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錯誤

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週一, 30 一月 2012 14:43

The Year of the Voiceless

One of the great advantages of looking at 2011 from Taiwan is that writing an article reviewing the year of the rabbit is still a legitimate endeavour in the month of February. Although, it has to be said, even in the less fortunate parts of the world, where New Year is celebrated only once, 2011 will resist being shelved away as ‘soo last year’ well into March or even April.

The fortunate coincidence that the yearly celebration cycle, gives a second chance for commentators who were too busy to write in December, is not the only interesting aspect of looking at the world from Taiwan.

Those of us who have a certain familiarity with this island, understand quite well that we are living in a geographic region that is ill understood and whose voice often goes unheard. In fact, Taiwan is exceptional in its conduciveness to misunderstanding. Its unique relationship with China lies at the core of this bewilderment. The extent to which Taiwan is part of China and the extent to which it is an independent nation are both endless sources of confusion.

China itself induces a state of intellectual disarray on most Western observers. In the words of sinologist Francois Billeter: “China is more and more present in the world. But at the same time it is absent. We don’t hear its voice.” Taiwan, thanks to its complicated relationship with this already mystifying civilization, starts off on the race for global attention on the wrong foot. The fact that the island nation is largely unrecognized in international diplomacy does not help it to make its voice heard.

It is for this reason that those of us dwelling in Taiwan have an even more significant understanding of the developments around the world in the past year. Because 2011 has been the year in which those who seemed forever doomed to silence finally gained a voice. So many actors whom most never even knew existed appeared on the world stage, that we can make an exception in renaming the year of the rabbit the year of the voiceless.

Let us first look at what has arguably been the most significant social movement, namely the Arab Spring. Since time immemorial, occidental observers have scornfully assumed that non-autocratic forms of governance are fundamentally incompatible with the Muslim population of the region. Dismissing the rather obvious fact, that the majority of the ruthless dictators in the region, were granted power by the benevolent might of the neo-colonial powers.

Today the same commentators are screaming bloody murder at the election of the Muslim Brotherhood as the main party in Egypt. With the confidence of medieval clergymen who claimed that the Earth is flat, they declare that Muslims are incapable of establishing political regimes based on fair representation. Again, ignoring the fact that the Brotherhood have expressed their intention to operate within the democratic framework.

The ‘Manifesto Against Islamist Totalitarianism’ signed by leading intellectuals, among whom Salman Rushdie (Europe's favourite drama queen) is one, states the alleged impossibility of reconciling Islam and Democracy in a language that Shaggy himself (from the 90’s) would have described as ‘bombastic, very fantastic’. This is the first line: “After having overcome Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism.” It continues, two very short paragraphs later with the following words: “Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations.” If the fine art of writing a manifesto, was subject to strict rules, like that of a game of chess, invoking the ghost of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism on the opening move, then accusing your opponent of nurturing ‘fears and frustrations’, would be the equivalent of running your Knight diagonally across the board while simultaneously declaring your opponent’s pieces as your own and calling checkmate!

2011 saw the passing of one such man. A man who has achieved immortality thanks to his superhuman ability to talk out of his ass and yet refuse the possibility of miracles. Christopher Hitchens and the rest of his costumed tag team who cheerfully made appearances as ‘The Four Horsemen of Atheism’ are chiefly responsible for re-interpreting racism to apply exclusively to Muslims. His chum Richard Dawkins (who’s fighting name is ‘the Dalek’ due to the irritating quality of his voice) has recently croaked in praise of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. For the latter’s speech condemning multiculturalism that ‘coincided’ with a racist rally organised by the English Defence League.

Speaking of Islamophobia, 2011 has also seen an explosion of white supremacist violence. Norway was struck by Anders Breivik’s assault. Whilst in Germany an extreme right wing terrorist organisation was finally exposed after going on a rampage of 10 murders including a policewoman, 14 bank robberies and two nail bomb attacks between 2000 and 2007. What is stunning is that both catastrophes were coloured by the tendency of the European public and commentators to suspect Muslims. Recall, if you will, how the first day of reporting on the Oslo massacre was largely guided by fact free conjecture. It was not until the very last minute when Breivik was finally captured, that self declared terrorist experts have dropped all talk of al Qaida and picked up the question of right wing terrorism. Similarly in Germany racist terrorists were not picked up on, because for ten long years German intelligence had simply assumed that the murders were committed by the Turkish mafia.

