Farming is Ugly: Reform, Friction and Bishan Commune

From 2014, Anhui Province will pilot a reform of the residential land market in China, thus integrating rural Anhui in the national housing market. On the opposite note, artist and activist Ou Ning has proposed the Bishan time money currency, intending to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan Village.


Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.

Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.


Bishan Village, Yi County, Anhui Province

At first sight, Bishan village doesn’t come across as a poor village; the traffic conditions are good, the small county seat is only 15 min away on electric scooter, the preferred vehicle of most villagers, and the county seat can boast of a new hospital, a new school, rows of new townhouses and apartment blocks, construction sites and smaller factories. There are similarly plenty of newly build houses in Bishan. Nevertheless, the wealth represented by these new houses, does not come from the local economy, but is almost entirely based on young people going to the city to work, sending money home, building houses they do not themselves reside in. Old people and small children constitute the actual population as most young people have left to work in the more developed urban areas. Furthermore, many families, who have migrated to the city, have had no legal way of selling the land they no longer reside on, leaving the village dotted with empty houses.

Yi County is renowned for its well-preserved Hui-style villages, and the growing reliance on tourism through the past ten years has altered the economic foundation of these villages considerably. Bishan is, however, not one of these tourist sites. Even though Hui-style remains the predominant architectural feature, the many newly build houses cause a lack of visual, rural authenticity so crucial to urban tourists. Nevertheless, Bishan has become attractive to investors, mainly within the hotel sector, who wish to take advantage of its proximity to famous tourist destinations and good traffic conditions.

In this Huizhou village on the foot of the Yellow Mountain range, artist, curator and editor Ou Ning and his colleague Zuo Jing initiated Bishan Commune in 2011; a call for a return to the countryside and a renewed relationship between urban and rural areas, countering the official line of further urbanization.


Ou Ning's house Buffalo Institute

Ou Ning’s house Buffalo Institute


A house for Bishan Commune

An old compound in traditional Hui-style in the centre of Bishan constitute the headquarters of Bishan Commune. Ou Ning bought the house in 2010 and called it Buffalo Institute. In the spring of 2013, he moved permanently to Bishan with his family (mother, younger brother, nephew, girlfriend and her son). The move indicates a significant turning point for Bishan Commune, entering a phase of action and interaction.

A constant flow of visitors, foreign and Chinese, urbanities and local villagers, pass through the house and stay for longer or shorter periods, either to work and discuss with Ou Ning, to do smaller projects like investigations of the local folk music or handicrafts, fieldwork studies of the countryside or, as many do, experience the traditional Hui-style houses in a new condition.

The house occupied by Buffalo Institute used to be the dormitory of the sent down youth during the Cultural Revolution. A story that now somehow repeats itself, albeit under very different circumstances. Buffalo Institute is a gathering space of free, independent learning and sharing and where elaborate discussions on the unfolding of Bishan Commune and the future of Bishan village continuously take place, which is also the result of Ou Ning and his family’s warm curiosity and generosity.


Informal land market

Ou Ning was not legally allowed to buy the house in 2010, so the proof of ownership still carries the name of the previous owner. In the countryside there are roughly three categories of land: farmland (collectively owned by the villagers), state owned land and residential land (the land your house is built on). Farmland can be expropriated and converted into state owned land and then sold or leased to developers and the like, but residential land can so far not be traded within the law. However, circumvention of state regulations unofficially sanctioned by local officials has created an informal residential land market in Bishan and Yi County making it possible for Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and others to purchase houses in Bishan. Due to the unofficial character of this residential land market and the consequential lack of real estate agents, it still requires good connections with the villagers to purchase a house, since you need introduction to the farmers who are willing to or can be persuaded to sell. Moreover, not many people dare to undertake the costs of buying a house without the necessary legal protection in case of expropriation or the like, further limiting the scope of this informal residential land market.

To address these issues, Anhui Province is from the beginning of next year piloting an official market for residential land in a selected number of counties (, including Yi county under whose jurisdiction Bishan is placed. This pilot residential land market makes it possible for external actors to purchase or lease houses and land within Bishan village legally, something which can potentially transform the appearance and demography of Bishan once again.


Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official's Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.

Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official’s Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.


Farming is ugly

Ou Ning explains that it is often urban people of wealth who are able to buy the old houses and undertake the high costs of restoring them. Mrs. Liang, who has recently purchased a house in Bishan, expresses that she wants to convert the land in connection to her house into a flower garden, since “it is not pretty to look at cultivated farmland”.[1] This statement suggests a problematic attitude towards the rural cultural landscape.

If the further opening up of the housing land market implies an invasion of unscrupulous capital with no consideration for and appreciation of the existing rural cultural landscapes and practices, then Bishan might be on the path of a dangerous development, turning the village into an urban playground, designed to fulfill the ever-expanding needs of urban residents and tourists. When not properly integrating the rural residents in the decision making process, this kind of development tends to neglect the needs of the rural population by not creating any real job opportunities for often uneducated farmers and causing a fluctuation in housing prices and general living costs.

