Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

 Two years ago, I spent the holiday season in Xining西寧, the capital of Qinghai 青海 Province. This city sits on the Tibetan plateau, over 1,000 miles from Beijing and the modern metropolises of China’s east coast. It is one of the last places on earth one would expect to find Christmas cheer, but it still manages to find its way there in the most unusual ways.

There are a surprising number of foreigners living in this city infused with Tibetan and Hui Muslim culture. They teach English, run coffee shops, or study Chinese or Tibetan language. Many are surreptitious Christian missionaries, but my unexpected encounters with Christmas had only the most tangential links with Christianity. If you think that Christmas in the U.S. has become too commercial and divorced from spirituality, perhaps the Chinese version that unapologetically celebrates commerce and generally ignores religion will make you feel a little better.

"Revolution is not a dinner party..." Mao Zedong
 During winter in Xining, and many other Chinese cities, the face of Santa Claus is everywhere. His disembodied head, with ample beard sprouting holiday trinkets, appears on virtually every shop window in Xining’s shopping district. Even a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant gets into the spirit. This chain nostalgically celebrates the ‘60s and ‘70s, when all Chinese lived on communes and ate out of one big pot, while conveniently ignoring the era’s strict dogmatism and suppression of any foreign, religious, traditional, or non-Maoist ideas. Santa Claus, a symbol of everything deemed evil during this period, decorates the glass doors that open onto a gold bust of Mao Zedong. I can just picture tourists fleeing in terror as the late chairman's body rolls over in its crystal coffin on display in Tiananmen 天安門 Square.

It's Chinese Christmas, Charlie Brown!
Santa is such a ubiquitous image that as a white man with a beard, I was often called “Santa Claus” or 聖誕老人, literally “Christmas Man.” Perhaps Mao would be comforted by the fact that I more often received the moniker of his personal favorite bearded white guy: Karl Marx.  

Of course, I never witnessed anyone masquerading as the father of Communism, but Chinese Santa Claus impersonators often make appearances at public wintertime events. To my knowledge, the strange American custom of having children pose for pictures on the lap of a strange man who works in a shopping mall has thus far not caught on in China, but Santas show up for all sorts of photo ops. I met a couple of Chinese Saint Nicks at the opening of a Snow and Ice Festival at a ski resort in the mountains outside Xining. They were hanging out with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, of course. While multiple Santas might cause confusion and heartbreak among American children, teams of Santas are par for the course in China.  

Little Santas on the way to the mall
Many Chinese children experience Christmas and other foreign novelties while learning basic facts about American culture in conjunction with study of the English language, a standard part of the curriculum for most Chinese public schools. During December, a foreign teacher asked me to fill in for her during her school’s Christmas field trip. I joined a crowd of elementary school students as they rode chartered buses to a shopping mall (where else?). On the way, I led them in singing “I wish you a Merry Christmas.” I tried to teach them the first verse (“Good tidings we bring…”), but they stubbornly continued singing the only words they had learned, “I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” After singing the same phrase hundreds, maybe thousands of times, we met their parents at a grocery store in the mall. There, they picked out items that they could name in English for their parents to buy. My job was to stand at the checkout and verify that they could correctly name their purchases. To these kids (or at least their teachers) speaking English and buying stuff was what Christmas was all about.   

I'm dreaming of a pink Christmas,
because white is the color of mourning.
However, Chinese Christmas is not just the modern American holiday with commercial characteristics emphasized and religious aspects excised. Some traditions are Chinese originals, as far as I know. A Chinese friend called me on Christmas, saying that he thought of me while eating an apple on Christmas Eve. No, there is no special connection between either of us and the fruit. They say that the word for Christmas Eve in Chinese (ping’an ye 平安夜 ("silent night") sounds like the word for apple (pingguo 蘋果). Maybe they are closer in Cantonese or some other dialect. Regardless, many stores sell apples in fancy wrappers in December for use as gifts. My friend mentioned eating an apple as if it was a timeless Christmas Eve tradition, not realizing that few Americans would recognize any connection between the two.

A Chinese New Year "tree"
with Christmas characteristics
There is even one unusual and mysterious aspect of Christmas that is omnipresent in Xining year round. Instead of leaving garbage cans on the curb for regularly scheduled collection, garbage trucks blare music over loudspeakers to alert people to bring out the trash. Every day in Xining, one can hear them coming from blocks away, blaring Jingle Bells, I Wish You a Merry Christmas, or Joy to the World. I guess foreign songs and public waste collection both share an association with modernity. And perhaps the upbeat tunes lend some cheer to the dirty job of waste collection, even though they are liable to cause hearing damage at the decibel levels used.  Or maybe this is a subtle effort by Communist hard-liners to associate foreign religions and capitalist excess with rubbish. 

