On the Occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the Handover

Frank Vigneron discusses the idea of provincialism in France, in relation to Hong Kong identity and culture


Image: Family photo of Central, Hong Kong, in 1964. The now-defunct Star Ferry pier occupies the background.
Image: Family photo of Central, Hong Kong, in 1964. The now-defunct Star Ferry pier occupies the background.

When Phoebe Wong called to invite me to write a text for Diaaalogue, at first I did not hear what anniversary she was referring to and I asked her to repeat what the occasion was. When I understood it was about the handover, I was surprised to realise that this anniversary had completely skipped my mind. Since (to my shame) I do not really read the local press nor pay too much attention to what local television or radio stations have to say about Hong Kong, I had not realised ten years had passed since a spectacular rainstorm drenched Charles' uniform on the now-controversial Tamar site. Don't worry, the image of a wet Prince of Wales soon to be joined by wet PLA soldiers is to be the extent of my reminiscing about the handover, or even about the ten years that have passed since then. However, I will pontificate quite a bit on a topic not directly related to the handover, although it has to take into account many of the issues concerning this historical event. This topic is "provincialism," a thought that may mistakenly come to many recently arrived foreigners' mind when they consider the local art and cultural scene.

The idea of "provincialism" is one that all French will be familiar with, however I feel I must explain my own personal background to explain the magnitude of its implications for someone like me. I was born in Hong Kong, the younger son of an "expat" working for a French shipping company. I was only a year old when we first moved to Vietnam and then back to Belgium, and about seven when we moved back to Lille, in the North of France, where I received my schooling and undertook my first two years of art history studies at university. I arrived in Paris in 1983 to study Chinese and became part of a huge student population that had come to the capital to further their tertiary education. I therefore arrived in the capital very much a "Provincial" and perfectly aware of what centuries of Paris-centred thinking had done to the psyche of any French national: in Paris I was less than a fully-fledged person, a mere embryo in a soup of cultural superiority.  

The roots of that idea of provincialism in France are well known and stem from a long history of centralisation which started after Louis XIV more or less fixed the frontiers of France. Paris was then established once and for all as more than the heart of the land, as its veritable soul and the unique source of its cultural vitality. The rest of France has been known for a long time as "the Province," and this word still maintains a large degree of repulsiveness in the mouth of the Parisien (very similar, if one has to compare, to daailuk 大陸, that is, Mainland China, in the mouth of many a Hong Kong citizen). Just as the concept of "East" was invented to construct a Western identity, Parisian elites have relied on the Paris/Province dichotomy for a very long time to describe the superiority of life in the capital. In spite of nearly thirty years of political and economic decentralisation, French people living in Paris are still convinced that they are privileged in their access to culture and can command a mastery of everything "cultural" much better and much more comfortably than anyone else living in the Province.

This dichotomy, still very obvious, has probably made the renaissance of local cultures less visible in France than it has been in Germany, for instance, where provinces have always retained a great deal of cultural autonomy. A rediscovery of local cultures and languages is also manifesting itself in many other countries. What might appear as contradictory, that is, the fact that economic globalisation seems to be accompanied by an increase of cultural divisions, is only so on the surface. It is a fact that, in a world where exchanges of goods and ideas are more and more frequent on an international level, people are increasingly aware of the unique characteristics of their own local cultures. Similarly, and it is particularly obvious in the European Union, the disappearance of the old national borders when it comes to goods and persons, has made the artificiality of these borders very clear: the creation of national identities—a recent phenomenon after all—and the political desire to brand and localise them within artificial boundaries has far too often very little to do with any sense of local belonging. It is not possible to differentiate clearly the elements of local cultures from those of national cultures: if the local culture is made up, for instance, of elements like the language we use with family and close friends, as well as the type of food or clothing one is used to wearing, the national culture is made up, for example, of historical events and stories often associated to the "nation-building" movements of the past. To give a simplistic example from my own life: the song "Mon P’tit Quinquin" ("My Little Boy")—a lullaby, universally known in the North of France—is entirely incomprehensible for a French person who is not from that region. This song strictly belongs to my local culture. The death of Joan of Arc, however, would clearly be a part of my national culture. A dish like carbonade, beef brisket boiled in beer, would more likely occupy an in-between area, as it belongs as much to the culture of the North of France as to French cuisine in general. Many other elements belong in that grey area where local culture becomes national culture and vice-versa. 

