Posts tagged ‘culture’

I had a conversation about television programs in China, and the thing that I noted was the abundance of war-related serial dramas on many channels. There was always something about the Chinese Civil War between the Liberation Army and the Nationalists, or some other movie about World War II with the Japanese. And for the first time, the Communist soldiers are portrayed as the good guys-soldiers who are liberating the poor farmers from the rich aristocratic Nationalists. Outside of China, it has always been the opposite, and sometimes I wonder who’s telling the truth, although it probably doesn’t matter. People are people, whatever political ideology they subscribe to.

War still seems so relevant here, to this nation and its culture. After all, it was formed out of one. It’s almost like the people have some sort of a collective trauma, with the television dramas replaying their history again and again in many forms, making it hard for them to forget about their past. Everything links back to history, and the lessons of the past inform their actions and motivations. In my hotel they have some American channels like HBO, and the contrast is so great. American channels feature more about lifestyle and the latest gossip in Hollywood. I had just come from New York too and war always seemed like a distant idea situated in Iraq. But here, it is everywhere. It is in the cracks, in the people, in the images. China has had such a long history of wars, dynasty after dynasty, and even when the last dynasty ended. Do they always broadcast such war-themed dramas to remind themselves where they come from and how they struggled to get to where they are today? Or are people generally interested in the stories of the past and thus the abundance of such programs?

And then they have Taiwanese dramas in China too, and some from Hong Kong, and again, the contrast is great. The Chinese programs always seem so serious and so proper, always about something political or social, whereas those from Taiwan and Hong Kong would be about high school romance or celebrity rumours. It’s interesting and ironic to flip one channel and see headlines about Andy Lau’s marriage, and then flip another to see the Chinese government trying to help farmers with their irrigation problems.

Such is the state of the Chinese civilization today.

1980 is the beginning of China’s economic reforming and opening up. Leroy
W. Demery, Jr. , an 27 years old American, decided to cross the ocean and
check out the mystery east. His first stop is HongKong. During the time in
HK, the tour guide asked him if he’d like to spend an afternoon in a place
next to HK but across the sea. And he said “YES”. The place he went to is
Sheng Zhen, the first city to start reform and open up in China in 1979.

Leroy recorded the original ShenZheng in the last minute, before all these
got replaced by factories. He came to China again in 1983, visited a lot of
other cities and recorded all of them. I am kind of curious why this old
country pick this young man from the west to record how this land looks like
before everything totally changed, but I am really glad to get to see these
treasure images today. Not only me, same as a lot of people. Leroy start
to put these photos on flickr since Dec,2008 and attract tons of viewers.
Among these viewers, there is a curator of ShenZhen & HongKong architecture
biannual, and the result is these photos will be exhibited in the show.

Check them out now on Leroy W. Demery, Jr.’s flickr album.


via Julia Liu of W+K Shanghai

Lately I have become interested in artists for whom collecting is central to their process. Dealing with taxonomies and systems of classification, their work is, at least in part, a critique of the activities of museums and collecting institutions or individuals. Fundamentally, these artists are exploring notions of identity through quantitative assessment. Here, identity is expressed through an ontology—a system of objects, representing a particular and unique perspective. A collection seeks to establish a framework by which to formalize, structure and express its content. Through their work, these artists critique that framework at different levels—relating to individual identity, the role of the institution, or society at large.

It seems that the need to categorize is a basic human trait. We cannot not categorize. The ontologies we create define cultures, as the result of processes by which we shape our lives. Museums fundamentally aim to document culture, and the systems of classification created within the museum context reflect those present within society. Art involved in a critique of these systems is therefore fundamentally also a critique of society at large—a particular society, that is—aiming in an almost scientific way to objectify the outcomes of those processes that manifest themselves in certain predictable or less-predictable forms.


When historians first began exploring the relationship between tradition and modernity there is little doubt that tradition always ended up the loser.  Many scholars strongly promoted modernity and the modern lifestyle, complete with science, democracy, capitalism, and the nation-state, as the ultimate aim of history.  In this linear vision, static traditions infused with the superstitious past constantly hindered the forward march of history, a history that would lead nations to an almost utopian vision of modernity.  Thus the modern condition was posited as a radical break from tradition.  Further, since Western nations constituted the supposedly objective default condition of modernity, to be modern was in essence to be Western.  After European and American reformers and translated texts reached China in the late nineteenth century, Chinese self-strengtheners from Yan Fu on reflected the ideology of modernity.  They too spoke of Chinese tradition as a unitary, unchanging, and resistant entity that must be conquered by modern practices, ideas, and material realities.  The result was that when Western scholars studied China they not only had to contend with their own prejudices, but also to question Chinese source material that seemed to almost perfectly reproduce their own conceptual framework.


I had a heated conversation with Y yesterday, which ultimately became kind of ugly, but more importantly was the content and conflicts that arose from our points of view: one from a local Chinese, and another from a Chinese foreigner.

There were many misunderstandings to begin with, primarily because of language problems. But that’s besides the point. Y had just finished reading a book titled “I don’t want to be a Chinese in my next life” (“来生不做中国人”) by Joe Chung, and so we casually started chatting about Chinese culture and the state of affairs. She mentioned how Chinese civilization had deteriorated after so long, and discussed about how things needed to change for standards of living to improve. And i guess that was the beginning of our conflict. I challenged her notion of standards of living, and proposed that the idea of ‘improvement’ is a consequence of modernist ideals seeped into China (ever since the days of Sun Yatsen). Modern cities look to Western models as their yardstick, and are forever chasing the shadows of the latter, always one step behind, rather than manifesting on their own terms. Yes, one can argue that chasing Western models IS their own way of growing, but it is still significantly different from motivations that come from within. I told Y that Asian civilizations today use western standards of living to gauge if theirs is up to par, and she disagreed. She said standards of living are universal, because human beings in general have the same needs, and thus are after the same things. She said it is common sense that having a cell phone is better than having a beeper, and having railroads is better than walking all the way. I told her about how the Europeans used to think that way too, coming to Africa and deeming them as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’, and so tried to ‘help’ them by teaching them the word of God.

Allow me to digress for a bit into something I read from Lin Yutang. Before i read him, i used to think standards of living were universal too, and that everyone has certain basic needs and wished for the same luxuries. But i stumbled upon a chapter in his book where he wrote about how the Westerner would come to China and think that the farmers are unhygienic, and that their homes are dirty and their lives filthy. But Lin Yutang reminded me that all this, including the western idea of human rights and democracy, are still on Western terms. There is another way to think about this. Lin Yutang uses the word ‘degeneration’, and says that if you look deeper into the matter, it is the Western model of living that is of a lower standard, because the clean, pristine way of living has caused Westerners to be weaker biologically and mentally. They remain indoors most of the time (like most of us do now, thanks to Modernity), and are less tolerant of outdoor climates that are closer to nature. The Chinese farmer, on the contrary, being so used to ‘dirt’, or maybe i should say ‘natural surroundings’, has a higher tolerance and survivability of the wild, and thus is stronger. Now, is it necessarily fair to say that everyone wants to have a ‘higher’ standard of living, only to be degenerated over time and generations? I don’t necessarily have a definitive answer yet, and neither am i saying that one is better than the other, but i sure do think that the Modern life is not it, and that it is only one of many routes that one can take.

But it also becomes a different matter when a civilization is critiquing itself, if the Africans look at themselves and start wishing they were White. Who are we, as outsiders, to judge if they should or should not want to be like another? And yes, the same pattern happens again: I am an outsider, only trying to ‘help’. Am I really ‘helping’? What makes me think I know what’s better for China? Y resented some of the things I said because I am speaking from the point of a foreigner, and who am I to judge China’s way of reinventing themselves? I guess this is the part where it gets murky, because I am Chinese, but yet I am not. Am I helping my own people, or am I helping a foreign race? There is no answer to this, only how one sees it. When does an outsider step in to interfere with someone else’s family problems? I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer. America was praised when they defeated Hitler, but criticized for invading Vietnam and Iraq. When does one draw the line?

As much as I’m writing about my conversation with Y, and as much as she said some things that upset me a little, I am not unhappy that we spoke, and am not writing this out to prove that I am right whatsoever. Rather, I am writing this out so that I lay things out in a clear manner for proper criticism, so that we may move on someday in a more objective manner. In fact, I am glad we spoke, because we laid out our differences, and only by overcoming these issues will we become stronger. One thing we did agree, was that we both knew we loved the Chinese civilization, and probably only differed in our approach to the matter.

