In the ferment of the late 1980s, when artistic and literary revival became a political agenda, liberals within the Chinese Communist Party needed the right sort of newcomer to offer fresh ideas. The task fell to Wang Meng (王蒙), a 51 year-old writer who had spent much of his adult life through the Mao era doing physical labor in far-flung Xinjiang – penance for critical writings including his 1956 short story, “The Young Newcomer to the Organization Department,” which put a spotlight on bureaucracy and inaction within the CCP.
“Now, Chinese literary politics have come full circle,” the Los Angeles Times said as it reported the news of Wang’s appointment in June 1986. The notion of a cultural renaissance was in the air in China. Zhu Houze (朱厚泽), the country’s liberal minister of propaganda, urged young cadres to break out of the Marxist mold and learn from Western political ideas. Not long after Wang’s appointment, Zhu wrote in the People’s Daily that a wave of “culture is hot” (文化热) had swept over China. “Culture is a big issue,” he said. “We must think farther and more broadly on how to improve the cultural literacy of the whole nation. [We must] push small culture on to great culture, and with great culture promote the full development of our society, politics and economy.”
By June of 1989, China had once again gone full circle. The brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement on June 4, 1989, spelled the end of more open cultural experimentation. And Wang Meng was among several liberal officials removed from his post in September that year.
China is now in the midst of another push for cultural greatness. Since 2019, Xi Jinping has stressed the need for “cultural confidence” (文化自信), which he has said is “a matter that concerns the fate of a nation.” Xi has also spoken of the need to safeguard “cultural security” (文化安全). More so even than in the Hu Jintao era, when “cultural soft power” was bandied about as a key component of China’s comprehensive national power (CNP), culture has been defined by the CCP in strategic terms. “Especially for a large nation, a large country, and a large political party like ours,” Xi has said, “if we are culturally passive and lose our independence, then the independence of our system and sovereignty will be taken away from us.”
In recent years, there has been a concerted push to capitalize on this new confidence, and to work toward the “building of a cultural power” (文化强国建设), including through funding for “cultural” projects. But what are the real implications for cultural activity, for the creation of artistic works and the celebration and appreciation of expressive acts, when culture becomes a matter of political urgency – more about apparatchiks than about artists?
It is against the backdrop of this most recent push for “cultural confidence” in China that we should read the latest remarks from Wang Meng, the former cultural minister, who penned an essay last month for the WeChat public account “Chang’an Street Book Club” (长安街读书会). The essay, “Cultural Treasure and Cultural Bubbles,” is a prime example of the “Spring and Autumn Style” of writing (春秋笔法), which subtly and indirectly criticizes, avoiding (or so is the idea) direct censure.
The danger with promoting a whole-society, whole-politics approach to culture, Wang warns, is that this does not give rise to cultural treasures that enrich all, but rather results in a “cultural bubble,” as corporate and political interests rush to capitalize on national priorities.
“Cultural Treasures and Cultural Bubbles”
Chang’an Street Book Club
When an entire society prioritizes and awaits the development and flourishing of culture, the result may be a positive situation that can give rise to cultural treasures (文化瑰宝) worthy of a great era and deep traditions. But the result may also be the creation of a cultural bubble by muddling through, or by resorting to histrionic fakery.
What are cultural treasures? This is a matter of what sort of path, insight, spiritual enjoyment and life wisdom we offer the audience. For example, we might interpret traditional culture in ways that align it with the achievements of modern human civilization. For example, we might [introduce] a better way of thinking about education and the future prospects of our nation — ultimately leaving behind the restrictions of a fill-in-the-blank, test score mentality. For example, [we might see] the emergence of writing and artistic achievement of true value that has the potential to go down in history. Or [we might have] theoretical innovations, scientific and technological innovations, and institutional innovations that unleash the imagination and creativity of the entire nation with the new horizons they make possible.
What is a cultural bubble?
It might, for example, appear as the staking out of [cultural] territory, trying to gain footholds, extending loans. The more people lack imagination when it comes to culture, the easier it is to financialize (财务化) and infrastructuralize (基建化) culture, making it about interests and simplistically materializing it. Everywhere [now], we see the building of cultural ecology parks (文化生态园), cultural memorial parks (文化纪念园), cultural celebrity parks (文化名人园), cultural bases (文化基地), cultural squares (文化广场) . . . . Some of these have been done well. But others have simply sought loans in the name of culture, building ostensible stages to culture on which the economy is meant to sing.
I’ve already seen quite of few of these “gardens” and “pavilions,” which claim to be about the commemoration of some cultural celebrity, but which in fact deal at most around 10 percent with this aspect in terms of area, and perhaps one percent in terms of funding. The exhibits are old and dilapidated, and no one visits them.
As so-called value-adding, extension businesses they offer restaurants and catering, accommodation, spas, massages, wedding services, chess and gambling (or gambling on the down-low), karaoke and so on. I’ve even seen how one company has entirely renovated a cultural monument, taking over control of an entire street of stores from the government.
