Smothered by Smog, Day by Day

Since 2011, every winter, major Chinese cities appear on global media always with the word “smog”, attached with a picture of a seemingly ghost town in those typical horror films. Just a few weeks ago, when I was at Beijing International Airport waiting for transfer, I was hoping to see the world-(in)famous scene of air pollution which is also a tool for the Western media to mock at the growing Chinese dragon. For better or worse, this was what I saw around 8am there.

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Just after three days since my arrival in my northwestern hometown, the Beijing International Airport had to cancel most of flights due to worsened air condition.

Smog is a “big city problem”. It’s also seen as a early stage of economic development, in which the environmental and ecological problems are increasing and previously ignored. Before the 2000s, my home city was the best example of the worst air condition city in China. Older generations told us, in those years, if somebody wore a white face mask outdoors for a few hours, there would be two black dots appearing on it — how much polluted and harmful air did people actually inhaled for all these years? But my city was only a medium size town with three million people, located in the vast western land — our problem was nobody else’s problem. Nowadays elderly Beijingers remembered there was smogs in the capital far before the 2000s. At that time, no name was given to the smoky sky with forever color of grey, the locals only knew that, the old way to praise the days of fall and winter “with extremely blue and high sky” was no longer applicable. Nobody in China who has watched the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympic Games could forget, some athletes from the US were wearing anti-poison respirators. People could get used to feeling bad in their own throats and having lung problems, but only to realise the unaware threat to their own lives when others starting to protect themselves from the air made them “lose face”.

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There have been more and more discussions concerning smog in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin online. Frequently asked questions include “what is smog”, “what is PM2.5”, “what harm would smog cause”, and “what could prevent smog killing us”… The convenience which provided by the new media creates a perfect platform where real and fake infos mix and travel from anywhere to everywhere. Some posted articles on public accounts of Wechat, claiming the smogs that are inhaled into people’s lungs will forever stay in human bodies. Some believe agaric could clean up the poisonous from the air, therefore buying a big amount agarics and cooking them in as many dishes as possible were popular for a while. Experts come to refute rumours.

Every year, smog in big cities becomes popular topics in “friend circles” of Wechat, Weibo, and also on traditional media. However, lacking of education on the matter is still the main reason for why there is no effective means to solve the problem and to prevent the numerous harms it causes the urban population.

Visualizing Cultures Controversy and Beyond

In October 2014, I visited an exhibition entitled “War and Propaganda 14/18” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG). Shocked by the elaborated details of the depictions of both visual and textural, I was feeling a little bit of terrified when seeing some of the images of Germany in posters and postcards produced in Britain, France and the U.S.

belgian-propaganda-poster

Fight-now-or-wait-for-this

Upon first seeing pictures on Visualizing Cultures, I was immediately reminded of the images at “War and Propaganda 14/18”. For me, the brutality of the German and Japanese soldiers demonstrated in these images was almost disturbing of a parallel amount. Yet there was a bit more of this feeling of me about the Japanese paintings. The reason for that, I would like to call “national sensitivity”. Simply put, it is something triggered by seeing the image when one’s own people being slaughtered — a reinforcing process for the erection of an individual’s nationhood.

However, the national sensitivity of mine did not cause me strong rejection of this online presentation. For as far as we know, given the fact that the Chinese have been trying every means to show the world the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Japanese during the war, these images, made by Japanese themselves, providing exactly how barbarous and inhuman the Japanese were. Through further browsing the website and reading the texts, I realized it was less upsetting how the images of the Chinese were butchered (although they were), but more disturbing because of the texts written by the professors, which contain words like “exhilarating beauty”, ” a beautiful, heroic, modern war” and etc. This use of language might play with the fire of beautifying or even glorifying the war. According to Wong, this misleading usage of language is the main reason for Chinese students’ protest.

