Category Archives: culture

“Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?”

From Brendan O’Kane at Rectified.Name, what I’ll consider the last word on Mo Yan until the guy actually does something again:

The announcement on Thursday night that Mo had become the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel for literature set off a miniature firestorm of criticism, almost all of it from liberal-minded Chinese Twitter users, that seems mostly to have centered on several issues: Mo’s silence (now broken) on Liu Xiaobo, his vice-chair position in the China Writers’ Association (作协), his role in an unbeliev– all-too-believably boneheaded event in which 100 authors copied out Chairman Mao’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, his behavior at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, and a bit of Weibo doggerel that he allegedly wrote in support of Bo Xilai. Some of the criticism is fair, but much of it isn’t, and I feel honor-bound, as a translator and as an EU citizen and fellow Nobelist, to point out which is which.

Mo may not be a ‘dissident’ in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜苔之歌) opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine (酒国), one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs (蛙), whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy.

T.S. Eliot was a stone-cold anti-semite. Ezra Pound was a fascist-sympathizer who spent the end of WWII in a cage. Roald Dahl was mean to just about everybody. If we’re willing to accept The Waste Land and the Cantos and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as the works of flawed men, men who were subject to all of the limitations of their condition, then it seems grossly unfair to condemn Mo Yan for the lesser sin of keeping his head down. The fact of the matter is that there are many excellent Chinese authors who are not banned or in jail. They choose to work within the confines of officially acceptable discourse, pushing at the boundaries wherever they can, because the alternatives are banning, or jail, or at best an honorary professorship in Berlin and the lonely irrelevance of the exile.

Mo Yan is a serious writer with a substantial body of work, much of it dealing with Chinese social and historical issues as directly as he dares. We might wish as readers that he were more daring, but we don’t get to make that call — he does. He has chosen to ensure that he will have the freedom to keep writing and publishing. Mo’s novels and stories do his speaking for him, and they do so eloquently and forcefully.

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“Writer Mo Yan in Delicate Nobel Dance With Chinese Authorities”

A new take on Mo Yan and the Nobel prize by Josh Chin of China Realtime Report:

A day after winning the Nobel Prize for literature, Chinese novelist Mo Yan said he hoped China’s other Nobel winner, jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, can “achieve his freedom” soon.

The writer’s willingness to speak publicly about Mr. Liu flies in the face of criticisms leveled by some other writers and human rights activists in China that the novelist, once celebrated for his sly subversiveness, had recently grown too close to the authorities. It also means Chinese authorities will likely need to step carefully in trying to exploit the soft power potential of the writer’s award, human rights advocates say.

“Mo Yan certainly has a mind of his own. He’s not a government puppet. His novels make very clear that he’s not a cheerleader for the state of Chinese society today,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. The novelist’s willingness to talk about Mr. Liu, he added, “will make it a little more difficult for China to conceal that they’re holding a Nobel Peace Prize winner in prison.”

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who on Thursday slammed Mo Yan as unworthy of the prize, did an about-face upon hearing the writer had expressed sympathy for Mr. Liu. “I want to welcome Mo Yan back into the arms of the people,” he said. “If this sort of courage is the result, I hope more Chinese writers will be given Nobel prizes.”

“It does put the government in a bind because it doesn’t look good, but I don’t think that it’s likely to affect the government’s position on Liu Xiaobo at this time,” Mr. Bequelin said, adding: “From the government’s perspective it’s a small price to pay compared to the benefit of being able to say China has a Nobel literature prize winner.”

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Mo Yan Wins!

But what does it mean? People have been arguing back and forth today about Mo Yan, who was given the Nobel prize for literature today. CCTV has been hyping this as a great achievement for China, while others have been decidedly more critical- via Bequelin, Yu Jie’s reaction:

“A writer who praised Hiter couldn’t win this award, but a writer who praised Mao Zedong can.”

The dual expectations placed on Mo Yan are pretty far apart- that he write artfully for the Chinese on one hand, and that he should serve the Party on the other. Reuters has a good summary:

Some of his books have been banned as “provocative and vulgar” by Chinese authorities but he has also been criticised as being too close to the Communist Party.

While users of a popular Chinese microblogging site offered their congratulations, dissident artist Ai Weiwei said he disagreed with giving the award to a writer with the “taint of government” about him.

