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December 09, 2005

Between Past and Future, New Photography and Video from China - Contemporary Chinese Art at the V&A: Christie Davies wonders how we will ever understand China and its culture when so few of us know its language

Posted by Christie Davies

Between Past and Future, New Photography and Video from China
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
15th September 2005 – 15th January 2006
Daily 10am - 5.45pm (Wednesdays until 10pm)

The remarkable economic progress of recent years in China since the introduction of market economics and the open door policy of linking China to the outside world has brought about a flourishing of experimental art.

The exhibits at the V & A are a curious mixture. Some are outstandingly insightful such as Huang Zhang's Family Tree 2001, showing society imprinting itself on an individual. First there is a photograph of a white Chinese face with a few Chinese characters painted on it. Then a sequence of eight more photographs, with more and more characters applied with a brush until the face is completely black. The shift is emphasised by subtly altering the lighting from using a bright light from a top corner to light that is merely reflected off the ink.

Many of the videos, some rooted in Chinese artistic tradition, exploit incongruity. It may be that they purport to be profound; however, many succeed rather at being fun. So, too, does Cang Xin's Communication Series No. 2, 1999. Fourteen successive photographs of the lower half of a face are dominated by a large downwardly protruding tongue that conceals the chin and licks and explores fourteen different objects including wood, paper, earth, a candle flame, match heads, a banknote and the head of a pigeon. Fressers of the world unite, you've only your chins to lose.

In Hong Hao's Spring Festival on River No. 7, 2000, a ten yards long facsimile of a twelfth century scroll showing Bianhong the Northern Sung capital has been turned into a collage by the addition of cut-out photographs of modern residents of Beijing, men in suits, golfers and naked ladies bathing.

The latter draw one's attention to the unobjectionably pornographic character of many of the other exhibits which involve sadomasochism, bondage, nakedness in public places and ambiguous sexual identities. In one video girls caught on a hidden camera congregate backstage in a karaoke club and escort bar to gossip and undress without inhibition and to chat to clients on their mobiles. Zhen Xu's Rainbow, 1998 shows someone's bare back being slapped by invisible hands leaving red prints until it is red all over, whereupon the tape starts all over again. It reminds one of Araki's much more blatant, though most engaging, exhibition Self, Life, Death at the Barbican, one based on "adult" photographs from Tokyo. Kinky Chinese art is catching up with that of Kinki Nippon.

The curators speak of the artists as grappling with China's sudden rush out of communist serfdom into the modern, urban world of capitalism but in fact they don't. But few of them grapple with a past dominated by Mao's thirty years of repressive, regressive tyranny. One is Zhen Gao and Qiang Gao's An Installation at Tiananman, 1995 a photograph of Mao's heroic picture taken from below, so that he is ironically foreshortened as if in a distorting mirror. Another is Qi Sheng's Memories (mother) 2000, Memories (Me) 2000, Memories (Mao) 2000. The artist left China in 1989. Before he left he cut off the little finger of his left hand. Here are three photographs of the palm and fingers of the dismembered hand each holding a photograph – his mother when young, himself as a small child in prole cap and Mao.

The curators do not seem to understand the full horror of what went before the present era of capitalist progress for in relation to another exhibit they speak of the contrast between:

the confident certainties of the revolutionary era with the lack of idealism in modern China.
One might just as well regret the passing of Deutschland erwache! and the descent to the bourgeois decency of present day Germany. Passionate youthful idealism whether Nazi, Marxist, Maoist or Islamist is a very horrid thing.

The same may be said of the comments on Yong Yang's Untitled Installations 1996-2004, pictures of the city of Shenzhen near Hong Kong that has grown in 20 years from a fishing village to a city of eight million with an average age of 25. Here are photos of its young people, obsessed with consumerism, fashion and the mass media. The curators describe these photos as showing:

the surface glamour of this prosperous city as well as its darker side.
Well if this is the darkest it gets, who cares? In Shenzhen the suicide rate of women aged 15-24 will be a quarter of what it is in rural China, where it is not only very high but also twice the Chinese suicide rate for rural males, something unknown in the West. Those who speak of the social disruption and exploitation involved in the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of China should reflect how truly awful life for women in rural China was. Forced marriages and literally backbreaking labour, particularly in rice growing areas, endless childbearing in the past, giving way later to enforced serial abortion. How much better off women are with the empty vulgarity of modern consumerism than in the ceaseless routines of greenist poverty and excremental farming.

