Thursday, May 28, 2009

Do I Still Love China?

Last week, Singapore reader Drifting Leaf asked how I see myself. If you read her letter, you will see this question was about cultural identity. She says:

When I see old CCTV/HK/Taiwan TV programs, it brings me back to my childhood. I’m not sure how far I should identify with or support China though. I love classical Chinese culture but the present China/government has quite a negative image.


When we watched the 2008 Olympics, we were uncertain whether we should feel proud of China or not because we are foreign citizens and am not sure if we can lay claim to Chineseness. I believe you still love China despite all its political problems.

Her questions took me through some soul-searching. I moved to the US as an adult and I've been living here for 21 years; my American-born daughter has turned 20 this year. I'm used to the way of life in New England: to pull weeds and plant flowers in the summer garden, or to have five months of winter solitude in a snow-besieged colonial house. Looking back, I seldom thought of the question "What am I?" except that when I visited China in recent years I often felt like a foreigner. Occasionally I had to provide information on my ethnic background ("American Chinese" or "Asian American") when filling out forms, however I don't consider ethnic background the same thing as cultural identity.

In short, I've never really suffered the anxiety of identity loss. Drifting Leaf's questions made me wonder why.

A couple of weeks ago during a library presentation on my book, someone in the audience asked if I'd like to move back to China. Without thinking I replied, "No, my home is here now."

So, what role does Chinese culture play in my daily life in America then? Perhaps the answer lies in a corner of my garden (and yes, that's where my blog hearder comes from):

This is what my husband Bob (that's him in the picture, watering the garden) and I call our "Chinese wall." After we moved to our current home in the summer of 1998, the two of us spent three years of summer weekends building this garden wall with our own hands. Its style was modeled from the gardens of Sichuan, and the patterns of the reticulated windows were taken from the Ming Dynasty garden book <园冶>, which I found in a bookstore in Boston's Chinatown. The inscribed characters on the maroon wooden board above the moon gate are "思蜀", meaning "long for Shu," where "Shu" is the ancient name for Sichuan.

Readers who are familiar with the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD) might be able to see this inscription makes a reverse use of the classical allusion "乐不思蜀" – "here is too enjoyable to long for Shu." After the Shu Kingdom was conquered by Wei, the brainless last King of Shu, Liu Chan, was taken to Wei Kingdom's capital Luoyang. During a banquet with Shu dancers performing, all the captured Shu officials began to weep, only Liu Chan giggled as usual. The King of Wei asked him, "Don't you long for Shu?" "Here is so enjoyable, I don't long for Shu," Liu Chan replied. Thus, "too enjoyable to long for Shu" became an adage admonishing those forgetting their roots.

The inscription in my garden, however, is not an admonishment. It reflects my sentiment in a way of "reverse allusion" (i.e.,反其意而用之): whenever I see a Sichuan style garden, I'm emotional – thus the painstaking effort at building the garden wall shown above with the moon gate and the inscribed board. I had never gardened in China, yet in New England I became a diligent gardener. This emotional reaction is rooted in my upbringing in Sichuan, not much different from Drifting Leaf's nostalgic sentiment when she sees traditional Chinese programs on TV.

I'm also fond of Japanese and English gardens, and have tried to make a corner with each style in my yard. However I long for "Shu" more than anything else, and only that part of the garden has sentimental value, thus deeper meaning, to me.

This is to say, the cultural elements from one's upbringing are always there, in the chemistry of your blood, no matter which corner of the world you land in, no matter what you call yourself. That, to me, is cultural identity. It is quite independent from political stance or nationality, as my friend Chiew-Siah pointed out.

I can't help but mention again Ha Jin's latest book, "A Free Life," which is regarded as the author's most autobiographic novel. Anyone who has read it can't possibly miss the protagonist's (thus likely the author's) grudge against China and laud for America, which was why such a boring book was – quite amusingly – hailed by a NYT book reviewer as "a serious [American] patriotic novel" badly needed at a time of Americans' serious protests against the invasion of Iraq.

