In February 2020, Professor Xu Zhangrun released ‘Viral Alarm — When Fury Overcomes Fear’, and we have taken ‘Viral Alarm’ as the theme of the 2020 China Heritage Annual. a series of essays, translations and meditations.
For fifteen years we have advocated New Sinology 後漢學, or the study of the Chinese world that embraces the full range of vital and engaging traditions while encouraging a canny embracing of the ebullient reality of the everyday. While delving into what Jianying Zha calls ‘China’s heart of darkness’, New Sinology appreciates its own clashing traditions.
In ‘On Heritage 遺’, an essay outlining the rationale behind China Heritage published in December 2016, we noted that:
‘Over the last century China’s power-holders have been tireless in their efforts to order life according to mutating political priorities and by enumerating and imposing social and ethical norms. The Chinese language is littered with the numbered slogans and exhortations imposed on the people, be they devised by the Nationalists or the Communists.’
Power-holders elsewhere, be they active in politics, the media, or the economic, cultural, online, academic and social realms, share similar aspirations. To them we are nay-sayers and to readers who appreciate our efforts, we champion the sentiments of James Baldwin:
‘Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.’
This chapter in ‘Viral Alarm’ features ‘Holiday’, a song by Lil Nas X released in mid November 2020, which is also a single on his debut album. It, too, is a celebration of freedom (as well as in-your-face individuality, commercialism and bravado).
Lil Nas X (Montero Lamar Hill, 1999-) became a TikTok sensation in early 2019 with the release of ‘Old Town Road’, a country rap song. At the height of that initial burst of fame, Lil Nas ‘came out’ as gay. As LGBTQ Pride 2019 drew to a close, he encouraged his online followers to listen to the lyrics of his song ‘C7osure’ carefully:
‘Ain’t no more actin’, man that forecast say I should just let me grow
No more red light for me, baby, only green, I gotta go
Pack my past up in the back, oh, let my future take a hold
This is what I gotta do, can’t be regretting when I’m old’
As a black Santa, Lil Nas X continues to tell his story in ‘Holiday’. Among other things, the lyrics of the song refer to his initial success (‘Man, I snuck into the game, came in on a horse / I pulled a gimmick, I admit it, I got no remorse’), his musical versatility (‘Switch the genre on you hoes, do a rock hit (mmm-mmm)/ I got the biggest damn song, fuck the charts, sis’, I don’t need ’em’ and ‘Pop star, but the rappers still respect me’), as well as his sexuality (‘Ayy, can I pop shit?/ I might bottom on the low, but I top shit’). These last lines are a delightfully unabashed ‘call out’ to homophobic establishment rappers (as well as homophobes of all backgrounds, beliefs and races).
As for questions surrounding his potential longevity in the game, Lil Nas offers this:
‘They wanna know if I’ll be lastin’
Bitch, even if I started floppin’, there’d be fashion
Poppin’ up in movies, ain’t no Nasy, bitch, it’s Ashton
Hee-hee, I’m bad as Michael Jackson (dun, dun, dun)’
Lil Nas X’s art, his meteoric rise and the challenges that he has faced down engage both with the ‘American spirit’ as well as its own abiding ‘heart of darkness’.
In China Heritage Annual 2021, the title of which is Spectres & Souls, we will investigate the long-term contestation between the United States and the People’s Republic. As in previous years, the issues of individual freedom, independent thought and creativity will continue to be a particular focus. We are also confident that New Sinology can offer unique insights into what we have previously called the ‘Sino-American Danse Macabre‘ (see: ‘Mangling May Fourth 2020 in Washington’; and, ‘Mangling May Fourth 2020 in Beijing’).
— Geremie R. Barmé
24 December 2020
From Spectres & Souls:
- Jianying Zha 查建英 & Katō Yoshikazu 加藤嘉一, ‘Adieu, China! — Jianying Zha’s Long Farewell’, China Heritage, 10 November 2020
- John Lithgow, ‘A Trumpty Dumpty Denouement’, China Heritage, 6 November 2020
- Leonard Cohen, ‘Democracy & The Future — 3 November 2020’, China Heritage, 3 November 2020
you have no understanding
of the consequences
of what you do
oh and one more thing
you aren’t going to like
what comes after
— from Leonard Cohen, ‘What is coming 2.16.03’,
collected in The Flame, 2018, p.52