Sunday, December 28, 2003

Empire of signs
Sascha Matuszak celebrates Christmas in China, via antiwar.com. It reminds me of some time spent in Beijing a few years ago, in early January, when the fairy lights were still up and adorning the maximum security architecture all the way down Jianguomenwai, where I was given to understand that they would stay until Chinese New Year.

Things have intensified since then, according to Mr M, but still seem to have the characteristic pattern of western cultural penetration into China – in the form of an Ikea flatpack without the assembly instructions, a blizzard of signs and symbols without the narratives and traditions that tie them together. They are then reassembled in an ad hoc, exuberant and frankly rather appealing way.

Did Christmas ever have a “real meaning” in China, as the phrase is understood here? The solemn reports on Radio 4 of packed cathedrals and churches in urban China certainly used to be a regular feature of the early days of “reform and opening up”. But a friend from Shanghai told me that she and her friends used to sneak off to church and spark up in the back pews simply as a matter of rebellion. Even the dear old C of E, redolent with futility and the aroma of old womens knickers, smelled like teen spirit to sensation starved Chinese youth.