The Nanfang / Blog

Life as A Lyrical Linguist in China

Posted: 08/12/2014 9:04 am

This article was originally published in ITI Bulletin, the journal of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (www.iti.org.uk) in the UK. Reproduced with permission.

Most people write poetry or lyrics during their teenage years. Then
most people grow up, get proper jobs and stop. Most people don’t go so far astray as to write and record satirical songs in Chinese.

I had no interest in China until after graduating from university and am about as unlike a professional performer as it is possible to get. But after coming to China in May 2007, I was constantly experimenting with ways of learning the language.

One of these was memorising the lyrics to pop songs, karaoke being among the most popular forms of entertainment in the People’s Republic. In November 2008 I started writing my own stuff, but not until 2012 did I start writing the kinds of Chinese songs that won people’s attention.

While trying to remember that telling stories is more effective than climbing on a soapbox or pulpit, my Chinese lyrics over the past two years have touched upon social issues such as nude photo scandals, food safety and kept women. Admittedly, some are flat-out offensive.

One song, “I hate Hunan the least”, lambasts a different province of China in every line and then ends each verse by saying ‘I hate Hunan Province the least’. Another, to the tune of a rousing patriotic anthem, is titled: “China, China, at least It’s Not India!

There seem to be two main ways of getting away with this. The first is to realise that, even in this type of comedy, there is a line. Respecting this line is not so much a matter of towing the line politically, but of knowing that some issues are too sensitive to get a laugh. Taiwan, terrorism and Tiananmen Square are off limits, at least until I am skilled enough to make them funny.

One English song I wrote entitled “Billy” is about a man who thinks that the key to having an abundant sex life is to lower his standards. In China, it is not common to brag about having one-night stands, so the Chinese transposition of this song is about a woman who decides that the way to avoid being left on the shelf is to lower her standards as far as possible.

There is considerable social stigma in China to being a ‘leftover woman’, that is, a woman who is still single after the age of 27. The recently published book “Leftover Women: the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” by sociologist Leta Hong Fincher has illustrated the seriousness of this issue, and the lengths that powerful institutions like the Xinhua state news agency have gone to perpetuate this misogyny. In hindsight, I could have handled the issue with more sensitivity and thus been funnier.

The second way to get away with satirising one’s host country is to make oneself at least 70% the butt of the joke. My songs and their videos may make China look bad, but they make their author look a lot worse. Good comedians are often unthreatening neurotics (think Woody Allen). Bad comedians are often smug bullies (think the typical office politics scenario).

The biggest criticism my lyrics come in for is not that they are offensive. It is that they are “肤浅”, which roughly translates as ‘shallow’. In traditional China, a person would take decades to master poetic form, and self-expression in poetry would disappear under a strict schematic pattern. A traditional Chinese lyric will have a rigorous rhyme scheme, under which a world of unspoken emotions is buried. The same cannot be said of my work.

Comedy, particularly satire, tends not to stand the test of time. Some lyrics I wrote 18 months ago already need tweaking because references are outdated. Some issues I sing about will hopefully be irrelevant ten years from now.

Aside from the politics of being a foreigner in China, musical comedy is one of the riskiest forms of entertainment. If a song doesn’t go down well, three minutes is an unacceptably long time for any comedian to go without a laugh. Fortunately, the successful performances have greatly outnumbered the unsuccessful ones.

However, adulation or lack of it is not the point. The point is, we translators go to all this trouble to learn languages, but most of the working opportunities that come our way involve technical copy or business environments when we can’t be ourselves. These lyrics allow an opportunity to win attention while saying something cheeky about my host country. Plus, they are an excuse to continue writing lyrics long after most people have grown out of doing any such thing.

Haohao

What’s It Like to Work in Shenzhen’s Municipal Funeral Home?

Posted: 08/8/2014 7:00 am

In Shenzhen, a young city with a young population, less than one in three of those who die is of pensionable age and more than half of the 800-1,000 unidentified corpses each year is of a young person. The city sees 13,000 deaths each year, less than half the figure in Guangzhou. Corpses are sent to Shenzhen Funeral Home in the Shawan Stretch of the Shenhui Highway in Longgang’s Buji Subdistrict, where all those who die in the city are entitled to a free cremation.

Shenzhen Funeral Home, via Google Images

Southern Metropolis Daily caught up with three employees of the funeral home to ask them what their lives are like. They spoke of the requests that families make such as having an old spinster buried in a wedding dress, the difficulty of restoring badly mutilated bodies to their original appearance, and the prejudices they encounter in daily life such as friends refusing to invite them to weddings and cab drivers refusing to take them to work.

Master Zhu, 20 years experience, responsible for making up corpses to be presented to families

What kind of cosmetic products do you use?

We use the same kind of face paint that is used in television and theatre, this way the color doesn’t fade. Most of the corpses have been frozen and will shed water as they defrost, so ordinary cosmetic products are not suitable.

What procedures are involved in the making up process?

Most of the work is done on the face, cleaning it and restoring it to its original appearance. We dab the face in cotton and use tweezers to clean out the oral cavity. Then we add make-up.

Do families tend to have special requests?

Of course. Here in Guangdong people like to place cash on the corpse, including putting coins in the mouth that can be retrieved after the corpse has been cremated.

Do families have specific requests about make-up such as giving the body smoky eyes?

Not really. The make-up on most corpses is very simple. We add powder to match their skin colour and sometimes use lipstick and blusher.

What other kinds of requests do families have?

The families will show pictures from the deceased’s life and ask me to make them look like they did when they were in their prime. But dead people aren’t alive. At this point the industry isn’t advanced enough to give every family the appearance they want for the deceased.

Most corpses wear a Chinese-style shroud when they are sent off. Is this mandatory?

No, the deceased can wear whatever the family requests. Tang Dynasty-style attire is common, as are Mao suits and ceremonial robes, then some just choose to have their loved ones wear casual clothes. Once there was a woman who was cremated in a wedding dress. The family told me she was a spinster, so if she went to the next life in a wedding dress she might be able to get married there.

Do you feel different when you receive the corpse of an especially young or beautiful person?

Sometimes it’s saddening, but I’ve seen too many corpses over the many years I’ve been doing this and, to tell the truth, the ones in their twenties are the easiest to make up.

Were you scared when you first saw a dead body?

I remember early in my career, it would have been the mid-1990s, there was an air crash over Shenzhen. Our funeral home received all the charred corpses. There were about 30 of them, mostly Thais. That was a scary experience. But since then I have acclimatized to the job and am pretty much imperturbable.

Even when you see a mutilated corpse?

