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Friday, 24 September 2010 00:00

Traditional Chinese religiosity repackaged and exported... to China: How Huang Ting Chan does it

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Based in the mountains south of Taipei, Huang Ting Chan is now regularly conducting workshops in cities on the Chinese mainland.  Here Huang Ting Chan's founder, Mr Zhang, provides some insight into how his Taiwan-based philosophy/psychology group is able to operate in China.



For an introduction to Huang Ting Chan and the concept of huang ting, please watch this video.

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:01

What is Huang Ting?

Based in the mountains south of Taipei, Huang Ting Chan is a retreat centre where traditional Chinese religiosity and modern psychology come together. In this interview, Huang Ting Chan's founder, Mr Zhang, introduces the concept of huang ting and explains how despite the advances of modern science, traditional Chinese concepts of the mind remain important.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010 00:00

Happy 10th anniversary, Yangjuan!

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Yangjuan is a village of the Yi minority, located in the mountains of southwestern Sichuan. In Fall 2000, the Yangjuan Primary School, built with the support of Chinese and foreign friends and dedicated to comprehensive education for the children of Yangjuan opened its doors. Thus, Yangjuan is the site of an innovative arts education program directed by Benoit Vermander of the Taipei Ricci Institute and Li Jinyuan of Sichuan Normal University and of a multidiciplinary anthropological-ecological research project carried on by the Sichuan Provincial Institute for Minority Studies, Sichuan University, and the University of Washington.

The 10th anniversary of Yangjuan took place in August 2010 and was a real success, with even more people in attendance than at the opening in 2000. To me the highlight was Aku Vyvy, the foremost Yi poet, getting the children to recite his famous poem yyr ggut (calling the soul) along with him. There was also a lot of very nice singing and dancing. It rained before and after, but not during the ceremony, just as HiesseVuga had predicted from his astrological knowledge. Three yaks were butchered, constituting the largest pile of meat I've ever seen as it sat in the courtyard. He Laoban donated 10,000 kuai for the top-ten students in the graduating class. Unfortunately the Principal literally put the money in his pocket, so we don't know how much of it the students will eventually see. We can ask them next time we go back.

Foreigners in attendance were very few, consisting of Eddie Schmitt, Geoff Morgan, Abby Lunstrum, Prof Chen Mei-ying of Chiayi (all current or former University of Washington students) and me. Zhang Wei presented a very nice set of posters that I think he and Li Jinyuan had made up (I was not there to ask when they arrived), and Li Xingxing and I put together a slide show of 200 pictures or so, using a projector borrowed from Chuan Da.

The dearest thing was that Fagen found out that it was my birthday on the 15th, and went all the way to Yanyuan to purchase a cake, watermelon, and bananas, and someone else had a bottle of vin rouge français (vraiment!), so it was a very endearing gesture and a welcome break from the succession of more carnivorous parties.

The next day we gave out 160 scholarships, including 15 for students in their last year of high school, which means we need to think about college next year. I'm applying for some funds from a Seattle foundation for this purpose.

Li Xingxing wants to start an online discussion group about the present and future of the school. The primary proximate problem is the lack of state-credentialed teachers; of course the ultimate problem is the management skills of the principal, everyone including the teachers (except for Ma Erzi's close relatives) seems to agree.

Geoff made some further repairs to the 6 water system, after Amanda Henck and her husband had made some earlier this summer. But it's clear that that system is a stop-gap measure. But none of us outsiders needs to do much, we think, because the ¥310,000 that was given by the Provincial Assembly (省民委) to the Prefecture Poverty Alleviation Office (州扶贫办) is apparently actually physically in Xichang, so that work on the larger system is to start soon.

In connection with water, Geoff and I went to see both the 3rd system given by a Chinese entrepreneur, and the revived version of the 4th system from Hydroliques sans Frontières. The #3 system, using Laizigou water, seems to work very well, and people say it provides water year-round, unlike any of the others built so far. The big surprise to me is the 4th system, which was revitalized last year. They have given up on the communal taps that were part of the original system, and every household paid a small amount to bring water inside where children won't mess with the taps. Only four households are still using a communal tap, which is, predictably, broken. Two households near the well are still using the well. Geoff and I talked to several families, all of whom are quite satisfied with the new system, except that it still runs dry in the winter. They pay the manager 20 jin of corn per year for his services. Anyway, it's in the best shape I've seen it since just after it was built.

The people depending of the 6th system are almost sure to "sell" its forest to a company in Xichang. The deal is being kept quite secret, and Ma Ningjun claimed not even to know the name of the company. The final papers have not been signed yet, but everyone seems to think they will be. The remaining rights of members to the resources are ambiguous at present. All the members of the other 3 systems have agreed not to sell theirs for the time being.


(Photos provided by S. Harrell)




Monday, 06 September 2010 00:00

Attracting youth to politics in Taiwan

The old cliché has it that a nation's future will be determined by its youth. If that holds true, then Taiwan had best start hooking its young on politics now. The problem is that Taiwan currently holds the lowest birthrate in the world and, much like Japan, faces the prospect of a future in which much of the population will be elderly, leaving very few of the dwindling younger generation to, among other things, run for political office and guide their country into this early stage of the new millennium. In fact, according to the most recent statistics released by Taiwan’s Council for Economic Planning and Development, Taiwan’s population will stop growing and start falling in 2022, four years earlier than had previously been predicted in 2008.

This is coupled with the fact that Taiwan is in a uniquely precarious political position. The country, which has been governed separately from China since Chiang Kai-shek evacuated the KMT government to Taiwan after losing the civil war with the communists in 1949, claims sovereignty which is vehemently refuted by China and recognized by only a handful of marginalized nations scattered around Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Statements from the Chinese government routinely make reference to the eventual reunification of Taiwan and China, while the U.S. and Taiwan are bound to the status quo, in which Taiwan governs itself, but makes no strong movements toward formally declared independence from China.

Reports abound in the media that economic and political ties between Taiwan and China continue to grow warmer under the watchful eye of President Ma Ying-jeou of the pro-unification KMT party. This was supposedly exemplified by the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in July, a free trade agreement that, among other concessions in regard to banking and investment, will see tariffs on a wide array of Taiwanese and Chinese goods fall or be eliminated altogether. But the fact remains that China continues to point an ever increasing amount of missiles at its neighbor to the west, with that number expected to hit just under 2,000, up from an estimated 1,600, by the end of the year.

Despite this obvious threat, Taiwanese youth aren't exactly chomping at the bit to get involved in political activities or learn about the pertinent issues facing Taiwan. This could pose some big problems for Taiwan in the not-so-distant future. So, what's the best way to get them interested in political matters?

