Friday, May 3, 2013

Outward power: photo essays of today's Shanghai

Links to the photo essays:

Shanghai Streets

Shanghai people's square

One of the aspects of power is outer power... the ability of human beings to transform the outward. In doing so, we often forget that the outward is always and forever a reflection of the inner.

China is a country with an ageless tradition of inner effort, ranging from down-to-earth native Taoist practices and the graceful movements of Tai Chi to the subtle sophistication of the Six Great Patriarchs of Zen Buddhism (all Chinese.) The country has undergone a paroxysm of outer transformations over the last century, culminating in a massive surge of modernization that is, fair to say, without parallel in world history. The change is staggering, and absolutely impossible to convey for those who have not been there to see it happen. It represents a force of transformation so far unknown on the planet.

What that means to all of us remains to be seen; but clearly, a new level of forces is emerging here, on a vastly new scale.

This outer transformation—paradoxically, both stabilizing and destabilizing at the same time— has left any number of young Chinese far better off than recent generations.

It has also, in my experience,  left a number of them asking themselves what the meaning of life is, since many Chinese traditions emphasizing inner value have been steam-rollered and flattened beyond recognition in the process. Some few of them are now, ironically, turning back to the West in the hopes that those of us who have kept these traditions alive can help them rediscover an inner life that has, unfortunately, been eclipsed by a massive one-two punch, first of communism, then capitalism and materialism.

The country is rich. It is also, in my experience, aggressively misunderstood by westerners. The steady (and vastly unfair) demonization of China in many sectors of the US press fails to capture the vibrancy of the country, and does a disservice to its warm and wonderful people.

On most of my trips to Shanghai, I take a walk or two where I wander around the center of the city without any specific plan, recording what I see. These two photo essays capture a microcosmic sense of what Shanghai is like this week... today.

China has its share of serious problems, but the landscape and the people have a living quality, and above all a human quality, that says something about all of us.

Perhaps readers will join me in feeling touched by that question.

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