an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘China

women and power: China

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Members of the ‘feminist five’ take part in a 2012 protest against domestic violence in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Media Monitor for Women Network.

Jacinta: We missed the boat with International Women’s Day, 10 days ago as we start this post, because of some unfortunate personal events, but of course any time is a good time to write about women and power. I’ve marked the day in a little way by reading a book, Betraying Big Brother, by Leta Hong Fincher, about the uphill struggle feminists face in both defying and positively influencing the increasingly repressive macho dictatorship/oligarchy in China. So I want to talk about events there, and then maybe we can go on to talk about the global picture.

Canto: Yes, am I right in saying there’s never been a woman on the politburo?

Jacinta: Well I won’t go into the details of China’s political system here, but if you’re talking about the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which currently has seven members (the numbers have ranged from five to eleven), you’re right. The Politburo itself is a larger body, but female representation there and in the Communist Party is depressingly small – and it gets worse the further up the tree you climb. But I want to talk about the regular harassment of feminist activists, who by western standards are by no means extreme, and what it says about China’s all-male leaders and their weird attitudes. Betraying Big Brother tells a depressing but also inspiring story which centres around the arrest of five women as a result of events commemorating International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2015. The story gives us a glimpse into the power elite’s obsessions as well as how it tries to maintain power and why.

Canto: I think you mean ‘succeeds in maintaining power’. The ‘power elite’ as you call it seems to have, for the time being, forced down any threat of democratisation, and to have managed a lot of modernisation and a great deal of capitalist enterprise while actually tightening its stranglehold on power.

Jacinta: Well yes, but I try to be optimistic and to look to the long term. The Chinese diaspora, from which Betraying Big Brother springs, is one source of hope for the future. The five arrested women, Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan and Wang Man, were planning to hand out material protesting sexual harassment – on public transport – as part of IWD. They chose this issue – such harassment is apparently a real problem in China – precisely because it seemed less controversial than other issues confronting women. Nevertheless they were arrested – three in Beijing and in two other cities – for ‘creating a disturbance’.

Canto: The same term used by the Israeli government whenever any protests occur about the mistreatment of Palestinians.

Jacinta: However, the timing of these arrests, coinciding with IWD and with ‘preparations for Chinese president Xi Jinping to cohost a UN summit on women’s rights in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of Beijing’s World Conference on Women’*, couldn’t have been worse for the Chinese government. There was an international outcry, suffused with mockery, and we know how macho thugs hate being mocked.

Canto: Even more than they hate being told what to do? By women?

Jacinta: Well they released the women within a month, make of that what you will. It was probably due to international pressure. Saving face. But what I learned most from this story was how the Chinese dictatorship harasses its subjects in subtle and not so subtle ways. These women and many of their associates are now under constant surveillance, and receive regular visits from party sycophants checking their activities. These thugs harass the feminists’ parents, scolding them for not controlling their ‘little girls’. They harass their employers, their teachers, their associates. They insist that they’re the dupes of ‘hostile foreign forces’, a favourite and very telling phrase, worthy of an entire separate post. And yet this clamp-down has backfired, to an extent. The feminist five were unknown before their arrest, now they’re the Famous Five – but only in a small way, and more overseas than in China itself, due to their government’s overwhelming control of social and other media.

Canto: So why is the Chinese government so afraid of feminism? I get that it’s an all-male government, but women’s education is well supported there, and the Chinese women I’ve met – granted that they’re outside of China – seem pretty strong-minded and outspoken, if just as politically naive as their male counterparts (granted that I meet mostly young students). You’d think the government would have other priorities, and if there’s a real problem with sexual harassment, shouldn’t they support these women for highlighting the problem?

Jacinta: The Chinese leadership is obsessed with total control – they’ve sold their soul for it. At the moment, apparently, they’re trying to turn women into breeders. The one-child policy, their once-proud piece of social engineering, is currently seen as disastrous, so they’ve switched to a two-child policy, but women aren’t buying into it. So maybe that’s why there’s a bit of a war on women at present.

Canto: So if ‘sexual harassment’ leads to more women getting pregnant that’s a good thing? Yuk!

Jacinta: Well I don’t think it’s quite that crass, but they hate the idea of any decision coming from below rather than above. So they crush any ‘dissent’, take note of the complaint, and then act on it months or years later if they feel it’s in their interest. For example, last year they enacted a domestic violence law for the first time, and I’d like to think that feminist pressure, no doubt thoroughly suppressed over the years, has influenced that decision.

Canto: Not to mention hostile foreign forces, haha.

Jacinta: But they haven’t actually criminalised DV. It’s treated as a civil offence. Nor do they have any law criminalising marital rape – one of only ten countries in that category. And rape can lead to pregnancy, after all.

Canto: Why are they so obsessed with engineering the nation’s population? Imagine an Australian, or any other western government trying to do that. They’d be instantly ousted.

Jacinta: Maybe, but clearly this kind of social engineering has become more acceptable to the Chinese. Of course they’ve created different rules for the Han Chinese than for the Uyghur of north-west China and other minorities, a not-too subtle form of discrimination. There have been rumours, though, that the government plans to give up on child-control policies. That would be a good thing. Governments need to just deal with the decisions of their citizens. Currently, women are being forced to retire early (in China). This would force them into dependence on their husbands, if they have one. It just doesn’t accord with the fact that women there are more highly educated than ever before, and form an increasing percentage of the workforce. The Chinese are producing more and more of a particular resource – female competence, skill and know-how – and refusing to utilise it effectively. Then again, that doesn’t make China very much different from other countries…

Canto: But getting back to that one child/two child policy stuff, which really intrigues me – they’re trying to get their economy right for the future. Ageing population is bad, that’s the mantra. And yet, modern economies are changing. It’s more brain than brawn nowadays, more geared, arguably, to an older, more experienced and knowledgable population. And people in retirement don’t all sit and watch TV. They’re active members of the community, active within families, they spend money on travel and so forth.

Jacinta: Yes, but this sign that they might give up on social control in one area, the production of children, is a positive. They might recognise that trying to control other things like workforce participation might backfire on them. They don’t want to be blamed for things going wrong. In Australia, it’s not about forced retirement, but availability of the pension – it might be like that for China too. And that has been complicated by the rise of superannuation.

