April 2011

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By Kerry Brown

At the heart of the big story of Chinese rural democracy is the many millions of smaller stories of those who have been touched by this immense process. Before looking at village elections, therefore, here is one single story, of one man, who tried to stand in a village election, and of what happened to him. It is concrete experiences of engaging in the whole process of rural democracy like this that give village democracy its tremendous significance and interest. This section is based on papers obtained in Beijing in August 2009.

Mr Wang Jinsheng is 55, a native of a rural area of the impoverished western province of Shanxi. Shanxi may well be the home of the Terracotta Warriors, near to the main city of Xian, and boasts a splendid history dating back thousands of years, culminating in its time as the capital of what was then China during the mighty Tang dynasty from the seventh to the tenth centuries. But it now lives as a place with its best days behind it. While the rest of China hurtles ahead, towards some kind of über-modernity, Shanxi suffers from a degraded environment, lack of infrastructure, a state owned enterprise sector dominated by heavy industry, and, in some of the more isolated areas, deep and entrenched poverty. Even so, those in its mining sector, because of China’s burgeoning energy needs and reliance on coal, which the region is well endowed with, have in the last few years made a killing. A poor province therefore has some of the wealthiest individuals in the country.

Mr Wang is one of these, albeit on a small scale. According to a local newspaper report, Mr Wang had been a ‘common mechanic’ before taking the opportunity to set up his own business in the 1980s, at the start of the great economic liberalisation process. He is now an energy and mining company president, but someone who has not forgotten his poor background, and who decided, fatefully, to put himself forward in his local village election. It was a decision that was to change his life. His case is typical of many of those new elites, especially business people, who are starting to want something more than the right just to make a lot of money.

Mr Wang had been highly supportive of charities and educational projects in the village in which he chose to stand. According to a reporter from the Xinhua news agency, the official news outlet of the Chinese government, he ‘had never forgotten his fellow villagers.’ At the end of every year, he had donated foodstuffs, and given everyone over 60 years old, the disabled, and the poor, 100 Chinese yuan (US$16.4). ‘Mr Wang, a rich man who does not consider himself rich, wants to let everyone grow rich with him.’

He had, however, started to harbour ambitions in a more political direction. A great part of this had been due to the current Village Committee leader, Mr Zhao. Mr Zhao had, according to testimony put together by Mr Wang after the events that subsequently unfolded, used his position to abuse the one significant power that now still remains in elected village committee heads – that of being able to disburse land and to approve building and commercial projects.

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China Beat readers in Southern California are invited to join us this Friday at UC Irvine for a dialogue between James Carter of Saint Joseph’s University and UCI’s Vinayak Chaturvedi, who will be discussing the topic of “Nationalism and Religion in Twentieth-Century Asia.” Carter’s new book is Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth-Century Monk (read an excerpt here); Chaturvedi is author of Peasant Pasts: History and Memory in Western India.

The dialogue will be held from 1:30 to 3:00 in Humanities Gateway 1030 (building #611 on this campus map), and copies of Carter’s book will be available for purchase after the talk. Event co-sponsored by China Beat, the UCI Humanities Collective, Department of History, and the UC World History MRU.

By M. Scott Brauer

“We Chinese” grew out of a curiosity to find out what Chinese people think about their country and their future. Media coverage of the country and its development often raises questions about the direction of the government in Beijing on the world stage. Few reports take into account the feelings of the Chinese people, instead making reference to the country as a monolithic actor without constituent parts. A country’s trajectory through history cannot be mapped without careful consideration of the people. This project aims, in a small way, to develop a portrait of the country by looking at the individual people that make it up.

I started the project as a way to respond to questions from friends, family, and strangers about the global direction of China and their stereotypes of the people. Should we be scared of China? or Where is China headed? or broad assertions about the collective character of over a billion individuals who make up the country. The project aims to give faces and voices to a small section of the Chinese people caught in the center of historic shifts in the country’s socioeconomic circumstances. Recent years in China have been marked by mass migration toward urban centers, substantial increases in personal wealth, radical changes in the country’s educational and industrial sectors, and the start of China’s role as a global leader in political and economic matters. Ordinary people, the subject of We Chinese, are caught in the middle of this unprecedented change. While the big story is this change itself, an important and often-overlooked aspect of modern China is what this cultural transformation means to the people and their future.

