Pathways through the Modern World-System
“China has one big advantage over the United States,” launched our friend and collaborator Dan S. Wang, as a closing provocation to the audience of sociology students at Wuhan University. “That advantage is, Chinese people don’t believe in God.”
It might have sounded out of the blue, wild n’ crazy. But that declaration followed earlier remarks on the wave of protests that pitted social-democratic activists against a union-busting Republican governor in Wisconsin. In the US we have many reasons to link right-wing religiosity with an unreasoned drive to the endless accumulation of capital. Dan sees the next chapter of Wisconsin’s activism as concerted opposition to the Republican-mandated opening of taconite mining activities in the north of the state. He was aiming to suggest the possibility – and the reality – of intensified grassroots opposition to mining in China.
His remarks sent a surge of feeling through the crowd, a good way to open up the questions about the lecture on Continental Drift (pdf here). But after the public session was over, our new friend from the HomeShop group, Qu Ge, came up to take issue with Dan’s materialist hopes for China in the 21st century. What he said, as I heard it anyway, was basically this: The lack of any other spiritual belief only opens the floodgates to intense consumerism, the lust for profit, infinite corruption.
We made no collective reflection on this debate, except to echo it, to recount it to each other, to wonder what it could mean. And it kept echoing beneath the surface, as we moved from Wuhan to the Lijiang Studio run by Jay Brown and a family of Naxi farmers in Yunnan province, near Lijiang city, on the edge of the Himalaya in Southern China.
What can be done with a non-profit arts organization and a ten-year lease on a traditional housing compound in the Lashihai basin, surrounded by apple trees, fields of corn, peas, potatoes, cabbages and whatever else the farmers can grow on small plots with ox-drawn plows, animal fertilizer and lots of human labor? The still-unfolding answer lies in a series of collaborations between the organizers, the local family, visiting artists and residents of the area, mostly of the Naxi minority (pronounce “Nashee”) who have lived here forever and seen their lands transform into a major Chinese tourist destination. Our connection to Lijiang Studio came through Sarah Lewison and her son Duskin, who worked here on an ecological project “illuminating the solar economy,” with hands-on public research into the cycles of growth and decay, mostly involving mushroom cultivation and beer-making work that eventually culminated in the hilarious World Heritage Beer Garden Picnic. Via Sarah we met Jay Brown, a soft-spoken and extremely capable Chinese-speaking American who has moved from art historian to events organizer and quiet advocate of Naxi culture. Standing alongside a car out in the ruins of Detroit, we agreed it would be great to go together to China. That’s how this whole adventure began. And now, after our seemingly endless travels through the mega-gentrification of the coastal cities, after the industrial and commercial sprawl of Wuhan, we were finally going to reach a longed-for destination: the countryside.
Xuemei tending the peaches
No one expected utopia here, because we don’t believe in God either. The studio compound is three old wooden buildings redone for artists’ needs, with a twisted pine in the courtyard, Chinese and Tibetan characters on the walls, a few big leather chairs under a sheltering roof. Also lots of funky and fascinating books, artists’ works and sketches, and a wireless net connection. There is a kitchen, but except for morning coffee and tea almost all meals are eaten next door, with the He family who participate extensively in this very subtle. long-term project, aiming to foster experimental intersections among Chinese artists, foreign visitors and the diverse members of a highly original rural community.
It began raining soon after we arrived on the night train from Kunming, so we really appreciated that sheltering roof. During a break in the clouds Jay took us out to see the latest big project, what he calls “The Peach Paradise.” It consists in digging up and straightening a small river, lining its bed and a surrounding walkway with stone, then planting peach trees which the tourists will come to pick in bucolic surroundings beneath the blue sky, with the towering Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the distance. Puddles of mud, piles of rubble and construction materials were strewn over land that had been more or less expropriated from local villagers – with compensation, to be sure – leaving a commercial scar in the dense fabric of cultivated fields. The future peach-tree pathway aims straight at Lijiang Studio and beyond, towards the lake. The He family and their neighbors have resisted the logical extension of the project, for now anyway. The Chinese characters on the bright red signs proclaim: GRAB THE LAND AND ORGANIZE IT. BUILD A PEACH INDUSTRY. And on the other side: SPEED CONSTRUCTION OF A NEW SOCIALIST COUNTRYSIDE!
