Five ‘Pillars’ of the New Silk Roads

An introduction to the component parts of China’s multi-billion dollar plan to rebuild our world

Five ‘Pillars’ of the New Silk Roads

In Chinese discourse there are five pillars (wu tong 五通) supporting the New Silk Roads (also known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and One Belt One Road (OBOR)). These are Policy Coordination (zhengce goutong 政策沟通) , Facilities Connectivity (sheshi liantong 设施联通) , Unimpeded Trade (maoyi changtong 贸易畅通) , Financial Integration (zijin tongrong 资金通融) , and People-to-People connectivity (Minxin xiangtong 民心相通). ‘Five pillars,’ however, like much translation, loses the original Chinese sense of wu tong, which translates literally as ‘five channels’ or ‘five connections.’ Tong is a component character in all five of the pillars: goutong 沟 通 (coordination), liantong 联 通 (connectivity), changtong 畅 通 (flow), tongrong 通 融(integration), and xiangtong 相通 (connectivity ). I propose that rather than ‘pillars’ holding up the roof of an overarching structure; these five tongs configure as a hub of People-to-People connectivity; around which four main spokes of policy, infrastructure, trade, and finance revolve.

All five of the English translation terms: coordination, linking, flow, integration, and connectivity refer to continuity and connection, just as their original Chinese terms do. Yet the subtle differences between them are worth noting. Goutong is an old word, appearing in the Luo Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals as the act of digging out ditches in order to bring two bodies of water into confluence with one another. Thus, Policy Coordination takes on this sense of altering the topography of the land, in order to bring about confluence, such as one would do to bring two or more rivers into mutual flow with one another. Liantong is a relatively new word, with no classical precedent, not appearing until contemporary Chinese times. This linking is verb-oriented, an activity of connecting segments of trade and supply chains. Facility connectivity is being built with thousands of infrastructure projects already breaking ground. Changtong is an adjective describing, indeed, an unimpeded movement, either through a space, or of speech and diction. Its use was popularized in the late Qing, by early Republican intellectuals such as Guo Moruo (1892-1978), writer, communist party intellectual and cultural apparatchik, as well as Cao Jinghua (1897-1987), professor at Peking University and essayist as well as translator from Russian. Unimpeded Trade (maoyi changtong) requires the recalibration of obstacles into regulated channels, such as visa restrictions for tourists as well as workers. Tongrong, of Financial Integration belongs properly to the financial vocabulary of China today, used to denote the lending of a short-term loan. However, it also refers to flexibility, accommodating, and stretching to get around regulations, in order to make something happen. ‘Rongtong’ would have seen all five terms as symmetrical and rhyming evenly, which is common in Chinese rhetoric and speech. Rongtong is indeed a word of integration, an integration born of circulation, flow, intermingling, merging and being assimilated into something larger. It’s curious why the term ‘tongrong’ was chosen instead. Perhaps it was because of its currency within the financial lexicon of today. There may have been intentional avoidance of imperial or tributary connotations attached to ‘rongtong’ in China’s branding of the initiative’s ‘Financial Integration.’ Lastly, xiangtong has to do with People-to-People connectivity. It is as old as any of the other five words, occurring in the Records of the Historian by Sima Qian (145-86 BCE). It does indeed mean to interlink, connect, and more importantly to communicate, but by the Song dynasty, it was used by a major proponent of the Neo-Confucian school of lixue 理学 (School of Principles), Zhu Xi (1130-1200) to connote ‘mutual burden’ as well as ‘mutual benefit.’ The significance of xiangtong leans into an awareness that everyone shares not only in the effort of bringing something into being; but that everyone also bends their own original shape or trajectory to find mutual workarounds for otherwise unworkable mutual challenges. Thus People-to-People connectivity works to cultivate a global Community of Common Destiny, wherein mutual sacrifices will lead to mutual benefit, all brought about through interlinking and connecting the hearts and minds of people who have a stake in the projects at hand.

While the fifth pillar of People-to-People connectivity seems on the surface to address only the human and cultural element of the New Silk Roads, we see that by looking just a little closer at the language, all five pillars involve connecting and interlinking aspects of people-centric projects. For example, Policy Coordination involves peoples of a nation’s government travelling to meet and communicate with one another. The service and media industries that are attendant to the pomp, circumstance and logistics of policy-coordination are also important categories of People-to-People connectivity. In the case of the media reporting on meetings and summits, these people have a great deal of influence over not only populations ruled by policy makers, but also upon the policy makers, themselves, who are also consumers of broadcast information. Facilities Connectivity involves a great deal of infrastructure building, and generally China imports a varying portion of labor into the regions where infrastructure is being built. While this portion was larger in the past, labor disputes in some of these regions have encouraged China to rethink this practice, or to ameliorate it, bringing in only those managerial workers who can impart skills to native populations, thus more seamlessly handing off control and operation of dams, roads, and container shipping ports. Whether in the former case, where all or most labor is imported from China, or in latter cases where only enough labor is exported to constitute vocational training and to guarantee outcomes, infrastructure on a scale as large as the New Silk Roads sees large-scale human migration. Populations of Chinese people develop connections with large and small populations of various regions throughout the world in developing the infrastructure for Facilities Connectivity. It goes without saying that trade, whether impeded or unimpeded, trade constitutes a category of People-to-People connectivity. The old Silk Roads, with trade routes through Eurasia, saw the rise of a mercantile class that was responsible for a great portion of cultural flow in these regions; and this as a by-product of the People-to-People nature of trade and commerce. War, famine and natural disasters caused other large portions of these shifts in cultural and human geography; but trade and commerce are responsible for the flow of material culture from region to region. In this flow of materiality, technological knowledge also transfers from region to region, affecting how we think about ourselves and the world. Lastly, Financial Integration is also a category of People-to-People connectivity, if we understand economics as integral to politics, and politics as the management of a political body made up out of people. In financially integrating regions, there are financial values which fluctuate according to cultural values.