This is also an aspect where the presence of Bishan Commune in Bishan can be a significant factor. Bishan Commune and their like-minded continuously make an effort to influence newcomers to the area as well as local villagers and officials of the importance of preserving rural culture as a visible feature of Bishan and direct the development in a more sustainable direction. If they succeed, then Bishan might be able to change for the better, providing job opportunities that will allow young people the possibility to choose to stay in Bishan. The need of Bishan to develop economically is a stated priority of many of the local residents, who generally support expropriation of farming land, since it allows capital to enter. Ongoing discussions with the villagers on this subject, make the economical aspect a concern Bishan Commune have had to take into consideration. Even though they might not always agree with Bishan Commune on the terms of development, local villagers and officials show great support for the initiative.


The common space at Han Yu's Pig's Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.

The common space at Han Yu’s Pig’s Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.


Alternative economic circuit

As a means to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan, Ou Ning recently proposed the Bishan time money currency, where smaller tasks such as housekeeping at the local guesthouse Pig’s Inn or helping in the fields of Young Village Officials Garden, can be exchanged for a meal at the local hotel Tailai, books at the soon-to-open branch of the Nanjing bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde, or second hand artifacts donated to the shop Ou Ning will open at Buffalo Institute and so forth. All the Bishan time money members listed above agree to this system of exchange. Even though the system valorize labour in a manner maybe not entirely consistent with Kropotkin’s  concept of “mutual aid” advocated by Ou Ning and maybe won’t bring any direct job opportunities, it still provides an important alternative to the existing model and manages to incorporate the villagers’ concerns for some sort of economic possibilities. Furthermore, Bishan Commune can be an important marker of identification and will give Bishan a special standing in relation to the neighboring villages, providing that “something different”, which will be important when attracting the right kind of “caring” capital to the village.

The Bishan time money has yet to be put into effect, but Ou Ning expects it to be set in motion sometime around next spring. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the Bishan time money, is how the villagers will embrace this new system, if they will make it their own, thus creating the possibility of this alternative currency to exceed the core members and entering the village society as a whole. When asked whether Ou Ning has discussed making an independent monetary system in Bishan with the local officials, he answers: This I do first, and then I ask.

The coming years will show, how the presence of Bishan Commune in the village and the introduction of Bishan Time money combined with a reformed residential land market will affect Bishan and which direction the development will take. But to answer the question Tom Cliff asked in his introductory article on Bishan Commune: Is intention sufficient? I think it is safe to answer, that with this kind of project intention can never be sufficient. But intention is an important trigger for agency, and in Bishan Commune’s case it is an agency that is constantly reinvented and renegotiated in collaboration with local actors, thus aiming at creating new spaces of possibilities in Bishan and beyond.

Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD fellow at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, China Studies. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Artists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.

[1] Informal conversation with Mrs. Liang, Yixian, October and November 2013.

Iqbal’s Pakistan! – The Country Ahead?


The term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ is frequently used in the Pakistani media – both electronic media such as television and radio, and Pakistani daily newspapers. If you search on the internet, you will come across several results under the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ in online papers, articles published in local journals or magazines and on sites reviewing seminars and conferences held in the country. You will find the term on YouTube and other similar websites where video recordings of talk shows, sitcoms, and Urdu plays are posted with the theme – Iqbal ka Pakistan – the Urdu term for Iqbal’s Pakistan.

What does the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ mean? And what is the relationship between Iqbal and Pakistan? Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, popularly known as ‘the spiritual father of Pakistan’[1] and leading Persian and Urdu poet of undivided India, presented the idea of “the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single State” in his presidential address to the 25th session of the All-India Muslim League held in Allahabad on 29 December, 1930.[2] He also stated that: “Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim State appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India”. This idea presented by Muhammad Iqbal was later adopted by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan as a proposal for the establishment of a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent. Mohommad Iqbal has ever since been revered in Pakistan as a national hero just like his political counterpart Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher, was born in Sialkot (now in central Punjab, Pakistan) on 9 November 1877. Iqbal was engaged in the study of Arabic and Persian in his early years but later on the advice of Sir Thomas Arnold, his teacher of philosophy at the Government College of Lahore, he travelled to Cambridge in 1905 to continue his studies. He also studied at Heidelberg and Munich universities in Germany. Upon his return to India, he both taught at the Government College and worked as a lawyer in Lahore. In 1922, Iqbal received the knighthood from the British Crown. In 1928, he delivered a series of lectures in various universities in India which was later published under the title The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, a work that provides significant context and guidelines for his ideas expressed in his poetry. Written in both Urdu and Persian, Iqbal’s poetry continues to inspire Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent and beyond. Iqbal died on April 21, 1938 in Lahore and his mausoleum beside the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore is visited by many today[3].

