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Bookworm ’16: “Minority Matters: Focus on Ethnicity in Chinese Culture”

The ethnic minorities talk was probably the dark horse of the festival; at least for me. I was curious how it was going to be packaged, since there are 55 ethnic minorities in the country and one hour is hardly enough to touch on even a quarter of that.

As it were, the focus was on Tibetans, or rather Tibetan women, and Manchurians. This, I think, was a marvelous contrast, since the former is still very much an established culture within China, while the language and customs of the latter are in grave danger of dying out.

The speakers of the event were an array of highly fascinating people; to my surprise, Xinran reappeared and shared her experiences of working with minorities. Again very insightful and this time even more substantial compared to her talk the day earlier. The other speakers included Dolma, a young Tibetan woman, who studied gender issues among Tibetan society for her PhD, and Li Dan, a Manchurian, who is involved in NGO work to save the Manchurian language, culture and customs, for example by launching a typing system for smart phones. The moderator of the event, Jocelyn Ford, journalist and documentary filmmaker who produced “Nowhere to Call Home”, a look into the hardships of Tibetan women. I said it was a fascinating group of people, didn’t I?

The Plight of Tibetan Women

Dolma began her talk by explaining the Tibetan view of women and men, rooted in their religious beliefs, which said that women are often seen as evil spirits or demons. This is why they often wear such elaborate head wear; it is said to contain the women’s evil spirit.

The academic then went on to explain the three different types of Tibetan women she had identified during her studies. Traditonal Tibetan women, who live very repressed and difficult lives, often being excluded in some form or other from public life but accepting their fate. The second, and most tragic type are women who are unhappy at being discriminated against, but are stuck in their current position due to low education and resources. Sadly, especially this group of women is at risk; one of Dolma’s friends who belonged to this group of women committed suicide only weeks earlier, because she simply couldn’t see a way out of her misery. The final group is the one Dolma herself belongs to – women who have learned Mandarin and received higher education, who have consequently left their Tibetan surroundings and undergone further education somewhere else in China. I didn’t get a chance to ask, whether she would consider marrying a Tibetan, though I have a faint feeling the answer might be no.

The moderator of the event Jovelyn Ford, was also able to contribute her own experiences, as a documentary filmmaker showing the lives of Tibetan women. She chose this topic because, as she points out very rightly, minority women are often neglected in the media narrative, especially when it comes to Tibet, where Western headlines tend to focus more on the Dalai Lama and the Chinese as aggressors, and less on the more unpleasant aspects of the culture such as shocking gender inequality and mistreatment of women, many of whome are purposefully kept illiterate and experience domestic violence.

The Pride of Manchuria

Li Dan, the proud Manchurian, went on to outline the evolution of the Manchurian consciousness. The reason that the language and customs have almost entirely died out is that for the longest time being Manchurian in China could almost have been considered a kind of shame. Since the puppet state of Manchukuo was installed under the Japanese, the Manchurians were seen as traitors. As a result, to blend in better, in the past century many Manchurians would change their surnames to Han surnames. However, more recently there has been a shift in perception around Manchurian heritage; as it is associated with royalty, it is now carried with much more pride than in previous decades. As it is “in” to be Manchu, the minority culture is receiving a much needed push to survive and Li Dan’s efforts are part of that – definitely a worthy cause. He has launched an input system for the Manchurians language for smart phones (incidentally this made me discover that the Manchurian and Mongolian writing systems are very similar).


In terms of language preservation his talk revealed a curious difference between the areas with Manchurian residents and even Xinjiang with its Uighur minority, who retains a strong, separate identity from Han, and on the other hand Inner Mongolia. In Inner Mongolia, all signs in the public space, i.e. government buildings, road signs down to even the smallest restaurants, are all sign posted bilingually with both Mandarin simplified characters and Mongolian script. in fact, as I remember mentioning before, since the Mongolia, the country, discontinued use of traditional script in favour of the Russian cyrillic alphabet, China’s province of Inner Mongolia has become the only place in the world, where this form of writing can be found.