In 2010, I traveled throughout major urban centers in eastern China stopping people on the street to ask the same two questions about their country and their future. The respondents filled out a one-page typewritten questionnaire that included these two questions and some basic information including name, age, and occupation. The questions were interpreted variously, and the responses range from prosaic to poetic, from rote to inspired, and from unemotional to patriotic. While it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the entire population, the people photographed here expressed a sincere love of country and optimism about the country’s future development and peaceful position in the world.

The name We Chinese comes from a phrase I encountered time and again when talking with Chinese people in China, both in Mandarin and English. Answers to questions about the person’s opinion about something or other would often begin with We Chinese (我们中国人 Women Zhongguo ren), instead of beginning with something like I think.

The project also comes from suspicions of my own methods in documentary work. My work imposes visual and written narratives on situations and cultures. By photographing anyone willing to be a part of the project, using the same set up for the portraits, and asking the same questions of all the subjects, I hope a narrative about China and its people would naturally emerge.

The final project comprises 100 portraits and short interviews. The text and pictures are meant to be viewed simultaneously. More pictures can be seen at the We Chinese site. The work has not previously been published, beyond on the website and blogs. Word of mouth has been tremendous, but I’m still looking for exhibition and publication opportunities for the project.

M. Scott Brauer is a photojournalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His work can be seen at his personal website and, along with Matt Lutton, he founded dvafoto.com, a blog about photojournalism.

Translations by Heidi Wickersham, Three Rivers Language

NAME: Shen Yin Ying 沈荫莺
AGE: 23
OCCUPATION: Clothing assistant  服装助理
WHAT DOES CHINA MEAN TO YOU?:
To me China is just a big family. The place where I was born and raised. I owe everything to my homeland.
对我来说中国就是一个大家庭。生我养我的地方。我的一切都来自于我的祖国。
WHAT IS YOUR ROLE IN CHINA’S FUTURE?:
Put in more of an effort in support of my country’s development of clothing.
为我国的服装发展出一 份力量吧!

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[Editor’s note: It seems that quite a few of our readers are as fond of jianbing as we are here at China Beat HQ. This morning’s post on the tasty breakfast dish garnered a number of responses on Twitter (revealing that not everyone is a fan, though all have strong feelings on the jianbing issue), which I’ve collected below, followed by one story sent in by a reader via email. And fellow UC Irvine graduate student Aubrey Adams directed my attention to this basic recipe for jianbing, in case I (or anyone else) wants to attempt making them at home.]

From reader Marc Epstein:

Dear China Beat-

It’s difficult for me to express how moved I was by your post today on jianbing. I studied abroad in Beijing two years ago and came back in August 2010. The time in between, though, was torture.

There’s a small street near Beijing Foreign Studies University in Beijing’s college town, Haidian District, [that] study abroad students here have aptly named “Food Alley.” Only one day into my semester here in Spring of 2009 I had discovered the jianbing stand at the far end of Food Alley, past the restaurant with red lanters we creatively called “Red Lantern Restaurant,” and only one window beyond “Spicy Noodles.”

Every time I think back to that fateful early February day I’m surprised by a couple of things. One is that the jianbing stand was still open so close to Chunjie. The other is that, for me, my experience with jianbing wasn’t love at first taste. Rather, it spoke of an initial connection, one that with time could become as unbreakable as a bond between man and food possibly can.

I never went more than two days without eating a jianbing and, if I ever missed a day, I would make up for it by having two the next. When I went back to the states, I was struck by sudden cravings for my food addiction. Besides periodic headaches that may or may not have been related to the deficiency, I would also wake up in the middle of the night because of nightmares that the jianbing stand I frequented had been torn down, or somehow I couldn’t find it. I even once dreamt that the jianbing stand now only sold “Pizza Jianbings” and you could only find it two floors up a modern mall in the place of Food Alley. (I’m almost positive that pizza jianbing is the form my subconscious has taken for the fear of a changing Beijing.)

