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Shanghai Impressions, or, What Cellistic Ennui Tells Us about Cultural Dynamics in the Sino-North Korean Relationship

A few days in Shanghai rarely fails to reorient one immediately from wherever illusory place one has been prior.  In Shanghai, China’s upward thrust is paired with its revolutionary guts, its past foreign dominance juxtaposed at every turn with the new impositions of 1949.  Art of various kinds slides past taxi windows, and the low and sulfurous scent of commerce being transacted hand over fist leaves a low undertone to practically every act undertaken after noon.

Every visit to Shanghai is worth the price, but it remains possible to waste the experience, frittering away one’s time in sullen Western cafes from Seattle and reeking of a desperate quest for WiFi, or in being too rapidly sated by a stroll along the Bund as the sole recognition of the shadows of the 19th century, when in fact a Li Hongzhang-Alfred Thayer Mahan redux is perpetually in motion in the newspapers that so rapidly populate one’s backpack.

What is a wasted visit to Shanghai? Surely, it would be a visit absent a stroll along the long spine of Huaihai Road. There looms the Shanghai Municipal Library, that object of lust for many a researcher with a hunger for the dead, for old magazines, for epochs reorganized and reclaimed, for the first Chinese Republic.  Just beyond the great translucent book drop of the library, which neatly displays and precatalogues what patrons have been dropping into its great and vigilant plastic innards, the American Consulate squats in colonial splendor behind high cream walls.  Once, enchanted by a new digital device and the music positively throbbing from a scratchy erhu by an old man under those walls, I there kicked a can of RMB coins in every direction. It was a worthy metaphor for Shanghai: desire – for experience, for documents, for modernity, for funds — radiating in every direction, abundant technology colliding in mistaken entwining with a dental casualty of some unnamed province, fingertips hardened by rural farming in the one case and by urban typing in the other,  scattering metallic largesse to the sound of a Communist war song in the shadow of muted American power.

And just beyond, beyond a bend on Huaihai Road, rises a large round pillar, the largest bulwark of Western music on the mainland between Tokyo and Calcutta, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.  To come to Shanghai and miss the opportunity to visit such a site would truly be counted as wasted.

Thumbing through the shelves at the Conservatory bookstore is always rather instructive: ethnomusicological research at the institution is abundant, and the publications in this realm are rapid and interesting. Titles like “PHONE”… proliferate.  Western-educated scholars have returned to Shanghai in droves, and their work fuels this city’s prodigious growth not simply in GDP but in lists of published work, or things in the category of what some idealistic people with no regard for the convincing heft of aircraft carrier ordinance might call “cultural capital.”

Then I ran across an intriguing new collection of cello scores “in the style of [Chinese] ethnic minorities” which I proceeded to purchase.  Upon negotiating my way through a few large crowds of Japanese moms retreating out of the campus with their children, each person radiant with the kind of upward gestalt that only in-tune group singing can provide, I went to the airport, flew to Chengdu, and there reunited with one of my cellos in order to test which of the “ethnic talents” who was writing for cello was most worthy of my attention.

Shanghai was thus dispatched.

Immediately upon opening the score in Chengdu, I was struck most by the piece “Autumn Song [秋之歌]” by Kim Jongpyong, or Jin Zhengping [金正平].  Judging from the textual introduction to the collection (focusing on “high talents from among our country’s ethnic minorities”), as well as the svelte harmonic style and harmonically supple idiom, I assumed the composer to be a successfully struggling ethnic Korean music graduate from, say, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing sometime in the mid-1980s.  If the reader be a bit uncertain, such a provenance should be regarded as a complement: the young talents like Gao Ping who emerged out of the conservatory milieu in that era are cutting new pathways into the musical realms all over the world, and justly so.

I was quite wrong about his age, and his relationship to China’s cultural bureaucracy.  Jin’s full biography is available on the website of the Association for the Research of Chinese-Korean Music, to be explained shortly.

Study in Contrasts: US and France Regard the Shanghai Expo

I spent part of this weekend watching American diplomats on C-SPAN describing how great everything is going at the American pavilion at the Shanghai Expo.   Hillary Clinton, having tactfully boxed President Karzai into a corner in his recent visit to Washington, is finally focusing again on East Asia.