“My works are Chinese literature, which is part of world literature. They show the life of Chinese people as well as the country’s unique culture and folk customs,” Mo told reporters in his hometown, Xinhua news agency reported.

The last Chinese-born winner was Gao Xingjian in 2000, although he was living in France by that time and had taken French citizenship. His Nobel was not celebrated by the Chinese government.

“His winning won’t be of any help for Liu Xiaobo, unless Mo Yan expresses his concern for him,” said Ai Weiwei.

“But Mo Yan has stated in the past that he has nothing to say about Liu Xiaobo. I think the Nobel organisers have removed themselves from reality by awarding this prize. I really don’t understand it.”

Beijing-based writer Mo Zhixu said Mo Yan, who once copied out by hand a speech by Chairman Mao Zedong for a commemorative book, “doesn’t have any independent personality.”

Yu Shicun, a Beijing-based essayist and literary critic, said Mo Yan was a puzzling choice for the prize.

“I don’t think this makes sense,” said Yu in a telephone interview. “His works are from the 1980s, when he was influenced by Latin American literature. I don’t think he’s created his own things. We don’t see him as an innovator in Chinese literature.”

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“Why China Lacks Gangnam Style”

Evan Osnos with a good explanation for why China just can’t seem to put together any kind of cultural power for export:

In China, the Gangnam phenomenon carries a special pique. It has left people asking, Why couldn’t we come up with that? China, after all, dwarfs Korea in political clout, money, and market power, and it cranks out more singers and dancers in a single city than Korea does nationwide. Chinese political leaders are constantly talking about the need for “soft power”—they have dotted the globe with Confucius Institutes to rival the Alliance Française, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news.

In Chinese cultural circles there is a name for this: the “ ‘Kung Fu Panda’ problem,” named for the 2008 DreamWorks movie. It refers to the fact that the most successful film about two of China’s national symbols—Kung Fu and pandas—could only be made by a foreigner because Chinese filmmakers would never try to play with such solemn subjects. The director Lu Chuan, for example, once agreed to produce an animated film for the Beijing Olympics, but after he embarked on the project, he discovered he was not supposed to let his mind run wild. “I kept receiving directions and orders from related parties on how the movie should be like. An important part of the instructions was that the animation should promote Chinese culture,” he wrote later. “We were given very specific rules on how to promote it. And some were not flexible about ‘promoting the Olympic spirit,’ ‘promoting Chinese culture’ or ‘rich in Chinese elements.’ ” He went on, “Under such pressure, my co-workers and I really felt stifled. The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity. The planned animation was never produced.”

For now, China’s Gangnam moment seems far off. “In China, culture and the arts develop under the watchful eye of the government, and anything too hip or interesting gets either shut down or bought up. In Korea, by contrast, artists and entertainers thrive in a space that is highly commercialized but also pretty much free of the heavy hand of the state,” Delury told me, adding, “I kid government officials that the moment they understand why K-pop is so successful and try to replicate it, they will destroy it.”

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“Why China Is Weak on Soft Power”

Joseph Nye, the man behind the term ‘soft power,’ explains why China just can’t seem to build any in an NYT piece here. His conclusion:

But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment. A recent BBC poll shows that opinions of China’s influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, but predominantly negative in the United States and Europe, as well as in India, Japan and South Korea. A poll taken in Asia after the Beijing Olympics found that China’s charm offensive had been ineffective.

What China seems not to appreciate is that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities.

The 2008 Olympics were a success, but shortly afterwards, China’s domestic crackdown in Tibet and Xianjiang, and on human rights activists, undercut its soft power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but was followed by the jailing of the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and the artist Ai Weiwei. And for all the efforts to turn Xinhua and China Central Television into competitors for CNN and the BBC, there is little international audience for brittle propaganda.

Now, in the aftermath of the Middle East revolutions, China is clamping down on the Internet and jailing human rights lawyers, once again torpedoing its soft power campaign.

