This is a slow-brewing documentary and Taiwanese director, Yao Hung-yi (姚宏易) clearly shares a love of long but poignant camera shots with executive director Hou Hsiao-hsien (候孝賢). The documentary is about Chinese artist and actor Liu Xiaodong (劉小東) going back to his hometown of Jincheng in China's north-western Liaoning province to paint his childhood friends. Liu was a producer on Devils On the Doorstep, which I reviewed here, and starred in the film The Days (《冬春的日子》), which I haven't yet seen.
When Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell discuss how Americans view various religious groups in their critically acclaimed book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), they reported that the three most "unpopular" groups are Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. Based on a "feeling thermometer" from 0 (coldest) to 100 (warmest), all three were ranked in the 40s, below the overall mean of 55 degree and the neutral point of 50. One may wonder how Buddhists could have received such a chilly reception in the US in absence of any typical factors that make a religion unpopular to others, such as negative media attention, social behaviors that run counter to laws or ethic codes of the larger society, historical or ongoing conflicts, and proselytizing competition for converts.
The number puzzles me, especially in comparison with the positive way Buddhists are perceived in France. As reported in a Figaro article in 2013, Buddhism is ranked by Tilder et l'Institut Montaigne as the religion most favorably viewed by the French: 87% of them have a good image of Buddhism, followed by 76% for Protestantism, 69% for Catholicism, 64% for Judaism, and 26% for Islam. Even if we take the exact numbers with a grain of salt, the "warm" feeling the French have for Buddhism can be corroborated by numerous other studies, surveys and newspaper or magazine articles.
It is certainly not the first time the French and Americans so sharply disagree, but the contrast makes it obvious that Americans' negative view of Buddhism may not have much to do with its place outside of Judeo-Christian framework. Putnam and Campbell believe that Americans' religious tolerance stems mainly from the fact that most of them "are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths." As a result, since there are so few Buddhists and Muslims, most Americans are not closely acquainted with anyone of them, preventing "religious bridging". The thesis makes a lot of sense in many regards, but it does not explain, for instance, why American Jews gave Buddhists a warm score of 64, the highest of what they gave to any religious groups other than themselves (Catholics received the same score).
If the condition for Buddhists to be viewed warmly in the US is for a large number of other Americans to be "intimately acquainted" with them, we may wait for a very long time. In a well-researched book, My Freshman Year (2005), anthropologist Rebekah Nathan (pseudonym) observes that college students, whom we might expect to be most dynamic and open-minded, tend to socialize in homogenous groups with those who resemble themselves in appearances and backgrounds. Yes, they are usually polite and civil, but display a surprising level of indifference towards unfamiliar cultures, bitterly felt by international students. Perhaps one of the deepest problems in the US is a pervasive lack of curiosity for difference or unfamiliarity, which is reflected in an overwhelming need to feel comfortable, and to find others "relatable" before willing to be associated with them. Living in the same neighborhood does not mean genuine friendship would result from such proximity, because neighbors seldom socialize with each other. Robert Putnam's bestselling Bowling Alone (2000) depicts precisely an America where people became increasingly disconnected from one another.
It is well-noted that divisions tend to run along racial lines, even in places of worship. In a fascinating article in Huffington Post, "Buddhism's Race Problem: Buddhist 'People of Color Sanghas'", Jaweed Kaleem reports on emerging exclusive Buddhist meditation groups where whites are not allowed, because minority practitioners feel judged and unwelcome in established meditation centers where members are almost entirely white. It may seem odd that Buddhism, a religion that teaches detachment from the self and appearances, cannot bridge the believers' racial division, but we need to take into account America's long history of racial segregation. It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court outlawed the so-called "anti-miscegenation laws".
