A Note from Andrew Singer
Welcome 2021! Here's to a safer year than the one just completed. This month I share my New Year's Resolution and discuss China's forty-year success in poverty eradication. I close with a look into the Minneapolis Institute of Art and one of the most exciting pieces of Chinese art I have encountered. As always, I appreciate you joining me to Talk About China.
It is January. Time for a New Year’s Resolution: I want to continue to do my small part in 2021 to help stabilize the relationship between the American and Chinese people, if not also the American and Chinese governments.
Almost three out of four Americans now have a negative view of and reaction to China. This represents a more than doubling of such sentiment over the past fifteen years. This negative percentage is approached as well as exceeded in a number of countries (Australia, Japan, and many countries in Europe). On the flip side, less than half of the Chinese population now holds a favorable feeling towards America. In China, this majority negative feeling towards America also translates into strong, growing support for and trust in the Chinese Communist government and how it is leading China (see next section). Contrast this with America, where both trust and support in government have plummeted.
We live in a global world, and we have for more than two thousand years. This is not a bad thing and opens doors to many gains--in enhancing people’s lives and livelihoods, in promoting cultures, and in strengthening economies. It creates bonds. Yet all is far from rosy. There has been an explosive growth of technology, transportation, communication, and contact over the past half century which has exacerbated the ills that multilateralism creates. There have been and always will be winners and losers. The answer to finding a sustainable balance between the two is not to throw out the gains in an attempt to address the ills. Life, and world affairs for that matter, are not zero-sum games.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson recently wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in which he commented that “[w]e must reject the notion that we don’t benefit from an economic relationship with China. It is not unpatriotic to say this.”
China’s former Vice Finance Minister, Zhu Guangyao, recently stated during a China Institute of America Executive Summit that “both China and the US must make up the bridge that connects our two countries. Nationalism is not the way forward.”
At the same Executive Summit, Rick Snyder, the former Governor of Michigan, stated that “I think the best way to solve the competitive problems [between China and America] where we have issues is to show ‘coop-etition.’ You look at where the problems are and where the opportunities are. The more you understand someone the more likely you are to be able to solve the tougher issues.”
Each of these individuals is onto something, and it holds true equally for China as well as America. The relationship must be a two-way street. We do not have to support everything our respective governments do, either domestically or internationally. Some actions and inactions will be positive, others will be irritating, some will be abhorrent. The rise of nationalism and populism in both countries is real and dangerous. We need to collectively and individually strive to better understand, display a greater sensitivity to, and be willing to talk and deal with the other. I want to do my part.
China's Poverty Eradication Campaign
Why does a significant majority of China’s population support the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping? As with most things China, there are generally no questions with simple answers. However, in this case, consider this: the Party and the President have demonstrably improved the lives of China’s laobaixing, the common people. This group, encompassing many hundreds of millions of people, has better housing, more food, improved healthcare, expanded education, and stronger prospects for a more stable and enriched life for themselves and their families. Pretty potent reasons to be, on balance, quite satisfied.
The rural poverty eradication campaign is an example of how this has been achieved. Matt Chitwood spent two years living in deep rural Yunnan Province in China’s southwest and has recently been documenting his experience in writing (Foreign Affairs) and in talks (Washington State China Relations Council). He lived in a part of China where a dozen years ago (almost the second decade of the twenty-first century) forty percent of the population had no direct access to a paved road. He witnessed the massive allocation of human, financial, and logistical resources that were expended to tackle poverty.
China has eradicated extreme rural poverty as President Xi promised by implementing social welfare programs to provide basic needs (food and clothing) as well as access to basic medical care and education. Provision of safe housing and development of infrastructure have been emphasized. A census of the population led to creation of particularized plans to address each family and improve economic opportunities. Cash subsidies, low-interest loans, and collaboration between rural and urban areas were all parts of the campaign.
As one man (a farmer turned construction worker who became a friend) told Matt while sitting in his new concrete and tiled floor house, “’Three years ago, we didn’t have these nice houses…Now we have good places to live and health care,…Our living standard isn’t so high, but we can eat meat every day.’”
There are questions about how the government defines extreme poverty--it is a low bar and excludes urban poverty. There are concerns about mass relocations of people from isolated villages to dense housing blocks. There is hand-wringing about lack of self-determination and disruption to longstanding culture and tradition. There are doubts as to whether the efforts are sustainable. But a snapshot is undeniable. In 2012, there were still close to 100 million Chinese who were extremely poor and barely eked by. In 2020, this number reached 0. Even allowing for the numbers being off by a factor of a few million or more, this is a tremendous accomplishment.
While not part of the campaign, it is not just the rural population that has seen their lives lifted up since China re-opened to the world in the late 1970’s. Significant portions of China’s growing urban population (and this group now accounts for more than six out of every ten people in the country) are well off, enjoying higher standards of living with better prospects than their parents and grandparents.
