By Isabella Tianzi Cai
In his essay posted on The Daily Beast on August 28, 2010, artist Ai Weiwei rants about Beijing being a nightmarish city for anyone to live in. He says that the rapid economic progress of China has ironically made its capital unrecognizable and its people identity-less, and the country’s political rigidity has only worsened these problems.
In a depressing overview of the people living in Beijing, Ai sorts them into one of the two categories. One, he says, are the money-grabbers and power-worshippers who are distressingly predictable. “You don’t want to look at a person walking past because you know exactly what’s on his mind.” Frustrated, he goes on. “No curiosity. And no one will even argue with you.” The other category, which refers to the mass middle to low wage earners in the city, sounds just as pitiful. “I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope,” Ai observes.
The hopelessness that Ai tries to describe has a particular dimension. Working like dogs and making little money certainly could deject people, but the essay makes a turn as Ai brings up the issue of trust between the Chinese people and the Chinese government, which is known to be one of the biggest culprit behind China’s low Gross National Happiness index. In his own words, “[the] worst thing about Beijing is that you can never trust the judicial system.” This sense of mistrust chisels away people’s happiness whenever they find a need for justice. And that happens almost everyday in Beijing, as some films in our catalog can attest to.
Ou Ning’s Meishi Street, for example, zooms in on a common Beijinger’s struggle with the government about the demolition of his house for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Cui Zi’en’s We Are the . . . of Communism, documents the capricious providence of education for migrant workers’ children in Beijing. What these two examples share in common is that the basic needs and rights of the common people in Beijing cannot be met, and the mechanism to obtain justice is often unavailable.
And yet, Ai’s portrayal of Beijing as a land of total darkness does not paint a complete picture of the complexity of life in this city of nearly 25 million people. Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide and Oxhide II are examples of Beijing residents’ preservation of their cultural identity. Although the city of Beijing changes its face almost every day to the point of defiling its rich heritage, inside people’s homes time-honored traditions like dumpling-making continue, testifying to the resilience of their culture. Watching Liu’s intimate, heartfelt family dinner with her parents makes us temporarily forget the unpleasant world outside their home. Moreover, as Liu’s father says in the documentary, each person makes his own dumplings, just as each person has a distinct character. Ai may still believe and argue that the people of Beijing are uniform and predictable, but in the less conspicuous corners of Beijing we see how individual identities as well as non-mainstream group identities secretly flourish. We can count on the dedicated efforts of independent Chinese filmmakers to reveal those worlds to us.