Musings from China

Jack Thornburg asked me to post this for him. Bill Scarlato
Musings from China

Being here in China is interesting for multiple reasons. Of particular interest is viewing a modernizing China as the contemporary endpoint (and, ongoing) of 5,000 years of history. It is thus an opportunity to sit and reflect on what is– as intrepid travels we are of limited experience here– the meaning of what is going on around us. Meaning. Context. Representation. Symbol. My good friend Bill Scarlato has been in conversation with me over these words for many years. Anthropology and art, of course, have been somewhat intertwined topically for many years. Both fields attempt to ply the significance out of the meaning and representations of the cultural world, and so too have the two of us for the past 17 years share our ideas and perspectives on cultural and philosophical life. In this case, China: who, really, from a Western point of view, are these hustling and bustling people and, perhaps more importantly, where are they going in their headlong rush into an ill-defined future? For example, we both witnessed "sports day" at Dalian and wondered what did it mean to see all those students broken into cadres of majors engaged in syncopated, rhythmic patterns. The attempt at perfect order offering a message we could not truly understand, so it appeared. Did this speak to a sense of collective consciousness of modern China? But then, if so, what about the individualism that is part and parcel to the increasing presence of consumerism? In a sense, then, our discussions have centered around the meaning of identity in a society undergoing rapid and profound change. There is, I am sure, a process of negotiation among the population of what it means to be Chinese in a modernizing and globalizing world just as such negotiation takes place elsewhere, including in our own society. As an illustration of our attempt at finding meaning in cultural things, how do native visitors to the terra-cotta warriors think about what they witness? Does it lead them, if they think about it, to a dream world of 2,000 years ago when power and faith was in some fashion absolute? That the warrior army was in reality the vanguard to escort the emperor to the afterlife, that was, and here I am certainly out on a limb, as real and certain as the table upon which I write this brief impression? Or do they approach it, as in general how many of us do in our own society, as just another historic artifact to say, "we were there." How can we, both Chinese and Western, in some small way confront the pageantry of ancient life far from the shores of modernity upon which we stand? Can we accurately read the texts of such a far off world? I wonder about these things and I do so with Bill, as we both ponder the meaning of modern Chinese cultural behavior and artifact. But this musing of ours, here, is but a way station as we will continue to find our way toward understanding the cultural world around us.

Jack Thornburg


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