Christmas is not a state-recognized holiday in China, and for most Chinese, the day itself comes and goes with little to no observances. In 2012, I went to dinner on Christmas night at a Tibetan restaurant with an American English teacher and some of her Tibetan friends. We talked and feasted and I sheepishly accepted a small gift from someone I just met, with nothing to give in exchange. The Chinese have a well-developed culture of gift-giving, which is not relegated to holidays, and this was neither the first nor the last time I felt guilty for being unable to adequately return a gift. But the one gift I vividly remember from that night was neither wrapped nor purchased, nor did I understand a word of it. A Tibetan girl who also felt sheepish because she had not brought a gift, sang us a Tibetan folk song that described her homeland, the different regions, customs, dialects, and people. It was simple, beautiful, and heartfelt, a perfect gift that you will not find in any mall or anywhere in the Western world. The only thing it shares with most conventional gifts is the fact that it was made in China.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Laobaixing 老百姓: What’s in a Name?

Perpetually Dazzled, an exhibit of paintings by Li Huai currently on display at the Chuang Archive and Learning Center includes eight pairs of portraits named with eight common surnames: Wang , Zhang  , Zhou , Hu , Cheng , Huang , Liu , and Zhao . More names are given to works painstakingly produced in the style of religious icons, but in these pieces, the space usually reserved for a sacred image is a murky field of blue and black. A series of “chandeliers” painted with Chinese ink, also features Chinese names, but this time they are written in Roman letters that form flecks of light emanating from a darkly luminous center. To better grasp this imagery, it is necessary to ponder the significance of Chinese surnames and the situation of the laobaixing 老百姓in modern Chinathe common people who are called the “old hundred surnames.” 

Legendarily, the ancestor of all Chinese people, Huangdi 皇帝, the Yellow Emperor, gave 14 surnames to his sons, and these became the origin of surnames in China. Emperors honored loyal vassals and heroic generals by granting them prestigious names. Peasants often took the name of local rulers, and others adopted names of the places in which they lived. Some new names emerged when “barbarian” names were transliterated from non-Chinese languages. Sometimes people had to adopt new surnames because their ancestral names shared characters with the emperor’s name, which no one was allowed to utter. A surname could denote a sense of belonging to the Chinese empire, to a geographic region, or to a village, many of which were (and some still are) made up of people who all share one surname. Thus, names represent power, signifying who is connected to the emperor and who is connected to the land.
Today, the term laobaixing 老百姓 or “old hundred surnames” is a common term used to refer to common people. This phrase is derived from a Song Dynasty 宋朝 (960-1279 CE) text called “Old Hundred Surnames” 百家姓 that consists of 411 surnames composed into a rhyming poem, beginning with Zhao , the Song emperors surname. Generations of young boys have memorized this text to learn basic Chinese characters. The text's name indicates that of all these names, 100 were by far the most common. Today, there are about 3,100 surnames in use, but 100 of them still account for 85% of the Chinese population. Thus, the term laobaixing is commonly used to indicate the “average Joe;” it distinguishes everyday citizens in contrast to the rich and powerful.

Conjuring an image of a simpler time when China could be reduced to a hundred families can be a unifying influence on Chinese society, but the term laobaixing also separates the average, everyday citizens from those in power. The granting of surnames is also a means of ordering and controlling the masses of laobaixing by tying them to a lineage, a class, and a location. The phrase laobaixing can indicate a simple, but wholesome “Joe Sixpack” or the unknown “John Doe,” but it also carries the connotation of dirty, unwashed, uneducated, and uncouth masses.
During the opening of Li Huai’s exhibit, a guest asked the artist why the faces in her work look dark and anguished, and the artist explained that they do not represent the well-groomed elites of Shanghai or Beijing, but the common laobaixing she met while traveling in rural Jiangxi 江西 Province.  She also explained that the vacant icons covered in gold leaf represent the spiritual vacuum left by the decline of Maoism. Chairman Mao dominated the life of all mainland Chinese during Li’s youth, but now China has passed into a gilded age of materialism, and there is no single figure to fill the space in such icons, except perhaps oneself, or the gold one craves.  Many visitors are surprised to see familiar Roman letters spelling out Chinese surnames on the chandeliers, and Li explained that she made this choice to represent the cosmopolitanism and modern aspirations prevalent among Chinese today, who study English, use English names, and love clothing festooned with Roman letters, just like Americans love Chinese character tattoos.
Li Huai captures names and images of the laobaixing in traditional Chinese ink, but in very nontraditional ways. Tying it all together is one black and white photograph of a doorway in a Chinese village. A scrap of propaganda art that still adheres to it is painted bright red. The work is entitled “There, there! 哪兒!哪兒!” evoking a tourist excitedly pointing out this nearly forgotten piece of history, a remnant of an era in which the laobaixing were simultaneously lionized rhetorically and victimized mercilessly. Today’s laobaixing are still struggling, but hopeful, irrevocably attached to the past, but inexorably striding into the future. 100 surnames still account for the vast majority of the Chinese populace, but what it means to be part of this mass is constantly changing.