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“China’s war against Harry Potter”

The esteemed Stephen Walt weighs in on Hu’s attempt to declare a culture war:

Forgive me, but China’s leader sounds a lot like a stodgy high school principal trying to stop teenagers from wearing gangsta rap T-shirts, and telling the Music Department to get more kids into the marching band instead. More importantly, this campaign is a losing game. It’s not that I think the Chinese people couldn’t cast a larger cultural shadow both at home and abroad, it’s that this goal is not something that a bunch of middle-aged Communist Party (CCP) bureaucrats can mandate and control, especially in an era where culture spreads via decentralized mechanisms like YouTube and file-sharing software. Government leaders don’t create new and innovative art; it springs up from unfettered human beings, and often from fringe elements in society. And as Hu surely knows, some of the most creative artists are dissidents. Oops.

What Hu doesn’t understand is that you can’t just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech. Nobody in Washington told Louis Armstrong to redefine the art of jazz solos, a government official didn’t order Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to invent be-bop in order to increase America’s global influence, and the Beatles didn’t spend all those hours in the Cavern Club or in Hamburg because somebody at the BBC had been told to create a “British invasion.” Instead, these things happened because these various individuals were free to assimilate influences from all over, and to work on their art for essentially selfish reasons.

Other authoritarian bureaucracies offer similar lessons. Stalinist Russia produced “socialist realism” (not to be confused with realist IR theory!) and a lot of clunky middle-brow fiction, but hardly any lasting cultural products. There were great artists in the Soviet Union, to be sure, but the best (Shostakovich, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) fell afoul of the authorities at one time or another and those who retained official favor didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Soviet efforts to insulate themselves from outside cultural products backfired completely, as Western jazz, rock and roll, and other forms of contemporary art became clandestine objects of desire and emulation, all the more desired for being taboo.

Ironically, if Hu really wants to win a culture war, he’d have to abandon some of the other social control mechanisms upon which CCP rule now depends. So if he wants to launch a culture war, I’d say “bring it on.”

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“Beijing’s ‘Culture War’ Isn’t About the U.S.—It’s About China’s Future”

Another reaction to Hu’s culture war, this time from Damien Ma at The Atlantic:

I have a bit of a different take on Hu’s politically charged essay. I am of the view that the “politics” of it are predominantly aimed at the Communist Party itself rather than an abstract “external enemy,” in this case the West or specifically the United States. It serves as a warning to both current party members and incoming leaders to remain vigilant, not simply because it is a political transition year but because of the existential fear that peaceful evolution (和平演变) may just be around the corner. Indeed, one of the longstanding fears for the party-state is not that it will go out with a bang but that it will fold quietly in a whimper of irrelevance.

First propounded by then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the Cold War, the concept of “peaceful evolution”, which essentially meant promoting policies that would induce a peaceful transition to liberal democracies within the Communist bloc, preoccupied Mao Zedong dearly. The chairman became suspicious of the Soviet Union falling prey to Dulles’ cunning ploy and eventually grew so concerned that one of the justifications for launching the decade-long Cultural Revolution in 1966 was to counter the threat of peaceful evolution.

Among these passages, this remark stood out for me the most: “He [Dulles]…placed his hope on the third and fourth generations within socialist countries…” (for those interested in the Chinese, Mao supposedly said “帝国主义的预言家门把和平演变的希望寄托在中国党的第三代或第四代身上”, which roughly translates into “imperialism’s prophesiers have pinned their hopes for ‘peaceful evolution’ on the shoulders of the party’s third or fourth generations.”) Well, depending on how leadership generations are counted, China is in that third or fourth generation, preoccupied by a leadership change that is breeding considerable caution regarding any potential destabilizing factors. Mao’s warning (or prescience?) may have added resonance, given the year that China just had, which began with the Arab Spring and ended with Wukan. In some quarters in China, these developments are likely viewed as manifestations of western-inspired peaceful evolution.

Indeed, the Hu administration has seen a personal communication technology boom like none any previous Chinese leadership has dealt with, unintentionally creating a public that is exerting vigorous bottom-up pressure. Perhaps in an indirect admission of the challenges of a new era of information pluralism, the propaganda chief recently bemoaned the immense challenge in propaganda work and “maintaining reform stability.”

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On Beijing vs. Culture

Right now I think two different stories are colliding in interesting ways- first, the CCP’s latest offensive on entertaining television shows, and second, their whining about how China lacks cultural power. It seems that this year there will be even stronger limits on television programs, with Chinese rulers seemingly trying to direct more attention to ‘educational’ material, rather than entertainment.

