A Mattress

A mattress means nothing and everything to me. Nothing because I can’t remember a time I ever once worried about the possibility of not having my mattress, and everything because a mattress is the ultimate symbol of relaxation, comfort, and rest. There are countless marketing schemes linking luxury and mattresses, and mattresses are presented as a trademark of developed living. I don’t personally know anyone without a mattress. To the Chinese fishermen families on Chongming Island, sleeping without a mattress is a daily insignificant fact. I feel lucky and completely naive for not considering just how valuable my mattress is.

The fishermen on Chongming Island live with their families in a small inlet about ten minutes from the Dongtan nature preserve and within sight of several wind turbines that were built in the last two months. The wind turbines are immense, powerful, modern.

Each family owns at least one boat, and they will sometimes live on the boat for extended times during fishing season.

One fisherman let us enter his home, talk about his life, and even take pictures of his house. To say the least, taking pictures of his house made me feel voyeuristic and crude. I wanted to document his life, but I also didn’t want to make him feel like a strange tourist attraction. In fact, I didn’t even feel worthy of such a special entry into his life. I was only meeting him for the first time and I couldn’t even speak his language, but he was already trusting me with intimate knowledge. The even bigger internal dilemma is that his house did strike me because it was so different from mine. I have a mattress, a symbol of luxury, and his family doesn’t. How can I fairly visually document his life when I understand so little about his personal history? Looking back on my photos, I still feel inappropriate. I am reminded of the controversy surrounding Margaret Meade’s Balinese Character. Maybe I’m documenting the fisherman’s life, but more likely I’m just unintentionally exoticizing his existence. I want to learn more, so I can be as fair and understanding as possible.

However, I did take some pictures that I’m proud of. After asking the fisherman’s permission, he let me take a picture of him holding his baby girl. I showed him the picture, and he smiled. I took another of his other child playing. We hope to print these pictures and others to give to the family when we return.

There are obviously a thousand differences between the fisherman and me, but I felt connected as I took a picture of him with his child. Sure, we have different mattress situations and we can’t even speak directly to each other, but we both understand the feeling between a father and daughter. I hope I can learn more about his life and family, so that I can understand the other countless similarities between us.

Glitz and Gutters

Shanghai is energetic, manic, sometimes dirty and strange, but always loud and beautiful. There are parts of the city that are breathtakingly stunning and modern. From my room, I can see all the way to the Bund with the distinctive TV Tower. As Nancy Chen notes about Chinese cities in the 1990s, “opportunities seemed to lie just at the surface,” but I think that quote still applies (2001, Location 168). When I walk around the city, I can sense that feeling of excitement and opportunity. The Bund seems to epitomize Chinese modernity and sophistication, even as other parts of China (and the world) fall behind. In Shanghai, there is constant construction, growth, and market, so that the city seems like it is literally swelling with potential. I took this picture from my room one night as the sun set because I think it shows how beautiful the city can be. The second picture is supposed to be an artsy photo of the city alight and active in the middle of the night.

As Louisa Schein points out, cities like Shanghai are growing so urgently because they are symbols of modernity in the consumerist global market (2001, Kindle Location 2860). Schein says that cities like Shanghai are demonstrations of material potential, even though many residents might not be able to actually afford these desirable goods (2001, Kindle Location 2864). In fact, most of the city is about showing off glamorous consumerism and technology. The number of skyscrapers and metro lines increase every day, but other parts of China remain rural and impoverished. I’m actually really excited for our visit to rural China because I think I’ll be able to better understand the contrast between glittering Shanghai and the rest of China.

Although Shanghai is vivacious and futuristic, there are signs of the city’s incredibly rapid and relatively cheap industrialization. Buildings might be tall and urban, but also dirty and lacking maintenance. So many people have cars that the roads are packed and more dangerous. Smells from trash and sewage drift throughout the city because of infrastructure problems. Gutters overflow onto the sidewalk and road routinely. Construction on a new metro line begins within sight of another line. Shanghai heavily promotes its upscale Bund area, but to me, these development areas with street food, mom-and-pop shops, and hole in the wall restaurants are some of the most interesting parts. If the city were complete and polished, it would look just like another Western metropolis.

As Professor Pan Tianshu described in his class “Chinese Marketplace,” there is also an interesting discrepancy between living in a developed area and being “civilized.” Living in a metropolitan area does not necessary mean that one is cosmopolitan. Being cosmopolitan requires wealth, fashion, and certain manners. Professor Tianshu explained that during preparations for the World Expo in Shanghai, residents were actually chastised for not acting “civilized” enough. For example, invading someone’s personal space was not “civilized.” To really develop their “civilized” cosmopolitan reputation, Shanghai is working on both economy and culture.