Back to our conversation. Y criticized my way of thinking as being limiting and non-constructive, which i do agree in some ways. Back in Portland, when Yinghao came to visit me, he did mention how it’s pointless to criticize something without giving a solution. Y said if i refused to define a standard, how can civilization move on? Even if it is ‘wrong’, and ultimately they realised it isn’t what they were searching for, at least they went there and learned their ways, and then they will move on from there. I do not disagree totally, but perhaps I wanted China to not have to go through that process of erring, because right now (2009), China is on the brink of change, and whatever happens now is going to affect them for many years to come. It’s almost like child psychology, where when a child is forming their structural notions of identity and their surroundings from a clean slate, and the growing period is pretty sensitive because an extreme incident might traumatize the innocent mind. Yes, China has already had their fair share of traumas, as I have mentioned in another post, but I guess what I’m focusing here is the structural framework for China’s evolution.

The notion of improvement. What does that mean? How does a civilization decide to build more railways, more skyscrapers, and more Starbucks? When I stopped over at Beijing airport a year ago, I was surprised to see Starbucks; it was my first time on China soil, and there I was greeted by the familiar mermaid in the green circle. I told a Chinese friend of mine about this experience, and he laughed at me,”you thought China was so backward?” For a moment i thought that was exactly the reason why I was surprised, but on deeper thought, it was something else. It’s funny that one equates having Starbucks to being ‘not-backward’. My surprise had nothing to do with backwardness, but rather, the penetration of western culture in the east. There I was at the gateway of the most magnificent civilization, and I was greeted by the same culture that I had left behind in New York. Back to motivations behind improvement. One could think of improvement as a way of moving closer to where one wants to go, with a certain type of destination (or destiny) in mind. As such, the destination, or the desired place, is so important in shaping one’s growth. Here i’d like to suggest that ‘growth’ and ‘improvement’ have slightly different meanings, at least in how I am using them. Growth referring to change over time, and improvement referring to going ‘higher’ than what one already has, depending on the standard that is defined. I guess a good question would be to ask local Chinese people what their visions of the future are, because those visions are what shape their lives today. And only by changing that psychological vision, would we be able to change China’s future tomorrow.

But yet, the West has lost sight of the ‘future’. Modernist ideals have collapsed somewhat, and people aren’t so caught up with technology and for this futuristic notion of the world. Yet, China, and even most of Asia, is always looking for ways and ways of improving themselves. And here I am, trying to discourage them from ‘improving’, and encouraging them to embrace what they already have. For a civilization that is trying to reinvent itself, my view isn’t quite accepted. My ideals, just like how China views tradition, only hinders their path to modernity and utopia. I do agree with Y that some of the rural countryside needs help, that there are people who struggle to get meals, and have no chance to go to school. But yet, at the same time, do they really need ‘help’, and are we really ‘helping’ them? Looking at it another way, we are only judging them by city standards, and only trying to convert them into city-dwellers, and instilling aspirations for city-living into their minds. I don’t have an answer right now, because I am torn between both sides of the argument. Maybe, like what Y said, there is a need to be steadfast and objective, and to quickly define standards, or else things will never be done, and we will never know the answer.

Am I contradicting myself? Am I advocating against change? But yet i mention evolution. But then again, borrowing from the principles of art and design processes, one should never try to guess the ending or have preconceived notions of creativity. Like process-based work, the result should be a discovery, and open-ended, and maybe evaluated. So what do I really believe in, in terms of shaping the ‘future’ of China? I told Y that what I really wish for is for China to lead the way, and to have their own way of living and growth, whatever that means. Maybe it won’t happen during our lifetime, but my concern is to seed the idea now.

LIke what Azuma in the anime Naruto said, the ‘King’ of a village are the unborn children, and that is what the villagers live to protect.

Perhaps, that is the answer. That is the thing that I’ve been so frustrated over. The area that I wish to contribute to, is not to give China an answer, but to open up their options through self-discovery and inquiry. That is what needs to be worked on: the fundamentals of what it means to improve the lives of the Chinese people, and the groundwork for things to grow and flourish, even if it means uprooting and tilling the soil. When I debated with Y over the meaning of ‘improvement’, what I was getting at was a questioning of fundamental ideals. To Y, it was more important to set a standard and move on to improve things, while my methodology was to figure out the standards before you move on. Because the standard itself is something that needs to be developed too. If standards are fixed, then even over time, you would only have moved one step, because you already set a predictable goal. Neither am I saying not to have any standards, but the more important thing is to be flexible and be open to development.

It is a different type of growth when one already has a vision in mind, as opposed to developing the fundamentals from within and letting it manifest from the bottom up. Just like in studio practice, professors never tell us what we should or shouldn’t do, they only facilitate thought and exposure, giving us a little push in the direction that we seem interested in. What happens in the end is ultimately open-ended, because professors never really taught us anything; they only taught us to teach ourselves.

Perhaps what i was also advocating was not to focus too much on the material growth of the Chinese people, because that might not be what everyone needs, even in the rural villages. What might be more important could be of a spiritual or psychological matter, helping them develop their own way of life, facilitating their thought process. When one takes away universal standards of living, one also starts feeling less pitiful about rural villages. The idea of ‘helping’ rural villages can sometimes be dangerous, because even though we come with good intentions, by giving them donations, teaching them new ideas, but what we are also doing is making them more like us, and ultimately making them want to go to the city. Again, I’m not saying not to offer charity to the countryside, but what I’m saying is to be careful and understand fundamentally how we are actually making things better. We don’t want villagers to become city-dwellers, but yes, we do want them to be happy. We don’t want them to feel that they are ‘unprivileged’ , but to accept themselves for who they are, and teach them how to make things better with their own hands and mind.

Many Chinese working in Tibet regard themselves as idealistic missionaries of progress, rejecting the Western idea of them as agents of cultural imperialism. In truth, they are inescapably both


