ROBIN MCNEAL: We're very happy this evening to have our own Nick Admussen here to speak to us about his expertise, which is poetry. Nick joined us here at Cornell just in 2013 after having recently completed his PhD at Princeton. And already in this short period of time, he has finished a book that is now in press at the University of Hawaii. It should be out in the fall of 2016 called Recite and Refuse-- Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry. He's written articles and done translations, particularly translations of a poet from Sichuan named Ya Shi. And he is also a poet in his own right and has published three chapbooks of his own poetry, the most well known, perhaps the most fun one called Movie Plots. And today he is going to speak to us, of course, about poetry, The Lyric Copy-- From the Hundred Flowers to the Mongrel Coalition. So please join me in welcoming Nick Admussen.
NICK ADMUSSEN: Thank you, guys, and thank you. This is the first semester-- I had conflict last year, so this is the first semester I've been able to come to this series and it's been incredibly stimulating and it's a nice thing for the China studies community to sort of have in Ithaca. And it's a lot of work for Robin, so I really appreciate it. And also thank you to Nguyet, who is doing all of the tech for us. And can you waggle the camera to show that you're a digital presence? So on the web if you see this, that's Nguyet screwing with the camera. She's there. It's important, right? She produces it online. She produces the digital version. So I take that very seriously. It's a form of copying.
The stuff that I want to share with you today, the stuff I want to talk about today comes out of the book that I finished over the summer, but isn't actually dominated by the material from the book. I'm having this period during which-- it's like when you finish a film or a video game and you sort of walk out into the street, it ends and you walk out in the street and you think, like, I could take down that helicopter or I could steal that car, right? I'm still having this sort of after effect echo of the book. And so I'm seeing the ideas from the book in a lot of different places and times and sort of contexts, and so that's what I want to talk about today. So it's actually quite new, and I encourage you guys to sort of push back. I see a lot of energetic graduate students in the audience who can sort of push back against these sorts of new ideas.
I titled this the Lyric Copy partially because I want to show you things that I consider to be lyric copies, but also because I want to make the argument that copying language, reproducing language is inescapably lyric, that we express ourselves when we copy, every time we copy something. So the subtitle of the talk might very well be the copy is lyric, to copy is lyric. And that's sort of what I want to kind of convince you of. I'm convinced but I'm not sure that I can get you sort of on my team by the end of the talk. This also, I just have to say this is not the font that I chose. The font that I chose is on my computer only. I find this font arrogant and I apologize for it. I like humble fonts, you know? Like sort of regular person fonts. So sorry about that. It's my fault.
But what am I talking about a lyric copy? I want to start by giving you an example. These are 20 poems written in 759 by Du Fu when he was sacked from his position in Chang'an and sent to Qinzhou that now people call Tianshui in Gansu Province. I've been to Tianshui and it's nice if you know people there. I'm sure it's a beautiful place to grow up. But if you're broke and you don't have any friends or family there, it's awful. It's sort of a desert and gets real cold.
And so the piece that I'm going to just talk about right now starts right here, and it goes down. It's just about a half a poem. And so he gets out there and he writes these 20 poems and one of the pieces is this. This land is remote and soon it's autumn will end. Its mountains are high and the travelers are not home yet. On the frontier, the clouds crack and merge intensely. At the border, the sun's radiance goes weak. And we've seen, probably if you ever read classical poetry, you've seen exile poems like this. I'm away from home, it's getting late in the winter, I'm worried, I'm nervous, it's dangerous, it's difficult, I'm lonely, right?
This document though, this thing right here, this piece of paper that I've reproduced for you is not written by Du Fu. It's written by Puru. Puru was a cousin of Puyi, the last emperor of China, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty. When the Manchu were defeated in 1911 by the Xinhai rebellion and the nationalists took power, they captured and arrested Puru, who was second in line for the throne. And because he was a sort of problematic character and sort of a threat to the nationalist government, they evacuated him eventually to Taiwan, where he became an art teacher and lived under this kind of loose house arrest. And one of the things he did was calligraphy, and one of the pieces of calligraphy he made was this piece here in 1949.