Canto: In any case, I don’t see any great changes, in a more liberal direction, as long as their current dictator holds the reins. And with the government’s firm control over social media, demonstrations like the one pictured above will continue to be sad, solitary affairs.

Jacinta: But they’ll continue to be staged, there will still be brave, self-sacrificing women, and they’ll continue to be supported, in China and overseas, in all sorts of hidden and not so hidden ways. They have right on their side after all.


Written by stewart henderson

March 24, 2019 at 9:54 am

some thoughts on the importance of nations

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America – the most important country in the world (Fareed Zacharia)

There have been many most important countries in the world throughout human history. Usually self-styled. They become important through economic and military success. And they think, everyone of them, that this success gives them moral authority. This is the fundamental error of every powerful state in history, so tedious to relate. The fact is that Americans are no way morally superior to Mexicans, Australians or Koreans, or whoever. Every country, or state, or tribe, is full of individual humans striving equally to thrive – like every other life form.

If you believe, however, that you’re a member of the most important country in the world, that may play on your mind a little. It may move you, just a little, to believe, just a little, that you’re just a little more important than people from less important countries.

What does it mean though, to be more important? Is it about power? We can think of an elephant being a more powerful animal than a squirrel, but does that make her more important?

Maybe importance can be measured by imagining the country, or animal, not existing. If the USA, and all its people, disappeared tomorrow, that would have a much bigger impact than if, say, Fiji and all its people disappeared, and presumably not just because this compares 325 million with less than one million. A better comparison would be between the USA and China or India. Both these countries have more people than the USA but are less important, according to Zacharia. 

I’m guessing that Zacharia’s presumably offhand description of US importance has mostly to do with that country’s impact on the world. This surely gets to the nub of the matter. But this surely has no moral dimension. I’m not sure whether Zacharia meant to suggest a moral dimension to the USA’s importance. 

My view is that nations are like animals. Large animals tend to leave a larger footprint, metaphorically speaking. The main focus of any animal or nation is to sustain itself, and more. Other nations, or animals, are seen as a means to that end. So nations will see other nations as either exploitable (prey), helpful in the exploitation of others, dangerous (predators), or simply irrelevant. True, there are symbiotic relationships, and exploitation is perhaps a loaded word, but the world of the living goes on living by consuming other living beings. At least, that’s how it has gone on so far. 

Important countries consume more. Maybe that’s a negative, but they may do so by being smarter, or by hitting upon some clever and effective ruses before anyone else. So size isn’t everything, though it helps. Also, their cleverness or effectiveness teaches others – their prey as well as interested observers. They make the world wise up, quicken up. Remember the Mongols, an important nation of the past, or Hannibal, an important general. 

But I feel I’m being too male, thinking too much on destruction and aggression. The importance of nations today should be, and generally is, based on a different kind of cleverness, ingenuity, innovation. Yet we find this everywhere, as ideas spread more quickly than ever before. A young African boy generates wind energy for his village through internet-based DIY. This is important, and a great leveller. 

The internet is still largely American, and so on that basis alone, the USA should rightly view itself as the most important nation in the information age. Or is it simply the English language that has become most important? Science and technology are international, of course, but must be translated into English, if required, for best effect. This has been so for some time – think Mendel’s 1865 paper on the laws of segregation and independent assortment. It didn’t appear in English until 1901, years after Mendel’s death, as a result of some pioneers finally lighting upon it. English is surely an important language. 

So what would happen if the USA suddenly disappeared under the waves, with all its people, its weaponry and other technology, its industry? This would be a terrible tragedy, of course, for those loved and loving ones left behind. And yet, in the information age, surprisingly little, if any, of the technology and industry would be lost. The internet would survive, and with it the means for making bombs, multiple examples of beautiful or other people having orgiastic fun for the tutelage of our youth, the Khan Academy’s video lessons on physics, chemistry and assorted other subjects, and an endless variety of examples of dog, cat, bird, elephant, octopus and other cleverness, or silliness. In short, the human world would certainly progress, or continue, more or less unabated, proving that, however important the USA is, it isn’t indispensable.

But surely, if the USA disappeared, another country would take its turn as the most important country in the world. And what then, and which? 

That’s a very interesting question. The USA won’t, of course, disappear below the waves, and many if not most Americans firmly believe that their country must remain the most important for a long long time into the future. As did the British in their heyday, and the Romans, and the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, no doubt. And yet, our human world goes on, and seems to progress, with all its rises and declines.

They say that China will be the next most important country. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of it happening as long as China retains its current political form. The age of major military conquest is over, I believe, so conquest will have to be of a different type, a much more subtle type, perhaps more subtle than I’m capable of foreseeing at present. Too many nations have sampled, for too long, the flavour of freedom, participation and dissent to be guiled by China’s top-down, controlling approach to administration. China will become more and more of an outlier. In any case, I don’t see the USA relinquishing its prominent position ‘any time soon’, as the Americans like to say. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that the USA will bounce back from the Trump debacle with a much-reformed political system (especially with respect to presidential power and accountability), a renewed commitment to international relations, and a chastened sense of its failings and fragility, and the limits of its democracy.. 

But it’s important, always, to remember that nations are not people, and that people are always more important than nations. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm

zero sum game nationalism, Chinese style

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Jacinta: So we’ve been hearing about Russia’s, or Putin’s, obsession with wrecking democratic processes in the USA, Europe and elsewhere – not to mention in Russia itself – but what about Russia’s much more economically smart neighbour, China? We know it’s bent on interference, but for what reason, and to what degree?

Canto: Well this conversation’s based on something we heard this morning, about China having interfered, or tried to, in the last few federal elections, and the consequent problem of foreign donations and investments, and ‘pay for play’ generally.

Jacinta: Yes there’s been a top secret report into foreign interference generally, which is unfortunately ‘classified’, but some of it’s being leaked apparently, and there’s an article about it here. The report names China as the most concerning nation.