Muslim and Chinese civilisations seem to be causing a tremendous degree of worry for the ex-colonial powers. Those who consider themselves to be the custodians of all that is good and just are making some very loud noises about the decline of the West. They claim, the cherished values of equality, liberty, fraternity are being eroded by the demographic rise of Islam and the economic rise of China. They claim, the members of these civilizational models are intrinsically incapable of understanding Western values and are likely to impose authoritarian systems on the free world.

There is a dangerous isolationist tendency in these apocalyptic visions. The suggestion is that Western civilisation should start digging its trenches and building its fortresses to resist the coming tide. The tragi-comic aspect of this line of thinking manifests itself more fully when it comes to sexual politics. A little known aspect of Breivik’s manifesto is it’s accusation of feminism for the demographic decline of his master race. “The female manipulation of males has been institutionalised during the last decades and is a partial cause of the feminisation of men in Europe,” he writes, possibly while scraping semen stains off his trousers with a commando knife. The argument is that, women empowered by feminism refuse to be bossed around by their men into producing enough babies to rescue the ubermensch from demographic extermination.

Of course we can discard the ramblings of a deranged man who has insisted that he should be treated by Japanese psychiatrists for reasons known to him alone. However similar versions of this concern manifest themselves in different guises, even in the writings of respectable thinkers. Umberto Eco for instance has recently hopped into the cacophony of voices that attempt to suggest ways out of the ‘European crisis’. In a very recent interview for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Eco throws modesty to the wind and presents his credentials, by declaring that he is “speaking as someone who doesn’t understand anything about the economy”. According to Eco’s uniquely qualified opinion it is the Erasmus programme, which will prove the salvation of Europe’s cultural heritage. And here is why:

I call it a sexual revolution: a young Catalan man meets a Flemish girl – they fall in love, they get married and they become European, as do their children. The Erasmus idea should be compulsory – not just for students, but also for taxi drivers, plumbers and other workers. By this, I mean they need to spend time in other countries within the European Union; they should integrate.

I would like to urge the very few readers who have resiliently read my ramblings thus far to chase the image of a handful of Welsh plumbers prowling the gloomy housing estates of Warsaw in cold winter nights, preying on the nubile to ‘become European’ with, out of their minds. Although the image may well be hilarious, it is not as pressing as the question of to what extent young Arabs, Chinese or Caribbean people are allowed to participate in this so called sexual revolution. I may be a somewhat old fashioned sort of chap, who is not entirely familiar with the latest developments in the sexual revolution scene. But the last time I checked a sexual revolution does not imply an ethnic limitation, however broad it may be. More importantly it does not insist that the act of ‘becoming European’ is to be engaged in within wedlock or that it should have a reproductive purpose. My outdated idea of sexual revolution, is a state of affairs in which anyone can choose to ‘become European’ with anyone, regardless not only of their race, but also of their gender and orientation.

Yes, 2011 was a year in which people stood up to be heard. But it was also a year in which certain members of a civilisation which considers itself to be in perpetual decline have stooped to ridiculous lows to avoid hearing these new voices and engage with them. We must remember time and time again that what makes the human condition special is not just the universal attributes that runs through us like a long thread, it is also about the things that make us different.

In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz explains how the evolution of the human mind has happened alongside the development of culture. Contrary to common belief, our ancestors have not developed language and other means of socialisation once their brain had fully evolved. Instead, he explains: “human cortical expansion has followed, not preceded, ‘the beginning’ of culture.”

Eco perhaps had it right in one aspect. That the fate of Europe or any other culture in fact, lies not so much in the grand decisions made by its cream and crust but more in the daily practices of its plumbers and taxi drivers. It is up to them to open their eyes and ears to new cultures and engage with them in the spirit of mutual exchange. Without expecting them to abandon what makes them and their cultures unique. Because expecting them to do so would imply forcing them into becoming, in the words of Geertz: “unworkable monstrosities”.

