Tag Archives: china

East and West

8 Nov

During my time in Tianjin, I saw quite a lot of Arabic script. Not only on the Yuan bills – Arabic script is used by a few minority languages represented on the Chinese currency – but also on the front of the many Muslim restaurants. Islam is very present in China – with Japanese- and Korean-ness, it may be the most visible sign of contemporary China’s multiculturalism.

From Aaron and my students, I gathered that there is a variety of Chinese muslims: Hui people and Hans who practice Islam (I could never really understand how these two were distinguished), but also Xinjiang ethnic minorities, with distinctive Central Asian features. These were painted as dangerous by most of the people I talked with (the discourse reminded me of how Europeans talk about Roms). Yet Aaron took me to a XinJiang restaurant once for lunch. It was a strikingly exotic experience. For my host, the place was Chinese as much as, to me, a basque, Alsatian or Breton restaurant are French. But the taste of the food and the decoration corresponded much more to my idea of the Middle East. It brought up images of people riding camels across the desert and organising ram-mechouis on the go, before reaching the next oasis.

When I migrated to Australia, Philip and I decided we should somehow connect Paris to Melbourne, and so decided to travel overland all the way to Singapore, last stop on the Eurasian continent before the big southern island. There were three possible roads. The Southern road went via Turkey, Iran, India, and Bangladesh, avoiding China altogether – but the war in Irak made it highly impractical. The Northern one, which we ended up taking for convenience, ran along the Transsiberian, entering China from Harbin or Oulan Bator, then heading south from Beijing. But there was a third one, the ‘silk road’, which from Moscow would take us through Kazhakstan and Xinjiang, before turning south via Lanzhou and ChongChing to Vietnam. The central stretch of this road crossed a zone in-between, in-between Europe and Asia, in-between Islam and Buddhism, in-between what for me then where distinct cultural areas, where China touches the confines of the Islamic world.

‘Oriental’, in English, refers to people from East Asia, somewhat indiscriminately, and derogativly. In French, the word has a different meaning, and is more likely to conjure up images of a Lebanese merchant eating loukoums in front of an Egyptian belly dancer. On my migration trip, I felt I was passing through successive ‘Doorways to the East’ untill, in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, I found myself at a cross-over of the Chinese, Indian and Arabic worlds. But somehow, I became aware of that layering of the Orients as early as Berlin, and throughout my time in China.

The East itself has its Orients. I remember, when I first read the 1001 nights as a kid, feeling a strange fascination for India as imagined from Bagdad. Later, that interest for the ‘East of the East’ took the form of a certain fascination for films featuring travels across Asian countries. But on that migration trip, as I was radically moving myself from Europe to the Antipodes, I became more able to mentally shift across Eurasia, and start thinking of different Wests. As a Mediterranean, of course, I kept repeating how Americans, North Europeans and South Europeans have different spontaneous ways of relating to China, and how this should be articulated more. When I visited the Asian Museum in Singapore, I was confronted with something more radical. The place I’d always known as ‘Middle East’ labelled ‘West Asia’ on a map. The word ‘West’ resonated as much as the word ‘Asia’. That label asserted a unity between what I was now calling ‘the three Orients’ of East, South and ‘West’ Asia. It also, somehow, conflated Europe, America and the Arab world as ‘Western’.

Among Europeans, it’s commonplace to talk of China as ‘the big other’. Yet I remember, from a very early age, how I thought differently. I had a Chinese baby-sitter, DanHan, when I was sevent. She was finishing a PhD in Strasbourg and, during the holidays, she would take a bus back to China. That bus trip had a clear meaning for me then – and still does now. If China’s at the other end of a bus line, no matter how long the trip, it can’t be that radically different from Europe. Riding overland from Paris to Singapore, and exploring aspects of cosmopolitanism in Tianjin and Beijing on this blog were means for me to pursue that arbitrary childhood intuition – the result on my parents choosing a Chinese woman to baby-sit me. I’m not sure, therefore, if I uncovered something real, or only used all my rheorical tools to confirm an hypothesis. The fact is, I am now convinced, there is no radical essence of China to be found, along the coast, or inland. It’s just a big, fascinating country, across Eurasia, this side of the mountains.

