Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: china
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)


Wednesday, 19 October 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.

 


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, 25 April 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.


Tuesday, 28 December 2010 18:16

December in Yangjuan

I went to Yangjuan beginning of December 2010. During these 10 years I have been more or less10 times to this little village…

This time my purpose was to see the state of the school we help to start in 2000. The school does not need outside subsidies any more. Now schooling is free and the government is also paying for textbooks. But there is at least one reason to worry: this semester the school has only 6 certified teachers. According to the number of students the school should be entitled to get 11 certified teachers, but the local government or the bureau of education is always short of personnel. Consequently the gap is filled with substitute teachers. They receive a monthly salary of only RMB 600 which is not high (RMB1100 for a unqualified work, construction work for example, is not considered that much). Nothing surprising that a there is a great turnover of substitute teachers. How to help in the management of the school is another question that none of us presently can answer properly. There is an informal network of friends that may provide some ideas. It seems to me that we cannot only focus on the management of the school. From the beginning, ten years ago, we came with this idea that the school could become a center for local development. The school itself has its own goals but the shelter it provides every summer has been instrumental for working on the development of this small place.

In 2001 we started to bring Taiwanese students for animation and tutoring. In 2001 and 2002 two nurses and two medical students came to make a health survey of the children. After the health survey we started “waterworks” in order to provide cleaner water. The idea of a French engineer during a trip to Yangjuan has been at the origin of this endeavor. He thought it could be possible to build a dam along the river feeding a small power plant. That idea brought to Yangjuan the following years a team of “Hydraulic without borders”, an organization founded by a retired hydraulic engineer, Mr Wang, born in Canton but brought up and educated in France. Our first practical realization was to dig a well. That was a failure and a good example. A failure because the well dig during summer (when underground water is at its highest level) became dry three months after. It was a good example because we told the people that the water from the well was much cleaner and healthier than the water from the river. Thereafter, especially in lower locations of the village, people dig wells in their courtyards to keep water supply at hand and alleviate the chores of fetching water from the river (most of the time this burden is allotted to women and children).

duraud_yangjuan_dec_3The next step was very interesting. One year after digging the well we were ready to dig another one the following summer. We were served a flat refusal. People from the 3rd brigade belonging to a “lower class” in the “old Yi society” asked us if it could be possible to help them in order to fetch water more easily. The fact that the initiative came from them is noteworthy. After discussion we decided to build a very simple network of water supply serving about twenty households. Unfortunately this network is less efficient during the “dry season”, but it was successful enough to inspire later the 6th brigade who asked for help in turn. This new water network has not been a success either for the same reasons but led the people of the whole village to look for a more satisfactory solution.

During these years my back and forth travels were always reported to the Liangshan Friendship Association. People from the office knowing what we were doing in Yangjuan and what we were planning to do sent me an estimate asking if I was willing to finance a project intended to provide water to the whole village. The price tag was well above our means and the realization of the project would have been entrusted to an outside company. This outsourcing could deprive the villagers from appropriating the technology, so to say, and from being involved in the maintenance of the network. Of course that would have also guaranteed a more reliable construction and for sure that would have sent money in private pockets.

 

duraud_yangjuan_dec_6

This year, on December 7, I could see that the work had been done: a small dam on the creek of a remote valley tributary to the river running down the school secures water intake and brings it 20 meters down below to a water tank. About 1500 meters down below from the first water tank another one was built above the houses of the 6th brigade (the highest houses in the village). Most lines for distribution seem to start from this water tank. While I was in Yangjuan, one morning, water ran from the faucets for about half an hour. I guess by now distribution of water is ensured.

Though impressive and as far as I can judge well built, this water supply is not absolutely perfect. After a survey I found out that 4 houses from the 3rd brigade were left aloof though the main pipe runs only 200 meters from their houses. After pondering the matter I decided to give them RMB 1,000 to buy the pipes needed for the extension.

