Edward Said and Me

In our Approaches to History class, a sometimes dry, sometimes exciting, often frustrating, journey through late 20th century historiography, we recently had a lively, heated discussion about Said's Orientalism. As a group we were highly divided, some of us loved the book, others hated it, some loved Said in general but hated the book, some realized his contributions to the field but found the actual scholarship itself vitriolic and unprofessional. But aren't these just the conversations that lead to the best kinds of reflection?

One of the most frustrating things about Said is his ambiguity about a way forward. He very clearly defines the problems of the study of the Orient (in his book he refers exclusively to European essentialization of the Near East and Islamic world), demonstrating not only the problems of very obvious Orientalist practices (such as "scholars" who write books called "the Origins of Muslim Rage," or histories of British India meant to show the backwardness of the people and their inability to rule themselves), but also how vestiges of this practice have seeped into almost all of the scholarship produced about non-European cultures and societies. His way forward, he claims, is humanism. But he spends very little time talking about what this means in practical terms, in other words, how do we escape these vestiges of internal hierarchies that place ourselves above the other? One person (ok, me) pointed out that perhaps the best way to do this is to approach the study of a group that may be considered the "other" by looking at them not for their differences, but for their similarities. The conversation then moved into the feasibility of such an exercise: if we ignore all differences, then we as scholars are not having a dialogue with our subject of study, it becomes simply a monologue.

Perhaps I should have qualified this statement. Perhaps the problem is instead our definition of what constitutes the "other." The "other" can be an exotic East, or it can be our next door neighbors, our siblings or families. We can become other to ourselves. So where is the boundary, how do we solve this issue?

From my discussions with other East Asianists, and my own experience, I have certain preliminary thoughts on how we go from essentializing the other to having a dialogue with an other. I've talked briefly in other blog posts about what initially drew me to China. It wasn't its exoticism, its religion or culture that was so drastically different from ours. It was China's struggles with nationalism, something that I myself struggle with every day (if anyone reading this actually has an interest in these struggles, I expounded upon this more in my previous blog post). It was a reflection of something I see in myself that drew me to China, something that manifested in a much more extreme way in China than it does in my own experience (I do get emotional when I hear the national anthem, but I don't see myself getting swept up into a Cultural Revolution type fervor...then again, the frightening prospect is, perhaps if I were Chinese and in China during that time, I would have. But these are just thought exercises, and there is no way to know). At the same time, Hong Kong continues to be a source of complete fascination with me because of their lack of emotional attachment to anything called a nation. It doesn't make sense to me that, as described in the introduction to John Carrol's book Edge of Empires, Chinese people in Hong Kong would feel happier about British colonialism than being a part of the motherland, mainland China. Aren't the colonized supposed to feel one way about the colonizers? Especially after all of the anti-colonial movements across the world led to the rise of decolonization and nationalism?

So while China's experience with nationalism and identity that mirror in one way or another my own experiences, I was actually repelled by the exoticism of China. I never had the fascination with eastern religions, eastern cultures, eastern thought in the same way as a lot of people who study the same things I do. In fact, that sort of exotic fascination irritated me, and I went out of my way to not care about the things that have recently become popular in the American imagination about East Asia (such as kungfu, Daoism, Buddhism, yin/yang, Japanese anime, etc.) These sorts of things continue to hold little interest for me. I am incredibly attracted to Buddhism, but my attraction stems from a fascination with the way that history influences culture on a global scale, not from a fascination with a completely unknown and exotic frame of mind. It was a difficult journey for me to begin to enjoy Buddhist philosophy and cosmology, simply because I was repelled and frustrated by the way it was talked about, exoticized, and orientalized in the West.

I don't want to say necessarily that my approach to studying Chinese history as an American with no connection to China is the best way, but I do think that it reflects upon Said's argument. When we write about the other, its not enough to simply shed the hierarchical framework. A more nuanced view of the problem of "romantic orientalism" which I somewhat allude to above is seen in Robert Inden's work, but in essence he argues that romantic orientalism is still orientalism, even if the exoticized difference of the orient is lauded rather than scorned. Of course it is not always easy to discard things that interest us, nor is a scholar whose initial interest in East Asia stemmed from an orientalized fascination with Eastern culture doomed to be an orientalist. But I do not think that focusing on similarities among culture results in a monologue. If I were to study Italian American culture in the midwest, a group to which I very much belong, I would still find issues with the group identity that challenge my individual identity. If I were to study American history, of course I would stumble upon ideas, politics, cultural practices, or other things I don't particularly like or ascribe to. This is what makes it a dialogue. But at the same time, I should not immediately approach them as my opposite, as the other. I think this is the best way to approach any area of study, by viewing them as humans first, and then dealing and balancing the differences afterwards, rather than going into our scholarship with the opinion that the subject is our opposite, in a negative way (hierarchical dominance of European culture) or positive (romantic orientalism).

This is easy to say, it is not as easy to practice. While my initial interest in China began with these humanistic leanings, that is not a static or unchanging sentiment. We all struggle with what we study, regardless of how culturally similar they are to us. Also, there is a hegemonic discourse that we as scholars of the non-West are trying to overcome, and unfortunately, in some ways this is impossible because of who we are and where we are coming from. There are real problems with being an outsider trying to understand another culture, especially when the political implications of such a relationship are so heavily politicized. But this is a topic for another post.


Is research fundamentally selfish?

In a recent discussion about research topics, a professor of mine commented to me that research is always fundamentally selfish. Perhaps we really are "fascinated" or "intrigued" by unknown history of far reaching parts of the world, and perhaps we really can't get enough of whatever strange topic picques our interest, be it Suffi inscriptions, diaries of an old 18th century Chinese intellectual, or (in my case) Chinese elementary school textbooks. But what my professor claimed is that whatever research interests pulls us in the most is that intriguing to us because it addresses a personal and existential crisis of our own, either directly or metaphorically.

An example of this actually presented itself today in one of my classes, ironically completely unrelated to aforementioned discussion. We were discussing Fernand Braudel's historie totale, his overwhelmingly large work on the history of the Mediterranean. While we didn't read all 1200 pages of this massive undertaking (truthfully, we only read introductions and reviews), from what we did read we caught a glimpse of his approach and from that, the reason he decided to take on this massive history of the Mediterranean sea. His approach was almost entirely structural; he talked at length in his introduction about the need to take away agency from individuals, and deemphasize the individual. Individuals do not make history, history makes the individual. Instead, he pointed to anthropomorphized structures such as economics, trade, and most importantly, geography. It is these structures that change history, not individuals, though it takes this "total history" approach to see structural cycles.

Braudel's personal history had a large influence upon his work. He studied at the Sorbonne, and there became immediately turned off by their emphasis on diplomatic history, individual history, and the history of the French Revolution. During WWII, he spent time in a Nazi prison camp, which is actually where he drafted much of what would become his history of the Mediterranean.

Our discussion led us to wonder his reasons for taking on this historie totale, and why he took the approach that he did. Clearly he was reacting against the traditional narrative approach that emphasizes individual agency. But we discussed that perhaps it was more than that. By shifting agency from the individual to non-living structures, we take away from individuals their legitimacy for holding immense amounts of power. In essence, through this kind of history writing, we demonstrate that really no one leader can fully change history. This clearly has political implications considering the time within which this was written. We posited that perhaps Braudel felt that diplomatic and individual history was in fact irresponsible. This way of thinking about history, that a few agents can change it, created disastrous results. We paved the way for people like Hitler and Mussolini to take the power that they did. By stripping those in power of their effective agency, we strip them of their total power. And sitting in a Nazi German prison camp, we can see why a "recreation" of historical thinking was so attractive and vital to Braudel.

So what about me? I never sat in a Chinese prison (thank goodness). This is really never something I have thought about. I've never needed to justify my interest in China; most people either point to China's growing economic hold over the world order or a personal (often) orientalized interest in the exotic. But thinking about it now, China is a very far away place. I have no vested interests in China, I have no relatives there; my personal identity is not directly tied to China in any way. So what existential crisis am I trying to solve in my own research.