Canto: Quelle surprise. And it gets murky fairly quickly, with former NSW Premier and federal Foreign Minister Bob Carr, clearly a Chinese government apologist, trying to undermine John Garnaut, the principal author of the secret report. He recently described Garnaut as one of ”the leaders of the recent anti-China panic in the Australian media”.

Jacinta: Right – why should we panic about the most populous and economically dynamic nation on the planet, a massive human rights abusing dictatorship, interfering with all of our election processes down to the council level, with increasing frequency and sophistication? Surely they’re just doing it for our benefit?

Canto: Garnaut’s ASIO enquiry examined China’s infiltration of Australian political parties, media and academia, and it probed the activities of Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire Chinese businessman who created a ‘think tank’ (always a term to raise the skeptical antennae) called the Australian China Relations Institute (ACRI), headed by Carr. Huang also runs a lobbying organisation for the Chinese Communist Party. Garnaut provided testimony to the US Congress a couple of months ago about China’s considerable activities in interfering with Australian elections. Meanwhile Carr is talking up how friendly to us the Chinese dictatorship is, and questioning Garnaut’s right to advise the government on these matters. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in the facts about interference – which admittedly, we’re all in the dark about, in terms of details. Anyway, ACRI appears to be little more than a lobbying group.

Jacinta: I worry about academic interference, as I work in a field that’s become ever more dependent on full-fee Chinese students. What’s most clear about Chinese students – pace those from Hong Kong – is their general ignorance of and indifference to a political system that allows them no voice and provides them with minimal and distorted info. So I try to open their minds a little, but I get nervous – I’ve heard of spies in the ranks, reporting back to the Beijing bully-boys. And fear of ‘insulting’ the dictatorship, biting the hand that feeds us, will surely be hampering university administrators as well. The worry is that the universities profiting from all this Chinese money will become advocates of a softly softly approach and turning a blind eye to political influence.

Canto: But so far we haven’t addressed the question of what China hopes to gain through interference. Clive Hamilton – no doubt one of Carr’s ‘panic merchants’ –  had much trouble publishing his book Silent Invasion, simply for fear of a Beijing backlash. Two major publishers backed out – were they leaned on? The book raises questions about Carr and Andrew Robb and their dealings with billionaire businessmen..

Jacinta: But look, I do wonder about Silent Invasion‘s subtitle, ‘how China is turning Australia into a puppet state’. Doesn’t that sound a teensy bit panicky?

Canto: Granted, but there are disturbing things happening on Australian soil – which we shouldn’t panic about, but we should act upon. And we should be aware that China is not our friend, as is generally the case with small countries when big countries come sniffing around them. Look at the Philippines way back in the day, when they got some US assistance in their fight for independence from Spain. Once the natives had gained their independence the poor buggers then had to fight off the US, which was only interested in gaining control. Rule of thumb for small countries – don’t trust the overtures of the friendly giants in your neighbourhood, because for the time being, until we grow out of this infantile stage of humanity, nationalism is largely a zero sum game.

Jacinta: There was a small demonstration by a group of Tibetans in Canberra some years ago, at the time of the Beijing Olympics torch relay. They were set upon by Chinese thugs, apparently in what appears to have been an organised attack. Wonder what organisation was behind it. On that occasion, thousands of Chinese students were apparently bussed into Canberra, to celebrate their Chinese-ness. Rumour has it that they were bribed with job offers in China. That probably happens in China itself – fealty to the dictatorship is doubtless a pre-requisite for getting on in business there.

Canto: And the Chinese government recently issued a warning to students due to attacks on them by Australians, though it looks to have been an over-reaction, and probably politically motivated.

Jacinta: I’m sure there have been such racist attacks, we’re just as racist as other countries of course, but the Chinese government would love to have something to criticise us for. Our government’s announcement of tougher espionage laws was met by the usual claims from China of bias and a cold war mentality.

Canto: Those laws were announced precisely as a result of evidence of Chinese interference, and the reasons for the interference are the usual nationalistic ones – to get Australia to allow more Chinese investment, to have a more sympathetic attitude to China’s expansionism in the region, to support China’s domestic assimilation policies and the like. So there are the usual self-interested big nation issues, but there’s also the drive to get Australia, and other nations, to wholly accept its oligarchic and dictatorial closed society with its associated human rights abuses as legitimate, or at least of no concern to other nations.

Jacinta: The Sydney Morning Herald has a maddeningly undated 3-part online article, ‘China’s Operation Australia’, written by a team of top journalists, which highlights ASIO’s concerns about influence peddling and the monitoring of Chinese dissidents inside Australia. Chinese media have been particularly targeted, with some once-independent Chinese news outlets succumbing to the pressure of the Chinese oligarchy. ASIO believes it to be the largest foreign interference campaign ever carried out in Australia.

Canto: Yes and two of the biggest operatives in this campaign are the aforementioned Huang Xiangmo, and Chau Chak Wing. They’re both billionaires, and Chau is an Australian citizen, so changes to the law about political donations from foreigners wouldn’t affect him, though he appears to be in cahoots with the oligarchy. However it appears to be Huang who’s most suspect, though it’s not entirely clear why. He’s a dynamic business type from humble origins who appears to be genuinely philanthropic as well being a hustler for influence. His keenness to become an Australian citizen suggests he’s not entirely wedded to the Chinese political system, while other activities suggest otherwise. And here’s where I start to question, or put into perspective, the ASIO concern. If there’s influence peddling here, it’s not like the rabid Russian, Putin-directed attempts to subvert democracy in the USA and Europe. It’s definitely an attempt to influence policy toward China, and we need to be aware of that. Rules against foreign donations will help, monitoring is always required, and illegal activities should be exposed, but we need to be realistic about the zero sum game that every nation, including Australia, plays, while trying to whittle away at that ultimately self-defeating game in the name of global concerns, including human rights, which are, and always should be, a global issue.

Jacinta: All the same we need to hold our nerve against big bullying countries, and call them out on the international stage if need be.

