Cloisonné and its Significance in Ancient and Modern Chinese Art

Cloisonné is the name used to describe the process of enamelling metalwork. The name derives from the French word ‘cloisons’ which means ‘compartments’. Cloisonné involves soldering a pattern of copper or bronze wire onto a similar metal surface, to form ‘compartments’, which are then filled with vitreous enamel. This technique first came to China in the 14th Century via trade routes from Eastern Europe, and through the years has become an exceedingly popular and iconic feature in Chinese art.

The Cloisonné technique is thought to have started in the ‘Near Eastern’ countries such as Egypt, the Byzantine and Roman empires, and even spreading to the more northern Anglo Saxon countries, where the earliest pieces of Cloisonné have been recovered. Some of the oldest traces of Cloisonné work can be found on small rings and brooches from the Byzantine and Roman eras, and are often very simple designs. In these early stages of metal enamelling, metal cloisons were rather bulky and therefore limited the technique’s potential.

Cloisonné is better known to be the main technique featured on many of the Egyptians’ ‘Pectorals’ or neck plates. Ancient Egyptian Cloisonné involves thicker metal plates than those you may see on the classic Chinese Cloisonné, and they preferred to use crushed gemstones and glass rather than enamels for their narrative neckpieces. As a result these Pectorals are vibrant and bold in colour yet, in comparison to Chinese Cloisonné, they are relatively simple designs.

A Piece of Anglo-Saxon Cloisonne Jewellery

As Cloisonné travelled further east to countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Morocco, the wire forming the ‘cloisons’ became thinner, and their pieces became smaller and more delicate. Hence, Cloisonné became a popular jewellery making technique. There are several pieces of Cloisonné Jewellery from the Roman and Byzantine eras which are very similar in technique and in subject. They feature narrative yet simplified designs depicting biblical characters and stories, and are often red in colour due to their repeated use of Garnet stones – a well-known symbol of Christ. Cloisonné is thought to have been developed during the Byzantium period, where the wire compartments became a lot more elaborate and detailed, making it harder to set gemstones and glass, and therefore use of enamels became more prominent.

Cloisonné is thought to have been introduced into China in the 14th Century, during the Ming Dynasty via a network of trade routes from as far as Northern Africa and Eastern Europe. However some say it was introduced during the previous Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, which suggests that Cloisonné came into China through the exchange of goods from Mongolia and its surrounding countries.

At this point in time, Cloisonné had developed and evolved into a delicate and skilful art, and the first pieces that were imported to China were likely to have been relatively detailed and elaborate. The Chinese then developed their own unique style of Cloisonné, which we recognise today as a popular form of Chinese art. The Chinese name for Cloisonné is ‘Jingtai Lan’. They originally chose the name ‘Jingtai’ but soon added the word ‘Lan’ – Chinese for ‘Blue’ – to the name, when they discovered a new vibrant turquoise blue enamel, which thereafter featured largely in many Chinese Cloisonné pieces.

Jongtailan Cloisonne Vase, unknown artist, Brooklyn Museum

The content of Chinese ‘Jingtailan’ pieces is what makes them so unique. Their pieces often feature imagery of dragons, ‘foo dogs’ (a mythical Chinese creature with the body of a dog but the head of a lion), plants and flowers, ‘Ho Birds’, cherry blossoms, good luck symbols, and repeated oriental pattern motifs. Their designs are distinctive, beautiful, and usually reminiscent of the Chinese countryside.  Another identifier of Chinese Cloisonné or ‘Jingtailan’ is its colouring. There is no Cloisonné as vibrant and bold as Chinese Jingtailan. Their use of ivory, turquoise blues, and rich reds and yellows juxtaposed with ebony-black enamel and the shimmering linear forms of the bronze or copper wire cloisons is simply an outstanding style unique to China.

