Chinaland

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Small suburban temple near Tainan

Small suburban temple near Tainan

 

I’m staring at the temple with a new mix of emotions. Amazement, wonder, disappointment, disbelief and finally anger. I’m in Jiufen in northeastern Taiwan and this temple is like nothing I’ve seen in five months of travel across China. The entranceway pillars are carved from a single piece of stone with dragons and phoenixes that stand separate from, but still encircle the centre column. Every surface of wood that is part of the temple structure is carved delicately to present an overwhelming sensation for my eyes. The roof is adorned with more dragons, phoenixes and statues of immortals and gods. I keep looking back and forth across this astonishing piece of glorious art and architecture and feel my fist forming into a hard ball. I want to punch Chairman Mao in the head.

 

Carved stone pillars

Carved stone pillars in the same temple near Tainan

 

No really; I want to go find his preserved corpse, wherever they keep it, and lay some solid punches into it to try and get rid of this feeling. So I suppose you’re wondering what exactly has made me feel this way, but in order to explain that properly we’re going to have to track back to make some observations about tourist spots in mainland China. The first thing to point out is that the vast majority of places you might visit to see ‘ancient’ Chinese buildings, temples and tombs have been built sometime in the last twenty years. Of those that haven’t just been rebuilt, you’ll find at most the parts of the building made of stone are as they were. If there was some wooden component, it’s likely to have just been reconstructed as well. The parts of the Great Wall that most people go to visit near Beijing have largely been reconstructed in the same timeframe.

 

Date Stamped Bricks in Jingzhou

Date Stamped Bricks in Jingzhou

 

City walls in most places have been either partially or completely rebuilt to create new tourist spots that the Chinese government can charge you money to visit. You can routinely see dates stamped into the bricks from 1993 to 2005. The dates are in Chinese of course, but when you’re travelling with local couchsurfers, that provides no obstacle. All the stuff you see inside the Forbidden City isn’t in any way what was there when it was last inhabited by an emperor. All of that stuff is safely sitting in Taiwan in the National Palace Museum. Apparently, more recently, some of it is being lent back as a gesture of goodwill. It’s the biggest con since
someone sold the Eiffel tower five times to American businessmen.

So what does the Chinese government say about this? What can you discover reading all the information boards in English at the site, or by asking a guide? They will tell you it is the original building as it has been since the last official fire swept through it – which happens regularly to famous Chinese buildings. At some wooden pagodas, they will show you pictures of it before fire destroyed it in the 19th century. At the Yellow Crane tower in Wuhan they have the old building cap of three bronze balls that were ever so slightly half melted in the fire that destroyed it a couple of hundred years ago. So how do I know there’s a lie here? How can I say with such passionate abandon that you’re being conned? Because Mao did something truly terrible to his country forty years ago. He called it the Cultural Revolution; it should be called the Paranoid Dictator’s Cultural Genocide or PDCG for short.

So the part of this story most of us heard involves a little red book and a lot of people at universities being relocated to the countryside to work on farms. Mao says it’s about leveling society and re-educating these intellectual city dwellers on how the people of the country live and work. Anyone else would suggest it’s all about removing any possibility that someone intelligent and strong could gather people together to take over Mao’s position. This piece of Stalinist paranoia did guarantee Mao’s dictatorship until his death and set the country back about twenty years. Nobody in China even tries to defend it anymore, but nobody really wants to talk about it either. There is one thing they do talk about a little more though and that’s what happened to all the temples, pagodas and other ancient buildings. They were burned to the ground and even stone bases were torn to rubble.

 

Large Chinese temple in Kunming - Spot the differences

Large Chinese temple in Kunming - Spot the differences

 

There are interesting side notes you can discover at some places that always have this sentence attached,
“This building/statue/room/carving/artwork survived the cultural revolution because it was hidden or protected by someone.”
When you don’t see that notice, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be looking at something that has been rebuilt since. However, the rebuilding isn’t what is contributing to my current desire to land a few farmhouse punches to smash up Mao’s carefully preserved face. There’s more to it than that. There’s been a more recent wave of government activity across the country that I discovered by talking to locals and expats who’ve lived there more than a few years.

 

Picture booth in Xishuangbana - they're the same across the country

Picture booth in Xishuangbana - they're the same across the country

 

Apparently in the last five years the government went crazy on rating and developing tourist ‘scenic spots’ across the country. This has been predominantly to provide for the Chinese tourists who descend in hordes to spend a few days of leave somewhere outside home. Many of these have been famous natural locations in China for centuries, even millennia. Now they have walls and gates, bus parking, wooden walkways, toilets every few hundred metres, cafes, restaurants and an infinite number of souvenir shops. No, I mean it, there are people trying to sell you something at least every hundred metres through otherwise pristine mountains, valleys, forests and lakes. Then there’s the staff with new digital SLR cameras who will take a picture of you in this scenic spot and print it out on glossy paper and laminate it for you on the spot. There’s only one of these booths every five hundred metres.

