Last Week in Fujian

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Wonderland: Derelict Amusement

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Last week a few friends and I cycled out to Wonderland, an abandoned amusement park on the way to the Badaling Great Wall. Planned by the Thai property developers The Reignwood Group, this Disney World clone usurped farm land from the locals of Chenzhuang Village in Nankou Town, the Changping District of Beijing. Based on original plans this 120 acre doppelgänger of Disney Land, now aptly nicknamed the Creepiest Place on Earth, was never completed. Construction ground to a halt in 1998 when disputes between the Thai company, local officials, and farmers erupted over the value of the land. Attempts to restart the cacophony of construction again failed in 2008, in the building revelry of the Olympic Games. After that the site as grown into a static reminder, a ruined beast, of failed and rapid development in China.

IMG_5588IMG_5590In 2006, when I first visited china, I remember passing this ersatz Disney Land on my way to the overly touristic Badaling Great Wall. And I have passed it several times since, on my way out of Beijing through the Changping or Yanqing districts. The complex is an easy 32 kilometers (20 miles) from downtown Beijing on the Badaling Expressway but we decided to avoid this congested highway and made our way first due north through less serviced country roads and highways that took on a material and spiritual resemblance to a distant moon. At times sand storms roared past us as we cycled. Our circuitous route there and back added up; by the end of the day we clocked in at around 120 kilometers (75 miles). Was the journey worth the sweat and the grime? Wonderland, although it has been photographed and featured in the Atlantic, The Washington Post, and various other places, is still an attraction and an eerie oddity out toward the hills.

IMG_5600IMG_5605IMG_5624IMG_5627In the last few years farmers have returned to the soil that was once marked to house colorful rides and innocent saturnalia. As they have reclaimed the property they are at times brisk with explorers, finding it less a destination of ruinous explorers and photographers perhaps than the source of livelihood. As we wandered around several minders followed us closely and barked commands not to enter certain doors and structures. Despite the isolation, the abandonment, there is a kind of spirit still floating through the walls and earth, a spirit enlivened by the brusque and weathered farmers in black. Although at the time of our visit the planting had yet to resume fully from winter, there was activity buzzing in mall pockets of tillage and I can only envision the changed character of the site once the husks are removed and the land glows with production. We were never chased off by any angry farmers but others have reported such a treatment. Still, in the haze of pollution and the gusts of sand swept down from the Gobi, the ruins produce the feeling of post-apocalyptic agriculture.

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North Across China: Night Buses, a Bowl of Noodles, and a Rotund Sichuanese Migrant

I said a temporary goodbye to Beijing and boarded a night bus for Erlian, the Chinese Mongolian border town renowned for prostitution and gigantoraptor fossils.

As the bus pulled away I was surprised by the English inquiry that greeted my unsteady approach to berth 37. There was a helpful tone to this young girl’s voice and I quickly discovered it was not the common Chinese student wanting to practice pidgin English. She was part of a small group of Chinese American missionaries on their way to the border to extend their visas that they may continue to proselytize and preach. Amicable though they were, we lived in two very different Beijings. Their company on that first leg of the journey was enjoyable, from the Jazz age ‘ohs’ and ‘yeahs’ at meal prayers that they took turns saying to the odd conversation denouncing evolution at a Mongolian dumpling restaurant a few kilometers from the 2005 discovery site of 70 million year old fossils. We parted in Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, autonomous in China is a silly word.

Outside the train station in Hohhot a phalanx of Uyghurs sold snacks, those dried rice, sweet nuts and fruit squares of exceptional mass they weigh out in front of your nose to your surprise at the cost when the presumably small slice you have selected amasses more gravity on the scales than your appetite was hoping. It’s a known scam but one avoidable if you know how to place your order. I didn’t feel like buying but I had time to kill before my train so I started to chat with one of the vendors.

‘Are you Uyghur,’ I asked in Chinese. ‘Shi.’ I am, he said. ‘Yakshimisiz.’ In his language, I said hello. At first he had been quite insistent that I purchase some of his dried and overpriced confectionary but my show of linguistic solidarity changed the course of the conversation. He was curious about this foreigner who knew a few words of the Uyghur language. ‘Where are you from?’ He asked me in Chinese. I told him I was American and he perked up even more. He was excited to her this, excited because he looks up to the United States, he explained, because America is a friend to the Uyghurs. He then brought up the name that the Chinese Government detests, the source of Islamic terrorism and separatism by the propaganda of the Han. ‘Do you know our Ribya?’ He asked in reference to Rebya Kadeer. I replied that I did, presumably he understood this to mean that I had heard of her, that I knew something about the suffering of the Uyghur people. I did not mention that I had met Rebya in Brussels only a few months earlier. It was the feeling of comfort that someone knows about your pain, that someone cares enough to step outside of their own parochial concerns and troubles to take the time to learn about another’s. This is how the world changes. With a somewhat victories sheen on his face he glanced around at his compatriots to see if they had heard. Tonight he will no doubt talk about the American who knows about Rebya Kadeer.