When Puru copies these poems out by hand, we learned something about him. He expresses himself. He is from Manchuria, right, as all the Manchus are, far north of China. And he is stuck in Taiwan, right? He's an exile inside an exile government, right? A government that has-- he's captured by a government that has fled, and he was in exile inside that government in the first place, right?
It is now also 1949 when the Japanese have defeated-- the Japanese have lost the war, have been defeated. And Manchukuo, their puppet state in Manchuria-- which was run by Puyi, at least putatively and run by Manchus-- that's fallen, right? Puyi is in the Communist jail. Puru is never going home, can never go back. And he knows this and he's discovering this. When he has these feelings, what he does with them is he copies out this poem. And so you have something that is simultaneously the words of Du Fu and the feelings of Puru at the same time.
How does he express himself using a copy? He does it in three ways. He manages the context. He makes the copy from his own subject position. He has a particular set of information that accumulates around him as he lives, and the copy interacts with that set of-- with that information. He manages the selection of the document. Obviously, there's a lot of Du Fu poems. There's a lot of classical poems out there. He chooses these and not others. And in that, he expresses himself.
He also manages his audience. He's speaking to a group of people who know these poems, know what they mean, and know how they operate. So he uses these extratextual and sort of peripheral pieces of information to say what he has to say by copying. And this is to say nothing of the calligraphy tradition, calligraphy, obviously, a creative art, sort of expressive art in its own right that is also in a way based on copying.
When I say the lyric copy, I don't really mean lyric as in song lyrics or the musical copy or anything like that. I mean it in the Chinese sense as the copy that is shu qing. And I take this analysis from David Wang's new book, which is really excellent, The Lyric in Epic Time. He breaks this word down in this way. This is the Chinese sort of analog to the English word lyric. It's made up of shu, to express something, to bring something from the inside outside. And what shu expresses to me, what it says to me about the copy is that the copies come from us, right? The copies come from the inside of a person. And we can think of even cellular reproduction requires the spark of life. Something inside that can then reproduce itself outside.
And then we have qing, and this is Wang [INAUDIBLE] real contribution in the beginning of this book. Qing means two things. Actually, it means a million different things in classical China, but it means two main things. One is feelings and emotions, [CHINESE]. How you, you know, all of the soft and noodley feelings you have, right? But it also means reality, [CHINESE], right? The things, events as they transpire. If you're in introductory Chinese language, you know the word [CHINESE]. Why didn't you come to my talk? I had [CHINESE]. I had something to do. Just a thing that is, anything that is.
When you think about it, the collocation, the overlapping of these two concepts makes a lot of sense. We know what we feel. In some ways we only know what we feel. All of our thoughts and ideas can be referred at some level to our emotions and our sensations. Those two things overlap. When I tell you how I feel, I tell you what's happening to me. I tell you my reality. I don't have very much else that I can talk about in terms of reality.
So these two things going together and being the way that poetry is written make a lot of sense. You can see it, actually, in the earliest poems in the Chinese tradition, in the [CHINESE], the classic of poetry. Now classical poetry has people telling other people how they feel. My taxes are too high. My landlord is a rat. Don't jump over the garden wall because I don't want to kiss you. My brother will kill you, right? I'm sad that my friends got human sacrificed, right? There's all these sorts of feelings in the [CHINESE]-- these are real [CHINESE] poems. It It's really there.
But also, the collection, the anthology is the sort of news in poems. Each section is a different state of the warring states, and each section tells us something about rituals, the quality of government, you know, who's important, history, music. It tells us about these other states. And it was used as a sort of anthology of information about the different warring states that you could use to communicate. And it did both things at the same time, and that was totally natural.
Copy now is a little bit simpler. I take copy to mean any claim that one thing is precisely equal to another thing, to some previous thing. That it exactly reproduces the qualities of a previous thing. For most of human history, this was a fantasy, a dream, a doppelganger, a double, something uncanny or magical, right? Because we had to make all of the things that we copied and we have these sort of jittery monkey hands that can't make anything perfect. So if you said that something was a copy, you knew that actually the handcraft of it meant that it had become different, that the second thing was different.
