There and Back Again

It was not until I returned to Taiwan after spending a month and a half in Shanghai that I really discovered just how different the cultures on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are.

Or, to be more accurate, it was not until I found myself acting in accordance with Shanghai culture (and against Taiwanese culture) that I began to realize the gulf.

In broad daylight, on the fairly busy Linsen North Road in Zhongshan District, Taipei City, I found myself stepping out to cross the road during a lull in traffic, at a point roughly equidistant from the two nearest crosswalks. As I did so, I had 5 revelations in rapid succession:

  • This is really rather stupid;
  • This is quite lazy;
  • This is probably illegal;
  • This is what people do in Shanghai, and;
  • This is not what people do in Taipei.

A month and a half spent in Shanghai, with its unique traffic patterns for both pedestrians and drivers had desensitized me to the sensibilities about traffic I’d learned growing up in the United States (as in, it’s probably quite stupid, not to mention illegal, to jaywalk). When I began to cross a busy street in Taipei I realized that jaywalking is not generally considered acceptable behavior there, as it is not generally considered acceptable behavior in the United States.

I discovered many further differences between Taiwanese culture and Shanghai culture over the next few days. “Night culture” was perhaps the most starkly different. Shanghai, which is often considered a “global” city, quickly shuts down after about 8:00 PM. Bars and nightclubs remain open, and it’s possible to find vendors hawking fried rice or noodles as late as two in the morning, but these are not really pervasive parts of the culture. Outside of the small areas of the city with a high per capita presence of nightclubs, the streets are almost silent at night. A garbage collector might roam the streets, picking up trash, but he’s invariably alone; a late night public bus might cruise its route, but it’s invariably empty; Family Mart or Lianhua Supermarket might be open 24/7, but, invariably, no one walks in during the late-night hours. For the average Shanghainese, night is a time to remain at home.

Taipei stands in stark contrast, with night culture is omnipresent. Night markets, the pride of the Taiwanese tourist industry, remain crowded by locals and tourists alike until 11 PM; college students stumble out of KTVs well after midnight; old folks sit around outside chatting until all hours of the night. Even late at night, the city still feels alive – while New York may be called the City That Never Sleeps, Taipei actually feels like the City That Never Sleeps.

Food culture also differs significantly between Shanghai and Taipei. In Taipei, friends connect over food on a regular basis – food is the basis for a large portion of Taiwanese social interaction (for really great examples of this, see the movies Eat Drink Man Woman and Au Revoir, Taipei, in both of which food is a central plot element). Food is also the primary focus of most Taiwanese domestic tourism. Whenever they go somewhere new, the main thing Taiwanese people do is try the special local treat (the variety and sheer numbers of these local delicacies is truly astounding for an island the size of New Jersey). In Shanghai, however, food does not seem to carry the same cultural significance. Oftentimes it can be nigh impossible to find something to eat during non-peak hours!

My analysis of Taiwanese culture undoubtedly carries a heavy bias, as the year I spent living there was highly formative for me, and I will likely always have an abiding love of the island and its people. We’ll have to wait for my classmates’ reflections on their time in Taipei to get a solid comparison of Taiwanese and Mainland culture. However, I think it really is fair to say that significant differences exist between the two, regardless of relative strengths and weaknesses. While these differences are not an insurmountable barrier, they do have the potential to inhibit unification, and culture is something that leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait need to be cognizant of.

Satire Style, or Evan Osnos needs to watch some TV

In the wake of the astronomical global success of Korean pop singer PSY’s hit song “Gangnam Style” – which now has over 450 million views on YouTube alone – a debate has arisen over “how Korea did it” and whether or not China can “do it too.” In last week’s New Yorker, Evan Osnos argued that China lacks Gangnam Style:

In China, the Gangnam phenomenon carries a special pique. It has left people asking, Why couldn’t we come up with that? China, after all, dwarfs Korea in political clout, money, and market power, and it cranks out more singers and dancers in a single city than Korea does nationwide. Chinese political leaders are constantly talking about the need for “soft power”—they have dotted the globe with Confucius Institutes to rival the Alliance Française, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news. Last year, the Communist Party even declared culture a national priority and vowed to produce its own share of global cultural brands.

So, should we expect a Chinese Gangnam soon? Don’t count on it. “PSY is a satirist, making fun, and having fun,” said John Delury, an expert on China and Korea who teaches international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Korea tends to have more irony and satire in its comedy than China, and there aren’t the impediments to exporting things that question or poke fun of Korean society, politics, etc. And I think somehow people all over the world feel invited to join in, despite a huge cultural difference, when someone from a foreign place is making a bit of fun of themselves. That’s inviting. But China, especially acting in its official, soft-power capacity, is only comfortable exporting things that show off the greatness of its ancient civilization or economic development. That’s not terribly inviting.”