It’s odd that they would do this. When I was in China three years ago I remember speaking to tons of students and getting nearly unanimous responses to the effect of ‘we always watch American tv shows, Chinese shows are too boring.’ This year that’s still a common refrain, but shows like Feichang Wurao and the knock-offs it inspired have definitely provided something of an alternative to Gossip Girl and whatever else. Hunan TV is producing a few shows that keep peoples interest, and now Beijing wants to muzzle them? They’ve made it clear in the past that they want Chinese people to watch Chinese films and television, but now that some people have started to do that they’re going to eliminate the shows that are making it happen?

From the NYT:

“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” Mr. Hu said, according to a translation by Reuters.

“We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond,” he added.

Those measures, Mr. Hu said, should be centered on developing cultural products that can draw the interest of the Chinese and meet the “growing spiritual and cultural demands of the people.”

Chinese leaders have long lamented the fact that Western expressions of popular culture and art seem to overshadow those from China. The top-grossing films in China have been “Avatar” and “Transformers 3,” and the music of Lady Gaga is as popular here as that of any Chinese pop singer.

Mr. Hu’s words suggested that China would not lift anytime soon strict limits that it sets on imports of some cultural products. Each year, the agency in charge of regulating film allows only 20 foreign movies to potentially make a profit off their box office take here. Hollywood studios have long criticized that system and lobbied the United States government and international organizations to pressure China into scrapping or loosening the quota.

People involved in the arts here say the policy also means more government financing for Chinese companies to create cultural products, ranging from books to live musical productions. At the same time, officials have been encouraging many cultural industries to become more market driven and rely less on government subsidies.

In his essay, Mr. Hu did not address the widespread assertion by Chinese artists and intellectuals that state censorship is what prevents artists and their works from reaching their full potential. In late December, Han Han, a novelist and China’s most popular blogger, discussed the issue in an online essay called “On Freedom.”

“The restriction on cultural activities makes it impossible for China to influence literature and cinema on a global basis or for us culturati to raise our heads up proud,” Han Han wrote.

This obsessive need to have their cake and eat it too comes crashing down every time the latest state-sponsored historical propaganda piece gets demolished in the box office by something from America. When I ask people here what their favorite movie is, they always reach for something American first. If I specifically ask about what their favorite Chinese movie is, there’s invariably a lengthy pause, followed by an unenthusiastic mention of a recent comedy piece.

If Beijing follows through on its promise to further restrict Chinese entertainers they’re going to keep running into the same problem- the censorship that makes Chinese movies safe enough for Beijing to tolerate is the exact same force that keeps it too boring for anyone in the world to want to watch.

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“Caging a Monster”

Quotes from Chinese writer Murong Xuecun have been flying all over the place since his speech in Oslo yesterday- here it is in it’s entirety, here are some choice bits:

My country has become the world’s largest consumer of luxury goods. And now, even living and dying in my country have become a luxury. A popular song encapsulates people’s anxieties:

Can’t afford to have children— caesarians cost five thousand and more
Can’t afford to go to school— a good school costs at least thirty K
Can’t afford an apartment— more than ten thousand for a meter of floor
Can’t afford to get married— no house, no car, no wedding, she’ll say
Can’t afford to get sick— medicine costs an arm and a leg
Can’t afford to die— cremation costs are through the sky

Creativity never flourishes in a status-driven society. That’s why in every field of endeavor—industry, agriculture, commerce and culture—my country contributes few innovations and new ideas, but excels at counterfeits and imitations. I believe that without reforming this rotten system, China will continue to be a nation that contributes few innovations and new ideas to mankind. It may have a lot of money but there won’t be much culture left. It may become a mighty military power but it will still be incapable of making its people feel secure.

People in China have come up with a multitude of explanations for my country’s numerous problems. Those who want to hold onto power say China has problems because the Chinese are just a “low quality people.” Therefore, they have to be controlled and managed. Conservatives say China’s current problems result from the Chinese people abandoning traditional moral values. Some religious groups say China’s problems result from the Chinese not having any faith, and consequently commit evil because they do not fear the wrath of god.

In my view, everything stems from the rotten system. A system with no restraints on power can only lead to corruption; a system in which the law exists in name only turns the law into a deadly weapon high officials use to oppress the citizenry. In this system, the primary purpose of the police and the military is to maintain the political rulers in power and inspire terror, not for making people feel secure. In this system, no one takes responsibility for the past, present and future.

