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Under the Gingko Tree

The Tides of Chongqing

Chongqing is western China’s only centrally administered city. A mountain town where two rivers meet, Chongqing is one of modern Chinese history’s most strategically important strongholds, and also one of the most important sources of contemporary Chinese art. It is a city that never stands still—one with an especially complicated and interesting identity.

The topic on every Chongqing resident’s lips as of late has been the newly planted gingko trees lining the city’s streets. Chongqing itself not having enough of its own gingko trees to complete the job, most of the trees now stationed along the city’s main boulevards were shipped in from neighboring provinces as part of a city government campaign to beautify the city. This fog-shrouded mountain metropolis has been emphasizing livability as of late. Banners everywhere proclaim the coming of “Forest Chongqing.” The government has yet to offer a precise explanation as to why of all trees it chose to plant gingkos, but the people of Chongqing have their own.

The phrase itself—“the people”—seems to take on a greater depth of meaning here than it does in other places. Chongqing is a river port city, one known for its otherworldliness, and for its criminal underworld. Organized crime syndicates are a particular specialty of Chongqing. Emerging at the end of the Ming, by the late Qing these organizations had spread throughout the city. By the Republican period they operated openly as a part of Chongqing society. This, perhaps, is part of the basis for Chongqing’s popular image as a city whose personality is as spicy as its food.

Chongqing’s residents themselves like to joke about how when the famous Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing came to Chongqing to investigate investment opportunities, he brought a famous fengshui practitioner with him. No sooner had the plane landed than the fengshui master wrinkled his brow and declared that this place was only fit for two kinds of people. One was gamblers. The other was prostitutes. People like these undoubtedly lend a city’s lower strata a denser, more intricate texture. In short, the people here are lively, disorderly, the creators of their own order. All this fits with the enduring image of Chongqing as a city of savage strength.

It is not uncommon to see Chongqing’s scenery flowing across the lens in modern Chinese movies, whether as something dark and strange, light and romantic, sprightly and freshfaced, or even bohemian. The city’s essence lies somewhere in between that of over-modernized Beijing and Shanghai and a sort of “urban countryside.” River water and fog shroud the city. Bridges and cable cars crossing the river combine with the rise and fall of the surrounding topography to sever and then remake lines of sight, lending the banks of the Yangtze a pleasant visual heterogeneity. The abundance of gray exudes an air of detachment, as if, no matter which way it were pulled, the scenery could always rearrange itself in any configuration it saw fit.

The Chongqing Experiment

No one would deny that the Chongqing of today bears no resemblance to the Chongqing of the past. Amongst all the gray, the eye catches flashes of red. It is these flashes that have drawn the eyes of the entire nation to Chongqing. In the closing days of 2007, Bo Xilai took up the post of Chongqing party secretary and launched immediately into a series of major actions. Those directed at the economy were of course the most notable and direct. He sought to build “an economic core by the banks of the Yangtze, a lodestar of growth for western China, a centrally administered city whose planning accounts for town and country alike … western China’s leader in realizing prosperity.” Encouraged by the central government’s favorable policies, the Chongqing municipal government’s slogans touted “a Chongqing that is easy to live in, easy to move around in, a forest Chongqing, a peaceful Chongqing, a healthy Chongqing.” Despite economists’ objections, the “Chongqing Model” or “Chongqing Experiment” began to be held up as the successor to the pioneering spirit of the “Shenzhen Model.”

From the pagodas at Eling Park’s highest point, you can see the entire city laid out below you. Look to the east and you can see the point where the green Jialing River joins the yellow Yangtze. You can see the distinct appearances of each of the city’s districts, their physical separation reinforcing the individual character of each. Swing your gaze to the northeast and you will make out the tightly clustered towers of the financial district. Further along the horizon are the gleaming shells of luxury apartments built by burgeoning developers, and then, even further out, the skyline dips where it meets districts that still have yet to find a way to develop. With the city’s push to build, the park itself, built in the waning days of the Qing, may not occupy this commanding position in the city center very much longer.

From 2000 to 2005, a large portion of Chongqing’s factories, once the main pillar of its industry, closed down. Many of those that escaped shuttering remained on life support. Two of Chongqing’s oldest industrial structures are old arms factories moved inland during the Sino-Japanese war. Chongqing’s geographical position and climate made it an ideal place to manufacture weapons that would later be sent to the front lines. Later, Mao’s “Third Front” campaign saw the city transform into western China’s largest arms manufacturing base. The campaigns of the 1990s to orient China’s military factories towards civil industry inflicted much pain here. The majority of Chongqing’s arms factories failed to make the transition, and most employees ended up losing their jobs.

