August 2011

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by Miriam Kingsberg

The tens of thousands of Dalian residents who gathered this weekend to demand the relocation of a chemical plant were responding to a contemporary situation. Their protest, though, reflected a complicated relationship among the people, the state, and the environment that was inscribed in the city from the very moment of its founding.

Dalian came into being in 1898, when Russia leased the Liaodong peninsula (a main part of the general region known often as either Dongbei or Manchuria) from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and established the port of Dalny (Dal’nii) on the site of the fishing village of Qingniwa. Nature supplied the rationale for the very creation of Dalny. Perched on a year-round ice-free deep harbor, the site fulfilled a centuries-old quest of Russian empire-builders for just such a port. Planners laid out the city on the round, open plaza scheme of St. Petersburg, a built-from-scratch urban entity in turn modeled on Baron Haussmann’s vision for Paris. Yet representatives of Tsar Nicholas II had scarcely designated the basic outlines of the metropolis when it was captured by Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

Renamed Dairen (“Great Connection”), the port was imperial Japan’s first and in the end longest-held foothold on the Asian mainland. During the early twentieth century, it was a site for experimentation within the emerging science of urban planning. Stymied by bureaucratic regulations and existing infrastructure in the metropole, Japanese planners sought a “blank slate” in Dairen, an opportunity to legitimate imperialism on the Asian mainland by building the modern, Western-style city of their dreams.

Postcard view of Dairen;

Dairen came into being at a moment when urban reformers worldwide had come to view the natural world as an indispensable element of the modern city. Ebenezer Howard’s vision of the “garden city” and early twentieth-century “city beautiful” campaigns emphasized greenery as a form of urban spectacle, a source of hygiene, and a subtle means of zoning among various races, economic classes, and urban functions. Japan created Dairen as a uniquely nature-oriented city to fulfill these functions as well as express a long domestic tradition of ambivalence towards urbanism.

As the city took shape in the early years of the twentieth century, nature competed successfully with the built environment for the attention of spectators. Images of the city, produced by the relatively new technology of the camera, included depictions of the landscape—mountains, beaches, and forests—as well as paved streets and monumental Western-style architecture. Under the administration of Dairen’s first mayor, the Japanese Ishimoto Kantarō, thousands of acacia trees were planted. The flower came to function as the analog of the cherry blossom in the Japanese home islands—a symbol of the city under imperial rule. One gazetteer noted (for the following quote and others to come, see the reference section at the very bottom of this post): “So many acacia trees line the streets of Dairen that it may well be called the city of acacia, especially in early summer when the breeze wafts the scent of the white blossoms over the city.” (In spite of Ishimoto’s efforts, multiple memoirs of Dairen under Japanese occupation have noted that the fragrance of acacia did not disguise the odor of another flower, the opium poppy, which formed the basis for the mayor’s wealth and power.)

Even the industrial zones of Dairen reflected the ideology of the city beautiful movement. Tens of thousands of Chinese, who migrated from the provinces of Shandong and Hebei in search of temporary unskilled work, lived in the segregated quarters of Hekizansō (Pishanzhuang, literally “Green Mountain Villa”). Though investigators who penetrated the barracks descried the deprived lifestyle of laborers, from the outside the complex appeared almost pastoral. For visitors to Dairen, Hekizansō was simply another attraction of the local landscape, to be viewed from a designated platform atop a nearby hill. Yosano Akiko, the most famous female poet of her day, was moved by a visit to the site in 1928 to compose the following poem:
“On a spring day, the acacia path of Hekizansō, unequalled even by the willows of Chang’an, is ignored by the laborers carrying heavy loads.”

Although Dairen was the production nexus of Manchuria, barely six percent of its area was allocated to industry. By contrast, parks covered more than eleven percent of the urban terrain. A song taught to schoolchildren highlights the importance of nature to the self-image of the city:
In the great plaza, the grass is green,
At Hoshigaura beach, the sand is white.
A sunset view that can’t be believed,
A beautiful city,
An engaging city,
My Dairen, where life is good.