Conducting foreign wars with the help of corrupt allies, it seems, has a way of usurping one’s attention.  Even President Obama’s “town hall meeting” in Buffalo seemed a little listless after his razor-sharp focus on the Karzai visit.

And so, now that the fireworks have all died down in Shanghai, American politicians at a rank higher than Ambassador can finally make their way to Shanghai, where their underlings are already crowing about all the commercial contracts that may flow from the American presence there, and bragging about how long Chinese people are willing to stand in line to dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the U.S. Expo.

But America is tardy to the party.  Press coverage has been minimal.  Even at a China-thirsty campus like mine, awareness of the Shanghai Expo is abysmal.  Among the broad masses of the American people, there is almost certainly more knowledge of the fictional “Stark Expo” in Flushing (depicted in the film Iron Man 2) than the actual World Expo going on in Shanghai.   But then again, paying attention to Shanghai — like reading Martin Jacques’ Wednesday editorial — might cause a denial reflex, whereas Iron Man reminds Americans that their dads kicked ass in the 1960s and we’ve got legacy nukes to buck up our pride.

On the other hand, French media have been scrupulously following the Shanghai Expo, partially due to the visit of First Couple Nicholas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni to Beijing and Shanghai to attend the Expo’s opening.  I’ve linked several of these stories in my monumental Twitter feed, and my April 24 post covers a fair bit of ground on the Sino-French front.  Now, as for the Expo: there’s more on the way translation-wise, but to get a sense of the tone, let me just offer a short translation from Paris Match.  The magazine — basically the equivalent of People magazine in the States — has  Carla Bruni sashaying on the cover, with a big caption stating “Carla: First Lady of Shanghai: Surprise Star Guest of the World Expo, She Seduces the Chinese.”

I read a bit of the stuff aloud on YouTube, and plan to be offering a translation of the above article forthwith, since it goes well beyond this Liberation story about the PLA Band’s musical selections which honored the first lady.  The magazine has an excellent photo gallery here.

Here, in any case, is a representative case of French discussion of the Expo.

“When Shanghai Illuminates the World: The Heads of State from All the World’s Continents Come for the Inauguration of the world Expo, The Most Ambitious [Expo] of All Time,” Paris Match, May 6, 2010.

From Shanghai, China has long watched the transformation of the world.  Today, Shanghai itself demonstrates its power.  Two years after the Olympic Games, the third [sic] largest economy on the planet has yet to finish the party celebrating its entry into the 21st Century.  This time, it organizes the World Expo.  At  20:10 on 29 April 2010, the beacon-like city was transformed into a theater of light.  It is difficult to forget that China is the state which invented gunpowder, overturning its use in the arts of war to instead celebrate victories.  Arms of seduction, the firework-bouquets dazzled 20 heads of state and government.  Among them, Nicholas and Carla Sarkozy.  Under this apotheosis, the presidential trip achieved …three days of official meetings and cultural discoveries.  And China deserves one further parenthetical note: eternal.

China Youth Daily’s Report on the North Korean Pavilion in Shanghai

North Korean Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo -- Photo and story by Zheng Pingping

Zheng Pingping[郑萍萍], “After 159 Years, North Korea Participates in its First World Expo [159年后,朝鲜首次参加世博会],” China Youth Daily [中国青年报], May 1, 2010.  Translation by Adam Cathcart.

4月30日,即将揭开大幕的世博园区里略安静,第一次参加世博会的朝鲜馆朴素亮相。“世博会是中国的喜事,我们把中国的喜事当成自己的喜事一样高兴。”世博会试运行期间,朝鲜馆负责人、朝鲜商业会议所副会长李成云几乎整天都站在馆门口,微笑迎接观众。这是自1851年英国伦敦举办第一届世博会以来,朝鲜第一次参加世博会。朝鲜馆成为很多中国游客的目标,高峰时期进入朝鲜馆,要排队半个小时左右。来上海参加世博一日游的常州市民李健,购买了一幅朝鲜的工艺画后,又回到入口,向佩戴着金日成头像的李成云询问画家的名字。  李成云对《中国青年报》记者说,朝中友谊历史久远,四五十岁的中国人都对《卖花姑娘》这样的朝鲜歌曲耳熟能详,所以要借世博会的机会,给上海市民、中国人民带来惊喜,给他们留下今日朝鲜的好印象。

On April 30, the eve of the curtain-raising ceremonies, a site within the World Park district sits slightly quietly, the simple debut of a North Korean pavilion at a World Expo.  Li Songyun [李成云], the Vice-Director of the DPRK’s Business Conference Office and the  North Korean responsible for the pavilion, stands its entrance almost everyday, a smile on his face welcoming the crowds.  “The World Expo is a happy occasion for China , and we are equally happy about this event as we would be about our own,” Li says.