Temple of Heaven Interior, Beijing

Temple of Heaven exterior, Beijing

This mysterious new technique from the West was in high demand from the emperors and higher classes of 14th Century China due to its splendour and vivid colouring. It was used to its highest potential to decorate and furnish the interior and exteriors of their palaces and temples. The most famous example of this is Beijing’s ‘Temple of Heaven’, constructed during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, 3rd emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The exterior of the temple simply generates richness. Situated in a vast courtyard, its presence is somewhat overwhelming, and the eye is immediately drawn to the rich red, gold and turquoise blue Cloisonné tiles which cover its walls. However, the interior of the palace is really the most exquisite part. The towering internal pillars are covered in a repetitive floral pattern, in red and gold enamel, while the ceiling is an array of blue, jade, red and gold oriental and geometric patterned tiles. It is almost reminiscent of Islamic tiling, and is likely to have been influenced by pieces imported from middle -eastern countries. This historical monument is a fantastic example of not only the extent to which Cloisonné can be used, but it is also a great example of how valuable and prized this technique was, not only in 14th Century China, but in Chinese history as a whole.

In later years, Cloisonné in China was somewhat dismissed to being a ware only suitable for the likes of décor for lady’s chambers and smaller ornaments, however it was still a greatly prized technique. In this period Cloisonné was developed on smaller pieces and therefore designs became even more detailed. Hence, much of the Chinese Cloisonné that can be found today is in the form of vases or pots with elaborate designs. During this period, many new Cloisonné techniques were invented; the most significant being the Diaper technique, developed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). This is the name given to a design applied to large areas of ‘background’ on a piece of Cloisonné. There are many forms of this technique including ‘scroll’, ‘wave’ and ‘cloud’. The process is similar to regular Cloisonné in the sense that wire is soldered onto the metal surface in a pattern. However, the wire does not join up to create compartments, it is purely a form of decoration within larger compartments, and the enamel is simply filled in around the pattern.

Champleve

Basse Taille

Another popular technique created by the Chinese in this period is, ironically, named ‘Base Taille’ after the French for ‘low waisted’. This process involves much more shallow wire compartments, so that the enamel is able to leak over the top of the compartments. The cloisons are still visible beneath the enamel but at a lower relief. Similar to this is a technique named ‘Champlevé’, which is French for ‘raised areas’. No wire is used to create the compartments but instead the metal is raised in a ‘repoussé technique (denting and raising metal) to create areas to fill with enamel.

 

Although created by the Chinese, many of these techniques have names deriving from the French language. This is where we begin to see the influence of ‘Chinoiserie’. During the 17th Century, trading had gradually increased in Europe and Asia, and a complex network of trade routes had been created, stretching from Western Europe to the Far East. The well-known term for this is ‘The Silk Road’, named after the popular Chinese silk trade. As importing and exporting goods between countries became more and more prominent, techniques such as ‘Japanning’ (laquerwork) and ‘Jingtailan’ were exchanged between the East and West. Eventually, Jingtailan reached countries such as France and Germany, where it became an extremely popular form of Chinoiserie. Although Western European countries were aware of the Cloisonné technique (popular during the Medieval period) it was the Chinese designs, techniques, symbolism and colours which were in such high demand, and artists used it to create pieces of art displaying their own fantastical vision of the Far East.

Chinoiserie-style Cloizonne Snuffbox, Claude de Villers, 17th Century, V&A Collection

This snuffbox dates back to 17th Century Paris, and was created by an artist named Claude de Villers. It is a perfect example of Chinoiserie-style Cloisonné, featuring images of ‘Chinese’ houses, people, vessels and plants. However, it is somewhat lacking in authentic Chinese Jingtailan style. Although the content of this piece looks Chinese, the technique is still reminiscent of early European Cloisonné styles such as the Roman Empire. Rather than copying the vividly coloured enamel of Chinese Jingtailan, this artist has used a mix of shell and gemstones, similar to that of Roman and Byzantine Cloisonné.  Overall, the content of the piece is very similar to what you may find on a piece of authentic Chinese Cloisonné, however the style is blatantly European Chinoiserie.

Parisian Cabinet featuring 'Japonism' Laquerwork and Chinese Cloisonne

This Parisian Cabinet is of Oriental influence, and features many of the techniques taken from the East, such as laquerwork and Jingtailan, as well as oriental-style motifs and imagery reminiscent of Chinese designs. However its excessive ornamentation and decoration makes it European, and is extremely similar to the Brocade style, which was so fashionable in the 17th Century. Chinese furniture was often more simple in form but with elaborate pattern.

