113: Spiritual Visions of Asia — Connecting China With “Our” Lives

    “When you come to a town that’s doing a burning of the boards, you can smell it a good 5-to-10 kilometers before you get there.”
    (Photographer Edward Burtynsky describing his explorations in regions of China that few Westerners have glimpsed — in the documentary, “Manufactured Landscapes.”)

    Today’s story is in response to a number of readers in Asia and the U.S. who have asked for more recommendations on exploring Asian spirituality and culture.
    Mary Willsy of Ohio, who said that she and her husband lived for a year in Japan “and that left us always wanting to know more about anything-Asian,” wrote: “I liked your story about the one woman who lives in Japan now but helps her friends back in (Indonesia) get their stories out there. … We’re always good to learn more about Asia. I think we all should. … But you didn’t say much about China, except Confucius. What about China now?”

    Excellent question, Mary!
    There are many books about China — and we have recommended some good reading on Chinese religious traditions — but I keep coming back to the basic need that we all have, as Americans, to “see” Asia more clearly. Other than the upcoming Olympics and occasional disasters in Asia, our American TV news gives us precious little coverage of this vast and rapidly emerging continent.
    PLUS — this week, the Criterion Collection has just released a massive boxed set of materials related to Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor.” AND — while looking for good responses to requests by Mary and others — I ran across the absolutely haunting “Manufactured Landscapes” at the same time I was reviewing Susan Williams’ excellent set of documentaries on China.
    The result: Some very powerful visions, indeed!
    (And, by the way, you can click on any of the 3 DVD covers today to jump to reviews and even pick up copies via Amazon, if you wish.)

    Let’s start with this bizarre phrase: “doing a burning of the boards.” What’s that all about?
    It’s about “e-waste,” which is piling up in China at an alarming rate. This is a spiritually complex subject, because this waste actually is welcomed by peasants in villages who have few other options for earning hard currency in the new China. So, they gather e-waste, especially our old computers and monitors. Then, they break them up by hand — including heating computer mother boards to the point of burning so they can pop off the melting components and salvage the metal scrap.
    As “Manufactured Landscapes” points out, this is a very dangerous profession for anyone — let alone the entire families that engage in this work. And, along the way, it results in lead, cadmium and other deadly metals washing into streams and groundwater.
    Talk about our emerging concern for eco-theology, the poor, our global spiritual family — and children! Just watch the middle section of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, “Manufactured Landscapes,” and you’ll never forget the footage of men, women and children picking through our abandoned home computers, steam irons, car radiators and other debris. We may feel guilty about not being able to send more help to these folks — but, somehow, let’s at least figure out how to prevent sending them our dangerous debris.

    But, let me step off that soap box for a moment — because there’s so much more in Baichwal’s film about the world-famous landscape photography of Edward Burtynsky. Despite my own very strong reaction to the e-waste section of the film, the fact is that both Baichwal and Burtynsky decline to preach at us. Even more provocatively, they show us a strange beauty within their most powerful images from China — the interiors of vast factories, ship-deconstruction yards that look like scenes from science-fiction films and even the world-record-setting Three Gorges Dam project. (Don’t miss the Burtynsky photo of the ship-breaking yards at the end of today’s story. Eerie!)
    The filmmaker and the photographer almost seduce us into seeing the strange attractiveness, both in the visual imagery and in the values that lead Chinese decision-makers to pursue these projects. And, darn it all, if that doesn’t leave us in a spiritual dilemma about what choices we should make as global citizens.
    That’s perfect for small-group discussion. You won’t have any trouble at all sparking spirited conversation about this film.

     HOWEVER — that film, in isolation, is really a spiritual meditation on the universal human desire to reshape our landscape — a sort of Garden-of-Eden-Meets-China parable that you’ll never forget. But, “Manufactured Landscapes,” on its own, won’t tell you much about China’s history and vast scope.
    In fact, I’m a big fan of Susan Williams’ series of PBS documentaries on China that she has been producing for 20 years now. Zeitgeist Films has released both this three-film set of Williams’ China documentaries and Baichwal’s film — and, personally, I think there’s a brilliant logic in seeing both films.
    Get them for yourself, if you’re curious — but these are great for groups. Show your group Disc 3 of Williams’ six-hour DVD set, a film that aired in 1997 and shows footage of happy workers in big factories. Then, show them just the opening of Baichwal’s film — a seemingly endless tracking shot through a green-and-gray Chinese factory so enormous that the workers wind up looking like tiny electronic components, caught in a vast mother board themselves.
    A simple way to think of Williams’ three documentaries in the DVD set is this: Envision a great series on Discovery, History Channel or PBS all about China’s turbulent 20th century — and that’s what you’ll get inside this box. In fact, these three films were all shown on PBS. It’s a great “crash course” in China right up until the demise of Deng Xiaoping — with all sorts of fabulous documentary footage that “takes you there.”

    THEN, what do we make of “The Last Emperor” — that achingly gorgeous film by Bernardo Bertolucci that was produced waaaay back in the mid-1980s in Beijing, before titanic change rocked China? What do we do with this exotic, cross-cultural artifact?
    In 1988, the film won 9 Oscars, including “Best Picture,” but it was conceived and filmed a couple of years before that — and that places it before the world even had an inkling of the global collapse of old-style Communism.
    Well, I think we all should watch the film again — simply because it is so gorgeous as a work of art, if for no other reason. (Oh, and by the way — the cost of the Criterion set is worth it if only for the complete television “cut” of the film, which adds nearly another hour of this epic tale to the nearly three-hour theatrical cut. If you watch the additions, you’ll suddenly understand some of those odd gaps in the original.)

    This is really a Chinese-style Shakespearean tragedy — a spiritual experience of a heart-breaking yearning for love and meaning that runs throughout the last emperor’s bizarre life. In addition, the film also is a vivid glimpse of Western fascination with the powerful sights and sounds of China. I phrase it that way because much of this four-disc Criterion set really is about Bertolucci, his crew and their quest to create this film.
    One of the best discs in the set is the fourth one, which has a lengthy history of the whole amazing century that’s hosted by historian Ian Buruma. And, there’s also a really fascinating, in-depth look at David “Talking Heads” Byrne and his artistic quest to create a soundtrack that would treat both Chinese music — and his own creativity as a Western composer — with integrity.

    Finally, that’s what we keep talking about here at ReadTheSpirit — how to live with creative integrity in this era of turbulent cultural change.

    Burtynsky explains this challenge eloquently in the documentary. Asked why he declines to preach at people and why his photographs of deeply troubling subjects also can be so alluringly beautiful, the photographer says:
    “If I said, ‘This is a terrible thing we’re doing to our planet!’ — then people will either agree or disagree. But, by not saying what I think people should see, that may allow them to look at something they’ve never looked at –- and to see their world a little differently.
    “I think a lot of people today sit in that uncomfortable spot where we don’t want to give up what we have, but we realize that what we’re doing is creating problems that run deep. It’s not a simple right or wrong. It needs a whole new way of thinking.”

    To that we say: Yes!

    Tell us what you think. Email me ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, or leave a Comment on our site.

    OR, click on the “Digg” link below and add a very brief “digg” comment — even a phrase — to this story’s listing on Digg-It, which will tell even more folks worldwide that it’s worth reading:

    And, finally, HERE’s that amazing Burtynsky photo of the “ship-breaking” yard in China:

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