Now in the 20th century with mass production and especially with the digital moment that we find ourselves in, people are beginning to believe in the perfection of the copy. We have checksums where we can check and make sure that one group of data is exactly similar to another group of data. We have all sorts of kind of safeguards on what a copy is. Now I'm convinced, and maybe it's because I'm a poetry scholar, maybe it's because I'm a pervert or something, that these things are still fantasies, that we still don't copy precisely. We always copy from a new position for new people, and our copies are selected from all of the things that could be copied. So there's still lyric. Even if they're digital, they're still lyric. And that's sort of-- but this is sort of the source of the debate in contemporary poetics.
I got interested in the expressiveness of copies because of this book on prose poetry. The way that-- this is hopefully the cover. We just worked out the cover art, so it's not so clear. But the way that I describe prose poetry in the book is poetry that is pretending to be prose, poetry that claims to be prose. Something that does what a poem does, but is in paragraphs like a piece of prose. And I go further and I say-- and I call this recitation-- go further and say that it actually ventriloquizes prose. It pretends to be a newspaper article, an encyclopedia, an essay in an encyclopedia, an advertisement, a prayer that poetry dresses itself up in a prose form, and puts itself in a paragraph in order to do the things that poetry has always done-- to tell us how people feel, and what's real, and what's not real.
And I'm a little bit of I think a minority person in the study of prose poetry because I don't think that it started when the Chinese term first appeared in the early 20th century. [INAUDIBLE] is translated the first time really early on in the teens, or earlier than the teens. But I think that the genre actually starts in the 1950s in part because poets of the 1950s aren't experimenting with copying language. They're not playing around with using other people's language for their own purposes. They're instructed centrally to take the language of the peasantry, by the Chinese Communist Party, to take the language of the peasantry and use it in order to copy ideology from the party center. And these two simultaneous types of copying, these two simultaneous types of imitation constitute Socialist art in the 1950s and 1960s. And so they're really, they all copy, right? And that makes the genre very cohesive. It makes it all sort of recognizable. And that's what puts it's sort of mark, in my mind, on the form.
This is a poem from-- it was published in 1958. I'm pretty sure it was composed in 1957 during the Hundred Flowers movement, which is the sort of brief experiment with free thinking and a little bit of party criticism that then got shut down during the anti-rightist movement in 1958 and sort of pulled back. This is not a free thinking poem, right? This is not like a wild criticism of Mao Zedong or anything like that. This is a totally bog standard, obedient, Socialist poem. And you couldn't have gotten published in 1958 if you weren't writing a totally bog standard, obedient, Socialist poem.
And so [? Culon-- ?] who, to my mind, was not a secret Democrat or anything like that. He was an arts cadre. He worked for the state, made poetry for the state-- he's doing his best to do exactly what he was told. He's taking the words of a worker, and he is massaging them to insert party ideology.
A lot of the poem hinges on this. This is part of the text. I didn't add this. This word "remember'd", which in the original is [CHINESE], which also means recorded. I translate it as remembered, because this is so obviously not the way that an ironworker sharpening something on a lathe would talk in 1950s China. This is clearly a poet pretending to be an ironworker sharpening things.
So you have somebody who is instructed to copy who has already made something totally impossible and then lied about how he got there. And this is him doing his best. He's not he's not trying to be hypocritical or anything like that.
People avoid Socialist poetry, because they think it's this empty programmatic repetition of the party line, which it always is-- almost always is. But because of this project, I've had to walk in the dark dungeons of the Socialist poem. And one of the things that endlessly surprises me is we always have the lyric claim-- the claim that somebody is expressing an emotion inside a communist poem.
So in the English tradition, you have, oh, Juliet, oh, beauty, oh, truth. Here you have, oh, sharpener. That's a lyric ejaculation. I feel so much that I just have to tell you about the sharpener. It's so awesome.
And every one of these poems-- I haven't yet, I don't think, found a Socialist poem that didn't have some sort of claim that it was representing a feeling. Is the representation accurate? Can you trust it? Probably not in most cases. Probably people were feeling something different than what they were saying that they were feeling.
But inside the poem, the reality of feeling is that there is a person, an individual, or group who's having a feeling. And it's being expressed to you through the poem, even though the method is dominated by copying. The method is dominated by imitation. And it's dominated by external poetics that you have to reproduce inside the poem.
