Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Alive in Memory or Alive in Use

It was a good idea to approach the imperial city of Beijing from Yunnan Province, the home of a great many ethnic minorities in China. The approach immunized against the unqualified admiration of Chinese power and destroyed the illusion of a homogeneous Chinese culture. Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, is dominated by Han Chinese. They thin out in the smaller cities and towns where the Hui, the Naxi and other peoples live, not as ciphers of internal exoticism, but in communities of their own.

After driving six hours through stunning mountain scenery, our bus pulled into the city of Dali, the home of the Bai people, who are related to the Tibetans. I felt an immediate connection with the city. I could live here, I said in half-wonderment. The city appeared all of a piece. The unity came from the common architectural style, whitewashed walls bordered by marble panels painted with birds, animals and plants. The slate roofs curved gently upward into two ears. There was no spectacular structure to seize the eye. The buildings here were low, not rising to more than ten storeys. Between the white buildings we glimpsed flashes of Erhai Lake.

We stayed at Sam's Guesthouse. Sam used to work for a hotel, and then he set up his own business. A friendly and compact-looking man, he spoke shyly to us one breakfast about the history of Dali. The city was once, at the time of the Tang Dynasty, the capital of the Nanzhao kingdom. The Bai people, who built it, have their own spoken language but no written script. Learning that we planned to visit the Three Pagodas that morning, Sam told us an old story about them, that was also about why the Bai did not write down their language.

A king who wished to preserve the memory of his good deeds asked his three sons to visit a wise master to learn from him the writing script. The oldest son brought along food in the form of bread, the second brought a piece of tree bark for shelter against the weather, and the third weapons for self-defence. After an arduous journey complete with tests and dangers, they reached the master. He granted their request and wrote the language on the bread, the bark and the weapons. On their way home, the brothers suffered from severe deprivations, and the oldest decided to split his bread among them so they would live.

When they returned safely to the father, the other two sons had the writing to show for their efforts, but the oldest son had nothing, since his writing had been eaten. But the father praised the oldest son for his compassion, and awarded him the rich land of Dali. He became the ancestor of the Bai people. The second oldest was given the next best land around Lijiang, becoming the ancestor of the Naxi people, and the youngest, the fighter, was given the toughest land of Tibet. A tall pagoda was built in honor of the oldest son. The other two sons had smaller pagodas built for them later.

The story fascinates me because it pits compassion (eating) against the desire to be remembered (writing), and prefers the former to the latter. In their self-conception, the Bai people are not builders nor fighters. They are, instead, do-gooders.

Later, in Lijiang, our tour guide Janice gave us another explanation for the Three Pagodas. A dragon living in Erhai Lake created trouble by drinking up the water so that there was none for the crops. To control the dragon, the people built the pagodas. There was no explanation for how pagodas make dragons behave. Perhaps the gods, pleased by the pagodas, exerted themselves to alleviate the people's suffering. Or maybe pagodas, those strange towering structures, have magical powers.

Janice is not Han Chinese either. She is either Bai or Tibetan, I cannot remember which, to my embarrassment. She does not like the Han, for she sees them as outsiders who came into that part of the country to take the fat of the land away from the minorities. The ancient grudge has surfaced, for Janice, in a contemporary form. In the last decade, young Han Chinese have poured into the city of Lijiang, made famous by the earthquake, and then chic by the reconstruction, and they have driven up the costs of living. Supported by rich parents in the metropolises, they snapped up the choicest apartments. Many have become tour guides, competing against the minorities in presenting minorities' cultures. Janice spoke scornfully of the superficial knowledge of these guides. She had heard them purveying errors blissfully as truth.

Lijiang, at least in the Old City, was one big tourist extravaganza. Shops selling clothing, accessories and souvenirs lined stone-paved streets, little picturesque canals running alongside. Behind one long row of shops blinked bar after bar, waiting for nightfall to come alive. In a major intersection some ethnic minority group, it really does not matter which, danced in a circle for the amusement of the tourists. The label of World Heritage Site given by the UN may have done as much to destroy that heritage as conserve it.

In the midst of so much inauthenticity stood the Naxi Music Concert Hall. The only quarter given here for tourists was the use of English by the emcee, alternating with Mandarin. The orchestra was made up of old men, a number in their eighties. They played period instruments--mostly percussion, wind and strings--and music dating back to the Tang Dynasty, as well as Naxi folk tunes. They had no conductor. A human voice--half-laugh, half-sigh--waved the music in.

The leader of the band Xuan Ke joined them in the second half of the program. He had an imposing presence, and a voice which he used to great effect when he told his personal story to the audience. He was a rising star in China's Western classical music scene when he was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution for associating with foreigners. From age 28 to 49, the best part of a man's life, he languished in a prison in Kunming. On his release, he vowed to have nothing to do with music, and turned instead to teaching mathematics. He was persuaded to return to his first love when he found his calling in the preservation of ancient Chinese and Naxi music. A Christian, he recently formed a choir made up of local farmers and taught them to sing Handel's Messiah in Mandarin.

Xuan Ke's story moves me not only for his bravery, but also for the brilliant fusion of different cultures in this one person. He may be identified with Naxi music, but he does not identify himself solely with it. He is also Christian and Chinese, as was his father before him. He understands that cultures die--become a mere fossil of themselves--when they are overwhelmed by a stronger culture or when they try to arrest some "essence" of themselves, and so stop evolving. This death we saw in the Naxi pictographic script called Dongba, when we walked round the museum dedicated to its preservation. The script is of fascinating historical interest, but no more than that. Many of us bought our souvenir of a scroll handwritten by the Dongba priest on-site. But a souvenir commemorates what is already dead and gone, alive in memory, perhaps, but not alive in use.

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