[This year’s pavilion marks] the first North Korean participation in the World Expo dating from the event’s inception in London in 1851.   The North Korean pavilion has become the destination for many Chinese tourists, who, at peak times, need to queue [排队] for about half an hour.   Li Jian, visiting Shanghai on his first day on a trip from Changzhou, bought a North Korean oil canvas, and afterwords sought out Li Songyun, wearing a Kim Il Song pin, to ask him the name of the painter.    Li Songyun told China Youth Daily reporters that “DPRK-China friendship has a long history, and that Chinese in their 40s and 50s had heard songs from the [North Korean] film the “Flower Girl” so many times they could repeat them.  Therefore [he went on to say] the Expo provided an excellent opportunity to give a little surprise to the people of Shanghai and the Chinese people to leave them with a good impression of present-day DPRK.

“我们从没参加过这么大的世界盛会,我们开始也曾害怕、紧张,不知道该怎么办。这个过程中多了中国朋友的帮助。”因为是第一次参加世博会,朝鲜特别成立了世博会国家委会,多次遴选方案。最初的设计理念是平壤的城市开发,后来考虑到“可能过于注重硬件”,为了配合上海世博会“城市,让生活更美好”的主题,修改为“人民的乐园”。 朝鲜馆工作人员金银奎注意到,中国观众特别喜欢以展馆里的“主体思想塔”为背景拍照。他用流利的汉语介绍说,主体思想塔是为了纪念金日成诞辰70周年而在平壤修建的,塔高170米。和李成云一样,他也佩戴着一金日成头像的胸章,但是两者的图案不同。

Li Songyun said: “We have never before participated in such an immensely popular world event, [so] at first we were fearful, nervous, and didn’t know what we were going to do.  In this process, we were fortunate to receive much help from Chinese friends.”   Because it was their first time participating in the World Expo, North Korea set up a World Expo National Preparatory Committee and debated multiple proposals. The earliest design concept regarded Pyongyang’s urban development, but after consideration, this theme was considered as “possibly having an excess focus on hardware.”  In order to be more congruent with the Shanghai World Expo theme of “Better City, Better Life” theme, [the North Koreans] modified their plan and proposed a “people’s paradise.”

North Korean pavilion staff member Kim Yinkui noted that the Chinese audience particularly enjoys taking photos in front of the “Tower of Juche Ideology [主体思想塔].”  Using fluent Chinese, Kim introduced the Juche Tower by stating that it had been built to commemorate the 70th birthday of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, and was a tower 170 meters high.  Like Li Songyun, he [Kim] also wore a Kim Il Sung badge, but pictures on the two men’s pins were different.

几台电视机正在播放反映朝鲜人民生活的录像,即使没有发达国家的大LED、4D影院、IMAX等高科技手段,这些电视仍吸引了不少观众。位女观众甚至拉开随身携带的小马扎,坐在电视机前看了起来。电视里正在播放“朝鲜向往全社会知识分子化,向强盛大国”。 看到朝鲜人过年吃绿豆煎饼和年糕汤的视频,一位小朋友兴奋地喊“我也要吃”。而男性观众显然对朝鲜邮票更有兴趣。一套朝鲜纪念邮票售价20元人民币,而更多式样的邮票仅是展示品,不能出售。 李成云说:“中国以前也受到很深的压迫,但因为有党和政府的正确领导,我们看到中国正在创造奇迹。”告别时,他对记者说,希望你们多宣传朝鲜,多支持中朝友谊。

A television set plays reflections of North Korean people’s lives.  Even without the LED, 4D cinema, IMAX and other high-tech methods [seen in the pavilions] of large developed countries, this television still attracts a lot of viewers.  One woman in the audience carrying a small Magyar [presumably a chair], sat down in front of the television and began to read, while the TV broadcast that “North Korea pushes toward the intellectualization of the whole society, rushing towards [the realization of] a powerful nation.”