Iqbal’s poetry has been used in several national contexts. Muhammad Iqbal claims admiration among intellectual Pakistanis, both intelligentsia and young students. To this day, in Pakistani schools, each morning students, teachers and other staff assemble and sing one of Iqbal’s famous poems written for children ‘Lab pay aati hai du’a ban ke tamanna meri’ (My longing comes to my lips as supplication of mine-O God! May like the candle be the life of mine). Similarly, speech contests related to Muhammad Iqbal and his vision of the Indian Muslim state are held in Pakistani schools and colleges while his poetry is frequently quoted in public talks. Pakistani politicians, leaders and other professionals often quote Iqbal’s poetry to support their own progressive ideas. Iqbal’s poetry has also been frequently used by religious scholars and Islamic hardliners to articulate their own religious views. His works have been translated in several regional languages of South Asia as well as several European languages, among others English, German, and Spanish.

Annemarie Schimmel, a famous scholar, pointed out that Muhammad Iqbal “… has been regarded as the unsurpassable master of every virtue and art; he has been made a forerunner of socialism or an advocate of Marxism; he was anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist; he was the poet of the elite and of the masses, the true interpreter of orthodox Islam and the advocate of a dynamic and free interpretation of Islam, the enemy of Sufism and a Sufi himself; he was indebted to Western thought and criticized everything Western mercilessly. One can call him a political poet, because his aim was to awaken the self-consciousness of Muslims, primarily in the Indian Subcontinent but also in general, and his poetry was indeed instrumental in bringing forth decisive changes in the history of the Subcontinent. One can also style him a religious poet, because the firm belief in the unending possibilities of the Koran and the deep and sincere love of the Prophet (in both his quality as nation-builder and as eternal model for man) are the bases of his poetry and philosophy”.

The question is – why do the Pakistanis use the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’? What would be Iqbal’s Pakistan like?

A large part of Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry is dedicated to the youth. He wished to see the Muslim youth vibrant in its ideals, determined in its actions and high-aiming in its approach to life. He said,

“I have love for those youngsters who pull the stars down.”[4]

Using the analogy of ‘Shaheen’ (the Urdu/Persian terminology used for an eagle) in his poetry, Muhammad Iqbal draws his readers’ attention to the qualities of an eagle ‘the king of birds’. An eagle, Iqbal says, has a sharp vision, it does not live on the prey that has been hunted down by other birds or animals, it lives on the peaks of high mountains and finally, it does not build a nest. These qualities of an eagle that Iqbal describes in his poetry symbolize a life of independence, dignity, freedom, and self-reliance. By using the symbol of a ‘Shaheen’ in his poetry, Iqbal attempts to inculcate in the Muslim youth an approach towards life that contains high ideals followed by action. In addressing the youth he wrote,

“You can only claim a universe to be yours that is created by you

Do not consider this world made of stone and wood that is in sight, your universe!”[5]

Muhammad Iqbal attempted to create self-consciousness among the Muslims of India so that they might free themselves from the British control on the one hand and the domination of Hindus on the other.  In his poem, ‘Shaheen’, Iqbal expresses his ideas using the example of an eagle:

East and West these belong to the world of the pheasant,
The blue sky—vast, boundless—is mine![6]

This symbolism in Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry is not merely an expression of his mystical thoughts but, he invokes the Muslim youth, these ideals can be and must be achieved through a transformed knowledge about the Self. Many of Iqbal’s poems talk about the Self: “…the system of the universe originates in the Self, and that the continuation of the life of all individuals depends on strengthening the Self”[7]. The human identity, according to Iqbal, is boundless, if realized to its true worth. Iqbal challenges the youth to realize their real worth by tapping into the qualities that belong to al-insaan (the perfect human) present in each human being. Iqbal’s concept of mard-e-mo’min (a man of conviction, belief) which he uses a number of times in his poetry seems to have become an ideal for the Pakistani youth.

“He (mo’min) is mild in speech and wild in action.
Be it battlefield or the assembly of friends, he is pure of heart and action.”[8]


There are examples of constructive criticism in Iqbal’s poetry as a means of creating a feeling of restlessness amidst the youth so that they may become actively engaged in productive contemplation that ultimately leads to action. In several examples of his poetry, Muhammad Iqbal addresses his own son, Javaid (then a young boy below the age of 10) but indirectly he is addressed to the youth in general, an example of which are the following verses,

“Create a place for thyself in the realm of Love

Create a new age, new days, new nights

If God grant thee an eye for nature’s beauty

Create poetry from the silence of tulips and roses (Converse with the silence of flowers, respond to their love)

My way of life is poverty, not the pursuit of wealth

Barter not thy Selfhood, win a name in adversity”[9]

