Wednesday, 21 April 2021




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Some insights into Chinese culture from the field of Sinology (II)


Hong Kong culture vs. the culture of China

In a previous entry we discussed the so-called “cultural apology” employed in the People’s Republic of China as a rhetorical device whose aim was to mislead the listener into believing in the singularity of Chinese culture. The result of this “mechanism”, as we have seen, was the creation of a false ethnic identity that had nothing to do with Classical Chinese culture. In this second contribution we will focus on a different question: the classical roots of Hong Kong culture and its asymmetric relationship with the modern culture of the People’s Republic of China.

Common knowledge has it that big modern cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo or Shanghai are not “Asian enough” because Western technology has corrupted the original agrarian purity of these societies, a vision that can be traced back to the French philosophes who envisioned a Utopian Asian state governed by the natural laws of the ancient sages. China comes at hand, not only because it is a rather less developed country, but also because of its stubborn anti-Western –and anticapitalist– stance. We wish to challenge this simplistic –and also deprecating– idea that only Western societies are meant to modernize and that “Asia” can only remain “Asian” as long as it stays away from skyscrapers and smartphones.

In order to ease the reader and to avoid misunderstandings, the adjective “Chinese” is here used in an inclusive way to encompass Classical Chinese culture from the Zhou to the Qing Dynasty and the early Republican Period before 1949, whereas “China” would be used as a synonym for “People’s Republic of China”.

Advertising Signs

One of the most recognizable characteristics of any Hong Kong street are the colorful, endless pandemonium of advertising signs hanging over the viewer. Although similar landscapes of publicity anarchy can be found in other Asian countries –South Korea, Japan, Taiwan– and in many overseas Chinatowns, Hong Kong buildings are literally colonized with advertising. China’s streets, on the other hand, are poor and unornamented in comparison (Figures 1-6).

Biased readers will promptly see the corrupting influence of Western capitalism and its infamous consumerism slowly crawling into Asia streets, but Hong Kong advertising habits are, just like those of South Korea, Japan or Taiwan, purely Asian, as a drawing of pre-Communist Tianjin displayed in the Museum of Tianjin clearly shows (Fig. 7). Since advertising is important with increased competition, and competition can only happen in a free market economy, it is easy to understand why China’s streets are comparatively free from the colorful signs of modern Asian societies, just as they are utterly free of freedom.


Fig. 1. Hong Kong                                                                 Fig. 2. Japan                             


Fig. 3. Korea                                                               Fig. 4. Taiwan                               


Fig. 5. San Francisco’s Chinatown                                  Fig. 6. Hunan, China             


Fig. 7. Tianjin before 1949 (Source: Museum of Tianjin).


Modern Pagodas

Another colorful feature of Hong Kong’s skyline are its skyscrapers. From Hong Kong Island to Kowloon Peninsula, from Lantau Island to Ap Lei Chau, Hong Kong’s slim skyscrapers stand glistening like a massive needle piercing the Earth (Figs. 8-9). They are thin and stylish when compared with the gargantuan buildings of China. Although the skyscraper architecture of Hong Kong is not different from that of many other modern cities, skyscrapers are in no way the result of modern capitalism, but the consequence of modern technology applied to ancient ideas. Indeed, both Roman and Chinese civilization built high, tall buildings that resembled modern skyscrapers. Likewise, Chinese culture had a great impact in Europe in the 17th century, and Chinese pagodas were built in England and France, but also in America (Figs. 10-11).

On the other hand, although China is clearly obsessed with big buildings, there is a distinct difference between the skyscrapers of Hong Kong and those of China: China’s buildings follow Soviet style architecture (Fig. 12-18). They are “corpulent” rather than thin because they are meant to impose authority and remind the citizen that he is just a pawn in the vast chess match of Socialism. Streets are also wide, and there is an enormous waste of space. It almost feels empty. Anyone familiar with Russia or Eastern Europe will immediately get the idea. Communist architecture in China is a reflex of its regime. Hong Kong’s architecture, of its tradition.


Figs. 8/9. Hong Kong

FRP              ENP

Fig. 10. Chanteloup Gardens Pagoda, France, 1775             Fig. 11. Kew Gardens Pagoda, London, 1761   


Figs. 12-15. China (top) and Russia (bottom)



Fig. 16. Nankai University, Tianjin                          Fig. 17.  Moscow State University, Russia


Fig. 18. New entrance of the National University of Defense Technology, Hunan


Music in the City

Music is the reflection and the language of the soul, and Cantonese music not only reflects this soul, but also the history of Hong Kong itself. Although Cantonese popular music is mainly a blend of traditional Cantonese opera and modern British music, Early Republican Chinese music or shidaiqu –literally, “songs of the times”–, which originated in Shanghai in the 20s, became also an important contribution to the development of Hong Kong music when, in 1949, these songs were banned by the Communist authorities who took over the mainland. Considered bourgeois and pornographic in China, composers and lyricist of these “songs of the times” emigrated to Hong Kong in search of artistic freedom, whereas in China a new style of music started to emerge, imitating the themes and instruments of Russian Bolshevik music.

