Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas/Mao's Birthday in Yanshan

It was the most magnificent classroom, the two full days spent in the small ancient town of Yanshan, in the district of Hekou, an hour outside the city of Shangrao, in the province of Jiangxi, literally named 'river west,' the river being the Yangtse. It was a crossing into knowledge as ingenious as building, well, a bridge on floating boats, to simultaneously learn about Chinese politics, economy, cultural appreciation, historical preservation, art, wit, the Chinese language, rural life and cadre superslicking.

The mensch Abi Basch, who I knew from Austin Texas, introduced me to her friend Li Fan, one of the rare Chinese that I have met who has an astute global perspective, having studied in Germany and effortlessly able to articulate and persuade in Chinese, German, English. (The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is to thank for granting Abi and Li theater and urban planning funds, respectively, and bringing both, and thus me, to each other's attention).

And so I was lucky enough to join Li's group of urban planners, intellectuals and students to engage with the local Yanshan government and its assorted officials/cadres in the strong urging of preserving the Qing Dynasty/Sun Democracy (turn of the century) architecture that upholds the distinct, local flavor instead of mowing it down to build nouveau riche, multi-storeyed condos. Alas capitalism's tendrils reach far and and grip tight, finding no discrimination in the shiny amnesia of gentrification.
Li gave her power point presentation with color-coded maps, text, and computer generated enhancements to provide the vision for revitalizing Hekou.  Attracting Chinese tourism would be a plus, but the idea is to preserve the historical region and also better the quality of life for the citizens, instead of just building, say,  a flashy, tourism street of new structures to prove (to themselves?) that money was well spent on modernization. Li gave her presentation amidst thick cadre smoke, constant chatter, discordant cellphone tunes and the endless pouring of tea. At one point I'd look at a row of cadres, sneakers, parkas, dyed hair, either talking, texting, or fidgeting with the sleekest of phones. It amazes me her ability to focus, to present passionately nevertheless. Halfway through her presentation, a cadre mentions that it is hard to hear her, and so lackeys are sent out to bring microphones in, which arrive a half an hour later and are never used.

Of the cadres, there were also heads of the department of water, of housing, those familiar with the region who would give their opinion about the plan proposed by Li. You could tell who gets respect by chatter level (E.F. Hutton?); many of them were just spouting party line: this is a good plan, we will take it to the higher ups. Others you could tell had a resistance to these academics who wanted to keep them in the old and deprive them of the chance to show modern prosperity.  They also talked of the resistance people would have if the officials were to regulate what they could build with their money (and couldn't build mansions for themselves).

Li reminds me of an elegant German spy. Her ability to make quick decisions and to procure them in the most even-tempered, unflashy way triggers a loyalty in me that I understand to be egoless leadership with the good of the people in mind. A tall man with large, 1980's-frame glasses in our entourage, who I call the Intellectual Chen, makes his appeal to the cadres and throughout the trip, backing Li up on their love of country and culture, and their best efforts to steer faulty government decisions away from self-interest and disaster for a progressing, 21st century culture. 

Of course my Chinese can only appreciate the astounding energy and verve behind the unrelenting pleas of the Intellectual Chen for China to be proud of her worthy traditions, and so I may be spinning a tale as idealistic as the cadres' are 'practical'. The eloquence could be so vivid that even my limited Chinese could pick up on the language brilliance, the coupling of simple words to make profound ideas, the incorporation of historical sayings that keep Chinese wisdom and mind alive. I am a follower of this brainy banter--there's no way I can find out what everything means, and so weirdly I become the woman the patriarchy wants me to be...quiet, attentive, obedient. The gorgeousness of Li as leader is that I feel the field is open for me to comment, she is our leader and the vision behind the whole meeting. It's a matter of my Chinese being up to snuff. If they talk about Taiwan and China, I mention the new Panda ambassadors. If firecrackers pop outside and they say it is for 'Christmas,' o but Christmas was yesterday, I can amend that it's Christmas in America. If they ask me about my experience in China, I can offer that it is a new feeling to be a majority instead of a minority. 

I continue to watch Li at our lunch banquet (there was Peking duck!) and her continued explaining to the lead cadres of the benefits and the possibilities of setting the example for revitalization that may be exemplary for other towns to be grown with government money. The hallmark of these cadres banquets, as you may know, is the ever-present bottle of bai jiu, white liquor that turns many a cadre face red, and certainly not from blushing.
And wassail we did. The Intellectual Chen constantly pleaded how he couldn't drink because he was ill but could not sway the constant cadre persuasion of keeping his glass filled. This is a time that the Chinese man is most macho, downing glass after glass, toast after toast. I felt the need to hide my party skills, else I would have to go through the habit of toasting each cadre down the line. It's a good life for the leaders--they accompany their guests with delicious dishes and the habit of drinking and smoking. Our entourage stood somewhat impenetrable as none of us smoked and many refrained from drinking. Li herself would toast with apple juice.
Out of a table of 7 cadres (there were 7 in our group), two were big shots that attended the meeting and the lunch banquet and spoke mainly with Li and the Intellectual Chen, three were at the meeting and to accompany me, the three students, the PhD. Wong (who absolutely did not drink) and two, Teacher Wong and Mr. Jie, both born and raised in Yanshan emerged to be our touring guides. 

