Opposing the Three Vulgarities 反三俗

This policy buzzword for China’s cultural sector entered the official lexicon after a July 23, 2010, collective study session of China’s politburo (中央政治局第二十二次集体学习), at which the focus was discussion of so-called cultural sector reforms (文化体制改革) in China. At the study session, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) said that in order to strengthen Chinese culture and thereby enhance China’s soft power internationally, the CCP must work actively against the trend of “three vulgarities” (三俗) on the contemporary cultural landscape. Only in this way, he said, could the party ensure “the development and glory of socialist culture.”
The so-called “three vulgarities” include vulgar (庸俗), cheap (低俗) and tasteless (媚俗) cultural content. Hu’s address followed his previous statements on media and cultural policy, emphasizing the need for commercial growth and innovation in media and culture while maintaining ideological controls. Some believe, however, that “opposing the three vulgarities” might signify an intensification of ideological controls on media and culture by the CCP.
On August 5, Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily echoed a report from Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily that said mainland China is lately entering a new period of “moral crusade,” signaled first by recent actions against dating programs on Chinese television. The Ming Pao article also cited criticism of the new TV series Dream of the Red Chambers in the official People’s Daily newspaper as further evidence of a new movement against the so-called “vulgarization” (低俗化) of Chinese cultural offerings.
Crosstalker Guo Degang (郭德纲) issued a satirical confession of wrongdoing on August 8, 2010, admitting that he was vulgar thrice over after being mercilessly attacked by official media for his “vulgarity” stemming from a conflict with BTV over whether he had expanded his home onto state-owned land [full Chinese text HERE]. Guo’s confession was a playful but powerful criticism of the Three Vulgarities. And we hope our poor translation will be forgiven:

What TV could be more kick-ass TV than BTV? In being critical of me, that is. The way they managed to rouse the deaf and stir those who couldn’t hear! That was something, and I really had to work to get my head around it! But once I had, I was a bit confused. What does “vulgar” (庸俗) mean? The first character in “vulgar” is yong, which means “ordinary,” so it must suggest that someone is just as common and conventional as ordinary people. And what about “cheap” (低俗)? Well, the first character, di, or “low,” suggests one doesn’t quite come up to where other people are in terms of conventionality. And what about “tasteless” (媚俗)? This character mei, “to charm”, is not an adjective but a verb, and it means to attract. Which is to say that people who are tasteless are not ordinary, but they attract people who are. I know I have problems. But I can’t for the life of me see how I can not be ordinary, but be just as ordinary as everybody else, and then be more ordinary than everybody else all at once. It’s like I know I’m fat. But how can I not be fat, but be just as fat as everybody else, and then be fatter than everybody else too? It makes me think that the people who work for such kick-ass TV must be a lot more gifted than those girls in the KTV. How else could they slap such perplexing phrase on me? And then all at once it came to me. The problem wasn’t the TV [or their phrase], it was me. It wasn’t that they had misspoken, it was that I had [taken their ingenious phrase and] commoned it all up [NOTE: Guo is using “yong,” the first character in vulgar, as a verb]. For such great big TV stations to look past all of those important demolitions and land thefts, and even to look past their own fire that burned up millions of dollars [NOTE: a reference to the CCTV building fire, on which there were news restrictions], just to criticize me — well, would I deserve to be singled out for such criticism from everyone if I didn’t commit a few more acts of conventionality? One conventionality certainly isn’t enough. And three conventionalities [NOTE: he is using the full term “Three Vulgarities” here], that’s just a starting price! If criticizing me isn’t enough, they can go criticize someone else! If I don’t confess, then they’ll have to drag in Xiao Shenyang (小沈阳), Zhou Libo (周立波) and the rest of the vulgar world, right? So I have to confess. And why concern myself with the fact that it’s impossible to be three different things at once? After all, I do have a wife and a child! So I hereby solemnly confess: I am vulgar; and my son, who I brought into this world, he is cheap; and for my wife to have married me, well that was just tasteless!

[QQ.com special feature page on Guo Degang and vulgarity]

David Bandurski

Now Executive Director of the China Media Project, leading the project’s research and partnerships, David originally joined the project in Hong Kong in 2004. He is the author of Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin), a book of reportage about urbanization and social activism in China, and co-editor of Investigative Journalism in China (HKU Press).