The first question on my mind is how do I restore the appearance.

Are those cases very time-consuming?

The process is like a jigsaw puzzle, putting the bones, skin and organs back together again. One time when a 10 year-old had been crushed to death by a dump truck, I took 10 hours to make the poor kid look decent again for his family.

We work with other funeral homes in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shanghai to stay at the cutting-edge and make sure we are using the best available technology.

Are some corpses impossible to restore?

If a body has been left rotting for too long, then we just have to cremate them straight away.

What are the key skills required in your line of work?

You need an understanding of fine art as well as anatomy. When we were training, we had to study sculpture and even some psychology. We work a lot with schools and colleges to make sure we are providing the best service and attracting the most capable people.

Most people get their understanding of your profession from the 2008 Japanese movie “Departures”, but it seems the reality is somewhat different.

Films tend to romanticize things. We are currently unable to offer anything as customized as what is portrayed in that movie. There are 12 cosmetic professionals at our funeral parlour, broken up into three teams. We deal with 40 corpses a day on average and never get more than half an hour of rest on a working day. Our work is pressured so we cannot always offer the precision we would like to.

The funeral of 19 year-old Xing Dan, who had long been a local celebrity for her charity work before perishing in a road accident in 2011, held at Shenzhen Funeral Home, image via iFeng

If you one day receive the corpse of a person who you knew and cared about, how would you feel?

This isn’t really possible. If it really were someone close to me, then I already would have been informed of their death. If this highly unlikely scenario did actually occur, I would choose to leave the work to a colleague.

Mr. Zeng, who is responsible for carrying out cremations

Do all corpses need to be frozen? Can some be sent straight to the funeral parlour and cremated?

First we need the deceased’s death certificate and I.D. card and for their next of kin to verify their identity for the death to be processed at our front desk. Only then will we start making up or cremating the corpse.

I read that one time your funeral parlour had a mix up and ending up giving one person’s remains to the wrong family so the family insisted on cremating several bodies together to make sure. Is this possible?

This would have been caused by an error at some other point of the chain, our funeral parlour wouldn’t make this mistake. No story like the one you mentioned has ever happened in Shenzhen. Our incinerator only has the capacity for one coffin at a time and we are highly transparent in everything we do.

Have you ever had a corpse that was too fat to fit in the incinerator?

No, we have a variety of coffin sizes. We also have freezers for different-sized bodies. We once had a Hong Kong bus driver who died suddenly. He weighed around 150 kg, he could only just fit into our biggest freezer.

How long does a cremation normally take place?

Normally an hour to an hour and a half

Master Lv, who has worked in the section where the corpses are frozen for two years

This job must make you really gutsy, are you unafraid of watching horror movies?

I never watch horror movies. Even though I don’t believe in ghosts, I would never meddle in such things.

Has anything really strange ever happened in your work?

Shortly after entering the business, when I was working late, the bodies of three car crash victims were sent to me. As I was putting one of them into the freezer, the electricity suddenly went out, scaring me near to death. When I plucked up the courage to move, I walked out of the room while feeling the walls and eventually found a torch that I could use while putting the bodies into the freezer. When you work around the clock in a job like this, these things will happen.

Workers embalming a corpse, via Southern Metropolis Daily

What do your friends and family think of you doing this job?

When I tell people back in my home town that I work in a funeral home, they think I mean hotel (the two things sound similar in Chinese). There are people with prejudices against what I do. When a friend is holding something like a wedding or a “manyuejiu” (满月酒, a get together held when a baby reaches one month old), sometimes we won’t get invited. Sometimes when we are invited we decide not to go.
The smoke from a crematorium has a very distinct smell that can be off-putting for people who recognize it. Those who drive past our crematorium can see the cloud of smoke from our chimney, even though it is sometimes just from our canteen.

To get a motorbike taxi from our nearest bus station to anywhere else in the vicinity costs 5 yuan. However, to get to our funeral home costs 10. Sometimes taxi drivers refuse to go to our funeral home at all.

Haohao

The Forgotten Story of…The Massacre Of Foreigners In 9th Century Guangzhou

Posted: 08/6/2014 11:00 am

Ask a Chinese person what they consider to be the greatest period in their country’s history, and there is a very good chance they will say The Tang Dynasty (618-907). So exalted is this dynasty that “唐人街” (lit. Tang People’s Street) has long been a synonym for a Chinatown. There are many reasons for this adulation.

A depiction of Empress Wu Zetian, via Google Images

The introduction of The Imperial Examination during the preceding Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) saw an educated class of officials oversee a relatively enlightened Confucian system of government. Intelligent military policies meant that the Tang was respected and feared throughout the region. It is also considered the greatest period for Chinese poetry with Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei all living at this time. It was even one of the better periods in which to be a woman, or at least an urban woman, the most famous example being Wu Zetian who rose from concubine to empress.

Despite international trade that saw an increased population of settlers from overseas, other facts show that this period was not as civilized and rational as some would like to believe. The Tang was severely weakened by the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) which by some measures is the bloodiest war of all time considering the percentage of the human population that perished.

The Tang later fell in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Huang Chao Rebellion (874-884). During this rebellion, the forces of rebel leader Huang Chao attacked Guangzhou and massacred the foreign settlers, with some estimates putting the death toll as high as 200,000. The story of how the foreign community became so large and why these foreigners were so resented goes back to the early Tang.

Foreigners during the Tang Dynasty

Guangzhou’s Huaisheng Mosque is said in an old Chinese manuscript to have been built in 627 AD. This would make it one of the oldest mosques in the world, though it is questionable as to whether Muhammad’s maternal uncle Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas – who is alleged to have built it – ever visited China.

The Huaisheng Mosque, via Google Images

The mosque may not be as old as the manuscript suggests, but scholars are satisfied that it was functional by the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) at the latest and was rebuilt in 1350 and again in 1695 after being destroyed by fires.

Like the other earliest mosques in China, it was built for the growing number of Arab and Persian settlers. By the time of the Tang Dynasty, Guangzhou was a major port with a direct route connecting it to the Middle East. A Chinese prisoner, who was captured in the Battle of Talas and held in Iraq for twelve years, is said to have returned to China by ship on a direct route to Guangzhou. Due to thriving trade, Guangzhou is estimated to have had a population of 100,000 foreigners by the beginning of the 9th century.

The majority of these foreigners were Persians and Arabs who came to trade. In spite of the mosques being constructed at the time, there is little sign that the earliest settlers were interested in evangelizing. Islam played no part in the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution which reached its height in 845 and was not considered important enough to be mentioned in the edict.

