Article begins

(In Mongolian)
The semi-conductor radio made in Shanghai,
Is a gift awarded to me.
Because I do a good job at work,
And it is this radio that encourages me.

When I am out grazing,
It is singing in my hand.
When I am sitting in my yurt,
It is speaking on my cabinet.

(In Mandarin Chinese)
The semi-conductor radio made in Shanghai,
It is shyly lying in the corner.
Ai—what are you singing?
Accompany me day and night.

It is my beloved friend.
It is the gift of hard work.
Ai—what are you singing?
It brings me encouragement and tenderness.

(In Mongolian)
My yellow-and-white-cased radio,
It is a talkative gem.
My red heart towards the revolution,
I use it (the radio) to sharpen.

This radio was gifted to me,
It is nice to hear it anytime, anywhere.
In my ears,
Beijing sounds so good

I arrived at a cramped classroom tucked away at the end of the hallway of a community center in Inner Mongolia, China. There were ten students and Teacher Tuya, all in their late 50s or 60s, who were part of a Mongolian-language learning initiative. Bonded by their shared experiences of never having had the opportunity to learn their heritage language, they come together every day to take beginner-level Mongolian classes and sing Mongolian songs. They were also rehearsing for a performance of The Semi-Conductor Radio Made in Shanghai, a show designed to showcase Mongolian culture to tourists from across the country.

With the music, the ensemble rose from their seats, a few of them adjusting their reading glasses to better read the notes. Amid it all, one student enthusiastically weaved through the crowd, an iPhone in hand, documenting the rehearsal. Others held their smartphones in the air, trying to get a better audio recording for later practices. In this moment, I was struck by a scene both fascinating and confusing: a group of urban, middle-class Mongolian Chinese elderlies, equipped with the latest technologies, singing and performing as Mongolian nomads, celebrating the joy of their newfound connection to the modern world and to the state center, all through a radio made in Shanghai.

This story follows the experiences of these performers and their audience. In their pursuit to share what they believe to be the truth of their people’s past, the performers poured their hearts into the performances. However, without their knowledge, their earnest efforts unintentionally created a narrative that diverged from the reality understood by their audience. This is a story where deception rears its head by accident, as everyone imagines their own version of truth.

Credit: Fieldwork sketch by Skylar Hou. Summer, 2023
Rehearsal

Performance Day

As the performers took the stage, the floor-to-ceiling digital screens behind them transformed into Inner Mongolia’s landscape: under a serene blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, vast expanses of green grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see. In the distance, clusters of white yurts dotted the landscape, while scattered herds peacefully grazed. To enhance immersive experience, the performers wore beautiful traditional Mongolian robes, which they rented from an online costume shop. Their carefully choreographed dance moves synchronized with the imagery, as they swayed their bodies back and forth with hands clasped in front, mimicking the gesture of holding the reins of galloping horses as they started to sing. Collectively, these curated practices on stage wove a compelling time-space experience,a representation of nomadic Mongolian lifestyles designed to transport audiences in time and space to another point in history. This temporal-spatial backdrop harmonized seamlessly with the lyrical narratives of the song, framing the first-person narrative of “I” within a specific time and space of grazing and living in yurts. Furthermore, beyond merely establishing the context, this performance positioned the bodies of the singers within the narrative. In doing so, it embodied the essence of Mongolian identity.

Inner Mongolia Then and Now

The differences between the rehearsal setting and the presentation on stage highlight the unmistakably urban lifestyle of these singers, which raises the question of why they would select a song celebrating an object so removed from their personal experiences. The bustling city backdrop and their high proficiencies with technology sharply juxtapose with the pastoral imagery of grazing and yurt and the joy over sounds of radios. How do the images and ideas surrounding such an impersonal, distant event manage to remain relevant for these performers?

For the performers, the time, space, and personhood presented on stage hold significance because they believe the performance is a reenactment of what they imagined to be historically accurate. Teacher Tuya, along with many other people at the Light School, liked to tell me stories of the past. “Back then,” they reminisced, “a semi-conductor was all there was!” However, when I asked whether they had personally experienced any event or emotions similar to what was depicted in the song, they admitted they were too young to recollect. In fact, most of them had never lived the lifestyle portrayed in their performances.

During their childhood, much of their generation was relocated to state-owned residences, and they grew up in the city. Consequently, these performers are reenacting what they have been told to be historical truths based on narratives from their parents and grandparents. The version of the past they constructed in their performance is based on their imagination rather than personal recollections. The song and the performance serve as a canvas for their imagining, allowing them to piece together elements they perceive as fitting to what the past might have looked like, construct a coherent time-space they put on stage. As Parmentier suggests, these performers use this communicative performance to act as a sign “of and in” history, where they articulate and produce what they consider as history and enact it as history to others. 

