SPEAKER 1: The following is part of Cornell Contemporary China Initiative lecture series, under the Cornell East Asia program. The arguments and viewpoints of this talk belong solely to the speaker. We hope you enjoy.
ROBIN MCNEAL: Actually, Professor Angela Zito was briefly here at Cornell a year ago. Some of you in the audience have figured that out, by looking at the number of people greeting her and happy to see her. Walked past [INAUDIBLE] once and then here again.
She finished her PhD in Chicago in 1989, after having just spent her last year here at Cornell, actually. Went on to various places. Went to MIT after that, briefly. Spent time with Barnard and Williams. But ended up in 1999 at NYU, where she's been ever since.
She has a dual appointment there in anthropology and religious studies. And her first book was on imperial rituals. But she went on to do many other things, including working on documentary films for some time at NYU. But we're happy to have her on this very important topic of [INAUDIBLE], and happy to have her here to talk with us this evening.
ANGELA ZITO: Thank you, Robin. And thanks very much for the invitation. Yes, I spent a wonderful year at Cornell, freezing and spraining my ankle in the winter, as I'm sure many of you have had kind of similar experiences. So I felt like I really did get the Ithaca experience.
But I see many friends and colleagues in the audience. And it is really a delight to be here. I want to thank Steve Sangren also for suggesting that I come here, probably, and for being such a good colleague over the years.
This talk is part of a larger project about the material and mediated forms of filial propaganda. Currently their style, if you will, being mobilized by the party state in China, as part of a more general turn there toward the past, in search of plausible ideological trajectories. And it's very much a work in progress.
China's most famous virtue, this virtue called [CHINESE] or filiality, had no public life during the Maoist years. It was confined, then, to the life world of the family. But now it has acquired a public life in ways that are unprecedented since liberation in 1949. When in fall 2014 saw central Shanghai papered with posters for the "New China Dream" campaign, much of this propaganda mobilized intergenerational familial sentiment in its service, even when the subject was not about filiality, as you can see.
I gave you translations of what's on there. But when you look at the content as it were, you can see that it's a family that's being pictured. There are many interesting filial gambits now in play, including state educational efforts and rewards that follow the intention of the newly expanded elder rights law, the massive online site called filial world, or [CHINESE], literally filial practice under heaven-- an archaic imperial usage of under heaven to denote the entire world of human life-- TV talk shows featuring model filial sons and daughters, and new museums dedicated to current exemplars and the history and social meanings of the virtue. There is even an addition of stamps featuring the 24 filial paragons. Meanwhile, the street campaigns of posters featuring the characters [CHINESE] or [CHINESE] and so on really do provide a kind of ongoing and very public cheering section to people who are commuting and strolling along.
I'll give you some background for those of you who aren't so familiar with Chinese history. Since the death of Mao in 1976 and the turn toward reform and opening, or [CHINESE] in '78, the Chinese social world has been rapidly transforming. And this has created incredibly difficult problems in terms of social relationships, social values, keeping up with the economic turn. The China Dream campaign is itself part of the debate about a moral crisis-- a felt moral crisis-- that China faces as it coats with an aging population that is dependent upon its overburdened, one-child policy generation, in a climate of growing inequality of wealth and anxious competition for social resources.
In these new conditions, the Communist Party struggles to recognize itself as the new biggest patriot instead of the revolutionary vanguard, while it watches the people doubting its capacity to lead. At the same time, ordinary people are called upon to do several contradictory things at the same time. Nowadays you can be selfish and get rich while also loving your country and being civic minded. In fact, you must. It is your duty, that way, to build a strong China.
People are urged to embrace, in short, a style of expressive individuality and desire that, frankly, is far more recognizable to an American like me then, say, to a Chinese person over 60 years old, of the generation that built socialism. Amid much hand-wringing over moral failure and inadequacy of a public sense of shared value, it is my sense that the party state has a keen interest in mobilizing filial sentiment on the ground, as a resource for its own uses.
But far from being some ridiculous or useless top-down effort, I take their effort as evidence that such sentiment actually exists. And I am trying to work out something about the arena, in which genuine experience in the family-- which is complex, as we know-- meets the state's material and imaginary demands. The family has been deeply implicated in strategies of modern governance.
Recall that historian and philosopher Michel Foucault made it central to his famous lecture on governmentality. The family grounds the scene of everyday life, sociologically profound, empirically available, and also the scene of psychic joy and trauma. The family doubles as both actuality and the imagination that is invested in it. This imaginary is unquestionably potent as the staging arena for the coming of age of children, involving them in psychological plots that are the stuff of myths, legends, ritual life, and modern telenovelas. The same imaginary is what makes it a font of irresistible tropes for state propagandists who are now openly engaging in the work of-- to invoke Steve Sangren-- the dialectics in the production of the family as an instituted fantasy.