This very remote village, Yangjuan has been affected all these years by the changes in Chinese society and the effects of globalization. Ten years ago very few people had left the village to pursue studies outside and even to work outside. Now it is obvious that the trend for young people is to go out for temporary work. People went even as far as Pakistan and Burma, with the company they were working for. Most of the people go to places like Shanghai, Beijing or Canton and Shenzhen. Three years ago, an acquaintance from Taiwan operating a factory in Shanghai tried to hire about 30 workers from that village. That was a failure. Despite seriously warned about the necessary requirements they left the village unprepared (lack of documents like ID card, health certificate, under age etc.). After one year they were all back to Yangjuan or headed on for other destinations. On of their main complains was the weather conditions in Shanghai (very cold in winter and unbearably hot during summer). During that year a friend of ours in Shanghai tried to accompany them. Their salaries were spent in sophisticated electronic objects like cell phones but it seemed that there was no plan whatsoever to use the earned money to improved their livelihood back home.

duraud_yangjuan_dec_4While in the village, I had a conversation with one villager. He has been going out for work for 20 years. He is now 42 years old, father of three children (one in Senior High School, one in Junior High School and the third one is attending classes in the elementary school of Yangjuan). He has been working all over China. So his Mandarin is devoid of the Sichuan’s accent. During these twenty years his longest absence from the village was a full year. Now he does not venture farther than Chengdu and only for periods of three to four months. He usually does not go alone but with other villagers.

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Another phenomenon affecting the village is that people from the upper part buy land halfway between the village and the nearby township. The reason is that communications with outside is easier. They nevertheless continue to cultivate their plots of land in upper locations. Moving down the village these people find themselves now deprived of the benefit of the last water supply improvement. They came to me asking for subsidies in order to extend the network up to their houses. I did not give a definite answer as I don’t know clearly the capability of the newly built system. If the network is extended for 2 kilometers it may require the construction of another water tank in order to secure enough pressure. In the coming months this is a matter to consider.

This last trip showed me also that living conditions were improving. Nobody builds anymore adobe houses. They all use cement bricks, and in many houses they cement the front yard, which is cleaner and more practical to dry the crops.

After this trip I can see that further action from our side could be the improvement of the water supply. Water supply is not only of importance for good health condition, it is also a factor that makes life in Yangjuan more sustainable particularly if part of the young labor force is outside to secure some cash income. Water supply makes life of those left behind (often children and grand parents, women) less painful.

duraud_yangjuan_dec_2Another line of action is education. The general trend is to go outside to work. This task force unfortunately inflates big cities underclass. Mr Ma, mentioned above, who has been working outside for 20 years thinks that a monthly salary of RMB 1,100 for construction work is indeed not a good salary. It could be that helping young people getting skills will allow them to emerge from the underclass. It might be a better option than sponsoring studies up to Senior High School that don’t secure anyway access to good Universities. A skilled worker can make much more than the basic RMB 1,100 a month and can, if smart enough, start his own business. There is a Japanese foundation running a school not far from Yangjuan providing short trainings to boys and girls in different crafts and businesses. That could be a possibility to explore.

Photos by J. Duraud

 

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Monday, 13 December 2010 22:33

New Religions in China

An Italian translation of this article appeared in the December 2010 edition of popoli and is a continuation of some ideas raised in eRenlai's October 2010 Focus on religious innovation in East Asia.

To recap, the term 'new religious movement' was originally coined as a less loaded alternative to 'cult'.  It represents an attempt to classify new religious groups that are either a brand new conception of reality, a reinterpretation of an existing belief system or transplanted beliefs in a foreign land. Such groups are continuously evolving all over the world, and China is no exception.


Sunday, 31 October 2010 00:00

Next stop on the Denim Express … Struggletown

On a recent long distance train trip in China, a budding entrepreneur and proud patriot asked me if my country had any factories.

“Sure”, I said, “we’ve got a few, but not as many as China does”.

 

“That’s right!” he quickly retorted.

 

“Because of OUR factories YOU have a good lifestyle and WE have a lot of hardship!”

 

He expressed these views very forthrightly and had no doubt about whose favour the Chinese balance of trade was in.  Perhaps my new friend’s family had felt some strain from China’s rapid industrialisation.  After all, he was making a 15 hour train journey to return home to his young family after working in Beijing.

 

Last Train Home screened at the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival in Taichung and gave me a new perspective on my earlier encounter on the train.  The cinema was almost full and arriving late, I had to find a seat in the front row.  Seated behind me were a bunch of 10 year olds, probably attending as part of a school excursion.  To begin with they were merrily chatting away, no doubt wishing they were watching a cartoon, and oblivious to the projections of the grim cityscapes of China’s south-eastern megacities.  But it didn’t take too long for them to be drawn into the story, wide-eyed and silently absorbed by the unfolding tragedy.

 

Presenting the tale of the Zhang family – parents toiling in a jeans factory in Guangdong, kids raised by their grandparents in rural Sichuan – Last Train Home is a bleak look at life in modern China.  As the story develops over 6 years, we see the characters evolve against the dual backdrops of the urban and the rural: sewing machines and tiny bedrooms alternating with cornfields and crumbling and damp farmhouses.

