Friday, April 28, 2017

The "little pink" and online nationalism

Last month's protests over the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defence system in South Korea turned into the latest bout of nationalistic hysteria to hit China in recent years, with Lotte supermarkets boycotted and closed down by the authorities, travel agents being pressured to stop sending tour groups to South Korea, and videos appearing of Chinese primary school children encouraged to chant slogans against Korea and Lotte at rallies in their playground.

I would say that the level of hysteria was about equal or superior to what was seen last summer after the UN ruling over the South China Sea dispute, but still nowhere near as bad as what went down in 2012 over the Diaoyu islands dispute with Japan. Living in China I have come to see such bouts of collective insanity as akin to episodes of extreme weather: they happen regularly, they are unpredictable, they are annoying but fortunately they don't normally cause anyone much genuine harm, and they pass relatively quickly.

Much has been said and written about China's popular nationalism, its legions of "angry youth" spewing their bile online, the way that the educational system inculcates resentment of Japan and other foreign powers into the minds of young students. The latest development is the appearance of the term xiao fenhong, or "little pink", as a new label for the legions of young Chinese who take part in online campaigns aimed at vilifying the targets of nationalistic rage, and whipping up support for patriotism.

Last summer Australian swimmer Mack Horton became the target of concerted attacks by legions of such young Chinese patriots, after he called his Chinese rival at the Rio olympics a "drug cheat". His social media accounts were bombarded with derogatory and aggressive messages in both Chinese and English. What is striking is the readiness of these young people to take their nationalistic campaigns onto foreign websites like Facebook that are blocked in China, implying that they are either living abroad, or more likely are using a VPN to get round the Chinese government's firewall.

The term "little pink" apparently started off as a disparaging term, because the "movement" began on a well-known Chinese chat group called the Jinjiang forum, whose site has a pink background. A lot of the xiao fenhong are women, making the term even more apt. Later the People's Daily ran an article praising the xiao fenhong as a community of millions of internet users, mostly female, who are patriotic and defend the state online. Since then some have started using the term as a badge of honour.

Essentially we are looking at young, well-educated, middle or upper-middle class young people who know how to access censored foreign websites and in many cases are quite able to argue in English, and use these skills to show support for their country and state and hurl invective at those who they perceive as unfriendly to China. Many of them are indeed women, something that will hopefully put to rest the misguided Western commentary claiming that all these young Chinese nationalists are frustrated "excess men" who can't find a woman due to the gender imbalance created by the one-child policy.

It may seem strange that some of China's most privileged young people, the ones who come from the sort of social classes who tend to send their children to study in the West, take part in such nationalistic online ranting. But as a person with a long connection with Chinese society, it doesn't surprise me. Some of the most unreasonable, extreme, wilfully closed-minded nationalists I have had the misfortune to meet here in China have been young people from the country's privileged classes who had studied or lived abroad, and spoke pretty fluent English.

This is of course by no means a rule. I have also met plenty of young Chinese from such backgrounds for whom studying abroad was a genuinely eye-opening and enriching experience, and who refuse to be roped in by simple-minded chauvinistic discourse. It does appear to be the case, however, that in modern China nationalism does not decrease as one moves up the social scale. It may actually be strongest among the wealthier classes, although they express it in a more sophisticated fashion.

I could give the example of a colleague of mine. She is a 23 year old girl, a native of Beijing, who has just come back after getting a master's degree in a European university. She likes travelling and once took the Trans-Siberian Express all the way to Moscow, in spite of knowing no Russian. She is energetic, opinionated and independent. Recently a conversation I was having with her and another colleague turned to the topic of politics. She started saying that she knows that she was "sort of brainwashed" in school, but she just can't help herself. When she hears people criticise the Communist Party she just has to defend them as the people who liberated the country, even though she knows it isn't really that simple.

The topic then turned to Taiwan. She said that she will resolutely oppose any Taiwanese who claims that Taiwan isn't part of China, because this is a 民族的问题 (ethnic/national question). She said she doesn't understand why the Taiwanese always have to 抱美国大腿,抱日本大腿 (Cling to America and Japan for protection, said using a derisive expression). She then said she wished her government wasn't so kind and understanding towards Taiwan, and showed some muscle by boycotting them and destroying their economy if they continued talking about independence.

Young people of this kind may have grown up in a nationalistic bubble, but they are by no means unable to find out about the world from independent sources. Even when they are not abroad they are quite able to use VPNs and connect to any website worldwide, and can read material in English as well as Chinese. It would not be difficult for them to find out how things look from the perspective of, say a Taiwanese student who took part in the Sunflower movement. The point is that they display little interest in doing so.

