Posted by: Mm | July 16, 2010

New patriotic ontologies take it to heart

In 1983, Zhang Mingmin sang about “his Chinese heart” (中国心), an allegedly unchangeable essence of Chineseness, that flew through his veins wherever and whenever he was (“无论何时无论何地”). The song that became an anthem of the new surge of Chinese patriotism, claimed that there is a permanent Chinese characteristic (pun intended) that relates a Chinese person – even if he/she was born elsewhere (就算生在他乡也改变不了) – to the emblema of Chinese motherland such as the Great Wall, Yangzi river, Huang shan or the Yellow river. In this song, xin, heart, is used as a locus of a person national identity. The other defining element is the supposedly Chinese blood flowing through this heart (流在心里的血) and that can’t be changed either.

Interestingly enough, this quite basic nationalist rhetoric mixes two different symbolic traditions. The use of the xin, heart, is quite classical, for the heart is understood by classical authors as the locus of the cognitive capacity, and not, as it is sometimes misunderstood, as the source of emotions. The heart, in classical terms, is also essentially connected to the idea of the inner nature, xing, the inborn quality of the person. An individual is defined by its xing, whether essentially inclined to good (e.g. in Meng Zi) or evil (e.g. in Xun Zi) and the nationalist rhetoric seems to imply that being a Chinese is an inborn characteristic, a cognitive capacity, that largely determines a Chinese person, regardless of passport or citizenship.

On the second level, Chineseness is linked to a person’s blood, namely, his physical composition, as xue is traditionally interpreted (血气) as linked to the person’s qi, his bodily composition. If we apply this questionable duality, we could speculate that the Chineseness of the Chinese, according to the ideas of this new patriotism, is defined  both on the level of bodily composition (形) and the mind (心). Apart from that, if we follow Zhang’s text, it is determined by tradition, ancestry, cultural and natural heritage.

Be it so, it is even more interesting to observe this patriotic ontology in relation to the new growing “occidentophily” or a more specific “europhily” in China. Interesting examples can be found in the discourse of the travel advertising. Most amusing specimen I could find is an ad for a new series of Europe travel tours (such as “11 countries in 15 days” ) with an alluring slogan: “寻觉你的欧洲之心!” (Get to feel your European heart!).

The picture in the background, a hybrid European skyline, a mixture of EU cities, is accentuated by a rock guitarist, British phone booth and a flying Gallic helmet. The most interesting part, however, is the slogan itself. If we read it together with the concept of the new nationalist “chinese heart”, does it mean that there is a European heart to be found within the hearts of the Chinese? The 18th century Figurists would gladly agree. Is the European heart, found while rushing with a camcorder from St. Peter’s to the Capitol, supposed to replace the originally present Chinese heart?  … What would a “heart attack” mean in this context?

Posted by: Mm | October 14, 2009

Charlie Chan is Swedish?

There’s a really amusing blog post I’d like to share, where Erik Ringmar writes about the true (Swedish) identity of Charlie Chan, the main character of the detective travel movies from the 20s and 30s.

Posted by: Mm | October 28, 2008

Thirty reasons to check on the historians

Doing some re-reading on Max Weber’s (irrational) perception of the supposedly irrational nature of the Asians I stumbled upon an interesting book by US author James M. Blaut. Eight Eurocentric Historians is a very lucid analysis of the eurocentric presumptions in the great renowned works of historians from Weber’s time on – apart from Weber he scrutinizes the work of Lynn White Jr., Robert Brenner, Eric L. Jones, Michael Mann, John A. Hall, Jared Diamond and David Landes. Showing the historians’ prejudice and stereotype about the world outside Europe, this book also indicates with sharp criticism that no academic orientation or political standpoint is safe from the disease of Eurocentrism.

The book impressively ends with a list of mis-assertions that historians (and others) use to justify the European primacy over the world, wittily called Thirty Reasons Why Europeans Are Better Than Everyone Else. Displaying admirable sense of irony Blaut thus presents a true checklist: a series of claims, presumptions and false truisms that fill the pages of history books in Europe and US from the primary school textbooks to the level of academic articles. A useful checklist for checking on the historians.

