By Kumar David –
Progressive and regressive cultures in the age of globalisation: Technical and cultural modernism in China
Is it a paradox that old and strong cultures can confidently absorb modernity with sang-froid, but less secure ones panic when threatened by the onward sweep of the contemporary world? No, I think it is not a paradox but to be expected. Post-revolutionary China engaged with and then amended (purists will say mutilated) Marx; then the “communist” State managed, used, and abused, the tenets of market capitalism without a care for its promises of democracy. Now it is begetting a hundreds-of-millions strong middle-class and transmuting into the next first rank global superpower.
This is all well-known and oft hyped, but I want to veer tangentially to mull over the cultural side. Culture and technology merge closer now than in previous epochs since the latter is no longer gadgets and skills; in modern times, technology is ineluctably global. To be at the cutting edge is to be meshed in global supply chains; one cannot write amazing code, create silicon chips of astonishing capability, or add 1000MW of power a week to the grid, without interacting, exchanging, penetrating and being invaded by the best and brightest of all the world.
In days of yore the Red Indian procured guns from the white man but preserved his way of life, the Meiji Revolution dodged the penetration of Japan by foreign culture, and the classic example is Peter the Great who modernised Russia into an industrial nation, but sans a social or intellectual revolution matching Western Europe. But this is what is no longer possible; what cannot be done any more is to modernise without going global, not in technology and economy alone, but also in culture and ethos. Late Twentieth Century South Korea and Taiwan are small illustrations (the city states of Singapore and Hong Kong are irrelevantly tiny) but the awakening sleeping giant has settled the issue incontrovertibly and in addition shown the way to his brother giant on the other side of the Himalayas.
Self-confidence of big or older cultures
In school we were taught that China is the oldest unbroken civilisation – the much older Mesopotamia and Egypt were destroyed along the way; so were the later Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa but the contemporaneous Yellow River (Huang-He) ‘cradle of Chinese civilisation’ survived. Historical resilience over 5000 years is a factor that makes modern China culturally robust, another is population size, a third the cultural and ideological admixing that the Chinese Revolution stirred into the pot. I stake no claim to scholarly authority in such matters, but the contingent modernism is palpably real. Technological hunger is stark – there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in US universities and colleges, but there is also a cultural and linguistic openness of which people in Lanka may be unaware of. The number in China, who will be able to speak a modest amount of English, say within a decade, will exceed the population of the United Kingdom.
Students of classical music, which our ignorant lot with heads buried in nationalism call Western music, learning the piano in China is 50 million! Yes that’s right 50 million, mostly young, learning the piano and close to a million pianos sold each year. In proportion this is like a million students and sales of 20,000 pianos a year in Lanka. Oh no don’t say it’s to do with money in the pockets of a rising middle-class (I will soon tell you the story of Lang Lang); it is to do with cultural self-confidence. This is not unique to China; it is in South Korea and Japan too. (India’s nexus with the Raj, the English language and Western education and culture, is a special one that tells a different story, so I will quote no examples from there). To press my case, of the 84 contestants chosen for the first round of the 2015 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, the largest contingents are from China and Chopin’s Poland -15 each; next 12 from Japan, 9 from Korea, 7 from Russia, 5 from the United States, and 3 each from Canada, Great Britain and Italy. This says it all. [To follow the competition online from 1 to 20 October 2015, go to chopincompetition2015.com]
Thirty three years old today, 14 June, Lang Lang (郎朗 pronounced lung-lung; think of your lungs) exploded on the stage 15 years ago taking concert audiences across the world by storm, but the relevance of this for this essay is that his father was a factory-hand who cycled to work in below freezing Shenyang in North East China. Recognising Lang’s talent, father gave up work and took the prodigy to Beijing were they lived in a slum, three families sharing one toilet. Mother stayed at home and worked to feed father and son; it was a period of hardship. This is not a unique story, many of the talented lowly in China benefit from the pervasive cultural openness. Xenophobia which killed off such an option in Lanka was a fortification behind which small minds erected primitive nationalisms.