In this system, people only care about short-term profits. In this system, not following the rules is
the rule, and unscrupulous means are the only means in government and business so only the dirtiest players emerge victorious. In this system, everyone is a criminal so no one needs to repent. In this system, humiliation is felt by everyone, so no matter how much a “harmonious society” is promoted, the majority of people dream of escaping to a safe place.

This rotten system is the mongrel of Stalinist-Maoism and Imperial Chinese political culture, a cross-breed of the rule of the jungle with traditional Chinese trickery and communism. Decades later, this creature now has become a monster. This monster is vain, tyrannical and arrogant. It never admits to mistakes. It destroys people in the name of justice and rehabilitates them, also in the name of justice. It takes credit for everything positive, and blames others for all failures. It wants to lord over everything and only tolerates one faith, faith in itself. This monster only allows praise to one thing, praise to itself. It owns every newspaper, every school, and every temple. Without its permission, even flowers may not bloom.

This monster may be frail, but it is still resilient. It is terminally ill, yet it still possesses lethal power. It is dumb yet is also extremely sensitive—the slightest breeze can set off anxiety attacks, trivial matters can ignite a towering rage. This rotten system is like a festering tumor that is poisoning every drop of blood and every nerve cell of my country, and will ultimately drag the entire nation towards catastrophe.

Harsh.

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“Even Propagandists Get Sick of Propaganda Sometimes”

Occasionally one of my students will ask why Chinese movies don’t seem to have any appeal to foreigners. I think generally they already know the answer when they ask that question, which leaves their real motive for asking up to interpretation. Chinese audiences barely seem to like Chinese movies, given their preference for American films and the lackluster (at best) response to recent Chinese releases. China Realpolitik writes a bit about that over here:

The recent awarding of a prestigious (well, comparatively prestigious) film prize to a propaganda film has highlighted the public’s growing resistance to blatant propaganda. Perhaps more interestingly, the incident offered an insight into the minds of those who produce propaganda for the government – they know all too well that audiences are getting sick of these movies.

Recently, the August First Film Studio received an award for their piece “Shen Zhou 11″. The film, as you might have guessed from the title, highlighted China’s recent forays into space exploration. The August First Film Studio is known as a ‘military studio’. If that sounds unusual, it might be better to describe it as a propaganda studio that focuses on military topics. As a part of the China Film Group, they were one of the studios behind the recent flop ‘The Founding of a Republic’ which despite having a star-studded cast, proved to be an embarrassment for the government. The reviews were poor and audiences had to be cajoled into watching it.

[Studio head Ming Zhenjiang] also candidly admitted to supporting other more creative projects indirectly, because their studio faces these kinds of limitations. When talking about ‘The Founding of a Party’ and its predecessor, ‘The Founding of a Republic’ he said that he didn’t believe audiences would be willing to go and see the same kinds of recycled movies for a third time.

‘Recycled’ really is the best word. The government has restricted the range of acceptable films down to such a small selection that it’s impossible for Chinese studios to do anything other than recycle the same movies over and over again. Watching Chinese tv is absolutely painful, with costume dramas and indistinguishable soap operas so wooden and unoriginal that after watching one you really have seen them all. When I asked a class of thirty students how many had liked “The Founding of a Party,” one student enthusiastically said “yeah!” while the other 29 gave various forms of disapproval. Based on how hard the movie flopped, I wouldn’t be surprised if that mirrored the general public reaction.

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“China’s ‘Third Affliction’”

David Bandurski took a break from managing CMP to write something for the NYT. Continuing the theme of cultural castration:

“Almost a full house!” Zhao Dayong said, his eyes glinting as we gazed over rows of filmgoers shuffling into their seats. It was a moment neither of us could have imagined two years earlier, as we filmed the Lisu tribespeople through a chilly Christmas in mountainous Fugong, in southwest China, not far from the border with Myanmar.

Zhao’s unapproved independent documentary, “Ghost Town,” an unflinching look at a remote community on China’s margins – one of those left behind by the country’s breakneck development – was having its moment at last. But the ovation that followed the film’s world premiere in 2009 at Lincoln Center in New York could not shake the bittersweet recognition that this moment would never have been possible in Zhao’s own China.