Perhaps I should leave China for a moment and take a more thematic approach to this question. One area of history that my questions always seem to come back to is education, and more specifically, textbooks. I tried to think back about my own education, looking for answers there. The root of my interest in education, actually, comes back to a book I remember reading my freshman year of college called Lies My Teacher Told Me. The author came and spoke at our school, talking to us about the problems with American history textbooks (this lecture also made me very thankful for my American history textbook in high school, it did not have a lot of the problems Loewen outlined in his book). This book, and later on classes and discussions I had with others in Hong Kong, made me wonder how we come to believe what we do about our own countries. There was a specific moment when I had a huge wake up call and became self aware of my reflex-patriotism. A professor in a class about Japanese nationalism gave an introductory lecture about nationalist theory. He claimed, very bluntly, that the two most nationalistic countries in the world right now are America and China. To make his point about America (most people in the class, Europeans and Hong Kongers, did not need to be convinced of his argument about China) he asked me, the only American in the class, to stand and say the pledge of allegiance. Almost reflexively, without thought, I stood and said it at light speed, like I always did when I was a child, not even thinking that this would be strange to others in any way. The reaction from my peers shocked me; they looked at me wide eyed, and their shock and judgment was clear as day on their faces. I became suddenly embarrassed (and angry at the professor; it seemed like he knew the reaction I would incite). This got me thinking about my reflexive response. Why could I say the Pledge of Allegiance in my sleep? Why do I actually unconsciously believe that the US government is always a force of good? Why do I feel guilty if I don't immediately answer yes to the question "would you die for your country?" Where do these subconscious feelings come from?

Perhaps my existential crisis I want to solve by looking at education is my obsession with my own country and my subconscious patriotic spirit. The emotions I feel when people insult my country, the guilt I feel for not defending her, the fact that I automatically refer to America as a person (a woman, no less), all point to an instilled patriotism. More interestingly, if I were to study these emotive knee-jerk reactions in another time, I would probably subconsciously think of them as brainwashed (which, admittedly, I catch myself doing from time to time while researching China). Why, in my subconscious, is American history education objective and other countries' are not? The truth is, I couldn't imagine not feeling patriotic. So to be more specific, perhaps my existential crisis is related to my inability to see a world with no countries, and more importantly, an inability to see myself as anything other than an American patriot. And in some way or another, I want to find out why my subconscious automatically reverts back to this emotive patriotic reflex.

There is a very real possibility that this is not it at all. Similarly, I have a lot of interests, most recently in the province of Xinjiang (part of me wonders if this is just my travel bug yearning for Uzbekistan). But I hope to, throughout the year, take some time here and there to explore not only possible research interests, but also their connection to me. As my professor pointed out (and I agree), this can add a whole new dimension to my research, and allow me to see things I might otherwise not see.


My Year in a Quantitative Summary

I thought a lot about how to think about my year in Shanghai, its ups, its downs, its great Chinese craziness. So here is (what I think) a creative analysis of my year broken down into quantifiable terms. This is all just in fun, but if anyone wants to know stories behind some of these "categories" if you will, feel free to ask.

The Academic:
Number of document folios looked at and used: 52
Number of documents copied: 134
Number of sets of textbooks looked at: 48
Number of years of People's Daily looked at: 10
Number of conferences attended: 6
Number of binders filled with materials: 3
Number of books read (non-fiction academic): 12
Number of Chinesepod podcasts downloaded: 130

And the Not So Academic:

Number of new cities visited: 35
Number of new Chinese provinces visited: 8
Number of new countries visited (officially): 4
Number of new countries visited (unofficially): 5
Number of new countries visited (unofficially and including airports): 6
Number of Mosques visited: 7
Number of Christian Churches visited: 4
Number of Daoist Temples visited: 4
Number of Confucian temples visited: 1
Number of Buddhist temples visited: 31
Number of passport stamps: 35
Number of visas: 4
Number of Chinese visas: 3
Number of mountains climbed: 5
Number of trips to the Terracotta Soldiers: 2
Number of concerts: 2
Number of museums visited: 10
Number of trips to Hong Kong: 3
Number of new Lonely Planets bought: 4
Number of plane rides: 24
Number of train rides: 14
Number of boat rides: 12
Number of nature reserves visited: 4
Number of non-academic books read: 22

The Great:
Number of new languages can now use to say hello: 4
Number of new alphabets learned: 1
Number of Chinese New Year dinners: 4
Number of Starbucks Caramel Macchiatos: I actually could not even calculate this, and if I could, I wouldn't do it out of shame
Number of late night movies with neighbor: 7
Number of great new Chinese friends made: 8
Number of great conversations with cab drivers: 13 (probably more, but these are the ones that stuck in my head)
Number of Fulbright Couches crashed on: 4
Number of dinners with my neighbor's family: 4
Number of Christmas dinners: 4
Number of dinners at the American Consulate (Shanghai and HK): 2

And the...not so great:

Number of Swine flu fever checks: 7
Number of swine flu fever checks that included Chinese people in full white ET suits, masks, and booties: 1
Number of trips to clinic: 5
Number of trips to hospital: 1
Number of injections in the rear end (despite weak and sick protests): 1
Number of times reread Twilight out of sheer boredom: once per book
Number of months of straight construction outside my window: 6
Number of nights kept up because of fireworks: 7

And finally, the "this could only happen in China"

Number of trips to the local police bureau: 9
Number of trips to the exit-entry bureau: 4
Number of trips to the exchange office at East China Normal: 8
Number of those trips that ended or began with tears of frustration: 2
Number of times hired driver crashed into inanimate objects: 1
Number of times hired driver crashed into animate objects: 1
Number of "we do not accept foreigners" hotels we encountered: 1
Number of "cutting in line" arguments: 4
Number of live chickens killed on the street: 1
Number of donkeys harmed in the making of this trip: 1
Number of midnight raids by Chinese police: 1

Peter Hessler and laowai nuzi

I'm ending my year long China adventure with I guess what could be called "China detox": aka, lounging around Hong Kong. The nice thing about Hong Kong is that it allows me to reminisce about China while not having to deal with *most* of the frustrations associated with living in China.

So as I am lounging around enjoying friendly people, effective transportation, and fantastic pineapple buns, I'm quickly reading through Peter Hessler's River Town, the story of a young American man teaching English in rural Sichuan as a Peace Corps volunteer. To begin with, anyone who is interested in life in China through a young person's eyes should absolutely read this book. I only have three frustrations with this book. The first is the comments on the back which read: "To come across a Westerner patient enough and tolerant enough to try and understand the immense, exasperating and ultimately loveable entity that is China is always a pleasure." I find this almost demeaning both towards Westerners and China. It doesn't take a Mother Theresa to love China the way Peter Hessler does; I can think of 65 people right off the top of my head who have a similar relationship with China (Fulbright and the Peace Corps do have this in common). Which comes to my second frustration: I could have written this book. Yeah, I wouldn't have had quite the same stories about teaching students whose heads are already filled with propaganda, and I certainly never took a boat where rats crawled all over my face. And obviously living in Shanghai in 2008 and living in rural Sichuan in 1996 are two drastically different worlds. But I could point to a number of pages that explained my exact experience.

I don't want to take the time to explain all of the passages and experiences, such as learning Chinese, getting constantly cat-called, having one's name essentially be "foreigner" or "helloooooooo!" What I would instead like to talk about is my third frustration with this book, which is by no means Hessler's fault: his lack of discussion of not only the racial awareness but also the gender awareness that comes with being a foreigner in China. He talks briefly of women in China, and specifically about relationships between men and women in China (and how this overlaps with racial differences). One thing I've learned this year is that racial identity and gender identity are inextricably linked, and I'd like to take this post to talk about my personal experiences with the struggles associated with being a laowai nuzi, or a foreigner woman, in China.

I think my awareness of how most Chinese people see me comes to discussions about Sex and the City. I won't deny that I love that show, but the dangers of exporting such a liberal hyperbole of American male/female relationships became clear to me when Chinese girls began telling me that life in America is very "kaifang" or "open," just like Sex and the City. Statements about this show often are accompanied by a look of both interest and disdain; most Chinese girls admire the independence and openness with which American women can live their lives, but also consider them to be a bit too morally degenerate, which is why Chinese society is better. At first, I found these statements funny, but this quickly became something that made me incredibly angry and defensive. As a woman who is quite proud of my independence and my personal choices, I hated being pigeonholed into this "morally degenerate" category. But it seemed like a losing battle; for everyone I told that this was not the case for even most American woman, 10 other Chinese people would continue to have this same stereotype. Over time, I came to hate that show and the way it represented white American women.

