Scholarship and education

Things you don't need to know about Chinese culture

JDM061210yangzhenning.jpg
Do you know this man?

In this week's Southern Weekly is an op-ed piece that argues that a certain level of cultural ignorance is excusable.

The article is a rather delayed reaction to the CCTV Young Singer Competition that took place earlier this year. The opinion column the author mentions was originally published in May, but it strangely reappeared online under a pseudonym just recently.

"I've never heard of Yang Zhenning": laughable?

Song Zhijian / SW

Recently, I discovered from an article written by Mr. Qi Fu* that during the testing segment of this year's CCTV Youth Singing Competition, a singer didn't know the names of the two Chinese-American scientists who were awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics. Mr. Qi Fu said that after that singer "saw that the correct answer was Yang Zhenning and Li Zhengdao, and heard Yu Qiuyu's detailed commentary, he stated frankly, 'I really have never heard of Yang Zhenning before.' At this point, if Prof. Yang Zhenning were sitting at home watching the Youth Singing Competition, he surely would have felt a chill." Upon reading this article, and the quoted commentary by Mr. Yu Qiuyu, I really felt that something wasn't right, and couldn't help but think that it was unfair to this young singer who "really had never heard of Yang Zhenning before."

An individual's degree of recognition is mostly related to "internal reasons" and "external reasons" for this recognition. "Internal reasons" are the individual's accomplishments and their effects within the field — Napoleon in France, for example, or Washington in the US, who essentially influenced the course of history and the lives of everyone in those countries. It would be unacceptable for their countrymen not to know who they are. The "external reason" is the strength of promotion of that individual, which includes "circulation" among the people, media "hype", and the chances that individual has for personal exposure. The recognition level of frequently-appearing CCTV hosts is far above that of many scholars and experts, accomplished in their field, who have few opportunities for exposure. Only by reaching the top in both areas can one breach the limitations of time to become widely known by all ages. Lu Xun is very well-known, yet when New China was just getting established, those who recognized Lu Xun in the villages of Shaoxing were far outnumbered by those who knew of Xu Wenchang* — at any rate, the story of Xu Wenchang had circulated for several hundred years. In this respect, for that singer to have "never heard of Yang Zhenning," is hardly as ridiculous as a Frenchman never having heard of Napoleon or an American never having heard of Washington.

"The 36 trades each have their masters." Practically every field will produce its own "stars" and "star-chasers," but even taking into account just their effect on the national economy and the citizenry, there is a vast difference between each field. And since each "master" has a "trade," there is the saying, "Being in different fields is like being separated by a mountain." Mr. Qi Fu believes, "Yang Zhenning has been back in the country for more than a decade now; he has contributed opinions and strategies for the development of science and technology, he travels far and wide giving lectures, connecting information and talent for science and technology between China and the US- this news frequently makes the papers. In particular, there was even more of a hubbub two years ago when he once again found marital bliss, new flowers on an old tree - it was a focus of media attention*. So, whether from the standpoint of his outstanding scientific contributions or from his "happy life" (in Yu Qiuyu's words), he should not be 'never heard of'." These words do not stand up to scrutiny. The idea is the same, whether it is singers and their fans who do not know who Yang Zhenning is, or scientists and their groupies who do not know who a famous singer is. "He with cultivated tastes (i.e. Yang Zhenning) may not watch the Youth Singing Competition at all," says Mr. Qi Fu; those young singers whose tastes may or may not be cultivated "may not read at all" those reports about Yang Zhenning that "frequently make the papers." Most comical is the idea that these young singers should be aware of Yang Zhenning's "happy life" as an "old tree with new blossoms." Isn't the fact that the media hyped this up as a "focus point" and the literary gleefully talked it up pointless and vulgar enough?

My wife, who is a teacher, once asked me, so-and-so isn't provincial governor anymore - why is he still making proclamations? I said, "Don't you know that he's the provincial party secretary now?" Seeing her blank reaction, I couldn't help but laugh, but before I was done I suddenly had the thought that I really should be laughing at myself - why should she need to know what official position that guy holds?! "Fields have their specialists," and the things that attract interest and excitement will differ. It would not be a bad thing, of course, if the young singers knew about Yang Zhenning, but to "never have heard of Yang Zhenning" isn't a reason for others to scoff. If you know that "jagged rocks pierce the clouds, tumultuous waves beat the shore" comes from Su Dongpo's "Remembering Red Cliffs", it's even better; mixing up the names and calling it a line from Xin Qiji or Lu Fangweng is not really all that contemptible. Playing language games and twisting things around to mock these young people as "totally ignorant", "idiots," and "fools," actually shows a lack of sincerity on the part of their elders — it's hard to call them understanding.

Artists, in most cases, whether they are singers or film stars, need a certain amount of education and culture, and there certainly is a need for those with good intentions to offer guidance and effective assistance to improve their training in those areas. Tests of so-called "general quality," would be a farce if they started from those stars. Those teachers who, imagining they are highly cultured themselves, mock and scorn, would do well to stop and think, if they still remember that line from Gogol's The Inspector General: "What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves!" Is it that they are laughing at the fact that they are ignorant of the basic common sense of "Mountains separate different fields," "Each field has its specialists," and "there are strengths and weaknesses to everything"?! If it reaches Mr. Yang's ears that this young singer replied, "I really have never heard of Yang Zhenning before," I believe that he most definitely won't "feel a chill in his heart." I believe he is aware of this common sense and will not be so shallow.


Note 1: Qi Fu ("the man from Shandong") is one pseudonym used by author Chen Lumin.
Note 2: Xu Wenchang (徐文长), a 16th-century painter from Shaoxing.
Note 3: The 82-year-old professor was in the news a few years back when he married the 28-year-old Weng Fan.

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There are currently 2 Comments for Things you don't need to know about Chinese culture.

Comments on Things you don't need to know about Chinese culture

Bravo Danwei! An excellent article -- thanks for bringing it to wider attention.

If I may be permitted a personal anecdote: four or five years ago I had a student ask me, in the course of a discussion "What was Germany's role, exactly, in the Second World War?"

Initially I found it incredible that anyone wouldn't know -- but on reflection came to understand something quite similar to the author of that article: the failure was not the student's, but rather it was my failure, and the failure of the education system that this student, and in fact all but one of her classmates, didn't know.

Who are we laughing at, indeed.

子曰:由!诲女知之乎?知之为知之,不知为不知,是知也。(出自《论语》)

闻道有先后,术业有专攻,如是而已。(出自韩愈《师说》)

天下本无事,庸人扰之而烦耳。(出自《新唐书·陆象先传》)

好啦,好啦,前人说得够多的了,我这毛丫头可以歇一边去了。嘻嘻!:-)

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