Faithful to the Middle Eastern tradition (though I don’t presume to be a religious observer) of giving the last word to one’s elders I wish to conclude this piece with a quote from Philosopher Gilbert Ryle, which is also quoted in full in the above mentioned work by Geertz.

“The statement “the mind is its own place”, as theorists might construe it, is not true, for the mind is not even a metaphorical “place.” On the contrary, the chessboard, the platform, the scholar’s desk, the judge’s bench, the lorry-driver’s seat, the studio and the football field are among its places. These are where people work and play stupidly, or intelligently. “Mind” is not the name of another person, working or frolicking behind an impenetrable screen; it is not the name of another place where work is done or games are played; and it is not the name of another tool with which work is done, or another appliance with which games are played.”

Illustration by Bendu

 


A reader responds to Efe

 


週三, 04 一月 2012 14:13

A Portrait of China Emerging

The narrative of China's emergence that has predominated in the Western press over the last decade is one of a racially homogenous economic superpower in ascendance; the West seems to characterize China simply in terms of its potential as a huge untapped market to be exploited or as a threat to Western cultural and economic hegemony. This month, eRenlai hopes to offer an alternative perspective on China's emergence, wherein the reality of China's racial and spiritual heterogeneity and multicultural legacy can be borne witness to on a level more fundamental than that of Nationalism. Away from the rhetoric and scare-mongering of politics and economics is the space where one can experience China on a more personal and experiential plane. Here, eRenlai has picked a variety of stories that span the last decade which paint an alternative picture of China in its period of rapid development, focusing primarily on rural life.

First we get a snapshot into the lives of the nomadic people who now populate the birthplace of the legendary Tibetan King, King Gesar, and the remnants of the Barge Wall and the Funeral city which once stood in Shiqu. Then we  move on to Shangri-La to experience the growth of eco-tourism in the Tibetan village of Napa. In Chengdu we hear of the hardships experienced by Yi migrant workers, faced with discrimination and being taken advantage of by employers. We then arrive in Yongren County to bear witness to the more colourful side of the Yi people, with their annual fashion show. Then on to Yangjuan village to monitor the progress of the school built there in 2000, with two different perspectives on the village and the project, one from the Summer of 2006 by Liang Zhun and the second from Father Duraud in Winter 2010. We also take a look at China's Muslim Hui people as they celebrate the feast of the birth of the prophet Muhammad in Pi County and attend the rebuilding of the Tibetan Buddhist Kangwu Temple in Muli County. We also discover how the previously thought to be defunct Tibetan Buddhist school of Jonang, turns out to be very much alive in Dzamthang.

Photo by Liang Zhun


週三, 28 十二月 2011 18:07

Summer in Yangjuan Pass


I have travelled many times to Liangshan Prefecture, home of Sichuan’s Yi minority. Reporting on festivals in Zhaojue, Puge or Meigu counties, I have taken countless photographs and made many Yi friends, whom I like to visit each time I am back in Liangshan.

It was only during the summer of 2006, however, that I went to Yanyuan County, in the western corner of the prefecture. I was accompanying a French scholar, Benoit Vermander, to Yangjuan village. Yangjuan has more or less become a household name in Liangshan and Chengdu, as a school has been built there thanks to the efforts of Benoit, Professor Stevan Harrell (University of Washington in Seattle) and many friends from Chengdu and other parts of China. Not only does Yangjuan enjoy the benefits of a good primary school, it has also embarked on a variety of experiments: summer educational courses, hydraulic works, sheep rearing and following the lives of young migrant workers… Most of these experiments are small-scale, which is actually an advantage because it allows for trial and error, involvement of the villagers, and potential duplication in other places… Even if the experience remains limited in scope, Yangjuan is a kind of social laboratory.

In fact, “Yangjuan” is not the official name of the place. This community is officially part of Baiwu Township, in the north-central part of Yanyuan County. The area is beautiful, with streams and cliffs, fields of buckwheat, corn and sunflowers. There are mountains on all sides, rich with forests of Yunnan Pine and hundreds of species of plants. Sheep, goats, horses, cattle and pigs graze in the pastures. However, I know that in wintertime, things are different. Everything is barren, water is sorely lacking, people are cold, malnourished and often sick without reliable medical care. Development is needed, but local people must be the actors of the development process.