And this stereotype was furthered by advertisements found all over Shanghai. Thinking about it, it is absolutely incredibly how many advertisements depict white women instead of Asian women; it has to be well over half of the advertisements, clearly not indicative of the population. Furthermore, almost all advertisements about lingerie or sexy clothing had white women; advertisements showing good wives or girlfriends in cutesy scenarios were more often than not Chinese. One particular advertisement made me feel naseous; it showed a man and a woman on top of each other, and he is about to touch in her in a way that should be R rated, and not all over the subway (meanwhile, of course, she is all bust). I thought about how the Chinese would react if that girl were not blonde, but instead Zhang Ziyi or some other Chinese star; it would have looked completely out of place. I actually wrote about this when I was writing my thesis last year, as photos in women's magazines from the 1930s had similar patterns of putting white women in more liberal situations. What I argued (and would argue still) is that this allowed the Chinese population to live vicariously in this liberal, modern society without feeling to threatened by too MUCH moral openness. In a sense, they enjoyed the idea of the liberalism, but also wanted to maintain their own standards of morality and culture, and by seeing white women act this way, their own ideas about morality weren't under threat.

Nevertheless, it was frustrating walking around and knowing that this was how everyone saw you. The frustration not only came from the fact that just by looking at my face, people were making assumptions about my own personal life and my moral compass, but that no matter what I did, people would make these assumptions. Furthermore, the steps I took to give off a certain impression of myself in America were no longer valid in China; dressing a certain way made me seem professional and serious in America, while in China it furthered the morally degraded stereotype.

Being a white woman in China also made me aware of the plight of Chinese women. Before I came here, I was well aware of the statistics surrounding underemployment for women, and the importance of getting married for women. But this became a whole new reality as I came to know and love a few Chinese female friends. I had a few discussions with Chinese female graduate students about being a Ph.D. in China. I had heard that when a woman decides in China to pursue a Ph.D., she is essentially deciding to never get married. When I asked other graduate students about this, they would giggle and often awkwardly avoid the question. I came to understand this as tacit acknowledgment of the situation. As a woman planning to pursue her Ph.D., this invariably made me very angry, that women who wanted to think and act independently were punished romantically for their decisions.

At the same time, I also began to recognize the expected behavior of Chinese women. Hessler mentions a certain "xiaojie" that puts on her "cute xiaojie" behavior as she tries to flirt with him. His reaction is one of discomfort and fear. My reaction to such behavior (albeit I am an observer, not an active player in these exchanges) became one of frustration and sometimes disgust. I have learned to approach feminism and gender roles with a balanced attitude; blaming men or blaming women for subtle inequalities really never seemed to help solve any problems, and I have always believed that an active attempt to be more aware of societal assumptions about the roles of men and women would be the best way to change things. However, watching these women "sajiao," the Chinese term for this kind of cutsey childish behavior, whether it be happy cute or pouting cute, made me feel like women were asking to be put in a role of submission. I knew this whole year that logically women should not be blamed for these behavioral expectations, but I found it difficult not to get frustrated when I saw a woman pout by sitting down in the middle of the street and forcing her boyfriend to beg her to stand up, all the while playing up a cutsey pout. I wanted to go and scold this girl, and tell her that this sort of behavior puts her in the position of a child, while her boyfriend takes on a dominant role. I became equally frustrated when I would talk with my neighbor, a bright, mature educated woman with a bright future ahead of her. She and I would have great and insightful conversations, but she fully admitted that she would "sajiao" in front of her boyfriend; sure enough, when they were together, I got to witness the whole show.

I realize as I look at this in retrospect that this is not their fault; this expectation of cutsey-ness is a social expectation that needs to be tackled by all members involved. My disgust, however, also made me look at my own culture. I never particularly liked feminists who burned bras and refused to put on make-up. But by painting my face, or being flirtatious, wasn't I doing similar things? While I don't think of flirting as acting childish, it made me become much more self aware of my exchanges with men, both Chinese and Western.

There were, however, advantages to the intricacies of my gender and racial identity, as oftentimes, Chinese people would see me only as a foreigner and not as a woman. This allowed me access into what some may call the "male world," specifically in terms of academia and politics. At the small archive where I did my research, every afternoon a group of middle aged men would sit around and discuss current events from the newspaper. The other female librarians never participated in these discussions, always busying themselves with other things, but the men actively engaged me in conversation. What did I think about Obama and McCain? America's democratic system? Sarkozy's recent criticism of China's human rights? This not only gave me a way to chat with local Chinese people, but also gave me an in to ask the kinds of questions I wanted to ask about my own research. I found through other conversations that while the hyper-sexual stereotype of Western women probably still existed, many Chinese men actually admired the independence and intelligence of many Western women. I was told on multiple occasions, oftentimes by middle-aged, educated men, that they really admired me, with my giant backpack that I carried myself ("too heavy! too heavy!" they would always tell me), my conversational Chinese, and my research interests.

I guess having this layered identity in China came with its goods and bads, which Hessler ultimately came to accept about his identity as a foreigner in China. There are frustrations with the way we are treated differntly, and the way that just the way we look comes associated with really heavy assumptions about our personality, our behavior, our way of life, and even our country. And when reactions to our identities often come at our benefit, it caused (at least for me) a wave of guilt, knowing that Chinese, or even Chinese women, were treated worse only because of their race, or that I got benefits only for mine.

Famen Temple and the Trouble of History

Of the many temples I visited recently (over 2 dozen in the last 3 weeks) the one that struck me as the most interesting in terms of its past and present is Famen Temple outside of Xi'an. I already wrote a bit about its modern history, but now I would like to write about its early history, as I think it demonstrates quite a lot about the difficulties of creating ancient history.

According to legend and recorded history from the Tang Dynasty, the original pagoda of Famen Temple was one of 19 stupas donated to China from Prince Ashoka of India, who ruled India from 273 BC to 232 BC and was one of the first great Buddhist evangelists. It was he who really did a lot to spread Buddhism throughout Asia, and he did so by donating relics and stupas to countries and kingdoms all over Asia. While the other 18 stupas reportedly donated to China did not survive, Famen stupa and its Buddhist finger bone relic did. This is also the story told at the museum of the temple. The vice abbot of the monastery told us over tea that the stupa was built in the Eastern Han (220 BC to about 0 AD), which would be after the death of Prince Ashoka. Similarly, a professor we met at Northwestern University told us his theory about Famen temple, which saw its construction before the Qin dynasty.

According to the museum, however, archeological evidence that suggested the temples' existence did not appear until the Sui dynasty. From that point forward, the temple and its finger bone relic became a crucial Buddhist pilgrimage site as well as one of the biggest monasteries to receive imperial patronage. The Tang dynasty saw the golden age of Famen temple. The temple spanned nearly 24 blocks, and pilgrims came from all over China to pay homage to the important relic. It was also largely significant because it was so interconnected to the imperial court; every 30 years during the Tang dynasty, emperors themselves came to the stupa to give gifts to the monastery and the relic. During the Tang dynasty, a large stupa was placed over a chambered reliquary that housed the Buddha finger relic. In addition to the 9 layered boxes that protected the relic, archaeologists also recently discovered underneath the stupa chambers filled with imperial offerings to the relic; these treasures, according to a written inventory on the wall, numbered 2499. They are now on display at the national museum.

Most scholars would agree at this point that there was no possible way that the original Famen stupa was built during the Zhou or Han dynasty. In the most practical sense, the dates don't add up. The brochures as well as the museum date the original pagoda at the Eastern Han, but by that time Prince Ashoka had already passed. More than this, there is little to no evidence of Buddhism entering China until the later Han, let alone a full temple and finger relic at the capital.

But for the temple, or the Bureau of Religious Affairs, to admit to the inconsistencies would mean the complete collapse of the prestige and religious power of the relic. The relic's entire legitimacy is based upon it being a gift from Prince Ashoka, and without that, all of its supernatural power would dissolve with the myth. When we study religious history, this is often a source of contention; how do we create a history that is true to evidence without challenging or destroying contemporary faith? While I know very little of the history of Christianity, I do know that much of their legitimacy is also based upon a certain understanding and reading of history. Once that history is challenged, the faith of millions of believers today is also challenged.

Another interesting point brought to light by this contentious history is the problems of creating ancient history. While archaeological proof of Famen temple didn't appear until the Sui dynasty, that does not necessarily mean that was when it was created. Archaeology does not give us all of our answers. At the same time, legend and written documents does not tell us everything either. In the modern history field, we have different challenges: points of view, reliability of facts in documents, unspoken histories. But in ancient history, these challenges are exacerbated.

