Erenlai - Benoit Vermander (魏明德)
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011 18:12

Yi Migrant Workers in Chengdu

Though the numbers change according to economic circumstances, an estimated 150-200 million Chinese rural workers are living and working in cities. They often face discrimination in housing, education, healthcare and employment due to their temporary status, though several cities are working towards improving their conditions. Employers often take advantage of internal migrants’ vulnerable status by withholding billions of Yuan in unpaid wages. Also, school and healthcare fees have a disproportionate impact on migrant workers, whose incomes are on average lower than other urban residents. For migrant families, various additional fees make attendance at state schools unfeasible. Furthermore, most migrants in China’s cities live without health insurance, rarely visit a doctor, and only go to the hospital in the most extreme cases of illness or injury.

The above is especially true when it comes to “ethnic minority migrant workers.” Altogether, 56 "nationalities" are officially recognized in China, the Han and 55 “national minorities". The Yi nationality is one of these national minorities. The various subgroups belonging to entity are spread throughout the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, totaling more than seven million people (five million in Yunnan, two millions in Sichuan). In Sichuan, most Yi people live in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. The Autonomous Prefecture covers over sixty thousand square kilometers. It comprises seventeen counties and about five hundred major villages with a total population of more than four million, more than 2 million of the inhabitants being Yi. The relative prosperity of its capital, Xichang city, does not hide the fact that the Liangshan Prefecture is the third poorest among the 30 autonomous prefectures in China. The altitude ranges on the whole from 2000 to 3000 meters, with the highest peak at 5,959 meters.

One can find migrant workers from Liangshan in most of the major cities of China. Many group together in Sichuan’s capital. There are no statistics on the number of Yi migrant workers living in Chengdu, mainly because of the very high volatility of this population (many migrants only stay a few days or a few weeks), and of the low visibility of the Yi community (Yi migrants don’t wear ethnic clothes and look very similar to other migrants). The proximity with Liangshan makes Chengdu one of the natural destinations for inexperienced migrants who want to benefit from the presence of Yi fellows in the city, and older migrants who favor the possibility of returning home regularly to take care of their family.

In contrast with the Tibetan community, Yi people in Chengdu seem very scattered. There are almost no Yi shops, only 1 or 2 Yi bars, almost no place where Yi people particularly enjoy gathering (except the Southwest University for Nationalities). The surroundings area of the two railway stations are known for attracting a number of poor Yi migrants who don’t know were to go and how to get started in Chengdu. The very poor east part of the city used to have some quasi-slums inhabited by drug-addicts, and it is said that many of them were Yi. But it seems that most Yi people in Chengdu are spread out in the city, or in suburb factories, and have relationship with small groups of friends from their native area. They are not strictly enclosed in Yi networks; on the contrary most of them also socialize with local Han people and migrants from other ethnic groups.

These photographs focus on a group of workers coming from the small township of Baiwu, the most distant part of Liangshan, in the Yanyuan district of Sichuan Province. Their ancestors’ lives consisted in farming and grazing sheep, a lifestyle that kept them working from sunrise to sunset every day. Later, through the acquaintances of relatives and friends they went to Chengdu and began to hire themselves out as workers.

As many have not even graduated from primary school and are without any special skills, most of them can only do hard physical labor, such as construction workers or furniture movers. Some also work in restaurants or as security guards. The work is strenuous, the labor very intense and income is low (around 700-800 Yuan per month or even lower, food and rent not included).

The Yi workers range in age from 20 to 40 years old, so they are carrying the twin burdens of supporting their elders and caring for their children, who sometimes number three or four (minorities are exempt from the one child policy). They still have to send money back home (around 500 Yuan per month) in order to satisfy the demanding expectations and desires of their families back in their hometowns.

To save money, several workers rent a single room together so each one only pays 50 to 60 Yuan per month. The living conditions are barely adequate and the hygiene extremely poor. They buy their own food and cook extremely simple meals themselves. When someone from the same province celebrates his birthday, everyone goes together to a small restaurant to share a meal. This is their most extravagant luxury in this big city. Sometimes they allow themselves the pleasure of going to watch a movie. Their social interactions are constricted, with little room for intimacy, but they help each other whenever one of them gets sick or has problems.

