Why is Nobody Kung Fu Fighting?

In the land of Shaolin, where’s the Wushu?

Published in Issue 9 of Chengdoo magazine, January 2008 | http://www.chengdoo.com

When foreigners imagine traditionally Chinese “things,” one of the first things likely to jump to mind is the image of a fast-kicking, shirtless man with a penchant for lethal blows and high pitched battle cries.

Chinese kung fu, known here in China as “Wushu,” is a martial art of cult popularity overseas. First popularized by actor Bruce Lee in the 1970s, then revived in the 1990s by successors Jackie Chan and Jet Li, it’s the martial art of choice for many action films. Wushu features dozens of styles, often categorized by their geographical origin or use of weapons, including Changquan (long-range), Nanquan (Southern style) and Jujiebian (Nine-tailed whip).* As an indication of its worldwide popularity, recent Wushu international competitions have featured competitors from 56 countries.**

So why then, here in China, is it so hard to find a Wushu club or gym at which to practice in Chengdu? In talking to locals here, it would appear that few people practice Wushu, preferring more recently introduced sports like ping-pong or basketball. And if they do happen to practice a martial art, more often than not it’s Tae Kwon Do, which isn’t even Chinese, but Korean.

What has led to such paucity of martial arts practice in the historical home of the art? Might it be a symbol of growing rejection of traditional mores in favor of all that is considered modern, affluent and even Western? And is Tae Kwon Do’s relative popularity a testament to the power of South Korea as the region’s pop culture juggernaut, extending its exports beyond fashion styles and soap operas?

The answer, according to several local martial arts teachers, has more to do with the Chinese government’s athletic ambitions and the whims of the market than any dramatic reorientation of cultural allegiances.

“There are three main reasons why martial arts aren’t so popular in China,” explains Zhang Lunwei, a 28-year-old Chengdu native who teaches at the Chengdu Mugen Ryu Martial Arts Academy on Changshun Middle Street.

“Firstly, in China, it’s hard to accept a sport that’s not internationally acknowledged,” Zhang said. “The General Administration of Sports of China must recognize the sport before a national organization can be organized.”

It’s for this reason that kendo, a Japanese martial art involving sword practice simulated with bamboo sticks, does not have a nationally-recognized association. Instead, Chinese kendo enthusiasts have come together to form an unofficial organization under the name of “China Kendo Organizations Union” in hope of gaining recognition by the government.

Recent social change is the second reason Mr. Zhang cites.

“So far, the focus in China has mostly been on economic development. The notion of practicing martial arts as recreation is something many Chinese “are only starting to pay attention to.”

In addition to the newness of common practice of martial arts for recreation in this growingly affluent society, traditional beliefs regarding Wushu practice in particular also limit the art’s popularity.

“Strong bodies, simple minds,” is an idiom some older Chinese still take to heart, referring to the heavy time commitment and singular devotion traditional Kung Fu practice—from which Wushu is derived—would occupy. “‘Kung fu’ means time and effort,” Mr. Zhang noted. Such heavy commitment, in a society as academically competitive as China, might be seen as a sure way of extinguishing one’s career aspirations.

However, Mr. Zhang adds that “parents nowadays recognize the importance of fitness and martial arts and are more willing to send their children to such classes.” However when faced with a decision between martial arts and academics, parents are more likely to choose academic courses over physical fitness courses, under the belief that high academic achievement is better for career aspirations. He cites the low employment rate of martial arts majors in China as evidence.

Wushu study has evolved to become more well-rounded, according to Ji Rui Min, a 22-year-old Wushu major at Chengdu Sports University, who is training to be a Wushu instructor. Ms. Min, a native of Henan province, home of the famous Shaolin temple, whose monks developed perhaps Wushu’s most famous style, acknowledges that some old people may still hold traditional beliefs about its practitioners.

“But nowadays, we not only exercise Wushu but study [a number of] different [areas],” Ms. Min said, citing teaching methods, English for Wushu instruction, and other classes designed specifically for teaching Wushu abroad.

On the subject of Tae Kwon Do’s popularity, the government’s yearning for international success and market re-branding play a far greater role than any sort of widespread rejection of national culture.

“It became popular in 1998, after China won a couple of medals in the World Tae Kwon Do Championship in Ho Chi Minh City and Tae Kwon Do was inducted into the 2000 Olympics,” Mr. Zhang said.

A large state-sponsored promotion of the sport began in China, with an eye toward gold medal success. Tae Kwon Do quickly became rampantly popular, and schools have subsequently sprung up throughout the country.

But Mr. Zhang questions the authenticity of some of these Tae Kwon Do academies.

“Many people who used to study Wushu study Tae Kwon Do for a few months, get a black belt, then start their own Tae Kwon Do school,” he said.

“There are instructors that are highly qualified but many just went through a short training program or are even self-taught.”

Mr. Zhang recommends watching a couple of classes and talking to the instructors before joining, as there are “schools with a bad reputation, poor instruction and [that are] in the industry just to make money.” He suggests that prospective students should always learn the qualifications of the instructor and reputation of the school.