Against a phalanx of red flags and an enormous golden hammer-and-sickle, President Hu Jintao delivered the Chinese Communist Party’s document on “promoting the great development and prosperity of socialist culture.”

The gist of the “Decision” was that China’s ruling party, recognizing that culture is soft power, would lead a renaissance of cultural creation. The message behind the turgid ideological phrasings and the rodomontade about how the party was leading “the great reawakening of the Chinese people” was that China’s leaders would encourage culture so long as it served their narrow political ends. The Decision states emphatically that China’s rank-and-file “cultural workers” must uphold the party’s “main theme” and “keep to the correct orientation” in cultural creation.

Behind the bravado lies deep anxiety about what some in China have called the “third affliction,” its negative image in the world. With its economy now the envy of the world, China has symbolically thrown off the affliction of poverty. With its powerful and modernizing military, it is no longer afflicted by the threat of foreign aggression, as it was during its “century of shame.” Yet the country’s international prestige remains constrained by the cultural dominance of the West. Each time China is castigated by the international human rights community, or criticized by the Western media, the country’s leaders feel more and more that global public opinion is stacked against them. Western culture and values have gone global in a way that Chinese culture and values have not, and Beijing wants to do something about this.

China’s leaders hope to close this “soft-power deficit” the only way they know how: by diktat. But commercializing state-controlled culture built on repression only turns the spotlight on the injustices of China’s political system. China’s “third affliction” is a self-inflicted malady. As the popular Chinese blogger Han Han said amid the official drivel in state-run media: “Governments in countries with cultural censorship may no longer fear criticism at the hands of their own country’s cultural work, but they must endure the ridicule of the whole world.”

No sooner had the curtain closed on the C.C.P. meeting in Beijing than media outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan reported with unmistakable schadenfreude that an Oct. 17 showing at Lincoln Center of the 2009 Chinese propaganda epic “The Founding of a Republic” had drawn not a single filmgoer.

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“When a Culture Castrates Itself”

CMP has translated a post by Chinese blogger Han Han- as always, worth a read:

I haven’t written anything since [my July post] “Nation Derailed.” In point of fact, I’m not very diligent about my writing, and each time I do finish writing something and then can’t see it [after I post it, because it has been censored], I get despondent. And there are just so many government departments [to get past]. Even if the propaganda department and the General Administration of Press and Publications are fine with something, any department issued with Passats and above can wipe your essay away with a simple phone call. Of these, the most merciful are in fact certain local public security departments. Back in 2008 I wrote an essay that wasn’t deleted until a after a lapse of a whole year. No wonder people complain about slow police response times. It’s true. There are so many places that delete articles that one doesn’t know how to begin writing.

In the past when a book was not allowed to be published, the reason given was that it was counterrevolutionary. But this term counterrevolutionary later fell out of use because while counterrevolutionary activity was still frowned upon no one wanted exactly to encourage revolution either. In the view of the authorities, the work of the revolution had already been accomplished, and so while counterrevolutionary behavior was a no-no, revolution was equally unwanted. The best thing was for the masses to just live their lives by staying put.

So now the reason for not being able to publish things is that they are deficient in taste (格调不高). My first book, The Three Doors (三重门), was dragged about in coming out precisely because it was deficient in taste. If something’s deficient in taste this can be fatal. After all, if the writing isn’t strong enough, it can be improved. If the logic isn’t there, it can be worked out. But deficiency of taste is a real headache, and you just don’t know how you can lift up your taste. If you ask them what they mean by taste, they don’t know either. Only now have I come to understand that taste actually means to cut out (割掉), so deficiency of taste actually means that not enough has been cut [NOTE: This is a play on words, as the words "taste", gediao, and "to cut out" are homophones in Chinese]. So you think that just by symbolically smoothing out the calluses on your feet you can make it in the creative industries [in China], eh? No, you have to make sure you cut high enough. If you spare that part just below the waist, you might still be too manly for the creative industries.

I’ve long been subjected to the bitterness of censorship. But since I managed to raise my taste somewhat, I have fortunately been able to publish books. And because some books have enjoyed substantial sales, I’ve sometimes been able to get the publisher to push the taste down just a bit. Each time before I write I have to go through a process of self-censorship.