Written by stewart henderson

June 3, 2018 at 1:13 pm

Limi girl: part 5

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Canto: From the hospital we switch back to the village. Heigo’s mother comes home to find her brother-in-law waiting for her. He has brought gifts from Shifang, in Sichuan, but the woman rejects them angrily. The brother-in-law tries to placate her, he wants to see Gaidi…

Jacinta: This is an expository scene. the mother says ‘you’ve been fixing shoes here for over 10 years, you married Gaidi’s mother, you gave us nothing, you went back to Sichuan, you want to have a son, I don’t blame you, but you left Gaidi here 6 years ago without a word or a care’. Wow, big news – and now we know why the other kids teased Gaidi.

Canto: And the brother-in-law is now sheepish, the recent earthquake has changed him, he’s reassessed his values he says. He’s referring to the massive Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which killed over 80,000 and left millions homeless. And while he speaks, Gaidi and Heigo have come up behind him. On realising who the man is, she rushes past them and locks herself in the house. Heigo, her cousin, begs her to open the door, and she complies. Clearly though, neither Gaidi nor Heigo are happy with this brother-in-law/father and his gifts.

Jacinta: The father enters the house and sits beside Gaidi. She is holding the postcard of Shifang that was seen near the beginning of the film. This is another tear-jerking scene, and I don’t mean that as a cliché. Tears drop on the postcard and we’re not sure whose tears they are. And next we see Gaidi, out of her traditional dress, with her father, going to meet ‘sister’ Xiumei, who’s out at work with her donkey. She has come to say goodbye, she’s going back to Sichuan with her father. It’s a bitter-sweet parting, but Xiumei is smiling. ‘Don’t forget, Wumulong will always be your home’, she says. I think it’s the first time this village is mentioned. ‘Yes, I will always be a Limi girl’, Gaidi responds. The father seems a little unsettled at this. So there’s a general parting, Heigo takes Gaidi and her dad away in his ‘car’, leaving Xiumei and Heigo’s mother alone, and then Heigo’s mother, who has brought Gaidi up for the last six years, is left, bereft and unrewarded it seems, to gaze after the suddenly departed girl.

Canto: Next scene, Xiumei is tending her father, now out of hospital. Some local young people arrive and invite her to ‘the Lover’s Valley’, and her dad urges her to go. It’s some sort of ritual, with black sheets flapping on makeshift lines and children running about. Heigo is there, and women in traditional dress, working hard. Red paper decorations, which symbolise something, are blown around in the wind. Heigo picks one up and examines it. Musicians play, and young men and women dance in ritual lines under decorated trees. It’s clearly a Limi thing, to do with dance and romance. Sometime they dance and sing in large circles. Xiumei takes part happily, but Heigo’s outside it all, watching morosely. Finally he grabs Xiumei and pulls her out of the dance. She’s not happy. ‘It’s our Limi Valentine’s Day,’ he says, and he must declare himself. She tells him clearly this cannot be. He wants to know if she is leaving. He wants to leave too, he says, but his heart is full of contradictions. He will leave if she does. She reminds him of Shuguo, who loves him. He wants to go out and work again, he’s drifting. If he must come back to marry…

Limi Valentine’s Day

Jacinta: It’s Xiumei he wants to marry of course. But she has made it clear to him. It’s an awkward scene for her, and she tries to be firm without cruelty. She returns heavily to the dance, Heigo walks, staggers, away. Next we see him burning bags of – what? – in a home-made fire. ‘I thought only I could help you, Xiumei,’ he says. But now, perhaps, he realises.. We see tangles of wicker in the fire. I don’t know what they signify.

Canto: And next we see Shuguo dressed in red, admiring herself in the mirror. Her mother scolds her, she should wear traditional black for her wedding, and not look too pretty. But Shuguo stands up for herself, her little battle against tradition.

Jacinta: We switch to a procession in the beautiful countryside, a wedding procession, with Heigo and Shuguo in the centre, in traditional outfits. Shuguo looks thrilled, Heigo looks like he’s walking to his execution. They arrive at the wedding-place amid singing and music. They begin kowtowing to the ancestors, but Heigo breaks away. He announces to the assembled: ‘Thank you for coming to the wedding, but today I must break my engagement.’ His shocked mother slaps him, then pleads with him before the distressed Shuguo, who, she says, has been brought to the brink.

Canto: But Heigo responds, ‘I don’t like Shuguo at all’, which is surely harsh, he has seemed to make her a symbol of all that he’s rebelling against. Still, he’s adamant, he’s rejecting this traditional village life. He departs, leaving Shuguo devastated. Then we see the paper symbol again, which a bit of research tells me means ‘double happiness’, or marriage.

Jacinta: Shuguo’s not just devastated, but disgraced before the whole village. What will become of her?

Canto: We’re approaching the end. Next comes a brief scene of Xiumei sitting on a rock in the fields, books open, studying. And then another woman, dragging her suitcase down a rubble path. At first I thought it was Xiumei, leaving the village, but it’s Shuguo. She arrives at a motorbike, driven by a cousin no doubt, and climbs aboard. Heigo watches from a hillside, impassive. She’s probably leaving for another village, out of the limelight.

Jacinta: Switch to an urban scene, a crowd of students are coming out of classes, descending a wide stairway in a stream of colour, a bright contrast to greys and blacks of the Limi villagers. One of the students is Xiumei, and Heigo is waiting for her. She is still quite traditionally dressed. He takes her for a ride on his motorbike, back into the countryside – perhaps it’s Spring break or something – and when he drops her off, presumably within walking distance of home, he gives this vital speech: ‘Xiumei, this is the last time I will see you off. I have already hurt Shugio. I can’t hurt you again. Go study and fulfil your dream. Don’t be a drifting labourer like us. There is no hurry to pay me back. When you earn a salary in the future you can repay both the principal and the interest.’

Canto: It’s another powerful scene, and Heigo drives off, leaving Xiumei speechless, perhaps overwhelmed. This ain’t gonna be a Hollywood ending, though much in us might yearn for it.

Jacinta: We next see Xiumei’s dad sadly selling her donkey. And then Xiumei, still dressed traditionally, runs for the postman, who caters to the edge of the village on a motorbike. She’s expecting good news. She receives a package and smiles on opening the letter. She runs home and tells her mother that she’s won entry into college. The earlier scene must’ve involved an entrance exam.