Wang Chang Yong, a 21-year-old Tae Kwon Do instructor at the Olympic Boxing Training Center, views Tae Kwon Do more as a small piece within Wushu than as a separate martial art. His center is one of over one hundred branches in Sichuan province, with over ten in Chengdu alone.

“Tae Kwon Do has a history of two to three hundred years,” Mr. Wang said. “Wushu’s history is two to three thousand years old.”

Additionally, the movements are “very simple,” Mr. Wang says of Tae Kwon Do. It’s subsequently “easier to learn” for young students, making it better suited for common practice. He also cites the “jing li”, or politeness, stressed in Tae Kwon Do as beneficial to younger students.

Mr. Wang, who has studied Tae Kwon Do at the Sports University for four years, stresses that the focus should remain, however, on Chinese Wushu, which is also taught in tandem with Tae Kwon Do during classes. He sees the academy as a breeding ground of sorts for future traditional Wushu practitioners; an art that he believes requires more intensive practice and thus “can only be practiced by [fewer people.]”

With this focus on competitiveness in international sports has also come what some instructors see as a loss of the traditional teachings of Wushu. In their place has come “Performance Wushu,” emphasized by national Wushu administrators, with its crowd-pleasing acrobatics and dramatic routines.

Performance Wushu is used “to promote Chinese culture abroad,” explains Ms. Ji, citing the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games as an example. Following this, she believes focus will return to traditional Wushu, with its emphasis on basic movements applicable to self-defense and combat situations.

But what of other martial arts in China? Can they find a niche within this bureaucrat-driven, still developing market?

“It’s very hard,” admits Eliran Dobzinski, 24, an Israeli studying Chinese at Chengdu University who also runs what he believes to be the only Krav Maga school in China. Mr. Dobzinski, who taught the Israeli martial art to police and army Special Forces students in his home country, remains puzzled as to how to market Krav Maga to a Chinese audience.

“I have only one Chinese student; the rest are foreigners,” he revealed. “She saw my picture in a local newspaper.”

Krav Maga was developed in the 1930s as a self-defense focused martial art. It focuses on effectively escaping real life threats, such as attempted robbery or bar fights, whilst cultivating more of a “street” way of thinking.

“Krav Maga is the only martial art in the world that will give you an answer to 99 per cent of the situations in the street,” Mr. Dobzinski said. “And if we don’t know the answer, we will find it.”

But as Krav Maga continues to struggle to establish itself in East Asian martial art-centered China, others are more hopeful of future growth.

Karate was already recognized as a national sport in China in 2007, and is rumored to become an Olympic Sport by 2016, said Mr. Zhang of the Mugen Ryu Academy, who has a black belt in both Kendo and Karate. He is confident that its popularity will grow, much like the case with Tae Kwon Do.

“Kendo will take a lot longer,” he believes, though the CKOU has registered with the International Kendo Federation, in order to be eligible to compete in international competitions.

But meanwhile, Mr. Zhang is happy to promote the holistic benefits of martial arts in Chengdu, along with his wife Eliza Bergen, 22, whom he met whilst studying Kendo in the United States.

“We came back to China to promote the benefits of martial arts beyond the pure physical aspects,” Mr. Zhang explained, mentioning traits such as self-esteem, discipline and confidence.

“It’s also a good way for foreigners to meet, as a bridging of the cultures of East and West,” the two added.

*** http://en.wikilib.com/wiki/Taekwondo
**** http://www.kami.co.il/


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Australianness in China: an Australian-Chinese reflects

A close friend of mine considers me nationalistic. She points out that I often add things like: “Did you know that she’s Australian?” when some celebrity figure comes up, or that I often wear my national colours of green and gold.

She is from Canada, and is quick to surmise that Canadians are not nearly so excited about being Canadian as people from Australia are about their home country.

So, this Saturday being Australia Day, my first celebrated in China, I thought it only suitable to bring she and a number of other non-Australians along to the Leg and Whistle, an English pub fortunate enough to host the evening’s Australia Day proceedings. There, they were subjected to a crash course in Australian culture, from the celebrity figures plastered to the walls (including a makeshift Heath Ledger memorial), to the surf short, thongs/flip flops and zinc sunscreen outfits of the adventurous (temperatures have been brutally cold in Chengdu this week) and rousing renditions of the “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!” chant and national anthem (which I, proud to say, lead).

Even the pub owners had gotten into the act, pasting “Victoria Bitter”–a popular Australian beer–labels over the local brewery logos and serving excellent versions of Australian meat pies, baked by a local chef from Singapore. I was most impressed, however, by the quote they’d chosen to adorn the front entrance of the pub:

“God bless America. God save the Queen. God defend New Zealand and thank Christ for Australia,” which they attributed to “some bloke named Bruce.”

What is it, then, which makes overseas Australians–such fervour is less common back home, where public participation is generally lifted to sports or music events–so enthusiastic, so cheerful, so wild about celebrating their country’s existence? In particular, this one, of Chinese blood and Malaysian family? Attend a sporting event featuring the Australian national side anywhere from London to Beijing this August and you’ll be sure to see somebody adorned head to toe in gold and green, flag waving proudly, with possibly a stuffed kangaroo in tow. We are famously rowdy (occasionally overly so), beer-intensive, all-inclusive celebrators. Other countries, like the United States and Brazil, are similarly patriotic, but for a country of barely over 20 million, I think Australia’s brand is still rather remarkable.