Ha Jin's book actually provides a good example of "乐不思蜀" – "here is too enjoyable to long for Shu." Its political attitude is not really a surprise given that Ha Jin left China shortly after its most painful time, and his departure to the New World has fixed that old impression in a freeze-frame. Apparently he has been unable to update his view of China as the country updates itself. Despite the political grudge that confused the author, who in turn was confusing politics and cultural identity in his novel, as a realistic writer Ha Jin, perhaps involuntarily, illustrated the independence of the two: while the protagonist is determined to cut ties with anything Chinese, he involuntarily thinks in a Chinese way and applies the traditional Chinese value system in handling business, family and relationships.

Here is another little interlude: recently a library invited several of us to talk about our books. Among the speakers, another woman and I were Chinese. The order of speech was by last name alphabetically; as such I was the first to speak. In introducing my background, I mentioned how all schools were closed and books burned during the Cultural Revolution. When it was the turn for the other Chinese woman, who was originally from Hong Kong, she talked about the Chinese tradition of respecting teachers and books. "Even in mainland China, the CCP only chose the most diligent students as its members," she said. I sort of expected her to acknowledge the practice in the Cultural Revolution as an exception, but she didn't touch anything like that. I wondered if the two of us, each presenting a different aspect of China, had confused the audience. As if she had read my mind, when we were all finished and about to leave, she said to me out of the blue, "You have to talk positive to young readers." Her book was a young-adult novel. Though disagreeing, I nodded understanding.

One could say both she and I share a cultural identity: the Chinese culture. But she had her upbringing in Hong Kong. I'm pretty sure that, had she also experienced the Cultural Revolution, she would have talked quite differently that night. This is to say, the culture that one identifies with is more closely related to personal experiences than ethnicity.

Now, do I still love China despite all its political problems? This depends on what one means by the term "China." When I think of China, what comes to mind are familiar shade of trees, fragrance of flowers, shape of landscape, smell of Sichuan cuisine, peculiar expressions of the Chinese language and intimate faces of relatives and friends. Those, I love. I care. Thinking of them makes me emotional. Thus, China is not an abstract concept to me.

This is also to say, I no longer have an abstract love of China, especially when the name means the state. And that's okay with me. When I was a child, we were taught from the first grade on to "Love the Party, love the people, love the motherland," as if the three were one thing. I had taken the concept of the three abstract and unconditional "loves" as granted, until the Cultural Revolution and my "insert" into the countryside disillusioned me and made me realize how those abstract concepts compromised individuals. In the early 1980s, there was a popular saying among those who were actively seeking migration abroad: "I love the motherland, but the motherland does not love me." (This background might also help to understand the grudge in Ha Jin's aforementioned novel.) I suspect Drifting Leaf's situation now is quite similar to those people's then.

Since my youth in the countryside I've grown averse to abstract political concepts. Having lived in two opposite countries has taught me many things, one of which is it's often less wrong to go for the particular rather than the abstract. The world is being destroyed by abstract concepts and exclusive ideologies. But this is the topic of another long post so I won't keep ranting here, but I, too, would like to cite the Beijing Olympics as an example: I enjoyed very much watching the Olympics, not because it lifted China's international image, but because the performance was superb. On the other hand, I still hold the opinion that the huge government spending on the Games could have found a better use in improving conditions for the Chinese population still in poverty.

So, unlike many "angry youths," I don't unconditionally advocate nationalism, though it had also once been my position in my youth, and I still respect the many great nationalists in China's history. But I will not let nationalism stand in the way of my issuing a critical opinion as a honest writer.

Before I end this piece, let me say a few more words about the style of my garden. Isn't a Chinese garden wall absurd, or 不伦不类, as a companion to a New England Colonial house? Coincidentally, I find answers from a book I'm reading titled Has Man a Future? The book is a transcript of conversations between "The Last Confucian" Liang Shuming and Chicago University professor Guy Alitto. In the Foreword written by Prof. Alitto, he mentions that when he interviewed Mr. Liang in 1980, Liang often talked with assent about Buddhism and Daoism, and also praised Christianity and some parts of Marxism. At first Alitto found it hard to understand: how could one be a Confucian and Buddhist at the same time? How can one identify with both Christianity and Marxism? Eventually he realized that, to be able to fuse many seemly conflicting thought schools, is a distinctive characteristic of traditional Chinese intellectuals. An excellent observation.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cultural Identity: Perspective from a Malaysian Chinese