Although the performers never experienced the event depicted in the song they firmly believe that its symbolic meanings—the social positioning it presents between themselves and the nation, as well as the emotions it carries—remain relevant in their personal lives. They perceive the performance as a celebration of the progress and development that the nation has brought to their community. “We show people that now is a great time to be us,” as they often say to justify their choice of singing this song from the 1960s. When they performed the event of receiving a semi-conductor radio to hear the sounds of Beijing, they construct a time-space as a lens through which to rationalize the present state. By contrasting the past and present, they show appreciation for the transformations that have occurred over time, highlighting that their current reality is a continuation of that historical moment when the radio was initially celebrated.

Lempert and Perrino argue that time, space, and personhood are configured in a meaningful whole. The performers intentionally constructed this time-space through the song, which draws a clear boundary between their current reality and what they see as the past. This construction was also intentionally dialogic, presenting a contrast to their own realities to celebrate progress and development as a national project. Unfortunately, slippageoccurs in their endeavor in communicating through the performance.

Credit: Fieldwork sketch by Skylar Hou. Summer, 2023
Backstage

Post-Performance

The performance that day was before an audience of tourists from different parts of the country, most of whom had limited knowledge about the present circumstances in Inner Mongolia. At the end of the performance, many friendly tourists approached the stage, shaking hands with the performers and inquiring enthusiastically about the lives as portrayed in the song. Do you still live in a yurt? How many sheep do you own? Have you visited other parts of the country? These interactions left both the performers (who grew up in an urban setting) and the audience confused and uncomfortable. This phenomenon is what Webb Keane describes as the “slippage” in communicative events, where the intended meanings are distorted and misunderstood during the process of reception and transmission. The meticulously constructed performance, intended by the performers as a reenactment of the past, became a deception of Mongolian’s current reality to the audience.

The performers, devoted to pursuing every aspect of authenticity within the construction of the time-space on the stage, diligently studied Mongolian lyrics and researched and invested in Mongolian traditional clothing and movements. They endeavored to transport the audience to their imagined past through attention to every detail. However, the more authentic and realistic the performance aimed to be, the further it deceived its audience. For the audience, unaware of the context of the song and merely partaking in ethnotourism, the performers’ assumptions underlying the performance were lost. Instead, the performance became the audience’s perceived reality of contemporary Mongolian Chinese life, prompting them to sincerely inquire about the yurts and sheep they assumed the performers own.

The tourists in the audience perceived the performers as embodying a distant place and lifestyle, inherently different and unknown from their own. These Mongolian performers’ actions actively shaped the audience’s perception of reality in Inner Mongolia, prompting outdated stereotypes about Mongolian people. Conversely, for the Mongolian performers, their portrayal was intended to be a representation of history, reflecting a time and place they deemed to be the authentic past. It also depicted their understanding of causality, linking their present lives to progress and development facilitated by the state, symbolized by the receipt of a radio. This historic aspect of the narrative, as perceived by the Mongolian performers, was so clear that did not require any clarification.

At the end of the story, two parallel realities were constructed and affirmed. The performers retreat to their tech-saturated, middle-class living realities in the city, with the satisfaction of having contributed to preserving community memories and historical narratives, while the audience departs awestruck by their immersion in the nomadic Mongolian lifestyle, imagining that this is the reality that Mongolian people still live. This deception took place by accident, despite the genuine efforts of those engaged in communication to convey ideas and understand different realities. It began with the tourists, who assumed that Mongolian people must lead vastly different lives, while the Mongolian performers were oblivious to being Othered and romanticized. Meanwhile, the performers imagined a Mongolian past that could have been, yet their audience placed the performers themselves, along with their narratives, in a distant past.

Authors

Skylar Hou

Skylar Hou is a PhD student in anthropology and education at Teachers College, Columbia Uni-versity. Their research interests include language revitalization, time and memory, and aging within the context of ethnic minority communities in China. Currently, for their doctoral project, they are conducting ethnographic research in Inner Mongolia, China. They seek to explore the role of Clas-sic Mongolian language beyond mere communication, specifically examining this language’s sig-nificance within language classes and singing practices led by elderly Mongolian Chinese individu-als.

Cite as

Hou, Skylar. 2024. “The Semi-Conductor Radio Made in Shanghai.” Anthropology News website, April 30, 2024.

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