Enter Freddy Lim, an advocate of an independent Taiwan, front man for Taiwan's most well-known metal band, Chthonic, and one of the leaders of GUTS United, an organization composed of artists, musicians, and movie industry figures that strives to get Taiwanese youth to care about Taiwan's political future. Founded in 2002, the group began by organizing concerts surrounding political or social issues, and during the 2008 presidential campaign became more active in attempting to mobilize the young voters of today as well as the voters of tomorrow.

Lim would like to mimic the modern western method of appealing to the young generation through soft means such as music, movies, and fashion. However, living in Taipei, one of the world’s most wired cities, he is wary of the growing contemporary trend of “slacktivism,” by which increasingly keyboard bound youth voice their support in the most passive way possible—at the click of a button.

“Now everybody does their movements on the Internet. I think that’s bullshit. It’s useless. If you really care about something, you should be there, not in front of your computer,” he says while seated at a table at The Wall, a live music venue in Taipei which he is part owner of.

Though appealing to youth via the web will obviously play a large role in attracting the Net generation, Lim is aware of the need for personal contact and interaction in bringing young people into the political fold and helping them understand the relevant issues surrounding Taiwan and other regions that profess to be sovereign but are nevertheless claimed by China. This summer, he has organized politically-themed summer camps in which dozens of students have participated. He also brought notable political figures to Taiwan, such as Raela Tosh, daughter of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) leader Rebiya Kadeer, who came to Taiwan in July to attend a screening of a documentary, The 10 Conditions of Love, which focuses on her mother. Lim had also invited the elder Kadeer to come to Taipei and give a presentation on the plight of the Uyghur people in September of last year, but she was denied entry into Taiwan by the ruling KMT party.

Kadeer campaigns for the rights of China’s Uyghur people, a Muslim minority largely living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest of the country. The area is rich in oil reserves, and is currently the nation’s top producer of natural gas. But the Chinese government’s main concern these days seems to be the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a separatist group that has made the American list of terrorist organizations. China has accused Kadeer of having connections to the group, a charge she denies, but the accusation alone was enough for the KMT government in Taiwan to deny Kadeer entry when she tried to come to the country. Kadeer is a former businesswoman and philanthropist who rose to become one of the richest people in China. But in 1999 she was accused by her government of endangering state security. Her crime was sending news clippings pertaining to the treatment of the Uyghur people to her husband in the U.S., even though they were widely available domestically. She spent six years in prison before being released and fleeing to the U.S., where she resides in Virginia, separated from some of her 11 children. Kadeer says her family members that remain in China, like many of the country’s most vociferous political activists, are often targeted for persecution. Two of her sons are currently imprisoned there for allegedly endangering state security.

How does Kadeer’s story and that of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region apply to Taiwan? Xinjiang, along with the Tibet Autonomous Regions, is a modern example of how the Communist Party handles its so-called “renegade provinces,” a label it has applied to Taiwan. China has made no secret of the fact that it remains open to using military force to reclaim Taiwan at any point in the future, and in those regions that hold the word “autonomous” as part of their name, the Chinese military contrarily maintains a strong, controlling presence. The Chinese government has also encouraged the migration of Han Chinese to both Xinjiang and Tibet as a means of further integrating these regions into its One China ideal.

Could this same scenario play out in Taiwan one day? That remains to be seen, but it is a possibility, however remote it may be at present. Taiwan has recently opened the door for a small number of Chinese students to study at Taiwanese universities, though these students will not be allowed to stay in Taiwan and work following the completion of their degrees. Still, this move represents a complete about face from the previous policy of banning Chinese students altogether, a ban deemed necessary to avoid the spread of Chinese governmental and ideological influence in Taiwan. Could this be a sign of future policies that will relax restrictions on the presence of citizens of China in Taiwan? Time will tell, but the admission of Chinese students, along with the fact that Taiwan is likely to lift a ban on individual Chinese tourists traveling within the country, is a sign that China could be wedging its foot in the door in what may become a protracted process of opening that door for larger and larger numbers of mainland Chinese to come to Taiwan, the effects of which Tibetans and Uyghurs alike can attest to.

And yet, the youth of Taiwan seem largely unmoved. This malaise persists despite the efforts of Lim and others to bring to light the risks involved in Taiwan cozying up to China both politically and economically. You can lead a teenager or twenty-something to the relevant information, but you can’t force them to give it more than a cursory glance, never mind become impassioned by it. Lim knows attracting youth to political issues is an uphill battle—one that is not unique to Taiwan.

“Globally, the young people don’t care too much about political things,” Lim laments. “They care more about their own lives, so they don’t pay much attention to serious political issues.”

According to Lim, the way to make politics accessible to youth is to make it fun, rather than boring and preachy, and unenviable task under the best of circumstances. He is always striving to find something that young people can relate to and enjoy, while imparting a basic message that they can latch onto.

“Cool music, cool movies, cool shirts can attract young people,” says Lim before offering an example. “Most of the Tibet protests in Taiwan can only get three or four hundred people. But [at] the Free Tibet concert there were more than 6,000 people. They may not get the idea at that day, but you just need them to get the most simple message and they will go back to search on the Net. That’s what you do, you give them an idea.”

J. Michael Cole, a former intelligence officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the current deputy news editor at the Taipei Times, and the author ofDemocracy in Peril, a book detailing the last 18 months of the Chen Shui-bian administration and the first year of the Ma Ying-jeou presidency, agrees with Taiwan independence activist and musician Freddy Lim that in order to get Taiwanese youth involved in political activities, the key to their hearts and minds lies in popular culture.

“I think Freddy is bang on, and I’ve actually been saying this for years. Art is definitely something that reaches out and appeals to younger people.”

Freddy-lim-gareth-griffiths2Cole is a veteran of several political protests, which he has attended both as a journalist and a spectator, over the past two years in Taiwan, and has seen the number of attendees slide considerably. He notes that when Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), first visited Taiwan in 2008, half a million people took to the streets of Taipei to protest the presence of the Chinese official. Two years later, the ECFA protest in June barely managed to draw 50,000 people. Cole conducted a quick survey of the attendees, and the most common explanation for the drop seemed to be that people young and old in Taiwan are starting to feel that protests don’t make a difference, and even the diehard Lim said later that he didn’t really want to be there. But no matter what the number of people who have been at such protests is, people under 40 have been but a small minority.

“What really struck me was you look around and maybe 80, 85 percent of the participants are people in their late forties, fifties, sixties, seventies—some even in their eighties. If you’re lucky, you might see 15 percent of people like young adults, or children, or teenagers, who I suspect are there mostly because their parents are there rather than out of their own volition,” says Cole from across the table at a watering hole favored by the foreign correspondents in Taipei.

