A Very Queer Thing

If there is anything which modern China can safely be assumed to regard with respect and devotion it is that famous wall, so an­cient, so useless, so queer, and so inconvenient.

—New York Times, June 28, 1899

The Wall, as Marx might have said, is a very queer thing. At first sight it appears easily understood, but upon closer analysis it is re­vealed to be really quite odd, abounding in metaphysical subtleties. Part of the reason for the Wall’s peculiarity lies in the fact that in ad­dition to being a concrete, physical artifact, it is also an abstract re­pository of cultural value. This symbolic dimension, furthermore, flows across the same national and conceptual borders of which the Wall is a preeminent icon, and it is this fungibility that permits the Wall to circulate throughout an increasingly globalized world.

This conjunction of solidity and mobility is nicely captured in a description—in a remarkable 1981 novel by Chinese emigre au­thor Hualing Nieh—of a snow globe containing a miniature rep­lica of the Wall.1 In the book, this tourist trinket is a memento of the protagonist’s Chinese homeland, and symbolizes the intractable psychological walls she has drawn up between her pre — and post­immigrant selves. A snow globe is, of course, a glass or plastic sphere containing a miniature representation of a snow-swept scene. The scene may be imaginary, as in the ubiquitous Christmas globes we see during the holiday season, or it may be a representa­tion of an actual landmark like the Wall. As a conveniently portable emblem of a real or imaginary site, a snow globe exemplifies a pro­cess of globalization (or what in this context we might call snow- globalization): the transformation of local identity into a set of free- floating commodities within an increasingly globalized symbolic economy. Nieh’s miniature Wall, therefore, presents a wonderfully apt image of a hermetically enclosed structure that is itself a quin­tessential symbol of both boundaries and boundlessness. It is this fantasy of being able to reduce the vast Wall to a palm-size artifact, furthermore, that underlies the perennial fascination with the possi­bility of viewing the Wall from outer space—which is to say, of see­ing the structure positioned against the backdrop of the terrestrial globe.

A cofounder of the University of Iowa’s critically acclaimed Inter­national Writing Program, Hualing Nieh immigrated to the United States in 1964 from China, via Taiwan, and her 1981 novel Mul­berry and Peach describes the culture shock that can result from this sort of transnational displacement. Like Nieh, the work’s pro­tagonist is a Chinese woman who has relocated to the United States from China via Taiwan; the Mulberry and Peach in the title refer to the two distinct personas into which the protagonist’s identity fractures as she struggles to adapt to her new environment. Her Peach identity corresponds to the fiery and aggressive personality that emerges after she arrives in the United States, while the name Mulberry denotes the now-suppressed demure personality associ­ated with her earlier existence in China. The miniature Wall inside Peach’s snow globe thus represents her attempts to seal off her own earlier identity, even as the presence of the snow globe in Peach’s life testifies to the degree to which her earlier Chinese identity continues to intrude into her contemporary, immigrant one. More generally, the snow globe speaks to the politics of individual identity in an in­creasingly transnational era, to the processes of commoditization that accompany these same transnational circuits, and to the way the actual stone Wall has been systematically repackaged as a sterile symbol of “Chineseness” in the modern world.

One of the cornerstones of Marxist theory on which both the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic are grounded involves a critique of capitalism’s role in reducing commodities to the status of abstract repositories of value, thereby eliding the phys­ical human labor that was responsible for their production in the first place. This interrogation of the relationship between concrete labor and abstract value is ironically played out in the Wall’s own transformation from a symbol of the First Emperor’s exploitative tyranny into a token of exchange within the contemporary global economy. In view of Marxism’s commitment to reaffirming the un­derlying labor value of material commodities, it is curious that it was China’s Communist regime that helped strip the Wall of its tra­ditional connotations of exploited labor and refashioned it into a quintessential commodity in its own right—a symbol of the cosmo­politan nation that China is striving to become.