At a general level, the facts are an obvious place to look. Australia is comparatively safe, wealthy, healthy and boasts the sunniest weather of any developed country. We have interesting animals, Elle Macpherson, ACDC and had Steve Irwin. Also, we’re not British. Our social democracy is functioning reasonably well and we’re riding the wave of a huge natural resources economic boom.

But clearly, we’re not perfect. Our indigenous relations were and remain appalling; we host our fair share of racism and bigotry, anti-intellectualism and sheltered small-mindedness. Global warming is already beginning to have serious impacts upon our way of life. Australia’s future, in terms of its demographic make-up, economic sustainability and relationship with Asia and the West remains particularly unclear.

For me, the most important tenet of Australianness is that of fairness. The fruit of our history as a working class nation, later shaped by multiculturalist policymakers, it is both quintessentially pragmatic and timelessly universal, not unlike the American Dream. Giving people “a fair go” at life, acting “fairly” in all matters and through natural extension, fundamental values such as honesty, integrity, tolerance and inclusiveness. I see this notion at the core of our famous warmth amongst strangers; particularly from the ever-grateful Britons I meet who’ve taken refuge from the UK’s emotionally icy shores at some point. At a more personal level, it’s not difficult to draw connections between fairness and my move into international development. What, if nothing else, is development work about if not giving poor people “a fair go” at life?

I also hold that this belief–the “Fairness Doctrine”, if you will–extends beyond “giving a fair go” to “having a fair go.” Australians celebrate the adventurous, the hardy and the dedicated. My father’s favourite Australian is Fred Hollows, an ophthalmologist who performed free cataract surgery in Aboriginal communities and abroad from the 1970s through to the 1990s. Such commitment and tenacity to fulfilling one’s abstract values is rare, but we promote it as a national value, celebrating sportsmen like cricketer Justin Langer, who makes up in heart what he might lack in God-given talent, along with our freakishly talented, such as Shane Warne.

It is overseas in which our appreciation for a fair society, amongst other things, matures and sweetens. For me, it began to kick in as a teen when observing the plight of Baltimore’s homeless during a seven-year stint in the United States, and carried through to the particularly acute inequality gap of the developing world, including China. I’m sure the feelings similar for many an Aussie backpacker, traveling other similarly poor countries for the first time. Though we’re far from perfect, and recent immigration policy has been anything but, I still hold Australia to the sort of “fairness” standards that America never displayed (but which I know many Americans are working towards).

This morning over breakfast, the same friend described my nationalism as “comparable” to that of the other Aussies in attendance, if somewhat more subtle. She cited, for example, my insistence on her translating a couple of speeches that fellow revellers had given into Chinese for a non-English speaking friend.

Perhaps its because this year I happen to be in China, the land of my ancestors, that my national heritage becomes all the more precious. Surrounded by people of a similar appearance, yet feeling more foreign than ever before, I am steeled by the notion of “a fair go,” in everything from communicating in Chinese to rounding out my students’ English pronunciation. It’s not exactly Buddha’s Eightfold Path or the Ten Commandments, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s Australia’s version of “Liberte Egalite Fraternite” and it’s as close to universal humanist doctrine as anything else I’ve come across.

After all, when my Grandparents left China in the first place, what more were they truly after than a fair go at a decent life, at a chance to escape grinding poverty? And where Malaysia might have been reasonable good to them, it’s university admission laws were less than fair to my parents (amongst other Chinese Malaysians), who ended up studying in New Zealand, before moving to Australia. I’m genuinely thrilled to live in a time where many Chinese are realising they don’t have to move to the West to prosper. That at some level here, they too have a fair chance of earning success.

Imagine that. A country as ancient as China learning a thing or two from one as small and young as Australia.

Proud to be Australian? You bloody bet’cha!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Yo Le Yuan: Amusement Parks in a time of speed fever

When hopping into a taxi in Chengdu to return to my apartment, I have come to rely on the same phrase, one that experience has proven far more reliable than street names or directions.

“Yo Le Yuan,” I tell the driver, meaning “Amusement Park.”

I live, quite fortunately, close to Chengdu’s most famous amusement park, located in the northeast section of town, a largely industrial, less developed area, which often feels a world away from the nouveau riche glitz of the city’s southern districts, favored by well-heeled professionals and foreigners. In a city famous for its leisurely ways, but which increasingly feels the inescapable pinch of modernization, Yo Le Yuan provides a temporary step back towards a more relaxed era. In a country in which it seems everyone has a business pitch or moonlighting income streams, Yo Le Yuan is increasingly necessary in its quaint, honorable refusal to join the commercial frenzy.

The front entrance to the park, located along the Funan river, is gaudy and neon, an accurate indication of the park itself. Outside, Uighur men sell lamb kebabs, distinctive as ever with their Muslim white caps and non-Chinese features (originally from northwestern Xinjiang province, they are Central Asian and speak a Turkic-family tongue). Over the entrance looms the park’s defining feature, an enormous Ferris wheel, vaguely reminiscent of the London Eye or a piece of the Starship Enterprise. For the two-yuan admission fee, one is free to roam the park’s small collection of rides and games; it’s horror houses and video game arcades. I mostly go alone, where I am free to observe its fascinating patrons at play. I love the “oohs” of the elderly as the roller coaster zooms by, pointing out the physical marvel on display to their grandchildren. Or the detached boredom of stall keepers, serving traditional candy snacks or monitoring a robot tiger as it trawls along in slow, mechanical circles. At the heart of the park’s appeal, though, is the children: enthralled, squealing, laughing, crying and rambunctious.