Canto: She asks after her father. He has gone to work with the other villagers to earn money for her tuition. He’s already saved 500 (RMB?), which her mother hands over. It must be some of the money from the donkey. Xiumei looks upset, It seems as if something’s wrong…

Jacinta: Xiumei rushes out to find her father. On her way she encounters a wedding procession – it’s Shuguo! And she’s not wearing traditional costume this time (she had succumbed last time to her mother’s wishes and was in traditional garb when Heigo walked out on her), and her groom is wearing a modern suit. So it has worked out for her after all. Xiumei continues on, hurrying up the mountain. Then we see two people on a bus, Heigo, and in front of him, Xiumei’s father. He’s holding a postcard pic of a young woman in dance pose, in a bright red dress. Is it Xiumei? Is it an image of what Xiumei might become?

Canto: And then we return to Xiumei, running, running, until she reaches a high clearing, from which she can see the road winding away from the village, with the bus, carrying Heigo and her father, and the other villagers, all working to help her with her college life. No pressure! And so ends the movie.

the Limi girl

 

point final

I’ve seen no other Chinese movie like this, indeed no other movie. It’s a film about difficult choices, desperate hopes, crushing disappointments, quiet suffering, and tough struggles. It’s also about self-sacrifice, persistence, stoicism, love. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen, and I don’t see too many these days. Examining it intensively like this has given me an insight into the film-maker’s craft that I’ve never experienced before, and such scrutiny doesn’t lessen the film’s impact, it strengthens it. I’m tempted to do what too many people do, to rubbish other films by contrast, but I’ll resist that. Suffice to say that this film is a tribute to a world too easily overlooked, and such worlds are everywhere and need to be acknowledged, respected and indeed cherished, for all their flaws and limitations in our eyes. The film, of course, is not a hymn of praise to the world depicted, but it does recognise its rough beauty and its successes in adversity. I will never forget it.

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2018 at 6:12 pm

Limi girl: part 4

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Canto: In the next scene, Heigo returns home to find Shugio helping his mother with some chores, and accuses her of sucking up. She cheerfully acknowledges the fact, and mocks his sense of outrage. Heigo tells her he hates her, Shugio says she likes him. When Heigo’s mother sees them disputing, Shugio makes light of it. Next, we see Xiumei selling her collected fleece-flower and gentian, while Heigo dolefully watches her.

Jacinta: We might say ‘stalking’, but it seems a mite unfair in the context. She’s travelling through the rugged neighbourhood with her laden donkey, he’s following at a distance. Then, while fording a stream, she drops her bag in the water. Heigo to the rescue! They both chase the bag downstream, but Heigo gets to it first. Xiumei has no option but to be grateful, and she lets him accompany her…

Canto: It doesn’t really look like a reconciliation. They arrive at a kind of trading post, with young women exchanging goods for money. I think Shugio’s one of them. Abuse and admonitions rain down on Xiumei and ‘Shugio’s Heigo’ for being shamefully together. Xiumei is tearfully mad… She arrives home in a fury, having apparently shaken off her wannabe lover.

Jacinta: Her parents, sitting together husking corn, see something’s up. Her mother goes to her, and Xiumei just bawls in her arms. But soon after, she’s back at work, sorting out her baskets of herbs and roots, while her father watches from behind, at a loss as to how to help his daughter.

Canto: And in the next scene the father is visiting a school. We find that he’s asked her former teacher to come and talk to Xiumei. So the teacher comes to her home, expresses sorrow that things haven’t worked out for her, and offers her work as a substitute teacher. But she declines, she wants to pass the exam and leave her village once more. ‘It’s not easy for you or your father,’ he says, but she’s determined, though apologetic, even fearful.

Jacinta: So our brave heroine is next seen on the hills, dancing with young Gaidi, finding reasons to be cheerful, but of course Heigo is lurking. He approaches them, and Xiumei tells him the good news that her old teacher has promised to help her with a student loan if she passes her exam. Heigo looks none too happy about this, but Gaidi invites him to dance.

Canto: And surprise surprise, there they are innocently dancing when who should happen along but Shugio…

Jacinta: Some cinematic conventions are inevitable. Ahhh, but it turns out not to be Shugio… these village girls look much the same in their native costume. It’s another village girl who then hurries back to tell Shugio that ‘her’ Heigo is dancing and hugging with Xiumei – something of an exaggeration. Shugio jumps on her motorbike…

Canto: So it’s her motorbike after all. At least we’ve sorted one thing out…

Jacinta: But it won’t start. So she heads off on foot. She finds the three of them dancing together, and tries to separate them, talking of shamelessness, which naturally riles Xiumei. ‘Who do you think you are?’ yells Heigo. ‘I’m your fiancée,’ is Shugio’s tearful reply, (so goes the translation, though I suspect the romantic French word doesn’t quite capture it. Maybe betrothed?). Heigo looks put-upon and unimpressed, Xiumei, doesn’t want to know, and Shugio just runs off. It’s becoming tragic.

Canto: Not to mention claustrophobic. In the next scene we see Xiumei’s father, feeding the donkey, and Shugio turns up – presumably straight from the dancing altercation, saying ‘Uncle’. So they’re all a bit close for comfort. He invites her to come inside, and that’s where the scene ends. We can imagine… And so in the next scene Heigo is sitting having a drink with a friend, in the dark, under a full moon. ‘Wumulong is so beautiful’, says the friend, and I think he’s talking about their village. Heigo says, everyone wants to leave, and then they come back, then they want to leave again… He’s talking about the younger gen, no doubt. His friend (or is it his cousin), though, gives him no comfort, saying it’s natural for people to miss their homes. Heigo goes on, speaking about why people leave, but his friend keeps bringing him back home, to the right place, to belonging.

Jacinta: Outside of this dark circle of conversation is a young child, and, presumably, a wife, his friend’s wife. The woman, barely seen, is saying ‘go back to sleep’, but the child says no, no, no, no, louder and louder, and the defiant sound rings in Heigo’s defiant ears. It’s a nicely-caught moment from the director. I like this director.