Waterways, trees, and shrubbery not only conveyed an impression of urban beauty, but also broke up open lots and prevented crowds from gathering. Following the models of Haussmann’s Paris and St. Petersburg, which manipulated the environment to curb the “power of the mob,” Dairen planners used nature to circumscribe public space. The major physical exception to this tendency was the park that became known as Renmin guangchang (People’s Plaza) in the PRC era. It was here that crowds gathered on Sunday to call for the relocation of a potentially polluting paraxylene plant. Unlike most of Japanese Dairen, which was built during the city beautiful years of the 1910s and 1920s, Renmin guangchang was the product of the 1930s era of high modernism. Reflecting the reverence for technology and order that characterized this aesthetic, the plaza was an unrelieved concrete wasteland, protected from the public not by interspersed artifacts of nature, but by the government buildings around it.

Photograph of People's Square, taken by Meg Rithmire

These structures remain in existence today, occupied by the ministries of the contemporary state. This past weekend, protestors both drew on and inverted the traditional relationship among the regime, the people, and the environment by laying claim to Renmin guangchang to call for the protection of nature. They won not only recognition of their grievances through a pledge (not yet honored) to close the chemical plant, but also the use of park space as public space.

Miriam Kingsberg is an assistant professor of modern Japanese history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is currently on leave as an Academy Scholar at the Harvard University Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She lived in Dalian in 2007-08 while doing research for her current book project. She may be contacted at

The quote on the scent of “acacia” can be found on page 202 of Kwantung Government, The Kwantung Government: Its Functions and Works (Dairen: The Kwantung Government, 1934). A sample memoir highlighting the aroma of opium is Matsubara Kazue, Dairen dansu ho-ru no yoru (Tokyo: Chūō kōronsha, 1998). For Yosano Akiko’s poem, see Vol. 5, p. 204 of Shin Kitsu and Nagaoka Masami, eds., Shokuminchi shakai jigyō kankei shiryō shū “Manshū, Manshūkoku” (Tokyo: Kin-gendai shiryō kenkōkai, 2005); the city of Chang’an mentioned in the poem was capital of the Tang Dynasty (618-906). The song for children can be found on p. 61 of Vol. 7 of Isoda Kazuo, et al., eds, Zai-Man Nihonjin yō kyōkasho shūsei (Tokyo: Kashiwa shobō, 2000). And for more on high modernist planning in the cities of Japanese Manchuria, see David Buck, “Railway City and National Capital: Two Faces of the Modern in Changchun,” pp. 65-89, in Joseph W. Esherick, ed., Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999).

By Meg Rithmire

Where is Dalian, the city that has just made its way into international headlines due to large-scale demonstrations in its central square? Ask this question in China and “Dongbei” is the one word answer you are likely to get. And you can’t argue with it. The term means simply “Northeast”—with the first character the same one that’s in the song “Dongfang Hong” (The East is Red) and the second the same one that’s in Beijing (literally: Northern Capital)—and on a map of the country, Dalian is right up there in the right hand corner (the red dot on the image above taken from Wikipedia’s page on the city).

One of the first things to note about this Dongbei city, though, is that it has started to be more dong and less bei, so to speak. It has begun to have less and less in common with cities that neighbor it to the north (many of which have gone from being centers of Mao era crash industrialization to becoming economically troubled rust belt locales) and more and more in common with booming eastern seaboard ports to the south (many of which, including most famously Shanghai, have done well in the Reform era). While many other Dongbei cities (Daqing, for example), struggle against unemployment, are marred by blighted post-industrial urban landscapes, and contend with a bevy of environmental problems, Dalian enjoys not only exceptional wealth but also a reputation as an excellent place to live and work, thanks in large part to how it has become integrated into global economic systems. It has been praised as the “Bangalore of north Asia” and called “China’s best business city.” It has also amassed a number of awards acknowledging the quality of its urban landscape and handling of environmental issues: it was declared an “Environmental Protection Model City” (Huanbao Mofan Chengshi) in 1992, a “Sanitation Model City” (Weisheng Mofan Chengshi) in 1991, and was the first city in China and second in Asia to be included in the UN “Global 500” for livable environments in 1995. The city’s landscape—the built as well as natural environment—is revered throughout the region; it is a prime destination not only for migrants but also wealthier retirees who seek healthier air and access to fresh seafood.

