Good, Old-Fashioned Nostalgia

When I’m feeling blue, there’s nothing as bittersweet as remembering (and recreating) my rosy, perfect childhood. In my memories, life is never so sweet and perfect as it was then. A similar dose of nostalgia seems to permeate throughout Chinese culture. Although the future is embraced, the past is lived in many ways. A past that is idealized and glorified. Beyond a simple Confucian ancestral reverence, there is a living appreciation and regeneration of China’s long history.

Since the Cultural Revolution’s end, values on history have shifted. There is a return to traditional beliefs and morality, albeit often with a twist or relabeling. Chinese historical-esque knickknacks are commodified and sold to tourists. Traditional Chinese philosophies are back on the rise. One prime example of a shift in perception is Kongzi. The Chinese Communist Party now hails Confucian principles as eternally valuable, even though Confucius was previously condemned as an obstacle to the Marxist ideas of equity. History is cool again. The concept of ancient China is still very much present in modern Chinese culture.

The generalization of China’s long history is problematic, though. As Jeff Wasserstrom describes in his book China in the 21st Century: What You Need to Know, the presentation of a continuous 5000-year Chinese civilization is a myth. Chinese culture has frequently changed and adapted throughout history, but performances and attractions simply play on a basic nostalgia for old China.

The distinct dress of these opera characters is a tribute to the past. Even the  Tongli boats serve to romanticize an older, simpler time.

Parks imbue the environment with the same sense of longing for the past. Visitors are drawn to remember the days before urbanization when China’s air was cleaner and unpolluted water was plentiful. There’s a strong feeling of finiteness. The rose-colored past is gone. The environment is fleeting, but the park is a preservation of the precious past. During Golden Week at Park, preservation of nature mixes with preservation of Chinese culture.

Of course, preservation and nostalgia is performed throughout the U.S., too. I live an hour from Williamsburg, so I’m no stranger to the historical myths we generate and believe. Still, there’s something unique about Chinese preservation. China is very much on the fence between the past and the present. China is both futuristic and nostalgic, often even at the same time, and it’ll be interesting to see which wins out as the country grows.

 

A Soiled Tradition

Early Thursday morning, the group got ready to head out for a two-day trip to Suzhou and Tongli, an ancient water village.  We soon realized we were not the only people in China who had the idea to travel to these famous towns during the long, country-wide holiday called Golden Week.  The crowds were overflowing and we could see and hear people in every corner of the gardens, bridges, and restaurants.  There were children, teenagers, adults, and elderly people exploring the towns and taking lots of pictures.  In the midst of these large crowds, especially in Tongli, there were a few clues that gave away who was and was not a local.  One woman in particular drew my attention because she was washing a towel and wiping it on her face.  I saw her exit a small home in the village that was right near the water before coming toward me.

The quotidian act of immersing a small face towel into a river would not have been something to catch my eye on any regular day, but in crowded and tourist-filled Tongli, it did.  I cringed as I watched this woman drop her towel into the river and repeatedly wipe her face with it as I thought about all the bacteria in the water.  I thought about the number of people who had traveled through the river on the boat tours, the number of people who had spit in the water, and the number of sewage systems that directly or indirectly lead into that same body of water.  I looked down at the murky, green water and thought about how it could make her physically ill.  This event was a microcosm of a wider critique by Elizabeth C. Economy in her book The River Runs Black.

In this book, Economy discusses the impact of densely populated China bearing an insufficient amount of resources and, as she describes it, a tradition of using nature to fulfill human needs.  Historically, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all influenced the way people see nature and their relationship to it.  Taoist school of thought in particular teaches that humans are one with nature and that they have a responsibility to create material things out of nature for sustainment.  The high levels of population growth, the pollution that comes as a consequence of that growth, and the policies in place to make China more “productive” make it unsafe for everyday people to use natural resources in their backyard.

Wedding in Shanghai

On the third day of Golden Week, I attended a wedding in Shanghai with my friend Katie Wells. The parents of the kid I tutor, Harry Cao, asked me on the first Sunday of Golden Week if I had time and could attend a cousin’s wedding on Tuesday. I checked my schedule and told them I could while also asking if I could bring a friend so that I would not be alone at the wedding.

We both had no idea what to expect at this wedding. I was wondering if it would be a traditional Chinese wedding with a bunch of rituals or a Western style wedding where a pastor or priest would have them take their vows and a reception would be held after. Let me say that the wedding is like none that I have been to.

The wedding took place in a high rise building that held reception rooms. The family took Katie and I up an elevator and as we entered the 3rd floor we saw the wedding couple. They were taking pictures with the guests that were entering. So, I assumed the wedding had ended and this was the reception. As we walked forward, Katie and I were roped into taking pictures with the wedding couple before proceeding to the room where everyone was seated. We were seated with the grandparents and extended family members of the boy I tutor. They offered us drinks ranging from soft drinks to alcohol. We talked a little with them and waited, not knowing what was supposed to happen next.

All of a sudden a camera crew materialized with a lighting crew and the room was darkened. The spotlights were trained on the groom who appeared at the front and he started singing as the bride walked down the aisle with her father. She was wearing a white dress and the groom met her halfway as he sang. He stopped before and kneeled on one knee as he finished his song and then walked her to the front where the stage was. Then the Master of Ceremonies (MC) took over the rest of the proceedings. There was only one bridesmaid who brought the rings for both the bride and groom. They put the rings on each other’s finger, although the groom made everyone laugh when he put the ring on the bride’s wrong finger. Then they kissed and proceeded to pour wine into a wine glass pyramid.  They drank a glass of wine with their arms crossed and everyone cheered to them and their new life.After everyone cheered, they walked down the aisle as newlyweds. 

The room then brightened again and everyone in the room started to eat. The dinner was Chinese banquet style, which consists of a revolving center piece that has food and everyone shares the food. The family we sat with was very hospitable and offered Katie and I every dish to us first before taking some. After a couple of minutes, the room darkened again as the bride walked with the groom in a new dress, this time cream colored. They went to a second table on the stage and proceeded to light candles with a fencing foil that had a candle on the tip. After lighting all the candles they then held the foil together and prayed to what I assume was their ancestors. Then the in-laws came on stage and gave a speech on how they had come a long way and wished them a happy life. The family walked down the aisle, the room brightened again and everyone went back to eating.

There were so many dishes being served at the table. There were at least five different types of meat dishes, like chicken, duck, beef, crabs, and pork. There were also many different vegetable dishes and big bowls of soup that everyone shared from. During the dinner, the family asked Katie many questions about America and complimented her on her Mandarin. The boy, Harry, actually said he thought that Katie’s Mandarin was better than mine. Everyone had two wine glasses, a large one and a smaller one. Harry’s grandfather poured Katie and I a cup of baijiu, which is Chinese white liquor, although it is distilled. The baijiu had a nice smell but burned like hell when drinking it. I was forced to cheer with baijiu every time the grandfather cheered Katie and I because I was a male. In both of our smaller glasses we had Tsingtao beer to help us with the baijiu.

Midway through dinner, the MC started two different games. One was drinking game where a person would bid how many cups of soda they could drink. If they were able to accomplish it, they won 1000 yuan. Our family bid 18 cups of Sprite and won 1000 yuan. They bid 60 cups of Coke later but could not pull it off and a different side of the family chugged the whole bottle and won. The second game was for the children to name the song that the DJ would play and if they guessed it right, they won a towel. The parents of the children would tell them the answer and the kids would race each other to tell the MC. Our family was very competitive and won at least 10 towels. The atmosphere was filled with laughter and fun. The bride and groom were going around to each table during the games and were toasting all the guests. The bride would also offer a cigarette, usually to males, and light it for them as part of tradition.

The bride and groom then disappeared again after toasting everyone. Harry’s mother explained to Katie and I that in some Chinese weddings, the wedding feast took 3 days! Thankfully for us, the wedding we were at was only one. She also explained that in Chinese tradition, the bride would have either 3 or 4 dresses to change into. As she said this, the bride and groom came out again and this time the bride was in a red dress. They went up on stage and cut the cake which was the sign that the wedding was coming to an end. After cutting the cake, the MC told all the single people to come up on stage. The bride was getting ready to throw the bouquet. The family and I forced Katie to go up on stage where three other girls and children were all lining up. The bride looked backwards and then threw the bouquet. A little boy caught it, but gave it back to the bride because he did not want to get married yet. The bride then threw the bouquet again and the girl on Katie’s right caught it. As everyone proceeded to leave the stage, the boyfriend of the girl who caught the bouquet got on stage, kneeled on one knee and asked her to marry him! Apparently there is an unsaid tradition in Chinese culture that the boyfriend of the girl who catches the bouquet will go and propose to her after she catches the bouquet, and she says yes. When I heard this from Harry’s mother I was glad that Katie did not catch the bouquet. I apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Wells. Not that I would not propose to her if she caught it, but I would not know how to explain to Fuji and Mr. and Mrs. Wells how I ended up accidentally engaged to their daughter 1 month into the trip.

But it did not happen and the bullet was dodged. Slices of cake were passed around to each table and everyone started to wind down. To say the least, the wedding turned out to be very interesting. China has started to adapt to Western culture immensely. The clothes the bride and groom wore were all Western style and the cake was also Western style. However, Chinese culture is still strong as the food, the tradition of greeting all the guests and wearing of three different dresses still happened. China is opening up to the rest of the world while still keeping its own culture. It is starting to fuse itself with Western ideals and it will be interesting to see how it will look in a couple of decades. Will it start to look more like America and Western Europe in the name of modernization or will it become a more fused Chinese/Western culture?  I believe that the Chinese identity will not disappear because what I am seeing is Shanghai, China. Shanghai does not represent the rest of China, but the place where most of the modernization is taking place. I know that the rest of China is still waiting for modernization like Shanghai but are not receiving it because they are further inland. The people of China will make the decision when they reach that fork, but until then, China’s culture is still stronger than the Western influences that are constantly moving in.

Illuminated Cultures

With the Golden Week right around the corner, a group of students and I went to see the annual Shanghai International Lantern Festival (上海国际灯会) at Lu Xun Park. We arrived in the late afternoon and explored the front portion of the park. Named after a famous 20th century writer, Lu Xun Park provides a large, calming space for people of all generations to enjoy. The trees, curved paths and ponds offer a sanctuary away from the loud, bustling city of Shanghai. While walking around the park, I observed children playing with their friends, locals practicing t’ai qi and groups of retired residents playing cards.

After an hour or so of walking, our group left the park to eat dinner and wait for the sun to set. We knew the Lantern Festival’s lights turned on at 6:30pm sharp, so we hurried back around that time. We used our Fudan University student cards to enter at a discounted rate of 35 Yuan, and the fee was well worth the sight!

Lu Xun Park transformed entirely. The daytime’s natural, calming atmosphere disappeared and the park became a colorful, exciting spectacle. Hundreds of red lanterns lined the paths filled with groups of friends and families. At the entrance, the Oriental Giant Dragon, a 200.2-meter long handmade dragon sculpture, was glowing, moving and breathing smoke. Near the center of the park, vendors, entertainers and food booths provided another layer of entertainment. Mal and Charlotte courageously ordered some stinky tofu (臭豆腐). The bland taste did not live up to the dreadful smell, but it was still exciting to try a bite.

My favorite part of the Lantern Festival was the large light displays positioned alongside the paths. These displays highlighted important symbols and representations of Chinese culture. Additionally, displays of icons from cultures outside of China existed further into the park. My favorite light displays included The Journey to the West, Korean drums, Disney princesses, the London Olympics and the Indian elephants. Although the Shanghai International Lantern Festival is linked to the Mid-Autumn Festival, a Chinese holiday, it includes displays representing non-Chinese societies and histories. For instance, the Great Wall display was placed next to the Egyptian pyramids display. The juxtaposition of eastern and western images throughout the park parallels other signs globalization throughout Shanghai and China. With modernization the barriers among cultures dissolve and the exchange among cultures increase.

Even after more than two hours of sightseeing, there was still more to see and do. The Lantern Festival is only on display during the weeks leading to the Mid-Autumn Festival and Golden Week. Since lights will be taken down in the near future, the festival is something to be treasured. I look forward to seeing what other special events Shanghai has in stored for China’s weeklong celebration.

Talking About You: Traitor

American Born Chinese, also known as ABC’s, are always looked upon as not fellow countrymen but as a different breed of Asians. This story begins at the Lantern Festival in Lanshun Park, where many Chinese children were with their parents or grandparents. There were also Asian and foreign couples at the park. I went with a group of Davidson students and took pictures of the different exhibitions. When I looked around me, the only person next to me was Katie Wells. We became separated from the main group and had lost them. Katie and I decided to continue forward and take more pictures of the park. Katie focused on the small children in the park, while I focused on the lit attractions that were scattered all over the park.

As we walked together, I started to hear different Chinese people saying “Mei-guo Ren”, or Americans. I did not notice it at first since the Lantern Festival was so beautiful. But as we walked further into the park, I listened intently to the conversations of the Chinese people who were talking. They were talking about Katie and I and how crazy or treacherous I was for walking with a foreigner instead of with an Asian. Only two couples had talked, but as Katie and I decided to go home, another couple started clucking their tongues as soon as I walked past them. I did expect this to happen to me. Of course I would seem like a traitor for speaking English instead of Mandarin or some form of Chinese while in China. But only now have I understood that instead of an occasional person giving me an evil glare or talking badly about me, it was more than I had anticipated.

It seems there are still pockets of xenophobia among the Chinese population. China has been suspicious of foreigners since the humiliating defeat of the Opium Wars and the imperialism of different Western countries. These events definitely left a black mark on China’s history. The Chinese government has always made a push for nationalism through propaganda and subliminal messaging. I thought that a century would change the older and current generation’s minds into forgiving foreigners and the people who are associated with them. However, I am wrong and have personally seen and been the target of old and young couples disapproving of me hanging out with foreigners. Chinese nationalism is definitely stronger than ever and is a force that has caused xenophobia while causing most of China to always be wary of foreigners.  I hope that one day the people of China would all be accepting of not only foreigners but also their countrymen who live in other countries and become a welcoming country like Canada.

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