Sangren's theorization of this concept really adds specificity to one of my own favorite ways to think about how social life works. And that is the idea of hegemony. Let's take that out and dust it off. Hegemony take seriously semiotic mediation and communication and situates them within the set of material practices, through which society is produced, but without reducing social consciousness to them.
So it draws analytical attention toward two important effects. One, that the live system of meanings and values constitutive and constituting is experienced as practices that appear as confirming each other. And another is that hegemony saturates the whole of life for everyone.
So I would add that within this idea of hegemony, there is a kind of match-up of feeling and thinking. There is a coincidence of feeling that-- how shall I put it? When you wake up in the morning and you don't really think constantly about is the sun going to rise-- not yet, we don't think that.
We don't-- there are certain things that we utterly take for granted. And this is a way to try to understand and theorize the assumptions that everyone in a society takes for granted, even as they might disagree with each other over the possibilities that are generated out of those assumptions. They are going to have these disagreements as well.
For example, this project of mine is not greeted with the enthusiasm of another project that I have on the back burner. This other project is about middle class Shanghainese people and their Buddhisms and their interest in new age religion. And my middle class Shanghainese friends are excited about their project. They love that project.
When I ask about filiality in the abstract-- I say, oh how about [CHINESE]. And then when I explain my interest in the posters in the streets, they wrinkle up their noses. They hate state propaganda.
But that does not mean that they are not eventually implicated in dealing with the issues that this propaganda is going to be putting in their faces. They tend to treat the state as merely repressive, even as their own desires must contend with being rewarded or thwarted in its shadow. So this is a very complicated relationship that people have with the state.
So in terms of hegemony, everyone knows the rules of this filial game. Everyone has resources involved. People's attention, people's emotional investment in its rhetorics may be the most important resource that the state is trying to get by mounting this campaign.
China's transition out of socialism was marked by the one-child policy, which deepened the state's reach into family life instead of loosening it. In that sense, this campaign on filiality was just waiting to happen. The state is only increasing again its visibility, especially in terms of the control of the means of the media.
So to reiterate, the state is not trying to create filiality, but it's trying to identify it. It's like a mining operation. We go in, we find these things. And then we wish to encourage them and make use of them.
But one of my questions remains. Of what use is filiality to empowering the post socialist Chinese person themselves? Take this cheerful, faintly silly China Dream propaganda installation that was hanging on the fence of an apartment complex in Shanghai in October of 2015. It sort of seamlessly unfolds the far past and the near past into one thing.
The blue cartoon figure's sash says, ambassador of civilization. He's a knock-off of the Shanghai Expo 2010 blue mascot, [CHINESE], for anybody that knew the [CHINESE] mascot of Shanghai. And [CHINESE] was accused of being a knock-off of the American cartoon Gumby.
He holds a simulacrum of a scroll that shows the complex presentation of the classic filial triad-- grandfather, father, and son. They are engaged in a chain of bodily service. The grandfather is having his feet washed by the father, while the father-washer is having his back scrubbed by his son. Chickens, in family formation, surround them. And they sit on rattan chairs. And all of that, in a sense, signals the rural, the natural, naturalizing the whole sense of its familiality.
The red character above is the character for [CHINESE]. Above that, we have [CHINESE]. So this is really the Chinese virtue of filiality. Now we also see a small red seal over there, above the child's head.
This seal, it's part of the way that the poster impersonates a traditional scroll painting. It mimics the seal a painter or a calligrapher places last on a scroll and puts his or her name on it. But inside this seal are the three characters of [CHINESE], or the China Dream campaign. So in this way, the state has sort of definitely inserted itself as the maker of this little scroll campaign, in its thousands of copies, wherever it would be found. That previous imperial elite was very much identified with [CHINESE], the Confucian tradition, self-identified, and even more importantly, identified as such by early 20th century progressive critics, both Republican and Marxist.
Now this lovely object condenses in itself three things that provide background for how filiality is publicly embraced today. There's the China Dream campaign. There's the demographics of family life with an aging population. And the lid that was put upon the having of more children by the one-child policy not catching up with being able to care for these aging parents, while at the same time managing their own children. So it they're kind of squeezed between these generations.
And finally, the third thing that it also presents to us, besides that nice triad of the generations there, is the current interest in the revival of [CHINESE] or traditional culture of the imperial past, both in and out of the party state. And so filiality's longtime association with Confucianism definitely becomes part of the picture.
So I think this filial revival resumes in just another register an interest in the moral perfectability of persons on the part of those who govern China, which was as much an obsession of revolutionary Maoists as it was of traditional Confucian literati, this idea of the perfect person. Today, in fact, to be conservative often means embracing simultaneously nostalgia for socialism and old time family values. There's been some really good interviews and empirical research on this. Incitements to the pleasures and the pains of filial service are thus brought to bear on what is felt to be a kind of looming demographic catastrophe in the service of the party state's vision.
