Monday, August 5, 2013

Chinese Monty Python

Now better acquainted with Chinese lifestyle, traditions and history, I am often treated to behaviors, actions and customs that could or should smack of distinct un-Chinese-ness, were they not so downright comical in their practice or coming about.

Many westerners are no doubt familiar with expressions like: “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics”, a catchphrase that was bandied about last year while discussing global economic issues, especially on C-SPAN. Some of my friends in America asked me what that might mean. At the time I had no real answer, other than to expound on the fact that, while China’s political system is labeled communist, communism in itself is more of an economic system than political.

China, like just about every other country in the world, is governed by an oligarchy. That is the extent of the political discussion this blog will undertake. We are not political in nature. We are a cultural information source that only broaches politics when necessary. And we like to be humorous whenever possible.

As the author of this blog, I contend that Monty Python is the epitome of the absurd, and thus most humorous. Gary Larson counts in that distinction too, but he is not relevant to this discussion.

In China, once a concept is introduced it is embraced fervently, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly, to the complete abandon of all that had previously been believed to be right, good, necessary and true.

Note the total obliteration of class struggle to the point of neutralizing so much as gender and intellect differences some sixty years ago. During the Great Leap Forward, men and women wore the same colored, same styled baggy clothing, shoes and hats. Although females were allowed one concession – long hair, during that epoch males and females were virtually indistinguishable.

So intent was the focus on building a classless society that families gave up anything of value for the greater good. Thus, previously illustrious families were as materially barren as the poorest farmer, and their social status was reduced to match their new, impoverished circumstances.   

After properly enshrining Chairman Mao in 1976, Deng Xiao Ping’s economic stance dictated a total reversal of Mao’s previously touted edict of total barrenness: “Capitalism is good!” the new country leader proclaimed. Immediately the Chinese cast off the poor garments, abandoned the work farms and factories and sought their chance at wealth. I don’t mean that this was an overnight transformation. I’m trying to illustrate that, one minute people lived shackled to poverty and yoked to an ideal; the very next minute those yokes stood empty, the plows were left standing in the fields and people were storming their way to capitalism.

Here are some other historical reversals:

Driving: The first automobiles were introduced in China around the late 19th century, and of course the imperial family was the first to own them. A total of 4 cars were brought over but not put in service for years because the dowager empress kept ordering the drivers beheaded.

Those early carriages were designed to have the driver sitting on a box seat far above the passenger compartment. This model followed the most popular horse-buggy style; the high seat designed for better control of the animals powering the vehicle while the nacelle sat low to the ground to assure passengers’ comfort. Unfortunately for the drivers of these primitive motor driven machines made for the imperial family, the law stated that no one could have their head higher than the elite figure. Once the dowager empress was comfortably seated, the driver climbed aboard and the empress, outraged at his ‘seemingly loftier than hers’ position ordered him beheaded. Soon, there was no one left who knew how to drive a car.

Shortly after that the dynasty crumbled and the country plunged into a series of conflicts that lasted about 60 years. While driving eventually did become commonplace, mainly because of military vehicles, the concept of personal transportation did not catch on for nearly a century.

Around 1990, people in China were introduced to the idea. Till then, those fortunate enough to afford a bicycle, rode. Mass transit took care of the rest of the population. Once car ownership became accessible to the citizenry it became a no holds barred competition for value, brand, status and parking spaces. Sam tells me that, as recently as 5 years ago parking a car in Wuhan was not a problem.

Now people will drive their car when walking would be faster, and spend hours idling in traffic or circling the block for a parking place when they could have left their car at home and gotten where they were going much more efficiently in some other manner.

Love: 50 years ago a marriage was arranged by a matchmaker and sanctioned by the government. Romantic love as it is known in the west has never been a factor in Chinese relationships. The classic ‘eyes meeting across the room’ scenario never played out here, mainly because the culture dictated that males and females were not to mingle socially, and making eye contact was considered vulgar to begin with.

Couples would spend their entire lives bound together by practicality and adherence to tradition. Sometimes genuine affection would blossom from long term cohabitation and familiarity but more often than not, malcontent ruled the household.

In the last 5 years, with more people than ever migrating away from their homes, families, roots and traditions the standard ‘love requires an introduction’ has fallen completely by the wayside. Romance rules the day.

Almost literally overnight, our campus went from a shining tribute of purity to a hotbed of sexual activity. Nobody bothers with introductions. Boy meets girl, girl likes boy, off they go to local hotel. Hickeys to follow; homosexual relations permitted. The only nod to tradition is that parents are not to know their child has a lover. So I’ve been implored by the students whose parents I’ve met.

Leisure: The concept of leisure is as uncharacteristically Chinese as… as water buffalos suddenly donning tutus and dancing Swan Lake. Yet when the idea of indolence was presented, the Chinese abandoned all efforts at ‘keep head down, work hard, achieve and bring honor to family”. Eating out, whiling time away and vulgar outlays of cash in pursuit of a good time is now the new standard by which the Chinese judge each other and themselves. Other activities like traveling and shopping all fall under that same umbrella. And all are done with that seemingly un-Chinese over-the-top Chinese-ness.

I don’t have much room left, so much as I’d like to expound on all aspects of leisure and the total reversal from the formerly held “work yourself to the bone” mentality, I’m going to discuss one specific aspect I witnessed in Chi Bi, while out with John and his friends.

Swimming is as un-Chinese a pastime as possible. Even last year my students declared that they were too afraid of what could happen to even want to learn how to swim in a controlled environment, with a qualified teacher in a shallow pool. Let alone tackle any water sports in an open lake or sea.

And admittedly, ‘swimming’ is too broad an expression for what actually happens. People bob around in the water tethered to or encircled by a Styrofoam life preserver, as dictated by law.

Last year, carousing in malls I didn’t see a single shop offering any sporting goods, including anything that would pertain to water activities. This year there are stores dedicated entirely to bathing suits for women. Men ‘swim’ in their underwear.

Kid you not: I was completely nonplussed at men walking around in sodden briefs that concealed absolutely nothing, and they did so with a complete lack of modesty. I suppose that is what poleaxed me.

I am by no means a prude, but I have had a measure of conditioning in modesty as dictated by Western society. Add to that my studies in Chinese culture, all of which are steeped in propriety and social mores with regard to naked flesh. In fact, I’ve often wondered why western religions which espouse corporeal diffidence display centuries-old works of art whose subjects are completely, or nearly completely nude while eastern philosophies that express no opinion at all on nudity show all of their deities and historical figures to be clothed from head to toe.

That’s beside the point.

What I’m getting at is, as little as one year ago one of my female friends refused to buy a shirt because it showed too much cleavage. People will not (intentionally) buy clothing that is too tight or too revealing. Even belt buckles, the modern day codpiece, are modest and unobtrusive. However, it is perfectly OK to strip down to one’s underwear in public (no locker rooms; however there are lockers for rent on the waterfront), get in the water and then walk around in clingy, see thru clothing with head held high.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living a Monty Python skit, in which witches must weigh as much as ducks. The doubting public first frowns at this logic but as soon as a suspected witch is weighed against a duck and the scale balances, the witch/duck proclamation is substantiated, all doubt is cast off and the villagers are suddenly and enthusiastically in favor of torching a woman they’ve known all their lives.

Can you blame me for wondering if what I just witnessed or experienced is for real?            

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