|West Lake, Hangzhou, Photograph LG|
In my restless attempts at sleep this week, half awake and half dreaming, scenes and encounters from my last three weeks in China have been re-enacted like snippets of film. Powerful images and compelling experiences, but I've been finding it hard to render them in words for some reason. I'm going to write a separate post about the art I've seen - and it was wonderful - and the artists I've met. This first piece post-China is an attempt to reconcile my conflicted feelings about this most recent trip. There are two things that I keep coming back to, that represent for me the complexity and contradictions of contemporary China, with all its excitement and adrenaline, beauty and astonishing inventiveness, resilience and pragmatism, and also its very deep unhealed scars.
The first thing is purely joyful: it's the delight I always experience in Chinese public parks and gardens, in every city I've been to. All of life takes place there, and every age group and almost every demographic is present. From the ubiquitous - and often much-maligned - dancing 'aunties' (and, really, how snobbish, sexist and ageist is much of the media attention focused on them!) to the ballroom dancers, kite-flyers, water calligraphers, card players, opera singers, tai ji quan practitioners, old men with caged birds, old ladies in wheel chairs, massed choirs, fan dancers, and doting grandparents with little children. There are pleasure boats on the lakes and the weirdly grotesque ride-on toys that are uniquely Chinese.
|Water calligrapher, West Lake, Hangzhou, photo LG|
|Singers in Jingshan Park, Beijing, photo LG|
|Hangzhou waltzing, Photo: LG|
|Hangzhou Waltzing, Photo: LG|
I'd gone to Guilin for a weekend, having always wanted to see the dramatic karst landscape that featured in so much Chinese painting, and to travel along the Li River. The landscape is certainly beautiful, but it would have been better to go twenty years ago, before mass tourism descended. I was prepared for this to some extent, but the reality was a bit of a shock; the hotel was a hideous processing factory for tour groups from far provinces, and I got food poisoning - for the first time ever in China. By the time I was sitting queasily at the airport I was quite keen to leave Guilin behind. Suddenly there was a commotion, and an uneasy stirring of the people all around me; I looked up to see three figures stumble past, surrounded by men in dark glasses and leather jackets. They were bent forward, shuffling, and it took me a moment to realise that they were blindfolded, their hands cuffed behind them. I was profoundly shocked, a feeling compounded by the realisation that their blindfolds were white surgical masks intended to be worn over nose and mouth, and by the casual brutality of the police who shoved them roughly through the airport. They were bent at the waist in attitudes of supplication reminiscent of Cultural Revolution photographs. I cannot get this image out of my mind.
I have almost deleted my description of the Guilin Airport incident several times now. It is obviously so out of keeping with the tone of this blog, which for years has recounted my experiences in China - the joyful, the amusing, the bewildering and the confusing nature of the encounters of just another laowai. One of my aims has always been to counter the schematically over-simplified view of China held by people who have never been there - and some who have - focused on the reporting of corruption and human rights abuses in the western press. I wanted to show that the reality of a vast country of 1.4 billion is far more complex than what we see in the media, and give a sense of the ordinariness of daily life. But what I saw that day was far from ordinary, and this brings me back once again to art. It is artists who draw our attention, in ways both subtle and profound, to dangerous truths, to the beauty, terror and absurdity of life. It is up to us to pay attention.
|From Guilin to Yangshuo on the Li Rover, Photo LG|