Shortly later I was on train 1717 to Lanzhou, Gansu Province’s capital in the Gobi. The ride was a normal 18 hour ordeal. I arrived in Lanzhou at mid morning the following day with no plan or place to go. I wasn’t sure how I felt about staying in this city famous for the noodles to which it has lent its name so I clung to the train station, toying for a few minutes with my options. Eventually I walked back to inquire about the trip to Turpan, the oasis on the edge of the mighty Taklamakan desert, the site of ancient minarets and mummies, and a step closer to my destination.

All the seats and hard sleepers on the train were sold out. There were soft sleeper tickets available for all the money I had just withdrawn from the ATM or 100 Kuai, about 15 dollars, for a standing only ticket. To hell with it. I bought the standing only ticket, a right to enter the train and nothing else, no space to claim, no right to comfort. The train would leave in several hours and I resolved myself to the next five hours of Lanzhou exploration before the madness of migrant workers with their instant noodles, folding chairs and cigarettes; the train ride from Lanzhou to Turpan takes just over 24 hours, much of that along the ancient Silk Road and the inhospitable Gobi desert.

I had heard about German beer gardens at the top of Baitashan but when I arrived on the bluff below the White Pagoda I discovered that the beer gardens were still closed for winter. It was early April, but with the beating sun, magnified by the thick insulation of pollution and a humidity that rose from the Yellow River that bisects the city, my heavy traveling pack, the hike, it sure felt like summer. I passed several migrant workers, stopping in the shade for a brief chat with one or two. Eventually I ordered a bottle of Snow beer, one of the world’s best selling brands with 61 million hectoliters of annual sales, an example of the sheer size of the Chinese market that an unknown beer to the rest of the world is made one of the best selling by virtue of domestic consumption. With my beer I settled under a tarpaulin to read James Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. After a few hours of charging my phone and getting lost in the past of the Tarim Basin I made my way down the hill and toward the train, with a necessary stop to eat Lanzhou lamian, hand pulled noodles.

I put my bag on the ground up in front by the brass railing. I figured this was a good idea and the best way to wait. It would be another two hours before the starting bell rang and the hordes began their frenetic dash for space on the train. I sat there on the floor amid the migrants and their bindles, with my over-packed backpack and a small red plastic bag containing naan; the only foreigner in the massive waiting hall, I attracted a lot of attention.

There was some confusion and commotion; the train was late. The scheduled time had approached and the scattered clumps of bodies that had been waiting, some supine on large parcels others squatting sipping steaming broth and tea or harshly chain smoking with yellowed finger tips and blackened missing teeth, congregated en masse and crowded their way to press against the rails, row upon row of smelly bodies, mostly dusty men, the occasional woman in a brightly colored veil, all waited, all pressed forward and I was smack dab in the front where I had positioned myself hours earlier. Behind me, in many distinct and gruff accents from the men that travel the entirety of China, complaints and impatience, some made jokes about rushing the conductors but the gate finally opened. The women in multicolored and sometimes sequined hijab and the children with expectant faces were the first to be let through the gate, from among the amorphous throngs of dirty suits and great bulging bags the frail and young were freed from the corral that still held the rest of us. Finally, the time, all the little gates opened, the space trembled for a moment as in a vacuum, and everyone was off dashing. I made a fevered dash with the rest for train car 15. I made it past some 10 cars before my lungs, under the weight of my heavy pack and the humidity refused to process oxygen and I had to slow my pace. Still, even walking the last few cars I found a little space of my own on the train, a little space next to a portly worker from Sichuan. We would become friends in the confined space. We crammed ourselves into a little nook, with a sink that had no water and a window that did not open, across from the toilet; I edged against the corner of the sink. It would get very full very quickly.

The Sichuanese migrant was a veritable encyclopedia. We drifted from American foreign policy and Chinese domestic labor regulations and monetary regulations. We spent a long time going over the unique foods of different regions. He had traveled all over China. When he wanted to really make a point he would slam his right hand down into the palm of his left hand. I noticed he was missing the tip of his right index finger every time he made an exclamation mark with these gesticulations. He would eventually pass out leaning against the corner of the wall for an hour or two. I found myself hoping for nothing but a surreal unconsciousness tinged with delirious dreams that distort space. Propped up, wedged in, obliquely resting, sleeping on their feet. I hung my head and in the canvas behind my eyelids I stared into the faces of my fellow passengers, tearing into their histories we exchanged knowing glances as we each got lost in one another’s tired visage, expecting an answer or sympathetic wink, and all this with my eyes closed, on the verge of something close to a dream.

I dreamed that the train car was full of Hajji, Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, the benches had been swept up on each other, crowded against the window to make room for the isles to expand into a vast room with a single great red Afghan rug below the individual prayer rugs rolled out, unfolding and unfolding, hundreds of hajji praying to Mecca. In the soundscape of my dream the muezzin had become a gestalt, the adhan an amalgamation of Chinese workers from Gansu, Hebei, Sichuan, and Qinghai, their faces melded together into one great gaping maw to utter the adhan in a cacophonous prattle of Mandarin and local dialects.