Iqbal’s Muslim hero “…is a man of action and a man of the world, but his approach to the world is non-materialistic. According to Iqbal, it is through love and through a focus on one’s inner self that man can achieve the absolute form of freedom”.[10]

“Unflinching conviction, eternal action, and the love that conquers the world

These are the swords (weapons) of the brave ones that fight the war of life.”[11]

Iqbal considers the knowledge of the Quran, the best knowledge for his youth. This idea is more clearly expressed in the following verses taken from his collection Armughan-i-Hijaz (1938):
Keep the Qur’an as a mirror before you.
You have completely changed, run away from yourself.
Fix a balance for your deeds [so that you may be able to],
Stir a commotion which your forbears stirred in the past.[12]

Iqbal challenges the youth to rise above the national, ethnic and factional groupings and invites them to break loose of these limited references of identity. Whereas Iqbal professed the idea of unity among Muslims in his poetry, he also criticized a series of vices among Muslims. He attacked hypocrisy, sectarian and ethnic divisions. Iqbal’s Mard-e-Mo’min can claim his rule over the universe rather than be overpowered by meager emotions of nationalism or religious fanaticism. Iqbal’s inculcates important values of life through his messages to the youth,

“Here are Indians, there people of Khurasan, here Afghans, there Turanians—
You, who despise the shore, rise up and make yourself boundless.[13]

Muhammad Iqbal considered Turkey a good example for modern Muslim states. In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam[14], he writes:

“The truth is that among the Muslim nations of today, Turkey alone has shaken off its dogmatic slumber, and attained to self-consciousness. She alone has claimed her right of intellectual freedom; she alone has passed from the ideal to the real – a transition which entails keen intellectual and moral struggle”.

Iqbal also laments about the situation of Muslim countries,

 “Such is the lot of most Muslim countries today. They are mechanically repeating old values, whereas the Turk is on the way to creating new values. He has passed through great experiences which have revealed his deeper self to him. In him life has begun to move, change, and amplify, giving birth to new desires, bringing new difficulties and suggesting new interpretations”.[15]

In his writings, Iqbal attempted to instill amidst the Muslims a need for change in the ways that reflected a backward approach to life and to end all kinds of subjugation for progress. He aspired to see Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent and beyond regain success and revive their glorious past.

Iqbal had widely read and frequently made references to European philosophers, intellectuals and poets such as Hegel, Kant, Goethe, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and others in his poetry. He wrote his famous Persian poem Payam-e-Mashriq (‘Message of the East’) to Goethe’s West-Ostlicher which contains many fascinating remarks about European philosophers and politicians.

Iqbal’s poetry is considered to provide a ‘synthesis of both eastern and western thought and art’. He makes comparisons between Muslim and Western scholars in the fields of philosophy, science, and religious studies. Comparisons have been made between Iqbal’s message and Goethe’s ideas as well as interesting parallels are drawn between Iqbal’s and Kirkegaard (the Danish philosopher). Iqbal also compared Nietzsche’s Superman with his own Mard-e-Mo’min (Man of unflinching faith and belief) exemplified by Prophet Muhammad who “in the most exalted state of his ascension, was called ‘abduhu’” [16] His (i.e. God’s) servant’ (Quran 17:1). Similarly, parallels between Muhammad Iqbal and Søren Kierkegaard mainly focus on the idea of ‘the Self’ that both philosophers had presented as their philosophic vision.[17]

In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal makes a detailed analysis of the history of Islam and its past glory and compares it with the recurring supremacy of the Western thought in the fields of education, technology and science during the past 500 years. At times, one finds a dispassionate analysis in the writings of Muhammad Iqbal of the downfall of the Muslim empires and the rise of the European empires and Western supremacy.

Iqbal was also subjected to fierce criticism from different sides within the Indian Subcontinent. He has been criticized by Hindu authors who consider him “neither a philosopher, nor a poet nor a politician but only a fanatical Muslim nationalist who has sympathy only with his own nation and his coreligionists”.[18] Iqbal also received strong criticism from the Muslim hardliners for writing poems such as “Shikwa” (A Complaint). However, he countered this criticism by writing a response to his own poem titled “Jawab-e-Shikwa” (Response to the Complaint) from God.

Through talk shows and other media representations under the term Iqbal’s Pakistan, the Pakistani youth look for answers to a variety of questions regarding Pakistan’s future. One finds a diversity of points of view on these online blogs, discussion forums, talk shows and online publications that use Muhammad Iqbal’s ideas for awakening both feelings of national pride in the youth and Islamic values. One can find an element of revolutionary zeal in their ideas and a dissatisfaction with the Pakistani leaders and politicians – in the way that Muhammad Iqbal himself who challenged the oppressive British colonial regime. These young Pakistanis refuse to look up to the west. Instead, they talk about building a Pakistan that has dignity in the community of nations, a Pakistan that moves ahead side by side with the developed nations of the world, not depending on the developed nations for economic aid alone. Voicing Iqbal’s vision of a nation, the Pakistani youth aspire to see a Pakistan where Islam and modern advancement go hand in hand and aspire for democracy not only as a political system but as a social system. They seem to encourage positive ideas and attitudes among the Pakistani youth.