 

Tibetan costume rental madness at Jiuzhaigou

Tibetan costume rental madness at Jiuzhaigou

 

Then you have the ‘local minority people’ who will rent you genuine imitation local minority costumes so you can pose for your glossy picture looking like someone’s grandma might have looked a hundred years ago on festival day. I often doubted the people renting those costumes were actually part of any local minority. The few times they spoke some English when I asked, the actual local minority proportion was about forty percent. Except in Tibet, where it was one hundred percent. The Chinese in Tibet wouldn’t do that work.

So now you have a picture of a Chinese tourist ‘scenic spot’. The same rules applied to buildings, temples and towers as to mountain walks and forest wanderings. So perhaps you’re beginning to see why an Australian being presented with this onslaught of pure fakeness might become increasingly frustrated. I think there are few more unaustralian things than blatant imitation being presented as real. That sort of thing starts fights. This still isn’t what pushed me over the edge in Taiwan, filling me with the desire to beat a corpse.

 

Emei Shan - Niuxin pavilion

Emei Shan - Niuxin pavilion

 

As much as I hate the layer of fakeness, the natural places are still uncompromisingly beautiful. The pathways and tour groups keep the destructive terrorists that are Chinese tourists from ruining it for future visitors. The costumes keep them distracted long enough for me to enjoy the beauty and calm of a lake over three thousand metres above sea level. The pagodas and temples are still richly decorated and often pieces of art in their own right. Or so I thought.

 

Taiwanese Temple Action

Taiwanese Temple Action

 

So that’s the thing that pushed me over the edge. In Taiwan, the temples have survived much longer and every one of them is an eyegasm. Even a small local temple in a small town off the side of the highway has more stunning design and artwork, love and care invested in it than the largest, most significant building on the mainland. Actually, there’s more time invested in love in these temples than you find in ninety percent of churches I’ve ever been in or seen. And these temples are to a heap of different gods, demigods, boddhisatvas and buddhas; everyone gets equal treatment in their glorification. So all I can think is all the time I wasted in buildings in mainland China that could have been replaced with a significantly more rewarding week in Taiwan. And then it hits me.

 

Taiwanese Temple Sky

Taiwanese Temple Sky

 

All these buildings I’m seeing in Taiwan used to be in China. There used to be a lot more of them, built on a grander scale by the finest architects and artists of the generation. From what I’m seeing here, the mainland versions would have been breathtaking. Unmissable. I’d be unable to tear myself away from them. And the very fact that I cant see them anymore comes down to the paranoid actions of one man. The man I now feel like rearranging with a cricket bat. I’d get the bat ready, then standing over his body I’d say,

“Chairman Mao, fuck you.”
WHACK.
“This is for what you did to your people.”
WHACK
“This is for what you did to your country.”
WHACK
“This is for what you did to your people and your country by destroying these cultural icons.”
WHACK
“And this….this is for…..no…this one isn’t for you.”

 

Taiwanese inner temple

Taiwanese inner temple

 

“Come here Chinese government. This is for rebuilding fake temples, tombs and mausoleums on a grand scale using the cheapest method possible.”

WHACK.

“And this is for not employing the artists, craftsmen and designers who could have returned them to their former glory.”

WHACK.

I guess you have to admit, the only reason they’ve done anything is they saw a business opportunity in tourism. The worst part about this is a new generation of Chinese people will believe this farce is all their ancestors were capable of producing. I’m glad Taiwan is out there to show the truth. So if you want to see a real Chinese temple or building, you know where to go…..but there’s one more thing.

“This is for turning your nation’s amazing culture, history and achievements into another fucking Disneyland.”

WHACK. WHACK. WHACK. WHACK.

Feels better already.

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8 comments to Chinaland

  • Liya

    Oh that’s why I didn’t wanna go to China, I felt it))))

  • Liya

    Oh that’s why I didn’t wanna go to China, I felt it))))

  • dhugalf

    Oh this isn’t any reason not to go to China… just visit the amazing national parks and enjoy the scenery… that is still incredibly beautiful and I think unmatched anywhere… other countries have different beautiful spots, China has a lot. Just dont go to China to look at buildings.

  • dhugalf

    Oh this isn’t any reason not to go to China… just visit the amazing national parks and enjoy the scenery… that is still incredibly beautiful and I think unmatched anywhere… other countries have different beautiful spots, China has a lot. Just dont go to China to look at buildings.