The majority of the workers who are currently working in Chengdu are satisfied with the current situation because they consider it to be better than farming in their hometown or grazing sheep. It could be better, it could be worse: the workers are generally of a placid spirit. They frankly say that although the city of Chengdu is pleasurable, bustling and lively, they are only passing by. In the end, they will return to their land where their roots are.

Working as hired men gives them an opportunity to experience another style of life, and shows them their own deficiencies and shortcomings. All the workers also assert that they will do their best to allow the future generations a greater chance to study. Although each worker has his own aspirations and expectations concerning the future, the general wish is just to earn a little more money and go back home, in order to improve their own lives and those of their families.

Minority migrant workers are often the first victims of overall economic difficulties. If their experience in the cities is to be a meaningful one, it is urgent to teach them the skills that will later on help them build a sustainable future once they are back on their land.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011 11:46

The Gift of Attentiveness

At the beginning of a new year, what wish do I want to express for myself and for the people whom I know and love? Let me think… Maybe, you’ll consider my wish to be rather unambitious (but think twice); I just wish all of us to cherish and nurture a tiny little virtue – a virtue often neglected: Attentiveness. Attentiveness to what? Well… to nothing in particular. Pure attentiveness. Attention to anything that may happen, to silence as well as music - to the changes that are occurring within oneself, society, the cosmos… Or, maybe, if such attentiveness is truly to be assigned an object: attention to the current of life that runs within the depth of my inner being.

There are privileged moments when the breeze of the night, the smell of incense or an unexpected moment of solitude will suddenly free us from our occupations. Our social Self is no longer our center. We calmly descend into depths that we had not explored yet, discerning layers of feelings and existence that challenge the way we used to perceive ourselves. This might happen indeed at specific, privileged times, but it is always prepared by long periods of maturing – periods that may have been marked by troubles and sorrow as well as by peace. Things just happen within us because we have been attentive, even if we were not fully conscious of the attentiveness we were exerting. Pure attention is not truly an effort we make - rather it is a state into which we enter. And the abyss of life opens up at some point, so that we may penetrate the inner grottoes, and contemplate the running water that bring us to our Origin.

In keeping with the water metaphor: Looking at the sea from the shore, till the waves have become the very music of our soul, may tell us something about entering pure attentiveness. The peace that comes from our surrendering to the current of life makes the same sound as the waves do. Taken into the interplay between the waves, the sand and the wind, we experience the innermost and outermost of our Being – what is more external to me than the external world, what is more internal to me that my most secret thoughts, all fuse into One…

In the ordinary situations of our life it is often very difficult to sense this secret world that inhabits us. We rather feel prisoners of a courtyard of bricks and mortar, and have to take solace from the rarefied foliage of a lonely tree… Still, Hope helps us to grow in the virtue of attentiveness, so as to make us able to fracture the closed walls of our courtyard. Here is my wish for you, dear readers of Renlai and of eRenlai: in 2012, may you be rewarded of your efforts at patience, hope and attention, so as to experience anew the current of life that runs deep within the universe, within humankind, and within your own souls…

Painting by Bendu

Monday, 12 December 2011 00:00

A Book Written for the Present

The Book of Revelation is the last one of the New Testament. Its style, its images and its dramatic aspect cannot but astonish its readers. Yet, it remains one of the most widely read of the Bible, especially in times of crisis.

It is difficult to understand its style and meaning if one does not know that it belongs to a literary genre: the “apocalyptic genre”, which developed in the Jewish world around two centuries before the birth of Jesus and will still last for one more century after his death.

