Beijing: Is Americanization “Cool?” by Ishmael Reed

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Though dismissed by “mainstream” American critics, afraid to wander from their Eurocentric intellectual bunker, the novel got the attention of scholars, students and intellectuals in Japan. I was invited to Japan, which I toured in 1996.As an example of the worldwide interest in African Literature, I was a guest of the Langston Hughes Society in Kyoto, ironic because, when Hughes visited Japan in the 1930s, he was detained as a result of controversial remarks that the Japanese regarded as subversive. He was also held under suspicion by the f.b.i.

A few years ago, a brilliant young Chinese scholar informed me that there was interest in the novel at Beijing Normal University. I was invited to attend a conference there and give a lecture. They also invited my co-worker of nearly fifty years, Carla Blank, who directed a play at the Kennedy Center in 2010 and in 2009 was dramaturge for a Robert Wilson Project, which I named “Kool.” After attending a dance workshop conducted by Carla at the university, a student said that it was the “most fun” class she’d had there. We were in Beijing from Nov.5 to the 13th. Even before boarding the plane to Beijing, I noticed some of the Americanization of China about which some Chinese poets and intellectuals complain. Unlike the drab outfits worn by actors in one of the silly Romney Super Pac films that harkened back to the Fu Ma-Chu movies (and when actress Loretta Young was made up to look like a Chinese woman, Toya San, in the 1932 movie, “The Hatchet Man”) this crowd boarding the plane carried shopping bags marked Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Target and even Nike. 

I sat next to a Chinese man who was engaged in a conversation with a white American man who was sitting across the aisle from him. Your typical loud mouthed know-it-all-nik American kept berating Chinese goods, “which only last a month’s use” and commenting on fake Calvin Klein merchandise that’s peddled in China. This may be true, but the merchandise available at Calvin Klein’s store in Beijing aren’t fake. China is the largest market for Calvin Klein’s merchandise outside of the United States. The store is located on the same street as an Armani store.

The wealthy, the consumers of these goods, do very well in this country and own a considerable amount of the country’s economy. It helps to be a member of the ruling party, as most of the million Chinese millionaires are. The new communist party chair XI Jinping belongs to a family that possesses three hundred million dollars in assets while the average Chinese earns about $250.00 per month. This shocked me more than anything I heard during my days in socialist China. Many of the wealthy and the Chinese intellectual elite, who were trained at Edinburgh, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard, have resettled in the United States.

Once landing at Beijing airport, we walked passed a video that showed a performance of a people’s opera, and at the Ullens Center For Contemporary Art, we saw the kind post modernist exhibits that one would find in any New York gallery, including a piece by sculptor Zhan Wang, who is popular in the United States. There was a show called “Dressing The Screen, The Rise Of Fashion Film” which featured seven or so video screens showing scenes from American and European fashion shows from different periods.

The Belgian baron Guy Ullens opened the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (ucca) in a former munitions factory, in November 2007. In 2011, he decided to divest. He said that he wanted to concentrate on Indian rather than Chinese artists. The not-for-profit gallery, which contains three exhibition halls, an auditorium, restaurant, library, and bookstore, was entirely funded by Ullens. But one doesn’t have to visit a gallery to sample the variety of fashion worn by Chinese. In the subways, one finds billboards featuring European women modeling clothes. While having lunch at a restaurant located across the street from the center called Venti Gallery and Café, our fellow patrons, young people, were wearing the kind of clothes indistinguishable from that worn by young New Yorkers who congregate near Houston and Broadway.

The restaurant’s speakers were playing Mariah Carey and Hip Hop, Hip Hop becoming a world music, which might even have had a hand in stimulating the Arab Spring. They were eating hamburgers and french fries. I was told that the middle class dines at McDonald’s while the upper classes patronize Starbucks where you can purchase a cup of coffee for 24 yuan, about $2.00. There was a Starbucks located near our hotel, which stood on the campus of Beijing Normal University. Starbucks has opened 570 stores in 48 Chinese cities.

On the night of our arrival, during a dinner held in our honor, some of the faculty mentioned that novelist Mo Yan, who earned a m.a. from this university, had received a Nobel Prize for Literature, though there were others who judged Gre Fei, described as a “arch experimentalist,” to be the superior writer. His work is yet to be translated into English.

Beijing Normal University, which is celebrating its one hundredth anniversary, has a radical reputation. Some of the students who participated in the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 attended this school and before that, students from Beijing Normal participated in the March 4 1919 movement during which thousands of students protested the invasion of the Japanese. Seven thousand took part in a demonstration in Tiananmen Square, March of 1989. They carried banners that read “Freedom,” and boycotted their classes. The communist party has forbidden any public discussion of this uprising, which showed the vulnerability of the regime. Censorship abounds. Emails of citizens are examined and though I could get The Washington Post online, The New York Times, Facebook and YouTube were unavailable. (A New York Times’ story about the accumulation of wealth by the prime minister and his family led to the government’s removal of the Times from online availability.)

On campus the undergraduates live six to eight in one room. I wondered how some of the valley girls who use to take my classes, would fare under such circumstances. Those who study to become teachers get free tuition, if they vow to teach in the rural areas upon graduation. If upon graduating the others don’t land a job within three months, they have to leave Beijing.

Government workers who have more than one child lose their jobs, which causes resentment because the rich are exempt from this rule. As I walked around the campus and the streets beyond, I noticed that not only was food, music and clothing part of the American invasion, but at 8:30 pm one night, I encountered some pick up games. On a field of cement, there were twelve basketball games taking place. Simultaneously! Linsanity has spread to China. Around the corner from the hotel, I even spotted a manikin on display in a shop. It was a Playboy bunny!