Accounts from the periods of both the An Lushan Rebellion and the Huang Chao rebellion suggest that, being there solely to trade, these foreigners tended to do well for themselves. And as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker points out in his 2011 doorstopper “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” when a minority group is doing noticeably well economically such as Chinese in Indonesia or Jews in the United States, this can lead to resentment.

This resentment would not have been decreased by an incident which took place in Guangzhou at the height of the An Lushan Rebellion in 758. Arab and Persian pirates who had probably based themselves on Hainan Island raided and pillaged Guangzhou, looting warehouses and causing unwanted headaches for the new Tang crown prince Li Yun. As a sign of things to come, the wealthy Arab and Persian population of Yangzhou was massacred in 760 by the rebel forces of Tian Shengong.

The Guangzhou Massacre

By the second half of the 9th century the Tang, though still one of the world’s most powerful empires, was manifestly in decline. The neglectful and decadent regime of Emperor Yizong (860-874) and his son Xizong inspired a rebellion led by Wang Xianzhi. One person who would follow Wang and ultimately break away to start a much more widespread rebellion was salt privateer Huang Chao, who became a rebel after failing the Imperial Examination three times.

A depiction of Huang Chao, via Baidu Images

In 878, after Wang Xianzhi had died, Huang Chao continued to spread the rebellion which he was now the sole leader of, despite setbacks such as a defeat to the forces of Gao Pian in Jiangsu. Huang Chao subsequently turned south.

Ahead of what would become The Guangzhou Massacre of foreigners, Huang Chao offered to submit to Tang imperial authority if he were made the military governor of Tianping. Instead, he received the “insulting” offer of Imperial Guard General which sparked the attack on Guangzhou in fall 879.

Huang Chao’s rebels slaughtered Jews, Arabs, Persians, and Christians, according to Arab writer Abu Zayd Hasan As-Sirafi. The main motivation behind the massacre, as is asserted in A History of Chinese Civilization by Jacques Gernet, was resentment at the foreigners’ wealth. Abu Zayd Hasan As-Sirafi estimated the death toll to be 120,000 while another author named Mes’udi put it at 200,000.

William J. Bernstein, author of A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, claimed that not content to massacre traders, Huang Chao also tried to kill the Tang’s main export industry by destroying the mulberry groves of south China.

The time they spent in the south saw Huang Chao’s army severely depleted by illness and their rebellion would ultimately fail. The Tang however wouldn’t last for much longer, giving way to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period in 907.

The greatest period of China’s history?

Philip Pan’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow” begins by conceding that, for all of the current regime’s faults, China is by most measures going through the best period in its 5000-year history. It is highly unlikely that there is anything going on culturally nowadays that will be as respected as, say, Tang Dynasty poetry or The Four Great Novels in centuries to come, but the low infant mortality and high life expectancy make it worth it.

Maybe the cultural riches of The Tang Dynasty were a direct result of the horrors of the period. Maybe Orson Welles was on to something when he said: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed – that produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!”

Haohao

Not Again: Foxconn Worker Jumps to His Death in Shenzhen

Posted: 07/29/2014 10:02 am

A Foxconn worker jumped to his death in Shenzhen on Sunday (July 27), the latest in a string of suicides the company had largely determined it had ended.

In a statement, Foxconn said that the man, identified as Mr. Kang, took his own life during his down time and the company pledged to do whatever it could for the family and to assist the police in any further investigation.

The 22 year-old died instantly after jumping from the seventh floor at the Baiming Garden dormitory in Longhua New Zone at around 4 p.m. Baiming Garden is not one of the dormitories provided by Foxconn, but an optional living complex for staff.

According to Kang’s sister, he is from Loudi in Hunan Province and came to Foxconn three years ago to be an assembly line worker. “He was a happy and outgoing person. We never saw such a thing happening to him,” she told media. Some people tried to take to his QQ homepage to pay their respects or get some information about Kang’s final days but it is entirely blocked.

The string of suicides at Foxconn saw 18 attempted suicides with fourteen deaths between January and November 2010 drew headlines worldwide. The subsequent scrutiny led to improvements at the company, including installing nets at some locations to catch would-be jumpers.

Foxconn is a global manufacturer for several well-known brands, including Apple, Samsung, and other technology companies.

Haohao

“The Incarnations” Is a Gripping Novel Set in China Packed with Historical Insight

Posted: 06/20/2014 3:06 pm

Literature is one of the few fields in which megalomania is a good thing. In fact, as Italo Calvino argued, without megalomania it is barely worthwhile.

Academic Alastair Macintosh claimed that the world is a ball of strings, including economics, ecology, theology and popular culture. Most non-fiction books about China written in English in recent years tend to be happy to pull at just one string. A novel by contrast can reasonably attempt to unravel the whole ball.

“The Incarnations” by Susan Barker is a radical and fascinating novel that makes a commendable fist of doing just this. Covering over a millennium of history and most of the major themes that are currently popular with China watchers, to work with such material would – in less capable hands – be as irresponsible as playing with a ouija board. But Susan Barker, a Creative Writing M.A. who researched the book over several years after moving to China in 2007, handles it with near flawless sensitivity and skill.

Wang Jun, a Beijing cab driver, starts receiving anonymous letters from someone who claims to have been close to him over several previous lives as well as his current one. Some letters display an intimate knowledge of Wang Jun’s far from perfect family life. Others tell stories about the narrator’s relationships with Wang Jun as he was everything from a slave of Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century to a foreigner during the Qing Dynasty.

The most extraordinary of the chapters set in the past takes place during the Tang Dynasty and would stand alone as a short story. Loaded with fascinating period details, it claims that Wang Jun became a eunuch after fathering the narrator and is one of the places in which Susan Barker’s flare as a prose stylist is truly successful. In one scene, a madam gives an inexperienced young prostitute the following advice:

Men have all sorts of peccadilloes…some men like to penetrate the red during a woman’s moon cycle, or piddle on a woman out of the jade watering spout. Some men like to poke a woman in the back passage, which is called pushing the boat upstream.

As fascinating as this is, the strongest part of the novel is that set in the Hu Jintao era. It paints a convincing picture of ordinary, downtrodden Beijingers as the new China prepares to celebrate its 2008 coming out party. Every character has a compelling and believable backstory and through them, Susan Barker shows a deep engagement with the major issues in modern China that have been written about over the past decade.

We first meet Wang Jun when he is delving through garbage (Adam Minter’s “Junkyard Planet”). Wang Jun’s wife points out that girls are less important in the eyes of their parents, therefore they are freer (Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls”). Wang Jun’s colleague Baldy Zhang is an incurable misogynist (Leta Hong Fincher’s “Leftover Women“). Wang Jun’s father is a bent government official (Philip Pan’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow”). One of the major characters is an oppressed homosexual (Richard Burger’s “Behind the Red Door”).

