Written on the Wall at West Forest Temple
From the side, a whole range; from the end, a single peak:
Far, near, high, low, no two parts alike.
Why can't I tell the true shape of Lu-shan?
Because I myself am in the mountain.
— 苏轼 (Su Shi), trans. Burton Watson
This poem by the famous Chinese poet 苏轼 was brought to my attention by Liang Wenbo (Kate), one of the students in the course ‘Hermeneutics in the Information Age: from Close to Distant Reading’ that I co-taught at Shanghai International Studies University in April 2017. It reflects my experiences as a visiting scholar in an unfamiliar cultural setting quite splendidly, as it holds that vision is dependent upon one’s perspective. Just as I cannot fathom the ‘true shape’ of the mountain, for I am in it, I cannot perceive my own cultural make-up. To my mind, the poem stands as an image for the method of dialogical hermeneutics we operationalized with the students in this course, while trying to make sense of the transcultural phenomenon of Shanghai Disneyland. The field of hermeneutics shares this trait of an openness to allow the other to defamiliarize the self with other disciplines in the humanities like ethnography, which starts from the premise of a confrontation (Blommaert & Jie 2010). In a broader sense, the poem stands for the cultural perspectives and prejudices that I myself inevitably brought to Shanghai with me.
In what follows, I share some of the confrontations (or ‘hermeneutic challenges’, De Mul 2011) that resulted from this, and how in the end they broadened my horizon and made our familiar way of doing things in Tilburg, strange.
Hermeneutic challenge #1
Somewhere on my Western-European cultural horizon, there was the expectation that Chinese universities would be marked by strictly hierarchical relations between different levels of staff and students. Upon arrival, this expectation was immediately shattered when we were welcomed by a mixed group of staff members of the department of Intercultural Communications, from secretary to ex-student and from teacher to the head of Office of International Cooperation. All were equally encouraged to share their research interests and stories. The praise bestowed upon each individual scholar by their colleagues was heart-warming. The sense of pride for one another’s talents and a highly democratic atmosphere that was conveyed in this meeting proved characteristic of the vibe at the department.
Hermeneutic challenge #2
If, when asked if they have understood everything you just explained, students politely nod, this does not necessarily mean that they understood. Sometimes they are just being polite.
Hermeneutic challenge #3
When you are attending a show by a noise act called Torturing Nurse, consisting of one guy pounding on a keyboard and another smashing his guitar to pieces, do not expect to end up in a loud, smoky basement with befuddled, unshaven, stinky ‘crusties’. You are not in Tilburg, and this is not Incubate. Expect a clean-looking bunch of youngsters sitting on chairs in a well-lit, atmospheric venue (Chair Club), politely applauding, and feasting on champagne and oysters (!). It will make for a memorable night.
Hermeneutic challenge #4
One cannot assume anything about the level of exposure to Western cultural influences on the part of the Chinese student. In this regard, there is no ‘typical’ Chinese student. Setting out the course Hermeneutics in the Information Age from the presupposition that Disneyland Shanghai brings together two worlds or horizons—the one of Chinese culture, and the other the horizon of Disney and its stock characters and symbols—proved erroneous. Whereas one student states to have “grown up with the exposure to the Disney culture since my childhood. I watched the cartoons from the TV and read the fairy tales from the books,” another describes Disney as “something from the remote country, the United States. It is totally different from our culture.” Any attempt at forming a generalizing statement about these influences, we learned, was futile. What united us all in the end, since some things are universal, was a love for Titanic.
Hermeneutic challenge #5
When invited to give a keynote lecture at a conference in China, do not expect to be the only one, or even among a small group. It might very well be that a whole day has been reserved for keynote lectures by international scholars. As said, the Chinese are very polite. Do expect to be asked to pose for pictures with audience members. Go with it. Feel like a rock star.
Hermeneutic challenge #6
One would imagine that the experience of living in a vibrant metropole like Shanghai would make boredom a thing of the past. One shouldn’t. Judged by the eagerness with which I was clung to for dear life by inebriated Western expats and reeled in as ‘new meat’ in the bar area of the French Concession, life can get lonely and monotonous when working abroad. Even in Shanghai.
Hermeneutic challenge #7
Whereas back home in Tilburg, I am one of the lucky few who still manage to get through life without a Smartphone, the idea of pulling this off in China is preposterous. Not only is one totally defenseless without a Smartphone, one is powerless with one if there’s no Wechat app installed on it. The Chinese equivalent of Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Tinder, and numerous other services, Wechat is media convergence 2.0. It allows you to pay contactless when shopping, going for dinner, getting a cab, booking a holiday, or buying tickets for concerts. And in order to use it, you need to have a Chinese telephone number. Do not expect to accomplish anything without it. Being without Wechat in China, however, does grant one an experience of feeling excluded that has become rarified in an age of global connectivity.
Making the familiar strange
Interpretation would be impossible if expressions of life were completely strange.
It would be unnecessary if nothing strange were in them.
—Dilthey 1914–2005, Vol. 7, p. 225.
All these hurdles were productive, as in the end, the dialogical fusion of horizons renders the familiar, our own codes and traditions, strange. Hermeneutics can offer us a glimpse of cultural influences that are unfamiliar historically or geographically. This is an important condition to reach a critical distance to our cultural context, to what we take for granted, and what seems fixed and unchangeable. For “one’s encounter with the otherness of the other is an encounter with oneself” (Marotta 269). I can certainly say that my time in Shanghai has defamiliarized my habitual way of seeing things. To give one example, differences between the Chinese and Western educational systems asked for a flexible attitude. I have learnt to offer students more space and time for questions and reflection, and to build in repetitions in my classes. These and other insights I took back to Tilburg with me.
A longer version of this piece is forthcoming in Cross-Cultural Perspectives on China, Vol. II (Shanghai Foreign Language Press), 2018.
Blommaert, Jan, and Dong Jie. Ethnographic Fieldwork. A Beginner’s Guide. Bristol, Buffalo & Toronto: Multilingual Matters, 2010.
Dilthey, W. (1900). Die Entstehung der Hermeneutik. New York, NY: Cornell University.
Marotta, V. (2009). Intercultural hermeneutics and the cross-cultural subject. Journal of Intercultural Studies 30.3 (2009): 267-84.
De Mul, J. (2011). Horizons of hermeneutics: Intercultural hermeneutics in a globalizing world. Frontiers of Philosophy in China, 6(4), 628-655.