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.

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

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

Sophastre on the Silk Road

Identity Labor

China is a destiny, a growing, and a torture all at once. The expectations of ‘identity labor‘ required of living in skilled contexts in a foreign country, well…it adds character.

This isn’t going to be a long entry, just a milestone, a rock placed in just such a way by the side of the road so as to mark one’s progress.

I met a new friend online. During these days, weeks, and months of COVID-19, I imagine many of us have met a new friend online. It’s a special way to enter into the existence of another. Seemingly random, easy to dispose of should it no longer serve our own daily narrative, and yet; more often than I could ever imagine; incredibly rewarding at times.

My new friend was asking me why I had bound my own life so inextricably with the rise of China, why I had spent twenty years working in its education sector, getting my graduate degrees there, and even now working a job remotely, from my desk here in Bellingham, WA, at a Chinese university.

I got the sense when my new friend asked me about my China-pull, that what she really wanted to know is when it would all end. When would I come to my senses, and just get back to my own culture and society once and for all. So I answered her in a way that expressed the pros and cons of China for me.

China made personal growth inevitable. Just the passage of time, itself, offers ample opportunity for growth. There is the growth one goes through in a developing nation, dealing with aggravation and inconvenience of systems that arise from wholly other logical imaginings of the world. With no privacy, faulty utilities, lack of consumer goods, and no-one who understands or accepts you for who you are; living in a foreign country can take its toll. Hence the growth. It takes vitality and will towards personal transformation to live gracefully in a foreign society. So the torture…that’s the growth factor. I am not complaining. After all, I signed up for every minute of this.

Life in China has changed a great deal in the course of two decades. Water, electricity, gas, or internet are still prone to outages, because the infrastructure is being renewed constantly. However; there’s usually notice, so one can cook one’s meal early, or wash the dishes before the water is turned off. Maybe the notices were always there, but now my Chinese is good enough to read them. The consumer goods are all there now, too; as the world’s supply chains lead inevitably, either in manufacture or consumption, to Beijing; or Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Xi’an, Chongqing, or Chengdu. I used to ride around on my Flying Pigeon bike for an hour and a half looking for a cup of coffee; at last falling into a hot cup of rich aroma from the McDonalds on the priciest commercial street in the city. Now, I can take out my phone, open the Waimai app (similar to Doordash or Yelp), and have any number or flavor of coffee sent to my door within 17 minutes.

Coffee (or anything) door-delivery is very convenient in China with apps such as Waimai 外卖

Another thing that has changed, and this is key, is my role in China. Twenty years ago I was a common English teacher with a B.A. in philosophy. In other words, I had no skills whatsoever to make a living with in my own culture; so I used the cultural capital I had at the time, one of the most basic skills I acquired early in life–that of speaking my mother tongue–and hawked it for the monthly salary of 2300 RMB. Back in 1999, that was about three hundred US dollars. After ten years of that, during which I taught myself a number of disciplines, including how to speak, read, and write in Chinese; I tested into graduate school. Shortly after beginning my MA in Chinese classical literature, I began moonlighting in the fine arts sector as curator of Chinese performance art. Thus, for the past ten years, I’ve been moving through and living in skilled contexts. At school, my conversations with colleagues and teachers are about high-level knowledge at the breaking edge of Chinese philosophical, metaphysical, aesthetic and literary achievement. In the community, my conversations with, interviews of, articles about performance art, painting, sculpture, installation, film, television, and arts management all require lexical dexterity, with every new conversation bringing into my life a new word, idea, value, or reference point.

The work which aged me, sickened me, and drained me of most of my life force in moments of self-doubt; has been the work of ‘identity labor.’ Doing a quick search online, either in google or in an academic data base; the notion is unsurprisingly bound up with discourses on ‘performativity.’ Without going any more deeply into defining or explaining what the term tends to mean, I will express how identity labor feels to me. It is exhausting.

“Well, why can’t you just be yourself?”

“If they don’t accept you then to hell with them.”

In China, you are never yourself. You can never say the words that arise naturally within you. You can never sit in the seat that feels right, or wear the clothes that express who you are. Of course, you can do all of this, and more; in fact many discover new potentials of who they are by transcending not only cultural norms in China; but cultural norms as well. If you work in skilled contexts in China, you are who you are in relationship to others. What you say does not mean what you said. It means what it means in relationship to the last thing you said, and just importantly to the next thing you will say. You may not sit in the seat with the best view, next to the person you want to get to know, or with the best airflow. You must sit around the table in a social or professional hierarchy, in a spatial milieu.