Whether or not Susan Barker read all these books, it is clear that her knowledge of China was won rather than scavenged. One of the major themes is China’s selectiveness in what areas of its past it’s willing to face (Louisa Lim’s “The People’s Republic of Amnesia”), but this need not distract from the fact that, for all its erudition, “The Incarnations” is best enjoyed as a thriller.

Susan Barker is a brilliant prose stylist and this book should be read out loud. Even some of the most minor details are charged with social and historical insight, such as the items that Wang Jun finds as he rummages through garbage. The notoriously difficult sex scenes are also well done.

However, Barker’s stylistic brilliance is the source of the novel’s biggest weakness – overwriting. Some of the similes, which average more than one per page in some sections, fall flat, not sufficiently defying cliche to warrant inclusion. Children are “wrapped up like little eskimoes” in winter.

This indulgent use of dazzling writing can be unappealing, like a beauty queen whose knowledge of her own hotness is to the detriment of her likability (oops, an unnecessary simile). At times, the excessive scene setting distracts from the narrative and makes the book a bit too much like a Creative Writing PhD thesis (oh bugger, another one). At times, my enjoyment of the writing declined like Wang Jun’s marriage (that’s the last one, I promise).

Moreover, Barker doesn’t always follow the principle that adverbs are guilty until proven innocent, though there is one brilliant use of the word “unfilially” towards the end. The edition I received also contains some utterly avoidable errors, although it is a pre-release version that may change prior to printing. Wang Jun’s stepmother Lin Hong is twice referred to as “Ling Hong.” Changsha is described as Mao Zedong’s hometown. The word “drank” is mixed up with the word “drunk” and the word “wedding” is mixed up with the word “marriage.”

Most of the scene setting is excellent though, such as at the beginning when Barker introduces Beijing by describing some of the passengers Wang Jun has had over the years. “Incarnations” is a genuine page turner that brings it all together quite unlike any other book about China published in the past decade.

“Incarnations” will be released in hardback on July 3 and is available on Kindle.

Haohao

The Forgotten Story of…Shenzhen’s Disappearing Coastline

Posted: 06/18/2014 11:00 am

Shenzhen’s Dameisha Beach briefly became world famous this month when images of the mountains of litter left by revelers were published in international newspapers. This problem is not new. Last year, one local businessman complained that the beach was so filthy he couldn’t bring his foreign clients there.

Newsworthy as this is, thoughtless individuals throwing litter is far from the biggest threat to Shenzhen’s coastline. Moreover, once-pristine beaches are not the only thing about Shenzhen’s coastline worth preserving.

Dameisha during Dragon Boat Festival, when 362 tons of garbage was discarded on the beach, image via The Daily Mail

A brief look at some of the things that have happened along this coastline involving both human and non-human life shows that it is as evocative and historic as any other. These stories include a 40-day siege by Japanese pirates, mainlanders swimming to Hong Kong to escape Maoist China, the diverse marine life that hindered some of them, and the corporate interests that are destroying this marine life and the coastline itself.

Human stories

Dapeng Fortress in Longgang District, which was built in 1394 to protect the local area from pirates, is one of Shenzhen’s best known historic sites. In 1571, the fortress withstood a more than 40-day siege by Japanese pirates who were armed with ladders.

In the twentieth century, nearby Dapeng Bay was one of several main areas from which mainlanders risked their lives to flee to Hong Kong. Believe it or not, these escapees are among the major reasons why Shenzhen has gone from being a cluster of fishing villages to a metropolis in the space of 30 years.

Mok, 67, told the South China Morning Post last year that, as the son of a former Kuomintang official, he had few prospects in Cultural Revolution-era Guangdong. In 1971, he trained and practiced swimming for months while studying maps and the edibility of particular wild plants while planning his escape. He couldn’t carry maps on his person for fear of arousing suspicion.

Four “freedom swimmers” are led away by police for questioning at Tai Po Kau, Hong Kong in May 1971, image via South China Morning Post

At his first attempt, he and his friends nearly drowned while being captured by border guards. He was taken to various detention centres and beaten before being publicly paraded and sent back to the factory where he worked. The following year he tried again and succeeded. Mok was reluctant to reveal his real name to the paper because he and his family still have business interests in mainland China.

Shenzhen official Wang Shuo wrote in 2011 that an estimated 606,000 people illegally escaped to Hong Kong between 1956 and 1980, more than half of such cases coming in the 1970s. Chen Bingan, author of “The Exodus to Hong Kong” puts the estimate at 2 million, easily outnumbering East Germans who scaled the Berlin Wall or North Koreans who swam across the Yalu River.

The shortest and most popular route to swim was from Shekou to Yuen Long, but this was heavily guarded by People’s Liberation Army soldiers. So high was the casualty rate on this route that it was a paid job during that period to help officials collect and bury the bodies of those shot or drowned on the way.

Dapeng Bay was less well guarded but may have been an even more dangerous place to attempt to swim from. In October 1970, 300 mainlanders sneaked into the colony, 280 of whom had swum from this area. During this period, marine patrol police around Sai Kung regularly found the mutilated bodies of attempted escapees who had been attacked by sharks.

In spite of this, the following year saw a huge surge in “freedom swimmers” according to a contemporary report. In the first eight months of 1971, 2,500 of them were arrested in Hong Kong, a near three-fold increase from the previous year. An estimated 12,500 made it to safety during the same period.

In August 1971, Typhoon Rose caused guards patrolling the border to be diverted to clear up the mess, causing yet another increase. According to “The Great Exodus to Hong Kong,” the peak years for these escapes were 1957, 1962, 1972 and 1979.

These escapees may have been illegal immigrants, but their cheap labor was welcome in Hong Kong. Chen Bingan insists that they played a huge part in Hong Kong achieving its “Pearl of the Orient” economic status, though neither the Communist Party nor the Hong Kong government is keen to commemorate them. Some escapees became Hong Kong residents and the knowledge and skills they acquired were a direct influence on Deng Xiaoping choosing Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone.

Tan Jialuo, a Cultural Revolution expert formerly of Guangzhou Teachers’ College, thinks this is one of the few examples of ordinary citizens changing Communist Party policy. “It had an important role in the initiation of reform…they effectively helped promote social progress,” Tan said.

