In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture

In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture

In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture

In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture

Synopsis

China, Geremie R. Barmé notes, has become one of the greatest writing and publishing nations on the planet, and both cultural activists and the state are embroiled in debates about the production and distribution of its cultural products. But what happens when global culture and Chinese capitalist-socialism meet in the marketplace? In the Red investigates what goes on behind the rhetoric of the official Chinese government and the dissident community and provides a unique perspective on mainstream Western perceptions of cultural developments, artistic freedom, and popular lifestyles in China today.

Illustrated with fascinating cartoons and photographs and rich with facts, anecdotes, and events, In the Red exposes the complex relationship between "official" culture (produced, supported, or sanctioned by the government) and "nonofficial" or countercultures (especially among urban youths and dissidents). Two key and contrasting events loom large in this narrative: the 1989 protests that ended with the June 4 massacre and a nationwide purge, and Deng Xiaoping's 1992 "tour of the south," in which he emphasized the need for radical economic reform. Although a level of political tolerance has evolved since the 1970s, Barmé sheds light on the significance of the intermittent denunciations of artists, ideas, and works.

Excerpt

In October 1986, at the height of the Pax Hu Yaobang, a time of relatively benign cultural and political rule in China, the state-controlled Chinese Writers' Association organized an international symposium on contemporary literature at Jinshan, the steel town outside Shanghai. Hosted by Wang Meng, a prominent novelist and the recently appointed minister of culture, the gathering was a canny effort at arts public relations. Many of the international participants were leading translators of Chinese letters and Sinologists; one was even a member of the Nobel Academy. Some of China's most popular and faddish writers—men and women who had risen to prominence as pathbreaking novelists, poets, and essayists in the 1980s—also were present, although there were a few notable absences. Over the ensuing days, much of the discussion centered on a common obsession on the mainland: the Nobel Prize for literature, that international stamp of cultural approval. Amid the lobbying of the Nobel academician, there also were recriminations from among disgruntled local participants that the Chinese arts— which, they contended, had come of age in the decade since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976—had been badly served by the academics and professionals who translated mainland literature into Western languages. If only Sinologues could do justice to the cutting-edge Chinese works through their translations and critiques, it was argued, then mainland culture would be sure to find the international recognition it so richly deserved.

In their speeches, many of my overseas colleagues concentrated on the literary innovations that had led to the appeal of post-Maoist literature to an increasingly sophisticated and demanding audience in China. For my part, I chose to reflect on the revival of individualistic prose, in particular the casual essay, from the late 1970s. This was a development that showed how more intimate and personal concerns in literature were being overwhelmed by newly unleashed market forces and literary sensationalism. Having just spent a year in Hong Kong working with the translator John Minford to edit a volume of contemporary Chinese . . .

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