[11/2/09 3:03:29 PM] Nelson.Ng: yea
[11/2/09 3:03:32 PM] Nelson.Ng: this guy im reading
[11/2/09 3:03:45 PM] Nelson.Ng: his  background quite sad
[11/2/09 3:04:16 PM] Nelson.Ng: Czech Jew
[11/2/09 3:04:50 PM] Nelson.Ng: when he moved to London for University
[11/2/09 3:05:13 PM] Nelson.Ng: during WWII
[11/2/09 3:05:22 PM] Nelson.Ng: Nazi Germany took over Czech
[11/2/09 3:05:42 PM] Nelson.Ng: and his parents, grandparents and sister and friends all died in concentration camps
[11/2/09 3:06:07 PM] Nelson.Ng: he escaped to Brazil with his wife
[11/2/09 3:06:23 PM] hc: uh huh
[11/2/09 3:06:26 PM] Nelson.Ng: but he felt like his whole life in his early years had just vanished to thin air
[11/2/09 3:06:32 PM] Nelson.Ng: he had no more purpose in life
[11/2/09 3:06:46 PM] Nelson.Ng: his hometown, Prague, destroyed
[11/2/09 3:06:54 PM] Nelson.Ng: everything he knew and everyone he knew gone
[11/2/09 3:07:12 PM] Nelson.Ng: and it was like starting life anew in a new place
[11/2/09 3:07:19 PM] Nelson.Ng: many times he wanted to commit suicide
[11/2/09 3:10:22 PM] hc: uh huh
[11/2/09 3:10:23 PM] hc: sounds like
[11/2/09 3:10:34 PM] hc: that existtential guy
[11/2/09 3:10:40 PM] hc: mm viktor frankl
[11/2/09 3:10:59 PM] hc: also went through the WW in the concentration camp
[11/2/09 3:11:02 PM] hc: what happened to him now
[11/2/09 3:14:49 PM] Nelson.Ng: yea his writings touch abit on existentialism
[11/2/09 3:14:58 PM] Nelson.Ng: he already passed away
[11/2/09 3:15:20 PM] Nelson.Ng: after many years in Brazil
[11/2/09 3:15:21 PM] Nelson.Ng: like 50 years
[11/2/09 3:15:26 PM] Nelson.Ng: he decided to go back to Europe
[11/2/09 3:15:53 PM] Nelson.Ng: then because of a publication, he got famous overnight
[11/2/09 3:16:05 PM] Nelson.Ng: and then got invited to give lectures around Europe
[11/2/09 3:16:09 PM] Nelson.Ng: by then was already 1980s
[11/2/09 3:16:12 PM] Nelson.Ng: peace had returned
[11/2/09 3:16:38 PM] Nelson.Ng: in 1991, his first time back in Prague since the war, he died in a car crash on the way to a lecture
[11/2/09 3:16:49 PM] Nelson.Ng: his wife survived the accident though
[11/2/09 3:17:38 PM] hc: uh huh
[11/2/09 3:18:13 PM] Nelson.Ng: some of his writings touch on the meaning of life affected by media
[11/2/09 3:18:33 PM] Nelson.Ng: that humanity needs to find a reason to live again
[11/2/09 3:18:49 PM] Nelson.Ng: because the pracitice of ‘writing’ will soon disappear
[11/2/09 3:19:12 PM] Nelson.Ng: and how ‘history’ is a product of writing culture
[11/2/09 3:19:29 PM] Nelson.Ng: once writing vanishes, ‘history’ will also vanish
[11/2/09 3:19:54 PM] hc: uh huh
[11/2/09 3:20:02 PM] Nelson.Ng: its actually not that complicated
[11/2/09 3:20:22 PM] Nelson.Ng: basically, for him, writing is a linear sequence of ideas constructed together to form something
[11/2/09 3:20:33 PM] Nelson.Ng: logical linear sequence
[11/2/09 3:20:47 PM] Nelson.Ng: and so, history is the same thing, linear sequence
[11/2/09 3:21:13 PM] Nelson.Ng: before writing was invented, nothing ‘took place’,
[11/2/09 3:21:20 PM] Nelson.Ng: but everything ‘happened’
[11/2/09 3:21:37 PM] Nelson.Ng: history was just a means of putting events into position, in a logical orderly linear sequence
[11/2/09 3:22:00 PM] hc: orh
[11/2/09 3:22:39 PM] Nelson.Ng: so we have huge history textbooks today that arange for us the sequence of events…but soon, because people will stop seeing value in writing and reading, because of TV and new media, historical consciousness will disappear
[11/2/09 3:22:48 PM] hc: ?
[11/2/09 3:22:49 PM] hc: why
[11/2/09 3:22:57 PM] Nelson.Ng: why will reading vanish?
[11/2/09 3:22:58 PM] hc: behind tv and media is still writing
[11/2/09 3:23:16 PM] Nelson.Ng: not really
[11/2/09 3:23:18 PM] Nelson.Ng: what he means is
[11/2/09 3:24:28 PM] Nelson.Ng: because for him, TV and new media (internet) is not ‘linear’
[11/2/09 3:24:43 PM] Nelson.Ng: storytelling is linear progression of events
[11/2/09 3:24:50 PM] Nelson.Ng: but imagery is non-linear
[11/2/09 3:25:09 PM] Nelson.Ng: internet is even more non-linear, more like a network
[11/2/09 3:25:28 PM] Nelson.Ng: so the way we think is different already today
[11/2/09 3:25:57 PM] Nelson.Ng: for him ‘linear-thinking’ will vanish, which is alreayd happening
[11/2/09 3:26:03 PM] Nelson.Ng: and critical thinking too
[11/2/09 3:26:22 PM] Nelson.Ng: critical thinking meaning breaking down of things for analysis
[11/2/09 3:26:31 PM] Nelson.Ng: but people will accept things as is
[11/2/09 3:26:53 PM] Nelson.Ng: anyway, i havent finished the book yet, so maybe theres alot i still dont understand
[11/2/09 3:28:44 PM] Nelson.Ng: anyway, ‘history’ had always been just a way of framing events together to make sense of it, or to justify some sort of view, or what people call ‘progress’
[11/2/09 3:28:49 PM] hc: orh
[11/2/09 3:28:58 PM] hc: i don’t reallly agree
[11/2/09 3:29:04 PM] Nelson.Ng: regarding?
[11/2/09 3:29:05 PM] hc: but i’m not the one reading
[11/2/09 3:29:16 PM] Nelson.Ng: dont really agree with what
[11/2/09 3:29:19 PM] Nelson.Ng: which part
[11/2/09 3:29:29 PM] hc: that ppl don’t do critical thinking
[11/2/09 3:29:39 PM] hc: don’t do framing anymore
[11/2/09 3:29:52 PM] Nelson.Ng: in a way alot of people dont do it anymore
[11/2/09 3:30:01 PM] Nelson.Ng: writing as a practice is slowly vanishing
[11/2/09 3:30:14 PM] Nelson.Ng: imagine, back then before the invention of the camera, words were used to describe pictures
[11/2/09 3:30:35 PM] Nelson.Ng: but now with the camera, and video, we dont need words anymore
[11/2/09 3:30:38 PM] hc: well but the medium for personal expression is more accessible now
[11/2/09 3:30:44 PM] hc: back then history was written by one guy
[11/2/09 3:30:51 PM] hc: and the commonfolk prob don’t know don’t care
[11/2/09 3:31:09 PM] hc: they have their tales passed down in spoken form, story telling
[11/2/09 3:31:24 PM] hc: and now there’s sms internet
[11/2/09 3:31:31 PM] hc: i think ppl don’t talk as much
[11/2/09 3:31:38 PM] Nelson.Ng: mm wait
[11/2/09 3:31:44 PM] hc: and
[11/2/09 3:32:27 PM] Nelson.Ng: i dont think his concern was personal expresson or power or recording events
[11/2/09 3:32:33 PM] Nelson.Ng: but more of
[11/2/09 3:32:33 PM] hc: we hav education, we have access to at least a basic understanding to what the media/historians are saying
[11/2/09 3:32:42 PM] Nelson.Ng: people will stop arranging things in a linear order
[11/2/09 3:32:47 PM] hc: we can recreate, argue our own intepretation
[11/2/09 3:32:51 PM] Nelson.Ng: not about access
[11/2/09 3:33:00 PM] Nelson.Ng: about how people will ‘arrange’ things
[11/2/09 3:33:32 PM] Nelson.Ng: think u’re talking about something else dear..
[11/2/09 3:33:36 PM] hc: i always am
[11/2/09 3:33:47 PM] Nelson.Ng: no, not always -_-
[11/2/09 3:34:04 PM] Nelson.Ng: so
[11/2/09 3:34:07 PM] Nelson.Ng: what u’re saying is
[11/2/09 3:34:14 PM] Nelson.Ng: who has control of the media right
[11/2/09 3:34:24 PM] Nelson.Ng: and whether its better now than before
[11/2/09 3:34:28 PM] Nelson.Ng: but hes not talking about that
[11/2/09 3:34:42 PM] Nelson.Ng: hes just saying that the way media is changing will affect the way everyone thinks
[11/2/09 3:35:02 PM] Nelson.Ng: and once it has fully matured, we will stop thinking in a linear fashion
[11/2/09 3:35:06 PM] Nelson.Ng: and hence stop ‘writing’
[11/2/09 3:35:19 PM] Nelson.Ng: and stop writing events in a linear progression a.k.a history
[11/2/09 3:36:18 PM] Nelson.Ng: and hes not saying its not good
[11/2/09 3:36:27 PM] Nelson.Ng: hes just saying, this is what will happen eventually
[11/2/09 3:36:35 PM] Nelson.Ng: and when it happens, what should we do

When one thinks of the codified world, as Vilem Flusser describes, one starts to think of their cultural heritage as a set of codes. For me, I have come to define ‘culture’ as the methods of survival for a given civilization over time (this probably warrants a whole other article in itself.) Culture is something that grows out of the necessity to survive, and over time, develops into ritualistic practices, and then their intentions are sometimes forgotten because they are so old. As such, because each civilization has lived differently and undergone different circumstances, they have sought different ways to overcome difficulties, and of course the ones that succeeded survive. Now, Flusser will argue that culture shouldn’t be explained, but should be interpreted, because it is a humanity. For him, culture is something that is fabricated by people to give meaning to their meaningless lives in the face of death, a very existential approach, but for the purpose of this article, I am concerned only with the aspect of culture as a form of code, not its purpose.

What’s interesting about different cultures has always been about how different their codes are; even within China, the different provinces each have their own cultural practices. They might all speak mandarin, the common language, but until you have lived in a place and learned the local tongue, you might still not understand some of the terms and phrases that they use. Such symbols are not a matter of language, but a common understanding that is brewed over time within a certain frame. By frame, I mean both physical, such as geography, and metaphysical borders, such as time. People only start to accept you as one of them when you have acquired an understanding of their local culture, and if you have truly mastered it, might even confuse you to be one of them.

The tricky issue comes when a person has more than one set of codes imbued in him, although in today’s world, we already have many of such people around. I once watched a documentary where a Japan-born Korean found difficulty in being accepted into Japanese society. What’s weird is if she doesn’t tell you she is ‘Korean’, one will never know she belongs to Korean heritage because she speaks perfect Japanese and understands the culture fully. The only difference is that she has a memory which had been ingrained into her from young that she has a connection to the Korean civilization. One might argue that being ‘Korean’ is more biological than cultural, but I beg to differ. One must consider the factor of time and, once again, the notion of the frame (this will go in another article). But even if one simply looks at cultural identity, for example being Korean, as having both biological and social codes, then maybe it is not so complicated. For how a civilization behaves in social terms affects how it biologically breeds, and how it biologically breeds also affects how it socially plays out, and culture is brewed in this continuous spiral. Culture is born out of a spiral between social practice and biological function over time. For example, a people living in a cold climate might cook spicy food to fight the cold, and over time, develop a biological appetite for spicy food. But because they have grown to like spicy food over time, they start developing new recipes to satisfy this crave. And hence you have an array of spicy food in say, Korean cuisine, which only further propels the spicy appetite of next generations. Over time, people might forget how it all started, and why they had come to develop so many different variations of spicy food and have such a liking for them, but by then a ‘cultural’ code would have occurred, and if you’re Korean, you eat Korean food.

