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Body, Movement and Dance in Global Perspective

Preface to the Conference Program

Chan Kwok-bun
Founder and Director
Chan Institute of Social Studies
Chair Professor of Sociology
Hong Kong Baptist University

This past Sunday, I spent three long hours at the museum of the Hong Kong Univer­sity, meditating, alone, on two exhibitions, one on Pablo Picasso's prints, the other, on an­cient Jun stoneware vessels (鈞瓷) from the Yip Collection (琳標堂). In the former, I saw print after print of full male and female bodies and of figures of minotaurs (half man, half bull) and centaurs (half man, half horse) in full embraces or, I should say, mutual entanglements, even fusion, or, if you like, hybridization, my favorite word—to such an extent that I was not able to associate body parts with identities. The dominant image there was the body. Startled, excited, even aroused by Picasso, and in a half-daze, I staggered on to the exhibition next door. There, I was calmed, caressed by artifacts of an entirely different century, a different civilization, that of potteries and ceramics of ancient China, to be exact, dating back to 1250–1300. My eyes were consoled by hues and splashes of blue, purple, and green that wrapped themselves around jars, bowls, vases, basins, dishes. Once again, I found myself drawn to round, circular, rotund figures and shapes. There was plenty of rotundity, nudity, full-bodiness everywhere. And again, the body stood out, the bodies of stonewares as human artifacts. In a rare mystical moment, I lapsed into a trance, while my whole body felt an inner convulsion, a push; then, I quickly drifted into a state of transcendental meditation (TM), a deep, deep sleep. Bodies of the East and the West collided and then melted in my mind, my body. I had lost my senses and sensations of time, place, being. Waking up abruptly, I almost missed the boat to Lamma Island.

     Most sociologists I know would say they do not have a lot to say about the human body, perhaps nothing at all, partly because they have somehow extricated, expelled, the individual, the person, from their collective consciousness, their intellect. As they say, after the psychologists had claimed the mind as their cerebral turf, the economists, the market, the sociologists then began to invent society and would thereafter spend their entire lives dissecting it, thus conveniently forgetting the body altogether.

     Ironically, sociologists also stubbornly hang onto a mechanistic model of society, an image of society as system composed of interrelated parts, body parts. The human body, indeed society for that matter, is often compared to an engine, a machine. The sociologist Durkheim spoke of "mechanical solidarity." We have expressions like 'department head,' 'head of the family,' or 'head of state.' Social engineering has long become a dominant science in modernity, even postmodernity. I would not be surprised that my doctor thinks of my body as a machine only, with organs and blood arteries just like pipes or hoses that move water, oil, gasoline from one part of my Alfa Romeo to another.     

     As it happens, the distinction between humans and nonhumans disappears. My skin separates my body from the environment, just like borders that divide up nation-states. Borders abhor invasion and therefore must be defended at all costs, by bodies and by machine guns, now by computers. Skin must be protected or penetration by outside foreign bodies into my blood streams will cause AIDS. So, sociologists in particular and social scientists in general may think, ignorantly, they have very little to do with the body or its movement, but the simple fact is our ways of thinking about ourselves, others, society, practically everything social, have long been moulded by an ontological obsession with the body—like it or not.

     The Chinese call brothers "arms and legs" (手足). They also say 唇亡齒寒 (When the lips wane, the teeth feel cold), which suggests weak nation-states must learn to support each other to defend against a strong common enemy. Yes, we are so obsessed with the body that there is a billion-dollar industry the world over to sculpt it into perfection. One casual walk along the corridors of any subway train station in Hong Kong will remind you that the only female body to be glorified, worshiped, and celebrated is a slim one: the slimmer, the better, so much so that rotundity has become immorality, almost a disease.