Note: Chiew-Siah Tei, the author of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, is a Malaysian Chinese living in Scotland. We met and became friends during Hong Kong's Literary Festival in March. The following is her response to Drifting Leaf's letter regarding the issue of cultural identity, see yesterday's post "The Vertigo of Foreign-born Chinese." Comments are welcome. (And thank you, Chiew-Siah!) Xujun

Dear Xujun,

I read your Singaporean reader's letter with much thoughts. Confusion of one's identity is a common issue among persons who live outside their cultural roots, be they Chinese, South Asians, Africans and the like, especially for those who are not first-generations. History has determined our fates. It is impossible to go back in time and amend, but there's time to understand, and with that to accept the unchangeable facts. By acceptance, I don't mean we should defy our cultural roots, but recognise and inherit the culture, while at the same time, acknowledge the country we were born and grew up in to be our homes.

As a fourth-generation Chinese from Malaysia, I can understand how she (I'm under the impression that that's a lady) feels. I myself was once confused, too. After all these years, I've come to realise that, over my adolescent years, I had never doubted my identity as a Malaysian and Chinese, and that I was part of the multi-cultural society, and Malaysia was my home. Here in Malaysia we have a unique Malaysian Chinese culture, which I embrace. Some might say the language, the cultural practices, the food, etc, are no longer authentic, but then, this is the authentic Malaysian Chinese culture! My confusion, however, came later during my university years and after entering society, when I became aware of the racial inequalities, and even became a victim of the unjust policies. It's the politics and the politicians that have confused us, not the country or the culture, and that is part of the reasons of your reader's confusion, as she mentioned of her disappointment at the Singaporean leader.

Today, here in Scotland, I can loudly declare that I am Malaysian; there's no doubt about it. I follow news from home and am closely in touch with friends in Malaysia who are fighting against political and social injustice, giving them support as much as I can, as well as trying to do my part through my writing. This way, I don't feel detached from the country - I would if I were to moan and completely alienate myself from it. I see Scotland is the place I work in, where I can acquire certain degree of freedom, which I will be never be able to enjoy in my own country.

Your reader has no reason not to be proud of the cultural displays at the opening of the Beijing Olympics - in fact I was in tears watching the ceremony. I, like her, a Chinese, recognise our root culture that was once, and still is, a splendour.

My thoughts might be quite different from most people, but I think after all these years, I have grown to see things more clearer. I hope your reader will be clear of her doubts. Accept and understand, these are the two things I wish to stress. In fact, writing my first book has helped me to understand the history and learned to accept it.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Vertigo of Foreign-born Chinese

Note: Yesterday I received a letter from a Singapore reader, who raised an important question about the sense of cultural identity for foreign-born Chinese. Her description of Singapore also surprised me a bit. I'm posting the letter below with permission. Whether you've had similar experiences (as a foreign-born member of some culture) or not, please feel free to chip in for a discussion. We'd love to hear your take on the issue. Xujun


Hello, Ms. Eberlein,

I read the post about “China’s image abroad, a preschooler’s perspective” and was shocked by it. However, I am not sure if I should be concerned by China’s image abroad or not. I have very mixed and contradictory feelings about the country.

When I am overseas I am sometimes mistaken for a Chinese national but I am actually Singaporean Chinese. My family migrated to Singapore sometime in the earlier half of the 20th century during one of the most turbulent periods of China’s history. I believe that my grandparents probably thought of themselves as Chinese, not Singaporeans but later developments in the mainland made it impossible to return. My parents and I are born in Singapore. Unlike the rest of my family, I have never been to China.

Reading your entries, I feel that you still care very much about your homeland though you are an American citizen. May I know how you see yourself? For overseas Chinese whose family did not undergo the Communist period and is unfamiliar with life under the CCP, mainland China is quite incomprehensible. Singapore is not a Chinese country but it does have a 华人社会 of its own because over 75% of the population is of Chinese descent. However, with the influence of British colonialism and other local cultures, the local Chinese culture has evolved quite differently from say, Hong Kong which is 90+% Chinese. We use English in our daily lives, are very westernized and are quite weak in our command of Chinese. Most of us are from Southern China and speak southern dialects at home (my parents cannot understand each other because they speak different dialects so they speak mostly putonghua).