The thing I like-- well, "like" is probably an exaggeration. But the thing that's interesting to me about this poem is the end right here. "Now I can't tell anymore whether it's you directing me or me directing you. In any event, we are both experts in sharpening. We all want to set a new record."
Socialist poets had a lot of apparatus laid on top of them. They had a lot of machinery that they had to manipulate in order to get a poem published and in order to speak to the masses or speak to whoever their audience was. They had a lot of machinery. They were carrying a lot of machinery.
The idea that maybe the poet, like the person who's running the sharpener, merges or moves into the machine-- animates the machine and becomes part of the machine-- is actually fascinating. That the person never disappears-- the person is affected by the machine. The person enters into a relationship with the machine. And for a moment, they share what we might call [CHINESE]-- [CHINESE], will. They have a single will together.
This is an interesting proposition that when you're operating a machine that actually you are part of that machine. That machine is part of yourself-- that they don't get separated. We're going to see poetry scholars try to separate out, here's the machinery of poetry, here's the machinery of copying, and here's the individual spirit. But [? Culon ?] resists it.
The other thing that I think is interesting about the poem is that this period is a sort of edge case for conformity. It's an edge case for imitation. It's a period during which people are extremely provoked to imitate.
And during the period of this edge case, you can actually see the poet. You can see the influence of the poet almost more clearly, because there's so little that they can do that's different. And their agency is so small that their acts of agency actually show up much more brightly.
And we see this when the Cultural Revolution comes. The people who the state hires to read literature and enforce the ideological purity of literature actually make individuals responsible for the things that they write when they write poetry. This guy is just trying to follow orders. But he got swept up, just like everybody else got swept up who made literature, because they did it wrong, because they were held responsible.
So the person at the heart of the lyric-- the person remains. Even during this very extreme period, people are associated with the copies they make, with the imitations they make. You never lose that connection, even though world socialism is supposed to be a totally new thing, and history is supposed to be restarting.
Well, let's just jump on. This is probably not terribly controversial in China right now. Probably people would understand that you can both copy and be lyrically responsible at the same time. Really, the problem, to me-- the conceptual problem-- comes from a group of American elite conceptual poets who are starting to reintroduce the idea of copying as a poetics-- so the copying as a way to write poetry-- into the US poetry community.
Here's an introduction to an anthology from UbuWeb, which is a repository of conceptual poetry online. And you can see right at the top that he starts with the sort of sentence that you maybe could hear coming from my mouth. "Poetry expresses the emotional truth of the self. It puts metaphor and image in the service of song."
And then it undercuts it. "Or at least that's the story we've inherited from Romanticism, handed down for over 200 years in a caricatured and mummified ethos." So it rejects that human experience at the heart of the poem as something that's passe.
And I'm real easy to distract. I don't want to get off on this "we" here in this 200 years. Any poet who's lived through the 20th century in the United States has read a lot of Chinese and Japanese poetry, whether they know it or not. So the "we" here should technically make this number huge.
"We," which is to say poets in English, have experienced Chinese poetry already. Ezra Pound, people like that-- so we have been taking in this other ethos for much longer. That has a much longer tradition. And this Eurocentric "we" is something that's consistent through the whole.
But I'm not going to get-- it's like low-hanging fruit. And I want to talk about the rest of the piece, which I think is more interesting.
He replaces the individual lyric speaker. He replaces the person who's speaking their emotion, which he calls the self-regard of the poet's ego. He diminishes it.
And then he replaces it with intellect rather than emotion, direct presentation of language itself, meticulous procedure, and exhaustively logical process. One of the first definitions of conceptual poetry was by Sol Lewitt who said, the idea becomes a machine that makes the poem.
There's no person in that sentence. There's a concept. And the concept becomes procedure. And the procedure generates the poem.
And he's asking this question, what would that look like if we did it like that? What would that look like if we didn't have individuals speaking or individuals who were taking responsibility for their language?
This is now a long time after this was-- well, in contemporary time, this is several years after this was written. We no longer have to ask. We have a lot of conceptual poetry that's circulating in the American poetry world.
The one that people are talking about-- the one that people have been talking about-- was performed on March 13th this year when an Ivy League poet of some renown went to Brown University and got up and read for 30 minutes the autopsy report of Michael Brown, who was shot by St. Louis County Police and left in the street for four hours. He read the autopsy.