The newly built “Chongqing Tiandi” (literally: “Heaven and Earth in Chongqing”) shopping development sits on a plot of land between the city’s Yuzhong and Shapingba districts. Nowhere in Chongqing feels less Chinese. At the same time, it is also known locally as “unemployment street” (several factories used to sit on the site). The new has—naturally—won out over the old here. For someone not from Chongqing, there is nothing here to see but new buildings built to look like old buildings. Inside them are fashionable restaurants and coffee houses built with the clean, airy look that modern aesthetics demand. The old factories and workers’ dormitories that used to occupy the site have been erased. Wealth is all that is left, framed by green trees and river views.

Apart from measures directed at the economy, Bo also moved to reforge the “spirit of the city.” As the old Chinese saying goes, “grab on with both hands, and hold on tight.” In this case, one hand was Bo’s campaign to “build material civilization,” the other a campaign to “build spiritual civilization.” This took tangible form in Bo’s moves to smash organized crime in Chongqing and encourage its citizenry to “sing red songs”: on the one side was destruction, on the other, creation. The results of the campaign against Chongqing mafia are obvious to see; public order has taken a turn for the better. Every few hundred meters along Chongqing’s main arteries sit new police boxes, filled with brand new equipment and one or two members of the city’s newly constituted “transportation police.”

And whither the campaign to sing red songs? In June of 2009 Chongqing staged a huge “Sing-Read-Tell-Exhort” event, wherein participants sang red songs, read red classics, told red stories, and publicly exhorted their compatriots to behave more “redly.” In 2010, the city won the right to host, in perpetuity, a bi-annual “China Red Song Summit.” Reforms of Chongqing’s satellite TV station along similar lines have attracted heated commentary from around the country. Rare is the instance when municipal administrators have passed up the opportunity to plaster their views all over the place, demonstrating the force of will that swiftly transformed Chongqing, both in form and temperament.

However, voices expressing their skepticism of the administration of justice in Bo’s campaign against organized crime refuse to be silenced. The associations called up by his “sing red songs” campaign—performances by identically dressed performers inside enormous athletic venues, dancing in tight formation and bursting out in passionate song—have left many uneasy. No matter whether it is the huge collective choruses, or the spirit conveyed by the lyrics, all of it calls to mind the catastrophe of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. And all of this in Chongqing, a place where Cultural Revolution infighting saw Red Guard factions conducting something resembling an undeclared civil war. Stories about it now have the tinge of tragic legend: “When people elsewhere were spitting on each other, Chongqingers were shooting at each other,” is how they describe it here.

Chongqing’s “red” history is indeed a long one. There is hardly a Chinese person who does not know the story of Red Crag, a novelized treatment of an actual Kuomintang detention camp for Communist prisoners in wartime Chongqing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Chongqing is a city of monuments. Yuzhong District, Chongqing’s oldest commercial district, is arranged around a monument to the 1949 liberation. The monument’s small physical size does nothing to diminish its symbolic importance, even if it is almost completely submerged in the suffocating embrace of the towering, derivative skyscrapers surrounding it. (Walking down a nearby pedestrian street, it is hard to shake the feeling one is strolling down Wangfujing, a similar street in Beijing.) From a “spiritual fortress” commemorating Sun Yat-sen, to a monument to victory in the war against Japan, to its post-1949 re-designation as a “monument to the people’s liberation”—no matter how furiously the city around it has changed, this spot has remained Chongqing’s conceptual heart.

