Old folks at home

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:11 am

Guy with bird. Nanjing

Man with bird in Nanjing

Or actually old folks out on the street. I knew that lots of old Chinese people kept birds, and that taking birds for a walk was a popular thing for old men to do early in the morning. But where is the scholarship on Chinese bird-keeping culture? Well, I found some, a study by Ho-hon Leung1Leung did a survey of Hong Kong bird keepers (all over 50, almost all male, most born on the mainland). Most of them lived with their children, who they claimed took good care of them, and most were married. So they are well taken care of, but seem to get little satisfaction out of home life.

This is where birds come in. They need to be raised and trained to sing, and there is a element of expertise here, so you can feel proud of your accomplishment. You can’t do that with dogs and cats, which in any case take up too much room. Plus, birds make it easy to meet people, especially other old men, since you all need to go out and walk your birds and of course talk to them and to the other birdmen. I suppose I could have guessed a lot of this, but I do find it interesting that birds are the chosen pet for this form of male bonding. I know at least in Meiji Japan dog-keeping was a very clear sign that one was a modernizer, and I wonder if anyone has seen anything the evolution of Chinese pet culture.

  1. Ho-Hon Leung “The Lives of Elderly Bird-keepers: A Case Study of Hong Kong” in Chi, et al eds. Elderly Chinese in Pacific Rim Countries: Social Support and Integration. Hong Kong University Press 2001 There is a lot of interesting stuff in it, although it is more social science than a cultural studies approach []


Jackie Chan and Louis Cha

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:42 am

Everybody knows about ping pong diplomacy, but we seem to have just completed a period of Canto-pop diplomacy, as Jackie Chan has recorded an “official” song for the Olympics. Canto-pop is of course the dreadful Cantonese pop music that infects every corner of the Chinese world. More generally I suppose it can be used to refer to the general pop culture of Hong Kong1 Just as Beijing used ping pong to try and create a connection with the U.S. so to the central government has embraced the commercial culture of Hong Kong as part of their attempt to create a Greater China. John Hamm discusses some of this in Paper Swordsmen which is partially about the rise of New School martial arts fiction but mainly about Jin Yong 金庸 and his work. Jin, a.k.a. Louis Cha, in addition to being the world’s best-selling author of martial arts novels is also the founder and long-time editor of Ming Pao once one of the more independent-minded papers in Hong Kong and now the center of a multi-national media empire. Zha was thus exactly the type of person Beijing would want to cultivate as they tried to re-unify the motherland. Zha was received by Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People in 1981, the first important figure from Hong Kong to be so honored. Zha would have been worth talking to just as a newspaper editor, but being an author of martial arts novelist made him even better. Although Beijing never accepted Tapei’s claims to be the “real” preservers of Chinese culture, after the Cultural Revolution a figure like Zha who had been critical of the CR and could make claims to be a preserver of Chinese culture was solid gold. As Beijing was trying to re-unify Hong Kong (and Taiwan) calling for a unified state was a non-starter, and so the ties of history and culture were needed. What is Chinese culture? Some bits of what might be called Chinese culture were not perhaps things Beijing wanted to play up, such as the Confucian concept of government by a class of incorruptible officials chosen for their skill rather than their connections. Everyone likes gong fu heroes, however, and given that so many of Cha/Jin Yong’s stories had strong anti-imperialist/ nationalist elements he was a perfect fit.

Jackie Chan is in some respects ever better for this than Louis Cha. He is, I think, about the last of the martial arts movie starts to have had real old-fashioned opera training. He is also a bit less prickly. Cha’s Ming Pao has been accused of cuddling up to Beijing a bit more than some would like, but he was also quite critical of Beijing, especially after 6/4. Chan is not critical of anything, as far as I can tell, and this sort of ties in the comic persona he takes on in most of his films.2 Bruce Lee does not work as well for Beijing’s purposes as a living symbol of Hong Kong culture. Besides being dead and thus unable to turn up for events far to many of his roles (and Jet Li’s) involved playing people who defied corrupt power-holders. The Jianghu (rivers and lakes) tradition that was at the center of martial arts fiction always had a problematic relationship with authority (That’s why so many of the stories have elements of Ming loyalism/ anti-Manchuism. That way one can defy cruel oppression and be loyal to the true rulers.) Jackie Chan has none of that (compare his Wong Feihong in Drunken Master with Jet Li’s in Once Upon a Time in China) If you want a nice, non-threatening haohan Jackie Chan is your man.