Putnam and Campbell's book was based on Faith Matters Surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007. When Pew Research Center conducted a new survey in July 2014, Americans' "feeling temperature" for Buddhism has increased to 53 degree, still lukewarm but a noticeable improvement, warmer than 48 for Mormons and 40 for Muslims. What has changed? The survey offers various clues. Younger Americans give Buddhist significantly higher marks than older ones: 18 to 29 year-olds, a significant proportion of whom were too young to be included in the previous surveys, rate them at 58 degree, while those 65 and older give them a tepid 47. In addition, there seems to be a correlation with politics: Democrats view Buddhists much more favorably than Mormons (57 versus 44), while Republicans rate them slightly lower (49 versus 52). Does knowing someone from a religious group result in a more positive view? It definitely does, but not to the same degree. Buddhists receive the largest boost, from 48 to 70, the highest mark, but only 23% of Americans know anyone of them.
How do we interpret such statistics? How come Buddhists benefit so much more from familiarity than other religions? For what reasons some religious groups view Buddhists much more favorably than others do? Why do Democrats have a significantly more positive view of Buddhists than Republicans? To what extent those diverse perceptions are related to the specific teachings of Buddhism? Numbers do not lie, as the saying goes, but neither do they tell the whole story.
Photo By Aaron Logan (from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There are many Chinas – from isolated, struggling mountain communities to the communities of connected urbanites who live in futuristic landscapes. But there might be only two ways of looking at China, and both are right on their own terms.
On the one hand, engaging with Chinese realities sometimes overwhelms an observer who is struck most forcefully by the apparent homogeneity of the country. Unequal levels of regional economic development hardly mask an impression of sameness to life across China. The systematic formatting of modes of thought, urban planning and consumer habits necessarily leads one to lament the fact that sustainability and cultural diversity have been sacrificed as the price of quantitative growth and state-sponsored values and discourse. The gloom generated by looking at uniform skylines may then lead the observer to nurture a deep pessimism about the human future of China.
On the other hand, immersed into day-to-day Chinese life as I am, I often marvel at the ingenuity of a society that continuously renews the "practices of everyday life" as Michel de Certeau famously called them. Starting and maintaining social networks (both real and virtual) so as to build supportive communities, nurturing local art scenes, supplementing the state's deficiencies when it comes to take care of older people or bettering one's neighborhood, taking advantage of every educational opportunity... Such endeavors and many others translate into personal and collective tactics in which ordinary people engage with seemingly endless energy and creativity.
Gloomy skylines belie what happens at ground level. The more I enter into China, the more I feel impressed by the way Chinese people and the society they make renew themselves through ever evolving grassroots endeavors.
Religious vitality is far from being the sole expression and motor of a burgeoning society. But one should not underestimate how much it contributes to it. Its expressions are manifold: volunteers regroup in the compounds of Buddhist temples both for organizing workshops and charity events; in Shantou (Guangdong Province), a popular religion fellowship is revived for taking care of funerals in a way more sensitive to the grieving than the ones provided by state-sanctioned rituals; in various cities, mosques have become centers for professional training; and as Protestant and Catholic networks proliferate beyond control, they can come to define the full reach of the social life of their most devoted members.
As long as such vitality remains limited in numbers and in public expression, the State remains neutral. It may even start to favor these developments when the goals of local communities are congruent with official strategies, as it is most often the case.
Problems occur when social movements become far too conspicuous and autonomous. Such is the case in Zhejiang province, and especially in Wenzhou city, where the growth of Christianity has taken Korea-like proportions. The campaign to demolish crosses and sometimes even entire churches that occurred in 2014 needs this context for its interpretation: limits had to be enforced in a way that left no place for ambiguity about who is in charge.
However, in 2014, Christmas celebrations have supplied even more testimonies to both the popular appeal and organizational strength of Christianity. Far more than in preceding years, crowds at services, concerts and other events testify to its popularity – even if the reasons for such popularity remain debated, with the spiritual, the exotic and the taste for all things fun and fashionable mixing in varying degrees.
Not surprisingly, adverse reactions came from various sectors, especially in the Ministry of Education that is anxious to see that youth Chinese do not to embrace "foreign" festivals, but also from intellectuals advocating cultural nationalism. However, these sorts of reactions were not as common or notable as sometimes reported in the Western medias.
The directions in which Chinese society and culture are presently moving remain hard to assess. What is certain is that, from now on, their very creativity make them both unpredictable and, ultimately, uncontrollable.
