Susan Sontag on Balanchine, Formalism and Dance
“I remember, when I started going to see Balanchine’s work, I thought that what I loved in it was the austerity and the purity, the non-narrative quality. I loved Agon, I loved The Four Temperaments. Things such as Midsummer Night’s Dream, I merely tolerated. Also, I was very influenced by Lincoln Kirstein’s writing on Balanchine’s work, by his screwy Gurdjieffian take on it. Ballet, Balanchine - it was discipline, order, submission, formality. And I thought, Sure, that’s what I love. But you know, that wasn’t what I loved. I remember in La Valse, Joseph Duell putting his white-gloved hand in front of his face, and he did it in a certain way, and I used to feel stabbed through the heart. I would go and see La Valse again and again, and I would wait for that moment. I would say to myself, “Is it going to happen again?”.
And it did. And what is that about? I’m not sure, but it’s not about formalism.”
More on my short stories here.
(originally posted in 2002/03)
Language is the holy grail of China. The reverence the Chinese show their mother tongue make it the linguistic equivalent of the Forbidden City (Gugong) – cryptic, imposing and, for all purposes, inaccessible to the outside world.
But like the now renovated and dusted off imperial bastion in Beijing, the Chinese language has become a commercial asset. It draws masses of eager students from across the world – 25 million people worldwide are studying Chinese according to People’s Daily. In their befuddled wanderings through the maze of signs that is putonghua, language students are a bit like the dazed tourists who stumble through the labyrinth of temples and reception halls that make up the Gugong. Both are clumsily looking for clues to a nation.
And they are not looking in the wrong place. The Gugong, obviously, functioned as the Middle Kingdom’s undisputed seat of power for 500 years. But in a way, so did the language: in its written form, at least, it functioned as a centralizing power hub for China’s national identity. Unsurprisingly, until the end of the 19th century, it was strictly off-limits to foreigners. With the exception of a few perseverant Jesuits, and select foreign dignitaries, non-Chinese were not allowed to learn the language – and Chinese nationals were not allowed to teach it.
To the Chinese, mastery of their language was (and sometimes still is) the equivalent of prying open the inner workings of China, a clear and present danger to national security. Beyond security concerns, they also deemed foreigners - ie dim-witted barbarians – incapable of learning a language as complex as (Mandarin) Chinese. This attitude is still alive today. Many Chinese are forever expounding on the intricacy of their own language, and will swoon at the sight of a foreigner chatting in Mandarin, convinced that said person must be endowed with a superior intellect.
It’s a prejudice that lingers so persistently that speaking Chinese can prove detrimental rather than useful to communication: try addressing hapless waiters, drivers, fruit vendors and even police officers in their own language, and often they will goggle at you in incomprehension. It’s not unusual for a colleague or random bystander to have to “translate” your Mandarin to his or her dazed fellow citizen.
Of course, the confusion is somewhat mutual. Foreigners often react to the Chinese language the way they react to the Forbidden City and the country as a whole – they deposit their brains somewhere at the airport, and cave in to the myth of insurmountable cultural and linguistic complexity that China, intentionally or not, has been spinning so well for centuries.
So let’s play myth buster, shall we?
myth buster 1: Chinese is the most difficult language in the world!
Actually, Chinese (ie Mandarin) is almost rigorously simple in terms of grammar, much simpler than Russian or German. Mandarin Chinese has no tenses, no plural and singular, and no conjugations. Hence the no nonsense “weather good” and “me no play today” sentence structure used by immigrant Chinese in the rest of the world. These are just literal translations from Mandarin and show the Lego quality of the language. At the risk of oversimplifying: throw a few pieces together, in the right order, avoid frills, and you have a correct Chinese sentence. Chinese grammar is definitely not something to be afraid of, but to be enjoyed!
myth buster 2: I will never manage hitting the right tone!
Those pesky tones! Yes, they can be a problem at times, but the cadence of words and sentences will come naturally once you surround yourself with a billion people playing tones off you all day. And Mandarin Chinese has only four tones, unlike say Cantonese, which has nine! Then consider this: it’s not like we don’t use vocal inflection in Western European languages – think of Italians singsonging their way through a sentence. In short, it’s practice, not genius. That said, having a musical ear does help.
myth buster 3: No one will understand what I say, unless I speak pitch-perfect Mandarin.
Well, there are those who will stare in utter incomprehension, no matter how perfectly you speak. And yes, correct pronunciation can be tricky, but you’re in luck. It only really matters in Beijing, where exposure to foreigners has raised expectations on the part of the locals. In places such as Shanghai, perfect putonghua can be a draw back. Your standardized pronunciation will fall on deaf ears, and only lessen your chances of someone understanding you, because, well, everyone speaks a dialect, Shanghaiese, and correct Mandarin only seems to confound them. Shanghaiese is as different from Mandarin as say Italian from Spanish. Example: The Shanghaiese version of Women kan (We look in Mandarin) sounds to foreign ears like a mix of French and Arabic: Alla kuku.
myth buster 4: There is only one Chinese language and that is Mandarin Chinese.
