In View:

From a Kunming Journal



In May and June of 1996 I visited Yunnan State University in Kunming, People's Republic of China, to give four lectures on aspects of music technology. This trip, my third to Asia, was made possible by an Asia Lecture Grant from the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association.

In preparing for my trip I read Steven Mosher's China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality (New York: BasicBooks, 1990). Mosher chronicles the long love-hate relationship between the United States and China. I was struck by the recurring theme that American diplomats and correspondents in China are often manipulated by their hosts and come to little understanding of the country. I decided that I would make observations rather than draw conclusions.

As I adjusted to the twelve-hour time difference, I found it beneficial to keep early hours. As the sun rose, I found my way to a small garden in the center of the Yunnan campus. A dozen simple benches were sprinkled around the garden and it was a wonderful place for a morning read. Some mornings I would arrive to find the garden empty of people but each bench marked by some small possession: a book, a comb, a pair of glasses. I learned later that students rotated the early morning chore of "reserving" the benches for study groups, dates, and naps.

My favorite walk was around Green Lake, just down the hill from the Yunnan campus. Green Lake Park is a gathering place for Kunming residents, whose activities included checkers and croquet, Chinese music on traditional instruments, and many "flavors" of tai chi. Each flavor was distinguished by the utensils--swords, sticks--and by the accompanying music. Much of the music showed a Western pop influence, and I witnessed one group doing what has to be called "disco chi."

One of my trips out of Kunming was to Dragon Gate, a pilgrimage path carved by hand in the face of a sheer cliff. The path is dotted with shrines and small points for meditation and reflection. We walked up and rode the cable car down. My American temperament suggested the opposite, but my guide correctly observed that the Chinese method created more reverence.

Kunming itself is a bustling city, perhaps too noisy and smoky for Western tastes. Heavy laden carts drawn by small horses and tricycles outfitted with cargo beds transport a large portion of the goods that move about the city. They are being replaced by small lorries that seem to have their horns and brake pedals cross-wired. I was reminded of a remark by one of my hosts in Taiwan that in Asia, "a red light is a suggestion."

The main mode of transportation is the bicycle. There are more bicycles than people, I think. Traffic was a snarl in the small side streets and a road race on the broad avenues that crisscross the city. Traffic control was curious. At some intersections there would be a uniformed officer on a platform in the center. At each of the four corners there were two people with red flags on bamboo sticks. Each controlled the crossing in a single direction from the corner. Nine people were occupied in all. At the next intersection--300 meters away and equally busy--there was no one.

Dress styles showed a mixture of cultures. The Mao dress that still permeates the countryside is virtually gone in the city. Two costumes seemed the fashion for women. One was a long flowered dress topped by an "Easter" bonnet. The other was jeans and a T-shirt topped with a baseball cap, usually the Chicago Bulls. School children wore athletic suits with the same Bulls caps.

In general, I was struck by the great interest in the trappings of Western culture and, sadly, by the lack of interest in their own artistic and cultural traditions. I get the impression that people want things from the Western world, but they are not sure why. After experiencing some of the best of Chinese music, art, and literature, I'm not sure why either.

--Gary Nelson

Gary Nelson is professor of electronic and computer music and chair of the Technology in Music and the Related Arts program in the Conservatory.


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