  1. At least I will use it that way in this post []
  2. I suspect that many of our readers know gong fu flicks better than I do []


Cantonese is Dying! (in L.A.)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:32 pm

A not-too well informed article from the L.A. Times lamenting the decline of lively, slang-filled Cantonese in favor of the polite and dignified Mandarin. Obviously written by someone who has never been to Beijing. Or Tianjin. Or a lot of other places. No doubt a lot of Cantonese speakers do regard the school-ish Mandarin they know as dull, but the analysis is not very strong in the article. The article blames the Mainland government for pushing Mandarin, although the focus is on Chinese in America, where the pushing is obviously of a different sort. Part of what is happening of course is that the new waves of immigrants coming to the U.S. are as likely to be Mandarin speakers as not. 20 years ago my Mandarin was almost useless in American Chinatowns (Actually, 20 years ago my Mandarin was almost useless anywhere.) Now I almost never hear Cantonese. The interesting thing to me is the difference between today and the survival of Cantonese (and Fujianese, etc.) in the past.

Mandarin obviously works better if you have a community of lots of Chinese from different places, which is more likely now with cheaper transport and closer contacts with China. (One of the people learning Mandarin in the article was doing so to be able to speak to his grandkids in China.) The strange thing is that for a very long time Cantonese worked just fine to hold together business networks and families and such. Now if you insist on staying in the Cantonese ghetto you are sacrificing a lot, and people are leaving.

Why the change? Part of it I suppose is velocity. People moving around a lot more and communicating cheaper and quicker make it harder for a minority dialect to maintain its kingdom. Part of it is probably a political change. Hong Kong is no longer the gateway to China in the same way it was, nor are the Cantonese particularly likely to be the interpreters of the West to China. China is all open now, and Canton no longer has a special position.

I suspect part of it is that family and provincial ties are also less important than they were in 1906. The idea of continuing your Chinese studies in school is no longer just fillial piety for Asian Americans, and of course that means Mandarin. Is there anything else driving this? I know the Singapore government has been pushing Mandarin for a long time. What’s happening in Australia? Even better, what is happening in Indonesia, where acting like a trans-national Chinese might not be a good idea.


Provincialism and democracy

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:43 am

Everyone is talking about the protests in Hong Kong, for good reason. What I find most interesting is the official response. (All links via Simon’s World, the one-stop shop for China stuff.) Xinhua’s take was almost comical, pointing out that bus routes were disrupted and giving no idea what the protests were actually about. Much more interestingly, Donald Tsang, the Beijing-appointed Chief Executive seems to be making noises about democracy.

“I am 60 years of age. I certainly want to see universal suffrage taking place in Hong Kong in my time,” Mr Tsang said.

I find his remarks interesting because I wonder what they say about center-local relationships and the relationship of democracy to power in China. He could of course just be throwing a sop to the protesters, but it is more interesting to wonder if he is telling the truth, that is that he wants an expansion of democracy. As is pretty well-known, the Chinese central government has been claiming that China will eventually become democratic, and elections, if often problematic ones, are held at the local level. The central government likes this because it makes it harder for low-level party bureaucrats to entrench themselves in power and it helps to re-constitute order in a place At the very least they favor a bit of democracy for instrumental reasons.

On local democracy in China see Susan Ogden Inklings of Democracy in China

More interestingly, I assume at some point these local leaders are going to take advantage of the greater legitimacy democratic elections give them to defy the center. That is basically what happened in 1911, provincial assemblies that claimed to “represent” “the people” (it’s really complicated) took their provinces out of the empire. The provincial assemblies had considerably more legitimacy and influence than the central government, and for that reason, among others, the revolution was relatively quick and bloodless.

That the center and the provinces bicker a lot today is not news, although it takes a serious Zhongnanhai-ologist to know what is actually going on. Adding democracy into the mix seems to be almost inevitable, and very bad for the center. Eventually Hong Kong will have its first freely elected Executive, and this will potentially give him a lot of power in relation to the Beijing. I think that is why the center is so nervous about this. If you look at the structure they are talking about it seems that even a freely elected Executive would be pretty constrained in a formal sense. Hong Kongers seem to generally buy the government line that order and national power are more important than individual liberties, and my guess is that anyone who was elected would be pretty agreeable to much of what Beijing wants. Hong Kong is not France, or even the U.S. Still, once you let democracy jump to the provincial level its hard to see how it can be contained, other than by more democracy. I think the most encouraging thing about the demonstration is that Beijing really is afraid, and they have good reason to be.

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