Image and literary text function primarily in a inter-complimentary way. Decoding image and decoding text are controlled by different areas in the brain. Image interpretation is essential for human survival and is derived from our ancestor; while language, especially literary creation came into being much later comparing to the ability of image comprehension, for to immediately percept images is one of essential animal instincts. Therefore, it is reasonable to deduct that image stimuli receives faster and stronger feedback from human brain than literary text. Images provide something that cannot be documented by words. Certain extent of emptiness that leaves out certain details stimulates imagination, further creates much complex emotional and perceptional effects on readers. On the other hand, literary texts that accompany the images serve to direct the readers to a certain understanding perspective, which generates certain emotion or rational thinking, as expected by the exhibitor (the professors, in this case), resulting in fulfilling the exhibiting purposes. Therefore, the “misunderstanding” of the Chinese students in this controversy seems to be caused by the lack of proper instruction of viewing the provided by the professors. What about the “brainwashed” Chinese students who were misunderstood by Chronicle, for whom it is rather merely an “understanding” without “mis-“? Were these students being overly national sensitive? Why on earth would they being so “narrow minded” and “overreacting”? How would the Taiwanese react to these images? How about Hong Kong people? Accept it or not, they are to some extent related to the people who were depicted as “weak”, “humiliated”, and “killed” in these paintings. How much does an individual’s nationality/nationhood matter here?

The Falling Man – a photograph taken by the veteran photographer Richard Drew on the worst day – recorded a man falling from the north tower of World Trade Center, with his hands at sides, his legs bent, facing forwards. This photograph caused a huge furor right after its appearance. Readers were outraged and asserting the image for being “distressing”. It is so controversial since it represents a series of trauma: a theme of trauma (9/11 terrorist attacks), a national and an individual trauma. it gives the reader “a punch in the stomach”, causes them filled with severe psychological discomfort.

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But The Falling Man is not the first photograph that “punched in the stomach” of readers so hard that caused huge public debate and discomfort. On February 1, 1968, during the opening stages of the Tet Offensive, Vietnam War, photographer Eddie Adams took his most famous photograph — a Vietcong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém, was being executed by police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan.

RETRANSMISSION TO RESIZE FILE--FILE--South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. Nguyen died Wednesday, July 15, 1998  at his home in Burke, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after a battle with cancer, said his daughter, Nguyen Anh. He was 67. This photo of Nguyen aiming a pistol point-blank at the grimacing prisoner's head became a memorable image of the Vietnam War. The photograph, by Eddie Adams, won a Pulitzer prize for The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
RETRANSMISSION TO RESIZE FILE–FILE–South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. Nguyen died Wednesday, July 15, 1998 at his home in Burke, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after a battle with cancer, said his daughter, Nguyen Anh. He was 67. This photo of Nguyen aiming a pistol point-blank at the grimacing prisoner’s head became a memorable image of the Vietnam War. The photograph, by Eddie Adams, won a Pulitzer prize for The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

This photograph shares some effects to the audience as “the Falling Man” does. Each of them records the very last moment of a person’s life. Both of them were at the very moment of their death. In fact, even the bullet exiting Lém’s head was revealed in this photograph if one takes a closer look. But unlike the public’s reaction of great anger to The Falling Man, American public’s reactions to Adams’ photograph of war execution were much less fierce and without much resentment. In Adams’ photograph, the Americans are the spectators of this trauma while the Falling Man makes the American people the receivers of this trauma, for they see the person falling down as a possible self, or a possible/real person in their own lives. In this way, it is understandable that a immense rejection of the Falling Man was received from the American public.

The example of different reactions of American public to The Falling Man and Adams photograph of execution sheds light on the role of “national belonging” in responding to a certain historical visual representation. It can certainly justify the emotional reaction of some Chinese students to the paintings and the way that the paintings were displayed on a website. Accordingly, the scholars, who failed to understand this universal nature of human, are standing on an absolutely uneven ground, despite how righteous and just they claim to be.

So was the response of the protest a result of PRC’s excessive patriotic education and brainwashing? Unlikely. The national sensitivity of a person depends on his individual nationhood, which is built up in a complex way, which varies from nation to nation. The Sino-Japanese war is not the past only for the Chinese, certainly not only for mainland Chinese people; it is also the past for the Japanese. Invisibly but more importantly, it is the past for all the non-Chinese and non-Japanese, who imagine they do not “take a side”, but they did for a century .

