Since returning from China, fatigue has seized me, coloring my days and nights, amplifying jetlag. Usually, my life is so filled with travel that jetlag doesn’t loom large after trips, affecting me only for a day or so. But analyzing it, I think the mad pace of change in China, the hordes of people, the loud buzz of life, exhausts one more than travel elsewhere. Recovery is slower.
WHY is China careening down the highway of change so fast? Many would say it’s to make up for lost time, when participation in the global marketplace was closed to them. But something in the Chinese culture/mindset also militates against complacency, laziness. Of course, plenty of individual exceptions must exist, but if national culture as a collective concept makes any sense at all, the Chinese culture encompasses industriousness, hard work. Laying back, taking it easy, going with the flow doesn’t describe most Chinese I know or know about. Perhaps a factor in becoming the “workshop of the world,” which I heard expressed by several Chinese on the trip, it has deep roots in Chinese history, and in the Chinese diaspora.
Another strain from Chinese culture, the hereditary privilege and class divisions based on family and ancestors, may have had monstrous repercussions in why China’s revolution “failed,” as many people think it did. The Cultural Revolution was, for many people, a cataclysm which divides the “golden time of the revolution”, when it was the beacon of hope for an end of class divisions and poverty, from where it turned down the wrong path. Its principle goal, promulgated by Mao Zedong, was based on rooting out “old ideas”, vestiges in the culture from the old feudal society, which prevented becoming a truly equal society without vast differences in personal privilege and access to education, security and comfort. Yet this was perverted to focus on one’s “class background,” whereby generally was meant the class of one’s father, mother and other ancestors, to decide whether one was “for” or “against” revolution (equality). This ignored the basic revolutionary principle that people could make a choice, stand with the “masses” and turn their backs on class divisions and inequality. The very old Chinese idea that one’s ancestors determine who one is, was used to punish the ancestors of the former privileged classes, strip people of their dignity and possessions no matter what their personal contributions and ideology—the enduring measure of their lives being their “class background,” i.e., the economic class to which their ancestors belonged. In trying to effect change FOR equality, “old ideas” reared their ugly heads in twisted ways.
Chinese people today are a bit reluctant to talk about that firestorm which swept China. Most people under 40 claim they were “too young” to know anything about it, in spite of the fact that most of their parents or neighbors must have been profoundly affected by it. Many of the independent films coming out of China now deal with it in direct or indirect ways. One older guy, at dinner, dismissed it as a “lot of foolishness” even though his wife, with us at dinner, had suffered profoundly from the misuse of that doctrine. Her “overseas Chinese” (immigrant) husband abandoned her at its beginning and she reared her daughter alone without much support either from her family or the society.
Many people in power never supported the Chinese revolution, and even did their best to defeat it or undermine it. But many who DID support it have turned against it now, citing the Cultural Revolution (or the famines triggered by the Great Leap Forward) as reasons. They can’t understand my continuing analysis of it as a great advance for China, including Mao’s original ideas BEHIND the Cultural Revolution. Many factors you can still discern from the underlying, ancient Chinese culture determined that they would turn toward the global capitalist system, adopting certain key aspects, and away from true equality as a goal. I don’t blame Mao for not achieving it—any more than I blame the democratic American leadership for Bush’s victories. China is so vast it’s amazing they DID have a revolution. How was that monumental change accomplished? It boggles the mind. I have been struggling my whole life to make sense of the Chinese reality, my personal obsession, and feel no closer now than ever to truly understanding it.
Like everything in China, changes in the art world are on steroids. Dozens of galleries and museums have opened in the past couple of years. Artists don’t have to only reference their own tradition or political system’s dictates anymore, and join myriad trends from around the world, sampling and experimenting. Collecting Chinese art, especially modern art, seems to be a fad among many wealthy circles in the world, so a Chinese artist who gets “discovered” can have a meteoric rise, traveling around the world and enjoying fabulous (by home standards) wealth. How long this will last is unclear. Just staying on top of the galleries and museums challenges the guidebooks—we discovered several which weren’t in any books. The traditional art: scroll paintings, cloisonné, jade carving, inlaid wood, porcelein, jewelry, embroidery, etc., has gotten a huge shot in the arm from the tourist trade, but seems to be in a different world from the modern art circles. Film, too, is exploding, and draws its themes from Chinese history, both recent and ancient, but also from current situations and themes. The traditional companies, owned and controlled by the Communist Party, no longer have a lock on sources of funding or themes, nor control distribution. But these companies still exist, and have to change at lightning speed like the rest of the country.