What made summer of 2006 so special was also that Benoit was not alone this year. He came with his younger sister, his brother in law and their four children (7 to 13 years old); all of them arriving directly from France. Going to Yangjuan when this is your first trip to China is most certainly not a banal experience!

These pictures document this extraordinary summer at a remote village in Liangshan, where friends come together every summer, to forge a tiny part of a better future…

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週三, 28 十二月 2011 17:23

Muli, an ethnic frontier

Muli is a tiny multi-ethnic county at the southwest corner of Sichuan province, nearby Yunnan province. On its west, lies the Ganze Tibetan autonomous prefecture. Muli itself is officially called a “Tibetan autonomous county”, though it is located within the “Yi Prefecture” of Liangshan, the Yi being another important ethnic group of Southwest China.

In this multi ethnic county, and contrarily to their neighbors, the Tibetan population is little prone to migrations, as tourism prospects are opening up (although much more timidly than in adjacent Yunnan province) with the re-assertion of the Tibetan character and culture of the area. Overall, one third of Muli’s population is Tibetan, around 28 per cent is Yi, 22 per cent Han, with a number of other minorities completing the census. Tibetans in Muli take advantage of this cultural trend and of the investments that go with: rebuilding of the main three Tibetan temples of Muli County, stupas and other Tibetan artifacts constructed near the mountain lakes… Other minorities, especially Yi people, are prone to leave the area in search for job, especially since state industries have been closed. If the mountain landscape is stupendous indeed, Muli township looks to the passer-by as a sad little place, cut off from the outside world during the rainy season from mid July till end of September.

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Before 1949, Muli’s Grand Lama was the main political power in the area, a fact attested by Western travelers such as J. Rock and A. David-Neel. Muli housed three major Tibetan temples. In late July 2007, I went to one of these temples, Kangwu (Kulu in Tibetan language), and discovered the ruins of an imposing building burned down during the Cultural Revolution. Before this period, up to 550 monks were staying there. In the eighties, a small temple was built nearby, and 16 monks were living there at the time of my visit. They were in charge of supervising the rebirth a new, imposing Kangwu temple… This was the beginning of the second year of this large-scale endeavor. Tibetan craftsmen from neighboring Daocheng county had recently arrived. The structural work having been completed, it was now the turn of sculptors and painters to enter into action.

On this particular afternoon, the current Grand Lama of Muli was supervising the work.  I had the feeling of being at a special moment in time, standing between past and future, taken between the shadow of a temple existing no more and the mirage of a new one slowly coming to existence… These pictures testify to this enlightenment, to my sudden grasp of the impermanence of things.

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All pictures taken in July 2007


週二, 27 十二月 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.


週二, 27 十二月 2011 00:00

The Festival of the Birth of the Prophet in Pi county, Sichuan

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The Festival of the Birth of the Prophet is one of the three most important Islamic festivals, it commemorates the birth and the death of the founder of Islam, Muhammad. On the 5th November 2006, the Festival of the Birth of the Prophet was held at the Pitong township mosque in Pi County, Sichuan. Before the festival, after the mosque's imam, Ma Rugang and the director of the management committee of the mosque, Ma Junru, have carried out prepatory arrangements for the festival, Muslims come to donate grains, oil, meat and money, and arrange for a groups of people to take responsibility for grinding the flour, buying certain items, frying flour-and-salt sesame oil cakes, cooking the meat and other dishes, the other odd jobs that the festival entails are all carried out by Muslim volunteers.
 

The Hui people see the different tasks surrounding the festival as good works, therefore, they often strive to outdo each other. Everyone takes part to decorate the gate, the main hall and the surroundings of the mosque with lanterns and streamers, and banners, the banners commemorate the calligraphy of Muhammad with Arabic writing, as well as incorporating slogans celebrating the festival. The festival normally lasts for two days, on the first day people come to the mosque in the evening to recite scriptures in praise of the Prophet, after the worship ceremony a symposium is held, the second day is a more formal commemoration. At the appointed time, the Muslims bathe and change their clothes, dressing up and congregating at the mosque to recite scripture, praise the Prophet and worship. The imam pronounces the main events in the life of Muhammad, his achievements and his moral character, as well as exciting historical tales about the hardships undergone in missionary work, of wisdom and bravery, of skill at debating and of war, instructing the Hui people not to forget the teachings of the Prophet, and to be good Muslims.