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Posted by: Mm | September 27, 2008

September 27th – October 4th

What do Lolita, 1984, The Communist Manifesto and Ulysses have in common? All of these books and many more, including such unsuspected examples as The 1001 Nights, have been banned – in different places, at different times and under different regimes.

In honor of the books that get forbidden, removed from shelves or even destroyed the American Library Association proclaimed the last week of September to be “The Banned Books Week”. Far from being just another expression of grudge and resentment against the narrow mindedness of government(s), the focus of this manifestation (and the activities it promotes) is first and foremost on the optimistic side of the story: the persistence of those banned books, the ingenuity of their hidden life and the variety of ways of finding their way to the readers.

Perhaps no government can brag to be totally immune to the virus of censorship. China is usually listed as one of the countries with the least freedom of speech, publication, print etc. And to a certain point it is definitely true: the Chinese General Administration of Press and Publication, the highest organ of printing censorship, is surprisingly thorough. Apart from the predictable suspicious sex-and-politics issues, the precisely defined list of “important topics” which deserve a closer scrutiny, includes even translations of classical texts into modern Chinese.

Nonetheless, it is in China, the country that gets the most blame for the severity of its censors, that we can find the most vivid example of the futility of the attempts to censor and ban books. According to a research, summarized at, the estimated ratio of illegal printing is as high as 60% of all books printed, which means that all banned books get printed, circulated and widely read.

An optimistic and inspiring piece of information.

Locations of visitors to this page

Posted by: Mm | September 2, 2008

Wellness Orientalism of the Lotophagi

After a month long travel through South-East Asia my belongings changed colour and appearance: my backpack turned gray with the dirt from travelling on the top of buses amidst chicken and bags of rice, the sandals, previously violet, obtained the rich red-brownish colour of the earth, and after trekking through a patch of jungle forest the pants got a pattern of brown splashes that wouldn’t wash away. With hair and skin dirty to match, despite my endless enthusiasm about the whole trip, “wellness” was probably the last expression that came to mind.

Coming back to Europe, however, I started to discover a new side to Asia that I had never really noticed before. For the cosmetic industry, “Asia” seems to be a symbol for a new trend in wellness craze. The idea that (after Mediterranean imagery was too worn out) Asia is the next terra incognita where the elixirs of beauty are found has spread from the luxury “Asian Spa” phenomena to the humblest level of cheap cosmetic products on the shelves of supermarkets. There are “Sunlit Siam Brown” and “Singapore Purple Skies” hair-dyes and nail polishes with bamboo (bends but doesn’t break), soy milk soaps and lotus lotions.

Today, for example, I had shower with something called “Asia Spa Soy milk and Cherry Blossoms Shower Gel” (sic).

The new orientalist construction of “Asian wellness” or “Asian beauty”, from the five-stars down to the budget level, seems to display a similar set of motives and ideas:

  1. Asia is a far-away place, perhaps even a single country, where Thai masseurs, Japanese sakura, Sichuan bamboo forests and Hong Kong urban chic live side to side.
  2. Asian women are all beautiful.
  3. Asia is ancient, along with the spiritual mysteries the “Asian” sages must have also discovered a remedy to erase the wrinkles and smooth the hair.
  4. In Asia, there are forests of bamboo, plantations of green tea (yes, it’s an antioxidant!), kilometers of silk, heaps of rice and (of course) millions of lotuses.
  5. These things look beautiful and they are painted in “Asian” paintings, so if we put them on our skin, we will become more beautiful as well.

Needless to say, this type of thinking has its inconsistencies. We could ask heretic questions such as: How do you put silk in a shampoo? Why do pandas have black circles under their eyes, if they only eat bamboo? … and so on.