So while most scholars would not give a lot of weight to the Han dynasty Famen temple idea, that does not necessarily rule it out. Similarly, just because archaeology points to one story, it does not mean that is the only accurate story to be told.

Buddhism and Communism: A Case Study

I recently participated in a program sponsored by Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Taiwan that allowed me to study the history of Buddhism by visiting Buddhist sites in and around the ancient Chinese capital Chang'an (modern day Xi'an). This program taught me a great deal about Tang Dynasty history, as well as about the relationship between Buddhism and Chinese society and politics today. I hope to post a few posts about some of the things I learned there.

In the west, we have this conception of Communism in China and their relationship with religion in largely Marxist terms. Religion is the “opiate of the masses” and the Communist government took expedient measures to control and then, come the 1960s, outlaw religion. While this may be a mostly accurate, albeit simplistic, history, the situation then, and now, deserves a bit more analysis, especially since the last 10 years has seen a large divergence from former policy.

Actual government involvement in religious affairs began large scale in 1958 when the government collectivized land owned by monasteries. Since monasteries were in all economic terms owned by the government and therefore forced to conform to collectivization and taxation policies, many monks were forced to disrobe, drastically decreasing the sangha. This continued into the 1960s until the cultural revolution, when a full scale attack began on the vast majority of temples throughout the country. Buildings, statues, and relics were destroyed, and all except a few monasteries who managed to avoid persecution because their monastery had practical purposes, such as international and historical importance (a few prime examples would be the Llama temple in Beijing and Nanputuo temple in Xiamen). Nevertheless, nearly all monastics were forced into lay life as their temples were overtaken by party members.

Within the last 30 years, almost all of the temples destroyed during the 60s began renovation (nearly all the temples we visited, over 25, had been rebuilt in the last 30 years, many of which are still in the process). Much of this was funded by the government. Furthermore, more and more Chinese people began to join or rejoin the sangha. However, the government did not simply rebuild temples and leave them to their own devices. All temples active temples must register with the bureau of cultural affairs, who has jurisdiction over appointments of head abbots. Similarly, they must register with the Buddhist Association of China. This relationship is sometimes, though not always, antagonistic. In the case of most things in China, the relationship between a monastery and the government depends almost largely on the personalities involved. In Jiangsu, for instance, it seemed from those we talked to that the provincial director was quite responsive and open, wanting to have a harmonious relationship with the monasteries there. Other temples have had more negative experiences with this power struggle. Another interesting rule in the creation of monasteries is that no new monasteries can be built, monasteries must be “rebuilt.” However, the definition of “rebuilt” can be quite flexible, as we heard of temples being built upon two stone steles that happen to be found at the site.

A case study that represents the complexities of this relationship, I think, is Famen temple, 115 kilometers outside of Xi’an. This temple, in its heyday during the Tang dynasty, was one of the most famous and important monasteries in China, housing a Buddhist finger bone relic given to China by the Indian Prince Ashoka (according to legend). Today only about 1/24 of the size it once was, this temple saw a procession of emperors and other government officials who came to pay respects to the relic, offering a total of nearly 2500 priceless artifacts as offerings.

This monastery went into decline after the Tang dynasty, though it continued to function well into the 20th century. After the 1949 revolution, the Famen temple received the same treatment as many of the temples in China. It was hit particularly hard in 1966, when red guards stormed the temple and destroyed all buildings except for the central pagoda which housed the relic. As the guard prepared to dig into the pagoda, the one monk still residing at the monastery, a venerable Liang Qi, stacked wood infront of the pagoda and proceeded to light himself on fire in protest. Frightened, the guards abandoned the stupa, leaving it intact. At the monastery today, this monk is revered as a brave and honorable protector of the temple, of 2500 years of history, and Buddhism as a faith.

Beginning in the 1980s, the temple began restoration after the main stupa collapsed. After it had collapsed, monks and archaeologists discovered beneath the pagoda treasures left behind by emperors as well as the relic itself (and its 9 layer cage). This began heavy restoration of the monastery to the way it is today, buildings, stupa, and Buddhist college in tact.

Considering the importance, historically and spiritually, of this temple, it is no surprise that the government has taken a heavy interest in the managing of this temple. While there are very clear borders to the monastery, outside the monastery the government has constructed a vast public space reminiscent of an even larger Tian’anmen which leads to a new main shrine, topped with a gold monstrous statue and lined with gaudy gold statues. Within the last 10 years, the monastery has battled with the local tourism board, who wants to house the relic as well as all the treasures in their museum beneath the main shrine (and charge a hefty entry fee). While they lost out on the latter, which are housed in a museum within the monastery, they succeeded in the former. Currently, the relic sits within the compounds of the large government created shrine, and it emerges itself twice a month for large ceremonies for the gaggles of pilgrims coming to pay respects (and take pictures, of course).

Conversations with the vice abbot very clearly demonstrated the antagonistic and hopeless attitude of the monks at Famen temple. Out of sheer practicality, they play the government’s game by sending 4 monks a day to oversee the main shrine and the relic, and they all participate in the bimonthly rituals (though no dharma talks are given). At the same time, they have refused to allow their monastery under full jurisdiction of the tourism board, which wants to include both sites under one entry ticket (currently, they own the control over the entry ticket into the monastery, and 1 million RMB is donated monthly to the monastery). He also mentioned, in passing, that the monks have committed other very subtle signs of protest against the current situation.

While many of the temples in Jiangsu demonstrate the possibility of amicable relationship between the government and religious authorities, Famen temple is highly representative of the pulls between political power, tourism, and religious faith. While the government certainly likes the idea of having a part (a large part) in such a highly influential space and ritual, they also see the economic benefits of being involved. Meanwhile, the temple sees the current relationship as a threat to their ability to write their own history, significance, and spiritual doctrine (for example, who writes the placards explaining the history of the relic?) It is unclear what the future will hold for this monastery, and many others like it, but from the monks’ perspective, it seems quite clear that they don’t like the situation, but they don’t feel totally powerless either.


Louis Vuitton and Roast Duck

Just a short post on the recently opened Louis Vuitton exhibit at the Hong Kong museum of art. The exhibit was really fantastic (even for those who are clueless, apthetic, or even hostile towards luxury fashion), highlighting recent artistic additions to the Louis Vuitton team and other contemporary artists from around the world and even home grown in Hong Kong that the Louis Vuitton international company deemed fitting with the rest of the exhibit.

One of the things this exhibit highlighted for me was the crossing of art with fashion. I think in our minds we more often than not separate the two, when really many in the fashion world consider themselves artists. Particularly interesting was Takashi Murakami section, highlighting this new Japanese designer's contribution to the line (ever wonder where the traditional LV print in multicolor or with cherries came from?) Examples of Murakami's prints were accomapined with (in my opinion, kind of trippy) animated videos that show the collision of his ideas with the 19th century LV brand.

Richard Prince not only got his own room in the exhibit, but the museum itself is currently stamped with big seductive posters of various cities "after dark" (often with prelude sexual scenes as the subject). In the actual exhibit, we see this theme as well as silk screen prints of layered designs, harkoning somewhat to Andy Warhol.

A few other mentions that stuck in my head was an installation piece by Cao Fei, which was a strange "China Island" where he took all of the elements of China, interpreted by him of course, and stuck on an island. The maglev went zooming around an Oriental Pearl Tower with pink baubles; Tian'anmen square had trees, and Mao's likeness was replaced with a panda; Buddha and other discarded buildings floated in a basket out at sea, as did a giant statue of Mao; and pollution hovered over the city as the camera zoomed in and out of its inner workings.

And finally, the name of this particular post comes from an exhibit about the lost 1909 Hong Kong film "Stealing a Roast Duck." I did some googling to find out more about this movie, and what I found was well, not much (other than speculation as to whether or not it existed). What I found out at the exhibit was that it was filmed in 1909 by a revolutionary society, and while it was a comedy, it was meant to be shown to expatriates in San Francisco and give them hidden messages about the revolution through symbols in the movie. The installation art that told this story was 2 mechanical talking ducks, who told the story of the film makers, their various subversive techniques (such as hiding messages in duck meat sandwiches; apparently the grease from the duck meat helps to break down the cellulite in the paper after the recipient consumes the message), and of course, the ignima movie. A narration by a male American (the artist perhaps?) was alternated with quacks from the ducks. My interpretation is that it was meant to show how the code was portrayed through the movie; what sounds like duck quacks to us may actually be a hidden message.

