Trans-Chinese Sensibilities:


Explorations into the Culture of Everyday Life in the Form of a Random Essay


Leo Ou-fan Lee


What do I mean if I choose to use the term cultural sensibilities? The term seems rather old-fashioned: any reference to words like sensibility reminds a Western reader of Jane Austin and 18th- century English aristocracy. But the phrase culturally sensitive, on the other hand, is considered alright in everyday language and even appropriate in a multicultural society in which members of the liberal majority are supposed to treat minorities with such an attitude. Yet how can you be culturally sensitive if you dont really know much about the culture you wish to be sensitive about--and, more importantly, if you do not have what Benjamin Lee calls embodied sensibilities of that culture? And given the prominence of "body" in current theory, how does one "embody" different cultural sensibilities, even at a theoretical level? How to negotiate one's way across boundaries of different cultures in one "setting"? It seems that current debates on multiculturalism in the American academy tends to situate itself, naturally, against the multicultural--that is, multi-racial and multi-ethnic--background of American society, in which the politics being played out is that of identity based on race and gender, to the extent that culture, as soemthing other than ethnicity, has been either collapsed or short-changed. The problem with identity politics is that in its insistence on solidarity within and resistance and confrontation without, it leaves out the possibility of meaningful dialogue. [On the other hand, if one adopts a dialogical model, does one have to assume a certain fundamental common-denominator, such as a degree of rationality in Habermas's "communicative action" or Eyster's "rational choice" theories? Or in a civic religion sense, a certain common "habit of the heart"? Most of these models, it seems to me, are based on data drawn from European and American societies. In Asia, the only prevalent model remains that of Confucianism underlying the "four dragons" economic model. Needless to add, Huntington's "conflict of civilizations" is but a negative version of the same, now rendered in melodramatic proportions as prophecy.]


I am not a theorist, nor do I believe that theory, however profound, provides necessarily an understanding of "reality." The empirical reality I am concerned with is that part of Asia and the so-called Pacific Rim where the populations are largely of Chinese descent and where the prevalent written language is Chinese. I refer specificaly to the contemporary societies of Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Chinese communities in Northern America. The starting point of my inquiry is the assumption that despite their Chinese origins these societies have become truly "multicultural" and "international." How does one negotiate ones way across such cultural boundaries in this "pan-Chinese" public sphere? In fact, being Chinese has become increasingly more problematic: in Taiwan, a new native and indeed national identity is being forged, whereas in Singapore the new national identity is proclaimed in multiracial terms although the official ideology is still buttressed with Chinese Confucianism. In China, regional identities, especially in southern provinces, are becoming stronger in tacit opposition to the "official hegemony" of Beijing. Only in Hong Kong, perhaps, does one find a clamor of native identity since the 1970s that is neither nationalist nor ethnic and racial. All of these trends represent a far cry from the identity politics of American minority groups.


On top it all, there are the Chinese communities in north America. I am not necessarily speaking of the Chinatown population, which has been subject of extensive attention among scholars in Asian-American studies. Rather I refer to the more affluent suburban towns such as Montery Park in Los Angeles and enclaves of recent Chinese immigrants in Orange County, the Hong kong immigrants in Toronto and Vancouver, and the the PRC student population in New York and college towns elsewhere. This is a new phenomenon of Chinese "diasporas" where the links with their separate homelands are reinforced on a daily basis by frequent airline traffic and long-distance communication via phone, fax, and computer across the Pacific ocean. Their "politics" is also of a totally different sort--as different in one diaspora from another --and certainly different from the preoccupatin with race and gender in American identity politics.


With the dialogical model in mind, I would like to approach the amorphous issue of cultural sensibilites from a few angles other than race and gender. The "data" is drawn largely from personal observation, which by definition may be suspect to social scientists.




One of the most obvious features in American multiuculturalism is the domination of the major language, English, against which some ethnic minorities (Hispanics in particular), claim their cultural inheritance by way of advocating bilingual education. In the pan-Chinese sphere, it would seem, the obvious majority language is still Chinese, even in diaspora communities. But this language picture is more complicated. Let me try to unravel.