Maybe the term ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ does not represent the original idea of Muhammad Iqbal about a separate state combining the Muslim-majority areas within India. However, the youth in the 21st century Pakistan seems to associate the future of Pakistan with Muhammad Iqbal and his vision about a land that provides opportunities for a life with freedom and dignity. In this way the youth in contemporary Pakistan seem to find guidelines in Iqbal’s writings for such a life and aspiration for a bright future of Pakistan,

“Come, so that we may strew roses and pour a measure of wine in the cup!
Let us split open the roof of the heavens and think upon new ways”[19].

Uzma Rehman
NIAS Associate and PhD History of Religion, Copenhagen University

[1] Annemarie Schimmel, Gabriel’s Wing: A Study Into The Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1963, p.377.

[2] Muhammad Iqbal’s presidential address of 29 December, 1930 available online on

[3] This description about the life of Muhammad Iqbal is taken in a summarized form from Annemarie Schimmel, “Iqbal, Muhammad”, Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2004, available on

[4] Translation taken from

[5] Translation taken from

[6] Translation taken from

[7] R.A.Nicholson, (translation) Iqbal’s poem,  Asrar-e-Khudi  ‘The Secrets of the Self’, 1950, p.9.

[8] Translation taken from

[9] Translation taken from

[10] M.A.Raja, “Muhammad Iqbal: Islam, the West, and the Quest for a Modern Muslim Identity”, The International Journal of the Asian Philosophical Association, 1:1, 2008, p.41.

[11] Translation taken from

[12] Translation taken from

[13] Translation taken from

[14] Allama Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 1996, p. 142.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Annemarie Schimmel, 2004 available on

[17] Ghulam Sabir, Kirkegaard and Iqbal: Startling Resemblances in Life and Thought, 1999, available online on

[18] Annemarie Schimmel, Gabriel’s Wing, p.378.

[19]Translation taken from

Mo Yan på tryggt avstånd från politiken av Johan Lagerkvist

Svenska Akademiens beslut att 2012 års Nobelpris i litteratur går till den kinesiske författaren Mo Yan är ett val som får enorm uppmärksamhet i Kina. Det är svårt att överskatta Nobelprisernas betydelse i ett land och en kultur där dessa utmärkelser – i synnerhet de naturvetenskapliga – varit stora nyheter alltsedan reformpolitiken inleddes 1978. I en kultur som kännetecknas av konfuciansk lärdomstradition har mytbildningen runt priserna och ceremonierna i Stockholm och Oslo befunnit sig i ett avlägset stjärnsystem dit man innerligt önskat att en kines någon gång skulle nå.

Denna längtan är starkt förknippad med erkännande och upprättelse. Ända sedan den kommunistiska revolutionen 1949 har generationer kineser genom skolböcker och av statligt kontrollerade nyhetsmedier internaliserat ”de hundra åren av förödmjukelse” som tiden från det första opiumkriget 1842 via kejsardömets fall 1911 till Mao Zedongs bonderevolution har beskrivits.

Kina och den kinesiska kulturen som västerlandet dömde ut som ”Asiens sjuke man” i slutet av 1800-talet hade visserligen rest sig, som Mao yttrade när Folkrepubliken Kina utropades den 1 oktober 1949 på Himmelska fridens port i Peking. Men kineser drömde fortfarande om att komma ikapp väst på alla de sätt om utmärker en moderniserad och avancerad kulturnation, inte minst inom litteraturens domän.

Döm därför om den besvikelse som det officiella Kina och kommunistpartiet kände när Nobelpriset i litteratur år 2000 gavs till den regimkritiske författaren Gao Xingjian, som har franskt, inte kinesiskt, medborgarskap. Det priset har regimen länge tigit som muren om, även om det inom intellektuella kretsar visserligen finns de som uppskattar Gaos författarskap. Tio år senare tillfogade den norska Nobelkommittén enpartistaten en än värre kalldusch, när man beslutade att tilldela Nobels fredspris till regimkritikern och dissidenten Liu Xiaobo.

Sedan 2010 har det verkat som att Kina närmast gett upp hoppet om att få ett ”riktigt” erkännande av kinesisk kultur trots de senaste årens allt starkare ekonomiska och politiska ställning i världen. Bara några dagar innan Svenska Akademiens ständige sekreterare Peter Englund stegade ut inför den samlade världspressen och den kinesiska statstelevisionens kameror, kritiserade kommunistpartiets populistiska flaggskepp Global Times de humanistiska Nobelpriserna, det vill säga fredspriset och litteraturpriset, för att vara bemängda med västerländska värden, per definition endast sken-universalistiska och egentligen diskriminerande av andra världskulturer.

