I was wandering around by myself in Paris a few weeks ago when I chanced upon a Chinese couple having their picture taken on the bridge (the Pont de la Tournelle) that links the Ile Saint-Louis with the Left Bank.
I smiled because it reminded me of Chinese friends and family who’d also gone to astonishing lengths to create really beautiful wedding albums. But these had typically involved more modest devices like studio backdrops and costume changes and settings within easy reach of where they lived in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
But here, in Paris, was a couple taking things to the next level. Something told me that they were from mainland China and that money was no object; I guessed her father’s money was no object but I could be wrong.
Then, having walked past, I doubled back, camera in hand, because the whole set up started me thinking about the power of ideas. That may seem like a leap but bear with me. Hopefully you’ll see it’s not even if it perhaps raises more questions that answers.
I was always taken with the idea that the TV show Dallas did more to bring down the Berlin Wall than any number of US or British tank divisions or missile batteries. So the argument goes that the ‘Ossies’ (East Germans) picked up West German terrestrial TV broadcasts and got a window into the life they supposed people were living in the United States. On one level it shows the dangers of having a propaganda led media; if no one trusts what it says, if the picture it presents is so easily contradicted by what people see with their own eyes when they watch Dallas, then it’s very hard to persuade a sceptical audience that Dallas is pure fiction. media without credibility is media without influence or power.
What they saw of the West was simply unbelievably glamorous. East Germans wanted a piece of it.
In truth it wasn’t just Dallas. Everyday broadcasts showing life in the West and the higher standard of living gave the lie to what the Communist authorities claimed about life over the border.
Western consumerism has since moved on to infect more and more of the world. Rather than value themselves by their talents, their achievements or the respect they command, people the world over increasingly chase meaning and status through stuff. It’s infectious. It’s certainly taken by storm what some, with an odd degree of sincerity, still insist on referring to as Communist China.
But how about other ideas? The one that this couple prompted me to think about is romance. Is the idea of romantic love a universal? Certainly you can look back and find perfectly contemporary visions of romantic love in Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets. But both have informed my culture.
I wondered whether our notions of romantic love are identical to those elsewhere, in Africa, India and China for instance. The idea has apparently taken hold in China that Paris is the romantic capital of the world. But is that idea understood from the inside or is it simply a second hand notion; that because people who know better than oneself believe Paris to be the most romantic location that it must be? Confucian culture is heavy on accepting what one is taught (whereas the western Socratic tradition is equally heavy on the notion of challenging and overturning what one is taught).
I suspect people are better at filtering these ideas than we may suspect and making them there own – taking the bits they like and rejecting those they don’t. I’m part way through Peter Hessler’s book River Town about the time he spent living by the Yangtze teaching English in the mid 90s. The opening chapter is entitled ‘Shakespeare with Chinese characteristics’. Hessler affectionately recounts how his students criticise the behaviour of Shakespeare’s protagonists and show how they could have done better if they’d followed The Chinese Communist Party’s advice. I suspect the latest generation of mainland Chinese students might view things through a less Party orientated but no less culturally Chinese filter.
I don’t have the answers to these questions. But they do make me wonder whether the conflicts of the future, fought out in cyberspace, will be more for control of people’s beliefs than for control of where they live; cultural and ideological rather than physical territory, a massive extension of the notion of a battle for hearts and minds (a phrase first coined in 1950s Malaya by Sir Gerard Templer; “The answer [to the uprising] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people.”
Are the romance of Paris and the wild freedom of the American West the nukes of the 21st century? What will Russia, India, China and Brazil counter with in the culture wars?