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Scan the QR code to connect with the deities

Xin YuanWang12 November 2018

Recently, Danny came to visit my field site in Shanghai. As he remarked on his on-the-spot tweet, one of the biggest ‘shocks’ he could feel immediately was that: “Curious that in this age of supposed global homogeneity, here in China you really don’t seem to be able to do anything without a QR code, while in Europe you can’t do anything with a QR code.” We ordered food, rented bikes, hailed taxis, booked a hotel…all by scanning QR code here – actually since I came to Shanghai in February 2018, I only used cash twice.

Having said so, I felt Danny was a bit exaggerating about the ubiquity of the QR code in Shanghai until more recently I visited Jing’an temple.

On the last day of the seven-day shui lu fa hui (the water and land rite) of Jing’an temple, I visited this famous temple with more than 780 years history in the very center of the most flourishing and buzzing downtown area of Shanghai. Besieged by a proliferation of high-rise shopping malls, Jing’an temple is the only place where people burn ‘money’ not in luxury consumption, but for the benefit of their ancestors.

Jing’an temple. photo by Xinyuan Wang

One woman who was busy burning ‘ghost money’ (ming bi) explained that the money made by tin foil paper is for the ghosts and deities so that the souls of the deceased persons will find some peace during purgatory, so called chao du, she added earnestly: “Today is the last chance of this year that ghosts would receive money!”  According to her, basically, in the after-world ghosts have to be bribed to treat the passing ancestors without too much torture and hardship.

The air was full of choking smell of the dense smoke of the burning ‘ghost money’ and burning incense. The smoke which indicates  immaterialization symbolizes the transformation from the tangible material world to the intangible spirit world.

On the other side of the raging flames one could sees a big standing electronic screen called ‘Prayer merit and credit list’ (qi fu gong de bang).  Standing in front of the big screen, people is were busy reaching the deities in a more ‘environment friendly’ way: holding their smartphones against the screen to scan the QR code on the top so that they could make a prayer online. The prayers they made would pop up in the form of vertical red scroll on the big screen immediately after submitting, and many take a photo of the screen for the record.

Scan the QR code and make a prayer online. photo by Xinyuan Wang

Last time I saw such a fancy way of interaction was during the exhibition ‘from selfie to self-expression’ of Saatchi Gallery in London which was supposed to be the pioneering art experiment in the digital age.

In that exhibition, visitors could post selfies on their personal twitter accounts with given hashtag and the selfies would be projected immediately against the wall of the exhibition hall. As I recall, a young lady who just saw her selfie popped up on the wall, exclaimed thrillingly “Oh my god… isn’t it amazing?!”

I guess she was not really asking god’s opinion about it, but I really wonder which way ghosts and deities in China prefer to be reached… smoke or QR code?

 

(check the short video here)

The QR code in JingAn Temple, Shanghai

In Shanghai, people scan QR code for almost everything, including to get connected with deities during religious ceremony. Video by our researcher Xinyuan Wang.

Posted by Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing on Sunday, 11 November 2018


							
				
						

The dilemma of life-saving medicines in China – by Xinyuan Wang

Xin YuanWang20 September 2018

Author: Xinyuan Wang

Last summer, a film about illness and medicine achieved phenomenal success among Chinese audiences. Some friends of mine who had watched the film suggested that I take some tissues or even towels along to the cinema, assuming, , half-jokingly, that many would cry during the film. But they were quite right, in the cinema there were people sitting all around me wiping tears during the film, and talking highly of it with tears in their eyes after the cinema was over.

The film, Dying to Survive,  tells the tale of a health supplements peddler Yong who smuggles illegal medicine from India to sell to leukaemia patients in China at more affordable prices. Why are Chinese people all so touched by a film about an illegal medicine smuggler?

In the film, even though the protagonist Yong initially goes into the trade by chance and was purely motivated by making money – “I don’t want to become a saver, I just want to make money” as he claimed, Yong started to become more altruistic as he gradually realizes how many lives he could save by the cheaper medicine. The film was inspired by a real-life incident in China: in 2015, a man called Lu Yong was charged for importing and selling a cheaper, knockoff version of Gleevec, a leukaemia medication. Lu himself suffered from leukaemia and began purchasing Gleevec tablets produced by an Indian pharmaceutical company for other patients who couldn’t afford the “real” drug. The indictment was later quashed after the patients that had benefited from Lu’s actions petitioned the court to lessen the sentence and release him. In recent years, the Chinese government had realized this problem and had make some effort to reduce the price of ‘life-saving’ medicines. So, the film is also in line with the state policy.

