Is China a Cultural Superpower?

Warming up for the NY Phil in Central Park -- Yu Long with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, NYC, July 14 2010; courtesy New York Times

Tonight I experienced one of the possible billion encounters which could be called a true “Taipei moment”: walking down the street, weaving through fortune tellers and shoe sellers, and dim sum corner kings, I heard a strain of Beethoven.  It was the “Für Elise,” stringing electronically along like a children’s toy from (what else?) a huge yellow garbage truck doing its 10 p.m. rounds.  As I stood there watching a happy group of merchants help load up the trash before they donned pink helmets and sped away on their scooters, I thought a bit about the meaning of Beethoven in Taiwan.

In a country where Beethoven was never mothballed by Jiang Qing, where Lin Biao never tried to kill the head of state, where the parts for the Seventh Symphony did not need the pressure of Soviet tanks resulting in Henry Kissinger’s appearance which in turn led Zhou Enlai to release the parts to the Shanghai Symphony, this kind of encounter is commonplace.

A few minutes later, I was awash in an immaculately-recorded Mozart symphony, merely by virtue of seeking out some baked goods, rifling through a program of cultural events for the month of July in Taipei that almost — almost — made me think that this city is about as vibrant in terms of classical music as Berlin.  (Unfortunately for Asia, in the free agent battle that really matters, Daniel Barenboim has chosen to remain in der Hauptstadt.)  As I parsed through the program’s biographies of the various guest artists, enjoying the fact that all the Korean violinists coming to play recitals provide their names in glorious hanja, making them difficult to separate from the Chinese and Taiwanese artists, I had a thought:

Is it possible that little Taiwan and doubly large, yet still relatively small, South Korea are cultural superpowers?

The South Korean government started a Hallyu (Korea-Wave) Research Institute in 2002 and is wondering if that wasn’t a bit arrogant and premature, but why not?  And why not recognize (as I am only barely beginning to) that state investment in, and individual achievement in, classical music is a significant element in the measuring of cultural power.  If you’re exporting classical music, in colloquial terms, you’re kicking ass.  It indicates economic strength, high levels of education, and cultivated (perhaps even multilingual and well-traveled) citizens: a culture, in short, of achievement.

As I tore a taro bun into little purple bits as Mozart perforated my ears and I realized how many Beethoven sonatas were going to resound in Taipei this month, before the lady who owned the shop reminded me that I should watch out for bandits in Beijing, I wondered again to myself: is China a cultural superpower?  Is it even a classical music superpower?

The New York Times says probably not, but they’re working on it.  Kurt Sassmannshaus, artistic director of the Great Wall Music Festival in Beijing, says “maybe.”  And me?  Who am I?  What the hell, say I, let’s listen to some Tchaikovsky!

But before we do that, note just a couple of more things: China is sprouting symphony orchestras, and performing halls, in prodigious abundance.  (Yes, not just prodigiously or abundantly, but in prodigious and adjective-heavy abundance.)  The arms race may not be completely over (Taiwan media have embedded reporters at the RIMPAC drills near Hawaii, even as Huanqiu Shibao hyperventilates from Beijing), but if only Orange Country Republicans got so excited about the ass-whuppin’ the United States is receiving in terms of cultural investment, we might actually be able to keep concert halls open in the United States and not get so exercised when a single company loses $5.6 million US dollars on a single immense iteration of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.  (That’s L.A., folks, not the fantastic and economically saavy Ring cycle in my hometown Seattle.)

So, to Guiyang:

I learned about the existence of the Guiyang Symphony via its principal cellist, Charles Brooks, who I ran into on YouTube when trying to figure out how to fix my own bow hand in the last movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto.  (Yes!  Schumann 200th birth anniversary!  Go, feel the love in Düsseldorf and enjoy the Ruhr valley in this mighty year of 2010!  Recognize the magnetic beauty of Clara Wieck!  Get into those Haushaltbücher!  Remember how beautiful everything was before Kafka wrote “Der Strafkolonie” and the war destroyed everyone’s hearts, such that Alban Berg had to knock out Wozzeck!  Think deeply on the key of A minor, and the reason why widows would burn unpublished works!  Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann!)