Writers of “apocalyptic books” intend to reveal to their readers the project of God: the coming of His Day, when His Kingdom will be definitely established on earth. They first look at the past of Israel, reflect with their readers on the significance of the most important events, and draw a line of interpretation from this rereading of the past: God is faithful, He is working among His people today as He was doing yesterday, and as He will continue to do. Thus, understanding how God is working among us nowadays helps us to understand in which ways His coming is about to happen. Apocalyptic writers do not “see” specific events, they rather sketch the way God is working and will continue to work in human history. However, they need to do this with images and symbols. The reader needs to be sensitive to the literary code used by them. “White” is generally linked to victory and innocence; “Red’ to murder and blood; “seven” expresses perfection, and “six” imperfection; “three and half” refers to suffering and times of trial; “four” symbolizes the created world; “horn” is a symbol of power, and “white hair” of eternity rather than of old age…

John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, may be also the writer of the Fourth Gospel, or he is, more probably, one of his disciples. Traditionally, the writing of the Book is thought to have taken place around the years 90-96. Its redactor will make use of the images and symbols that we just mentioned For someone with a good knowledge of the Biblical text, most of the images being used are easy to decrypt: the completion of the victory of Christ will be evoked through the images of seven seals, seven trumpets, or seven cups… The tone of John’s Apocalypse is actually much more optimistic than the one of the former Jewish Apocalypses: Evil has already been unleashed when Jesus was crucified, but final victory is already ensured in his resurrection. Martyrs are associated to his victory. The message of the Apocalypse to his reader is quite straightforward: through our life and deeds, what Jesus has already accomplished will become everyday truer, more “real.” We can make it actually “happen”, we can make the salvation brought by Christ be known and experienced everywhere.  We are called to die to a certain way of conceiving our existence so as to live of the very life of Christ. This is painful, but the form of death we accept brings life to us and to the others. This is alike the suffering of the woman who is giving birth – an image common to the Book of Revelation and to the Fourth Gospel. This stress on the decisions to be taken by the faithful throughout his life gives a specific tone to the Book of Apocalypse: John does not describe the inexorable execution of a plan decided by God, he rather describes the path that men undertake with a God who walks with them, speaks to them and waits for their answer.

Whatever the multiplicity of images and tales he makes use of, John does not try to describe historical events to come, but rather to discover the meaning of the events that each generation of Christians is led to confront. Many descriptions of the Book of Revelation that seem to be projected into the future actually narrate events that have taken place during the life spam of the author – the persecution of Nero for instance. But they are narrated in such a way so as to receive a universal meaning. More generally, the Book of Revelation appears to be a global rereading of the Old Testament as it tries to interpret the two major events that define nascent Christianity: the break between Christian communities and the Jewish world; and the persecution it must almost immediately suffer from the totalitarian Roman empire.

Another “key of understanding” for entering into the text of the Book of Revelation is to note that it sounds very much like a “liturgy”: there are many canticles and songs, descriptions of celebrations taking place in Heavens, and allusions to baptism and Eucharist. Somehow, the whole human history is seen as a liturgy through which God is praised and glorified in the life and death of His witnesses.

Finally, the Book of Revelation celebrates the mystery of a God who comes towards us and who lives with us: Jesus is the center of history. The Verb has been made flesh, but his humaneness is expressed by a paradox Jesus is both the Lamb, whose blood reconciles God and humankind –as it was already announced in the Book of Exodus -, and the Shepherd, who cares for his people with love. He is the first and the last, the one who takes the humblest place and the greatest accomplishment of humankind. Enlivened by symbols and paradoxes that attempt to express something of an ineffable mystery, the Book of Revelation opens our eyes to a renewed vision of the Present – and calls us to fully and freely engage our whole being into the times that are ours.

Drawing by Bendu

Wednesday, 30 November 2011 20:27




撰文│魏明德  翻譯│張令憙

《默示錄》(The Book of Revelation)是新約的最終卷。它的風格、圖像和它的戲劇性層面,不能不令讀者吃驚。然而,它仍是聖經中最廣為閱讀的一卷書,尤其是在危機時刻。

若缺乏一些基本背景的認識,很難瞭解此書的風格和意義:它的文學類型屬於「默示體」(apocalyptic genre,「默示」亦譯為「啟示」),約在耶穌誕生前二世紀於猶太文化世界中發展,並於他死後又持續發展一世紀之久。











