Music as a World Religion
Dancing Hip Hop in Rural China
By Jay McDaniel
It is quiet now and there is room for some fresh ideas. I am composing these words
at ten at night from a small village in rural, southwest China. An hour ago we were in
the community center singing pop songs together. Toward the end of the night, the
teenagers in the village taught my American students some dance moves to Chinese hip
hop songs. I didn’t dance but I wanted to. There was a kind of playfulness to it, a
cross-cultural lightness of the heart, a transnational merrymaking.
Now the moon is rising and a calm wind blows through the hills. Everyone is going to
bed, including the farmers and their families. No doubt some of the farmers are
looking up at the moon before going to sleep, thinking about what they will do
tomorrow. It will be hard work: tilling the soil on the terraced mountains. Their
children will be in school and their parents will stay at home and prepare meals. Their
guests – ten Americans – will be gone.
I think of my friends back in the United States. It is still daylight but the night will
come soon enough and they, too, will be bathed in this moonlight. Some of them will
look up and think about the day to come. They will think about selling insurance,
teaching kindergarten, and waiting tables in restaurants. Yes, their lives are very
different from these farmers and their families in countless ways. Still, like the
farmers, they sleep, breathe, sing, suffer, hope, laugh, and dream. Like the farmers
they, have children and parents about whom they care. Everyone has a song and story.
It would be good if the people of these two nations could dream together. It would be
good if they could look forward to a day when everyone enjoys clean water, plentiful
fruit, respect from others, and freedom to sing. That’s part of the reason I am
writing this essay. I am interested in parallel dreaming.
I borrow the idea of parallel dreaming from some of the children I saw in the village
today. As all parents know, when children are very young they do not know how to
interact with other children but they can still play together alongside others. The
children receive visual cues from the others and play together without looking at each
other, and they are simultaneously nourished by a mood of play that permeates the play
area, a mood which is vibrant and exploratory. .
Parallel dreaming would be a variant on parallel play, except enjoyed by their parents,
schoolteachers, artists, musicians and maybe even their governments. It would occur
as people from China and the United States take inspiration from one another’s lives
and hopes for just and sustainable communities. Like the children they would be
responsive to whatever cues they can receive from one another, except as mediated by
radio, television, books, education, diplomacy, and, where possible, friendships.
Too Much Sugar
I have taken ten American students with me on an educational tour and we have spent
the day learning about sustainable agriculture and livestock management. The village is
Manan and it is home to several hundred members of one of China’s ethnic minorities:
the Achang. This is the fourth village we have visited in two weeks. In each instance
we go to a village, meet the community leaders, and then visit homes in the village and
ask villagers questions about their lives. We are interested in learning about their day to
day lives, their hopes and dreams.
Manan is surrounded by beautiful mountains which would make lovely landscape
paintings, but the villagers do not think of mountains this artistic way. They are not
prone to objectify something called “nature” and say “it is beautiful.” They know the
mountains more intimately, with their legs as well as their eyes, because they spend
most days walking up and down the slopes, working terraced rice fields which require
constant maintenance. There are no tractors. The villagers are in very good shape
and we Americans are embarrassed to be overweight. “Too much sugar,” says one
We are a novelty to the villagers, because they are never visited by foreigners or, for
that matter, by urban Chinese, because they are very much off the beaten track. We
are here because a development organization – Heifer China – is working with the
community and has offered to help us see the poorer side of rural China. Our Chinese
hosts are also hoping that we might have some ideas to share with the villagers
concerning sustainable living, but I fear we cannot do so.
One eighty-year old woman from a nearby village rode six kilometers on a motorbike,
with her son driving, just to see what Westerners looked like. She was one of the last
of her generation to have had bound feet. She brought dumplings for us to eat. Her
smile was contagious and we found it easy to smile back. We visited with her about
her childhood and asked her about childhood memories of Spring Festival. We were
reminded anew of something we had learned in visiting other villages earlier this week.
Governments may disagree on politics, but their people can come together through
food, storytelling, and music.
By middle class Chinese standards, the lives of these villagers are poor. Of course they
are rich in intelligence, creativity, and practical skills which we lack. They can build
their own houses, whereas we would not know where to begin. But they lack indoor
plumbing; they grow much of their own food; most live in homes immediately adjacent
to pigpens and gardens. Most of them yearn for the conveniences of urban life:
refrigerators and toilets, for example. The young people would like to migrate to large
cities and work in factories, sending money back to their parents. Their parents want
their children to have this opportunity. One of my students asked a farmer want she
most wanted from life. He expected her to say “happiness for my children” or “peace
of mind.” But she did not think in such psychological categories. She said a
Spiritual but Not Religious
Some of my students arrived in China with an interest in Chinese religions. We had
heard that the Achang were influenced by Buddhism, and a few of us harbored the
hope that we might get the villagers to talk about how Buddhism functions in their lives.