But how will it work now? And to work now, it needs to engage what Harriet Evans calls the intimate person and what [CHINESE] calls the emergence of emotional expressivity. As I was mentioning, there has been a real shift in people's expectation that there should be a kind of-- that desire is allowed, the desire specifically mentioned by the state first, the desire to get rich. But following hard upon that desire, lots of other things that people are now allowed-- indeed, and encouraged-- to publicly want.
So filiality has historically made a virtue of necessities, like aging and child rearing. It has historically provided you might say a kind of spotlit arena for carrying out these human activities of production, elevating scrutiny of their provision to philosophy, rewarding with praise the correct delivery of care upward to elders or downward to children. Filiality embraces two kinds of obligations-- children to parents, parents to children.
Sociologically and, in fact, in ritual, in what Sangren calls the instituted fantasy of the family-- and I've called the work of the filial son-- it proceeds through a triad of three generations of grandparents, parents and children, grandchildren. Just like the poster showed. Now this triad of three generations is what is showing cracks on account of social mobility and fertility shifts.
So I'm going to turn to introducing the China Dream campaign. Then I will turn briefly to old time filiality and compare it to the newer versions that we will see in the Museum of Modern Filio Culture in Sichuan in [CHINESE]. How do the museum's tales of filial heroism compare with the older stories that are their models?
What does it tell us about how propaganda functions in relation to everyday life and about how these old Maoist tactics are revived in the service of a highly melodramatic narratives of self-sacrifice? And how might they be now linked to the imperial past? What hierarchies of power are being reinforced or created? What energies are being tapped?
The China Dream. Xi Jinping introduced the China Dream campaign in a speech in a newly refurbished museum of national history. And he was opening then an exhibit called "The Road to Renewal." This show memorialized China's past humiliations at the hands of European, American, and Japanese attempts to colonize.
But the show presented them in a spirit of overcoming and transcendence. So poised between these pile-ups of the past and the imagining of a better future, almost in a tone of prophecy, Xi Jinping calls upon China to dream its dreams of the future, while standing in this memorial to past ruination.
And those dreams, perforce, must contain elements of a nightmare. I mean, let's think about dreaming. It's something that happens to someone, isn't it? In reality, a dream comes upon you, when you are helpless and when you are asleep. It is, as Freud would say, your own past catching up with a person-- good things, bad things, the triumphs, the mistakes of the day. They reappear in the consciousness in the unconscious, and they are usually forgotten in the morning. Sometimes they can be remembered, and they can even be acted upon in the daylight.
The China Dream keeps alive the nightmare of the past, whose memory must be selectively reinforced. Not coincidentally, growing interest in China's history and in reviving all sorts of things from that past can be read as taking an active interest in kinds of content that were once wholly dismissed as nightmares from the dark night of feudalism now become the stuff of the dreams of the future. Because as a verb, to dream pivots twice-- once between the past and the present and once again between now and the future.
Dreaming however, must be done correctly. It must be limited in channel. Memories of foreign colonial incursion that are overcome, yes. Memories of the horrors of the Great Famine and the great proletariat cultural revolution, not so much.
Memories of Confucian glory, fine. Recollection of indignities under patriarchy suffered by women or children, no. So filiality as [CHINESE] or [CHINESE] or [CHINESE] provides a set of rich touchstones to connect the present to the past, in terms of the future.
Finally, filiality, like the China Dream itself, is constantly invoked to pivot between individuals in their intergenerational hierarchies, the past of the generations preceding the future of children. In this sense, the family acts as a kind of corporeal condensation of time itself.
So on to some old time filial tropes. The common sense local category of filiality was a virtue of social and cosmic and historical significance in imperial China. It was hotly debated as China turned to modernity in the 20th century, when it was criticized as part of the old style of Confucianism and very much rejected by intellectuals in the May Fourth movement.
But further in the past, from its founding era in the Han dynasty, it emphasized and embodied ceremonial practice of service and obligation. Rooted metaphorically in the bond between fathers and sons, it expanded in practice to all of the five bonds. And these included ruler/subject, husband/wife, elder/younger, friend/friend. Notice they're sort of up down kinds of bonds.
Filiality's social utility lay in linking the person, that person's kin network, and the imperial state in a performative web of imitation and mutual responsibility. And the reach of human agency was stretched by connecting the social world of filiality to the cosmos, through an invisible realm of gods and ancestors. In their special cosmic place, human's highest calling with to embody the body of [CHINESE] or ritual.
Old fashioned Confucian piety reached this Han dynasty cosmic extension with the invention of correlative Confucianism by Dong Zhongshu. According to Dong, humans lived in an anthropocentric universe, privileged above all other creatures. Only humans could discern pattern in the universe, cultivate themselves to harmonize with that pattern, stimulate the cosmos and receive a response. Often this response seemed quite miraculous. And it knit together a world of plants and animals and even the weather with the world of people.
According to this vision, heaven was attentive to human moral conduct and would punish or reward it. Dong Zhongshu theorized that the best model for this kind of hyper-agency was, of course, the king himself. But since he was not divine but human-- in the Chinese context, the son of heaven to be precise-- his actions were to provide a model for all men, particularly as filial sons.