Efter beskedet om att 2012 års litteraturpristagare blir den 57-årige författaren Mo Yan syns den negativa kritiken och dåliga stämningen vara som bortblåst. I kommunistpartiets språkrör Folkets Dagblad, den statliga centraltelevisionen CCTV, temasektioner på kinesiska nyhetsportaler och i deras kommentarsfält kan man bevittna den stolthet och glädje som helt självklart följer på erhållandet av ett så oerhört prestigefyllt pris.

Frågan är om Kinas Nobelkomplex slutligen har övervunnits. I varje fall fylls de traditionella massmedierna och de sociala medierna som till exempel mikrobloggarna med nationalistiskt färgade yttringar i stil med ”Otroligt glädjande, grattis Mo Yan, grattis Kina” och ”För ett gammalt land och en gammal civilisation som Kina är detta stora pris alltför sent kommet. Men trots det – mina varmaste gratulationer till Mäster Mo Yan”.

Hur ska man tolka denna stolta nationalkänsla – som andas ett ”äntligen” och ”till slut” – som är såväl folkligt förankrat som statssanktionerat? Betyder somligas suck av lättnad och glädjen över att icke-västliga värden, den kinesiska ”verkligheten” och kinesiska sanningsanspråk erkänns av en länge ointresserad, okunnigt, och ovänligt sinnad västvärld? Kanske upplever de röster i de officiella medierna som har uttryckt att Kinas ekonomiska och politiska uppstigande medför att utlandet måste intressera sig mer för allt kinesiskt nu viss upprättelse?

Dessa frågor är ytterst angelägna när Kinas inflytande i, men också starka nationalism gentemot, omvärlden ökar. På Kinas största nyhetsportal Sina toppade nyheten om Mo Yans Nobelpris nyhetsagendan den 11 oktober, och som nummer två fanns nyheten att kinesiska utrikesdepartementet hårt kritiserar Japans ”illegala kontroll” över Senkaku-öarna som Kina anser vara en del av Kinas territorium.

Under hösten 2012 har den territoriella konflikten mellan Kinas och Japans regeringar om ögruppen trappats upp, ivrigt påhejad av nationalistiska hetsporrar i både länderna. I kinesiska städer demonstrerade under september tusentals människor som brände japanska bilar och manade till bojkott av örikets varor. På kinesiska internet fällde hundratusentals människor hatfyllda uttalanden mot grannen i öst. Många hävdade att krig med Tokyo inte alls var otänkbart, utan tvärtom nödvändigt och till och med önskvärt.

Denna nationalism har inte uppstått ur tomma intet. Som i många andra kinesiska författares och konstnärers verk finns också hos Mo Yans ”Det röda fältet” realistiska skildringar av den japanska arméns grymma frammarsch över den kinesiska jorden under motståndskriget mot Japan mellan 1937 och 1945. Inom kommunistpartiet gillas kanske inte hur Mo beskriver partiets relativa, och alls inte absoluta, betydelse för de kinesiska styrkornas militära framgångar mot japanerna. Men ändå framstår hans ämne som patriotiskt korrekt, i en tid och samtidskontext när nationalism alltmer blir det kitt som håller samman både kommunistpartiet och det omgivande samhället. Det går därför inte heller att bortse från den nye Nobelpristagarens medlemskap i kommunistpartiet.

Bortsett från hans obestridliga litterära kvaliteter och den kritik mot sociala strukturer, lokalt maktmissbruk och ekonomisk vanskötsel som finns i Mo Yans verk, finns det någon vidare politisk betydelse i författarskapet för Kina i dag? Hur ser han som författare i ett auktoritärt styrt land på brännande frågor om censur och kontroll av massmedier och internet? Finns det alls ett moraliskt ansvar att utkräva eller är det endast en störande fråga som skymmer hans bokproduktion?

Den världsberömde konstnären och ständige nageln i ögat på den kinesiska regimen, Ai Weiwei, uttryckte på sitt Twitterkonto att ”Författare som inte förmår stå upp för sanningen inte kan skiljas från lögnare”. Den kände bloggaren Bei Feng var ursinnig över den kinesiska internetcensur som helt spärrade ut honom ur internetlandskapet efter kritik av Mo Yans Nobelpris: ”Efter en avvikande åsikt på Sina Weibo om att Mo Yan tilldelats priset utraderades mitt konto – medan Mo Yan sade att priset illustrerar en tid då man kan yttra sig fritt. Jag anser de här händelserna bäst illustrerar nivån på den Svenska Akademien”. Troligen kommer åsikterna mellan liberala konstutövare och mer systembevarande nationalistiska intellektuella att brytas hårt under kommande månader – på internet där de i väntan på censurens näve ibland kan mötas i debatt.