Well, please excuse that rude interruption.   Bound to happen every so often.   Blame it on the taro and the fact that I have become completely besotted with cheap pomegranate juice and readily available Mozart g-minor symphonies.

Anyway, this Guiyang symphony orchestra is based in Guizhou province (what would Li Zongren say?  really, what would he say?) and was founded only in 2009.  The players are young, and the string players are all playing on really substandard axes, which is why, in spite of their decent techniques, the cello section does not sound like the luscious Cleveland Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic.  You can buy an orchestra, but until the individual players can afford instruments that run about $50,000 USD a piece, you’re not going to approach even rebuilding orchestras like the San Antonio Symphony.

But, in any case, a new orchestra and a new hall is nothing to sniff at.  And if they sound this good in 2009, how will they sound in 2109?  Anyone who thinks Chinese classical musicians in China represent just the thin edge of new money and a shallow culture of Westernization in a country engaging in acts of brazen human rights violations and charging West under a banner of ethnonationalism and environmental catastrophe only needs to read the first ninety pages (of the last 1200 pages of volume 4, of the total 5000 pages) of the Gustav Mahler biography written by Henry-Louis le Grange to realize that 100 years ago, American orchestras were doing about the same.  (And, like China, were about 40-50 years out from their own civil war!)  Using passages from Wharton’s The Age of Innocence as well as copious music reviews from the time and reading that is wider than any spelunking I can ever claim to have done, le Grange describes the classical music scene in New York City exactly 100 years ago as a vivid and wild melangé of new money, new institutions, social climbers, touring orchestras, big budgets built on big egos, and fresh ideas brazenly imported from abroad and appropriated for the native transplanting.    Which reminds me in some important ways of China today, but with Jiang Zemin as the primary patron rather than Andrew Carnegie.  (Fortunately for all of us, Jiang Zemin can recite the Gettysburg Address, in English, from memory, which should help you to get rid of those lingering ideas that deep down, he is a creepy guy who is probably frozen in a compound under Mao’s sarcophagus when he isn’t at flute recitals, People’s Congresses, and international sporting events in Beijing.)

Sorry for all that extraneous information, dear and intelligent readers.  Now, I will silence my keyboard.   Let’s just listen to Tchaikovsky, the man who edged out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall in the late 1880s, much like American movers and shakers today wander out into the klieg lights of Beijing, or Guiyang, and wonder what the hell it all means.  But in the end it’s just about 12 cellos, and a young guy trying to pull some sound out:

Stories to Follow

I recommend you watch how these stories develop, since most of them have yet to be really reported in the Anglophone press:

1. Legacies of Japanese imperialism in Manchuria

Memorial to Japanese Bacteriological Weapons research atrocities in Anda/安达; courtesy Huanqiu Shibao

Chinese government organizations and affiliated NGOs are engaged in a struggle to get the old Unit 731 facility (the commemorative site for Japanese biological weapons research and atrocities outside of northeastern city of Harbin) listed as a World Heritage Site.   This story seems to be making waves on the Chinese internet, but few Western journalists have been covering it (perhaps none recently).

2. A regime-sponsored uptick in Kim Il Song nostalgia in North Korea

I would have reported this in Seoul, but the source — KCNA, the official North Korean news agency — is illegal to read in South Korea.  In any case, the Workers’ Party pulled out all the stops for the 16th death anniversary of Kim Il Song, reminding everyone not just of his works but his promises to deliver material prosperity for his people.  It would seem that the government is setting rather high expectations for itself in the presumptive leadup to the crowning of an official successor in 2012, if Kim Jong Il makes it that long.  (For links, check out my Twitter feed for today.)

3. Sino-North Korean cooperation in Yunnan?

Reporting (originating from Daily NK) that North Korean agents are active in the Chinese province of Yunnan, with tacit Chinese assistance, to hunt down would-be refugees who have made it that far from the northeast.  [The same story is here in Chinese, here in the original Korean, with a hat tip to Chris Green, the man in Seoul who makes the English versions possible in the first place.]  One indication if this story is true or not might come in the form of Chinese media refutations, which I have yet to see.  This is a significant question, as at least some American rollback/regime change bloggers in the US tend to assume that Chinese security organizations and North Korean counterparts are like peas in a pod.  Which may be the case, or, as I think is more likely, China is temporarily allowing North Korea to do this as a back-door means of giving them something privately while bashing them over the head publicly, as per the next item.

4. Revising the record on Korean War origins

The June issue of History Reference in Beijing contained at least two long articles which contained the promise of a continually transforming Chinese narrative of the origins of the Korean War. The key sentence in what appears to be the lead article is “北朝鲜的数千门炮火轰鸣, 朝鲜战争爆发 // thousands of North Korean cannons roared, and the Korean War broke out”, but it goes on to describe Stalin’s desire to occupy Japan, the U.S. letdown of South Korean security/hardware needs in 1949, and Mao’s discussions with Kim Il in 1950.  The appearance of the dissenting general Lin Biao in the Korean War debate adds an additional note of intrigue. (Lin has been slowly crawling back into a host of new publications in Beijing, indicating “the center” deems it possible to reevaluate him at least in part.)

5. Back to the Future: North Korean misbehavior on the high seas

These 1174 pages of newly declassified testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations committee in 1968 are wicked interesting: Dean rusk shows up to talk about US options toward North Korea in the wake of the Pueblo disaster in 1968, and without a doubt the documents are being scoured as we speak by clever North Korean translators looking for more propaganda grist, which of course they’ll probably find.

6. Deteriorating army-civilian relations in North Korea

This is an important trope to keep an eye on.  Why else would KCNA engage in otherwise ridiculous attempts to ameliorate bad perceptions, well, like this:

Story of Kim Il Sung

Pyongyang, July 12 (KCNA) — One day in October Juche 39 (1950) [ed.: while he was just taking some spare time off from weaving through burned-out cities, moving from bunker to bunker, and being targeted with napalm raids and super-bombs named "Tarzan,"], President Kim Il Sung had his car stopped near a cabbage field on his way to Changsong County, North Phyongan Province, seeing soldiers engaged in cabbage harvest. He summoned their officer and asked why they were harvesting cabbages cultivated by peasants.

The officer explained the following reason to him:

The officer went to the ri people’s committee to buy some vegetables but the committee officials refused to take money and offered all of a cabbage field to the soldiers free of charge, saying they had nothing to spare for them fighting a war. The officer persisted in paying for the cabbages but to no effect.

Listening to the reason, the President told the officer to correctly count the cabbages and fairly pay to the owner.In the evening, the officer visited the owner of the cabbage field and paid more than the price of the cabbages.

If you’re using the horrible year of Juche 39 [1950, the coming of the holocaust from the sky] to drive home the groundwork for regime legitimacy, I think you’re in a bit of trouble.  But they’re just doing what they can at KCNA; certainly some poor bureaucrat has received a directive to put out more items about how to resolve contradictions between peasants and hungry soldiers.  It reminds me most of Guomindang/Chinese Nationalist Party propaganda from 1948-49…

7. Yours truly

The week I spent in Seoul and Kwangju left me staggering under the joyful burden of new data/experiences/perceptions and am consequently working up, among other things, a short essay for this blog on the legacies of the Kwangju Uprising of 1980 and their meaning in China.  However, I recently arrived in Taipei and will be working here for the next week on a project on Sino-Japanese relations and the rhetorical function of anti-Japanese sentiment during the Chinese Civil War and the early Korean War in China.

Further, I managed to at least update my biography/the “about” page of this blog with some photos and new publication information and anticipate having some news in the near future involving some exciting changes going on behind the scenes here at Sinologistical Violoncellist and, if I may coin a phrase, other Cathcartian areas of the internet.