Non-human stories

Escapees swimming through Dapeng Bay in those days are said to have had their bodies and limbs scraped by jagged oyster beds. This is a problem they may not have faced in more recent years. Human activity has severely depleted Shenzhen’s marine life and ravaged much of the land along the coast during the Reform and Opening Up period. The famed Shajing oysters, for example, are now gone from the bay.

Chief among this activity is land reclamation, that is the conversion of water surfaces into land for human use. Shenzhen Bay shrank by 25 square kilometers (27% of its total area) between 1997 and 2009. This caused the nearby mangrove forests to be halved from 140 hectares to 70 hectares and reduced the number of migratory birds that spend winter in Shenzhen. The bay could be lost completely in 170 years as sediments grow at a rate of 1.9 cm a year, according to Roger Lin of Shenzhen Daily.

Pollution has also done enormous damage to Shenzhen’s marine life and coastline. In 2011, nearly half of Shenzhen’s coastal waters were found to be severely polluted. Nine sewage pipes were discharging inorganic nitrogen and phosphates into the South China Sea. Professor Xu Hong of Shenzhen University blamed illicit dumping and poor oversight. The situation improved ahead of the Universiade but the bad old days swiftly returned.

The water off eastern Shenzhen where the more popular beaches are located was found to be cleaner and most areas where seafood is farmed were found to be safe, but much marine life and natural beauty has been lost. In the early 1980s, there were vast corals, starfish and shoals of long-gone fish species in Shenzhen’s Meisha area. Due to the city’s “development,” sightseers are now more likely to see tons of floating garbage than coral.

Coral in Dapeng, via doyouhike.net

Plantlife near the coast has also suffered. Chen Cui of Shenzhen’s Green Management Department of Shenzhen Afforestation Committee, who is also known as “The Housekeeper of Shenzhen’s Ancient Trees”, uses great expertise and passion to help protect Shenzhen’s oldest plant life. However, Shenzhen has in recent years failed to preserve the centuries-old trees and pristine villages in Baguang on the northwestern tip of the Dapeng Peninsula.

The struggle to preserve it

In March 2013, an environmental protection group was established to remove 4.5 tons of floating garbage from the ocean off Meisha. It attracted 162 members in a successful first five months before turning its attention to seabed maintenance.

Protecting coral has become a policy in Dapeng. An article published November last year in Southern Metropolis Daily, a paper that has historically been far from a mouthpiece, predicted the recovery of the bay’s corals.

Divers are initiating a comprehensive coral planting campaign. Salinity and water quality are relatively stable and it has a natural barrier so is a good place to grow coral, according to Zhou Xuejia, professor of marine biology.

However, Shenzhen’s coastline is under threat from something more powerful than the cluster of groups and organisations that have taken it upon themselves to protect it – corporate profit. China’s oil and gas behemoth PetroChina announced a plan to reclaim 39.7 hectares of land from the sea off Dapeng Peninsula for the construction of a natural gas depot and wharf.

This will further threaten Shenzhen’s eco-system and decrease the number of places in the city where residents can be by the sea. No less importantly, it will mean Shenzhen loses remnants of its past.

The city needs a power supply and cash needs to be generated, but a balance also needs to be struck if Shenzhen is to develop its own distinct identity. Novelist Italo Calvino once said that a person’s memory must be strong enough to enable them to remain the same person but weak enough to enable them to keep moving forward. The same applies to a city.

Haohao

PRD People: Medical Trainer and Online Celebrity Winston Sterzel

Posted: 06/5/2014 11:00 am

Mark Rowswell, better known as Dashan, once remarked that the statement “Westerners don’t understand China” is easier to take when you realize that Chinese people don’t understand China either. Sometimes however, a Westerner comes along who tries to make sense of the Middle Kingdom and wins recognition from his host country for his efforts in doing so.

Winston Sterzel, 33, a British-South African medical training manager who has been in Shenzhen for eight years, has been praised by plenty of Chinese netizens for the astuteness of his online videos which give an introduction to the “real China.” His motorcycle tours have taken him to dozens of cities and small towns, but the portal through which he understands the Middle Kingdom is Shenzhen, a city he fell in love with during a business trip and came to despite having no contacts here.

Winston Sterzel

Sterzel has a large following on YouTube, Facebook, and Youku and has been featured in Shenzhen-based media eleven times. He has kindly taken the time to talk to The Nanfang about road trips, cold beer, internet celebrity and Chinese nationalism.

Living in Shenzhen

After moving to Shenzhen eight years ago, he immersed himself in the local Chinese community while learning the language. “Shenzhen is a migrant city, you meet people from every corner of China in Shenzhen, and as a result are exposed to the many dialects, customs and foods from all over China,” Sterzel told The Nanfang.

He works for a medical training company, training doctors in international hospital rules, etiquette, medical terminology and other things related to internships in Australia and Germany. Another one of his main activities is taking motorcycle trips around China. Either through business trips or lone adventures he has biked his way to Dalian, Inner Mongolia, Shanghai and many other far flung places. His videos about riding to Guilin gained 10,000 hits per episode, almost 80,000 in total.

Despite all this travelling, it is Buji that he calls home. “I tend to stay away from the mainstream expat hangouts and prefer to hang out in the urban villages at small local restaurants,” said Sterzel. “I am the only foreigner in the community,” he added.

He is fond of almost all of the things that make Shenzhen what it is. “Although I do occasionally enjoy visiting a posh restaurant in a posh area (Near the MixC or Coastal city etc) my work and daily travels take me trough all the different districts in Shenzhen,” Sterzel told The Nanfang.

“I know the city very well and still my favourite places are the urban villages such as Shui wei cun, Xia Sha cun, Sha zui cun, Buji Zhen etc etc, basically anywhere with a vibrant night life, cold beers and all night BBQ,” he added.

Internet videos

Sterzel’s biggest claim to fame is his online videos that give outsiders an introduction to what he calls “the real China.” The series include “China, How It Is,” “Mandarin on Demand,” and “Village Crawls.”

As well as having over 26,000 subscribers on his YouTube page, his videos – which strive to inform other foreigners about China, have become an unexpected success with Chinese audiences.

A Chinese website picked up his videos, added subtitles and put them on Youku and Tudou. Shenzhen Daily reported in 2012 that his videos were popular both because Chinese appreciated seeing how outsiders see their country and to help teach themselves English:

“It is very interesting to see how foreigners think about China and us. He knows so much and is very objective. I particularly like one of his most popular episodes, ‘Are Chinese girls easy?’ It is so fun and so true,” one of the netizens, identified as “Nulixuexi,” said.

Here is part 1 of that episode:

His videos touching on more prosaic matters such as transportation, the cost of living and food have also proved a hit. “I like to show people what China is really like and dispel all the nonsense ideas that people have,” said Sterzel.