While mainstream media and China pundits are busy condemning or condoning ‘China’ as some monolithic thing which we can or can’t accept; Chinese people are awakening within highly skilled contexts, and ideas arising out of rigorous practise and thoughtful contemplation. Knowledge workers and symbol creators are coming of age in a feedback loop between grassroots social, political, economic, and cultural development; and a highly centralised central government which tempers diversity of social, political, economic, and cultural messaging. Its this foil, between the top-down and the bottom-up, that I attend to.

I think it’s important we support the artists and scholars of a (re) emerging cultural power.

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.

Triple-Decker China

Characters by Wang Xizhi 王羲之(303–361 CE), Chinese general and calligrapher.

As I listen to an interview this morning on NPR about international leaders’ reactions to recent US elections; China is first. Takeaway: China is noticeably absent from the list of nations such as Canada, UK, and India that have officially extended congratulations to the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign. What’s the reason? Beijing is exercising extreme caution, as is Russia; neither country willing to engage until President Trump has conceded the race.

Let that be the top and bottom bun of my triple-decker China burger. I want to draw your attention to three patties in the middle. Kind of rude, I know, to allude to such a majestic civilisation as something I can put in my mouth and transform inside me. However, ten months trapped on North American rim of the Pacific have emboldened me. I feel confident enough to imagine myself as the agent of an ontological ecology of self; one integral enough to claim organic integrity. Digesting experience is a metaphor.

Experience is complex, levels within. I quickly sketch out three ways in which I’ve known China this past weekend.

One. In my research. Writing a book on how Chinese culture paves the New Silk Roads; this weekend took me to Beijing in China, Islamabad in Pakistan, Kabul in Afghanistan, Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey, Djibouti in Djibouti, Duisburg in Germany, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Damascus in Turkey, Jerusalem in Israel, Astana in Kazakhstan, Moscow in Russia, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Dubai in the United Arab Eremites, and Singapore of the Republic of Singapore. I looked at how Chinese creative and cultural industries are making inroads into each of these cities, and discussed my findings.

Two. Over WeChat and a couple of email accounts, I interacted with three graduate students I advise; a few other grad students I mentor, the kinds of students who are so bright you just want to give them more light; a translation team I manage; as well as faculty and administration at my university. Aside from this and on the same platforms in addition to Facebook and Instagram; I interacted with Chinese filmmakers, painters, and poets, discussing projects; theirs and my own.

Three. This morning I awaken, open the Sam Harris Waking Up app, and meditate for 20 minutes, then pause to consider what next to do with my consciousness. I’m up early, I have time. What is the best use of it?

Calligraphy it is. My ink, stone, and brushes are ready on my work table, I pull out the roll of rice paper and peel off a sheet, set my computer down on the floor along with the keyboard, mouse, and mousepad. Then in its place, I smooth rice paper on the table, holding the corners down with pieces of polished stone, put another piece of paper underneath, to absorb moisture. My cloth pad is back in China, so paper will do, albeit wasteful. On my iPad, I open up the Wang Xizhi 王羲之(303–361 CE) zitie 字帖, a book of example characters done by the Eastern Jin poet, calligrapher, official, and general. A quick google search on Wang Xizhi, in English, provides no information about his life, only his reception history, five hundred years after he lived, in the Tang, and through today. A quick Baidu (top Chinese search engine) search conveys first of all the man’s name, his style name, other eponyms, his place of birth, the names of his parents, as well as titles and officially held government positions. My mind has transformed, and indeed, this is the information I now consider important. His life’s work drives his art, not the other way around.

Placing a bit of water in the stone, grinding slowly in a circular motion with the ink stick, doing so until the viscosity and thickness of the ink expresses itself as ready, I then dip my brush into the ink. I have been remiss, forgot to rinse these brushes after my last use, over a week ago. They are hard and rigid, but after rinsing in warm and then cool water, they soften and clear of ink. After selecting the page in Wang Xizhi’s zitie from which I will copy out characters, place brush against rice paper, and begin the first character, xiao 晓 (realisation), my consciousness is still and attenuated.

Three very different experiences, or layers to experience, of China. It’s interesting to listen to NPR about China’s reticence in recognising the results of our election; however, this is just the top and bottom of a triple-decker burger, veggie or not, called ‘understanding China.’ One could experiment with other layers to understanding China…research into its millennia of political, economic, scientific, and cultural exchange with cities throughout Central Asia, East Africa, Central and Eastern Europe; actual Chinese-language interactions with Chinese students, intellectuals, and artists today; and the very immediate and, of the three, most informative experience, early on a Monday morning before work, play with Chinese brush and ink on rice paper.