Reflections from a front row seat at a Chinese talent show

By Jason Kohn
Feb. 25, 2015

Working at a college in China, I go to a lot of parties.

Now, for many Americans, when we hear the words "college" and "party" together in a sentence, we probably imagine a certain kind of event that wouldn’t seem out of place in National Lampoon’s "Animal House."

These aren’t the parties I’m going to.  While they may exist here at Chinese colleges (though I doubt it), the parties I’m invited to are more like a talent show. 

They’re really common. We’ve had parties at my school to welcome new students, to say goodbye to old students, to celebrate Chinese holidays, to celebrate American holidays… pretty much any reason will do. This is great, because they’re lots of fun.

Whomever is organizing the party will recruit (or draft) students (and sometimes teachers) to perform, ask a few students who speak very standard Mandarin to emcee and specially invite school leaders, dignitaries and certain Peace Corps Volunteers to sit in the front row and watch. This preferred seating is a blessing and a curse.  It means I have a good seat, but it also means I’m so close that it’s really easy to be dragged onto the stage and forced into singing an impromptu song. (Celine Dion is very popular.)

Dancing and singing are the most common acts, and crowds of students come to support their friends and enjoy watching the performers, both the talented and the merely brave.

I like the dancing the most. This is, in part, because sometimes the student is really good, or maybe I just like the song, but it’s also because it’s an incredibly visual example of the immense contradictions China’s opening up and ultra-fast modernization have wrought. This may be reading too much into it, but it’s hard not to think about the clash of cultures here when, after a few students do a traditional Chinese dance in a style that’s been practiced since the Song dynasty, the very next act is a hip-hop dance with music from the U.S. that I haven’t even heard yet.

Like much here in China, it’s a bewildering but exciting mix of old and new, traditional and modern, Chinese and foreign. And it reminds me how my students, without ever having left our province here in western China, are trying to maintain contact with their cultural roots, but also exploring, in this case through music and dance, the globalized world that’s arrived in China and, if they’re the future, is here to stay.

Jason Kohn