Reading Assignment — Hip-Hop and Clashing Civilizations

I’m guessing that when you think of China, “hip-hop” doesn’t come to mind. But sometimes it’s good to be reminded that there is more to Chinese society and culture than our common images of economic dynamism and political uniformity.  Like every other society, China has a myriad of sub-cultures, including a thriving ‘hip-hop” scene, particularly in the large urban areas.


National Geographic is currently running a series on Beijing’s hip-hop underground, written by a local musician.  Here’s a sample:


To properly understand a person standing before you, it is necessary to understand the nature of this person’s origin – to be able to compare where this person is from to where this person has arrived. As I looked upon the face of the current underground Hip-Hop movement in Beijing, in the black pupils of its distinctly Chinese eyes, I would often see swimming cloud-like as memories do, the story of Hip-Hop’s birth in the United States.

Hip-Hop was a child born of hardship, delivered to the world from the womb of concrete surfaces that was the South Bronx of New York, in the mid 1970s. Hip-Hop was a child of black American parents, his blood a river from Africa, famously rich in those minerals that encourage rhythm, movement, and expression. Hip-Hop grew up and became known to the world, ultimately because he showed that it is perhaps those with empty hands and an abundant heart who have the most to give to humankind.

There are many different species of culture, but each one exhibits a plant-like growth in its spread throughout a society: the seeds of a culture work their way into the soil of those hearts that are fertile amongst the people, the roots form, and in time, the culture’s distinct physical characteristics blossom across the surface of those it inhabits. In the Beijing winter, I was witnessing a springtime for Hip-Hop, the flowering of over-sized jackets and baseball caps tilted sideways; of hypnotically nodding heads and exaggerated hand gestures; of a fresh outfit being thrown across the shoulders of a very ancient soul.


If you live in the US anywhere near a university, you likely have had some interaction with one or several of the more than 130,000 Chinese students who are  studying here. Helen Gao at The Atlantic has written an informative article about the cross-cultural experience of these students:


After a lifetime of experiencing conformity as the social norm, Chinese students are sometimes amazed by the politically charged conversations and expressions common in America. The night Barack Obama was elected president, I watched from my dormitory balcony the carnival-like celebration at my college courtyard, reading the banners and listening to the chants, fascinated by the burst of energy. The scene felt strange yet familiar — I recalled the joyous parades when Hong Kong returned to China and the cheering crowds when the Olympic committee announced Beijing to be the host city for the 2008 games. But the differences became clear when this political energy took other forms in America. “When I started reading American news, it was incredible to see the two parties throwing rocks at each other,” April Sun, a native of Liaoning province in northeast China and a graduate student in education at George Mason University, told me. “I thought, ‘How could you have disagreement in front of the public?'”

Amazement aside, the majority of Chinese students, busy adjusting to the new environment, spare little attention to American political bickering as long as their homeland is not involved. However, as America’s attention shifts toward China, they often find themselves caught between two more or less opposing ideological camps.

Discuss among yourselves.


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