Today I was watching the “All China Youth Singing Competition”, a yearly extravaganza held on China's national television network. I'm only watching this stuff because I have a few friends in the competition. This very odd television show is one of the most important trials for any young person who wants to survive in China's music industry. Every province and region sends representatives, and the prize for winning is national fame, endorsements and the ability to command high performance fees.
When I turned on the TV, a beautiful Mongolian girl in a golden dress was singing a lovely flowing song from the grasslands she calls home. It wasn't the best folk song I'd ever heard, but then again I've heard a lot of this stuff in my day. But here's the clincher: when she finished her song, an announcer took the stage and asked her a question - “The Summer Palace and The Great Wall are the English names for two famous Chinese landmarks. What are their proper names in Chinese?
I have to say that the perversity of this whole spectacle never ceases to amaze me, even after all these years. Apparently a singer, even a folk singer, cannot be a true professional unless her head is crammed with all kinds of trivia that is wholly irrelevant to her life or career.
Of course, the girl was stumped by the question, and that's going to hurt her score in the long run. She didn't make the cut because she doesn't know the English names of two tourist sites in Beijing, a city worlds apart from where she was raised. One of the judges (there are about thirty of them and they're all really old) made the following remark: “Some people may be wondering why we've added so many English questions to this year's trivia section. It is because there will be many foreigners here this year for the Olympics, and we need to be able to tell them about our great historic landmarks.” There you have it folks, she can't be a superstar because she hasn't made enough effort to become a perfect Chinese citizen in the party's image. Don't believe me? Wait until you hear the next question they asked her. Footage from some Cultural Revolution music video was shown for a few seconds, and she was asked to name the song. Of course, this time it was multiple choice, because the Cultural Revolution was a long time ago and the Olympics are THIS YEAR. So just in case you stumble on a foreigner deep in the Mongolian steppe who is looking for the Summer Palace, make sure you know enough English to tell him that he's hopelessly lost, otherwise you'll never be a superstar.
Other questions I've seen include “name the cities that these famous European soccer teams are from”, and “name the period that this Italian Opera piece was written in”. And the topics are numbered instead of named, so you have no way of shooting for a topic you're good at. In fact, they're so worried about people cheating on the test that they release no information that might help people prepare for it. You either know it or you don't.
But don't worry, my people tell me the whole thing's fixed anyway, so there's no use in memorizing that encyclopedia.