Many dismiss such people as brainwashed, but the word doesn't quite do the situation justice. I often notice a disconcerting willingness, almost a conscious decision, to wallow in a bubble of unjustified nationalistic attitudes, instead of questioning comforting but wrong-headed and dangerous beliefs. Of course it could be argued that most people anywhere are not keen on questioning their long-cherished beliefs. That's probably how religions manage to keep going down the generations, even when their core axioms have become quite untenable. On the other hand the way that in China people's core beliefs currently revolve around nationalism, and tend to be similar for large swathes of the population, make them potentially explosive.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Travels in Sichuan's ethnic corridor: Taoping Qiang Village and Gyarong Tibetans

This Spring Festival I headed over to Sichuan. I had a fun and full trip, watching pandas, attending a friend's wedding in the countryside of Northern Sichuan, hanging out with the local Esperanto-speaking community in Chengdu, eating hotpot and even becoming a bit of a champion at the local variety of Mahjong (I won at least 300 Yuan at the game). But the experience most worthy of being written about is probably my visit to a Tibetan village in Western Sichuan.

As you may be aware, the West of what is now Sichuan province forms the easternmost part of the Tibetan plateau, and is historically and culturally part of the Tibetan world. Tibetans call the region Kham. As you travel West and North from Chengdu, you gradually start to feel Han China turn into Tibet. As is the custom of Chinese administration, the region is divided into two "autonomous prefectures" named after the most prevalent local ethnic groups. These are the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. It was to the second prefecture, north-west of Chengdu, that I ventured.

My destination was Taoping, a well-preserved village of the Qiang people which has now been turned into a tourist attraction. The Qiang are one of China's 56 recognized ethnic groups, but I must admit that I had never previously heard of them. They number about 200.000 in total, just a drop in China's ocean, but they do manage to make up 19% of the prefecture's inhabitants, while Tibetans make up 57% and the Han make up the remainder. The Qiang speak a group of related idioms known as the Qiangic languages, a sub-group of the wider Tibeto-Burman family. The language is divided into dialects that may not be mutually intelligible, and attempts to provide it with a writing system of its own have failed. Qiang culture is influenced by both Tibetan and Han Chinese elements, since historically they have fallen under the domination of both.

The village I visited is in the county of Wenchuan, which was the epicentre of the dreadful Sichuan earthquake of 2008. 69.000 people died in the earthquake, and literally millions were displaced. I had to change buses in the county capital, where in typical Chinese style everything has been rebuilt and there are no visible traces of what happened. I don't know if the new buildings and schools are earthquake-proof, but I hope so.

After another half-hour bus ride through splendid mountain scenery I got to Taoping. The village does indeed have a genuine historic centre that has survived, but unfortunately that was not the first sight that greeted me. Taoping has now become a weekend getaway for holidaymakers from Chengdu, and just like any Chinese tourist site it has become fully commercialized and filled with kitsch. An entire new section has been added onto the village in typical "fake-old" style, filled to the brim with hotels and restaurants. The locals, some of them old women in traditional costumes, mostly seem to be selling trinkets for visitors at road-side stands.

That was the area at which the bus dropped me off. Although I was initially disappointed by the mundane atmosphere, the beautiful mountains surrounding me on all sides and the fresh, warm air raised my spirits, and I decided to look for a place to stay. Although touristy the place was far from crowded. The village is after all only well known in the region, not nationally and certainly not internationally (Lonely Planet fails to even mention it in passing). After dropping off my bag at a hotel run by two local women, I went off to look for something to eat. It was already 4 in the afternoon, hardly time for lunch in China, and most restaurants turned me away. I finally found a place that was open, and I went in and sat down.

A family of Chinese visitors saw me, and the father invited me over to sit at their table. He lived in a small town in Sichuan, and was eager to chat with me. I ended up sharing the family's food for free, and having a conversation with the well meaning middle-aged man who had invited me, who was full of questions about life in other countries. His other relatives seemed a bit put out, which made the situation rather awkward. His daughter, a high school student, was of course egged on by her relatives to practice the English she had supposedly learnt in school on me, and predictably refused. This same scene always seems to play out in such situations.