Ups and downs

Sterzel’s best experiences in Shenzhen have come as a result of breaking through the foreign bubble and getting to know the locals. “I work side by side with motorcycle mechanics in my area and have pretty much been accepted as part of their family,” said Sterzel.

However, in both real life and in the comments sections of his videos there is one major negative that he has to deal with. “The absolutely ridiculous, irrational and overblown ultra nationalism that can rear its ugly head at any given moment can turn even the nicest of local people into the worst sort of lynch mob imaginable,” said Sterzel.

“As a foreigner it is always very important to avoid treading on anyone’s national pride,” he told The Nanfang. If you sift through the comments sections of his videos you will see the odd Chinese netizen take issue with some of his less rosy observations.

In spite of this, his insights into his adopted country have made him a recognisable figure in the local media establishment. Shenzhen television interviewed him just a few weeks ago. Some netizens have even said that watching his stuff is better than reading any travel guide, and there are plenty of Chinese netizens who would back up Sterzel’s claims.

Haohao

The Forgotten Story of…Christianity in 19th Century Shenzhen

Posted: 05/21/2014 10:15 am

The Communist Party is not so much allowing faith to grow as it is trying to keep up with it, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes in his new book. As the object of worship in China continues to move from Mao to the market, people are shopping around for something to believe in. In this climate, Christianity has probably become the country’s leading form of non-governmental organization, and China is set to become the world’s largest Christian nation “very soon.”

Shenzhen Christian Church, via Google Images

With its South China Sea coastline and proximity to Hong Kong and Macao, Guangdong has long been a popular portal through which Christian missionaries entered China. An estimated 40% of those converted by missionary group The Chinese Union in the 1840s were in this province. Italian Jesuit priest and Bible translator Matteo Ricci settled in Zhaoqing in 1583 where his cartography skills were welcome.

The territory now known as Shenzhen, which was designated in the late 20th century to be China’s most outward looking city, played its own part in the spreading of Christianity in the 19th century. This heritage is still visible today.

The Chinese Union and The Rhenish Mission

Although there had been earlier missionaries such as Ricci, this particular story begins with Prussian military translator, spy and colonial official Karl Gützlaff. Gützlaff was described by one Sinologist as being “a cross between parson, pirate, charlatan and genius, philanthropist and crook.”

After gaining a reputation as a swashbuckling missionary and authoring “Journal of Three Voyages along the Coast of China,” Gützlaff’s mastery of several Chinese dialects made him useful to the colonial establishment and British business ahead of the first Opium War. Despite his wide range of talents and responsibilities, evangelical activities remained his primary passion and his admiration of Chinese civilization made spreading the gospel in the Celestial Kingdom something of an obsession.

Convinced that only Chinese people could spread Christianity in China, Gützlaff founded the Chinese Union, a Hong Kong-based network of missionaries trained to go deep into mainland China and use translated biblical texts to attract converts. Gützlaff needed good European missionaries to train them and in 1846 sent for Ferdinand Genahr and Heinrich Koster of the Rhenish Mission along with two other missionaries from The Basel Mission.

Upon arriving on March 19, 1847, they were all assigned a southeast Chinese dialect to learn and Chinese missionaries to train. Koster would be dead by September and Genahr made his own way up to Guangdong, setting up his own school for evangelists in Taiping in November 1847. In 1848, he opened a school in Xixiang Village, which is in modern day Bao’an District, and the following year he opened stations in Fuyong, Nantou and other locations in the Shenzhen area from which to spread the word.

Disassociating himself from the Chinese Union proved to be good judgment. Karl Gützlaff’s upstart status and prickly personality led his political enemy James Legge to call for an investigation into the practices of the union. It turned out many of the Chinese missionaries were just staying in Hong Kong and using their travel expenses to feed their opium addictions. In 1851, Gützlaff died in Hong Kong due to a punishingly hectic lecture tour of Europe and the shame of being publicly discredited.

Making Inroads

For all his unscrupulousness and tireless self-promotion, Gützlaff was a committed Sinophile. His tomb in Section 13 of Happy Valley Cemetery in Hong Kong stands out because the epitaph is written in Chinese. Moreover, he was on to something when he said that only Chinese could convert Chinese.

One of the more honest members of the China Union was Guangdong-born Wang Yuanshen, who lost his father as a child and failed in several businesses before moving to Hong Kong. There he discovered Christianity and was baptized in 1847, becoming a member of the union.

Genahr, one of the few foreign missionaries who dared venture out of Hong Kong, appointed Wang to do missionary work in Fuyong, which is in Bao’an. When he first arrived, Fuyong was a haven for pirates and particularly hostile to Christians. Things improved, however, after Wilhelm Lobscheid, another Genahr appointee, impressed locals with the medical care he was able to give.

Wang Yuchu, via Shenzhen Evening News

Wang Yuanshen spent a decade in Fuyong, holding daily evening services in his home, which was next to the school that Genahr had established, and holding alternative Christian celebrations during Spring Festival. Although Wang Yuanshen did not accept ordination, he was delighted to see his sons ordained.

His eldest son, Wang Yuchu, was physically frail and had shown no academic promise in his childhood or youth. But he graduated from a Rhenish school in Xin’an (Bao’an District) in 1864 and was formally ordained in 1884 due to his outstanding work at the Foundling Home. Sun Yat-sen was a fan of Wang Yuchu’s services and the Wangs would go on to become an influential family during the republican era.

The Basel Mission and the churches that survive today

Genahr saw his work interrupted by the Second Opium War (1856-1860). It was during this time that he published “Dialogues with a Temple Keeper” 《庙祝问答》 which was particularly influential among the Hakka, directly causing one literate Hakka man to be the first person baptized by John Campbell Gibson in 1885.

As important as Genahr’s work for the Rhenish Mission was, the oldest church in Shenzhen – The Langkou Church in Bao’an District – was established by The Basel Mission in 1866. The Basel Mission’s members had been dispatched by Gützlaff to eastern Guangdong, where its missionaries did particularly important work for the conversion of Hakka to Christianity.

The identification of The Hakka as having particular potential to be good Christians was what brought French missionary Charles Piton of The Basel Mission to Langkou where he served as pastor at The Langkou Gospel Hall from 1866-1884. It was during this time that he worked on a translation of the Bible combining the Hakka dialect with Chinese characters.

Piton was initially critical of the lack of missionary zeal of the locals and wrote back to the mission explaining why he was delaying the baptisms of some whom he suspected of having “economic motives.” After he went back to Europe for health reasons, Piton published a book about infanticide in China that was widely ridiculed at the time.

