June 09, 2013
I'm going to experiment with a simple blog to record some of my experiences while I'm here in China this month. I've never tried this before, so I'm not sure how well it will work or how often I'll manage to post entries. But it seems, in principle, a good way to keep friends and family informed about what I'm up to here.
There should be a place for readers to add comments below every post. Needless to say, I'd welcome yours!
I've been in China over a week now, so the stay is beginning to take shape as an "experience." My main reason for being here in Shanghai this month is to teach an intensive graduate course, so I'll begin by saying a few words about that.
The course is organized by a faculty colleague at Michigan in History and Women's Studies. Having grown up in the revolutionary period, during which social divisions based on class and gender were relatively muted, she has been deeply distressed to observe the backsliding of Chinese society in these respects over the past couple of decades.
Newspapers in the US, of course, are full of stories about the widening class divides in China. Urban elites are awash in luxury, while the rural poor seem to left further and further behind. The nominally "communist" allegiances of the ruling party notwithstanding, there is no longer any talk of "class" as a social category: a concept that was so critically important in establishing the Party's early claims to legitimacy now appears threatening. Instead, the ubiquitous propaganda announcements focus on promoting "civilized" behavior and "social harmony."
A similar kind of reversal has occurred with respect to gender. The revolutionary period was characterized, at many points, by a blurring of gender distinctions in dress, employment, and political engagement, among other areas, along with an intensely moralizing puritanism. As if to compensate for the excesses of this regime of enforced androgyny and chastity, there has been a turn in recent years to a much more insistent delineation of gender roles and use of sexuality as a form of power and control. Think Mad Men on steroids.
So in any case, my colleague has been able to get support from a couple of major foundations to promote women's studies in China as a way of fostering, at least within the academy, a degree of critical consciousness about the gendered dimensions of current changes in Chinese society. She uses part of her grant funding to bring over UM colleagues every summer to Fudan University to co-teach an intensive graduate-level seminar on recent scholarship on gender from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
The participants in the seminar, who come from universities all over China, include MA and PhD students as well as young faculty members. We meet three afternoons each week for three hours at a time, and schedule additional consultations with each student to discuss their individual research projects.
My co-teacher, a quantitative psychologist, has been lecturing on research methods in the psychology of gender: how might one design a study, for example, to determine the degree to which a particular gender stereotype has any basis in reality? My charge is to introduce both canonical and recent cutting edge work in humanistic gender studies, with an emphasis on comparative women's history, masculinity studies, and cultural theory. Some of this, needless to say, is a bit of a stretch for me, which leads me to think I was invited to join the seminar less for my expertise in the field than for my usefulness in demonstrating 1) that the study of gender isn't just for or about women and 2) that it can and should be incorporated as an analytical framework in many different kinds of work.
I amused the students on the first day of class by telling them the story of how my mother, on hearing that I'd studied only male writers in my first semester of college, threatened to withhold my tuition payment if I didn't sign up for a women's studies course the following term. As it happened, books written by both my mother and Biddy Martin, the teacher of the feminist theory course I dutifully took at Cornell that spring, were cited as exemplary contributions to the field in the very first article I assigned for the class!
The course is one of the more challenging I've taught in China owing to the range in background, preparation, and English language ability among the participants. Some of the young faculty, not surprisingly, are fluent in English and super-sharp, leaving me acutely self-conscious of the utter preposterousness of my presuming to lecture on Chinese women's history, as I did last week, to a gathering of Chinese women intellectuals. The MA students face a bit more of a struggle in wrestling with all the long and difficult readings and post-modern theorizing. I can just hope that everyone taking part will find something in the readings and conversations that will help them advance their understanding by a step or two from wherever they happen to be. That's certainly been the case for me so far!
I realized, before I came, that I'd have a pretty busy schedule here, with nine hours of seminar each week, a commensurate amount of reading and class prep, and then three additional lectures I was invited to give at various venues in Shanghai. So I made a point of carving out two three-day weekends for the kinds of travel adventures that are often my favorite part of being over here. I've just returned safe and sound from the first of these.
On Thursday evening, after class, I set off to the Shanghai train station with a small backpack and a ticket for an overnight train to southern Anhui province. Overnight trains are my favorite form of travel in China. If you can get a "soft sleeper" berth, you can spend eight hours of the trip sleeping to the soft rhythmic clatter and roll of the train, which I always find wonderfully soothing. The sleeper cabins seat four, and their intimacy inevitably leads to friendly conversation among the travelers. It can sometimes be difficult here to establish a foothold in a conversation with a stranger, or at any rate a conversation that goes beyond satisfying curiosity at the spectacle of a big-nosed foreigner speaking with a pronounced Beijing accent. But the usual reserve breaks down in a sleeper compartment. The civil non-engagement that is the norm between seatmates on a plane or bus or subway would seem churlish in such a space, facing each other on bunk beds at the outset of a thirteen-hour journey.
