The Social Landscape We Wear

Does this video make you feel dizzy? Are you amused and confused?  Do the jumpy frames drive you insane? Are the languages and tones bewildering? Do the mixed, contrasting sounds feel ridiculous, even surreal?  When the image and soundtrack fail to match, do you wonder what the logic is? Maybe the whole thing feels like a farce?

If your answers are “yes,” congratulations! You get the gist of this oddball video, which is based on images and sounds I started collecting not long after I returned to China in the winter of 2011.

How you feel about the video mirrors how I feel about China, my home country. To me, it is like a high-speed train, crammed with absurdities, dramatic tragedies, nonsensical comedies and incredibly surreal realities, roaring toward a world unknown, where the only certainty is uncertainty.

After almost eight years’ absence, I found myself a stranger in my own country. The day I arrived in my hometown Heyuan, a small Hakka city in southern China, cab drivers refused to pull over for me. When one finally stopped, he explained that drivers are unwilling to waste their time loading and unloading suitcases. “Time is money. Not even a second should be wasted,” he asserted.

Guangzhou, where I had lived for years before I moved to the United States, had changed radically in some neighborhoods and I often found myself lost. When I asked for directions, people either looked away or regarded me suspiciously as if I were a swindler trying to snatch money out of their pockets. When I asked people if I could take their photos, some grunted “crazy!” They quickened their pace to escape me as if my camera might steal their souls, or their fortunes.

But one of the most incredible things I quickly noticed was the fashion on the streets: dazzling colors, bold designs, quirky patterns! They were so different from what I remembered in my childhood. They are also different from 10 years ago. And those naked legs! On an escalator, I sometimes saw enough to blush.

From torsos and buttocks, tigers glare, pandas stare, swans dance, cats leap, snakes slither, and women smirk. They also bear sailors and soldiers, as well as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and flashy checkerboards.

When my American friend Tom Balzer visited China, he too was shocked by what he saw. He remarked, “China finally has the freedom to choose a prostitute’s style!”

He is right. We’ve made progress compared to four decades ago, a time dominated by dull colors. Now even if we can’t say or write freely, we can at least dress as we like. The choices may not be pleasant to look at, BUT THEY ARE CHOICES WE MAKE!

Never before had I seen buttocks so colorful, so bold and so “stylish.” One of my colleagues commented, “a big population makes a labyrinth of buttocks.” Can I say this labyrinth of buttocks is a social landscape in a constantly changing country, one full of risk takers, fortune seekers, proud losers and earnest learners?

The body language is just as stunning. People nap on the street, take off their shoes at the subway to scratch their toes, even do their stinky businesses in public!

And the sounds and voices I hear! They are no less gripping, like a song sung out of tune, ridiculously loud, often high-pitched, cacophonous, arbitrary, rude, bossy and sometimes pitiable. Quarrels can be heard at the airport as well as on the street; A saleswoman conceitedly challenges her peers; A school master scolds his students for not cleaning their dorms in time; Shops blare promotions with low quality speakers; TV news shamelessly lies to the audience; A Big V (opinion leader) was arrested for prostitution, but confesses to the world that he, along with other Big Vs, is a liar spreading rumors via social media; A journalist denied himself justice and admitted guilt of fake reporting…

Sometimes I hear lovely sounds: Kids’ folk songs, farmers playing drinking games, Suzhou operas, Cantonese operas, Muslim folk songs, and even Bach’s cantata.

My eyes and my ears are often overloaded. So much to see and hear! Things are so mixed, so messy, so contrasting and they change so quickly. It is hard to process them all at once. Maybe this is the reality of China in transition.

Wherever I go, be it a street corner of metropolitan Shanghai or a remote mountain village in the northwest, I have an urge to document this sound and vision. The social landscapes we wear!

This project comprises three parts: a book, a video, and an exhibition.

The book contains 11 sections: We Wear Animals, We Don Angels and Humans, We Gossip, We Speed Up, We Behave Awkwardly, We Act Sophisticated, We Suffer, We Have Fun, We are Related, We Pray, We Dream.