Neither in Xinjiang, nor in Northeastern China, the Manchu stronghold, are these languages being used on road signs or with vendors; only official government buildings continue, according to Li Dan, the bilingual approach. I cannot say for certain what the reasons for this discrepancy are; though Mr Li pointed out that bilingual signage in Inner Mongolia is required by law, so it is possible the law differs across the provines; a faily common occurrence.

Language and Culture Preservation

However, the presence of Mongolian characters does not actually mean the language is being preserved better than Manchu or Uyghur language; in fact probably the opposite is the case. Hardly any Mongolians Mr Li’s age can still speak fluent Mongolian, let alone read it, often leading us to bitterly joke that there is probably one person in Hohhot who can read the signs and they are the one making them for the entire city. Since there has been a fairly successful “assimilation” of a majority of Mongolians into Han culture, especially through inter-marriage, there are many mixed children in the area who weren’t taught about their heritage because it is not deemed “useful”. But even those “pure-blood” Mongolians whose parents belong to the minority and who speak the language in the home often do not develop the language enough to actively use it or pass it on; they might understand it but tend to reply in Mandarin. Often these young people are just as eager as the rest of us to leave their home towns and go and explore the world; mostly the Han-ethnicity, Mandarin-speaking, simplified-character using world, in which there is no space for their Mongolian heritage. It’s a sad reality and a real shame that, if nothing is done to stop this trend, probably this is the last century in which Inner Mongolia is home to “true descendants” of Ghengis Khan.

In terms of choice of language and lifestyle, what does in fact tend to happen is a fractioning of the minorities into two opposing camps; the conservative conservationists, who will only speak in their native tongue, i.e. Tibetan, Uyghur or Mongolian, and strictly follow their own culture and only socialise with members of their minority, and on the other side the liberal hybrids, who speak Mandarin and go to educational instituitons run by Han Chinese and socialise with people from different backgrounds. It is very common for members of the former group to accuse the latter of being traitors to their own culture and pandering to the Chinese imperialists. However, being able to speak the lingua franca tends to be the only way that members of these communities can persevere and be professionally succesful.

Naturally, when talking about preserving culture, one major factor is tourism. When asked whether minorities were in danger of truly dying out, XInran said she didn’t believe so at all, mainly because Chinese people love their food. But aside from the culinary aspect tourism has given the country’s minority cultures a double-edged push. For example, in Dolma’s hometown an entire block of fairly modern skyscrapers was torn down only a few years after construction to be replaced by lower architecture in the traditional Tibetan style. More interestingly, as soon as the tourists came the local authorities insisted that locals put Tibetan translations on the forefront of their stores, restaurants and hotels, no matter whether they wanted to or not. And more poignantly, in many cases there are grave typos and mistranslations in the language. But none of this matters to the tourists, both Han and international, who really just pop by to take a picture in traditional dress in front of exotic looking architecture with weird writing on the wall. (And, yes, I am also one of those silly tourists, I won’t pretend otherwise.)

Xinjiang; Ethnic Minority and Profiling

Moving on to the topic of Xinjiang, a hot topic if ever there was one, Li Dan shared an interesting “anecdote” for want of a better word, that was suprisingly and uncomfortably familiar. A French female friend of his got on a tour bus (possible destination Xinjiang, though I don’t remember) and initially felt that her fellow passengers, all Han Chinese, were treating her with distance and unease. It was not until one of them started engaging the young woman in conversation and she mentioned she was from France, that the entire bus gave a collective sigh of relief; they thought she was a Uyghur from Xinjiang. Probably a bit of background information is in order here. The Uyghur minority is descended from Turkic ancestors; hence they don’t acutally look Chinese at all but much closer to Europeans, especially from the Mediterranean. They are of muslim faith and are so ethnically different because the territory lies on the border of such countries as Kazakhstan, Kyrgizstan and Tajikistan.