The exhibition is a reminder not so much of how ignorant we all are of Chinese culture, history and social life but of how even more ignorant the next generation in Britain is going to be. Those at state schools already refuse to study subjects like physics because the early stages are tedious and unrewarding and indeed you cannot get physics teachers. How are they ever going to learn Chinese characters in order properly to interact with the citizens of what is already the world's fourth largest economy and will soon be the first?

Without basic literacy in Chinese how will they survive as adults in a bipolar world in which the other pole is China. How are they going to be able to trade with the world's largest trader? It would be perfectly possible for our most intelligent children to master Chinese at a young age much as youngsters in prep schools used to tackle ancient Greek successfully, so as to crawl through the difficult entrance to a sealed chimney of snobbery. That was pointless, indeed it undermined our effectiveness as a nation but it is worthwhile, indeed imperative for us to know Chinese. It will not happen because such a move would be condemned as "elitist" and our government prefers a steady decline into social justice. Learning for all means in practice learning for none.

Likewise New Labour's diversity is about pretending to a false and ill-informed concern for the daily trivia of inferior cultures and not a genuine understanding and admiration for the high culture of a distant but superior people. Yet how will we be able to deal with a resurgent Chinese people if we remain ignorant of their language, art, history and mores?

Professor Christie Davies has written about China and its neighbours for the Wall Street Journal (Asia) and the Straits Times. His shortly forthcoming book Dewi the Dragon published by Y Lolfa tells of the Chinese scientist Dr Mabel Wong who brings the Chinese dragon Mei-Kamlung to Britain to ensure the survival of the native dragons. You could call it an allegory.


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I am not sure what the next generation of Britons will do, but generations thereafter will learn Chinese or Hindi simply because otherwise their Chinese or Indian masters will choose not to pay them their daily bowl of rice. How long does anyone think that Britain can remain dominant with capital alone, but neither ideas nor values nor hard work?

Posted by: s masty at December 9, 2005 11:18 PM
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At last, an article where I can comment on something I really know about, instead of airing my opinions (but isn’t that – mainly – what blogs are for?) I refer to years of experience of teaching myself to speak, read, and write Chinese.

First, I must endorse the “start ’em young” approach. For one thing, it is always easier for youngsters to learn languages, provided the teaching methods are suitable to their age group. But in particular, learning to read Chinese characters fluently requires a younger brain than mine. When I try to read the Chinese dubbed text under a Japanese film, it’s too much like an older computer trying to cope with the massive later versions of software – it just can’t run fast enough.

Then there is the issue of spelling. When the standard Hanyupinyin romanization came out, it was met in this country with a lot of grumbling. Partly this was because people were used to the earlier Wade-Giles system, but in practice Pinyin is ten times easier. At other times it was simply annoyance, because some of the letters take different sound-values from what they have in English (although some people erroneously persist in pronouncing Beijing with a French ‘j’ rather than an English one). I remember when a secretary complained about ‘qiu’ not being spelt ‘qui’ – but why should the rest of the world have to conform to a peculiarity of the Latin language?

Learning the Chinese language is the best way of getting to know the country and the people: without something of the language, even going there you will find yourself separated by a Great Wall of incomprehension. It’s also a good way of disposing of what I might call ‘Orientalist’ (in the pejorative sense) garbage about Chinese culture, whether it is of the old-fashioned ‘Road to Hong Kong’ variety or the more modern ‘Tao of Pooh’ version. For which see danger + opportunity # crisis – How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray.

Finally, may I recommend all readers of this comment to learn some Chinese, and without hesitation I would recommend Colloquial Chinese by P.C. T'ung and D.E. Pollard from the London School of Oriental and African Studies. As one of the Amazon reviewers says, it’s a bit dated, but the references to ‘comrade’ and ‘commune’ give one a flavour of what one’s Chinese friends have been through.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 10, 2005 10:49 AM
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