Compared to American theme parks, with their bigger, better, “5D” attractions, slickly executed promotional tie-ins and Hollywood marketing, Yo Le Yuan couldn’t begin to compete. Instead of Disneyland’s Wild West water slide, we get Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King, presiding over a decidedly smaller, less fantabulous ride. The monsters of the horror house, at least those outside its doors, more closely resemble grumpy old men than nightmare-inducing ghouls. (One of them, perhaps the scariest, uses a knock-off mask from the “Scream” movie franchise.) Some of its facades are fading; its style badly in need of updating. Yo Le Yuan’s greatness, however, cannot be marked by quarter profit margins or turnstile figures.

The beauty of Yo Le Yuan is not to be found in the draw of its attractions, but in the park’s patrons themselves. Just beyond the park’s low walls, a giant construction site is loudly at work, migrant laborers dotting the scaffolding, crane a-swinging. It’s a site almost as familiar as the stall sellers and afternoon mahjong games that constitute significant slices of Chengdu’s vibrant street life. Construction, with it’s chaos and its noise, serves to inform you, through sheer inconvenience if nothing else, of the breakneck speed at which the city and country is developing. But within Yo Le Yuan, the relentless, exhaustive pace of the country’s growth seems, at least momentarily, a world away. In giving primacy to family, friends and the necessarily silly release that a day in an amusement park provides, Chengdu locals are succeeding in balancing their striving with pleasure, doing as their ancestors have done long before the term “work life balance” became en vogue.

A local friend told me that most Chinese people’s dream is to have “an easy life,” one of ample leisure. It reminds me of the many conversations I’ve had back home about yearning to engage in pastimes “if only I had the time,” or describing weekends and vacations simply as “too short.” One of the best metaphors I’ve seen in art is a photograph of a group of faceless men in business suits, each clutching a suitcase. Falling out of their suitcases is a giant, colorful beach ball, signifying the long-standing struggle that Americans have had in trying to fit work and play into their lives. Here in Chengdu, long a symbol of unhurried, pleasant living, the pressures of a large population, coupled with suddenly widespread opportunities at upward mobility, have created a frightfully competitive society. Various pressures, from academic and financial success to tradition-laden duties like marriage and child rearing, seem to weigh heavily on the minds of my local friends.

In such times then, taking the bus to Yo Le Yuan and strolling through its stalls, gaudy and visibly aged as they are, is as much a statement of intent as it is one of temporary escape. Through recreation, that most elusive but sought after of pursuits, we relearn what things we hold most dear, we re-live what it is to be young, we return to an age less hurried. We recreate, often subconsciously and without purpose, the arc of our lives as we strive to live them.

In this hurricane period of speculation and investment, of incredible prosperity and egregious inequality, Yo Le Yuan demarcates the physical space in which our minds are free to wander, to feel the adrenaline shot of a loop-the-loop, the stinging spray off the water slide, the unhurried joy of watching one’s children discover and delight. Modern society, in the glass and concrete temples we construct, in the electronic tools into which we are plugged, will lose the meaning behind its creation without time away from its upkeep. Like the free marketplace off of which it is fueled, modernity as we know it can consume the humanity it originally served, like imagined mutinous A.I. machines or aggrieved peasants of past decades. The amusement park is a bulwark, a symbol of what makes us human beyond simple consumer forces.

My favorite memory from Yo Le Yuan is of a solitary man, waltzing alone in the fading dusk light some months ago. His eyes were closed, perhaps envisioning a partner at his fingertips, mirroring his nimble steps. But, even more evident, was the feeling of deep mindfulness, of such pure, untainted pleasure, experienced on a tiny stage before an unseen audience of one.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Adapting Christmas Traditions in China

My family’s Christmas tradition provided a mobile adaptation to the broader ritual of spending quality time with one’s family members. Given that none of our extended family lived in the same country as us, we had no grandparents’ or aunts’ homes to visit; no large, chaotic hosting obligations to fulfill. Given all this precious vacation period, but none of the chore-some, occasionally dreaded duties that for many of my friends defined their notion of “Christmas,” we made it our own family ritual to leave town. And so, as “real” families around Australia assembled en masse around the barbeque and the pool, the Antipodean take on the warm open fires and snow-white roofs of Winter Christmas yore, ours simply took off along the country’s empty roads.

Our most memorable Christmas lunch: eating canned meat with a blanket spread out in a nondescript park in South Australia. Inside the car–a Holden Commodore, the country’s all-purpose family sedan–we would switch between a tape of Christmas carols and the traditional Boxing Day (December 26th) cricket test match commentary. This didn’t stop upon moving to the United States, where Christmas was often spent in a hotel room warmer than that found in Winter Maryland. As Chinese secularists, we didn’t lose any of the broader meaning of Christmas–that of family and thankfulness–we simply paired the tradition with the similarly universal ones of vacation and exploration.