This story has a happy ending. Though Red Lantern Restaurant and most of the other restaurants that lined food alley have been torn down, the jianbing stand has thus far survived. I moved back to Haidian in August and went immediately to visit the Anhui family of three that worked the stand. They remembered me immediately and our friendship has grown stronger with each passing jianbing.

Thanks to all who have joined us in today’s jianbing-o-rama!

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Wednesday morning began like any other. I poured some cereal, made a pot of coffee, and flipped open my laptop to catch up on what had filled my Google Reader and Twitter feed overnight. One of the links I clicked on took me to Evan Osnos’s Condé Nast Traveler article about the ongoing “creative destruction” of Beijing, where my morning routine ended as soon as I read this paragraph:

At a stall just inside the western entrance, I order a fresh jianbing, a Beijing specialty of a piping-hot crêpe, made before my eyes on the griddle then folded around an egg and seasoned with chives, black sesame paste, coriander, mustard-plant leaves, and fermented soybean sauce. (Once, on an eating trip to Beijing, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten pronounced the jianbing “the best breakfast in the world.”)

Suddenly, my healthful breakfast of whole-grain cereal and reduced-fat milk had become completely unappealing. Jianbing. Now that is a way to start your day, chowing down on egg, crepe, and crispy fried bing out of a thin plastic bag that always seems inadequate to hold the enormous delicacy within it. The best breakfast in the world? Yes, indeed.

Jianbing vendors, however, don’t roam the streets of Orange County, California, and I doubt I could assemble anything remotely resembling a true jianbing in my own kitchen even if I tried. Besides, half the enjoyment of jianbing is watching the creation come together atop a hot griddle stationed on a Beijing sidewalk. Quite simply, I wanted a jianbing and there was nothing I could do about it.

So, like any good 21st-century web user, I took to social media to express my discontent. Within hours, several of my US-based friends had joined me in lamenting the lack of jianbing in our lives. And thus, we decided to put our frustration to creative use, resulting in this: our first crowdsourced China Beat post, where we come to celebrate the humble jianbing.

Kate Merkel-Hess has mined the internet and put together a quick visual introduction to the food for anyone wondering what we’re talking about and why we’re so obsessed. First, a jianbing maker in action:

Mouth-watering photos from Beijing Haochi’s posts on jianbing and jianbing sauces. Also see their feature on the Suzhou jidan guanbing, a cousin to the jianbing:

Konrad Lawson, a Harvard University grad student and contributor to Frog in a Well, shares this jianbing memory:

Lawson and jianbing in 2004

When I was studying Chinese at IUP in Beijing over ten years ago there was something so comforting about the fact that, no matter how cold the winter mornings got, somewhere on the Qinghua campus roads between my dormitory and my first morning class there would be a jianbing seller ready to feed me. Was it a healthy breakfast? No. Did I really know what was in the brown mixture he ladled out from what looked like a well-used paint bucket? No. Was it the cheapest, most delicious, most awesome way to prepare me for my day of studies ahead? Yes.

So much did I love my simple jianbing, and so charmed was I watching the craftsman swirl a splash of batter around on his (only years later in Shandong would I come across my first female jianbing seller) round heated slab to just the right shape and thickness before adding the other ingredients, that I dedicated a homework essay to it. Using all of our most recently acquired vocabulary, only some of it remotely appropriate for such a composition, I wrote my ode to the jianbing and read it out in class. In it I not only lauded the craft and dedication of the jianbing maker, and the brilliant simplicity of the product, but suggested that, given the chance, this simple Chinese crepe was destined for greater glories. Create a cooperative of fifty dedicated jianbing makers with their talent and the entrepreneurial savvy to find the perfect time and perfect corner, and let’s deploy them on the streets of New York, London, and Paris. Let them charge ten times or more what it cost at that time on Qinghua campus (2RMB) and customize it to the needs of the local market and a world of fusion foods. Don’t like that fried dough? We have a healthy baked version. Don’t like that meaty sauce? We have a spicy hummus spread. The possibilities are endless… Alas, my teacher had no faith in my vision, and more justifiably, even less in my ability to make the case in Chinese.

MEC: If you’d like to share your jianbing adoration, tweet your thoughts to @chinabeat, or send an email to thechinabeat[at]gmail.com; I’ll keep adding responses as they come in.

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