And not only did he read the autopsy, he rearranged it so that the end of it shockingly landed on Mike Brown's genitalia. And then everybody went, (GASPS). And he walked off the stage. So this is his conceptual problem. This is his copy of the document.
What happened after that I think demonstrates what I'm talking about. People held him personally responsible for the things that he had said. They criticized him. They wrote essays.
They Tweeted mean things at them. One person Tweeted, well, if I read your autopsy, do you think Brown would pay me a bunch of money? He took that as a death threat, which I don't think it was.
But he got taken to task for it. He got treated like a lyric subject, like he was expressing his emotions. And a lot of these essays are actually really interesting. And I recommend them.
The one that's most recent has a link list of all of the critical pieces that were written about it by Cathy Park Hong-- C-A-T-H-Y P-A-R-K H-O-N-G. And so she did a little curation where she listed some of the essays that happened after this conceptual poem was read.
But I just want to summarize the pushback a little bit, in terms of the lyric copy, in terms of how he expressed himself through this copy. One question was context. He manipulated the context.
Since we live in a country dominated historically by white supremacy, to have a white man get up and unselfconsciously make profit reading about the humiliation of a black body reinforces, reproduces that inequity. He is a particular sort of person. He's from a particular social class. He's got a particular race. And all of that context really sent a message, expressed himself about how he felt about Michael Brown.
He also, I think, assumed the presence of an all-white audience that needed to be shocked and disturbed out of their complacency, rather than a mixed audience or an audience of color that had already experienced this kind of traumatizing oppression and who didn't need a white poet from Penn to repeat these things in front of them.
So all of his interventions in the copy-- all of the things he did-- even if we take out the genitalia thing, which is just off-the-rocker a little bit-- all of his interventions expressed that white bodies were innocent and were subjects and black bodies were objects and were distant. And this is one of the reasons why people were pushing back, because he did express himself. He did make a lyric expression of his feelings.
Because he was making a copy and because his interaction with the copy was so small, as was true for the Hundred Flowers poets, we see it very clearly. We see him more clearly, because he's actually making just a couple of statements by rereading this piece.
So you might say-- and it's fair, I think, to argue-- that this is just a terrible conceptual poem. This is a bad copy. He's bad at it.
And he's fairly famous, but good poets write bad poems. And I think that's a possibility. I feel like that this is actually a direct outcome of the ideology of conceptual poetry, of the ideology of the person-less copy-- the copy that is a machine-- that this is what happens when you copy without taking it as a form of expression.
And this is reinforced by the way that he defended himself on Facebook. So you know by now that I believe in the reality of the expression of the copy. So I blacked out his name, which was super satisfying. Oh, gosh, I found a little icon of a hipster beard, and I pasted it over his face, which I hope you can feel that.
But he does a couple of things that are really interesting in this defense, non-defense. He connects this to his previous book where he did the same thing and said, nobody had a problem with that, how could you possibly have a problem with this, is the insinuation. Basically, I've done this before.
He says, "The document I read from is powerful. My reading of it was powerful and elides the differences between those two kinds of power. The document is powerful in one way. And his reading of it is powerful in a totally separate way.
But we see, instead, the effect of power." And power is its own goal. This is a defense of the piece somehow without that sense of situatedness that [INAUDIBLE] or other lyric copyists often have.
And then at the bottom, I think this is the heart of it. "I always massage dry text to transform them into literature for--" and there's a lot of typos in this, because it's Facebook. "--for that is what they are when I read them. That said, I didn't add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be to go against my nearly three decades' practice of conceptual writing when it states that a writer need not write any new text but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend."
So we have here Sol Lewitt. The idea becomes a machine that makes the poem. Your subjective interpretation, your feeling, your [CHINESE] is irrelevant.
What we have is [CHINESE]. We have the facts. And the facts are the powerful piece of the present that I care about. And I don't care about the rest.
What's missing here is a person-- a person taking responsibility for other people-- the voice of emotion, the voice of feeling, and the individual connection with the text. There's no person in the machine.