This Christmas, my 23rd, will be spent away from family, in the damp, polluted climes of Chengdu. Here, where Christmas carols are heard about town with surprising frequency, and where global commerce has brought the affliction of inflatable Santa Claus dolls and silly stocking hats to businesses throughout the city, Christmas seems to have been adopted with equal parts pro-Western consumption gusto, bemused curiosity, and occasionally: inspiringly genuine interest.

When I asked some of my sixth graders what they would ask for from “Old Man Christmas”–a direct translation from the Chinese translation of “Father Christmas”–their answers were typical, but occasionally touching.

“A mother’s kiss,” wrote one girl, earnestly, (they attend as boarding students) as did those students asking for Christmas stockings, candy canes, and the regular sixth grade assortment of desires, including pets, computer games and money.

“A banana,” wrote another, less earnestly.

Despite the irony-inducing mass commercialism involved in modern-day Christmases, felt particularly astutely in the States, and thankfully thus far a little less prominently here, I couldn’t help but notice the twinge of nostalgia apparent in my colleague’s musings over the smell of Christmas trees and favored feast dishes. For even the most cynical, this most unpleasant time of year leads expatriate minds to wander more quickly than usual, back to the homes of North America, Europe and other Christmas-celebrating lands.

In their place, then, we substitute friends’ Christmas parties, particularly crucial now in their enlarged role as sole-bearer of home traditions. I have a slew of them lined up before me, a sort of gauntlet for the many foreigners in Chengdu currently suffering from respiratory ills. Our lungs, I have been told, have simply not adjusted to the amount of dirt in the air, and that once they’re sufficiently “dirty,” I’ll be ready to tackle future Chinese winters without hitch.

At the end of the day, then, Christmas in Chengdu, as with Christmas anywhere in the world, is about human love and kinship. As mobile as the human body and the heart it carries inside, as long as you’re with those you care about and appreciate, you’re as “home for Christmas” as you might be anywhere else. At times, even more so. At least that’s what I think. And it’s for such reasons that I am particularly thankful for that which I’ve been graced with this holiday season.

Addendum: Alas, I’ll still be working Christmas day, along with the rest of the country!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fanning the Yellow Firestorm

> Western media and the oriental in orientalism, from the December 2007 issue of Chengdoo magazine (www.chengdoo.com)

By Mark Hiew

“Too many problems with China, they make cheap crap that everyone buys bulk and then they use the profits to build up a weapons force. China is very dangerous. We should buy American and keep our economy going,” wrote ‘CC’, a commentator on the weblog Cruft, in reaction to the recent recall of the Aqua Dots toy, echoing a growing number of western consumers (http://cruftbox.com/blog/archives/001442.html).

According to a recent poll by Harris Interactive, 45 percent of Americans said they will avoid buying toys made in China this holiday season. Given the recent escalation in negative sentiment toward goods manufactured in China, what might we infer of broader Western perceptions regarding China, its culture, and ultimately, Chinese people the world over?

Western media outlets have focused for years on Cold War era-based China themes: the suppression of human rights and democracy, infanticide, fixed exchange rates and the country’s growing influence overseas. Rarely has China been portrayed positively in Western media.

In movies, Chinese still remain a mix of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan kung fu fighters; pretty, qipao-wearing women; and rickshaw-pulling coolies. In the news, they are often described as a monolithic collection of faceless factory workers, alternatively oppressed and threatening to Western hegemony. In Western media, if Chinese are not dramatically different from what constitutes “normal” (read: Caucasian) people, then they rarely register at all.

It is natural tendency for humans to use their standing in relation to others to provide validation of their own identity. Anyone who has ever been asked (or told) about the habits of ‘foreigners’ as if a spokesperson for all non-Chinese people can probably relate. Similarly, when Westerners think of China and its citizens as one monolithic object, rather than a diverse collection of varied people and things, it becomes easier for them to differentiate this “object” from themselves—and, more importantly, harder for them to see the other as fully human.

History shows that a nation becomes more unified when its citizens agree on a common enemy, and for many countries, such as the United States, China’s economic vitality makes it a ready trade foe. Chinese-product scares over the past year have fueled a consumer backlash against Chinese goods. Toxic toothpaste and poisoned pet food were the first stories to break. Then, toy giant Mattel retracted millions of toys for toxic lead levels it blamed on Chinese manufacturers, only to later issue a public apology when its own design flaws were found to be at fault. More recently, Aqua Dots, a toy slated to be a top seller during the upcoming season, were recalled, following the hospitalization of several small children who swallowed the small beads, found to contain gamma hydroxy butyrate (GHB), labeled, in typically sensational fashion, as the “date rape drug.”

Throughout all of this, Chinese manufacturers, or simply China, have generally taken the brunt of the blame, and the role that importers, distributors, retailers, and trade regulations play is largely overlooked by media and consumers. In so doing, a complex issue becomes oversimplified into a classic white mythology: the pure American infant being poisoned by evil and heartless Chinese is not unlike past visions of European explorers’ run-ins with headhunting Pacific islanders or primitive African tribes. With unfailing consistency, it continues to be through the supposedly superior Western European—technologically advanced, socially liberated and fair—through whose eyes the rest of the world—too often poor, primitive and dark—is seen.

