Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Chinese media's excessive coverage of the Connecticut school shooting incident

Over the last few days, a curious phenomenon has been commented on in various Chinese websites and forums: the Chinese media’s constant focusing on the tragic Connecticut shooting incident, and on the debate on gun control in the US which has come in its aftermath.

I had already noticed myself that the CCTV evening news kept having coverage of the shooting in Connecticut and of how Americans are apparently rushing out to buy guns because they fear imminent legislation restricting their “right” to gun ownership. When I really got suspicious was when I found that even last Sunday’s edition of 新京报 (a daily Beijing newspaper) dedicated an entire six page special insert to the issue of gun control in the US, a full nine days after the shooting.

The quantity and the duration of the coverage certainly seems exaggerated, especially when compared to how little attention other international events often get in the Chinese press. It becomes even more striking when you consider that very little coverage was devoted to the attack in a primary school in Henan province, where a madman with a knife injured 22 children. This attack happened exactly on the same day as the one in the US (some have justified the lack of coverage as an attempt not to encourage copycat attacks).

Why this excessive focus on the attack in the US, and on the gun control debate? In most of the Chinese internet forums where the issue is discussed, people seem to believe this is due to two reasons: the fact that many high ranking Chinese officials and wealthy people have family and children in the US, so they want to know about what goes on there; and the fact that the Chinese media want to deflect attention from the problems in China, and give the people a negative idea of life in the US.

Personally I find the second explanation much more convincing. I can easily imagine some ordinary Chinese people seeing these reports, and saying “美国很乱. 还是中国好” (the US is such a mess; China’s still better in the end), or some such nonsense. Of course the fact that Americans can freely buy guns in shops is quite shocking for Chinese people, just like it should be for people anywhere (just think that if the attacker in Henan had had a gun handy, there would now be scores of dead children, rather than just injured ones). Focusing on the issue of gun control is thus an excellent way to make the US look unsafe and barbaric, and China good by comparison. On the other hand focusing on the lack of universal free healthcare in the US wouldn’t work, since the Chinese don’t really have that either.

With the NRA now going on the offensive, and claiming that the solution to school shootings is posting armed guards in every school, doubtlessly the Chinese media will have more easy chances to present the States in a negative light in the near future.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Visit to the Shaolin Temple

A few weeks ago I had the chance to go on a trip to Henan province. I went there to attend a conference and then stayed on a couple of days to do some sight-seeing. One of the places I went to see was the Shaolin Temple, the place of origin of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Although I usually travel alone, this time I decided to join a tour group arranged by my hotel in Zhengzhou, Henan's capital city. I was the only foreigner in the group, and an object of curiosity for everyone else. The guide spoke incessantly into the microphone practically the whole way to the temple, going on and on about Henan’s history, having a happy trip, Zhengzhou’s traffic problem etc etc… The volume of her microphone was far too high and it gave me a headache. Of course none of my Chinese travelling companions were at all bothered. When you join Chinese tour groups, this is the sort of thing you can expect.
The Shaolin Temple's "pagoda forest"

The Shaolin temple is a Chan Buddhist temple (Chan Buddhism gave rise to Japanese Zen Buddhism, better known in the West. The character for Chan is pronounced Zen in Japanese). The temple is mainly famous as the place of birth of Shaolin Kungfu. The term Shaolin Kungfu is popularly used as a synonym for all of the Chinese external martial arts, as opposed to the internal arts. Not all Shaolin Kungfu styles are really connected to the Shaolin temple, but the temple is historically the most important center of Shaolin. It is supposed to have been founded in 495 CE, and its first abbot was an Indian master of Buddhist meditation known as Batuo.

Although Buddhism contains strong prohibitions against violence, Chinese martial arts were originally developed mainly by Buddhist monks like the ones who resided in the Shaolin temple. Since Buddhist monasteries were sometimes incredibly wealthy, and controlled large estates, they were important economic actors which might clash with the local authorities, and which needed protection against thieves and opponents. Martial arts were thus necessary for fighting and self-protection.

An interesting aside is the legend of Southern Shaolin, another Shaolin Temple which is supposed to have existed somewhere in Fujian province, or anyway somewhere in Southern China. It was supposedly razed by the Qing government in the eighteenth century when it became a base for people who wanted to reinstate the Ming dynasty. Popular legend has it that only five monks escaped, and they later established the Heaven and Earth Society (天地会), a secret society devoted to overthrowing the Qing regime.

After the overthrow of the Qing in 1911, this secret society (or some branches of it) allegedlly turned to crime and merged with the Chinese triads. While in Hong Kong it is still illegal, in the PRC the Heaven and Earth Society eventually turned into the Zhigong Party (致公党), one of the eight minor political parties which are allowed to function outside of the Communist Party (but "under its leadership"). The party is used by the government to strengthen ties with overseas Chinese and as a convenient intermediary with certain foreign governments, apparently.

The actual Shaolin Temples lies at the base of Mount Song, one of China’s five great mountains which have been worshipped throughout history. According to Chinese mythology, the five mountains originate from the body of Pangu, the first being who created the world. Mount Song was believed to have been formed out of Pangu’s belly, and thus to be the center of the world. It is holy in both Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.

Typically for China, the Shaolin temple was destroyed numerous times throughout its history, and the buildings you can see there now are mostly of recent reconstruction. A devastating recent bout of destruction came about in 1928, when the troops of Warlord Shi Yousan burnt the Temple for 40 days, destroying most of the building and manuscripts. During the Cultural Revolution more damage was done to the site, and the few remaining monks were victimized.

Shaolin Kungfu enjoyed a great revival of popularity in China in the eighties thanks to a 1982 Hong Kong film called “the Shaolin Temple”, starring Jet Li. After the film was released, thousands of youngsters apparently ran away from home to study Kung Fu at the Temple, and had to be sent back. At the time there was only one Kung Fu school which had recently opened in Dengfeng, the town next to the temple, and it was quickly overrun with applicants. Since then, numerous Kung Fu boarding schools have sprung up in the town. The students are usually children or young adolescents. As well as Kung Fu they are also supposed to learn other subjects. The best ones may one day join the Shaolin performance troupes that stage shows around the world. Others may end up in the military, the police or as Kung Fu teachers. My own San Da teacher in Beijing studied in one of these schools.

As my tour bus drove through the town, I saw courtyards full of young students practicing their Kung Fu moves in unison (on the right you can see a photo I took of practicing students).The actual Temple grounds did not look dissimilar from other collections of Chinese temples I have seen, and it was of course heavily commercialized and packed full with Chinese tour groups like the one I was part of (even though it was the low season). What gave the place a bit of authentic atmosphere were the hordes of students training all over the place, some of them wearing the grey robes of Shaolin monks. Our group was taken to see a Kung Fu show which was decent, although far from amazing. All the performers were young students, sometimes children. Some of them demonstrated their skills by braking thin slabs of metal using their heads.

An interesting site was the Pagoda forest, an area full of pagodas which each commemorate a different Shaolin monk of the past. The higher a pagoda, the more good deeds the monk performed in his lifetime. The Shaolin temple also includes a hall with a statue of the Buddha and a series of depressions on the stone floor, supposedly made by monks practising Kung Fu. I made friends with two rather nice girls in my group who were from Henan province themselves, but had never been to the temple before. When they knelt down and started prostating themselves to the Buddha in one of the temples, I knew that they were most likely not expressing any serious religiosity, but just doing it because it seemed amusing and fun, in the spirit of a tourist who tries to do something unusual while on holiday. I have even seen tour guides lead groups of Chinese tourists in "prayer" in Buddhist temples, telling them what to say and when to bow.