Eye of the be­holder

Ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent de­codes the myth of ‘mod­ern gods’ in vil­lage

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Agen­cies – Global Times

“I’ve been cho­sen by his­tory,” said Xu Teng, a stu­dent from Ts­inghua Univer­sity. He stands at the cen­ter of the stage and solemnly in­tro­duces him­self to the au­di­ence at Yixi, a speech shar­ing plat­form sim­i­lar to TedX.

After a brief in­tro­duc­tion, the stage back­ground changes to a streak of light­ning. Xu, a PhD stu­dent in the univer­sity’s ar­chi­tec­tural depart­ment, then be­came a vir­tual tour guide, tak­ing view­ers on a trip to the lit­tle known Nainai Tem­ple (Grandma Tem­ple), which sits in Yix­ian county in He­bei Prov­ince.

What Xu showed shocked the au­di­ence. In Yix­ian, a place thick with reli­gious at­mos­phere, vil­lagers cre­ate gods in Nainai Tem­ple for what­ever sit­u­a­tion de­mands them. To keep up with mod­ern so­ci­ety, there is a “car god” who holds a steer­ing wheel in his hand, and a “study god” who car­ries a box of books.

When Yixi re­leased Xu’s speech about Nainai Tem­ple on Au­gust 6, it im­me­di­ately grabbed peo­ple’s at­ten­tion and swept the In­ter­net. The video gen­er­ated more than 2 mil­lion views in five days and turned Xu into an overnight In­ter­net sen­sa­tion.

In Xu’s per­sonal WeChat public ac­count, the num­ber of fol­low­ers in­creased by more than 30,000 in one day and there are hun­dreds of com­ments daily. “I can barely read all those com­ments,” he said.

He de­scribed his cur­rent state as “so hot that it nearly burns him.”

But opin­ion on Xu is di­vided. While some praise his tal­ents, oth­ers crit­i­cize him for “seek­ing pop­u­lar­ity by spout­ing non­sense.” Some peo­ple said that he has bad aes­thetic taste and is an em­bar­rass­ment to Ts­inghua Univer­sity.

“What I’ve said isn’t im­por­tant. What’s im­por­tant is what you saw,” he said, stress­ing that he only wants to in­tro­duce peo­ple to in­ter­est­ing things.

A dif­fer­ent way

Xu, 30, was born in a ru­ral vil­lage in Cen­tral China’s Hubei Prov­ince, and was ob­sessed with his­tory when he was a child.

But de­spite this en­thu­si­asm, teach­ers didn’t re­gard him as a good stu­dent. At school, he was al­ways play­ing foot­ball, writ­ing nov­els and or­ga­niz­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

See­ing no hope of be­ing en­rolled in a good univer­sity, he de­cided to write nov­els in his se­nior year. In the end, his books weren’t pub­lished and he per­formed ter­ri­bly in the gaokao (na­tional col­lege en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion).

Xu sat the gaokao three times and fi­nally got ac­cepted into the ar­chi­tec­tural depart­ment of Chongqing Univer­sity.

Dur­ing his years there, he failed six sub­jects and did not gain one cer­tifi­cate of honor.

But at the same time, he did three things that made other peo­ple re­mem­ber him.

In his third year, he submitted a piece of course­work on res­i­den­tial de­sign. While oth­ers of­fered tra­di­tional and neat de­signs in their draw­ings, Xu drew a dragon on the left, a go­rilla on the right and a kinder­garten in the mid­dle.

His teacher liked his de­sign and gave him a score of 90, the first high score he had ever ob­tained. At that point, he said he “be­gan to find him­self.”

The sec­ond thing he did was shoot a film. In his grad­u­a­tion year, he made a film doc­u­ment­ing the lives of stu­dents at the ar­chi­tec­tural depart­ment. The film was later screened in many uni­ver­si­ties all over er the coun­try.

The third achieve­ment was to be ad­mit­ted to Ts­inghua forr his mas­ter’s de­gree. Like his gaokao, it still took him three years to be ad­mit­ted into the coun­try’s most pres­ti­gious univer­sity.

While other peo­ple call them wasted years, he prefers to see them as “gap years.”

Unique style

Ts­inghua may rep­re­sent or­tho­doxy, but Xu doesn’t like to play by the book, nam­ing him­self “di­rec­tor of the un­ortho­dox his­tory re­search in­sti­tute.”

His friend Fu Ran said that he got this idea from his su­per­vi­sor Wang Guix­i­ang, who is di­rec­tor of the Ar­chi­tec­tural His­tory and Her­itage Con­ser­va­tion In­sti­tute of Ts­inghua’s ar­chi­tec­tural depart­ment.

“The styles of the two ‘di­rec­tors’ (Wang and Xu him­self) are very dif­fer­ent. One is an old-style in­tel­lec­tual who is se­ri­ous, while the other is not the least bit se­ri­ous but likes to talk non­sense in a se­ri­ous way,” said Fu.

When Xu posted about Nainai Tem­ple in his public ac­count, he wrote in his so­cial me­dia ac­count, “I smile to sleep ev­ery day be­cause this world is so in­ter­est­ing!”

He also wrote ar­ti­cles about bizarre ar­chi­tec­ture in China. He wrote about the large tur­tle-shaped Grand View Gar­den in He­bei Prov­ince, a square in the shape of the Chi­nese word gan (do) in a small vil­lage in Liaon­ing Prov­ince, a blue and white porce­lain amuse­ment park in Jiangxi Prov­ince, and an amuse­ment park in the shape of a flower-drum in An­hui Prov­ince. The last two sites were in­spired by lo­cal spe­cial­ity prod­ucts.

He be­lieves such bizarre works carry an el­e­ment of “magic real­ism.”

The most pop­u­lar of these is Nainai Tem­ple, which makes mil­lions of yuan ev­ery year. Most of the vil­lagers have been lifted out of poverty through tak­ing part in the busi­ness that the tem­ple gen­er­ates, while the other nearby vil­lages are still strug­gling to es­cape poverty.

But he still em­pha­sized that he grew up in the vil­lage and is in­flu­enced by its cul­ture. While bizarre pieces of ar­chi­tec­ture gen­er­ally don’t have wide ap­peal, there are still things to learn from those folk cre­ations.

As for the peo­ple who crit­i­cize him, Xu said he didn’t care, and only pays at­ten­tion to those that call him in­ter­est­ing.

Two years ago, Xu came up with the idea of seek­ing 50 “lit­er­ary and artis­tic” youths to record their sto­ries. He hopes to launch this plan soon.

Pho­tos: CFP,

The statue of of the “car god” cre­ated by vil­lagers in Yix­ian county, He­bei Prov­ince. Cir­cled: Xu Teng a clip of Yixi video

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