Xinjiang literally means “New Frontier”, indicating that the territory has been a contested one for quite some time. The region was a vassal state in the distant past, but it was not until the 1830s that Han Chinese began to settle there. In the 1930’s a short lived Republic of East Turkestan was proclaimed but since the Chinese regained control, it has belonged to the PRC. Still the settling and intermingling that happened in Inner Mongolia did not occur in this region, and so the two ethnicities are still largely separate, there have been many violent clashes, and mostly there have been attacks by Uyghurs in other provinces of China, most notably a car driven into a crowd in Tian’anmen square a few years ago, that has given the ethnicity the classification of being terrorists. So, very similar to the experience of identifiably Muslims back in Europe being treated with fear and blanket suspicion, the same tends to happen in China.

Ironically, the minute the passengers on the bus discovered the young woman was French, their worries turned into excitement and passionate exclamations of welcome. This double standard, as Li Dan quite rightly pointed out, is very frustrating. Especially in the case of the Beijing attacks it has worrying ramifications, because when people thought the attacker was Han Chinese, reports Li Dan, there was an attempt to understand the reasons for their actions; had they been mistreated by institutions or faced personal tragedy? Yet, the minute media released information that the attackers were from Xinjiang province, so Li Dan, all these questions just stopped. The person became a one-dimensional terrorist, again revealing the different approach towards people of the mainstream Han versus especially the Uyghur minority.

The French girl’s episode resonated with me also, because I myself have often been mistaken for a Xinjianger, even by members of the ethnic minority themself. The most intense case so far was when I boarded a plane from Nanjing to Hohhot wearing a black scarf around my neck, a passenger went into a panic and kept asking the cabin crew if they had “checked my documents”. He was convinced I was going to blow up the plane. Sadly, he was behind me so I couldn’t see his face, or I might have shadily walked past him a couple of times. What it has taught me is that life is hard for Uyghurs, that’s for sure, in a country they don’t necessarily belong to, where they are treated as outsiders.

Bookworm Event Review

Puh, this turned into a rather long post; but there is just so much to say about minorities in China, although we have only touched upon four here. There are over 50 more out there, all with their own languages, traditions and struggles to create an identity that fits in both with tradition and modernity. It don’t think there is much to say about the talk in itself at all, it actually turned out to be one of my favourites of the entire festival.
I award this talk 5 out of 5 Aubergines.

Reads and Documentaries for this talk: Xinran’s “Sky Burial” and Jocelyn Ford’s “Nowhere to Call Home”

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Bookworm ’16: “Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-Child Generations” 

This post is part of my review of the Bookworm Literary Festival 2016.

So, Xinran’s track record is pretty impressive. Not least because she started out as a reporter in Nanjing, just like myself, I felt instantly drawn to her. I have to admit that only after my colleague was in awe when we discussed she was going to give a Bookworm talk, I picked up my first Xinran book, and now I will have to read them all.

Her stories give a voice to the marginalized in Chinese society and she manages to unlock secrets most of us journalists only ever imagine they could find; stories of the hardships of Tibetan women and those mothers who had to give up their baby girls or worse; and her latest book, a look at the one child generation, or the Little Emperors, as they are often half mockingly, half critically referred to.

The event was eye-opening and inspiring in many ways. Xinran’s outlook on life, or the one she presents to the public in any event, is incredibly positive and derived, according to her, from a Tibetan woman’s anecdote on how to view the world.

The story she tells is that the Tibetan woman explained in their culture if a young boy stubs his toe on a rock, rather than saying “poor boy”, the mother would tell him he should be honoured that the rock chose to cross his path; based on the practice of Buddhism.

I do think this sunny disposition and her incredible charm is how this charismatic woman has managed to dig up some of the most secret and tragic stories of China’s past, of abuse, neglect and even murder.

During her talk she touched upon a point that honestly brought me to tears. “Those German soldiers who murdered in the name of Hitler. They weren’t all believers. Some of them just needed to feed their families.” As a German with a heap of Nazi guilt hearing someone express this simple truth just really got to me. I cannot say that I face a lot of heat for being German nowadays at all; I really don’t. But somehow the way in which we talk about the Reich in Germany is very simplistic in that anything remotely related is bad, bad, bad. To have someone from the outside offer such a multifaceted and sympathetic view was incredibly unexpected.