In light of all this, it is striking that the largest protests to break out in Dalian since 1989, the ones that exploded last weekend, would concern an environmental issue: the main aim of demonstrators was to force the closure of a chemical plant. And it is notable as well that protests did not occur when two of Dalian’s northern neighbors experienced incidents associated with pollution and toxic spills. Nearby Harbin (whose architecture was the subject of James Carter’s recent post on this site), had to shut down the city’s water supplies for four days in 2005 as a result of a benzene spill into the Songhua River. And that spill was a result of a chemical plant explosion in Jilin City, another regional hub, which killed or injured dozens of people and resulted in a massive evacuation. But neither Harbin nor Jilin residents took to the streets six years ago.

Yet, in Dalian, middle-to-upper class residents who live in the city’s downtown area, twenty kilometers from the industrial zone in which the PX chemical plant is located, have been agitating to demand the factory’s relocation. Dalian’s economic and political trajectory since reform and opening sheds some light on why.

Dalian’s success was a function of early open door policies bestowed by Beijing, natural geography, and the efforts of an effective and charismatic mayor—Bo Xilai, who was central to Dalian politics from 1985-2000. Now famous for presiding over the Chongqing Model and a “Red Revival,” Bo began his political career as the party secretary of Maqiaozi, a small village about 35 kilometers east of the city center. In 1985, Maqiaozi became the site of the Dalian Economic and Technology Development Zone (ETDZ), the very first such zone nationwide.

When Bo ascended to the Mayor’s office in 1992, he initiated sweeping changes to the city’s physical landscape as a major part of efforts at reform and growth. These changes involved a spatial division of labor within the city of Dalian: the development zone to the east would be home to the city’s manufacturing base, and the downtown area would be home to commercial and residential development as well as the burgeoning service sector. Realizing this spatial division of labor involved major campaigns to relocate downtown industrial enterprises, campaigns that were accompanied by the rhetoric of removing “polluting enterprises” to the suburbs to improve quality of life. Constant appeal to the environmental benefits of locating industry outside the city to both protect residents’ quality of life and Dalian’s environmental reputation offset objections over the inconvenience of suburbanizing jobs and the loss of downtown residences.

In this sense, the PX plant protests reflect the political legacy of Dalian’s transformation. Dalian residents share a sense of entitlement to a high-quality urban environment. Many of the city’s newer residents were drawn to Dalian because of the environment, and its older residents perceive a safe and clean city as their hard-won prize from rounds of economic reforms and relocations. Protest placards with slogans like “Love Dalian, Reject Poison” underscore the centrality of the urban environment to the city’s political self-image.

In another sense, the protests are somewhat surprising to Dalian watchers. A consequence of the city’s spatial division of labor and the distance between downtown and the development zone has been a remarkable gulf between the “old city” and the “new.” The development zone is home to a largely migrant population and downtown to the more traditional, long-time Dalian residents. If the better-off, downtown residents of the old city are considering the zone as part of their “backyard” in the PX protests, this is perhaps suggestive of growing integration of city and suburbs in larger Dalian. Whether this concern will extend to the dozens of other chemical and petrochemical companies in the development zone remains to be seen.

Meg Rithmire ( is an assistant professor of Business, Government, and the International Economy at the Harvard Business School. From 2007-2008, while researching her dissertation project on urban planning and politics in China, she lived and conducted research in Dalian and other cities in the Northeast. Her first stay in the area, though, came five years before that, when she studied Chinese in Harbin in a program run by CET Academic Programs, an organization with long ties to this blog (e.g., both founding editor Kate Merkel-Hess and current editor Maura Cunningham are CET alums, and China Beat contributor David Moser, whose most recent post analyzed the documentary film “He Shang,” is Academic Director of the CET Chinese Studies program in Beijing).

By Chris Berry

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot more time in Shanghai than in Beijing. This is because of a research project comparing moving image screens—mostly Lighting-Emitting Diode (LED) screens—as part of everyday culture in public places in Cairo, Shanghai and London. (If you’re interested, you can read more about that here.) But in the meantime, I had heard about the Jumbotron screen installed in the middle of Tiananmen Square. So, when I made it back to Beijing for the first time since just before the 2008 Olympics to do a bit of teaching at the Chinese Film summer school organized by Yomi Braester and hosted at the Beijing Film Academy, I couldn’t resist going down to Tiananmen again. Here are some notes I made after my return.

