Lately I have been writing about Generations 80 and 90 because much of what they do and think mark interesting sites of departure from older generations. Today, a brief comment about my experience watching Beijing Opera with an 80 year-old friend.
Television broadcasts of Beijing Opera come with subtitles, but they are often not enough for me to follow the story and so Aunt Gao talked me through the story of Princess One Hundred Flowers (百花公主). More specifically, Aunt Gao could interpret the highly stylized choreography that moved the story forward. For example, during the drinking game that makes General Haisheng drunk, Aunt Gao explained the hand movements and when it was obvious someone was cheating. She also could anticipate why getting Haisheng drunk was a covert attack: when drunk we loose control and we breach rules that normal we would not.
Aunt Gao’s attention to and interpretation of these stylized movements brought her pleasure. She also enjoyed humming along with the singer and then reading the subtitles after they had been sung, emphasizing the beauty of the language and the story. Indeed, as Kenneth Burke has emphasized, one of the joys of watching familar stories is giving ourselves over to the narrative arc of the story. Familar stories not only bring emotional cartharsis, but also confirm the world as we know. In this sense, Beijing Opera allowed Aunt Gao to confidently inhabit the world.
In contrast, when we have watched contemporary films, Aunt Gao has been less engaged. She wanders off to complete a chore or pesters her children for an explanation of the plot and an introduction to the characters. Moreover, although she watches contemporary works in order to connect with us young’uns, it is clear her heart is elsewhere.
What have I learned from watching Beijing Opera with Aunt Gao?
First, that new plots and narrative styles do separate Aunt Gao from younger generations and not simply those of the 80s and 90s. In other words, when Beijing Opera bores us, we inadvertantly isolate her because she doesn’t share our engagement with more contemporary art forms.
Second, our ability to suspend disbelief and surrender to a story is not only cultural, but also generational. Indeed, in many of my analyses of Shenzhen, I stress class, gender and regional culture, but I often overlook how older generations have different and equally valid storylines. In other words, Generations 80 and 90 interest me because they are different from me. Nevertheless, I have tended to ignore Generations 30, 40 and 50 because those are the generations that I have been establishing myself and my narratives against. Or even more prosaically, I don’t engage what don’t understand and consquently have overlooked and no doubt misunderstood all sorts of experience. Thus, the way I have have come to recognize difference constitutes an important limitation to what I know precisely because how I came to know what I know is marked in ways beyond my ken.
Third and possibly most importantly, Beijing Opera is more interesting when I know what’s happening!