On one video, one can see North Korean people celebrating the New Year by eating bean pancakes and New Year’s soup, leading a little friend/child to shout excitedly, “I also want to eat.” But for the male audience, clearly North Korean stamps are more interesting, with commemorative stamps priced at 20 yuan.  More styles of stamps, however, stand as exhibits, and are not for sale.

Lee Songyun said: “In the past, China also suffered deep oppression, but, due to the party and government’s correct leadership, we see that China is truly creating a miracle.”  When it was time to go, he told reporters: “It is my hope that you all do much propaganda for North Korea, and lend support to Sino-North Korean  Friendship.”

Obama in Shanghai / 奥巴马在上海,第一

Finally, a story worth reading about Obama’s trip to China.

And for the record, it’s normal for top university students to be a members of the Communist Youth League, or 青年团.  Does anyone have an idea of how hard it is to get a job for college graduates in China today?  Membership in the Youth League can often help with employment, getting recommendations, etc.  It’s a bit like a student club in the U.S., just affiliated with the state.

No one, especially the White House, should be surprised that there were students in the audience at an elite school in the People’s Republic of China, who are in the Communist Party.  After all, contrary to the Falun Gong propaganda, these are just normal people with extraordinary skills trying to find work and meaning in their lives.

And good luck finding a room full of undergraduates at any American university (besides, of course, my own stellar school, where Chinese fluency has taken hold among a select few non-native Chinese speakers) who can listen to Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping discourse in Chinese.

Full video of the Shanghai colloquy is here on the White House website.  One of the funniest and most heartening sections is when the U.S. Ambassador to China welcomes everyone in a slightly stilted yet still serviceable Mandarin.  Dare I say it? 美国加油!

哇,我的爱国情绪站起来了。  美国太牛了。  现在有意志,我国还有些思想自由; 欧洲也有这概念(当然,美国母亲的奶就是宗教自由),但那地方太旧了,死,老战院。 奥巴马 (反对“欧“ 巴马听点儿右了)说的对:太平洋就是世界的将来。  我天天在本海洋上起床!  昨晚飚飚的,有神在舞。

Sohu.com Hails the Chief

China Still Shielding Pyongyang from Domestic Media Criticism

Li Ruigang, head of Shanghai Media Group, was recently summoned to Beijing for a verbal drubbing on account of his company’s critical documentary about North Korea. This of course indicates the limits of criticism, explicit or implicit, of North Korea within China’s political system. Even in relatively open cities like Shanghai, one cannot go too far, and China needs constantly to keep in mind in monitoring its own media that the North Koreans are on guard as well for untoward inferences toward the DPRK in PRC’s ostensibly brotherly media. No matter how many vanilla reports are filed, at some point the dam has to break and the Chinese people are going to get a truer, less anecdotal or simply extrapolated, vision of everyday life in North Korea. Of course for Chinese in the border areas, more information is to be had, but for would-be viewers of the controversial documentaries in Shanghai, it is probably worse than they can imagine.

The penalization of Chinese media figures for investigating North Korea might also be a case of bad timing.  At a time when North Korea appears to have turned back to a conciliatory posture, the CCP leadership is reluctant to “punish” the North further by airing a documentary which would, apparently, add up to a loss of face for Pyongyang.  At the same time, the Chinese leaders might be overestimating the hunger among Chinese elites for hard information about North Korea.  Most people are going about their daily lives and it is unlikely that even a highly critical television program in a once-revolutionary city like Shanghai would cause people in China to mobilize into non-governmental organizations to aid the North Korean people or urge the overthrow of Kim Jong Il.

Documentary draws N Korea’s ire
Staff Reporters
South China Morning Post
29 Aug 2009

A documentary series about North Korea produced by Shanghai Media Group has drawn the ire of Pyongyang, whose complaints to authorities in Beijing have landed the group’s management in hot water. Executives and senior producers from the media group,…read more…