In other words, China could not currently produce Gangnam Style because its culture does not value satire and is so insecure with itself that it is only willing to produce cultural products displaying its own greatness.

Osnos points out that, at the same time as it mocks itself (see the lyrics in English here), Gangnam Style has all the characteristics of “earnest K-pop: highly engineered dance routines, over-the-top styling, and the Technicolor production values honed by Seoul’s hit-making industry.” What made Gangnam Style internationally successful, he claims, was not these factors, however, which are shared with the dozens of other K-pop groups that have failed to gain any traction outside of East Asia, but the fact that it’s clearly a self-critical joke.

This certainly is a large part of Gangnam Style’s success, but it clearly isn’t everything. As I’ll discuss in a moment, China has its own share of self-mocking cultural products, despite what Osnos seems to believe about the lack of a Chinese sense of irony and satire. What, then, are the reasons for Gangnam Style’s incredible success?

I believe there are several:

  • It’s amusing (ironic, self-mocking, or otherwise)
  • The dance is easily replicable
Yes, it’s a catchy tune; yes, the production is very flashy; yes, the chorus (“Oppan Gangnam Style”) is easy to remember and simple for non-Korean speakers to pronounce. These factors, however, are present in hundreds of other K-pop videos that were nowhere near as successful overseas (the nearest any video has gotten is probably SNSD’s Gee, which has only 88 million views, and I’m willing to bet an amount of money equal to the cost of Taeyeon’s plastic surgery that the vast majority of those views are intra-East Asian). I’d also argue that Gangnam Style’s success was also boosted by PSY’s supposed similarity to the American group LMFAO, the sex appeal of Hyuna (who appears in the video), and (some might also argue) PSY’s overall non-threatening nature, but these are not the point of this post.

Chinese culture is certainly not lacking in satire or unable to mock itself, however. Anyone claiming so hasn’t read their Lu Xun, at the very least. Official (government-produced or -funded) cultural products are certainly censored, and probably take themselves too seriously, as Osnos points out, but there is a whole world of cultural products created in China every day, over which the government exerts very little influence.The Chinese Internet is a large source of unofficial cultural products, but many are still produced for more traditional media such as television. A prime example of this is the popular television program 非诚勿扰 (If You Are the One, pronounced Feichengwurao).

Fei Cheng Wu Rao, which translates literally as “if not sincere, don’t bother,” is a dating show in which a male, normally between the age of 20 and 35, is brought on stage with 24 women of a similar age, each of which has a light that she can turn off at any point if she is not interested in the male. The show’s host, Meng Fei (who is commonly referred to as “Teacher Meng” by participants), facilitate’s the young man’s introduction of himself through a series of videos about his personality and interests, his work, his past romantic engagements, and his friends, occasionally interrupting with questions or allowing questions from the young women. Ultimately, if he lasts until the end of the introduction and questions and there are still women with their lights on, the young man gets to choose one to go on a date with, expenses paid by the television show.

If you think this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Check out part of an episode (with English subtitles) here. My observations of this show lead me to the conclusion that the people on the show are very materialistic and concerned with appearances. I’m not alone in drawing this conclusion; the majority of people I speak to about the show who have also seen it, both foreigners and Chinese, agree. And yet, the show remains as one of the most popular programs in the country and the highest rated program on its station. Why could this be?

Watch a few episodes and pay particular attention to Meng Fei, to the questions he asks and the comments he makes, and you’ll realize that Fei Cheng Wu Rao is really satire. I believe the contestants on the show are very sincere about being on the show, for the most part, but I don’t think the producers of the show are serious about hosting them. Ultimately, Fei Cheng Wu Rao is mocking the materialism and moral degradation that many Chinese feel has crept into their society in the last thirty years.

I believe Fei Cheng Wu Rao proves that it’s not fair to say that Chinese culture is unwilling to critique and mock itself. Why is it not as popular as Gangnam Style, then? There are dozens of reasons, most of them similar to the reasons why, say, The Goonies was popular in the United States but was not a large international success. Linguistic and cultural barriers can be difficult to overcome, and a catchy beat, easily replicable dance moves, and some goofy acting can go a long way in tearing those barriers down.

Is China going to have a “Gangnam Style moment” in the near future? I don’t know the answer to that question. Will it have one in the future? I can confidently say, yes, it will.

Update 16/10/2012: For more proof that China is capable of satire, check out these two articles by the Global Times (which is a subsidiary of People’s Daily, and nominally state-run): Why We’re Staying In China and Ask Alessandro

Music Festivals and Rule of Law

To the best of my knowledge, a concert has never been cancelled in the United States due to a “sensitive political climate” (I may be wrong about this – post in the comments if you know otherwise!)

The idea seems ridiculous; the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly ensure that people can get together and enjoy some good music. In China, however (which has similar freedoms in name but not in practice), cancellation of music festivals and concerts is an all too common occurrence.

This October, Shanghai was to be host to to the Black Rabbit Music Festival, a multi-day gathering of musicians representing a variety of genres from all around the world. Last year, the Black Rabbit festival was the largest of its kind in Shanghai, and this year’s festival promised to be even bigger and better.

The festival was abruptly cancelled, however. Its organizers cited “doubts raised over what will happen during the politically sensitive September/October period” as a primary reason for their decision to call off the festival. Sadly, situations like this are all too common in China, where a local government can decide on a whim that a band’s music is politically insensitive, refuse to approve the necessary permits, and just like that, months of planning go up in smoke.

A similar fate was met by a festival that my favorite Chinese band, Omnipotent Youth Society, was to play at (check out their song “Non-Omnipotent Comedy” here, and if you like that, you can find a recording of them performing in Taiwan here). On September 27th, the organizers of the Play Stone Music Festival announced that “due to numerous factors outside of our control,” the festival would be postponed and moved to a different location, not yet determined.

Luckily for me, the organizers of the Black Rabbit Music Festival worked quickly to organize a new, smaller event, with a slightly less prominent line-up. The Rabbit’s Foot Mini-Festival was an attempt to bring together local Chinese bands and international musicians to provide a quality experience to Shanghai music lovers, in spite of the cancellation of Black Rabbit. Yet Rabbit’s Foot, too, was hindered by the “sensitive political climate,” and Norwegian post-rock group Caves of Steel had to be pulled from the roster. In their place, the alternative rock group Tree (树) of Hangzhou, China was brought on board.

The concert was great, when I went – Tree turned out to be quite a good band, and the other band playing that night, a band from the UK called Third Cortez, was solid as well. While I enjoyed the concert, however, I couldn’t help but think about the issue of musical performances being cancelled in China.

“Rule of law” is discussed a lot by China experts. Rule of law is the idea that there are certain laws on the books, and that they are consistently, fairly, and equally enforced; thus, by knowing the rules, individuals can follow them and expect to not be accused of breaking them. In today’s China, it often seems that rule of law is lacking: social status, economic background, connections to elites, country of origin, etc. can all influence how an individual or corporation is treated under the law. The expulsion of Al Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan and the Bo Xilai/Gu Kailai/Wang Lijun/Neil Heywood scandal highlighted the problems with rule of law in China today. With less and less rule of law, China becomes more and more unstable and unreliable for doing business (or holding a music festival). Eventually, it’s not going to be worth the effort; why put in hundreds (or thousands) of manhours of work only to have them all go to waste because a government official didn’t take a liking to you? Perhaps Confucius put it best when he said “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”1 (名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成 - Which, by the way, is the tagline of the excellent blog Rectified.Name, linked to earlier in this post – check it out!)

For some pictures of Tree performing at the Rabbit’s Foot Mini-Festival, click here.

1. James Legge (1971). Confucian analects: The great learning, and The doctrine of the meanDover Publications. pp. 263–264.

A Believer Among _Believers_

Full disclosure: I’m a Christian.

In America, this is something people often take as a given. In a country where 76% of the adult population self-identifies as Christian, this is understandable. It’s a safe assumption to make. Furthermore, because the United States has such a large Christian population and has historically had a similarly large Christian population, the majority of Christians in America were raised by Christian parents and at a young age were exposed to at least a modicum of the Christian religious experience. Even non-Christians in America are exposed to Christianity, which is engrained deeply into Western culture. Biblical concepts like “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,”  “Noah and the Ark,” and “Jesus turning water into wine” are widely known.

Imagine, then, the following conversation:

Person on the street: So, how do you know each other?

Chinese friend: We’re both Christians, we just came from a Bible study.

Person on the street: What’s a Christian?

Chinese friend: We’re people who follow Jesus.

Person on the street: Who’s Jesus?

Seems bizarre, right? I understand why the average Chinese person would not have heard of Jesus – it’s just a matter of statistics – but the idea that someone has not heard of Jesus still seems bizarre to me. We’re talking about Jesus here, a man who, regardless of whether or not you believe in him as a Christian, can probably be safely considered the most important historical figure in Western culture, by sheer impact on that culture alone.

Christianity is growing in China. This means that most Chinese Christians were not raised by Christian parents and simply adopted the religion by osmosis, but were converts to Christianity later in the lives. For them, becoming a Christian was a life-changing experience; being baptized made them into a new person in a profound way.

This became clear to me as I sat in the living room of a woman I was introduced to by a Chinese friend, participating in a Bible study she hosts weekly. After singing a few hymns, everyone in the room introduced themselves: “Hi everyone, I’m [name], I’m originally from [place], I was baptized [time], I’m really glad to be here with everyone tonight.” These introductions were not set up this way (no one told us to share this particular set of information), but yet almost everyone in the room was drawn to sharing this information. For them (most of whom had been Christians for only a few years), the fact they had been baptized and the time of their baptism (one individual even shared the exact date of his baptism) was as fundamental to their identity as their name and their home. For me, this was a new experience; in churches I have been a member of in America, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone share how long they’ve been a Christian.

Among these people, I felt a little out of place. For them, their conversion to Christianity was perhaps the most important, defining moment in their life. For me, my faith is important, but I can’t say that I’ve ever felt transformed by it.

After the Bible study had ended, the woman hosting it came over to speak with me. I shared the observations and feelings mentioned above. She told me I shouldn’t be worried: “I had been a Christian for ten years before I really became a Christian, really let it change my life. I think that’s what being a Christian is really all about: allowing Jesus to change the way you live your life.”

That seemed to be a belief shared by almost everyone in the room. What is interesting to me is that as China changes rapidly, the lives of its people change rapidly as well. What drives people already confronting so much change to seek out another change in their life, particularly one as fundamental as religious conversion, is something I still don’t understand, however.

For some great insights on Christianity in China, check out Chinese Christians are filling vital roles in their communities and Talking with Christians in rural China from the blog Seeing Red in China.

Has the North Peak been lost?

No wonder Taoists have a reputation for being slippery. I argued to myself that I was being unfair. Then I got a grip; no, I wasn’t being unfair, and I started to walk ahead quickly. I needed to find some real Taoists and ditch this guy. But he followed me, talking incessantly as I tried to block out his voice. “It’s the twenty-first century. It’s the century of Zhuangzi. Last century was Laozi’s century but this is Zhuangzi’s.” Shut up, shut up, I countered in a loud internal voice. Where can I find a real Taoist?

In the new book Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (which looks excellent, from all reviews), Ian Johnson details his quest to seek out Taoism at Mount Heng, one of the religion’s holiest sites. He was driven by a question that is being asked throughout China, by natives and foreigners alike – why does everything in this country feel so crass and commercialized?

It could certainly be argued that commercialism is a byproduct of modernity, or perhaps of the capitalist system that typifies modernity for the vast majority of the world’s citizens. If this is the case, it would make sense for commercialism to be rampant in China, which has hurtled at breakneck pace from socialism to capitalism in the thirty years since reform and opening began. Nevertheless, even to an outsider who grew up in the capitalist west, surrounded by aggressive commercialization of every aspect of life, the level to which capitalism is taken in China can seem extreme. I almost felt affronted when I learned that visiting City God Temple (城隍庙), the primary temple in Shanghai, required one to purchase an entrance ticket. Is nothing sacred?

City God Temple, taken by Cory Doctorow:

City God Temple, Shanghai

For myself, paying to enter a temple was particularly jarring when compared to my experiences in Taiwan, where worshippers come and go, pausing only to take some incense to offer to the temple’s god(s), which is usually offered free of charge as well. At Shanghai’s City God Temple, it felt like the believers who maintain the temple had “sold out” to commercialization and capitalism to turn a profit. Johnson talks about how he worried about the same thing when he found himself atop Mount Heng:

The mountains were seen as pillars holding up the Chinese world; even the emperor worshipped them at the Temple of the Earth in Beijing. But when I made this trip to visit it in 2000, the North Peak had only been officially open for a year and was mostly in the hands of greedy government officials, who sold tickets and tourism “insurance” policies and harassed the few Taoists who tried to live there. Soon into my trip, I was pretty sure that the rich Taoist traditions I’d come searching for had been extinguished.

It is easy to assume that sixty years of rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is strictly secular and which, until reform and opening, actively worked to destroy religious tradition, have driven religious practice to the sidelines in this country. On the surface, China feels very secular, and what religious aspects do remain often seem to have been caught up in the commercialization of the last three decades. However, closer examination reveals that traditional religion still plays an important role in the lives of many Chinese: many restaurants sport small altars to stove gods or wealth gods; errant Buddhist monks stroll the streets; families still leave offerings at shrines for their ancestors; the dashboards of many cabs are graced by small statues of gods watching over the driver and his passengers. As Ian Johnson points out, surveys have indicated that “over two-thirds of Chinese say they believe in a higher being, while a quarter say that over the past year, they have experienced the presence of a deity – figures similar to those for Western countries like the United States or Britain.”

As Johnson concludes in his article, religion is still a deeply meaningful experience and an important part of the lives of Chinese people. I believe it is safe to say, then, that for the average Chinese person, religion has a different meaning than it does for most people in the west. At times, it may seem commercialized, but does that really matter, if, at the end of the day, individuals can still live their lives according to their beliefs?