Even in its status as a national icon, the Wall has undergone a similar reversal from a symbol of (Communist) China to an emblem of the capitalist order against which China has ostensibly attempted to position itself. The result of this latter transformation can be seen not only in the vast tourist industry that has developed around the monument but also in the tendency among Chinese corporations to use the Wall in their name or logo. In 1924, for instance, one of Shanghai’s first film studios was named after the Wall, and in the late 1940s the same name was adopted by one of Hong Kong’s leading leftist film studios, which was well known for its patriotism toward Mainland China. More recently, it has also been borrowed for the name of an aerospace corporation, a cargo airline estab­lished by that same corporation, and an automobile company that, in 2008, became the first private Chinese auto company to be listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The Wall has been used in the name of a Chinese life insurance company, and as the logo of a ma­jor credit card issued by the Bank of China. Perhaps the clearest il­lustration of the Wall’s commodification, however, can be found in the structure’s long and complicated association with Chinese cur­rency, culminating in its appearance on the back of many of China’s current one-yuan bills. A nation’s currency is one of the preeminent symbols of its identity, as well as one of its primary points of con­tact with the rest of the world, and accordingly the Wall’s appear­ance on China’s one-yuan notes underscores the monument’s emer­gence as a globally recognized symbol of China itself.

The yuan, modern China’s basic unit of currency, came into use at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was established to pro­vide a domestic equivalent to the Mexican silver dollars that had become the de facto national standard. Even after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, China’s new republican government and many of its provincial governments continued minting yuan coins and paper money. By the 1940s, there were several competing ver­sions of the yuan in use in China, including the banknotes printed by the Nationalist government, those used in the Communist — controlled “soviets” in southern Jiangxi and surrounding areas, and those issued by the occupying Japanese forces (the Japanese yen is rendered with a version of the same ideograph used to refer to the Chinese yuan). The end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1945 did little to stabilize the nation’s monetary system, and over the next two years the Nationalist yuan plummeted in value from 20 yuan to the dollar to more than 73,000 to the dollar. Five-hundred-yuan notes were introduced in 1946, followed by 10,000-yuan notes two years later, though by that point the currency had already become so de­valued that it reportedly cost the government 7,000 yuan to print each 10,000-yuan note, and many consumers were forced to use stacks of bank notes bound together into what were known as “cash bricks” in lieu of the nearly worthless individual bills.

Near the nadir of this hyperinflationary cash-brick economy, the

Great Wall Bank (or Bank of Chang Chung, as it was rendered in the transliteration system used at the time) was established as the central bank in the Communist-controlled Hebei-Rehe-Liaoning Liberated Area in the north, and it began printing currency with an image of the Great Wall on the back of each bill. The bank’s appeal to the symbol of the Wall, however, provided scant defense against the waves of inflation that continued to rock the economy, and by September 1948 the value of the yuan had fallen by yet another or­der of magnitude, to around 20 million yuan to the dollar. Less than a year later the Communists finally prevailed in their civil conflict with the Nationalists, and—in an echo of the First Emperor’s stan­dardization of the nation’s currency two thousand years earlier— one of Chairman Mao’s first actions after founding the PRC was to phase out all of the wartime banks and replace them with the new state-run People’s Bank of China. The obsolete wartime notes could be exchanged for new yuan bills at rates ranging from virtual parity up to 5,000 to 1 (the Great Wall Bank’s own former currency, for instance, was valued at a rate of 2,000 to 1).

In minting its new currency, the PRC was attempting to wipe clean the preceding period of economic chaos, and over the next couple of decades it would go to considerable effort to reinvent China’s overall economic policy. Under the PRC’s planned econ­omy, many staples and other commodities could be acquired only with ration coupons, just as state enterprises were managed based on government directives rather than strict market considerations. Despite the government’s attempts to maintain almost absolute control over economic matters, however, the nation’s currency con­tinued to suffer from extraordinary inflationary pressures, to the point that the central bank was ultimately forced, on January 1, 1970, to remove the radically devalued renminpiao (literally, “peo­ple’s bills,” as the yuan notes were technically called) from circula­tion and replace them—at a virtual cash-brick rate of 10,000 to 1— with “people’s currency,” the renminbi (RMB) that are still in use today. The value of the new RMB was initially pegged to the U. S. dollar, but when the value of the dollar plummeted in 1972, the government shifted the standard to the Hong Kong dollar, and then in 1974 it shifted it again to an undisclosed basket of foreign cur­rencies. However, regardless of whether the basis of the new RMB yuan was the U. S. dollar, the Hong Kong dollar, or a collection of foreign currencies, China’s attempts to stabilize its currency by shielding it from the foreign exchange market paradoxically relied on a parallel effort to link the yuan to the same foreign currencies against which the government was trying to protect itself.

