The association of Go with the Anglo-Saxon intellectual and economic elite hasn’t favored the game in the West. But now, in China, a new generation of parents uses the game to redefine the elite class they want for their society, and to which they want their children to belong.
On August 1st 2014, the New York Times reflected about the cultural effects of the growing economic inequality. The article vindicates Russell Lynes,
…a brilliant [TIME] magazine editor and pop sociologist whose 1949 Harper’s essay “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” remains instructive and amusing to this day. Even more influential (and infinitely entertaining) was the chart it inspired, published in Life, which neatly divided American taste into four echelons, splitting the middle rank into “upper” and “lower” and identifying, with an anthropologist’s precision and an ad man’s brio, typical preferences in food, drink, clothing and art.
As noted by the article, in 1949, with World War II as a recent episode, the scholarship systems and the growing global prestige of the Ivy League consolidated the myth of the new American meritocracy. The idea was that brilliant people managed to enter expensive universities, and that passing through them enabled them to reach the higher income levels. The most “clever” became the “rich.” Their demands were crucial in the materialization of the Maslow pyramid. “Aspirational” consumption, that of the ones who like to imitate the consumption habits of those who earn higher levels of income, also starts emulating higher cultural levels. A new type of intellectual conspicuous consumption is not limited to art.
Go as an expression of the intellectual elite
The NYT article took the idea from a couple of articles on other blogs that appeared during the previous months that emphasized the role played by Go. A buzz was emerging, and the blog of the American Go Association picked it up in June. Soon the complaints from offended readers began due to the classist assumptions projected on the game. When the NYT published its article, the debate was already there. A reader noted:
At the time of the article  the only places to find go in America would be in the math and physics departments of universities. My dad learned, around that time, in a science laboratory from a mimeograph of a German article, because German scholars collaborated with Japanese scholars after the Russo-Japanese war .
In “The Art of playing Go” we have seen that although this claim has a basis in reality, it is not accurate. Indeed, technical-universitary collaboration brought Go to Germany, but half a century before the Russo-Japanese War. Then Edward Lasker, friend and cousin of the chess world champion at the time, promoted the first groups of American players, which were closely linked to those science university departments. An environment that, with the world war and the R & D it led to, would see more and more Central Europeans developing a passion for the game, and the propagation of the game in the sixties and seventies in libertarian environments and the culture of the new technological revolution.
Only for geniuses?
In the USA of the late forties and fifties, everything considered to be cool and highbrow had the European and intellectual touch of those engineers, physicists, and mathematicians, so it is quite natural that Go was a symbol of the intellectual elite. Some of that has come to us through movies like “A Beautiful Mind.”
Surprisingly, according to surveys performed in our time in the Anglo world, Go remains associated with those environments, and therefore is seen as too “difficult,” too “intellectual,” or simply “out of reach” of the respondents. So all the evidence about the beneficial effects of Go on the ability to calculate, the resistance to frustration, or the ability to develop goals and long-term perspective, are of little use: it only reinforces the notion that the game is an intellectual passtime for the elite.
Meanwhile, Go is enjoying unprecedented growth in China: Go schools are emerging all over the country, and the middle class sends their children to them en masse. Berkley anthropologist Marc L. Moskovitz spent two years immersed in Beijing’s Go milleu, from the most prestigious university departments to groups of retired workers playing in the parks. The result, “Go Nation,” is an anthropological map of the values and ideas associated with Weiqi in the new China.
Again, the association between the game and elites appeared clearly in the stories, but unlike USA or Britain, in China “becoming part of the elite” that comes from the best universities is considered possible. It takes great effort, family sacrifice, hours and hours of study and bombproof tenacity. But it is achievable. And this is projected in the game.
Go is associated with elites in China as much as in the USA or Britain, the difference is how the elites are preceived in each case. In China, as a desirable place one can arrive at through hard work; that’s why Weiqi in Beijing thrives in the hundreds of schools that flourish in the city, even more than in clubs or parks. In contrast, in the USA and Europe people increasingly suspect that becoming part of the famous one percent has nothing to do with effort or self-improvement. The elites are inaccessible and incomprehensible in their closed logic. And that’s also how they think about Go.
But there is an even more interesting idea that is repeatedly found all through Moskovitz’s book. The game is described by interviewees as an educational tool for “values,” as a way to “build character” that links to deep cultural models of citizenship and masculinity.