He may not have loved his adopted country, but the church that Piton founded thrives today. After a long and turbulent history that saw it severely damaged during persecutions in the warlord era in 1917 when two foreign pastors were killed and later used as an administrative hall during the Cultural Revolution, the Gospel Hall reopened during the Reform & Opening Up Period. In August 2003, a new church building was opened on neighboring land after a three-year fundraising campaign and the old gospel hall is preserved as a historic building.

Langkou Gospel Hall, snapped in 2013 by Mary Ann O’Donnell

The history of the other churches in Shenzhen, though not as long, tends to be no less colorful. The one in Langkou is not the only one worth visiting to get a sense of local history. A visit to one of these places can dispel the notion that Shenzhen’s history began in 1980 and since then it has all been about skyscrapers, migrant workers and nouveau riche.

The Scottish academic Alastair McIntosh advocated the idea of “digging where we stand,” that is learning as much as we can about the place we are in to gain universal insight. Mathematician Jacob Bronowski wrote in “The Ascent of Man” that if we keep digging what is buried, we won’t find tens of metres of soil, but tens of metres of civilizations. Although this author is not religious, there is something admirably subversive these days about preserving history for its own sake.

Haohao

The Forgotten Story of…The Canton Fair During The Cultural Revolution

Posted: 05/7/2014 11:00 am

The Canton Fair, which comes twice a year, is known for making Guangzhou even more crowded and chaotic than usual. Taxis are a rarity, restaurants are full, and hotels increase their prices to take advantage of the increased demand. But today’s fairs are sedate compared to those held during the height of China’s red years.

Officially titled The China Import and Export Fair (formerly The Chinese Export Commodities Fair), The Canton Fair came into existence in 1957 to show off the communist country’s economic progress and to earn some foreign currency for Chairman Mao’s regime. At the inaugural fair in the spring of that year, US$1 million worth of business was done and traders from 19 countries and regions were invited.

For decades, the fair continued to be the cornerstone of China’s international trade strategy. A 1973 edition of Cambridge University’s The China Quarterly stated that the fair then accounted for 50% of China’s foreign trade. By 1984, the fair accounted for as much as 20% of the country’s exports. Now, it is just one of many international trade fairs in China, and last year for the first time on recent record, the number of companies with exhibits declined in both the Spring and Autumn sessions compared with a year earlier.

But even though the strategic importance of The Canton Fair has been eroded, it is still essential to the story of China’s economic rise. The most colorful period of its history was during The Cultural Revolution, a time that saw Red Guards trying to topple a statue of Sun Yat-sen, Hong Kong-based foreigners sneaking tomato juice up the Pearl River so they could enjoy Bloody Marys at the fair, and Japanese companies putting “Long Live Chairman Mao” in front of their brand names to impress their host country.

Generating capital under communism

The Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966 when Chairman Mao personally supervised the issuing of the May 16 notification. At that time, the most recent Canton Fair had been the most successful yet, with US$360 million in trade being done. The autumn fair of that year was even bigger, with US$481 million worth of deals being done. Then politics started getting in the way.

Zhou Enlai coming to the rescue in 1967, via Baidu Images

In April 1967, one of several factions of feuding Red Guards raided the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and removed the sign that read “天下为公” which means something close to “All under heaven belongs to the people”. They also used rope to try to topple the statue of Sun. Mao, who cared about the Canton Fair even more than he cared about struggle sessions, issued a notice to the CPC Central Committee, the State Council and the Cultural Revolution Group urging for a trouble free Canton Fair.

In spite of this, the situation became so severe that Prime Minister Zhou Enlai had to fly down to Guangzhou on April 14 to help resolve the situation. The prime minister, who two months earlier had been diagnosed with heart disease and given doctor’s orders to stop working so hard, held a meeting with leading members of the rebel groups and calmly explained that it was their patriotic duty to let the Canton Fair go off without a hitch. Partly because of all this trouble, the fair saw a reduced return of US$418 million worth of deals being done, but things could have been a lot worse if it hadn’t been for Zhou’s intervention.

By the time of the next fair, things were still not under control. In August 1967, over 1,000 armed rebels built a fort and camped outside one of the main exhibition centres, blocking the entrance. Preparatory work for the autumn fair was disrupted and the opening was delayed from November 15th to December 15th.

This caused business to suffer with trade falling to US$406 million. Political unrest also caused the 1969 fairs to post a US$12.8 million decline on the year before.

One of the conference centres for the 1969 fair, via Zhang Hua of Caijing

Even after The Cultural Revolution ended, the fair was not entirely divorced from China’s domestic politics. In October 1976, a month after Chairman Mao’s death, there was a display of products showing the Chinese people’s “initiative and creative power in the struggle to criticize Deng Xiaoping.”

Business As Usual

But overall, the decade from 1966-1976 was a successful one for The Canton Fair with over US$1 billion in business being done for the first time at the Spring fair in 1971 and people from 107 countries and regions attending the 1975 fair.

A key reason for this was the eagerness of foreign traders to pioneer entering China. Americans were allowed to attend for the first time in 1972 after President Richard Nixon’s visit and traders from all over the world would accept political tension and unpleasant living conditions to get a chance to do business with a country that was still in one of the more hermetic phases of its history.

No foreigner was exempt from the customs of the day including “Asking instructions from Mao in the morning and reporting back to Mao in the evening.” The Japanese mostly stayed at the Guangzhou Hotel (广州宾馆) and eyewitness accounts from staff talk of Japanese, eager to be on good terms with their host nation politically, raising their fists and chanting “Long live Chairman Mao” with all the vigour of red guards. What a pity there were no camera phones around to capture this scene.

It was the norm for Japanese companies to put “Long Live Chairman Mao” ahead of their brand names to show that they were model guests, while hotel staff recall helping teach revolutionary songs to Japanese attendees. In 1999, the Japanese Minister for the Promotion of International Trade, who went by the Chinese name of 葛西 (Kasayi), impressed his hosts by showing he could still sing some of the revolutionary Chinese songs he had learned while attending fairs during the good old days.

Back then, it wasn’t just the foreigners who had to go out of their way to give a good impression. There are still remnants of the efforts made under Chairman Mao’s government in the late 1960s to make The Canton Fair successful. After Chinese traders complained of the conditions under which they were forced to greet foreign guests, the Guangzhou Foreign Trade Project was established and given 60 million yuan in subsidies at the orders of Zhou Enlai himself. Projects included the building of a new exhibition centre, the Liuhua Hotel and the Baiyun Hotel.