Following Chairman Mao’s death and the official end of the Cul­tural Revolution in 1976, the door was opened for new leadership and an attendant shift in economic policy. In 1978, Mao’s de facto successor, Deng Xiaoping, inaugurated the Reform and Opening — Up Campaign, which imposed a series of political and market re­forms to help the nation transition into what Deng euphemistically called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” This campaign was the catalyst for a period of remarkable economic expansion, includ­ing several multiyear stretches of double-digit annual growth. Even as the government was attempting to open up China’s economy, however, it was simultaneously establishing new measures in an at­tempt to safeguard the economy from foreign influence. Because the RMB was not directly convertible with foreign currency, for instance, in 1980 the central bank established a special currency known as Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC), which were nomi­nally equivalent to the domestic RMB but had a significantly higher value on the black market. Intended to encourage tourism, FEC could be purchased by foreigners and used to buy a variety of im­ported commodities that the government did not wish to make available to the population as a whole. Conceived as a way of main­taining the RMB’s status as a barrier protecting the nation’s domes­tic economy from foreign influence, the FEC notes actually helped facilitate the entry into China of foreign capital and capitalism.

In the context of these attempts to open up the nation’s economy to foreign trade while shielding it from outside influence, in 1988 China’s central bank began issuing its fourth series of currency. Each of the one-yuan bills in this new series featured an image of the Wall on one side and (like the bills of other denominations in the series) a picture of ethnic minority women on the other. The government backdated the bills to 1980, and they remain legal ten­der today (though a fifth series of notes, sans Wall, was introduced in 2004). The irony, however, is that even as China’s basic unit of currency featured a symbol of national boundaries, its economy was becoming increasingly intertwined with the global economy. China attempted to hold the value of the yuan steady, but as the na­tion’s trade surplus continued to balloon in the 2000s, the central bank found it necessary to keep increasing its foreign-currency re­serves in order to stabilize the yuan, which meant that the stability of the nation’s domestic currency was being preserved through the introduction of a vast sum of foreign capital. In March of 2010, the value of those foreign reserves stood at almost two and a half tril­lion dollars, of which approximately a third was in the form of U. S.-government bonds—making China by far the largest servicer of America’s national debt.

Deng’s Reform and Opening-Up Campaign coincided with a se­ries of transformations in China’s political and artistic culture. One of the pivotal political developments during this period, for in­stance, was the emergence of the so-called Xidan Democracy Wall. In November 1978, protesters began posting “big character post­ers” on a low brick wall along a busy street west of Tiananmen Square. These texts addressed a variety of sensitive political topics, ranging from Chairman Mao and the recently concluded Cultural Revolution to more immediate concerns such as Deng Xiaoping’s ongoing reforms. One of the most famous posters from this pe­riod was written by an electrician and former Red Guard, Wei Jingsheng, who argued that Deng Xiaoping’s campaign advocating the Four Modernizations (of agriculture, industry, technology, and national defense) should include a fifth modernization, democracy, without which the other four would be meaningless. The poster concludes with a strident call: “Xidan Democracy Wall has become the first battlefield in the people’s fight against reactionaries…. Let us unite under this great and real banner and march toward mod­ernization for the sake of the people’s peace, happiness, rights and freedom!”2

The Democracy Wall featured not only political statements but also cultural ones. The poet Huang Xiang, for instance, came to Beijing to post on the Xidan wall a poem he had originally com­posed six years earlier, during the Cultural Revolution. Entitled “Confessions of the Great Wall,” the poem adopts the voice of the Wall and opens with a description of the structure seeing itself as a mere “crack” on the surface of the globe, as if from a bird’s-eye or even an extraterrestrial perspective:

The earth is small and blue

I am nothing but a small crack in it.

Under gray, low-flying clouds in the sky

I have been standing here for a long time.

My legs are numb, I am losing my balance.

I am falling down and dying of old age.

I am old.

My descendants hate me.

They hate me the way one hates a stubborn old grandfather.

When they see me they turn their faces.

The poem develops this vision of the Wall’s having fallen into ob­scurity and physical neglect, concluding with a description of the structure’s “death”:

My ramparts are disappearing from the surface of the earth,

Collapsing within the minds of the entire human race.

I am leaving; I have already died.

A generation of sons and grandsons are carrying me into the museum,

Placing me together with dinosaur fossils.

I will not leave anything behind in this world I will take everything I brought with me.

In the earth I have inhabited,

Science and revolution, friendship and understanding are like a crowd Of honored guests

Who pass through the long, dark night of the soul And together cross the threshold into the future.3

The irony is that Huang Xiang figuratively grants the Wall a voice just as the Wall is described as “cross[ing] the threshold into the fu­ture.” The implication, in other words, is that it is the prospect of demolition and oblivion that has helped grant the structure its new life and voice as a symbolic entity.