As such, this model could also be brought to explain moralistic practices within a civilization. Let’s take one of Confucius’ teaching as an example, which is to respect and take care of the elderly. Now, I’m not claiming that this necessary came out of a survival problem, but let’s say it did, and that somehow the Chinese people realized their numbers did better when they took care of their old. This practice becomes accepted and understood by everyone within the community that it starts becoming a moral, where if a person who doesn’t do it is as good as endangering the whole community. Over many centuries, this group of people gets used to this practice, it gets passed down from generation to generation, and the thinking gets imbued in their blood, such that a Chinese person will naturally be in agreement with such a practice. Social practice has been converted into a biological function over time, and conversely, biological functions continue to pass down and promote such social practices. History is embedded in our blood, and one can see it as a form of code that is a part of the cultural equation. Which is why Chinese medicine believes that the body is a product of the mind, and they even believe that some illnesses are linked to a spiritual or psychological dysfunction i.e. worry. Mind is body, and body is mind. If a person’s mind is in constant worry, his heart pumps faster everyday, and over time, he is affected physically. Every intangible thought or feeling has a certain effect on a person’s physical body. There is some physiological connection between mind and body, just like how Confucius’ teachings can be codified in every Chinese person’s blood, and the Chinese believe in it. Which perhaps starts to explain Chinese people’s use of the word ‘blood’ as not just a mere biological fluid, but rather a collection of beliefs,feelings, ideology and history. Centuries of war and suffering is codified in Chinese blood. Blood plays a huge significance in Chinese culture, and if someone wrote a letter in blood, then it must be of utmost importance.

Our codified blood, blood that contains many layers of complex information, is also affected by things such as weather and environment. Again, in Chinese medicine (and i learned this via a conversation with my landlady), they believe that everyone is biologically different depending on where they come from. Because their cultural practices are different, their blood is also different. The people who live near the sea have a certain type of liver, because they have constantly been eating seafood for many centuries, and so they cannot be treated in the same way as people from other places. Word has it that the ‘bagua’ (八卦) has clearly categorized all the different types of Chinese people according to their areas, and how it affects them biologically and culturally depending on climate, diet and conditions. It’s interesting when one starts to equate biological processes to cultural practices, and vice versa, and then blood having a memory to store all these information. Of course, blood content changes all the time, especially in today’s world, where cultures are mixing all the time, and people are migrating so often. People from hot climates are migrating to colder climates and planting new roots there, hence changing the content of their blood (and also culture), while people interbreeding from different climates is also more rampant due to technological advancements in transportation.

When all these codes change, how will we start to define them?

It is easier to define a cultural code when it is consistent across a big number of people, and this consistency trickles down to signs such as language, diet, skin, facial features and religion such that we can call them a civilization/race/nation. But when everything starts getting jumbled up, and there is not enough consistency to identify a trend, will people start to lose their cultural identities? Or will they start to develop new ones based on other factors such as one’s association with the workplace?  Before it had always been geographical borders that defined how these codes developed, but one can find different codes of conduct in the same place now, even within the same building, and people in different places might even have more in common than those around them due to the emergence of new ‘frames’ and conditions.

Or perhaps all these culture (and blood) will get diluted someday to form one ultimate unified code across the globe?

China’s “treasure hunting team” descended on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last week, and James C.Y. Watt, the patrician head of Asian art, braced for a confrontation.

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Uneasy Engagement

A Search for China’s Past

This is the seventh in a series of articles examining stresses and strains of China’s emergence as a global power.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

A Chinese team that toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art is seeking items that China lost.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

James C. Y. Watt, head of the Asian art department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talking with the Chinese delegation.

For the past two weeks, the delegation of Chinese cultural experts has swept through American institutions, seeking to reclaim items once ensconced at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, which was one of the world’s most richly appointed imperial residences until British and French troops plundered it in 1860.

With a crew from China’s national broadcaster filming the visit, the Chinese fired off questions about the provenance of objects on display, and when it came to a collection of jade pieces, they requested documentation to show that the pieces had been acquired legally.

But then, with no eureka discovery, the tension faded. The Chinese pronounced themselves satisfied, smiled for a group photo, and drove away.

“That wasn’t so bad after all,” Mr. Watt said.

Emboldened by newfound wealth, China has been on a noisy campaign to reclaim relics that disappeared during its so-called century of humiliation, the period between 1842 and 1945 when foreign powers subjugated China through military incursions and onerous treaties.

But the quest, fueled by national pride, has been quixotic, provoking fear at institutions overseas but in the end amounting to little more than a public relations show aimed at audiences back home.

At its core, such mixed signals are an outgrowth of China’s evolving self-identity. Is it a developing country with fresh memories of its victimization by imperial powers? Or is it the world’s biggest exporter, eager to ensure good relations with the outside world to protect its trade-dependent economy?

“China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids,” said Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese studies at Duke University. “It has suddenly become big, but it finds it hard to coordinate and control its body. To the West, it can look like a monster.”

Recounted in Chinese textbooks and in countless television dramas, the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan as it is called in Chinese, remains a crucial event epitomizing China’s fall from greatness. Begun in the early 18th century and expanded over the course of 150 years, the palace was a wonderland of artificial hills and lakes, and so many ornate wooden structures that it took 3,000 troops three days to burn them down.

“The wound is still open and hurts every time you probe it,” said Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer and a driving force in the movement to regain stolen antiquities. “It reminds people what may come when we are too weak.”

Stoked by populist sentiment but carefully managed by the Communist Party, the drive to reclaim lost cultural property has so far been halting. While officials privately acknowledge there is scant legal basis for repatriation, their public statements suggest that they would use lawsuits, diplomatic pressure and shame to bring home looted objects — not unlike Italy, Greece and Egypt, which have sought, with some success, to recover antiquities in European and American museums.

“The ideal scenario would be for the holders of these relics to donate them back to China,” said Chen Mingjie, the director of the palace museum, whose grounds include a shabby exhibition hall and an evocative pile of stone ruins that are instantly recognizable to any Chinese elementary school student.

The Communist Party has long used the narrative of foreign subjugation as a binding force, one that has become especially useful in recent years as the credo of market economics overruns the last remnants of its Marxist ideology.

But arousing nationalist sentiment, Chinese officials have learned, is a double-edged sword. In 2005, officials allowed public ire against Japan, over territorial disputes and textbooks that glossed over Japanese wartime atrocities, to boil over into violent street protests. After some of the anti-Japanese slogans began morphing into demands for action by Chinese leaders, the authorities clamped down.

The delegation traveling to United States museums appears to have been caught up in a political maelstrom. The relics quest intensified this year after Christie’s in Paris auctioned a pair of bronze animal heads that had been part of a fountain on the palace grounds; the sale was met with outrage in China. In the end, a Chinese collector sabotaged the auction by calling in the highest bids — $18 million for each head — then refusing to pay.

The United States scouting tour — visits to England, France and Japan will come early next year — quickly turned into a spectacle sponsored by a Chinese liquor company. As for the eight-member delegation, a closer look revealed that most either were employed by the Chinese media or were from the palace museum’s propaganda department.

“These days even building a toilet at Yuanmingyuan would be front-page news in People’s Daily,” said Liu Yang, a researcher who joined the trip.

But the 20-day spin through a dozen institutions has not been especially fruitful. Wu Jiabi, an archaeologist and the leader of the delegation, said that meaningful contacts were made but acknowledged that the group had not discovered illicit relics.

The visit has had its share of mishaps. Not all the museums on the itinerary were prepared for the delegation. One stop, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., was scrapped after the group realized the museum was in the Midwest, not in the Northeast.

The art experts whom the group met along the way offered consistent advice: the lion’s share of palace relics are in private hands, including those of collectors in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. “The best thing would be to look through the catalogs of Sotheby’s and Christie’s,” said Mr. Watt of the Metropolitan Museum.

Although the Chinese public broadly supports recovering such items, a few critics have suggested that the campaign merely distracts from the continued destruction of historic buildings and archaeological sites across the country. A government survey released this month found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been plowed under for development.

What’s more, said Wu Zuolai, a professor at the China Academy of Art, the obsession with Yuanmingyuan ignores the plunder of older sites that are more artistically significant.

“Chinese history did not start with the Qing Dynasty,” he said. “This treasure hunting trip is just a political show. The media portray it as patriotic, but it’s just spreading hate.”

Like many of the curators the delegation met last week, Keith Wilson, who oversees the Chinese art collection at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, both part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said that he was unsure what delegation members were really after. “They took a million miles of video, but in the end, I really felt they were not controlling their own destiny,” he said.

Mr. Liu, the researcher who was part of the delegation, seemed to admit as much, complaining that politics had upstaged scholarship. Even if he stumbled upon a palace relic, he said, he would be reluctant to take it back to an institution whose unheated exhibition space resembled little more than a military barracks. “To be honest, if you leave a thermos in our office, it gets broken,” he said.