As shown in the film, an old lady said: “one bottle of genuine medicine cost me 40,000 CNY (around 4,500 pound), I have been sick for 3 years, and I have been eating these pills for 3 years. In order to buy this medicine, my family had to sell the house, my family has been totally dragged down. Which family does not have a patient? Can you guarantee that you will not get sick for a lifetime? I don’t want to die, I want to live.”

A 45-year-old woman whose mum died two years ago because of cancer, told me: “I just can’t stop crying, when the old lady in the film said ‘Can you guarantee that you will not get sick for a lifetime? I don’t want to die, I want to live’,” she adds, “everybody who has experienced a major illness themselves, or of their family member or good friends can feel for the film. You would never imagine the desperate feelings about losing somebody you love dearly just because you can’t afford the saving-life medicine.”  Indeed, even though there is life-saving medicine, there is no life-saving money. In the film, the only sincere line a deceitful drug dealer uttered was “there is one illness in the world which you can never cure – poverty.”

Satirical films such as this unveil and spotlight the social concern that no Chinese would not bear to ignore – that for normal people, a major disease can potentially tear a family down both mentally and financially. Dying to survive has sparked and leveraged tremendous discussion over many topics nationwide, which is unprecedentedly in China’s film history. Without a doubt, the film has touched a few sour points of Chinese medical care from the high price of imported medicine to major illness insurance policy (da bing yi bao). Each aspect requires thorough investigation in order to understand the situation.  If you are interested in the film, here is the trailer with English subtitles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=on82VId28l4

Curating an exhibition in an old residential compound

Xin YuanWang13 July 2018

Author: Xinyuan Wang

Residents who participated the exhibition launch

residents are introducing old family photos to visitors

In field work, in order to get to know people in the way people feel comfortable or familiar with, ethnographers always take many different roles. Three years ago, in my PhD field work I used to help in a mobile phone shop in order to get first-hand information of the local mobile phone market. This time, in order to know the personal history of the older generation who live in an old-style residential compound in the city center of Shanghai, I took the role of exhibition curator of the community exhibition.
It was in an interview with the officials of the living compound early this year, I first heard the news that the local ‘street office’ (jie dao) is thinking of holding an exhibition about the residents in the compound. One month later I started to interview households, compile the oral history of residents as volunteer curator. The curation of the exhibition is a perfect opportunity to justify myself to enter into many households in this residential compound – the majority of them are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, some of them have been living here for more than 70 years.

In-depth interviews usually took 3-4 hours, with the longest one being 7 hours – the old gentleman in his 80s was so generous to tell me his whole life with abundant old photos in that interview. After the interview, I became friends with my interviewees and all of them were willing to talk to me again and urged me to visit them more. The older generation who went through the fall of the Qing dynasty (the oldest cohort in their 90s), the chaos of the warlord era, the Sino-Japan war, civil war, the Cultural revolution, the economic reform has kept their mouths shut for ages. Now, finally, they feel the need to tell their stories, which, in many respects, has been full of suffering and trauma, as otherwise they would take these experiences with them to the grave. And they know I am an unbiased listener.

The exhibition was launched on 19th May 2018. It was very well received: in the past one month, the exhibition was reported by the local TV and newspapers. People shared articles about the exhibition among neighbors, friends and families via social media. Many representatives from various parts of the Shanghai government and the party visited, including the deputy Communist Party Secretary of Shanghai, Mr. Yin and his colleagues.

92-year-old Ms. Cai was very happy about the photo I took for her. (She was holding the old photo of her family)

Old photo and new photo of the same individuals or households taken at the same place in the residential compound

The most delightful aspect was that some residents have come to the exhibition hall to meet old friends – finally they feel this exhibition hall has become a space they can connect to. As the preface of the exhibition says: The exhibition hall is not only the place to display, but also the space where the oral history project of this living compound is carried out. Residents are welcomed to use the exhibition hall as a communal living room where old neighbors and new friends can sit down and chat.
The exhibition will last for a few months. There will be regular updates with more stories. Now I am working on the updates of the exhibition as more residents have come forward to share their family stories.

The marriage bazaar in Shanghai – when ‘match.com’ meets farmer’s market – by Xinyuan Wang

Xin YuanWang18 May 2018

Author: Xinyuan Wang

Early last month, I asked a group of young professionals a question: where can I get to know retired people in Shanghai? “You must visit the People’s Park!” one claimed. “Yes, in the People’s park you will meet the typical Chinese parents who force their children to get married!” one added. “My mum kept arranging blind dates for me, I feel like crying” another one complained. My curiosity got the better of me when I was told the People’s Park is the place where retired Chinese parents would gather and arrange blind dates for their adult children.

