Pass by any public park in China in the early morning or evening and you are likely to see a group of women, and some men, swaying in unison to the beat of any one of numerous genres of Chinese music. These are the guang chang da ma of China and the majority of them are on the older side of forty. (Literally translated it means public square/Daddy’s elder brother’s wife.)
The exaggerated gestures and extensions generally fall somewhere on the visual spectrum between tai chi and ballet, but the music is almost always deafening, and inevitably distorted by inexpensive speakers pushed well beyond their limits.
There are many theories as to why this public dancing is so popular. Fitness, of course, is the most obvious, but the sense of social connection, particularly for the retired women, has to be one of the attractions.
While the da ma have been doing their thing in the countryside for decades, if not centuries, they have recently created some social urban tension and the government has stepped in to regulate their activity. Liu Guoyong, chief of the General Administration of Sport’s mass fitness division recently declared, “Square dancing represents the collective aspect of Chinese culture, but now it seems the over-enthusiasm of the participants has dealt it a harmful blow with disputes over noise and venues.”
As a result, Mr. Liu announced, square dancers would be required to perform one of twelve officially approved routines and more than 600 instructors would fan out across the country to demonstrate the officially sanctioned choreography in the coming months.
Most see the dispute as a battle between the rural collectivism of those who lived through the era of Mao Zedong (and now live in the city) and the more individualistic urban perspective of China’s youth.
While that’s undoubtedly true, I suggest that the explanation for the dispute has as much to do with the evolution of communication styles in China. As I have noted before the Chinese have traditionally been receiver-oriented in their communication style, meaning, in short, that it is up to the receiver to listen or not. Westerners, by contrast, tend to be transmitter-oriented in their communication style, which is why American tourists tend to speak loudly when trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak English.
The Chinese, as a result, have quite literally trained themselves to tune the world out. While the sounds of urban China are overwhelming to most visitors, the Chinese seem to live amidst the din with complete acoustic serenity. They are, in the most literal sense, hearing nothing but silence.
When the Chinese answer the phone they do not say, “hello.” They say – or sometimes shout – the word ‘wei’ (pronounced ‘way’ but with more vigor) which essentially means, “I’m here” or “You have my attention.”
And so it is in conversation. You must never ask a Chinese person a question until you get their attention first. Otherwise you are sure to get the answer, “What?” They won’t hear you.
It is perfectly normal for elderly men out for a stroll to drag along a small, tinny radio that is blaring away Beijing opera as they walk. Restaurants routinely put loudspeakers suitable for a rock concert on their steps to let passersby know they exist. Walk through the supermarket on a weekend and you will be overwhelmed by a literal army of promoters shouting the benefits of their products through microphones and portable speakers that could not possibly make them sound more annoying. Every driver honks his or her horn with abandon. Every other driver ignores them.
This is China. It’s loud.
A corporate colleague who recently visited my company for the first time had a ‘run in’ with one of our company drivers when he picked her up at the hotel the first morning. (These drivers don’t drive Audis and wear jackets and ties. They shuttle employees to the countryside in Jin Bei’s and wear blue jeans.) He was, she described, in her face and seething with anger. And she couldn’t begin to understand why as she was exactly where she was supposed to be when she was supposed to be there.
When I inquired about the incident my staff explained that this particular driver was not accustomed to driving foreigners and that is simply how he communicates. He wasn’t angry or upset. He was just being himself.
My colleague doesn’t buy it and she may well be right. I wasn’t there, she’s a veteran world traveler, and she is most definitely not one to intimidate easily. I can say, however, that I have been in many conversations, particularly in rural China, where the participants sound very much like they’re fighting, barking away at each other as if knives or guns will be drawn at any moment. And it’s a friendly conversation.
What is most typically Chinese about this particular saga, however, is that no one can comprehend how regulating the choreography is going to reduce the noise pollution or reduce the congestion in China’s urban parks. It’s a classically bureaucratic solution at best.
And it most certainly will not contain the activities of the da ma. There will be the ‘official’ routines and the unofficial routines that will co-exist in harmony. It will be yet another example of the duality of Chinese culture and socialism with Chinese characteristics – the yin and yang of Chinese governance. The ‘official’ almost always has an unofficial counterpart – like the rules of the road and the way people actually drive.
That’s where you end up when your worldview is circular rather than linear – always seeking harmony through the balance of yin and yang, official and unofficial.
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Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.