Intellectuals, Mainstream Culture, and Social Transformation
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter highlights a theme that implicitly runs through this book, namely, the changing relationship between mainstream culture and the role of intellectuals in the postrevolutionary socioeconomic transformation in contemporary China. It suggests that future studies of Chinese mainstream (popular) culture must take into account the formation and development of, for a lack of a better word, a “cultural ecosystem” in the last three decades in China with four major forces or groups dominating meaning production: guan (officials), mei (the media), chan (industry), and xue (the academy). It is no longer accurate to assume a monolithic entity called “Chinese intellectuals” independent of these forces when the cultural production of meaning has become multifaceted and tension-filled. Nor is it accurate to apply ready-made labels to voices from within these forces without fully understanding their contextual, dialogic, and ideological implications.
In arguing in my Introduction for the need to focus on mainstream Chinese culture, I contended that mainstream culture is where discursive or ideological struggles take place. The previous chapters demonstrate more specifically what I mean in saying that various cultural and historical legacies inform such types of cultural production as the television drama and its representational mode. In television drama, different ideological positions and perspectives coexist, manifested, melodramatically, via representations of different ideas and competing values in response to social change and the tensions and problems that follow. This characteristic is shared by subgenres I am unable to include in this book, but it is to be hoped that further studies will continue to explore the complexity and implications demonstrated in those genres.
I would like to conclude by highlighting a theme that implicitly runs through this book, namely, the changing relationship between mainstream culture and the role of intellectuals in the postrevolutionary socioeconomic transformation in contemporary China. Future studies of Chinese mainstream (popular) culture need to take into consideration the formation and development of, for a lack of a better word, a “cultural ecosystem” in the last three decades in China with four major forces or groups dominating meaning production, namely, guan, mei, chan, xue, or officials, the media, industry, and the academy.1 It is no longer accurate to assume a monolithic entity called “Chinese intellectuals” independent of these forces when the cultural production of meaning has become multifaceted and tension-filled. Nor is it accurate to apply ready-made labels to voices from within these forces without fully understanding their contextual, dialogic, and ideological implications.
Indeed, to reiterate, since the early 1990s, the role of Chinese intellectuals has become more diverse and complex than before. In the 1980s intellectuals appeared collectively to share an oppositional position vis-à-vis the “state,” a (p.163) position that was largely informed by a readiness to say good-bye to revolution (gaobie geming) and an impatience for China to pursue (what turned out to be an American style of) “modernization.” The irony within this “oppositional” stance was that when it came to the desire for modernization, intellectuals were in fact not so oppositional after all. The majority shared with the reformers in power a developmentalist (fazhan zhuyi) oriented modernization imaginary and contributed to a delegitimization of the revolution led by the Chinese Communist Party by associating it with “traditional culture” (chuantong wenhua), which, as indicated in the famous television essay serial He shang (River elegy, 1987), was represented as being responsible for China’s being luo hou, or lagging behind in “modernization.”2 More than two decades later, this frame of argument has been proven historically unsophisticated. The social, environmental, cultural, and human costs of rapid economic development and the much increased polarization between the rich and the poor have compelled a new understanding of “development” and “modernization” and generated heated debates among intellectuals themselves.3
Indeed, around the year 2000, when I began to pay attention to the phenomenon of television drama as a dominant form of storytelling in contemporary China, the turn of the century had already witnessed debate, among intellectuals in China regarding different assessments of the economic/market reforms, legacies of Chinese socialism and the communist revolution, and the ideological positions that inform the different assessments. These new debates, as I have noted in the book, are manifested in television dramas when writer/critic/scholar intellectuals engage with this major form of storytelling, either in creative or in critical terms. Such participation (and its lack) is itself part of the yet to be fully explored story of the changed and changing relationships between mainstream culture and intellectuals and between the power structure and its critics, and of the discursive struggles among the increasingly divergent groups of intellectuals and the cultural elite in China.4
On one level, if, to echo Yin Hong, there is an “accomplice,” or gong mou, relationship between the state and the market, the interests of the aforementioned power groups are deeply entangled. By identifying these four groups as “accomplices” I do not suggest that this is a phenomenon particular to China. It may well have been the structural and cultural consequences of China joining the “tracks” of globalizing capitalism and adopting its cultural logic that resulted in the formation of a new cultural elite whose positions and perspectives both inform and are informed by the socioeconomic structural changes and by their shared “modernization” imaginary emphasizing mainly wealth and power. The development of contemporary Chinese “mainstream culture” is closely related to such reformation within the larger structural and cultural (p.164) logic of global capitalism. Recognizing that Chinese intellectuals’ positions are implicated is an honest assessment and a first step toward recognizing different kinds of entanglements with globalizing capitalist power in China’s postrevolutionary reform era.