So on the one hand, the king's authority might rest upon his difference from those that he rules. But on the other hand, his authority and his legitimacy as a perfect model of ethical conduct was really proclaimed by how well he got other people to imitate his supposedly perfect conduct. But it's an interesting point that a certain kind of legitimacy at the very top is seen to rest in the successful eliciting of styles of performance of personhood and conduct by the people in the citizenry-- by the people.
The number of miraculous responses that his people could draw from heaven for themselves was proof of his right to rule. Now once Buddhism arrived in China in the late Han, it further complexified the problem of how to live an appropriately ethical embodied life. They also had to take up filiality.
So here we have Buddhist filial somas. Buddhists, bringing with them an alternate cosmos-- one not presided over the Confucians' heaven-- tried to answer in detail precisely why children, especially sons, should be filial by emphasizing the debt that children owed the mother for giving them birth. Sutras that explained that the life blood is sucked from women in birthing and nursing their children, the disciple Ananda speaks for the group when he weeps, feeling a stab of pain in his heart and he wails, how can we repay the debt to our mothers.
Birth itself is imagined as a necessary and terrible sin that mothers commit, and from which they must be rescued by their sons. Sons who do not repay their milk debt by becoming good Buddhists commit their own sin, unfiliality. And they are connected not only to improper performance of duties-- that are found in the earlier texts from Confucians-- but guilt at failing the mother, who has physically suffered so much. And indeed, even if people put themselves through excruciating physical torture to prove their filiality, it is never really enough. They never quite overcome their limitations. There is always room for more effort.
So in Buddhist filial sutras, it is really where we see the body emerging in a kind of somatic fleshly glory-- glory, glory for the first time. First and most verily, the body of the mother, discussed in medical detail. But the bodies of eager filial sons are presented as they are tortured in hell and so on for their failings.
Even the reactions of the assembled audience are somatically hysterical. And people wail and they pull their hair out and so forth. Here we again find the resources of the energetic and resonating body of chi. This is the body of circulation, but it is managed through medical technologies whose terminology is here harnessed for religious life. This body is still familiar today in Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and herbal care.
And I just wanted to show this, ahead of time. This is a shrine to the Bodhisattva [CHINESE] in the museum in Guyi. They were really noting this upstairs, this confluence.
So let's look at a few of the old stories of the [CHINESE] or the 24 filial exemplars. These stories are quite old. But they were collected in a kind of canonical version by around the 13th century.
And people think of them as Confucian. But really, the earliest extent version turns out to be a Buddhist [CHINESE], called [CHINESE], from [CHINESE] Mogul caves. So they are really a blend of this early Buddhist Confucian combination. So let's run through a few of these.
Here we have he concealed oranges, to present to his mother. He was only six. He went against the propriety of being a guest, and he took the food and he hid it. And then it fell out, right on the floor. His innocent generosity here, his willingness to sacrifice, to go against propriety, in order to do this for his mother.
Here we have the same illustration. I think they went online and found the same thing. It would not surprise me.
This was on a wall in Shanghai, just last fall. The whole [CHINESE] are all in a wall around an apartment building complex. Tang Dynasty Cui Nanshan suckled her mother-in-law from her own body. So here's a generosity that goes beyond oranges. It's the gift of the filial body itself.
Jin dynasty Wu Meng and the mosquitoes. This is a particularly dreadful one for me. There you see little Wu Meng over there. The mosquitoes are buzzing around him. Physical suffering in the parent's place. They were too poor to afford a net, you see, so he put himself out as bait.
Wang Xiang laying on the ice, heaven sends a fountain of fish leaping. Wang Xiang was doing this for his stepmother. There are a few stepmothers that are featured. But mostly the old [CHINESE] are bio-parents.
But this stepmother was sick and didn't want to eat the porridge. And she wanted fresh fish. So he lay on the ice for her. I think the real filial miracle was that a stepmother that hated him intensely before then actually started to really like him. Aside from heavens opening up of the water.
And here we have this, also, was available on the street in Shanghai. Song dynasty Huang Tingjian, though a high official, rinsed his mother's bed pan every night. So despite high status, you know. So the kind of pain that people suffer is not only physical but also social. These are rituals, as it were, of humiliation of this younger self, in service to the parents.
And here we even have Zhu of the Song dynasty who gives up worldly ambition in the filial cause. He went looking for his mother because she had been married out again.
So let me turn now to the Museum of Modern Filial Culture in Guyi in Qionglai, outside of Chengdu, in Sichuan. Let me give you a map of that. If you can see, we have Chengdu, you can see where the museum is. That's a large scale map. It's about two hours by car out of Chengdu.
It has been hailed in many news stories and by its founders as a true people's effort, with crowd-sourced donation funding that brought in about $1.2 million US. I could quote the story.