Wrong! The country’s linguistic diversity is often news to first-time visitors, but think about it: China is huge, and if even comparatively tiny Italy manages to have mutually unintelligible dialects, it makes sense that China should be a linguistic melting pot. Culturally, the country’s glue has been its shared Chinese script (characters), which can be read and understood by every literate citizen across the country. Chinese characters are an art form, aesthetically and intellectually, but learning them can be tedious, unless you are into calligraphy (and even so…) They are the main reason why so many foreigners living in China remain de facto illiterate. It’s really about memorizing and memorizing and more memorizing, a skill, of course, which is still much en vogue in China’s current education system, despite professed admiration for game changers like the late Steve Jobs.
Sadly, a lot of Westerners will chose illiteracy, and bumble along with pinyin, the (admittedly very smart) transliteration system set in place by the communist government after 1949. Pin yin is useful, but it will never replace characters. That would be the equivalent of opening a McDonalds in the Forbidden City, or letting tourists into adjacent Zhongnanhai, today’s real power hub, where China’s leaders speak the complex, inscrutable language of power behind closed doors.
(originally posted in 2002/03)
The Chinese have debated human nature for several millennia, but the key arguments can be summarized by evoking the claims of two eminent and long dead philosophers: Mencius and Xunzi. Mencius was part of the Confucian school, and together with Confucius and Laozi – he of the balanced Dao – formed the philosophical star consultancy of pre-imperial China. Xunzi, while trained in Confucianism, wasn’t part of the club, and many think he doesn’t deserve membership. Xunzi is the acknowledged, if indirect father of Legalism, a Chinese philosophical strand which emphasizes the rule of law, preferably centralized and absolute.
So what were Mencius and Xunzi arguing about around 300 BC, and how does it relate to Westerners visiting contemporary China?
Here goes: Mencius built his school of thought on the premise that humans are inherently good, yet become corrupted by their environment. This was radically opposite to Xunzi, who argued that humans are by nature evil and lazy, but could be reformed through discipline and training. Xunzi’s students Han Feizi and Li Si turned up the pessimism a notch and produced Legalism. Training? they said. Forget training. Humans are self-serving and anti-social from cradle to death. How to contain this evil? Rules. Punishment. Control.
This is all very far fetched to make my point, but I’ll get there now. Here’s what I think:
When it comes to foreigners, most Chinese are legalists at heart, convinced that at bottom our nature is ill equipped to contribute to Chinese society. We are foreign devils, and best kept in check with a bunch of special rules, and social barriers in the form of thick, cultural buffers.Because when it comes to Westerners, the Chinese I suspect, tend to side with Xunzi. Foreigners, they think, harbor values incompatible with ours, and the more rules are established to contain contamination, the better. It is not that foreigners are believed to be evil in a religious or folkloric sense, at best they are simply considered amoral. The Chinese definition of evil is pragmatic, and historically defined as being motivated by selfish desires for personal gain, and the crux of Western civilization is just that: we are motivated by the pursuit of personal happiness (gain). And not only do we shamelessly embrace this pursuit, we try to export it as well. It comes down to a bloodless clash of values: the pursuit of the common good versus the pursuit of the personal good.*
This suspicion, or rather, conviction of incompatibility is deeply lodged. Case in point: I recently chatted with a young, modish-looking taxi driver, very friendly, very curious, but we quickly got into an argument. He declared that the Chinese could not be more than superficial acquaintances with foreigners. As evidence he cited the lack of a common childhood, which he declared was instrumental to cementing a lasting friendship. I pointed out to him that, perhaps, friendship could be based precisely on not having had the very same experiences since age three. He gasped and firmly shook his head, claiming that no understanding could possibly exist, if you hadn’t spent tender years together in close proximity, across the Beijing hutong say, or the Shanghai long. Essentially, he was saying, no foreigner could ever truly internalize or share Chinese values, unless he or she was born and raised in China, and for all practical purposes had become - Chinese.
Even in supposedly cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai, locals perceive foreigners as representatives of a group, rarely, if ever, as individuals. We are isolated, trapped by our (Western) physiognomy. In China there is nothing we can do to blend in with the masses, to try to sneak in the cultural backdoor, so to speak. And if the Shanghaiese pretend not to be watching us, we are by default conspicuous and under observation. It is, in the end, a form of control. Nothing we do ever goes unnoticed – no foreigner can enter a café without all local patrons noticing, shop at a supermarket without a gaggle of onlookers, bicycle without standing out in the two-wheeled crowd. We are a species apart, and apparently no amount of training can save us. Or can it?
