Sunday, December 27, 2009

music in revolutionanry China

If we can broaden Western music to all kinds of arts, Mao gave a famous talk at Yan’an (在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话) long before the Communist took power, which decided the tone that art should serve the people. Since then, arts and politics have connected each other. It has remained as a goal or constrain for Chinese artists today.

During the Cultural Revolution, most Western composers and instruments were banned as they represented Western culture and bourgeoisie. But people still loved music and wouldn’t bother to use Western instruments in propaganda. As written in the book “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,” a local cadre finds that a sent-down youth brings his violin, which should be confiscated. The young man lies that he can play a piece called “Mozart Miss Chairman Mao” (it’s actually a Mozart sonata), thus he keeps the violin and plays whenever he’s free.
I recommend the documentary “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China” ( shot in 1980 after the Cultural Revolution. It records Stern’s visit to China when he gave lessons to Chinese music students and performed in a concert. Besides music, the documentary presents more about the tragic influence of the Cultural Revolution to Chinese, especially Chinese musicians and music education.

Everything seems the opposite today. Many Chinese parents in the city send their kids to learn piano, no matter whether they like it. It’s not only for cultivating interests, but students can gain extra scores for school entrance if they pass certain degrees of piano playing. In the conservatories in the States, piano and violin are almost “Asian instruments,” as most Chinese students here in the Conservatory play piano.

one child policy

Westerners seem really care about the One Child Policy, which is an inevitable topic when talking about modern China. I’ve been asked so many times, “if you’re only allowed to have one child, what about TWINS?” I couldn’t help laughing, but you can get a sense of how awkward the policy is when facing common sense. On the one side, it sounds scary that a government has the power to control as detailed as how many children you can have in the name of for the better of the country; on the other side, it proves how powerless a policy can be when it confronts traditional values or even natural laws (like twins).

Besides explaining the policy being impossible to accomplish in the countryside, I always try to update the news that the policy is changing and has to change. Chinese scholars have been discussing since 2000, and here’s an article published on the Southern Weekly in 2008: There are a lot convincing statistics and worries from Chinese scholars, while the government still doesn’t move that much. It’s a problem we cannot wait, but everything comes slowly in China.

And for the question of twins, fortunately, the Chinese government is not that brutal to kill the other, so you can have twins, triplets or even quadruplets!

gender issue

I have the feeling that Westerners love talking about the gender issue, whereas in China people only mention the gender relationship on March 8th, the international women’s day. If you look at the school curriculum, I’m afraid no Chinese universities have a major in gender/women studies, at most under the sociology department, while among top American universities it’s hard to find one without this selection. As explained in the reading for today, it is a “male-dominated academy that has been paralysed by political pressures and the corrupt lures of both state power and the market (Perry & Selden, p. 179).”

Not widely discussed doesn’t mean no problem, but on the contrary, being silent is the problem. It forces women to express themselves through other ways, including suicide. In the documentary “China from the Inside,” it’s shocking yet not too surprising to hear that “China has one of the highest suicide rates for women in the world: 150,000 a year. One every four minutes.” It best exemplifies the character of Chinese women: bearing the unbearable. When Mao wrote on women suicide, he noticed, “the more society causes people to lose their hopes, then the more people in the society will commit suicide (Perry & Selden, p. 290).” Women not only need to keep up with their hopes, but actually support to change their socioeconomic positions.

state-owned industry reform

The reform of state-owned industry has lasted for a long time, but it’s still controversial and remains a headache for the country. The bigger size it is, the harder to change. For the agricultural reform, decollectivization and marketization worked. But for the industrial reform, especially for state-owned industry, we cannot decentralize it because of its nature, and we are not strong enough to marketize (in other words, to compete with international companies) or we cannot marketize it for national security reason (such as electricity and oil, even till today, there are only limited numbers of state-owned companies competing against each other). Thus the reform we tried for the state-owned industries was privatization – to change them into companies. As Lang Xianping criticized, it caused a huge lose of national properties, which now belong to individuals. In the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers from state-owned factories also created a social problem, and it’s hard to tell whether the society get recovered from it today.