Before boarding the train, I figured I ought to find a bite to eat. The Shanghai station is gigantic, and there must be several dozen restaurants lining the corridors of the main concourse. Finding a simple vegetarian meal turned out to be quite the challenge. Even at the most carnivero-centric fast food joints in the States these days, a hungry Buddhist might expect to find at least a baked potato, salad, or bowl of apple sauce. Here, no. The options were deep fried meat pieces, broiled or barbecued meat pieces, or meat pieces fried in gooey sauce with a token piece of plant. Finally I found a single fast food joint with a single menu item that didn't include meat. The preparation involved topping a scoop of white rice with a scoop of boiled cabbage and the contents of a plastic pouch of stewed mushrooms, which, whatever its shortcomings, at least kept the stomach's growlings at bay. Happily, even the most modern train stations in China still reserve a bay or two in their food halls for sellers of fresh fruit and vegetables, so I was able to stock up on bananas and lychees for a considerably more palatable dessert. Next time I'll remember to eat before I reach the station!
My companions on board the train were a gregarious single guy of about 30, a cheerful, attractive and visibly pregnant woman of about 35, and her 23 year-old son. It didn't take long for the single guy to ask the obvious question about their relationship that had us both scratching our heads: the kid looked too young to be her husband but too old to be her child; we both wondered if he was perhaps a nephew or kid brother. It turns out he was her son; only later in the evening when he stepped out did she explain that she'd adopted him. He used to come by her office to play as a young boy. His family was a mess, and she eventually just took him in. The relationship between them was obviously a deeply loving one on both sides. She was obviously deeply proud of him and he attended to her needs with every consideration.
It turns out she's from a family of porcelain artisans from the famous manufacturing town of Jingdezhen, two hours south of our destination. The family's specialty was the painting of porcelain dishes, a trade that had apparently been kept up during the revolutionary years. Most of the porcelain wares that found their way to England in the 17th and 18th centuries came from that town, and I found myself wondering if her ancestors had had a role in crafting some of them. She invited me to come by to check out the family's operation if I found my way to her city. The next morning, the three of them offered me lots of good advice regarding my travel itinerary and gave me their phone numbers with an invitation to call them if I found myself in a jam. I couldn't have hoped for a kinder send-off as I headed off on to the next leg of my adventure.
June 12, 2013
It was pouring when the train pulled in to the terminal station, and my new friends advised, not surprisingly, that it might not be the best day to climb a very large mountain. So I found a bus to take me to the Huizhou village of Xidi, a tiny settlement of maybe 150 buildings near the confluence of two rivers. Because the village was home to a large number of very successful salt merchants 500 years ago, the architecture is unusually solid, attractive, and well preserved for a rural area, and the many original homes represent rare surviving examples of Ming dynasty living spaces. The village is still very much alive and well, surrounded by lush fields and occupied by people of all ages going about their business. It has gotten a considerable additional boost from tourism after having been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site ten years ago for its beauty and historical significance.
When I arrived it was still pouring. As is invariably the case, there was a row of souvenir stands attended by local peasant women who were, on that morning, doing a brisk business in "name brand" collapsible umbrellas at what was no doubt a healthy mark-up. A number of visitors were purchasing disposable galoshes as well, and when I entered the village I saw why: the main street was a torrent of rushing water, watched over by residents gamely sweeping gathering puddles away from their front steps with sturdy straw brooms. As there wasn't much to see on my side of the brook, I followed the example of a local who removed his shoes and stepped carefully across the street on the edge of a step that produced a miniature waterfall into the plaza below.
The richly supplied antique shops that lined both sides of the alley on the other side provided welcome refuge from the rain that was still coming down in bucketloads. My favorite shop specialized in what I took to be excavated old pieces of tree root, polished to the smoothness of driftwood and then varnished to a fine sheen, so that they resembled the twisted and contorted rock formations so beloved of the Ming-Qing elite. Some of the neighboring buildings, designated as "protected civilian residences," preserved the original furnishings of the inhabitants from a century or two ago, inevitably including a narrow mantelpiece-like table at the back of the entrance hall bearing an old pendulum clock, a mirror, and a porcelain vase, a list of objects which, owing to the richness of homonyms in Chinese speech, sounds exactly the same as the phrase "life-long peace and security." I later glimpsed these same three talismanic objects through the doorways of very modest homes occupied by very unassuming older couples, suggesting that their arrangement there continues to perform the same function as it did many generations ago. (Mechanical clocks were widely imported from Europe beginning in the eighteenth century; I couldn't find anyone who could tell me whether any comparably resonant and suitably named object had been displaced by its arrival.)