On a cold windy rainy day we traveled by subway to Tiananmen Square. The taxi driver wouldn’t take us all the way. He said that it was dangerous because of the extra security having to do the 18th Congress meeting there, which resulted in XI Jinping being appointed General Secretary. We had to take a subway and a bus in order to reach our destination. The closer we got to the square the more red flags we saw on display. Tiananmen Square was being patrolled by armed men and women.

The square was dominated by gigantic television screens of the sort that loom over Las Vegas. We did manage to tour the Forbidden City, which one enters through a door above which is a giant painting of Mao. The Forbidden City was the home of the Ming and Qing Dynasty until the Qings were overthrown by forces loyal to Sun Yat Sen in 1911, who wanted to install an American styled democracy in China. After the communist defeated the forces of Chang Kai Shek, he became dictator of Taiwan.

China is ruled by a twenty five member Politburo, which, according to some, is self-sustaining. I overheard one person say that the regime is as remote from ordinary people as the former Emperors were. Television screens installed in each subway car showed a live broadcast of the Congress’s proceedings. The passengers regarded the live broadcast with silent indifference. I was told that there are demonstrations taking place everywhere in China, demonstrations that don’t reach the western media like those in Estonia and Latvia that went unnoticed, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some Chinese want the United States to intervene. To install democracy. I said that the country doesn’t want to get involved in another war, a sentiment voiced by both factions on the American right and the left; of course, it would be different if the u.s. would win one from time to time.

On the day of the conference, I was accosted with the jargon revolving Mao’s little Red Book, or a dry examination of Marxist theory? No. It was jargon but it was the jargon of French theory of the sort that has burdened many a meeting of the Modern Language Association. The topic of most of the papers was American authors. From Nathanial Hawthorne to Toni Morrison. There was even a paper devoted to the work of Philip Frenau. Another paper mentioned the black writer, William Demby, whose book, “Love Story, Black” Steve Cannon and I published in 1978. Demby has a reputation among the American cognoscenti, but is largely ignored by Anglophiles who run our major book reviews and whose treatment of black writers is mostly ignorant and whimsical. Right now they embrace African writers, but as soon as they begin to criticize American society as much as they criticize their home countries, they will be sent packing. Demby, who use to reside in Italy, lived for many years in exile there has recently moved back to the United States and resides somewhere in New York City.

These signs of Americanization are annoying to some. They blame everything from the disintegration of the Chinese family, the high divorce rate and the coarsening of urban life onAmericanization or what the academics refer to as “Modernity.” One thinker complained that “women are no longer loyal.” American film and television are also to blame according to some. A show called “Gossip Girls” came in for special criticism for corrupting the values of teenage girls. Only in the rural areas, I was told, does one find the old values, but even there some said a younger generation is disrespecting their parents. I was told that the countryside contains the Chinese spirit, but is being discarded in favor of development and Modernity. Only the elderly reside there now as young people enter the cities looking for work. They lose connection with the rural areas and for example don’t return home for local festivals. Elders are not as respected as they once were.

And so when the leaders at the 18th Congress mentioned “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” I was told that they were referring to a socialism that emphasized agricultural development. It is said that this crisis of spirituality is caused by Modernity, which places profit and material assets over things of the spirit. Some Chinese intellectuals and poets are pessimistic about this trend being reversed. Confucianism has fallen out of favor because of its advocating a Feudalistic model. They claim that Buddhism has become a religion based upon materialism, not spirituality. People pray to gods and goddesses in hopes of receiving material goods. I saw an example of this while visiting the Temple of Heaven, which was once the home of a prince before he became an Emperor. People were lighting incense and kneeling before gods and goddesses. Christianity, on the other hand, as a result of proselytizing by Koreans, is spreading in the rural areas even though Chinese worshipping along side foreigners is illegal.

There seems to be two points of view about the Americanization of China. One holds that it is only a stream, a minor influence which the Chinese river will absorb as they have other foreign influences. Others contend that Americanization is changing China in fundamental ways, and not for the good. After listening to a lot of lofty talk, I went to the Twelve Oaks coffee shop to get away from the hotel’s Nescafe. In the coffee shop, they were playing Charlie Parker’s version of “How High The Moon.” In another coffee shop there hung a movie poster advertising an American film called “Killers.”

Americans don’t realize how fascinated is the rest of the world with their culture both popular and “high.” The American election was followed closely here. (The girls on campus think that Obama is handsome! He is seen as being favorable to China. His half brother, Mark Obama Ndsandjo, lives in Guangdong province. A businessman, he is married to a Chinese woman). Instead of seeing this fascination as an opening, our politicians and media accost other countries frequently with a lot of goofy backwoods truculent talk. Leaders who are opposed to American policies are caricatured and dismissed as clowns and as crazy. Maybe the president should award hip-hop mogul Jay Z an ambassadorship.

Carla and I spent a week In Beijing in conversation with Beijing intellectuals. It was a moveable intellectual feast as we spent time talking touring and eating. (When the Chinese say that “food is first” they ain’t kiddin’. Both Carla and I gained five pounds each as we ate our way through some of the fanciest restaurants in Beijing as well as those located in alleys where local foods were available.) We exchanged information with Chinese intellectuals about films, books and music, sometimes hurriedly writing on any paper available. Even napkins. Some of my notes were covered with soy sauce. This kind of exchange is much more creative than an exchange of missiles. As Chinese young people who have adopted American words would say, “cool.”
Reprinted with permission of the author Dec.2012 Ishmael Reed’s latest book is “ Going Too Far.”

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