In a global economy in which labor markets know few borders, China has become an easy scapegoat for media populists such as Lou Dobbs, who are looking to win disgruntled viewers seeking an outlet to vent their anger against the shifting realities of outsourcing and globalization. Politicians, also looking for a subject upon which to unite a large voter demographic, will leap at the opportunity to speak out against a common enemy. Conservative news media fan the flames. The WorldNetDaily, who earlier this year ran the headline “China products choke, burn, drown, drop, trap Americans”, lists a multitude of Chinese-made products that have been found to have defects, performing an in-depth “investigation” that reads more like conspiracy theorizing than serious journalism. Though an extreme example, it nonetheless illustrates the underlining fear of and contempt for the “other” that drives much current China-versus-the-West sentiment.

Some might argue that the role of the media is not to provide a balanced, human perspective on other countries but simply to publish what people care about or want to read, one-sided sinophobia included. Balancing the traditional duties of journalism against the profit motive of commercial media has lingered consistently as a major debate within the industry. Still others argue that journalism, produced not by objective machines but real, human reporters—each with their own set of beliefs, experiences, and motivations—will always be inherently slanted.

But in a century in which China is steadily re-emerging as a global power, shouldn’t Western media—as one of the most powerful arbiters of what people know and debate—not be responsible for providing people with as fully informed and well-balanced a picture of China as possible?

In recent years, it must be noted, such fixed, non-constructive portrayal has begun to change. Media bureaus are beginning to look beyond the obvious headlines in order to offer a more nuanced, less polarized perspective on China. In Hollywood, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” a comedy about two refreshingly “normal,” pop-culture-literate Asian Americans, and “Shanghai Kiss,” which features New York-born Ken Leung as the lead romantically involved with a Caucasian woman, are notable examples of mainstream films that humanize Chinese and/or Asians, rather than continuing to exoticize them.

Increasingly, the Internet has offered average citizens the opportunity to report their own news, sharing their perspectives with a global audience. “Sexy Beijing,” an online TV show (www.sexybeijing.tv), features a young host named “Su Fei” (American Anna Sophie Loewenberg) who conducts street interviews, in Mandarin, in the country’s capital, touching on issues ranging from dating to youth culture and presenting a much more personable peek at China than most traditional-media outlets. (The show, which is in Mandarin but subtitled in English, is watched both inside and outside China.)

Such “new media,” including blogs, podcasts and social-networking sites, cater to a wider array of interests and provides a broader perspective on China than does traditional media. And unvetted and haphazard as locating information on the internet might be, blogs are becoming a favored source for information about China outside of mass media.

Still, considerable work remains to be done if the barriers of ignorance and distrust, which lie at the heart of much conflict, international or otherwise, are to be broken down. An American colleague once told me a disheartening story of a discussion she had with a Las Vegas taxi driver regarding her then-impending move to China.

“It’s a good thing you’re getting a head start,” he warned her. “Because our grandchildren will probably [have to] speak Chinese as their first language.”

Such notions of Chinese imperial aggression, not unusual to many casual observers in the West, show an utter ignorance to thousands of years of foreign history. Thankfully, there are some people actively seeking a more realistic, first-hand understanding of China, whether through turning to alternate sources beneath the mainstream, Chinese media first-hand or, perhaps best of all, traveling in person to the Middle Kingdom.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Chengdu Secondhand Crafts Bazaar

–Punk-style DIY anti-consumption meets Chinese frugality

This past Sunday, Chengdu’s first ever second hand crafts bazaar took place at the Jah Bar, one of the few reggae-themed bars in the city.

I helped to set up the event by hauling boxes of second hand goods from one of the organizer’s elevator-less apartment building down five stories and into the van of Chengdu’s finest “freelance transporter.” His name is Hei Wa–literally translated, it means “Black baby”–and he seems to do a roaring trade for what is, essentially, a man with a van. His business card features a paragraph of grammatically perfect English, informing foreigners that he can take them to local attraction sites, to move goods, and so forth, and features the impressive emblem of Sichuan University. The beauty of his relationship with the institution, of course, is that it involves nothing more than his daily decision to drive on to its campus and solicit business. Apparently, he befriended a Thai foreign student there who typed up the English for his card.

Having paid Hei Wa off with four badminton rackets, we set up our collection of secondhand goods: clothes, household items, Western music and books…the trail of goods that short-term teachers and backpackers leave behind, pricing them at near give-away levels. Local Tibetan handicraftsmen arrived in a USAID truck, sponsored by an American NGO, to sell their wares–from tsampa carriers to wallets–made primarily of coarse wool and featuring the distinctively bright colors of Tibetan iconography. At 4pm sharp, as advertised, both foreigners and local Chengduans arrived to begin their earnest thrifting.

This was to be an interesting effort to merge two distinct cultures: Western punk-inspired Do-It-Yourself culture, with its disdain for “big box” store consumption and the wastefulness of fleeting fashion, with local, hardship-molded Chinese thrift. In the other corner, however, stood China’s rampant consumer youth culture, with its nouveau riche tastes for flash and price tags. It was anarcho-punk socialist ethic up against the gleaming storefront lights of global capitalism–though the players on either side were perhaps the reverse of what traditional China watchers may have expected.