ShanZhai

6 Nov

China is famous for making fake stuff – Gucci belts, iphones, or DVDs. ‘ShanZhai’ is the local word for them. I told Aaron I needed a belt and underwear. He took me to TaoBao – a kind of online shopping mall, with a huge range of products at highly discounted price. I bought what I needed, it was cheap, and decent quality. Belt and underwear happen to have a ‘Calvin Klein’ label. They may be fake, or simply last season. The seller had a ‘good reputation’, whatever that means. I simply went for it.

While I was in China, Juliette’s boyfriend was investigating ‘fake’ Apple and IKEA stores for the French news. was just back from Chengdu, where he visited a recently opened ‘fake’ IKEA store. The store sold exactly the same type of furniture as IKEA, it followed exactly the same concept for display, and used the same colour pattern on the logo – the products even had weirdly nordic names with ‘รถ’s and ‘Hrtj’s. Yet the name of the store is not IKEA, nor is it run by IKEA. The other big ‘fake’ retail chain is Apple. Apple only has few ‘real’ stores in China. But you can find a large number of ‘authorised retailers’, as individual shops or inside malls. They sell Apple computers – yet are not officially Apple stores, or so I heard.

This lack of care for intellectual property may be partly what makes China so dynamic: in the age of the internet, to not care about copyright gives a real competitive advantage. That is true of clothes and retail, but it is mostly true for cultural products. DVD stores in Chinese cities generally sell ‘fake DVDs’. But they have a great collection, and offer cheap access to the best of international cinema – which people download anyway. The pirate party, which is becoming an important political player in Sweden and other European countries, would no doubt approve of that business model.

Ultimately, why would anyone buy ‘real’ DVDs, rather than the cheaper fake ones – except for quality control, and the fear of repression. As for the first of those, it may not be an issue. Factories making fake DVDs – I heard – are the same that make the real ones. Is the same true for fashion? In his beautiful Gomorrah, Saviano shows how fake and real Guccis are tailored in the same camorra-run workshops. Ming, my Chinese fashion friend, taught me there were various categories of fake – and said sometimes, category A+ fakes are better than ‘the real thing’.

Making ‘fakes’ gives a competitive edge to an economy, true. But I would like to think of a more metaphysical explanation as to why China specialises in the fake market. In the Western canon, Plato’s Republic is the key reference to understand the relationship between original and copies. In this text – both in the myth of the cavern and, later, in the analysis of art as copy, a hierarchy is established between the essence of the thing, the thing as it exists in the world, and its copies, reflections, or shadows. Benjamin re-articulates this hierarchy when studying artworks in the age of mass production: for him, as for Plato, copying leads to a dilution of substance, a loss of aura.

I wonder, does China share that metaphysics? I do know enough to ask the question, if not give an answer (which you’re welcome to discuss in comments). Maybe, in implicit Chinese metaphysics, copying does not result in any loss of substance? Reflection on Chinese Painting, as far as I know, does not articulate the relationship betweem the object in the world and its two dimensional image. Rather, it insists on how a two dimensional construction on paper can stimulate imagination – in particular through the balance of masses on the scroll, and the suggestive presence of clouds, rocks or waterfalls hiding elements of the landscape from the eye. Maybe the main function of these ‘fake’ objects, like that of a Chinese landscape painting, is to suggest another world, and invite imagination to wander.

Or maybe, these copies must be interpreted with the I-Ching in mind. If everything changes all the time, nothing is substantial. Maybe China does not believe in unchanging truths and essences. And if there is no absolute, if everything is in constant movement, a world of shifting appearances, then – what’s the point of a real Prada bag?

East Asia

2 Nov

China has a number of concession cities along the coast: Shanghai, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Macao, Qingdao, Dalian. In simplified Western historiography, these cities were ‘built by Europeans’. And indeed, they often have a significant number of buildings in European style. Yet rather than ‘European enclaves’, these cities should rather be thought of as cosmopolitan hubs where, in a European decor, East Asians were trading among themselves. In any case, this is a true descriptions of today’s Tianjin, where ‘foreigners’ come from Japan and Korea much more so than Europe or America.