After some awkward goodbyes, I continued walking until I found the genuine old town, which was nice to wander around. I climbed up to the top of the hill overlooking the town, and took some photos. The town is dominated by a traditional Qiang watchtower. Every Qiang settlement used to have one of these, and many still do. In the past the different villages were constantly fighting each other, so the watchtowers served as a warning against raids. The houses were also built of thick stone walls, which might be why they seem to have survived the devastating earthquake better than most modern buildings in the region did.
The old centre of Taoping, with the Qiang watchtowers

The new section of the town built to house tourists. In the background you can see the cluster of white houses where most of the locals actually live.
As I wandered round the narrow alleys, I came across an old house that looked intriguing. When I tried to get inside, however, I was asked to pay a 20 Yuan fee to look around. I refused and started to walk on, but the young man at the door called after me, saying that I was welcome to have a look for free. Foreigners are still rare in these parts, and he was obviously willing to make an exception for me. The house was impressive, genuinely old and full of artefacts. After seeing a few rooms I found a family sitting round a stove. There was a man who looked a bit like a teacher, who invited me to sit down. It turned out he was a university professor in Chengdu, but his family were the owners of the house. They apparently used to be the local chieftains before the communists took power, or so I was told.

The man went into a long lecture about the differences between the Chinese and Western political systems, to which I listened politely and made a few comments. Fortunately his views seemed relatively liberal. He then asked me if I wanted to stay and have dinner with the family. I of course agreed. After the last visitors had left, I was brought into a private back room where a huge dinner had been prepared. There was a big round table and a much smaller, lower one. All the men sat round the bigger table. The women and the children sat at the smaller table. There was only one woman sitting with the men, and I was told she has an especially strong and decisive character, and is a good drinker. I think the bigger table might have been reserved for those who wanted to drink alcohol, rather than for the men as such.

The food was great Sichuanese fare, and everyone was very friendly. It wasn't much of a Qiang cultural experience though, since the family were clearly very urbane and spoke to each other exclusively in Sichuan's Chinese dialect. After dinner we retired to a courtyard where the family organized a barbecue and the men played cards and gambled (I joined them and embarrassingly managed to win 100 yuan). At around 10 I finally retired to my hotel. It struck me that I had just been wined and dined for free not once but twice. Stuff like this would never happen in Beijing or anywhere in its vicinity.

The next morning I determined that before going back to Chengdu I would walk around a bit in the area and try to find somewhere less touristy. There is a major road passing next to Taoping, so I set off along the road with my rucksack. Although the scenery was majestic, the walk itself was hardly pleasant. There were cars driving past, and construction sites nearby. I passed a few villages where people stared at me in surprise, but there was nowhere one could really hang out. After walking for about 40 minutes, I decided to turn back. While I was walking back a young lady driving a car stopped and asked me if I was lost and if I needed a lift. I told her I was going back to Taoping, and she offered to take me. It turned out that she had seen me walk in one direction and then turn around, and wondered what was the matter. She was actually not driving towards Taoping at all, but was still happy to give me a lift. She said that she had once travelled abroad and people had been helpful towards her, so she felt she should do the same with foreign travellers in her country.

The road where I was offered a lift
Road sign in Chinese and Tibetan. The Chinese, being the language most people in the area are actually literate in, is much larger, while the Tibetan writing is included as a matter of policy

I started telling her that I had been looking for a place where I could see a bit more of the local culture. She told me that she was actually an ethnic Tibetan, and she originally came from a Tibetan village a bit further north. She lived in Chengdu, but she was back in her village for the Spring Festival. She ended up taking me to another tourist site near Taiping, which turned out to be a completely reconstructed Qiang village that wasn't even finished, but was clearly waiting to become another tourist trap. Since she had never been there herself, she got out of the car and had a look around with me. We both agreed that the fledgling tourist site had very little charm to it. Seeing my genuine interest in the local culture, the young woman ended up inviting me to go and see her village with her. I refused at first, but she insisted and the idea of visiting a Tibetan village was intriguing, so I ended up agreeing.

We drove north for about an hour, up into the mountains, until we reached Li county. Then we drove off the main road and into an isolated valley with mountains all around it. The young lady's village was in this valley. It consisted of a collection of a few dozen newly built houses. I was told that the original village used to be up on the mountain, but it was destroyed in the 2008 earthquake, and then the government rebuilt it down in the valley. Apparently the locals were satisfied with this, since the living conditions were better in the new village.

The girl's family had a three storey house facing the village's main gathering point, a little square with a basketball court in front of the local government headquarters. Just behind the headquarters there was a small area that seemed to be dedicated to religious practices. There was a series of golden prayer wheels like the ones you find outside of every Tibetan temple, surrounding a drab concrete structure. Next to it there was a space with a much larger prayer wheel and a few old sofas. There were five or six elderly ladies sitting on the sofas, all but one wearing colourful Tibetan outfits. The young lady introduced me in the local Tibetan dialect, and I sat on one of the sofas.