I am happy to report that there is, perhaps, hope. It would seem that as Xunzi advocated, training, or in this case, exposure, may do the trick after all. As I was walking home the other day, a bicycle pulled up next to me, and a Chinese man in his late thirties, without batting an eye, asked me for the way to Huaihai Lu in Mandarin. My jaw dropped.
A Shanghaiese? Asking a Western girl? For directions? In Chinese? If you ask me, that’s a philosophical breakthrough.
*Ten years after the writing of this blog post, It appears that the Chinese have fervently adopted the pursuit of personal gain, to the extent that people are talking about a serious ethics crisis.
Swimming with sharks in Shanghai
(originally posted in 2002/03)
If you plan to live in China, you had better upgrade your survival skills. In its über-crowded megacities, getting from A to B requires complex, brave maneuvers. Take Shanghai, for example, and the logistics of beating a (safe) path through sixteen million residents. This is what you will likely encounter: jay-walking crowds, brazen driving, random hogging of sidewalk surface, supermarket anarchy, and, generally, reckless endangerment. People will elbow you out of elevators, jump on your lap in moving taxis, merrily slam doors in your face.
Some of this is explained by the fact that a considerable percentage of the sixteen million Shanghai dwellers are transplanted peasants carving out a better future. In other words, people who are living in a city for the first time in their lives. That’s a very different socio-economic makeup from what you find in the average, twenty-first century, Western European city.
The use of the term peasants is meant literally, not pejoratively. Westerners who visit China often forget (or don’t know) that post-industrialization urban living in China is a relatively new phenomenon. Even as recently as 1993, Shanghai felt less like a city than a shabbily preserved urban museum: dusty, decayed and strangely lifeless. Now the city teems with crowded city and office life - but the behavioral etiquette that goes with it is sorely lacking, despite government efforts to jumpstart “urban civility”. As a result, navigating through Shanghai can veer into a kind of involuntary parkour.
All this is somewhat surprising in a culture that has frequently dwarfed the currently “developed world” in sophistication and innovation, and yes, in the cosmopolitan glamour of it’s urban centers - think Xian, 8th century. But China, the country, is an urban late starter. Its city-dwelling population has only now (2011) passed the fifty percent mark, and already the massive influx of rural labor is exacerbating social and economic resources. Until very recently, only a small elite could afford city life and engage in distinctly urban pursuits. And that educated, urbane and very small elite was effectively eliminated by the Communists in 1949, and then again during the Hundred Flowers Movement in 1957, and again during the Cultural Revolution of the sixties. True, it was replaced by another privileged stratum, one that soon established similar trappings of wealth and power. But the new guard was of more humble (read less urbane) extraction, and no amount of living and studying in France could change that.
The new guard logged some stunning successes: it managed to kick out General Chiang Kai Shek, General Stilwell, the Japanese, and an assortment of other foreign devils who encroached on Chinese sovereignty in the early 20th century. But it didn’t exactly play conduit for the country’s cultural and artistic sophistication. After all, getting rid of elitism was the point of the proletarian (or more accurately, agrarian) revolution they had unleashed. As a result, little of the cultural patrimony in manners survived, or rather, it survived only in a negligible percent of the population.
That’s one way to look at the strange lack of “etiquette” in China’s urban transit warfare.
But other factors are at play. Today China’s lack of “etiquette” is exacerbated by the cutthroat mentality that has emerged post-Deng Xiaoping, the man who famously said:
“It doesn’t matter whether it is a yellow cat or a black cat, a cat that catches mice is a good cat.”
Well, everyone in China is catching mice these days. In practice, this means that getting from A to B is not a logistical problem, or not exclusively - it’s an existential problem. It’s not just about going to the office. More pointedly, it is about fighting for your position in life, getting ahead of others who are waiting to snatch your place, and, yes, ensuring a better future for yourself and your offspring.
In this environment, who has time for niceties? Newly disembarked Westerners simply need to understand that no one is trying to be intentionally rude, or cut their lives short, on the contrary. Most Chinese are too busy chasing success to worry about offending foreigners.
Of course, there are rules in apparent chaos as well, and Shanghai echoes what Hobbes, I believe, termed “the state of nature”: everyone for him/herself, and while you’re at it, try to be faster, pushier and more inconsiderate than everyone else. For those of shy away from such tactics, there is always the option of waiting another decade before visiting China. Or head to Japan instead.
Der Untergang of the West
Unearthed this post from six years ago, written in the aftermath of the Katrina debacle. It foreshadows the now rapidly snowballing decline of the US:
Katrina looks like the beginning of the end. It’s the event that marks the official start of the decline of the US - and maybe the West as a whole, except for scandinavia of course. Nothing can touch the conscientious, rat-race averse nordics.