In sum, 800 million Chinese have ascended out of dire poverty in four decades, and there are thriving middle and wealthy classes. Forty years ago, there were neither.
All of this builds trust and support. Trust in leadership. Trust in the wheels of government. Trust in the course and direction of the country. A willingness to accept an authoritarian society. It helps us understand why the majority of China’s vast population supports the government overall and does not really care what happens in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and elsewhere. It helps us understand why presidential term limits were not too long ago abolished from the Chinese Constitution, why President Xi has recently been identified as the core navigator and helmsman of Chinese leadership (the latter a term last associated with Mao Zedong), and why he and China’s leadership are strongly positioned to face the storm winds that will buffet the economy, technology, society, country, and international relations in the coming decades.
Chinese landscape painting is called shanshui, Mountains and Water. It is a specialized art form and reflects a traditional Daoist respect for and love of nature. Another related Chinese art form involves miniaturizing the natural world to capture its magic not only in gardens, but also indoors, for example, as depictions on brush pots, table screens, and vases on a scholar’s desk. Landscapes are also seen on carved boulders of lapis lazuli and jade, some medium size and some quite large. It is the latter I wish to discuss this month.
The Qianlong Emperor commissioned several monumental, shanshui-carved, nephrite jade boulders during the eighteenth-century. These works of art could take up to a decade to be completed--from transporting the rough stone from the far west in the then, newly-expanded, Manchu Chinese empire, to creating a suitable design meeting the Emperor’s exacting standards, to grinding and abrading and carving the incredibly hard jade stone to the desired landscape scene, to polishing and inscribing the final product, and ultimately to setting the finished work of art in an Imperial palace.
Only one of these gigantic boulders has left China, and it now resides in the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). This awesome piece is entitled, “Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavilion.” Carved circa 1784, the boulder measures two feet tall and weighs 640 pounds. Herbert Squires, the Secretary of the U.S. Legation in Peking from 1898 to 1901, brought the boulder back with him when he left that position. T.B. Walker, a Minnesota lumber baron, eventually purchased the boulder. For a while, it was the center piece of his dining room table. Mr. Walker eventually created a private museum for his art, and this piece decades later was transferred to MIA.
The scene on the boulder commemorates the Spring Purification Festival that took place on the third day of the third month in the year 353, at Mount Kuaiji in what is now Zhejiang Province in eastern China. The Lanting Pavilion is the Orchid Pavilion. Forty-two literati, including poets, writers, and other artists, gathered that day to compose poems and drink rice wine. The drinking cups they used for the “Floating Goblets” drinking game drift in the stream. When a cup came to a stop, the man closest along the shore had to down the cup and write a poem. In one recounting of the story, that man had to either down the cup or write a poem. It seems likely that in either event many of these creative souls were quite drunk that day. Of the forty-two men in attendance, twenty-six of them wound up writing thirty-seven poems. These poems were collected into a commemorative book.
The man in charge that day was Wang Xizhi. He was the governor of the region as well as one of China’s most famous calligraphers and poets. The Orchid Pavilion retreat was part of his property. When the day’s festivities were over, Wang went to the Small Orchid Pavilion and in one inebriated sitting wrote the Lanting Jixu, a preface to that book that has become more famous than the poems it introduced. Consisting of twenty-eight lines and 324 characters, the semi-cursive script is noted for being an exalted example of Chinese calligraphy. Although the original of Wang’s work is long lost, a number of copies in different mediums have been preserved. The characters inscribed at the top of the MIA jade boulder are Wang’s preface.
Lines three-six of the preface address the shanshui element. Patrick Siu translates these lines as:
“All the literati have finally arrived. Young and old ones have come together. Overlooking us are lofty mountains and steep peaks. Around us are dense wood and slender bamboos, as well as limpid swift stream flowing around which reflected the sunlight as it flowed past either side of the pavilion. Taking advantage of this, we sit by the stream drinking from wine cups which float gently on the water.”
Another translation by H.C. Chang is even more colorful:
“Young and old congregated, and there was a throng of men of distinction. Surrounding the pavilion were high hills with lofty peaks, luxuriant woods and tall bamboos. There was, moreover, a swirling, splashing stream, wonderfully clear, which curved round it like a ribbon, so that we seated ourselves along it in a drinking game, in which cups of wine were set afloat and drifted to those who sat downstream.”
The Lanting Pavilion boulder captures what the Chinese were seeking in the miniature landscape aesthetic. It is an expression of the world and an aspiration towards cultivating true inner peace, cultured sophistication, and a connection with nature.
Historical photos of old China can be found in the collections on Historical Photograph of China's website.
The LARB China Channel has published a list of the twelve best China Documentaries. The topics are serious, thought provoking, and windows into modern Chinese society. The Chinese Mayor explores many of the issues raised in the discussion of eradicating poverty above (in an urban setting). People's Republic of Desire has no English subtitles.