In December 1979 the government decided that the Xidan dem­onstrations had gone far enough and officially shut down the De­mocracy Wall. While the immediate political success of the Xidan wall was perhaps rather limited, it did establish a precedent for public expression that included not only explicitly political mes­sages, such as Wei Jingsheng’s manifesto, but also artistic and cul­tural statements, such as Huang Xiang’s Wall poem. More of these artistic possibilities were developed the following September, when an experimental art group known as the Stars was denied permis­sion to exhibit in Beijing’s National Gallery and decided instead to display its members’ works informally in the public space just out­side the gallery. When the ad hoc exhibit was shut down by the po­lice the next day, the group responded by organizing—on October first, the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC—a march from the Xidan Democracy Wall to the headquarters of the Beijing

Municipal Party Committee, carrying a banner that read, “We de­mand democracy and artistic freedom.”

The short-lived 1979 Stars exhibit is regarded as having helped usher in the increasingly vibrant experimental art scene that arose in the 1980s. Initially, this avant-garde movement consisted primar­ily of graphic and installation pieces, but by the middle of the de­cade it began to include performance works as well. In 1986, for in­stance, Concept 21st Century realized its second performance, at the Gubeikou section of the Wall outside Beijing. The performance was entitled simply Concept 21: The Great Wall, and featured as its motto Mao’s line, “If you haven’t been to the Great Wall, you are not a real man.”4 A dozen or so artists dressed in red and black, with strips of white cloth wrapped around their head and body, proceeded to perform a series of ritualistic gestures and choreo­graphed dance movements. The act of wrapping the body in white bandages was a recurrent theme in performance art in China in the 1980s, connoting among other things an image of bodily wounds or scars. (One of the literary movements to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, known as “scar literature,” focused in vivid and often quasi-autobiographical terms on the physical and psychologi­cal “scars” suffered during the Cultural Revolution.) Collectively, these alienating—and alienated—works posed the question of what it means to be a “real man”—which is to say, to be human—in con­temporary China.

The wave of oppositional and experimental political-cultural ex­pression sparked by the Xidan Democracy Wall and the Stars exhibit culminated a decade later, in 1989, with two major avant — garde art exhibits in January and February (one of which was ex­plicitly presented as a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the original Stars exhibit), followed by the pro-democracy Tian­anmen Square protests that began in mid-May. The latter demon­strations, which were manifestly political, could also be seen as thoroughly cultural—as a sort of collective exercise in public per­formance. The military crackdown at Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4 not only constituted a considerable setback for critical political discourse in China but also placed a significant damper on experimental artistic expression, which had flourished in the 1980s.

Just as the cultural implications of the Democracy Wall move­ment were dramatized by Huang Xiang’s 1979 poem granting the Wall a figurative voice, the cultural ramifications of the 1989 Tian­anmen Square protests were similarly developed in a creative work that attempted to allow the Wall to “speak.” In June 1990, during the first anniversary of the 1989 protests, the conceptual artist Xu Bing—who is best known for his Book from the Sky project (1987­1991), which consisted of a vast text composed from a lexicon of more than four thousand ideographs he invented by taking compo­nents of existing ideographs and rearranging them to form new, “false” ones—assembled a team of thirty students and laborers and took them to the Jinshanling section of the Wall north of Beijing, where they spent twenty-four days balanced on rickety scaffolding while pounding the Wall with ink pads and paper.5

Xu Bing dressed himself and his team in uniforms decorated with the “pseudo-graphs” from his Book from the Sky project, and they employed a technique traditionally used to trace inscriptions from stone stelae to “translate” the Wall’s markings into virtual text. Like the pseudo-graphs in Book from the Sky, the tracings of the Wall’s surface could be seen as a mirror image of conventional writ­ing, visually resembling textual inscription yet lacking any semantic content. Xu Bing’s Wall rubbings in effect constituted a sort of wordless scripture—a text whose meaning is not contained within itself but rather is projected onto it by its viewers.

As Xu Bing and his crew were pounding out these ink rubbings of the surface of the Wall, the office of China’s minister of culture pub­lished an essay attacking the contemporary avant-garde art scene. The essay, which appeared on the anniversary of the June Fourth

[To view this image, refer to the print version of this title.]

Ghosts Pounding on the Wall, Xu Bing (1990).