Back at the studio we started asking what we were really doing here, what our collaboration between Americans, Europeans, Chinese people and expats in China could mean. Communication is so uncertain! Could we somehow bring it all together, by focusing on this rural context? DSW recalled the image of the peach as a symbol of immortality in Chinese art and literature. Religion, even here, in the service of a consumerist dream. We started talking with Mai Dian, who had come with us from Wuhan, about the similarities and contrasts between the peach plantation and the Happy Valley development back on East Lake. Yet another land grab, for another phony paradise. Sarah brought up Benton Harbor, not far from Chicago, a black working-class city with heavy unemployment, which has recently come under emergency financial management. In Benton Harbor the Jean Klock park, ceded by its former owners to the people in perpetuity, has been partially expropriated for the construction of a golf course aimed at tourists and Whirlpool corp executives. The public trust betrayed, democratically. As we spoke from our different positions, a dialectical image was emerging between us. The peach as a transcendent symbol, a paradise just out of reach. The multiple amusement parks as instrumentalized utopias, tasteless cellulose in greedy hands. And the possibility of another pathway, a material and sensuous connection to the land and its fruits, in a world that includes both radiant life and bitter death without all the illusions…
Rain be damned! We grabbed some dry clothes, bought some rice and oil and a bottle of white lightning and piled into the seven-seater Iveco van for a long muddy trip to the village of Wu Mu, above the upper reaches of the Yangtze at the end of a cliff-clinging road. Forests, green terraces, vistas of mountains through the clouds. Sharp turns, deep ruts, impressive face-offs with big blue trucks that force you to do the backing up around the corner. And finally, frank relief and a big round of applause when Jay got us there in the drenching downpour at the fall of dark, without falling down any of those hundred precipitous slopes.
When I was young on a first trip to Thailand, gazing across the Mekong River to Laos and Burma (that’s the Golden Triangle), I dreamt of someday walking the hills beyond Kunming, among the “tribal peoples.” Dreams become realities! Clamber down the muddy path, clutch that cheap umbrella, try not to step on the sharpest stone. Down down down the wide uneven steps, beside the traditional houses, the tethered cattle, the peering faces, the guy in the thick woolen cape. At last we made it through the gate and instantly, such impressive generosity, we felt at home. Tea was offered, rooms were organized. A small crowd of locals gathered at He Jixian’s house where spirited exchanges ensued beneath the usual conditions of in-the-dark uncertainty, with food for all and home-made baijiu liquor that’s a lot stronger than your average continental drifter might expect. Whoah! Whoah! I can’t transcribe those drunken conversations, but let’s say the quest for international understanding took great leaps forward. And the head felt never better on the pillow, beneath the curving tiled roof, in the deep black of night, above the sleeping pigs that would come out snorting for some food at daybreak…
He Jixian is brilliant, energetic, inquisitive and capable – what Gramsci would have called an “organic intellectual,” but in a southern Chinese context that throws a new light on Gramsci’s “southern question” (concerning culture and regionality, domination and resistance). He Jixian is a young shaman who studies Naxi language and traditions, performs the dongba rituals, writes the forgotten characters, makes his own paper (plus the baijiu), goes to conferences all around China and still farms a few small plots of land, though without much inclination for it. After meeting Jay through the intermediary of an Italian artist, he turned up one day at Lijiang Studio with a map of water use in the village. That’s an immensely important subject, because water is scarce (you wouldn’t know it in the pouring rain) and each family’s irrigation is another’s drought, so all the decisions must be carefully collective. The debate extends to what you plant, when, how much, how the pipes and rivulets are maintained, so many vital details. The government has proposed its own plan, but it doesn’t stand a chance: the information is too complex and variable to be synthesized at a distance, too sensitive and vital to be entrusted to the the market. In fact the market is a danger for the village. One ambitious and enterprising villager wanted to plant an entire orchard of walnuts for sale, requiring intensive irrigation; he was dissuaded of this idea in a long village council. When people speak of upland autonomy or “the art of not being governed” (to quote a recent book by James C. Scott), that’s exactly what they mean. Jay’s collaboration with He Jixian, exploring local autonomy and looking for further prolongations, interrelations and cross-connections in Yunnan, in China and abroad, seems to be part of the deeper project of Lijiang Studio.
“Does this village have a center?” I asked no one in particular, as we rubbed our eyes, finished our instant coffee and got ready for a walk through the labyrinth. I thought there must be a temple, memories of the old days in India and Nepal. “It’s the basketball court,” answered Sarah quite sarcastically. Normally she would have been right: the government builds one everywhere, at disproportionate expense. But hardly had we snaked down a trail and crossed paths with a few wheat-laden horses when an arched entryway appeared before our eyes, decorated with what seemed to be images of Tibetan gods. Inside were more bright acrylic paintings on a clean white ground: a seated Buddha flanked by more protector dieties, and on the left, sacred blue mountains growing directly out of a boulder encrusted in the base of the wall. Such is the hybrid iconography of Naxi ritual, combining Tibetan and Taoist elements. We seemed to be in some kind of cultural space, in fact a village development center (paid for, we later learned, by money from the program for a New Socialist Countryside, which most villages can’t agree what to do with and just divide as pocket cash). We met the Communist Party secretary, who assured us that we were welcome, that all of this was at our disposal and that we could sleep here if we liked.
