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July 19, 2017

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On Western ingenuity in telling a good story

BY Sunday, for five days in a row, the daily high had exceeded 37 degrees centigrade.

But the sweltering heat in no way deters the long lines at one of the Shanghai Museum south gates, as I have been finding in recent weeks. Makeshift awnings, in the shape of umbrellas, might soften the strokes of the sunlight, but I doubt they will protect against the overwhelming heat radiated by the expansive concrete plaza the crowd found themselves in.

One notice explained the queue: “Here is the line only for the exhibition ‘100 objects from British Museum’. To visit the regular exhibitions, please walk around to the north entrance.”

There was no queue before the north entrance. In other words, you can enter for regular visits right away. The regular exhibition is a veritable treasure house of ancient Chinese culture, including a millions items, 120,000 of them rare art treasures.

Or maybe it is that British Museum, dignified as Daying Bowuguan in Chinese, that adds so much lustre to the objects that somehow ended up there?

I was put in mind of an incident one month ago. My son was invited by his childhood friend to visit the museum. When I thought of how perfunctory they had been there a couple of years ago, I was truly surprised, entertaining high hopes that this museum visit of their own volition might signify a spiritual awakening in their own cultural/historical awareness.

To mark the occasion, I asked my son to write an article detailing his trip. The essay was a long-winded narrative of anything but the exhibits — which he dismissed in a single sentence as boring, exactly the same as they were during his previous visits. As a matter of fact, the two children chose to spend more time in seeking out the nearest McDonald’s in the blazing sunlight, than admiring the exhibits in the well-ventilated museum.

If they have been here this week, I have no doubt they would have joined in with the crowds for the ‘100 objects’. The long wait in the Sun would heighten their impression of the Egyptian mummy, the Alduvai Stone Chopping Tools from Tanzania, the Hebrew Astrolabe, or the Inca Gold Llama — objects carefully chosen to help construct a “condensed version of World History” (the subtitle of the exhibition).

They might even learn that it was that great European geological discovery that brought hitherto disconnected cultures into interaction. The greed that motivated the circumnavigation — the looting and the decimation of the natives that accompanied the adventure — all sublimated in terms like “discovery,” unfettered human quest for the unknown, or development of science and technology.

Obviously, the West has done a very clever job telling its history and story in concepts and discourse that flatter the West’s image. Many are the countries that have been looted, robbed, or colonized by Western imperialists, yet in standard, West-dictated narrative, they have always been able to preach to the rest of the world from the moral high ground.

According to Wen Yang, professor from China Institute at Fudan University, the human race has a tendency at creating self-myth.

Any myth would require the complicity between the myth-creater, and its target audience. Once the myth is accepted, the audience will stick to it, deeming it as part of their cardinal faith and spiritual pillar.

The West as a myth

“The West as a myth started with Christianized states from Western Europe in their on-slaught on the East, which then gradually took shape in the grand historical narrative of global conquest … after being tinkered with by generation after generation of European and American intellectuals, it has been elevated as a spiritual product serving imperialism, old and new, in its global dominance and hegemony,” wrote Wen in an article titled “What should Chinese intellectuals learn from the ingeniously construed Western historical myth?”

Wen went on to explain that Chinese have become a major consumer of the Western fiction largely because of severe lack of knowledge of International political mythology. With the need for self-preservation, the urge to catch up, and then the imperative of International integration, the Chinese intellectuals have not been as soul-searching as they should. Even today when Western intellectuals begin to talk about the decline, or even collapse, of the West, the considerable followers of the West in the East and South remain as faithful to the myth as before.

Unbeknownst to them, in spite of the persisting glorification of the West, the West, per se, has never been a homogenous concept, but something artificially construed to meet the exigencies of the times. Given its lack of homogeneity and consistence from a historical perspective, the West cannot but feel the need to resort to Jerusalem, ancient Greece, and Rome as pre-history of the West, Wen observed.

Wen concluded that this is essentially the same as “trafficking others’ family trees, or swapping an ancestral memorial tablet into one’s own ancestral temple.”

The truly remarkable thing is that the West has shown so much ingenuity in creating a coherent narrative that their success should be thought-provoking for those countries in need of reconstructing their own historical narratives.


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