Photo by Liang Zhun
In a phrase: A pantomime until the end, at which point it rushes to satisfy nationalistic appetites.
This film is set in a small Chinese town called Guajia (hang up armor) under Japanese occupation during the second world war.
A Touch of Sin is a film by Jia Zhangke (賈樟柯). I've only seen Platform (《站台》) by him before, so am unfamiliar with the majority of his work. The Chinese title of the film differs from the English title, in that the Chinese means literally, "fate appointed by the heavens," whereas the English title has a more Christian ring to it, although I read that it is apparently a nod to the English title of a martial arts film called A Touch of Zen (《俠女》).
The three major problems facing Canadian society today are the high degree of inequality of income and wealth, the continuing degradation of the environment and the fiscal crisis in the government sector. All three problems are interrelated but the failure to address them stems from an erosion in Canada's democracy. The paper defines democracy, describes its principles and its rationale which is the public good. The public good is a collection of the ends of society which are multiple, diverse and shared. Specifically they include the objectives of peace, security, health, a fair degree of inequality of income and wealth, a balance between work and leisure for social, cultural, recreational and other pursuits, democratic engagement, and the level and quality of environmental and ecological resources. They also include the absence of "social bads" such as the incidence of crime and family breakdown. Next the paper identifies and describes the problems with Canada's democracy: citizen disengagement, the rise of consumerism in politics, the rise of conservative propaganda, politicians untrained for their main job in legislatures, corruption of political parties, a partially undemocratic electoral system and the commercial media's limited focus on democratic discourse. Each of these problems tends to reinforce each other so as to prevent elected governments from addressing the above-mentioned problems. Instead elected governments have adopted gradually over the last 40 years a form of capitalism that has featured the paramount goal of economic growth and an increase in the inequality of income and wealth. Neither of these results is compatible with the public good as measured by social scientists' indicators of trends in well being. The concluding section of the paper comprises seven radical proposals for restoring Canada's democracy: compulsory voting, reforming electoral systems to incorporate the principle of proportional representation, refocusing public education on civics, the nature of economic systems and political science, training politicians for their legislative responsibilities for economic management, increasing financial support for all political parties, public funding of non commercial media engaged in high level democratic discourse and a Royal Commission on the Public Good and Social Progress.
Peter and Anne Venton are both researchers from Canada, they are respectively concerned with economic inequality and human rights from an environmental point of view. In November 2014, they were on a tour in Taiwan, giving speeches in various cities about "the Radical Changes in Canadian Democracy for the Ecology and the Public Good" and "The Environment, Women and Human Rights".
We caught up with them at the end of the tour of Taiwan for a brief interview.
Anne Venton talks about the necessity of enshrining the right to a clean environment in the Constitution.
Peter Venton addresses some of the weaknesses of Canadian democracy.
Read the paper Peter Venton presented at the Global Ecological Integrity Group International Conference in June 2014:
Radical Changes in Canadian Democracy for Ecology and the Public Good
I recently chanced upon a comment about a Chicago celebrity: "She was a very sophisticated person and has a beautiful French accent." It then occurred to me that remarks about "beautiful accent" are both banal and intriguing: we hear them so often that we seldom wonder about the underlying assumptions beneath them, and they seem innocuous enough for people not to censor themselves, but that is precisely why they can shed some candid light on the world where we live.
In the case of the accent native speakers have when speaking their own language, it may be politically correct to say that all accents are equally beautiful, but the reality is some accents are more equal than others. Statistically, "beautiful" is more frequently associated with certain accents. This phenomenon might be conveniently explained away by the number of their native speakers, thus if we more often hear about "beautiful American accent" than "beautiful Australian accent", we may think that it is because there are more Americans than Australians, but this wishful thinking does not explain why we are almost as likely to encounter "beautiful American accent" as "beautiful British accent", and there are so much more occurrences of "beautiful British accent" than "beautiful Chinese accent". Perhaps China is too far away from predominantly English speaking countries for such comments to show up in English, but we also seldom hear about "beautiful Mexican accent", or "beautiful Canadian accent". Needless to say, such statements usually overlook variations of accents among people from the same country.