After a while of some ersatz sleep I was startled back from the land of sand by the loss of blood in my whole right side. My leg was freezing and my hand had no feeling. This pins and needles, a mala sensation like that of spicy hot pot, would linger for a few hours. To pass the time I tried to speak with some of my cellmates. One man from Gansu, on his way to Aqsu, started to complain to me that his boss wanted to send him to Pakistan. But it’s so dangerous there. The money doesn’t matter he was saying. He didn’t want to go. These faces were all bronzed by years of outdoor labor. What I earlier mistook as angry or suspicious glances were nothing but the looks of confusion and curiosity. They wanted to speak to me but some of them head such thick local accents or dialects that I could barely understand them, they could barely understand each other. Admittedly, my Chinese could use a lot of improvement.

There was a whole crew from Hebei going to Korla. One man, simple, glowing, toothless in a Mao suite, we barely exchanged words but forged a friendship over peanuts. We shared a cigarette and tossed shells onto the floor. He had a child’s grin and the eyes of a Buddha. He couldn’t open his iced red tea bottle or close the toilet door so I stepped in to help with these easy tasks. I shared access to his folding stool for a few minutes and we took turns leaning against the same chunk of wall. At one point, in my sleep deprivation, I really mistook him for family or my traveling companion, a full 10 seconds of pure confusion before I realized we barely knew each other. When I finally got off in Turpan I made a point of shaking his hand and saying goodbye. We was continuing another ten hours to Korla.

Youths played cards and slammed down their last cards with triumphant yelps. Some, those who had purchased hard seat tickets in advance reclined on their torn green pads while others loomed above, leaning, swaying with the train. One woman had slid herself under the seats, presumably to avoid the conductor as she likely had no ticket. My Sichuan bigman pontificated for all who would listen. He had that tone you couldn’t help but trust, his confidence more than made up for any lack of experience or grasp of the text. He didn’t like to work in Sichuan in the summer, too much rain. He preferred the torrid temperatures of Hami, in Xinjiang. He had made the trip a few times already. He was traveling with his tiegemer, iron blood brother, but he did all the talking. I never saw him eat anything on the train. How did he get so fat? Around 6am the conductor brought hot water in a trolly. There was a mad rush, people pushed and some nearly scalded; those clutching their instant noodles tight would eat, others would miss their chance. There was only so much water in this tiny metal water buffalo that was wheeled out a few times throughout the journey.

After some time, around 7am, I saw an empty spot on top of a pile of coal in thick white plastic sacks. I curled up, not quite an IKEA product, and forgot about my empty stomach. I snatched an hour of sleep, folded into myself like another chiseled bag on top of the coal. There were four columns stacked up chest high, but in the center of the four columns of sacks the empty space acted like a chimney for the freezing desert night air that rushed in from the Gobi outside and blasted up. I could only sleep for a short time before I was freezing; the coal shards themselves, sheathed in coarse plastic bags, were surprisingly comfortable.

The exhaustion wore on and the train continued. How do these people do this? My Sichuan friends eventually departed at their stops. Those who got off at Shanshan would free up a seat. I had a place to sit for the last hour before we arrived in Turpan. The seat was sticky but heavenly. Chinese pop music suddenly came blasting from the speakers. I started to think about power and the influence of discourse.

These people were all tired, deprived, struggling to make a living. They were transporting themselves where they thought there was work. They bore no malice. The struggle between subaltern and bourgeois is poorly understood. This was the case of Sartre’s introduction to Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, both are dehumanized, both are exploited. In this situation it is both the Han migrant and the Uyghur local, or the Kazakh or Yizu, who are exploited, somewhat dehumanized. Their animosity is misdirected, their prejudices and misunderstandings unnecessary. But I am no Vanguard among these people.

I hoped that with close proximity to one another such stereotypes would be shed. One migrant grumbled something at a veiled Uyghur as she passed him in the train, “These stupid minorities can’t speak Mandarin. They don’t listen or understand.” To which a quick witted and strong willed Kazakh women shouted back, “Ah, and you don’t understand their language. Don’t be so cocky.” Another point, I overheard some Han guy remark in disbelief that a minority eats the same foods. I hoped that some sort of exchange would happen when those from the interior are shipped off to the hinterlands, or when they share a confined space for extended hours, but I am sure they will sequester into native place camps once they arrive to work. There will be little discussion or learning among them. Maybe Han from Chengdu or Chongqing will argue with Han from Hohhot about who has better Hot Pot but I doubt that Kazakh, Uyghur, Han, or Hui will manage to break out of the carefully placed roles they have been taught to accept.

Thinking about this I drifted off in my green seat, finally able to sit properly after more than 20 hours; from staring at the passing landscape my mind returned to a concept I was toying with on the night bus from Beijing to Erlian a few days earlier. Power exists in interactions. It cannot exist in a solipsistic sense. It requires an opposite by which to demarcate its borders. While dialogical power is certainly a constructive force and one that owes its origin to the interactions of grossly unequal hierarchical structures it also resides in the everyday reproduction of collective identities. It is true that repertoires of resistance follow an evolutionary path, in that they generally slowly evolve from previous episodes, otherwise they would lack resonance and no one would know how to follow them. Equally this should be the case with grievances. Understanding and processing grievances follows something of an evolutionary or memetic pattern. Therefore, this evolution of grievances is very much a part of the linguistic world, the world of theory, that has a hard time breaking into the world of action. Of course it is more than symbolic violence that drives revolutionaries forward but it is beginning with symbolic violence that violence becomes structural, from mocking a minority woman on a tight train car to institutionalized prejudices. It is this immaterial, systemic violence encoded in the collective consciousness and understood in shared discourses that reifies the grievances that lead to action. What dictates the path of this action is the degree of political and symbolic opportunity space afforded by the regime and society, the influence of space. As I drifted about in these thoughts, the train finally rolled into Turpan. The Turpan depression is the second or third lowest point on Earth.