20 July 2011

I arrived at about 4.30 p.m. at Tiananmen East subway station, in search of the Jumbotron screen I have heard now sits in Tiananmen Square. Although Beijing is not one of the cities in our research project and a Jumbotron screen is hardly an everyday screen, I couldn’t stop myself. On the way, I noticed that the Beijing subway system’s screen installations are very similar to those in Shanghai. There are pairs of screenings facing both ways and perpendicular to the tracks on each platform. These are supposed to show news and entertainment programming plus advertising at the same time, as their draw the passenger’s eye because they also have information about the next train. However, this being Beijing rather than Shanghai, where things are more smoothly organized with an eye towards commercial advantage, I noticed that most of the time there was no information about the next train, and so no one was watching. On the trains, there are screens by the door, much as in Shanghai, and also much as in Shanghai, sometimes they are working and sometimes not. Sometimes, they just have information about the next station, and no advertising. On line 5 today on my way back during the peak of the rush hour, they were screening live coverage of traffic conditions above ground, just to let you know that the involuntary intimacy experience of the subway was worth it to avoid the stasis of the traffic jams above. The main difference I could observe on the subways was that on lines 1 and 2, there is a special kind of advertising that Lydia Liu tipped me off about a couple of years ago and I have never seen anywhere else. When the train gets to a particular speed (it seems), advertisements appear to be projected onto the wall of the tunnel, at waist height if you are standing. I have no idea how this is achieved technologically. However, most of the ads appeared to be for local products of no particular prestige, so it does not seem to be considered a highly desirable form of advertising.

At Tiananmen Square, I found that the most visible thing on a murky day like today is the screen. Or, to be more precise, it is the pair of screens. About half way between Tiananmen Gate at the north end facing the square with Mao’s portrait, and Mao’s Mausoleum in the middle of the square, is the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Now, on either side, and facing back up towards the Tiananmen Gate, there are a pair of giant screens (see figure 1). I guess these are meant to be framing the Monument. But unless you are standing directly in front of the Monument, they obscure it. And their brightness certainly draws more attention. This seems to capture the relationship between the old and the new in China today. In theory, marketization is there to complement and support socialism, but sometimes it also seems designed to distract from the survival of the political system it is simultaneously propping up. Is this Debord’s “society of the spectacle” with Chinese characteristics?

Figure 1: The Jumbotron screens shine from afar.

I gather the material displayed on the screens changes. Today, it was all about the upcoming 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Every ten minutes or so, the screens went through a series of slogans (white characters on a red background). In between, there were different celebratory montages. When I arrived, it was a montage congratulating the motherland and celebrating in dance. There were images of all the different nationalities (or at least the more recognisable ones) dancing and stirring orchestral music (see figure 2). I took a lot of photos. A logo indicated this had been contributed by China Central Television (CCTV, who presumably paid for it?). The next montage was all about Jiangsu, and looked like a combination tourist advertisement and a “come live/set up your business” ad. I wandered off after that. On the way back, I saw the end of a Beijing TV (BTV)-branded piece all about saluting the flag, and the beginning of a piece displaying the loveliness of Shenzhen. I wonder what the financial arrangements are concerning this material? On the surface, this appears to be a conventional commercial sponsorship situation. The screen is in a special place, viewed by many thousands of Chinese as they visit the square. Although it is not a one-off televised event like the Super Bowl, presumably this is a valuable screen to have your name exposed on. Do media organizations like CCTV and BTV eagerly compete for and pay good money for their ten minutes? Or have they been called upon to contribute these pieces? Or are they paid by the Party to produce them? And what about the local montages? Do they come from municipalities or provincial governments, or the local television stations? It wasn’t quite clear to me. However, all these organisations are state-owned, and the state is controlled by the Party, just as almost all the important figures in these organizations are Party members. So, although the appearance might be of numerous friends and family eager to wish the Party a happy ninetieth birthday, the whole thing has a “happy birthday to me” feel about it.

Figure 2: All the nationalities celebrate, and the screen is a new photo opportunity for visitors to the square.

