Appreciation of Chinese Traditional Music from a Western Perspective
In these days of increasing communication between our two perspectives, and the enormous social implications of these exchanges, music has become the most important ambassador between our cultures. Music holds the keys to the most effective cultural exchange and mutual understanding, since it truly is the universal language. It can help us to overcome our bias and dislike for one another, and replace them with feelings of beauty and appreciation readily available through the experience of listening. Understanding music’s functions within both cultures, its background philosophy, its theory, and its meaning as a representative outside of its native culture, has become an essential area of cross-cultural study for musicians and language learners on both sides of the Pacific.
The New Faith of the Chinese Elite
In the past, the peasants looked to the fate of the fortune-inscribed stick to communicate the will of Buddha; now, the Chinese businessman looks to another inscribed stick to divine the sacred will of the Party. It is the classic scene from the Joy Luck Club; white tiles, clicking and clacking together, as the women gossip about their families, cementing the bonds of a lifetime friendship that would tie the fates of generations together. This ritual has replaced the similar ritual that used to obsess the more religious generations of China – the fortune telling joss sticks and the mysterious predictions of the Book of Changes. No one believes in these superstitions anymore, but they certainly believe in the use and necessity of playing Mahjong with the leaders!
What do the Chinese people want out of life? Many have tried to determine this, but no pattern has immediately appeared from the mass of contemporary literature or from the key phrases in the public forum that sufficiently defines the Chinese desire for a lifestyle direction in Chinese terms, apart from those without context, like “Modern” and “Contemporary”, which are derived more from China looking at other nations than looking at itself. The concept itself seems so abstract that many on the outside have been daunted by the possibility of finding it, but the tendency towards high abstraction is a characteristic of the Chinese people as a whole, and something to be admired rather than scorned. Like the figures in a painting, which suggest nature but retain their unnatural proportions, or like the meaning of a Chinese character, which is only a suggestion of a previous hieroglyph, so the abstractions of the Chinese dream cannot take form by compiling lists of contemporary manifestations. It is a compound idea that can only be grasped by those who can hold the qualities of Chinese philosophy on one hand, and balance the realities of an economically charged and internationalized China on the other. It is far subtler and more rewarding for those who find the silken strands of the Chinese cultural pact between man and nature pulled through two thousand years of literature, and tangled in the free-form bonsai trees of great philosophers’ thoughts, like strings that lead to the tales of shattered kites. When these strands are followed to the end, they lead to their source in an otherworldly paradise in an immortal’s peach garden.
On a delightful fall day a few years ago, while with my family on a Sunday jaunt in the rural Songjiang area of Shanghai, we pulled over to look at a roadside stall selling beautiful flowers in narrow pots, hanging from a rack. I was intrigued by the elaborate rig for these simple-looking, grassy plants, and was even more captivated by the smell of their little green flowers. I was hooked. I bought two pots and brought them home, and it was the start of my two-year, love-hate relationship with Chinese orchids.
Doing some preliminary research, I found that the cymbidium (our Latin name for the Chinese orchid) was one of the “Four Sacred Flowers” of Chinese tradition. One of the original features of the “Crystal Palace” of the first World Expo in 1851, it was notoriously hard to grow in hothouses in Victorian England, but its flowers are regarded as one of the most rewarding of the orchid species. Its delightful fragrance fills a room for weeks at a time.
And then, by chance, I stumbled upon an even more interesting fact. After seeing the orchids in my office, a painter friend immediately commented that I was “becoming a Chinese scholar”. “There is no flower that represents the scholar and his life better than the orchid”, he said with a wistful smile on his ancient face. “Why?” I asked innocently. “For that, you must look to Confucius!” he replied, in a mysterious way, and then changed the subject. This peaked my interest, and I started looking into it more. Read the rest of this entry »
In the northern Chinese province of Jilin, it is not uncommon to come across signs for local chapters of the “Resist Japan Club”. More than sixty years have passed since the Imperial Army was driven out of China, but for the people of the old puppet state of Manchukuo, the duty to fight against Japanese aggression continues.
Even at a national level, television programs frequently remind the Chinese populace of the “unforgivable,” rallying public sentiment against anything and everything that Japan might “do to China.” As recently as at last week’s national CPPCC congress, a university president warned, “Chinese youth need to be more fit, in case of a war with Japan.”
An interesting contradiction, however, is the prominent place of honor that a Japanese citizen receives in local shops and markets. No, we are not talking about the Japanese travelers who are courted for their tourism dollars – in fact, there are still areas of northern China where it is dangerous to be identified as Japanese. Rather, I’m referring to the waving golden puss that sits on the shelves and counters of so many Chinese stores. Read the rest of this entry »
© 2013 Guanxi Master