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.


Xiao Qu

Chinese cities, with their imposing residential towers and busy streets, can create an impression of alienation – how can one survive there? Is not this environment completely against the human?

But these towers – and smaller residential spaces – are organised in a way particular to China: the Xiao Qu (literally, ‘small district’). A Xiao Qu – my friend Aaron spontaneously translates it ‘community’ – is a group of buildings organised around a common yard or laneway. That space is not locked out from the street – you don’t need a key to get in, or a special nod from the front-door person. But it is not open on all sides either – there are just a few too many walls and fences to make it easy to get in. Generally, the Xiao Qu only has a couple of doorways, that mark a passage into the semi-domestic space shared by the community living there.

Xiao Qus are not purely residential spaces. There can be little gardens, a playground for children, but also, sometimes, windows on the wall selling water, juice and cigarettes, even mini-supermarkets, little hawker-style restaurants, or fruit and vegetable sellers offering their goods at the back of a van, or in an old style cart.

Some Xiao Qus, in Wu Da Dao or the old French concession area, can be very beautiful, ornate even. Nonetheless, they remain semi-private space, which people use it for all sorts of purpose – storage, parking, laundry.

Xiao Qus are the inner space of internal interactions, between neighbours, from window to window or on a stool – with its intimate dramas and secrets. This is the world painted by Wang Anyi in The Song of Everlasting Regrets, that most masterful of domestic novels.

In one of his essays, Jacques Gernet discusses one major difference between European and Chinese cities. European cities are built around an agora, a central square where the people of the city met to discuss political concerns, and take part in the city rituals. Not so in China, where cities are built around a grid of parallel streets, without a central square. Tian An Men, that symbolic centre of communist China, is an open space so monumental it cannot serve as a discussion ground for the people. Attempts to use it as an agora have not proven very successful.

The space for freedom was not the agora, but a smaller residential district, where the community had a relatively high level of independance from all external powers – in terms of self organisation and internal debate. In the capital, the Hu Tongs are these traditional ‘free spaces’ – nothing but a local form Xiao Qu – a network of laneways connecting houses, defining an interstitial space somewhere between public and private. No wonder there is so much passion associated to their destruction.

I have read and heard how replacing traditional hutongs with towers, and moving in – or up – the residents, is an act of violence against communities. My students were telling me you no longer know your neighbours, and that contemporary life has become very anonymous.

I have seen the big, anonymous shopping districts and plazas. But very close to them, I saw what seemed like a lively street and community life.

Maybe the situation is not as bad as they paint it? Or maybe I was lucky to live in a good neighbourhood? I hope it wasn’t just the second.