Saturday, March 23, 2013

It Is Cool to Rebel

Back in The Sixties, which, by my calculation, lasted roughly from 1965 to 1972, millions of young people took to the streets in protest against war, racial discrimination, corporate domination of public policy and in support of various other worthy causes.  But did these acts of rebellion succeed in transforming America?  Perhaps not enough.

According to an occasionally reliable source (MOFI), a meeting took place on April 17, 1972, between Dick Cheney and Karl Rove which included the following dialogue:

Dick (snarling out of one side of his mouth): What are we going to do about these obnoxious brats taking to the streets and demanding “peace” and “justice?”  This could ruin all our plans!

K-Rove (with an air of insidious smugness): Don’t worry, Dick, they may get their “Civil Rights” and their end to the Vietnam War, but when the dust clears, our grip on America’s resources will be tighter than ever, and then the middle class and poor will fall helplessly into our hands like a couple of ripe avocados all ready to garnish our elitist salads – mwahahahaha!

How prescient Rove was.  Conservative opposition to rights for women, minorities, gays and lesbians, as well as conservative contempt for the environment, have all been in retreat since the Sixties.  But - where control of the nation’s wealth is concerned - the right wing has won every battle.  The rise of conservatism since 1980 has resulted in skyrocketing incomes for the super-rich, and stagnant or declining incomes for the rest of us.

So should we children of the Sixties have just shut up and stayed indoors applying ourselves to our  school work?  I don’t have an answer for this question, but I will use it to segue into a topic that has recently drawn my interest: the rise of a protest generation in the People’s Republic of China.  This generation, which embraces values dramatically different from those of its parents, emphasized its uniqueness by the adoption of the word “ku” in the 1990s as its all-around slang term of approval.  Ku as a slang term is based on the English word “cool” and is linked in China to the rise of individualism.

One of my Shanghainese super-students and I produced a power point presentation that focuses on this generation and its dominating presence on China’s social media.  Since the material appearing on social media is anonymously produced, it’s a bit presumptuous for us to attribute it to any particular generation, but not entirely presumptuous for the following reason: since the 1990s, a spirit of individualistic expression (ku-ness) has emerged among young Chinese that is unlike anything China has seen for many generations, and the satirical protests that are showing up in social media have the unmistakable stamp of this generation’s feisty attitude.

A lot of this web satire is based on double entendre as is, for example, the phrase “grass mud horse.”  These three words are pronounced in Chinese “cao, ni, ma.”  As it happens, cao ni ma is a nasty curse in China meaning, literally, “Fuck your mother,” but used more or less the way Americans use the phrase “Fuck you!”

Grass-mud-horse has been extended on the web through the image of a llama, an animal whose countenance and furry coat suggest this phrase.  Artist Ai Weiwei has taken the image one step further by posting a picture of himself completely naked with his “central parts” strategically covered by a llama-like stuffed toy. 

This picture calls to mind the sentence: “Grass mud horse covers central (body parts).”  Pronounced “Cao ni ma dang zhongyang,” this is a homonym for “Fuck you, Central Party Committee!”

The brave and brilliant Ai Weiwei has been imprisoned in the past for his protests, but as of now, he is free to carry on his freedom-promoting shenanigans.

Our presentation at an anthropology conference incorporated a number of these oblique critiques of China’s party and government, including the widely known use of the phrase or image of “river crabs” (hé xiè) to satirize the government’s promotion of a “harmonious society” (hé xié).  The harmonious society concept seems largely to be used to suppress individuals whom the authorities want silenced.

                  Chinese flag with River Crabs in place of stars

Another form of satire is represented by the following reference to the heroic Long March, the Valley Forge-like experience in which battered revolutionary soldiers hiked for thousands of miles through harsh terrain pursued by Nationalist forces in 1934-35.  It was said that food was so scarce that soldiers sometimes wound up eating their own shoes, and, according to legend, a generous older soldier might allow himself to starve by claiming to not be hungry and giving his shoes to a younger man.

But in China today, certain inadequately regulated companies (perhaps by virtue of bribes to responsible government officials) have been found putting shoe leather and other grossly inappropriate and impure substances in their processed food before selling it to unknowing customers.

In light of the discovery that contemporary Chinese have been eating shoe leather, some snarky internet rebels posted the following picture from the Long March along with a caption saying,

“The old soldier gives his shoes to the young man. Then, looking at the young man he says to himself, ‘Once we are liberated, I hope every Chinese can have as many shoes to eat as he wants.’”

Here are a couple of the many comments that this bit of web satire inspired:

“That old soldier must have been a fortune teller!”

“We have damn sure made it!”

The spirit of satirical protest lives on in China.  This month it was reported that 14,000 pig carcasses have been found floating in the Huangpu River which flows past Shanghai.  As concern spread about the effects of this shocking development, the government announced that the city’s water supply was nevertheless safe to drink.  A Chinese netizen posted the following response on Weibo (China’s Twitter): “Thousands of rotting carcasses in the water, but it is still safe to drink.  What a magical country we live in!”

This is all interesting stuff, and to an extent, encouraging.  A clever and active citizenry that dares to defy its government is a necessary element in any decent society.  But what does this portend for China’s future?  Will the government give way on some issues, while still dominating and exploiting the citizenry a la Cheney and Rove?  Or will China impress us all when Generation Ku ® grows up and builds a society with a spirit of justice and freedom such as we in the U.S. have so far failed to attain?

MOFI: my own fertile imagination.

® See “Generation Ku: Individualism and China’s Millennial Youth,” Ethnology, Vol. 44 Fall 2005, by R. L. Moore.