In Cole’s opinion, Taiwan’s rapid democratization and the relatively quick jump in the standard of living of Taiwanese in the past few decades has given rise to a generation that has no idea what it is like to live under an authoritarian regime, as their parents and grandparents do. Those who lived in Taiwan between 1949 and 1987 existed under what is known as the White Terror period, during which Taiwan was under martial law, and 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by the KMT. Those who suffered at the hands of the KMT were labeled as “bandit spies,” and were accused of working for the Chinese communists. But on July 15th, 1987, the longest period of martial law in world history came to an end. All Taiwanese who were either infants at the time, or were born after that date, have no concept of what it was like to live under such oppression. All they have are the history books and the stories of this dark chapter in Taiwan’s past that their elders may or may not choose to share with them.

This knowledge and experiential gap between the current generation of young people and older Taiwanese could account for the noticeable lack of youth at political rallies and protests in Taiwan. Simply put, young people have little stake in the consequences of current political actions, for the time being at least. There is no authoritarian regime for them to speak out or rebel against and, for the most part, they live comfortable lives and enjoy the same freedoms as young people would in any of the world’s fully democratic countries. In other words, they have little to gain by becoming politically active, and little to lose by not doing so.

With that being said, they may find themselves with more to lose in the coming years if the ECFA doesn’t work out in Taiwan’s favor. It will likely take something such as this—something that directly impacts the young people of Taiwan—to get them to realize that their participation in the electoral process will have a direct effect on their own future and that of the nation at large. They may not have had a hand in bringing ECFA to the table, but perhaps, if it has negative repercussions for the people of Taiwan, young voters could play a part in rectifying the situation.

“If the ECFA goes wrong, and if it really starts hurting some industries, if it lowers Taiwan’s competitiveness, if it lowers their chances of getting good paying jobs in Taiwan because companies here can now hire cheaper labor from China, then Taiwanese old and young might become more engaged in politics and actually use electoral retribution to kick out a government that is actually hurting them,” speculates Cole.

Nevertheless, as China and Taiwan move closer together politically and economically, as is the current trend, Cole also believes that it could become more and more difficult for young Taiwanese to identify themselves as being overtly political. With the door open for Chinese investment in a growing number of sectors, including the media, those who are in favor of Taiwan independence, which currently represents approximately one in four Taiwanese, could find themselves having to choose between their political beliefs and their paycheck. Meanwhile, the nearly 58 percent of Taiwanese who support the current status quo could find themselves similarly compromised.

“What I fear is that those young Taiwanese who would like to become involved politically, they’re going to weigh their options and say, ‘If I decide to become very open with my political beliefs, this is going to have an impact on my career,’” says Cole.

Are there inherit dangers in this mode of thinking? Definitely, according to Cole, who points to the example of Hong Kong. Prior to the British handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it has been widely documented that Beijing reached out to members of the business and industrial elite in Hong Kong. These elites, who had much to lose from a financial standpoint if the handover resulted in instability, were offered positions as consultants on government committees in an attempt to consolidate power and ensure that Hong Kong’s absorption back into China after 100 years of British colonial rule would go smoothly. Beijing’s current efforts to absorb Taiwan by offering a series of economic carrots could be referred to as a quiet takeover. Nevertheless, it could result in a similar situation playing out in Taiwan, in which the fiscal motives of the elite, or even just the working or middle class, play a key role in the nation’s political future.

“If you have tomorrow’s leaders focusing more on getting a job and stabilizing the economy and not rocking the boat than actually fighting for what their nation stands for, these are the elite that can easily be co-opted,” Cole elaborates. “Starting in the early or mid-eighties, the Chinese government already was working at co-opting the elite in Hong Kong to make sure that when the handover occurred, the transition would be very easy and in Beijing’s favor, which explains why even today you don’t have a fully democratic Hong Kong.”

If the Taiwanese youth are forced into such a delicate situation in which speaking out in support of their own freedom could put their livelihoods at risk, then who will be their voice on the world stage? Part of the responsibility may fall on young overseas Taiwanese not living in China’s looming shadow.

That’s where organizations such as the Formosan Association for Public Affairs Young Professional Group (FAPA YPG) come in. Ketty Chen is the media coordinator for FAPA YPG, a group consisting of Taiwanese Americans aged 18 to 35 that lobbies the U.S. Congress on the issue of Taiwan independence, and a political science professor at Austin College. She believes that, given the fact that Taiwanese Americans have little to fear when advocating Taiwanese sovereignty, they can be all the more vocal with little, if anything, in the way of personal or professional consequences hanging over their heads.

“First, geographically, Taiwanese Americans are able to enjoy the safety of distance while advocating for Taiwan,” Chen states via email. “Secondly, while Taiwanese Americans hold jobs in all kinds of industries in the US, I feel that the proportion of the Taiwanese American population affected by the economic integration between Taiwan and China is not as high as people in Taiwan.”

Despite all the obstacles they face, there are small groups of young people dedicated to spreading political awareness among young people in Taiwan. Sisters Yu-shan and Yu-ting Chang, aged 22 and 20 respectively, volunteer at GUTS United events around Taiwan, and were made aware of political issues by their parents from a young age. For Yu-shan, the low level of involvement of young people in political matters might simply come down to not knowing where to begin.

“Maybe they follow the news, but they don’t know what to do,” she says during an interview outside the Guting MRT station in Taipei on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The sisters are granting an interview before heading to a punk show at The Wall later that evening.

“They think it’s their duty to know what’s happening out there, but they don’t really care,” Yu-ting adds. “

Both Yu-shan and Yu-ting are of the opinion that the voting age in Taiwan, currently 20, should be lowered to 18, which, apart from some countries in the region such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore, is the age of suffrage in the vast majority of countries today. Those who can’t vote, according to Yu-shan, feel that they share no part of the responsibility for the future of their nation. The sisters are also in agreement that both the DPP and the KMT need to do better when it comes to appealing to Taiwanese youth and getting them to care about the future of Taiwan, rather than just paying lip service to those who will one day replace them.

“I think they pretend to like the young generation, but they don’t really take care of us,” says Yu-ting. “When they’re having a campaign they always want the young generation to stand up for them, but when doing real things, they still don’t really care about what the young generation is thinking.”

And therein could lie the heart of the problem.

(Freddy Lim's photos are courtesy of Gareth Griffiths)

Friday, 06 August 2010 16:08

The boundary between religion and the state in China

In this video Professor John Lagerwey examines the boundary between the state and religion in China.  Importantly, he identifies the problems that arise when attempting to understand Chinese religiosity through a Western religious framework, rather than through a Chinese cultural one.

