Recent events have prompted Chinese to re-examine the artwork shown above – not for its rather tasteful depiction of naked young girls, but instead for its hidden allegorical subtext, showing as it does with some clarity the power struggle over the future of Taiwan and the wider East Asian region.
The work, by Toronto-based Chinese artist Liu Yi, generally goes by its English title of “The 2008 Beijing Mahjong Game.”
First exhibited in 2005 in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics, the piece has over the years been subject to a wide variety of searching interpretations – the latest coming from Chinese left pondering it in light of recent developments.
A reasonable interpretation is translated below:
Firstly, the girl wearing a traditional article of Chinese lingerie with her hand in a fruit bowl represents Taiwan.
The four mahjong players also represent countries – America faces the viewer, and opposite her is China. To the right, the reclining girl is Russia, and to the left, naked and scrutinising her tiles, is Japan.
The image depicts the situation facing Taiwan, but Taiwan herself is not at the table. Only the four players of America, China, Japan and Russia will determine the outcome of this game. The skies beyond the window are dark and unsettled, as is the current situation.
The clothing the four girls at the table are wearing expresses their respective strengths. America is in a strong position, and confidently watches Taiwan for a chance to strike without being overly concerned about the state of the game.
Russia lies languidly with one leg resting on America, and an arm outstretched to China, stealthily assisting China with her concealed tiles. But Russia has no interest in Taiwan, and her tiles are not strong. She is only interested in exploiting the Taiwan situation to her advantage, sympathising with America whilst selling weapons to China.
China herself is half-naked, much of her body obscured from view by the table, preventing anyone from seeing how strong she is. One of her tiles is “East,” representing the DF-31 “East Wind” long range missile (ICBM). China also keeps some of her tiles hidden behind her, ready for any change in the game. Just how strong she really is, who can say.
On the left, the naked girl is Japan. She has no clothes at all – she is the weakest of the four. She scrutinizes her tiles intently, completely oblivious to the artful tricks the other players are employing. Japan only conceives of the Taiwan issue in terms of how she can gain regional power – she is blind to the global aspect of the game. Whilst she may have a good hand, little does she realize the game will not be won through tiles alone.
On China’s shoulder is a tattoo – the Fenghuang, or “Chinese phoenix.” This signifies the fact that in China traditional culture runs only skin deep – she is otherwise just the same as the west. On the contrary, it is Taiwan, with her traditional attire, who is the real heir to Chinese culture.
Taiwan holds a fruit knife, but it is of no use in a game of mahjong and she cannot bring it to bear. All she can do is hold onto her fruit as the game plays out.
Let it not be said that looking at pictures of naked girls cannot be educational.