While I was looking at the screens, twice I had the interesting and unexpected experience of young women wandering by, asking “Hi! Where are you from? Do you speak English?” as they passed behind me. Who would have expected that with all the cops crawling all over Tiananmen, the place would be a hooker’s pick-up spot? Apart from that, all of Zhang Yuan and Duan Jinchuan’s observations of the tourists, cops, soldiers, and Beijing public jostling for use of the square in their 1996 observational documentary, The Square, are re-confirmed. I was impressed by the sheer range of police transport, which even included Segways. Right behind the big screens seemed to be a favorite parking place for various police vehicles (see figure 3). The instinct to tuck things away is significant itself. Of course, for a long time Tiananmen has been physically organized to signify openness and accessibility, lying at the centre of various public transport routes and with no visible barriers to access. And yet, in practice, you can only cross the street to get to the square at certain designated points, and taxis cannot stop and drop off or pick up passengers right at the square. If you enter via one of the tunnels leading from the subway station, you have to put your bags through a scanner. Once you’re on the square, the other ubiquitous form of screen technology is the surveillance camera, linked back to screens in a nearby control room, no doubt (see figure 4).

Figure 3: Behind the screen.

Figure 4: Notice the surveillance cameras on the lamppost to the right.

At the same time as I noticed the cops on Segway scooters, I also noticed that I wasn’t the only person fascinated by the screens. Other visitors were also clustered around them and sometimes taking pictures of each other in front of the screens (see figure 5). So, they are a new tourist attraction that people want to be photographed in front of when they finally make that visit to Tiananmen. (One young man asked to be photographed next to me. I could probably make a bit of money on the side by being a professional foreigner for people from the sticks to be photographed next to!)

Figure 5: Outside the Mao Mausoleum.

Standing in front of the screens, I also noticed something that I would probably have passed by completely were it not for the research we have already done in Shanghai. In the far distance, I noticed green Chinese character LED slide show screens. There are two of them, either side of the entrance to the Mausoleum, and they echo the larger Jumbotron screens—a pair, either side of a central edifice, facing north. On the slide show is simple practical information about visiting, including one slide in English (see figure 6). Then, turning round, I noticed another LED, but this time a yellow-charactered “walking word” (走字) screen above the small cop hut on the West side of the square. The message was asking people to be vigilant and accept security measures, and thanking them (see figure 6).

Figure 6: The police booth on the west side of the square.

Everyone notices the Jumbotron screens in Tiananmen and lots of people have commented about them. But in fact, they are not the only LED screens in Tiananmen. In addition to the spectacular and eye-catching screens, two other forms are also there: the relatively smaller and less spectacular slide show-style and “walking words” screens. Here, the “moving image” consists almost entirely of Chinese characters. If Tiananmen is a sort of heterotopic space that condenses all of China, this is true for China’s screen culture, too. Across the country, huge screens catch your eye. But even more common are the smaller slide-show and walking word screens, seen far less frequently outside East Asia. And, finally, of course, there is the other element of screen culture in public spaces: surveillance cameras. What does this tell us about public space in China today? It is structures as the space of the spectacle and consumption, but not of communication among the people who gather there, nor is spontaneity encouraged. Instead, the public are led by the messages on the smaller screens to understand their preferred role, and to regulate themselves. And if they don’t regulate themselves, the surveillance cameras should spot any deviant behaviour before it gets out of hand. In today’s neo-liberal society, how different is this from public spaces in so-called “Western” countries? Perhaps this scene seems similar at first, but in principle at least, the political structure that lies behind it is very different. The looking-at-while-being-looked-at structure will remind many people of Orwell. However, not only is the mood much less sombre, but also my encounter with the hookers may indicate even the most elaborate structures of control are far from infallible.

Chris Berry is Professor of Film and Television Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Seung-joon Lee. Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. viii, 300 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

By Emily Hill

Why is “eating in Canton” (shi zai Guangzhou) known as the best in China? Seung-joon Lee’s lively and original study examines the peculiarities and politics of eating in Canton (Guangzhou) from Qing times to 1937. Using a delectable range of materials in Chinese, Japanese, and English, the book offers an illuminating entrée to the culture and political correctness of eating in modern Chinese history. As the author points out, few historical studies focus on food supplies. Many narrative histories of China, for instance, include sections on the Canton-based events of the 1920s when the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party joined in the common cause of Nationalist Revolution. But no one asks: “Who fed the revolutionaries?” (p. 87) Tackling this question, Lee explores a transnational network of Cantonese millers, shippers, buyers, and brokers who together purveyed grain grown in Burma, Siam, and French Indochina to Canton’s most ordinary households. Flowing in the opposite direction, smaller shipments of special “brands” of rice grown in Guangdong reached customers in San Francisco and other locations throughout the Cantonese diaspora. In economic terms, Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta area was an integral part of Southeast Asia, and Canton’s food-processing industries were the most technologically advanced in China. Culturally, the area belonged to an extended transnational world of appreciation for the distinctive flavours of Cantonese cuisine.