This video is an excerpt from Professor Lagerwey's presentation on 11 May 2010 at the "Dialogue among Civilizations and Global Challenges" forum hosted by the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University, Shanghai.

Professor Lagerwey is the Professor for Chinese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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Tuesday, 30 September 2008 05:02

Migrations from Liangshan: New Data

eRenlai has published a series of articles on Yi migrants. The team of the magazine also gives regular news about the Yangjuan primary school and the area where it is located, i.e. Yanyuan county in Liangshan autonomous prefecture, southwestern Sichuan.

As it is the case every summer, a team of volunteers went to the school in July and August. This was an opportunity to collect new data on migrations from this area to other parts of China. Here are a few findings, which can give some light on changes taking place when it comes to the relationship between peripheral regions and urban areas.
Among the 107 families living in Yangjuan proper (units 5 and 6 of Baiwu First Village), 61 have members with migrant experience. 81 villagers went out looking for jobs, and 60 of them are currently on their migrant endeavor. Actually, migrants from Yangjuan can roughly be put into two categories---‘the younger migrants’ and ‘the bread-earning migrants’.

There are currently 26 migrants belonging to the younger generation’. Most of them joined the labor migration directly after leaving school (not necessarily until graduation), which also means that they were not the breadwinner of the family. So they do not need so much to compensate their leaving by providing their family with cash. In fact, only a few of them could save some money and send it home.
As a matter of fact, a group of Yi workers who were introduced by friends from afar into a factory of Shanghai consists mostly of girls who, when leaving home hadn’t finished junior high. They left home in spite of doubts or objections within the family, with the dream of living a comfortable city life. But very soon it turned out that money is much more difficult to earn than they thought, and that there are a number of problems to deal with, such as the boiling weather in summer, suburb lifestyle, language, discrimination, homesickness, strict regulation in the factory… However, they gradually learn to get along with Han people, practice Mandarin, pay rent and bill, and surf the Internet. At least, they keep themselves warm and fed, and to a certain extent, some even enjoy the factory life. Each month they earn about 1300 yuan on average, but one year has passed since they started working and several of them failed to save any money. They also see the importance of skill, knowledge, and certificates (Wenping) in one’s career. In the course of their work, few skills can be learned. Within one year they only have one chance to go back home and stay for a short period. Most of them don’t have a long-term plan about the future, they just intend to stay in the factory for some time. When it comes to farm work, some say they “can’t and don’t know how to farm.”

Other young migrants are males now still working in factories or construction sites in places such as Shenzhen and Henan. They do not save much money either. Many of those working in Shenzhen factories are not as lucky as their countrymen in Shanghai. Usually they follow brokers to the factory. There they often work more than 10 hours a day and then earn less than 30 Yuan, from which the brokers will take away 2~3 Yuan. Moreover, the food and housing provided by the factories are rustic, and they barely have labor insurances.

After having been cheated by the job recruiter and having gotten seriously sick in her migration to Shenzhen, one young woman has the following comments:
‘When I decided to work outside, many people opposed the plan, especially my father, who said migration was not what I thought it was. And some people coming back home also tried to persuade me that life out there is hard for most migrants. But I didn’t take in a single word of them, still dreaming that I could be among the few lucky ones and earn money easily… Now I’ve got bad health and spent thousands on medicine, and I deeply regret having migrated. I finally realize that my father had told me the truth! But there are still more young people migrating, including my cousins. I tell them about my experience and try to persuade them not to do so, but they just don’t listen to me and insist on leaving, just like what I did when I migrated…”

The other category of Yangjuan migrants are the bread earners. The cash entailed by children’s education, the increasing cost of farming, the unfavorable weather… all these factors prompt these villagers to buttress their families’ economy by seeking money from outside. Some of them hand their land over to other family members (old parents or wives) and seek additional income from outside. Others have comparatively more land so they leave home only when the busy farming seasons are over. Their goal is simply to bring money home, so they accept unfavorable working condition as long as the pay is high enough. And, unlike the younger migrants, the financial pressure keeps them from spending money on seeking and trying novel things.

Recently, Zhengzhou has become a hot spot for these bread earners. They follow brokers to different construction sites, working more than 10 hours a day, and being paid 140~180RMB by the brokers, who have already extracted a portion (about 10%~25%) from their original earning. If the brokers can’t find work for them in the construction sites, the migrants have to wait, consuming their own money. Some of them spend almost all their savings waiting, and then come back home with empty hands. They often try hard to learn professional knowledge through practice. Also, the pressure and competition at work as well as the high wages for skilled workers enable them to learn skills such as bending steel with machines and woodwork. Some brokers still try avoiding to give the migrants the money they should receive. Many Yangjuan migrants want to go to Zhengzhou because it is pictured as a place with “good’ brokers.

Last year, the prices of farming necessities surged, lessening further the profit of farming. The phosphate fertilizer rose from 20~25 Yuan per bag to 48~50 Yuan, and the corn seeds from less than 7 Yuan/kilogram to 38 Yuan. Some migrants invest their earnings on these highly-priced farming necessities, but the unpredictable weather exerts another risk on the harvest. Ma Linjun, who because of poor health had to come back home, says that, nowadays, compared to the profit brought by farming, earning money through migration seems not that bad. On the other hand, the high price of meat stimulates in the villagers an impulse to find some capital for raising animals. Ali Vuda is one of them. Although in his last labor migration he was cheated by the broker and got 1800 Yuan less than was promised, he still plans to go out because he believes that this time he will be more careful and may find a better broker. He says that once he has saved thirty thousand Yuan he will raise pigs on a large scale. He would spend about 10 thousand on 5 sows, another 10 thousand on the shed, and the rest on forage. He says the buckwheat and corn in his field could be used to feed pigs, and his family, in turn, would sell the young pigs at high price and then buy rice to eat. By then, he says, he would never go out, because seeing the colorful life outside would just make him feel sad about himself. Though they migrate for different reasons, both Ma Linjun and Ali Vuda are family bread earners, adjusting their income in order to fit in with the increasing commodity prices.