Teacher Wong is a constant bolt of lightening. At Li's presentation, he was the one who spoke most passionately about her vision for his hometown, and the longest, as he was given the proverbial 'hook' at a Vaudeville show. Teacher Wong became a historian during the Cultural Revolution--when there was no school, he stayed at home and read history. He knows every inch of his district, every nook of history, every cranny of context, what happened to it during the Cultural Revolution, what it is used for now. Later we find out that he was a Red Guard. In fact he was representing the region at a Mao rally for the Red Guards on October 18, 1965 in Beijing. he was a pip-squeak at 13 and so he got rushed to the front and was the kid on the man's shoulder in the front. So vital and keen, to be so lit with revolutionary fervor at adolescence.

Mr. Jie did not have a father who was a cadre, like Teacher Wong, and came from the countryside end. He would go barefoot to collect wood and trade for food and eventually pay for tuition with the collected wood. He persevered in school and made it through to the ranks and now lives the cadre life.

Teacher Wong took us on two 4-hour walking tours, visiting and exploring what seemed to be every house in the district of Li's presentation. The doors are not locked. Teacher Wong walked in unannounced as families were working on their crafts, or eating lunch, or many a time playing mahjong. This must be the part of socialism that is like feudalism, where the folks don't have their own property and whoever is in charge can walk in, show these outsiders the period carvings on the beams, walk through the garden cleared with cement and clear the throat by spitting away. There is an order. There are no rights. Many invited us to sit and have tea. Many kids stared at us. A few glared and told themselves not to pay attention to us. Amidst the dirt roads, there were women in modest garb, but a couple were fashionable with spike-heeled boots. By the river, others were beating their wash with a stick.
Inevitably, huge posters of Mao, the Red Sun, hung over mantles along with deceased ancestors. Teacher Wong declared that his generation here is extremely loyal to Mao. On some walls there are quotations painted, about people having the power to rise up. One of the newer, younger cadres, who had the charisma of a superstar in the way he would describe his understanding and creative problem-solving of his district talked of a growing dilemma in the countryside. Folks would sell their dwellings to go to big cities like Shanghai to make money. After a couple of years, unable to acclimate, they return to the countryside and have no place to live. This frustration turns to violence. This superstar cadre stated: 'If the countryside is a wreck, the nation is a wreck.' 

Yes, why take the Mao poster down. It's actually now predictive, as surely, in light of all this sprinting growth, a neo-Maoist movement is sure to arrive.
On the second day of touring, there was rain. Something about these old towns and rain that evoked Kurosawa movies. Down one street Teacher Wong mentions how it was used in the 1980's movie 'A Turn of the Head, A Smile.' My only reference to the towns were the Chinese movies my folks would take me to see on the weekends in Chinatown, when men with hair buns would leap up to these styles of tile roofs (precursor to Crouch Tiger, Hid Dragon) and sword fight and cut limbs off and even one time cut someone in half. Teacher Wong also repeated many times how he hated the Japanese. 

There is constant discussion about the Cultural Revolution. We see so many of the historical saying that were engraved into the walls, shattered or ground away by the Re Guards during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao's huge motto was 'Destroy the old to create the new.' And so a lot of the ancient village was hit hard by the Red Guard fever. When Teacher Wong talks about his daughter, I ask if he explains all of his Red Guard experiences to her. 'No! She  does not want to hear such grotesque stories. Her generation is not interested in the Cultural Revolution,' and on cue, the Intellectual Chen tells of the importance of telling the younger generation. This is not the first time I've heard it--it's like China trying to proect her young from this anomalous time in her history. I agree with the Intellectual Chen, as there is a whole generation of old folk now so completely tweaked from all the torture and curielty they had to endure at the hands of the youth. Perhaps Teacher Wong does not want to give daughter any ideas.

That second night, December 26, towards the end of another banquet (with Peking duck again!) it suddenly came to mind that it was Mao's birthday.  'We have to order longevity noodles with ribs.' it's a tradition to eat noodles for a person's birthday, and I suppose the ribs were traditional cuz it was the Chairman's favorite. The waitress informed us that there were no more noodles.
We visited many buddhist temples and the smell of incense was present, burned or having burned on the mantles to worship the ancestors. Teacher Wong brought us to a newly-build Christian church. 'Oh you should have been here last night for Christmas. It was pouring over with people.'

'Is Christianity becoming popular?' I ask.

"O yes, very popular. And Buddhism too.' Teacher Wong replies.

The Intellectual Chen has a wry smile. 'There's no more Mao to worship.'

'And you're not allowed to follow Fa Lun Gong,' Li adds.

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Blogger Leon said...


usually the cadres also burp, pick their noses, and sleep during these presentations.

unfortunately, nice power-point presentations and passion will never supplant a nice thick red-envelope filled with red Maos.

i noticed in the year in review that McCain actually misquoted to Mao the line:
"it is always darkest before it goes totally black". i don't know if McCain was talking about his campaign prospects or about Obama.


January 1, 2009 at 11:12 AM  
Blogger Alice T. said...

I think if the solar panels don't work out, Leon, you might wanna think about a stand up know how the americans need a good ego boost of laugh, and what better than observations of the chinese?

January 5, 2009 at 6:57 AM  

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