musings in the Shadow Building

September 16th, 2007

So last night I said I was “too tired to attempt anything deep and intellectual“. And then gk decided lzh and I were going to go over to her house for a few drinks. You can take the girl out of Dongbei, but you can’t take Dongbei out of the girl. It was an offer that could not be refused. Anyway, even though we were both really tired, it turned out to be a great time. gk had gathered a few friends and relatives, Dongbeiren all, and for an evening we were transported to small town Manchuria. Then to KTV. Then eventually home sometime in the wee small hours. lzh is still sleeping it off.

Anyway, so Jeremiah’s post got me thinking. Jeremiah’s good at that- he’s one of those irritating bloggers who consistently write excellent, intelligent, erudite, thought-provoking articles that raise the bar for the rest of us. Not that I’m complaining. Well, what actually happened as I read his post was that he indirectly touched on something I’d been thinking about as I sat in the Shadow Building waiting for lzh’s make-up and hair to be rerererererere-done. Chinese-style wedding photos are easy on the guys- just sit down, shut up and wait.

So here’s how it happened. We had five sets of photos involving five completely different sets of clothes. Four sets were in some very Chinese idea of Western elegance and romance. One set was in ancient Chinese wedding clothes (meaning there will be some really hillarious photos of me). The last set was going to also be Chinese-style, but the Shadow Building’s selection of Tangzhuang dresses was even worse than their selection of suits- I didn’t think that was possible until actually confronted with the evidence- only two dresses, one a bright pale yellow, and the other bright orange. Unfortunately neither of them looked good on lzh. I can’t think of anybody who could get away with wearing such colours, in fact. Pity, because it seemed that the selection of Tangzhuang suits was actually quite reasonable- maybe I’m only saying that because I just spent a day in the Shadow Building trying to work with their pathetic collection of suits. Anyway, so we were planning on a 3xWestern, 2xChinese pattern, but had to settle for 4xWestern, 1xChinese.

The Chinese set came fourth and it left me with an odd feeling. I felt like we were acting out a wedding scene from 武林外传, like the three Western sets we’d done were “serious” and this Chinese set was a bit of joking around- sure, a white guy in ancient Chinese robes and hat is a pretty funny sight, but still… And this is where Jeremiah’s post hit on what I’d been thinking and feeling:

But perhaps even more dangerous is that many Chinese–especially the educated, urban elite zipping around Beijing in their new QQs and sipping on a frappuccino that they hate but who wouldn’t be caught dead drinking tea out of an old glass jar–is the internalization of this past/present progressive split and its regurgitation as a civilized/backwards view:

Urban=money=progressive=modern=”good quality” ç´ è´¨=what we want to show the world. Poor=rural=backwards=superstitious=the men who build our apartments and the women who clean them=bad habits/”bad quality”=who both BOCOG and the urban elite wants to shove into some Hebei lake sometime before mid-July, 2008. Solve for x.

He’s taking a broader, more big-picture look at modern Chinese society, whereas I’m looking at this issue through the lens of Chinese-style wedding photos, but the principles are basically the same.

I never could figure out the modern Chinese fascination with all things “Western”, and I find it disturbing that many modern Chinese, especially affluent, educated, urban types, or at least just plain rich (but not necessarily educated or urban) types seem to think, as Jeremiah wrote, that “Urban=money=progressive=modern=”good quality” ç´ è´¨=what we want to show the world”. Actually, I would add “Western” into that equation, because all too often what is considered “modern” is Western, and what is “Western” is modern.

Oh, sure, there are good historical reasons for the “modern=Western” equation. Bicycles, cars, computers and airplanes are all Western inventions. But it really bugs me that so many modern Chinese seem so keen to dump all of their cultural heritage and history in a mad rush to become “Western” because “Western” is “modern” and “modern” is “good” and “Chinese” is “traditional” is “backwards” is “bad”. I once joked to lzh that these days the only people interested in traditional Chinese culture are foreigners. She laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re probably right”.

And back to those wedding photos: Note that even if the Shadow Building had had a decent selection of Tangzhuang dresses most of our photos would still be in a “Western” style, especially if you add the outside shots. Whence this modern Chinese fascination with a “Western”-style wedding and photos of the couple dressed up in “Western”-style clothes?

Well, then it occured to me that maybe Chinese couples see their wedding photos as a chance to act out romantic fantasies that aren’t available to them in real life. This is quite a contrast to the Kiwi approach of wedding photos as a record of an important life event. And if there is any truth to my idea, then suddenly all this “Western” stuff is only a symptom, and not the disease. Well, “symptom” and “disease” are not quite the right words with their rather negative connotation, but you get my point, I hope. If Chinese-style wedding photos are about acting out otherwise unavailable romantic fantasies, then the current emphasis on “Western” clothes and “Western” settings is simply a result of current fashions. As fashion changes and China and Chinese people develop more self-confidence with regard to China’s history and current standing in the world perhaps we’ll see a greater emphasis on traditional Chinese clothes and settings, or perhaps a modernised version of traditional China.

And it also occurred to me that getting upset at the focus on all things “Western” is perhaps a little bit hypocritical considering my fascination with traditional Chinese culture and ancient China.

A while ago I ranted about Westerners who get upset over the destruction and renovation of Beijing’s hutongs. I guess I need to follow my own advice. There’s nothing really to be disturbed about by Chinese-style wedding photos and their emphasis on “Western” clothes and settings. Wedding photos are just another example of China taking some foreign technology or cultural practice and adapting it to China’s needs. And right now “Western” is fashionable.

And last night’s party with all those Dongbeiren could be seen as further confirmation that traditional Chinese culture is not in danger of disappearing and is not being abandoned in favour of “Western culture”. Even though she only lives a few hundred metres up the road from us, gk insisted on driving her Volkswagen down to pick us up. In gk’s very nice new apartment there is plenty of foreign technology and a couple of bottles of foreign booze (including Chivas Regal, which I discovered is quite a drinkable whiskey) and generally plenty of signs of foreign influence, and after a couple of beers and a whiskey each we went to KTV- a Japanese import, of course. But despite all this “foreign” stuff, the proceedings were conducted in age-old Dongbei fashion. All this “foreign” stuff was no longer foreign, because it had long since been accepted into and adapted to Chinese culture. Well, the foreign booze was generally referred to as æ´‹é…’, which seems to be a catch-all for spirits of a more-or-less Western origin, but still….. Bottles of red tea were produced from the fridge and poured into the Chinese people’s glasses to make the whiskey drinkable for them (I refused to adulterate my whiskey with anything. Not even ice cubes).

Even so, the fashionableness of all things “Western” and the apparent reasons for this fashion do disturb me. Surely there is a lot more to be proud of in China’s own culture and traditions than China’s newly rich seem to think?

And “Western” is in scare quotes so often because things “Western” in China are generally more a highly sinicised version of the original “Western” thing, or the manifestation of a Chinese idea of what is “Western”. The results can be incredibly tacky, but sometimes they turn out pretty cool. Start at Pingleyuan and walk northwards up Xidawang Lu to Hong Miao, and you’ll see plenty of examples of what I’m talking about. Other words are in scare quotes for similar reasons.

And I’ve noticed that very often when Chinese people talk about “Western” they really mean “American”. Wedding photos are an exception- the emphasis is more on Chinese ideas of European elegance and romance.

Alright, enough rambling.

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