Authentic Chinese Cup, unknown artist, 17th Century, V&A Collection

This item was made sometime between 1736-1795, and is a great example of classic Jingtailan (Jingtai Blue). The design of this piece is elaborate and vivid in colour. Rather than the narrative imagery of Chinoiserie Cloisonné, this Chinese cup features oriental patterns and motifs. There is a classic mix of reds, yellows, blues and jades on a base of copper, which gives the piece an exquisite and authentic look. Chinese Cloisonné was more popularly used as a way to decorate vases, jugs and other ornaments, whereas Chinese-style Cloisonné in Europe was often used to decorate pieces of jewellery. For example, snuffboxes and lockets.

Although European Cloisonné is not authentically Chinese, it is a significant part of the Chinoiserie fashion era of the 17th Century, and a good example of the impact Chinese techniques had on other countries.

Japanese 'Shippo' Vase

The Japanese were also highly influenced by Chinese Jingtailan, arriving in Japan shortly after it arrived in China. There is a very small but significant difference between Chinese Cloisoné and Japanese ‘Shippo’. The main differences are the unique techniques within Shippo that were developed in Japan. These include the popular ‘Musen Jippo’, a name used to describe Cloisonné where the wire cloisons are removed shortly before firing, so the enamels blend together but still keep a faint replica of the pattern from the wire. Similar to the Chinese ‘Champlevé’ technique, the Japanese developed ‘Tsuiki’ which involves a repoussé technique rather than use of wire cloisons. However, the biggest identifiers of Japanese Shippo are features such as ‘Kiku No Mon’ – the name for a Japanese emperors crest. These are largely featured on ancient Japanese Shippo pieces as they were often created for emperors or the higher classes, and required a symbol to represent their name.

The content and design of Japanese Cloisonné is more narrative than that of Chinese Jingtailan. Their designs feature detailed paintings of animals, houses and plants, while Chinese Jingtailan is often more pattern-based, focussing on Oriental motifs and colours. However, these two styles have been shared between China and Japan, making it hard to tell the difference between the two. Nonetheless, Chinese Jingtailan has made a significant impact on Japanese Shippo.

It is clear that Cloisonné has been a significant part of Chinese art and history for several generations, and is still a popular technique today. It has had a great influence on almost every country from Western Europe to the Far East, and is by far the most popular type of Cloisonné to be found. There is a large market for ancient and modern Chinese Jingtailan pieces throughout the world and it has remained one of the most exquisite arts within Chinese culture. Having personally had several failed attempts at making my own Cloisonné, I can appreciate what a divine skill it is, and why it is so valued.

Advertisements

Rags to Riches

Thousands of people every year migrate from their rural homes in the country to find work in the big cities.Yet, 9 times out of 10, this procedure is not successful.

So why do they continue to do it?

This article will focus on China’s everlasting struggle with poverty and unemployment through the generations, and why nothing is being done about it.

A Harsh Reality

Today’s urban China is a melting pot of rich and poor. While successful businessmen go about their hectic lives of working, socialising and showing off, they turn a blind eye to the poverty that surrounds them. It is not often that these people take notice of the waiters, waitresses, chefs, shop assistents, factory workers and builders who are responsible for China’s wealthy citizens’ comfortable lifestyle. And it is sufficiently more unlikely for them to care about the conditions in which many of these people live and work. It is said that suicides in China count for 26% of suicides worldwide, and many of these suicides are within factories due to ridiculously long hours, hard labour, and extreme stress and pressure, with no end reward. Recently, Shenzhen’s Foxconn factory had to hang suicide nets due to a dozen people committing suicide in the factory.

And these people are the lucky ones. Some of Shanghai and the other big cities’ residents do not even have a fixed job: ‘urban life for them might mean sifting through rubbish for things to sell, or a fresh search for work – like the men who sometimes squatted on the pavement with little cardboard signs laid out in front of them advertising their services: ‘carpenter’, ‘plasterer’, ‘labourer’…’ *

In Hewitt’s ‘Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China’, we are told about a man called Wei Yuan who works for a rich businessman called Mr Pan. After complaining that the people who usually wash his car (which was now Wei Yuan’s job) never do a good job, he states that he’s sure with Wei Yuan, this won’t be the case. “Its a new job for them, so they’ve got to work extra hard to protect their rice bowl” * His mocking tone is one employed by many others of the same social status with anything concerning their poor migrant employees. It is simply not one of their priorities to care about the lives of others less fortunate than them. Hense the term The ‘Me’ Generation.