The villagers may be influenced by Buddhism, but they seem to derive their primary
sense of identity from being Achang and being farmers, not in being Buddhist. Perhaps
this is because, in China, religious affiliation in a Western sense has never been part of
Still the villagers do have something like spirituality. It includes mutual support and
trust between people and hope for the future. They call it 精神面貌 (jing shen mian
mao). As is the case with the rest of us, it comes by degrees, and waxes and wanes.
Sometimes they are more hopeful and sometimes less hopeful. But they want to live
by such hope.
Still another part of their spirituality lies in their enjoyment of music. Some of the
music they enjoy comes from oral traditions passed down from generations. But much
of it comes from radios and televisions which they have in their homes. This is their
primary mode of recreation after a hard day’s work. They watch Chinese soap operas
and listen to popular music on the radio and television. The teenagers especially like
Chinese hip-hop music, but their parents prefer popular and traditional music.
At the end of the day the villagers and my students enjoyed a cultural exchange in
which we sang songs together, some in English and some in Chinese. One of my
students sang a Chinese popular song called the Moon Represents My Heart which he
had learned in Chinese language class in the United States. He played the guitar and
accompanied himself to the tune, which he sang quite beautifully. Halfway into his
song members of the village came up to the stage and joined him. There was great joy
in the group as a whole as sang together; and no one seemed to care that most of the
Americans did not know the words. The melody itself carried us. This is the way
music often works. It brings people together.
It occurred to me that in certain respects popular music functions as world religion in
its own right, or at least as a global spirituality. It provides people with moments in
which they directly experience a certain kind of beauty – harmony and intensity -- which
gives expression to some of their own deepest aspirations for life in this world,
even if they lack any other more formal kind of religion. It helps create certain kinds
of community among those who share music with one another. It offers what one
Christian theologian – Mayra Rivera Rivera – calls a touch of transcendence.
Different Faces, Shared Rhythms
Of course we Americans were touched by transcendence when we met the villagers
themselves. In the language of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, we experienced
something transcendent in the face of the other. He doesn’t mean the literal face; he
means the unique and irreducible uniqueness of the other person, as requiring respect
and care. He says that our ethical sensitivities are formed out of our encounters with
Let’s talk about the ears of the other, too. This would be that part of another person’s
life where she feels something beautiful in the music she hears and wants to dance,
even if only in her mind. What she hear? She hears human feeling – and perhaps
even divine feeling – externalized in human form. After all, music is what feelings
It seems to me that even as we have different faces, we can share sounds. We hear
music and we feel drawn to something beautiful that calls us, consoles us,
challenges us, widens us, and speaks to us. We need not hear it in the lyrics. We hear
it in melodies harmonies and rhythms.
Next to me tonight was father of one of the teenagers who was dancing hip-hop. We
looked at each other and laughed. We knew our role in the transnational merrymaking:
we were keepers of the rhythm. Who ordained us for this task? There was no
question. We were ordained by the rhythm itself. Was the rhythm divine? Who
knows? But we knew it was transcendent.
Is Music really a religion?
Is music really a world religion? Does it matter? The word religion has many different
meanings. For some people the word names a tradition to which they do or do not
belong: a tradition such as Buddhism, Christianity, or Taoism. Many people in China
today will say that they are not religious in this sense. Many people in the West will
say the same thing.
But for those with ears to hear, the word “religion” names something deeper: an activity
of the human heart and soul. It is an activity of trust in something more than human
life; of surrendering to something deeper and wider than the self and family and nation;
of feeling small but included in the Song of the universe. It also involves a sense of
faith, of trust in the availability of fresh possibilities. Understood in this way religion
may or may not be joined with religious affiliation. A person can belong to a tradition
and be religious; and a person can belong to no tradition at all and be religious. An
atheist can be religious, too.
I do not know if the man sitting next to me was an atheist. I suspect that the whole
question of theism and atheism would have been foreign to him. It would have taken
a lot of explaining even to get to the point. But tonight, for a moment at least, we
became religious. Our shared religion was in the melody of the songs we sang and our
singing together, and also in the rhythms of the hip-hop. The driving power of the
rhythms offered a sense of hope, consonant with our heartbeats. Thump Thump,
Thump Thump, Thumpety Thump-thump-thump. Yes, music is really a religion: an
activity of the heart. You can even dance to it. Or tap your feet.
We humans may need more than music to become whole people. We may need food,
clothing, shelter, health care, friends, families, and refrigerators. But without rhythm,
we lose hope. In the beginning of our lives, with the very sound of our mother’s
heartbeat, there is a drumming. It is our first religion and it calls us, moment by
moment, into the future. Let’s keep listening.