Friday, December 23, 2011

Hidden Stories Of Fujian

One of the things I love doing when travelling is finding little-known, obscure vestiges of history. Places that hark to a past that is not talked about, forgotten or, better yet, actively suppressed. I'm not really sure why, perhaps out of a desire to witness a truth that is being denied and thereby keeping it alive, or perhaps to satisfy my own curiosity about disputed pasts and to make up my own mind. Whatever the reason I am drawn to the forgotten stories, even though there is often little there to actually see. Some examples include the multitude of Armenian remains scattered throughout Turkey, many of which were actively destroyed, damaged or converted by successive regimes to deny, or at least reduce, a historical Armenian presence; or Palestinian towns within Israel that have been removed for the same reasons; Jewish remains within the Middle East or the Pale of Settlement where there had been communities for centuries but no longer today; or Communist-era follies in eastern Europe.

The Great Helmsman has a lot to answer for. The omnipresent cult of personality is gone, as is his Little Red Book (which is surprisingly difficult to come by in China, although, oddly enough, pretty easy in Hong Kong), though a number of statues still remain. This one in Fuzhou is one of the most conspicuous.

On my short jaunt up the coast from Hong Kong to Fuzhou, my last stop in China, I found a few such places that took me off the beaten tourist path and satisfied my curiosity for the purposefully neglected. The first was just outside a town called Shantou in eastern Guangdong. In a small, landscaped park, one of countless such parks dotted throughout China's towns and cities, is a small, pagoda-shaped building overlooking the park's man-made lake where rowing boats lie idle waiting for weekending locals. Inside the pagoda is China's only museum dedicated to the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, was perhaps the darkest period in China's modern history. Mao decided that the country was becoming too bourgeois and decided to purge the capitalist elements from society. The purges were vicious and internecine, involving groups of young, fanatical students known as the Red Guard who were notorious for their intransigence and zeal. In the end almost anything of cultural value was targetted: temples, shrines, palaces, old houses, statues as well as more intangible resources such as bookshops, the intelligentsia, theatres and the like. The purge was so effective that it created a real break between China's present and its past so that many Chinese traditions are now extinct on the Mainland and only exist in Chinese expat communities (see previous post).

Picture from the Cultural Revolution museum. Everything was in Chinese so I'm not exactly sure what it depicts, but I'm guessing Red Guards punishing bourgeois counter-revolutionary intelectuals. (If anyone can read Chinese I would be very grateful for a translation of the signs.)

Instead Mainland society today experiences a sort of limbo: their cultural heritage has been uprooted plus the country has undergone tectonic socio-economic changes over the past three decades. This dislocation has set society adrift without a collective moral compass. It's not that people are bad, it's just that civil interaction has become fractured. But this is the subject for an entire post, one which I hope to write soon. So on to my other hidden treasures.

Not really a hidden treasure, but the tulou roundhouses of Fujian are beautiful and I just had to put in a picture of one.

Further up the coast, between Xiamen and Fuzhou, is the easily-overlooked town of Jinjiang which is home to the world's only extant Manichaean temple (although now it has been converted to a Buddhist one). The Manichaean religion has been largely relegated to the dustbin of history, but this contemporary to Christianity was at one time one of the world's great religions and a direct competitor to Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. At its peak Manichaeism had followers stretching all the way from the British Isles to China. Of course the other religions didn't like this and Manichaeans were quickly persecuted out of existence in the West but managed to survive for longer in the East, where the last community disappeared some 500 years ago. And so when you enter the small temple, barely larger than a shed, sitting flush against the rock face of a hill overlooking town, you are greeted with the standard accoutrements of any other Buddhist temple (candles, incense, statuettes) with the standard carving of Buddha on the rear wall. But as you look closer the carved figure, although seated with crossed legs, is unlike any other Buddha you will find in China: the facial features are different and he has a halo of sunbeams.

The last carving of the prophet Mani preserved in situ in its original temple in Jinjiang. I would have loved to have been able to communicate with the old ladies thre and ask them whether they knew its significance, or whether any of the Manichaean thoughts survive in their religious practices and superstitions.

Jinjiang is almost a suburb of the port of Quanzhou. The city is the centre of sports shoe manufacture in China, producing fully 80% of the country's - and 20% of the world's - sports shoes. Despite the holes in my own shoes they still have a number of months left in them and so I wasn't town to pick up any footwear. Instead I was there to see if anything was left over from Zaytun, once the largest port in Yuan-era China (and perhaps the world). When Marco Polo passed through he said that it was "impossible to convey an idea of the concourse of merchants and the accumulation of goods, in this which is held to be one of the largest and most commodious ports in the world". Now, as we have experienced so often here in China, that past is almost nonexistent in the modern town, apart from a couple of temples, an old mosque built by Persian merchants almost a millennium ago and a Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of town.

All that is left of the 1000 year-old Arabic-Persian community mosque in Quanzhou (aka Zaytun). It doesn't look like much but it is blatantly not Chinese, which in itself is fascinating.

These spots may not have the awe or dazzle of the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors, but they help complete the story of China that I have, in my own little way, been piecing together for myself so that I can, hopefully, understand this vast country a little better.

1 comment:

karen he said...

The translation of signs in pics is Sanfanfenzi, which means Three Evils Corruption, Waste and Beaurucracy. They put cross on the name of the so-called convicted. We had Movement Against Three Evils and Five Evils.