The ‘Me’ Generation

This is term used to describe the generation of rich and successful young people living in Modern China, who are often portrayed as self absorbed and concerned more with the latest fashions than current affairs. “On their wish list, a Nintendo Wii comes way ahead of democracy.” **

“There’s nothing we can do about politics, so there’s no point in talking about it or getting involved.” ***

There is a vast divide between the ancient, tranquil China and the ever-increasing global power that it is gradually becoming. And between them? The twenty-something generation: a cross between the shallow, successful young business people of urban China and the struggling factory workers from the countryside. While the young adults of the ‘Me’ generation continue to ignore the issues with their suffering peers, nothing can be done to help them. “Contemporary Chinese society: the officially enshrined divide between urban and rural citizens.” *

The Migrant Generation

For years now, the young people of rural China have followed the somewhat mundane procedure of finishing school, and leaving their countryside homes to find work in the big cities like Shanghai or Hangzhou. As I said earlier, this is never usually successful. However, poverty is extremely prominent in rural China, and people have no choice. “My family are real peasants…I felt my burden was too much on them so I went to look for work” * 

Through the years, as the big cities have gotten bigger and imported foods have become easier to access, there has been less and less demand for produce from the farms in the coutntry . Therefore there is less work in the country, and more work (for however little pay) is available in the cities. Hense, the migrant generation. These people must find work in the cities to provide for their families, but as their search to find a living becomes more desperate, poverty becomes more prominent.

China’s ‘American Dream’

Its hard to express…It’s like wanting something that’s out of reach” *

Ultimately, the people of China, whether they are poor, rich, young or old, are in search of one common thing: the American Dream. It is this idealised concept that encourages the ‘me’ generation, and divides them from the older generation and the unfortunate migrant workers whom they live so close to. But it is not only the so called ‘me’ generation who are in search of this dream. The reason people migrate to the cities and work so hard for such little money, is because they strive for the same thing. And this, I believe, is the reason that poverty and unemployment in China cannot improve.

TT

* All quotes marked with (*) are from ‘Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China’ – Duncan Hewitt, Vintage Books, 2008.

** Quote from Hong Huang, ‘ China’s Me Generation’ article by Simon Elegant, Time Magazine, 2007

***Quote from a young Chinese person,’ China’s Me Generation’ article by Simon Elegant, Time Magazine, 2007

Chinese Generations

New Generations

 

More money seems to be China’s main goal, the fact that product and profit comes before people make me slightly depressed, all the documentaries I have watched recently on China and their ever growing production lines makes me feel like a lot of people from China are merely existing. I don’t think I could cope with what Chinese factory workers go though, the thought of working in a factory where I work over twelve hours a day for £10 seems ridiculous, and knowing my work will never change, if you start your new job at the iron safety checking station thats where your going to stay. I recently watched Gok Wan’s documentary on channel 4 which made me aware of how skilled some Chinese factory workers are, to be able to cut a pattern for jeans in minutes is something that deserves high praise, I attempted it one, gave up after two hours. One company in Xintang makes 260 million pairs of jeans a year and has 3000 employees, which works out as 86,666.6667 pairs per employee which means one employee makes roughly 237 pairs a day, who seriously needs that many jeans. Another interesting thing I found out was that a bra company makes 1.5 million bras a month, mainly for the UK for companies like ASDA, Marks and Spencers, Debenhams and Victoria Secret, each bra is made to the exact same quality but in ASDA you could pick one up for as little as £4 where as in Victoria Secret they cost around $50, such a ridiculous difference in price just for a label.

 Even the British black cabs are made in China, all the components are made in China to keep costs down, workers are more respectful, helpful, organized and are whiling to work all hours just so they are able to make money to send home to their families,  three sisters saved enough money to build a house for their family, I highly doubt that anyone would do that here.

