On China’s Cultural Malaise

A few months ago I talked with my students about the culture vs. practicality difference between foreign language students in American who study Japanese and those who study Chinese. For better or worse, Japanese classes are filled with otaku and similar cultural aficionados of Japan, while Chinese classes are dominated by business Chinese students and others who want to learn Mandarin as a marketable skill yet care less about Chinese culture.

Students find this trend extremely upsetting whenever I point it out, and even before the whole Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands mess you could get a hate-Japan session going by suggesting that Japanese culture is more popular than Chinese culture abroad. It is, and the Confucius Institutes aren’t going to change that anytime soon. If you think about it, most Chinese language students in the US are actually being pretty “Chinese” about their studies — cutting out the artsy “fat” and focusing on those “meaty” parts of the language needed in their careers. For example, when I taught Chinese English majors I was depressed by how many cared little about English poetry and literature outside of general knowledges needed to graduate from college.

Getting back to my recent students, I made them even more angry by asking which version of the Monkey King is most famous with Westerners. “Stephen Chow’s?” they asked. “Nope, Dragonball Z.” Some gritted their teeth. I pointed out that Japanese culture is a “child culture” which works within a synthesis between China as a “parent culture” and the West as a “neighbor culture.” There’s a similar theory among Chinese Japanophiles that Japanese culture has flourished because it “borrowed” Tang Dynasty culture, and thus the Japanese have actually preserved former Chinese greatness in their own culture.

The Marxist position taken by one of my students in response was that it’s a matter of development, that Chinese culture will grow popular once China is as developed as Japan. But this theory ignores the fact that Japan’s cultural heavy hitters first started appearing in the postwar period, when Japan was far less developed than China today. By now, China ought to have its own Osamu Tezuka, its own Kurosawa. It doesn’t. And, as the New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos notes, it doesn’t even have its own PSY.  For some Chinese, that’s cause for shame.

In 2010, the Chinese writer Han Han, reflecting on Chinese soft power or the the lack thereof, argued that if all of your cultural products are based on things written down 2,000 years ago, then your culture is basically dead. It’s true that a lot of Chinese cultural malaise and the constant focus on ancient culture is the result of political self-censorship and direct censorship in mainland Chinese media, which Osnos explores at length with nice anecdotes from Chinese director Lu Chuan, but that can’t explain everything, because Hong Kong and Taiwan — which are as developed as Japan — also lack significant cultural soft power around the world, although they have vast reserves of it to spend in the mainland itself.

The bigger problem is that Chinese culture remains both insular — with taboos about mocking cultural images — and, more damningly, lazy. Hong Kong and Taiwan media magnates rely on “templates” for managing stars’ careers and plotting movies. For instance, a model will appear on TV, release a CD, and then start acting in movies, regardless of her actual talents in these fields. This happens so often that stars have become interchangeable, predictable, and boring. Movies are much the same, especially now that Chinese directors have adorned their films with CGI the way a “new rich” Chinese covers himself in golden baubles.

As for Osnos’ piece, PSY is not a highly representative cultural product of South Korea, so the Chinese Osnos says are soul-searching are doing so based on a false premise. South Korea has, by and large, followed the exact same pattern of “manufacturing” entertainers as China, and Korean films and dramas are filled with an army of cookiecutter stars with lookalike plastic surgery-enhanced faces.  PSY, on the other hand, is sui generis in Korea — polished in a way that looks unpolished, amusingly critical of Korean society, and with a face that sets no Japanese housewives’ hearts-a-flutter. He is, emphatically, not the typical K-Pop artist. And based on news coverage, Koreans themselves are at a loss to explain why PSY has conquered the globe when the Wonder Girls, Jun Ji-hyun, Super Junior, and Rain could not.

Alas, there is no parsimonious explanation of why China has no “Gangnam Style” or why no Chinese director could make Kung-Fu Panda. I admit that economics and “face” is part of it. Once Americans start thinking of China as a rich country they’ll respect China more and come to appreciate Chinese culture. Politics is part of it, too. As I quipped during the anti-Japan riots, protestors calling for a boycott of Japanese cultural products should be protesting SARFT for not allowing Chinese artists to be as experimental as their Japanese (or Korean or American) counterparts.

Ultimately, though, Chinese artists have also succumbed to the laziness that follows economic success. Hong Kong and Taiwanese directors and producers were at their most innovative in the 1970s and 1980s when budgets were tight. Once money flowed freely, they lost the incentive to be creative. Instead, they flooded the market with forgettable, mass-produced, lower quality cultural products.  Why would the mainland be any different from the rest of China?

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Brokeback Sinopop

Here’s the cover of Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou’s new album, “On the Run.”

on-the-run

Not visible here: Jay’s Marilyn Monroe ring and the pink box the album comes in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Now, before I be accused of Jay-bashing (sorry for the pun), I like Jay and I suspect I’ll like this album, too. But his new “pink cowboy” motif comes after more than a year of enduring Kangta and Vanness, so I wonder who decided that marketing straight stars as ambiguously gay was the thing to do in China. I guess it’s hardly worse than marketing gay stars as straight, though.

Hmm. That reminds me, I haven’t heard a Wham! song in ages.