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Reclaiming Chinese Culture

Chinese artistic performances have been becoming more common in recent years, but which one represents authentic Chinese culture?

If it’s true you can learn a lot about someone from who are his enemies (even if imagined), then so too, it would seem, can one learn a lot about a nation-state. Or Party-state, as in the case of mainland China, which has been ruled by an unelected Communist Party (the CCP) since 1949.

One needs look no further than the bizarre (un)diplomatic efforts of Chinese officialdom over the past couple of weeks for confirmation. For around the world, embassy officials and consuls of the Chinese state have been putting the Chinese people’s hard-earned tax dollars to work trying, oddly enough, to bring down a cultural show. And a Chinese cultural show, at that—New Tang Dynasty (NTD) Television’s Chinese New Year Spectacular.

What would prompt such abnormalities, then, as crank calls to the show’s hotlines trying to crash the phone system, threatening letters to show sponsors, and even attempts to pressure venues into canceling the event? Granted, communist rulers sometimes find enemies in strange places—witness the notorious campaign to once "eradicate sparrows," or the branding of the Mary Kay cosmetic company as an "evil economic cult."

But isn’t NTD’s show itself Chinese culture—a shared, collective good? Isn’t this something for everyone, especially officials, to be proud of? What could be threatening to a powerful regime about petite ladies prancing about doing innocuous things like a fan dance?

The answer, I would suggest, cuts to the heart of a fascinating set of issues, not the least of which is who is "China," who gets to be "Chinese," and whether it’s possible for a Chinese cultural space to exist that is not managed and orchestrated by Beijing’s rulers.

Since the ascendancy of the Communist Party in China, "culture"—defined locally as performing arts, shared stories, traditions, etc.—was seen as means par excellence of disseminating ideology among the less (and sometimes more) literate. Performing troupes would thus bring the message of the Party to the masses through various theatrical shows. Values such as "struggle" and the demonizing of new social pariahs such as "landlords" were standard fare.

Traditional culture, meanwhile, became the unlikely fodder for these tellings; traditional stories and themes were refashioned in barbarous, if unlikely, ways. This gave way to all-out hostility toward and assault on China’s traditional past by the Marxist rulers during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which was more akin to cultural insanity: Imagine Red Guard troops taking baseball bats to Buddha statues.

With the death of Mao in 1976 things normalized, but only slightly, perhaps. While artists were no longer jailed or beaten publicly, the arts, or Chinese culture proper, remained quite firmly in the Party’s hands. New contortions of the past have marked this (the "post-Mao") era, with most instantiations being contrived, if not for purposes of ideology, at least to cater to the imaginations of tourists from afar (something like Confucius meets Colonel Sanders).{mospagebreak}

In each case, the Communist Party has wed itself to Chinese culture, and claimed it for its own—and as its sole, self-proclaimed, proprietor, felt a sense of entitlement, if not possessiveness.

With the arrival of NTD’s first Chinese New Year production in 2003, the Party-state’s monopoly on culture was faced with—in its own words—a "crisis." The people now had an alternative, as it were. How so?

First, the formation of NTD as a media entity marked, judging by scholarship on Chinese media, one of the first Chinese-language media ventures truly independent of China’s Communist Party. Confirmation of this is found quickly in the stunning extent of efforts by Chinese authorities to thwart the station. Many of its New Year performers, like the station’s founders, could be called Chinese communism’s discontents—people who have seen and gone through a lot. Several I have interviewed were abused something horrible for being artists (and thus "bourgeoisie") under communist rule. They strike me as an uncompromising, determined bunch. Whereas indicators are that many Chinese media outlets have been bought off or bought out (call it the CCTVization of the world), these folks are dogged.

Secondly, the NTD New Year’s show is very much Chinese. Positively so. And that makes it fundamentally different from the Party’s brand of communist culture. (As to the latter, one almost has to see for oneself the uniformed Chinese PLA soldiers dancing ballet to believe it.) The latter is the brainchild of a German figure, Marx, that came by way of the then-Soviet Union.

By contrast, the NTD show envisions itself as a return to, and draws inspiration from, China’s golden age—the Tang Dynasty (617-907). The Tang was a time of tremendous cultural diversity, tolerance, and religious devotion; note the contrast to China’s contemporary autocratic state. The show seeks to, like NTD itself, empower its viewers insofar as it reaches back to a shared past—unmediated by Party or state—for common values, ideals, and inspiration.

(And given that it was NTD that broke the SARS story—fully three weeks before China’s state media admitted to a top-down cover up—you might call NTD "the people’s station." It was, unlike Beijing, more concerned with the Chinese people’s welfare than the Party’s image.)

The show amounts to nothing less than a refashioning—or recovery—of Chinese self, I dare say. It suggests, tacitly, that there are other interpretations and visions of Chinese culture available, and that venturing in such directions need not be feared. It’s part of a process of becoming.{mospagebreak}

When we hear communist officials thus denounce the show as being "anti-China" (which is often), it is the highest form of flattery, it would seem. For in that ironic accusation is confirmation that NTD has ruptured a five-decade-long conflation of Party with China, of Communist Culture with Chinese Culture, and with being patriotic with loving the Party. One is tempted to say that these are two visions of Chineseness—one meant to control, one to empower.

Nobody can say for sure how all of this will play out, but for the historically minded it is a fascinating, hopeful moment. Until all is said and done, I’ll be enjoying the show.

Matthew Kutolowski is a Ph.D. student studying Chinese religion and culture in the department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University.