  • Dinant

    There are more countries where the past is brutalised by men or nature, think of disappeared cultures or the massive damage caused by WWII. We can’t blame nature and most of the men responsible for the other damage are dead. We can feel grief about all what is lost and it is very good that you point us at Taiwan where we can see how glorious China once was.
    Teaching in China last autumn I asked the students some questions about the time of the cultural revolution. They had no idea what really had happened – as far as we know – and did not care about it. They live in the present time and enjoy what they see even if it is fake.
    When China is developping itself in this tempo there will come the time that the more educated part of the population will learn more about the past of China. But as with all cultural things the mass will have no interest and will never know what they miss. And they will destroy again what they do not understand when they get the chance.
    For me there is so much history and there is so much interesting to see that I never ever have the possibilities to enjoy all what I want. And I can live with that.
    I cannot speak for others what they have to like or what they should preserve for the future.
    One of my uncles had a nice collection of different nails he found during his life. With all the different nails he had a catching story. I think he was the nail-expert of Holland. When there had been computers and internet he could have shared his wisdom with the whole world and thousands of people would have started this amazing hobby.
    My aunt did not like the cupboards with boxes of nails, she was not interested. When the old man died, the first thing she did was cleaning the house and throwing away all what she did not like. After that I did not recognize the inside of the old house. Very stilish it has become, pictures of the interior could be published in style magazines as showing a part of a nice living culture.
    But the old man including his nails was definitely gone.
    After sharing some of my thoughts about all this with her I saw she did really not understand what I meant. Looking at the troubled old face of my aunt I saw it had no use talking with her about these things…

    groetn,
    Dinant, Emmen, Holland

  • Dinant

    There are more countries where the past is brutalised by men or nature, think of disappeared cultures or the massive damage caused by WWII. We can’t blame nature and most of the men responsible for the other damage are dead. We can feel grief about all what is lost and it is very good that you point us at Taiwan where we can see how glorious China once was.
    Teaching in China last autumn I asked the students some questions about the time of the cultural revolution. They had no idea what really had happened – as far as we know – and did not care about it. They live in the present time and enjoy what they see even if it is fake.
    When China is developping itself in this tempo there will come the time that the more educated part of the population will learn more about the past of China. But as with all cultural things the mass will have no interest and will never know what they miss. And they will destroy again what they do not understand when they get the chance.
    For me there is so much history and there is so much interesting to see that I never ever have the possibilities to enjoy all what I want. And I can live with that.
    I cannot speak for others what they have to like or what they should preserve for the future.
    One of my uncles had a nice collection of different nails he found during his life. With all the different nails he had a catching story. I think he was the nail-expert of Holland. When there had been computers and internet he could have shared his wisdom with the whole world and thousands of people would have started this amazing hobby.
    My aunt did not like the cupboards with boxes of nails, she was not interested. When the old man died, the first thing she did was cleaning the house and throwing away all what she did not like. After that I did not recognize the inside of the old house. Very stilish it has become, pictures of the interior could be published in style magazines as showing a part of a nice living culture.
    But the old man including his nails was definitely gone.
    After sharing some of my thoughts about all this with her I saw she did really not understand what I meant. Looking at the troubled old face of my aunt I saw it had no use talking with her about these things…

    groetn,
    Dinant, Emmen, Holland

  • dhugalf

    The cultural revolution is largely hidden history to the chinese who didn’t live through it….and the ones who lived through it aren’t interested in reliving the memories… Letting it go and moving on is a good thing for the new generations, but forgetting that it happened and the massive toll it took is dangerous.

    “Those who do not learn their history are condemned to repeat it”

    China is still a country in the middle of phenomenal changes at every level of society and that story is still being written every day. As with any country the drive for ‘progress’ is relentless and keeping hold of history seems to be in the way of that progress… finding the balancing point is so hard and I dont think any country is perfect. Talking to young chinese people as often as I did, I’m filled more with hope. This is the first generation who are growing up with the idea that the government is not always right and the way things have been done is not necessarily the best way. From a culture more historically inclined to shut itself off from the outside world, this is a revelation in itself.

    Your story of your uncle is a wonderful example of how these things happen naturally every day… just not normally on a national scale…

    One country’s passion is another country’s waste of time.

  • dhugalf

    The cultural revolution is largely hidden history to the chinese who didn’t live through it….and the ones who lived through it aren’t interested in reliving the memories… Letting it go and moving on is a good thing for the new generations, but forgetting that it happened and the massive toll it took is dangerous.

    “Those who do not learn their history are condemned to repeat it”

    China is still a country in the middle of phenomenal changes at every level of society and that story is still being written every day. As with any country the drive for ‘progress’ is relentless and keeping hold of history seems to be in the way of that progress… finding the balancing point is so hard and I dont think any country is perfect. Talking to young chinese people as often as I did, I’m filled more with hope. This is the first generation who are growing up with the idea that the government is not always right and the way things have been done is not necessarily the best way. From a culture more historically inclined to shut itself off from the outside world, this is a revelation in itself.

    Your story of your uncle is a wonderful example of how these things happen naturally every day… just not normally on a national scale…

    One country’s passion is another country’s waste of time.

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