Last week we published a video recital of one of China’s greatest modern poems by one of the best-known Western personalities in the country. The general feedback to the video Farewell Again, Cambridge 再别康桥, recited by Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who speaks flawless Mandarin Chinese (with a hint of a Beijing accent), has been overwhelmingly positive. As an instigator of the project and one of the translators of the poem (the other is my 16 year-old daughter), I feel inspired to find more opportunities like this to promote cultural appreciation between China and the Western world. This is also a passion shared by Rowswell, a friend of mine for 30 years.
I first came across his video on social media early last month. It was intended as a present to his daughter who had graduated from university amid the pandemic. His reading was so evocative that I shared it with my husband and my daughter. We thought “why not introduce it to Week in China’s readers so that they can appreciate the beauty of Chinese poetry and perhaps even be inspired to pick up or improve their Chinese?”
I first met Rowswell, aka Dashan 大山 as he’s widely known in China, in 1989 when he was learning Chinese at Peking University and I was an undergrad at a neighbouring college. We were language and culture buddies for two years. Perhaps because he was smarter and more hardworking than me (or maybe my teaching skills were better than his) but when I graduated from college his Chinese was near perfect, while my English was still half-baked.
In the following years, Dashan has become a domestic celebrity for his endearing performances in Chinese style stand-up comedy or xiangsheng 相声 as well as a wide range of television shows. He has also worked as a quasi cultural ambassador for Canada, serving as Team Attaché to its Olympic Committee at the 2008 Beijing Olympic and as its Commissioner General at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. He has inspired many Western students to learn about China and its language but also frustrated more than a few, who have been subject to comments by locals like “your Chinese is good but not as good as Dashan’s.”
American writer Peter Hessler expressed his annoyance at this a few times in his debut bestseller River Town.
In recent years, Dashan has been performing stand-up comedy in Chinese with live audiences across the country. His topics are mostly cross-cultural insights based on his experiences. He lets the audience see things from a Western but non-judgmental perspective. However, one of the funniest skits is linguistic in nature, demonstrating how challenging it is to master Cantonese, which is a daunting language to Mandarin speakers for its nine tones (instead of the four for Mandarin).
Since the Covid-19 pandemic started earlier this year, we have had many email and WeChat exchanges on a wide range of issues. We are both disturbed and dismayed by the growing sense of mistrust and even hostility between China and the West. We can hardly believe the resentment that’s permeating in many social circles today, a scenario far from anything we have experienced in our lifetimes. We both blame exploitative politicians and the media that have distorted facts and misled the public in their respective societies.
We hope to continue to use our own platforms to promote mutual understanding between China and the West, especially in areas that transcend ideology such as art and culture. Even if the world is falling apart around us, at least we still have poetry! We just need more cultural ambassadors like Dashan to remind us of the commonality beyond political, social and cultural boundaries.
To see the video of the recital, go to this URL: www.weekinchina.com/farewell-again-cambridge
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]
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