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ONE of the funniest places to visit is the Chinese web, suffused with satire despite the efforts of the stentorian net police. China is not what it seems. It is not uniform. It is not frighteningly serious. It is not hostile to the West. Crucially, it is not identical with its ruling Communist Party. |
An especially crazy, steadily escalating trail of inventive mockery of officialdom followed a discovery a few months ago by a "netizen" of something smelly on the website for Huili, a county in mountainous Sichuan province. The netizen explained: "I had nothing to do today so I visited the website for our county government. The headline story was about the upgrade for the road to the countryside. I looked at the photo and I almost coughed out half a litre of blood! Even a rank amateur like myself can tell that this was a Photoshop job, and they had the nerve to put this on the home page!"
The photo showed three officials pointing at a new road in apparent pride. Only they appeared to be floating above the road as if arriving from space. It seemed they hadn't left their comfortable offices - many local governments in China are housed in buildings that resemble the White House or the Palace of Versailles, determined to spend their revenue themselves rather than pass it up to higher authorities.
After that discovery, the floodgates opened. Other netizens soon entered the Photoshop spirit, and within hours the officials were in Africa amid lions and giraffes, on the moon, leering at scantily clad women, watching the Osama bin Laden Islamabad operation alongside Barack Obama and greeting recently departed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il - who may indeed now be hovering like them in some workers' party nirvana.
When pop star Michael Jackson died, Chinese netizens assembled a brilliantly funny tribute montage of Cultural Revolution-era People's Liberation Army film to the soundtrack of his song Beat It. Another piece of witty video inventiveness has Adolf Hitler fulminating against the sins of Chinese microbloggers.
On a visit to Beijing a year ago, I rushed one evening to Dashanzi, the vast area of converted Bauhaus-style munitions factories in the northeast that today houses scores of art galleries. One of the galleries I visited was devoted to Thunderbirds-style models placed in heroic poses, each with slogans beneath adapted from party originals: "Revolution is a dinner party!"; "Harmonious Society! Angry People!"; "I never pursue a personality cult! Because nobody worships me!"
And the films of China's so-called sixth-generation directors, especially those of 41-year-old Jia Zhangke, are wry, offbeat, sardonic: in Western terms, they are perhaps comparable with the style of Withnail and I.
Foreigners often assume that China is a single entity. They speak of "eating Chinese" as if that comprised a few famous dishes, usually all from the south. In fact, China is a continent of foods and cultures. "Chinese food" makes sense only in the way that "European food" does. Even its languages are spectacularly disparate. English has more in common with Italian than, say, Mandarin (with its four tones) does with Cantonese (with its superhuman nine tones).
China is a part of the world that has maintained the longest uninterrupted civilisation. But it is a country of great variations, and of fierce individualism. Writer Liao Yiwu, recently in Australia, is a good example. So is the bear-like artist Ai Weiwei.
The name on the outside of Ai's monumental reworking of a siheyuan or courtyard home in the northern wastelands of Beijing is "258 Fake". He has a rare nose for phonies. He is one of a Chinese type: unbowed, witty in a laconic way, at ease with himself while not at all self-absorbed, curious about everything, and impeccably polite.
How does he see himself? When I met him three years ago, he cast around and then replied with disarming articulacy: "Maybe a confused man. Sometimes withdrawn. Sometimes angry. I don't know how to describe myself . . . I've been called many, many titles, and I practise in many fields. But I've not grown used to any of them. If you're asking about my profession, yes, I'm an artist. That's best; it leaves little to explain."
He spent a few years living in New York, but never really felt settled there. Many Chinese do, however, feel especially comfortable in the US. Since the Qing empire started to crumble in the late 19th century, rich and influential Chinese have sent their children to study there - including the three Soong sisters, who were to become among the most influential people of the 20th century.
One married a banker who briefly became the world's richest man, one the "generalissimo" Chiang Kai-shek and one Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. Although they parted at loggerheads for political reasons, when they did occasionally contact each other again it was in English. Soong Ching-ling, widow of Sun Yat-sen, eventually became president of China. Her modest possessions, displayed in the lakeside mansion where she died, include, poignantly, discs of the music she used to listen to as the Red Guards fulminated in the streets - US shows such as Oklahoma!.
Another remarkable individual is Cui Jian, the father of Chinese rock who famously stood in Tiananmen Square in 1989, a red bandana over his eyes, a guitar in his hands, singing what has become an anthem: Nothing to My Name. He describes his music to me as China's third sound. The first is official, the second mainstream, for instance, Canto-pop. The third sound is more individual. "It doesn't matter too much whether the market likes it or not," he says.
"But a lot of educated people like that more individual art. It can even involve a form of philosophy, in which people focus on what is beautiful; they start to think freely. I don't worry about newspapers and TV shows, but I still believe in this country. I still feel I can breathe, I have my own room, my own space. When they open up to free-thinking music or to a free lifestyle, then they will get it, they will change. They just lack a key. Like 20 years ago, when I felt I had something to say and put it in a song, and they got it."
Some in China say that culture comprises education and tradition. Cui disagrees: "You should try to open your hands and stand up by yourself, and then you'll learn. You'll have freedom, you'll be alive, the world belongs to you."
Dissident writer Yu Jie - who was appalled, on a visit to Sydney, to see Maoist art displayed on a restaurant wall - a year ago wrote a brilliant and darkly hilarious account of his interrogation by a puzzled and irate policeman. Official China occupies another world. There, for instance, speeches should not be bright or entertaining - because that would indicate political vulnerability in the speaker, who would be perceived to need to court support.
Official China was on display during the Beijing Olympics, soldiers beating drums in immaculate time. But also during the Olympics, the local Chinese crowds' default support, when Chinese athletes weren't competing, went to the Americans.
For the Chinese rival Americans as the most individualistic people on earth. And the funniest. ( Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor, The Australian)