最後,《默示錄》慶祝一位走向我們,與我們一起生活的天主的奧祕,那就是耶穌,祂是歷史的核心。聖言(The Verb)已成了新的,但祂的人性藉由似非而是的悖論表達出來:耶穌既是羔羊,亦是牧人――作為羔羊,他的血使天主與人類和好,一如《出谷紀》(新教譯為《出埃及記》)中已宣告的;作為牧人,他以慈愛照顧他的子民。祂是元始和終末,取了最卑微的位置,實現了人類最偉大的成就。《默示錄》透過鮮活的象徵和弔詭悖論,試圖表達一項無法言說的奧祕之一二,開啟我們的眼目,見到一個對當下的更新願景――並召喚我們圓滿自由地將自己整個投入屬於我們的時代。



Wednesday, 30 November 2011 18:32




撰文│魏明德  翻譯∣瞿彥青








Monday, 31 October 2011 16:43



Monday, 24 October 2011 11:06

Internet and Civil Society in China

Is there a “civil society 公民社会”in China? For more than two decades, Chinese intellectuals have been hotly debating the topic. Some of them stress that the basic differences in political system and traditions between China and the west make the use of such term inadequate, Other try to discern a “Chinese model”, according to which the participation of civic organizations to the consultative mechanisms established by the state ultimately fosters their independence. For these scholars, an “independent” civil society will ultimately be a fruit of the cooptation by the state of certain associations (chambers of commerce, charities, interest groups…), which feel gradually empowered by the tasks that the state entrusts to them.

However, ordinary citizens do not seem content anymore to see their participation limited to the domains and the mechanisms that the state unilaterally allow them to enter into. The meteoric rise of the use and power of Internet can largely be explained by the popular will to trespass the gradual mechanisms of social and political participation that the ruling class tries to enforce.  Online activism is not only about the content it carries: it stresses first and foremost the right of the public to debate any problem it finds relevant, and to do so at any time.

Different forces try to promote or constrain online activism – the state, the market and civic groupings work in fierce competition. Smaller organizations, less visible and which do not need to invest much in personnel and equipment may actually benefit the most of the flexibility of the online tools, fostering grassroots communities that are able to grow and to adapt very rapidly.

The Chinese Internet is not “democracy.” But it is an experimental platform where Chinese citizens aspire to build a model of debate and participation different from the limited version that the government tries to defend and promote. In the years to come, Internet will continue to be the focal point around which the evolution of China’s political, civic and cultural system will be debated and determined. In China, Internet may be already more than a “virtual civil society”: it has become civil society itself.

Read B.V.'s previous article on a similar subject:
Is the Internet the Bedrock of Civil Society in China?

(Drawing by Claire Shen)

Thursday, 29 September 2011 19:02




撰文│魏明德    翻譯│陳雨君








10月 - 台灣建築之「醜」




Thursday, 07 July 2011 00:00

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: The Sequel

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, written in the 14th century, is the most popular Chinese historical novel, based on the tumultuous history of the country during the second and third centuries. A cultural icon, it has lost nothing of its evocative power, revived through TV series, mangas and videogames. Throughout the centuries, its over-complex plot has also provided the Chinese political scene with endless analogies, helping politicians and commentators to assess power relationships, strategies and claims to legitimacy.

No wonder that the “Three Kingdoms” metaphor is still in use. And it serves today to describe the somehow subdued battle going on between the three main ideological forces that divide the Chinese intellectual spectrum, all of them trying to define policy making and future institutional transformations. Roughly speaking, the “Three Kingdoms” are now referred to as Confucianism, Christianity and a populist form of Maoist revival.

