A Guokui for the contemporary masses

I was checking through CDT the other day (as I do when I’m in the mood to circumvent certain walls that surround my current location) and came across the following translation from 東南西北 (EastSouthWestNorth), an excellent blog out of Hong Kong with translations into English of news articles and blog entries from the PRC. It’s apparently often the first source for many New York Times correspondents in Asia…

满城尽带黄金假 (at ESWN, original Chinese here) accompanied by photos perfectly depicts what we could say is the flip side of the economic miracle that continues to attract the blind rush to market of corporations across the globe, the flip side of society in the aftermath of a revolution of sorts. Indeed, with the apparent growth in income disparity across China, particularly evident within cities where those with power and money continue to amass but more, I was reminded of one of the illustrations I ran across in 通俗畫報 (Popular Pictorial), published in Chengdu in 1912, to the left; click on the image for a larger version.

Though there’s no specific indication of what city is the setting for the blog tale, I’m quite certain that the grey tile and glass in the first photo is the east corner of Chengdu Railway Station. In Chengdu, like many other cities across China, the municipal government and its ‘plan’ for growth and prosperity is the gospel of development, though this development seems to favour the welcoming of Armani and Sofitel along vast faux marble and concrete pedestrian shopping areas glittering with the fountains and neon of apparent prosperity. There was no neon in 1912, but as is apparent from this image, and as I’ve read in a few works on Chengdu, the viewpoint of these ancestors of many of today’s powerful elite wasn’t too different…

The story originally published on Wenxue City is apparently written by a university student who helps an old woman collect plastic bottles, etc. from outside the train station then accompanies her home; the student writes: 终于到了婆婆居住的小区。冗长的小巷里,家家户户门口都堆满了各式各样的垃圾。曾经以为《功夫》里的猪笼城寨是完全虚构的地方,然而比起这里,那根本就不算什么! ‘Finally, we reached the district in which the old lady lived. In this long lane, each family had stacks of garbage in front of their entrances. I used to think that Pig Sty City in the movie Kung Fu Hustle was fictional, but that was nothing compared to the reality here!’ It’s an interesting read, but the visuals are equally telling of this contrast which many of us likely have witnessed in China. Just after the Republican Revolution, certainly those with influence and money tended to hold the ear of the new political or military governments in Chengdu, as depicted in yet another illustration from 通俗畫報 on the right (click for a larger image), perhaps helping themselves in the rapidly changing and developing urban society a bit more than the poor of their city.

From a different perspective, a July article in 经济观察报 The Economic Observer, (in Chinese here; English summary here) suggests that the urban-rural income gap is a much greater concern than income disparity within any given city. From my limited, predominately urban-based perspective, it would seem that the struggles of people such as the old woman and her neighbours, the people rummaging in trash bins for newspaper and plastic bottles whom we see every day might be greater, but I’m uncertain of this.

The concern for the editors of 通俗畫報 was quite clearly the urban dwellers and their struggles comparative with the rich and powerful, perhaps less so those in the countryside, but is this still the case today? Considerations of this kind of income gap or the ‘gini coefficient’ (基尼系数) quoted in the EO article were absent in 1912, but it seems the problems at least within the city might be quite similar; and sadly the policies of those with influence quite similar as well. The market economy and crony capitalism was quite influential on policy in the Republican era, as presaged by the two illustrations from 1912, as it is in contemporary China as well.

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