3 Things that Keep me Here in China

On the Edge of Another Lockdown

Reposted from Culture Paves the New Silk Roads

As the city of Chengdu skitters on the edge of another lockdown (the first and last one was a year and a half ago, ending in April, 2020), I go to bed and wake up thinking about fear. Sometimes I feel fear, but more often I’m thinking about fear. Thinking of the guard downstairs who pointed to my bare lips and then to his mask. Recalling the woman standing by the gate who scornfully reiterated his request. I saw only her eyes, and her eyes were full of fear. Fear of COVID-19, fear of getting sick, and fear of being shut in one’s apartment in a Chinese lockdown. 

We’re asked to wear a mask even going for a run. I’m just grateful I can still go for a run.

A Chinese lockdown is not like a US lockdown. It’s not split along blue and red lines, except for where ultra liberals and conservatives agree not to wear masks or refrain from touching the doors and aisles of as many public spaces as they feel entitled to accessing. A Chinese lockdown means you don’t leave your apartment, you don’t get out the front gate of your building, you don’t go shopping. There is a person in the community assigned to shop for you. The only time you leave your apartment is to go get a COVID test. Then you get to be squeezed together with everyone else in your community, waiting in line to get a swab up your nostril. This seems counter productive, but at least it keeps track of spread without allowing communities to inter-contaminate. 

With all this fear, it’s time to recall why I’m here. What keeps me here? Why did I spend nearly $10,000 to get back to China in late April? Why did I put up with three weeks of quarantine? Why do I remain, when so many of my fellow expatriates have given up on the China Dream, and gone home?

Reason #1: I am a control freak. 

That is, I have learned the power and vitality of learning to curb one’s enthusiasm. By enthusiasm here I mean that excess of emotion which leads to losing sight of who one is. It could be exuberant happiness, which overstimulates one and blinds one to what comes next. An ancient Chinese principle is that of dialectics, that of opposites operating in tandem with one another. After perfection: Chaos, as my late good friend and author, George Keenen used to say. 

By enthusiasm, however, I also mean excessive unhappiness, which leads to depression or letting go of one’s pride, ‘forgetting’ to pick up one’s socks, not doing the dishes before going to bed, not filling out that grant application… Control exists in a dialectic with letting go. Chinese philosophy, in particular Confucianism, practiced in all its forms from ancient Han Dynasty star-reading shamans to contemporary Communist officials, emphasizes ritual, caution, and care for detail in daily life. This, more than anything, keeps me in China. 

Reason #2: I love diversity

I can imagine this seems counter-intuitive, in a country where, as of 2020, 91.1% of the country is a single ethnicity—Han, and all the other ethnicities have the same color hair and eyes. Even the population of non-Chinese is dwindling now, with few expats willing to forgo being with their family members to work in China, unable to afford the costs or inconveniences of returning to China amidst COVID prevention measures. But this isn’t the diversity I’m referring to. I’m referring, and this may surprise some, to the intellectual and spiritual diversity still alive and well in China today. True, this diversity doesn’t amount to the ‘freedom of expression’ popular in liberal nations, as this diversity is seldom splattered all over social media as markers of identity-politik. 

The diversity I refer to is a personal one which can be unearthed only by slowly getting to know the culture and people of China. On a first meeting with most people, if you take the time to ask them their thoughts, they will share with you ideas which most closely resemble the headlines you read in Chinese newspapers or see on Chinese television. These tend to be conservative, atheist, nationalistic, and progress-oriented. However, when you start to learn about the history of China, and about the many schools of philosophy that have been cultivated throughout this history, one starts to observe how three major schools of thought—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, work together to create a very interesting world view, shared by most Chinese people I’ve met. The inward nature of this diversity makes for very interesting people, people with depth, and character. It just takes a while to get to know them.

Reason #3: I love peace

I love peace. I don’t love war. I don’t celebrate the death-cult celebrated nightly on US television. I don’t stoke the flames of nationalism, either here in China or back in the US. My recent monograph, Culture Paves the New Silk Roads (forthcoming, 2022, Palgrave Macmillan), focuses on the need for cultural ties between nations, for open dialogue, and mutual understanding. When people know and understand each other, they blow each other up less. I see a dearth of understanding between my home nation and China, and with the opportunity that I’ve been given to first get my graduate degrees here and then to join the faculty of a top 10 Chinese university, I see it as my responsibility to help as much as I can to bridge the growing US-China divide. 

