Tag Archives: great wall

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.

Walls and doors

4 Nov

The main function of most official buildings is to symbolically structure space. Distinguish an inside from an outside, or establish a cosmic centre point.

The main point of focus for tourists in Beijing is a door – Tian An Men, the door of Heavenly Peace – which leads into the – walled in – Forbidden city, under the auspices of late President Mao.

The structure of the Chinese capital is clearly centered on the Forbidden city, the real and symbolic centre of imperial power. Yet, in imperial times, the religious centre of the country was slightly further South, at the Temple of Heaven. Also the forbidden city itself does not have a clear centre point – godly statue, tomb, or the emptiness of an inner shrine. Visiting it is more like a pilgrimage inside a maze, walking by a succession of temples and houses, along courtyards and through doorways, without ever reaching a clear destination, or feeling ‘that’s where it is’.

The Chinese word for China means ‘the Middle Country’. Accordingly (?) the main symbol of the country is not a centre point, but a great wall, marking the limit of that ‘middle ground. That wall, itself, may have served a symbolic function, as much as one of defence: it runs along mountain tops, underlining the natural landscape surrounding China.

The Great Wall is not one continuous piece of masonry, but a scattering of constructions, built at different periods in different places, which make sense as a defence mechanism, but only roughly connect. Even in the core sections, in the Northern section of Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, the wall is not continuous. Sometimes a moutain was high enough to be deemed inpassable, and the wall stops half-way down its slopes.

Walls and doors may the ultimate symbolic monuments of continental cities. Along the coast, in seaports, people are more likely to build up – a lighthouse or a Colossus, to serve as a beacon indicating the safe harbour for incoming ships. The Pearl of the Orient, in Shanghai, may have that symbolic function. And we may monitor the shift of China from a continental to a sea power – if it happens – by following the dominant imagery: walls and temples on a mountain top, or beacons and skyscrapers along waterways.

Or, maybe, the maze like quality of the Forbidden city and the Great Wall will combine with the intricacies of the Chinese natural and artificial river system, and give rise to a specific Chinese space symbolism, adapted to the information age and in line with a a certain national tradition, with no central point of focus – but a network at the core.

Ordering chaos.

15 Oct

Accumulation creates a beauty of its own. I already blogged about this, when talking about the aesthetics of abundance in Chinese shops.

But beauty does not only come from the sheer volume of stuff piled up. Order plays a role here. We could even give an economic interpretation of that specific beauty: when things are properly arranged, according to their size and function, the eye immediately perceives that a given space has reached its maximum potential, and things are inviting future action, promising minimal effort.

I became sensitive to that specific appeal of order on a trip to the rural county of JiXian, North of Tianjin, when I started observing the accumulated construction material that lay around in the village: stones, bricks, tiles.

I started seeing these piles as potential walls and roofs – and perceiving walls and roofs as nothing but orderly layers of bricks, tiles and stones, protecting from rain, sun and wind.

When I went up to the Great Wall, the following day, I was thinking about this still. The Great Wall, that ultimate symbol of China, was nothing but stones, piled up in orderly fashion. The visible result of human effort, guarding humans against chaos.

Homes were similar, on a small scale: a stable place for the family, protected by constructed order from the chaotic force of weather outside.

Chinese home aesthetics, then, was all about order; at least this is how I interpreted the symetrical rows of ‘HuLus‘, dry gourds of irregular shapes and size, in Aaron’s parents’ living room.

These lines of ood-luck vegetables had been arranged on the far wall as another expression of order; civilised humanity fencing off natural chaos.