The government has banned all Chinese regional languages in the mass media in the hope of encouraging us to speak putonghua for business purposes. Since there was a lot of regional rivalry between different groups of Chinese in the past, this does have an effect of uniting the local Chinese community but I feel we are slowly losing our identities.

When I was growing up in 80s Singapore, the country was becoming a first world country and there was a sense of optimism and hope in the air. I literally witnessed tall buildings going up and I feel that there was a real sense of togetherness in those days amongst all Singaporeans. Since we were a brand new nation with a heterogeneous population composed of immigrants, the government tried very hard in schools to instill a sense of national identity. I believe that a Singaporean identity would have coalesced naturally but as I grew older, I realize that government policies have consistently led to its erosion.

I feel totally alienated from Singapore nowadays and so do many Singaporeans. As you may know, Singapore has a one-party rule system. As an ordinary Singaporean, I have no say in the way Singapore is run. The wealth gap is growing, we have no labor laws that protect employees and no social safety net. The people who run this country are paid high salaries but the economy is going down the drain. As a result stress levels are ever-increasing and growing numbers of Singaporeans are migrating. Singapore society is becoming increasingly more fragmented and true Singaporean culture is allowed no room to grow.

As such, I’m considering migrating overseas.

If I do succeed in becoming say, a New Zealand citizen, what should I call myself? A Singaporean New Zealander, Chinese New Zealander or just plain New Zealander??? Although I have never been to China, I’m quite attached to Chinese culture/customs (I can read/write Mandarin though not very well) but China itself will be quite alien to me if I go there. I can see myself going there to visit my ancestral hometowns or for travel but not actually working/living there. So my links to my ancestral land are quite problematic yet I am unwilling to let go of my Chinese identity totally for nostalgic reasons because I was brought up celebrating Chinese festivals and customs and they are a part of me. When I see old CCTV/HK/Taiwan TV programs, it brings me back to my childhood. I’m not sure how far I should identify with or support China though. I love classical Chinese culture but the present China/government has quite a negative image.

So what am I? Someone totally adrift without any homeland, roots or culture? If I do go to a new country as an adult, I think I am too old to ever assimilate totally. Especially since I am a visible minority who looks Chinese.

Sorry for such a long letter but I liked your blog entries and can see that you are a thoughtful and intelligent person and wanted to hear your opinion about foreign-born Chinese. I am too embarrassed to discuss this with my best friend though she is aware that I hope to migrate. I have talked to many foreign-born Chinese from all over the world and a lot of us are quite confused about our identities. When we watched the 2008 Olympics, we were uncertain whether we should feel proud of China or not because we are foreign citizens and am not sure if we can lay claim to Chineseness. I believe you still love China despite all its political problems.

Drifting leaf


Postscript: After reading the letter, I asked about Singapore's political censorship. Drifting Leaf answered:

"In Singapore, there are 3 big taboos: race, religion and politics that no one dares to talk about.

"The internet in Singapore is also censored somewhat but not as comprehensively and severely as in China.

"Local political humor site. The website is run by a Singaporean couple who migrated to New York.

"Singapore has gotten into rows with China a couple of times by the way. Once, it was over our unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Plus, we are too close to the US. "

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Book Review: Global Shanghai, 1850-2010

Global Shanghai, 1850-2010
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

BlogCritics, book review by Xujun Eberlein, published: May 08, 2009

Shanghai is not just a city; it is a breathing creature with multiple spirits – depending on who's talking about it. Under the classy pen of Wang Anyi, one of the foremost novelists in contemporary China, Shanghai with its mundane gossipy longtang ("an immerse blanket of darkness") possesses the soft Yin of a refined female. In the Chinese textbooks I grew up reading, on the other hand, Shanghai appears to have the vigorous Yang of a revolutionary male, charging valiantly at the frontline against imperialism and feudalism. As if those images are not contrast enough, now Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history and China specialist, describes another Shanghai through Westerners' eyes in his informative and thought-provoking new book, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010.

Unusual for a historical discourse, the book takes the structure of a photo album, collecting snapshots every quarter century over a period of 160 years. Such a structure has the benefit of tracing a clear, though rough, contour of the city's trajectory. The focus is on Shanghai's early "globalization" (long before this term was created) and current re-globalization, that is, how Shanghai became a cosmopolitan city and where it is going as one.

