Tag Archives: body


27 Oct

Lifting a finger in China requires, at least, a Masters in politics. Everything is the subject of complex and endless negotiations. Everything involves elaborate power display and threats.

At a basic level, everything is complicated. Alliance francaise, for instance, where I worked. In other countries, Alliance Francaise is run as a local association or a not-for-profit company. But there is no legal status for associations in China. So Alliance Francaise is run as a joint venture between France and Chinese Universities – which breeds endless complexities in hierarchical protocol, project development, and daily business administration.

In history class, I used to hear how people fought for Freedom of association in the late 19th century. But I took so much for granted that I didn’t understand what people were actually fighting for. Freedom of association does not exist in China. People belong to the State and their families.Father – and mother – dictate their rule. Children obey. The arbitrary demands of parents are ‘a form of love’, and as such, must be respected. Where they go, you follow.

I read in one Jacques Gernet’s Essays that Chinese culture can be interpreted as a tension between Confucianism on the one side – a semi-religion that proposes filial devotion as a way to social perfection – and taoism or buddhism on the other side, which on the contrary propose a return to nature and calm through personal meditation, and distance from existing social bonds.

But is the freedom of Buddhist meditation what a European or a Westerner would recognize as freedom? Gernet gives a beautiful analysis of the difference between Christian extasy and Buddhist mediation: “Whereas the extatic Christian mimes the fight between body and soul and the soul’s union with God, Indian meditation exercises aim to reach the depths of the spirit, and fuse it into an absolute beyond all distinctions. In the deepest meditations, there is no ‘subject’ any more. Therefore, there can be no soul and body or, for that regard, fight of the one against the other.’ The self and the world are one. Whereas extasy is extreme tension, dramatic fight, meditation is conceived of as a return to the original quietness. It allows those who have mastered it to reach universal being, in their own depth.”

Is there something definitely ‘Western’ in that extreme assertion of the self? The self asserting its resemblance to the creating God by fighting against its angel. Honouring your ancestors and father by resisting, as they did – including resisting your own father. Hence heroes: Hector, Patroclus, Christian Martyrs, or Che Guevara: all figures of resistance. In the face of evil (or the enemy), they do not embrace the flux of life, but stand hard against it. They were defeated, but they stood upright – and therefore, their defeat became a victory.

Nothing of the sort in Chinese tradition, where supreme victory, quite the opposite, is victory without a fight. China does not have martyrs, or hero worship. Chinese heroes are those who survive hardships, and live on to tell their story.

In the European tradition, freedom is the opposite of slavery. It is the possibility to self-determine, rather than submit to the will of another. Courage is a prerequisite for freedom. Freedom is the resolution to say ‘no’ when we disagree, and live – or die – with the consequences.

The Chinese word for freedom is ‘Zi You’ – to posess oneself. Self possession, in the Chinese context, is actually the result of a hard fight. Like in the West, the willingness to die can be the touchstone of freedom. And there have been Buddhist monks who decided to suicide, or sacrifice parts of their bodies, as an ultimate form of freedom. Yet they were not part of a heroic resistance, in the Western sense. Dying for your ideas is not a particular cause for praise – not dying, and pushing them ahead is probably better.

People talk about restrictions on freedom in China. They accuse communism, they want political diversity, multiple political parties. Why not? But as a Chinese friend was telling me, this is not the heart of the matter. A very dense web of tyranny runs through all layers of society. Through families, friends, neighbours, superiors, and the complex system of GuanXi that rules virtually everything.

Yet all hope is not lost. There is some progress happening, in individual freedom, through web communities, feminism, gay rights, and relaxed HuKou laws allowing people to change cities more easily, so as to get away from their families and clans. QQ groups and a relaxed attitude to dating, all of those are slowly building a circle of personal freedom, outside family domination. The apolitical youth is, actually, planting and growing the seeds of freedom – like young people in Moliere and Marivaux’s comedies, when advocating for the freedom to choose their romantic partner as their spouse, were preparing consciences for the French revolution.