Lee shows how the case of Cantonese rice consumption contributed to the conceptualization of China as a national economy. By the 1920s, the rice import trade had become Canton’s most important business, and in a remarkable reversal of the usual rural-urban relationship, Canton supplied its hinterland with large quantities of Southeast Asian rice. By the 1930s, the global depression gave rise to alarm about imported foodstuffs. Deflation caused prices paid to Chinese farmers to decline while the slump in world trade also led to lower prices for China’s grain imports. Rice from Southeast Asia became China’s most important import item during the mid-1930s. As the conviction that a national economy should be a self-contained unit was taking shape, Cantonese reliance on imported grain came to be viewed as a critical national problem. Because Guangdong’s rice imports made up half the national total, admiration of Cantonese culinary sophistication turned to hostility. It seemed irrational that Hunan produced rice in abundance while Canton imported without restraint. Government officials and other observers in more northern cities considered this to be unpatriotic as well. Why was Chinese-grown rice not good enough?

Analysis of Cantonese otherness in the conceptual construction of the Chinese nation is an important contribution of the book. Lee’s main argument, however, is a critique of the Guomindang-led government’s technocratic approach to the goal of national self-sufficiency in food supplies. He effectively illustrates the would-be technocracy’s approach by describing the major engineering project of the time, analogous to today’s Three Gorges dam, in which Guangdong was connected to points north by means of the Canton-Hankow Railway. As Lee explains, planners predicted that the new railway line, completed in 1936, would be “a stepping stone to the complete reorganization of Chinese agriculture” (p. 194). Rice grown in Hunan would replace Guangdong’s economically dangerous imports, halving China’s consumption of foreign rice. At the same time, grain imports would be restricted by steep tariffs. However, the official plans to expand domestic output and restrict imports of grain were poorly implemented. In Canton, the plans backfired. Cut off from imported food supplies, the people of Guangdong began to experience famine during the winter of 1936-37.

Referring to “Canton’s starving people” (p. 204) without providing either a death toll or details on the scale and duration of the grain scarcity of 1937, Lee leaves one wondering about the magnitude of the nutritional shortfall that resulted. Moreover, his causal analysis of the dearth of rice seems incomplete. Lee argues that the official incompetence in supplying grain to Guangdong was the result of an excessively technocratic focus on quantitative goals and planners’ neglect of qualitative differences. Too confident in their rationality, the officials who assumed responsibility for grain supplies ignored merchants’ knowledge of different types of rice. Given Lee’s narrative of events, however, one could conclude instead that officials did not quantify enough. In plans for transporting grain along the new railway, for example, they failed to allocate investment to ensure that Hunan’s rice reached Guangdong in a condition fit to eat. How many new warehouses and railcars were needed? It seems that such quantities were not included in the plan. Consequently, farmers’ deliveries of rice were left to deteriorate in the open air near railroad stations in Hunan (p. 201). This episode suggests that bureaucrats aspiring to practice technocratic quantification actually quantified quite crudely.

A minor flaw may be detected in Lee’s discussion of the allegedly sensitive Cantonese palate. To quote contemporary comments referring to the peculiarity of “Cantonese eating habits” (p. 198) is valuable for conveying the understanding of the time, but Lee’s references to the distinctive characteristics of Cantonese preferences lack precision. He thus risks contributing to the mystification of Cantonese tastes. Lee explains that Cantonese consumers preferred to purchase rice that had been recently harvested, milled, and polished, and also states that Guangdong’s southern climate caused consumers to fear and avoid dampness in their food supply. If it acquired moisture en route, their rice would soon spoil. His finding that the people of Canton were invariably fussy about the qualitative characteristics of their rice, even when compelled to turn to relief supplies while the import trade was disrupted during 1918-1919, could thus be explained by the difference between edible and inedible rice. When the poor suffered shortages, this difference could be a matter of life and death. Therefore the significant question of just how and why Cantonese tastes were distinctive calls for further analysis. Nevertheless, such questions arise because Seung-joon Lee’s excursion into the politics of eating in China brings such tantalizing new fare to the table.

