Some Rambling Thoughts on Chinese Shadow Puppet Plays, as Well as a Vonnegut Quote and its Context — Oh, and Simone Weil

The Harvard Ed Portal near me hosts several events, and yesterday’s was “Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band” (there is a YouTube clip of the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band here (that family has been doing this for eleven generations!), and an NPR clip of Wu Man here; there is also a disc they were selling at this event titled “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”, available as a disc and for streaming, YouTube trailer here — more on this disc later, and its accompanying school lesson-plan material, which prompted this post). The event was, in several ways, both eye-opening and beautiful (alien in its tones and stories and some of the conventions of singing; familiar in its musical similarity to Blues and the visual similarity of the puppets to certain Late Antique Anglo-Saxon and Celtic knotwork illuminated manuscript conventions; moving all around).

I loved the show, the performers seemed like wonderful people, and they were very gracious in fielding our questions. I was sad to hear that there were fewer than thirty people left in China who knew this trade — the performers told me that they were 12 when they made their first puppet (out of cow skin, via a rigorous process), and 20 when they could manipulate the flat figures, which each have three poles to move the many parts, with one hand only (to see what I’m talking about, expand this post by clicking “continue reading” below, then look at the image on the header of the expanded post). The younger generations want to leave the villages, want lucrative careers, just want to watch cartoons — though they flock to the performances when they’re held. Thankfully, the Chinese government recognizes the cultural value of this profession, and supports the mission of these puppeteers (similar to how Irish Gaelic survives in the state-sponsored Gaeltachtaí).

On my way out the door, however, I was dismayed to find that an American product was being pushed at the door that, despite its best intentions, was not only smugly imperialist in its self-assured nihilism but insulting to the richness of the Chinese tradition, and its clear apprehension that value is real, and insulting to the Western European tradition, which has also traditionally recognized that what is worth pursuing is worth pursuing because of its inherent worthiness.

As I was there for the snippits of performance, I felt that I was pulled into a communal dream that we were summoning up, a set of stories and figures that could seep into us through the theatrical context in ways that a cartoon on screen never could. A cartoon set to this music could never furnish the lower regions of the heart and mind the way that these shadow puppets might, and the experience of the cartoon could never be communal the way that this live music and performed play was. The musicians and puppeteers were performing the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. They knew the story, and the villages and cities these performers would travel to knew that story, too. These audiences would also know the other stories that this troupe would perform for weddings, funerals, and temple feasts. The story they were summoning was not made up ex nihilo; they were all returning to the wellsprings of their tradition, the memories they shared, and the stories which gave shape and sense to the frame of their common lives. (It made me think about why Star Wars was so important as a figuration of memories and aspirations we have in the West — though Star Wars likely anchored itself in our generation in part because of the action figures we’d play with as children, and the ways in which our ritual re-telling of those stories amongst ourselves planted seeds in us that made the already-mythical Star Wars more than a movie.)

So now we’re getting to the rub. Confucian cultures, like traditional Christian cultures (and every traditional culture with a cultured class and an intellectual heritage that I know of — Indian, Jewish, Islamic, &c.), do not hang the value of things in mid-air; even some very modern philosophers recognize that value is the best harmonization of inherited elements, to create the greatest amount of symmetry possible under the constraints of history. Value may be timeless, and rational, but its instantiation is in time, and relative to the inherited cultural forms, and the circumstances of individuals and communities on the ground. Culture is not invented ex nihilo out of whole cloth deductively from some rational assessment of things (read Plato’s Republic to see why Plato thinks that such a geometrical city “built in reason/speech” doesn’t work), but is supposed to be aged well and carefully from carefully sifted-through elements, which are all given their proper place. We do this in our personal lives, if we seek wisdom; we do this in our communities, and, traditionally, we aim to do this in our cultures (even if we fail across all three). The ground of value is, as my Confucian advisor for my second graduate degree taught me, density of being: the more density being has, the more inherent value it has (rather than mere instrumental value, like a hammer for a construction project).

I mentioned that they were selling “The Music of Strangers” at this event. There was a representative from a company called “Silk Road” which had “The Music of Strangers” for sale, together with a curriculum guide for the movie (available for free to download here).

The curriculum guide, in what seemed like a well-intentioned plea for vulnerability to other cultures, cited a line from Kurt Vonnegut:

I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it. [apparently this is from William Rodney Allen, Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (Univ. Press of MS, 1988), 104]

Vonnegut seems to have come by this position partially through family tradition –his family is entirely non-religious, it seems– probably personal temperament, and education. On the last note, apparently, according to John Tomedi, “Left-leaning faculty at Chicago were also advancing cultural relativism when Vonnegut arrived in the forties […] ‘We weren’t allowed to find one culture superior to another’ [Vonnegut reminisces] […].”  [John Tomedi, Kurt Vonnegut (Great Writers) (Chelsea House Pub, 2004), page unknown, found here]. Vonnegut was under the impression that his writings helped to spread cultural relativism.