On another level, against the backdrop of the rapidly changing socioeconomic system in the name of market reform and the corresponding reformation of the cultural system, the formerly (in the 1980s) shared “oppositional” stance by intellectuals rapidly became transformed into different and even conflicting responses to the “new” social, economic, and political circumstances. Various articulations of these different perspectives constitute genuine ideological struggles among different worldviews both in response to and as part of the changing cultural system in contemporary China. As a result, the relationship between mainstream culture and intellectuals, as I have tried to indicate in this book, is itself troubled, layered, tension-filled, and carries multiple implications.
China’s cultural and historical legacies and the social and economic problems that the developmentalist pursuit of modernization has created have generated and will continue to generate serious debates about the direction of China’s economic reform, the Chinese “modernity” imaginary, and the role of intellectuals in such ideological struggles. These debates are not only symptomatic of ideological tensions both within and among the aforementioned four groups, but are also part and parcel of the “cultural ecosystem” in today’s China.5
The fact that intellectuals are themselves deeply entangled with the existing cultural system in China will continue to manifest itself in the ongoing debates about different intellectual perspectives and positions and about the nature of China’s economic reform and China’s path to modernization. Such debates will also continue to influence mainstream (popular) cultural production of meaning. It remains to be seen in what ways Chinese intellectuals’ role in meaning production will affect the discursive struggles to imagine a society that is not dominated by the logic of globalizing capitalist culture and a society that dares to imagine a different path to social equality and justice.
(1.) In Chinese, xue refers to xueshu, which usually means scholarship. In this case, however, it refers to the academy, specifically the structural and ideological changes that have taken place in universities and the fact that higher education as an institution has become part of the power establishment.
(2.) He shang, or River Elegy (1987), is a six-episode televisual essay originated by a group of scholars, including Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxiang, who criticized “traditional Chinese culture” allegorically and celebrated “Western civilization” (xifang wenming). In many ways, this television show is representative of the mind-set of Chinese intellectuals of the 1980s, who imagined and directly argued that the West was the answer to China’s problems. For scholarly responses to this televisual text, see, for example, Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxing, Deathsong of the River, and Jing Wang “He Shang and the Paradoxes of Chinese Enlightenment.”
(3.) Among the earliest challengers of the “modernization” and “modernity” imaginary are He Qinglian’s Xiandaihua de xianjin (Pitfalls of modernization, 1998), and Wang Hui’s “Dangdai Zhongguo de sixiang zhuangkuang yu xiandaixing” (Contemporary Chinese thought and the question of modernity). Both articles help mark the beginning of the late-twentieth-century intellectual debates in China.
(4.) In recent years, Western scholars have begun to notice post-1980 intellectual debates in China. See Ted Huters’ introduction to Wang Hui, China’s New Order, 2–39; Kang Liu, “Is There an Alternative to (Capitalist) Globalization? The Debate about Modernity, Postmodernity, and Postcoloniality,” in Globalization and Cultural Trends in China, 23–45; Xudong Zhang, ed., Wither China?; Xudong Zhang, Postsocialism and Cultural Politics; Sujian Guo and Baogang Guo, eds., China in Search of a Harmonious Society; (p.192) Edward Gu and Merle Goldman, eds., Chinese Intellectuals between State and Market; Min Lin with Maria Galikowski, The Search for Modernity: Chinese Intellectuals and Cultural Discourse in the Post-Mao Era; Chaohua Wang, ed., One China, Many Paths.
(5.) These debates are most active and intense on the Internet. Websites representing different ideological persuasions among intellectuals (mostly writers, critics, and academics) and ordinary netizens is an ongoing reality in today’s China. Such websites include www.xschina.org, www.wyzxsx.com, www.eduww.com, and www.tecn.cn, representing various positions and perspectives.