And of course, this got a lot of pushback. The place that I learned, I think, the most about this debate is Twitter feed of the Mongrel Coalition, which is an anonymous group of people-- I think probably poets of color. I can't tell, because they don't identify themselves.
But they're also much more fun to read. "'Cause art, right? Is that why you're free from responsibility? Is that why you're not a person? 'Cause art? Is that your whole reason?"
Their Twitter feed is actually really great. But Twitter stopped holding the archives all the way back to the beginning. So every day we lose a little bit of this big, fiery, troublesome interaction.
But they did make a piece in the magazine Drunken Boat. And I'll just show you a couple of pieces from that. And this is what finished me off, being convinced that when you copy something, you're always expressing yourself. You're always doing positive action. It's never a passive or receptive event.
The Mongrels, as people of color and as GLBT people and marginalized and oppressed group, need decolonization. They require decolonization. Live in a place where white supremacy, income, inequity, the aggression of the dominant against the submissive-- all of these things are constant.
And in order to produce an equitable, survivable future, they need those things to change. You can't just allow the texts of the past, which are written through with racism, sexism, violence, and all of these things that are destroying the bodies of people of color-- you can't just let those things be repeated. You have to do something. You have to do something else.
There was a conceptual poet who automatically Tweeted all of the African-American vernacular English from Gone With the Wind. No reason why, just did it-- put a big picture of a caricatured black person at the top and just Tweeted the whole thing. That's smuggling racism into the present-- racism from the past into the present.
If you want to build a future without any of those qualities, you need to have some sort of change. So decolonize or die. It's literally a struggle for survival.
However, they have this problem, which is to say that they are members of the dominant culture in their own way. They were trained in it. That's the language they speak is the language of white supremacy.
And so they need to say, no, to the past and to the present. But they only have, as a tool, official language-- the thing that is legible to the community. So they're stuck using these other people's language, other people's words, to produce the future that they need.
Their answer-- or one of their answers-- is this Romantic moment at the-- capital R, Romantic moment-- at the end. "From the bottom of my heart, read the books you assign, excerpt, appropriate." And you have the language of feeling. This is a copy that's going to happen with heart. It's a copy that's going to happen with emotion and the truth that comes from emotion.
They're going to take in the texts of the past-- take in the racist and white supremacist texts of the past-- and then appropriate them to transform them into something that is theirs that can build this kind of equitable future. This is something that I think that contemporary Chinese poets would recognize. I can't speak on their behalf. But I think that it's something that is happening in the PRC today as well.
This is a prose poem by a Beijing poet named Xi Chuan, which is dutifully translated by Lucas Klein. And so I'm just going to read it very briefly, because I think it's nicer than "Sharpener." It's a better poem than "Sharpener." Yeah, we got a lot of "uh-huh."
"He dips his brush in ink, working stroke upon stroke, permitting himself not one false word, writing the aphorisms of [INAUDIBLE], delighting in his thoughts. He's nearly convinced that the thoughts he transcribes will be of great use to humanity.
These thoughts he protects. These thoughts he transmits. Wittingly or not, certain words are altered. Wittingly or not, he retains his own breath within the views of another."
[INAUDIBLE] was a Confucian sage. He transmitted from Confucius to Mencius. And sometimes he's attributed with the Classic of Filial Piety, which means he actually wrote about transmission between generations. It's one of the things that he did.
"But later, a dead man takes his book underground. The thought that evolved from this book-- the thoughts that were transformed from this book would ultimately reshape the world. But this one book, through the slow stretch of time, was no more to be found. And now even if it were to be brought back to light, those thoughts transformed from it-- the thought adopted by the world-- could never be corrected, like a forgery re-entering the site of civilization.
And that person writing, it's as if he had never been born. He is a speck of dust on the earth, disseminating civilization in its limited way."
So the copy can destroy. The copy can unmake-- by claiming identity with something that went before, it can unmake that thing, both symbolically and practically. Chinese history is full of this. Every empire reprints the classics, fills them with new commentary, and claims that this is the most appropriate and most careful understanding of the ancients that has ever existed. And they do this in part to put their own stamp on culture and also to yank their competitors off of the radar, to supplant them, and to replace them.