My proposal is that inspections and clean-ups be made of existing cultural facilities everywhere, and that management and supervision be strengthened over parks, pavilions, sites, plazas and companies that fly the banner of culture by are not really about culture.
We see on the one hand that our existing cultural heritage is not being cherished, and is sometimes being destroyed, and on the other hand that false monuments are being fabricated and constructed at will.
The thinking here is to identify culture as something symbolic, and to use culture as a business card. This way of thinking isn’t exactly without reason. For trademark design, tourism advertising, investment promotion and general popularization globally of a culture that is not in the world mainstream, using [culture] as a symbol, brand or calling card may work – add the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, a panda bear, a cheongsam or exotic Chinese characters . . . . and then China is represented. Not exactly a bad thing. But this is only a superficial understanding, and sometimes it can become a cheapening, oversimplifying and repackaging of Chinese culture. Sometimes the distance between cultural symbolism and the cultural bubble is just a single step.
For certain popular art to invent certain cultural symbols is acceptable. But some people, influenced by such popular art, grow ever more foolish and extravagant, the result being shallowness. For example, [the idea that] the Chinese people are descendants of the dragon, and so on. In Chinese traditional culture, the dragon is a precious creature, a totem of kingship, a symbol either of spirits or of the sea and rain. Or it can be a name, or the way a feng shui master describes a mountain, and so on. But there is no evidence that the dragon has ever been ancestor or totem of the Chinese nation.
Aside from the lyrics of the popular song “Descendants of the Dragon” (龙的传人) by Taiwanese musician Hou Dejian (侯德健), there is no other evidence. This song is full of nationalistic passion, and it is well loved by audiences on the mainland, but to take this and decide we are [the dragon’s] descendants, or that it is a totem of our people, a final word on Chinese culture, and to loudly proclaim that “dragon culture” has arrived, or to oppose it on such grounds, is incredibly foolish.
Then, during the opening ceremonies of major sporting events, we again see quite a number of serious and fabricated cultural symbols. We see the odd spectacle of long-extinct Chinese instruments coming out en masse. This is all quite eye-catching, and something certainly up to the discretion of the great director. But we cannot seriously think that strangeness and mystery, the gigantic and the ancient represent the real Chinese culture. As for hanging up red lanterns as a sign of favoring wives and concubines, this is even more laughable.
The word “make a show” (作秀) derives from the English word “show,” and in Hong Kong it has been translated as “flirtatiousness” (骚) [NOTE: The first character here, 秀, in Chinese means “elegant” or “graceful”]. Whether “elegant” or “flirtatious,” it is a popular and mass spectacle, something entirely different from the true meaning of cultural “performance.” The works of the genius director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) are careful to “show” symbols of traditional Chinese culture, but though the symbols abound [in his work], this stuff consists mostly of cheap landmarks newly invented by the genius director’s imagination, and their value as real Chinese culture is limited. My apologies, but I can’t help but say this.
The problem is that our uncoordinated cultural experts can’t themselves say clearly what these “symbols” mean, and are instead pulled along by videos and popular songs, and sometimes can’t avoid making fools of themselves.
An even bigger instance of the cultural bubble is the [phenomenon of] treating culture as a mere formality, going after huge scale in cultural events, spending huge amounts of money on culture, but missing the spirit of culture entirely. Parties and banquets are held, song and dance numbers are performed, scores or hundreds of people from the arts participate, and the audience swells into the millions, with ratings extremely high, and even using various high-technology approaches. The upshot is that there are “selling points” for all – beautiful women, handsome men, stuntmen, the spectacular use of vocal chords, swimwear, martial arts, water curtains, special lighting, smoke . . . . But no consideration, no thought, no passion, no love and hate, good and evil, no depth, no educational benefit, no spiritual nutrition, and no fullness or sublimation of feeling. This sort of culture is an empty culture, a pallid and soulless culture, a lamentable culture.
Then there are certain of our blockbusters, which though they are big, come off as puffed up and lacking any spiritual depth or intensity.
In terms of cultural content, American blockbusters do not exceed the average [cultural understanding] of their audiences. The problem is that our blockbusters often fall shorts [in terms of cultural content], falling far below the average cultural awareness of our audiences. The intellect of our audiences is rising, but the content of our blockbusters remains impaired.
As a matter of government management and cultural policy, any cultural activity that does not violate the law is permissible. We can also feel thankful and make allowances for cultural events and arts programs that are enjoyable and make audiences laugh. At the same time, what we call for and what we want are cultural treasures, not cultural bubbles. We absolutely must not continue to encourage such froth. On this point we must not vacillate in the least.
In literature too, why is it that discussions of the literary aspects of literature grow thinner and thinner, while the hype about sales and bestsellers grows louder and louder? While sales can result in enormous benefit for authors and publishers, in no place in the world does this equal literary value.
We should also be wary of certain specious, fanciful and showy claims about culture. Culture is wisdom, history, lifestyle and a spiritual pillar. Culture is not about fanciful rhetoric and lyrical recitation, about tasteless posturing. It is not about flirting with your charms. The more commonsensical principles are presented in ways people can’t understand, the more we must refuse to believe them.