It is self-evident that the "global" economic trends (some would call American imperialism) have permeated these territories and exert a direct impact on people's everyday lives. Whether in Chinese communities in north America or in Hong Kong,Taiwan, and Singapore, this globalization trend is clearly manifested in the widespread use of English, which has replaced Mandarin as the lingua franca of the business world. This has made the managerial class in Hong Kong Tawan, and Singapore practically bilingual. On the other hand, unlike India, English has not yet become the only language of communication between different linguistic regions. In the pan-Chinese sphere, dialects continue to thrive alongside English. Whereas Cantonese continues to be widely used as the spoken language in Hong Kong and Guangdong, in Taiwan in recent years the spoken tongue in business circles is the Taiwanese (derived from one of the Fukien dialects) rather than Mandarin, which holds sway only in official circles and in parts of northern China. (The Shanghai dialect has regained its popularity in the lower Yangtze area). This multiplication of spoken tongues--and the constant shift from one to the other within the same daily discourse --has become a daily habit, sometimes out of necessity but often as a way to indicate one's regional and ideological loyalties. A Singaporean Chinese may use the Fukian dialect when speaking to a Taiwanese, but shifts to Mandarin when meeting with a Guomindang official. A Hong Kong businessman may be talking with a Mainland colleague in Mandarin, but shifts with relief to Cantonese or English when talking with someone local or in Canton. A Taiwanese restauranteur in Los Angeles may greet a Chinese-looking customer first in English, then quick shifts to Mandarin, or to Taiwanese. Recently, friends have told me of Taipei taxi drivers listening to underground radio stations in Taiwanese and throwing out Mandarin-speaking passengers who do not understand the language of Taiwanese independence. In the election campaigns now reaching a frenzied pitch, both Taiwanese and Mandarin have to be used strategically in order to win over the potential electorate.


Thus dialogue in these areas involves in the most practical sense a spoken knowledge of two or three Chinese "languages" in addition to English. To be attuned to the nuances of such a polyglot world has become almost a prerequisite to embodying such diverse "Chinese" sensibilities. However, having delineated the complexities of the speaking tongues, we must remind ourselves that, again unlike India, the written Chinese language remains the same, at least on the surface. But there are equally daunting complexities in the daily encounters with the written ideograph, which varies from territory to territory. First, in the Chinese communities of north America, the younger generation of immigrants (those who arrived at these shores around age fourteen or younger, to attend American high schools) can only maintain a speaking knowledge of their mother tongue, so as to communicate with their parents at home (or in Taiwan or Hong Kong via long-distance phone calls). As years go by, their memory of the written language become dim, consisting of a few Chinese characters (often those of their names and their parents). This means that the written ideolgraph is as much a semiotic system to them as to any person of non-Chinese backgrounds. Gradually, English assumes the place of dominant language, their "mother tongue" and a decisive sign of their Americanization. The traits may be observed in youngsters of other immigrant groups.


On the other hand, on the other shore of the Pacific, written Chinese continues to hold sway. The traditional requirement of literacy is both reading and writing. And those who know the written Chinese --still the majority--tend to hold on tenaciously to the underlying cultural significance of the script, often making a great distinction betwen a mere passive ability in reading Chinese (foreigners and foreignized Chinese) and the active ability to write. There are complexities involved in both the reading and the writing.


In the case of reading, not only is there a great divide between the "jiantizi" (simplified characters) used in China and the "fantizi" (the unsimplified) used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but a further "localization" when dialects are written into it. For instance, fictional narratives in Taiwan nativist (xiangtu) literature are sprinkled with dialect expressions in written form which make little sense in Mandarin unless the reader knows how to pronounce them in Taiwanese. In Hong Kong newspapers, some essays and cartoons are composed almost entirely of coined words in Cantonese which do not exist in the normal dictionary. To compound this audio-visual mix in popular cinema, several films by the comedian Chow Sing-chi (Zhou Xingchi) not only have Cantonese dialogue in their soundtracks but carry subtitles in written Cantonese, i.e. coined script. But then, the copy intended for Taiwan audiences is dubbed in Mandarin, which practically loses all the racy double-entendres in the Cantonese version, not to mention the hilarious acompaniment of Cantonese subtitles. The function of subtitles here is not merely one of listening aid but some kind of comical meta-commentary. (This is by no means a local product; Peter Sellars once tried it in operatic subtitles in the performances of "Loehngrin" in Chicago.) Thus, a member of the local audience who can both listen and read Cantonese derives double-pleasure as compared to someone like myself who is illiterate in reading but can comprehend roughly half of the dialogue. I must have also lost half the fun. (In the theater I attended the premier showing of one of Chow's films, there was not a single "foreigner" present. Still, this does not mean that no one among Hong Kong's white population can understand or speak Cantonese; in fact I met several people, including a young American reporter, who speak excellent Cantonese, although those who speak may not read Chinese /Cantonese. )