Come see Li Huai’s art while you can! The exhibition closes on Dec. 6,2014.

Now, you can flex your power as a laobaixing by conserving energy and saving on your power bill. SDG&E’s new app allows you to monitor your daily energy use, view bills and make payments from your phone, and access up-to-date power outage information. Download it for free here:

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mosques of Xining: Constructing Chinese Muslim Identity

Originally built in 1380, Dongguan 東關Great Mosque mixes historic
Chinese features with a new Arab-style entrance hall built in the 1990s.
Whether they are centuries old or newly constructed, China’s mosques and Muslim tombs, gongbei 拱北, are often-overlooked architectural treasures that display a fascinating combination of traditional Chinese, Central Asian, and Arab styles. With sloping, tiled roofs, upturned eaves, and columns topped with interlocking brackets, many mosques are almost indistinguishable from Buddhist or Daoist temples. Others have onion-shaped domes and soaring minarets that look like they could have been airlifted out of Central Asia or the Middle East. Still others resemble Byzantine Christian churches or the fanciful castles of Disney’s magic kingdom. During my time in Xining 西, the capital of Qinghai Province青海省, I photographed thirty-eight different mosques within the city limits and countless more in my travels around the region. The various types of domes and minarets dotting the skyline not only add a diverse architectural flavor to the city, they also convey the long history and complex identity of Chinese Muslims.

Fu Qiang Xiang 副強巷 Mosque features the green-and-orange
style, pointed minarets flanking the prayer hall entrance,
and domed minarets at the prayer hall's back corners
and entrance to the mosque complex. 
Several distinctive architectural styles are evident within Xining alone, and then variety begins to increase outside the city, differences in regional types become more evident when one leaves Qinghai Province, and the mosques and tombs of Xinjiang 新疆 Uyghur Autonomous Region are too different to consider in this article. Only a few Xining mosques retain all of the original Chinese temple-style architecture that was once typical of Chinese mosques outside Xinjiiang. Many of these survived Maoist crusades against religion because they served as schools, factories, or meeting halls until religious practice became legal after 1978. In the early 1980s, Xining’s Muslims began building new mosques and resurrecting old ones, and this new construction began integrating features more typical of mosques in other countries.

Dong Guan's old and new minarets
Regardless of architectural style, minarets topped with crescent moons clearly identify mosque buildings. One minaret often towers over the entrance gate, or two may rise from either side. In addition, minarets usually emerge from either side of the prayer hall’s main entrance, or one minaret might mark each of the prayer hall’s four corners. Minarets usually consist of two, three, or four stories with one or two ambulatories from which a muezzin once would recite the call to prayer. Today’s minarets are mounted with loudspeakers that broadcast the voice of a student reciting the call inside one of the mosque buildings. Chinese-style minarets generally consist of several stacked pavilions supported by columns without walls and topped with a sloping Chinese-style roof. More recently built minarets often feature a semicircular or onion-shaped dome, which is often a miniature version of the large dome atop the prayer hall, reminiscent of mosques commonly found in south and central Asia. The newest minarets usually taper toward the top and feature a conical point, resembling the towers found in the mosques of Mecca and Medina.
Feng Huang Shan 鳳凰山 Gongbei is a Muslim tomb
originally built in the 1300s for a Sufi teacher from Yemen.
It was rebuilt in the 1980s and is currently being renovated.

Muslim tombs built to house Sufi masters resemble Chinese-style minarets, as the mausoleum towers feature upturned eaves and octagonal or hexagonal plans, but their Chinese-style roofs are rounded off into a steep dome. Solid walls make these towers more like pagodas than pavilion-style minarets, and they lack staircases, doors, or windows because they are made to house the dead, not offer views to the living. These gongbei and other structures built by Sufi brotherhoods generally adhere to traditional Chinese Islamic architecture, but the other sects of Xining prefer building styles more common to the Muslim world.

