On Chinese Politics (Ha!)

Let me be clear- I am the last person you want to ask about the particulars of Chinese politics (although I did take the class). I’d be lying if I said I could spell out exactly what the Politburo does, or where Hu Jintao grew up; trust me, I’m working on it. However, I had the incredibly good fortune of living a rather colorful and adventuresome life smack dab in the Communist heartland- Shanghai in the fall, Beijing in the spring. It was a year of Chinese language study; I fried one half of my brain and began to long for essays and extensive readings, and culture and politics were picked up by a rude and necessary osmosis.

***

I remember riding with some friends in a cab through Chengdu. There’s this huge statue of Mao that looms over this smoggy square; it’s all there- the mole, the jacket, the puffy smile. He waves sweetly. Our taxi driver made sure we saw it as he took us by, all laughter and folk songs, calling the Chairman “grandfather.” This attitude was a divergence from the ambivalence for Mao expressed by my younger Chinese teachers; regardless, that politics had become so incredibly personal was striking. Last time I checked, I didn’t refer to George Washington as a kind uncle. Maybe that should be a thing?

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A snugly panda munching in the preserve in Chengdu. So cute I considered kidnapping, which was quickly deemed impractical and unlawful.

***

So I just needed some me-time in Beijing.  Ok, some America time. It had just been one of those days. I paid for the ticket, made sure that Mission Impossible 4 definitely was in English, and tried to look as not-hopeless as possible as I found my assigned seat, a norm that I loved. Finally, lights down, film rolling, no trailers (sadness, my favorite part)- BUT a seal of approval from the Chinese government. A sort of hard-core MPAA for China? And so it was for every film I saw in-theatres abroad.

***

There were definitely times in my language classes when I realized how I was, unfortunately, playing up the ignorant American stereotype. I mean, you think you know your country’s politics and then you have a unit in which human rights and war and all this heavy heavy stuff is discussed, or the grammar is conducive to political discussion, and bam, you feel like an idiot. My teachers, on the other hand, knew it all, and much like the other Chinese I encountered, were incredibly well versed in global affairs. Don’t think that I am expressing surprise, as if I was expecting to encounter a country filled with the ignorant, but it became clear to me that there was a vast difference in what was considered current events/world history/political fluency at home and abroad. It was convicting. Lesson learned- there’s more to the newspaper than the entertainment section, Court. Luckily, my teachers were kind enough to only smile wryly when I tried to talk about Chinese politics.

***

I had promised my dad, a World War Two buff, that I’d visit Nanjing, the site of the Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking). Context: in 1937, Japanese soldiers invaded the city, destroyed it, and in six weeks brutally killed, raped, and tortured 250,000 civilian Chinese. This event is considered the Holocaust of the East and continues to be a source of extreme friction between China and Japan today.

Nanjing, now rebuilt and housing a huge Ikea, is famous for the impressive museum and memorial to this dark spot in China’s past. Naturally, I wanted to go, as I come from a family with a penchant for museum- loving. Yet  it was as I was doing some preparatory research on this awful historical occurrence that I had my first hostile experience with the Great Chinese Firewall.

It was the creepiest thing- I had been reading, I had been scrolling, then, boom: “This Page Cannot Be Displayed.” It was sudden, as if a teacher had seen my texting during class and snatched my phone away from behind. I had known that the government blocked certain things on the internet (and I bought a VPN to navigate sites such as Facebook and Youtube), and it just never seemed like that big of a deal. It still doesn’t, but at that moment I felt as though someone was watching me and I was spooked.

***

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One of the many statues that surround the reflection pool outside the Memorial Museum in Nanjing. This piece is a representation of an actual photo of a baby crying over the corpse of his mother.

When I finally got to the museum, a fascinating, well done memorial, I was overwhelmed by the intensity of it all, the openness with which the Chinese mourned. Listen: I had been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and that was tame in comparison. Nanjing’s moment was constructed on a mass burial site that the Japanese used all those years ago, and skeletons of men, women, and children were found all over the place. The solution? Build around them, show the world the atrocities. Here I was reading about this thing, and there were the victims. Literally right there. It was a strange, terrifying, powerful experience. Yet  I will never forget the conversation I had with Zhou 老师, or Teacher Zhou, my favorite instructor, about what I saw. She too had been to the museum, and seemed to find it all very manipulative. She had said, “A lot of it is created to make people mad, to hate the Japanese. And I understand why people would be angry, but why should I be upset at the Japanese of today? It’s not like they did anything to me.”

***

Because I am a foreigner and because I subscribe to one of the five faiths that the Chinese government tentatively permits, I didn’t have to worry much about worshiping openly on Sundays. Does that mean I went out evangelizing? No, because that’s a quick ticket to a grimy jail cell. That doesn’t stop the Chinese, though, whose access to churches isn’t as fluid as mine was. I had heard whispers of house churches (an underground, secret worship gathering), and my biggest regret of my entire experience abroad was that due to a cell phone mishap, I missed an opportunity to go to one.  Many in the U.S., especially those who were concerned about the state of my spirituality while abroad, see China as a godless nation. Sure, it’s strange to have to explain the historicity of Jesus to a teacher who didn’t know who he was. But there’s more Christians in China than people in the U.S. I was fine.

***

Shanghai, the Paris of the East. The New York City of the East. There’s a Morton’s, a Louis Vuitton with a façade totally covered in diamond-esque lights, and a skyline so beautiful it summoned James Bond. There’s a lot of talk about modernity vs. tradition; it’s vocab in my Chinese books, it’s kicked around in discussion. In China, it seems, to be young is to be covered in Western brands and sitting in 肯德基 (KFC)or 麦当劳 (McDonald’s).  It appears that right now, as things are developing, the culture is being examined. “Does being first world mean dropping what makes us us?” So there’s Lucky Jeans and Hagendaas. But then you turn a corner and there’s the architecture and the roaring lion statues and an ancient temple. I loved that.

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Here’s an “artsy” take of the Bund in Shanghai. Easily the most beautiful spot in the city, I took this on during my glamorous night in the Peace Hotel, also on the Bund.
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Although this isn’t Shanghai (it’s West Lake in Hangzhou), I am so pleased with it and feels it represents nicely how tradition still thrives in China.
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