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 peices, 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.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sweeping Into Spring with the Qingming Festival

Ah, springtime: birds chirping, flowers blooming, children frolicking, and families burning money in the cemetery…  

Yes, the first springtime holiday in the Chinese calendar is Qingming Jie 清明節, which literally translates to the “Clear Brightness Festival” but may be more appropriately called “The Tomb-Sweeping Festival.” During this festival, Chinese people traditionally celebrate the renewed vitality of springtime by giving thanks to the previous generations who gave them life.

The fifteenth day after the Spring Equinox, which is April 5 in 2014, Chinese people all over the world will flock to cemeteries to pay respects to their ancestors and clean up their tombs or grave sites. Here in San Diego, many Chinese Americans gather at Mount Hope Cemetery where a section traditionally has been reserved for burying Chinese.

Previously, all of these remains would be removed and shipped back to China every ten or fifteen years, posthumously being returning them to their ancestral homes for reburial, but the communist government put an end to this practice in 1949. Traditionally, families would take an excursion to grave sites in the hills outside town, and in China today, millions of urban dwellers flood into buses and trains to return to the rural villages they once called home in order to honor of their ancestors. Then and now, Qingming Jie involves a return to the past and nature.

Some cultures recognize the dead with spooky autumn holidays like Halloween or Dia de los Muertos, when the dead are said to visit the living, but Qingming is a bright springtime holiday, when families pay a visit to the peaceful resting place of their bygone ancestors. In addition to solemn traditions like bowing before ancestors’ graves, clearing weeds and leaving fresh flowers, burning incense and simulated paper money, and making offerings of food, tea, and liquor, other Qingming festivities include typical springtime amusements like picnicking and kite-flying. This holiday is a chance for living and dead alike to enjoy family time in the countryside.

This holiday is  captured most famously in Zhang Zeduan’s 張擇端 (1085-1148) painting “Along the River During Qingming Festival” 清明上河圖. This masterpiece, which various painters copied over the next several centuries, displays the various classes of traditional China, from scholars in long robes and officials' caps to peasants bent under heavy loads in broad-brimmed hats, enjoying themselves and retreating to the countryside to enjoy the holiday. So much has changed since the time of the original painting and the Qing Dynasty 清朝 copy prepared by five painters in the courty of the Qianlong 乾隆 Emperor (1711-1799) seen here, but people still enjoy many of the same activities today. As the weather warms this spring, we and our sponsors at SDG&E urge you to turn off your electronics, get outside, enjoy the fresh air, and return to the simpler pleasures of our ancestors. You could pay respects to your own departed ancestors at a local cemetery, just take your living family for a walk in the park, or enjoy including fishing, boating, painting, or picnicking as Chinese painters depicted so long ago. Visiting graves honors those who came before, outdoor revelry entertains us in the present, and conserving energy shows respect to our descendants.