The book on prose poetry ends with Xi Chuan-- I quote him-- "thinking about Socialist culture" and thinking about the way that Socialist culture is going unmanaged-- that nobody uses the language of the '40s, '50s, and '60s anymore.
And you can see him visualizing it like it's like it's a sword on the mantel place. And he just wants to grab it and start taking people out with it-- that this repository of language that is going unused is a potential weapon. And I don't know what he wants to use it for. And I don't know what he would do if he started writing poems in a Socialist voice.
But I do know that Socialist rhetoric talks a lot about income equality. It talks a lot about the respect for the working person. And it talks a surprising amount about democracy as [INAUDIBLE] house. And there's a big [CHINESE]-- democracy-- out in his garden.
These are sources of great anxiety in contemporary China. They are sources of great power in contemporary China. And that language is floating in the past where nobody is exploiting it.
And you can see people start to pull their sleeves up and think about, how do we use this to get the future we want-- to produce the future we want? I'm worried, though, that the Global Academy and that the global audience and the non-Chinese audience isn't going to be able to read or understand these struggles, in part because we're convinced that copying is automatic-- that copying is a machine, and that it doesn't have the power of expression, and that it doesn't produce a future-- that it only reproduces the past and that it can only reproduce the past.
This is a People's Court building in Shanghai. And it's a mixed imitation of the US Capitol and the White House jammed together. And we see a lot of these architectural imitations in contemporary China today.
Michael Meyer was here last week. And he talked about architectural imitation as a Disney-fication or an Epcot Center-fication-- a two-dimensional image pasted up on a blank space. And I'm taking it a little bit out of context, because he's comparing it to classical or much older Chinese architecture. And he wants that architecture be preserved. And I totally agree with that.
But at the same time, considering that this is already happening, if we think about ourselves as powerless to affect the construction of new imitative buildings, in order to read these buildings as meaningful expressions of Chinese ideas and Chinese experience, we're going to have to accept that the copy has an expressive quality. And if you assume that-- if you think the conceptual poets are wrong, copying is not a machine, and copies express emotions and they express realities, then you read these things a little bit differently.
This is in Minhang. Minhang is right next to the center of Shanghai. It's a residential district. It has about 2.5 million people in it. And they're incredibly rich.
They are very, very well-off. It's a very nice place to live. Some of the best schools in China-- Jiao Tong University is there. They have fantastic high schools.
They are at the center. And I think that this building hedges and exaggerates the way in which they're at the center of a certain kind of conversation in Chinese life today-- something about [CHINESE], about the quality of the population. If you think about the Chinese citizen of the future being highly educated, well-off, comfortable, cosmopolitan, then Minhang is the future.
And that's why they can be aggressive enough to copy the US Federal-- this is a district courthouse. This is Tompkins County Courthouse. It's local.
Why are they copying the US federal government buildings? But it's an argument. They're talking about the way that they feel and the way that they are, the way that they see themselves. And you can't read it if you think that they have this Chinese tic where they copy architecture because they can't think up their own architecture.
This picture is actually from Bianca Bosker's book Original Copies which starts-- I know [INAUDIBLE] read it. It starts to turn the corner from seeing Chinese copying as a sociological or culturally essentialist thing-- something that just Chinese people do-- and starts to ask with, why? What's being said when somebody makes these copies, because they're all different.
This is the same type of copy. This is an imitation of the White House, built by Huang Qialing in Hangzhou. He's a real estate tycoon. And this copy to me says a lot about Huang. It's a express self-expression of Huang personally that focuses a lot on luxury and dominance.
This is a very precise copy. It's one-to-one scale. It's got all of the fittings inside. And the reason for that is because that's actually much more expensive than to just make an abstract more or less the same type thing, which is what they did in Minhang. They got it more or less the same.
This is very precise. And that is an expression of luxury. I think that Huang shows this particular building to copy, because it's the house of a powerful man. And he considers himself a very powerful man, which he is.
The one difference-- or one of the differences-- that's worth thinking about is in the green room inside the White House, he has put up a bust of Genghis Khan. It's one of his political idols or personal idols. And it may be strange to you to think of the US White House as the apex of domination and luxury.