I was tasked with working the rack of prize coats along with women’s camisoles and dresses in a busy patio in front of the bar. I tried to hand off the latter’s selling to an Australian friend, who is both female and far more beautiful than I. But for whatever reason, it ended up being I who made the majority of sales pitches.

“Ni hao Mei Nu,” I would begin, using the term “beautiful woman,” a common form of address here. Startled, perhaps by the near incoherence of my Mandarin (described by friends as “childlike” in its tone confusion), the prospective buyer would turn to me, eyebrows severely raised.

“Wo xiang ni yinggai chuan ji ge yi fu, ni kan tai piaoliang,”–literally “I think you should try this clothing, you look very beautiful” I would continue, most certainly incorrectly. And, as the women proceeded almost invariably to move on without purchase, I was reminded of the many hustlers, from Bali and Bangkok, Tijuana and Tibetan China, that have attempted similar hard sells on me. In particular, of one particular three-wheel taxi driver in Thailand who begun selling us his wares en route to our destination.

“You buy boo-tee-ful joo-lee for mah-dam,” he would repeat, chugging along in Bangkok’s horrendous traffic as he stroked the distractingly long mole hairs on his face. My brother and I, children at the time, were both perplexed and a little scared.

“What on earth is ‘joo-lee?!'” we wondered, staring at the multiple black inches protruding from his face, before glimpsing the cheap gold necklaces he later pulled out of his coat.

“Who is this aggressive man speaking to me like he is five years old?” the women must have wondered, trying to sell them Summer blouses during the start of Winter.

Later, I played songs with a couple of friends on the “unplugged” music stage inside, bringing the lesser known greatness of Western culture–namely, pale-faced rock groups like the Smiths and Mazzy Star–to our audience. Never mind than they were largely foreign friends or locals that I had cajoled into attending (“How much do you like being my Chinese tutor?”). This is how I love to live: singing songs before friends–Black, White, Yellow or otherwise in musical origin–including even those who refuse my dodgy sales pitch.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Jane Goodall in Chengdu, plus: thoughts on sustainability messaging in China

There were a couple of moments at the Jane Goodall lecture at Number 7 Middle School in Chengdu last week which served to remind me that it took place in China. This was, I assume, her stock speech, given at any of the other hundred or so countries Ms. Goodall speaks at during her 300 days of travel per year. Number 7 Middle School, whose rather average-sounding name belies its widespread fame as the best prep school in Sichuan (and one of the best in the country), is so highly regarded that both of the schools at which I teach have borrowed its name.

Dr. Goodall, the British anthropologist-turned-conservationist who revolutionized primatology through her decades of study with Gombe chimpanzees in Tanzania, greeted the filled auditorium in chimp language. Her speech was part of a week of events in Chengdu organized by the Jane Goodall Institute, the conservation non-profit to which she now dedicates much of her time.

The speech, ably translated by a young Chinese woman, has probably been told so many times at this point that millions of people around the world have heard the story of “Old Man.” This story, of an abused chimp who forgives, is how Ms. Goodall capped the evening’s biographically-framed call to action. Old Man was a chimpanzee whose mother was shot by hunters, and the grief of her loss had taken such a toll on the chimp, emotionally and physically, that his transporters christened him with the name, even though he was only an infant at the time. Taken to North America, he was subjected to cruel research for 15 years, kept on a man-made island (chimps cannot swim) with other chimps. Over time his feeder, a worker named Mark who had been warned that the animals were dangerous killers, realized their disposition to be actually peaceful and became friendly with the chimps. One day, when playing with an infant chimp, he fell down, causing a large noise. The infant’s mother and other female chimps, thinking Mark had attacked the infant, rushed over in panic and begun to bite him. Old Man came bounding over, and, as chimps are eight times stronger than men, Mark prepared to die. But Old Man, rather than attacking Mark, fended off the female chimps, allowing the man to paddle to safety.

The moral of the story is clear. If Old Man, despite horrible mistreatment by humans for many years, had the capacity to forgive and act to save the life of a man, shouldn’t we, with our supposedly superior capacity for empathy, be able to do the same for other animals, and the environment at large? It’s a poignant message, one that has been reiterated in various incarnations by conservationists for many decades now. Old Man’s story pulls at our heart like a David Attenborough voiceover during the baby scenes of a BBC documentary, stirs our outrage like PETA shock footage and inspires action like Al Gore’s fuzzier moments during “An Inconvenient Truth.”

And yet, after so many years, our grim environmental reality has only earned widespread concern in the past few years in the West. In China, whose booming cities and legioning moneyed class is busily consuming with a “live now” mindset that brings to mind Westerners in more care-free decades of abundance, the message, it would seem, isn’t sinking in for most. Without doubt, the government’s environmental mandates are a step forward, and sustainability endeavors are certainly establishing a place within the country’s planning, if still only a blip compared to traditional economic matters. But for millions of consumers in China, it seems that sustainability won’t factor for some time, whilst they revel in the seemingly non-stop prosperity of this country’s burgeoning wealth.

