From all the junks, the one I need more is music

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:57 am

Slate has a piece up on the Asian-ization of Western classical music. It’s more historically informed than you might think for a Slate piece, although it seems to be lurking in the author’s mind that Classical Music is a universal component of Western Culture. In fact  a lot of it was created for the aristocracy, and there was only a fairly brief period1 when major cities were supposed to have a symphony orchestra supported by bourgeois ticket-buyers. Paarlberg points out that Jews dominated violin performance for years, so its not surprising that the torch is being passed to a new subgroup.

I mostly wanted to mention this as a great way to plug Richard Kraus’s fine book Pianos and Politics in China: Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music in China. Kraus deals with the role of Western music in defining (and denouncing) China’s new middle class. Although other forms of Western music were important in creating modernity in Asia ‘classical’ music was an important class signal, just as it was in the West. Under the Communists the music of the urban elite had to be swept away along with the elite.

This Cultural Revolution piano announces that Art should serve the workers, peasants, and soldiers, but its still a piano.2 During the CR, of course, any sort of Western music was problematic. The big bold quote from Chairman Mao saved this piano from being smashed, but lots of its brethren. were not so lucky.

This dates from the early 80’s I think,3 and is one of the oddest Chinese propaganda posters I have ever seen. Yes, things changes fast during the Reform era, but a housewife whose kid is learning the violin? Less then a decade after the fall of the Gang of Four? The class symbolism of music may have made the quickest comeback of anything during the reforms. And apparently, its one thing that it pretty similar in Asia and among Asian Americans.



  1. o.k. a century or so []
  2. This actually made me wonder how ‘classical’ a piano would have been in China, as for me a piano would not necessarily bring up thoughts of a classical orchestra. []
  3. via Landesberger []


Exporting Maoism

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:27 am

In my Intro to Asian Studies class this semester I am teaching Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Girl From the Coast The story is a fictionalized account of his Grandmother’s life and thus is set in Java around 1900 or so. One of the things I am finding interesting about it is that the book seems to me to have been heavily influenced by his time in China . Pramoedya was heavily influenced by the time he spent in China in the 50’s and he saw the Maoist model as a way of re-invigorating the Indonesian revolution. While in China he actually helped make “steel” in backyard furnaces, and when he returned to Indonesia he wanted to purge the literary world of those works and authors that did not advance the cause of revolution.

The Girl From the Coast has pretty clearly been influenced by Mao’s Yenan Talks. The protagonist , the nameless Girl from the Coast is so obviously representing the oppressed masses that in a movie version she would have to be played by Gong Li  We get a few lengthy speeches about the class situation the characters find themselves in. The story is about the Girl’s life after she is trapped in an arranged marriage, but as Pramoedya had already rejected what he called Universal Humanism the solution is not Love, a concept that does not turn up much in this book.

On the other hand the solution is not Revolution either, which makes the book a more interesting than a lot of the Maoist stuff. Instead Pramoedya valorizes the life of the fishing village she came from. The village is -not- oppressed like the urban people are. They are too remote and poor for that. When they fake a pirate attack to cover up their killing of an aristocrat one of the villagers wonders who will believe that pirates would attack a village so poor that “even the jellyfish stay away.” They pay no taxes and the only oppression they get comes from the Sea, and the ultimate solution to problems seems to be a return to village life.  It sound more like Shen Congwen than Mao Dun. The book is more similar to contemporary Chinese writing, which may criticize the feudal past but does not find the solution in the Red Sun of Chairman Mao. On the other hand is does seem to have a serious Maoist hangover, in that it is the story of the Girl’s growing class consciousness, and perhaps it is intended to encourage class consciousness in the reader. Or maybe I just see China everywhere.


Guards! Guards!

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:36 am


Security guard at Shanghai Public library (a very nice lady)

One thing I’ve been noticing a lot (I’m in Shanghai) is that China may be the best-guarded society in the world. There are guards everywhere. By guards I mean people in uniform who don’t seem to have much to do. At the top you have people who guard Chairman Mao, i.e. real military types. Then regular cops. Then those traffic police in grubby yellow vests whose work seems to be mostly harassing bike riders. Then you have huge, unending masses of security guards.1 Guards at libraries and archives. Guards at the gate to any sort of courtyard or parking area who sit in a little glass box and wave at you as you go by. Guards at stores and shopping centers and hotels. People who are wearing guard-type uniforms, but it is not really clear what they are guarding. The lower down you go the more ill-fitting the uniform seems to be, and the less likely it seems that the person is going to stop anybody from doing anything.

So why are they all there? Are they really afraid somebody is going to walk out of the library with a book? Some are universal and need little explanation. All modern states seem to want cops. And they all seem to want military guys at the appropriate places. The guy in the little box is a figurative (and possibly literal) descendant of the guards at the entrance to the compound of a work unit (单位). They used to be there to mark out the territory of the unit and to make you get off your bike as you came in the gate as a sign of respect. (Respect for what I’m not sure. Mostly the guards it seemed.) Today China does not have a system of space that is quite as delimited as that, but guards are still around. Why? Well part of it is no doubt that it is cheap to hire people to do stuff like this, and so you don’t need much of a reason. In more developed countries a human security guard is a pretty huge investment. In China it is cheap, especially if they have no special training, which seems to often be the case. They also do serve in a way to delimit space just like the old danwei guards did. There is an awful lot of disorder () in China. If you are not careful street hawkers, homeless people and counter-revolutionary elements may set up shop in “your” space. So any government office or private entity that can afford it will hire some guards. It is sort of interesting to figure out what rules they are enforcing. As an American I am used to fairly distinct lines between public and private property, and clear rules about what I can and can’t do. Here of course things are different, and guards enforce whatever rules seem appropriate and in very different ways to different people. I can take a nap on a bench. A beggar can’t. This space that looks public actually belongs to us (look, we are guarding it.) All of them seem to be enforcing a certain amount of civility on the people who need it enforced on them. Best of all, from the state’s point of view most of them do it without being paid by the state. Zwia Lipkin wrote about some of these issues in the Nationalist period.

  1. All of these security guards are completely unarmed. I don’t want to be all American and insist that you can’t be a guard without a gun, but at least a billy club would be something. []


Electrons, the ultimate export

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:48 pm

Preview of a documentary on gold-mining in China


I hope my son never sees this post, which suggests that you really can make a living playing video games. I suspect I will end up showing it to my students as an example of the new Chinese economy.

The comments also show a nice divide between those who think the movie is about the exploitation of Chinese labor and those who think its about those awful Chinese ruining games


Why is China so clean?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:03 am

A long time ago I realized the street litter in poor countries is different than that in rich ones. In part this is because the poor countries seem to hire more street sweepers. More importantly, in a poor country there is nothing you can throw out that someone will not find it worthwhile to pick up.


Apparently great minds think alike


Labor and the public sphere

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:55 am

Via H-Asia I found China Law Digest, which seems to have a lot of interesting stuff. One of these is a story about migrant laborers in Fujian organizing themselves into unions (English version) along native-place lines, something that should be familiar to anyone who has read Bryna Goodman

One thing I found interesting was the state’s corporatist attitudte towards the whole thing, claiming that migrant workers need someone to represent them. Another is that they stress that they don’t have dues, but rather rely on voluntary contributions. The county denied that this is a “商会变成工会”, i.e. a bad thing, and the only fact they mention to support this is lack of dues. I assume mandatory payments bring up images of Green Gang style labor racketeering and maybe even the Maoist definition of exploitation. So even though the organization has never failed to get what it wanted (到现在还没有不成功), presumably at least in some cases in conflict with the state, as long as no exploitation is going on they are o.k.

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