We pulled into the station and I got off. The train station was lost in time, an Old West feel; this part of Turpan was a frontier town on the edge of the desert. I asked at several lodgings and nowhere would take a foreigner. After several chaodaisuo, the Chinese equivalent of a hostel for migrants and students traveling on the super cheap where a night might cost around 4 dollars, and bingguan, hotels, that rejected me I was getting concerned. I needed some food so I went in for a steaming bowl of lamian and struck up a conversation with the proprietor, a friendly Uyghur man.  I ordered my noodles, moments later we were fast friends. I explained the problem. I could tell, even though they spoke Uyghur, that he was arguing with his wife about offering me to stay with them. No luck, the fine if they were caught harboring foreigners was too high. They suggested heading into the city center. The train station is 50 kilometers from the city.

I meandered, lackadaisically from place to place, in a daze, the lack of sleep over the few previous nights, the distance, the train food, the baggage of swirling thoughts of politics and ethnicity, my brain was having a hard time comprehending the simple situation. I stumbled back into the train station and asked about tickets to Korla one more time. I could buy another standing ticket, forgo sleep one more night, fight for a space at this late distance. Unlike in Lanzhou, where I came in relatively early in the life of the passengers, here I would be a new comer, relegated to the bottom rung, the lowest in a vile hierarchy. Others would have already forged bonds. I would have a hard time but I decided to push on, to forgo comfort and make momentum my deity.

I bought my standing ticket to Korla. It would be another slow train, about 10 hours or so. I bought some naan and water. The secret of good naan I am told is the salt and Xinjiang has the best salt in China. I made my way again through the metal detector, the prying eyes and incredulous looks of the security guard and the other queuing patrons. In the waiting hall I went to the toilet. Inside the floor was standing urine, acrid, the air was viscous with smoke, teary eyes, there was no place to stand or pee, the urinals were clogged and overflowing. The smoke and ammonia were asphyxiating. Soggy mounds of paper crumpled and made mounds on the floor and turned black from the fallen cigarette ash.

I went back into the waiting hall. Every eye was on me. Every face bore into me with interest and distrust. Why was I there. It didn’t sit well in my stomach. Bags overflowed their benches and oozed off of one another. The heaving mass of flesh and textile inspected me with one amalgamation of interest, dark circles under the collective eyes that protruded toward this wayward foreigner. In places where even the Chinese are considered foreigners, it is natural to be curious and concerned when you see yourself as a subject in an occupied place. They would all be competing with me for a place to stand or sleep on the train. The owners of these bags are experienced at fighting for space armed with a standing ticket, I told myself. They have a language they share. I couldn’t shake their glances. I felt the awesome weight of it all, the situation, the prospect ahead; anxiety swelled up. ‘To hell with it,’ I said. ‘I’m not doing this. I’ll let the 30 kuai ticket go to waste. I’m going to Turpan City.’

I stepped back into the darkness. I thought about options. I could also spend the night sitting in the wangba, the internet cafe, wait until around 6am when the bus station would be open. Standing in front of the noodle restaurant with the friendly Uyghur owner, a cab pulled up, 20 kuai, about 3 dollars, to Turpan. ‘Curse the hotel employee that told me that at this hour it would be 100 kuai,’ I muttered. I could easily manage a 20 kuai cab ride out of the dust, out of the darkness. The car filled with two others and we sped along in the pitch of the desert emptiness. The driver was another wonderful soul who, after dropping off the other riders, took me around to three different places. In many parts of China, especially the contentious border regions, most hotels are not allowed to accept foreign guests. My driver stopped at two that refused before we ended up at Turpan Bingguan, where I would pay 50 kuai for a room in the basement with two beds, a shower, and a TV.

I followed the woman from the desk down the stout staircase into my room, smiled and thanked her, closed the door as she left and collapsed onto the bed, wishing I had someone to share the moment with. After a most glorious shower, I was out in the Turpan night market eating the best roast mutton I have ever tasted. Seasoned with the sudden alleviation of days of traveling discomfort, buses and trains with nowhere to sit. Through small periods of deprivation that which is not often a luxury is gilt and sure enough that night I walked around the streets of Turpan for a little while with hhe broadest grin on my face and tasted the sweetest apple before returning and sleeping on a bed.

The next day I took the bus to Korla. All I had to work with were the instructions, “Go to X Restaurant. Tell them you are a friend of mine and ask for Billo. They will take care of you. They will give you something to eat.” That’s how I ended up sleeping on the floor of a Uyghur noodle restaurant in Korla for four nights. The rest of the Korla story and what happened next will have to wait.

