There’s Propaganda. . .and Then There’s Propaganda

Today I needed to buy some chicken to cook for lunch, and since I believe in the safety of street-market chicken about as much as I do unicorns and pixies, I decided to bike to the Vanguard supermarket on Zijinshan Lu. Choosing the meat from a supermarket over that from a street-market is a bit like eating with silverware at another person’s house: you can never be sure where it’s been all day, so you have to choose based on the relative attractiveness of your surroundings. A big, flashy, air-conditioned supermarket gets my vote over a super-heated market containing a table of chicken parts sitting under a tiny oscillating fan with the blades replaced by a plastic bag or length of ribbon to keep the flies away. Maybe that’s shallow, but until I make the great change and become a microbiologist, I can only judge my food hygiene on aesthetic grounds. On my way to Vanguard I saw a series of propaganda banners on the side of the road, but not the government kind. You can always tell because of the color and the font. Government banners are red (a not-so-subtle political reference) with white letters. The ones by the side of the road today were white with hand-drawn black letters, many of them in the unsimplified script, which for the rookies among us is a clear sign that older people prepared them. People from Taiwan or Hong Kong wouldn’t dare hang up protest signs on the mainland, and younger people (i.e. ages 40 and under) wouldn’t choose the unsimplified script. Younger people would also typically not hand-write letters on their banners, and in many cases have sunk so far into the technology of the day that they can barely hand-write anything at all. I can sympathize. Think about it: if you had a choice between hand-drawing several thousand tiny pictures (which are basically what Chinese characters are), or doing the same job on a computer in WAY less time, which would you choose? And those of you who are getting hot under the collar about the need to preserve the integrity of the Chinese language, when’s the last time you hand-wrote a twenty-page paper in Chinese? Cut the younger generation a little slack, is what I say.

Obviously I stopped to read the banners. Outdoor protests are so rare that you always stop and check them out. I scanned the writing, as well as the montage of newspaper clippings pasted to a series of cardboard flaps near the curb. All of this was outside a very large ??building, which handles the administration of forest land, or just land generally in some places. Here’s a rule for you if you’ve never stopped to check out a protest in Chinese: never assume you know what’s going on. After scanning the banners for a bit, and trying to divine from the copied headlines the gist of the issue at hand, I concluded that somebody named thus-and-so (I’ll keep the real name out of this so as to reduce the amount of trigger words in this post) had been defending lao bai xing (the commoners in China), been punished by the government, and now people were calling for justice. This held up until I noticed that on one of the big-character testimonials hanging from a wrought-iron fence several meters back from the street there was the same name, then gong si (company) after it. Hmmm. Not about a champion of the people, then, but a company, and so not likely to be a glowing testimonial. As I noticed that, I started recognizing more characters and things became clearer. This happens quite a lot with me. It’s almost like every sign in China works on the same system as Frodo’s ring: at first there appears to be nothing, then words magically appear. With Chinese, you can see just fine, but it’s like everything’s all garbled up at first and then gradually settles into a discernable order. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear the characters themselves were sentient and needed time to settle back into their original shapes.

I was a little hesitant to ask someone around me to explain what the deal was because with protests I’m always afraid of getting someone in trouble. What’s fun about ordinary people in China, though, is that they don’t seem to care much about getting in trouble. Within minutes I had six people standing around telling me not only about the matter at hand, but everything else that was wrong with the country, as well. I learned that a large group of senior citizens, dozens of whose signatures were scrawled on a large piece of butcher paper pinned to the sidewalk by rocks set at the corners, were protesting government inaction on a large land-rights company which had stolen their money. Just after the Olympics, this particular company advertised housing at bargain-basement prices, but in reality had no housing available. They just, to crib from Steve Miller, took the money and ran. It took me quite a while to figure any of this out, though, because the first few people I talked to related the situation in the kind of circuitous style one would expect from a vaudeville cross-talk act:

Me: So what is this company?
Guy: A bunch of thieves!
Me: Right, but what do they do?
Guy: Steal!
Me: Yes, but how and what do they steal?
Guy: They steal money, the way they always do!

Fair enough. Five years after the land-management company pulled its collective hand out of the till, no prosecution has been pursued by the government, and the people who lost their money are quite obviously angry. Angry enough to set up a series of hand-drawn banners outside the Tianjin Land Bureau and sit there on little wooden fold-out stools in the middle of one of the hottest days so far.

The small group around me—whose chief orators included an old man, a guy on a three-wheeled cart which was stacked high with flattened cardboard boxes, a woman with one of those full-face sun-visors that when dropped down makes the wearer look like Darth Vader (but which was now mercifully flipped up), and a fat man with a white tee-shirt and khaki shorts—informed me with quite a bit of pique that this kind of thing only happens in China, that in America we had more rights and could stop companies from hurting people. I tried to reassure them that no, things like this certainly do happen in America, much more frequently than they think, but as always when I try to create an “it’s us against them” cross-cultural pax-romana, they just nodded for a few seconds and continued loudly espousing the same viewpoint they’d had before I said anything.