Let me continue the Lang Lang story for the sake of the interested. First at the entrance exam to the prestigious Beijing Conservatory of Music, he won the 1996 Tokyo Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians at age 13, played before an audience of 8000 in 2001 at the Great Hall of the People, and was seen on TV by one billion at the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Lang has played at all the world’s great concert halls and before Queen Elizabeth, Obama and Hu Jinto at the White House, in Stockholm at a Nobel Prize Concert, and for Ban Ki Moon as a Messenger of Peace. He is a delight, full of verve and passion, but hated by crotchety old fogies, dour, astringent and petrified, unable to fathom that something new is igniting on the classical music scene and capturing millions. Perhaps the next ten years will adjudge whether Lang Lang will ascend to the eminence of immortal pianists alongside Horowitz, Rubinstein and Richter; remember, many are called, only a few are chosen. (Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adQwsx5J7lQ for a sparkling rendition of Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brillante, 14 minutes of full blooded showmanship at the Albert Hall: (Next door to my old school to boot!)
Nor is this an isolated instance. Li Yun-di (李雲迪) five months younger than Lang, now domiciled in Hong Kong, was born to workers from an iron and steel factory in Chongqing, Sichuan Province. In 2000 at age 18 he was the first pianist in 15 years at the International Warsaw Chopin Competition to be awarded the First Prize and the youngest winner in the competition’s history. Li is a Chopin and Liszt specialist; lacking Lang’s irrepressible flair he has not erupted like a volcano on the international stage, but this choice of composers testifies to his consummate (some say superior) technical skill.
There is an awful edge to this story; openness is not permitted beyond the performing arts, sports and gymnastics all of which are unsuited to conveying a political message. But with films and writing, the state clamps down hard; no great artist in these domains can fail to carry a message that is beyond praising the Great Helmsman or a paean to how much Stalin loved the people. Even the most non-political of great writers and film makers cannot avoid involuntary portrayal of social conditions, what people feel in life and say in conversation; it creeps out. Then it may not be the grand prize but a prison term. The meteoric rise of Chinese pianists to world fame, while writers and filmmakers are strictly confined, tells a story of triumph and tragedy. Unleashing private property power does not create a just or equal society; nor does a one-party state deliver a politically free society.
Obsessive fear of smaller and later cultures
In tail-between-the-legs primitive nationalisms like ours we encounter regression from the outside world. Another example, Jihadism (observe I do not say Islam), is a crude and atavistic regression into manic brutality. The core of 1956 was an understandable inferiority complex of those denied an opportunity to learn and excel in international cultural, technological and material contexts. I say understandable because the rage of the subjugated creature in an unequal world is natural.
Cultures, small in magnitude, or light in achievement, fear inundation when exposed to competition in open spaces; they risk erasure of their coveted heritages. The response is a faked up cultural ego and a sham id of nationalist pride. The ancient civilisation of Lanka reaches back to about the Third Century BC, a kind of global adolescent, and survives in a small island-setting. Does this factor subliminally to make our nationalist champions narrow minded? It may account for the mental insularity whose high costs society as a whole has paid.
The sense of inferiority that marks the ideology of jihadism is fired by the exploitation of centuries of colonialism, but it also has deep cultural roots. Revolt against a century of exploitation is its rational content, the desire to erase everything prior to or separate from Islam is its pernicious side. ISIL, or ISIS, is among other things, a manifestation of psychological neurosis. Chopping heads and hands and slaughtering those who want to educate women or eliminate polio is all in a day’s work for jihadists, but vandalising humanity’s cultural treasures is a different kind of psychosis. In 387 BC, Gallic chieftain Brennus, after defeating the Roman armies did not lay waste Rome’s cultural heritage, instead he settled for ransom in gold. Eight hundred years later, at the end of its glory after the capital of the empire had moved to Constantinople, Rome fell again (410 AD) to Alaric the Goth; but the sack was restrained. There was no senseless slaughter; valuables were looted but monuments and buildings left intact. And the Vandal sack in 455 AD has been called “relatively clean” (sic!)
Twentieth and Twenty-first Century jihadism is more barbarian than benchmark barbarians, Gauls, Goths and Vandals. The reason; it is charged-up by something else, religious fervour (cultural extremism) that carries with it a neurotic inferiority complex against all things predating Islam. Remember the fate of the Bamiyan Buddha statues courtesy the Taleban? Now 4000 year old Palmyra, first of Assyrian (2000BC), then of Seleucid (from 217BC) and eventually of Roman (after 14BC) glory, awaits its fate at the hands of a new genus of barbarians.