Half of Shanghai’s old neighborhood was demolished to make way for new high rise developments which attracts a million people a year to the already highly populated country. In the past ten years 600,000 families have been forced to move neighborhood so their houses can be destroyed and the government is making a fortune leasing land to new developers, but some people are refusing to leave due to a terrible amount of compensation, they are living in dreadful conditions without water or electricity, how can people be treated with so little respect, they are just completely disregarded and betrayed by their government. The amount China has changed in 20 years is vast, the views seem tainted by the over the top high rise buildings. With the fast changing economy companies struggle to keep up and within four years many factories closed down and left 24 million workers unemployed. I recently read an article about Chen Zhongwei, 26 years old, who used to work as a security guard until the factory started to lose orders, he is now back at home in the countryside without a job, he describes the village as dull, useless and provides him with no passion. Millions of people his age cant find the life they want but they also refuse to live the lives their parents have because they have grown up during a time of expansion and want more from life than to just survive.  Another interesting article I read highlighted the fact that parents and children have left the countryside to work in factories but unlike their parents they are increasingly not prepared to work in such poor conditions, they are protesting for a bigger share in the profit the companies make “they want to build a life for themselves in the city, and to do that they need money.” Workers are in high demand so they are more whiling to stand up for themselves. In China older generations worked to survive, taking any job possible, the new generation has plans for their futures, they have aspirations so they want a job that will provide them enough money to get there. I watched a documentary the other day where a teenaged girl who works in a sock factory said she wanted to be a doctor, I felt sorry for her because I knew this was never going to happen, even if she works all her life she probably wouldn’t save up enough money to put her through school especially when half her earning go to her parents. As China grows so does its peoples plans for their futures, they want better conditions to work in so they can provide a higher standard of living for their family.

Political Interest through the Generations

“There’s nothing we can do about politics,” Silence Chen, an account executive in Beijing says, “So there’s no point in talking about it or getting involved.”

Stephen Elegant of Time Magazine portrayed the apathetic attitudes towards politics of the so called ‘ME Generation’ (covering the ages of 20 to 30 year olds). Describing the materialistic and almost greedy attitudes of the younger generations in modern day China, he explained that ‘one subject that doesn’t come up [in conversation with this generation] – and almost never does…-is politics.’ This lack of interest can be seen to create a wedge between the modern day ‘ME generation’ and previous generations before them whom the author describes as ‘Chinese elites, whose lives were defined by the epic events that shaped China’s past. The writer appears to feel as though the younger generations are ‘tuning out’ the past. However, I feel that this lack of political interest can be more put down to the naivety and contentment of the current generation and their lifestyle.

Born in 1906, Zhou Youguang, unlike some of the younger Chinese generation feels that democracy is ‘the natural form of a modern society’. He doesn’t understand how ‘free thinkers’ can gain respect until they challenge and question the Communist government. However, Zhou too has admitted that his passion for politics has hit him very late in his life. Only once he had retired at the age of 85, did he start to take an interest in the subject.  Let’s be honest, no matter where on the globe you find yourself, many people are just not interested in politics full stop. In particular, younger citizens may be too young to understand politics, never mind pay any attention to it. Perhaps without seeing or appreciating the effects a government and how it is run can have on themselves and on the people around them, causes them to be ignorant to politics as opposed to being apathetic to it.

It is said that there are 300 million under 30 year olds in China and that an investigation carried out by Credit Suisse showed that the incomes of 20-29 year olds increased by 34% roughly between 2004-2007 making this the largest wage increase of any age group. The have been described to possibly become ‘the salvation of the ruling Communist party’ as a result of their ‘self-interested, apolitical pragmatism’. However journalist Stephen Elegant explained that this ‘salvation’ will last only as long as the Communist Party ‘keeps delivering the economic goods.’ The idea is that this ‘ME generation’ is consumed by a world of by material products, self-gain and westernised tastes. They are described as citizens interested only in designer brands, sipping Starbucks coffees and using the latest mobile technology. They are seen to have no or little concern in regards to how the country is run and who should run it, almost as if they have become tools of the Communist government to ensure their continuing power.  Magazine publisher, Hong Huang claimed that ‘On their wish list…a Nintendo Wii comes way ahead of a democracy’. This being said, this generation’s Chinese youths have surpassed previous ones in areas of education and international affairs. Comparing the ‘ME Generation’ to the apparently named ‘Lost Generation’ of the Cultural Revolution, roughly 25% of Chinese citizens around the age of 20 have gone to college at some point in their lives, whereas, in regards to those of the ‘Lost generation’, many didn’t even finish high school. Chinese native and American Citizen, Author and expert of China’s middle class Helen H Wang explained that ‘Twenty years ago, China was a very different place. We had very little information about the outside world’, whereas it is said that in 2007 alone, around 37 million Chinese citizens travelled internationally and that in the coming decade Chinese tourists will outnumber that of Europe and the U.S combined.