We admired those finely rendered images. The painter was there on the spot: he explained that these were the mountains of Hell, which the dead souls must traverse on their way to Paradise. No peach trees in sight! We walked up a few steps, where the unfinished toilet should have been. Here was another mural work, showing a frog inside the circle of the four directions, pierced by a metal-tipped arrow. The mischievous frog had just eaten a sacred Naxi text, so the villagers stabbed him in the stomach; water spurted from between his legs, blood gushed bright red from his mouth. Water, wood, metal, fire: the four elements. The rivers flowed from south to north, just as they do in this region. The painting was both a map and a local cosmology.
There was a beautiful kitchen along one side of the courtyard, with mats on a raised surface around a cooking fire; plus a schoolroom with a blackboard and TV, with two more meeting and sleeping rooms upstairs. What caught our eyes was the library. Lots of stuff in Chinese: literature, farming, kid’s books and an extraordinary set of ritual writings in Naxi script, with Chinese and English translations. Several dozens of meticulously bound volumes boxed in blue cases with gold lettering, printed by the People’s Publishing House of Yunnan Province, detailing the rituals for the worship of the heavens. It seems that after the Cultural Revolution, amid the rising tide of economic development, the far-sighted editor of these volumes saw that the Naxi culture might entirely disappear beneath the oncoming waves of prosperity. So he began the long task of gathering all the texts that still remained in the country, photographing the originals and transcribing them into phonetic script. Because so many of the sources had been found in Wu Mu, the publisher offered the full set of books in return. Here was a precious resource for He Jixian, in his quest to rediscover the disappearing Naxi culture and learn the dongba rituals.
Sarah began to interview him, through Jay’s intermediary. She wanted to know if the rituals contained anything about the relation to nature, any kinds of laws or guidelines. It turns out they did, yes, many specific things: not to kill snakes and frogs, not to eat any other than domestic animals, not to overgraze the mountains, and so forth. Then Sarah asked an even more interesting question. Each of these rituals was forged long ago, they come down as a tradition. Could a ritual be invented today? No, replied He Jixian. But they can be reinterpreted, clarified, adapted for our needs. This was the reason for studying and preserving the ancient culture.
It was a magic moment. What we were seeing was the preservation and reinvention of a cosmological map: a way to give order and meaning to the relations between human beings and their natural environment, a linguistic and artistic pathway through chaotic times. In Naxi writing a character becomes an image, an image becomes a character again. Codes lead outside themselves, signs grow into intensities of feeling. In this context culture is not a yoke of the past, a burden to be shaken off before achieving modernity. Instead it is a collection of fragments that point beyond themselves, toward the shaping of a whole, the survival of a new society. Life beyond the deluge of the modern world-system.
Of course a casual visitor cannot know what this map means, what it offers, what it delivers. But we had come to a site of subtle power, where we could see the unfolding and recreation of a cosmology in its elemental state of reinvention. Even more, we could begin to imagine what kind of place such a cosmological map could have in our own existence – if only we could discover and create one.
Three paintings adorn the He family courtyard, adjacent to Lijiang Studio. Mural paintings are common in local courtyards; but these were done by the brilliant young Chinese artist Hu Jiamin. The first, in a classical style, shows grandfather and grandmother He Shiyuan and He Shufen, seen from behind, gazing out over a lake toward the wispy fog of the Western Mountains. Dudu the dog stands beside them, along with the family horse; to the right, a pair of black-and-white cranes cross necks, as though tenderly embracing. A traditional village with fruit trees and farm plots extends toward the lake. We feel the idealized calm that pervaded, not the reality, but perhaps the imaginary of the older generation.
In the second panel, Er Ge and his wife and his wife Xuemei stand before the lake, looking us directly in the eye, radiant, in full realistic detail. We see a couple of boats, the leaping dog and the family cow mounted on Er Ge’s farm truck in the middle ground. The style is popular-impressionist. As if to insist on this poster-like style, the couple is portrayed on a billboard in the distance, like an advertisement for themselves. Three puppies lies curled on the ground, warmly obedient. The theme is success, health, tranquility, prosperity.
The portrait of the third generation is more troubling and strange. The two brothers, Jixing and Jiyu, look directly at us – indeed they stare intensely. The naturalism of the previous portrait has disappeared; the emphasis on their oversized heads suggests a new, far more cerebral culture. Beneath their colorful coats, both boys wear tee-shirts silkscreened by Sarah’s son Duskin, the American activist. Something about Jixing’s posture suggests the Chinese interpretations of hip-hop. Dudu cavorts behind them, her teeth bared in a kind of wild grin. Mushrooms dot the grass in the foreground, while between the boys are two tiny shells. Behind them, the lake seems to have morphed into a strange blue sea; jellyfish float in the air, their tentacles extended, like parachutists landing in a hallucinatory scene, except one is upside-down. The theme, I would say, is deterritorialization.
