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.