As The Chongqing Model puts it, “As a symbol of belief, red classics can, when incorporated with a market economy and democratic rule of law, fill a spiritual void.” This, perhaps, is the key, this “spiritual void” that has been the subject of so much debate and hand-wringing these last few years in China. The centrifugal force generated by bounding economic growth has torn a hole in China’s spiritual fabric, a hole that needs mending. In “red” culture, officialdom offers the people a spiritual option. Down at ground level, this option mutates, taking on many forms. Many of the most ardent prosecutors of the Cultural Revolution are still with us. Passion long pent-up bursts forth—whether in visits to lay wreaths at the graves of those killed in yesteryear’s struggle, or in visits to rural schools to lead “red education” classes. This kind of outmoded “redness” conflicts with the redness of Bo Xilai’s Chongqing, and is quickly suppressed wherever it surfaces. Those of the “ultra-left” might mistakenly think that the Chongqing of today is Yan’an circa 1938 or Guangzhou in 1925. They might throw themselves into organizing political study groups, into promulgating Mao Zedong thought, and might even end up deeply influencing an affluent youth or two. In the end, though, there is little to all this but wishful thinking. Other people have turned away from ideology, turning instead to religion to fill the void. Churches founded without the government’s sanction have spread through Chongqing. Whether it is belief in Jesus or belief in the organization, the continued existence of Christianity in a Chinese context has become a fraught question.

Chongqingers aver that they believe only half-heartedly, or not at all. This can be traced back to the city’s traditions. It might even be said to run in its blood. Those Chongqing residents who can trace their family history back more than a couple generations are precious few indeed. Ming-era warfare devastated Sichuan. By the time of the Kangxi emperor, nearly a hundred years later, the population of the entire province numbered only 80,000 souls. During the early Qing, it was said that “planted flags” were the province’s main output, simply because, with so few people, one had only to plant a flag in a locale to make it one’s own. It was only with the coming of war with Japan and the opening of Mao’s “Third Front” that migrants began to make their way in waves to the confluence of the Jialing and the Yangtze. A city of immigrants is a city without orthodoxy, without a fixed way of doing things, a city of constant renewal.

The Road Back to Huangjueping

Officialdom’s definitions of “spiritual civilization” and “culture” have almost nothing to do with China’s nearly empty theaters and music halls, nor with the staged spectacles they seem so fond of, and even less to do with that most scarcely-mentioned of animals, contemporary art. But as the home of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute (SFAI), Chongqing remains inseparable from Chinese contemporary art. Many of the characters and works emerging from a series of propaganda films the Institute created in the 1970s are rightly renowned. But that success never translated into the appearance of museums or art galleries of the same scale as SFAI. Artistic activities remained, by and large, confined to small circles.

A favorite topic of SFAI’s thunderous propaganda films was the shift from “the legend of Huangjueping to a new Huxi era.” The sprawling suburbs currently popping up around all of China’s rapidly developing cities inherently carry the notion of “newness.” Here, a new campus, far outside the confines of the city, held a particularly special form of aesthetic appeal: the main gate looked just like that of the ruins of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. Together with the lotus-covered ponds, fields, and the return of the famous “Rent Collection Courtyard”— a sculpture originally created at SFAI, depicting a rapacious landlord demanding rent from his impoverished tenants—the school had a “new” rustic touch (a few fortunate souls were sometimes able to catch glimpses of SFAI’s president working out in the fields, a straw rain cape draped over his shoulders). On the placards outside the Institute’s empty workshops were names of future luminaries like Chen Danqing and Wang Guangyi. From behind the wooden structures of the professors’ dormitories, there occasionally flashed the white of a painted villa wall. The new and the newly stagnant existed side-by-side.

The “Legend of Huangjueping” was by no means a complete fabrication. SFAI had every right to cast its eyes back to a glorious past. It is thanks to the school that the name “Huangjueping” enjoys certain renown in the art world. The 1980s saw it produce a clutch of well-known artists, many of whom would leave Huangjueping—leave Chongqing completely, in fact—and head for the churning cities of Beijing and Shanghai. In this way, SFAI resembles the city that its talent leaves behind: after so long, it has sunken into a sort of inland isolation.

Huangjueping is still thick with artist studios. On the street that used to house SFAI’s old campus, it is hard to take a step without bumping into entire areas filled with them. Even the graffiti scrawled along apartment building walls here carries the whiff of art. The street has Chongqing’s “one and only” art space, and its “one and only” art bookstore. It seems like Chongqing’s entire art scene is here, which, of course, means that other parts of the city are left wanting.

Bo Xilai’s plan is to make Chongqing “inland China’s most open city” and “the heart of western China.” To what degree, and to what extent, his policies will affect the city’s art ecosystem, such as it is, remains uncertain. However, for a city as vital and ambitious as Chongqing, and for the artists and art institutions that reside there, the hope is that, just as talent has flowed out, it will one day flow back in.

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Text: Guo Juan
Translation: Matthew Schrader

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