Jinmen and Bokeh Mian

Riding in the Chinese Countryside with Nietzsche

Last Monday, excited to seize the relatively unpolluted skies and appease my desire to escape the city, taking advantage of surprisingly temperate early August weather, I made plans to cycle out of Beijing and into the peripheral village district of Huairou, around 60 kilometers from my apartment near Yonghegong, the Lama Temple.

First the home of Emperor Yongzheng, it was converted to a monastery for the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism after his ascension to the throne in 1722. Under the auspices of Zhou Enlai it was spared the destruction that befell other historical reminders of pre-Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976); opened to the public in the 1980s, it now brings thousands of tourist visitors a year to this Northeastern corner of Beijing’s Dongcheng district. Huairou offers a break from the overrun hutongs of central Beijing.

With a population density of around 146 people per km² it is in stark contrast to the central Dongcheng and Xicheng districts. For the sake of comparison, Dongcheng has a population density of 22,635 people per km². Huairou is home to many picturesque sections of the Great Wall, lakes and reservoirs and the largest Buddhist temple in Northern China: for tourist purposes, official descriptions paint Hongluosi, or Red Snail Temple, similarly with the Potala Palace or the Shaolin Temple. A bucolic foil to frenetic Beijing, Huairou is a mountainous retreat for dilettante archeologists and more avid weekenders alike. It was the thought of Yanqi Lake and the shadow of Mutianyu, a more rustic portion of the Great Wall, that beckoned me to shirk the city and peddle out for a Monday overnight.

Sunday I prepared with a cursory Google maps reconnaissance of routes, and laid out a few sundry items for the trip. I would cycle out early, arrive at the lake, splash about with the wild geese, find a guesthouse or wrap myself in the sidereal bed sheets of an open field, and return to the metropolis the following day, a smooth ride, an ample soundtrack of mp3s, sun and shade, a sojourn, an excursion.

However, what is anticipated is not always what is experienced, and when cycling perhaps more than any other mode of travel we are made aware of that Nietzschean concept of the ‘Eternal Recurrence.’ For Nietzsche, as with many Buddhists who graced the halls of Yonghegong, what is minimized is the importance of ‘ends’ and ‘purposes,’ and what is maximized are ‘states of being,’ because everything is eternally repeated and there is no end or purpose. Or, as R.J. Hollingdale explained in the introduction to his 1961 translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “It is as if one were on an unending sea journey. The destination is immaterial, since it is never reached; but whether one is sea-sick for much of the time is very material: it is really all that maters.” And while I never arrived at Yanqi Lake, I would like to think that I managed to develop a deeper appreciation for the ‘Eternal Recurrence.’

I was well on my way, out along Jingmi Lu: National Highway 101, a long direct stretch from Beijing to Miyun, arcing Northeasterly from Zuo Jia Zhuang, about half way between the second and third ring road, unfolding parallel to the Airport Expressway, passing art districts and subtly marked parks before defiantly shooting North at Beigao Bridge.  This stretch of asphalt ferries cycles and automobiles, buses, rickshaws, and taxis from near inner Beijing to the farthest district, Miyun, to the Hebei border, and onward to Shenyang city in Liaoning province, near the border with North Korea.

From Beijing the city thins and comes back in patches of growth, expat condominiums filled with eager housewives and nouveau riche Chinese, IBM executives, imported cheese, and luxury hair salons have displaced the Northern landscape’s agricultural ventures, chasing villagers from their demolished plots into camouflage workers uniforms amid the orgiastic developments, to KTV waiting rooms and tight skirts, or silly uniforms in hot kitchens and greasy dining halls. The road passes groves, shaded ditches, fluorescent ponds, and massive interchanges moving onward to other cities.

There is an Italian farm, several wholesale art dealerships, the types with websites that advertise for bulk orders to fill the banal walls of formulaic cafes and painful restaurants. Massive carved wooden sculptures, rock work from ancient myths for modern wealth, kites, go-carts, and small train stations for commuters outside the Metro lines, more farms, open landscape, car dealerships, bridges, a canal, and myriad stands of teenagers and grandparents selling fruit on the side of the road, under multicolored parasols in the shade, and you can buy fresh watermelon or carrot juice for less than a dollar from a roadside vendor, it is a hodgepodge out there.

I was somewhere past the grit of barking construction crews and torn up tarmac, large sand laden trucks that spit wads of sundry debris with more ferocious accuracy than trained camels in a Moroccan souk. I was through some ferocious roundabout from hell, and had bobbed along for quite some time under high, thin lazy arboriculture. I remember passing the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park and wondering what was being done with the space now that the spectators and advertisers had fled.

Somewhere out amid the stimulus I realized my rear tire was quite low. I found a gas station and borrowed a pump from an attended who was sitting, collapsed into himself on the curb outside the small service station’s inside. Not the well stocked snack Mecca, the attendants in orange were all sitting in small folding, cheap metal chairs; a few busied themselves washing a Mercedes. He smiled at my request, the unaccustomed to foreigners speaking Chinese grin one comes to expect outside major urban centers. He rushed off to fetch the small device as sweat cascaded down my face. Accompanied by a few pleasantries we filled the tire. I thanked him and ran inside the station to buy a water and bottle of sweet black currant juice. I quaffed joyously from my sweet drink, replenishing sugars and liquid levels in the shade of the massive concrete awning above the pumps and, before refreshment lingered into torpor, I was off.