This is a really fascinating piece of history, and if my google search indicates anything, no one has really talked about this (of course google search is not the end all of information. If anyone knows anything else, let me know!) Even more so, the bigger topic of international cooperation to spur on the 1911 revolution would be a fascinating topic to explore.

Another thing this exhibit made me think about was the difference between local Hong Kong artists and Chinese ones. As a disclaimer, I admit my experience is quite limited. But nevertheless, it seems that most of the contemporary Chinese artists who are becoming popular, like Cao Fei, are popular because of their critique of China, the communist party, CHina's history, China's consumerism, etc. Hong Kong artists, on the other hand, seem to be largely nostalgic and proud of their own city. I come to this opinion not only from this exhibit, which included 7 local Hong Kong artists all either exploring Hong Kong's history or showing the city's beauty through art (thereby proving that Hong Kong is not a cultural wasteland), but also through an exhibit I saw over a year ago at the same museum called "Made in Hong Kong." This exhibit was essentially a defense to the "cultural wasteland" claim, and included artists representing "their" Hong Kong essentially through sculpture, photography, painting, and installation art. One man painted huge oil paintings of scenes from movies that represent Hong Kong peoples' identity (such as a scene from a Jackie Chan movie where he is saying 'all I know is that I have 6 passports.') Another was a series of black and white calligraphic paintings in a traditional style with "Hong Kong" elements, such as captions on paintings of chickens about avian flu, or a landscape with a few scattered coke cans, or a painting of the crocodile that was loose in the pearl river and no one could catch him.

Personally, I love Hong Kong, and I found all of these exhibits representative of the Hong Kong that so few people outside of its native population get to see. But comparing Hong Kong artists with mainland ones is incredibly striking. Perhaps it is government attitude that causes this difference, or more likely it is because pain and suffering often causes release of that pain in the art scene. It will be interesting to see what happens to the art scene on both sides as time progresses.


China's First International Gender Studies Conference

Last weekend, Shanghai's Fudan University hosted China's first ever International Gender Studies Conference. Due to the historical significance of this event, the participant list was really quite impressive, including great scholars of gender studies from the United States, China, Japan, Canada (and I'm sure others, those are just the ones I saw). While much of the discussion centered around China, I learned quite a bit about gender studies issues in other countries as well, including Canada, America, and even Iran and India (thanks to the "jingcai" keynote speaker).

Besides all of the information I absorbed from this conference, it also affected me in a very personal way. Before this year, I had really never been "gender conscious" so-to-speak. Of course I know there has never been a female president of the United States, or other statistics that indicate female equality, but I really believed growing up (perhaps in part thanks to our education system) that men and women were really equal. And from my small experience in the world, why shouldn't I? In my gifted program in school, women outnumbered men (in high school anyways) women got better grades, most of my teachers were women. My mom even had a higher position in her work than my dad.

It wasn't really until this year, when I started to notice these small inequalities in China, did I start to notice them in my own country, culture, and even in my own mind. This opened up a whole new way of looking at the world; the way that small things, like stereotypes, can affect a person, a group, a culture. It is for this reason that I wanted so much to attend this conference (well that, and shamelessly networking). I wanted a more in depth understanding of who I was, and how I fit into the world I lived in.

But before I talk to much about the personal, I would like to summarize some of the most interesting presentations I attended (Disclaimer: this is by no means a list of the ONLY interesting presentations I attended, just the ones that really stuck out in my head). On the first day, I attended a session on male studies (the conference was heavily female-centric, which I think is fair due to historiography's male bias...still, we should talk about men...) The first presentation was about Aluba (what? you say) an all male ritual in Taiwan which in Hong Kong is called "Happy Corner." This particular game which adolescent males play involve many men seizing another man, some grab his legs, others grab his arm, and they spread his legs and jam him into a pole, standing blackboard, other similar types of objects. I had actually witnessed this in Hong Kong; this was one of many cultural activities that us foreigners witnessed and would afterwards get together and say "what the hell was that?" Another such example would be Senior Photo Day. However, this presentation was really interesting, as the presenter explained that this type of game was not the same as "hazing" which we do in America, but instead, the most populat guy is the actual victim, and it is all out of fun, inclusive even, instead of exclusive. It is also a way to be ostentatious in front of girls. Another presentation from that session was about male prostitutes in Shenzhen. The presenter argued that even though we commonly think that the power politics in the customer-client relationship would trump the power politics in traditional gender relationships, oftentimes male prostitutes and female clients would not switch power positions, but instead the gender roles would be maintained, and men would often tell women what to do, or even reject them. I found this particularly fascinating, that in sexual relationships, nothing really changes the power relationship. I wonder if this is true in America as well (certain Law and Order episodes would imply otherwise).

The second day I went to many, many presentations. One panel that stuck out in my head that was really interesting was a panel on women during World War Two in Asia (or the Greater East Asian War). When I think of women during WWII, my mind immediately is reminded of Rosie the Riveter, women working in factories, selling their jewelry, etc. However, the first presentation by Susan Glosser addressed this particular ideological trope we have in our heads about women during the war and argued that, due to the immense amount of strain put on people of Shanghai, it is almost impossible to think that women even had TIME to think about the war effort. Women could barely afford to feed their families, often sleeping in just to avoid having to eat breakfast (and, by the way, sleeping in in houses with often 20 or more people). I found this break from discourse really incredible, as this was probably true not only in Shanghai, but also Britain, or even Japan. We know Japan was incredibly strapped for resources during the war, yet we still have this image of everyone in Japan, including women, throwing all of their energy towards the war effort. It would be fascinating to find out if that were really true. Other presenters on that panel including Cong Xiaoping (fellow Fulbrighter!) who talked about divorce laws in the border region under communism. She talked about the way that oftentimes, women would use the new divorce laws to their economic advantage, and would marry men and then immediately divorce them for finanical gain. She claimed that normal discourse paints the reforms to the divorce law in 1942 as the Communists compromising with patriarchy (as it put certain restrictions on divorce, including a waiting period for wives of soldiers) when really it was dealing with these problems that May 4th ideology never prepared them for.

Another interesting panel was (once again) on male sexuality. While a couple of the presentations were way over my head (about Tang dynasty poetry! Yikes!) one presentation I found really fascinating was about Chinese prostitutes in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 19th century. Zhao Xiaojian took a new perspective on this topic, and instead of focusing on how the women were treated, she focused on how the men understood their relationships with prostitutes. As her source, she looked at the diary of one Chinese immagrant who, in detail, discussed his meetings with prostitutes. What was interesting was that he didn't describe the danger, or excitement, but instead saw it as a necessary regular activity meant to keep men healthy and manly, somewhat like going to the gym. This was an entirely different way of looking at these encounters, especially since mainstream America viewed the Chinese prostitute situation with disdain and disgust, arguing that Chinese were "unfit" for America because they were so uncivilized they treated their women like slaves. While this does not take away from the way women were treated during this time, I find it important to look at the other side, as it illuminates what makes Chinese men "manly" and how that manifests when Chinese move to a different culture.

The next day, I barely made it to the first session (8:30 is early when one lives so far from Fudan) but I'm glad I did, because I managed to catch Feng Jin's presentation about Danmei fiction. Danmei fan fiction is one of many types of fan fiction that Chinese youth read online, and it is particular because it include homoerotic, male and male, love stories, oftentimes using familiar characters from such stories like the 3 Kingdoms, popular TV shows, or even Harry Potter! The interesting thing about these stories that overwhelmingly, they are written by heterosexual women FOR heterosexual women. Feng Jin postulates that perhaps one reason they are so popular is that it allows for women to explore these kind of sexualities in a more removed sense as they are not yet ready to explore their own sexuality in the same way. Similarly, while the heroes are male, they are often idealized, containing characteristics that are extremely feminine (she showed us pictures, and I couldn't have told they were male). In a sense, it was about idealized love, love that transcends genders and the harsh realities of life. It reminds me actually of many of our fairy tales, where heroes or heroines are turned into animals (swan princess?). Their love transcends these types of boundaries, just like some of the heroes in Danmei fiction. This is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, especially since we think of China as being so conservative and even homophobic.