Emily Hill is Associate Professor of History at Queen’s University and author of Smokeless Sugar: The death of a provincial bureaucrat and the construction of China’s national economy (University of British Columbia Press, 2010).

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

By Marcella Szablewicz

“Unhealthy” Games
With 300 million people playing Internet games in China, the question of how these games affect youth has captured the attention of the public and researchers alike. I first became interested in studying online gaming in 2002 when, as a language student in Harbin, China, I discovered the extent to which playing online games in Internet cafés had become a central part of social life for many urban youth. However, like any new technology, the growing popularity of games has also sparked growing fears about their potential to negatively impact society. In recent years the Chinese media has been full of horror stories: adults committing crimes of passion over in-game items and affairs, young boys dropping dead from sitting in front of computer screens for 72 hours straight, high school students blowing off the college entrance exam (高考) to spend time in local Internet cafés, the list goes on. Elsewhere, I have analyzed the root causes and possible effects of this media moral panic (find the youtube video and article here).

However, moral panic aside, it is important to recognize that not all games are created equal. As with many aspects of contemporary Chinese society, digital games are increasingly separated into “healthy” and “unhealthy” categories. To be facetious, we might say that there are bad games and then there are games with “Chinese characteristics.”

It should come as no surprise that the game that faces the most criticism from the government and addiction experts is one created by an American company, Blizzard Entertainment. With over 12 million subscribers worldwide, World of Warcraft (WoW) is one of the most popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) in the world (for an early China Beat look at WoW, see here). But, according to Chinese addiction specialists, World of Warcraft is also one of the most addictive and harmful games on the Chinese market.

In a purported effort to ensure that WoW meets the standards of a  “harmonious society,” the Ministry of Culture (MoC) and the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) have imposed various restrictions on game content and battled furiously over the details of the game’s licensing and oversight. These regulatory issues have been well documented in the online press (see, for example, the Wall Street Journal blog here and Caixin Online here).

From Dungeons and Dragons to the “Descendants of the Dragon”
But government concerns about violence and inappropriate content in foreign games likely mask more pressing economic and ideological concerns. On one hand, with 300 million players the government is well aware of the economic power of the online games market. As such, MoC and GAPP restrictions that require foreign companies to sell their operating rights to domestic companies amount to thinly disguised protectionism and resemble tactics taken by the government with regard to other types of foreign investment.

On the other hand, the government is increasingly focused on the “soft” power of games and the cultural values and narratives imparted by them. Indeed, many popular MMORPGs, WoW included, are based on Norse mythology. As noted by Eddo Stern (2002), “The range of historical and cultural influences on the fantasy game mise-en-scene includes a wild amalgam of Celtic, Gothic, Medieval and Renaissance combined with a deep commitment to a Wagnerian, Tolkienesque, Camalotian, and D&D’ish verisimilitude.”

Given that western narratives often dominate MMORPGs, it seems only reasonable that the country with the largest number of online gamers in the world would want to see its own cultural heritage represented. One Chinese cultural critic talked to the Beijing Morning Post about this very issue [Ed. note: the article is no longer on the Beijing Morning Post website, but can still be read at the QQ page linked to here]. Here is an excerpt from the discussion:

“Values can be attached to games and spread throughout the world. To a child that has played World of Warcraft since he was small, the “dragon” he sees in his mind’s eye will be a dragon modeled after a western understanding of “dragon,” it will take the shape of a monster. Will this same child still identify with the notion that he is a “descendant of the dragon”? Online games are important parts of culture; they are the manifestations of a country’s soft power. As such, they deserve our sufficient attention…”

From Monkey King to Mao
Providing the Chinese answer to western game narratives, there are a growing number of online games with “Chinese characteristics.” Such games can be divided into two main genres. The first genre tends to be based upon classical Chinese novels and folklore such as Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. With over 20 million reported registrants, the most successful example of this genre is Fantasy Westward Journey (梦幻西游), a game based upon the mystical travels of the Monkey King.

A second group goes by the moniker “red net games”  (红色网游). These games usually focus on China’s recent communist history and legacy. As noted by Chinese Wikipedia sites, such as Baidu Baike and Hudong, the company almost always associated with “red games” is Shenzhen-based ZQ Game (中青宝). Since 2008, ZQ has reportedly enjoyed the backing and investment of the Communist Youth League Central Committee and other major government players. A spokesperson for the company noted that the target audience for these games is the 60s and 70s generation, stating, “Our gamers are mostly white collar, very nationalistic…” There have also been reports that ZQ is in the process of creating a game known as “Long March Online” (长征OL).

