China and institutionalised amnesia

china and amnesia

I’m standing at exit A of the Second Worker’s Cultural Palace metro station and it’s 3pm. All the details are correct, I’ve checked three times in the last 15 minutes. Sweat is sliding down my back, humidity is smothering my skin and gurgling in my throat. Heat constantly drops to my stomach, leaving me all day with an unpleasantly barren kind of fullness. Running from my the metro stop to the C-store for water is like wading into the sea in a denim onesie then sunbaking in 50 degree heat. I focus on the mirage of construction workers comatose on wicker chairs, concrete bags and piles of swept up trash. It’s kind of serene. A newspaper hanging in a filthy looking shop window says “Cantonese considered edgy amongst Hong Kong youth”. A bent-over woman in her matching aiyi silk trousers and blouse strains her neck skyward and asks me if I’m lost. She’s literally 90 degrees to the tiled floor. I tell her I’m waiting for a friend and she laughs. I’m pissed off, she’s amused and she shuffles away in acknowledgment. I wince at her shuffle.

It’s not really her that’s frustrating, despite her hacking something green to the floor and her crazy-person stiff wiry hair. It’s the fact that I cannot for the life of me make up my mind about the next move. It’s almost half-an-hour since I was supposed to meet someone at this metro exit which has lead to a strange white mall full of obscenely ornate traditional Chinese wedding shoes-only for women, only white silk and all covered in sequin vomit. It’s not the kind of place you can hang around discretely. What I can’t grasp is this: What the hell is the etiquette of meeting a stranger for the first time when they have severe amnesia?

This is a term that’s been camping out in my mind for a while now. Almost two months ago, two events occurred that snapped me out of the certainty and privacy of my Aljazeera-reading, Vice documentary watching, Facebook trolling bedroom anonymity. The first was June 4th- the 25 year anniversary of the Tiananmen protests. The firewall was tightened and no-one could Google a reason, Instagram their confusion or watch porn. Things were tense. The second was that I fell in love with a Chinese poet from Sichuan named Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河. I love poetry above any art form because only it can give me the pupil-dilating, impossible simultaneous perspectives of a situation: the close up and the pan shot. Ouyang Jianghe’s poems have both an incredibly Chinese personality in their stubbornness and bluntness and they too crawl with the amnesic ghosts of post-cultural revolutionary ‘freedom’. He says that since June 4th 1989, all Chinese artists are reborn from the Tiananmen massacre. He also says that since that day, his country was under a “forced amnesia”.

institutionalised amnesia It’s a term we would use when referring to a government who wants desperately for everyone to forget an atrocity. This week pro-Cantonese language protests were almost totally banned from being televised due to the depressingly empty excuse that the Cantonese accent mispronounces President Xi’s name to sound like the Chinese word for ‘death’. The political imperative is the adoption of standardised Mandarin for the world’s third largest country by land mass and the largest by population density. Each of the 56 acknowledged ethnic groups currently in survival in China face practical illegality, although they are officially recognised by the central authorities.

The Yuan banknote displays Han, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang script. Since there are also hundreds of mutually unintelligible Sinitic topolects, you could say there are far more than 56 distinct languages. In the popular media, however, a province who allows any trace of a language other than Mandarin is fined. A friend of mine who lives in Yunnan province, home to around 25 minority groups, speaks of the helplessness to halt the extinction of disappearing cultures as sickness also. She speaks of institutionalised amnesia as glazing the eyes of the masses of tourists who dreg around Dali old town after Bai minority-dressed tour guides. They ignore the rotting antique stores, because the rusty Qing dynasty incense burners are relics of a time that prized aesthetic intricacies and was proud to remember their meanings and the cool feel of their forms.

In five minute, I’ve been collected by a round smiling face and we make our way through the brick lanes and glossy puddles. There are bakeries from provinces I’ve never heard of and rugs laid out with herbs I can’t name. My guide, Guzi is a potter – we’re going to her studio to begin ceramic art lessons. At intervals, she checks behind to make sure I follow until we arrive at the gate of her century-old three-story house. I haven’t met anyone who has lived in anything but a five year old apartment their whole life in Guangzhou and it clenches in my stomach when I finally see the thatched roofs and penjing pots perfectly simple in a small courtyard. She shows me to a mirror from the Qing dynasty and her ceramic art. We look at the work of her students and a showcase of her friend’s jewelry on the rooftop. It’s been raining for an hour and the skyline is now empty and silver. Everything in the rooms below us are simple and peaceful retrograde acts that, at least for Guzi, allow her to recall a life before a certain day a few years ago. In this house, forgetting seems like an absurd and psychotic activity.

Stephanie Cobon


Words and pictures by Stephanie Cobon.