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[xmca] Children As Guardians of Tradition

The Opies remark, in their great encyclopedia of children's games, that children are fundamentally conservative. They offer as evidence of this a slightly bawdy counting rhyme that has been handed down from with only slight changes for nearly four hundred years. 
Since it is slightly bawdy, they reason, it was not handed down from parents to children, but from older siblings to younger siblings and therefore the generational turnover must have been a few short years rather than decades. Thus, they conclude, the relative constancy and stability of the rhyme over centuries is remarkable, and due to the inherent conservatism of play.
I am not so sure. First of all, I think that the Opies are confusing conservatism with  a kind of stiff, uncomprehending literalness that comes with decontextualization; that is, with the self-similar repetition of formulaic language which can only have ritual meaning for many children (since they have no experience of real bawds). 
As with magic rites and religious mysticism, the texts must be delivered word for word (and as with magical rites and religious mysticism, the meaning lies, in good part, precisely in the meaninglessness). 
The other day on the opera channel of Chinese Central TeleVision there was an attempt by CCTV to ape an American reality show format, but it had a peculiarly Chinese twist. Several teams of elementary school kids were sent into a Shanghai park. 
Their mission was to seek out people over sixty and ask them if they could sing a particular aria popularly known as "Wo Jia De Biao Shu Shu Bu Qing" (Literally, "Our Family's Uncles Cannot Be Precisely Counted"). This WAS a well known song from the "Red Lantern" when I first arrived in China (my wife sings it beautifully), but it has all but disappeared now. 
A little girl loses both parents in the revolutionary tumult of the twenties. She is adopted by an old lady, who she thinks is her grandmother, who has in turn been adopted by a party activist, who the girl thinks is her father. Growing up in the hubbub of underground anti-Japanese activity, she gradually comes to realize that her "family" is not exactly like other families. 
She is now old enough to know the truth about her parents, and her "grandmother" lays out the sewing (in traditional Chinese operas, important conversations between women often take place over sewing) and clears her throat. Before she can begin, the girl interrupts like this....
"Our family's uncles cannot be precisely counted
Unless there is some big affair, they don't come to our door
We call them family, and though neighbours say not so
They are, like Granny and Daddy, dearer than blood kin
For here in our breasts beats the same red heart!"
You can see that the theme is ideally suited for the exercise, for it is really how the younger generation remakes tradition, and even teaches it to the older generation. 
The usual story about the Cultural Revolution is that it almost destroyed opera (and it is certainly true that some of the best opera singers, such as Yan Fengyin, were cruelly persecuted for allying themselves with the wrong faction of the Communist Party). 
But the truth is that the Cultural Revolution was rather like a children's game: it was a very literalizing force in opera. Many of the most traditional elements of the most traditional form (Beijing Opera) were frozen in place (hence Granny's sewing gestures, the prevalence of martial themes, the fixed gestural vocabulary). 
Sure enough, a lot of the older people in the part did not know the song, or refused to sing it. The kids, undaunted, would sing it for them line by line and try to get them to repeat, but they would not cooperate. In their defense, it must be said that the kids were not really inspired models or patient coaches. 
The kids fared better with people in their twenties, who found interacting with the kids amusing, but who would cover their teeth shyly when they sang for the cameras. Finally, however, they came upon much older woman with a face pitted with small pox. 
She looked old enough to remember the real revolution rather than merely the Cultural One. So they asked her if she knew the song, and she did. Here is ALMOST exactly what she sounded like (minus the orchestra in the background of course!)
And you could see the kids' eyes lighting up like little red lanterns as her pock-marked face seemed to turn into a little girl's, and in their breasts beat the same red heart. Sometimes, you know, tradition doesn't come back too late.
David Kellogg
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
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