Let us start with the latter “Kingdom”: Bo Xilai (薄熙来), Party secretary of Chongqing Special Municipality and a scion of a prominent Communist family, has built up his popularity on the eradication of local mafias (or its substitution by new factions), the building of scores of social housing, and the chanting in group and on TV of revolutionary songs of the past. He has somehow reshaped a “spiritual civilization” based (a) on the comfort of small groups fostering mutual support through chanting together and participating in community activities, (b) on nostalgia for less corrupt times, and (c) on the reassertion of the quasi-religious nature of the Party.  Strangely enough, the model has proven effective, and is now embraced by a growing number of national and local cadres, making the ones who embrace the revival of the Party and the enshrinement its history leading contenders in the political battles to come. For sure, the ultimate motivations behind Bo’s launching of the “Red songs campaign” remain unclear, but it any case it has initiated a movement that has implications going beyond his personal political future. Current dissatisfactions as to inflation and unemployment may give more impetus to this peculiar form of populism.

Confucianism fits better the mind of the leaders and intellectuals who envision the future of China as a continuation and refinement of the current model: meritocracy is the core value, a meritocracy mainly based on technical and administrative expertise; virtue is to be extolled, along with obedience and sense of order; “scientific development” associates with uncritical reverence for China’s long past (while the Populist-Maoist model relies more on generational nostalgia and short-term memory); caution and wisdom anchored into the ruminating of Chinese classics have to predominate over daring attempts at change, so prone is the country to disorder and division.

Finally, “Christianity” is fostered by the rapid growth of Christian churches, joined by people aspiring to a spiritual experience anchored in both personal and community life; at the same time, it clearly posses political undertones as it goes with aspiration to personal freedom and rights understood in the Western sense; such aspiration ultimately implies to relax or even to overcome the Party-State’s overall control on society. “Christians’ are thus often assimilated to people aspiring towards a Western-leaning model, and such people can also be found in leading circles. An example is the one provided by the economist Zhao Xiao (赵晓), who has equaled the historical achievement of the West with its adhesion to Christian beliefs and has converted to Christianity. During the last few years and months, spiritual and political values have been more clearly associated than was the case at the beginning of the “religious fever’ tide, with tensions and debates consequently growing.

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is characterized by the intricacy of its plot and the innumerable changes of alliances and fortune that occur. It would thus be unwise to see in the three “Kingdoms” now emerging the sole actors of an ever-evolving drama. But the understanding of the Characters who appear on the stage at a given moment of time might help all observers to better follow the plot yet to unfold.

Photo: C.P.

Monday, 20 June 2011 00:00

“Surviving” is not good enough

More than once, when times at work or in relationships had been rough, I was encouraged by friends and companions to try my skills at “survival.” They meant by this that, sometimes, you cannot do better than sticking to your task, maintaining the trade or the organization you are responsible for, and waiting for better days… There is a kind of wisdom in such advice, but, over the years, I have been led to recognize that this was not very good wisdom: when you just aim at “surviving’ you are not very much “alive’ already… Slowly but surely, “surviving’ becomes the atmosphere that you breathe and exhale, and routine gains over the forces of imagination, passion and rebellion. My own advice may sound far-fetched, but is still the fruit of what I have experienced: in times of utter difficulties, do not aim at living less, but rather at living more, and more intensely. For sure, this might involve things such as to keep one’s head down for a while, cancel some projects, find ways to do more with less… but still, do not consider these limitations and expedients as a “survival” strategy; rather, let the challenges you are meeting with teach you daily lessons about change, inspire you new dreams and continuously enlarge your perspectives. In other words, always strive for revival. Yes, “revival’ – rather than “survival” – has to be the force that keeps us walking.