I visited the People’s Park the following Sunday. It is a sanctuary with trees, ponds and winding brick paths in the very heart of the city center. In a corner of the park there is a crowded and bustling ‘marriage bazaar’ taking place. Parents in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s gather there to find life partners for their children (fig. 1).

Figure 1: one of the entrances to the marriage bazaar at people’s park
Photo (CC BY) Xinyuan Wang

Personal profiles of singles dangle from strings, lie on floor, are held aloft by parents, and most of them are clipped atop open umbrellas (fig. 2). Lining the brick pathways are more than six-hundred open umbrellas.

Figure 2. Photo (CC BY) Xinyuan Wang

The personal profiles displayed here are extraordinarily plain  – essentially non-visual – pictures and colours are scarce. On a plain A4 size sheet of white paper, a list of personal details, including age, height, household registration area, job, annual income, property ownership, situation of parents (job, health status) are stated outright. The real name and contact details of the person in question are absent, only the mobile number of the person’s parent is provided – to ensure that the parents are the ‘gatekeepers’.

I wondered why these parents don’t go for online dating websites. As far as I observed, it is not because they are unfamiliar with the digital – quite the opposite, all of them have a smartphone in their hands. It is probably because such non-digital meeting is actually more efficient than the online dating. “Here is more reliable, dating websites are for young kids for fun.” one lady in her late 50s said. In the park, parents can immediately arrange a quick face-to-face meeting with the parent(s) of candidates.  The parents chat with each other and if they get along with each other and believe their children match, they’ll then arrange a blind date for their children. It’s a way for parents to put their stamp of approval on a relationship before the couple has even met.

Furthermore, the marriage bazaar developed organically over more than a decade in Shanghai. Retired people were meeting at the park to practice dancing, play chess and cards. As a social hub for retired people, the matchmaking arose naturally as one of the most important and popular topics at this corner. The social function of the marriage bazaar cannot be underestimated: to arrange blind dates in a way is an excuse for a massive congregation of middle-aged people who share similar values.

Chinese young professionals may dislike the way their parents are getting involved in their personal issues, but as a researcher, I am obliged to empathetically engage with both sides, and to understand why this new phenomenon has arisen.

A Bottle of Vitamins Would be Just Fine

Xin YuanWang21 March 2018

Screenshot of Chinese online shops of various VDS products

You see, health is really the ‘1’.” Mrs. Cao concludes after the story of how she has been helping her best friend to take care of the friend’s husband who suffered from dementia. Mrs. Cao in her early 60s believes that if one’s life is valued as a string of figures, then health is the beginning ‘1’ before all the ‘0’.  Wealth, social status, knowledge, beauty, and etc. are all the following ‘0’s, without the ‘1’, the rest in life means nothing and values nothing. In order to keep the ‘1’, Mrs. Cao takes multi-vitamin products on a daily basis. In the middle of our conversation, Mrs. Cao answered a phone call from her sister who is going to take a holiday in Australia. In that call Mrs. Cao said to her sister: “Don’t buy anything else for me, a bottle of vitamins would be just fine!

Mrs. Cao’s passion for vitamins is very commonplace among her peers. So far, more than 90% of the people above 60 I met in Shanghai reported that they took vitamins and dietary supplements (VDS) in the past one month. Foreign VDS products are given preference as people believe that the quality of an international brand is more reliable.

It is reported that Chinese spent over 109 billion RMB (US$17.3 billion) of VDS in 2015.  By 2020, the market of VDS in China is expected to reach 149 billion RMB (US$23.6 billion). With over 350 million middle class consumers, mainland China represents the largest VDS market in the world thanks to the increasing disposable incomes and increasing health awareness especially among urban ageing middle-class.[1]

In the sub-district in central Shanghai where I conduct fieldwork, more than half of the population is 60-year-old and older. A 2017 survey[2] conducted by ‘Shanghai Consumer Protection Committee’ shows that in 2017, more than 70% of elderly citizens purchased bao jian pin (health protection product) in the past year, and more than 13.8% of elderly citizens (60+) consumed more than 10,000 RMB (US$1,587) on bao jian pin in the past one year. Given the average disposable income among Shanghai residents in 2017 was 58,988 RMB, and the elderly citizen is the relatively low-income population in China, it is not exaggerating to say the consumption on bao jian pin almost accounts for one fifth of annul disposable income of the aging population in Shanghai.

Such a phenomenon is important for me to further understand people’s daily practice of self-care (yang shen).  As the field work moves along, I will continue to observe and analyse systematically the reasons why people have such a passion for bao jian pin. And what the consumption of bao jian pin can tell us about the people and society.