Even trickier is the "beautiful accent" that originates from cross-linguistic influence of multilingual people's previous language(s), or foreign accent, such as Penelope Cruz's "beautiful Spanish accent", or the Chicago celebrity's "beautiful French accent", when they speak English. Those with some other accents do not customarily receive such a compliment. After all, one of the goals of learning another language is to sound as close to native as possible, not the least in order to be more easily understood. You really have to like a particular accent a lot in order to find it beautiful when it appears in another language.
While learning Spanish by auditing classes taught by various colleagues, vocabulary, grammar and reading come easily to me because of my prior mastery of French, but I have a harder time with pronunciation, especially how to roll the [r] in Spanish, or which syllable gets stressed. One colleague patiently corrected me, but another told me not to worry.
"You don't need to change it. Your accent is beautiful. It is French," she insisted. "We like it."
It is well-known to linguists that our second or third language (L2 or L3) can have a stronger influence on subsequent languages we learn than our first, especially when they are much more similar, such as in the case of Spanish and French. Nevertheless, her comment made it obvious that there is a hierarchy in accents, some more beautiful than others.
The prestige of French accent may be connected to that of the French language, which we can trace all the way back to the Century of Louis XIV when French was spoken in all the royal courts in Europe and Dominique Bouhourr S. J. (1628-1702), one of the earliest and most effective advocate of French, declared it the most beautiful language in the world in the Entretiens d'Ariste et d'Eugène (1671). Few people remember Father Bouhours, but thanks to him the ineffable charm of "je ne sais quoi" can be used as aesthetic criteria beyond rational analysis and has been associated, sometimes half-jokingly, with all things French in the US. Generations of Chinese learned that French is the most beautiful language in the world from their middle school textbook, which included a short story by Alphonse Daudet, "La dernière classe" (The Last Lesson), translated into Chinese during the early twentieth century. The Chinese reception of the story happened to be connected to a long history of Japanese invasions of China. Many of us may not know much about the situation in Alsace, but identified with a people who lost their land to invaders, and felt a special affinity with their language.
Accents can convey layers of meanings beyond sound. I grew up in a small city in Sichuan and spoke the regional dialect for many years until I went to college in Beijing at 17. After several decades of speaking only the official Mandarin, French and English, I almost lost the ability to speak the dialect fluently, until I reconnected with my high school friends and made an effort to bring it back. It was highly rewarding: the fact that I can speak our dialect "in its original flavor" has been well appreciated by my hometown friends, which reminds me of a Quebecois colleague. He once gave me a ride from Montreal to a small Quebec town and back for an invited talk. We chatted for many hours and I only noticed a slight Quebecois accent from him. But when we met again at a conference and went out for dinner with several other Quebecois, his accent was so pronounced that I did not understand everything he was saying.
People from relatively marginalized groups know that their accent may not be generally perceived as beautiful, but keeping it constitutes a badge of authenticity and loyalty; on the other hand, finding an accent beautiful can reveal appreciation, admiration and even adulation for the culture in which the said language/dialect is spoken. It is not unrelated to our sometimes unchecked preconception about cultural appeal, prestige and power. How beautiful is your accent? How do we measure that? The answers are surely complicated and not always comfortable.
Illustration by Bendu
Stevan Harrell sent this report from his visit to Yangjuan-Pianshui last August:
We arrived in Yangjuan on August 25, 2014. It had been raining for several days; it let up for two days, including the first half-day we were there, and then continued to rain for the rest of the six nights and five days we spent there.
There were three groups of people visiting while we were there (in addition to Yanguan co-founder Professor Li Xingxing from Chengdu, and Yangjuan native and current English teacher Ma Fagen):
1. I was with two undergraduate students from the University of Washington (UW), Noah Baseleon-Abbot and Tiffany Fox, who will be spending the year in Chengdu. They began to carry out a survey of high-school and college students' knowledge and use of written Nuosu language. They did this with the help of Ma Xiaolan, Ma Zibo, and several other local college and high-school students.