In terms of state-owned industry, I thought of a movie earlier this year, called “24 City.” It focuses on a military factory with its luminous past and fading present. You can see how government policies changed since 1950’s, and how they affected the factory and its workers, relatives and the small world it constructed. The movie looks like a documentary, which is a collection of several interviews, but actually some actors are mixed into it with other real workers. Through these personal perspectives, you can get a sense of how their lives have intervened with the factory. People are very attached to the factory, the place they were born, they grew up, and they worked for their whole lives (I saw it when I was in France, but I don’t know if there’s a copy with English subtitle).

All under Heaven

To answer whether there’s anything “socialist” left after the reforms, we need to clarify the major trends of the reforms. As shown in the documentary “All under Heaven,” we could see the process of decollectivization and marketization, which basically turned back to the time before those radical Maoist reforms. In this sense, the “socialist” experiments were gone. However, the “socialist” political structure was still there. Farmers still worried whether the policy would change again, as they have never been constant. Local cadres still need to balance between the government orders and local wealth, just as the one in the documentary said “to play tricks.” Besides these political elements, all traditional cultures, values and rituals sustained, as they did for thousands of years. It’s such a precious documentary to hear what Chinese farmers really thought about the reforms and their life changes. They were practical, frank and never lie. The documentary was shot in such a transiting time (1979-1981), which gave us a glimpse of what has been changed (back) through the reforms, and what has remained through all times.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tibet & Xinjiang

On March 14th 2008, several months before the Beijing Olympics, the Tibet incident happened. Simultaneously, Chinese and Western media reported completely opposite stories, leaving people to discover who was expressing the truth. On the mainland, Dalai Lama was placed as the back stage leader of the incident, and his followers were trying to separate Tibet out of China through riots on streets. In Western countries, the incident was described as a peaceful demonstration shut down by violent Chinese police. Both sides proved their claims by presenting photos of burned cars and shops, but claims as to who was responsible varied greatly.

At that time, I was at Ithaca, a town for exile Tibetans in the States. Dalai Lama even visited the year before. After the incident, some exile Tibetans went on demonstration at the downtown. I was also talking with a Tibetan employee on campus about the incident. He disliked the Chinese government for sure, but he didn’t believe what the U.S. media was saying either, since Americans didn’t know what’s really happening there, but simply love the idea of “free Tibet.” He felt Tibetan people were asking for more autonomy, rather than separation from China.
For Chinese, people believe that Tibet has been a part of China for a long time, as we could make a long list of examples how each dynasty related to Tibet throughout history, and it’s impossible to separate Tibet from the rest. For Westerners, Tibet was invaded and taken brutally by People’s Republic of China, no matter how many connections Tibet had had with other dynasties before.

I went to Tibet in 2006, right after the opening of the train from Beijing to Lasa. Besides the stunning beauty, I was impressed by the central government’s contribution to Tibet, as all the highways were built by the central government, which was totally different from other provinces. The newly constructed train station was unbelievably luxurious, just like an airport.

On July 5th this year, a similar incident happened in Xinjiang. It was a terrifying attack at the center city of Urumqi, resulting in nearly 200 people’s death, including both Han Chinese and Uyghur people. Chinese government learned their lesson from the Tibet incident, as they reacted more openly to media, as least put them in the position to let people know what was happening in Xinjiang. But the same as the previous time, voices from China and elsewhere were still in contrast. While trying to figure out who is distorting the truth, many Chinese were correcting misinterpretation by Western media online, but nobody questioned Chinese media, or such kind of voice was never heard.


In terms of things hadn’t been changed, as Blecher wrote, “the Dengist leadership adhered to the same Leninist principles of democratic centralism and the party’s political monopoly within the state and over society.” As long as people remembered how the government dealt with the June Fourth Incident, it would remind us how hard to reform political institutions, though it’s called a structural reform period and leaders were determined to change from the Maoist period.

But there were many actual changes, which at least made hope and optimism alive. I believe the most important one was the thought liberation, which emphasized on practice and being pragmatic. At that time, not only leaders, but most Chinese felt that we must get away from class struggle or non-stop fighting in ideology. When the editorial of People’s Daily came out with the saying “practice is the sole criterion of truth (实践是检验真理的唯一标准),” people knew that the change was coming. It’s just like a second spring to China, pushing it back to a normal track.

The change of attitude from above definitely contributed to the economic reforms. Since everything depended on practice, all methods could be used, regardless of their ideological labels. With an effective method, hard-working people, and national or collective ownership, it wouldn’t be too big a surprise for the economic boom.