“Maybe it’s better these things stay where they are.”

Li Bibo contributed research from Beijing.


New research on young Chinese shows they are modernizing but they are not Westernizing

Visit a Chinese city today and you would assume that China is Westernizing. Young people sit in Starbucks (SBUX) drinking lattes, texting friends, and playing online games. However, don’t be fooled. In China, 240 million young people are certainly modernizing, but they’re also holding tight to Chinese values like responsibility for the extended family, adherence to the middle way or harmony, and care of relationships. Despite surface appearances, China’s Generation Y is not becoming Western.

Generation Y (Gen Y) most commonly refers to the demographic cohort born in the 1980s to mid-’90s. Gen Yers are generally assumed to be reliant on new media and digital technology, have short attention spans, and demand entertaining and fast-paced information. Chinese refer to the post-1980 generation as clearly distinct from the post-’90 group. Accordingly we have focused on those born in the 1980s but use the global term “Gen Y.”

Understanding Gen Yers is important because they make up almost 50% of China’s workforce. As they have moved from school into jobs, organizations have noticed that this generation makes different demands and needs to be motivated in new ways. So we began to research what Gen Y values and what they expect from their careers and their lives. Our work is based on interviews and surveys of Gen Y Chinese and Westerners who have lived, studied, and/or worked abroad. These are urban youth, well-educated and with work experience. Altogether we have almost 200 data points.

A Global Culture?

While it might seem that we are experiencing global cultural convergence, let’s take a deeper look. Young people everywhere use the same technology and wear similar clothes. But some similarities are superficial. Look beneath the surface image of Asians playing the same games as Westerners, and you will still see recognizably different cultural patterns. Chinese are among the highest users of online games, for instance, but even when they play through avatars and artificial names, experts can easily identify them as Chinese by their behavior online.

Our evidence suggests these international cultural artifacts, such as video games and skinny decaf lattes, are the currency of modern culture. Like the pidgin languages developed by early traders to make communication possible across regions, the artifacts have common usage but do not deeply change either side. In the urban Chinese Generation Y, we see this clearly. While their behavior is modern, their values and patterns remain deeply Chinese.

So what are traditional Chinese values? Ancient Chinese philosophers, writers over centuries, and modern cultural experts agree on the core themes. This has been confirmed by our work over the last 15 years with groups of Chinese managers, asking them to define “Chinese-ness.” According to all these sources, traditional Chinese values focus on family, relationships, achievement, endurance, and sacrifice of one’s self for the group. They also include the ideal of the golden mean or harmony, and hierarchy as the basis for social structure and interaction.

Gen-Y Chinese have high expectations for their careers and expect to work diligently to achieve these. However, despite their popular image as the “Me Generation,” we find that they hold up traditional family values. Asked “what is really important to you,” 45% said “family,” with “friends” following at 17% and “career” at 12%. Gen Y feels keenly responsible both for their nuclear family and their grandparents, even for aunts and uncles. They feel responsible despite the fact that there is little personal communication; most say they cannot ask about details of family history or discuss personal subjects with their elders.

We also asked young Chinese to choose one wish that would make their life happier. Surprisingly, 82% chose to do something for their parents, most commonly to provide them an easy life.


The massively discussed “Green Dam – Youth Escort” Censorship Software is the hottest topic on Chinese Internet during this week.

Spoofing is a very classical Chinese Internet culture. Netizen absolutely won’t let the disgusting Green Dam off. Thus, the “Green Dam Bitch” has been created by netizens.















The “alpaca” in the pictures refers to the “Grass Mud Horse“, a very popular dirty pun on China Internet.

The “crab” logo in the pictures refers to “harmonize”, a term directly derived from President Hu Jintao’s regular exhortations for Chinese citizens to create a harmonious society. In spoken Chinese, “river crab” sounds very much like “harmony”, which in China’s cyberspace has become a synonym for censorship.

via http://www.chinasmack.com/more/green-dam-girl-chinese-netizens-art-ridicule/

Green Dam Girl was the Chinese netizens’ Moe anthropomorphic response to the release of the Chinese government-developed content control software Green Dam Youth Escort (绿坝·花季护航; Lǜbà·Huājì Hùháng). Under a directive from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) that took effect on July 1, 2009, all computers in mainland China were required to have the software pre-installed.

The Software

The Green Dam Youth Escort software is designed to mainly filter pornography, however it has been found to filter political terms as well. After spending 41.7 million yuan ($6.1 million) on the project, the MIIT announced on May 19 that manufacturers are required to ship computers with the software “in order to build a green, healthy, and harmonious online environment, and to avoid the effects on and the poisoning of our youth’s minds by harmful information on the internet”.


The software itself has many defects. To filter pornographic images, it analyzes skin-colored regions of the picture. However the software could not filter red or dark skinned nude pictures, but was able to censor pictures of Garfield. It also introduced a security hole that internet hackers can easily exploit to steal personal information. The program itself can also be easily hacked; the master password of the MD5 checksum is in a simple text file with a .dll extension slapped on the end.

Public Response

The public responded negatively. Over 70% of users in online polls voted they have absolutely no interest in using Green Dam Youth Escort, and many said they think it will not stop minors from browsing inappropriate websites.

Green Dam Girl (绿坝娘)

One of the responses by Chinese internet users was to satirically create an Moe anthropomorphic version of the Green Dam Youth Escort software. While there are several derivatives to the character’s design, they all contain common elements: She is usually dressed in green, wearing a river crab hat and an armband with the words “discipline” on it, and carrying a rabbit (Green Dam mascot, a paint can and paintbrush to paint over explicit content.

The Green Dam Girl was very popular among Chinese netizens, later evolving into more fan art and a song. Some depict her with the OS-tans, usually sexually harrassing them.


Wishing the best for Yushu in Qinghai, Netease BBS Discussion Forum netizens share “Qinghai jia you!” signatures。



And by deconstructing culture, we are able to gain access to a peoples’ values. Hence, when culture changes, values change. The shifting of cultures ( and everything beneath it, like art, music, writing) over time could be understood as a shifting of values.

The following content is translated from an article in New Weekly, a Guangdong based magazine.

Chinese are always in a hurry. They love pressing “forward”, crazy clicking “reload”. To comment, they rush for the “couch” seat; to send package, they go with express delivery; taking a photo, they want it to be ready while waiting; to travel, highway and high-speed railway or high-speed magnetic levitation will be perfect; starting a business, they want to get rich overnight; getting married, there should be house and car first; when lining up, jumping the queue sounds necessary, otherwise they wonder to themselves: why is the other team always faster than mine?

Chinese who used to have no sense of time, have become the most hurried and impatient ethnic in the world – ten thousand years is too long, let’s fight for day and night.

Chinese hate waiting, but there are desires unsatisfied so they have to wait, they are restless with a quiet conscience.

But what has all the rushing brought to us? We are actually having more disasters and accidents, lower efficiency and worse results. We are wearing ourselves out more quickly in this hurried country. When we do come to realize the philosophy of fast and slow, lose and tight, give and get, success and failure, maybe everything’s too late already.

Who press the “forward” button for Chinese?

People get all fretful because the society is unease. No matter you are lining up or jumping the queue, it is all for fear of being left behind by the society.

We like to cut in line, pretending the one-meter yellow line inexistent; we spring cabs; we drive through yellow light at full throttle; we climb the railings in the middle of road to save 5 minutes; we make a scene at airport check-in; we yell at the customer service center on the phone “fix it, NOW!!”; we rush through the scenic spots, hurry taking photos, hurry leaving for the next stop; we go in backdoor, we bribe.

We are always in a hurry, but we are also the most patient group on the earth. We used to line up in stock exchange, waiting patiently for ratification; now we line up to buy house with the whole family taking turn to queue 3 days before the opening; we like things on sales, no matter how long the line is; the more crowded the restaurant is, the more we like it even if it means sitting on the front for 2 hours cracking sunflower seeds; now we are willing to stand for 9 hours in line for the 3-D show at Shanghai Expo.

This is Chinese, whose traditional mindset interweaves with modern circumstances, restless and justified.

As American missionary Arthur H. Smith put it in his book “Chinese Characteristics“, where he spared a whole chapter to talk about Chinese’s disregard of time:

“To the Chinese the chronic impatience of the Anglo-Saxon is not only unaccountable, but quite unreasonable. It has been wisely suggested that they consider this trait in our character as objectionable as we do their lack of sincerity. In any case, appreciation of the importance of celerity and promptness is difficult to cultivate in a Chinese.”

Smith concluded his observation of Chinese disregard for time like this:

“Chinese histories are antediluvian, not merely in their attempts to go back to the ragged edge of zero for a point of departure, but in the interminable length of the sluggish and turbid current which bears on its bosom not only the mighty vegetation of past ages, but wood, hay, and stubble past all reckoning. None but a relatively timeless race could either compose or read such histories.”