Ma Pengchen calls himself a veteran of labor migration in Yangjuan. At the age of 17 he started working outside and has been doing so off and on for almost ten years. He has been to places such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, Wenzhou, Zhengzhou and Tianjin, as well as some other parts of Sichuan. He helps with farming at home in the busy seasons, and migrates at other time, leaving the comparatively easier farm work to his parents. In the early years, he was no different from other young migrants, spending almost all his earnings before coming home. But later on he began to save money for his family, especially since he decided to get married. Till now he has brought about 40 to 50 thousand Yuan back home. When he worked in a factory in Shenzhen, the broker refused to pay the promised wages, alleging that he himself had no money. It was after several quarrels that he finally paid Ma the long-delayed 1400 RMB. Ma plans to leave again soon: he says that, by growing crops and taking care of the animals, his family has a daily average income of about 12 Yuan, while his bending steel skills can bring him more than 100 Yuan of net income in a single day. He also wants to grow some walnut trees at home, because he finds that a big walnut tree may bring in about 4000~5000 Yuan each year (after they are grown, it takes four years before walnut trees begin to bear fruit). He says that growing walnut trees and migration can bring him quite a good income, but he needs to carefully distribute his time and energy between the two in order to optimize the benefit. He urges his nephew, who has been herding the family goats after dropping out of primary school, to go back to school, pointing out that only going back to school can bring about a brighter future for the nephew, and that the bottom line is to finish his junior high.

With different mentalities, both the younger migrants and the migrant family bread earners start on their journeys of seeking fortune away from home. Differences in their desires and responsibilities explain for the variety of outcomes. Presently, some youths from Yangjuan are advancing towards graduation from high school. Consequently, new trends in migration may emerge, and a third category of labor migrants will come into being. In a few years of time, we will see how various educational tracks determine the young migrants’ career paths and their future lives.

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Tuesday, 01 December 2009 23:29

Of Stones and Ink

A few hours from the towers of Shanghai, at the feet of the Yellow Mountains, lies a country of round, green hills and of narrow valleys-its name, Huizhou. Serpentine hillsides, mosaics of fields, well-trimmed tea tree bushes, and wet landscapes often filled with mist irresistibly evoke the magic of the ink-painted scenes from ancient China. This is where a brilliant culture flourished between the 16th and 18th centuries; the culture of the rich and literari merchant class who, under the Ming and the Qing dynasties, built private residencies, temples, porches, pavilions and bridges. These constructions still show today an art of living and an aesthetic, which is symbolically carved into the wood or the stone.

These are sample pictures from my book entitled ’De pierres et d’encre’, illustrated with more than 250 photos by Zhang Jianping. The book recounts the history of the literati merchants, of their culture, of the architecture of the houses and temples they built. It also it gives a concrete idea of China’s protection of its heritage and of the rebirth of popular crafts. It is also an evocation of the peasants and villagers’ daily life in the region.

Contact Anne Garrigue for more info
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Monday, 03 August 2009 00:00

China’s shrinking arable land?

The crisis in natural resources affecting mankind is multifaceted, and it’s not always easy to evaluate the acuteness of the phenomena. China’s shrinking arable land offers a perspective on the way such challenges can be analyzed and assessed. It shows that problems are real but should not be exaggerated. Rather than relying on general statistics it is always good to look at the data and trends in more detail. In a nutshell, China’s land problem is a real one, but land resources are still available and some changes in land use have been commendable. However, the needs of the country will probably put additional pressure on world markets.

The Maoist period had seen much pasture and forest devoted to agricultural production. Conversely, the years from 1979 to 1985 constitute a period of rapid deterioration in terms of available arable land. In 1981, 1984 and 1985, China suffered an annual loss of more than a million hectares. The next five years saw this trend reversed and in 1990 more new land was brought into cultivation than was lost. Thereafter, however, conditions deteriorated once more. Most cultivated land that disappeared because of industrial, urban and infrastructural development was fertile land on the periphery of urban centers. On the other hand, there still exists a considerable amount of wasteland, especially in the southeast and central eastern regions, unused as a result of mining or industrial activities. Some of this could still be restored for agricultural use.

It is often said that China’s arable land might drop below the red line of 120 million hectares in a few years time due to rampant illegal use. This might be true but is not proven. Looking at statistics production by production, one sees some sown areas growing in size and others diminishing, in an inconsistent pattern. Also, there is progress recorded in irrigation and water-saving irrigation systems.

Some scholars assert that the situation is not as bad as often described. The official total of China’s farmland, they say, is about 50 per cent lower than the real figure. Moreover, they argue that the decline has been the result mostly of desirable land use changes rather than of disappearance of farmland in favour of new cities, industries and transportation links.

China has a long history of underreporting its grain production area, one of the difficulties lying in the diversity of local criterion used for area measurement. Other reasons for underreporting are linked to taxation issues and the need to keep a “space’ for reporting big rises in production gain when asked to do so by higher levels of government.

There is still available farmland. Also, China’s average grain yields are still below the South Korean and Japanese rates, giving the country room for improvement. On the other hand, figures of the losses incurred during the last thirty years may actually underestimate the real loss. Reasons for the loss must be assessed carefully. The combined total of urban and rural construction has been responsible for less than one-fifth of China’s recent farmland loss. Another fifth of the total loss was the result of conversion to orchards, reflecting the increased demand for fruit.

In any case, the most problematic losses occur in areas with inadequate production capacity and in suburban coastal areas where the most productive agricultural land is converted to other uses. After careful, cautious analysis, one may conclude that in the future, grain imports from China are highly likely. For the time being, looking at the situation of world markets, there should be little problem with the country eventually doubling or tripling, its current grain imports. This however could change within the next few years. For sure, no catastrophic scenario is likely, but China’s farmland problem must be seen in an ever-changing global context.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008 20:31

China’s Environmental Crisis and Global Warming

(extract from the speech given by B.V. during the colloquium on Cultural resources against Global Warming. oct 4, 2008, Taipei)

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IV- The international position

- Efforts by China to become a player in global governance, including in the environmental field, should not be underestimated. The country has signed more than fifty international conventions and treaties related to environmental protection and natural resources. The review of implementation by China of the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer, has shown gradual compliance by China to the Protocol and its willingness to fulfill its contractual obligations (it had completed in 1999 the targets set for 2002), but also conflicts of interest adversely affecting its ability to act. China is also aware of the strategic role played by NGOs in environmental diplomacy.
- However, China implicitly refuses to engage positively in the management of environmental resources, contributing to the unbridled exploitation of tropical forests of Southeast Asia or hydro-electric resources in the Amazon Basin.
- China’s position in international forums is constant: national responsibilities in this area are "common but differentiated"; climate change and sustainable development must be thought as a whole; technology transfer play a key role in meet the climate challenge; the "Clean Development Mechanism" and other similar programs should be continued and encouraged.