 

The story is very engaging, despite some of the dialogue appearing a bit too staged.  Flashes of brutality alternate with misguided optimism, all the while dreams are torn apart and the scraps reshaped, like denim off-cuts salvaged from the factory floor and haphazardly stitched together into something new.

 

The cinematography is artful throughout, generating a strong sense of place. The scenes at Guangzhou train station during the Chinse New Year are particularly powerful. We see hordes of travellers stranded as the rail grid is thrown into turmoil by inclement weather, progressively getting anxious as the narrow window of time they have to return to their hometowns grows ever smaller.  The claustrophobia of the crammed station and tension of the travellers as they jostle for space is palpable.

 

Last Train Home is a gruelling look at the flipside of China’s year on year 10% economic growth.  The Zhang family are just some of the many millions manning the machines that drive China’s economic juggernaut.  At times harrowing, this is a film that will appeal to anyone seeking an alternative perspective on China’s economic miracle.


Wednesday, 06 October 2010 18:13

An Expo-lent Australian Adventure

In early September I spent a day at the Shanghai Expo.  Bracing myself for crowds of up to 300,000 jostling queue-jumpers, I was relieved that the venue was not too packed. Most pavilions (especially later in the day) did not require any considerable time lining up.  The vast number of unused crowd barriers snaking around entrances that I bypassed at various stages of the day were testament to just how bad the queues might have been.  That said, there were still a hell of a lot of people there.

Arriving a little too late to snap up the special tickets required for China’s gargantuan pavilion (a great design actually, and one that I hope primary school kids around the world can mimic with Paddle Pop sticks), I had to settle for some of the less grandiose pavilions.

The South Korea pavilion had a great mix of 3D and interactive technology, all set to an infectious K-Pop soundtrack.  The hosts remained unflinchingly gracious in the face of relentless questioning (“Are you really Korean? REALLY? But how can you possibly speak such good Chinese?”), even managing to diffuse a vicious brawl between two frazzled and possibly queued-out ladies in the theatrette.

The India pavilion offered a snapshot of Indian civilisation from ancient times through to the recent period of economic development, but my lasting memory was of the handicraft bazaar and the tantalising smells from the curry kitchen that seduced guests meandering around the venue.

The Singapore pavilion was slick, if somewhat forgettable, and the Denmark pavilion had the actual Little Mermaid statue, shipped all the way over to China, and some bikes for visitors to cruise around on.

All good stuff but in spite of the smorgasbord of global morsels that were at my finger tips, the one pavilion I really itched to visit was that of the land of my birth – Australia.  Not just to reconnect, but to see how Australia had decided to pitch itself to what former Prime Minster Kevin Rudd famously called it’s “true friend (zhēngyǒu)”.

pf_shanghai_expo_1Upon arriving at the giant undulating pavilion, which looks a bit like a corrugated tin off-cut left to rust in a paddock, I was able to breeze in through the door, unhindered by any queue. Here I was greeted by a friendly Akubra-clad avuncular type with “G’day! When watching the movie, you might wanna sit at the back so you can see the subtitles”.  Thanks for the tip, mate.

Spiralling up a ramp around the inside of the pavilion I was treated to a potted history of Australia in series of cute dioramas. Unsurprisingly, there was an emphasis on the relationship between Australia and China.  If you were looking for any information about Aboriginal Australians, you had to wait for the last section, where the landmark 2008 apology to ‘the stolen generations’ was highlighted.

Australia’s first inhabitants were excluded from the diorama of when the English landed in Australia.  Instead of Aboriginals, as are normally included in such stylised versions of this event, the pompous-looking Englishmen were confronted with a stick-waving Koala and a stern Kangaroo with crossed arms.  Crikey!  Look at claws on that one!

While there were brief explanations of the diorama scenes, no one really seemed to be paying much attention to them. Unlike the other more hi-tech pavilions I visited, there were certainly no snazzy gizmos here to keep the punters entertained.  The crowd hurriedly snapped photos of each of the dioramas and then barrelled on up the ramp, to where though, no one seemed to know.

pf_shanghai_expo_3As it turned out, at the top of the ramp was the theatrette, where we were rounded up like cattle (how very Australian).  Once in the proverbial cattle yard, some burly Aussie bloke did his best to keep us placated until the next screening, cracking jokes in Chinese and exhorting us to be orderly “for your own safety”.  I found this guy to be pretty funny, but the people around me seemed mainly to be sniggering at his pronunciation.  Perhaps something was lost in translation.  I’m not sure how well the average Chinese person understands the Australian sense of humour.  Some didn’t seem to understand his safety instructions either, with a couple of people trying to push through the queue, even though there was a closed door at the end of it and we had been told that there were enough seats in the theatre for everyone.  The queues at the Expo were generally much more orderly than I expected based on my previous experiences lining up at various Chinese train stations and tourist venues. Nevertheless, some people still found the need to fruitlessly try to push through, only succeeding in pissing everyone else off. I’m surprised that I didn’t see more fights on the day.