The Guangzhou Hotel was also built especially for the fair and at 86 metres and 27 floors was the tallest building in China at the time. Even so, plenty of foreign traders were happy to sleep in hotel corridors and write self-criticisms for Red Guards, just so they could get a slice of the action.

Still Bustling

Now Beijing and Shanghai are no longer inaccessible to foreigners. Traders aren’t expected to show allegiance to the communist regime and there are myriad ways in which a foreign company can enter the Chinese market. What purpose does the fair serve now?

In spite of predictions that it would become obsolete after China’s Reform & Opening Up, as the largest scale and most comprehensive business fair in China, it is still one of the best ways to make useful contacts and promote a business in what is set to become the world’s largest economy.

To the naked eye, The Canton Fair seems symbolic of the brave new China of skyscrapers, entrepreneurship and rural-urban migration. But it is the brainchild of a very communist government trying to negotiate an uncertain path through The Cold War-era global economy. It is for the best that nowadays the biggest hardship for most foreign traders is getting a hotel room, but it is hard to imagine it ever again being as exciting as it was during the days when traders had to demonstrate their left wing credentials to have a chance of smashing their competitors.

Haohao

In Praise of…The Laobaixing

Posted: 04/30/2014 11:00 am

If you live in China, you see these people every day. You see them getting onto the subway before other passengers have had the chance to get off. You see them standing outside their stores clapping to attract attention, even when they’re being drowned out by happy hardcore music. You see them dressing up flamboyantly, convinced that they are fashionistas, even when their hairstyle alone is enough to prevent them from ever being allowed into Milan. You hear them shouting “hello” when they see a foreigner, which some consider to be the height of sophistication.

How is this group of people best defined? The workers? Too communistic. The great unwashed? Not communistic enough. The salt of the earth? We’re here to praise them, not worship them. Let’s settle for “The Laobaixing”.

Literally translated as “The Old 100 Names,” the meaning of Laobaixing is richer and more fluid than any possible English translation. In her book “Dreaming in Chinese,” the closest linguist Deborah Fallows got to finding a definition she was happy with was: “All those who are making the staggering adjustments to survive.”

It appears that China’s government, whose officials are by definition not Laobaixing, has little faith in the Laobaixing’s ability to behave well. Last year Shenzhen rolled out the nation’s first civility laws to crack down on spitting, littering and other uncouth behaviour. Vice Premier Wang Yang called for his compatriots to have a sense of ambassadorial responsibility when abroad as they have gained a reputation for the kind of behaviour that got Chinese tourists barred from one chic hotel in Paris.

Both Wang Yang and the Shenzhen government were probably doing the right thing. Clearly this behaviour is not acceptable and needs to improve, but since we are in the habit of praising things, let’s look at it from a couple of angles.

What is “rudeness” anyway?

In one of the most cringe-worthy China expat-related moments in the history of the internet, an American declares that “Chinese people are rude” while verbally abusing a Chinese girl who is in no position to fight back. This goes to show that the term “rude” is so vague and its definition so subjective that good users of the English language tend not to say it too often, like the words “weird” or “random”.

Let us roughly divide the definition of rude between “obnoxious” and “uncultured.” Obnoxiousness is intentional, for example making a passive aggressive remark at a dinner party. Being uncultured causes people to do inappropriate things because they don’t know any better. The latter is what has been giving Chinese tourists a bad name and what the Shenzhen government is targeting.

One day in Hunan Province in mid-November 2008, I was on my way to lunch when somebody walking in the opposite direction spotted me under my umbrella and said: “Hello.” After walking another 20 yards or so, the stranger turned around and started sprinting towards me. His first words into the back of my ear were: “Hey, I want to make a friend with you. I want you to teach me English.”

Not knowing what to say, I invited him along to lunch where he explained that he was a 20 year-old I.T. student named Benny who “likes foreigners”. He already had two foreign friends and wanted more.

I barely made eye contact for the whole lunch, not because I was annoyed, just because I was sad to know that I could never teach this guy how to talk to anyone. Friendships tend to be based on some form of usefulness, whether we admit it or not. W.H Auden was right, as always, when he said: “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.” Benny approached me because he wanted something – a free English teacher – and he didn’t get it because his approach lacked sophistication.

When I describe Benny’s actions to Chinese people who are sympathetic with the idea that they were inappropriate, they usually explain them by saying: “他的文化水平不高” (His standard of culture is not high). But he was not obnoxious. It’s unlikely he is capable of interpreting a passive aggressive remark at a dinner party, let alone making one.

Why being “cultured” is important but overrated

There is value in being cultured, just as there is value in being handsome, athletic or witty. Appreciating the arts does not make us morally better, but it makes us more thoughtful and complex.

Benny had obviously never given serious thought to the Lu Xun quote that says “The problem with our relations with foreigners is that we never look at them as equals, we always either look up to them as emperors or look down on them as animals.” If he had, he would have understood what is wrong with throwing himself at every foreign-looking person he sees.

To become more cultured, members of the Laobaixing need the chance to embrace more difficult works of art, not because Oliver Stone is as awesome as he thinks he is, but because public discourse needs to be more nuanced. As China gets ready to ascend to the status of largest economy in the world, it faces a set of internal problems that seem intractable and needs a sophisticated citizenry to have a chance of overcoming these problems.

However, it is very dangerous to suggest that being uncultured somehow makes somebody inferior. To Hitler, whose program of arts subsidy was one of the largest in the history of civilisation, what was good about art was that it “raised (people) above the petty cares of the moment and shows them that, after all, their individual woes are not of such great importance.” John Carey, author of “What Good Are the Arts?” believes that Hitler’s veneration of the arts wasn’t just a side issue, but the force that shaped and nourished his inhumanity.

Members of the Laobaixing should by all means learn their Shakespeare and their Mozart. But if somebody is an immoral person to begin with, the chances that doing this will make them any less so are low.

Only as messed up as it is

In “Chinese Lessons,” John Pomfret recalls hearing first-hand accounts of the Cultural Revolution from his Chinese friends. In one case, a boy was forced to witness the murder of his own father and help carry the severed remains through the streets, accompanied by his brothers. This boy is now a middle-aged man with a successful career.

Well within living memory, China went through what JG Ballard described as “the brain death of a nation,” in which many of the things that defined China as a great civilization were deliberately desecrated. And it’s not as if everything was rosy before then.

Literary translator Brendan O’Kane said in his final interview before leaving Beijing last year that he appreciated that, considering what China had been through over the past century, credit is due for things being only as messed up as they are. So next time an uncultured person shouts “hello” at you, just remember that it’s not so long since much worse things were being shouted at foreigners.

Haohao
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