Vissa hävdar att man ändå bör vara försiktig med pekpinnar. Och det finns förutsättningar för att kinesisk politik kan förändras också genom reformsinnade krafter som verkar inom kommunistpartiet och genom det som den amerikanske sinologen Timothy Cheek har kallat för ”de etablissemangsintellektuella”. Men om dessa personer utomlands får frågor om arbetsläger, dissidenter och mänskliga rättigheter blir det förstås plågsamt. Att yttra sig kritiskt om tillståndet för mänskliga rättigheter i Kina skulle innebära utraderade möjligheter för dem att verka för det fria ordet inom etablissemangets strukturer.

Detta gäller också för Mo Yan. Ombedd att kommentera statens behandling av Liu Xiaobo, mottagaren fredspriset 2010, blev svaret att han ”visste för lite om det hela”. Vid något anat tillfälle ska han ha uttryckt att ”skrika på gatorna är något för vissa, medan andra försöker förändra genom arbete på kammaren”. Det är en hållning som den berömde kinesiske idéhistorikern Wang Hui i ett samtal med mig anslöt sig till: ”Vad tycker ni i väst att vi borde göra, springa ut på gatorna och demonstrera? Inte säkert det är mödan värt!” Inte bara kan offentliga protester innebära slutet på en yrkeskarriär, menade Wang, det kan också vara mindre effektivt än att gradvis påverka partikulturen inifrån.

Och även om en författare som Mo Yan helst håller sig på armlängds avstånd från dagsaktuell politik och frågor om dissidenter, är han i romaner och noveller starkt kritisk till sociala missförhållanden på landsbygden i Shandongprovinsen. Bitande sarkasm och beskrivningar av lokalt maktmissbruk och översitteri finns också i ”Vitlöksballaderna”. Landsbygdens kvävande patriarkala ordning är något som Mo Yan kritiserar i sina verk, liksom hur ettbarnspolitiken i inlandsprovinserna leder till överskott på pojkar.

Dessa förvisso vassa skildringar av Kinas sociala liv och lokala pampvälden gör honom dock inte till en subversiv samhällsskildrare. Kritik mot samhällsfenomen som korruption, maktmissbruk, miljöförstöring och landkonfiskation är möjlig att framföra i dagens Kina bland fler än författare. Den subversive kritiserar kommunistpartiet som ”samhällets ledande kraft”, organiserar religiösa, politiska eller arbetarintressen i syfte att genomdriva politiska reformer för sin sak. Men kritik mot kommunistpartiets maktutövning på landsbygden är faktiskt relativt vanligt inom statskontrollerade medier och det finns reformsinnade krafter som premiärminister Wen Jiabao till och med i politbyråns ständiga utskott.

Mo Yan får Nobelpriset i litteratur när Kina befinner sig i en brytningstid mellan gammalt och nytt. Kommunistpartiets ömsar ledarskinn i år. Ekonomin är skakig och spänningarna mellan olika grupper och intressen i samhället ökar, inte minst mellan stad och landsbygd. Den nya politbyrå som tar form efter den 18:e partikongressen som inleds den 8 november kommer att regera landet och influera världspolitiken fram till år 2022. Det kommer att bli ansträngande. Under detta decennium ska svåra utmaningar hemmavid och från omvärlden pareras.

Den kanske största och svåraste frågan är hur länge ett alltmer pluralistiskt samhälle och dess intellektuella – konstnärer, författare och forskare – kan begränsas i sitt sanningssökande av den leninistiska enpartistaten. Kommer kraven från ett framväxande civilsamhälle med rötter i både arbetar- bonde-, och medelklass mötas med våldsam repression – eller med ny vilja till kompromisser, dialog och reformer? Kommer förväntningar från utlandet på ett ansvarstagande och än öppnare Kina mötas av lyhördhet, eller mer av det nationalistiska trummande som ljudit under den senaste tiden?

En stor berättare och skildrare av den kinesiska samtiden som Mo Yan skulle ha mycket intressant att säga om dessa viktiga frågor. Men troligen tiger han hellre, som när han tillfrågades om författarkollegan och numera Nobelpriskollegan Liu Xiaobos belägenhet i fängelse. I så fall ger det eftertryck åt pseudonymen som mannen som föddes som Guan Moye 1955 bär. På kinesiska betyder nämligen Mo Yan ”tala inte” eller om man så vill – ingen kommentar. För två år sedan stod Liu Xiabos stol tom under prisceremonin i Oslo. När Nobelpriset åter tilldelas en kinesisk medborgare kommer någon att sitta på avsedd stol, men vad kommer den som sitter där att säga? Vad kan han säga?

Johan Lagerkvist är docent i kinesiska och forskare vid Utrikespolitiska institutet.

Denna text är ursprungligen publicerad i Svenska Dagbladet 12 oktober 2012 .