Mr Li got to learn a little bit about himself as well. Both of us never really understood why he is, quite frankly, terrible at reading out loud. He is incredibly intelligent and speaks English fluently, but no matter in which language he will switch out entire verbs while reading. It was not until Xinran explained that his generation were never allowed to read out loud in class that he had an utter “aha” moment. He told me afterwards that when he was at home also, his mother would tell him to not read out loud because she couldn’t hear the TV if he did. I will bite my tongue about parenting at this point; she didn’t know any better.

But this is the power of Xinran, she manages to touch the people she speaks to in these profound ways. With a few simple words. She has a clarity paired with a compassion I have rarely seen in people.

She is not much about the figures but all about the heart. Personal stories of real people. And there is a place for that. It makes for an incredibly powerful narrative.

As much as she is an inspiring person; this review should really be about the event. Since “Buy me the Sky -The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-Child Generations” was the name of the event, I did expect the focus to be on her latest book and on the one-child topic; instead it was more of a tour of Xinran’s entire bibliography. This was interesting, yes, but I still would have preferred to learn more about the one-child generation; partly for very selfish reasons – I want to gain an insight into my husband.

The other slight criticism I had was regarding the following panel discussion. While I do agree with many of the narratives Xinran presents, her main argument is that the Chinese people have spiritually not yet caught up with their economic development. And for some reason, this seemed to be her answer to every single question paused by the audience, including whether the two-child policy will reverse the gains Chinese women have made in education under the one child policy as they didn’t lose out against male siblings, and a question by an actual Chinese orphan adopted by Americans about whether there is a place for her in China. Every answer seemed to be almost the same; probably in part a move of caution.

Overall it was a great event with some very interesting insights and truly touching.

 

I award this talk 4 out of 5 Aubergines.

Reads for this talk: Xinran’s entire body of work, mainly “Buy Me The Sky”, “Messages from an Unknown Chinese Mother”, “Sky Burial”.

Bookworm Literary Festival 2016 Review

Anyone who has spent a longer time in Beijing will probably have heard of the Bookworm Literary Festival. It has been running now for over a decade, providing insightful talks by authors and free thinkers in the English language. Thumbs up to the administration for allowing that such a talk take place especially considering the often sensitive issues that were touched upon spanning everything from Hong Kong to the One-Child Policy to LGBT rights. There was no shying away here as the panelists freely shared views both positive and negative of current Chinese and global issues. 

Now that the festival is over I would like to spend the next couple of days taking stock. I did go to eight events in total; big thanks at this point to Mr Li for one of my top two Valentine’s gifts ever! (It’s a tie between this and last year’s trip to Yangzhou).

It was a lot of talking on some very serious and important topics. Of course any review would be incomplete without a review system and so I have decided to give out aubergines instead of stars, simply because I can. And also because not having an Aubergine Award is a massive oversight of humanity. Each talk can get a maximum of five aubergines – that’s a lot of 地三鲜 (I’ll let you figure this one out for yourself).

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The Future of Hong Kong

I adore Hong Kong. My first trip took me to the glimmering, multi-cultural metropolis in 2010 and I have been back many times since. Even with my parents; and just like me, they thought it is one of the most stunning cities they have ever seen. That being said, the problems that are bubbling less and less under the surface and more and more like a volcano about to explode into angry fountains of lava are no secret.

Since the British handed the country to China almost 20 years ago, the situation has been progressively deteriorating as Cantonese-speaking locals feel their cultural identity and liberties are being threatened and curtailed. Countless incidents of people being identified as mainlanders behaving in a crude manner in public, often related to public urinating and defecating, have gone viral online as a method for some Hong Kongers to demonstrate how “uncivilized the mainlanders” are. The rift is only getting worse when mainland media have a field day with the bad, bad Hong Kongers who protest against and look down upon their “brothers and sisters” from across the border.

The situation is so bad, I literally had to drag Mr. Li to Hong Kong the first time around since he was convinced an army of angry Hong Kongers was going to lynch him and his mother and hang them out to roast like a Yong Kee goose. To his surprise and my utter relief, the trip was entirely uneventful and when I took him back to Hong Kong the second time round (for my long-awaited Disney trip), he had calmed down considerably.