Canto: The talk turns to Xiumei and Shugio, and again Heigo’s advised, in spite of his feelings, to stick with Shugio as ‘your daily necessity. You’ll understand in the future’. The whole scene emphasises Heigo’s isolation.

Jacinta: We next find Heigo arriving at Xiumei’s place – it’s quite confusing who lives where in this film, and their actual kin relations! Xiumei has locked herself in, and her mother is trying to interest her in some dinner. Heigo addresses Xiumei’s mother as ‘aunty’, and she tells Heigo that, after Shugio’s visit in which she told ‘everything’!?, Xiumei’s father scolded her (Xiumei). Heigo tries to communicate with Xiumei, but gets nowhere, and then her father asks to talk to him. Clearly this isn’t going to turn out well for poor Heigo.

Canto: Yes so Heigo has to endure the expected. Family reputation is the most important thing for Limi people, the elder says, and one day Xiumei, too, will marry (assuming of course that Heigo must marry Shugio). So, the elder says, if you really feel for Xiumei, you must simply help her towards a bright future.

Jacinta: Though what about Heigo’s future, forced to marry someone he doesn’t love? But Heigo, who is generally respectful to his elders – apart maybe from his mother – says that he understands, and the conversation ends. Has he really given up on Xiumei? As for that ‘family reputation’ thing, it makes me think of honour killings and the like. But this is how marriage was in other times, and is in other places…

Canto: And the elder’s statement that Xiumei too will marry, as if it’s the family’s decision, not hers, that’s kind of chilling to a western viewer. In the next scene, the wedding is being arranged by the adults, with Shugio present. The snare is tightening. And we learn in this conversation that Heigo’s father died when he was young – this explains his obstinacy, his mother apologises.

Jacinta: Next we find Xiumei visiting houses with her donkey, wanting to buy medicinal herbs for some reason. And then we switch to Gaidi in another part of the neighbourhood, being teased by some children as a ‘Szichuan girl’, but then Heigo arrives saying he’s bought a new ‘car’, though it’s actually a motorbike, and he offers her a ride, which she gladly accepts. The point of this scene, I now realise, is that Heigo has asserted his independence from Shugio by buying his own bike rather than riding hers. Switch back to Xiumei, who encounters another young woman on the mountain trail. It’s someone who was her classmate in elementary school, though Xiumei doesn’t recognise her at first. It’s been ten years. They walk the trail chatting, talking about Xiumei’s studies and the problems of working and studying, and the gossip about Heigo. It’s Xiumei’s classmate who does most of the talking. After a while, Xiumei tells her she should go, back to her husband. Her old friend complies, and then she turns back, and says, ‘Xiumei, you must go back to college, don’t end up having a life like mine!’ I’ve seen this film a few times now, and my eyes well up  every time I watch this scene. The music comes on to heighten the significance of the moment, and it’s painfully effective, damn it.

Canto: Yes it’s a key moment, Xiumei watches her friend’s retreating back, no doubt feeling she’s carrying more than her own hopes into the future. So Xiumei wends her way home, to find Gaidi waiting for her. Uncle is sick, she says, and he’s been taken to the hospital.

Jacinta: That must be Xiumei’s dad? She rushes off to the hospital, and we see her confusion as she negotiates the wards. She finds Heigo and her mother. The doctor says he needs an operation, and asks for payment. Xiumei rushes off again to make the payment… is this money she has saved?

Canto: But we don’t see her make the payment, all we get is that it costs 1600 RMB, and next we find her visiting Shugio, in a desperate bid for money. Shugio is drying herbs and tries to ignore her, but when Xiumei kneels before her, Shugio quickly relents, and pays her 500 RMB for a few herbs. She has to force Xiumei to take all the money, and then turns her back when Xiumei tries to thank her.

Jacinta: Though of course she’s concerned. So back at the hospital, Xiumei is feeding and tending to her father. Devotion and tenderness, with all the underlying tensions…

Canto: So here ends part 4 of our near-endless review, or walk-through, of this very interesting movie. We will wrap it up in part 5.

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2017 at 8:52 am

solving the world’s problems, one bastard at a time..

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Canto: Let’s talk about something more gripping for a while. Like, for example, the global political situation.

Jacinta: Mmmm, could you narrow that down a bit?

Canto: No, not really… Okay, let’s take the most politically gripping issue of the moment, the possibility of nuclear annihilation for thousands of South Koreans or Japanese – and then North Koreans – due to the somewhat irresponsible launchings and detonations of massively destructive weaponry by a guy who we can reasonably assume to be intoxicated with his own power – and I do believe power to be the most toxic and dangerous drug ever conceived. And then we can talk about all the other issues.

Jacinta: Well as for the Kim jong-un issue, I suspect I can speak for a lot of people when I say I oscillate between dwelling on it and dismissing it as something I can do nothing about. What else do you want me to say. To say I’m glad we’re not in the way of it all would seem inhumane…

Canto: Do you have any solutions? What should we do from here?

Jacinta: We? You mean ‘the west’? Okay, from here on in, I’d cease all direct communications with Kim – all threats, all comments, everything. That only seems to make him worse.

Canto: But it can hardly get worse. Don’t we need to act to remove his threats, which are a bit more than threats?

Jacinta: Well of course the best solution, out of a bad lot, would be to have him disappear, like magic. Just deleted. It’s impossible, but then I’ve heard some people do six impossible things before breakfast.

Canto: He’s only 33 apparently, and according to Wikipedia he’s married but childless…

Jacinta: I’m not saying deleting him would be a good option, it’d presumably cause chaos, a big power struggle, a probable military takeover, unpredictable action from China, and all the weaponry, such as it is, would still be there. And we have no idea how to do it anyway.

Canto: I’m sure they have some plan of that type. The CIA’s not dead yet.

Jacinta: Yeah I’m sure they have some back-drawer plan somewhere too, but I wouldn’t misunderestimate the incompetence of the CIA.