Using my own body and psyche as a cork in the dyke holding up the dam is growing old. I’m getting tired. COVID is not helping. It is getting harder and harder to answer the question, “Where are you from?” It used to be that on really bad US-China days I could answer “Canada” or “UK.” But even these answers are no longer convenient. I don’t feel very welcome, COVID is seen as an imported illness, and I am seen as a vector. 

This morning all teachers were required to show up for mass COVID testing, after just testing en mass three days ago

Let’s see how much longer I last. It’s a good thing Chinese culture exists throughout the world, and in my heart.

Tianxia of the Mind

Correspondence between Mind and Body, Self and Land

Temple of Heaven, located in Beijing. The park grounds surrounding this monumental building prepare one for the ritualistic experience of visiting here.

Back in March, I chatted a bit about what I was reading, and first mentioned Structures of the Earth, by Jonathan Felt, in which the author speaks a great deal about the notion of Tianxia 天下 (all under Heaven). I also wrote about Tianxia in my last post in connection with the meta-geography being constructed by both a fourth century Chinese metaphysician and scholar-poet Guo Pu, and China’s president today, Xi Jinping. 

Here’s a quote from Felt’s book which captures an important aspect of Tianxia—its imaginary nature. In this excerpt, Felt is discussing the Jiangkang empire (the very empire poet Guo Pu was writing about in his poem, the ‘River Fu’). The Jiankang was the first empire of China to be based around the Yangzi River basin in the south, rather than around the Yellow River, in the north of China. 

The Jiankang empire’s claim to political centrality required greater adaptation from the Han model than did the Tabgatch empire’s claim. Jiankang was not part of zhongguo as it was traditionally defined (that is, as the Yellow River plain and/or the state[s] controlling this land). No state with its capital in the Yangzi basin had been recognized in the orthodox line of imperial dynastic succession to that point. The imperial metageography of the Jiankang empire, therefore, emphasized the power of ritual to transcend geography, to transform any regional space into the center of the world. This idea had old roots. The imperial capitals of the Han, Wei, and Jin regimes had moved repeatedly throughout the Yellow River basin, and the literary motif of capital rhapsodies emphasised that it was the transcendent ritual, not the local geography, that made a particular city into the world capital.1

The ‘Tabgatch empire’ refers to the sixteen kingdoms in the north of China during this ‘Period of Disunity’ in China, after the collapse of the Eastern Han in the 220 CE century through to re-unification by the Sui in 581 CE. ‘Zhongguo’ refers to the Roman pinyin Chinese word ‘China,’ which is the integral entity, or nationhood, we are seeking to understand in terms of unities and dis-unities. The Han, Wei, and Jin refer to the political entities that ruled China through the Han (both Western and Eastern) dynasties and Wei-Jin period, with their capitals based in the north until tribes from still further north descended upon the Central Plateau area around the Yellow River, forcing the Han people to flee south and establish the new Jiankang empire. 

Agreed, it’s a lot of history to digest all at once. However, history must be digested along with China’s art and literature. History is the record of China’s cultural political economy, of how economic and political vicissitudes have scripted and re-scripted China’s cultural make-up, both in influencing how people live and enjoy themselves, as well as how China’s artists and writers represent these lives and modes of enjoyment with words and images.

So what do I mean by my post’s title, ‘Tianxia of the Mind”? I am referring to the need for Tianxia, above all, to gain ritual power, this power being specifically the power to ‘transform any regional space into the center of the world.’ That is, a notion (Tianxia) must have the power to create not only a nation (China) as an ‘imagined community,’2but to give that community, or empire, a geographical grounding. In this sense place becomes space,3 and our bodies are now contained within a network of power, now subjects in a ‘bio-polity.’ 

Rituals do two things. First, they serve as a conduit of communication, and secondly by the very nature and strength of this communication, they help human beings transcend the physical world in the act of communicating with divinity. If we were to problematise this notion of divinity, either through a capitalist scientific-materialist lens or through a marxist scientific-materialist lens; we could reduce both human and the divine to physical phenomena within the natural universe, albeit within the mind of the human being. In this case, meta-geographies that “emphasized the power of ritual to transcend geography” would be able to reconfigure our spatial sense of nationhood and other such ‘imagined communities.’ This sort of meta-geography would carry the power of configuring Tianxia of our minds, the sense of all under Heaven, over-riding, or over-writing any other default ontology, or daemon ontology upon which we are basing our belief and value systems. 

