Headlines in China are now telling us that the recent annual Spring Festival Gala on China Central Television was an immensely popular success. But it’s no secret to anyone that the annual CCTV gala is increasingly falling on deaf and inappreciative ears. On the Internet, this massive show of entertainment, national unity and feel-good cheer has already become the butt of much amusement. According to one telling quip, the gala’s greatest comic impact comes after the show.
It does not take much effort, actually, to realize that CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala has never had an easy time of it so far as pleasing the audience goes.
The primary aim of the event has always been to achieve so-called “closeness to the people,” and this could be glimpsed this year as three performers took to the stage in a blatant appeal to grassroots sympathies. I’m referring to the performance by guitarist Liu Gang (刘刚) and singer Wang Xu (王旭), the duo behind the band Xu Ri Yang Gang (旭日阳刚), who became Internet sensations after stepping into the national spotlight with their rendition of the song “In the Springtime” in the 2010 state film production Labor in Flux. Liu and Wang took the stage with singer Ren Yueli (任月丽), known by her stage name Xidan Girl (西单女孩) and another popular artist born of the Internet.
In an attempt to add to the grassroots feel, the CCTV gala was also sprinkled liberally with Internet slang.
The ordinary Chinese who are the focus of this “closeness,” however, just don’t buy this kind of forced cozying up. These grassroots gestures and slangs are like dragging Cinderella straight off to the royal court. It changes nothing. The royal court is still the royal court, and the commoners resent it nonetheless.
Ultimately, the Spring Festival Gala isn’t something that fills everyone with joy. Even those who manage to get into the actual event are shrink-wrapped with caution, forced to sit stiffly at attention.
We have an ancient saying in China about “teaching through lively activities.” But truly successful instruction through amusement can only happen as an unintentional consequence of arts and entertainment. If the didactic purpose is too intrusive, teaching becomes teaching, and joy can’t find a way in.
Just think, how many of our traditional Chinese dramas could be taken as examples of this idea of teaching through lively activities? Many of them, to be sure. But how many were were created and put on by the government? They were almost all genuine grassroots efforts. In fact, the Chinese gentry rarely took part in them at all.
The way ordinary Chinese see it, the Spring Festival Gala should be a massive celebration for them, a time when everyone can sit back, relax and have a great time. But the host of this celebration has become so serious about the whole thing, and can’t resist the temptation to preach through the performances. This is so woefully removed from public feeling that no matter how “close” the host gets it can never close the gap.
Encroaching seriousness is also evident from the changes made in recent years to spoken comedy acts, which have always been a staple of the Spring Festival Gala and something people have eagerly anticipated. Now, apparently, satire is off limits in these acts, though I’m not exactly sure when this started. In my view, satire is essential to the art of crosstalk, China’s unique brand of stand-up comedy, and without satire crosstalk comes off as soulless.
All acts performing for the Spring Festival Gala are limited in the space they can safely explore. You can imagine the shriveling limitations imposed in terms of both topic and interpretation.
The result is a critical and fundamental departure from the moods and opinions of the people. It’s only natural that through the course of the year people will harbor some form of resentment or feel disgruntled in some way. Enjoying a bit of satire during the annual gala can help them relax a bit and free themselves up.
But when would-be comic acts can only tiptoe around, when they must take care to avoid the pitfalls of [President Hu Jintao’s] “Three Vulgarities,” when they can only seek pleasure in a senseless vacuum, this creates and perpetuates misunderstanding.
The arts and entertainment are products of the spirit. Their closeness to the people isn’t a matter of form, but rather of content, of spiritual energy and meaning. It is no longer possible for the annual Spring Festival Gala, so saddled already with official errands, its planners and performers strapped in tight, to cozy up to the people in earnest.
Nothing in heaven or on earth could save the Spring Festival Gala in its present form. The only possible cure is openness. We 1.3 billion Chinese deserve more than just one Spring Festival gala. We should be able to enjoy a few more celebrations, of all different kinds, with more people actually taking part, so that everyone can relax and have a great time. If that could happen, any sickness might be cured.
A version of this editorial originally appeared in the February 5 edition of Southern Metropolis Daily
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