Day 19: Standing by oneself - The China Chronicles

By Deena Dajani · 24 June 2013
Migration and Kung Fu were the themes of the day. First we traveled to Kaiping. This area presents a hybrid architecture that was the result of intercultural encounters that took place in the 20th century. Migrants returning to China after setting up successful businesses abroad built their houses combining Chinese themes and European and Mediterranean styles. The watchtowers (called Dialous) that originated from these encounters appear like luxurious houses inside, but look like forts from the outside. For fear of bandits, people stored stones in their balconies. Their floors had holes from which the house owner could shoot at intruders. The isolated locations of the watchtowers, along with the riches inside, made defense a necessity. But are experiences of migration and exclusion two sides of the same coin? 
Many Chinese migrants from this particular area called Kaiping went to the USA or Canada to work as 'coolies' (literary meaning hard-suffering labourers) and send back home money they made overseas. Those who settled in the US, Canada and elsewhere never stopped sending money back home and built thousands of Daialous not for themselves but for their local families. The extravagant scale of some Dialous, which are more like palaces, gives us some clue as to where these fortunes actually came from. One local guide said that one of the owners of Daialous made a fortune by selling drugs. The name of the village which has a good concentration of Daialous was Zili, 'standing by oneself'!
The Guangdong region is also renowned for many legendary Kung-fu masters as we found out in the city of Foshan. Kung-fu, a martial art, enables practitioners to control their body and spirit, to discipline their mind and to bring harmony to society. Far from creating introverted individuals, many Kung-fu masters were also army chiefs of the Taipin Rebellion,  joined Sun Yat-sen's Revolution and fought against the Japanese. Then later they became close to the film industry in Hong Kong and beyond. 

The history of violence in this region - bandits, coolies, rebellions, revolutions, wars, martial arts, mafiosi, films, spirits, ancestors and temples - conjoins in fascinating, confusing, but also familiar ways. Discipline and order guard against spirits in the ancestral temple of Foshan. Harmony and peace forms the basis of violence. And within fortified watchtowers normal demilitarised lives run their course.  

- The Oecumene Team, 20 June 2013 

About the author

  • Deena Dajani

    Research Associate
    Deena Dajani
    The Open University
    My research project experiments with Arabic oral and dramatic traditions as forms of subjugated knowledges and sites of political disputation. This experimentation navigates beyond interest in Arabic... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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