The most interesting thing is that Smith considered Chinese’s disregard of time was manifested in their industry, they kept working and working but in fact wasting time constantly with no worry of idle work or redoing.

Smith had a point there of course. But decades later, the impetuous energy that Smith thought Anglo-Saxon borne have come into Chinese too. Ever since the May Fourth Movement, the more the enlighteners resent the chaotic situation, the more people anticipate it to change faster and faster. To accomplish what takes the western world a century to achieve in a short time, we are inevitably rushing too fast, and often in a fierce and harsh manner.

When we finally make it through the reform and opening-up period, “grabbing the detained time back” (due to cultural revolution) becomes the ethnic echo. Down to nowadays, resource scarcity gives rise to competition, unequal distribution brings about strife, speed comes with dysphoria and convenience promote it, the overall mindset of this age is no more waiting.

When do we lose the ability to slow down?

Chinese’s value of time has been accelerated 3 times since our contemporary age, we can hardly stop. What we need is keeping track with the clock, planning out our life: get there at one time, gain fame and wealth, marry to rich, get rich overnight and retire at the age of 35……

Technology makes us impatient

Wired magazine once made a list about the 33 things that make us crazy, and air travel came in the first place, followed latter by credit cards, customer service, medical records, office copiers, printer cartridges, roads, teleconferencing etc.

Wait, aren’t all these stuffs mean to make life easier for us? Don’t they reduce repeat labor and simplify things up? How come they make us more impatient?

We invent a lot of things trying to reduce the fret, but actually we are inventing new frets.

The guy who develop phone connecting music must be deaf. He worries that people may get mad after listening to 10 minutes of “doo doo doo” sounds during connection, so he replace the “doo doo doo” series with sprinkler music. The thing is nobody will hold on for 10 minutes of “doo”, we hang up; but people who patiently listen to the sprinkler music to the end still get no answer, and the sprinkler music jingle up all over again, that is what really driving people crazy.

And whoever invented service smile and PR language must be prosopoplegic and stutter. He thinks customer service personnel’s smile and well-knitted answers will help ease customer’s anger. But the truth is when you really need something to be fix quickly, you hope to see that the personnel are as concerned as you instead of showing you 8 teeth in perfectly tender way and saying “we will follow it up”.

Follow up? Who on earth invented this?

Impatience is the social psychology

The more modernized our life is, the more we have fretful emotions. Before the generalization of telephone, no one mind if it takes months to get a letter. Nowadays we call those who won’t reply a message lacking in mobile ethic. In the time when we dial through phone line to get to the Internet, nobody fret over the 56 K/s speed because we are content with what we have. But now with broad band connections that measure in megabytes/s, the first thing we do when the pages open a little bit slower is clicking reload from time to time, sometimes we just want to smash the computer for not loading faster.

This is the anxiety strengthened by the advanced era if faster is possible, why slow down. Where there is comparison there is anxiety.

There are a lot other things that can trigger our anxiety, most significant of which is inequality. You can skip the 33 liner before the bank counter as long as you are VIP, which give you the privilege to walk up to the counter directly. Isn’t there any chance for non-VIP to get comfortable basic service too? Yes, our basic service is letting you sit for 2 hours on the cold iron bench

You can save the time and energy of waiting half day just to get hospital registration as long as you know any stuff in there, up to director of the hospital down to daily executives who can lead you direct into professor’s clinic. Couldn’t everyone get the same kind of convenience? Yes, but there are only couples of hospitals around, pick whichever one less crowded.

You can forget waiting all night for train ticket during spring rush if you book a air ticket already. Isn’t there any other way where underdogs can also afford to go home without going through all those troubles? Of course there is, you can buy from scalpers at the train station plaza paying more that takes up your salary of the month.

You can choose not to line up buying house, you have no place to stay anyway when you sell it at good time. You can spare yourself the trouble of getting married, you don’t have a house anyway.

People are anxious because of unstable society structure. You have to worry all the time for fear of missing any opportunity that can get yourself dumped by the society; when you be good to line up, there surely someone else to cut in before you. That is why we get fidget, ignoring the rules – there is no rules anyway, only the bird in hand is yours, line up and waiting can only give you vision.

We are like shoppers in front of the supermarket cashier, lingering between several lines with our shopping carts, meeting the dilemma of line up or not. We restlessly jump the queue, cut others in, there is no way to wait for one more minute.

Plus, we always know the other line is faster than the one we are in.


Following is the transcript of a speech given in May 2010 at Xiamen University in China. Adapted from a translation by Annie Lee.

Hello everyone. This is my second time in Xiamen, the air is so clean here, no wonder everybody likes to go for walks. (translator’s note: a reference to a large street protest which took place in Xiamen in 2007, and attracted national media attention.)

Just now, when Mr. Deng mentioned patriotism, two quotes came to mind, not from me though, from others. The first one is “patriotism is the last sanctuary for scumbags”, and the second one is “real patriotism is to protect the country from any kind of government persecution”.

Today I’ve prepared for the speech, I brought a script, to restrain myself in case you guys get persecuted because of my irresponsible remarks.

Here we go.

Leaders, teachers, and students: greetings! Do you know why China is not a cultural power? Because in most of our speeches, “leaders” always come first, and our leaders have no culture. Moreover, they are scared of culture, but their job is to censor it, so they can control culture. How can a country become a cultural power like that? What do you say, leaders?

Actually China has the potential to become a big cultural force. Let me tell you a story. I serve as editor in chief for a magazine that couldn’t get its publishing license until now. The constitution bestows us with press freedom, on the other hand our laws bestow our leaders with the freedom of preventing you from exercising press freedom. Some of the magazine’s content didn’t pass censorship — e.g. because there was a cartoon of a man in it with no clothes on — obviously not acceptable, because relevant laws and regulations specify that we cannot put private parts on public magazines. I understand this, so I covered the illegitimate part with a big logo of the magazine. Then the publisher and the people from the censoring department turn around and say: no can’t do, you can’t obscure the Party’s Central Committee. (translator’s note: 党中央 Party’s Central Committee and 挡中央 obscuring the center, are homophones) My reaction was just like you guys: dumbfounded. I thought to myself: “Gee, it would be so much better if you’d invest such brilliant imagination into literary and artistic creation instead of censorship.”

This story tells us that people are full of imagination. Of course lots of things can only exist in our minds, we cannot carry them out, we cannot write about them, most of the time we can’t even talk about them. Too much restraint is required from us. Just as there are rated movies, there are also rated countries. We live in a rated country. How can a rated country foster an abundant culture? I exercise relatively little self-restraint, however when I write I still cannot help but remember to avoid writing about this policeman, that leader, this policy, that regulation, and this piece of legislation. Skipping many stories about Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations; not touching on fads, pornography, boycotts, arts. But elegance is what I am incapable of. I am really at a disadvantage in that area, I am not Yu Qiuyu.

On the Internet on the other hand I enjoy somewhat more freedom, relatively speaking. Many playwrights I know, like Ning Caishen, they suffer a lot. So I keep wondering how a country with such a cultural environment can ever manage to become a cultural force. Maybe if only China, North Korea and Afghanistan are left on Earth. North Korea is a cultural no-fly zone, no question about that. Afghanistan cannot spare to manage culture as long as they have plenty of other worries. Even so, there is a writer who published a book called “The Kite Runner“, but regretfully that book isn’t published in Afghanistan either. I think it is not impossible for Afghanistan to exceed China once they clean up their domestic mess.

We can’t forever keep talking about the Four Classics or Confucius’ Analects during exchanges with people from other nations. It’s like when your date asks you about your financial situation, and you say your ancestors several generations ago were really rich. Pretty useless.

The making of this tragedy has nothing to do with you guys. The road to North Korea is built by everybody’s silence. But on the one hand we are much stronger than North Korea, because we all know what it looks like. On the other hand, I believe most of you guys are not silent, you are just harmonized, that’s all. In the history of China’s campaigns against pornography, I think most of you know – you are college students after all, though these contents have disappeared from today’s textbooks — that Teresa Teng and Liu Wen Cheng were considered pornographic, low and obscene. But as the number of people who listened to their music increased, suddenly when the whole country started listening to them, they were no longer considered low nor obscene.

Only when we fight against cultural censorship, when we liberate phrases and words from the “sensitive words database“, with the exception of inhumane words, only then will China stand a chance to become a cultural power. Even if your and my name go into that database for a while, I believe there is a ceiling to the number of words the database can contain. Every time a new one goes in, it pushes the whole thing closer to its ceiling until one day, it comes crashing down.

So I hope our press people, our students and teachers, everyone who loves and engages in culture, including every webmaster, can make an effort to decrease the amount of censorship and bring down the number of blocked words and blocked websites. I also hope that our leaders and our government can be confident enough to set culture free. I know that our leaders like to export our culture, as this is the hallmark of a powerful country.