Courtesy of Xu Bing Studio.

crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, singled out Book from the Sky for critique and likened it to a ghostly wall that entraps travelers as they run in circles trying frantically to escape. The folk saying cited in the article, gui da qiang, is used here in the sense of “ghosts building a wall” but could also be translated more literally to mean “ghosts beating a wall.” This, of course, described perfectly the process by which Xu Bing and his team were quite lit­erally pounding the surface of the Wall with ink pads and paper, and so Xu Bing decided to take the wording of this phrase that had been used against him and reappropriate it as the title for his new project—thereby implicitly putting his crew in the position of vir­tual ghosts simultaneously “pounding” the Wall and “building” a textual replica of the structure.

When Xu Bing first exhibited Ghosts Pounding on the Wall in 1991, after immigrating to America, he taped the thousands of sheets of rubbings together to create a thirty-two-meter by fifteen — meter replica of the Wall. More than a strict representation of the Wall, Ghosts Pounding the Wall translates the physical structure into text. Just as Book from the Sky attempted to desacralize the Chinese written language by de-linking its semantic dimension from its institutional context, Ghosts challenges the Wall’s symbolic power by shifting attention from the monument’s status as a mate­rial entity to the symbolic network within which it is embedded. Ghosts, in other words, presents the Wall as an entity with no in­herent meaning of its own—a wordless scripture that derives its sig­nificance from the vision and aspirations projected onto it. The ar­tistic significance of Xu Bing’s Ghosts lies not merely in the actual installations in which the Wall rubbings are exhibited to the public but, equally importantly, in the transformative process by which the work was created in the first place (as seen in the video re­cording Xu Bing made of the painstaking labor that produced the work).

A similar theme of corporeality and transformation was picked up a few years later by a group of young artists living in a rundown neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital that they nicknamed Beijing’s East Village. Many of the artists were trained as painters, but around 1993 several of them began pursuing an interest in per­formance, in which they would frequently use little more than their own body to comment on their position at the margins of various social and political orthodoxies. One member of this group, Ma Liuming, who had a slight physique and delicate features, became known for a series of performances in which he would use the con­trast between his naked male body and his effeminate long hair and made-up face to create a sexually indeterminate alter ego that he dubbed “Fen/Ma Liuming.” Ma developed variations on this con­ceit for nearly a decade, and in one 1998 performance he used the

[To view this image, refer to the print version of this title.]

Fen/Ma Liuming Walking along the Wall, Ma Liuming (1998).

Courtesy of Ma Liuming.

Simatai section of the Wall as a backdrop—creating a stark contrast between the soft vulnerability of his naked flesh and the solid stone surface of the Wall beneath his feet.6

Ma Liuming’s Simatai performance could be seen as underscor­ing a contrast between the artist’s transgendered performance and the legendary solidity of the Wall, or it could be understood as pre­senting a parallel between the artist’s gender transformation and the Wall’s own phoenix-like cycle of destruction and rebirth. Alter­natively, it could even be interpreted as a metacommentary on these underlying issues of continuity and rupture as they relate to the re­lationship between performance and representation—asking, in ef­fect, what it means to preserve (and own) a stable image of an in­herently transient performance.

Actually, the Simatai performance was positioned at a critical fork in Ma’s artistic trajectory, as it took place on the eve of two parallel developments in his attitude toward his own work. In 1998 he began a series of interactive performances in which he would ap­pear naked onstage, as his Fen/Ma Liuming performative alter ego, and allow members of the audience to come up and pose with him as they wished. That same year, Ma and other East Village artists stopped collaborating with photographers Rong Rong and Xing Danwen (whose images of their performances had been critical to helping several of them achieve fame in the first place), because of a bitter dispute over who owned the rights to the photographs of their performances. Thus, in the period following his Simatai per­formance, Ma Liuming was surrendering partial control over his performances to his audience while simultaneously struggling to re­gain control over the photographs taken of his earlier works. By a similar logic, Ma’s Simatai performance—one of his only works set against a recognizable landmark—could be seen as simultaneously laying claim to the image of the Wall while allowing the monument to partially usurp his position as the focal point of his own work.

The dispute between the performance artists and the photogra­phers reflects not only abstract concerns with issues of intellectual property but also very concrete considerations of commodity value. Indeed, during the 1990s the worth of many of these artworks ex­ploded, influencing the artists’ relationship with their work and also becoming an explicit theme of some of the works themselves. Artists such as Wang Qiang, Xu Yihui, and Liu Zhang, for instance, explored issues of artistic commodification by printing images of Chinese and foreign currency on surfaces ranging from canvases to ceramics to plastic beads. The Guangzhou-based artist Lin Yilin constructed a series of walls out of bricks and paper money, and then placed himself inside the body-shaped openings he had left in them—thereby creating the appearance that he was embedded within his own work.7 The resulting image of a human figure trap­ped inside a brick wall resonates with the legends of corvee workers buried within the Wall, while alluding to our own position within a figurative wall of monetary and commodity relations.