The old ladies continued chatting, then they suddenly got up and started walking around the building turning the prayer wheels while chanting in Tibetan. Encouraged by my new local friend I actually followed them around a few times, spinning the wheels while chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, the most famous Buddhist mantra and the only one I know. Of course we were all walking clockwise, as is the custom. Spinning prayer wheels is supposed to allow you to accumulate wisdom and merit, or good karma, and even an insect that crosses a prayer wheel's shadow is supposed to accumulate some merit, which I suppose it can store up for its next life.

Local ladies spinning a prayer wheel

I spent the rest of the day hanging around in the village and in the family's house. It soon became clear that I would be their guest for the night, especially since the girl was only going back to Chengdu the next day and there was no way on earth I could leave this place in the middle of nowhere without a car of my own. There was exactly nothing to do in the village but sit on the family's front porch and read my kindle while eating sunflower seeds, which suited me fine. I walked once around the village, which took me all of five minutes. As I was walking an old lady in Tibetan clothing approached me and said something. She seemed not to speak Chinese, so all I could do was answer "Tashi delek", the supposed Tibetan greeting that has now become famous throughout China and beyond, even though it is really just a religious invocation and its use as an everyday greeting is very recent. In the old days Tibetans would greet each other by sticking their tongues out. Once I got back to my host family, I learnt from them that the woman had actually wanted to invite me to her home. Word travels fast, I thought.

The weather was quite warm during the day time, although it got very cold at night, as you might expect at such high altitudes. The house was fairly comfortable compared to many where I have stayed in rural areas. It had a modern bathroom, although there was no real shower. I ate both lunch and dinner with the family, and both were delicious. Dinner included a grilled lamb leg with the hoof still attached. The grandmother of the girl who brought me to the village ate with us, wearing her impressive local dress. Although I couldn't really speak with her, the girl told me that she was an open-minded and curious old lady, in spite of the fact that she had never seen much of the world. She reminded me somewhat of my late Italian grandmother.

Lamb leg during and after cooking
As the girl who brought me there had told me, the area's inhabitants are extremely Sinified Tibetans, and I could see this very clearly in the younger generation. Not only did they dress in modern clothing, but they seemed to speak to each other mostly in Sichuan Chinese rather than in Tibetan, and they looked and behaved just like youths throughout China. Although they still have to speak the local Tibetan dialect to communicate with the elderly, there is clearly a language shift towards Chinese going on. This is an area relatively close to Chengdu though, and the girl assured me that if you travel further North you can find more "genuine" Tibetans whose culture is more intact. The girl herself had grown up mostly in other parts of China, since her parents had worked in various cities. She spoke Chinese without the trace of a Tibetan accent, and would have been in no way identifiable as an ethnic minority in any other context. She came across as a cool young Chinese urbanite, and told me that she owns her own business in Chengdu.

Local ladies on the street

The following day I ate an interminable meal with my host family outside another relative's house. This time relatives and friends all collected, with at least 20 people present. The food was grilled on large flat stones, something I had never seen before. There was all sorts of food being grilled, including things like octopus and other seafood which I suppose cannot be part of the traditional menu in an area so tremendously far from the sea. After a lengthy meal the girl and I finally set off for Chengdu in her car. I drove most of the three hour drive, happy to have the chance to finally give something in return for the hospitality. As the mountains turned into the suburbs of Chengdu and the traffic got heavier, I began to think of the flight back to Beijing that awaited me the following day, and I felt my holiday was over.

A few days later, back in Beijing, I shared photos of my trip with an Esperanto-speaking friend from Chengdu, an erudite man who is very familiar with the culture of the Tibetans and other ethnic groups of his native Sichuan. After looking closely at the women's costumes he at first thought that these were not actually Tibetans at all. After finding out exactly where I had been, he concluded that I had in fact stayed in a village of so-called Gyarong (Jiarong) Tibetans, a sub-branch of the Tibetan people so remote they do not even have the honour of a Wikipedia entry. They have their own distinctive customs and identity, and what they speak is in fact a language of their own, distantly related to Tibetan but quite distinct from it and unintelligible to anyone else.

My local host washing her car, while Tibetan prayer flags flutter overhead

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The spring festival survival guide - a humorous song about going home for Chinese New Year

Tomorrow the year of the rooster begins, and China is in full Spring Festival mode. The doors have spring couplets pasted around them, much business has finally come to a halt, the sound of fireworks is everywhere, and China's bigger cities have emptied out as hundreds of millions of people go back to the places where they grew up to visit their families.

For a lot of young Chinese, going back home to see their parents for the spring festival isn't entirely something to look forward to. It means spending a week listening to their parents and other relatives prod them about not being married yet, criticising their life choices, or comparing them to others. 

