Sunday, January 10


My father’s co-worker from Cleveland was coming through London with his wife, and stayed in the flat for a few days. Unbeknownst to me, it turned into an informative and incredibly interesting visit. The co-worker told us of some of his events and travels as the Canadian Ambassador in North Korea, and his wife Dadawa shared with us her work as a well-known Han Chinese singer and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.

Image from

Dadawa’s bio progresses in brief thusly: born in Guangzhou, China (where my father worked for 3 years), she went to university in her early 20’s, a professor ‘discovered’ her voice, and she released her first CD in 1995 with Tibetan influences titled Sister Drum which resulted in international acclaim. Her second CD was titled Voices from the Sky (1997), she began receiving awards, performing and travelling all over China and the world, released a CD in 2006 titled Seven Days, received more awards, then accepted a post as UN Goodwill Ambassador.

Here is where the story became fascinating for me, as my conversation with her focused on her Ambassadorship to document and preserve the traditional music and handicrafts of China. Joined by 9 other professionals driving four Jeeps; these experts in music, photography, video, research, and documentation, travelled to 6 different Chinese provinces to document the traditions in China’s lesser known regions. They created a 17 piece television series that documents communities who continue to follow ancient, local, music and handicraft traditions. Dadawa said that their work was well received in China and plans to translate the work are in progress.

The reason she agreed to complete this work, with UN support, is her concern over the influence of the Western world on the Chinese culture and the abandonment of many ancient Chinese traditions. She does not want her country to be solely known for making and exporting Western goods, nor does she want her country to become the IT capital of the world. For centuries the Chinese were a dominant world force, whose influence began waning when the Chinese emperor closed its borders to international trade in the early 1400’s. For the next 1,000 years any dominance on the world stage decreased rapidly due to several factors: lack of international trade, Opium Wars with Britain in the 1800’s, fear and execution of reformers in the 1800’s, civil unrest in the early 1900’s, the Japanese invasion in the 1900’s which resulted in political disorder, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s (see The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs). It was mentioned in our conversation that as part of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government decided to promote a ‘New China’ and rid itself of its old heritage and reputation. In 1976 the Cultural Revolution died along with its leader, Mao Tse-tung. Since 1978 China has been the worlds’ most successful example of economic development and growth, but it not all been jolly walk down money lane (environmental and human rights issues, as well as division between the rich and destitute).

In 2009 Dadawa and others are still asking themselves, ‘what does New China mean?’ This led our discussion on to the historical influences of many Chinese inventions including paper, printing, compass and music theory.  That these incredible contributions to modern society and the country’s rise out of poverty, has become synonymous with the ‘Made in China’ stamp found on so many things in Western homes, seemed disappointing to us both.

The history of China is extensive and its brisk economic rise unmatched in the world, but is there a space for the preservation of thousands of years of history amongst its place on the stage of world economics?  Does one need to be forgotten in order for the other to evolve? Is there space for tradition and advancement in the same history?

Dadawa and her cohorts are one group trying to find a desirable mix and their work with the United Nations is a strong contribution to this process.  From the videos and stories Dadawa shared the people she met, these are my favourite:

Authentic Voices
The group of 10 entered one village and asked if there was a singing group in the community. There was, it was gathered and they began to sing. It became evident very quickly that this was the tourist version of their community. Dadawa explained who they were, their purpose and the villagers responded with authentic voices and songs. The group took everyone up into the mountains and began singing in fourths and fifths, then slurring notes up and down in droopy scales. I asked her what they were doing and she had learned that they sing in the mountains to allow their voices, which are imitating nature, to also flow out into nature. Once I knew this, the music and the group’s voices made more sense as they did sound like nature reverberating and echoing in the hills. Beautiful!

Authentic Clothing
One group had 7 women in it and I noticed they had buns on top of their head and with long, flat, horizontal pieces of gold through the top of the bun. On their necks they had large moon shaped necklaces with dangling pieces of gold and beads on each side. The choir wearing these pieces discussed the meaning of them for the documentary.

Where Are They?
Since the development of China’s own Industrial Revolution, many people have moved from rural locations to urban environments for work. Dadawa’s group noticed that there was an entire age range of people missing from the villages. There were children and the elderly present in towns, but the older teenagers and adults were missing. The provinces this group visited were in the Western and Northern parts of China and the industrial development has been along the Eastern and Southern portions of China, requiring wage earners to leave their communities (see The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs). Most of them had moved to the urban centres leaving grandparents to raise their grandchildren.

Knock Knock...Whose Your Uncle?
One village works in a Matriarchal society in which fatherhood is not as important and brotherhood. In the evenings after dinner, all the elders go to bed, and the women and men go back to their individual homes. After an acceptable period of time, the men get up and go in search of sex with a woman. A man approaches a female’s home and looks to see if there is an item on the door. If so this means the woman inside is already ‘busy’. The man then moves on to another home in search of sexual pleasure. Once a free home is found and the woman agrees, the woman and man enjoy an evening of lovin’ and the man returns home. If a baby is produced from the evening’s events, the father of the child is not identified or even important, as it is the woman’s brother who becomes the ‘father’ of her children. Sisters and brothers do not sleep together but they do remain connected through the birth of the sister’s children. Everyone knows what is going on, but the elders head to bed and pretend they don’t know what is happening. The question remains, do the elders reproduce?

Dadawa said that there were many interesting communities, all with their unique stories, histories and cultures and she is proud to be doing her part to document their existence. I was delighted about our conversation, learning about fascinating people who live differently than I. I am not interested in a world that conforms to one way of life or whose sole purpose is economic viability; our diversity is what makes us interesting and remarkable. Our depth as people, groups, cultures and communities remains strong when we learn to hold on to the good which forms us, as we move forward into new spaces.

I wish Dadawa and her group joy in their work as it was a pleasure to have met and talked with her and her husband.

Dadawa’s Blog (in Mandarin or Cantonese)

University of British Columbia Artist in Residence

Video: Balad of Lhasa

Video: Concert in New Zealand

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tonia,

    I followed the link that lead me to the Ballad of Lhasa and enjoyed both the music and the film that accompanies it.