21st Century China
Published on September 23rd, 2011 | by Cassady Dixon0
Presented by Asia Society New York from September 25 to October 29
Perhaps no other country possesses as mythical a prowess in the eyes of Americans these days as China. They seem to be building, growing and achieving success all the time. We hear stories about their massive industrial push, their trade practices, how they are buying up US treasury bonds by the score. Then there’s the censorship, the rows with Google, and the accusations of state-sponsored hackers attempting damage upon US systems. The media’s portrait of them seems to almost resemble infamous agent Ari Gold from the just-completed HBO series “Entourage.” It’s with a mighty grin they conceal the knife behind their back. Are they friend or foe, seekers of good or control? “Visions of a New China,” a fascinating series of documentaries running over the next month at Asia Society on Park Avenue, seeks to shed light on such questions.
My favorite of the series, although all have their merits, would have to be Chen Weijun’s “The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World.” Hunan Restaurant, located in the south-central city of Changsha, has a staff of around 1,000 and holds up to 5,000 customers. Its sheer size is breathtaking, like the Wal-Mart of family eateries. The kitchen is a testament to grace under pressure, and the shots of steaming soups and rice dishes are best viewed on a full stomach for fear of ravenously induced hunger pains. At one point a staffer remarks that there was an instance in which they handled 10 wedding banquets within the span of 24 hours. He shrugs as he puts it mildly, “That was a busy day.” The chaos is held together by a middle-aged woman named Qin Linzi, who, in true Mildred Pierce fashion, rose from humble worker to owner by her own determination. A devoted communist, Qin leads the huge staff in daily affirmation drills that seek to hammer in company unity and a devotion to customer service. It’s creepy and charming all at the same time, and you can’t help but admire Qin’s chutzpah.
Also of note is “Beijing Besieged by Waste,” in which filmmaker Wang Jiuliang takes us on a tour of the capital city’s plethora of landfills. Although many cities have beltway roads that encircle them, Beijing is unique in that it houses several in order to serve its legions of motorists. Encompassed between two outer circles is a de facto ring of trash, an enormous collection of garbage dumps that literally surrounds the metropolis. Indeed, the area has its own distinct culture of workers, inhabitants and miners for goodies that can be sold off on the cheap. Obvious horrors aside, these landfills speak to Jiuliang as a symbol of China’s blazing-fast acceleration of capitalism into their economic structure. Waste not, want not, be damned. As the country grows more and more accustomed to conspicuous consumption, the runoff is quickly adding up.
Li Junhu’s “Brave Father” documents the plight of a farming family who save up all they can to send their son off to a good university. This they manage, but their son must still work odd jobs just to scrape by, and even then his prospects after graduation are uncertain. They can only exist on hope and hard work in a nation of over a billion.
Guo Jing and Ke Dingding’s “Children of the Chinese Circus”shows the rigorous daily struggles of a troupe in Shanghai composed of several pre-teens from impoverished backgrounds. They sign up for the circus as a way to hopefully strike it rich, so to speak, but the path along the way would put most drill sergeants in check. The level of verbal and physical abuse such young children endure is hard to stomach, and although their pursuit may be noble, the sacrifice seems insurmountable. Other documentaries in the series cover topics ranging from the burgeoning architectural scene in Beijing, to migrant workers who double as buskers in their off time, to an experiment done in one central Chinese city school in which children are given the power to, gasp, vote for class monitor.
All of the films very nicely portray the intersection in modern China between democracy and communism, the growing economy and its effects on all strata of society and the divide between the gung-ho, youthful “Me Generation” and the old guard that still occupies the hinterlands. One notable absence among the films is a devoted look at the government and how it wields its power. This is understandable. Most of the films here were made by and among the Chinese, so it’s a little presumptuous to expect “All the President’s Men.” Still, the human interest stories here are educational in that they portray a rapidly evolving society, both materialistically and philosophically.
There certainly appears to be a lot of struggle and much poverty, but the country as a whole is positioning itself for the future. The question remains, as the world grows somewhat smaller with social media expansion, if the government will find a way to reign in its populace, or if the Chinese will no longer be able to be held back by censorship as their markets open up more and more to the outside. From the looks of much of the youth in these films, their allegiance rests not so much with the communists (although they might say so to save face) as it does with a cosmopolitan desire to embrace the world. We should embrace back. It would befit us all.