On this day Muslims also have to "taw/ba" (توبة rendered in Chinese as 討白 tǎobái), which means to repent. The Hui people believe: "Men are not sages or saints, how are they not to sin? To know thy sin and to correct it, that is the greatest of acts." (Chunqiu Zuozhuan: Xuangong Ernian). "Taw ba" consists of making up for their former misdeeds, asking God's forgiveness, promising not to continue in sin, and commiting oneself to this new course in life through good works. After the ritual, they dine together. Dozens of table laden with dishes are spread, everybody makes merry, in a feast together. As to those who had contributed to the meal by donating in the spirit of Niyyah (نیّة rendered 乜貼 niètiē in Chinese: the intention one evokes in his heart to do an act for the sake of Allah) but are unable to come themselves have to rely on friends, relatives and neighbours to bring a flour-and-salt cake for them to try1.

What makes the feast of the Prophet so special is that the people come together to praise the Prophet, the people donate things for a common goal and that the people eat together, which shows how united the Hui people are, and how they celebrate the festival imbued with the spirit of friendship. The Hui people of Pi County invite Muslims from the surroundings of Chengdu and even Aba Prefecture to celebrate the feast of the Prophet with them. As well as its ritual significance, this day is an opportunity for Muslims to interact with each other, the imams discuss theological issues and preaching methods with each other, and the Hui people wish one another well, and talk about all kinds of things, in an atmosphere of great joy. A group of students who, off their own backs, set up a Muslim student society at Sichuan University and Southwest University for Nationalities, volunteered to serve as stewards for the festival.

Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart, photos by Liang Zhun

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1. Interestingly Chinese sources ascribe the origin of this flour and salt cake as what Abu Ayyub al-Ansari prepared for Muhammad when his house was chosen to host the Prophet on his arrival in Medina, and was even purportedly named by the Prophet as 油香 yóuxiāng , although this cake does not appear in English language versions of the life of the Prophet. For Chinese version of the origin of this cake see here.

 

 

 


週一, 31 十月 2011 14:41

Microblogs with Macro Reach: Spirituality Online In China

Sina Weibo is big in China right now. Essentially a microblogging service, it has elements of Facebook and Twitter, both of which (along with YouTube) are banned on the Mainland. With over 400 million users1, Sina Weibo is definitely a hit, and is likely to remain so as long as it does not become a vehicle for dissent and upset or threaten the government. Like all social media, Sina Weibo is overflowing with minutiae. Triumphs and tragedies, love and loathing, it is there for all to see. I enjoyed reading one of my Chinese namesakes wax lyrical about his newly rounded eyes (via eyelid cosmetic surgery). Body modification aside, the communication possibilities that Sina Weibo has generated are proving attractive to many in China, including those in the religious and spiritual spheres.

As I have written before, religion is a constantly evolving and fascinating phenomenon2, even in China where regulations continue to be more restrictive than in other countries in the region3. Here I will profile some of the various characters taking advantage of the enormous opportunity to promote their personalities, organisations and messages through Sina Weibo.

Taiwan’s Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山) is a large Buddhist organisation that uses its Sina Weibo account4 to share quotations of spiritual inspiration and considered reflection - “What is self?” and “Success is a beautiful result, failure is a beautiful experience” are two recent thought provoking and decidedly non-menacing examples.

Xing Yun (星云) is a monk who fled China decades ago and has built a massive international Buddhist organisation based at Foguangshan (佛光山) in southern Taiwan. On Sina Weibo he has garnered an impressive 327,593 followers5. Like Dharma Drum Mountain, Xing Yun reaches out to his followers with a stream of short and poignant pieces of Buddhist wisdom. For many years Xing Yun and the late founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, Sheng-yen (聖嚴), would have dreamed about having such direct access to Buddhists in the land of their birth. Sina Weibo now gives them unprecedented reach. However, it is in the less orthodox bloggers that we can find even more innovative examples.