Following her speech, Dr. Goodall presented awards to students from eight different school chapters of the Roots and Shoots program, which educates and mobilizes youth on conservation issues in close to 100 countries. Such programs certainly help. But, judging (admittedly on limited experience) by the way many everyday Chinese litter and pollute, one has to wonder how far the country’s consciousness must travel before it can get to the level of individual-level morality of, say, an Australia. And it’s not difficult to understand why, given how quickly China has moved from a country of general poverty (still far from eradicated) to new-found consumer wealth. According to a Chengdoo article, the country consumes 45 billion disposable chopsticks, the equivalent of 69,000 felled trees each day, and two to five million tons of plastic yearly, largely due to what is referred to as “white garbage”: plastic bags, most of which “[piles] up in the open air in the countryside without immediate or proper disposal.”

During her speech, Dr. Goodall spoke of once being charged by an adult male gorilla. In Western countries, one might expect such a reference to draw some manner of shock or awe from the audience. Here in Chengdu, they were practically silent. What drew the longest ovation, however, was when Jane mentioned acquiring her doctorate at Cambridge, something that I doubt that the polite Englishwoman was looking for when she mentioned it. It felt like people were in attendance because of the doctor’s prestigious academic background, and to see their schoolchildren receive accolades, rather than out of personal interest in the cause to which she was attempting to inspire them.

This feeling grew stronger during the Question and Answer session. Having grown up with Chinese parents, I am familiar with the heavy focus on education here, given its traditional role as one of the only tools of upward mobility. Despite this, I was still taken aback by one young boy’s question:

“After you received your doctorate, did you feel any sort of confusion about what to pursue in your academic career and in your life direction?” asked the chubby boy, surely no older than eight or nine. The crowd laughed and applauded thunderously. At his age, I would have probably asked a question about whether chimps can do somersaults in trees, not taking notes regarding one’s post-doctorate degree life direction.

The issue is not that students shouldn’t be aspiring to be doctors or prosperous. When aspiring Chinese Ivy league applicants enter America’s most hallowed campuses, I doubt that intellectual inquiry is the end goal for most of them. The focus of many of the students I’ve met here is squared firmly on a good job, a higher position in society and making money (not unlike those from other developing countries). So when they attend a Jane Goodall speech telling them to help save the environment, are they coming away from it ready to replace a coal plant or with a new introductory paragraph in mind for their college application? The two are not mutually exclusive, but by and large, it seems environmental activism will only earn its place amongst the personal priorities of Chinese when its couched within far more powerful existing social institutions.

What, then, to do? How might those concerned about China’s environmental footprint, present and future, shift the discussion forward quicker than it’s current pace? Here are three personal thoughts:

1.China will go truly green on the will of Chinese people, and nobody else’s.

This is a point which outsiders, if they haven’t already, must fully accept. Surely, without question, it needs to come from within. There’s little which China detests more than condescending know-it-alls from the West telling them how to do things, especially given our own role in bringing the Earth to its current state. Roots and Shoots is, in this way, successfully putting the power of knowledge in the mouths of the China’s own youth.

2. Quit using fighting words; up the partnership discourse.

In addition, outdated, “Us versus the Bad Guys” fighting words from the 60s school of hippie conservation will not work. I fear that Dr. Goodall, as admirable and committed an individual as she is, strays a little too often towards this worldview, which often cancels out its effectiveness by alienating as much as it calls to task. She finished the evening, it would seem on deaf ears, raging against the evils of pesticides, and her talk alluded to standard environmentalist bad guys: poachers, industrialists, energy war profiteers, without any mention of more conciliatory efforts to increase cross-sector cooperation, such as corporate social responsibility or carbon emissions targets. This may not have been the audience, but I would have liked to see some reference to such developments in lay terms. To leave them entirely absent from the discussion was unfortunate.

Though I didn’t attend a more intimate roundtable breakfast discussion with her earlier in the week, a friend who did said that while Ms. Goodall focused similarly on the wrongful actions of corporate antagonists. Her colleague Bill Valentino however, in far more productive terms, discussed corporate social responsibility and the importance of private sector engagement to future conservation. More of this, in emerging markets such as China, will prove vital.

3. Develop and utilize culturally-compelling messaging.

One of the strongest links Ms. Goodall’s presentation made was, not surprisingly, one of the most universal. In explaining how she succeeded in becoming a primatologist, despite growing up in a poor family, she returned numerous times to the conviction of her beloved mother. The mother in China, as a metaphor for the country and for filial love, hits home just as hard as it does elsewhere. Taken further, perhaps it can articulate, powerfully and convincingly, that to protect Mother China, as well as Mother Earth, is as “glorious” as it is to “get rich,” (as Deng Xiaoping famously uttered years ago). The Chinese certainly took those words to heart, and there’s no reason why, if thought out creatively and effectively, they wouldn’t do the same regarding matters of similar universal impact. Finding this, and other messages which powerfully articulate the intimate link between our actions, our planet, and the world we choose to pass on to our grandchildren, in a way that the average Chinese citizen finds compelling, may be most critical of all.

Call it “Sustainability with Chinese Characteristics” if you like. Or, call it practical, culturally suitable messaging.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized