Shanghai Impressions, or, What Cellistic Ennui Tells Us about Cultural Dynamics in the Sino-North Korean Relationship

A few days in Shanghai rarely fails to reorient one immediately from wherever illusory place one has been prior.  In Shanghai, China’s upward thrust is paired with its revolutionary guts, its past foreign dominance juxtaposed at every turn with the new impositions of 1949.  Art of various kinds slides past taxi windows, and the low and sulfurous scent of commerce being transacted hand over fist leaves a low undertone to practically every act undertaken after noon.

Every visit to Shanghai is worth the price, but it remains possible to waste the experience, frittering away one’s time in sullen Western cafes from Seattle and reeking of a desperate quest for WiFi, or in being too rapidly sated by a stroll along the Bund as the sole recognition of the shadows of the 19th century, when in fact a Li Hongzhang-Alfred Thayer Mahan redux is perpetually in motion in the newspapers that so rapidly populate one’s backpack.

What is a wasted visit to Shanghai? Surely, it would be a visit absent a stroll along the long spine of Huaihai Road. There looms the Shanghai Municipal Library, that object of lust for many a researcher with a hunger for the dead, for old magazines, for epochs reorganized and reclaimed, for the first Chinese Republic.  Just beyond the great translucent book drop of the library, which neatly displays and precatalogues what patrons have been dropping into its great and vigilant plastic innards, the American Consulate squats in colonial splendor behind high cream walls.  Once, enchanted by a new digital device and the music positively throbbing from a scratchy erhu by an old man under those walls, I there kicked a can of RMB coins in every direction. It was a worthy metaphor for Shanghai: desire – for experience, for documents, for modernity, for funds — radiating in every direction, abundant technology colliding in mistaken entwining with a dental casualty of some unnamed province, fingertips hardened by rural farming in the one case and by urban typing in the other,  scattering metallic largesse to the sound of a Communist war song in the shadow of muted American power.

And just beyond, beyond a bend on Huaihai Road, rises a large round pillar, the largest bulwark of Western music on the mainland between Tokyo and Calcutta, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.  To come to Shanghai and miss the opportunity to visit such a site would truly be counted as wasted.

Thumbing through the shelves at the Conservatory bookstore is always rather instructive: ethnomusicological research at the institution is abundant, and the publications in this realm are rapid and interesting. Titles like “PHONE”… proliferate.  Western-educated scholars have returned to Shanghai in droves, and their work fuels this city’s prodigious growth not simply in GDP but in lists of published work, or things in the category of what some idealistic people with no regard for the convincing heft of aircraft carrier ordinance might call “cultural capital.”

Then I ran across an intriguing new collection of cello scores “in the style of [Chinese] ethnic minorities” which I proceeded to purchase.  Upon negotiating my way through a few large crowds of Japanese moms retreating out of the campus with their children, each person radiant with the kind of upward gestalt that only in-tune group singing can provide, I went to the airport, flew to Chengdu, and there reunited with one of my cellos in order to test which of the “ethnic talents” who was writing for cello was most worthy of my attention.

Shanghai was thus dispatched.

Immediately upon opening the score in Chengdu, I was struck most by the piece “Autumn Song [秋之歌]” by Kim Jongpyong, or Jin Zhengping [金正平].  Judging from the textual introduction to the collection (focusing on “high talents from among our country’s ethnic minorities”), as well as the svelte harmonic style and harmonically supple idiom, I assumed the composer to be a successfully struggling ethnic Korean music graduate from, say, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing sometime in the mid-1980s.  If the reader be a bit uncertain, such a provenance should be regarded as a complement: the young talents like Gao Ping who emerged out of the conservatory milieu in that era are cutting new pathways into the musical realms all over the world, and justly so.

I was quite wrong about his age, and his relationship to China’s cultural bureaucracy.  Jin’s full biography is available on the website of the Association for the Research of Chinese-Korean Music, to be explained shortly.

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