For those who believe that promoting local cultures is the same as promoting national cultures, but on a smaller scale, I would present two arguments. First, overgrown national cultures have usually been created forcefully, without the consent of the majority: the example of local languages that were forbidden in European schools of the late nineteenth century is a perfect illustration. The resurgence of these languages, and the customs that came with them, at the time many national borders are in effect dissolving—as in Europe or, more dramatically, in the former Yugoslavia—is ample proof that national cultures are always on the brink of dissolution and always relying on the powerful tools of centralised powers to continue to exist; schools and press in the past and television and mass media in the present. Second, local cultures are much more profoundly a part of the individual and, because of that deep feeling of possession, individuals feel they are in less danger of losing them. National cultures are in fact not as deeply a part of the individual's psychological makeup as local cultures, and I believe the reason why national cultures have been, and are, defended with such violence is because they are constructs whose artificiality has been less well internalised within the fabric of the Self. People do not feel that they have to defend things that are essential parts of themselves, whereas they have to defend what is always threatening to fall away.

Image: Gu Wenda, <i>100,000 Kilometers</i>, 2004–2005, installation.
Image: Gu Wenda, 100,000 Kilometers, 2004–2005, installation. Courtesy of the artist.

To reinforce national cultures, states often have recourse to powerful symbols to represent both their legitimacy and their potency, and these symbols will always be known to all the actors of a national culture. One such a symbol is, for instance, the ridiculously famous French "Ligne Maginot," the huge system of defense constructed after the First World War on the border of Germany and Italy. The Ligne Maginot, a material representation of the 1930s French central government's desire to hang on to a notion of national purity, and a military apparatus used as a rampart to keep the Germans out, proved completely ineffective when the German army invaded France from Belgium. It is very tempting to see a similar symbolism in the nationalist ideology conferred upon the Great Wall of China, and a similar practical uselessness, as it never stopped invaders from entering China. On the occasion of the 2006 exhibition The Wall: Reshaping Chinese Contemporary Art, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the curator Gao Minglu 高名潞 reminded the public of the fact that "the Great Wall as a symbol of Chinese national pride and as a national monument was finally established during the anti-Japanese war of the 1930s and 1940s."1

Image: Wu Guanzhong, <i>The Great Wall</i>, 1986, ink & color on paper. Private collection.
Image: Wu Guanzhong, The Great Wall, 1986, ink & color on paper. Private collection. Courtesy of the artist.
Image: Wang Jingsong, <i>Climbing the Great Wall</i>, 1992, oil on canvas.
Image: Wang Jingsong, Climbing the Great Wall, 1992, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Image: Xu Bing, <i>Ghosts Pounding the Wall</i>, 1990–1991, rubbing on paper.
Image: Xu Bing, Ghosts Pounding the Wall, 1990–1991, rubbing on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

The Great Wall has often been represented over the last century and by artists from many horizons and, each time, it has been given various significations. In the works of Mainland artists, and in spite of the nationalistic discourse that usually accompanies depictions of it in the People's Republic, it does not always lend itself to a triumphant discourse. If Wu Guanzhong 吳冠中 gives us an uplifting vision of the wall, where it turns into something that can hardly be read as an obstacle, Wang Jinsong 王勁松 is a lot more ambiguous and prefers to turn it into a postcard background, a tourist battlefield where the only physical presence is that of a Pavarotti look-alike haunted by an absent figure (maybe the figure of the fabled Chinese of the middle kingdom, that land of legend full of scholars drinking tea and maidens floating on tiny feet). As for Xu Bing 徐冰, in his memorable work Ghosts Pounding the Wall, it has become something one does not expect from a wall: a sign of parting, as this was the last work he made before leaving for the United States.

To represent their newly created legitimacy, new non-national institutions of the world such as the European Union also had to rely on symbols. For instance, the Union was responsible for re-inventing the old figure of Charlemagne, at the time dubbed a European emperor (a name that would have meant nothing to that eighth-century ruler). Charlemagne was looked upon at the beginnings of the European Union in the 1950s as the founder of European culture. For a time (a time that seems to have passed, since the figure of Charlemagne does not make much sense in symbolising a European Union with 25 members), he was construed as a European symbol mostly because his reign was so ancient and so absent from the memories of the inhabitants of the Union that it could be transformed into any kind of cultural message. Napolean was another figure of European history who also had the ambition to unite Europe under a common constitution and the rule of law, but, two hundred years later, he was still too controversial a figure to even be considered as a valid candidate. The example of Charlemagne illustrates perfectly what is meant by the creation of supra-national cultures: it is a symbol that does not fit into any of the discourses about national cultures created during the nation-building periods because its zone of existence did not correspond to the national borders created during these periods (the borders of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire covered most of what the European Union looked like in the 1960s, with the exception of England). If we can imagine the existence of supra-national cultures, it might be better to rename what I have called until now "local cultures," infra-national cultures.