A Shanghai amateur choir, known as the Rainbow Chamber Singers, have now come up with an entertaining and creative piece of music on what it's like to go home for the spring festival. The song is called 春节自救指南 (spring festival survival guide). The phrase 都是为你好 (it's all for your own good), which often recurs, is exactly what many Chinese parents will say to their children while pushing them to get married, change jobs, not go abroad etc...

The same Shanghai choir had already attracted attention with a humorous song about working overtime, but this one's much better. The video below has English subtitles.

Happy year of the rooster and have a good spring festival!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

A street in Penang

I have just got back from a one week trip to Malaysia.

Although I only got the briefest glimpse into the country, Malaysia struck me as a fascinating example of a true multicultural society in Asia. The countries I have previously visited in East Asia have all essentially been monocultural, or at least dominated by a large ethnic-linguistic majority making up over 90% of the population. This would be the case for China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Malaysia on the other hand, with its large proportion of Chinese and Indians living alongside the native Malay and the other indigenous groups, is a true melting pot. What's more it is quite a successful one, and the different ethnic and religious groups seem to coexist relatively well.

I am of course aware that there is tension and resentment caused by the government's affirmative action policies that favour the bumiputera, Malaysia's "sons of the soil". But all the same, the fact that the country's last episode of actual racial violence took place in 1969 suggests that it must be getting something right. Malaysia's successful economy and relatively liberal politics, in a country with a Muslim majority, also point to a success story.

While in Malaysia I visited the island of Penang, one of the country's main draws for visitors. The island's main city, known as Georgetown, was established by the British in 1786, and soon became an important colonial hub. It is still Malaysia's second biggest city, and the entire historic centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its streets are a fascinating mix of colonial architecture, Chinese temples, mosques, Hindu shrines, and a variety of languages and faces.

Penang is also considered to be Malaysia's gastronomic capital, although to be fair, after constantly hearing people telling me that Malaysian food is amazing and some of the best in Asia, I failed to eat anything truly delicious during my time in the country. Most of the cheap restaurants appear to be of the self-service kind, with Malay or Indian food that you scoop out of big trays onto your plate. The food just lies around for hours in these trays, and in many of the places I visited there were flies buzzing around the food. It didn't look especially hygienic, although I eat in such establishments a few times and never actually got ill. While in Penang I did go to the famous Gurney night market, where you can eat snacks from stalls. There was some pretty good Chinese-style sea food, although nothing that amazing.

Another place I visited in Penang was the Khoo Kongsi clanhouse. In the nineteenth century, Chinese overseas communities would set up clan associations which would include individuals with the same surnames. The Chinese word gongsi or kongsi (公司), now used to mean company, then indicated such clubs. These associations would serve as mutual aid societies and points of social gathering. The Khoo Kongsi (邱公司) served as the headquarter for all the immigrants surnamed 邱 (Khoo or Qiu) in Penang, and it is the most impressive Chinese clanhouse surviving in Malaysia. Originally built in 1851, it was destroyed by a fire in 1894, and rebuilt in 1906. Although it is no longer an important centre of social activities, it has become a tourist attraction. It includes a clan temple and a traditional theatre.

The Khoo clan also became involved in the Penang Riots of 1867, in which the two main Chinese secret societies fought on the streets for days over competing commercial interests. Apparently a cannonball was fired from the clanhouse, which is why the square outside it is known as Cannon Square. The fighting only subsided when the British brought in reinforcements from Singapore.

The Khoo clan is Hokkien, in other words hailing from China's Fujian province, which alongside neighbouring Guangdong and Zhejiang has always been the point of origin of most Chinese emigrants. Many Chinese Malays still speak Hokkien Chinese (known as Min Nan in China), which is essentially the variety of Chinese spoken in Southern Fujian. Outside the clanhouse I happened to see an interesting diatribe against Mandarin Chinese and in favour of Hokkien, which is pictured in the photos below.

I wouldn't fully subscribe to the diatribe, especially since I don't see the problem if Mandarin was influenced by non-Han peoples from the North. Languages evolve and inter-mix, and viewing Mandarin as inferior because it was influenced by outsiders is suspicious. The content of the text is also not all linguistically sound, although it is indeed the case that many Southern Chinese dialects are closer to the Chinese spoken in the Tang Dynasty than Mandarin is. I found a refutation of the text's exaggerated claims here. Still, it was interesting to see this example of Hokkien pride, which would probably be hard to find in Mainland China. I suppose it is also a reaction againse the cultural insensitivity of some Mandarin-speaking visitors from China.