Very, very powerful.

 1 Jonathan Felt, Structures of the Earth, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2021, p.127.

2 Benedict Anderson defines the nation as “an imagined political community,” one that is “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Cf: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Edition), London: Verso, 2006, p.42

3 Timotheus Vermeulen. “Space Is the Place.” Frieze, April 2015. https://www.frieze.com/article/space-place.

SheLeads Summit 2021, a creative conference for all professional females working in China to celebrate female leadership

Sitting at my desk this morning at an uber early hour, I challenge myself to choose something of the maelstrom to tell you about. There is always so much to choose from. There’s the urban environment, which the New Hampshire girl revels within, this Bladerunner-cum-reality. There’s the natural environment, which one sees as green patches along the grid, whilst looking down from the fifteenth floor of one’s faculty building. Then there are the people, so many many people, most of whom one tunes out, head down, or held high, moving forward.

There is always so much to choose from, but the ‘so much’ sits upon a liminal layer…being processed. I am always processing the information. But there is something which stands out from the rest, from all the work to do, and all the impressions I ratiocinate between my own culture and the one I live and breathe here in China. What stands out right now is the SheLeads Summit 2021 which I signed up for last night. I also became a registered member of SheLeads International last night.



This is Anita. She founded SheLeads, and I met her at Never Brunch Alone a few weeks ago. We were ten women that morning, most of us new to one another. Meeting nine new friends at one time, making a speech to introduce myself, and eating brunch in a new location for me…it was all overwhelming. Anita was powerful, and I was glad to get to know her a bit better afterwards, as we drove to an afternoon event on effective listening.

On Friday night, we’re going to meet up to celebrate the third year anniversary of SheLeads. It blows me away to be a part of a network like this in China, a nation which was once a matrilineal society, thousands of years ago, but has since been, as with much of the world still today, a patrilineal and patriarchal society. Talk about cutting edges…..

I look forward to learning from women here, to networking and gaining insights into the Chinese business world. As co-founder and CEO of Yanlu Arts and Culture, I am hungry for knowledge about how various sectors interact, and really excited to do so from a new perspective, that is, an empowered woman’s perspective.

Oh the obstacle course of starting a business in China right now…

I know, I know, you’re like What? I thought this was an academic-tilted Chinese culture and lifestyle blog written from an expat perspective. Well surprise surprise, now it’s a doing-business-in-China-as-a-foreigner-during-seriously-tense-times blog, too.

our first sign…
let us know what you think, we’re still in the design-phase

Yes, I did it. Finally my dream is coalescing, the dream of helping my own country and it’s potential big brother (just kidding), I mean it’s potential ally in saving the earth sphere from unfitness-for-human-existence, My dream is help the US and China to get along for just long enough to actually help humankind evolve, rather than devolve. It’s a kind of private-sector cultural diplomacy, to make up for the dearth of public-sector cultural diplomacy.

I came to China in September of 1999, and slogged through the English teaching machine for ten years, teaching myself Chinese and how to think well enough to write down what I think. That last bit took a lot longer than I thought it would, and I’m still learning how to un-think so many thoughts I grew up around…thoughts about exceptionalism, thoughts about capitalism, thoughts about norms when it came to truth, goodness, and beauty. Then in 2009, I tested into an MA program in Classical Chinese Literature at Sichuan University, which turned into a PhD program, which then turned into a full-time faculty position.

I love going to work in a building that looks like this.
It was Chinese calligraphy that got me into all this trouble in the first place…my first love.

So, fast forward 22 years..and with the new book I’ve been writing, on the relationship between culture and the New Silk Roads…I realize that if you want something done the right way, well, you’ve got to find a good business partner, build a good team, and do it yourself. Fortunately, there are a lot of other great organizations here in China as well as in the US, and reaching out to other people who rely on culture first to save human civilisation is an enjoyable process.

What’s not enjoyable are the hurdles. Oh my goodness is it challenging registering a business here. Opening a bank account as a foreigner, even though I’m an A-level foreign expert, is like pulling teeth. It took me three afternoons of three hours each to finally get a personal account, in order to open a business account with the Bank of China. Before they realised I speak fluent Chinese I could hear them accusing me of money laundering, or of just wanting to get my money out of China. As if wanting to save money I’ve hard-earned and paid copious taxes on should be a crime. But I’m not complaining. I’m just expressing. It’s not easy. But it’s doable.