Image: Danny Yung, <i>In Search of Modern China</i>, photography transfer, six pieces.
Image: Danny Yung, In Search of Modern China, photography transfer, six pieces. Courtesy of the artist.

Another multi-purpose figure used in ideology and nation-building discourses is that of Mao Zedong. It is obvious that a portrait of Mao Zedong by an American artist of the 1970s and one by a contemporary Chinese artist will not bear the same implications or even the same meaning. Such figures are quite literally floating signifiers and can be filled with a variety of implications. Although questions surrounding the problems of infra-national versus national cultures could be read in the works of a number of artists from Hong Kong, they are particularly relevant to the appreciation of the work of Danny Yung 榮念曾. In Search of Modern China, shown during the 2001 Hong Kong Art Biennial, consists of six digital prints standing in close succession to each other on the floor and also attached to the wall. Only the first one of the series is therefore entirely visible and reveals a group photo of very important figures in the history of the People's Republic of China: Mao Zedong 毛澤東 , Zhou Enlai 周恩來, Liu Shaoqi 劉少奇, Zhu De 朱德, Deng Xiaoping 鄧小平, and Chen Yun 陳雲. It is possible to read the repetition of the image—six images for six characters—as showing that a change of context will lend a different role to each of these figures.

Image: Wang Guangyi, <i>Mao Zedong No. 1</i>, 1998 (detail). Private collection.
Image: Wang Guangyi, Mao Zedong No. 1, 1998 (detail). Private collection. Courtesy of the artist.
Image: Wang Keping, <i>Idol</i>, 1979, birch wood.
Image: Wang Keping, Idol, 1979, birch wood. Courtesy of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery and the artist.

As for Mao Zedong, when compared to other representations of the Chairman made in Europe or America by the likes of Andy Warhol, Wang Guangyi's portrait and its signs of repetitiveness (the grid) and omnipresence (the alpha and the omega) carries meanings which can have very little in common with the other depictions of Mao Zedong. Another set of interpretations can be made about the famous "Mao" icon of early 1980, the Buddha of Wang Keping 王克平 made at the time of the Stars group. Although always recognisable and often represented with the same attributes and costumes, it is quite literally another person who is being portrayed in each instance. 

As Mao's image turned from savior of the country to murderer of millions, from poet to political theorist, and the image of Deng Xiaoping turns from traitor of the Maoist cause to saviour of the country, the image of Zhou Enlai is certainly the one that has changed the least in the history of China. Six repetitive texts printed on the images, "on how people become revolutionaries, sportsmen, artists, hosts and politicians,"2 evoke the necessity for context and illustrate that the same text will play different roles at different times and with different people. This image obviously takes on a completely different role in the context of Hong Kong, where these figures, as much as they have been involved in the making of Hong Kong—Deng Xiaoping especially, with his "one country, two systems" (yiguo liangzhi 一國兩制)—do not play the part of "fathers of the country" that they might still play on the Mainland. This artwork, like many others by Danny Yung, is a brilliant comment on the instability of national culture when seen in the context of an infra-national culture.

I am, as the reader might well expect, a staunch supporter of infra-national cultures (the definition of which necessarily includes an idea of what national culture can be). And the way they tend to reappear in a globalised context would be another way to encourage further cultural hybridisation. Now, hybridisation: here is a word that is rapidly going out of fashion in historical and cultural studies, thouhg its present lack of popularity is also based on a misconception. In the context of Hong Kong, for instance, hybridisation has become a buzzword that has somehow replaced the old, and now clearly unacceptable, concept of "East meets West." Although repeating the same word too often always turns that word into a meaningless sound, hybridisation probably should not be rejected so easily since every culture is a hybrid of some sort. In fact, hybridisation is how cultures are shaped and constantly transformed. The reason why it has become so tiresome for Hong Kong intellectuals is not because of an inherent irrelevance, but maybe because of its painfully obvious visibility. French speakers inadvertently use many Arab words like "coton," "café," "sofa," "sucre," "carafe," "alcool," etc., but these words have been French for such a long time that they essentially pass for French. What happens in Hong Kong, particularly in the constant use of English words by local elites, is a simple situation of greater visibility. And it is that visibility that has turned the constant use of the term "hybrid" into cultural nausea.