However, the session that I think affected me the most personally was the last session called "Defying the Odds: Lessons from Women of Color in American Women's Studies." The panelists included three African American women, one Taiwainese woman, and one Puerto-Rican American woman, who discussed how feminism and race intersect in American discourse. These women talked about how feminist discourse, at least the discourse that is heard, is almost entirely written by white women. While this does not discredit their views, they are not the only views. I admit, I have certainly always thought about my own self this way, that my racial or ethnic identity and my gender identity are separate parts of my self. But in fact, these sections of our identities cannot be easily separated, and the way that Hispanic women and Black women and Native American women understand feminism varies dramatically. These women argued that all of these discourses need to be brought to the forefront, and by understanding this diversity within feminism we can better understand feminism as a whole. These views were supplemented by incredibly stories, and the journies all of these women have traveled as they watched America change in terms of racial and gender equality and inequality over the last 30 years.

I found this session incredibly eye opening. I always knew that racism has always been a problem in America, and still is. But I don't think I was ever really conscious of race until this year, until I was the racial minority, or the "other." That's not to say I never understood the racial tensions in my own country, but it is very different to live it oneself. And being a white woman in China is complex, and certainly not always easy. Ruth Zambrana, our Latina panelist, explained that one of the problems plaguing Latina females in America was the media representation as being hypersexual (i.e., Jennifer Lopez). While obviously there are many, many, many differences between Latinas in America and white women in China, I could personally emphathize with this sentiment, as I feel I am constantly battling with the "Sex and the City" portrayal of white women. Whites in China are very rarely treated poorly, or discrinimated in a negative way (I've gotten laowai discounts at coffee shops before) but it feels personally frustrating to be seen as Samantha from Sex and the City. It disintegrates our culture, or behavior, and our sense of being feminine to an exaggerated stereotype. And while I will never understand the battle that the panelists have fought in my own country, it gave me a personal connection to the way that gender and race are inextricably linked.

I also found this panel a great way to sum up the entire tenor of the conference itself. The keynote speaker argued that instead of bringing gender into a global context, we should be bringing a global context to gender. In other words, feminism is plural, it is not one separate issue. And by learning about its manifestations around the world, we can better understand our own feminity or masculinity. Of everything I got out of this conference, I believe that this would be the most important piece.


Summary: Self Education and Self Motivation

A few months into my grant, after I had read more textbooks than could fill my apartment, a mentor gave me the research idea to explore less traditional forms of education, namely, those who had used their own time and resources to self-study their way to expertise in certain areas, both practical and ideological.

This opened a wave of new information and ideas. I found, after a few days of searching at the archives, that not only did many people self study (especially in the early days of the Communist period) but in fact it was part of a wider government program to promote mass education. The government realized that as it was spreading education opportunities to new members of society at an unprecedented rate, it couldn't educate everyone, especially two groups of people: those who were older and did not receive an education (or received a poor one) before 1949, and those who were not able to test into higher education because of the lack of sufficient secondary schools. Therefore, the government worked hard to spread awareness about the benefits of self study, and to organize self study groups.

One of the most interesting ways the government supported and promoted self study among its population was by instituting radio broadcasts. These radio broadcasts included broadcasts on political thought, but most of the broadcasts were lessons in spoken mandarin Chinese, basic math and algebra. The government also published textbooks to supplement these lessons, and over the radio, organized self study groups with trained teachers in different areas of Shanghai. This was one of the main ways that the government involved itself in this particular sector of unorthodox education.

Self study took on a different meaning, however, during different time periods. In the early 1900s, during the height of the New Youth Movement and May 4th, self study was a way to improve and better oneself. When the term "self study" was used in these contexts, it was often used for the already educated, and was meant to be a way for people to better and reform themselves, thus contributing to the betterment of society as a whole (these movements heavily stressed education). There were manuals that those with the impetus to self study could use, and they listed different methods and ways to self study. Oftentimes, the topics were literature, science, or foreign languages. As the manuals themselves were often written in difficult Chinese, and the rational for using various methods cited foreign sources, the implication was that people who used these manuals were already well educated. This demonstrates the way that time period viewed self study: it was a method through which people could become "Renaissance men" which would ultimately improve Chinese society as a whole.

Documents are much fewer in number after 1961, but from what little I have been able to glean from informal interviews and secondary sources, the meaning of self study changed once again during the cultural revolution. Once the Cultural Revolution began, standard education was not an option anymore; furthermore, while work unit meetings and other such educational options were still available, the material taught through these options was largely impractical, focusing almost entirely on political ideology. Therefore, those who wanted some sort of future saw self study as their only option. Many people, for instance, used this time period, and the radio broadcasts (which were still performed) to learn either spoken Mandarin Chinese or English. I don't know if radio broadcasts continued in such areas as algebra or science continued after 1966 (as such documents are unavailable to me) but it would be interesting to see of those continued as well.

Exploration into this topics illuminates many themes and ideas from the 20th century. First of all, it raises the question as to the role of government. I think we often believe that in a Communist regime (especially the Maoist regime) that the government sought to control every aspect of society, including thought, activity, and culture. However, the way in which the Communist regime promoted self study implies that the government, while trying its best to control content, also believed that it was the job of the citizen to design their own future through self motivation. On a side note, I found it interesting that many of the documents from the 1950s and 1960s emphasized that children or adults who self studied could have a "future," which seemed to be the main concern of the population. I think that I believed before that once the Communists took over, they never felt the need to talk about such things since the government would take care of everything. Clearly, worries about getting a future career still seemed to permeate Chinese society.

Another question this topic raises is the meaning of knowledge and education. Before 1949, self study was a means to further better oneself once he is already educated. And while reformers from the 1920s and 1930s emphasized mass education, self study was not a big part of that. Education, and self motivation, was reserved for the elite. Furthermore, the content was not necessarily a skill set necessary for life, but instead was scholarly knowledge, useful to those in academia but little else. In a sense, the Communist period saw a shift in the meaning of education. It was not meant necessarily to enlighten, and it was not reserved for the elite. Instead, it was meant for everyone, and it was meant to give participants a skill set to be used in all lines of work; it was for basic education. This demonstrates a shifting meaning of the words knowledge and mass education.

If I were to further pursue this topic, I would need more information from a few things. First of all, I would need to get much more information from the 1920s and 1930s, and more information from the Cultural Revolution period. I have plenty of information from the 1950s and 1960s, but sources are fewer (from what I have explored) during these other periods. Furthermore, I have very little information about what was happening during the war; this is an important period to cover since a lot in terms of mass education was happening during this period. I also would like to get ahold of some of the radio broadcasts from the time periods (although for the time being, I have documents that outline their curriculum).

I think this could be a great idea, and could illuminate a whole other side of the world of knowledge and education. I hope to be able to explore more of this in the future.


Summary: Everyday knowledge

As my Fulbright year is coming to a close, I decided to go ahead and create a few blogs that sum up a lot of the topics I have been exploring this year, and possible offshoot questions from those topics.

The first is about "everyday knowledge" textbooks, or changshi. I've written a lot about this topic because it connects to a lot of issues. First, it raises questions about education curriculum. By reading the "changshi" textbooks, we are able to look at what children were learning in their early years of education, and for many, especially before 1949, their only years of education. It also demonstrates government priority of knowledge. What made the cut into everyday knowledge? If we educate our public, what are the most important things for them to know.

In a broader sense, it also helps to define what is meant by knowledge, especially in the "modern" sense. In fact, the term "changshi" is specific to modern China (late 19th century onward) as is the whole concept of knowledge as being every day. Historians of nationalism and the modern state often cite Gellner's theory of the spread of knowledge to the entire population as a hallmark of modernity. Before this, knowledge was a privilage for the upper few; there was no concept of knowledge as belonging to everyone, and especially no desire for the government to ensure a basic level of knowledge among the population. Therefore, when we start to see these "changshi" sections in magazines, newspapers, textbooks, radio broadcasts, etc., we see a new dedication to a public with a basic level of knowledge, a population that can exist in a modern world. In that sense, we can look at changshi as a definition of the concept of knowledge: knowledge is available and necessary for everyone who wants to exist in a new society.

But what is considered "everyday knowledge" varies from situation to situation. There are often qualifiers to "changshi" both inside and outside of the education world. There is "economic changshi" "political changshi" "technology changshi" "science changshi" and on and on. But in elementary education, there is often no qualifier; instead, it is as basic and vague as possible, essentially, what every 7-12 year old needs to know.

