They were a very strange group of men. The three stood in the same place every day, always doing the same thing, wearing the same clothes and never once opening their eyes.
I spent last summer teaching in China. I was in a city of about 10 million called Wuhan – one of the hottest cities in the country. During the three months I spent there, I learned at least as much as I taught: I’d pick up Mandarin words from my students, hear a little more about the history of the country or get a better feeling for the way the culture worked. But it wasn’t until months after my flight home that I realized the powerful influence of what I’ve grown to think of as “street arts.”
This trio appeared to be, if not brothers, old friends, and they were all blind. Two played curious flute-like instruments, faces twisted in concentration, while the third (who always stood in the middle) held a plastic bowl to collect change from passersby. The men always stood precisely in the middle of the sidewalk, in front of a large mall. Every day when I passed I would consider giving them a few coins, and once in a while I would. Still, they never quite seemed to fit my idea of beggars.
They weren’t, really, not in Chinese terms anyway. They were collecting money, sure, but in the same way that a shoe shiner would collect money – as part of his business, not as a begging technique. They were street musicians, not beggars. Street musicians just like the buskers in the London subway – skilled, legitimate and decidedly not homeless. New York City and Chicago have even developed systems for artists like these that require them to have licenses. These men were more like that – buskers. And the three weren’t alone.
The sidewalks in China are teeming with street musicians. Wrinkly old men plucking their battered Erhu (“two-string” in Mandarin), their female counterparts playing some sort of flute a block down, and the 5-year-old I once saw marching with a drum around his father. They’re everywhere, and they’re really just a small sampling of the street artists.
Artists of every kind lined the streets of Wuhan. Little girls dressed as gymnasts did unbelievable contortions on small cloth mats; ancient-looking monks burned incense and told fortunes; teenage boys danced in crisp rhythm to Chinese rap. These people were as much a part of the streets as the vendors selling fried rice – they belonged there. They added a touch of variety, a different environment to streets that, without them, would have just been grimy and loud. In a way that wasn’t easy to understand: They give the city a different dimension through their art.
The art of China doesn’t stay locked up in its museums or in its exclusive, red-carpeted music halls. It spills out onto the street in every possible way. The street artists and their performances are just as much a part of the culture as the temples or the rickshaws. They’re invaluable, inseparable. They give every person – from the poorest noodle vendor to the black-suited businessman – a chance to have a taste of their own artistic culture just walking down the street.
When I came back to Ann Arbor this fall, just a few days after my last stroll through the streets of Wuhan, I couldn’t help but notice the difference. For a city that’s touted as multicultural there’s not a lot of anything on the streets of Ann Arbor. Some American cities offer more, certainly: New York City, San Francisco, Chicago perhaps, but where else? In China, even the smallest towns have a few men sitting in the town square strumming their huluhu (a gourd-like stringed instrument).
Slowly but surely, art in America is becoming the realm of the educated, the people with the extra cash to attend $80 concerts and the desire to put on a collared shirt and visit the Met in New York. We’re drawing in on ourselves, listening to music from our earbuds rather than experiencing it as a living breathing culture.
So where does this leave us? With a culture that’s obsessed with art galleries and concert halls and ticketed admission, is it possible that we’re robbing ourselves of our own art? If nothing else, we’re limiting it. We’re confining art to a tiny part of our existence, and art should be throughout all of it. It’s like putting all the great American literature in a bank vault instead of a library.
After six months back, it doesn’t bother me anymore. I hardly think about it most of the time. Still, I can’t help but walk down the streets of Ann Arbor without wondering, where are the three blind men, and why are the streets simply grimy and loud?