It starts with a tiger on a young man’s jeans. Ever since President Xi Jinping launched a campaign against corrupt officials, who he called “Tigers”, I’ve noticed many tigers on people’s buttocks, breasts, bellies, waists, legs, even arms. This may be a coincidence, but each time I see those beasts glaring or roaring from bodies of all shapes, I cannot help but think of Xi’s campaign. Why are people so obsessed with tigers now? Similarly, when I see people wearing clothes with cat designs, I think of Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote: “White or black, they are good cats as long as they catch rats.” When I see people wearing American flags, I remember Chairman Mao Tse Tung said decades ago, “U.S. imperialism is a paper tiger” – Ah, there is that tiger again! But today, the rich send their children to school in the United States, some have made huge investments there, “naked officials” move their families there, pregnant women sneak in so their babies are born American citizens. When I see western style houses on women’s skirts, I think of the crazy real estate market in China.

Yet another coincidence.

Or – what we wear is also what we feel, what we think and what we wish for? So I decided to end the book (also the video) with a photo of a girl wearing pants and shoes with wings, since wings are often seen as a symbol for freedom. How I wish I had more photos of wings. Alas, that is the only one in my collection despite over three years of looking and searching. Still, this girl has given me a little hope that we can dream.

The video is a five-minute composite of faceless bodies and sounds from various parts of China. It shows a country constantly changing, in fast paces, out of balance, full of anger and entangled in messes. It is a moving image too complicated and too unpredictable to grasp easily. 

The exhibit will drag the viewers deeper into the messy scene: the photos will be plastered on the four walls, the ceiling and the floor; the video will play constantly. Books are provided for the viewers to thumb through.

Transcript of the video:

A train roars.
A tiger glares.
A woman utters: “Ah!”
Kids sing Cantonese songs:
“On New Year’s Eve,
we pick betels,
bitter betels…”
TV news reports:
“An old man asked a young man not to smoke
but was kicked and punched.”
The Train roars.
The tiger glares.
Middle-aged women dance and croon:
“Wifey’s the head, hubby’s the tail,
Oh, my sweetheart,
my darling.”
A woman yells.
An old man enjoys Buyi songs,
dogs barking,
quarrels trickling.
The CCP announces ballot results:
“The votes collected are all fewer than 80, thus valid.”
A thunder of applause.
Fish snuggle on buttocks.
CCTV keeps rolling:
“Big V (opinion leaders) Xue Manzi was
arrested for paying prostitutes.”
Xue Manzi regrets:
“All Big Vs are liars spreading rumours.”
Quarrels follow.
Anger explodes.
CCTV still rolls:
“Journalist Chen Yongzhou has admitted guilt.”
Chen Yongzhou confesses:
“I didn’t write the articles myself.”
More To be condemned:
“How many have committed crimes
for fortune and fame!”
A monk prays:
“Om Mani Padme Hum,
“Om Mani Padme Hum.”
The train roars.
The tiger glares.
A saleswoman shouts:
“You tell me, which one will it be? ”
A street peddler bellows:
“Good and cheap!”
An optician’s shop’s recorded chant:
“Cheap Meidu eyeglasses!”
A supermarket echoes:
“Discounts lead!”
Cats, white, black and red, leap
A man sings Hua’er.
A woman hears Bach.
A farmer enjoys a drinking bout.
A Suzhou artist performs “Princess Yang’s Despair.”
A man scratches his toes far from the fair.
Pipa and Guzheng,
Su Opera and Cantonese opera,
Labor song and pop song,
Quarreling and typing,
All tangled up.
A woman argues:
“You talk about history and literature,
but guess how I think?”
Frogs croak.
Fans scream “Kobe!”
Kids purr “Hello Kitty!”
Teachers screech:
“Great! Are you ready?”
Pupils respond:
“Ready we are!”
Martial music rising,
Headmaster wishing and whining,
Tom talks about naked officials:
They take the money and go to America.
Grandmama entertains:
“A magic, a stunt, a farce!”
A Hakka mayor raves:
“Were it not for the final result of the election, I would have kicked his ass. Pricey hassles he made, but fiery anger I restrain.”

Tom remonstrates:
“Jesus, poor kids! Sitting in the hot sun, 
get harangued for an hour? 
I would rebel!
It sounds like the army, 
loud speakers, 
demanding voices, 
martial music. 
I don’t like it.”

The subway announcer warns:
“Last Train.”

If we we wear pants and shoes with wings,
can we fly?

Here is the book layout

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