the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Know Thyself

With America’s first idol, Kelly Clarkson, having just won two awards at the Grammy’s back in February; and with Hunan Satellite TV having just announced that the second season of their own Chinese spin-off, “Supergirl” [or "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Voice Girl Contest," as English-language news articles invariably note in delight] last year attracted more than 400M viewers for its finale, and made more than $12M (US) in overall profits (and will be coming under increased regulation in subsequent seasons), it would therefore perhaps be appropriate to revisit the debut album of Wang Ti 王媞, the runner-up in China’s first Supergirl competition in August of 2004 (before it became the mass phenomenon that it is today). Before proceeding to the finals, Wang Ti had won the Chengdu regional finals amidst a couple of controversies.

First of all, some viewed Wang’s victory over runner-up Zhang Hanyun 张含韵 as being attributable to looks more than singing ability (in a twist, however, it was argued that Wang Ti had won precisely because she was less attractive than Zhang—with the reasoning being that in the second round the very talented but not particularly attractive Ji Minjia 纪敏佳 was voted out, after which there was a text-message campaign by viewers complaining that the Supergirl had become a beauty contest rather than a talent competition, and that it was precisely backlash from this e-mail campaign which lead people to narrowly select Wang Ti over the more traditionally attractive Zhang Hanyun in the regional finals.

Secondly, there was a question of the extent to which Wang Ti was qualified to represent Chengdu in the first place, given that she was actually from Shandong province, and furthermore had subsequently lived in the US with her parents for several years. When asked about this controversy, a representative of the Chengdu competition explained, that the winner of the regional competition will represent the Chengdu regional finals, and not the city of Chengdu itself, at the national competition (她代表的是成都赛区而不是成都). (This is a rather astonishing claim given the importance traditionally placed in China on regional affiliation as a basis for identity).

Released in June of 2005, the eponymous album has the somewhat recursive title of 《媞名》 –literally meaning “Named Ti,” and punning precisely on the homophonic binome literally meaning (among other things) “title [of an article]” -- 题名. This theme of reflexive identity, in turn, becomes an ironic pivot point in one of the album’s two hit singles: 《知已》which might be translated as “one who knows you [intimately].”

《知已》 is a love song, and adopts the voice of a young woman whose boyfriend has just broken up with her, telling her that he prefers that she be his “best friend” (知己). Sung in Cantonese (the only song on the album not sung in Mandarin), the song’s lyrics begin:









Am I overthinking things, that you regard me as just a sweet friend?
I drink the tea you have drunk from, but leave my hugs for you
Those ‘hers’ of yours are too changeable; I can’t tell which are real and which are false
You yourself are also too cruel, frequently dragging me along to see one of those ‘hers’
I clearly like/love you, I clearly want to embrace you
Why have I been demoted to being your ‘best friend’? How many times have I wanted to leave you,
But each time I couldn’t bear to quit you; I love you to the point that I come to crave life and fear death.
I'll play games with you, in order to comfort myself....

These lyrics are actually quite shocking. Shocking—not so much on account of their thematization of female desire (which, indeed, has become quite common-place in contemporary Chinese culture), but rather for the violence which they imparts upon the title phrase “知己”. Translated here, for convenience, as “best friend,” the phase actually means significantly more. Literally “someone who knows you,” the phrase suggests someone who knows the subject as well as he knows himself. For instance, the locus classicus for the phrase is a line from the 刺客列传 section Sima Qian’s 3rd century AD classic, Records of the Historian 史记, which reads: 士为知己者死,女为悦己者容”。 “A gentleman dies for one who knows his heart; a lady makes up her face for one who pleases her.” To have a 知己 is, therefore, not something to be taken lightly, but rather it is privilege for which one might even be willing to sacrifice one’s own life.

This linkage between intimate familiarity and death, in turn, builds on the famous anecdote of the Spring and Autumn Period lute master Boya mourning his friend Zhong Ziqi 伯牙吊子期 (discussed in various early texts, including the Liezi, Xunzi, and Huainanzi). Ziqi was said to be Boya’s ideal audience, his 知音, always understanding exactly what he was playing. When Ziqi died, therefore, Boya smashed his lute on the grave and vowed never to play again: 鐘子期死,伯牙破琴絕弦,終身不復鼓琴,以為世無足復為鼓琴者.

Closely related to the 知己 (“one who knows you [intimately]”) in the Records anecdote, the 知音 (“one who knows [your] sound or music”) in the Boya anecdote uses sound/music “音” in the place of the pronoun indicating reflexive identity “己” in the “知己” formulation. The attitudes toward death in these two formulations, furthermore , inversely parallel—in that, in the latter, one is willing to die for the sake of a “知己,” whereas in the former, it is the death of the “知音” which makes one willing to renounce one’s passions. In Wang Ti's song, meanwhile, the 知己 relationship is presented as being a poor substitute for romantic attachment, and it is precisely the latter (and not the status of being or having a “知己” which makes the narrator “crave life and fear death.”

Wang Ti’s rejection of the reflexive “知己” formulation in her song comments ironically on the way in which Wang Ti herself problematizes issues of identity and reflexivity. Winning the regionals based on her looks due to a viewer backlash against contestants being selected for their beauty; achieving fame through a competition premised on repackaging quirky individuality for the largest mass audience; representing Chengdu (or the Chengdu regional finals) despite the fact that she herself is not from Chengdu; singing her first hit song in a dialect (Cantonese) which she presumably did not speak, Wang Ti (or the public persona of "Wang Ti) is a bundle of contradictions.

These contradictions also extend to the title of Wang Ti’s album and hit song. While the song title takes a classic ideal of reciprocity as identity (“knowing you as I know myself”) and essentially overturns its significance (suggesting that it marks an unfortunate demotion from simply having someone to hold you tight), the title of the album similarly reifies reflexivity to the point of making it virtually meaningless. As noted above, the title is simply a binome consisting of Wang Ti’s given name (which is itself a relatively rare character 媞 (meaning “happy” or “glorious”) not found in most single-volume dictionaries, and which simply consists of juxtaposed characters for “woman” 女 and “is” 是 (“woman is…..”). As discussed above, furthermore, the title of the album, “媞名 ,” therefore, literally means “Named ‘Ti,’” but is also a precise homonym for another pair of virtually identical binomes: 提名—which means “to nominate [for election]” (appropriately enough, for a show which is alternatively held up as a model or as an ironic parody of the democratic process); and 题名, which means “a title [of an article],” "an autograph," or "the act of signing of an autograph."

This conflation of identity and name, this reduction of identity to a name which, it turns out, is itself an open-ended tautological construction (Wang Ti is “Ti” is “woman is” …), this assertion of identity, this act of naming which signifies its own erasure, is perhaps best represented through the homophonic gesture of signing an autograph, that is—to quote Derrida from the conclusion of “Signature, Event, Context”—“in the form of the most improbable signature.”


Anonymous Chris Bates said...

Wow, I am impressed with the articulate dissection of Wang Ti, the phenomenon and her songs. Are you Chinese or Western?

I was searching for commentary on 士为知己者死 and found this. The expression was used in a book I am translating now that was published in 1928. Your comment helped me.

1:29 PM  
Blogger crojas said...

Thanks for the comment; I'm glad you found the post useful.
I'd be happy to introduce myself further off-line, if you wish.
take care,

5:52 PM  
Blogger sexy said...







2:18 AM  

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