We are beginning to understand China’s rise on traditional and Maoist foundations; but how to see into the future world that will be the heritage of the third generation? While still in the village of Wu Mu, all of us continental drifters began reading a book that Sarah had brought, Minqi Li’s The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World-Economy (2008). Li, an economist, is an expatriate member of China’s New Left. With this new study of China he has made a decisive contribution to the theory of world-systems. In a chapter on “China and the Neoliberal Global Economy” he discusses the runaway industrial growth of the past ten years:
If the current level of investment is sustained for longer, it would leave China with a massive amount of excess production capacity that is far greater than what is needed to meet the final demand in the world market and far greater than what can be supported by the world supply of energy and raw materials. China would then be threatened with a major economic crisis. For the Chinese economy to be restructured on a more “sustainable” basis (from the point of view of sustaining capitalist accumulation), the Chinese economy must be reoriented towards domestic demand, and consumption must grow as a share of China’s GDP.
That’s the economist speaking, in a book written just before the global financial crisis and the multiplication of plans to increase internal consumption. But as Li knows very well, it’s not just whether more banknotes circulate among the population, but how, to what use and to what ends. The strong point of the book is to integrate the results of energy shortage, environmental decay and climate change directly into the political-economic picture. Much less is said, however, about the cultural consequences of hyper-capitalism.
We took a ride to Lijiang city, to send Stephanie and Ula off to the airport. Later we climbed the steps to the old Worker’s Palace, abandoned, decrepit, with garbage rotting in the strangely majestic halls that used to house the cultural service. In the distance one could see the sprawl of contemporary Lijiang, a vast expansion over the last fifteen years. The Naxi city – a “world heritage site” – was reduced to next to nothing, drowned in a wave of concrete.
Jay knows the back way to the hilltop of the old city. We wheeled up the narrow street in the van, then walked down the stone paths lined with “retonged” shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, almost all run by outsiders who know how to profit from tourism. Shocked, our American friend rediscovered the place he used to live in, an earlier incarnation of Lijiang Studio. Everything changes: old wood becomes new, walls fall, houses rise into the air, culture becomes real estate. The Yang family, old friends of Jay’s, still have a house where an artesian spring flows clear. Because of that spring, the house is considered a historical treasure, blocking any transformation for commerce (which seems pretty unusual). The orchids there are beautiful; bamboo wavers alongside the pools of pure water. The family’s love for this highly cultivated space is evident. They sell fine tea, somewhat informally, to make a living. However the noise from the bars is getting quite loud at night and they may finally be forced to leave, following all the others who make good money on their leases and have purchased their apartments on the outskirts of the new city.
That night we went over for dinner with a Lashihai family and began talking about what had happened. The man of the house was acidly critical; let’s just call him Lu Xun. When I asked what people thought today about the loss of the Naxi urban center, he replied: “Now they realize. At the time they just wanted the money. No one paid any attention. The corruption of the city government was tremendous.” The conversation turned to Wu Mu, to the pictographs and the dongba rituals. Lu was visibly interested – but as he said wistfully, “We don’t have that here.”
Later on we watched a DVD on that Sarah had found, unbelievably, in a used shop in Carbondale, on the reconstruction of Lijiang by the Global Heritage Fund. “They come to make a big project, but they don’t care what happens to the people. The project is just for their careers,” remarked Lu. Another video went up on the screen: a British documentary on cormorant fishing in Lashihai lake, obviously a total romantic farce, a fake. “Sometimes you don’t know why these things happen, but they happen, and you lose your self-respect in the process.” Doing things together, on the ground, in reality, was a way to preserve your dignity, he continued. That was what he hoped to pass on to his children.
There was something fresh, bracing, in the fact of talking about real problems through such vast cultural distances, through the intermediary of Jay’s translation. Could my questions have meaning for someone who had known the transition from utter poverty to hypercapitalism? Did Lu understand how I could feel implicated in these changes sweeping through, not just Lashihai, but the planetary space of the world economy?
The white liquor flowed, the meal ended. After a while, everyone talks politics. “The world is like a big cooking-pot, with Obama and Hu Jintao holding the handle of the spoon,” said Lu, laughing and gesturing. “They stir and stir and everyone is caught inside.”
“I feel like I was born in that pot,” I replied. “Just these last years I’ve been jumping out.”
“It boils and boils,” Lu said. “No one can escape.”
Does anyone know which one of us is right?