Essays

May the 4th Spirit Be With You

The enduring, eroded legacy of youth protest in China – Alec Ash

On September 15th 1915, the intellectual Chen Duxiu wrote a paean to the youth of China, for the opening essay of a revolutionary magazine he had founded:

“Youth are like the early spring, like the morning sun, like the blooming grass, like the sharp blade fresh off the grinding stone; youth is the most valuable time of life.”

Titled ‘Advice for Youth,’ Chen’s essay lauds young Chinese who oppose the nation’s status quo as “fresh, vigorous cells inside the human body,” where the old guard are “rotten, corrupted cells.” In this metabolism of society, fresh cells must “vigourously drive out” the rotten. If “their blade is sharp enough to cut iron and hemp, and they don’t follow other’s lead or hesitate in thought,” he exhorts, then “maybe society will arrive at a peaceful day.”

Essays

Bare Branches

How Singles Day in China forgot its origins – Alec Ash


Every November 11th, while Brits wear poppies to remember the dead of WWI, the China news cycle [rotates] back around to [Singles Day] or ‘Double Eleven’: the online shopping bonanza, Black Friday on acid, pioneered by e-commerce company Alibaba. Last year, over [$30 billion] worth of goods were sold in 24 hours, and the early hours of this year’s discounts (sales start at midnight) are already 32% higher. But Singles Day hasn't always been about sales. The only figure worth crunching when it started was the loneliest number, number one.

In 1993, the story goes, four Nanjing University students were slouching on their dorm bunkbeds, slurping instant noodles, drinking beer, chain-smoking and complaining that the ladies weren’t falling over each other to get at them. They were ‘bare branches’, they grumbled, using a word for single men, guanggun, that still carried stigma. “From today,” one of them said, pleased by the recurring bare branch of the number one in that day’s date, “November 11th will be called Singles Day.”

Essays

The PRC Just Reached the Average Age of China’s Past Dynasties

History lessons for Xi Jinping – Alec Ash

The People’s Republic of China just turned seventy years old. The fatherland is now the same age as Samuel L. Jackon, Ozzy Osborne and Prince Charles; the Chinese Communist Party is already older than Marx was when he died (64); and the government in Beijing has exceeded the life expectancy in Bhutan. Perhaps most tellingly, China’s latest political incarnation has also reached the average age that its previous forty-nine dynasties lasted.

In an excerpted piece the China Channel ran a year and a half ago, Harvard scholar Yuhua Wang studied lessons from China’s dynastial history, coming up with that seventy-year mean average, albeit accounting for “a wide-ranging variation from the Heng Chu dynasty (403–404), which lasted for less than a year, to the Tang (618–907), which ruled China for 289 years.” (It’s worth noting also that although there have been 49 Chinese dynasties or kingdoms in total, many overlapped with rival territories; there are roughly 16 periods of Chinese history, and half as many dynasties which ruled the entirety of what is now claimed as “China.”)

Vignette

The Promised (Disney)land

Middle-class aspirations at Shanghai Disneyland – Alec Ash

Wang Zhigang flew three hours just to see Mickey Mouse. In swimming shorts and a colourful umbrella-hat sold by peddlers outside the entrance to keep the sun off, he queued in 97 degrees heat for hours to get on the best rides. All because he made a promise to his son while Shanghai Disneyland was still under construction, that they would go when it opened. Wang Zhigang is a good father.

With his eight-year-old son, Xinbiao, he flew from Bazhong in Sichuan (just another anonymous Chinese city of three million) to Pudong international airport by the Pacific ocean. He took a plastic bag into the theme park. In it were two pots of instant noodles, a cylinder of chips, three bottles of water and a pack of what I can only describe as miscellanious meat jerky in shrink wrap. In his line of work as a travel agent, he explained, he has been to many of China’s tourist destinations, from the Sichuanese nature reserve Jiuzhaigou to mountainous Zhangjiajie in Hunan. “China has famous mountain and water scenery,” he told me – a stock phrase – then seemed to doubt his own pitch. “But it’s just mountains and water. Disneyland is more experimental.”

Dispatches

Singing for Hong Kong

Three protests, three tunes – Alec Ash

In October 2014 I travelled to Hong Kong for a friend’s wedding. I had booked my flight the year before, and went straight to St. John’s Cathedral from the airport. But instead of taking a cab down Connaught Road – Hong Kong Island’s central thoroughfare, usually choked with traffic – I walked down the empty multi-lane expressway it had become. Metal barricades were strewn across the tarmac, some knocked over. Impromptu stalls by the roadside were handing out free bottles of water and biscuits. A scattering of people were sitting cross-legged under the shade of overpasses, many of them on picnic blankets. But for the incongruous setting of an abandoned highway, the scene had the air of a not very successful county fair.

Later, after dusk had fallen and vows had been made, I slipped out of the wedding reception in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club and returned with a couple of friends to the blocked-off stretch of motorway. In the interim, crowds had gathered in the tens of thousands. Now the way was packed, with only elbow room to squeeze past the miles of protestors marching for democracy.