A cosmopolitan city – what a celebrated label! Surely neither the Chinese nor Westerners have any objection against it. Yet within its historical connotation lies the water-and-fire contradiction in the ways different sides view and feel about it. Even today, reflecting on this history risks bringing out hasty jingoism from all sorts of people. Given the existence of such divergent perspectives, it is Wasserstrom's unswerving and non-judgmental treatment of the subject that interests me the most about the book.

The disparity begins with Shanghai's birth as an urban center. China's official view is that this occurred in 1291, while Westerners think of it as 1843 – the year the city opened to foreign trade. That's a gap of 552 years, not a trivial one, yet each view has its own basis as Wasserstrom eloquently presents. It is, again, more a perspective gap than a technical one, and the foreigners' view certainly goes with the definition of a "cosmopolitan city."

Starting from there, Shanghai's globalization history is full of large and small conflicts, at times bloody, and viewed differently by various parties. Was Shanghai's transforming into an international "treaty port" in November 1843 a national humiliation (a consequence of China's failure in the Opium war), or a turning point toward commercial prosperity and the advancement of civilization? In 1875, was the killing of a British interpreter named Margary by local Chinese in Yunnan a heroic anti-imperialist action as assessed in Chinese publications, or a senseless murder resulting from xenophobia, as viewed by the "Shanghailanders" (Britons and Americans residing in Shanghai)? In 1900, did the Boxer Rebels' siege of the foreign legations in Beijing cause significant setback in Shanghai's technological development? In 1925, was the blood-shedding May 30th movement – strikes and demonstrations against foreign-run factories in Shanghai – a national struggle, or an isolated assertion of rights by the local citizens? And what can be said about the leading roles of cosmopolitan nationalists, foreign-educated Chinese who were anything but parochial or xenophobic, in that movement? Was the 1950 the dawn "from a nightmare of oppression" as Song Qingling put it, or a beginning point for the "multiple Shanghais collapsing into a solitary entity" as memoirist Lynn Pan experienced?

(Before going further into the later chapters, I must clarify that the above questions are not addressed by the author directly. Instead, taking an interesting stance, the author sides with neither the Chinese nor the Westerners. In other words, he displays more interest in factual accounts rather than interpretations. He lays out facts and different perspectives, and teases out interesting details, while leaving the conclusions to the reader. As such, another reader might see a totally different set of questions raised.)

Thus globalization, as shown in Shanghai's early history, is not a harmless concept or process. It is a struggle between different sets of interests. Had Shanghai not been located by both the South China Sea and the Yangtze River, convenient for transportation into, and out of, China, it would not have attracted the foreign businessmen as early as the 1840s. Globalization at that time was about capitalist expansion and colonialism. The invasive nature of it inevitably resulted in the local people's resistance, thus the constant clashes.

Every coin has two sides. Globalization, then as now, isn't purely evil either. I was surprised to learn from this book that Shen Pao, one of the oldest and most prominent Chinese newspapers, was created by a Briton in 1872. The paper's historical significance is summarized in (the leading Chinese search engine for websites and a cultural discussion forum) as: "In Shen Pao's 78 years of history, it recorded from late Qing Dynasty through ROC all sorts of political, military, economic, cultural and societal information, whose very high historical value resulted in the name 'the encyclopedia of modern history." Furthermore, "Shen Pao's layout was divided into sections of news, commentary, art and ads, which laid out the foundation for the 4-section base structure of modern Chinese newspapers."

Another significant thing brought in by the early globalization was Western architecture. While the old Shanghailanders are long gone, their architecture remains. In fact today it is often cited by foreign residents that, one major attraction of Shanghai is the many old buildings designed by the Britons, French, Americans, etc. Together (and in contrast) with the traditional Chinese longtang, Shanghai is a modern city that preserves an enjoyable diversity in style and "the texture of daily life" (as journalist James Fellows put it), a feature making Shanghai distinct from, say, modern Beijing.