I’m not interested in judging Vonnegut as a philosopher when that wasn’t his trade. I read Vonnegut nearly two decades ago. As I remember him, he seemed to have half-worked-out ideas about value and its grounds, but to have his finger instead on other themes, especially absurdity and suffering; certainly I was captivated by The Sirens of Titan as a young man. In the secondary literature and sources I can find –even the Wikipedia page on him— he seems to have sought real grounds for value in his personal life and commitments. Certainly his love for the Sermon on the Mount comes through in his personal life, his interviews, and in his writings. This is not indifferent, in practice, to value. Even if he had taken another text (even if, like Volusianus, he had rejected certain key principles from the Sermon on the Mount that he accepted, like mercifulness) or practice as a touchstone, he found one attractive as a guide to what has worth.

The way that the textbook drops this quote from him, however, is just a sloppy nihilism. It helps children not a bit to build up culture; our cultures are projects that aim at certain goods over a long period of time, goods sought for their worthwhileness and worthiness. If we approach culture with a consumer logic, why pursue anything? It does not help children acquire virtues, especially tolerance. When this quote is given to children, it would build rather disinterest and the reduction of culture to commercial products suitable to the satiation of appetites and whims and idiosyncratic tastes; in the best cases, it would lead to a child pursuing the good by abandoning one culture for another — but this is also a change of allegiance and affiliation, and probably location. In the end, the quote does not help a child identify the grounds for value, or develop a taste for it, or the habits that will attune one to the good. Using this quote here is bad for education.

The logic behind using it seems to be that, if all cultures are equal, because equally meaningless in the end, then there can be no mean claims of superiority, and both chauvinism and war will be thwarted. Cultures really do adopt imports from outside, however, because they find them valuable; Merovingian barbarian law adopted large elements of Roman law, because Germanic law didn’t really excel at dealing with inheritances, only damages. Did Merovingian legal culture lack a real good, and was it not made better for having adopting this feature of Roman law?

This kind of cultural relativism is nihilism, and nihilism is only one option among others in the West, and a rather recent one. To use this Western attitude (and it isn’t even the Western attitude!) as a context for appreciating Chinese culture is insulting to the West, which is not committed to nihilism, and insulting to China, which appreciates that things have real value (as traditionally does the West, when it’s not pretending to don some ostensibly anthropologist’s hat; anthropology aims to look at cultures through a clinical distance that is impartial, but the engagement has certain judgments built into it, and some that are simply disallowed; it is a valuable approach to have in one’s toolkit, but it is not the value-free site of observation it pretends to be). It struck me as a factional element of the West attempting to slip its own ideology into play as the larger context mediating between cultures — a kind of covert Colonialism.

There are other ways of appreciating other cultures, however. As a final note, I offer a counterpoint by Simone Weil, who wisely suggested that

Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else … A “synthesis” of religion implies a lower quality of attention. [That’s from her Wikipedia page, because I cannot afford the book by her that it’s located in.]

Whether one is aiming at understanding the Enlightenment or Jewish or Christian or Greco-Roman Pagan elements that form the cocktail of Western culture, or the Confucian-Marxist elements that seem, from this outside observer’s perspective, to comprise Chinese culture [1], Weil’s attitude is the best one. Be vulnerable to Chinese culture; you’ll be glad you did, as it has so much that is truly lovely to it. One does not have to hate one’s own or all culture, or sap the life out of all of them in order to carry out some equalizing lawnmower effect, in order to compare different cultures safely. One can simply pay attention to them, and learn to identify value, to see and feel the inherent beauty of forms and practices, and to see how their presence in time is mediated through cultural histories.



With a dash of Taoism and Buddhism in the mix as more minor elements — Chinese culture was awash with Buddhism for 500 years I am told, before rejecting it in favor of the earlier Confucian culture, because of the harmful political and moral consequences of the doctrine of no-self, which denies unitary selfhood of any sort to an individual (who turns out not to be an individual), sapping the moral energies of those seeking justice. Even the Buddhist motive for good works ends up being troubling for a Confucian: the Confucian thinks the intention should be for the flourishing of society and the benefit of many individuals, whereas the Buddhist is aiming at Enlightenment.


Header image found here

14 thoughts on “Some Rambling Thoughts on Chinese Shadow Puppet Plays, as Well as a Vonnegut Quote and its Context — Oh, and Simone Weil

  1. Believe me Gregory I count my blessings
    Each and everyday and I am grateful for Maria my Wife,& Hannah my daughter
    Their love keep this junk of a car running
    Yes it is Passover but it doesn’t have my full attention,I much rather observer a day of reflection and peace plus a nice dinner with my 2 that love and support
    I find peace when I come to visit and I feel I can tell you the truth you may say your prayers but I am full of life still
    May you have all the Easter you wish
    As Sheldon Mostly

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad I read some of your post shadow puppets and yo yo ma
    Spice with Vonnegut
    What a combination
    Its good to hear
    Something that bangs
    The drum,instead of
    That tin ear music
    I can barely listen too
    As Sheldon Mostly

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 1 of 4 | Into the Clarities

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