Tag Archives: culture

Why unity through enforced assimilation doesn’t work

My wife and I are currently working our way through all five seasons of Babylon 5. It’s one of the most highly acclaimed science-fiction shows ever produced for television, so not having watched it was seriously hurting my street cred as an sci-fi geek. Anyway, in one of the first season episodes, The Geometry of Shadows, the command crew of the station is presented with an odd problem.

Members of one the minor races, the Drazi, have begun fighting one another for no apparent reason, and the escalating level of violence is threatening the security of the station, so the newly promoted Commander Ivanova needs to find a solution to the problem. To do that, she needs to find out why they are fighting. As it turns out, every once in a while, the Drazis put a number of sashes in a gigantic barrel, one for each Drazi. Half of the sashes are dyed purple, the other half green, so whichever colour of sash a Drazi draws out of the barrel determines which group he belongs in. As the Drazis explain, “Where there was one Drazi people, now there are two. The two fight until there are one.”

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Culture. Who owns it?

I’ve seen meaning to make this post since I got around to finally watching Kung Fu Panda a couple of weeks ago but didn’t find the time. It’s an awesome film as its poster claims, but more importantly, it’s an awesome kung fu film, easily the best one of the year, and it was made entirely in the U.S. This makes it a great example of a point that I’ve been wanting to make. One of my pet peeves is that whenever some Chinese patriot tries to make a case for Chinese nationalism, the issue of Chinese culture and its 5,000 history invariably crops up. This is annoying for two reasons.

One, it seems to imply that Chinese culture and history is somehow better, or more special, than that of any other solely by reason of its longevity. As this old article explains, that’s a poor argument. Chinese culture is indeed worthy of attention and study, but then nearly every corner of the Earth is just as steeped in history. Chinese apologists try to make the argument that Chinese identity is unique in that it alone of all other cultural identities in the world can trace an unbroken lineage up to 5,000 years back, but as the article also explains, that relies on a rather slippery definition of what China, and what being Chinese, means.

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Chinese New Year? Bah, humbug!

It’s Chinese New Year and since I got to go on holiday for it last year, it’s my turn to sit it out here in the Solomon Islands. Not that I particularly mind, since to be honest, I’m not particularly fond of it as a festival. Oh, I don’t begrudge it as an annual family gathering, that aspect of it is universal enough that there’s an equivalent of it in every human culture. The Chinese New Year however has another prominent characteristic to it that’s of special annoyance to me, and that’s the whole “may you make a fortune this year” thing.

As a out-and-out capitalist, I have no objections to people making money. In fact, I regard making a profit as creating value for society as a whole, and respect the entrepreneurial courage and tenacity that all businesspeople must possess in order to succeed. What I’m uncomfortable with is the idea of unearned wealth, that fortunes come and go as if on a fickle and random wind without regard to hard work, strategic vision or talent. Yet the traditional Chinese New Year wishes of fortune and prosperity imply just this view of how wealth is obtained and this explains in no small part why the festival itself is so strongly associated with gambling activities from card playing to buying lottery tickets to visiting the casino at Genting Highlands. The merry faced God of Fortune is the most emblematic example of this. I can understand a God of Hard Work, or Intelligence, or Skill, or even Good Health, but Fortune?

Of course, not everyone is so crass as to wish people with the utterly materialistic “Gong Xi Fa Chai” greeting. The first time I spent Chinese New Year with my wife’s parents, I noted that they preferred to greet people by saying, “May all your endeavors this year go according to your will,” and “May you enjoy good health” and so forth. I can only hope that others can learn to be more enlightened and use a similar blessing that makes more sense than wishing for someone to have money miraculously and inexplicably fall on their heads.

This isn’t the end of my complaints about the festival either because there’s something about it that brings out the worst in celebrating Chinese. I suppose I’m in the minority on this but I find utterly bewildering the concept that the most enjoyable dinners are the most raucous ones in which it is practically impossible to actually hold a real conversation across the dinner table due to the noise from endless toasts and inevitable karaoke droning. How about a bit of real wit and culture please? What I find really annoying however is when Chinese force others to drink toasts. I generally do not drink alcohol at all, and I feel that being pressured to drink for social reasons is extremely disrespectful to me as an individual and highly offensive to me personally. And unlike most Chinese, I don’t hesitate to make my views known either. I suppose that explains why I don’t get invited to many parties.

Wuxia in English

Eagle Shooting Hero cover

No one can be Chinese, wherever they are in the world, and be ignorant of Louis Cha, better known as Jin Yong, if only because television production companies insist on making a new version of a series based on one of novels every few years. I’ve always personally regretted not having ever learned Chinese well enough to comfortably read the original novels. After all, I was into comic-book superheroes, sword and sorcery adventures and space opera. Kung fu fighting heroes and heroines in a fantasy version of ancient China seemed like a perfect fit.

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