Untill people wash off the tyrannical ethos, breeding fear and agression, making a joke of civic virtue – what can be the point of multiple parties ? But maybe, step by step, young generations will start saying no to their parents, or bosses; and assert their control over their bodies and their time. Gaining concrete freedom, in their day to day life; and preparing for more, in the future.


Baby fashion

6 Sep

My parent friends often complain about the price of nappies. Chinese parents have found a wise way to tackle the problem: dispense with them. Children have special pants with a slit in the middle, so that anything coming out of the baby will fall directly down on the floor.

It’s local fashion, on a Chinese street, you’ll see quite a bit of (baby) ass.
Stranger still, I have – twice – seen the spectacle of a little girl peeing in the most acrobatic fashion: the mother holds her up by the arms and legs, while she pees in an arc, her skirt lifted up.
This happens in public. I saw it on BinJiang jie, the biggest shopping street in Tianjin. A policeman intervened, telling the parents off – ‘it’s just a child’ they answered. The policeman didn’t want much. He pointed to the street corner, just 50 meters down: do lift your little girl’s skirt, and have her pee on the street; just don’t do that on a big shopping street.

Wise, or gross?

Line Dancing

25 Aug

People who spend time in China generally see that: people dancing on the streets or in parks, in small or large groups.

Most of it is little more than open-air soft aerobics – hardly sensual or sexy.

But one night, on the banks of the river, where the Austrian concession used to be, I spotted a scene strangely reminiscent of the Paris riverbank, where people dance to Latin and Celtic rhythms in the summer.

Collective dancing is popular. Passing by JinWan plaza one morning, I saw the staff of a restaurant lifting up their hands in rhythm, getting in the mood for their day of work. Connecting with colleagues.

The best of them might be selected on the official parading team that I saw rehearsing, iconically, opposite the Tianjin station.

Maybe we should learn from that, and be better at using our public space? Well, for a start, K-pop flash mobs are a good first step.

step by step

11 Aug

This is the toilet post. Every trip overseas has its toilet stories. I will share mine.

The traditional Chinese toilet experience can disturbing to some foreigners – inside a market in Suzhou, I once entered a large square with six parallel 80 cm high walls on the right. Men, pants down, were crouching and smoking between these walls, doing what they had to do. Tobacco was not the only smell in the room. These toilets are actually nicely social – my friend Juliette said a woman once commented to her ‘wow, you’ve got a really white ass’. With white skin a touchstone of beauty, it was a compliment too.

But now, in the central bits of big coastal cities, public urinals have a little sign saying ‘one little step forward, one big step for civilisation’.

Little gestures, repeated daily by hnudreds of millions, will eventually lead to change – like the yellow river, pressing against its banks for centuries, changed its own course a number of times.

I have to say, China’s doing well in terms of public toilets. Shopping malls, bookstores and stations have one in every corner. There are many street signs indicating where the closest one is in tourist areas. Much better than Paris, where you struggle to find a booth – and half the time, it’s not even closing properly.

Public space

2 Aug

One of the things I find remarkable about China is how the people take over public space, or semi-private space, for their own needs, shamelessly. Although it can be seen as a form of undue appropriation, it is also a form of wisdom, in an over-crowded country.

This can take many forms. Hanging clothes on a street sign, because it’s there anyway, and it won’t detract from its function.

Using the side of the road for a little breakfast place – the cars won’t run right into you, and the pedestrians can use the other side of the road.

Or, stranger still, using the river as a swimming pool (it’s probably cleaner than the public pools, say Aaron, although there are dead fish around).

More surprising is using the bridge as an open air changing room (the photo’s a bit too blurry to perv, but yes, the man on the left is naked). This is probably the weirdest, for our privacy obsessed culture like ours. But when you think that taxi driver often pee on street corners – facing the road – changing under a bridge will seem pretty mild.

This is cultural, but has legal implications. How does it work. Who owns public space, and how is it regulated, in countries where this does not happen? Is it a law enforcement question – does the police simply not care? Or are the regulations different. And if they are – is there anything we could learn from China?