One could argue that my case is not so unfamiliar. Some British films in which a heavily local accent is spoken also carry subtiles in English. But they are in standard English only--and English like most Western languges is, at all, a phonetic language in which the gap between speech and writing has given rise to all kinds of theories, from de Saussure to Derrida. (Need one add that Derrida's "logocentrism" may have been considerably more different than the Chinese equivalent of "logo"-centrism as defined by Zhang Longxi in his ambitious hermaneutic comparison between East and West?) On the other hand, written Chinese is both ideographic and phonetic: in its long evolution each Chinese character is laden with an accretionof references in both sight and sound. Therefore it leaves much room, even before we reach the semantic level, for "audio-visual" puns and jokes built upon cross-references between writing and speech. Chow Sing-chi's films are but a mundane example. More elaborate puns can be obtained by writers who substitute different words for words with the same sound--for instance, in the fictional name of real persons in many roman-a-clef novels, or in the implicit puns and riddles directed at political leaders. One well known riddle has "a monk who holds up an umbrella": the answer refers to his having no hair --wu-fa, which has the same sound as law-- and to the umbrella shielding the sky, hence "wu-tian" or "no sky"; the phrase "wu-fa wu-tian" in turn refers semantically to a despotic figure who obeys no laws and whose power has no limits.


Such standard word-plays based on cross-references between writing and speech have been in use for more than a millennium in traditional China. In modern times the game is further complicated, however, by the intrusion of regional dialects as well as standard English. Again Hong Kong provides a most illuminating example. A postmodern critic, if h/she has nothing else to do, may well make an "intervention" at the linguistic level by meditating on a few simple everyday words of consumption: the word compound "si-duo" is originally derived in sound from the English word "store," together with such colonial words as "taipan" and "go-down" and "Ah Sir" (when a policeman addresses his superior); "ba-si" for bus and "di-si" for taxi are common-place terms used by everyone, even outside of Hong Kong. When the Hong Kong term for taxi is transplanted onto China, it is combined with the local term for small van --"mianbao che" literally bread-shaped car--to coin a new term: "mian-di" or "bread-shaped taxi," which is still the cheapest taxi in use in Beijing. While the Western colonial origins of such daily words recede in people's consciousness when they speak, the written form of the same terms may tell a slightly different story: these new terms may look odd in the company of regular words in a written Chinese sentence, jarring its semantic normalcy by juxtaposing the regular with the outlandish. (This in term makes an interesting comparison with the massive intrusion of Western terms into modern Japanese, which is not an ideographic language.) In one sense, as purists argue, this is clearly a case of language pollution or adulteration. In another sense, for a postmodernist this new written language invokes another reality--a "simulacrum" composed of words and terms which indeed represents a new semiotics of "seduction." (In this regard, Baudrilliard's examples are not drawn from written language.) The most striking evidence I have encountered is on the sign-boards of advertisement in the subways and on the streets of HongKong, where brand-names of Western food, clothing and cosmetics are exhibited prominently either in translated Chinese or English and often both-- well known brands as well as their many native imitators. For a half-outsider such as myself, the "reading" process becomes also a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar, evoking a spectrum of half-remembered and half-forgotten references. I become even more intrigued when some of the advertisements not only display prominently Orientalist pictorial images but also make cross-references to classical Chinese literary materials. One such ad caught my attention on the platform of the Hong Kong subway system: it sells genuine Italian-made leather luggage under the local brand-name of "Mandarin Ducks," and its pictorial composition is a reproduction of a Hollywood science-fiction film (possibly "Dune") with a Western man and an alluring Chinese woman clad in a Chinese gown. Though the ad is written predominantly in English, I could not resist recaling in my own mind a whole genre of popular Chinese fiction called "Mandarin Ducks and Butterfly" which typically depict a romantic couple or triangle. Such literary punning is possible only in a bilingual space where the semiotic of written languages assumes the proportions of a Barthesian mythology. (I finally walked into one of the Mandarin Ducks stores intending to buy a suitcase, only to find the price unaffordable.).