Another apparent reason for the apathy of the young generation is that any previous attempts they will have heard from their elders, to stand up against the government have had negative outcomes with those such as The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This, and the fact these issues were so long ago, the ‘ME Generation’ have accepted that they are growing up in times better than their parents and their grandparents before them. They are probably reminded of this on a daily basis, so they have little motivation to care for politics. All they see is an ever growing strength in China and a flourishing economy and in the words 27 year old of Maria Zhang ‘We have so much bigger a desire for everything…and the more we eat, the more we taste and see, the more we want.’ This being said, there is one political event the younger generation has encountered and this is the incident of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Zhou Youguang, 106 years old, explained in regards to the massacre of 1989, he feels that ‘one day justice will be done’. This shows that he disapproves of the Governments actions on that day. Nonetheless, to some younger citizens the student protests, if allowed to continue, would have upset the progress the country has made. Vicky Yang, who is 27 and an actuary at a consulting firm, explained her belief that ‘the students meant well’ but felt that the forced end to the demonstrations ‘was needed’. It may simply be that Vicky was only 11 when she witnessed the demonstrations, and perhaps didn’t fully understand the situation. It can also be the fact that perhaps, she is just content with the government as it is and feels change is not necessary. With they’re current economic success; can one really fault this belief? It is difficult to see however, who supports a Communist Government and who is just content with their lifestyle as it is now. Mr Zhou says we cannot say how favourable support for a Communist government really is, as ‘The people have no freedom to express themselves, so we cannot know’.

In spite of the previous comments of the so called ‘ME Generation’, there is still proof that change does lie on the tongues of some of Chinas youths today.  As society modernises in China, many citizens take to the internet to communicate with each other. Apparently a new blogging language is starting to emerge in which the bloggers are said to ‘ridicule the government, poke fun at Communist Party leaders, and circumvent the heavily censored internet in China’. They have also been named by China Digital Times as part of the ‘resistance discourse’. For example the government’s claims of trying to maintain ‘harmony’ within China, is mocked by internet users who use words and mild insults which are almost homonyms of the Chinese word for harmony, and these represent suppression. This is proof that many feel dominated by the Communist government and this could be the beginning of an age directed more towards free thinking. In the words of Marc Macdonald of IHT, ‘To be harmonised, these days, is to be censored’, however to disallow these mild insinuated criticisms online would inevitably contradict the ‘harmonious society’ that the government is claiming to sustain. So it is as if, in the belief of Chinese writer Yu Ha, that ‘harmony has been hijacked by the public’.

Zhou Jiaying, a young school girl describes her opinion of China as she sees it saying, ‘On the surface China looks luxurious, but underneath it is chaos…Everything is so corrupt’. This is proof younger citizens do show interest in politics, beginning even at a young age. Her teacher on the other hand feels that ‘Just because they’re [the younger generations are] curious to see something doesn’t mean they want it for themselves…Maybe they will try something—dye their hair, or pierce an ear—but in their bones, they are very traditional’. This creates the thought that on some level, it may be that a general misunderstanding between the young and their predecessors. The idea that China’s younger generation does not share an interest in who runs the government is not really true. No matter where you are in the world there are always those who are not interested in politics; however it is unreasonable to mark a whole generation with this label. Perhaps this misunderstanding between generations is a result of the rate of such drastic change, forcing a wider gap between them. For it can be seen, despite all the condemnation of the youth of China, this ‘we want more’ generation is communicating political views in new and innovative ways from very young ages. It has been reported that working class riots and protests in the more rural areas are already increasing as the government continues to cater mainly for the middle and upper classes and although these sorts of political statements may be lacking in the satisfied middle class it is certainly not true that this so called ‘ME generation’ lacks concern in political matters. Naturally as the country flourishes economically, a political revolution is not logical. As it is, China as a country is doing very well for itself, and the public see this. To call this social contentment politically apathetic is ridiculous. Political interest is within the youth of China and it’s always been there and grows with them. One just has to look for it.