"The museum took two years to design and build, including the tearing down of old houses. It's built on 13 mou of riverside wastelands. It's more than 3,000 ping fang in size.
Over 500 volunteers-- local citizens-- put together over $1.2 million US in funding. That would be 800 yuan of Chinese. It's the brainchild of Liao Lin, who is a young local peasant entrepreneur."
He was a guy who was in real estate and construction. He was born in '76, he has two kids. And he told me his own filial stories of doing service for his [CHINESE], his paternal grandfather-- how much he loved him, how he used to come home from school and do his laundry, and how he gave him his first paycheck. Because, as he said it, he gave his first paycheck to him just to give him the pleasure of seeing his grandson succeed.
And this becomes an important point in Liao's museum, that we should not neglect ourselves in doing filial service to our elders. That we should not do that. Nothing makes parents and grandparents happier than the sweet smell of success of their descendants. And his beloved [CHINESE] now lives with Liao and his family, along with [CHINESE] second wife.
So let's take a tour of the museum that Liao gave me. We start with the museum's principles. "Its practice permeates hundreds of generations, thousands of years of ethical and moral exemplars. From ancient times the filiality of Great Shun moved heaven. Great Shun is featured in one of the old stories.
Today we have the perfection of both loyalty and filiality of Wang Chunlai." We will meet Wang Chunlai later. "This museum carries on the past to sing the present, gathering the multitudes of modern filialities in one building. Remembering firmly the great grace of the care of our fathers and mothers."
And I think that's really Buddhist language being put right in there. "Grateful that the country is prosperous and people live in peace. Loyalty and filiality interlink, what filiality begins, loyalty bears to fruition. Willingly bring contributions that add to the flourishing and harmony of society."
So that particular phrase, "that loyalty and filiality interlink" and the mention of Wang Chunlai will become important to us in a moment. But this is, again, a melding of Confucian and Buddhist allusions.
Altogether, the museum tells the stories of 28 modern filial paragons. There are seven women and 21 men. There are three minorities-- a Uyghur, a Tibetan, and an Yizu woman. The rest are all Han Zu.
Most of them have received national or provincial recognition for their acts. And in age, they range from college age to 70 years old. They are spread all around China. They are from rural villages and big cities. So a real effort was spent to curate the filial actors who are going to be put in the museum.
And when I say they're from all over China, one is from Taiwan and they actually identified Taiwan as a province of China, which I personally found shocking. But maybe that's now done. If anybody has any information on that.
When you look at these stories, think of Christian hagiography of the saints meeting socialist model workers. They have forms of sacrifice, forms of reward. And the challenge is to eventually figure out how agency gets redistributed between filial sons and daughters and the state.
So here we have our first man. This is Chen [CHINESE], the dutiful son of a strip of cloth. A Chinese language teacher.
Chen's father died when he was nine. And his mother raised three children. She has had Alzheimer's since 2007. And she missed him when he went away teaching for five days.
And so what he did was he tied her on his back, on the back of his motorcycle, using a strip of cloth. And you can see up there, I think, her on the motorcycle with the strip of cloth. [SIGH]
His exhibit had two objects as well as the photos of his receiving rewards, of his doing the service for his mother. And the two objects were the cloth and the motorcycle. The museum got the original and gave him a new one. I asked him.
So let's look at the text that's on the motorcycle. There it is. This is the motorbike on which Chen carried his mom, traveling 11,300 kilometers. He carried the heavy responsibility of his mother, bore the weight of moving the filial heart of China.
And I think that that [CHINESE] is an important kind of language to notice. It is a social miracle. It is not heaven but China's filial heart that is moved. It's a kind of telling substitution of the ultimate horizon of meaning and responsibility that is being posed by this insertion of the state. And we remember that little seal on the poster.
But the cloth that he bound her with is really the real filial relic. It is the same cloth that she used to carry him when he was an infant and she carried him on her back. Two other exemplars also used baby carriers to bear their parents as they got sick and in their infirmity.
Are you reading it? I just-- I wanted to put it up there, to give people some-- you know. It's very-- and this is inside the glass case. We'll see more of the glass vitrines. They were so wonderful, with the filial relics being put into the glass vitrines.
So these other exemplars. This is Ding Zuji from Taiwan. This is the Taiwanese guy. He retired three years early to care for his mother. And when she broke her leg, he worried that getting in and out of the wheelchair was too dangerous. So there he is. He used, also, and the cloth itself is in the vitrine as well.
I was very interested in this collection of objects, things actually used in the service of parents. They're sort of there like somewhere between artifacts and holy relics.
Here is the street sweeper's uniform. Each of the cases has the character [CHINESE] on it. This was the sweeper's uniform worn by Liu Pulin, a college student who uses his spare time to help his mother sweep. In effect, he substitutes his labor for hers.
It doesn't really say in the story that I got here whether she was tired, old, sick. I read online-- and it was that she was ill, the museum didn't mention it. But the story reads that he embodies, literally [CHINESE], the good qualities of fulfilling the filial responsibilities. So that's another kind, the embodied substitution.