     A model female, or a female model, must possess a pale, sickly, skinny, un­dernourished body. The global medical, biological, and chemical industries—and the many research projects they fund—have their singular gaze at the female body. Here, I am not even including the fashion industry that has wild fantasies about the modern woman. Now, how can sociologists afford not to bring the body back into our collec­tive consciousness, our classrooms, our textbooks, our curriculum? With their public discourse on "embodiment," the anthropologists seem to have done a much better job than the sociologists. I have in mind Margaret Lock and Judith Farquhar's 2007 book Beyond the Body Proper. Take note, ladies and gentlemen, there is one and only one thing that matters now: the body. Our university even has an academic department bearing the name 'Department of Physical Education.' It is their business to educate us about the physical, the corporal, the physique, again, the body—perhaps ra­tionally, for the sake of health, well-being, happiness—ah, yes, happiness, a postmodern­ist obsession, or possession, even procession.

     Of course, I do not need to remind you all of the greatest body show on earth every four years: the Olympics, this time in China, within weeks, which itself is a global spectacu­lar parade of the body, a bodily procession.

     I have been teaching a very popular course in social psychology called "Self and Society" for more than two decades. One of the many interesting things social psychology teaches us is that it is not only when we are happy that we smile; it is also that, when we smile, we are happy. In other words, while the inside certainly affects the outside (common sense), the outside also affects the inside (not quite common sense). Doing affects feeling. Conceptualizing in this way, feeling and doing, body and mind, in­side and outside, unite, combine, and become one. If social scientists are indeed inter­ested in feeling and thinking—the inside—then we could well be making some star­tling scientific discoveries if we pay more attention to how movements of our body, our body parts, would change our inner emotions, our ways of seeing ourselves, our world. Perhaps this is why English people are so fond of taking a stroll in the gar­den, to clear their minds, so to speak.

In movement, we theorize.
We walk to talk.
Let's take a walk,
and talk.

Professor Brenda Farnell and Mr. Robert Wood asked me to translate the title of this conference, "Body, Movement, and Dance" into Chinese. I am no expert translator, but I like to play with words, language, semantics, poetry, songs, Cantonese operas. I suddenly thought of a couple of lines by the famous Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (李白). In his great poem "Drinking Alone with the Moon" (月下獨酌), Li wrote:



I sing,
the moon lingers.
I dance,
my shadow tumbles.

Borrowing freely and unashamedly from Li Bai, my favorite poet, I translated the conference title into 舞影動身心, or "I dance, my shadow moves my body, my mind." With this East-West interplay, my Chinese translation strives to capture all three English words in the conference title: dance (舞), movement (動), and body (身). The Chinese title contains two additional words: 影 (shadow) and 心 (mind). The idea of the shadow reminds us not to take the body too literally—as in reference to the flesh, the corporal only. The Chinese word "心" (mind) completes the body-mind connection. Here I cannot resist the temptation of informing the non-Chinese readers that the Chinese use the word "心" to refer to both mind (for thinking) and heart (for feeling). Thinking and feeling are inseparable. Still in a poetic mood, I proceeded to translate the title of the world-premiere dance performance The Pearl Sea into 海上明珠. "Pearl" in Chinese is 珠; "Sea" in Chinese is 海. At least four pearls are invoked here: Zhuhai (珠海) where the idea of the dance performance was first conceived; Hong Kong as "The Pearl of the Orient" (東方之珠); and the Pearl River Delta (珠江三角洲), into which both Zhuhai and Hong Kong are quickly being integrated, culturally, economically, politically, mentally.

     The fourth pearl, the bright, brilliant, shining pearl that emerges gloriously, triumphantly, above the sea—thus, the Chinese translation "海上明珠"—indeed, the real pearl, the symbol of hope for humanity, is the conference and the dance itself. The Chinese call the world "the four seas" or "四海," as in "四海之內皆兄弟也," which I would loosely translate as "We are all brothers—and sisters—in this world"; or, to borrow from the slogan of the Beijing Olympics, "Four Seas, One World." The next three days will witness a genuine, authentic cultural exchange and meeting of the minds, and bodies, between peoples from all over the world—a kind of intellectual and artistic Olympics at Hong Kong Baptist University.


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