As for myself, while every single essay I write goes through a process of self-censorship and castration, sometimes unavoidably the fashion of my castration is still insufficient to pass muster. This has to do with the level of sensitivity at various publishing houses. For example, my most recent novel has been killed outright, because the protagonist in the novel is surnamed Hu [like China's president]. So even though I have only written 5,000 characters so far, the publisher assumes there must be political allegory somewhere. By the time I realized I had to avoid this name and changed the character’s surname it was too late.

I don’t know how a country where a writer trembles when he takes up his pen can build itself into a cultural great nation (文化强国), or how a country where you have to avoid using the names of [politburo] standing committee members and therefore can’t find the [Tang dynasty poet] Li Bai in a Google search can build itself into a cultural great nation. I have no idea how these cultural system reforms are supposed to work. I just have one wish, and that is that Mr. Han Zheng (韩正), [currently the mayor of Shanghai], is not promoted again. Otherwise, I won’t even be able to come up with myself in a search.

As CMP notes, this post was later deleted from his blog by… well, by someone who found it lacking in taste.

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“Tibetan Values Movement Spreads”

Tibetan resistance takes many different forms, as this RFA report shows. If I were in Beijing I’d be just as worried about this as I would be about the self-immolations:

As Tibetans step up protests against Chinese rule, Buddhist monasteries in the eastern regions of Tibet have become the focus of efforts to promote not just religion but Tibetan national and cultural values, according to Tibetan sources.

And annual public assemblies at the monasteries have greatly increased in size in recent years, observers and participants say, as tens of thousands of Tibetans gather to assert their cultural identity in the face of Beijing’s cultural and political domination.

“Taking these gatherings as an opportunity, many educated Tibetan individuals and intellectuals attend the sessions and take part in discussions about Tibetan culture and traditions,” said the man, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.

Use of the spoken and written Tibetan language, and “how important this is to the survival of Tibetans,” is especially stressed, he said, adding that moral ethics and nonviolence have also become popular subjects of instruction.

At Sershul monastery in the Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of China’s Sichuan province, more than 20,000 Tibetan monks and laypeople gathered from Oct. 6-13 to take part in discussions on these subjects, one participant said.

And during an Oct. 2-5 gathering at the Dzogchen monastery, also in Kardze, a senior religious leader spoke to more than 10,000 Tibetans about moral conduct in the community.

“As a result, many young Tibetans surrendered their weapons, including swords and knives, and vowed to shun violence,” one source said.

“Many also took vows to give up drinking and gambling, to speak pure Tibetan [not mixed with Chinese], and to wear Tibetan national dress.”

The growing movement among Tibetans to declare their cultural identity in the face of cultural and political domination by China has allowed Tibetans to “differentiate themselves from what it means to be ‘Chinese,’” said Elliott Sperling, a professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University.

“The very act of defining your Tibetanness is an act of defining that which is not ‘Chinese’ about you,” Sperling said.

Following widespread protests in Tibet in 2008 against rule by Beijing, China’s leaders may have attempted to strike “a deal” with Tibetans similar to the one they struck with the Chinese people following the bloody crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, Sperling said.

In this deal, Sperling said, certain restrictions on expression would be relaxed so long as no fundamental challenge was mounted to the Chinese Communist Party’s political control.

“But essentially, [this deal] isn’t going to work, since the dynamic is quite different,” Sperling said. “In other words, they’re dealing with a population which simply does not see itself as Chinese.”

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“What’s Behind the Communist Party’s Focus on Cultural Reform”

From the WSJ, potential answers to why ‘cultural reform’ is taking more and more of the spotlight at a time when there should be more important affairs on the agenda:

What’s the purpose of all this effort at putting the need for a uniform Chinese culture front and center now, at a major Party conclave?

One aim is that many officials want to put the Party back front and center in the lives of people—be that through revolutionary nostalgia or providing cultural guidance. An increasing proportion of Party discourse has taken note of the mental pressures of modernization and the concomitant decline in social morality. Some officials write and act as if a lot more guidance from the top is needed, and that cultural direction supplied by the Party will address moral shortcomings in society. More than a few cadres clearly believe that using “the greatness of Chinese culture” is one way back into the daily lives of citizens—that is, something that they think all Chinese can agree on and celebrate around, and therefore thank the Party’s brand of socialism for.