[To view this image, refer to the print version of this title.]

The Result of 1,000 Pieces, Lin Yilin (1994) . Courtesy of Lin Yilin.

Another elegant commentary on China’s ambivalent attitude to­ward global capital can be found in a series of performances by Beijing-based artist Wang Jin. For one work, Wang took bricks from the outer wall of Beijing’s Forbidden City, printed them with images of U. S. hundred-dollar bills, and then returned the bricks to the dilapidated wall from which they had come. Wang Jin’s “cash bricks” dramatized the tension between China’s enthusiastic em­brace of foreign investment and foreign trade, on one hand, and the nation’s concurrent attempts to erect a virtual wall around its do­mestic economy, on the other. Wang Jin entitled his performance Knocking at the Door—alluding to the long-term economic conse­quences of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy, and also to the per­ception that foreign capital was knocking on the figurative door of China’s (still partially closed) domestic economy.8

In 2001, the German artist H. A. Schult lined up 1,000 life-size statues in two parallel rows along a three-kilometer stretch of the same Jinshanling section of the Wall that Xu Bing had used for his

Ghosts Pounding the Wall.9 Schult had begun this project five years earlier, when he and a team of thirty assistants spent six months cre­ating a virtual army of colorful humanoid figures out of crushed cans, computer components, discarded plastic and cardboard, and other detritus. Schult’s objective was to underscore our relationship to the mountain of waste we throw away every day, and he de­scribed his statues as “silent witnesses to a consumer age that has created an ecological imbalance worldwide.” Borrowing a biblical ashes-to-ashes metaphor to describe his vision of contemporary hu­man existence, he elaborates: “We produce garbage and we will be garbage. I created one thousand sculptures of garbage. They are a mirror of ourselves.” Schult first exhibited the sculptures at the Xanten amphitheater in Germany in 1996 and then transported them to various sites around the world, including La Defense in Paris, Moscow’s Red Square, the Egyptian pyramids, New York City, and finally Antarctica in 2008. It was at Jinshanling, however, that Schult’s humanoid statues found their most powerful setting, resonating with the army of life-size terra-cotta warriors that the First Emperor had constructed to defend his tomb after his death, and with the army of laborers he is reputed to have buried beneath the Wall that he built to defend his empire while he was still alive.

Schult’s 2001 Trash People at the Great Wall, meanwhile, was transformed at the precise moment of its inception when a local art­ist by the name of He Chengyao insinuated herself into the grand opening of the exhibit. As Schult was walking between the parallel rows of statues, flanked by photographers and a coterie of guests, He Chengyao spontaneously removed the red shirt she was wearing and proceeded to march, topless, between the rows in front of him—an act of artistic intercession that was captured by the same photographers who were there to document the exhibit’s opening ceremony.10 While He Chengyao’s topless performance may have resembled the use of nudity in performances by Ma Liuming and his East Village colleagues in the 1990s, in He Chengyao’s case it

[To view this image, refer to the print version of this title.]

Opening Up the Wall, He Chengyao (2001).

Courtesy of He Chengyao.

turned out that the act had a more personal significance. The artist’s mother had given birth to her out of wedlock while still a teenager, and the resulting public condemnation had taken such a toll on her mother that she suffered a nervous breakdown that led her to pa­rade naked through the streets of her hometown. He Chengyao’s 2001 nude Wall performance, therefore, could be seen as an at­tempt to symbolically reaffirm her mother’s dignity while also fig­uratively “reclaiming” the Wall from an act of foreign artistic ap­propriation.

In addition to its personal significance for the artist, He Cheng —

yao’s performance also speaks more generally to the politics of the Wall itself, as well as to China’s contemporary efforts to reassert symbolic control over its own national landmark. Borrowing the same term Deng Xiaoping had used for his Reform and Opening — Up Campaign, He Chengyao entitled her impromptu performance at Simatai Opening Up the Wall—alluding to her attempt to fig­uratively “open up” not only Schult’s Simatai installation but also the general significance of the Wall. Indeed, this title could be ap­plied to virtually all of the avant-garde Wall performances, insofar as they all seek to push the structure beyond its current meaning and “open it up” to new possibilities.