Unfortunately, the amount of available culture is too humble to go abroad. When our writers write, they are constantly self-censoring. How can any presentable works come to life when they are born under such environment? You castrate all of the works like news reports and present them to foreign audiences, hoping it would sell. Are foreigners aliens then?

Whether China is a strong economic player I don’t know, no conclusion can be drawn until our real estate market comes back down to Earth; but when a country grows big culturally, then it is a powerful country indeed, and I see no risk of it ever crashing for a country like this.

Now let me come back to the blocked words database. The more entries it has, the weaker the country’s culture becomes. But our government can justify itself; they tell you it is to protect our teenagers, to maintain social stability. Culture is boundless, so they have the right to block any information and culture that harms our teens and threatens social stability. If you consent to this, then sooner or later when you complain about your own mistreatment, you will find yourself blocked, and charged with threatening social stability yourself. In the end, whoever poses threats to the ruling class or their interests will be condemned with the charges of harming teenagers and threatening social stability.

If we become supporters of the Green Dam Project, we will find culture is not the only thing dying. So guys, we can’t let this day come, otherwise we will all become jokes in the e-history books our grand children download by satellite.

Thank you all.

via http://www.hanhandigest.com/?p=84

Posted by Joel Martinsen, November 21, 2006 6:00 PM

A Japanese production team was granted authorization by SARFT to film in Ningxia, Hunan, Gansu, Anhui, Guangxi, and Inner Mongolia for a new big-screen adaptation of Journey to the West. Like Japanese adaptations of the past, the role of Xuanzang, the monk who is escorted through 81 trials to obtain scriptures from the western heaven, will be played by a woman. There are even rumors of a romantic subplot between the monk and Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.

Not everyone is pleased by this, though reaction has been muted by the fact that (a) the adaptation is nowhere near as insulting as a recent Japanese game that took the cast of A Dream of the Red Mansions and turned them into sex slaves; (b) the movie hasn’t actually come out yet, and when it does, it probably won’t be shown in the mainland, anyway; and (c) people find it hard to get excited over Xuanzang, not the most charismatic character in the novel, as demonstrated by last year’s disappointing A Chinese Tall Story, which focused on Nicholas Tse’s monk.

However, two people involved with the classic 1980s TV version of Journey to the West have made vocal objections. Zhang Jinlai*, the actor who played the monkey in that series, has been speaking out for quite some time against the indiscriminate adaptation of China’s great novels. Here’s what he said to The Beijing News last week:

I have been giving lectures at universities, with the topic being a call to enact national law protecting traditional Chinese culture. Journey to the West is undoubtedly the soul of China’s traditional culture; the attention toward Journey to the West on the part of foreign countries is a good thing, however you want to call it, but we must also prevent malicious spoofing of our traditional culture under the banner of “fashion” or “subversion”. Actions such as these will hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. Some people say that today’s Chinese youth and college students enjoy that sort of “comic” stuff; giving speeches at all those universities, I have found that this is an entirely mistaken claim. Our most traditional things remain what our college students.

Actually, I have reflected on this myself - why do we always say that we have a responsibility to protect traditional culture, but we never shoot anything? Next year I will shoot the movie Handsome Monkey King, still playing the role of Sun Wukong. Currently there is a Japanese film version shooting that has plans for a romance between a female Xuanzang and Sun Wukong. China’s Hansome Monkey King is unique in the world - not just anyone can put on monkey fur and play his character.

Today, when this sort of international film company shoots this kind of material inside our country’s borders, how are our administrative departments monitoring and controlling things? The US has a legal framework concerning famous works; if you wish to film their famous works, they will first look over the script, and you cannot violate the spirit of the original. If, as some adaptations of Journey to the West have done, you exaggerate Sun Wukong’s devotion to love so that it far exceeds his conviction to obtain the scriptures from the west, then what is shot on film is not Journey to the West. American parents even tell their children that the story of Journey to the West is a vacation to the west taken by two monks and their pig and monkey; American children will believe that the Chinese were the first to have pets. You can film King Kong or Tarzan of the Apes - those are good and moving - but you can’t spoof such a character as Sun Wukong, whose Chinese heroic character is so deep.

The scriptwriter and director of the 1980s version, Yang Jie, had this to say:

I have watched the previous television adaptation of Journey to the West from Japan, and in fact it was very far off the mark. This time, they’re filming a movie, and it will definitely have its own perspective. Expecting fidelity to the source is not likely; we can’t do anything about it.

Actually, the key point here is ourselves - why, for so many years, have Chinese people not treated their own famous works earnestly and seriously? Back when we shot Journey to the West, conditions were far more difficult than they are today, not to mention special effects, but we put effort into the script and story, so it should be said that the outcome was not too bad. Today, the country does not do much to protect its famous works: society is fickle, everyone has been dazed by their faith in money, and too many people try to entertain with junk. I truly fear that the next generation will completely misunderstand the true meaning of Journey to the West. Those who have the will to shoot Journey to the West have not the funds, and those who have the funds are unwilling to treat it seriously, leaving such a great story to go to waste!”

In past interviews with the media, Zhang has brought up French law as an example of what he’d like to see in China. He’s mentioned Les Miserables as a book that requires permission to adapt, probably referring to a suit brought by Victor Hugo’s heirs against the author of a sequel to the novel. In 2004, a French court of appeals decided that Hugo would not have authorized a sequel to his finished work and fined the author 1 euro, reversing a lower court decision.

Zhang’s on less firm ground when he brings the US into the picture, since American copyright law does not have much to say about the moral right of the author. In addition, Journey to the West draws its material from earlier sources as well as folk traditions, meaning that Zhang’s imagined law would be much broader in scope than even French moral rights. A Dream of Red Mansions could conceivably be protected from more extreme forms of adaptation by appealing to Cao Xueqin’s right not to have his reputation impugned; would it be possible to pass a law saying that it is illegal to write a work that adapts traditional Chinese culture in a way that causes harm to China’s reputation?

And if so, would such a law result in the banning of works of traditional Chinese culture that insult other works of traditional Chinese culture? Xu Lai, entertainment critic for The Beijing News, takes a look at how adaptation has been done throughout Chinese history:

Retelling need not be “not serious”

by Xu Lai / XJB#

SARFT authorized the Japanese film version of Journey to the West to shoot inside Chinese territory; the crew has already arrived in Ningxia. Reports swiftly attracted widespread attention on the Internet, and a significant proportion of netizens disagreed. In interviews with the media, the creators of the 1987 TV version* of Journey to the West, Yang Jie and Zhang Jinlai, said that it was obvious that the Japanese Journey to the West was maliciously spoofing an ancient classic; Yang Jie said that “currently, those with the finances are unwilling to give this topic serious treatment.”

Actually, pulling out plot elements from Journey to the West for adaptation, or even changing the gender of characters in the original novel during the course of adaptation, is nothing too shocking. An example of the former is China’s first paper-cut cartoon, Zhu Bajie eating watermelon; its plot was not directly connected to Journey to the West, but rather was taken from a folk tale. An example of the latter is Supplement to Journey to the West, written by the late Ming/early Qing novelist Dong Shuo. In this book, the author has the heroic Sun Wukong fall into the “Hall of 10,000 Mirrors,” transform into a woman, and consort with the King of Chu. If this sort of stuff was made known to some online extremists, no doubt it would be called an act of malicious spoofing, and would be used as an example to demonstrate that Chinese people do not treasure their traditional culture.

The greater online population does not fully understand cultural history and the principles of artistic creation, so pointing to adaptations as malicious spoofing is still pardonable. But you’d think that the creators of the 1982 TV version of Journey to the West would be very familiar with the cultural history of Journey to the West; who would have thought that they’d say things like this - it truly has me flabbergasted.

As an important product of popular culture, production of television dramas has its own unique methods and rules. Adaptation of the script comes in just two ways: one strictly follows the plot of the original, proceeding through close adherence; the other picks out representative characters and plot elements, which are then adapted according to the demands of the creators. The goal of the former is to accurately reflect the classic story contained in the classic work, while the goal of the latter is to provide enough space for new creativity to take flight.

The process of retelling is, to a large degree, a process of subverting classic characters and classic scenes. It is because classic works are so familiar that they invite reasonable exaggeration of classic character traits, extensions in opposite directions, to further expand the structure of the work. More importantly, this type of modification gives the adapted work a sense of novelty in the eyes of the audience, leading to better results. This technique appears in movies and television, and it is not rare in the literary realm, either. Romance of the Three Kingdoms “tries to show off Liu Bei’s generosity to the point that it seems fake and plays up Zhu Geliang’s wisdom so much that he seems like a demon”* But this is within the framework of literary creation, the result of the retelling of that classic of history, Records of the Three Kingdoms. Shortly after that, Lu Xun in his own stories extended the images of Nuwa, Chang’e, Laozi, and Zhuangzi. These works are all adaptations, and some of them are not short of heterodoxy; written intentionally to shock, they have entered the literary canon a hundred years later, and may even have surpassed their “originals.” It is obvious that this type of retelling cannot be dispatched simply by labeling it “malicious spoofing.”

