The rise of China in the wake of the slow relative decline of the United States has been the overarching narrative of global studies since the beginning of this century. Is this narrative correct? China’s growth is slowing as it reaches middle income status and the United States is still overwhelmingly more wealthy and powerful than China. If China will someday “overtake” the United States, it will not happen for decades or centuries, depending what is meant by overtaking. But even this more guarded account of US decline is colored by an outdated, state-centric view of human society. The twenty-first century world-system is centered on the United States but not contained within it; individuals all over the world participate in hierarchies of distinction that are fundamentally American in ideology and orientation. Whether or not they agree with US policy, support the US president, or are even able to enter the United States, success-oriented individuals choose to live in an American world—or accept global social exclusion. This is just as true in China as anywhere else, and perhaps even more true for Chinese individuals than for anyone else.
“It is a common rule of propriety that culturally inferior foreign peoples should respect the Central Kingdom.” So begins a 1374 letter from Ming China’s founding Hongwu Emperor to a regional ruler in Japan. It continues: “One principle in both ancient and modern times has been for the small to serve the great.”
A few weeks ago in front of Lincoln Center in New York, while Women in The World Summit was about to start, a woman who seemed to like she could move mountains called Tina Brown was telling me, “I very much liked your description… What was it? ‘Having a sword fight with the ghosts’.”
New operas are not perhaps as rare as sometimes made out to be, but it is nevertheless hard to underestimate the significance of Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber appearing at the Hong Kong Arts Festival so soon after its premiere at the San Francisco opera last Autumn.
At first glance, “Can we say Hong Kong?” might appear a slightly silly question, superfluous indeed. Of course we can say “Hong Kong.” I am saying the name of my city right now and no one is stopping me. And you can say it, too, without any difficulty. In fact, we can collectively say it, chant it—even sing it. This closed question can be answered by a simple and resounding “Yes.” Or to give a longer answer, “Yes, we can say Hong Kong.”
Andrés de Urdaneta is a name that few other than specialist historians will immediately recognise. He was one of the last of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers and navigators from the Iberian peninsula whose voyages resulted in redrawing the globe in more or less the form we know it today. Christopher Columbus has a country and several cities named after him; Ferdinand Magellan has the famous straits. But Urdaneta has no such monuments.
Perhaps this is because Urdaneta didn’t discover how to get anywhere, but rather less glamorously but no less importantly discovered how to get back. Until 1565, no fleet had succeeded in sailing east from Asia back across the Pacific to the Americas. It was Urdaneta, a survivor of earlier expeditions, who first worked out the right winds and currents across the uncharted waters of this vast ocean. His discovery was called the tornaviaje, or ‘return trip’.
No opera composer turned to William Shakespeare more often than Giuseppe Verdi, who composed three works, Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, based on the Bard’s plays. But if it hadn’t been for the persistence of his publisher Ricordi and would-be librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi might well have stopped at one. He had to be coaxed out of a post-Aida retirement to write Otello, which finally premiered in 1887, sixteen years later.
But Otello was worth waiting for. A masterpiece, a thorough integration of music, words and drama that, astoundingly, manages to illuminate the original work—itself an unequalled masterpiece—on which it is based.