Nostalgic for Chinese High Culture

January 21, 2013

We’re sliding into the Spring Festival holiday here, the year’s high point, one could say, of Chinese culture around the world. In addition to all the usual holiday celebrations, it also affords us the opportunity to navel gaze about cultural traditions or, depending on who you are, bitch and moan about the sorry state of affairs here in China.

You’re probably familiar with this sort of grousing, since it seems to be a common human past time. For some reason, we like to fix our attention in the past, imagining that most aspects of life, including cultural traditions, were somehow of better or purer quality. In the U.S., which has practically no history at all when compared to many other nations such as China or India that have been around for thousands of years, there is a significant faction that looks back at the 1950s as a golden age. Yes, it’s nonsense, but people are funny like that.

Here in China, the nostalgia goes back slightly further in time, back to the Tang Dynasty, roughly a thousand years ago. This was the high point in Chinese culture, many would say, when you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting incomparable calligraphers, painters, sages, and so on.

If you’re going to complain about modern China, the Tang Dynasty always gets mentioned. And there are plenty of complaints, some of which I’ve written about here on this blog with respect to China’s “soft power.”

I found a specific critique a few days ago in a Global Times Op/Ed, which hits familiar themes as the author argues that China’s projection of its cultural heritage to the rest of the world has not been keeping up with its economic power:

The cultural image that China presents to the world does not correspond to its image as an emerging economy. Many foreigners know no more about Chinese culture than Bruce Lee’s kung fu films and lion dances during festivals.

We don’t have better cultural products to replace them, and we seem satisfied with squandering money on staging performance at the Golden Hall in Vienna or broadcasting an advertisement on the big screen at New York’s Times Square.

China’s long history has left the country with rich cultural legacies. However, so far, we haven’t had any kind of long-term plan for these legacies, created truly influential and convincing products based on them, or built a proper cultural image for the rising nation.

The author, Xiao Fuxing, a former editor-in-chief of People’s LIterature magazine, has a valid point here. Many of China’s recent attempts at soft power projection have been ham handed and ineffective. The cited advertisement in Times’s Square, essentially a series of head shots of Chinese celebrities, was groan-worthy. Not only were many of the featured celebs completely unknown to Western audiences, but the overall message of the ad was unclear. Perhaps “We have famous people too”? I don’t know.

Xiao goes on to further critique the current state of China television:

Each year, numerous TV dramas, seen as the most typical products of popular culture, are produced in China. However, many among them are cultural trash, including commercially successful ones depicting family trifles, barefaced worship of money and wealth, or open strife and veiled struggles in ancient imperial palaces.

The virtues of traditional culture, such as men’s emphasis on loyalty, women’s emphasis on affection, filial piety in families and intellectuals’ integrity, have all vanished in these shallow dramas.

Cultural trash? I find it difficult to define such a concept. There are certainly poorly written, acted and otherwise executed shows out there (most of them, to be honest). Many are blatant copies of commercially successful shows, and the vast majority are based on vacuous, uninteresting subject matter. I think Xiao and I would agree to this point.

One must acknowledge of course that some cultural trash is quite successful. From an American perspective, I would put all reality shows in that category. These execrable television programs make a lot of money and, one could say, remain a significant part of the projection of U.S. soft power around the world. More’s the pity, but I think many would argue that these crappy shows are a net gain for the image of the U.S. abroad.

Does Xiao want a commercially successful domestic industry, one that even might be able to distribute some products abroad, or is the goal to just develop higher standards? Perhaps there might be some overlap between the two categories, but then again, maybe not as much as some folks think.

So what’s the solution? What’s that hit show that will make loads of money and be well received abroad? Xiao tells us that China’s cultural products are missing traditional themes such as filial piety. Sounds like a Christian conservative in the U.S. arguing for more “wholesome” programming. We have plenty of that, it just isn’t as successful as shows that feature sex and violence, which is what we hairless apes apparently treasure.

I suppose the idea here is that if more Chinese sitcoms reflected relationships of which Confucius would approve, not only would these shows be successful within China but also abroad. Perhaps Xiao would like to pitch a Friends knockoff that focuses on how obedient all the 20-somethings are to their fathers?

Any takers?

I didn’t think so. Xiao believes that if China “takes out the cultural trash,” it will be left with classically-themed masterpieces over which the world will swoon. Sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen. I don’t recall last year’s Confucius biopic garnering any Oscars, and it certainly did not do well at the box office.

Nostalgia is not the solution to China’s soft power problems. We all know what the real solution is, but Xiao cannot say what it is creative industries need: a lot of money and no content restrictions. The result will likely be a combination of crappy populist pablum and true artistic genius, but it’s tough to have one without the other. You have to let the market sort all that out.

You have to give the people what they want, and lecturing them on old traditions simply isn’t entertaining.