There was another agenda being pushed at the plenum: combatting the deepening influence of social media.

The speed and reach of micro-blogging–and the competition that Weibo and others now pose for the official media—worry many cadres who think that it is the public, and not the Party, that is shaping society. While Chinese officials cannot yet agree on how to move against those netizens who are nasty towards political authority, the more conservative in the leadership continue to push for a harder line. Phrases such as the “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in an editorial in People’s Daily last week (in Chinese) may strike some readers as the same old celebratory rhetoric. But these are, in fact, important keywords: a “national culture,” secured and delivered from above if hardliners have their way, could well be accompanied by a deeper crackdown on netizens.

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“A language lost”

South China Morning Post has an article about the disappearance of Manchu language and culture- Mongols, Tibetans, and Uighur take note:

Although there are more than 10 million people in China who are classified as ethnic Manchus – most of whom live in Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin in the northeast – linguists say that Sanjiazi is the last Manchu-speaking community in China.

Even then, only three villagers – all over 80 years old – are fluent in their native language and another 15 – above 70 years old – are conversant to some degree in their mother tongue, says Professor Zhao Aping , director of the Manchu Language and Culture Research Centre at Heilongjiang University.

The traditional nomadic lifestyle Ji knew as a boy is gone forever. And the Manchu language, which is rich in hunting terms and the names of wild animals, has never seemed more irrelevant or obsolete in the lives of the villagers.

“My grandfather took me hunting and together we would catch foxes, eagles, rabbits. But I haven’t hunted for more than 40 years and children these days don’t even learn to ride horses anymore,” Ji said. “People have forgotten the Manchu language. I suppose it will disappear in 10 or 20 years – I guess this can’t be helped.”

But even with Shi’s enthusiasm and the classes he teaches at the school, linguists say it will not be easy to revive Manchu. Social and economic changes as well as years of persecution of the Manchu identity mean the language is not in a fit state to survive.

But the Manchu language has been in gradual decline since the population migrated to other parts of the country with the Qing court and was assimilated into the mainstream Han culture through social contact and intermarriage, despite an official policy of maintaining a separate identity.

With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the Manchu identity, with its association with the ruling class and the special privileges it enjoyed, became an embarrassing liability. During the Cultural Revolution, Manchu speakers were labelled as spies for using their mysterious tongue, forbidden from speaking it and often jailed. Many ethnic Manchus adopted Chinese surnames, changed their officially recorded ethnicity to Han, abandoned their language and hid their ancestry from others, including their children.

To arrest the decline of the language, linguists are calling for government initiatives to promote the use of Manchu in education and society. They would like to see Manchu classes included in school curriculums in traditionally Manchu-speaking areas, to give residents social and economic incentives to use it.

“This is an endangered language and the task to preserve it is very urgent, yet there is no plan to save it,” said a Manchu expert who declined to be named, bemoaning the lack of a government strategy or funding to save Manchu from extinction.

Maybe there isn’t a plan to save it because the death of the language is the plan? In Zhongnanhai there’s only one language, one culture, and one ethnicity, and it definitely isn’t Manchu.

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“Lhakar Pledge”

High Peaks Pure Earth has a translation of a Tibetan internet posting which has circulated recently, calling for Tibetans to reassert their cultural identity. Things like this are difficult for Beijing to combat- if you march with a banner, they can beat or kill you. If you speak Tibetan more often, or wear Tibetan clothing, or conspicuously refer to yourself as a Tibetan? Much harder to justify a beating or disappearance over something like that. The original post calls for Tibetans to make special note of Wednesday, a day considered auspicious in Tibet.

I am Tibetan, from today I will speak pure Tibetan in my family.
I am Tibetan, from today I will speak pure Tibetan whenever I meet a Tibetan.
I am Tibetan, from today I will remind myself every day that I am a Tibetan till I die.
I am Tibetan, from today I will wear only Tibetan traditional dress, chuba, every Wednesday.
I am Tibetan, from today I will speak only Tibetan every Wednesday.
I am Tibetan, from today I will learn Tibetan language.
I am Tibetan, from today I will stop eating meat and only eat a vegetarian diet and gain more merit every Wednesday.
I am Tibetan, from today I will only use Tibetan and speak Tibetan when I call or send a message to Tibetans.

Your move, Beijing.

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