The ultimate filial sacrifice of the child's body for the parents is seen in the exhibit in two kidney donation stories. And both of them-- I think very interestingly-- are daughters to fathers. If this isn't like [CHINESE].
No kidneys under glass. But the daughters' gifts to the fathers are deeply resonant. The legend of [CHINESE] who is an avatar of Guanyin, who cut out her eyes and cut off her arms to make medicine for her father the king who was ill. I mean, her father the king had exiled her for refusing to marry. And yet, of course, she had perfect compassion.
But traditions of bodily sacrifice like this are deeply Buddhist, where the physical body is an instrument that will perish and you can use it for other ends. Classical Confucian injunctions, filial injunctions, are to preserve the body that your parents give you. And so it's a constant problem that's been going on now in the People's Republic of how to dispose of the dead.
What do you do? Because Confucians wished to bury the body, and Buddhists would cremate the body. And the Chinese state wishes that people will cremate the body and not take up land with burial.
And there is a nice Guanyin of many arms and eyes. So if you see that statue of Guanyin-- the Bodhisattva Guanyin with many arms and eyes. This is-- I don't know which came first. But at any rate, it has to do with me [CHINESE], the [CHINESE] legend as well.
This brings us to by far the greatest category of service to parents, which is what I would call sickbed filiality. Eight stories revolve completely around the everyday heroism, which the cynical might read as a replacement for how the state has virtually-- has really drawn down on providing health care for people. I call the sickbed filiality after the often quoted saying of [CHINESE]. Before the bed of chronic illness, there are no filial children.
Now that, of course, is usually thought to mean that death comes to us all. In the end, there's not enough filiality to actually save your parents. And yet, of course, in the Guyi museum, there often is.
So we have a real push-back against that old saying. And instead, before the bed of chronic illness, there are filial children, [CHINESE]. That is what is exactly written up there.
On TV talk shows about filiality, there is a patient that endures decades and in some cases, miracle cures. So this is a real theme. And we had a few miracle cures in the museum.
Here's Ma Jiaxiang's. He took on sole responsibility for his mother. And he nursed her for nine years. And she awoke from her coma, and on her 86th birthday, he took her to Tian'an men on a trip.
And I'm so sorry. You can't really quite see that. But that's my bad photography. There was a picture of him with his mother in Tian'an men.
Thus, he's a great example of someone who moved from the older style of constant physical care in illness like this and who moved into the even more modern style of caring for your parents, which is to be nice to them. The most recent version of the 24 filial exemplars overwhelmingly leaves out any of this business of caring for your parents' bodies-- you know, feeding them well when they get sick and so on.
Instead, it concentrates pretty much completely on asking your parents about their problems, having a heart-to-heart talk with your parents, writing to your parents cards, those kinds of things. Taking your parents on vacation. So Ma Jiaxiang slips in his story a kind of most modern kind of filiality, which is he takes his mother on vacation.
Jike Mao'er, an Yizu woman who took her mother-in-law as her own mother. And another person who carried her mother-in-law. You can see her carrying her on her back down there. She also miraculously began to walk after her excellent care by her daughter-in-law.
Wang Chunlai, let us get to Wang Chunlai. He is the star of this museum. He is a policeman, a novelist, a diarist, an amateur physician, the only healthy man in his extensive family web, and a person of considerable filial patience-- Job-like patience. He was a grassroots theorist of prison management from Loyang, who cared for his paralyzed parents for 12 years. Both of them, at the same time.
Of all the things and stories that the Guyi museum holds, his are the most prized. Wang Chunlai seems to be considered an example of the perfect person to mediate the upper reaches of a state propaganda campaign with everyday life, to embody state desires in living flesh, providing a sense for people, for Wang himself, that what happens down below in daily life is of profound importance. That the little filiality of Wang's daily grind-- of you know, bedpans-- compares to the great filiality of his uncle, who died fighting the Japanese. Wang Chunlai contributed a truckload of artifacts to the museum-- and there he is of course, with his mother-- provided a truckload of artifacts and is sort of the heart of the museum.
Wang was born in 1961 to a mother who grew up with enough money to be educated and to become a midwife and a father who was a hero in the anti-Japanese war and who later also became a policeman. Wang became famous after their deaths in 2008 for having tended to the daily personal and medical needs of both his paralyzed parents for the last 12 years of their lives, while even excelling at his own career as a policeman.
In fact, he finished China's first manual for military prison management and went on to write several novels, all while being the major caretaker for two bedridden paralytics. I tell you, one feels incredibly unworthy hearing this story and looking at all this. This is a man who did not have writer's block, even when he was incredibly busy.
So here's his small plaque that gives-- and his famous saying. "With one hand he massaged his parents, while the other kept writing." So any of you have things to do and you have elderly parents or you have small children, you can get the message with that point there. It's really quite profound, in fact.