A major problem with globalization is that it forces the uniform development from the "advanced" economy's point of view, regardless the hugely varying conditions and cultures in the so-called "backward" nations and places. Ironically though, in Shanghai's case it was the de-globalization that was to deprive Shanghai of much of its diversity.

As we read on in Global Shanghai, Wasserstrom's chapters for 1950 and 1975 depicted a history more familiar to my generation of Chinese. The foreigners were driven out in early 1950s. Here, the Chinese were supposed to feel elated, having been librated from imperialist oppression. While the latter part was true (as China became a closed country for more than two decades), people also experienced the gradual singularization of the once multiple Shanghais. The uniformity reached its extreme in late 1960s when "All mountains and rivers are a vast red," as a then-slogan read. During the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai again played a leading role: it was the first to set up the "Revolutionary Committee" that replaced the city government, and it became the nation's adjunct political center.

“The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” So goes the opening of the Chinese classic Three Kingdoms. After President Nixon's visit in 1972, Shanghai was one of the first cities in China that allowed Western tourists. Gradually China reopened to the outside world, and here comes the re-globalization. In the area east of the Huangpu river, Pudong is now built up in a modernized, futuristic style, with its famous high-speed meglev being the envy of other developing countries. Meanwhile, Puxi, west of the Huangpu, keeps its traditional charm. Shanghai is divided: old Shanghai residents love Puxi nostalgically, and Chinese newcomers with no connection to Shanghai's past prefer Pudong. When I visited Shanghai this February, I was amazed by how dissimilar the two sides look. Yet they co-exist in peace, their differences adding only the attractiveness of diversity.

Still, Shanghai's change is not without irony, and Wasserstrom borrows a line from a book about post-socialist Budapest to describe this aptly: "The boredom of the socialist cities is gone, but so is their safety." No period is perfect.

Meanwhile, foreigners swarm in. According to the Chinese Wikipedia, at the end of 1843, the year Shanghai was established as a treaty port, there were only 25 foreign residents – English missionaries and businessmen registered with the British Consulate. Now the number has exceeded 100,000, the largest among all Chinese cities. A 2004 statistic shows that Americans made up 13.4% of the foreign workforce in Shanghai. In internet discussions, many foreigners even enthusiastically joined the once Chinese-patented oral fight, "Is Shanghai better or is Beijing?"

But Chinese media and academic publications still grumble about how few foreigners there are. It's only 0.67% of Shanghai's total population, too much lower than the 5% world average of big cities, they say. They might have a point, since "Shanghai's natural destiny is to be a global city." The Shanghai government has explicitly stated that, during the 11th "Five-Year Plan" (2006-2010), enhancing international competence is the city's main development line. One hundred and sixty six years after the treaty port opened, globalization is no longer a foreign imposition; it has become the Chinese government's own pursuit.

On the other hand, a writer friend and Shanghai native views that as only the city leaders' pursuit of official career achievements, for which the common residents feel little relevance. "Shanghai's internalization has been a natural process because of its geography, and it does not have much to do with any local man-made effort," the friend said. From 1843 to 2009, Shanghai has opened, closed, reopened and is poised to embrace the outside. Wasserstrom’s book, by chronicling this evolution, shows Shanghai in its natural light, from which I again see Shanghai as a living, breathing, sometimes bruised, creature.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More about the Chongqing Temple Predicament

Additional details have emerged since my previous post titled "The Predicament of a Buddhist Temple in Chongqing."

It turns out that the people the blogging monk accused of beating him up on April 21st were three officials sent by Chongqing city government to resolve the conflict between the developer and the temple. A report by Southern Metropolitan Weekly titled "Chongqing Hot Spring Temple: Scramble between Commerce and Religion" gives the leading official's name as Yu Baiyan, a director of the Chongqing Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs (a department of the city government). Yu claimed that the monk, with monastic name Dingrong, made rude remarks first, then a scuffle occurred. Both men declared injuries.

Interestingly, ten days before the scuffle, it was the same official Yu who told Singapore's Zaobao his version of the real reason for the temple's protest. According to Yu, because the managing abbot, Zhenggang, had a long history of contention with the Beibei district government, the latter wanted to remove Zhenggang from his position. That was what really upset the monks. It was ridiculous to call it a case of the government colluding with a developer, Yu said.