Generations and Education

In China, like everywhere else on earth, education really is the key to success. For those well educated any job is a possibility, though in China a very select few professions are admired and respected. Only the best employees with the finest education become exactly what their parents have always wanted. Schools all around the world, with the best reputation are sought after to send children to and the high school I used to attend was one of the few with a large Chinese presence.

I went to a Private School in the Perthshire area, where the majority of our boarding pupils were in fact Chinese. Before the boarding house closed down, more than 80% of the boarders were Chinese with the rest being mostly German and French. My school, however, was not the only Scottish Boarding School with a significant number of Chinese boarders.

I used to wonder why so many of our boarders were Chinese, until one day I finally asked. As it turns out, almost every reply I received – even way back when I was at school and not thinking anything of it – was along the lines of “My parents only want the best.”

Now that I think about that statement, I wonder what the education must be like in China. That the parents would much rather send their children away, out of their own country to get a good education here in the UK rather than get the best they could back home.

 

Me-I was wondering if you’d mind talking to me about how the difference in age changes how generations see education.

Interviewee-I can give you my personal experience, but I was born and raised in Glasgow, so I don’t know how much use it would be.

Me-Yeah if you don’t mind? Anything is better than nothing.

Interviewee-Well my parents are the total stereotypes you see, and its the same for all my cousins and siblings. All the classic professions are the only ones that have any merit to them: doctors; other medical professions; engineers, etc.

Me-So how does having stereotypical parents change how you see school? Do you think you’d have done anything differently had they not been like that?

Interviewee-My brother and sister compared to me are a good example of that. My sister, who’s the oldest, was brought up really harsh and was pretty much told to become a doctor. She missed her conditional by 1 grade and she became a pharmacist instead but my parents were disappointed.

My brother, who is the black sheep of the family, isn’t that smart but he went to uni to do engineering even though he had no interest or talent in it, simply because my parents thought it was worthy

Me-I can imagine that’d be hard. Did seeing how they would react make you want to try harder?

Interviewee-I was meant to be in the medical profession as well, but I had no interest in it, even though I had the grades, but I loved computers so I chose an IT career.

It was more fear of rejection for my siblings that made me try. That being said, I don’t get along with my parents since I realized quite early that there views are so one-track and even though I’ve lost the respect of my parents, I’m in the industry of something I truly love doing and I’ve never looked back

Me-Are they pleased with what you have accomplished?

Interviewee-They’ve come to appreciate how hard I’ve worked to get here after a long while. I think if they had all the choices laid out in front of them, they wouldn’t be hard asses. They have my best interests at heart I have no doubt.

Me-So they understand the time and effort you’ve put into what you enjoy? That’s pretty good recognition.

Interviewee-Yeah they have, but not on their own. Like, when I got my bachelors degree, I told my dad and he said “You making money yet?” and I said “no, I still have 1 year left” and he said “well maybe you should stop playing games and study more” but this was in the presence of my siblings and they went mental at him, I didn’t expect anything less.

Me-It’s good that you and your siblings have the same kind of thoughts on the situation.

Interviewee-Yeah, they’re old though, 5 year difference between my brother and 7 for my sister.

Me-Still though, that you all stuck together is nice. How do you think your grandparents would have reacted if your parents had chosen a career outside of their ideal professions?

Interviewee-My grandparents had it rough so I honestly think they would be proud of my parents whatever they did as long as they were stable.

Me-Was education important to them then? It was good so long as they were educated?

Interviewee-I think so, I can’t say I’ve put much thought into it.

Me-It’s not something a lot of people think about, I know I’ve never thought about how my grandparents saw education.

 

When I spoke to an old friend of mine about his families take on education, he talked a lot about how he and his siblings think of things. He also mentioned things that I was honestly quite shocked about – how his parents were so easily disappointed and upset by the grades and chosen professions of his siblings.

Though he was willing to talk to me, he was only talking from personal experience and not about how China as a whole sees education. Being born and raised in Glasgow, he had little knowledge of what it would have been like being educated in China, surrounded by pupils whose parents all want the same thing for their children: to become a doctor, or engineer, or mathematician.