That being said, recent events such as the Umbrella protests and the disappearing booksellers plus the revelation that the ¨free elections¨ promised to residents by 2017 are in fact not free at all give cause for worry. The talk on the future of HK, one of the first events during the Bookworm Literary Festival, did little to dispel those worries. It was however an absolutely fascinating talk.

I won´t quote the guest speakers, since it was made abundantly clear that they considered this a private event, but the overall atmosphere was rather of a doomsday nature, leaving one to conclude that the Matrix is a holiday at the beach compared to the possible future of the area. Especially the shock and realisation in light of the booksellers’ removal to the mainland (though there have been reports some of them have since returned home) that certain freedoms promised in the treaty of 97 were not being respected was a chilling wind amongst democratic thinkers in the city.

One interesting issue pointed out by an audience member was the increasing ¨politisation¨ of the academic environment. According to what they saw upon returning to Hg, the entire academia of the island has been swallowed up in the debate. They didn´t necessarily think this was a good thing but were shot down by the panelist at whom the question was directed. What I do find interesting though is the underlying question: if someone did not want to be involved in all these politics, they might find the academic environment taken over by political discourse to be a frustrating thing. Much like I remember a few acquaintances actually complaining about the Umbrella Movement on social media, deploring Joshua Wang to just stop bringing unrest to their society. It is a valid point I think in that the society has been divided – into those who fear the loss of human rights and democracy, those who support the Chinese government and those who just want to get the frick on with their lives and not be caught up in ¨politics¨. If you want no part of any anti-mainland movement, what do you do, if its everywhere you go? Especially when, if you ever dare voice any disagreement, you are so utterly shot down by both sides of the conflict.

 

I award this talk five out of five Aubergines.

Read for this event: Umbrellas in Bloom by Jasong Ng

Knocked-Up Abroad

The ¨Knocked-Up Abroad” talk was held as part of the Bookworm Literary Festival 2016 and came with an array of four fascinating panelists; three of which where married to locals just like myself. I actually dragged Mr. Li to the talk, making him one of a very few guys along a sea of women interesting in the experiences of reproducing and going through the Chinese medical system.

The women shared fascinating tales of cultural differences; the multi-talented author Ember Swift sharing excerpts from a new book to which she contributed and which was the namesake of the event, plus three more bloggers who have all been through bringing children into this world either in China or in their home countries.

There were at times entertaining, at times harrowing tales of cultural differences, of MILs tweaking nipples, of Chinese medical staff finding it difficult to deal with sorrow and, naturally, of split pants.

For me personally it was very inspiring to hear these women talk, a majority of which have similar cross-cultural relationships, in a way that it can prepare you – or maybe also scare you off entirely – for what it means to bring a child into a Chinese family.

I absolutely admire these women, even more so because two of them actually live in very remote Chinese locations, compared to which Hohhot would seem the height of internationalisation. I was saved from a grilling by Mr Li about why they can live in those places but I won’t agree to spend my life in glamorous Hohhot by the admission of one panelist that living in such a removed area did caused her to go into depression. That’s why, Mr. Li.

The final panelist presented a shocking story, which by now should have been posted online, about how she had to give birth to her dead twins in a Chinese hospital and the traumatic experience this was for her not only due to the tragic event but also due to the way medical professionals dealt with the situation.

I received some feedback from another audience member who was incidentally pregnant that she would have liked to be made aware of this content, as rather unsurprisingly, these are not the kind of stories an expecting mother really wants to hear, even less so if it is just sprung on her without prior warning. So, I guess a little feedback there for the Bookworm organizers to maybe check and make available any content that could be emotionally disturbing to listeners.

Overall though it was a very powerful event, that did exactly what it should in that it helped people gain an understanding of this most important of issues, carrying a child in a country that is not your own and how this affects the experience.

 

Knocked-Up Abroad gets 4 out of 5 Aubergines.

Read for this event: Knocked Up Abroad: Stories of Pregnancy, Birth, and Raising a Family in a Foreign Country