« A Women's Bookstore in Shanghai | Main

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!

Posted by dporter at June 21, 2013 09:36 AM


Login to leave a comment. Create a new account.