The guy with the cart piled with boxes said, “America’s great! You’ve got Christians, and you can believe what you want!” (I’m not sure precisely what he was going for, but that’s what he said.)

The fat guy with the tee shirt, who waved his right hand around so spastically that I wondered for a moment if it was somehow connected by a misplaced tendon to his mouth, so that every word triggered a gesture, said, “F*&%^g companies can just steal anything! That’s all they do is steal! People here have been waiting five years for these (pick a profanity) to be punished, but nothing!”

I nodded and was about to start explaining the insane state of affairs surrounding the recent economic crisis, but momentarily blanked on the word “economy”, which is embarrassing because I’ve only used it a hundred-million times, and then the woman with the Darth Vader visor conducted her own mini-lecture on the ills of modern China, which touched on corporations, insurance, and food prices. Generally when there’s a grievance here, if you want to get a word in you have to be fast. Blank once, as I did, and you’ll find yourself buried under ten tons of linguistic avalanche snow with not a rescue dog in sight. The average person on the street knows there’s absolutely nothing he or she can do about any of the major problems in the country. There are no town meetings, no voting blocs, no outlets for anger, so when there’s a chance to yell, it’s seized greedily. Typically people vocalize spontaneously about everything, and eventually peter out like a hose that’s been cranked off at the tap and trickles to a stop. When visor-lady was done petering, a newcomer, in this case a young shirtless man whose jerky cigarette hand was the twin to the fat guy’s crazed gesturing, poked my shoulder and said, with a voice near shouting, “You don’t understand. China’s not like America. Our culture doesn’t work the way yours does. You’re free to do things when something goes wrong. Not us. We just have to sit by.”

At this point I just nodded and listened, letting them talk at each other until I felt like biking off. Then I smiled, thanked them for the conversation, was smiled at and thanked in return, and we went our separate ways. I don’t know if it was boilerplate capitalist decadence that I went to get coffee at MacDonald’s right afterward, but if so, it’s good to know I’m staying true to my roots.

It’s interesting at times to reflect on the universal presence of the Other in public discourse. Culture is a matter of perception, of course, and when it comes to crossing cultures, we typically see only what we want. In this case, the idea that Americans and American corporations can be just as petty, greedy, and small as the worst in China didn’t even reach the people standing about me. It isn’t even that they’ve read and studied United States history, or have friends who’ve gone there and can confirm or deny an impression; it’s more that the United States has become what they want China to be, which in this case is a land where all injustice is swiftly rebutted, and the average person has his or her hands firmly on the national wheel. I suspect the same thing is at work in America, which in its modern incarnation seems hell-bent on reducing itself to an endless series of replaceable, generic commercial zones. Thus the fascination with the “mystical East,” a place still dominated by Confucius, tai-ji, and mist-shrouded pagodas. (Incidentally, this would make any Chinese person laugh. I told one of my students yesterday that I was studying Zhuangzi, a classical philosopher, and she just laughed, the kind of laugh you might use if one of your friends said he was going to start commuting via pogo-stick.) If you’re bored with suburbia and the cavalcade of televised pointlessness that marks the average work week, the mere idea of a “mystical East” is enough to dispel the boredom. One of my favorite professors still includes quite a bit of pro-America rhetoric in his history classes, stressing, among other things, the uniqueness of our very democratic elections versus China’s dictatorial past and present, and the opportunities of the average person to participate in society. Early on in my tenure here, I asked one of my classmates why our professor was so excited about America, assuming that he’d spent years studying there in his youth. My classmate and I were eating lunch, and he paused with his chopsticks full of noodles raised in midair above his plate and smiled wryly. “Oh, he’s never been there,” came the response. “He just likes it.” Listen to one of this particular professor’s lectures on the travesty that was the 1937 Yen-An Conference, and you’ll understand a little more what might be motivating his ideology.

I wondered, as I sat in MacDonald’s studying Russian, where I fit in this equation. When you grow up moving all over the world, is every place an Other? Is life a neverending procession of Others? Personally, I think my own experience as a third-culture kid yields perhaps the most accurate view of the world. It can be dangerous never having roots anywhere, but it can also be dangerous having roots that go too deep, like the furious woman who protested against a social studies assignment at a school where I was substituting once, saying that having the students research where their ancestors came from was ridiculous because, “our ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War,” and so were pure-blooded American, with no hint of foreign-ness. I myself started off in China the way everyone else does: looking for the elusive Chinese aesthetic in classical poetry, talking with fruit-vendors and taxi-drivers in an effort to feel authentic, and behaving like an amateur anthropologist generally. Now I’m happy to talk to just about anyone, and then head to MacDonald’s for coffee afterward.

The Other is always there, but as I’m learning in my conversations about contemporary Chinese poetry, the only way to truly understand is to learn how to incorporate an Other’s input with your own. How that works, I don’t know, but I’ve got another year here to work on it.


2 Responses to There’s Propaganda. . .and Then There’s Propaganda

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. Kristin says:

    Oh Rob, how I’m missing China right now!


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