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» THE WATER UNDER THE WATER: Appearances and Realities in Chengdu

The fact that political ideologies are tangible realities is not a proof of their vitally necessary character. The bubonic plague was an extraordinarily powerful social reality, but no one would have regarded it as vitally necessary.

Wilhelm Reich

Here is a girl, standing at the end of an alleyway in Chengdu, in the Sichuan province in southwestern China.

What will she become, and what will life in the place and time she was born into allow her?

When we first made eye contact, she made a grim face, turned abruptly, and marched with purpose the other way. Then she stopped, executed a surprisingly martial turn, and stood surveying me for a pregnant moment. I waved, and she seemed not to respond at all; just stood there stone-faced, or so I thought at the time. After a moment of standing there like an absurd soldier, she vanished into the doorway of what I assume was her home.

When I got the chance to look at these pictures in more detail, I saw that there was a glimmer of a smile on her face, mostly around her eyes. I have very poor vision, and my camera, with its optical zoom, sees far better than I do.

It seems to me that the Chinese people make the best of the lives their government allows them, and this little girl is a great example of why it’s important to oppose governments and corporations, not people. The Chinese people are not to be feared or damned for the vehicle they’ve been shoved into. Their spirit in trying to advance and overcome is to be respected and admired.

This little girl’s alleyway holds several things of interest and relevance. To touch on the simplest one first, the grime is a byproduct of industry and sheer population density, and industry is, in our globally metasticized consumer culture, how people raise their standards of living. And maybe the U.S. didn’t invent it, but we sure did refine it, give it some steroids, and begin exporting it to the world on a massive scale.

Second among the things that interest me in this alley is the red and gold tracksuit, probably an older brother or cousin’s national team uniform. It takes passion and determination and focus to excel in the athletic arena. That’s why governments and businesses spend so much money and time on their sports teams. It creates a strong emotional bond between the athletes and those who admire them. It’s an entirely natural thing, the same way one might admire a swift or elegant bird. Then those natural human feelings are appropriated and welded to artificial jingoism. This little girl’s likely older brother or cousin (the one-child policy, while powerful, is not as rigid as is commonly reported) probably takes order and discipline very seriously, and if he’s on a national team, it means he’s achieved some level of recognition for his efforts in a highly competitive society. Even before politics and ideology, this little girl is surely absorbing these things like a sponge: How does one make sense of the world, how does one find one’s way through it? You learn from what’s closest to you. You don’t have to understand ideology to be shaped by it.

As a counterpoint, consider the blue jeans. What do blue jeans mean to the Chinese? Although it’s a glib generalization to talk about “the Chinese,” in much the same way talking about “Americans” is somewhat foolish, asking what blue jeans means is not a silly question to ask in an age of mass-produced culture and mediated conceptions of identity. We live, after all, in an age when people see nothing weird or immediately sad about expressing aspects of themselves through the choice of which mass-produced item they selected for purchase.

And “America,” among many other things, is a brand, embedded with all manner of code that is exported aggressively to the world. “Freedom,” “happiness” and “opportunity” are its dominant brand values. Consider how identified with “America” blue jeans are, and then further consider that the Chinese word for America is meiguo or “beautiful country.” (To be fair, the Chinese mostly see it as just a word, not as a word with literal meaning, much like people in the U.S. rarely think of Chicago, Manhattan or Seattle as Indian words with actual, you know, meaning.)


Even a cursory study of China makes it obvious how much yearning and rage course through the people, much like an underground waterway. One of my all-time favorite songs, “Once in a Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads, has a line about there being “water under the water, carrying the water,” and I think it describes the humanity and dogged spirit of the people laboring under the yoke of Chinese government and ascending commerce quite well. They yearn, they long, and, when it boils over, they can exhibit shocking rage. The surface is not the reality. (One marker of this: the rapid increase of what the Communist Party calls “mass incidents,” news of which is almost completely censored from public media.)

At the beginning of this, I quoted Wilhelm Reich, Sigmund Freud’s cohort and fellow psychoanalytic theorist, who was the victim of the only U.S. government-ordered book burning in history, and who died in prison, a mad man, after being imprisoned for what he dared to think and write. (Sound familiar?) Freud thought people were violent sadistic animals, who had to be controlled and taught to “civilize” themselves for the good of society and stability. You can fairly say that Freud’s ideas were status quo – he never asked whether conforming to a sick society was natural or not; it was just assumed that being “well-regulated” and conforming was desirable and healthy. This makes me think of the deeply moving and staggeringly far-reaching speech Martin Luther King gave (presented in 1963, at WMU, and well-worth reading if you aren’t already familiar with it), where he attacks the concept of being “maladjusted” in a society to which he did not want to “adjust”:

Reich thought people were loving and good, and that it was the mutilations of society and government, the imposition of unnatural order, that caused neuroses and dysfunction. It was the systematic and unnatural control of people, in other words, that caused them to be violent, and to behave irrationally. Think of a house cat going slowly loopy, eating houseplants that make it sick and playing manically with a toy mouse when all it really wants to do is be outside, eating real mice, rutting at the appointed time, and following its nature. Reich thought eros was the highest expression of human health and actualization, and that it should be given free reign and support if we were to link hands with our higher selves. There are a great many things to take from Reich’s theory and story, but the one I think of most often, and which springs most readily to mind looking at this little Chinese girl caught between repulsion and friendliness is this: Love is both dangerous and beautiful, and sometimes you have to zoom in and pay attention before you can see it looking back at you.

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One thought on “» THE WATER UNDER THE WATER: Appearances and Realities in Chengdu

  1. I feel NATURALLY compassion for each being I meet in life, and it is NOT naivety but interest awareness. Reich said something like (approximately out of memory”), it is not good enough to believe into the natural goodness of humans, we have actively to fight for the natural. Out of love, the mad machine has to be questioned!

    Ps, my eyes gets worse too, I know what you mean, but strangely enough,
    when I photography or make art, I perceive the finest details out of some “trained”eye memory , I guess.

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