With my soundtrack raging to stimulate a push for lost time at the station I doubled my rotations. The sun was beating down upon my back and the small grey hand towel I had stretched out over my neck, between my shoulder and backpack, was proving less reliable a shield than I had hoped. Still, since I had set out from Beijing without sunscreen, the little cotton rag was better than nothing between my sensitive skin and the carcinogenic rays. Ronnie James Dio blasted through my headphones and I felt a jolt of energy. A jolt that would last for about thirty minutes before the tires ran low again.

Somewhere just inside the Huairou border I slowed down by the side of the road, near some thorny street side inhabitants with small green leaves. The tire was indeed riding dangerously low. If I kept on it would pop. But considering I had just refilled there was obviously a hole. I slowly peddled to the crossroads ahead. At this point the stretch of highway had shrunk into only a few lanes, a far cry from its origins in the city, more a country road than a cross-country highway and ahead a Robert Johnson kind of crossroads.

There was an abandoned police checkpoint, blue and white painted walls and a high roof. It momentarily deterred me before reality checked my inherent fear of authority, a fleeting memory of some line in Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) where Louis-Ferdinand Céline had quipped justly about avoiding the notice of the authorities. However, neither did I have anything to fear nor were there authorities present to be fearful of. There was an emaciated octogenarian slouching near a tricycle, burdened with recyclables, dressed in the communitarian Mao suit and a large straw sun hat, the lines of age and exposure, no doubt memories, face stained with a kind of gentle confusion from not being able to keep up with the GPD, positioned this poor man, alone in front of a desolate backdrop, not an odd sight really. He found me out of the ordinary.

I slowly passed the octogenarian on my uneven tires. The village was asleep in itself. Later, Google maps and satellite images proved there was a larger inhabitation and quarry of buildings hiding commerce and production than met the less than keen eye of cursory street level observations revealed. I peddled into the Sergio Leone gas station, three attendants in red jumpers, two women and a man, asleep just inside a small fishbowl. They didn’t have a bicycle pump, and went back to sleep.

Next stop, a small store, a few teenagers, a boy and a girl, the type who travel into Beijing’s Xidan to buy clothes once a month and each have one foreign friend online somewhere, an old English teacher perhaps. They smiled. I asked about the pump. A worker in blue overalls, with yellow stripes down the center, shuffled to the back of the shop. Across the isle from malted milk balls, knock off brands of Western sweets, they keep some chemical cleaning fluids, light bulbs, and permanent markers. He grabbed the pump and we stood in the sidewalk attempting to refill the rear tire. No luck. I asked about a bicycle repair.

I would have to pass the octogenarian and cross the dusty highway. Across the way, I was told; there is a man who fixes bikes. Pushing away I began to loose my confidence about celestial bed partners and reservoirs.

This side seemed more rural. Dirt lanes that stretched downward into nothingness, crudely scrawled signs for dragon fruit on one side stared across at signs for red lumber. There were high piles. I walked in a ways, unsure. I had been told I would see a sign. I was looking for the usual Xiuche characters denoting bicycle repair. Tall grass, and the sound of livestock, a few shops down the lane, I headed back toward the crossroads. There was a man standing near a car, with no obvious purpose but to wave me over and inquire about my needs. He called the bicycle repairman, who apparently had gone home for lunch. Smiling, he pointed me down the lane and told me to wait once I arrived at a cluster of green trash bins. Look for a sanlunche, three-wheeled cart, he informed me.

As I walked my bike toward the trashcans and sanlunche, I glanced around at the various small constructions, and listened to the orchestra of chickens, roosters, and  dogs. Almost choreographed to coincide with a dead goose I noticed that had been tossed out with the trash, a small pile of vegetable waste and the dead bird on the side of the street, a sudden load pop, a crack, comic book hiss-kepow, that momentarily overpowered the cockadoodledoo of roosters and my front tire went completely flat. By the time I reached the green trash bins I had a frame with two flaccid circles of rubber.

I walked up to the bicycle repairman. He smelled of baijiu, the national moonshine of China, literally meaning white wine but something more akin to turpentine; he had dark, stained and gapped teeth but enjoyed smiling. I explained my problem and folded into a stool under the meager shade of a little tree. His wife came and went several times, with each arrival being greeted with a bark from her husband, something about the wrong bit of this or the wrong size of rubber strip or brand of adhesive. She rode a heavy-duty mountain bike with celerity up and down the narrow divots of farmland jutting off from the paved road. The make shift repair station was nothing more than a small flat-bed tricycle next to half a dozen green trash cans and a large pile of wood, just off the street, and the proprietor was drunk on midday booze, but he worked skillfully.