But lest we get ahead of ourselves in thinking that games about Chinese history are “healthier” than their Western counterparts, there is a particular experience I feel compelled to share. Last summer I visited the ZQ game pavilion at ChinaJoy, China’s largest games expo. There, amidst games that reenacted the war of resistance against the Japanese and the civil war between the nationalists and communists, scantily clad young women paraded around with ZQ stickers on their arms. Below is a photo of this very scene:

My point here is not to suggest that these Chinese narratives are any more violent or sexual than Western ones (online games about Desert Storm and crime scenarios such as Grand Theft Auto come to mind). But perhaps we should maintain a healthy skepticism about the government’s motives for criticizing the “unharmonious” elements in WoW when Chinese game companies such as ZQ are pushing bloody battle narratives and trussing up their salesgirls in French bustiers.*

Gamers Just Want to Have Fun
What is more, while “red net games” enjoy the backing of the Chinese government, they do not always gain the support of the gamers for whom they are intended. ZQ, in particular, has enjoyed limited success on the market, attracting far fewer gamers than World of Warcraft or its Chinese counterpart, Fantasy Westward Journey.

So, why is it that Monkey King has been more successful than Mao? Based upon my fieldwork with young gamers in Shanghai I can speculate as to some possible reasons. First, we must realize that many of the young people who play online games are in search of fantasy, not reality. I’ll put the question to you, the reader: If you had to choose between a game in which you embarked on a magical westward adventure and one in which you were taught about the grim historical realities of the Long March or the Nanjing massacre, which game do you suppose you would choose to play? Second, we should remember that the post-80s and post-90s youth never experienced the Mao years or, for that matter, much of his legacy.  To them, even the events of the summer of 1989 and Tiananmen are distant, the concerns of a generation prior to their own. Theirs is a China of economic growth and capitalist competition and, as such, games that recreate the hardships of Maoist era have little resonance.

But there is yet a more fundamental issue at stake. Sometimes the best games are those that, simply put, are the most fun. And what makes a “fun” game? This is certainly a question for the ages, but one of the contributing factors is undeniably that of careful and creative design, and here’s the rub. The issue is that, like many products on the fledgling Chinese market, game companies are under such pressure to churn out games a rapid pace that game designers do not have the time to create interesting ones. It is a classic case of quantity over quality.

I will leave you with a final observation. Over the course of my fieldwork, I discovered a curious trend among many young gamers. Those I met who played World of Warcraft tended to stick steadfastly to that one game, but many of the young gamers who play domestically produced Chinese games tended to hop from game to game in a short span of time.  Admittedly, I never once encountered anyone who enjoyed playing “red net games,” but two of the gamers I worked with actively played Fantasy Westward Journey. Both admitted that, in comparison to other games such as WoW, Fantasy Westward Journey was relatively “relaxed” and could at times get tedious. One World of Warcraft player put it bluntly:

“…Chinese games are a drag, even though there are many people playing them, most young gamers feel they are very slow, very boring. The characters are boring, the graphics are bad, and the games don’t require any skill to play, all you have to do is spend money and you can become awesome at the game.”

Given testimony such as this, it becomes clear that domestic games companies still have their work cut out for them before they will be able to fully capture the hearts (and wallets) of the gamer community. But many Chinese gamers, while critical of the current quality of domestic games, also expressed that playing them was a matter of national pride. With 300 million Chinese eagerly supporting the development of the industry, it is likely only a matter of time before the glut of fantasy games bearing hallmarks of western mythology gives way to a new tide of games “with Chinese characteristics.” The question remains, what flavor of Chinese culture will triumph? Will it be Monkey King, Mao, or some as of yet emergent aspect of China’s diverse and ever-changing culture?

* Since this piece was written, media reports have indicated that the Chinese government made efforts to tone down the sexy outfits at this year’s ChinaJoy. See, for example, Tania Branigan’s report over at The Guardian. But, while the hemlines may be slightly longer, the ChinaJoy girls are still present en masse, and sex is still a main attraction.

Marcella Szablewicz is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication and Rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and holds an MA in China Studies from Duke University. From 2009-2010 she conducted ethnographic research on Internet gaming in Shanghai.

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