Transcending Politics through Culture
Ms LU Ping, Director of Kwang Hwa Information & Culture Center, was the foundation’s guest speaker on 10 March 2003. Below is the full text of her speech.
The title of my talk today is “Transcending Politics through Culture”. Transcending politics through culture is not an easy task. For me, just trying to talk about how to do it is a tough job that requires a fair amount of imagination.
In a TV interview with RTHK’s Chris Dobson, I used a metaphor. I cited the Greek myth of Icarus. His father Daedalus, a man with all kinds of imagination, used wax and feathers to make him a pair of wings. Therefore, when he flew too high, his wings would be melted by the heat of the sun; when he flew too low, the wings would get wet. It shows how delicate this task is.
Now, let me mention Yeats’ poem, “Politics,” as the starting point. In the beginning of that poem, Yeats (1865-1939) cites the epigram of Thomas Mann (1875-1955), an author ten years younger than him.
Thomas Mann wrote that “in our time, the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms.” But mockingly, Yeats’ own verses question Thomas Mann’s words.
In Yeats’ poem, “that girl” may have been Maud Gonne, who was also his eternal Muse. Yeats always referred to the image of Maud Gonne in his poetry with affection, though the poet regretted all his life that she didn’t fully accept him.
Yeats’ regret can be found in another poem, “Easter 1916,” which reflects the most critical political act in twentieth-century Ireland. Yeats ponders the sacrifice of Maud Gonne and his rival for her affections, Sean MacBride. MacBride died in the Easter Monday rising against British colonial rule.
Yeats asks in “Easter 1916”:
The poet also laments:
This metaphor is especially true for some intellectuals. Deep in their heart, these intellectuals tend to hold dear only to this “one purpose” - politics - regardless of all other aspects of life. They always give excess of love to politics, and let the heart gradually turn into a stone.
Why do so many intellectuals so enthusiastically get involved in political matters? Why do we pay so much attention to politics and tend to ignore all other aspects of our lives?
One reason may be that we feel a deep sense of urgency, or even impatience, after a century of turmoil. We want to change some current conditions in our society in one shot.
Another reason may lie in a certain paternalistic mentality that seems to be deeply ingrained in the collective memories of our ethnic Chinese societies. This mentality may stem from the vulgarization of a Confucian dictum that regards the hierarchical roles of the ruler and his subjects as similar to the relationship between the father and his dear sons in the traditional family system. This vulgarized Confucian mentality also puts both authority and responsibility for managing society in the hands of the ruler as “father.” As a result, all authority is taken out of the hands of the ruled, who are seen as “children.” In short, this mentality has fostered a separation between “politics” and culture, and put “politics” above culture and the rest of society.
People’s always looking up to the political “center,” as well as this separation between the ruler and the ruled, helps explain why Hong Kong and Taiwan are so close geographically, but know so little about each other.
Hong Kong and Taiwan tend to underestimate each other. While people in Taiwan may complain about the lack of bookstores like Eslite in Hong Kong, they overlook the abundance shown, for example, in the Hong Kong Art Festival. Likewise, while Hong Kong people wonder about the relatively low height of buildings in Taiwan, they miss the beauty hidden behind those small lanes and alleys, such as tea houses, coffee shops and independent studios.
People in both Taiwan and Hong Kong are so used to looking up to a political center that they pay little attention to their next-door neighbors.
I think these phenomena can be changed with long-term efforts from all sectors, especially by people in cultural circles. These people can help to make the rest of society become more aware that substantial changes are gradual in nature and thus need more time and patience. In the process, the influence of vulgarized Confucianism can be reversed, and our society will become more vibrant and diverse.
At this moment, it may be appropriate to share some of my experiences in Taiwan.
A high degree of devotion to politics is still widespread in Taiwan. This may be a leftover of the over-politicized culture on the island in the past century. However, Taiwan is now in a process called “democratic consolidation,” which was highlighted by the peaceful transition of power three years ago from the Kuomintang (KMT) to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Even though many cultural issues remain politically charged, we now can see that the transition of governments gradually opened more genuine room for the development of Taiwan’s civil society, such as a more autonomous role for culture to play.
An example from my personal experience concerns my being a member of a cultural advisory committee for the Taipei City government. Although we have experienced a transition from a KMT mayor to a mayor of the DPP (who is now our president), then to another KMT mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, our committee has continued to play an influential role in giving advice and shaping cultural policy in Taipei.
In this process, we see some changes in politicians. While attending cultural activities, their words and manners have become humbler. This could be taken as evidence that culture has the capacity to cultivate people in power.
Now Taiwan, as a whole, is exploring new sources of cultural vitality from the diversity of different cultural identities and lifestyles, including Hakka and numerous indigenous peoples. At the same time, Taiwan is increasingly integrated as a creator and as a consumer of literature, art and music from all over the world. This is especially clear in ethnic or cultural Chinese art and literature. And these phenomena, through all these years, will become strong bases for the forward-looking creative industries.
How about Hong Kong? Hong Kong has its own unique history and characteristics, which should enable it to become an even more fascinating cultural metropolis.
First of all, the mutual interaction, although on unequal terms, between Britain and Hong Kong society, added color and diversity (as well as romance and tragedy) to this piece of land. Secondly, over a long period of time, Hong Kong also provided Chinese intellectuals with a haven from surrounding political storms, including the Second World War and the long conflict between the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and the KMT.
But with this colonial influence and the coming of talented writers like Eileen Chang and Xiao Hong, Hong Kong has enriched itself and became the Pearl of the Orient in movies, literature, and all kinds of artistic expressions.
As mentioned in science fiction, our background is really our foreground. Indeed, the complications and intricacies of Hong Kong’s past are her richest assets. They have made Hong Kong become culturally comprehensive.
In last Saturday’s South China Morning Post, I saw a similar point made by Chang Hsin-kang, president of City University of Hong Kong. In his article, “A dose of idealism,” Chang wrote that pragmatism and idealism meet extraordinarily in Hong Kong and he further stressed that “an important element of Chinese culture is its inclusiveness.”
Chang Hsin-kang encouraged Hong Kong to embrace both the diversity (created by the city’s pluralistic and international character) and its fusion of tradition and modern culture.
His suggestion is worth noticing. One question that I would like to explore during my time in this fragrant harbor is how the process of cultural enrichment may improve the future of Hong Kong society.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.