So Foreigners, You Think You Know a Bit of Chinese Culture?
Sometimes I feel really hopeless while overhearing my compatriots introducing some so-called “traditional Chinese culture” to foreigners, for most of what they spread are either out-of-date or customs only popular in Northern China (where “Han”, the authentic Chinese tribe in its literal meaning, lost their domain to northern minorities and moved southwards since hundreds of years ago. For instance, the color combination of bold red and yellow actually belongs to Manchu and became dominating only in Northeastern China after they built up Qing dynasty.)
Among all the ardent yet ignorant culture missionaries, the most hazardous ones are, I believe, those who teach foreigners Chinese language. The reason derives from the historical background of this job:
Over 40 years, teacher has been a job of not much respect in China (its reason requires another long essay to explain). In the recent 20 years, teacher has become a profitable job because of the huge market of children education, but still lacks the credit as it should have (university lecturer is an exception though), and therefore never a favorable choice of occupation. Students who choose teaching as their major usually are not from the top rank in their high schools, or maybe come from less developed areas or poorer families. In short, they’re not as much intelligent or knowledgeable as expected. This determined that most Chinese teachers can share little valuable with their foreign students beside teaching the language. (Guess you understand now why I can’t help cocking an eyebrow whenever a foreigner tells me how good his Chinese teacher is). Of course there’s always an exception, but how can an outsider tell the difference anyway?
The scant knowledge which can also be found in a travel-guide book may satisfy short-term visitors’ appetite for novelty, but is obviously insufficient for someone who’s going to live longer here. It’s not surprising that the latter feels still so very distant from this country if he meets more Chinese other than his Chinese teacher.
What more should you know apart from dumpling, tai chi, Confucius quotes, spring festival, blah blah blah..? Or after a fun trip to Yunnan, Tibet or any habitat of a minority (by the way, just for your information: those cultures are definitely not what we mean “Chinese” here)?
For those foreign friends coming for my advice, I recommend relevant works of Lin Yutang to understand the genuine traditional Chinese life philosophy and way of living. You will see that although minorities have influence on fashion, architecture and other superficial stuffs, the core value of Han never lost its power in people’s life. This is why Chinese have never been really “conquered” by any intruders — we swallow and remold them in the end.
As for living places in Mainland China, I recommend "Jiang Nan" area which maintained the authentic Han culture.
Nevertheless I feel incapable to recommend more modern culture of ours. In this regard, I envy very much how Brits have done in diffusing their modern culture in recent years.
People usually say we can tell the photographer’s feelings toward his model from the photos he takes of her… But in my experience, a photo leaks more how the model feels about the photographer rather than the other way around — a skillful photographer can make all his models look charming in his camera than they really are, but the fake smiles and stiff body of a model can never escape a practiced eye, which are usually caused by the subconscious estrangement the model holds.
One can tell from all photos he took for MM that Milton Greene was the only photographer she truly trusted. That’s why MM looked gracefully innocent, warmly charming, and remarkably feminine in those photos — she was sure she was loved, cherished as his precious, and she became not just relaxed or carefree, but also revealed her softest side.
Maybe the best muse for a photographer or an artist, is that someone he can never have.