In Paris, in France, and the rest of the world in general, a process of hybridisation in the creation of cultural identities has always taken place, but it becomes a topic of questions and questioning only when it becomes a problem (phenomenology has taught us that only the things that do not function properly are painfully visible, whereas they disappear from our attention they moment they are integrated). One can frequently see such patterns of identity creation in history: the more difficult the conditions to preserve one's cultural identity, the more vigorously the actors of that cultural identity will defend and cultivate it. And this is very obviously what happened in Hong Kong in the events surrounding the handover in 1997: the "threat" of the Communist Mainland has made the definition of a cultural identity all the more necessary for the actors of this territory. It is obvious that the creation of infra-national cultures is not any longer the privilege of the "Province," whether the French province or this "provincial" place that is Hong Kong: these cultures can very well sprout in the old centre of national culture with all the potency and independence one would expect from the culture of a geographically remote area.

However, no matter how much the lives of "provinciaux" in small and medium-sized cities can be geared towards an international context, in their jobs or their travel interests, many are generally quite blind to the changes brought about by economic globalisation and still believe in the power of the government to change the economy. The possibilities of these "local cultures" are still very much in their infancy and their potential is only visible and construed as desirable seen in and from bigger cities. The possibility of a Picard language3 as usable in comic books, movies, or broadcasting was made possible in the Northern Province of France by the development of the European Union, while the Eurostar placed Lille, the largest city of the region, at the intersection between London, Bruxelles, and Paris. Quite similarly, if Hong Kong had not been both a "provincial" city, and situated in an extraordinarily dynamic economic region, it would never have had the chance to use the deadline of the handover to think of and create its own infra-national culture based on the Cantonese language.

It is in the permanent and always renewed definition of what constitutes infra-national, national, and supra-national cultures that infra-national cultures have a chance to exist and grow more visible. In fact, they can only exist if they define themselves inside a narrative of oppositions: the reason Hong Kong citizens are still seen as "non-Chinese" is because the Mainland and Hong Kong cultures each need one another to define who and what they are. The creation of supra-national narratives with the creation of Europe reinforced infra-national cultures. As the ultimate supra-national narrative, globalisation has already created its own "hero," but this new folklore did not take the form of an ancient flesh-and-blood figure—how could it? The Internet has been given the role of the unifying element for this new narrative with as little reality as the invented figure of Charlemagne for the European Union: only 16.6% of the world population had access to the Internet in 20064 and, for some continents, it has as much reality as the stuff dreams are made of.

For infra-national cultures to blossom again, and hopefully give back to individuals a stronger measure of confidence in their own cultural makeup, there is a need for the old national cultures to somehow shrink a little. Ideally, if national cultures were to shrink, they would leave more room for essential elements of the infra-national cultures to take back some of their former significance: it is, for example, clear that the languages called dialects in the past increasingly have the right to be identified as full-fledged languages (it does not make much sense to call Cantonese a dialect when a province the size of a big European country relies on this language for its everyday operations). But this resizing of national cultures can only take place in an environment that accommodates other supra-national narratives, and these new narratives (which always tend to be replaced by other new narratives, like any other element of a cultural identity) are already in place in Hong Kong because of the unusual historical circumstances of its creation.


1. Zhou Yan 周彥: "Chinese Brand and Chinese Method: On the exhibition The Wall: Reshaping Chinese Contemporary Art," in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, March 2006, 7. Turning the Great Wall into a symbol of nationalism was the outcome of a necessary, because defensive, recourse in the hardening of national culture into a protective layer.
2. Lam Kam Po 林綿波: "Six Paintings, Six Texts" 六張畫.六段字, in Fung, May 馮美華 (ed.), From Close From Afar: An Anthology of Danny Yung, 41–46.
3. Picard is the name given to the form of French spoken in the northern region of France (especially the two administrative regions of Nord and Pas-de-Calais).


Frank Vigneron is Assistant Professor in the Fine Arts Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.



Frank VIGNERON, 韋一空

Fri, 1 Jun 2007

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