Yu spoke with absolute confidence that he was on the right side. However, he doesn't even have a common netizen's brain. On many websites, readers have been asking "Why should a religious position be appointed by the government?" Right on. If China were still in the Mao era, that would be a wrong question to ask. But 30 years into Reform and Opening, people are expecting more freedom and rights everywhere in the society.

So, whatever the real reasons were behind the Hot Spring Temple's protest, the case has already raised another important issue (in addition to the religious property rights I mentioned in the previous post): the legitimacy of the government's role in controlling religious affairs. If this issue is not resolved, more conflicts will surely ensue. The unenlightened Yu aside, it is time for the Chinese government to adjust its religious policy.

In the current situation, religious personnel are like a daughter-in-law with no husband but having multiple bossy (and sometimes even abusive) mothers-in-law: there's the Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs from the government line (市政府民宗委); there's the United Front Work Department from the Party line (市委统战部); there's the Subcommittee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs from the Political Consultative Conference line (政协民宗委); there's also the government-controlled "mass organization" – Buddhist Association (佛协). What a big mess. Do the solitude-seeking monks really need this many mothers-in-law? And, when there is a conflict like this one, none of them help.

Chongqing's Hot Spring Temple isn't the only case of conflict between commercial and spiritual interests. Chinese media reported that on March 20, monks of the famous Famen Temple (法门寺) in Shaanxi Province pushed down a wall built by the developer of a commercial scenic area. The construction named "Famen Cultural Scenic Area" is another government project utilizing important religious cites as attractions for tourists. Once built, the gate ticket price will increase from 25 yuan to 180 yuan, unaffordable by a working class family.

The monks of the Famen Temple said they never liked the idea of being walled into a commercial tourist area that charges high price tickets to visitors, but under the government's coordination, they reluctantly agreed for the temple to be included in the "unified management" of the project. "It was already a big compromise," the managing abbot said. Now that the developer pushed further to have the wall block the temple's driveway, the monks could tolerate it no more. After the wall was toppled by the angry monks, the government mediated and the developer agreed not to rebuild that part of the wall.

Chongqing's Hot Spring Temple will face a similar problem after the luxury spa center opens to the public. The high-priced tickets will certainly diminish the temple's religious activities.

Yesterday I read on monk Dingrong's blog that the government has rejected their proposal to separate the temple from the spa area with a wall. However when I tried to revisit today the monk's blog has been removed. Dingrong (in the picture above) was reportedly a policeman before he became a monk four years ago.


I called a friend in Chongqing last week discussing the Hot Spring Temple case. The friend is an intelligent academic who served as a committee member in the Political Consultative Conference (政协) last term. I asked him if there was a way to have 政协 discuss the issues of religious property rights and personnel appointments. He said (with a slightly cynical tone), "You live so far away, and you want to uphold justice here? I admire you for that, but I don't think there's much that can be done."

He told me during his five-year term, he was one of the few committee members who would speak their own minds. For this he became unwelcome in the committee. Before each committee meeting, the leaders in his work unit would forewarn him not to be so disagreeable. Most members are there for the social status. Though 政协 is supposed to be an advisory body to the Party and government, and should consist of different political parties and organizations as well as independent members, today's 政协 members are mostly government officials at various levels. It is now unlikely for a person who doesn't have any administrative position to become a 政协 member. This reminded me what a doctor friend (who I cited in the post titled "What Kind of Country is China Today?") said, "In the local Political Consultative Conference (政协), there may be one third of us [from other parties] and two thirds CCP members, so when taking votes they always win."

My academic friend added that there used to be a time when most 政协 members were knowledgeable professionals from all sorts of fields, and they had sharp minds and fresh ideas. I asked when that was, and he said it was before the June 4th massacre of 1989. "After the Cultural Revolution, those people had seen the future for China to go on a different political path, so they enthusiastically participated in the Political Consultative Conference. But they lost hope after June 4th and were gone."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Good Translation is Hard to Find

The China Beat posted a funny Chinese poem with an excellent English translation by David Moser. I especially loved how the rhymes were done, all the while successfully retaining the poem's original humor. In other words, little has been lost in the translation.

An Interview

Aimee Barnes runs an interview with me today. Her blog is quite interesting, especially the interviews with various professionals.