So by looking at these textbooks, we are not only given a glimpse into what children learned in school, but the definition of knowledge altogether. And what constituted necessary knowledge in the 1930s was very different than what constituted knowledge in the 1950s. I've in previous posts given examples as to why that is. One of the main differences is emphasis on politics vs. other subjects. How much should politics take precendence when a government decides the basic knowledge its population should know? As we see the shift from the 1930s to the 1950s, obviously the information about political systems changed (from the nationalist to the communist systems). But more than that, what is interesting is that through this "everyday knowledge" of political systems, in the 1950s we see more of an emphasis on the importance of civic engagement through politics. To explain this through a counter example, in America I think most would agree that the way our democratic republic works should be considered "basic knowledge" for all of our citizens because we expect all of our citizens to take civic engagement seriously and participate in the democratic system. Similarly, in the 1950s, the communist government, while obviously not expecting citizens to vote, did expect all citizens to actively participate in politics by "continuing the revolution" and contributing economically in production. For this reason, the textbooks included "basic knowledge" about being a good cadre, about participating in the military, and even about being a class leader.

Beyond politics, another change we see that represents how each government understood knowledge was information about technology. What this indicated was how both governments wanted its people to contribute to infrastructue and development through better technology. I even learned through these books more about how planes worked.

But probably the most heavily emphasized topic was health and hygiene, which some could argue indicates that the most important element about being a good Chinese citizen all throughout the 20th century was being healthy and hygienic. This had a very practical purpose; if all citizens participate in public health practices, they become more effective members of society (one is not productive if they are sick). But it also had a symbolic purpose. Many of the developmental theories floating around in the beginning of the 20th century equated health and cleanliness with a higher place on the "development ladder" (cleanliness is close to godliness, no?) As China struggled to put itself on the world map, and prove to the world that it was a developed country, it had to improve its health systems and the behavior of this people. And for those who think this is a practice of the past, think again: as China prepares itself for the Olympics and World's Fair, much of the preparation includes preparing the people of Beijing and Shanghai to "look good for foreigners," which means eradicating the unhygienic practices of spitting in public, smoking like chimneys, or using squat toilets. And this isn't just in the minds of the Chinese, many foreigners come to China and immediately put them lower on the "civilized" scale once a local begins to hawk a loogie.

So what does this all mean in a broader sense, and where do we go from here? I think that a generalized look at the term "changshi" and how it is used in education and other mass media (magazines, books, lectures, newspapers) could give a lot of insight into a.) what is meant by knowledge at this time and b.) what did the ideal citizen look like? Both of these are important topics. Knowledge, and its use in terms of power and culture, tells us a great deal about what a society looked like, what its values were, etc. And the creation of citizenship gives us new kinds of insight, for instance it could help shed light on the eternal debate of the creation of the public sphere. Similarly, the connection between knowledge and politics (how political systems use or control knowledge to shape a society) would be another important topic to explore. A lot of research is currently being done on the Chinese concept of "community" and how that either succeeds or fails because of the political decisions of the party. Perhaps the root of what is happening today could be answered by exploration into the past.


Central Asia

When I first bought my copy of Lonely Planet China, I was immediately taken in by its pictures of the province of Xinjiang. Part Taklamakan desert, part towering snowcapped peaks standing at over 7000 meters, the landscape and the people of this province are incredibly diverse and unique. So after a year of dreaming, and several months of planning that added and subtracted areas to visit (in fact, if we were to go to all the places we had talked about, it would have been a two month trip!)we finally settled on a week and a half exploring the province and a quick detour into Kyrgyzstan, a small, unimposing ex-Soviet country that borders Xinjiang.

As I said before, Xinjiang is one of China's largest provinces; in fact, it almost stands as a country of its own. First, the population is not majority Han Chinese, but is largely composed of a Turkic ethnic group called Uigher (pronounced Wee-ger). Uighers not only have their own language (of Turkic origin) but also their own distinct culture (largely derived from being so central to Silk Road history) and religion (they are Muslims). Due to this quite distinct culture and lifestyle, they have never really integrated with the Chinese, who they see as invaders in a territory that rightfully should be their own country. And while they are often not mentioned in Western newspapers (Americans care about Tibetan Buddhists, not Uigher Muslims), they are quite central to Chinese policy because of the few separatist groups that have popped up (Beijing has convinced many Americans that they are jihadists, which means that the US has given China its support with the Uigher problem). But China is not about to let Xinjiang go, considering its wide territory and strategic position as a gateway to the rest of Central Asia (Xinjiang borders Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan).

This isn't necessarily a travel blog, or an itinerary. They are more disconnected thoughts about my impression of these places, interspersed with strange stories, observations, or anecdotes. I hope you enjoy this sort of inner monologue-esque discussion of my trip to central Asia.

First stop: Bishkek and Lake Issy-kol, Kyrgystan.

We flew into Bishkek very early in the morning; because of the time difference, even after spending 30 minutes while officials at the airport found a very clearly hungover official to issue us visas on arrival, we left the airport before 10 with a driver who had picked us up; fortunately, I had studied the Cyrillic alphabet on the plane, because when they picked us up they had our names written on a paper not in English, but Cyrillic. We had many places we wanted to go, so we immediately went to a travel agency and arranged a car to the town of Karakol, around the giant Lake Issy kol.

Issy kol is the world's second largest alpine lake, and flying over it from China it essentially looked like an ocean. It took us nearly 3 hours to drive around it, but before we even got to the lake, we drove along the border of Kazakhstan. Our driver pointed to the left side of the road, and said "over river, Kasakhstan." We found it pretty neat we were so close, so when we passed by the border crossing we walked up and took pictures in front of it (see below). We then pushed our luck even further and asked the guards if we could walk across the bridge. They did not understand us, so they just pointed to my camera and said "Foto, nyet" (too little too late...) Then we made the signal of walking, and pointed to the bridge. The guard smiled, but then crossed his arms and once again, "Nyet." Nevertheless, we got a great taste of Kazakhstan just driving by, with giant green rolling hills covered in red poppies and cattle. However, the Kazakh landscape did not compare to Kyrgyzstan on the other side, with vived green pastures pressed up right next to towering, snow capped peaks of the Tian Shan range.

We continued on to lake Issy kol, and around lunch time we stopped at our driver's mother's house for bread and tea. She made us delicious milk tea and gave us bread with homemade apricot jam (which came to be a staple on our trip). We also stopped by the lake to take pictures. It was gigantic, and bright blue, a blue not even matched by the waters of the clearest beaches and oceans. It could have passed for an ocean were it not for the now capped mountains barely visible on the other shore.

Next Stop: Karakol and Altyn Arashan

In the afternoon, we arrived in Karakol. We had already arranged a homestay when we booked our driver that morning, and we couldn't have picked better. Jamilya, a charming plump old woman, greeted us at the driveway and led us into her house that could have passed for a Vermont bread and breakfast. Each room had a theme color, and we were placed in the lime green room. She then led us down to the kitchen, where she made us tea and, once again, bread with apricot jam (the best jam we had the whole trip).

The next morning, we wanted to go to some of the beautiful valleys near Karakol, and we thought that the best spot to aim for would be Altyn Arashan. On a tip from friends, we headed to Yak Tours, run by the eccentric Ukrainian Valentin. He drove us up to Altyn Arashan, a valley at nearly 3000 meters where he ran a satelite location, in his "50 year old jeep in a constant state of repair" (states Lonely Planet). When we arrived, we were able to see just how beautiful Kyrgyzstan was (see below). The valleys were green and lush, surrounded by towering snow covered mountains. To me, this was the whole reason for coming here; hang out with sheep hearders in spectacular scenery.

While we were here, we went horseback riding, we soaked in natural hotsprings, and we had a vodka shashlyk party with Valentin. It truly felt like we were on top of the earth, a place completely untouched by the modern world. We also took some time to have a picnic in another nearby valley; the colors seemed so incredibly vivid (especially as compared to Shanghai, where everything has a gray tint).

Next stop: Back to Bishkek

We didn't have a lot of time in the capitol, but from an afternoon or so wandering the streets of Kyrgyzstan's extremely small capital (we walked almost the whole city in an afternoon), we learned a lot of things about this former soviet states. One of the things that struck us about Bishkek especially was the multi-ethnic feel of the city. For the first time in months, we didn't stick out. It also seemed, from our discussions with people, that everyone was able to freely choose an identity with which to associate: Kyrgyz, Russian, Ukranian, regardless of birthplace or passport. While this is probably not true for the entirety of the former USSR (certainly Kyrgyzstan is currently one of the most stable of the central Asian countries) it is such a different feel than the ethnic tensions we found in Xinjiang.