According to Francois Gipouloux’ extraordinary book on ‘the Asian Mediterranean’, at their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, Shanghai and Tianjin were cities where Chinese people exchanged goods with the rest of Asia. Europeans benefited from that inter-Asian trade, where they could act as middle-men. But mostly, the European presence and administration benefited Asian merchants (Chinese or Japanese), who settled in the concessions, and controlled their trade empire from there.

Throughout his book, Gipouloux explores the history of the China sea, which he paints as a complex interlacing of commercial trade routes, emporias and diasporas. From the middle of the 19th century, this maritime empire – or china sea system – started revolving around Shanghai. Beijing was the capital of China, Shanghai the capital of the China sea. Hong Kong and Singapore replaced it in this role during the second half of the 20th century, but Shanghai is coming back, and reasserting its position as the capital of that fluid commercial world. Before it, Malacca, Guangzhou or Nagasaki had similar functions. There is a long history of commercial cities cities developing along the coast of the China sea, at the periphery of the big empires, with multicultural Asian diasporas (and a few Europeans). Tianjin falls in that category today. I heard Aaron answering the phone saying ‘moshi moshi’. We often had sushi, Bimbimbap, or ramen.

Since I decided to move to Australia, and adapt to life on the Pacific rim, I’ve been particularly interested in these inter-Asian movements. One crucial ‘haha’ moment came as I watched a Chinese film where one of the character goes to Japan. Dumb as it retrospectively sounds, I remember how radical it was for me to think of a Chinese person moving, or even travelling to Japan. I had never before thought of such inter-Asian travel.

I started collecting a mental list of films set in that East Asian space – a group of Hong Kong men helping a Chinese man escape from Vietnam (A Better Tomorrow III), a couple of Chinese people getting fat in Japan (Love on a Diet), or a Hong Kong woman exploring the original Thai village of a girl she received a cornea graft from (the Eye). I also made a mental list of real life stories – my friend Ming going to Pu Khet with her parents, my host in Nanning talking about her trip to Malaysia, or the groups of Japanese tourists I saw in in Angkor Wat.

And I’m also wondering: is there a place for Australia, among that web of global East Pacific metropolises? Should we start making a mental list of films where Asian characters explore Australia – Main Aur Mrs Khanna, Permanent Residence, or Japanese Story? Should we, as writers, build fiction set in that East Asian sphere, and through the power of fiction, inscribe Australia as a full part of that imaginary space? Or at least, as cultural consumers, be alert to Asian productions where Australia features – and encourage them, as much as we can?

Last Minute

29 Oct

China is a last minute country. The issue is not so much time keeping – arriving on time – as late arrangements. I wrote about how trains can only be booked a few days in advance. There might be an underlying logic to it. People wouldn’t bother booking them early, anyway. Because everything is constantly shuffled and rescheduled.

For some reason, this is correlated with a state of permanent distraction. People always forget things, or forget to tell you things. Is it the education system? A coping mechanism in such a complex environment ? Or just laziness? In any case, to the outsider, it makes the situation worse.

Coming from a culture where everything is planned in advance, this constant emergency reaction proved extremely tiring – at work in particular. I’ve always thought arranging everything at the last minute was a form of tyranny. To push their agenda, those in power – in private, corporate or public settings – use ’emergency management’. If something is urgent, there is no time for negotiation and patient discussion. Things have to move, now, and Executive decisions have to be followed.

For some reason, the state of affairs was reminiscent of Paris. And I think I found a key to the French – or Latin – character; why French people are so attracted to Napoleonic ‘strong man’ figures. Why they will prefer to ‘follow Republican rules’, rather than engage in ‘Democratic debate’. Because democracy takes time, and effort, and foreward planning. Whereas you can be lazy all you like when things don’t have to be debated and discussed. You can live the moment fully. Then a wave of emergency comes; and you just obey.

Freedom

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.

Expats

23 Oct

One thing I understood in Tianjin: life as an expat can be lonely. Beijing and Shanghai have growing populations of foreigners now, and there is a grain of good among the numbers. But – Koreans excepted – they still think of Tianjin as a frontier town; and as such, it appeals to a weird mob.

