Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol 1., Issue 2
A Note from Andrew
Welcome back to the "Andrew Singer Talks About China" Newsletter!
This month there is an introduction to Chinese leader, Xi Jinping; a look back into Chinese history and at one of China's greatest paintings; and a section on the Chinese diaspora (in nineteenth century Australia).
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习近平主席. Chairman Xi Jinping, the leader of China. Who is he?
Mr. Xi is the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and the President of the State Government. A trifecta of power.
His dad was an early Communist Revolutionary during the time of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, though it was at times a rocky tenure. The young Xi Jinping (born 1953) grew up amongst power and thus has a strong lineage in the halls of the Chinese Communist Party. But even he got swept up as a young man during the Cultural Revolution and was sent to the countryside as were so many during that time. Specifically, the youngster Xi became a laborer on an agricultural commune in Shaanxi Province in 1969. He spent half a dozen years doing this before returning to Beijing. This is a link to a video (in Chinese) posted on Facebook by the Italian Sinologist Francesco Sisci in which a middle-aged Xi Jinping fondly reminisces about his earlier days in the Chinese countryside.
After his tour on the commune, Xi was fortunate to be able to attend university as they re-opened in the mid-1970’s. A scientist by education (chemical engineering), he was always destined to be a politician. As with many in high leadership in China, Mr. Xi rose up the ranks in various of China’s Provinces during his career. Hebei in the north (deputy party secretary), Fujian in the south (vice mayor and governor). Zhejiang along the east coast (party secretary). Finally, Shanghai (party secretary) before returning to Beijing. He has benefited from hard work, an astute political sense, and at times being in the right place at the right time.
Mr. Xi was Vice President of China for five years before rising to his leadership roles in 2012 and 2013. He has been an increasingly strong leader--crushing dissent, consolidating his hold, cracking down on the economy, re-asserting social control, shaping the country’s policies and positions. Term limits on his position were abolished in 2018 (his current term expires in 2023), and at the same time the nation’s constitution was amended to add Articles that support and strengthen his particular, centralized, retrenching brand of governance.
The Chinese have traditionally viewed their leader, their emperor, as connected with heaven. The word for emperor is 皇帝, huangdi. The first character is a grand, magnificent sovereign. The second character is also used in 上帝, shangdi, supreme being, god, imperial.
There is a saying in China that “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away,” 天高皇帝远.” An earlier version of this saying reflects China’s reverence of mountains as a high point connecting earth with heaven, “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away,” 山高皇帝远.”
This raises two questions. First, what does this saying mean? Second, what is the relationship between the emperor and heaven?
As to the first question, the saying is often used to reflect that the leader (central government) is far away and therefore holds less sway in far-flung places. It usually refers to someone not following the rules. These can be actions (or inactions) of minor import by individuals or of more significance by local governments. Of note here is that the saying linguistically and culturally connects the emperor and heaven (and representative sacred mountains) as rarified, as entities beyond the ordinary pale.
As to the second question, a Confucian book from the Han Dynasty some 2,000 years ago, the 白虎通, Baihutong,* discusses the interrelation between the emperor and heaven. “’Why is an emperor sometimes called the son of heaven and other times an emperor? When addressing the heavens, the emperor refers to himself as the son of heaven to demonstrate that he is serving the heavens under the heavenly mandate. When addressing his earthly subjects, he refers to himself as an emperor to proclaim his supreme title and the authority he has over them.’ In other words, the emperor abides by the will of heaven; the ruler of the world has been given the heavenly mandate to govern” (https://www.thinkchina.sg/tang-dynastys-wu-zetian-was-she-wise-emperor-or-did-she-ruin-country). In the Confucian worldview, this awesome power also comes with awesome responsibility.
*The name, Baihutong, translates as “White Tiger Pavilion” and refers to a gathering of officials and scholars at this place near the ancient capital of Luoyang in the first century A.D. Discussions were held to debate the Chinese Classics, philosophy, cosmology, and politics. It was effectively a precursor to the European Salon, only 1,500 years earlier (or was the Salon the successor to Chinese gatherings of old?).
(Photographs are from the Art of the Mountain Exhibit at the China Institute, New York City, 2019.)
China is not just in China. There has been a vibrant Chinese diaspora for centuries. Chinese people have spread throughout Southeast Asia for centuries. They have crossed the Pacific searching for the “Gold Mountain” in America. Today, they have a growing presence in Africa and South America. In times gone by, the impetus for leaving the Chinese homeland was often war, drought, and famine. Today, it is often educational and economic to get ahead.
Having just passed the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment that granted women the right to vote, here is an interesting story from Australia about a Chinese diaspora man who played a role in Australian women gaining their own right to vote eighteen years before American women.
Mei Quong Tart, later simply Quong Tart, emigrated to Australia from Southern China in 1859, at the age of nine. By the late nineteenth century, he was a successful businessman, philanthropist, and a progressive thinker looking out for the less well off. He operated several well-appointed tea rooms catering to women in Sydney. These rooms provided space outside the home for women to gather and discuss various issues of the day. One group to use Quong’s tea rooms was the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales, and his safe space gave them a base from which to organize their movement. After his early death, his English widow wrote that her husband “’had won from all classes, by his natural and genuine kindness, a character and name impossible to be bought for money.’”
One of the most famous Chinese paintings is the Qingming Shanghe Tu, a 900-year-old, Song Dynasty hand scroll by Zhang Zeduan. The generally-accepted translation of the name is “Along the River During the Qingming Festival;” however, Professor Valerie Hansen of Yale prefers one of the alternatives that have also been used, “Peace Reigns Over the River.”
The Qingming Shanghe Tu is only ten inches tall by more than seventeen feet long. In Museums, long and narrow hand scrolls such as these are typically presented all or mostly unrolled under glass. Spread open they are impressive. (The fifty-three-foot-long scroll pictured below is 10,000 Miles Along the Yangtze River by Wang Hui, 1699.) But this is not how such paintings were presented in ancient times. No, they were kept rolled up and taken out to be admired as desired. Unrolled slowly, scene by scene, the (idealized) panorama of ancient Chinese life slowly reveals itself in magnificent wonder. This is the sensation I had when watching Professor Hansen take us through the painting in this Youtube video.
She proceeds from right to left, beginning in the countryside before transitioning to the outer urban area of the ancient capital of Bianjing (Kaifeng in Central China), and finally through the city gates into the city itself. At 11:40 minutes in the video, we experience just one of many instances of Professor Hansen moving us up the river, scrolling her right hand in and her left hand out as the painting unfolds itself to us. At 18:30 minutes, we leave the river and move into a more populated area of the approaching city.
There are more than 800 people depicted in the painting, of which only about twenty are female. The many boats, the rainbow bridge, the cityscape, the restaurant owners and vendors and jailors, the peasants and well-to-do, they are each rendered with great care and incredible detail and grace.
The last emperor of China took the Song Dynasty original of the Qingming Shanghe Tu with him when he was kicked out of the Forbidden City in the early twentieth century. It came back into China’s hands (by purchase) at the end of World War II and is once again at the Forbidden City, now the Palace Museum.
The Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel is a rich resource for book reviews, essays, articles, the Barbarians at the Gate podcast, and more. Their newsletter on a myriad of things Chinese is worth following.
In case you missed it...
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