The other feature of these houses that I found fascinating was the painted or inscribed couplets that invariably adorned the paired structural pillars framing the ceremonial entrance hall. The doorways of ordinary houses all over China are (and for a long time have been) adorned with inexpensive red paper scrolls hung vertically on each side of the entrance and offering, in rhythmically parallel and often rhyming lines, an elegant expression of good wishes for the residents and their visitors. The couplets in these merchant homes were unique in that they had been composed by the owners to reflect some distinctive aspect of the family or its outlook and artfully carved or painted directly onto the structure itself. A number of the museum-homes offered books for sale that contained photographs of hundreds of these paired lines, along with transcriptions into modern simplified characters and explanations of their often cryptically compressed or allusive meanings in modern colloquial Chinese.
As someone who spends a good bit of time musing over poetic uses of language, I found myself thoroughly intrigued by this convention of quite literally and very conspicuously framing domestic space between perfectly matched segments of patterned language. Though I'll have to research the practice further, it would suggest that status display and personal individuation within this group operated less through sheer opulence than poetic prowess. There's also the intriguing sense in which certain activities performed within this space would have been understood as somehow contained within the structured poetic (and perhaps ideological) space bracketed by the matching lines of verse. I couldn't help but wonder how these 12- or 14-character couplets, most of which I found difficult to read, compared in both the sentiments they conveyed and the structural sense of balance and closure their form assured to the exquisitely turned couplets of iambic pentameter that characterize the work of Alexander Pope. Pope produced his major works in the early eighteenth century, a time when England's merchant class was enjoying a period of new prosperity that was perhaps comparable in some of its broader social and even cultural effects to the mercantile age that left such remarkable traces in this little village in southern Anhui.
You can see a few pictures of Xidi here:
or if that doesn't work, try this:
June 17, 2013
A Women's Bookstore in Shanghai
I had a remarkable conversation today with a woman who has just opened up the first feminist bookstore in Shanghai, and one of the first in all of China. A native Chinese, she got a PhD in Art History from the University of Georgia, then went on to do an MBA at Emory, hoping, as she put it, to find some way of putting her commitment to the humanities into play in a society she recognized as being pretty relentlessly business-oriented.
Her first business foray on her return was in tea retail, but she found that the kinds of personal compromises she was expected to make to get a leg up in this male-dominated (and deeply sexist) business world were more than she was willing to accommodate. So she teamed up with an old classmate recently returned from working on a doctoral program in gender studies in Finland to create a women's bookstore.
The project has been motivated by their very deep frustration with the backsliding they perceive in Chinese society with respect to gender politics. She recounted how when in the US she was asked by her peers whether she worried about that dimension of returning to China to do business, she was blithe in her optimism and, looking back, quite naive. It seems to be a general consensus that with the increasingly feverish repudiation of all remaining relics of "socialist" ideology from the Mao era, there's been a powerful resurrection of "traditional" gender norms, taking the form of rampant sexual harassment, increasing pressure on women to marry, abandon careers, and return to the home, and increasing stigmatization of women who are too smart, successful, or resistant to marriage.
It turns out bookstores can't survive by selling books, as everyone buys them now online. So her bookstore ends up serving as a combination lending library (for paid members), tea house, literary salon, and entrepot for goods produced by women's collectives. She's actively engaged in building up communities of like-minded people on-line and in the local area. The store is not yet profitable, but it's close enough to breaking even that she's been able to hire a helper to free up some of her own time for pursuing outreach, activist, and marketing activities.
She described with considerable frustration the emotional energy she expends on discussing her store and its goals with the many people she encounters, male and female, for whom the very idea of a feminist bookstore seems both alien and threatening. So far she hasn't encountered any explicit "official" resistance to her political activities, but she has seen feminist-oriented twitter posts that she's forwarded deleted within moments by unseen hands.
Much of her start-up funding was crowd-sourced. I told her I thought that were she to extend her crowd-sourcing investment invitations to the US, she would likely find a great deal of support. For anyone interested in learning more or sending along an electronic high-five, the store's website is womentreebook.com; their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 21, 2013
I'm in Xiamen for the weekend to have a look around this coastal region of Fujian Province, which was the center of China's maritime trade in the Ming dynasty. Historically, the province has also been the source of much migration both to Taiwan and to the US. I was interested in visiting both because of the region's history and because the city (and university) are supposed to be among China's most attractive.
First stop this morning was a famous mountainside Buddhist temple near the edge of town. The Buddhas here were receving a lot of prayers and seemingly boundless supplies of juicy looking tropical fruits--no wonder they're so fat. A maze of pathways winds up the mountain behind the temple, which of course I had to climb, sweating buckets in the semi-tropical heat and offering bountiful thanks to Buddha that I was not, in this incarnation, a fashionable young Chinese woman, which would have required that I make the climb in absurdly precarious stiletto heels.