V – International Margin of Action

China may moderate its demands but will hardly abandon its basic positions. However, a change in the level of quotas could be acceptable to China, with a passage to a non-binding commitment level higher and stronger. China would probably limit international agreements with a regime that would facilitate practical cooperation projects and would thus releasing funds for promoting research and development in the field of new energies and to introduce renewable energy. At present, external pressures as influential as they are, are still weaker than internal resistance.
However, Hu Angang, an renowned economics professor at Tsinghua University, advisor to the government on environmental and social issues, has publicly called for China to accept to be bound by an international pact to reduce emissions. He acknowledged that his point of view remains in the minority but emphasizes the seriousness of the problems encountered by China. It envisages a sharp increase in Chinese emissions until 2020, but feels that implementation of drastic reductions in the following decade is quite feasible, so that Chinese emissions may go down to their 1990 level by 2030, and be reduced again by half over the next twenty years. China, he insists, will be the first victim of climate change, and has a strong economic and diplomatic interest to transform itself into a "green power.”
China therefore has the potential to play a positive international role, if it dares to tackle the speculative and risky nature of its present model of development. It will thus contribute to a better management of "global public goods". Making the turn towards sustainable development is without doubt the best way to assert its global contribution. Yet the Chinese response seems hesitant, often contradictory. Because the debate on its own model of governance remains severely limited, China finds it difficult to play a more active role in reforming global governance.
For now, we can just bet that China will carry out its ecological reform at its own pace but that it still refuses to be bound by a priori international agreements. The Chinese reticence should not block the commitments of other partners: Global governance, when it comes to climate change, must be one of "variable geometry" rather than based on the principle of "everything or nothing." In other words, the WTO model, (based on the search for consensus without offering viable alternative if unanimity is not achieved), model strongly challenged in recent months with the failure of the Doha Round, is not directly exportable in the field of environmental diplomacy.
It remains possible that, faced with bold initiatives of other nations, starting with the ones that the European Union must take in any case, China decided to take on the role it says to be aspiring to. In other words, the best way to engage China in world climate governance is perhaps to start without waiting that China finally decides to join global initiatives...

Thursday, 01 May 2008 02:14

A New Perspective on the Opening and Development of West China

Speech pronounced during the "Cultural Resources for Sustainable Development" Conference, Shanghai, China, April 25, 2008.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Guests:

I feel honored to be able to attend today's Forum which made us all feel the importance of dialogue between culture and development and the role of culture as a tool for self-reflection. This spirit of self-reflection has generated and continues to generate a more and more mature reflection on the historical task that constitutes for the Chinese the development of West China.

Today, being south of the Yangtze river and considering  our geographical opposite North-West China (the former state of Loulan around Lob-Nor in Xinjiang), we cannot but recall how the men living in the North two millenia ago (then in a central position in cultural and economic terms) were describing the state of things in Southern China.

At that time, Sima Qian, the father of Chinese historical science, and Ban Gu, author of the “History of the Han”, both said that “on the south of the Yangtze the land is low and humid, most men die when they are still young.” when characterizing the life condition of people situated in the south of the Yangtze and Hui rivers. They also wrote that in these regions the territory was vast and men were few, and the farmers burned the fields, in order to use the ashes of weed fertilizers, and then watered rice.

Still according to them, fruits, vegetables and fishes were abundant, the life there was easy and the people prone to laziness, not experiencing cold and hunger, and there were no rich families either. One sees clearly that social divisions had not arisen yet, no gathering of important population in one place either; people were speaking a large variety of languages, including ancestor languages of present-day Zhuang, Dong, Tibeto-burmese and Mon-khmer languages  

At the time of the Song dynasty it was already noticed that in ancient times the character “jiang’ (river) was used only when referring to the rivers of southern China. This might have been the case because of the origins of the word in Mon-khmer (kroŋ) that might have produced a loanword in ancient Chinese. Such evidences testify to the fact that in the Yangtze basin there were a number of ethnic groups using Mon-khmer languages.

During the same period, the civilization of the central plains had already developed in a number of areas. Using again the description of Sima Qian, in North China, in big and small towns people were pressing against each other to the extent that if you were attaching their sleeves together you could have made a tent for obscuring the sun. The bustling crowd was scrambling for schemes and profit.

All this points out to a situation in which the North was strong and the South weak, in political, economic and cultural terms, a situation that was to gradually change during the first millennium of the Common Era. The most important reason for the change was the gradual large-scale migration of Chinese-speaking people from the North towards the South and the consequent shift off the center of gravity of Chinese civilization.

This large-scale migration had two climaxes, one around the year 310 and the other around the year 750. The first one was the “Yongjia southward migration”[1] provoked by the invasion from the five non-Chinese people from the North, and the second followed the rebellion of An Lushan that precipitated the decline of the Tang dynasty. The northern people having migrated to the south abandoned the planting of millet, wheat, sorghum and their dry land farming methods in favor of higher rice output. For the sparsely populated South they were not only a precious labor force, they were also most important agents of economic, cultural and social change.

At the beginning of the second millennium of the Common Era, as Northern immigrants and local populations were melting into a new “southern population”, they were able to overcome the disrespect shown to them by the northern Song dynasty and to introduce themselves into the elite circles.

In the years after 1120, the entry of the (Northern) Jin dynasty into the central plains provoked the “disaster of the Jingkang era”[2] and the third large-scale wave of migration from the North to the South. If we compare the southern population of China in the final years of the Southern Song dynasty with the one recorded five hundred years before this time, we discover that the rise of population south of the Yangtze is of 643 percent, with a peak in the coastal provinces of 695 percent. In comparison, the rise in the central plains region is only of 483 percent.

During the same period of time, the rise of population in North China had been only of 54 percent. According to the present evaluation of ancient European agrarian conditions, on the same surface of land the calorific values produced by pasture, wheat and rice were respectively 1, 4.4 and 21.6. This might help us to understand how Southern China was continuously able to receive and integrate such a large influx of immigrants from the North.

The military weakness of the Southern Song dynasty has put it in a very unfavorable light in the eyes of the Chinese today, and they are quick to forget the glorious achievements of this period. It is during this time that the center of gravity of China’s economy and culture completed its shift from North to South. What Eurasia witnessed during the 12th and 13th centuries was the economic and cultural flourishing of the Southern Song dynasty.

Even the destructions that accompanied the dynastic shift from the Song to the Yuan did not stop such dynamics. With the help of new historical factors, this flourishing continued during the latter period of the Yuan dynasty. And Chinese civilization flourished again from the late Ming dynasty on, overcoming the troubles associated with the change from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, till the middle of the Qing era.