The Australian movie was passable, but nowhere near the level of South Korea’s all singing, all dancing, roller coaster ride. Not that the crowd, many of whom were quite young, cared.  They all seemed very happy to be there.  The spritely attendant even managed to cajole them into chanting a mangled version of the dire Sydney Olympics-era chant “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”.

My favourite image from the movie was towards the beginning. Just after the characters had been introduced and the audience subjected to a montage of dodgy computer graphics, the side of an open-cut mine was spectacularly blown up.  This led in to a sequence of heavy machinery carting rocks out of the ground and onto the marketplace.  The market of course, as Australia’s recent recession-proof prosperity might testify to, is China.  What better symbol to represent Australia and China’s current relationship.  I loved it.

After the movie, we were herded down the ramp, out of the theatre and into the gift shop.  There was also some dinky-di Aussie tucker – meat pies, fish and chips, beer and other imported delicacies.  Despite my strong urge for a pie and sauce, it was all a bit pricey for me, so I skedaddled out the door and to find something a bit cheaper and possibly more tasty.

pf_shanghai_expo_4Judging by the chirpy crowds hanging around in the foyer and checking out the tacky merchandise for sale, I think the organisers had a done a good job.  The primarily Chinese guests seemed happy.  However, the Australian government wants to do more than just flog off a couple of overpriced fluffy kangaroos and tinnies of VB.  The real impact of the pavilion will be felt in the years to come, as Chinese students head to Australian universities or Chinese and Australian companies enter into business deals.

While appearing to be solid, Australia's relationship with China is not without hiccups. The level of China-awareness among the Australian public is low and at times paranoid.  My only lasting memory of China from my childhood education is of the prospectors who came out to Australia in the Gold Rush of the 1850s.  A reciprocal Chinese pavilion in downtown Sydney or Melbourne might help raise the general level of awareness of our looming northern neighbour.  You wouldn't get the full story on China, that's for sure, but at least it would be a start.  However, it is not only the Chinese government that emphasises some aspects of the country at the expense of others in order to paint an attractive picture.

Staging the Australian Expo pavilion in China means pitching the message to a Chinese audience.  If the 2010 Expo was being held in Australia, the pavilion would undoubtedly be significantly different. Australians can be very sensitive about how the nation broadcasts itself to foreign nations.  Witness the  domestic controversy generated by each new iteration of advertisements selling our wide brown land to the global tourist market.  Some Australians wish to entice foreigners with our cosmpolitan metropolises and sophisticated urban lifestyle, while others think that the beaches/bikinis/kangaroos/koalas model sells the nation best.  Given this unfortunate and out-dated dichotomy, those Australians affected by the dreaded  ‘cultural cringe’ would be best served by staying well away from the Australia pavilion.  Do yourself a favour and go to the South Korea pavilion instead.

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Friday, 24 September 2010 19:30

Product of Taiwan

Ask someone what they know about Taiwan and you will get any number of answers.  There are many things that people associate with the place – the world’s second tallest building, the Cold War icon Chiang Kai Shek, a fragile relationship with China, lots of factories, bubble tea, that chubby guy with a fringe who sings Whitney Houston songs.  But the details are probably still a bit sketchy.  Did you know that the Giant bike you rode around the lake on the weekend was made by a Taiwanese company?  Or that the Asus/Acer/BenQ laptop and D-Link modem that you are using right now are also Taiwanese products?  Probably not.  Taiwan’s ubiquitious electronic gadgets are but just one product of the recent decades of reform and development. Religion has also boomed there.

Taiwan’s religious groups have expanded extensively. The Foguangshan Buddhist group has built several large temples around the world and a university in Los Angeles.  Tzu Chi, ‘the Compassion Society’, dispatches aid teams to disasters across the globe and has been granted Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.  It has also been active in disaster relief in China for over a decade.

