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The Collected Ingredients of a Beijing Life

Song Dong

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Waste Not < wu jin qi yong>

Waste Not

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Waste Not < wu jin qi yong>

On August 11, 2002 my father suffered from a heart attack, and, in a matter of minutes, he left us forever. My entire family sank into a deep depression. My father’s death was like a knife to the gut and none of us could pull through the immense pain. For my mother, in particular, it came as a great emotional shock, and drastically affected her spirit and behaviour. Nothing we could do could pull her out of her sadness. “Art” was my last hope. As my mother helped me with my art-making, she slowly emerged out of her grief. Just as it had for my relationship with my father, art had helped us once again.

In the three years since my father’s death, I have been continually planning this collaborative exhibition with my mother. In truth, art is no longer of importance here. The most important thing is to pull my mother out of her isolated and grief-stricken world and give her a breath of fresh air to breathe.

Wu jin qi yong( rendered as Waste Not in English) is not only the guideline for my mother’s life, but also portrays a whole generation of Chinese people. In the Chinese dictionary, the explanation of wu jin qi yong reads: anything that can somehow be of use, should be used as much as possible. Every resource should be used fully, and nothing should be wasted. This code served as the basis for my mother’s daily household operations. In my childhood memories, she always led a thrifty life, trying not to waste anything for the good of our impoverished family. My mother, Zhao Xiang Yuan, was born in 1938 into a prosperous family. My grandfather was an officer in the KMT, and served during the War of Resistance. He once even rescued an officer who was a member of an underground faction of the Communist Party in Chongqing. When my mother was twelve years old, she moved with her parents to Beijing. But, in 1953, my grandfather was unjustly accused of being a spy for the KMT. In order to protect itself, the underground Communist faction refused to testify on his behalf. My grandfather was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment. After he was released, he worked in a button factory until his retirement. During all those years that he was in prison, my grandmother had to take care of the family, and in 1961, shortly after his release, she died of cancer. For my mother, this was a huge blow. Three years of natural disasters followed, driving my mother’s family into poverty. Perhaps it was these contrasting conditions of existence teamed with the historical circumstances of her family’s tragedy that left indelible shadows in her young heart. It was during this painful period of my mother’s life that my father appeared. He helped my mother’s family undergo the hardship and served as a source of great solace to her.

For the Chinese, frugality is a virtue. But, at that time it was also the only way for a family to survive. I remember, during my childhood, my mother always bought scraps of fabric to make clothes, because they didn’t need to be purchased with the government-distributed clothing coupons. Later, fearing a shortage of goods, she continued to collect them. They are still there, neatly folded in the wardrobe. This fear of shortage invariably led to the kind of lifestyle in which anything that could be kept wouldn’t be thrown away. “Waste not” became the basis for the “collection” of these materials. In that period of insufficiency, this way of thinking and living was a kind of a fabao, literally translated as a “magic weapon,” but in times when goods were plenty, the habit of “waste not” became a burden. With the improvement in living conditions, it also became the basis of a generation gap: my mother not only refused to throw away her own things, but wouldn’t allow us to throw anything away either. Our living space became occupied by these objects waiting to be used. For us, the fear of shortage became an anxiety about accumulating piles of useless things. But “waste not” isn’t the life philosophy of a singular person; a whole generation of people was raised in this collective spirit. Many people my age have seen it in their parents. This difference in lifestyles has formed a deep generation gap; our parents have a very different understanding of the notion of “a happy life.”?

My mother wouldn’t accept the sudden death of my father, but since we kept it a secret from my grandfather who is now ninety-four years old, she wouldn’t show any weakness in front of him. Finally, she suffered from an emotional breakdown and drove her “waste not” habit to extremes. She not only held on to everything, but also left these things scattered everywhere; this came to typify her way of life. In the beginning, my sister and I often tried to clean up her space for her, but this would always lead to unnecessary conflicts. The problem was always that we were throwing away things that could have proved to be useful one day. As time passed, our idea of attempting to change her mentality became a source for her unhappiness. I recognize that in this era of transition, a person can live through several different lives in just one lifetime. In the wink of an eye, one’s life can undergo great changes, but the difference in mentality persists in causing a deep generation gap. It appears that this entire generation is mentally unprepared to face changes, but, in fact, this gap is caused by very specific historical circumstances. This way of life, and the conflicts that arise from it, have formed an entire generation of people who have come to epitomize a rapidly changing society. I understand her need to fill the space with those daily-life objects more as a need to fill the emptiness after my father’s death.

As a Chinese, I’ve been raised in the spirit of filial obedience; if my mother is happy, then I will do as she wishes. But, I still would like her to truly live a better life, so I thought of another way for her to exhibit her life, her things, her philosophy: to together use the principal of “waste not” and make “art” out of it. Those things that waited so long to be used could finally be used. My mother was very happy and told me: “Keeping those things was useful, wasn’t it!” The exhibition of these objects is just the visible part of this project, more importantly is that it gave my mother a space to put her memories and history in order. Here she plays the role of the artist, she has a job, and I’m just her assistant. Organizing her things and reconstructing her old house has brought happiness into her life. Our collaboration is a medium for art and a new start in our lives.

The objects exhibited in the current show are the “waste not” things my mother collected over decades, but also included in the exhibition is a part that can’t be seen– my mother’s home. The exhibition is for my father, too. From up there in the sky, he can see the characters facing the stars that are lightening with neon glow during the day and night: “Dad, don’t worry, mum and we are fine!”

Zhao XiangYuan and Song Dong