Roughly speaking, there’s four types of expats in Tianjin. The first are the mechanics. Aerospace technicians flown over from Toulouse to train local staff in the new Airbus factory. Or similar profiles, I suppose, from other countries. In France, they’re normal people – a good job, but no particular status attached. In China, they think they’re on top of the world. And so come out with a string of pseudo-wise judgements about the country: ‘they just haven’t evolved’, ‘it’s hard to get them to work’ or even ‘it’s a new country, that’s what I like about it’. Painful.

The second are the Gold Diggers. They read about the Tianjin boom – 15% of GDP growth per year in the middle of the GFC. They heard it will be the main Financial centre in East Asia – some time in the future. So they came early, to get their shares in the local market at early bird’s price. I met one of those in a bar, receding hair and Lenin-style glasses, a waitress hanging on his neck. He thought he was inventing cool. His bar-snack was opening soon. There would be kebabs.

The come the spouses, a more interesting and varied mix. They come in two kinds: European partner, or Chinese partner. The first are handbag housewives, who spend their husband’s expat package on maids and manicure. Most are not working, and spend their days complaining about the life of luxury they live in China, pining after a proper baguette or a nice cup of coffee with milk.

The second are more colourful – and come in both genders. They came first as a student, or on a visit; they met a Chinese partner, and they decided to stay. Most of those work as language teachers, or in some sort of mediating role. As time passes, they become more and more Chinese, and talk of how everything is changing. They have a touch of sadness to them – life in China can be tough – but they’re settled here, have respect for people around, and make an effort to understand. The one problem with them is – newcomers endanger their exceptional status; and though they are a worthy lot, they tend to know better than you.

Finally come the students. They’re in China to learn Chinese, for a year, or just a few months. Either Tianjin was not their first choice, or they come from a remote place. But they’re enjoying it, or try to. They write blogs, go to cafes, and have a try at market food with adventurous internationals. On week-ends, they train to Beijing and hang out around the cool bars.

GuanXi

21 Oct

Everyone heard about Guanxi, that mysterious web of relations running through Chinese society, that weird tribal archaism, which stands in the way of making business in China. Having often said that China resembles Italy, I would like to try and understand it from my own Mediterranean background.

The main point of Guanxi is that it’s not about how qualified you are. It’s about who you know, and who will pick up your phone calls.

It sounds bad, but let’s have a think. On a professional level, is not the capacity to rely on existing networks of support a key to success in projects? At a more personal level, can you really trust a person with no friends? And at a more metaphysical level, is not our social inclusion fully part of our identity, not just a late addition to the core nugget of our pure being?

Of course, Guanxi can feed existing inequalities. Because it builds with time, and so depends on the family you come from, and the school you’ve been to. Interestingly, I found Chinese people particularly faithful to their high-school pengyous, who stand somewhere in between the family member and the chosen friend, as people we didn’t really choose, and people we’ve known forever.

But there is a democratic element in Guanxi. Sure, some Guanxis are more powerful than others. But the world has many levels, and multiple hierarchies. Here is a story: one of my Chinese friends suddenly fell sick, and needed to go to hospital. Beds are hard to get, especially when you’re not in critical condition. He got a space in a double room rightaway, through his parents’ Guanxi. I mocked him – ‘your parents have a doctor friend, a lawyer friend, they know all the right pepole.’ He corrected me, ‘actually, one of my parents’ very good friends drives the car of this hospital’s director – and it’s much better Guanxi than knowing a doctor here’. So Guanxi-power does not align immediately with social status. A cook, a driver, a cleaning lady, may be more powerful than a company director in a given situation, because they have direct connection to the key person in that context. Because life is complex, and you need all sorts of people for all sorts of situations. Therefore, you should nurture all of your relations, not only the powerful ones. That is the very democratic wisdom of Guanxi.

Guanxi’s about a world with many layers and hierarchies, a complex world – not unlike the one we live in. Guanxi might even be the principal counter-power in China. But Guanxi’s also about what we may wish to call ‘right wing virtues’: being true to your family, respecting people you know you can trust, and relationships that have been cemented with time.

In the end, I think I don’t mind Guanxi.