Incredible India Designs by Ravinder Kaur

Photo courtesy is Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.

In 2002, the government of India embarked upon a highly ambitious image campaign to create a new brand identity for the nation. The idea was to transform India into “a global brand, with worldwide brand recognition and strong brand equity” that will bring high end tourists and investors to the country. But how does one establish a unified image of a country like India? And how does cohere India’s image as an ancient civilization in a new globalised world? The policymakers and designers with faced with an “extremely difficult and complex (project) to establish a clear, precise identity for a multiproduct destination like India. India is a land of contrasts, a combination of tradition and modernity, a land that is at once mystical and mysterious. India is bigger than twenty-three countries of Europe put together and every single state of India has its own unique attractions.” During my fieldwork in Delhi, I was often reminded of these challenges by the advertising professionals who had been entrusted with the task of creating a “global identity without losing the essence of the nation.”

The result of this exercise was a campaign called ‘Incredible !ndia’ that attempted to re-visualize India in a contemporary context. The campaign was released in major foreign markets in both print and digital media, and in a very short time gained a high visibility and recognition with its distinctive ‘!’ logo mark. The most remarkable aspect of this campaign is that even though it was aimed at foreign markets, it has gained a far wider popular constituency among the Indians living in India as well as in diaspora. The seductive pictures and mocking, witty words have created a narrative of India that conveys a contemporary feel and global sensibility. The reason for its popularity precisely lies in the fact that this newly designed India can now be ‘shown’ and ‘seen’ in the outside world with pride.

In India’s recent history, this is the most expansive image making exercise that seeks to manufacture a global identity on one hand, and on the other, to subvert the identities given by the colonial powers. The distinctive ‘!’ has become a visual unifier and a sign of post-reform India that is recognized both at home and abroad.

Ravinder Kaur, PhD
Associate Professor,
Director, Centre of Global South Asian Studies
University of Copenhagen
Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies



Ravinder Kaur is one of the organizers of the workshop Spectacle of Globality which is  taking place 29-30 August 2012 at National Museum, Ny Vestergade 10, Copenhagen. The workshop which focuses on India’s makeover as a global power is a part of the research programme Nation in Motion and the first in a series of four international workshops organized within the programme.

More information about the workshop and the research programme

Lady Gaga and the Fake Rolex Affair

By Anya Palm

This weekend’s big event in Bangkok was a concert with the colorful pop artist, Lady Gaga. The star is doing her “Born This Way Ball” 2012 tour in Asia, and while Lady Gaga is in the region purely to perform and entertain, her visit has stirred quite a bit of political attention.

Most notably, she may be banned from performing in Jakarta, Indonesia next month due to her revealing costumes, which according to the Indonesian police will “corrupt” young fans.  She is currently in a dispute with Indonesian authorities on whether or not she will get a permit to perform there next month.

That was expected though. Indonesia, as well as disturbingly many other places, does have powerful religious hardliners with little understanding of modern pop culture.  And Lady Gaga is no wallflower.

But in Bangkok, something a little more subtle – and in a way considerably more significant – happened.

Upon arriving to Bangkok the night before her show, Lady Gaga tweeted to her 24 million fans on twitter:

“I just landed in Bangkok baby! Ready for 50,000 screaming Thai monsters. I wanna get lost in a lady market and buy fake Rolex.”

The comment offended her Thai fans. A lot.

“She came to our home, but instead of admiring us she insulted us”, said one commenter, while another sarcastically retorted: “I’m sure there are plenty of fake Gaga CDs, too.”

“We are more civilized than you think,” tweeted Surahit Siamwalla, a well-known Thai DJ. He declared that he, despite owning a ticket, would boycott her show.

 Lady Gaga will probably survive that.

But the reaction is interesting – there ARE a lot of fake Rolexes floating around Bangkok, and the city IS famous for counterfeit products. This is no secret. Why can’t she say that out loud?

Not too long ago, it was Angelina Jolie that was the subject of the Thai wrath. She had gotten herself a tattoo in Thailand, a religious symbol, and the Thai authorities felt that the actress disrespected a sacred image by inking up. So they went ahead and banned tourists from getting “sacred images” as tattoos altogether. Before that, the Hollywood blockbuster “Hangover in Bangkok” was scorned for giving Thailand a bad reputation, because the movie revolves around a drunken night, set in Bangkok.

But the reputation that Thailand has – for being a counterfeit haven and for being a party-city with red-light districts a plenty – has nothing to do with Gaga, Hollywood or Jolie.

It has to do with a corrupt and useless police force. It has to do with an incompetent, nepotistic government. It has to do with a collective state of mind of “problems are never MY fault”.

Acting angry and insulted will not stop the sale of fake Rolexes in Bangkok, nor will it do any good to the country’s reputation.

What will then? Putting down the coffee mug and start dealing with problems so obvious that even a passing-through pop star mentions them will.