Tag Archives: The New York Times

Chinese music in the NYT, and a photo blog to watch

Photographer Matthew Niederhauser and New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs highlight China’s exploding music festival scene in Sunday’s paper and online, where they have an accompanying video.

In other news, Matthew has relaunched his photo blog, where you’ll find coverage of the World Expo, an awkward beauty pageant for foreigners in Beijing, and as always, China’s top independent and underground musicians.

Here’s that NYT video from today:

For the record, Matthew is a good friend, and I have known Andrew slightly, but I promise I would want you to take a look at these regardless.

Olympics Journalists Say More About Their Home Country Than the Host

What have the Olympic Games done to affect the world’s discussions about China? Perhaps, very little. Instead of delving into the diversity and complexity of “China,” journalists focused on sports, especially the journalists’ home team. Cultural reporting, too, reflected the journalists’ national identities.

John Burns, a veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times remembers today his experience running a route similar to Beijing’s Olympic marathon as the only foreign runner in 1973. He left China for the last time in 1986, as he notes, “when my second posting there for The New York Times ended with imprisonment and deportation on charges of using a motorcycle trip across the Chinese heartland as a cover for spying on the country’s missile program.”

Burns had expected to see more coverage of the type of things we saw covered during the Olympic Torch Relay. Dissidents, unrest in Tibet, the situation in Xinjiang, and the challenge of clearing the Olympic air. But he notes that the coverage he’s seen has been quite different.

In condemning the West, [Mao] said, the Chinese should be careful to distinguish between the “handful of capitalists and imperialists” who made it what it was, and the ordinary people, who were China’s friends.

It’s a dictum that can serve us, too. Whatever propaganda gains the current Chinese leadership may have sought from their multibillion-dollar Olympic extravaganza, one thing that has been beyond stage-management has been the joy and pride of ordinary Chinese that have permeated the images from Beijing, speaking more powerfully than any propaganda could of the happiness that three decades of growing prosperity have brought to a people repressed by Mao.

The key to this passage is his qualification that this joy and pride has “permeated the images from Beijing.” This implies something he doesn’t discuss: whatever exists that isn’t shown on camera, or quoted by foreign journalists.

Those journalists are unlikely to elicit completely honest opinions from the Chinese people they interview. It’s difficult to get honest comments from anyone anywhere as a journalist. People may offer opinions they haven’t thought through in an effort to appear more confident and knowledgeable than they actually are. And in China, people who have negative or unenthusiastic thoughts about the government are naturally cautious when speaking to journalists, foreign or domestic. (Nevermind the challenge of speaking frankly with someone through a translator neither of you knows well.)

I share Burns’ impression of the most-watched media during the Olympics—and I had the opportunity to watch coverage in Italy, England, and the United States. TV reports have focused on athletics and visits in Beijing ranging from slightly scripted to completely staged.

One morning, I watched with a sustained cringe as NBC’s Today Show cast interacted with “China.” Al Roker’s less than stellar performance in a segment where he began to learn Mandarin was produced with goofy music and colored by a sentiment of, “Boy, these Chinese are tough to understand!” But their bungling through Chinese culture also kept the positive, wholesome American tone of the Today Show’s normal broadcasts.

Similarly, one evening surrounding the opening ceremonies I watched on Italian TV as a singer from southern Italy who had apparently toured extensively in China interacted with shopkeepers. My initial thought was that this particular fellow was a bit brash, but in the opinion of the friend sitting next to me, his behavior was typical of Italians traveling abroad. The commentary, which I caught through some translations by my friend and some Spanish-based comprehension, was centered on the experience of being a disoriented Italian. Like the Today Show, this segment came off as warm toward China, but taught us little about Chinese people—except that one interviewee was visibly uncomfortable when the singer joked that corruption in China’s government and that under Italian President Silvio Berlusconi might have something in common.

Rather than take the opportunity to attack the difficult task of learning about China and hearing the way Chinese people view a great many things, television gave us good-hearted bumbling travel journalism. Anchors were gleefully confused, ignorantly polite (bowing is habitual in Japan, but can look out of place in China), and faux-adventurous (eating “exotic” snacks I’ve never seen outside tourist enclaves).

There remain a multitude of unheard opinions. The admiration of China’s history sought after by the opening ceremony and reinforced by neophyte reporters serves only to reinforce a narrative that had taken hold even before China was selected for the Olympics: China continues to rise as a world power in the post-Cold War era. In the political and social minds of North American and European TV viewers, for better or for worse, very little is likely to have changed.

On the multiplicity of individuals in China

James Fallows got worked up over David Brooks’ ignorant musing about Chinese and Asian collectivity. The product was this excellent paragraph, which follows part of Brooks’ words.

If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

This is the kind of thing you can say only if you have not the slightest inkling of how completely different a billion-plus people can be from one another. Beijingers from Shanghainese,  Guangdong entrepreneurs from farmers in Sichuan, Tibetans from Taiwanese, people who remember the Cultural Revolution from those who don’t, people who remember the famines of the Great Leap Forward from people who’ve always had enough. The guy across the street from his brother. His daughter from his wife. People hanging on in big state enterprises from those starting small firms. People who stayed in the villages from those who came to the city for jobs. Christians from Buddhists. Hu Jintao from Jiang Zemin,  Olympic weightlifters from Olympic tennis players, Yao Ming from Liu Xiang, Wen Jiabao from Edison Chen  — and while we’re at it, Filipinos from Koreans,  Japanese from Chinese, Malaysian Chinese from Malaysian Malays. Lee Kuan Yew from Kim Jong Il. People from Jakarta from people in Seoul. Hey, they’re all “Asians”.

ABC's Efforts to 'Laugh With' an Imaginary Version of Japan

The things I miss living outside the United States. New last week from ABC, I Survived a Japanese Game Show, has gone to work reinforcing the “odd Japanese” trope with laughter directed at the unsuspecting nation. David Marx writes at Néojaponisme:

ABC producers went all the way to Japan to make their own TV program, vaguely based on silly segments from Japanese variety shows. And after completely rewiring the original program formula to fit their own needs, the producers had the gall to blame the final product on the Japanese. “I survived a Japanese game show“? This is like placing the onus of Guantanamo Bay on the Cubans. American rented the space, borrowed the know-how, and made it all happen, but in the end, the Americans maintain: hey, we were just “following orders” to this crazy Japanese aesthetic.

The national propaganda effort fortunately backs up their premise. According to the New York Times, “The Japanese originals [on which the show is based] are known as batsu games, or punishment and humiliation games.” There is either fundamental confusion or willful truth-bending here: Japanese “game shows” tend to punish talento (celebrities or aspiring celebrities), and for the most part, extremely-unfunny comedians. While game shows in the past have sadistically meted out punishment to normal contestants, this has become relatively rare in recent days. Yes, even the Japanese race thinks it’s kind of sad and depressing to see everyday people humiliated on television.

I share Marxy’s distaste. He’s issued a well-argued rant. Read it.