WeChat is open in China to new users again!!!

As we went on to build our social media platforms, we turned first to the biggest here in China. As in, if you don’t have a public business on WeChat in China, then you’re not doing business. So imagine my sadness when I found out that as a foreigner, I cannot open an account. Then imagine my sadness again when my business partner (who’s a Chinese national) told me that, while she could open a business account for Yanlu Arts & Culture, WeChat had shut down registration for new users. What a Saturnine feeling that is. To be young and nascent, and yet to have doors close on you.

But it’s over now. The South China Morning Post reports that WeChat is open to new users once again, and my business partner is on the case. We must take advantage of this window of time. The door could close again anytime, as Tencent (Wechat’s parent company) takes great pains to avoid the fate of Didi and Alibaba, both recently heavily penalised in China’s new tech and internet regulatory moves on its own domestic markets.

It appears that checked capitalism is not as fun, romantic, or utopic as Western (champaign) Marxists make it out to be. It’s hard. Really hard. To try and build a dream with big brother watching over us. Not complaining. Just expressing.

So that’s it for me for today, back to the book. Stay tuned for more adventures…blow by blow.

Return to China

Caught so soon in a confluence of cultural forces.

I managed to fly back to Chengdu, China in late April of this year. It took four weeks from door to door. One week to travel from Bellingham, Washington to Los Angeles, where I took my COVID tests, got the green code from the LA Chinese Consulate, and got on my flight. Then there were two gruelling weeks of quarantine in Guangzhou, followed by an even more gruelling week on campus here in Chengdu, where conditions felt as if existence, itself, were an afterthought.

Since arriving in my apartment, which had to be cleaned from top to bottom after my cat had permeated my home with the smells and feel of multiple nervous breakdowns, I have had her spayed, and gotten myself physically recovered, as well, from the adventures of the past 18 months. I was just returned home for a winter holiday in the US when COVID struck, and everyone knows the story moving forward from that point…

Here are just a few photos from the past few weeks, of exhibitions and screenings I’ve attended, of classes I’ve been teaching, of the medicine I’ve been taking, and the streets I’ve been reconnecting with. I’m still struggling with keeping on schedule with the book I’m writing, Culture Paves the New Silk Roads, so I daren’t overextend my time here in this blog entry. Let these pictures speak their thousand words each. I shall return with more focus and generous explanation. Soon

“Minxin Xiangtong ⺠心相通 and People-to-People Relations Along the New Silk Roads” with Sophia Kidd

Many thanks to so many of you who showed up last Friday night for this live talk.

Sophia Kidd of Sichuan University joined the University of Virginia to discuss the New Silk Road’s (NSR) fifth ‘pillar’ in her talk on Minxin Xiangtong ⺠心相通 and People-to-People connections along the New Silk Roads; giving examples of how P2P connections support and sustain other NSR objectives: policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, and financial integration. This talk, held March 12, 2021, was part of UVA’s “Assessment of China’s BRI” Project.

Palgrave Macmillan, Ou Ning, and Culture Paves the New Silk Roads

Palgrave Macmillan has a new series, Contemporary East Asian Visual Cultures, Societies, and Politics, edited by Paul Gladston.

The series opening book, Utopia in Practice, by Ou Ning documents one of the first pushes in China’s new unofficial ‘internal emigration’ movement, where urbanites retreat to the countryside to rediscover what their land and culture has always had to offer, integral to a sense of well-being.

The series’ second book will be mine, Culture Paves the New Silk Roads, and I’m giving a related talk on Friday Mar 12 at 8 pm EST (5 pm PDT) for University of Virginia’s Assessment of Belt and Road Initiative project. I’ll talk about a chapter from my book focusing on the people-to-people pillar of China’s New Silk Roads. Register using the link below. FREE. And please, ask questions. Questions are like gold for the intrepid speaker…

https://virginia.zoom.us/…/WN_5vluiVU-RpCsL5y9XKqXtg…

Utopia in Practice: Bishan Project and Rural Reconstruction (Contemporary East Asian Visual Cultures, Societies and Politics) 1st ed. 2020 Edition