But of course, it is. Of course it is to many people around the world. And of course, it feels that way in lots of-- we can think about Jackie Kennedy touring all the beautiful things in the White House in the '60s, showing off how luxurious it is. Some people heard that message. And that's what they express when they copy.
We can also learn a lot about the audience from Huang's copy. This was finished in 1999, just right before the US and NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in the former Yugoslavia in Belgrade. So this is when relations between the two countries were just tanking, just awful.
And the police show up at Huang's house. And they say, what's with all this-- what are you doing? What's this? Or what do we do about this?
And Huang won the argument that this is not about worshipping American culture. These imitations or these copies, they're not internalizations of American values and ideas. They're externalizations of new Chinese values and ideas-- their methods of self-expression.
The Americanness of it is just a tool. It's a tool to speak, just in the same way that [INAUDIBLE] doesn't necessarily love Du Fu more than any other poet. He's not even a native Chinese speaker. He can't speak in Manchu because all the Manchus are dead. It's the language he has. It's language he has to say the thing that he wants to say.
And we can tell because when one of these buildings goes bad, they don't knock it down. They don't punish it. This is in Wuhan. It's an abandoned hotel that's built to look like the US Capitol, which is another way to think of the US Capitol as a outdated source of luxury and power. It's not cool anymore. It's an interesting way to see that.
All these things have something in common. All of these architectural and poetic reproductions and copies, they do have something in common. And I should just read this, because I want to get it verbatim. I'm not quoting. This it's just me.
Screw your ownership of this thing. They all have this message. Your conversation excludes us. It makes us seem like we're something other than you are. But you're wrong.
We're going to inhabit your symbolic property. And we're going to use it to mean what we want it to mean. And there's a struggle-- the same struggle that Xi Chuan is talking about.
If we read these copies as deterministic or automatic-- if we read them as purely technological or digital, then we're missing the message. We can't read them or hear them. But it's not really Chinese viewers who have problems interpreting these things. It's global viewers and American viewers who have trouble reading the copy.
This is from a 2012 New York Times article. And the title of the article is "Why Does China Copy So Much?" This is a quote. This isn't me.
"Perhaps the language is a reason why. You cannot learn Chinese unless you spend years memorizing thousands of characters needed to achieve literacy, unless you copy single-mindedly, unquestioningly. Some linguists and cultural historians believe so much mental energy and brain space is taken up by rote learning of the language that little is left over for innovative thinking."
Cultural centralism, terrible, lot of problems-- the whole thing about "some linguists and cultural historians believe"-- that would get marked out if you were turning it into as an essay at Cornell. But the piece also is evidence of a local, by which I mean provincial New York state local to here, belief in the mechanization of the copy-- that to copy something is necessarily to be single-minded, unquestioning, and not innovative.
A lot of people here have learned to write in Chinese. You do question why you are going to write in Chinese. You come to my office and you say, why am I copying characters so much? Is this really worth it? What's the point?
And there's nothing less mechanized than copying out Chinese characters. You have to do it by hand. You have to do it alone. Your characters look like your characters. They look like nobody else's.
It takes forever. It's evidence of conviction. There's a lot of feeling. People cry. Have you ever cried when you're doing your [CHINESE]-- just, oh, god.
It's real. Copying has a feeling associated with it. But that's something that the American market and the American media and that readers here are having trouble seeing. And it comes from, I think, this new faith in digital precision.
So here's my takeaway. Here's the last little bit. Whether you like it or not, I think, we are stuck with the expressive lyric copy. When you copy, you say something about yourself. You have to.
The people that know this-- people who understand this read copies, interpret them, and respect them as if they were spoken by the individuals who copied them-- as if they are the speech of the copyist. We ask "why" and "how" and "for who" every copy is produced. And when we copy something ourselves, people who understand that copies are lyric-- when we re-Tweet something, when we pirate it, when we reproduce it, we ask ourselves how our copies build our own futures and how they say who we are as individuals and as a society.
And that's all I've got. Thank you guys very much.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Nick Admussen, Professor in Asian Studies at Cornell University, demonstrates how the lyric copy as a gesture of mimicry or imitation is in fact a personalized and selective expression of emotions, perspectives and viewpoints in China. Recorded Nov. 2, 2015 as part of East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative (CCCI) Lecture Series.