However, when evoking the shift of Chinese civilization from North to South, our geographical and historical understanding is still limited to the eastern regions. Here, let me introduce a well-known frontier that characterizes the distribution of Chinese population. On the Chinese map draw a line going from the extremity of the North East to the one of the South West, from the middle of Heilongjiang province (city of Heihe) to the middle of Yunnan province (county of Tengchong), and this line will divide the present territory of China into approximately two equal parts, one on the East and the other on the West. Still thirty to forty years ago, the proportion of the population living on the Western part (54 percent of the total territory) was around 10 percent – which means that 90 percent of the Chinese population was living on the 46 percent of the territory that forms the eastern part.

What the drawing of the Heihe-Tengchong line suggests to us goes beyond the mere repartition of the population. When you add to the map the ethnic repartition of the population it is not difficult to see that, on the East (except for some agrarian ethnic minorities such as the Zhuang, the Dong and the Tai) the immense majority of the population is Han. So, such a line can also be considered as a line of separation between the Han ethnic group and the territories of other ethnic groups. But what makes the Han population settle and distribute itself within this geographical area?

What we must notice is that such a line also roughly corresponds to a division of the territory where yearly rain fall stands between 200 and 400 millimeters. And, in ancient conditions, such a division is also the one that allows respectively for agrarian and pastoral activities.

Therefore, with the exception of the central plains where additional considerations should be brought in, this line already divides from ancient time agrarian territories from the world of West China. Migrating Han population were not staying within this lien for no reason. Success and limitations of the expansion of Chinese civilization were intrinsically linked to its agrarian characteristics.

During the course of Chinese history, central powers emanating and developing from Han civilization have determined several times the extent of the political territory of non Han-speaking populations. During the Tang, the Song and the Ming dynasties, the central power  stabilized the territory of non Han populations, making it enter into the map of the country, using three successive methods, first “subaltern prefectures’, then “indigenous chiefs’ and finally  “assimilation” (i.e. substituting indigenous chiefs with Han dignitaries).

And this policy of assimilation was meant to raise the percentage of Han population in these areas. But in the West of the Heilongjiang-Yunnan line this was very hard to achieve. The successive dynasties could not really attain durable success in controlling these areas.

During the Song and Ming dynasties, we do not find a ministry or organization effectively in charge of the administration of these territories. The integration of the West into the territory controlled by the central power originating from the central plains has been a task mainly accomplished by dynasties originating from non Han-speaking populations. This achievement itself testifies to the indispensable contribution made by ethnic minorities in the course of Chinese history. Let us now say a few words more about this question.

We just spoke about the Southward migration of Chinese economy and culture. What deserves attention is that, about the same time, the political center of China moved on a line going from Xi’an to Loyang to Kaifeng till today’s Beijing. What was the reason for this?

During the last millennium, today’s Beijing was chosen as a capital by the Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, three of them being founded by Non-Han populations. For the Han, the plains of the North and the forests of the North-East were simply a line of defense of their agrarian societies. Not so for non-Han rulers. For these rulers with a very specific cultural background, these regions were the depository of their cultural origins and identity, and also where human resources of the same ethnic origin could be found, hence the most important meaning that these regions had for them.

Because these rulers’ concern for the land of their ancestors and of the necessity for them to preserve the stability of the agrarian land of the Han population, they had to move the capital northward, in a zone still deemed acceptable by the Han population. During the time of the Ming dynasty the transfer of the capital to Beijing was somehow due to circumstances, as the military and economic bases of the Emperor Yongle were gathered in the North and he himself was strongly influenced by the Northern culture, but looked at from a broader historical perspective, this move was taking place within a long-term trend.

In the perspective of the central powers emerged and developed within the framework of Han civilization, making the non-Han areas their “frontiers” meant to make “hanization” their most important policy objective, which meant unifying measurements, written signs and behaviors, without any exception.

  What is interesting is that the shift of the Jin, Yuan and Qing dynasties from the status of “marches of the Empire” to the one of “Empire of the marches” did not result in a simplistic reversal of the relationship between the original “political center” and the “periphery.” Thanks to high political wisdom and art, the “Empire of the marches” resulted in a truly diverse territorial organization. Only thanks to such diversity could the “periphery” be on equal footing with Han territory, and even gain more importance. The languages spoken by officials of times past were not limited to spoken and written Mandarin but, by law, were including several others.

According to what precedes, we may be able to take one millennium for one given historical period, and divide the three last millennia of Chinese political, economic and cultural evolutions in an extremely rough fashion:

In the millennium preceding the Common Era, North China establishes itself as the core territory of China’s economy and culture. The rulers who gathered centralized powers into their hands in these areas started to spread the influence of Chinese civilization towards the new frontier areas under their control.

During the first millennium of the Common Era, the flourishing Chinese civilization achieved a shift from North to South and, on a more and more rapid rhythm, activated the economic and cultural progresses of East China. The efforts of the central powers for making the West of China enter into their sphere were important but the results were quite limited.

During the second millennium, the South overcame the North, the historical shift towards the South was completed. The West and then the North West were progressively integrated into the territorial structure controlled by the central power.

History is a master of wisdom. When using a historical perspective for evaluating the present drive for opening and developing the West, what useful lessons can we draw?

From the course of evolutions during the last three millennia, we can know very clearly that we need to reduce the economic, cultural and social gaps between the development of the East and the West so as to accomplish the historical task inherited from the past to make the West a more and more integral part of a China united in the diversity of its nationalities.

This sense of history is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for nurturing the sense of duty of every Chinese when it comes to prioritize and implement the task of opening and developing the West.

From another perspective, relying on the testimonies of human activities of the three or four last millennia, the differences between East and West in natural and cultural conditions teach us an all-important lesson: today’s opening and development of the West cannot and absolutely should not reproduce the model and strategies that characterized the shift from the North to the South – including the migratory flux for opening new territories, the prevalence of agrarian economy as developmental model, the overall hanization of opened territories, and so on.

During the last thirty years, the policies followed in East and West China of letting forests, pastures and wild fields take over some cultivated land show that what we have learned already has helped us to make necessary adjustments. However, since the Han account for the overwhelming majority of China’s population, and especially in the Han developed regions of the East, most people do not have any experience nor any feeling about the degrading ecological condition of the West or about the basic fact that China is a nation composed of a variety of nationalities.

From the earlier stages of modernization, the traditional model of development of the South which in history was a tremendous success of the Han civilization has brought with it a reverence for large-scale industrialization (with the smoke and the roaring engines that go with it), with a kind of romantic complex expressed in sentences such as “a man’s resolve can overcome fate” or “calling the mountain to make room for roads and ordering the river’s water to submit.” This model is still silently influencing the way we are looking at West China’s development and acting accordingly. Should we not be extremely vigilant in this respect?