Terry Hu (胡茵夢) is a Taiwanese movie star turned author6. Her works are spiritual in nature, and include a translation of the biography of the 20th century Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. Currently promoting her autobiography, Hu is tapping into her network of Sina Weibo followers to drum up publicity by holding competitions. Those who forward details of her book onto three friends have the opportunity to win more books and the writers of the five most outstanding comments will also win a book. Several hundred bloggers have participated in this marketing ploy.

Another Taiwanese author writing and translating in the ‘body, mind, spirit’ genre (身心靈) is Tiffany Chang (張德芬)7 . Prior to her career as a spiritual figure, Chang was a news anchor on Taiwan’s TTV channel. Aside from writing her own books (Meeting the Unknown Self) and translating popular foreign authors, such as Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth), Chang has produced a short series of videos where she reviews books8 and has assisted Taipei’s Huan-ting zen in Taiwan and China. Demonstrating considerable web savvy, Chang operates a China-based body, mind, spirit website called ‘Inner Space’9. She uses her Sina Weibo account to distribute news of updates on Inner Space to her followers, who number just under 100,000.

Perhaps the most interesting religious figure using Sina Weibo is the young Buddhist monk, Shi Daoxin (釋道心)10. Having accumulated over 189,000 followers, he uses Sina Weibo in a way that some might more associate with a self-absorbed and self-promoting youth. I have never seen a monk demonstrate such fashion sense; Shi Daoxin has a knack for matching his robes with his (often gaudily coloured) glasses. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, scroll down his blog and you will see a fantastic variety of photos.

Shi Daoxin pouting. Shi Daoxin posing wistfully outside a temple. Shi Daoxin rendered as a cartoon. Shi Daoxin meditating. Shi Daoxin meditating next to a naked babe.

The photo of Shi Daoxin meditating behind a penitent-looking female nude is particularly interesting. Apparently the winner of the Virginia Photo Exhibition in the USA, this photo is titled “Mind without obscuration” (心無罣礙) and is re-blogged with a quote from the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness” (色即是空).

Besides his own manifold images, Shi Daoxin also uses Sina Weibo to disseminate Buddhist teachings, including videos from more established teachers, such as Xing Yun. He has also circulated several of his music videos, including one karaoke-friendly ditty where he sings a Buddhist song while wandering around a temple garden and market. The suitably devout chorus is “Amitabha Buddha, please protect me” (阿彌陀佛,呵護著我). Shi Daoxin has achieved some degree of celebrity, having participated in the TV dating show “The Whole City is Madly in Love” (全城熱戀) and was interviewed on China’s top daytime TV talk show “A Date with Luyu” (魯豫有約).

If there is one thing that this brief survey shows, it is that each of these bloggers is attempting to make religious ideas relevant to life in contemporary China. Methods vary greatly—orthodox or radical, commercial or benevolent—but the bloggers are linked by the common goal of seeking to share a spiritual message with the widest possible audience. Doing so via Sina Weibo does not necessarily dilute the potency of their messages. Writing on religious innovation in contemporary China, the Cambridge anthropologist Adam Yuet Chau recently wrote that

Modern technologies and other non-traditional elements can often be effortlessly incorporated into the framework of traditional idioms and practices, which in turn reveals the dynamic innovability of the traditions themselves11.

Sina Weibo is an ideal example of this innovability. Even the more ‘traditional’ bloggers discussed here, such as Dharma Drum Mountain and Xing Yun, have made a concerted effort over many decades to revitalise Buddhism so it is more relevant to life in the contemporary world. Microblogs are just another stage in the evolution of this process. Not surprisingly, Shi Daoxin also claims to be a disseminator of modern Buddhist culture and art, albeit in his own unique way. For the time being, Shi Daoxin et al will continue to be able to encourage, inspire, question and interact with their followers through Sina Weibo. And when Sina Weibo loses its lustre or is blocked, then I’m sure they will be among the early adopters of the next web platform, whatever it may be.