But it is, however, much more interesting to see what role the “Orientals” get to play in this imagery. On the “Asia Looks” hair-dye boxes, there are photos of beautiful women in “Asian” haircuts who represent “asia looks”, but they are obviously not Asian themselves. In the commercials the local Asians are reduced to rice-field workers (with an obligatory sunset) and buddhist monks. In the Asian spa imagery the orientalist undertone is even more obvious. Asians are there to provide the “Asian wellness”, do gentle massages, sprinkle saunas with lotus blossoms etc.

It is after all called Asian Spa, not Spa for the Asians.

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Posted by: Mm | May 13, 2008

Adam Smith’s reminder

While watching with horror the reports about Sichuan earthquake, I found a surprising quote in the material I’m reading at the moment. It’s a bitter remark by Adam Smith, not a keen admirer of things Chinese, on the limited empathy of Europe when people “far away” are suffering:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. (Adam Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, 1759)

Not that far off from the fleetingness of the mediatic (and our own) attention of today’s reality.

Posted by: Mm | April 10, 2008

Shangri-la, the Orient as it once was

With all due condemnation of the unacceptable governmental policies in Tibet, once again it became clear that the narrative about Asian conflicts, however “real” and “contemporary” they may be, always remains in danger of falling into the trap of orientalist discourse. The headlines about the recent pro-Tibetan demonstrations in Tibet, other Chinese provinces and abroad often show serious symptoms of what might be called pragmatic orientalist mystification.

The situation and its causes are most often described in indisputable parameters: the Chinese occupation in early 50’s, 1959 uprising, the exile, the repression and finally, the aggressive demographic policies. All these issues should doubtlessly be addressed and the problems they caused are all too tragically real. The narrowness of the reports, however, can be seen in other aspects.

First, most reports fail to say anything specific about the Tibetan history before 1950, about the past of the Tibetan teocracy, its links with the political protectors, and finally about the involvement of European powers and their colonizing policies, including the delusional experiments conducted by the advocates of aryanism.Shangri-La as depicted on the first edition cover of Lost Horizon.

Secondly, they tend to resort to a stereotyped portrait of Tibet as a mystical homeland of spirituality, the Shangri-la of the European exoticist imagery. Shangri-la, a typical 1930’s fabrication by a British author James Hilton, represents an utopian society, undisturbed by the turmoils of the world and in its spiritual purity and serenity unspoiled by the allegedly materialistic “Western” values. Such a paradise needs to be inhabited by equally stereotyped people that live in an everlasting peace and harmony, a utopian image that in no reasonable framework can be ascribed to the dynamic past and present of Tibet and its people, or – for that matter – to any other “real” country on Earth.

Finally, what is most dangerous, this imagery serves as a cover for the lack of realistic analysis of what Tibet could become in the future. Instead of attempting to recreate the utopian version of pre-1950’s teocracy suited to the recreational aspirations of European and American spiritual tourists, the real issues of Tibetan future should be taken into account. What is the demographic, social and economic status of Tibetans inside and outside Tibet proper; what are the realistic options of its autonomy and its transformation into a modern society; who are the big players in the power struggle over Tibet today; and how can their interventions be prevented or at least balanced to the best possible outcome of the crisis. In solving questions like these, resorting to orientalist mystification can only do harm. After all, it’s Shangrilanians, not the Shangri-la that we should focus on.

Posted by: Mm | February 18, 2008

Orient moved to China (a quasi-empirical survey)

In the golden age of European Orientalism the taxonomy was admirably predictable. “West” was in Europe (preferably France or Britain), “East” was in the Middle East (pun intended) and beyond this feared Orient, in the hic-sunt-leones there was China. So much admired a century before, but now considered a decadent, aging and feeble empire, China did not seem to fit, as Said struggled to explain, the “typical” imagery of the Orient of the orientalist discourse.

Today, however, something seems to have changed. The Orient, according to the users of Flickr, on-line photo sharing application that reportedly contains more than 2 billion photos, has little to do with the lands where it used to be placed. A simple search for “Orient” in Flickr archives reveals shockingly unequivocal results.