Canto: So what if we follow your do-and-say-nothing policy? Don’t aggravate the wounded bear. But maybe the bear isn’t wounded at all. NK just detonated something mighty powerful, though there’s some controversy over whether it was actually thermonuclear. Anyway it’s unlikely the country just developed this powerful weapon in the few months that Trump has been acting all faux-macho. Who knows, this may have taken place if Clinton or someone else was in power in the US.

Jacinta: Interesting point, but then why are so many people talking about tit-for-tat and brinkmanship? They may have had the weapon, and maybe a lot more, but Kim’s decision to detonate it now, to show it, seems to have been provoked. It’s classic male display before a rival. Think of the little mutt snapping at the mastiff’s heels. Fuck you, big boy, I’ve got teeth too.

Canto: Yeah, but this little mutt has teeth that can wipe out cities. In any case, now he’s been provoked, and it’s unlikely that Trump and his cronies are going to damp down the belligerent rhetoric, the rest of us seem to be just sitting tight and waiting for this mutt to do some damage inadvertently/on purpose, and then what will happen? Say a missile goes astray and lands on or near a Japanese city? Untold casualties…

Jacinta: I think China will be key here. Not that I have any faith in the Chinese thugocracy to act in any interest other than its own.

Canto: Or the Trumpocracy for that matter.

Jacinta: I suspect China might step in and do something if it came to the kind of disaster you’ve mentioned. Though whether they have a plan I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually if they’re having urgent closed-door talks right now on how best to take advantage of the crisis.

Canto: Well don’t worry, Trump and our illustrious leader are have a phone call today to sort it all out.

Jacinta: I’m really not sure what there is to talk about. An American first strike would have horrific cascading effects, and upping the tempo of military exercises in the neighbouring regions will just make Kim more reckless, to go by past experience. So if we don’t have any communication directed at him, he might continue with building bombs, but he would’ve done that anyway. So, though we’re not making matters any better, neither are we making them worse, which we are doing by goading him. Meanwhile we should be talking around NK. It’s like the elephant in the room. No sense talking to the elephant, he doesn’t speak our language (actually that’s a bad example, as intelligent mammals elephants have a lot in common with us…). Anyway we should be talking to significant others to try to build a team that can deal with the elephant.

Canto: Teamwork, that seems highly likely.

Jacinta: Yeah, I know everyone has a different agenda with regard to the elephant, but surely nobody wants to see anyone nuked. And the US shouldn’t be wasting its time talking to Australia, though I suspect Trump will be talking to Turnbull re troop commitments rather than any serious solution.

Canto: And by the way, we’re talking about Trump here, he’s never going to quit with the macho bluster. That’s a given.

Jacinta: All right so all we can do is hope – it’s out of our hands. But it seems to me that all his advisers are telling him a first strike isn’t an option, so maybe he will listen.

Canto: Maybe he’ll listen about the first strike, but he won’t stop the bluster and the goading. So Kim will continue to react by testing missiles and such, until something goes horribly wrong, and Trump will feel justified in delivering a second strike, and things’ll get very bloody and messy.

Jacinta: Okay, you’re getting me depressed, but if I can return to teamwork, the thing to do is get the team on board – the UN as well as the key players, China, Russia and of course South Korea and Japan. That means putting aside all the bad blood and really working as a team.

Canto: To do what? Get NK to stop producing nukes? Putin has already said that would be a no-goer, given their position.

Jacinta: Right, so that would be a starting point for discussion. Why does Putin think that, and what would be his solution, or his advice? And China’s? I’m assuming everybody’s uncomfortable about NK, though some are clearly more uncomfortable than others. So get a discussion going. What does Russia think the US should do about NK? What does China think Russia should do? Does anyone have good advice for South Korea?

Canto: You’re being hopelessly naive. I suspect Russia and China would approach this issue with complete cynicism.

Jacinta: Well let’s be well-meaning rather than naive. I think we’re inclined to be a co-operative species. I think cynicism can dissipate when confronted with a genuine desire to listen and co-operate. You know I’ve described all of the main actors here – Trump, Putin, Li Keqiang and his henchmen, and of course Kim Jong-un, as macho scumbags and the like, but maybe its time to appeal to the better angels of their natures, and ours, to find a peaceful resolution to this mess.

Written by stewart henderson

September 6, 2017 at 12:22 pm

Limi girl – part 3

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Jacinta: So it’s been a while, but let’s return to that fascinating movie about identity, ambition, entrapment and dislocation, Limi Girl.

Canto: After this poignant moment when Xiumei and Heigo recognise the difficulty of living independently, of controlling the forces around them, Heigo announces his arranged marriage to Shugio – ‘but it’s you I want to marry.’ When Xiumei rather cruelly ticks him off about this, he apologises, says he was joking.

Jacinta: And he clearly wasn’t, poor fellow. He’s fighting a losing battle.

Canto: Men chase, women choose. Desperately, he warns her that going to college is no guarantee of a good future. But she’s resolute in her irresolute way – it’s the closest thing to her dream. She walks off, leaving him to wonder if the chase is off.

Jacinta: In the next scene we see Shugio at home, apparently mixing farm work with school work – first writing on a blackboard (there appears to be a calculator on the table), then sifting some kind of foodstuff, then reading some paper. She might be learning some basic literacy and numeracy. She looks happy, no doubt dreaming of her marriage, till she sees Xiumei go by at the bottom of the hill, followed by Heigo. It’s more like a funeral procession than a chase, though. Angrily, she throws a basin of water down towards him.

Canto: Poor Heigo’s not too popular with the womenfolk. The next scene is quite obscure for non-Mandarin speakers. Heigo’s home with young Gaidi, having cooked her dinner. He finds her absorbed in watching a Chinese TV program with a lot of people staring at the Chinese flag, with a soothing voice-over. I think I hear the name Shifang. Heigo turns away, looking slightly perturbed.

Jacinta: Yes, don’t know what to make of it. But in the next scene Gaidi is in bed with her aunt, and has woken up in the middle of the night. She says she wants to go to school. To college in Szichuan, like Xiumei. To find her mother and father. So presumably the program she was watching has influenced her. Her aunt isn’t sympathetic. Shugio didn’t go to school and is having a good life. Xiumei, on the other hand… besides, she doesn’t have the money to waste on such things.