As for “unwilling to treat seriously,” this is an even stranger matter. According to standard creative principles, adaptations largely increase the dramatic conflict of the original and augment the consequences of the drama; this type of activity is clearly more difficult than simply reading from the text. And if you say that people who engage in this sort of activity are not serious, you probably will have a hard time convincing anyone. Besides, even the 1982 version of Journey to the West intentionally played up everything from “comic Chang’e” and the “spiderweb cave” to the “bottomless pit” and the “Kingdom of Women.” At the time, if I recall correctly, these scenes stirred up a debate over whether they were “serious,” did they not?

Then there’s this:

Where did Sun Wukong come from?

by Meng Xiaoshe (ferocious little snake)#

The always-peculiar Master Ke Yunlu* has once again taken flight, saying things like Sun Wukong’s father was Buddha, and his mother was the Bodhisattva Guanyin. And there’s someone who has proven that Sun Wukong was originally from Gansu - truly, in these cool autumn days, as snakes and insects take to their nests to sleep and create the next generation, the monsters and demons come out to write blogs.

So where did Sun Wukong come from? To use a really crude expression, he popped out of a crack in the rock. When I was young, one of my neighbors was the 90-something Old Grandma Jin, whose blind eyes did not prevent her from becoming a famous master storyteller in those parts. Our school even invited her to tell her stories to the entire student body. At that time, the school often had people come to give all kinds of presentations - things like the heroic warriors from Mount Faka, or excellent teachers - the most absurd was a professional speaker from out of town whose topic was “Climbers in Chains,” but none of these people had as much of an effect on the assembly as did Grandma Jin.

According to Grandma Jin, in those days, Guanyin traveled about on her propitious cloud - that is, “cloud-sailing.” When she arrived at the eastern seashore to look at the ocean, she carelessly fell asleep on a rock, and flew off once she awoke. The bodhisattva took a female form at the time - or more correctly, in order to investigate the conditions of the local monkeys, she took on the form of a female monkey. Bodhisattvas have substantial magical abilities, and can transform into thousands of things - transforming into a female monkey, or even a female louse, is nothing special. So as the bodhisattva was sleeping away, her “auntie” made a visit, and the blood ran onto the surface of the rock. She probably did not notice, since otherwise she probably would have wiped it clean before flying off.

With the bodhisattva’s blood, the rock was no longer a common rock, but rather a magical stone.

Everyone knows the rest of the story - the magical stone took in the essence of heaven and earth, absorbed the radiance of the sun and moon, and eventually that stone tossed out a monkey.

The story of Journey to the West is actually quite simple; it reflects reports of official actions, or more specifically, the bitter history of the struggles of an official working in the ministry of foreign affairs. I own a dozen or so versions of Journey to the West, and I make annotations as I read them. My greatest stroke came when I realized that Journey to the West is a natural script for a role-playing game. If you’ve never played an RPG before, then perhaps you’ve read Lord of the Rings; Rings-like bands typically have the following characters: wizard, knight, warrior (strongman, barbarian), archer, mascot. Take another look at the five characters in Xuanzang’s band of disciples: the pale, fat Xuanzang is just like the wizard-leader; however, he is an official master with substantial backing - the Tang emperor’s sworn brother - and though he has no magical ability, he is imperially-authorized spiritual leader, similar to a chairman of the board or party secretary; the knight is the administrative leader, like a CEO, and this role is Sun Wukong’s; the warrior’s role naturally falls to the scruffy Sha Monk; the white dragon horse, at times the third son of the dragon king, at times a horse, could be the mascot that runs with the squad, but he also has fighting ability. So what role is lacking in this Journey to the West squad led by Xuanzang? Naturally, that of the incomparably handsome elf prince in Lord of the Rings, the archer. The squad’s last remaining slot - that of the archer - falls to Zhu Bajie. But as everyone knows, Zhu Bajie uses a nine-toothed rake, so how is it that he can become an archer?

“God helps those who help themselves” - I found in Journey to the West the following description of when Zhu Bajie first comes on the scene:

Knotted and rolled his guts hung from his mouth,
His ears like fronded fans, his eyes flashed gold.
Ferocious teeth as sharp as steel files,
His open mouth as hot as brazier fire.
His golden helm hugged tightly to his cheeks,
A silken cord bound python-scale mail.
His hands held out a rake like dragon claws,
A half-moon bow circled about his waist.
Massing his might, he threatened Jupiter,
His towering will put challenge to the gods.

Do you see it? “His hands held out a rake like dragon claws, a half-moon bow circled about his waist.” Zhu Bajie had a bow at his waist - he is the only bow-carrier among those in the band. Naturally, he is much uglier than the elf prince, but why is it that the elf prince’s ears are so large and pointy? It’s like an imitation of Zhu Bajie’s big ears. From this we can see that source of the rules of AD&D in the west probably can be found in an eastern source. The great Tolkien perhaps found his inspiration in Journey to the West.

Note 1: When Zhang Jinlai is mentioned in the Chinese press, he is invariably called 六小龄童; his real name is rarely used at all. Since the stage name is awkward to translate, English-language reports typically use Zhang Jinlai instead. See his Wikipedia entry for more details.
Note 2: Shooting and airing of the pilot began in 1982, but it was only in 1987 that the series was aired in its entirety.
Note 3: 欲显刘备之长厚而似伪,状诸葛之多智而近妖. This assessment is from Lu Xun’s critique of Romance of the Three Kingdoms in A Concise History of Chinese Fiction.
Note 4: The article by Ke Yunlu that Meng Xiaoshe refers to is here - a lengthy explication of the story of Sun Wukong as an allegory of human growth and maturation. The relationship between Monkey, Buddha, and Guanyin in the book is seen as representative of the typical relationship between a child and his parents. Monkey learns about life, throws tantrums, and receives both indulgence and punishment from his ‘parents’.

Links and Sources

Chatted with a friend today about ‘helping’ kids in a village. It began casually, about how it will be nice to help a kid in rural China, or perhaps bring a kid over to the city for a week. But then suddenly it dawned on my friend, who is a local Chinese, that it might also be harming the kid to do so. Is it good to show them something they might never have? Or even if that wasn’t true, was it good to inject them with ideas beyond their world, to change their behaviour and desires? This goes back to a discussion I had with myself a long time ago, not unlike the  colonial Europeans who came to ’save’ the ’savages’ in Asia or Africa.

Our conversation then led to what it really means to ‘help’ these kids, and what it really means to ‘modernize’ someone, or a village. I brought up the thought that when you ‘modernize’ something, at the same time, you are also destroying existing culture, and this is how a lot of tribal culture is being made non-existent. My friend tried to rationalize this aspect by saying perhaps as beautiful as certain cultures are, it is inevitable that they do not survive if they cannot keep up with the times, or not tolerate cultures from the outside world. He started thinking if there is a point in preserving cultures that aren’t strong enough to survive the outside world. I mentioned that, well, we have zoos, which preserve and protect animals that may very well be extinct in our world today. I’m not sure if there is a point, as, the longer you keep them in the zoo, the longer they won’t survive outside in the ‘real’ world. But then i also mentioned that museums are also like cultural zoos in which they preserve culture that has otherwise been overwhelmed by globalization, and he quite liked the idea.

All this brought me to the thought of how the industrial revolution and technology has changed the world so much today to endanger cultures everywhere in the world. How are cultures endangered? When boundaries are erased and cultures exposed to each other, it brings them into a conflict and threatens their existence. A simple example of an influx of immigrants to a certain country makes the locals feel threatened very easily, overwhelmed by the foreign language and culture. In the old world, we had all sorts of boundaries: political, social, geographical, technological, linguistic, etc. But in the new world, everything is getting homogenized, and everything brought closer to each other, everything more accessible. At initial thought, that sounds great and all, unifying the whole world into one species. But then if you go deeper into it, you are essentially smearing all the colours on the palette to create grey. Without boundaries, many things will not survive. Deers could survive because they could hide or live in areas that were perhaps inaccessible to lions. But if the only boundary that kept them alive was taken away, they’d be extinct immediately. Being intolerable to the outside world doesn’t signify that a culture or a species shouldn’t exist, contrary to what my friend thought. It’s really the changing world that is erasing these boundaries that used to protect different species and cultures. Or should I say, enable different cultures to propagate and grow. If we didn’t have physical boundaries, we wouldn’t have so many different types of flowers in so many different colours. Flowers that aren’t strong enough to compete with other flowers don’t warrant their extinction. Unless we really want just one big bowl of cultural soup in a single flavour, we should really start thinking about what boundaries we are destroying everyday and what new boundaries are being created. These boundaries will break or make the future.