Although Orient still prevails over Occident in the quantity of imagery it stimulates in a ratio of 96:1, the content of the orientalist imagery seems to have changed. The “clusters”, a Flickr system of organizing photos with similar topics, shows that photos of Orient cluster into three most prominent groups:

  • Asia, travel, China etc. (more than 96% of the “clustered” photos)
  • orient express etc. (3%)
  • mosques, islam etc. (5 (!) photos)

Only five pictures of the lands that used to be considered as “Orient” show that the orientalist imagery has greatly transformed. However, when search is done with the tag “Oriental”, it is obvious that some of the orientalist traits still cling on to the term “oriental”. A great majority of the images clustered under “oriental” portrays the prototype of the Oriental women, although they’re mostly Chinese:

  • Asian, Chinese, girl (62% of the clustered photos)
  • Shanghai, China, pearl (13%)
  • lily , flower, pink (11%)
  • Asia, travel, Thailand (14%)

To a great number of Flickr users “Orient” stands for East Asia and, more specifically, China, while “Oriental” mostly means East Asian (if we ignore the lilies and the Oriental Pearl tower) . The Orient has definitely moved.

Watch out for the next edition of 1001 Nights, it could just as well be set in Xi’an.

The all-embracing neurosis of Slovenian presidency of the EU reminded me of an interesting book by Mitja Velikonja, “Eurosis – A Critique of the New Eurocentrism” (2005), which analyses the types and functioning of the new discourse of Europeanism as it culminated at the time of Slovenian entry into the EU and spices it up with admirably amusing examples that illustrate the choice of the title.

in 2008 we can only agree on the term. Eurosis it surely is, and one could even argue that there are traces of some more serious diagnoses. Just check out the unbelievable imagery of the official Government portal for children and youth.

slo for youth

The giant with a club in the background is Martin Krpan, the protagonist of Fran Levstik‘s (1831-1887) story about an amazingly strong salt-smuggler who goes to Vienna and protects Viennese court from the uncivilised brute Brdavs (i. e. the Turkish invasion, cf. Baskar, 2000). The underlying symbolism of the choice of the imagery – two children accompanied by Martin Krpan staring into the EU sky – is quite obvious. Slovenia – a childish hero – will help European powers to keep the uncivilised Turks out of EU. Intercultural dialogue is, after all, one of the priorities of Slovenian EU presidency.

The academic term “Orientalism” has been around for decades. Yet, while academia mostly tries its best to find the way out of the complex puzzle of political corectness, in the everyday non-reflected usage not much has changed. Or so it seems.

One could expect that Facebook, the new boom in the world of Internet social networking facilities, would show the same symptoms of common everyday orientalist discourse. After all, it is nothing more than a sum total of the views and practices of a great number (over 60 mio) of individuals, although the younger population surely prevails.

A simple search in the main categories (categories are, as usually, indicative) shows that the idea of “Orient” is still very much present. The three categories of “pages”, “groups” and “applications” portray various views of the imaginary Orient, its peoples and things. Apart from the usual amount of fascination with oriental food and oriental girls, there is a series of commercial sites for Oriental restaurants, clubs/parties and wellness centres. But that could surely be expected.

Much more fascinating, however, is the amount of topics (especially in the “groups” section) which deal directly with the concept of Orient and the perception of Asia in Europe and US. The debates range from obvious jokes on the topic of the Asian immigrants (two contrasting versions of these jokes, Asian and anti-Asian are interesting to compare) to serious debates on the topic of Asianism in the contemporary world. Focusing on the correct use of terms (“Oriental is for the rugs“) or displaying a sense of irony (“half-Asian countries“) these debates reach far beyond the usual orientalist imagery that invaded Internet with downloadable Yijing oracles and good-fortune tattoos. They seem to address the issues of the Asianist and Orientalist practices in the everyday world of the Facebook users and open some questions on the future of these issues in the globalized social networks like this one.

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