I was really struck by the developed versus developing contrast when we visited a café called Central Perk this weekend. Central Perk is a tribute to the television show “Friends,” so I was practically shivering with excitement to visit. As we walked through the surrounding area, though, I was sure that we must have the wrong spot. The area was more impoverished, and it was a far-fetch from the usual glitzy tourist attractions. Babies were going to the bathroom in the street, and there were very old buildings all around us. I wasn’t expecting much from Central Perk at that moment, but the café turned out to be gorgeous and richly furnished. When I walked into the bathroom in the parking lot next door, the sinks were marble and the toilets were Western and very clean. Below are two pictures, one of the area and one of the cafe. I was very surprised and a little confused because of the seemingly contradictory settings. With just a few steps, it was like I had walked from one side of the city to another. Around every corner in Shanghai, I feel like I can find evidence of both the futuristic metropolis and the developing areas.

Praying in Chinese

Within earshot of the Yuyuan Gardens thronging with loud tourists, there is a quieter and more serene area that houses the unassuming entrance to the City God Temple. Like much in contemporary China, the temple has blurred the line between tradition and modernity. Although the City God temple is ostensibly rooted in ancient rituals, the current commercialization shows the tension between modern development and traditional beliefs in Chinese culture.

The City God Temple is officially a Daoist space dedicated to the worship of the Tudi Gong, or City God. The temple is more linked to popular or folk religion than Daoism, but the government does not allow popular religion spaces. With the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, China officially became an atheist state in conjunction with the Marxist concept of rejecting religion. Despite the CCP’s campaign for secular faith, many religions and philosophies, including Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, continue to flourish in China. Popular religion worship continues too, but it is rarely identified publicly as such.

Traditional belief dictates that the City God is like a spiritual governor that watches over the area and its people. There are other minor gods throughout the temple as well. In Chinese popular religion, there is a hierarchy of bureaucratic gods that protect and regulate their constituents. Each human bureaucrat has a counterpart office in the spiritual world. There are bureaucratic gods at each level with progressively increased power all the way up to the Jade Emperor.

Outside the temple, there is an open area for making incense offerings. For 5 or 10yuan, a worshipper can buy incense and then perform the appropriate ritual. With the guidance of a peer, I gave an incense offering. First, I let my incense burn in a pit (without lighting it). Once my incense has charred, I bowed three times to each cardinal direction. While bowing, I thought about my prayer or wish. Afterwards, I put my incense in a large cart with the rest of the smoldering incense. I noticed that the physical act of offering incense made my ritual feel more significant. More than simply thinking my wish, acting out the ritual helped me connect to the practice.

At this spiritual space, the tension between modern development and traditional faith is clear. The temple is under construction to maintain its traditional appearance, but it is still well within sight of urban development. Even at the temple, a visitor is never far from a Western franchise or a skyscraper. While there are clearly sincere worshippers at the temple, there is also a souvenir shop. Tourists taking pictures stand alongside worshippers offering gifts in ritual. Worshippers must buy a ticket to enter the temple, and purchasing offerings is another cost. Like at this temple, it seems that the commercialization of traditional Chinese culture is widespread in Shanghai.

Modern China has felt this tension between the past and present throughout the country. Although China is often presented as one continuous and uniform civilization, public opinions on the past and the country’s traditions often change. For example, Chairman Mao decried the Forbidden City as opulent and decadent. Now, however, the government embraces the Forbidden City as a symbol of the past’s glory and grandeur. Likewise, the Cultural Revolution infamously called for the new, young, and modern. Older ideas were passionately persecuted. Now, the Cultural Revolution is considered a mistake. In a similar cycle, Confucianism went out of fashion during the Communist push for egalitarianism, but the government supports Confucianism again because of its connection to tradition and continuity.

China now has a combination of modernity and tradition, but the balance still seems uneasy. In particular, Shanghai seems like a glittering Western city, but people actually denounce it for that exact reason. Tourists expect a traditional Chinese experience, even as the business world encourages China to modernize and commercialize.

Visiting the City God temple was a really memorable day because I could see how traditional beliefs flow and intermingle with modern urban development. Personally, I really like that ambiguity about China. Almost simultaneously, the country seems to push rapid development while also fighting to hold on to its traditional Eastern qualities. The contradictions are ubiquitous and unforgettable. The tension between the old and the new is what makes Shanghai so interesting and irresistible. 

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