This theme of opening up the Wall aptly describes, for instance, Cai Guo-Qiang’s 1993 work Project to Extend the Great Wall by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, which sought to “extend” our understanding of the Wall by literally exploding it. Three years later a similar sentiment was developed in two of Wang Jin’s works. The first, The Great Wall: To Be or Not to Be, was to have been set near the same Jiayuguan section of the Wall where Cai Guo-Qiang had performed his Extend the Great Wall, though in place of Cai’s explosives Wang Jin planned to create his virtual extension of the Wall out of a line of mud-filled Coca-Cola bottles and cans. Wang’s second work from that year, Ice Wall: ’96 Central China, was commissioned by the Zhengzhou municipal govern­ment to commemorate the opening of the city’s first major shopping mall, and was conceived as a thirty-meter-long wall built out of 600 large blocks of ice embedded with consumer goods, ranging from cell phones to cameras and televisions to gold rings and bottles of perfume.11 Both works were to have melded walls with modern commodities in a way that commented on the Wall’s own process of commodification—wherein traditional views of the Wall are figuratively torn down and replaced by a contemporary vision of the Wall as a global commodity.

In the end neither of Wang Jin’s 1996 works turned out exactly as planned. The To Be or Not to Be project eventually proved not to be and was never completed. The Ice Wall piece, meanwhile, was completed, but as soon as it was unveiled, it was swarmed by spectators intent on retrieving the valuable commodities buried in­side. While the work was originally intended as an affirmation of the crystallized purity of the commodity form, its significance ulti­mately lay in its elicitation of a violent expression of desire that resulted in its own destruction. Both works, in other words, were ultimately realized as performances—with one functioning as a per­formance of destruction, and the other—paradoxically—as a per­formance of nonrealization.

Like Wang Jin’s earlier Knocking at the Door performance, the Ice Wall project did not, of course, feature the Wall, though it did bring together several of the themes that underlie contemporary un­derstandings of the Wall. The consumer goods embedded within the ice blocks constituted the precise inverse of the bodies of the workers traditionally imagined to have been buried beneath the Wall, just as the spectators’ destruction of the wall mirrored Lady Meng Jiang’s demolishment of the Wall with her tears. Implicitly evoking a vision of the Wall as a ravenous consumer of Chinese la­bor, Wang Jin’s ice wall contained embedded within itself the con­sumer commodities that, according to orthodox Marxist theory, are the crystallized products of the labor process. Like the thirty — two-meter ink rubbing of the Wall that Xu Bing produced, Wang Jin’s thirty-meter ice wall could be seen as an inverse reflection of the Wall—a commentary on the tension between labor and pro­cesses of commodification that have helped yield the Wall as we know it today.

Henan Province—the site of Wang Jin’s Ice Wall—is sometimes referred to as Zhongyuan, or “central plains,” in recognition of its position in the heart of China’s Central Plains region, and it was here that the Shang dynasty oracle bones were initially unearthed at the end of the nineteenth century. This is also the region where, in 2002, a long stretch of stone wall was discovered that—it was claimed—dated back to the Warring Kingdoms state of Chu. This would have made it China’s oldest surviving “long wall,” though other researchers pointed out that no corroborating historical or ar­chaeological evidence has been found to support the pre-Qin date— suggesting, in effect, that the structure’s alleged antiquity was likely a mirage, an illusory reflection of the Wall whose future construc­tion it was anticipating.

The flurry of excitement around this apparent discovery of an early long wall happened to coincide with the unveiling of a more significant “secret” hidden at the very heart of this heartland re­gion. In 2001, Beijing acknowledged for the first time that tainted blood in the nation’s blood supply accounted for a “significant per­centage” of the HIV epidemic that had plagued rural Henan for much of the preceding decade. The figurative unveiling, in Henan Province, of Wang Jin’s Ice Wall in 1996 and of the Chu state wall six years later both took place against the backdrop of a domestic AIDS epidemic centered in rural Henan, the severity of which was neither acknowledged nor well understood.

While the details of China’s domestic AIDS crisis did not begin to come to light until the late 1990s, as early as 1988 Beijing had be­gun to implement a national quarantine system that came to be known as a “Great Wall against AIDS.” By adopting a strategy of testing foreigners entering China and rejecting foreign blood prod­ucts, the government’s AIDS Wall reinforced the belief that the virus was an external threat that could be stopped at the border. In prac­tice, however, a primary consequence of the policy was a quaran­tine on useful information about the domestic epidemic, which ex­acerbated the crisis by hampering the possibility of an effective response. The result was a paradox wherein the AIDS Wall was transformed from its intended purpose of protecting the nation from the crisis to actually facilitating the crisis (just as the HIV virus itself functions by transforming the human immune system from a barrier against infection into a portal for the virus’s entry).