Canto: So Xiumei is being denigrated, but the more aspirational, such as Gaidi, see her as an inspiration. In the next scene, Xiumei is out with her fellow-villagers,  all female, working in the ‘fields’ (actually tough, wooded mountainsides) digging up fleece-flower roots (used in TCM – traditional Chinese medicine – and therefore of very doubtful efficacy). One of the girls steals a root that she has dug up, leading to a confrontation. Another girl joins in and they mock the ‘college student’, who finally storms off, vowing to go back to college. Clearly there’s jealousy here, and a fear/dislike of ‘difference’, typical of a traditional culture.

Jacinta: I’m interested in these fleece-flower roots. Apparently they’re used for hair growth by ‘increasing blood circulation’, but that was on a beauty site. A google search turns up numerous sites, none of them particularly trustworthy in my estimation. A Chinese site states this, in quite scientific-sounding, if garbled, language:

Modern researches showed that fleeceflower root has effects in lowering blood lipids and sugar, preventing atherosclerosis, immune enhancement [?], expanding blood vessels, promoting adrenal gland secretion and blood cell productions, smooth heart and brain circulations [?], protecting liver functioning, enhancing neural and bowel transmissions [wow?!], promoting hair growth, anti-septic and anti-aging [?].

All of which sounds absurdly impressive, but the reference it provides takes us nowhere. Still, I hope it really is the good oil, for the Limi people’s sake…

Canto: Yes, there are no reliable scientific treatments of this ‘superflower’ on the search list, and Wikipedia merely tells us that ‘fleeceflower’ is a common name for several different plants, so it’ll be a tough job getting to the truth of it all. And the fact that this somewhat marginalised culture is relying, at least in part, on these doubtful TCM products for survival is another worrisome sign.

Jacinta: I like the way Xiumei stands up for herself when she’s mocked. She’s always feisty. So she heads back home with her donkey, but when she stops to drink at a stream, her donkey jogs off, after shrugging off its load – baskets full of plants. Xiumei has to carry the load herself. Meanwhile Gaidi, who recovers her donkeys, sets out with Haigo to find and help her. They find her struggling uphill with her baskets. Heigo chides her for ‘being like this’ – presumably referring to her stubborn independence. Xiumei, exhausted, complains tearfully that everybody, even the animals, are bullying her. Nevertheless she lets herself be ‘rescued’ by her ‘sister’ and her suitor. They ride off on what appears to be the village motorbike.

Canto: Yes, a most versatile machine, now carrying three people and a couple of hefty baskets. Next we see Shugio, again doing physical work – she appears to have a herbal medicine-type business operating from home – together with some kind of study, as she examines papers. She sees Heigo arrive from her window, with baskets, and looks pissed off. Heigo announces that he has come to sell herbs. Shugio’s angry because she knows the herbs have been harvested by her arch-rival Xiumei. She agrees to buy the stuff but – never again! Heigo then returns with the empty baskets to Xiumei and Gaidi, who are hiding round the corner. He hands Xiumei the money from Shugio, then tries to talk her out of trying to earn money for her education in such a piecemeal, grinding way. This time young Gaidi speaks up, defending her ‘sister’ and announcing that she too will earn money by her hard work, so that she can go to college in Sichuan and find her parents. Still Heigo insists on giving Xiumei some money, which she reluctantly accepts via Gaidi.

Jacinta: And these scenes highlight the interconnectedness of village life, where enemies must still have commercial connections, where one person’s actions influence another’s – everyone is in each other’s way, and co-operation is necessary for survival.

Canto: So the trio ride off again on the motorbike, taking Xiumei home, apparently with Shugio’s blessing, though Heigo claims, probably rightly, that she’s only faking civility.

Jacinta: Next we see that Xiumei and Gaidi have been dropped off, and then the two females separate, at a kind of outdoor entrance constructed of wood. I’m fascinated by the depictions of rural life here – everything is indoor-outdoor, a far cry from our constructed indoor worlds. Anyway, it seems the pair live side by side, but not together. Or maybe Gaidi is just seeing her elder ‘sister’ to the door.

Canto: In the next scene we have book-burning, always a bad sign, and a heavy symbol. Xiumei’s father is angrily tearing up her college books and throwing them into the fire. Her mother rescues some of them, then Xiumei arrives and protests passionately. Her father, half-brought to his senses, half-relents and stomps off. Her mother consoles her, defends her tormented husband, and brings news of the village gossip. She shouldn’t be hanging out with the engaged Heigo, and she should reconsider all this college malarky. Xiumei, devastated and tearful at all these forces arrayed against her, sobs out that she ‘will not submit to fate’.

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Jacinta: It’s another powerful yet low-key moment. I want to shout for her and I want to cry. How well this captures the struggles of the poor. No, not the poor, but those trapped in a web of culture, a culture that understandably wants to maintain itself as it has been for centuries, huddled in a sense with its back to the changing, widening and deepening world around it. We often see these cultures, off-handedly, as lacking, smothering – their shared knowledge of soil, seasons and locality irrelevant to the modern world. Xiumei is half-keen to strip off that knowledge and take on modern clothing, but she’ll inevitably be caught between two worlds and may not succeed or be happy in either.

Canto: Well meanwhile life and the movie goes on. In the next scene, Xiumei’s tormented father visits her as she sleeps in her bedroom, tries to make sense of the schoolbooks there, the posters on her wall, and tucks her in gently. Next morning, Heigo is waiting on his motorbike to take Xiumei to the fields, but she ignores him, saddling up her donkey. As she passes him, she says that his fiancée should ‘watch her mouth’ – presumably it’s Shugio who’s spreading the gossip – and her father later shouts to him a reminder that he’s due to be married (the poor sod), and he also reminds him who the motorbike belongs to.

Jacinta: Yes, but without telling the viewers. Who does that bloody bike belong to? Maybe it’s a community bike. Maybe he’s reminding Heigo of the community values he’s apparently trashing as he chases Xiumei while being engaged more or less against his will to Shugio. The cultural web is doing its ensnaring job.

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Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2016 at 9:58 am