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Sunday, May 25, 2008

National outpouring and Earthquake curses

On Monday, May 19th, one week after the Sichuan earthquake struck, the first of three national days of mourning begun at 2:28 pm. I was at Chengdu’s Sports University, and stood behind a small assembly of university staff, lined up in rows, heads solemnly bowed, facing the Chinese flag atop one of the campus’ administrative buildings. As had been planned, emergency sirens, joined by car horns, filled the air in mournful chorus.

That evening, a large informal gathering took place at Tianfu Square, Chengdu’s answer to Tiananmen. As is common practice in Chinese urban centers, it is—as its name infers—a giant concrete square, headed by a statue of a waving Mao and dotted with fountains and large wire coil-shaped lights. From the outside, it looked like people had organized a giant vigil of sorts, with candlelights glowing both in hands and a number of gently ascending helium baskets. But upon entering the square, we could immediately see that the gathering was far less organized, and far more raucous.

Long chains of spontaneous marchers weaved through, filled mostly with students and young adults. Many were quite fashionably dressed in heels and colorful dresses; others wore more casual garb. They pumped their fists in the air as they chanted passionately, their voices heavy with emotion.

“Zhongguo Jiayou!” (“Go China!”) they chanted, followed by “Sichuan Chungsi!” (“Go Sichuan!” in Sichuanese).

Meanwhile, others set up small memorials of candle arrangements and flowers, on the ground and in existing flowerbeds. Wherever they were set up, a huge crowd of interested watchers surrounded the small vigil in concentric circles, digital cameras and phones snapping and filming away.

Perhaps most interesting were the wax clean-ups. I have never seen anyone scrape wax off of the floor—in a public square no less--as vigorously as these small half dozen-sized groups of citizens who took it upon themselves to clean off any candle wax left on the ground, from a memorial or otherwise. When asked why they were cleaning the floor, two young women replied: “Because we saw other people doing it.”

They used their hands, and often credit cards, to get beneath the wax, which was collected into small piles and quickly thrown out. This, in a country in which it is not uncommon to see children take dumps on the sidewalks (though sometimes newspaper is placed out beneath them first); where spitting is an unofficial national pastime. If this surge of national pride means less filthy streets, I think many will welcome such change. Somehow, though, one can’t help but feel that broader changes than street sanitation may result from all of this year’s events.

My group, finally managing to reunite due to limited cell phone service, decided a patio drink at one of the city’s riverside bars would be nice on this, a pleasant spring evening. It took a phone call to remind us that all bars were closed during the three days of mourning, and then a security guard at our apartment door later than evening, to inform us of the government’s (ill-founded) prediction of another major earthquake. In the ensuing pandemonium of traffic and blankets, we slept beneath a large One Child Policy statue.

Many Chinese see the earthquake as linked to a series of cursed events, often using numbers and local superstitions as proof. 2008 is seen by some as a cursed year, just as 1998, 1988 and 1978—the year of Mao’s death—were before it. From May 12th to August 8th—the start of the Olympic ceremony—are 88 days. The day of the earthquake, May 12th, as well as the Lhasa riots, April 13th, in sum total eight. When I asked my tutor why eight might be construed as cursed when it is also commonly linked to prosperity—the two words are similar sounding in Chinese—she wasn’t sure.

Even those ever-present, stuffed doll-ready Olympic mascots have been tied to the curse. Of the five, Jingjing the panda represents the earthquake, as pandas are found here in Sichuan. The Tibetan antelope mascot represents the recent Tibetan unrest, the kite mascot represents the city of Shandong, where a recent train crash occurred and the flame-red mascot represents recent tumult surrounding the torch relay. The only remaining mascot is Beibei, a sturgeon fish, linked alternatively to the Yangtze and to Beijing and the Games themselves.

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