From such simple new words, one can string together a cluster of new terms which have cropped into the daily vocabulary of Beijing residents. For instance: I see a "da-kuan" (rich man or big shot: the word "kuan" also means cash) using a "da-ge-da" ("big-brother-big" or cellular phone) and cramming into a "miandi" together with his "xiao-mi" (literally "little secretary" with the character "mi" written as "mi" or "dear" or "sweet"--a purposeful change of word, so I was told, because these secretaries serve also as mistresses).


I give this trivial example not only


I can go on endlessly giving such trivial examples from everyday life. Such, after all, has already been done in numerous articles of cultural commentary written in Chinese. What does it have to do with cultural sensibilities? Still, I am surprised that in the current field of cultural studies there has not been much attention paid to the language of everyday life, for I believe that language use provides a basic clue. It is all the more so when the current of Chinese in tne pan-Chinese public sphere has become a "multilingual" phenomenon reflecting cultural trajectories which rise beyond the political boundaries of the nation-state. [Even post-colonial discourses, for all their sound and fury, do not seem to condescend to the quotidien level of the local as they continue to misspend their theoretical energies in verbal plays of a more abstract sort. This is why I have been so engrossed in delving into the everyday lives of Hong Kong, a yet-to-be post-colonial colony of an already dilapidated empire as she faces a more assertive new some would say colonial master, her old fatherland, China.]


[The "pan-Chinese" cultural map I have drawn above is also intended to show that one of the possible approaches to internationalizing cultural studies is precisely to return "culture" to the complex matrixes of its cultural setting--not to use it merely as a code name for ideological/theoretical combat. Between reflection (in the Benjaminian sense) and high theory I am always in favor of the former, and I submit that in the fields of cultural studies one must start from reflection and research on the most mundane level before climbing up to any "meta" theoretical heights. (This sentence is itself an ill-disguised reworking of a Chinese proverb--and why not using a proverb as metaphorical base, if I am interested in "cross-writing" between English and Chinese? More about cross-writing later.)]


[As I reflect upon the uses of culture on the everyday level, I am constantly struck by the intractable linkage, rather than division, between the oral and the written in present-day uses of the Chinese language. I think Chinese has indeed become a hybrid language, and its "hybridity" truly unveils a multicultural dimension. Let me explain again through examples of film--and if possible, advertising.]


Leaving aside all these dubious definitions, let me use an illustrative example--in this case, a recent Chinese film by Ang Lee, Wedding Banquet. I choose (to privilege) this film not only because it was both a prize-winning film and a box-office hit but because both its content and target audiences refer to at least several sets of what I would call cultural sensibilities. For contemporary audiences in the United States that sensibility primarily concerns gender and homosexuality; for Chinese audiences, however, it has the additional cultural dimensions of diapora (America) and home (Taiwan) as well as different manifestations of exile: not only two young characters, recent emigres from different Chinese regions--the gay male from Taiwan and the heterosexual female from Mainland China (whose relationship begins as landlord and tenant) but the old couple from Taiwan who are Mainlanders from Taiwan and thus also exiled from their homeland, pre-Revolutionary Mainland China. What is missing on the foreground are diaporic communities of native Taiwanese and Chinese from Hong Kong, although it would not be hard to find them in the films "background': the restaurants and the banquet scene. Placed in the contemporary international setting of urban New York, a number of cultural sensibilities are played out with varying degrees of authenticity.



If we are to take a "non-textual" perspective to start with, how can we imagine what the reactions would be among Chinese audiences in North America, among general audiences in Taiwan where the film was a commercial hit, and if possible, among audiences in Mainland China if the film were shown? (Perhaps only in Hong Kong would the film elicit few raised eyebrows.)


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