Eye of the beholder
Architecture student decodes the myth of ‘modern gods’ in village
“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.”
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.
The statue of of the “car god” created by villagers in Yixian county, Hebei Province. Circled: Xu Teng a clip of Yixi video