(Photo courtesy of www.weibo.com/shidaoxin)

 


 

1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/8851585/China-fights-to-silence-the-social-network.html

2.http://bit.ly/rC0vpY

3. http://bit.ly/uVZTtH

4. http://weibo.com/ddmbascc

5. http://weibo.com/1861268640

6. http://weibo.com/1243683297

7. http://weibo.com/1759168351

8. http://www.youtube.com/user/BOOKLIFE1313

9. http://www.innerspace.com.cn/f/index

10. http://weibo.com/shidaoxin

11. Adam Yuet Chau. Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation, Taylor and Francis, 2011, page 20.

 

 


週五, 28 十月 2011 14:21

India, China and Their Digital Natives

We've been digging through our archives, and found this gem of an interview from 2009 in which Nishant Shah, the Director of Research of the Bangalore Centre for Internet and Society, discusses the changing definitions of the term "Digital Native", the effect that the internet age has had on India, and provides a more balanced viewpoint on China's "Great Firewall of China" than the usual barrage of criticism.

India and its Digital Natives:

Alternate for readers in China

The Great Firewall of China: Censorship or Safeguard:

Apologies, this video is unavailable to readers in China

 

 


週一, 24 十月 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)


週三, 19 十月 2011 16:39

A Virtual Game that I Play for Real!

By Ni Ming, edited by Chen Yujun(Raining), translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart, artwork by Arvid Torres

I don't think I would survive without online games. I've enjoyed playing all kinds of computer games since I was little. In first year of university, all the guys in my class were playing ‘World of Warcraft’, so I decided to start playing it too. At one point I was playing for 8-10 hours a day, which would normally give me a headache and make me feel a little queasy because of the 3D gameplay. I had to sprint to the toilet all of a sudden.

The world of online games is like a microcosm of society. One needs to invest a lot of time and money in it. There are even people who arrange to go online every day at a certain time like punching a time-clock. As each team is made up of different characters with different classes, someone will be in charge of inflicting as much DPS (Damage per second) as possible, others heal, and others still tank, so if you are missing a team member it is impossible to continue with a quest. For the most part I undertake quests, play PvP (player vs player), or purely wandering around inside this other dimension made up of a fusion of technology and beauty. At times, when playing instances with randomly selected strangers as team members, I would be on the verge of tears from the pressure, although I also had good experiences. As the more challenging parts of the game need cooperation and communication between team members, if you make a mistake it can lead to the death of the whole team, so when you make a mistake it is hard to avoid feeling frustrated, that you have let everyone else down.

However, not everyone's attitude to the online game is the same, not everyone takes it as seriously as others. As well as this, due to controls set in place by the CCP on the mainland, if mainlanders want to play the latest version of World of Warcraft they have to find a way to use the servers for Taiwan and Hong-Kong, which means the servers are overburdened. Differences in culture, habits, and ways of talking inevitably cause friction between players. For example, one time when our team were in the middle of a game, one member of the team suddenly stopped responding, I was stunned, after a quite a long while someone said, "He runs a store, he's with a customer...". Everyone commits a lot of time and money to play, but this guy just abandoned the game without even a word to his team members! It leaves you speechless. As well as this kind of thing, there are quite a lot of strongly worded political arguments conducted between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese players, which destroy the experience of the game for many people, leading some of the game's older devotees to stop playing altogether. Although the simulated world of the game is not so far from the real world in terms of how people interact, in the game gender is not important except in appearance, it all depends on the skill and style of the player, this makes the game's reality different from real life. Although it is not easy to tell a player's real gender, in the world of the game, girls often play male characters and male players often play as pretty girls, which is pretty interesting (although because male players are the majority, when people come across a female character they will often assume that the player is male).

On the whole, the current World of Warcraft is very diverse, although this diversity comes hand and hand with the problems mentioned above. People still organize player get-togethers, arrange to meet in the real world and make friends but the game lacks the sense of community that it once had. This is also true of the internet in general, due to changes in society, it has become less and less safe, and it is impossible to go back to simpler times. My experience of online gaming has influenced my value system, because it is real experience, even if it occurs in a simulated world, it is still an extension of the real world.

 


週四, 07 七月 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.


週一, 25 四月 2011 12:04

Religions and Charities in China

The religious growth that China currently experiences is leading towards a most interesting trend: the organization of faith-based charities.  For sure, such trend is still hampered by a number of factors, but it does express the growing assertiveness of China’s civil society and of its religious groups.


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