While not quite reaching the ubiquity of Taiwan’s hi-tech brands, Taiwan’s religious groups are out and about establishing themselves around the world.  And it is not just the big groups either.  The New Testament Church, a radical Protestant group who are based on their own Mount Zion in southern Taiwan, have built a small network of sacred lands (that double up as organic farms) throughout Asia and the Pacific.  The Taiwan-based Supreme Master Ching Hai had paid for a large poster in the Canberra airport warning Australians of the danger of rising sea levels.  Have you looked at the flyers and books that your local vegetarian restaurant has by the front door?  These pamphlets could well have been placed there by a religious group from Taiwan.

Taiwan’s religious scene is illuminated by the innovation that certain groups invest to spread their message.  The Taiwanese community has spread across the world, as has the Chinese, and abroad these religious groups first find their feet in immigrant communities.  ‘China towns’ around the world are havens of new religious movements and it is from there that these religious groups take their first steps in a new country before trying to find acceptance in the wider community.

Not to forget the potential of China.  Taiwan’s colossal neighbour has long been an abundant market for Taiwanese capitalists and entrepreneurs to invest in.  The centuries’ long immigration between the two lands reached a peak when hundreds of thousands of Chinese fled in 1949 with the rise of the Communist Party.  Now, with cross-strait relations appearing to slowly thaw, the opportunity is better than ever before for Taiwanese religious groups to also take the plunge into China.  The cultural, linguistic and religious bonds are so strong between these two political foes that China is a ‘religious market’ that can no longer be ignored, and in fact is ripe for the taking.

But building a temple in Shenzhen is not the same as opening a hi-tech factory there.  Despite the gradual concessions that the atheist Communist Party of China has given religion in recent decades, the religious scene in China remains subject to a net of bureaucratic controls, something that ambitious foreign groups are well-served to abide by.

How Taiwan’s religious groups navigate the tremendous opportunity that China offers, yet manage to keep themselves (and their adherents) within the boundaries of the law will be fascinating to watch.

To find out more, please watch the following videos, where representatives from the Lord of Universe Church and Huang Ting Chan talk about how their groups are seeking to make inroads into China:

(Photo by C. Phiv)

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:24

A New Age for China

The Lama Temple (雍和宮) on Yonghegong Street in Beijing’s inner north is one of the most impressive temples in Beijing.  Built over 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, it now serves the dual purposes of being both an active Buddhist temple and a popular tourist destination.  Camera-toting tourists mingle with incense-offering devotees, marvelling at the impressive and sprawling compound, before heading over to the nearby Confucius Temple (孔廟) for some more happy snaps in a slightly more serene atmosphere.

Anyone approaching the Lama Temple from the nearby subway station will be struck by the number of stores selling impressively large packets of incense, not to mention the hawkers prowling around the subway exit, ever ready to pounce on potential worshippers and try to offload a packet of incense or two.

Indeed, Yonghegong Street and the surrounding hutongs (alleys) are not only filled with incense vendors, but a whole range of stores selling statues, prayer beads, Tibetan religious curios and items of worship (My favourite was a solar powered prayer wheel).  There are also a few vegetarian restaurants in the area.  Add to this a large number of Daoist fortune tellers and geomancers and the neighbourhood has a strongly Chinese religious appearance.

I was then quite surprised to come across 智慧之光 or ‘Wisdom Light – the New Age Shop’, a mere 100 or so metres south of the Lama Temple and nestled next to a vendor of Taiwanese tea.  To anyone who has perused the advertisements in a Western New Age magazine or attended some sort of New Age ‘gathering’, this location might make perfect sense – “Fengshui and astrology – *tick*.  Tibetan artefacts – *tick*.  New Age trinkets and tchotchkes – *tick*”.  But I was not walking down the main street of a hippie town on the East Coast of Australia or one of Canada’s Gulf Islands.  I was in Beijing.  A place that in recent decades has seen little of the type of religious experimentation and social conditions that spawned the West’s now nebulous and pervasive New Age movement.