Beijing’s belated acknowledgment in 2001 of the circumstances and severity of China’s domestic AIDS epidemic roughly coincided with a more general unraveling of the government’s ability to con­trol the dissemination of information within its own borders. From the deadly 2001 explosion of a Jiangxi school building that was se­cretly being used to manufacture fireworks to the 2002 deaths of customers who ate poison-laced food from a Jiangsu breakfast stall, there have been a number of high-profile tragedies in China that the government initially attempted to keep under wraps but were sub­sequently brought to light after a wave of disclosures and exposes posted on the Internet.

Over the past decade the Internet has emerged as one of the key elements in China’s attempt to modernize and internationalize its economy, while at the same time becoming one of the most visible challenges to China’s efforts to control the movement of informa­tion within its borders. Beijing has responded to the threat by devel­oping what is known within China as the Golden Shield Project and abroad as the Great Firewall of China. This virtual firewall has been designed to restrict access to certain news sites and sites with user-generated content, and also to screen e-mails and messages for a set of banned terms. In practice, however, the firewall has proven to be rather porous, as it not only allows a significant percentage of the banned terms to get through but also encourages Internet users to resort to using coded language or technical workarounds to side­step the restrictions—a practice known in Chinese as fanqiang, or “climbing the wall.”

In 2009 the government announced that all new computers sold in China would come with a preinstalled software package known as Green Dam, which was ostensibly designed to prevent youths from accessing porn sites but which was revealed to also block ac­

cess to politically sensitive sites. This new policy was widely criti­cized in China and abroad and was ultimately rescinded. The mat­ter resurfaced six months later, however, when a Michigan-based company specializing in parental-control Web filters announced it was suing the Chinese government and other parties for stealing its software for the Green Dam program. If the allegation is true, it would mean that the latest incarnation of the Great Firewall (like the modern vision of the Wall as a national icon) was literally a for­eign import.

One example of the paradoxical significance of the Internet and the Great Firewall in China can be found in Premier Wen Jiabao’s Facebook “wall.” Appointed premier of the State Council in 2003, Wen Jiabao came to be known as the “people’s premier” because of his efforts to make the government more accessible and account­able. Shortly after his appointment, Wen helped push for a more ac­tive response to the unfolding SARS epidemic, and nine months later he became the first high-level official to address the nation’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 2006 he issued a State Council decree en­forcing the Regulations on the Protection of the Wall. When an earthquake devastated Sichuan in May 2008, Wen (who is a geolo­gist by training) traveled to the region just hours after the quake. Shortly after the calamity, a Facebook page appeared under Wen’s name that quickly attracted an outpouring of support for his re­sponse to the quake, and by the end of the year the page had acquired more than seventy thousand “fans” and more than ten thousand messages had been posted to his “wall”—the publically accessible portion of a Facebook page on which visitors can leave messages, much as tourists leave graffiti on the surface of the Wall itself.

Just as Kafka argued that an emperor’s power is a product of the vast gulf that inevitably intervenes between him and his subjects, Wen Jiabao’s popularity comes not despite but rather because ofthe vast distance that separates the people’s premier from his people.

The premier’s Facebook page, while appearing to reinforce Wen’s reputation for accessibility, is actually symptomatic of the gap that exists between him and the citizens he represents. The popularity of the page continued to grow after Facebook began to be blocked in­termittently in China a month or so before the 2008 Olympics. Even after access to Facebook in China was cut off entirely a year later, Wen’s page remains a site of animated (and presumably expa­triate and international) dialogue about Chinese governmental poli­cies and other matters.

Both the Great Firewall and the AIDS Wall capture a critical par­adox that defines the contemporary Wall itself. The so-called Great Firewall of China, for instance, symbolizes China’s attempts to pro­tect itself from the destabilizing effects of the Web while underscor­ing the Web’s status as a link between China and the same outside world from which it is trying to protect itself. China’s Great Wall against AIDS, similarly, represents the nation’s attempt to insulate itself from the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, even as, in practice, it inadvertently helped facilitate the progress of China’s domestic epidemic. More generally, the Wall itself has traditionally func — tioned—and continues to function—not so much as an absolute barrier between China and the world, but as a bridge facilitating the introduction and incorporation of external elements into the national body (politic).

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