[1] https://www.marketingtochina.com/market-vitamins-health-supplements-china/

[2] http://news.163.com/17/1103/00/D29DLGDF00018AOQ.html

The Age of Migration

Xin YuanWang13 February 2018

A rural migrant checking his smartphone while peddling steamed buns for the Spring Festival meals in Shanghai (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

One week ago, when I finally arrived in Shanghai and started flat hunting, the estate agent urged me to make a decision within a few hours as “the Spring Festival (chun jie) is coming and everything will be closed very soon”. Chances were that he exaggerated things so that he could close the deal more quickly, but he did have a point.

With the approaching Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, every day I notice more businesses closing – from restaurants to express delivery services.  The 24/7 super convenient metropolis has become less efficient and fast-paced as more migrant workers embarked upon their journeys back to their home villages for the Spring Festival reunion. Many people in Shanghai only start to notice the massive contribution of migrant workers when a whole range of services fails – just as when they appreciate their dependence upon their smartphone the moment they realise they have left it behind.

The departing migrant workers are part of the largest annual human migration in the world – the number of passenger-journeys during the Spring Festival travel season, so called chun yun,  hit 2.9 billion in 2017. Shanghai, as the major destination of migrant workers in China, all of a sudden has become “an empty city” as one of my new neighbors Mr. Zhu put it. Mr. Zhu is in his late 60s, and was also packing, flying to the USA to celebrate New Year with his son’s family. A common traveling pattern here seems to be migrant workers moving inland to their home towns while local well-off Shanghainese flying overseas to have a New Year holiday.

Compared to physical migration, the ‘digital migration’ in China, taking place from offline to online, may cause much less tension in terms of domestic transportation pressure, however it is equally massive and significant. You may ask what is digital migration and in what ways it is possible? Hopefully, today’s (13/02/2018 London time 1:32pm) BBC world service radio documentary ‘Digital Migration’ will provide one of the answers. In this documentary, I re-visit factory workers who were my key contacts in my previous project, exploring how the use of social media has allowed Chinese migrant workers to live in a modern China.

It was because of my own observations of Chinese migrant workers, with whom I lived for 15 months in a small factory town, who saw Shanghai as the symbol of modern China, that I decided to pick Shanghai as my new field site to explore the impact of smartphones. As far as the new project is concerned it is definitely too early to draw any conclusions, but the first week’s exploration has shown me the ‘digital migration’ among urban Chinese is taking a different form.

Goods For All Ages – By Xinyuan Wang

Xin YuanWang27 December 2017

November was not traditionally known as a month for bustling festivals in China. That was, until a few years ago, when Alibaba – the Chinese retail giant – created a trademark ‘double 11’ online shopping day. The remarkable e-shopping festival (November 11) that resulted was adapted from an obscure ‘anti-Valentine’s’ singles’ day (guang gun jie) among young single persons in mainland China, who had picked that date because 11/11 resembled single individuals. One might hope that shopping would compensate for their lack of a partner. This year’s double 11 shopping day established a new world record with sales of $17.8bn (£14.2bn) in 24 hours.

As a digital anthropologist, my interest is in the social side of this business phenomenon. Among my WeChat friends from the previous Why We Post project, I can see charts, like the one displayed here, that rank my contacts in terms of how much money they have spent, and how many items they have purchased. People are not shy, it seems, about talking about money and their shopping practices on social media.

Older people are not immune to this. For example, 62-year-old Ms Zhang posted a photo of her new air-filter machine and wrote,

Young people are just crazy in the double 11 festival. My daughter-in-law is really ridiculous, she bought a very expensive air-filter for me even though she knew I already had two. She always spends a lot of money on me, and I always say I am old now, dont need so many new things. But she never listened.

Ms Zhang’s ‘complaint’ invited a string of complements such as “Your daughter-in-law is such a filial (xiao shun) daughter! I envy you. Just take it easy and enjoy a happy life!” or “My son did exactly the same, he just filled my flat with all kinds of new stuffs he bought in double 11. But I think we should just accept the filial piety (yi pian xiao xin) from them! After all we spent money on them the great part of our life, its time for them.

The way this shifts commercial activity into issues of intergenerational relations shows its potential value for my new project on the impact of smartphones among the middle class and middle aged of Shanghai. The study of the smartphone and related digital use is an illuminating starting point for me to understand the daily social life of an urban ageing population in China. Are there other ways in which the smartphones become pivotal in linking kinship with spending, that build on traditional anthropological studies of the gift economy? Can we use smartphones studies to build a picture of the contemporary family in Shanghai? I have sixteen months to find out.

– Xinyuan Wang