Built in 1896, Shuichengmen 水城門 Mosque, Xining’s finest
example of Chinese-style Islamic architecture,
served as a wire factory between 1958 and 1980.
Most Chinese mosques feature several buildings centered on a central courtyard in a style not unlike Chinese temples and common to mosques all over the world. Unlike temples, most mosques do not include a screen wall immediately behind the entrance gate, and instead of the many, interlocking courtyards common in large temples, they generally contain just one large courtyard where congregants gather and sometimes perform prayers when the prayer hall is full. To either side of this largest structure, several smaller buildings house classrooms, dormitories, the imam’s office, and his living quarters. The prayer hall usually sits opposite the entrance gate, often positioned at an angle in relation to ancillary buildings and city streets, so it is oriented to face Mecca.
Nanguan 南關Mosque is home to Xining’s most prestigious
young imam who helped raise funds to replace
a 1934 Chinese-style mosque with a new Arabic-style one.
Inscriptions in Arabic and sometimes Chinese calligraphy often decorate mosques inside and out, and the more ornate buildings include geometric patterns, scrollwork, vases, lotuses, peonies and other familiar Chinese motifs. But human and animal figures are absent due to a Quranic ban on depicting figures with eyes. In Xining, Chiang Kai-shek’s 蒋介石 calligraphy adorns the entrance to the oldest and largest mosque, and in Xi’an’s 西安oldest mosque, a Chinese translation of the entire Quran is carved into the prayer hall’s interior wooden walls. But some other mosque interiors are somber and bare, featuring only a digital clock displaying the time for each prayer and a simple niche in one wall to indicate the direction of Mecca.

Lian He Cun 聯合邨 Mosque was built in the 1980s
with Chinese-style minaret and miniature dome.
One could argue that more conventional Islamic architecture is gradually replacing Chinese-style mosques. There were some newly built Chinese-style mosques in rural areas, but all four of the mosques under construction in 2013 Xining were virtually indistinguishable from mosques of the Islamic world. Three of these had replaced older Chinese-style mosques. Just under half of the mosques in Xining still had prayer halls built in the Chinese style, but many of them more recently added minarets or other architectural features more typical of Islamic nations. Others still retain Chinese-style minarets, but feature oddly shaped domes constructed atop preexisting buildings. The largest and oldest mosque in town, Dongguan Great Mosque, is a prime example of this fusion as a new entrance hall was built in the 1990s to resemble Mecca's Masjid al-Hasam with a colonnaded front façade and large dome, but the old Chinese-style minarets and wooden prayer hall remain inside.
Yi Ke Yin 一顆印 Mosque features a white tile building
topped with an unusually wide, gray dome. 

Before Chinese Muslims began reproducing the mosques of the Islamic world, they experimented with creative combinations of traditional and modern Chinese and Islamic architecture. Mosques built in the ‘80s and ‘90s often feature the vertically aligned white tile façades and blue-tinted windows that began replacing drab Soviet-style architecture in all Chinese buildings during the early days of economic liberalization. This white color represents purity in both mosques and the white hats Muslim men, but most recently built mosques have replaced the no-longer-fashionable white tiles with somber gray or white plaster or stone.
Dingzi Lu 丁字路Mosque exhibits the typical
white tile, blue windows, and green dome
popular among mosques built in the 1990s.

 The domes of most mosques are green as it was Muhammad’s favorite color, but three mosques in Xining combine the conventional green and white palate with orange architectural features and geometric patterns to produce a colorful and ornate style that seems to be unique to the region around Xining. A decorative orange-tile cornice stretches across the front façade of these mosques, possibly a local interpretation of muqarnas, a type of decorative molding often found in Iranian mosques that may represent the stalactites of the cave in which the Quran was first revealed. Sadly, one of the best examples of this type will soon be demolished and replaced with a standard Arab-style mosque.
Built in 1996, Xin Cun 新邨 Mosque, the best example of the
ornate orange-and-green style, is slated to be destroyed
to make way for the Xining-Xinjiang high-speed rail line.

These mosques, built with congregants’ donations, are not only monuments to the increasing religiosity and economic resources among Chinese Muslims, they also represent changing perceptions of modernity and identity. Tracking the evolution of mosque architecture over time reveals a constant negotiation among the historical legacies of Chinese ethnicity, aspirations to a universal religious identity, and creative local interpretations. 

Shui Cheng Men, Dong Guan, and a few other
mosques feature festive lights at night.