Beijing: Is Americanization “Cool?”
by Ishmael Reed
When I turned fifty, I began to study Japanese under private tutors. This resulted in my publishing a satirical novel called "Japanese By Spring," a send-up of the curriculum wars that were flaring up on American campuses at the time. 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, and I toured the country in 1996. As an exemplar of the world wide 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 my novel at BeijingNormalUniversity. 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 her play, "KOOL-Dancing In My Mind," at the Kennedy Center in 2010 and for which she was dramaturge in 2009 (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 November 5th to the 13th.
Even before boarding the plane to Beijing, I noticed instances 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 hearken back to the Fu Man Chu movies (as 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 engaged in conversation with a white American man 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 the fake Calvin Klein merchandise peddled there. This may be true, but the merchandise available at Calvin Klein’s store in Beijing is not fake. China is the largest market for Calvin Klein 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 worker 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.
After landing at Beijing airport, we walked past a video that showed a performance of a people’s opera upon which the cultural revolution insisted, but later, when touring district 798--a hip zone that reminds one of New York’s Lower East Side with its graffiti covered walls--at the Ullens Center For Contemporary Art, we saw the kind of 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.
Belgian baron Guy Ullens opened the UllensCenter 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 the Chinese. In the subways, one finds billboards featuring European women modeling clothes. While having lunch at a restaurant located across the street from a center called Venti Gallery and Café, our fellow patrons, young people, wore clothes that were indistinguishable from the kinds of things worn by young New Yorkers who congregate near Houston and Broadway.
The restaurant’s speakers were playing Mariah Carey and Hip Hop. With Hip Hop having become world music, it might have had a hand in stimulating the Arab Spring. These kids 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 BeijingNormalUniversity. Starbucks has opened 570 stores in 48 Chinese cities.
Around the corner from the hotel was a shop that displayed a Chinese Playboy Bunny manikin in the window. During a dinner held in our honor on the night of our arrival, 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 an “arch-experimentalist”--to be the superior writer. His work is yet to be translated into English.
BeijingNormalUniversity, which is celebrating its one hundredth anniversary, has a radical reputation. Some of the students who participated in the Tianneman Square uprising of 1989 attended this school. Before that, students from Beijing Normal participated in the March 4 1919 movement, during which thousands protested the invasion by the Japanese. Seven thousand took part in a demonstration in Tianneman Square in 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 exposed the vulnerability of the regime. Censorship abounds. Emails of citizens are examined and, although I could get The Washington Post online, The New York Times, Facebook and You Tube were unavailable. (A New York Times story about the accumulation of wealth by the prime minister and his family led the government to block access to the paper’s website.)
On campus, undergraduates live six to eight in one room. I wondered how some of the valley girls who used to take my classes would fare under such circumstances. Those who study to become teachers get free tuition if they vow to work in rural areas upon graduation. If the others don’t land a job within three months of graduating, they have to leave Beijing.
Government workers who have more than one child lose their jobs, fueling resentment because the rich are exempt from this rule. As I walked around the campus and the streets beyond, I noticed that not only were food, music and clothing part of the American invasion, but at 8:30 PM one night, I encountered some pick-up games: on a broad field of cement, twelve basket ball games were underway.
Simultaneously, insanity 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 Tianneman Square. The taxi driver wouldn’t take us all the way. He said that it was dangerous because of the beefed-up security for the 18th Party Congress in session there, which resulted in Xi Jinping’s appointment to General Secretary. We had to take a subway and then transfer to a bus in order to reach our destination. The closer we got to the square, the more red flags we saw on display. Tianneman Square was patrolled by armed men and women.
The square was dominated by gigantic television screens like those that loom over Las Vegas. We did manage to tour the Forbidden City, entering through a door above which hangs a huge 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 sought to install an American-styled democracy in China. After the communists defeated Chang Kai Shek, Sun Yat Sen 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 featured a live broadcast of the Party Congress proceedings. Passengers regarded the program with silent indifference. I was told that there are demonstrations taking place everywhere in China, demonstrations that don’t reach the western media--like the ones in Estonia and Latvia that went unreported as they 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 yet another war, a sentiment voiced by factions on both the American right and left. Of course, the attitude would surely be different if the U.S. could actually win one of its wars from time to time.
On the day of the conference, I was accosted by jargon emerging straight out of Mao’s little Red Book. A dry examination of Marxist theory? No. It was jargon, but it was jargon lifted from the sort of French theory 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 solid reputation among the American cognoscenti,  but remains largely ignored by Anglophiles who run our major book reviews (and whose treatment of black writers is mostly ignorant and whimsical). For now, they embrace African writers, but as Africans begin to criticize American society as much as they criticize their home countries, they too will be sent packing.
These and other 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 on Americanization--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, can one find the old values, but even there, the younger generation is busy disrespecting their parents. I heard that the countryside contains the Chinese spirit, but this is disappearing in the name of development and Modernity. Only the elderly continue to reside in the hinterlands, while young people enter the cities seeking work. They lose connection with the rural areas and, for example, don’t bother to return home for local festivals. Elders are simply not as respected as they once were.
And so, when the leaders at the 18th Party Congress mentioned “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” it was explained to me that they referred to a socialism that emphasized agricultural development. It’s said that this crisis of spirituality is caused by Modernity, which places profit and material assets over matters of the spirit. Some Chinese intellectuals and poets are pessimistic about the possibility for reversing this trend. Confucianism has fallen out of favor due to its advocacy of a Feudalistic model of society. 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 assumed the title of Emperor. People were lighting incense and kneeling before gods and goddesses. On the other hand, as a result of proselytizing by Koreans, Christianity, is spreading in rural areas, in spite of it being illegal for Chinese to worship alongside foreigners.
There seem 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, just as they have absorbed 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. At The Twelve Oaks, I heard Charlie Parker’s version of “How High the Moon.” In another coffee shop, there hung a movie poster advertising the American film, “Killers.”
Many Americans don’t realize how fascinated is the rest of the world with our culture, both popular and “high.” The American election was followed closely here. (The girls on campus think that Obama is handsome! He’s 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 frequently accost other countries with a lot of goofy, backwoods, truculent talk. Leaders who are opposed to American policies are caricatured and dismissed as clowns or just plain crazy. Maybe the president should award Hip Hop mogul Jay Z an ambassadorship.
Carla and I spent a week In Beijing in conversation with some local intellectuals. It was a moveable scholarly 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 a few located in alleys where more “down home” fare was available.) We exchanged information with these intellectuals about films, books, and music, sometimes hurriedly writing on any available slip of paper. 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 slang would say, “cool.”
Reprinted by permission of the author, December2012
Ishmael Reed’s latest book is Going Too Far: Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown, published by Baraka Books, September 2012