The result of these historical processes has been two very different ways of doing music. For example, the lyrics of modern Cantonese songs are usually written in a more literary style than its Mandarin versions, even when the songs are composed by the same lyricist. The popular song “Next Year’s Today” (Mingnin gamjat), sang by Eason Chan, opens in its Cantonese version like this:

若這一束吊燈傾瀉下來 或者我 已不會存在

If this hanging lantern falls down, maybe I will be no more

即使你不愛 亦不需要分開

Even if you don’t love, there is also no need to depart

The Mandarin version of the same song, “Ten Years” (Shinian), also written by Lam Zik, opens with a more colloquial style:


If those two letters had not quiver

我不會發現我難受  怎麼說出口  也不過是分手

I would not realize my pain, it doesn’t matter how it is said, it is also nothing but “break up”

Although the style connotations are lost in translation, a competent Chinese reader will easily spot the differences. The more literary joek (“if”) in the Cantonese version is substituted by the colloquial ruguo (“if”) in the Mandarin version. Likewise, jik (“also”) in Cantonese becomes the colloquial ye (“also”) in the Mandarin lyrics. Although this is not a rule, Cantonese popular music tends to avoid the use of these colloquial terms, while Mandarin versions and songs written in China usually employ common speech and non-literary expressions, impoverishing the quality of the lyrics.

                Another important difference between Cantonese popular music and the music of China is rhyme. Cantonese music usually reads like a classical poem. Although many songs rhyme the last word of every sentence, sometimes the rhyme is broken and one verse is not rhymed, as with Ekin Cheng’s “When There is You” (Jau liu nlei):






This was in fact a common characteristic of early Chinese poetry (for example, Meng Haoran’s “Chunyan bu jue xiao” 春眼不覺曉), as it was fixed line length, especially five, seven or eight characters long (line length could also be broken by a single verse, as in Ma Zhiyuan’s poem “Qiu si” 秋思). Again, from the popular Ekin Cheng’s “Until Heaven and Earth Disappear” (Zikzi siusat tin jyu dei), we can see a fixed eleven characters long rhymed chorus:





                On the other hand, the modern songs of China were not only influenced by Russian music, but their lyrics followed the literary patterns of the Poetry Revolution led by scholars such as Hu Shi or Liu Bannong, who introduced European free verse as a way to reject the classical Chinese tradition of rhymed verse (Liu Bannong called Confucius the “the greatest criminal of Chinese literature” 中國文學上最大的罪人). Hence, China’s songs and poetry are in fact a reaction against Chinese tradition, rather than its continuation.


Traditional Chinese

The richness of Hong Kong culture is not limited to architecture or music. Cinema, comic books (manwa), literature and many other aspects of the entertainment industry can be traced back to Cantonese opera, classical Chinese literature and Chinese folk legends, including the realm of the supernatural –banned in China by the Communist government– or the Mouhaap (Wuxia) novels, a genre reinvented in Hong Kong after it was banned for some time during the Republican period and for almost forty years during the Communist takeover of the mainland.


                Louis Cha, more widely known by his Mandarin name Jin Yong, is a clear example of this “traditionality” of Hong Kong and the asymmetrical relationship between China and the former English colony. His mouhaap novels –banned by the Communist Party during the 70s– are beautifully written in a vivid yet completely classical style which shows Louis Cha’s indebtedness to classical literature. On the other hand, China’s literary hero and “father of Modern Chinese Literature” Lu Xun, who had an abhorrent use of grammar and punctuation, once famously said that “if Chinese characters don’t disappear, China will perish”. The abolition of Chinese writing was in fact one of the most important movements initiated by Communist sympathizers like Chen Duxiu –founder of the Chinese Communist Party– and his followers Qian Xuantong, Lu Xun, Hu Shi, Guo Moruo and, later, Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. Simplification of Chinese characters was just the first step to achieve a higher goal: the complete Latinization of the Chinese language (Fig. 19).

With all this being said, the reader would still be justified in wondering if Hong Kong, with its skyscrapers and its flourishing capitalism, can be called a “traditional society”. After all, China has its ancient temples and Great Walls, whereas Hong Kong is a relatively modern city. The fact remains, however, that most of the “ancient” temples and walls in China are not “ancient” at all, but modern reconstructions –euphemistically called “restorations”– of the real ancient buildings destroyed during the Cultural Revolution by the Chinese Communist Party. In Tianjin, where I had lived for one year, the most ancient buildings are not the Boxer Rebellion Luzu Hall or the northern walls, which were destroyed and recently rebuilt, but the Western buildings in the foreign concessions, which were spared by the haters of Chinese culture. Hong Kong, on the other hand, has a wealth of ancient history and culture to offer. Only in Cheung Chau –a small island of less than 3 km2– one can find the famous 3000-years-old rock carving in Tung Wan Beach, a cave where the famous pirate Cheung Po Tsai is said to have stored his loot and at least seven temples. Lovers of ancient history can find more than 200 archaeological sites in Hong Kong, some of them six thousand years old, as well as hundreds of temples dedicated to Tinhau, Kwan Tai or Pak Tai. If one ignores the recent archaeological discoveries in China in the past years –protected by international law–, culturally speaking it would be hard to find a city in China which can compare with Hong Kong.