The ideal Chinese citizen is often seen as a manifestation of the Confucian gentleman. Men whose lives were centered on knowledge, and emphasized the importance of developing an iron will and unshakable integrity. In this sense, contemporary Weiqi players learn to be that certain type of man in an uncertain world.
Consistently, dozens of the Anthropoligist’s interviewees
recount the ways in which, from an early age, they learned from Weiqi the pleasure of getting personal rewards through a sound work ethic, and to use their intellectual capacities to meet the challenges they would face as adults. They are grateful to the game for giving them intellectual tools that helped them find their place in the world, and for showing them roards that led them towards becoming better people. (…) They believe that the game teaches the right balance between aggression and restraint. They say that it is instructive on how to direct others and, in turn, how to avoid being dominated by them.
This reassurance and reinvention of the Confucian ideal is therefore also used as an alternative and as a tool for criticizing to certain degree the Anglo-Saxon discourse on success that is all the rage in the country: models of masculinity that are associated with “wu,” individualism, and initiative-based competitiveness symbolized by physical strength and which distance themselves from intellectual effort and moral integrity.
In the Chinese tradition, the intellectual (the “wen”) is considered superior to the physical, the protein (“wu”). That’s why the Chinese military and martial arts practitioners have taken great care to give an appearance of intellectuality, a “wen” dimension to their disciplines throughout the centuries. Traditionally, instead of the criticisms of “weakness,” “clumsiness,” “impracticality,” or “separation from the real world” to which the image of the intellectual has always been associated in the West, the Confucian idea of the “enlightened” projects an ideal of masculinity to which values like subtlety, taste, and intellectual curiosity are linked. The physique of this archetype doesn’t have big muscles, and yet, as in the case of our dear Judge Dee, represents folk heroes and well established models of beauty and masculinity. The semblance seems dissociated from physical force, and bound to forms of competition that do not involve physical, but intellectual development such as Go (in fact, Weiqi in China is regarded by the state as a sport at the same level as athletics or basketball).
On the toher hand, when colonialism arrived in China in the 19th century, the stereotype about the West was associated with the predominance of the physical among the new visitors, the martial, the “wu.” While in the West physical strength and bravery are associated with masculinity, in traditional China the keys for “becoming a man” were associated with strength of character and intellectual refinement. Western values started to be regarded as simply barbaric.
But the “barbarians” exercised immense power, ending the imperial system forever. In a historical synthesis of sorts, the exaltation of the army, the peasantry, and the industrial proletariat that characterized Maoism tried to create a Chinese identity capable of competing with the West by placing value on the “wu.” The contradictions between this new ideal and a CCP that saw itself as a new Confucian class were not few. And of course, they were reflected in the way that Maoism related to Weiqi until the rise of Deng Xiaoping.
It seemed that the opening and rapid development of China would reinforce this “wu” and “Westernizing” trend. But China’s development has not been military, not even predominantly industrial. It has been commercial and technological. The great models of Chinese success, like Alibaba, project a different logic, different ideals of the worker, and a strong sense of community responsibility that synthesize the contemporary “nerd” with the ancient Confucian models.
This is the spirit that Moskovitz’s interviews in the areas of science and engineering at the University of Beijing exude:
The people I interviewed used Weiqi to celebrate a tireless work ethic and determined, permanent intellectual development, while also criticizing the dangers of modern society.
The “nerd” as Confusian ideal
Characteristics of what in the West would be considered “nerd” (studying or working from morning to night, avoiding heavy physical activities, intimacy with parents) are components of an idealized model of masculinity in China
And if Go is a matter of “nerds” and Meritocrats in the new China, playing the game is what was missing for them to become a new avatar of the old ideals. As Moskovitz points out, Weiqi incorporates a sort of minimalist ritual in the Confucian way: from how to grab the stones to the value of silences or the greetings among players. And the closing ceremony of the matches (the loser thanks the winner for what she learned during the encounter) points to the value of knowledge as a driving force for life, typical of the archetype of the Confucian hero … and of the contemporary techy.
And this is what encourages Chinese parents to take their children to Go schools en masse: the dream that their children embrace the ideal of moral strength, determination, community responsibility, and passion for intellectual life and lifelong learning that the game inspires and its surrounding culture exalts:
The wonder is that those values are associated with forming the true elite of their society, that they understand, as a student at Beijing University said, that
it’s not only rules or ways of playing, but also a set of behaviors what gives the game its meaning