Op-Ed Contributors

Making relics goes against tradition

By Xu Xiaomin (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-30 07:53
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The life and works of Zhu Xi, a Song Dynasty authority on Confucianism, has been well documented in Chinese history. His treatises set the standard for scholastic achievements many centuries after his death.

Historical records showed that Zhu was born in Fujian province, where his father worked as a minor official. His family originated in Wuyuan county of Hui Prefecture, located in what is now Jiangxi province.

To celebrate his 880th birthday anniversary in October, the provincial authorities of both Fujian and Jiangxi are preparing their respective parties. All these efforts seem nice and proper, as a means to promote Chinese traditional culture at a time when more people are preoccupied with the pursuit of material gain. But the hundreds of millions of yuan that the governments of the two provinces have budgeted for the events seem shockingly excessive.

The money will reportedly be used in publishing commemorative stamps as well as funding various seminars and forums around the provinces on Zhu's teachings. These activities are, of course, only a small part of the overall plan. The ultimate goal of the celebration is to promote tourism in the two provinces.

Indeed, a large part of the budgeted spending is earmarked for the renovation and expansion of what are claimed to be Zhu's ancestral homes, as well as the conversion of the neighborhoods into entertainment and shopping areas that replicate a Song Dynasty market town, replete with gardens of artificial rock mounds and man-made ponds. The overall budgets also include the building of hotels, travel service centers and golf courses to entice holidaymakers from around the country.

Such lavishness stands in sharp contrast to the basic tenet of Zhu's philosophy, which exalts frugality and chastity. But nobody seems to mind as the commercialization of China's historical figures is pursued with gusto by the authorities in various provinces, townships and counties that lack natural beauty to entice tourists.

Several places have erected monuments to denote the birthplace of famous Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, who, according to some historical accounts, was a Caucasian from the region that is now part of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia. But it seems that we have learned not to let historical facts get in the way of good business. If there is no way of establishing any connection with dead poets or philosophers, well-known fictional characters in folklore or fairy tales will also do.

Lou Fan of Shanxi province, the fictional birthplace of the Monkey God in the classic novel Journal to the West, has built an amusement park modeled after the homestead of the naughty primate as described in the book. Cities in Shandong and Anhui provinces are also engaging in a war of words to win public acknowledgement as the hometown of the fictional sex-crazed Ximen Qing in another classic novel, Jin Ping Mei.

I am wondering if there are lots of places in the United Kingdom competing for the birthplace or hometown of Shakespeare, and how many people in Spain try to become related with Don Quixote.

It seems that association with famous historical and fictional characters has become a sure win for China's poorer regions to develop non-polluting industries and realize GDP growth.

That may explain why local governments behave so passionately in building or expanding old homes, ancient temples and forgotten ancestral halls in the name of protecting their cultural legacies. But in fact, they are simply trying to meet their GDP quotas.

These artificial cultural projects that have little or no social or historical redeeming value are eating up natural resources, land and capital that can be better spent on improving the livelihood of the people. What we see instead can be a pile of expensive junk in the form of fake old homes, farcical sculptures and gaudy parks that everyone tries to avoid.

The author is chief correspondent of China Daily's Shanghai Office. She can be reached at xuxiaomin@chinadaily.com.cn.