Date of this Version
July 24, 2009 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
It’s been moving to watch the response in China to the July 11 death of renowned scholar, Ji Xianlin (1911-2009). While Ji’s unsurprising departure at the ripe old age of 98 has not brought quite the same flood tide of emotion and cultural stock taking in China as Michael Jackson’s completely unexpected death a few weeks earlier at age 50 has in the United States and around the world, the way the venerable scholar is being remembered in Beijing is nevertheless remarkable. Long lines of people wishing to pay their last respects waited for hours to gain entrance to a memorial ceremony held on the Beijing University campus where Ji taught, the press was full of tributes, and Communist Party leaders were very public in the honors they paid to the man from academe. In the United States it is hard to imagine the death of an elderly scholar, of a humanist who worked on the ancient past no less, ever attracting anything approaching the level of attention that Ji’s passing has in China.
Ji Xianlin and Michael Jackson shared nothing in common except the coincidence of the timing of their deaths and the fact that in passing both were mourned as departed cultural symbols. Frankly, as the hysteria over Michael Jackson’s death has continued to pulsate through American society I have found it refreshing to follow the treatment that Ji Xianlin’s high-minded life has received in China. I feel this way even though it’s clear that the Chinese Communist Party’s highly public paeans to the deceased scholar have not been free of political considerations and while also acknowledging that Michael Jackson’s life and career certainly merit serious reflection and social commentary. Still, when looking at the way Ji’s death has been treated as compared with Jackson’s, and at what the two cultural symbols meant to their times and places, I find myself more drawn to the values and maturity on display in China than to the self-referential, entertainer-obsessed conversation that Jackson’s death has occasioned in the United States (even if much of that conversation has been about the sadness and oddity of Jackson’s life).