A Pre-conceived Idea of China and its Products

Many people have very set views of China and its products. China is renowned worldwide for its well made, and very well designed electronics.  However, it is also well known for mass-production, ‘well-made fakes’, and often poor factory conditions. A lot of people do not care where their product has come from, as long as it is good quality and value for money. And many people simply are not aware of how and where their product was made.

I interviewed around 7 friends, friends of friends, and self confessed shopping fanatics to find out their opinion on Chinese products, how they think they are made, and the quality of products which were ‘Made in China’. Each participant was given the same list of questions, but I asked a few different questions too, depending on their answer. Below is an example of one of the more interesting interviews:

Are you concerned with where your clothes come from? 

‘No, it makes no difference whether its from China, the UK or anywhere. I mostly care about the quality of the clothes.’

Would you be put off buying clothes from a certain company if you found out their factory staff were working in bad conditions?

‘I suppose so, but it wouldn’t stop me buying/using the products if they were good quality.’

When you see the words ‘Made in China’, what immediately comes to mind?

‘I just imagine huge, industrial and clean looking factories full of Chinese people making stuff. If something says ‘Made in Taiwan’ however, for some reason I picture kids working in poor conditions for a small wage. (that might be a bit judgemental!)’

Do you think the Chinese produce better quality products than Western countries?

‘If you’re referring to electronics then yes. They are the best at making electronics as far as I am concerned. But in regards to clothes, obviously there is a huge market for fakes in China and that makes me slightly suspicious that their clothing isn’t of as good quality as something you might find in a Western factory.’

If you were given a gift of a piece of clothing – not from a recognisable brand – with only a label that said ‘Made in China’ on it, would you be reluctant to wear it. Would you assume it was poor quality?

I might be a bit suspicious that it came from a market where you might find a lot of fakes, but if the item of clothing looked good and seemed like good quality, I would still wear it.

Coming up with interview questions with a friend in my group…

Each of the participants had very similar opinions on Chinese produce, which were all interesting to hear. However, naturally none of the participants actually KNOW what goes on in the making of products in China. These were all their pre-conceived ideas. I want to know what ACTUALLY happens in Chinese factories, during the making of clothing, electronics and other products, to see if these opinions and allegations are correct.

I recently read an article on Mark Shields, a communications consultant from Washington DC, who describes himself as an ‘Apple super-user’. After finding out about the poor working conditions in Apple Mac factories in China he decided to start a petition which gathered over 162,000 signatures in the space of a week. The petition was to try and attain a ‘worker protection strategy’ to try to reduce the number of injuries and suicides which typically peak when the workers are under extreme pressure to meet quotas. Shields said ‘Here’s the thing: You’re Apple. You’re supposed to think different. I want to continue to use and love the products you make, because they’re changing the world and have already changed my life. But I also want to know that when I buy products from you, its not at the expense of horrible human suffering.’

Female workers resting their heads in exhaustion during their short break at an Apple factory in China

In reading this it was evident that many people DO care about where their product has come from, and how/where it was made. It was also interesting to find out about working conditions in Chinese Apple factories. I can safely say now, as I look at my Apple Mac desktop, that I feel slightly guilty using it. I decided to ask some of my participants a few more questions. But this time, I gave them some facts:

Workers at some Chinese Apple factories are paid as little as £1.12 an hour. In one particular branch, 18 people committed suicide on the premises due to extreme pressure. Many factories are now covered with suicide nets to stop people jumping to their deaths in the facility.

How does this make you feel about using Apple products?

‘I love my Apple Macbook too much to stop using it, but this makes me feel sick and guilty to use it, bearing in mind that it could have been made in these awful conditions.’

Did you think Chinese factories had such bad conditions until now?

‘No. I always thought it was the poorer countries that suffered from poor working conditions. I never knew that such a rich and successful country would treat their workers this way.’

It was interesting to see that, in general, people here, in Dundee, either believe that their stuff is just mass-produced in big, shiny Chinese factories, or, they simply do not care. There is such an element of shock when they find out about the awful working conditions in many Chinese factories, however I found from my survey that this still wouldn’t stop people from buying something made in poor working conditions, providing it was good quality. Ultimately, we tend to want to keep our pre-conceived ideas and stay ignorant to what really goes on during the making of our products, so that we can go on using them without feeling guilty.