The main difference between the war propaganda at MKG exhibition and the woodblock paintings on Visualizing Cultures is that, the German’s brutality was depicted by their foe, while the Japanese’s slaughtering actions, despite the “heroic poses”, were illustrated by themselves. Any human would naturally be disgusted by ferocious scenes. How would today’s Japanese react if they see these paintings? Given the equal human nature, I’m certain they would feel disturbed to see them today. As for the Germans, when I and my German friend walking through the “War and Propaganda 14/18” exhibition, he was not only as shocked as I was by the brutality of the war, (although the poster/postcard nature of these images means the use of high-exaggeration, animalization, and fantasizing) but kept filling me in with more historical details that he learnt in school about how brutal the war was for both sides.

Exploring the Meanings of the Great Wall of China Today

The concept of the Great Wall as a national symbol and the ideas based on or derived from it constitute a myth for Waldron. From a negative symbol to a national pride, the meanings of the Great Wall are very fluid. It is given different connotations in accordance with the needs of the group of people in the process of nation building, or the process of transformation from culture to nation, as Waldron would possibly agree. But to which extent does these meanings matter today? Geographical, social and economical factors are crucial to understand the precise significance the Great Wall embodies in current Chinese society.

The Great Wall of China, as noted in the text, is by no means one single wall with one unified story, as it is always generally understood. It is a combination of several walls erected over thousand of years; it is a set of histories, instead of only one. Extending from Shanhai Guan in the east to Jiayu Guan in the west, these walls, complementary to natural landscapes, served as northern frontiers dividing agrarian civilization and the steppe tribes. Today, however, it is said that thirty percent of the Great Wall is in ruins, and another twenty percent is in “reasonable” condition, according to a survey of a hundred sections of the wall carried out by the Great Wall Society of China in 2006.1 And the remaining fifty percent has disappeared. While the parts close to Beijing and other cities (such as Jiayu Guan city) draw attention from the government, and protected by law; some other parts of the Wall at those places where they are remote from population-condensed areas and tourist sites, are loosely protected. Geographical locations of the ruins of the walls play a role here. But if the government wants to protect the Great Wall for its archeological and historical importance, why does not it protect every meter of the Wall in the same manner?

What relates to the geographical factor is how different social groups perceive the Great Wall, whether it is a national symbol or not. In Waldron’s text, the alterations of meanings occurred mainly among Chinese and Western literati. Even though literature and folklores might influence general opinion on the Wall among the common, the degree to which it has impact on is hard to distinguish. In distant places, many local villagers even consider the ruins of the Wall as “only a pile of earth”, and for some tourists, drawing and carving on the Wall are not a behavior to be ashamed of. For these who are also Chinese, is the established Great Wall still a symbol of national pride or even important at all to their national identity? If part of the nation do not feel the national significance of the symbol, how can this symbol be important for “national” identity? Or is it just for the part of people who can be vocal and represent the nation in the world?

Last but not least, economic reason also drives to the restoration of the Wall, which links to the geographical factor previously discussed. Economic concerns matter much to the local governments, if less so to the central government. Tourism attracts more capital and further lifts local economy; not to mention the Great Wall is not only a domestic traveller attraction, but also an international tourist magnet. The symbolic and ideological meanings of the Wall exist and become significant because of national leaders and intellectuals (linking back to the social factor), who identify themselves as part of the imagined massive community called China/Chinese-culture-sharers, in front of “others”, feeling themselves different and special, if not better (proud).

There are different reasons to preserve what is considered “old.” I do not agree with Waldron on the “authenticity” of the Great Wall recognized by “Chinese people”. Various parts of the Wall have been torn down, rebuilt, surrounded by recreation parks, and then charged for entrance fee. These “Great Wall(s)” are of anything but authenticity. Thus preserving the authentic is hardly one of the reasons for restoration; and restoration with other purposes create nothing authentic.

Tearing down the “old” and building up the “new” is a desperate move to search for recognition and self-identification. Comparing to the parts of the Great Wall, which are “lucky” enough to be preserved, the old towns of some other cities in China was less fortunate. Lanzhou, a city filled with architectures from Ming and Qing dynasties, was gradually and completely destroyed and rebuilt. In recent years, the city officials started to realize the loss of uniqueness by completely discarding its past. But it is already too late. The special city structure “double city” nowadays can only be seen in old photos and a newly built sculpture in the city park. At the places where the original buildings were, some black stone tablets stand, giving basic information of the “deceased buildings”, looking ridiculous.

Old double-city structure in City Park:
City Park 1
“Gravestones” of the old town in the lost memory:
Stone Tablet 1 Stone Tablet 2