As I sat there watching his adept movements, pry, pinch, pat, removing the inner tube and dipping it into a small, pink, plastic basin filled with dirty water to descry the source of air escape, speaking with a thick accent and slightly garbled words, explaining his actions between asking me questions, ‘do you like China,’ ‘Chinese people love to help,’ ‘where are you from,’ ‘what’s America’s biggest problem,’ ‘where did you cycle from,’ ‘where are you going?’ He finished his inspection of the rear tire and moved on to the front tire.

It turned out I had blown a hole clear through the inner tube on the front tire. He sent his wife home again to grab a much larger inner tube, which he would shortly shred for a Macgyver rubber band to wrap around the wheel, between the inner tube and wheel. The process moved swiftly. With villagers stopping to say hello or inquiringly engage the foreigner for a moment. I sat there for some time, 30 minutes or so. He joked a little but I was getting tired, adrenaline levels subsiding. It cost 50 kuai, less than 10 dollars to repair both tires. I paid him and shook his hand. The cordiality seemed to surprise him. He invited to me stop for lunch the next time I passed through.

He advised me to return to Beijing. The patch was probably solid enough but he suggested I not risk another blow out all the much farther from home. There would be no shadows of Mutianyu Great Wall, Huairou reservoir, or Hongluo Temple. I mopped the sweat from my brow, smiled goodbye, saddled my bike and started to peddle back to Beijing.

Although my original plan was probably too easily thwarted, the ride itself took on the overshadowing potency of a journey; a metric century in the end, the 100 kilometers I rode that day, the little patches of natural reality outside the city and the short exchanges just inside the Huairou border seemed more important than had I reached what I thought I set out to reach. And before the blisters from the sun revealed themselves across my back and shoulders I told myself that I had had a good day.

As I rode back toward Beijing I repeated that thought to myself, “The destination is immaterial, since it is never reached.”

Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence

This is the second post in a brief series on symbolic power and minority representation in China. Although the ethnic group under specific discussion is the Uyghurs, the deconstruction of representations and symbolic power is apropos of other subaltern groups. The previous post dealt with briefly just with the notion of controlling the taxonomy of designating ethnicity in China, drawing its primary influences from the work of Dru Gladney. This post will turn a critical eye to the museumization of ethnicity, here borrowing the concept from Benedict Anderson, and how museums function in the realm of representational repression.

Museumized Signification

The Minzu Wenhua Gong [Cultural Palace of Nationalities] in Beijing is a reasonable place to begin. It houses the officially sanctioned representations of the nation’s 56 different ethnic groups. Here is where the national mythology is solidified in images and exhibits. At the time of my last visit, in 2011, on the ground floor there was a collection of photographs depicting each of China’s 56 official nationalities. Of the 55 minorities, 39 were represented by a young female or predominantly female group. All of the 55 minorities were in a rural setting wearing traditional clothing and mostly engaged in musical or culinary activities. This has been explained as the ‘eroticization’ and ‘exoticization’ of the minority (Gladney: 1994, 2004), conceptually related to Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Pictures speak louder than words, so floats about the trite expression. However, it bears relevance despite the cliche. In the museum the point is all the stronger. Here we observe a single image, frozen in time and signification, the single near apotheosis of a people, passed the censors and inscribed for all to see, memorize, judge, and implement. Depending on the emotional content, the symbolic force behind the image, whether condescending and violent, or lauding and aggrandizing, symbolic violence may translate into structural and material violence. How people come to know and appreciate their neighbors, or fear and dislike them, can be indoctrinated through a series of constant exposure to crafted images, imbued with a certain signification. Below are four images taken from the Minzu Wenhua Gong (民族文华宫) in 2011.

The image in the 1) top left is the official representation for the Uyghur, 2) top right observe the Han, 3) bottom left is the Kazakh image, and 4) the bottom right is the image for Uzbeks. It is not difficult to spot the difference between these four images. And one might inquire of the other 52 ethnic groups of China and how they are represented. It is, as mentioned above, virtually the same for all China’s minority groups, relegated to the bucolic and feminine, the traditional foil to the modern, urban, technologically advanced Han. So, what is the signification of these representations?

Taking just the top two images as our points of analysis we may begin with a cursory semiotic analysis. The signifier is the chromatic form, the bare image of Uyghurs dancing and singing. If the intent of these images is to produce depictions of the nature of China’s nationalities, which one would assume from such a museum, one might wonder why the specific forms were selected. The signified is, presumably in the mind of the regime, the official conceptualization of the depicted group. When we look at the image again, we see how the representation is given meaning in the correlation between the two. The signification of Uyghur as only singer and dancer, living in rural environments without modern science, is signified in relation to the Han whose signification appears to be a strong, masculine, modern force. Minorities are exotic and colorful, to be seen as objects of curiosity or sources of entertainment, while the Han are stoic and the force behind advancement and knowledge.

While Gladney has detailed this representation from an exterior vantage, one is left asking, how has it affected Uyghur life? Some have argued that over-saturation of a particular image or idea will result in numbness or the loss of affect. Considering these significations have been at the center of official Chinese ethnic policies and representations since the 1950s, it should have very little affect on the disparate ethnic groups after prolonged circulation, so claim certain scholars. However, after examining photographs I had taken of these images with several Uyghurs abroad, where it is often easier to discuss such matters, they reported a clear awareness of an ongoing violent representation with potentially material ramifications of marginalization and exploitation. How do the individuals, who share a group identity with the individuals represented in these images, respond to the images? One Uyghur student had this to say:

I don’t agree with these things. We say we also have professor. We also have academic people. Why government, why news don’t give those people pictures. Why only give our singer… why? Maybe Chinese government think in Xinjiang, make Uyghur people think, oh the government helped us. We don’t have academic people or any military. We only have dancer or singer or another thing.

