Culture as Soup

I had a conversation with a colleague about cultures in China. He told me about how many different forms of the Han culture exist throughout China, due to the political and social circumstances over time. He remarked that if you went to Guizhou, you would see Han people dressed in a weird way, different from what we understand about most Han Chinese, and he explained it was because they were people who escaped from war during the Ming Dynasty and settled there. It was as if time had stopped for these people, and they preserved that particular moment in history, and with it its culture and memory. If one takes this theory to a broader level, one could easily theorize that the evolution and history of Chinese culture was essentially spread out geographically in China. Time was preserved in packets of space.

He gave another example of the Hakka people, known as 客家 in Mandarin, which mean the ‘guests’. The Hakka people still exist today, all over the world, but they derived the name from the Han people who migrated South during political unrest in the North, taking with them their cultures and language, and thus preserving it in a different place. My colleagues claims that these people were actually the ‘purer’ Han Chinese who once belonged to the central part of China known as ‘Zhong Yuan’ (中原).

And so we came to this discussion about the idea of purity. Purity of culture, language, and blood. Races mix all the time. When the Chinese migrated to Southeast Asia, they mixed with the local natives, the Malays, to form a new breed known as the Babas and Nonyas. Everywhere people migrated, over time, their bloods mixed, their cultures and languages synthesized. It’s almost like everyone has a bit of everyone else’s blood. So what is ‘pure’?

We came to the conclusion that the Han Chinese blood itself was also a mixture. We took the analogy of a soup. You have a bit of salt, some carrot, some pork, and then you mix it for a long time. This brew becomes very homogenous over time, and it’s hard to tell what the soup was even made of if you didn’t know the ingredients. Using this analogy, every race and culture was essentially a mixture of some other forms. It was only a matter of how long this particular brew managed to sustain itself, and allow itself to be cooked. The Chinese race continued to absorb and synthesize with other cultures over thousands of years, and is still doing so today, more so with the West now. One could think of the different cultures in China as the different flavours and brews that had cooked over the centuries, analogous to the different recipes of food in China. The different flavours of food is symbolic in a sense, to the different cultures that had been fostered over time and space.

If one takes the soup analogy to another level, one can view some new nations as the beginnings of new flavours of soup. Singapore is probably a good example, although the fusion of different languages to form a common one is a healthy sign of its primal synthesis. I have another friend who once wished the world had no borders. As much as that would make the world much more free-flowing, it does threaten the diversity of cultures. Almost like bacteria in science, they cannot be cultivated without certain conditions. Every living organism thrived in its own optimum condition, and if the whole world existed in the same manner without borders or limits, there would only be one type of organism growing in it. The existence of borders allows different cultures to be formed, different ’soups’ to be brewed, different ratios of people to be mixed.

Now, there is also a different argument for this, a different way to look at it. Because as much as synthesizing different cultures eliminates the presence of existing cultures, it also helps to create new ones. Everyday new things are being created, and old things are being made extinct. There is a sort of sadness to things being lost, a culture so old only to vanish after the last of its kind returns back to the Earth. With him, he takes centuries of knowledge and wisdom to his grave, never to be seen by his children again, as they are diluted with other forms of culture, or globalized by the modern world. It’s as good as seeing an endangered species become extinct after centuries of evolution, wiped out in a single blow.

I guess the only fear is that cultures become wiped out faster than they can brew, because they do take some time to cultivate again, for life doesn’t evolve overnight. As much as culture is a soup that brews over time, we must remember that when we overturn the soup, we also lose time.

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