You can learn a lot about a man from who his enemies are. This also applies to a nation-state, or party-state, such as mainland China, which has been ruled by the unelected Chinese Communist Party since 1949. One need look no further than the bizarre efforts of Chinese officialdom over the past couple of weeks for confirmation of this. 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 Chinese cultural show--New Tang Dynasty Television's Chinese New Year Spectacular.
What would prompt attempts to crash the shows phone system, send threatening letters to its sponsors, and pressure venues into cancelling the event? Communist rulers sometimes find enemies in strange places. But isn't NTD's show itself Chinese culture--a shared, collective good that everyone, especially officials, should be proud of? Besides, what could be threatening to a powerful regime about petite ladies prancing about doing fan dances? The answer, I would suggest, cuts to the heart of a fascinating range of issues, not the least of which is whether it's possible for a Chinese cultural space, one that is not managed and orchestrated by Beijing, to exist.
Since the ascendancy of the Chine Communist Party (CCP), "culture"--defined locally as performing arts, shared stories, traditions, etc.--has been seen as a means of disseminating ideology among the more- and less-literate. In the past, performing troupes would thus bring the message of the Party to the masses through various theatrical shows. Values such as "struggle" and the demonising of new social pariahs such as "landlords" were standard fare.
Traditional culture became unlikely fodder and was refashioned in barbarous, if unlikely, ways. This gave way to an all-out hostility towards China's traditional past by the nation's Marxist rulers during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which was more akin to cultural insanity--imagine Red Guard troops attacking Buddha statues with baseball bats.
With the death of Mao in 1976, things normalised, somewhat. 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 the post-Mao era, with most instantiations contrived if not for ideology, then to cater to the imaginations of tourists from afar--something like Confucius meets Colonel Sanders.
The CCP has wed itself to Chinese culture, and as its sole, self-proclaimed proprietor, the CCP feels a sense of possessiveness. So 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 formation of NTD marked one of the first Chinese-language media ventures truly independent of the CCP. Confirmation of this is found in the extent of the 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 shunned for being artists and thus "bourgeoisie" under communist rule. Since much of the Chinese media has been bought off or bought out, these folks are dogged.
The NTD New Year show is also very much Chinese, 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 People's Liberation Army soldiers dancing ballet to believe it. By contrast, the NTD show 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--a contrast to China's contemporary autocratic state. The show seeks, like NTD itself, to empower its viewer 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 three weeks before China's state media admitted to a top-down cover-up, you might call it "the people's station." The NTD is, after all, more concerned with the Chinese people's welfare than the CCP's image.
The show amounts to nothing less than a refashioning--or recovery--of Chinese self. It suggests, tacitly, that there are other interpretations and visions of Chinese culture available, and that venturing in such directions need not be feared. When we hear communist officials frequently denounce the show as being "anti-China," it is the highest form of flattery, since in that ironic accusation is confirmation that NTD has ruptured a five-decade long conflation of communist culture with Chinese culture, and of being patriotic with being Chinese.
Nobody can say for sure how this will play out, but, for the historically minded, it is a fascinating, hopeful moment. I'll be enjoying the show.
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