2. My colleague Dan Abramson, a professor of Urban Planning, who works on changes brought about by the New Socialist Village Campaign on the Chengdu Plain, and also on post-earthquake reconstruction, brought with him his old classmate from Tsinghua, Tao Tao, who now owns a planning firm in Beijing, two UW students, and the Shanghai girlfriend of one of the students, who is an expert sketcher (see more of her sketches about the trip on her blog).
3. Liang Zhun from Shanghai had with her Mr. Zhang from Chengdu University of Technology. I never really talked much to him, but he seemed very nice, and took a lot of good pictures.
We stayed for five days. Much of Fagen's, Xingxing's, and my time was taken up with the task of figuring out the list of scholarship recipients from Cool Mountain Education Fund. We had more money available to give out this year than in the past, which meant that we could be a little more generous with the college scholarships (we gave 3000 yuan to the 4-year bachelor's candidates, and 2500 to the 3-year associate degree candidates). We also gave 1000 to all those beginning high school or high-school level vocational and technical programs, and we saved some back for next year.
Yangjuan School Graduates are Doing Well
But the most heartening news is about the students. We have been blogging some of their progress: Kaitlin Banfill, who is starting a Ph.D. at Emory University, and who spent last year on a Fulbright fellowship, headquartered at Sichuan University but spending a lot of time in Liangshan, has just blogged about the success of Ma Xiaoyang (the second son and youngest child of Labbu, Fagen's 2nd uncle). Xiaoyang has just taken up a teaching job in Leibo after graduating, along with two of his relatives, from Guang'an Technical College.
Of Ma Xiaoyang's two classmates, Qubi Lisan) is teaching art in middle school in Zhaojue, and Li Musa is teaching English in a middle school in Yantang in Yanyuan. Ma Yifei, a cousin, has a job with an engineering firm in Chengdu, and his brother Ma Zibo is in the second year of law school at Panzhihua University, where he tested 7th out of 130 in his class of almost all Han students, and wants to be a lawyer. Ma Xiaolan is now in her last year of a mathematics teaching course at Xichang College. I finally got to visit her at college, with my two students. She and her classmates showed us around for a hot afternoon, and we had a wonderful time, culminating in ice cream on the shores of Qionghai. Finally, when I spoke at Sichuan Normal University (Liang Wei and Fu Chunmin were there), the real guest of honor was Li Lan, a Yangjuan graduate who is now a sophomore there.
Yangjuan School Faces a Crisis
At the same time as Yangjuan's graduates are doing so well, Yangjuan School itself is experiencing in serious decline. Enrollment was between 300 and 320 students from 2005, the first year there were six full grades, until 2010, at the time of the 10-year celebration. But then people started leaving; upper grade students stayed, but when a class of 40 graduated, it was typically replaced by a class of 15. This year there are only 80 students registered.
Some people attribute the decline in students to the poor quality teaching by "substitute" teachers, and thus indirectly the failure of the County Education Bureau to give the school enough regular, credentialed teachers. This is the principal's view. Indeed, I have sat in on many of substitute teachers' classes, and some of them are awful. This has caused test scores to drop, and many parents are moving their children to more urban schools with the latest equipment, including Internet classes taught by teachers from Chengdu (even Fagen's English classes at Meiyu Middle School have internet teachers from Chengdu).
Another reason is demographic and economic. The population of Yangjuan and Pianshui has declined by about a third in the last five years, with people moving out to Baiwu and Yanyuan, and some families choosing to have only two children, even though the policy allows them to have three.
A third reason is that after the bitterly fought election for Village head (I think it was in 2011 or 2012) between Ma Guohua, the current head, who comes from Yangjuan, and a losing candidate from Pianshui, most Pianshui parents took their children out of Yangjuan school and put them into Baiwu Comprehensive Scbool in the nearby town. So most of the remaining students are from Yangjuan and the neighboring village of Mianba.
For families who choose not to enroll their children at Yangjuan, The typical pattern now is for the parents to go work somewhere (construction is much favored over factory work, because it pays better) while the grandparents rent a cheap room in Yanyuan (some are available for as little as 100 yuan per month) where they live with and cook for the 1st to -3rd grade children. Starting with the 4th grade, the students can board at the Yanyuan schools, but some continue to live with grandparents anyway. Here is a link to the article I wrote with Aga Rehamo (Ssyhxatmop) about this general situation.