Till recently, I considered such ideas as belonging to the “private domain”, as to be shared only with a few friends when the climate was at sharing and confiding to one another. But I am more and more struck by the number of colleagues and friends who experience tiredness or even psychological exhaustion, who wonder how long they can go as they do, and who still do not see a way out. And I sometimes recognize in myself the old temptation: to be satisfied with “survival’ rather than aiming at “revival.” I am more and more convinced that this is not only a psychological phenomenon that would be due to some strange and sudden accrued frailty of the human species, but that we meet indeed with a social, global phenomenon – and quite a recent one: it seems to me that the aftershock of the financial crisis of 2008-2009 has been minimized, and that no real lesson has been drawn from it. After much talk about changes called for by the lack of sustainability of the current model, there has been a muted consensus to just continue like was the case before – on the basis of finance-driven profit, continuous time pressure and the taking of short-term risks. What is here at stake is not only the perpetuation of an economic model, but of a cultural one as well. Still, everyone perceives that incentives provided by such a model are not as strong as they used to be, while dangers and uncertainties are recurring. We now live as if being stuck between two crises, the former one and the next to come, and, in the meanwhile, we try to cope with the pressure of the times, not knowing whether our efforts will eventually bear fruits or will vanish in a collapse. Increasing ecological problems and large scale natural disasters have added to the global gloominess. And risks become sometimes hard-felt realities, as the dire budgetary situation of several European countries reminds us now. In China also, inflation, unemployment and food safety crises have tarnished past optimism. In another domain, the most recent and tragic reminder of what the minimization of risks my eventually bring to has been provided by Japan’s nuclear crisis.

Can we do anything against such trend? The first thing is certainly to convince oneself that we are still able to make choices and decisions, so as to live our personal and professional life in a responsible and creative way. We are still entitled and called to renew our ways of proceedings, to change our lifestyle, and to refocus our own goals. Networking is another way to go beyond pressure and complaint, to exchange advices, ideas and encouragements in such a way as to empower one another. Finally there is an obvious need to renew political participation at the local and national level and, going one step further, to build up a real “international political space”, a space of deliberation and decision on our common challenges. Communities (be they local, national or global), not only individuals, are called to “revive” rather than merely “survive” – and the call is to be renewed day after day.



Tuesday, 31 May 2011 00:00

Moral development is a life-long process

I teach in a School of Philosophy. I do not teach ethics, but I sometimes have to meet with questions related to this field. Students have been trained to reason in a very abstract way, and they like to come up with logical dilemmas, with problems seemingly impossible to solve. I have much difficulty in making them understand one very simple truth: in real life, you usually do not meet with abstract, logical cases, you muddle through situations that are multifaceted and require you to go through a process of discussion, discernment and progressive adjustment. There is rarely one logical answer to a given moral problem as actually experienced. You have to look for the minutiae of the case, to ask for your friend’s and your peer’s advice, and to come up with an answer that has to do with practical wisdom as much as with logical inferences.

Of course, it is good that students come up with such questions. It corresponds to one stage of moral development. You search for rules and principles, you exercise your capacity for judgment and consistency, and you do not satisfy yourself with easy arrangements: your conscience wants you to decide and to act according to clearly defined standards.

Still, other capacities are to be developed in order to live a truly ethical life. As rightly emphasized by feminist studies, empathy is one of them. Ethical judgment is concerned with real people and with needs to which you have to answer. And needs, especially the needs of the people who are the most vulnerable, are always special. If one truly wants to answer such needs, respect and care progressively appears to one’s conscience as the primary requisites. So, sense of care will develop along with empathy. Ethics will be lived less in terms of “principles” than in terms of “relationships.” Truth and life will come together, never separated from each other. Abstract truths can become deadly truths – or deadly lies. Conversely, a life lived without reference to the quest for truth will rapidly become meaningless, tasteless and obscured by insensitivity.

Ethical “sensitivity” will generally be acquired step by step. As we enter into complex, ever-evolving relationships, openness to others will challenge both our general principles and our self-absorption. Later in life, what we have learned throughout these relationships might blossom into a new set of standards and a larger vision. After having moved from general principles to specific relationships, we will be focusing again on universal concerns. But, at this stage, our convictions will have been nurtured by experiences slowly ruminated: care and empathy will have opened our heart and our mind to both universality and the infinite world of human differences.

Most of us do not move smoothly along the way. We may experience moral regressions as well as sudden awakenings. Other people will challenge our thought habits and prejudices – sometimes gently, sometimes less so -, and how we react to such challenges will prove to be essential in the process of moral development. The most important point is to recognize that living an ethical life is both a decision to be taken and a process to be nurtured – that is to say: both a decision to be periodically reaffirmed and a process that will end up only with our life.

Photo: C.P.


Tuesday, 03 May 2011 00:00





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