Nevertheless, this was still a very poor part of the world. The modern conveniences we so desparately need were not common here; for instance, indoor plumbing and good quality roads. We pointed out that if this were China, their major arteries (like the road from Bishkek to Karakol) would have been fixed within a day. Things are certainly moving slow in China, which we enjoyed.

It almost felt as if the country had not changed since 1991. The national museum is still a shrine to Lenin (see above), and Soviet style tanks, toilet paper, foodgoods, etc., are still common. It will be fascinating to see what happens to this part of the world as the world becomes more globalized and connected (however, it seems that of all these countries, the world is much more focused on Uzbekistan).

Next stop: Kashgar China

The moment we arrived in Kashgar, we were completely confused as to how we could still be in China. No longer were we the strange people with different colored hair standing out against a sea of Han. Gone were the garish Chinese lights, and the Ming Dynasty architecture were replaced by carpet shops. Fried dumplings replaced with rice stuffed intestines, and Chinese tea replaced with sour mare's milk. Instead of buying silk scarves, we looked at silk carpets. And gone were the chic high heels of Shanghai; they were replaced by head scarves and colorful full length dresses.

A great example of the strange new culture we had happened upon was the Sunday Livestock market, where men came (yes, only men) from all over the city to sell their sheep (all tied up in a row) cows, donkeys and horses. Standing in this field bustling with people and animals and men yelled at each other to settle a price while kicking a donkey in the butt to make sure it had good reflexes was quite a sight to see.

We spent a day wandering the old town, observing every day life. It felt more central Asian than Kyrgyzstan by far, with carpet salesmen, and winding brick allyways that looked straight out of Kite Runner (actually, I think parts of Kite Runner were actually filmed here). We also learned a lot about the plight of the Uigher people. The walls were stamped with constant reminders of religious restrictions (such as going to Mecca). And while there were no Han people in sight, the explanations of all the tourist sights included insidious statements about racial harmony and anti-religious extremism (obviously spurred on by the recent spurts of violence from separatist groups).

We also learned, right before we arrived, that the Chinese government is planning on tearing down old town to "save it." Essentially, the government argues that because the foundation underneath Kashgar is quite unstable (many of the houses are up on platforms, and it is hollow underneath), they need to tear it all down and rebuild it for safety reasons, in case there is an earthquake. They plan to rebuild the old town in a traditional Islamic style, thus maintaining its original ambiance.

A few interesting things about this current decision. The earthquake argument is understandable to some, and confusing to others. It seems to me that the reason for giving this justification for tearing down the old town would sit well with many Chinese and the international community because of the recent disaster in Sichuan. The Uighers of old town, however, while probably not surprised, find this justification confusing or humorous (according to the Uighers around the old town I talked to). They have lived there for over 1000 years, and the old town has survived many earthquakes and has never fallen down. According to one woman I spoke with, she explained that they saw it as a tragedy to their history that they could do nothing about, and they all strongly feel that they were not given accurate justification for why their homes were taken away from them. They also, at least those I talked to, saw this as a direct attack on their culture, a way for the Chinese to further demonstrate their power over the region in light of growing tension and animosity.

But destroying things in the name of progress is certainly not new for China. It was a common practice of the 1960s and 1970s, of course, but the Beijing Olympics and the coming Shanghai Expo saw similar situations: peoples’ houses torn down with little compensation. Many of Beijing’s old hutongs are still inscribed with the kiss of death, the character “chai.” But this destruction in the name of progress differs from these other situations in its direct relation to cultural autonomy and ethnic tensions. Furthermore, if the Id Kah mosque is any indication of how the new Kashgar Old Town will look, it is likely that it will turn into a Lijiang-type tourist old town with little resemblance to anything except another stop for Chinese shoppers and photographers.

As far as this relates to ethnic tension, the Uighers I spoke with about this situation feel relatively hopeless. But it will be interesting to find out how this will affect a city that already feels more Central Asian than Central Asia itself. Perhaps it will spur on new problems, or it will exacerbate the failure an already dying cause.

Next stop: Pakistan

Disclaimer: For people worried about 1.) my personal safety; 2.) Fulbright rules, we actually only stepped our foot into the border; we more just wanted to see the highway. Please relax and continue reading.

Probably the highlight of our trip to Xinjiang (aside from donkey-buying) was a road trip up to the border of Pakistan on the Karakorum highway. Built 40 years ago, this was meant to be the "friendship highway" between the 2 nations. It passes through the immense Karakorum mountain ranges, passing by deserts, rivers, and towering snow mountains at nearly 7200 meters above sea level. The border itself is on the Khunjerab pass at a harrowing 5000 meters.

Somehow or another, between a violent 24 hour flu that passed among our group, a car that would only start if we got out and pushed it, and a midnight joyride that ended in a dead donkey, we made it to the border and back. The views were astounding, and we were able to witness many of China's fringe groups living in what felt like the end of the earth. We visited some Kyrgyz goat herders and a young Tajik girl with her mother. All of their houses use solar panels, and they are actually given a lot by the state. Not that they would ever forget; propaganda is heavily stamped on every flat surface, sometimes interspersed with China Mobile advertisements.

What was amazing to me is that our driver, who was Han Chinese from Xi'an, seemed to really treat all of the peoples of the silk road with respect and admiration; except for the Uighers. He often made derogatory comments about them, and telling us why they had such a bad stereotype among the Han of Xinjiang (that they are often in jail, they often steal, they get into violent fights, etc.) Similarly, when we had other conversations with Uighers, they (in very low voices) expressed their problems with the Han Chinese. Whatever else we may have discovered, it is clear that probably more than anywhere else in China (except perhaps Tibet) tensions here are incredibly high.

We spent, well, no time in Pakistan. I think the only story we have about Pakistan is the road; it was a fantastically renovated, smooth, safe highway up to the border; in fact, the border was made clear by the line between the renovated and non-renovated road. Also, the direction of traffic switched from right to left (apparently Pakistani's drive on the left side of the road too).

On our last night, we spent the night at Karakol lake with some friends of our driver's, the personal home of a Kyrgyz family. We were finally tucked in under mountains of blankets when at 1 in the morning, we were raided by local police who demanded that we stay in a state approved hotel. Apparently what caught the attention of the police was our driver, who on a midnight cigarette run, hit a donkey and killed it (see below the post-donkey car).

While the situation certainly scared us at the time and made us laugh afterward, what it indicated to me was the amazing amount of control the government in China had in keeping tabs on everyone. I never gave much thought to showing my passport at internet cafes and hotels, but looking back, I realized that the government really does know where I am almost all of the time. I don't live permanently in China, so this will (hopefully) never affect me, but it is disconcerting to think about. It is easy in China, I think, to forget that we live in a single party Communist state, until you begin to realize these small symbols of complete control all around (for more on this, look at the government's new Green Dam project for new computers).

These thoughts, however, all came post-trip. All we could think about after our adventure was the beautiful landscape. See below.

Final stop: Turpan

This was probably the more relaxing and definitely most touristy part of our trip. We only took a day to see the major sights around Turpan, including the Emin minaret (China's largest) the Flaming mountains, Turoq (a cute Uigher village) and some Han dynasty ruins that looked like Utah. While it felt somewhat anti-climactic, the scenery was really beautiful. It was also unbelievably hot; this should not have been surprising considering it is actually China's hottest spot, with record temperatures of 47 degrees farenheit.

This trip was an enormous learning experience for me. I never really knew anything about post-soviet central Asia (or Soviet central Asia, for that matter). And I believe my trip to Xinjiang opened up to me a part of China people very rarely see, a part of China I never really knew anything about. China is a growing, impressive power, but there are underlying problems and tensions. My guess is that eventually, these will slowly be snuffed out rather than escalate into a full scale struggle, but who knows? And while it is sad to see essentially the death of a culture, this situation is certainly not exclusive to China (I think our Native Americans serve as an appropriate, albeit anachronistic, comparison). All that being said, I hope that the knowledge of these peoples, and how they have influenced history, won't be lost as they face the modern world.

And as a side note, I would highly recommend all or any of this trip to travelers with even a slight sense of adventure. The scenery is among the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life, and for sure in China, and the culture is incredibly unique, even in central Asia.