This comment reveals frustration and concern at what appears to be the marginalization of Uyghurs inscribed in official representations. If we continue the analysis we might wonder what exactly this Uyghur informant is critical of. Is he expressing grievance at the bare image, or something deeper?

In China, Uyghurs are good at dance, good at singing. If I am talking to Chinese, the first question is can you sing, can you dance? What’s the fucking idea? Some people is singer not everyone can sing and dance. Also, they discriminate against Uyghurs in Inner China. Yang Rou Chuan, it means kebab, you see many Uyghurs in inner China selling kebab but in Chinese mind every Uyghur selling kebab. The Chinese government does not show our good people, good culture to Han Chinese.

A general pattern of dissatisfaction with these representations emerged when we engage the nature of the signification. Furthermore, comments point toward an understanding of how the signification may be transferred into more material forms of domination. That is, the representation has been enforced by educational prejudices, widely reported elsewhere, thereby serving to partially reify the signification. That critical responses were produced by two images is quite alarming considering the rather ubiquitous nature of such representations. In Xinjiang, I wondered if the representations would be the same. If the representation in Beijing is thus situated, how is it museumized in Xinjiang?

The introductory inscription at the Xinjiang Weiyuer Zizhiqu Bowuguan [Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum] in Urumqi appears to maintain a related signification. It describes Xinjiang as a multi-national homeland since ancient times. It states that:

Covering an area of 1.66 million square kilometers, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is a treasure land in the Northwestern bordering region in our motherland with vast land and richly endowed resources. The extended Silk Road linked the Eastern and Western civilizations. Being situated deep in the hinterland, it conceals the deep secret of the converged ancient civilizations of the world. Xinjiang has been the multi-national homeland from ancient times. Forty-seven nationalities live here today, among them 13 brother nationalities, such as: Uygur, Han, Uzbek, Daur, Manchu, Tartar, Russian, etc. have lived in Xinjiang for generations. For a long time they have been cooperated as one family to build and safeguard the borderland. Under the glory of the nationality policy of the Party, precious traditional cultures of various nationalities have received effective protection, inheritance and development. In the historical process of the development of Western regions various nationalities are more united to construct together a harmonious society. We hold this exhibition of Display of Xinjiang Nationality Custom to represent the gorgeous conditions and customs of the 12 ethnic minorities of Xinjiang and to show the splendor of the beautiful rarity of treasure house of Chinese national culture.

This inscription relates the official historical narrative, discussed in an earlier post. It should probably be interpreted as the declaration of the Party’s power. It claims sole responsibility for the protection, inheritance, and development of culture. If we continue with our understanding of the signification offered above and apply this to the notion of ‘one family’ then we must ask where Uyghurs are situated in this family, presumably dominated by the Han. In such ways, the policy of recognizing the Uyghur as a minority under Chinese rule is perpetuated.

The displays in these two museums reminded me of Native American history museums in the United States that depict the cultural victims of America’s colonial legacy. I felt that there was a fascination with the past that left no place for questions of conquest. The museum was full of the kind of cultural artifacts one usually finds in such places. The displays presented musical instruments and pottery, textiles and artwork behind glass, and dioramas of colorful minorities engaged in traditional practices, but also a number of photographs of Uyghurs in contemporary clothes participating in cultural activities.

The implication proffered by the representations in both Beijing and Urumqi, I argue, is that contemporary minorities are incapable of transcending their ancestor’s situation and are therefore treated accordingly by the regime or general Han society, in line with Anderson’s analysis. At least, we can extrapolate from the comments above that many Uyghurs perceive a correlation between these representations and domination. Very few Uyghurs visit either museum but they are often aware of symbolic power’s other manifestations in social space.

Museums facilitate an understanding of how symbolic power operates in static locations, but you can avoid visiting a museum if you perceive its message as part of a dominant discourse. However, in line with Foucauldian notions of power, namely: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power (1990: 95).” You can never fully escape power; it seeps through the walls so to speak. This is where propaganda posters, unity posters, painted slogans, banners, and the ilk come into the discussion of infiltrating public space.

Anderson, Benedict (1983/2006). Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Foucault, Michel (1990). The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Gladney, Dru. (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

Gladney, Dru. (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Nanjing Sojourn

A while ago I spent a day in Nanjing. It was not planned. It did not go according to plan. Time misbehaved and light and dark collided. The tombs of revolutionaries, memorials and mausoleums were left unvisited. Green leaves distracted; shadows played furtively with themselves in the afternoon. I waited impatiently as passing buses never stopped, but instead continued rolling over twigs and grass and tarmac. The night came and I grew intoxicated on Confucian neon analects and yellow silk rickshaw operators languidly self-touting. A lost Russian. No cuisine of note. Sweet dreams.