Here we see his novels. And here we see the manuscript and a print version of his new manual for military prison management.
So on the one hand, he invented and built with his own hands-- as countless news stories state, he has a lively online trail-- many clever and useful things to contribute to his parents' comfort and well-being. Many are on display. And let's look at some of them.
He made personal toilet seats. He installed a sewing machine in the house, so that he could make split trousers for ease of diaper change for the incontinent parents. He contrived a bed pulley system along with a system of iron railings with safety belts, so they could walk for exercise daily. Loudspeaker systems, you see them over there on the left, so they could call him, and things like this. So here's a view from the other side of that installation in the museum.
Liao Lin, the museum's young founder, is unstinting in his praise of Wang. Liao was most moved by how Wang balanced the public and the private-- his country and his family, his work and his home. During his service as a filial son, Wang produced objects for his parents' use at home and objects for public consumption outside.
Both examples of Wang's labor are carefully collected and displayed here. In fact, Liao Lin included Wang's saying of loyalty and filiality both complete in the museum's mission statement. There it is. That really comes-- that is a quote, actually, from Wang Chunlai himself.
This extraordinary ability to balance personal filiality with its parallel virtue, public loyalty, was always discussed in press accounts. Indeed, the newspapers often illustrated Wang in these two dimensions, with photos of his personal bodily service and his writing.
So on the one hand, we have his personal service to his parents. We have him in a prison with an inmate. And he really discusses how he seeks to instill filiality in these young offenders. Here, of course, he is also in a kind of perfect storm of Chinese cultivation, he's teaching him calligraphy. And then of course, his writing.
In his diary-- which was serialized in the national magazine, [CHINESE] or Family, in 2009 and published as a book in 2013-- he gave a long and complete and detailed discussion of his days. And of course, it's also fascinating for the way it's edited and what the editors write as a preface and how they annotate it along the way and how it is blurbed.
So on the one hand, Wang brought filiality into the prisons, taking the words of the sages and the five ethical relationships, as he said, into the work with young offenders. Conversely, he constantly mentions how his job and his authorial successes were his mother's miracle drug. But it was Wang's medical acumen that really produced a kind of perfect filial storm of inner and outer perfection.
He had spent time as a nurse's aide before he examined into university to study criminology. As his parents got sicker, he studied up on their illnesses, learning to take blood pressure, blood sugar, to administer insulin, and keep meticulous daily records of their illnesses. And these are his notes.
And I think that's an accident of the lighting when I took the picture. But the luminosity of those notes, I think, really does give you the sense of why they're there. And here we look down upon them from above. And there is some of his medical equipment in the same vitrine.
Wang combines virtues of frugality, self-sufficiency, and devotion, which he lavishes in equal measure upon his parents and his prisoners, so that he becomes a kind of pinnacle of modern scientific filial love. And he produced his own archive to prove it. So we go back to the wide view of all those things.
As his editors wrote in the conclusion to the introduction of his diary, "He is the model from which each Chinese son and daughter learns. The depth of filial feeling that moves people that this book shows forth not only can arouse in sons and daughters their sense of filial debt. It can further soothe, the quote, wish for sons to become dragons, unquote, that every parent under heaven has. A filial heart is the greatest motivator for career success," unquote.
Now I don't want to end on a neoliberal sneer at Wang's extraordinary life. Because it's really obvious that there is a whole trend here where this is trending toward this is a way that you aggrandize the self, which is not untrue. I agree with Teresa Kuan, who has written with great sensitivity herself about middle-class child-rearing in Kunming, that this problem is not simple ideological mystification.
I would say that cadres think less about duping the masses and more about getting them to dance with them, once they have chosen the music. From the view on the ground, it is about the conflation of sentiment that shifts filiality away from Confucian patriarchal hierarchical forms that emphasize obedience, as Vanessa Fong puts it from her regulatory fieldwork among college age kids, quote, "Post-Mao China was defined by them as a loving mother who deserved the lifelong devotion of her children." That's the Buddhist side of filiality. It's not the Confucian patriarch. It's the loving mother.
Wang's two virtues-- [CHINESE], loyalty, and [CHINESE], filiality-- have been paired for a long time. The question seems to always be how does loyalty to the sovereign or the state oppose particular family ties? Or can it be hooked into them and used as a motor so that they are seen not to be in contradiction but as to be implicated with each other?
I think the Mao state really failed to replace filiality with loyalty to the state. We now see a return to the older model of closely associating the two in metaphorical conjunction but clearly under new social conditions.
The museum is in an out-of-the-way corner in Guyi This museum is made up images in Han's beltings sense of the image as the presence of an absence-- that when we see an image, it has always been made by or made from something that involved an embodied component. It exists to facilitate the creation of more images-- it's a propaganda place, it propagates-- to circulate them further.
