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Finding Chinese identity through the written word

Natalia Makarova

The Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova once commented to Maria Callas that very few dancers in the West "can use their hands expressively and make them speak." With most of them, "the whole arm moves from the shoulder without the palm opening, which it should, at the end of the movement" - it is this final accent that "can express a great range of emotional shadings, almost an entire character."

I remembered Makarova's observation as I listened to Hong Kong radio host Chip Tsao (陶傑) denouncing the DSE paper on Chinese as being hopelessly removed from the daily realities of present-day teenagers. How can this compulsory, must-pass exam - which makes the chance of studying at university hinge on whether students can, among other things, decipher randomly-selected samples of arcane ancient texts - resonate with youngsters who had grown up accustomed to communicating by means of emoticons?

Having spent a decade living in mainland and picking up educated mainlanders' custom of exploiting the full range of expression afforded to them by China's literary tradition to enliven a conversation, I had long taken for granted the capacity of literary references to add flair to a dialogue much the way I would imagine the opening palm would add eloquence in ballet. Tsao's remark therefore came as a shock, for suddenly, I was thrown back to my secondary school days. Back, in fact, to a classroom setting not unlike a scene straight out of Tsao's own film Enthralled: an expressionless teacher goes through the motions of presenting a lesson on Chinese culture to a roomful of students whose body language gives every indication that they'd rather be elsewhere ; a few didn't even bother to hide their boredom and have simply dozed off. Those who have managed to stay awake have one overriding concern: which portion of the material their teacher is unthinkingly dumping on them will they be tested on?

As someone who had not only done her fair share of dozing off during her Chinese lessons but who had also often been singled out by her teachers as being particularly lazy, I am more surprised than anyone by my new-found fascination in Chinese literature and history. Admittedly, my interest was first motivated by practical considerations. In a country where connections usually means less pain at work, I had to work on keeping myself in the good graces of others, which, sooner or later, involves learning how to say no indirectly. Before long, I found it handy to have at my disposal a wealth of historical and literary analogies that I could use both as a shield and as an intermediary to convey my intent.

Once, I had already gone home from work when a male friend asked me out for dinner. I said yes and went out bare-faced, clad in off-duty attire more suited to impromptu nocturnal visits to the convenience store - he was a close friend whom there was no need to impress or flatter, so I felt comfortable about dressing down. But when he saw me he misinterpreted - he thought I liked him enough to let my guard down.

The situation not only called for immediate action to draw the line but also diplomacy, as he was a dear friend whom I had to take care to not embarrass. In a split second my mind zoomed in on an analogy that could deliver my message for me: Li Furen (李夫人), a concubine of a Han Dynasty emperor (漢武帝), was fatally stricken with an illness. The emperor insisted on seeing her on her deathbed but she adamantly refused, telling confidants she'd rather risk his displeasure than sully his memory of her beauty.

I simply had to relate the Li Furen story to my friend, whereupon his eyes immediately showed he had understood the implication - if I had romantic interest in him, I wouldn't have let him see me dressed like this.

Until I came across Tsao's gripe about the DSE Chinese paper, I would never have thought of my acquired-in-China dexterity in using literary allusions to do the talking for me as akin to deploying emoticons to signify my sentiments. Indeed, just as mobile phone users more or less share the same basic drop-down menu of emoticons on their phone screens, so, Chinese people well-versed in their cultural heritage can, in their discourse with each other, make the most of the same body of classical texts to illuminate the matter at hand. When a fitting reference pops up in your mind, it is a mystifying moment: the historical anecdote or literary citation seems to arrive destined just for your own use, yet still, you are somehow convinced that in the days gone by there were those who had employed it in a context applicable to them and had similarly held its aptness in awe. To borrow a digital economy term, sourcing a fitting allusion is like taking part in a sharing economy with one's ancestors. The Qing dynasty thinker Gong Zizhen (龔自珍) had it in him to put it more poetically, though: "fortuitous encounters with the written word have the intensity of blood ties" (文字緣同骨肉深).

After faulting Western dancers for failing to take full advantage of the expressive potential of their hands, Makarova referred to a scene in the ballet Giselle in which this defect was especially glaring, and playfully challenged Callas to demonstrate the gesture ably. In Makarova’s telling, immediately Callas "performed the very movement with such sovereign grace and simplicity that I was stunned," even instinctively nailing down the details Makarova's hadn't been self-aware enough to spell out - "the turn of the head, the neck, the expression in her eyes - everything came of itself and was absolutely right."

I can recognize in this instant meeting of minds between Makarova and Callas - made all the more uncanny because looking back one could see Makarova’s had briefed Callas on the Giselle gesture only barely - the same kind of rapport that can suddenly erupt between a mainland friend and I as we marvel in silence at the whirlwind of happy coincidences a whimsical application of a literary citation have set off - I can't emphasize "in silence" enough, because much of the magic is predicated upon pausing and letting it dawn on both that the other has caught the implied meaning of the metaphor at just the same time.

I don't know about others, but for me, it was an accumulation of such charged moments that awakened a supposedly ancient culture in me and steered me towards identifying with my motherland. So, curiously, by living in mainland, imitating the way sophisticated mainlanders speak, appreciating the Chinese language the way they do - by acquiring what is in effect my second shot at an education on Chinese literature and history - I've found myself to be in possession of that one elusive quality that Beijing and the Hong Kong government are so eager to instill in Hong Kong youths: the feeling that I'm Chinese. And the irony of it all is a measure of the failure of my Chinese education the first time round is this whole process of writing about trying my hand at Chinese culture the second time felt like indulging in the satisfaction of giving my former Chinese teachers the finger. If they had had half the fun I've had, they wouldn't have had the heart to teach me the way they did.