While it is tricky trying to define the New Age movement (NAM) as a religion, it is certainly influenced by religious thought.  The NAM is a loose collection of ideas and philosophies – often contradictory – with the general intention being to engender personal or societal change.  Lorne L. Dawson wrote that the NAM often utilises “processes of self-discovery that have either been invented or recovered from numerous traditional and usually pre-modern or marginalized groups of the world”[1].  How such a group would fit into the rigidly defined Chinese religious landscape (with  state-sanctioned religious groups limited to Buddhist, Daoist, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic) is not clear.  It would not be inconceivable for a New Age group elsewhere to include aspects of two or more of these five groups, not to mention influences from Chinese and Tibetan religiosity.  This ‘recycling’ of spirituality – the NAM in the West takes a Chinese idea and reconfigures it to be suitable for Western audiences and now attempts to market this back in China – is fascinating.  In discussing the potential of the NAM in Asia, Lee writes that individuals seeking to give meaning to their sense of being may “turn to enchanted traditions as a form of resistance to state attempts in enforcing the processes of disenchantment”[2].  Such a state of affairs could be possible in China, where the Communist party continues to reign supreme and oversee a rapid modernisation of society.  Of course, with China being the vast place that it is, not all areas are modernising at the same rate and not everyone has the same opportunity to engage in some form of spiritual practice.

The nascent NAM in China most likely began through contacts with Hong Kong and Taiwan, often through businessman assigned to Chinese posts.  The NAM really began to develop in Taiwan after Martial Law was lifted in 1987[3].  Significantly, all the printed material in ‘Wisdom Light’ was published in traditional Chinese (the script used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) rather than simplified Chinese (as used in mainland China).  Photocopies of books were also available for sale.  I was told that the books were primarily printed in Taiwan.  Returning to the store one day, I spied some new flyers advertising Reiki courses in Hong Kong, left earlier in the day by a Reiki representative.

Singing-bowls-for-saleBesides literature, the store offered an eclectic range of products and services - bell chimes, angels, pyramids, crystal singing bowls, herbs, Native American dreamcatchers, DVDs, CDs and aura photography. The shop’s staff were not too sure about their boss’ New Age background or credentials, but did know that he owned another business.  Compared to the other shops on Yonghegong St, ‘Wisdom Light’ was not too busy.  However, perhaps the boss has recognized a niche market.  As long as China’s middle classes continue to grow and relative religious freedom remains, the New Age has the potential to be quite profitable.  China’s moneyed class just needs to be convinced to buy the crystal singing bowl from ‘Wisdom Light’ instead of a copper one from the Tibetan merchant across the road, even though it might be several times more expensive. At this stage, ‘Wisdom Light’ only sells products, not having yet expanded to offer courses.

One could ask, is the NAM suitable for China?  The experience in Taiwan and Hong Kong, similar cultures to that of China, suggests so.  In Taiwan one can purchase a wide range of New Age books at the most mainstream of outlets.  But if we shift the focus back to Yonghegong Street, then perhaps we might reconsider the NAM’s short term prospects in China.

China’s thawing religious landscape offers hints. Ten years ago Yonghegong Street might well have looked considerably different.  It was only in 2002 that the Beijing Religious Regulations were amended to allow fortune tellers and palm readers to be considered as ‘cultural heritage’, rather than feudal superstition[4].  While these businesses are now ubiquitous, it was not that long ago, certainly during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, that they would have been more difficult to find.  Now packaged as ‘cultural heritage’, palmistry and the like might not seem so alien to the average Chinese citizen.  And it is making this cultural connection that foreign religious groups in China must do.  As long as something is seen as alien, its relevance will be questioned and acceptance will be slow, if at all.  Christian and Catholic missionaries in China have long recognized this.  The NAM is no different.  To take hold in China, the new ideas that the NAM encompasses and how entrepreneurs promulagate them will have to be adapted to Chinese society.  Translating some of the available texts into simplified Chinese might be a good start.

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[1] Lorne L. Dawson.  Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements.  Oxford University Press. Toronto. 1998. Page 191.

[2] Lee, Raymond L. M., The reenchantment of the self, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 18:3, 351-367, 2003.

[3] Chen, Shu-Chuan and Beckford, James A., Parallel glocalization: the New Age in Taiwan, page 3 (available online)

[4] Chan, Kim-Kwok and Carlson, Eric R., Religious Freedom in China, Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, 2005, 15.

 


Friday, 24 September 2010 19:13

Lord of Universe Church - from China to Taiwan and back again

Stacey Hsieh is a member of the Lord of Universe Church (天帝教, Tiandijiao), which as one of its key tenets, aims to reunite China and Taiwan.  Here Stacey discusses the church's relationship with China and some of its experiences there.
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Stacey also introduces the church here and discusses the time she has spent on long-term retreat.

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:09

An introduction to the Lord of Universe Church

Stacey Hsieh is a member of the Lord of Universe Church (天帝教, Tiandijiao).  Here she introduces the origins and beliefs of the church.

Stacey also discusses her long-term retreats and the church's experience in China.


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