I should point out that the decline in student numbers is not just a Yangjuan phenomenon. All the other village schools in Baiwu Township have either closed altogether or severely curtailed their operations— For example, Baoqing, which had four grades when we visited there in 2006 or so, is now down to one.
Yangjuan school is also in a budgetary crisis. Fewer students means less support, which means the facilities deteriorate (leaky roofs are the main problem; the grounds still look beautiful), which means that parents are more likely to pull their students out (or not start them in the kindergarten), which means that enrollment declines, and the downward spiral continues.
Possibilities for the Near Future
I had endless, interesting discussions about what the future of the school might be. Right now, it won't close altogether. But there are a series of possibilities:
1) It could continue as a 6-grade school, with an infusion of outside funds. There are possible sources, but we don't know yet whether they will come through.
2) It could be taken over by the County as a regular school, losing its "minban gongzhu" status (民辦公助 －A state-subsidized school run by local people). This would solve the financial and facilities problems, and potentially might solve the problems of not retaining permanent teachers. But I see it as unlikely.
3) It could become a 2- or 3-year village school, serving 6-9 year-olds before they are old enough to go to Baiwu or elsewhere.
I haven't decided what I think about these possibilities. But I want to reiterate Yangjuan's situation is representative of the fate of small rural schools altogether. Even the 9-year comprehensive school at Baiwu, which now has a lot of modern facilities, has seen its elementary school enrollment decline from 1400 to 700 in the last few years (though the middle school enrollments have been steady).
There is another, more remote but very interesting possibility. When I was in Taiwan before traveling to Liangshan, a former student, now a nursing instructor at a local university, wanted to introduce me to her sister's husband, principal of the elementary school at Cajiao in the valley above where we did our fieldwork near Sanxia (a district near New Taipei City). That school has very few local students, because almost all families have moved out of the mountain areas. But the school (which has beautiful buildings and grounds) serves ecologically-minded Sanxia urbanites (a phrase I could not have imagined using when I lived there in the 1970s) who want to send their children to a school in the peaceful countryside where they can learn about the environment and get intensive teacher attention in small classes. People I discussed this with were excited about this as a possibility a decade hence. It seems far-fetched to me now, but 60 college students seemed far-fetched when we started Yangjuan school in 2000.
So we are at a bit of a crossroads. Li Xingxing will be retiring when he turns 65 in January, and he wants someone else to take over the Chengdu responsibility for the scholarships. He is suggesting one of the younger researchers in his institute, but nothing is decided. For my part, I can continue, but I'm inclined to start transferring some responsibility to some of the younger members of the Cool Mountain board; right now Kaitlin Banfill seems like a strong possibility, eventually. She visits Liangshan regularly, and her Ph.D. work will continue the investigation of Nuosu college students and their careers. She speaks pretty good Nuosu, in addition.
It has all been worthwhile
Finally, I want to sum up what I think we have accomplished by building the school and supporting the graduates. As I said in my talk at both Southwest Nationalities University and Sichuan Normal University, if we were starting today, building a school in Yangjuan would be a huge waste of time and money. The Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping administrations have taken rural education seriously, to the point where free education through middle school is easily available to anyone in Yanyuan (I can't speak for more remote areas of Liangshan, but I want to visit and find out more). But we made it available to Yangjuan, Pianshui, and Mianba children about 8 years sooner than it otherwise would have been, and this has not only provided opportunities for education and employment for ordinary villagers, but has nurtured, everyone agrees, a positive attitude toward education and a possibility of education as a life course and a route of social mobility alternate to migrant labor. In other words, people who had the opportunity to study at Yangjuan have leapt ahead half a generation in becoming educated, and the community in general values education greatly, as a means of mobility to be sure, but I also think for its own sake. Our original dreams of community-based education, an educated community of farmers who revere their own as well as the Chinese literate tradition, did not happen, but I think it was a dream based in the realities of the mid-90s, not in the realities of the 2010 decade. We need to be adaptable and change with the times.
Photos by Liang Zhun, drawing and map by Tiantian