The difference from the conditions that preceded the shift of the Chinese civilization towards the South is that today’s West China has produced in the course of its history a multiplicity of cultures possessing their own achievements. Such is the case of the Tibetan people having crafted the Tufan culture and its own Buddhist tradition, the encounter of the Gandhara and Han cultures in the southern part of Xinjiang on the Silk Road and the historical testimonies of Indo-European peoples living there, the specific Islamic culture of the Uighurs in the oasis of Xinjiang, the nomad culture of the highlands of West Mongolia, and so on.

From a cultural viewpoint, the duty of opening and developing the West means to accelerate the transition that each of these minorities’ culture faces when confronting modernity, and is certainly not to impose a cultural “model’, be it endogenous or exogenous, on the whole of these areas.

While the process of modernization makes this world become a “global village”, it does not mean nor does it imply that it should abolish the multiple differences and cultural specificities that exist among groups and territories. When looking at the development of the West from this perspective, I think that two points need to be stressed:

First of all, following what my teacher, professor Han Rulin used to say, the Chinese civilization has not been shaped only by Han culture. Each non Han culture of the West, including the one of the Hui who are already speaking only Chinese, is an inalienable constitutive part of Chinese civilization, each maintains the health and equilibrium of the “ecology” of Chinese culture, and each contributes to maintain the precious resources that nurture its splendid life. This point cannot be overstressed.

Second of all, the characteristics of West China’s cultures essentially reflect the variety, richness and complexity of these areas’ nationalities and religions. At the present stage, when speaking about the West’s development, attention is focused on the way to develop the economy, which is of course understandable.

However, the problem of Western China is not only one of economic development. Using a larger perspective, when confronting this problem in the 21st century – when confronting the next stage of the problem should I say - Chinese people might very well have to focus on how to deepen institutional solutions for problems linked to nationalities and religious development. China is one nation with many nationalities, and is developing in very special historical conditions, be it on the national or international level.

Loving the unity and territorial integrity of this nation composed of various nationalities as we love the pupil of our eye does not mean that we make “unity” an uncritically accepted “grand tale”. We need to enter into a larger perspective, a deeper humanist concern, a more diverse understanding and sense of empathy so as to nurture more harmony among the ethnic groups, to unite in happiness as in sorrow, and to foster a political and cultural environment based on union of hearts and virtue.

Before concluding, I would like to mention two famous prime ministers of the Tang dynasty, Fang Xuanling and Du Ruhui. The 11th century historian Song Qi speaks of the two by saying that after the period of troubles that accompanied the succession between the Sui and the Tang dynasties they were able to enforce right principles and to regulate the State and that their influence lasted for several hundreds of years.

Although they achieved such a task, they did not try to elevate themselves or leave any trace of extraordinary action. Song Qi praises the sense of public good shown by these two men, saying that they had not tried to exalt their names and become famous.

Today, the historical task of opening and developing West China requires the contribution of all people of good will. Maybe the ones who participate in this task will not be included in historical records, but this does not matter. We are not trying to exalt our own names. The most important is that, through the efforts of all of us, China’s West may have a beautiful future, filled with hope. Such is the objective that inspires us.

Thank you.


[1] The Yongjia era corresponds here to the reign of the Emperor Huai Di (306-311).

[2] Jingkang era: reign of the Emperor Qin Zong of the northern Song dynasty (1126-1127).


Friday, 28 September 2007 00:10

Ethnic migrant workers in China today

Ethnic minority communities are experiencing the impact of social transformations at work in the whole of China. People – especially young people - leave for the cities in search of jobs. Minority villagers usually know little about life in the city, they are often handicapped by a poor knowledge of Chinese, and, consequently, face strong difficulties in making their living in a world that is totally new to them. They stay away from their village for a few weeks, a few months or a few years. After they come back they often wait for another opportunity to leave and find a job. Most often, they lack resources to engage in local development projects and have a pessimistic outlook on their future at home. In other words, the needs and difficulties faced by ethnic minority migrant workers are multifaceted: they comprise
(a) the lack or the very poor quality of the formal education received before they have left;
(b) the general problems met by migrant workers all over China (housing, working conditions, lack of work contracts, healthcare…);
(c) additional difficulties linked to their cultural and linguistic estrangement;
(d) lack of sustainable community projects at home, which also means
(e) lack of long-term perspectives and subsequent difficulty in formulating a personal project.

Migrants do bring back some (modest) financial capital and practical experience to the places where they come from, but these resources are often wasted or under utilized. In any case, their pledge is to be understood in the general context of Chinese rural migration towards the cities. An estimated 150 million Chinese rural workers are currently living and working in cities. Their number has risen rapidly and is expected to grow even further, with some estimating 300 million by 2015. The household registration system requires them to register with local authorities as temporary residents. Employers often take advantage of internal migrants’ vulnerable. School and healthcare fees have also a disproportionate impact on migrant workers. And most migrants in China’s cities live without health insurance, rarely visit a doctor.

At the same time, as the interviews recorded here show, there is a resilience and a sense of purpose in many migrant workers that should make us hope that the migration movement that is still affecting China will also enhance the creativity of the ones who are exposed to new surroundings and experiences. Better legal implementation and renewed formation structures are needed. What is especially needed is the liberation of social energy, eventually allowing for the reinforcement of real local communities, able to take in charge their own destiny.

Thursday, 21 June 2007 02:23

Patience and Diversity are China's Best Spiritual Asset

I have been doing photo reporting in China’s southwest for the last twenty five years or so, and am struck more and more deeply by the riches of the intangible patrimony that can be found from one place to another. This is not only the result of the variety of people and ethnic groups, this is also the fruit of encounters, adaptations, migrations, cross-fertilization. At its best, cultural diversity is not the addition of different traditions living in isolation, it is rather the web of evolving ways of life that take inspiration from each other and add up in a creative pattern of colors, feasts, beliefs, craftsmanship and social organizations.

Cultural riches are the process of a long evolutionary process. A culture grows like a tree, nurtured by time, love and aptiience. This is something that we need to remind ourselves, as China’s development relies now on speed and immediate profit.

Nowadays, the ecology and culture of China’s southwest, especially of minority areas, is fragile. Traditions are not eternal. They adapt, they die, they are recreated… What I feel sure of is the fact that these riches are not only a treasure of the past, they are indispensable tools for tackling the challenges that come from natural and cultural erosion. When I travel on the highlands of Ganze, I feel the impact of a way to deal with natural phenomena, animals and other people that, for sure, cannot be repeated in the cities but can still inspire our behaviors and help us to articulate a wisdom for today.

I deeply hope that this diversity will be preserved, enhanced and more and more appreciated. Ultimately, the cultural diversity of China is what should make it able to renew in depth its spiritual civilization. A civilization that has blossomed through patience and wisdom....


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