And key to its success is the capture of the liveness of filial actors. And here are some of the people who were curated into the exhibit on opening day. So preserved are their stories and text, their images and photographs and the material relics of their practice, which index their bodily presence and debt. The possibility of the gratitude they might incite in an intermedial, increasingly digital world is what the state seeks and that, it is hoped, that filial children will provide.
Well, there is much more. But I am-- including a gift shop, and I'm not going to go into that. But I just wanted to say a few things in conclusion.
The old tropes do, I think, continue. And here they are. Intimate bodily care of parents, suffering of children, sacrifice of labor power, willingness to breach public and private status, miracles, physical miracles.
But there are new twists and turns. The care of parents, which in the past was literally about food and its metaphors, now mostly, overwhelmingly is medical health care or emotional warmth. And the best children provide both.
But wait. Isn't this cynically about health care anyway? Remember, I mentioned the latest version of the 24 filial exemplars?
Well, this is number 16, which is buy them suitable health care. That literally is the number 16. Well it is. But it's about so much more than that.
To be sure, filiality the virtue gets tucked into the Confucian drawer. And when it's confined there, you can take it out and you can air it in conjunction with aspects of an ethical agenda that favors hierarchy in the family, that favors the return of women to the home, all in the service of the devolution of responsibility for care of the elderly and children upon the single-family household.
Yet the sociological family, grounded in the life world out of which filial sentiment is formed, extends beyond narrow uses, which the state might borrow. It is full of contradictory functions. It is much put upon by the needs of policy and melodrama.
It is a scene of contradiction and hubbub. As a tactical form, the family becomes a site of governmentality par excellence, equally instrumental and affective. A place where things get done and where things are felt.
As a problem of political form, filiality affords not only unfortunate possibilities for the revival of older social oppressions that carry hierarchies and power in train, but also possibilities for empowerment and critique. You see, ostensibly about elders, I would say that filiality is really much more about those who are in charge of the elders. Filiality turns out to be, surprise, not as much about parents as about sons and now daughters.
Of course, that's not a surprise to anybody that knows my work or Steve's. Thus, to read these campaigns as a cynical answer to lack of health care would be to be hailed by them for the wrong reason. The pitiful elderly are mobilized as a trope that is necessary to imagining powerful children who create better versions of the self, through their devotion to the elderly.
The older parent is, thus, not only a person but also an occasion that is not to be missed. A reason to become a more moral person yourself. An elder needing care is an ethical affordance of the highest order, in a country that feels desperately in need of them.
And by ethical affordance, I would quote Webb Keane on that. "Any aspects of peoples' experience of themselves, of other people, or of their surroundings that they may draw on as they make ethical evaluations and decisions, whether consciously or not." So in this regard, the neglect to health care, the problem of empty nesting, the dire consequences of the one-child policy create not only crisis but opportunity to the culturally sensitive and adroit social engineers of the party state.
These problems become a precious chance for state moralizing, for everyone to pitch in to a collectably imagined campaign and task, in order to one-by-one become better modern Chinese citizen subjects. I deliver this observation, and I hope it will be read without irony. Filial service for its own sake is expected to still retain moral force that could be compared to how some Christians, including the current pope, believe that service is their obligation because they imitate a Christ who served the poor. These are forms of ethical expectation. They are subjective hailings that may or may not be met but that exist as a reservoir of possible elaborations of action.
So another shift in modern filiality lies, I think, the second, is making more transparent how power and agency lie with sons and daughters. This extraordinary poster was in Shanghai subways in the spring of this year. It might be read as a metaphor for all the ways that caring for parents empowers their children rather than subjecting their children to a vertical hierarchy of patriarchally imposed obligation.
Filiality is irresistible because it provides a key arena for creating forms and thus contexts for the performance of embodied micro-hierarchies of power. It also does the strong work of emotional and effective incitement. With this campaign in the materia of this propaganda, the state has made even more explicit it's a player in instituting the fantasies of the family.
Finally, we should note that filiality inhabits a valuably ambiguous place. It is a diffuse aspect of religion in China, the religion that is not-- the religion of China that is not a religion, right. It's perfect for a state that would rather there was no religion at all.
Filiality shape-shifts between ethics, religion and philosophy. And this only adds to its seductive utility. And by shape-shifting, I mean that is polyvalent and its value varies according and thus indexes forms of social difference, including generation, gender, class, political position, geolocation, residency status, education.
Filiality is the object whose religiosity can be debated or ignored, even as it continues to do the ethical work. Filiality is the object whose elasticity for interpretation affords moral, ethical stances in the world as useful to the state as they are helpful to people struggling in their own, everyday life worlds for health, security, and a sense of moral compass and personal empowerment.
For the younger people in the audience who are still blessed, number five of the new [CHINESE] is call your parents. Call your parents, all right? Because I will tell you, I always call mine.
He's 93. Thank you.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Angela Zito, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at New York University, explores the China Dream campaign and the Modern Filial Piety Culture Museum as aspects of state propaganda. Recorded October 3, 2016 as part of East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative.