate the largest fairground ever constructed, spanning 1305 acres on both sides of the Huangpu River. Such an expedition requires not just a map, but a guide – and the Urbanatomy team has stepped in to provide one. Hitting shelves at Carrefour and City Shop stores in Shanghai this week, the Urbanatomy Shanghai World Expo Guide 2010 includes maps of the Expo site, in addition to discussions of World’s Fair history and background on Shanghai. Below, two excerpts from the guide’s introduction, written by Nick Land.

Expo 2010 Shanghai

Spectacle has been granted a special place in Chinese culture since the distant dawn of its recorded history. While contemporary architects and designers pursue the essence of ‘Chinese style’ into the nooks and crannies of specific construction techniques, its most significant and influential trait is a commitment to the production of psychological effect on a massive scale. China’s great philosopher of war Sun Tzu exemplifies this continuous line of spectacular tradition, when he argues that the aim of the general is less to kill than to create an overwhelming impression on the enemy. The same thread passes through the invention of fireworks and the layout of the Forbidden City (constructed as a succession of theatrical gateways) to the glittering East Asian cityscapes of today, built almost as stage props for epic dramas of development, and painting vast panoramas in artificial light. This tradition of all-enveloping theater and aesthetic staging, vividly exhibited at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 60th anniversary of the New China in 2009, is naturally predisposed to affinity with the World Expo, an event whose very name calls for a spectacle of planetary dimensions.

As theater created on an immense scale, the Expo is aimed at an audience. Its structures are for the most part temporary, designed to make a powerful impression, to communicate, and to persist in memory, enduring not through solidity of construction, but through the effects they produce. At every level of physical organization the Expo is pre-adapted to fluidity, anticipating as many as half a million people flowing through the Shanghai Expo Park on certain days, with tens of thousands streaming through particular pavilions. Although something like a miniature city, the Expo site and its pavilions are not designed for inhabitants and their possessions, or for workers and their tools, but for visitors and their experiences. Everything is performance: transient, dramatic and informative.

Throughout Chinese history, the art of politics has always been intimately interwoven with the techniques of spectacular demonstration. This mainstream tradition is naturally focused upon Beijing, the nation’s political center, whose monumental Imperial architecture consistently betrays a theatrical design, constructed with reference to the awestruck perspective of a lowly observer, rather than for the comfort of a privileged occupant. That Beijing maintains a rare mastery in the field of grand spectacle – exhibited in the international and national pageants of 2008 and 2009 – should surprise no one.

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Nicole Barnes, a graduate student in the Department of History at UC Irvine, is currently conducting research in Chongqing. Here, she shares her thoughts on the Chinese media’s treatment of the Qinghai earthquake; see “I want to grow up to be a volunteer,” a guest post by Katrina Hamlin at Alec Ash’s blog, Six, for more reflections on the earthquake and youth involvement in relief efforts.

By Nicole Barnes

As the Qinghai earthquake turns into yesterday’s news overseas and begins to sink into the sea of usual economic stories here in China, I would like to reflect upon the position of 10-year-old volunteer Tsering Dan Zhou in earthquake media.

News coverage of the earthquake here in China is impressive in many ways. The programs convey the information that everyone desires, but are also clearly designed to incite sympathy and get people to dig into their wallets for donations to the Chinese Red Cross and other relief agencies. They also pointedly emphasize “social harmony” (shehui hexie 社会和谐, Hu Jintao’s favorite slogan that is a much-repeated mantra throughout the country) between the Tibetan Chinese majority of Yushu county (which, as Robert Barnett pointed out here, is a Tibetan region) and the local Han Chinese. They frequently feature 10-year-old Tsering Dan Zhou, who volunteered as translator for many of his fellow Tibetan-speaking patients who could not otherwise communicate with the Chinese-speaking doctors.

Tsering Dan Zhou

Tsering Dan Zhou and an aid worker

His heroism has been celebrated on many a news program, and he also mounted the stage in a special ceremony to give a tearful and very moving speech of gratitude to all the Chinese people who had come to Yushu to help the earthquake victims. Another Central Chinese Television news program featured a reporter entering one of the canvas tents supplied as temporary housing to four different families, asking the occupants their ethnicity (both Han and Tibetan) and whether or not they shared food and fun with their fellow tent-mates. Their positive responses prompted him to emphasize the “good relations” between the locals.

Doubtless such situations exist, and it is a good thing to point them out. However, this story of ethnic harmony is the only story that is being told. As Bruce Humes pointed out here, comments about anti-Han tensions have been taken out of news commentary.

Such television coverage proffers an unmistakable message of Han charity and good spirit, which is duly appreciated by the “good child” Tibetan who is moved to tears of gratitude. The imagery of the child is significant. As one of my neighbors here in Chongqing said to me, the government looks upon the minorities as children who need both to be well cared for, and also to learn to appreciate the parents’ hard work and sacrifices made on their behalf. In this context, Tsering Dan Zhou is both a heroic young volunteer who deserves to be recognized, and a fortuitous (for the Party) poster child of the Yushu earthquake who is being manipulated by the media. You can see a Chinese-language news feature of him on Sohu’s website.

Yet there is another truth to this situation. Despite some criticism of China’s relief response, thousands of volunteers have gone from sea level to over 11,000 feet to dig people out of the rubble. Many of them had to seek medical assistance when altitude sickness got the best of them, and went back to work after only a short rest. Certainly when compared with the Bush Administration’s tepid response to my own country’s largest natural disaster of recent times, Hurricane Katrina, China’s relief response was extremely rapid, given the remote location of the earthquake zone from most of the country’s population centers. Canvas tents, emergency food supplies, medical supplies, trained rescue workers, and health professionals have been sent from practically every province. Volunteers have gathered donations from citizens on the streets and in shopping plazas all around the country. It takes a massive amount of resource to muster such a relief program, which is much more readily available in a huge nation of 1.3 billion people than it would be if, say, Qinghai province were its own nation. So despite media manipulations, there is still room for gratitude toward the Chinese people, and even for reflection on the advantages of membership in a nation with such a long history of emergency relief and charity (which you can also read about on China Beat,in posts collected at point #8 on this page). As in all situations, there is no single truth about the Yushu earthquake.

Previous pieces by Nicole Barnes for China Beat include a review of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem and an interview with Antonia Finnane.


China Tracker logo

If you’d like to read more about “What a superpower wants,” check out a new blog from Forbes, “The China Tracker.” Only a week old, the site features pieces from regular contributors such as Gady Epstein (Beijing bureau chief for Forbes), Bill Bishop (a Beijing-based investor/adviser to start-ups, blogger at DigiCha.com, and prolific Twitter user under the name @niubi), and China Beat consulting editor Jeff Wasserstrom (whose first post is “Terminology For A Fast-Changing China”). Recent articles have discussed “China’s Barbie Doll Economics,” what Hertz and Avis have to do with the U.S.-China relationship, and the politics of China’s new real estate measures.

Readers of the Forbes site might notice another China Beatnik’s name there as well this week: editor Maura Cunningham has a piece on “China’s Coffee Culture.”

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By Paul R. Katz

Each of us can make a difference. It may not be easy, but it can be done; all you need is love, patience, and dedication.

One person who has made a difference is Hsiao Hsien-Ming 蕭賢明, who works for the Council for Cultural Affairs of the Executive Yuan (行政院文化建設委員會). Like so many of us, he watched in horror as the news came in about the village of Siaolin 小林 being wiped off the face of the earth. Moreover, as a father of three small children (Chemg is 12, Zoe is 9, and Zhi is 6), he felt the deepest sorrow for the numerous young lives that had been lost. Much has been done to help Siaolin stand up, and previous posts on this blog have described how the government and various NGO’s have contributed to various reconstruction projects (see earlier reports here, here, here, and here). Compassionate and caring individuals have done their share as well; Hsiao is one example.

It began shortly before Children’s Day (兒童節; celebrated on April 4 in Taiwan), when Hsiao’s thoughts turned to an image of the Siaolin Elementary School principlal standing in prayer on behalf of those school children who had perished. Profoundly moved, Hsiao decided to visit Siaolin and help its youngest survivors give voice to their thoughts in words, images, and especially music.

Hsiao arrived in Siaolin on the morning of April 4. accompanied by a colleague from the Council for Cultural Affairs, two students from Tainan National University of the Arts, village leaders, school teachers, parents, and representatives of the Association for the Reconstruction of Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine Culture (小林平埔原住民族文化重建協會), including Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏 and Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬. They all headed to the neighboring village of Wulipu 五里埔, where many of Siaolin’s surviving families now reside. There they met some of Siaolin’s school children and their parents, and explained to them how they hoped to make this a special day for the kids who were there, as well as those who no longer had a chance to take part.

Once everything was all set, Hsiao took out his clarinet and started to play for the kids, with some singing along and others accompanying on their own musical instruments. Together, they played a number of Taiwanese and Western classics, including “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (小星星), “Jasmine” (茉莉花), “Spring Breeze” (望春風), and “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心). The children also spent time making paper hearts and drawing pretty pictures on them as gifts for their deceased classmates. Sounds of joy filled the room.

Difference photo 1

Yet there was also sorrow, as could be seen in some of the messages the children wrote to their departed friends:

“How could you leave us without saying goodbye?”

“I hope you can go to school in Heaven, and that you are doing well up there.”

“I miss you, I miss you so much. Do you miss me? I hope you are happy in Heaven, and that we will see each other again. Do you remember your nickname?”

“Here’s hoping they build us a new school soon. Wishing you joy up in Heaven.”

When the children had finished making their gifts, Hsiao and the other adults loaded the paper hearts as well as flowers they had prepared into a truck, and drove to the disaster site. There they laid the flowers on the ground in the shape of a giant heart, and placed the little hearts inside.

Difference photo 2

Hsiao then played the clarinet again, performing the same songs on behalf of the children who had perished, all the while thinking that if his own children had been the victims he would have wished for someone to do something similar on their behalf. For it is parents’ love for their children that can help them bear such an immeasurable loss, and continue down the path of life.

Difference photo 3

When the last notes had faded away, Hsiao and his companions prepared to leave, placing small stones on the paper hearts so that they would not easily blow away. As they drove off, Hsiao spotted a young couple and their small child walking past the monument to love on their way to some unknown destination. They stopped, gazed at the flowers and hearts, and then moved on, perhaps now with a more pleasant memory of a site that holds so much sorrow. May they never walk alone.

Difference photo 4

Yes, one person can make a difference. And now we know what it takes . . .

Note: All photographs taken by Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬.


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