Names anonymized to protect their identities.
A few months ago, I was taking a walk with Wu and his wife Xian after dinner. The street was unusually calm, probably because most migrant workers had already gone back to their hometowns for the Qingming Festival. Somewhere along the path, we arrived at a city square, where the locals were still carrying on their evening activities. Surrounding us was a cluster of modern architecture. Each building boasted a boldly expressive design and housed some scholarly function. One building, in particular, shined quietly through its transparent glass panels: the Shenzhen Concert Hall.
Inside, golden and silver rafters irradiated the spacious interior and crawled up along the walls and ceiling like a beautiful accident of organic crystallization. Wu saw my appreciation for the mesmerizing layers and sighed with almost a tone of regret: “it is too bad that they barely make any money.”
It shocked me a little, as I subconsciously equated the sophistication of the architecture to its popularity. He continued: “They hold maybe about two or three orchestra concerts a year. The government must be paying the electric bills to just keep all the fancy lights on.”
“Couldn’t they just hold more concerts to cover the operational costs?”
He heard my naive suggestion and revealed: “you know, even when they do hold a concert, they have to give out free tickets to the general public. We went a few times. Even when the tickets were free, they still couldn’t fill the audience seats.”
For some reason, it did not surprise me. Maybe in the back of my head, I already had a vague feeling of the real reason. But I pressed on anyway, and Wu gladly replied.
“I think this city hasn’t come to appreciate high art yet. If you look at the population, most are young people, children of the working class, coming here from different provinces to make a living and send some money home. They’re too preoccupied to know a thing about symphonies.”
I agreed. Shenzhen became a city of marvelous transformations when Deng Xiaoping, then Paramount Leader of China in 70’s and 80’s, directed his free-market policy experiment. The result was decades of poverty-lifting policy changes that propelled China into becoming a global power. But if you gave out free tickets to an orchestra in another economically well-off city, Chicago for example, “unsold” tickets would be unimaginable.
“How long do you think it’ll take for the citizens to acquire the taste?” Knowing well that the answer is far more complex, I asked the question anyway to hear what he’d have to say.
“You can’t expect things like art appreciation to soak into to the daily lives of ordinary people so quickly, especially when the entire country has been on a GDP-obsessed frenzy for the past five decades. We’ve even thrown traditional culture out of the window for so long, only now is the leadership realizing the state of China’s spiritual health.”
Immediately I knew the conversation was about to take a turn, into one that would have been far too touchy to discuss decades ago. I looked at Xian to gauge her reaction. She had gone through the same tortuous years of Cultural Revolution and had witnessed the transformative decades. Maybe it was out of her conditioned fear, or maybe there was just too much pain to unravel, she chose to stay silent, letting Wu do the unfolding.
“When the Manchurians took over China and established the Qing Dynasty, the roots of Han culture persisted. When the Nationalist Party founded China’s first republic, as problematic as they were, they did not change the ways either. Mao was the only one who almost committed the Sin of a Thousand Years,” a Chinese proverb to describe any historical individual who’s committed crimes against civilization and should be condemned through the ages. “So after the Cultural Revolution ended, what you lost in an instant was the result of thousands of years of customs and values. A few decades of swelling national treasury is not going to automatically restore that level of culture.”
I stayed silent. Our footsteps now sounded louder than before. On an ordinary night, in an ordinary part of the city, life moved on. But it was as if we peeled back the asphalt-woven city decorated with glistening lights, we found harrowing holes underneath.
I suddenly remembered this passage from Cixin Liu’s book The Three Body Problem:
“Ma Gang, come here,” Bai called to a young man a little ways off. Ma was barrel-chested and muscular, like the Dahurian larch that he had just felled. He came over, and Bai asked him, “Do you know how old this tree was?”
“You can count the rings.” Ma pointed to the stump.
“I did. More than three hundred and thirty years. Do you remember how long it took you to saw through it?”
“No more than ten minutes. Let me tell you, I’m the fastest chainsaw operator in the company. Whichever squad I’m with, the red flag for model workers follows me.” Ma Gang’s excitement was typical of most people Bai paid attention to. To be featured in the Great Production News would be a considerable honor.
“More than three hundred years! A dozen generations. When this tree was but a shrub, it was still the Ming Dynasty. During all these years, can you imagine how many storms it had weathered, how many events it had witnessed? But in a few minutes you cut it down. You really felt nothing?”
“What do you want me to feel?” Ma Gang gave a blank look. “It’s just a tree. The only things we don’t lack around here are trees. There are plenty of other trees much older than this one.”
“It’s all right. Go back to work.” Bai shook his head, sat down on the stump, and sighed.
Later that night, I couldn’t fall asleep. I recalled the moment of sorrow I felt in Japan just a few weeks before.
It was during a morning walk in the neighborhoods of Ebisu. I wandered through the narrow allies and stumbled into a rather large shrine, consisted of a few traditional wooden buildings arranged symmetrically around an evenly paved street. A group of locals in meticulously dressed kimono slowly walked towards the shrine entrance in quiet chatter.
As I walked below the low-hung roof eave, the well-weathered rectangular rafters drew my attention. There were hundreds of them, each one engraved with the mark of its carpenter. They varied in age: some freshly replaced and some darkened like seasoned wood. As I zoomed out to appreciate the intricacy of the interlocking woodwork, the dignified double eave roof, and the thoughtfully arranged greeneries in the courtyard, I marveled at the millennia of architectural wisdom that manifested itself in this shrine, humbly standing here without glory or fame, serving the ordinary people every day. As I walked away, I felt a sudden sharp sorrow sinking into me:
The art of Chinese architecture thrives in the daily lives on a foreign land far away from its birthplace, where no longer can you observe the same.
Walk down the streets of a Chinese city, you can barely find anything that uniquely defines the people. There is a creeping sameness made of concrete and steel that swept many regions. China does not lack beautiful historical architecture, but tourist passes and bullet-proof glass cases shouldn’t be the way Chinese people experience Chinese culture. Through centuries of colonialism, civil war, and man-made disasters like the Cultural Revolution, the fire of culture was extinguished in too many parts of China, only to be relit with gasoline on a plastic torch.
It is a luxury to be thinking about things like appreciation of art and culture. It is also tempting to pin down the cause of cultural decline to a single person or single event, but in a sense, everybody is a victim and everyone is a sinner. Civilization lives on through the daily thoughts and interactions of the ordinary people. It is beautiful because it is evanescent. In a harsh universe of 2.735K above absolute zero, what makes humanity meaningful is this intangible and fragile connection between us that we call culture.
Perhaps the tree stump, with its vast roots, can sprout once again. The thought gave me some peace as I fell asleep.