Figure 1: Red: China, Blue: Countries which signed cooperation documents related to China’s New Silk Roads (Belt and Road Initiative)* 

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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.

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.

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

Culture Paves the New Silk Roads

And if it doesn’t, it should.

When I flew to Bochum, Germany back in April of 2017 to teach a course on the political semiotics of arts criticism in China, I was unaware of how influential this five week long visit would be upon my intellectual and thus professional endeavours.

It was a small group of seven bright German students as well as one Chinese student, and I was able to pay special attention to what the students were most interested in. Early on, then, I grew aware that the students were fascinated by two central concepts, one was a notion in aesthetic theory; and the other was a sociological one.

Chinese aesthetics boils down to a trinity of ‘truth–good–beauty zhen shan Mei真善美.’ For our purposes here, I’ll just explain that the German students were blown away by the idea that, for the Chinese, beauty is not possible in isolation. That is, unless beauty is also good, and also true; it is not beautiful. Which then begs the question, at which point in Western aesthetics did something obviously ugly, even horrific, become beautiful? At which point did the unjust and villainous also grow beautiful, or at least desirous, to look at on television? This I’ll save for another day; but answering these questions requires looking into the history of Western art, especially at Modernism, with its abstraction, and rebellious anti-heroic. In the West, something can be untrue and even evil, yet imbued with an awesomeness that draws our attention to it, whether it is in a museum, on television, or in front of our eyes on the street.

The other notion which caught the attention of both my German students as well as the one student from China; was that of ‘cultural’ discount.’ This notion arises out of a study of cultural economy, which can’t be examined outside of the context of the political economy of culture in China. What we were looking at was the phenomenon of cultural products decreasing in value as soon as they exit Chinese customs, or Chinese cyberspace, or other Chinese cultural contexts. And when I say Chinese cultural contexts, these contexts are themselves contextualized necessarily within Chinese political and economic contexts. This is because Chinese State control over its cultural products is total. Even along its own margins of control, that is, in grassroots (in popular culture) or avant-garde (in the fine arts sector) pushback against official ideological cultural products; even in these voices, acts, and cultural commodities of resistance (such as an artwork by Ai Weiwei), we see an impression of the State cultural edifice. Thus, when these products, be they works of art, movies, comic, or books; even if they are translated, enter into another market; they decrease in value, suffering from a ‘cultural discount (wenhua zhekou 文化折扣).’

What shocked me most of all, having been in China for most of the prior 20 years, was how unfamiliar my German political science and international affairs students were with the connection between culture and politics. They were even more alarmed by the connection between economics and culture. I was moved to redesign my curriculum in situ, so that it focused more on these two notions, one aesthetic and the other sociological. Only when these two notions were thoroughly grasped would we be able to move forward with discussing and examining how Chinese art critics coded their treatment of artworks in ways that helped their articles get published in magazines, journals, online platforms and books within China. Note, by ‘helped their articles get published,’ I do not mean this in the sense that it made their articles more appealing, only that this helped their articles not get flagged as sensitive or otherwise problematic to the State’s cultural officers.

I start with this.

In my next entry, I will explain how this course, and the shifts we made mid-stream, changed my intellectual, and thus professional trajectory in the field of Chinese studies. Hint: It has to do with my title here, also the title of my forthcoming book with Palgrave MacMillan: Culture Paves the New Silk Roads.

Then in another future entry, I’ll start laying out some of the field research I gained both this past semester as well as in winter semester, 2019, when I taught ‘Culture Paves the New Silk Roads’ to classes of over 200 Chinese students, in China. Of particular interest will be presentations on the subject given by student focus groups. Also interesting, was how other focus groups presented on Classical Chinese canonical texts, such as the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史记), Book of Odes (Shijing 诗经), Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋), and the Classic of the Way and Virtue (Daodejing 道德经). Very interesting, how the ideas, language, and ideologies of these ancient texts resonated with discussion of China’s rebuilding of the ancient Silk Roads in a wholly new geopolitical context.