At the top there was a pavillion with a welcome breeze and, as is usually the case with Chinese mountains, a snack stand offering boiled eggs, beer, and cold bottles of green tea, the proprietor of which offered some visiting teenage boys who were trying to move one of the benches a stern lecture about the importance of respecting others' property while travelling. The view of the city and harbor below suggested a cross between Hong Kong and San Francisco, though perhaps on a somewhat smaller scale than either one. Lots of butterflies on the mountain, and girls with flowery dresses and wide-brimmed hats.
On the way down, I sat on a rock and watched a young craftsman with wavy black hair and a wispy beard fashion long strips of palm frond into a remarkable array of flowers, snakes and butterflies, using an intricate technique of cutting and folding that reminded me in its impossible topological cleverness of origami and in its delicacy of Chinese paper cutting. He was totally absorbed in his work, and while he responded gruffly to questions posed to passersby, had an air of poised serenity rare in a fellow of his age--perhaps 25 or so. Something of the primal magic of art and artistry revealed itself, I thought, in the dexterity of his fingers and the absorbed attention of his spectators.
Lunch followed in a blissfully air-conditioned vegetarian restaurant in the temple below, where, not making a lot of headway with the printed menu, I pointed to an appealing looking dish among the several illustrations, and wound up with an unusual and quite delicious concoction of mushrooms, beans, mini corn cobs, and pine nuts.
Next stop was the university, which, perhaps tellingly, has a main gate right down the street from the temple. Founded by an overseas Chinese rubber merchant in the early 20c, it is among China's top universities (closely correlated with degree of central gov't support) and without question one of its most beautiful, with stately rows of palms, a broad lake, and a stunning bouquet of varied architectural styles, from brick colonial to Southern Fujian (with characteristically up-turned rooflines) to fancifully post-modern. I had a devil of a time finding the Humanities Building; most people I asked turned out to be tourists, and most of the staff members I found in other buildings seemed never to have heard of it. Finally I asked a student in graduation garb who must have taken an inspiring literature class along the way, as he pointed me on my way with a broad smile.
The Humanities Building commands a fabulous view out over the harbor, and boasts what has got to be one of the classiest tea houses, in an unpretentious sort of way, in town. There are only five or six tables; the large oak table in the center seats eight, who, when the mood is right, can spread out their rice paper along side their teacups and compose poetry with the calligraphy ink and brush set provided in the center of the table.
I had an appointment here with a few humanities faculty who had been introduced by a Xiamen student in the course I'm teaching in Shanghai. Two of them work on Chinese women's literature, and the third on American literature and eco-criticism, which is apparently making a big splash on the Chinese academic scene, coordinated as it is with efforts from philosophy, psychology, and the sciences to try to generate a meaningful societal response to the deepening environmental crisis on the mainland. Most striking to hear from this fellow was the degree to which the Chinese classical tradition (especially Zhuangzi) was being leveraged in support of a modern environmentalist agenda.
I asked the two gender studies scholars whether there was any hope for finding similar leverage within classical culture for a feminist agenda, and they responded, not surprisingly, that they thought not. The reason, however, was not what I expected. Usually people point first to the seeming misogyny of certain Confucian teachings (where women are grouped with children and "low people" as needing instruction from the enlightened (male) junzi class); the chief issue they mentioned, however, was the intractability of the yin-yang hierarchy and its association with gender roles.
Interesting also was their reaction to the feminist activism efforts of the lead teacher of the course I'm doing at Fudan. To some younger feminists, she apparently represents a kind of Maoist old-guard, excessively nostalgic for the revolutionary period and prone to blaming women's woes in modern China on the abandonment of the socialist agenda and encroaching neo-liberalism. From their point of view, neo-liberalism is not an issue. The state, in their view, remains an essentially authoritarian one, and the greatest barrier to women's advancement is its steadfast refusal to permit any kind of political mobilization (such as a real women's movement would represent) outside its immediate control.
Staying tonight on the small island of Gukangyu, reachable only by ferry and blissfully free of internal combustion engines. Labyrinthine alleys and tired old colonial architecture evoke the faded glories of one of China's first treaty ports. The hotel where I'm staying, a sprawling and now slightly decrepid three-storye mansion of eleven bedrooms, used to belong to a single family. The streets narrow streets nearby are full of seafood restaurants whose menus take the form of plastic tubs and aquariums teeming with creatures arranged around the front steps. A few small bars and cafes evoke the sort of expat chic ambience one finds in trendy districts of Beijing, Shanghai, and Taibei, but neither expats nor the young cosmopolitan Chinese crowd that normally patronize such places seemed to be in evidence. In fact I'm the only "old outsider" I've seen on the island today, and I've been a pretty pitiful specimen so far, having wanderered in obviously clueless loops for half an hour trying to find my hotel (which turns out to have neither a sign nor an address marker visible from the street) in the maze of twisting lanes.
And so to bed!