Scholarship and education
Posted by Joel Martinsen on Tuesday, May 8, 2007 at 7:37 PM
There's a profile of CCTV Lecture Room sensation Yu Dan in yesterday's LA Times. From the article:
Yu's willingness to pick and choose what she likes from The Analects, and in some cases to misread what the text is actually saying, has drawn criticism from more orthodox interpreters. The Times story quotes Tsinghua's Daniel Bell knocking Yu's "feel-good, apolitical version" of Confucius, while other critics are more nit-picky, complaining that the media professor's "insights" should be better-grounded in scholarship.
In a column in BQ weekly, media critic He Dong examines the true motivations of the anti-Yu Dan crowd:
Who is Yu Dan threatening?by He Dong / BQ
Yu Dan, an especially articulate woman PhD and professor, became a nationwide sensation for going on CCTV's Lecture Room program to talk about Confucius and Zhuangzi. And she's not popular solely on TV - afterward, she was hot in the bookstores, too. Yu Dan's Insights on the Analects sold over 1.5 million copies in the blink of an eye. Yu Dan's road to success really has many PhDs and professors angry. So questions about her and problems with her lectures quickly started assailing her on the Internet. At the same time, there were three strong demands: the media must immediately cease its adulation of Yu Dan, Lecture Room must immediately cease broadcasting Yu Dan's programs, and Yu Dan must apologize to the entire nation.
So who were these people instigating this small cultural demonstration? Careful inspection of its origin reveals nine PhDs and MAs from Peking University and Tsinghua University. There's an old Chinese saying that goes, "A scholars' rebellion takes ten years or more"; when scholars form an alliance, they do not wait to launch a revolt against others, but rather dissolve into internal struggles for nine years.
When Yu Dan started speaking on the Lecture Room program, I never expected that the literati would be the first to rise up in fury and protest against her. Yu Dan is opening up a road to television for those bagua teachers, telling people not to bury themselves in stacks of old papers - they should really be deeply grateful to her!
I had thought that perhaps there might be a few television hosts who would rise up and express their displeasure with Yu Dan. For instead of PhDs and professors, she is truly threating those TV hosts who amuse the masses with idiocy all day. I personally witnessed the scene when Yu Dan signed books in Beijing at the Xidan Book Building: she really had the whole town out waiting impatiently! What does such a sensation imply? It means that the audience has become tired of talent competitions and entertainment programs, so a TV show that's a bit intellectual and cultured without being dry and uninteresting sweeps up the audience into fevered anticipation as soon as it makes itself known. It's obvious that the audience for certain types of cultural TV shows is not limited to Beijing, it is springing forth from all areas of the country.
Those hosts turning somersaults and making faces on TV - are they aware of the crisis that threatens them? No, not at all. They still continue, intoxicated with talent shows and amusing themselves to death! Even when the audience's expectation and needs for a new type of television program are staring them in the face, responsive hosts do not appear. Into this, Yu Dan exploded into popularity as a program guest-host.
However, most perplexing is the fact that the TV hosts, who by rights should be sweating bullets, are instead still wallowing in stupid entertainment, and those professors of history and culture, who should be rejoicing, can't wait to jump up with unrestrained indignation. Really. It's the flood waters swamping the Dragon King's temple - family members don't recognize each other.
So how should these people afflicted with jealousy and narrow minds be cured? The nine PhDs vehemently cry, "Immediately cease broadcasting Yu Dan's programs, and have her apologize to the entire nation." The latent meaning is this: immediately invite the nine wise, valiant PhDs to appear on Lecture Room and promote them on a national scale. Then Chinese culture will have found its savior!
But should the audience really have to pay for their sour grapes?
* * *
Talent competitions and other mindless TV programs have been the focus of official criticism recently; SARFT and other regulatory agencies are attempting to raise the bar for television to drive clean up vulgar, bottom-feeding shows, so Yu Dan seems like she'd be a breath of fresh air.
But is she truly apolitical, as Daniel Bell says? Writing in Southern Metropolis Daily, Zhao Yong arrives at the conclusion that Yu Dan's scholarship is calculated to uphold the mainstream government line, and she suffers so much abuse because she doesn't bring anything else to the table. Some excerpts:
Why are we always correcting Yu Dan's mistakes?by Zhao Yong / SMD
[The books] all say that Yu Dan made some mistakes in her lectures on The Analects and Zhuangzi, like explaining "small man" (小人) as "child" (小孩子). Definitely a mistake, but there's little point in correcting this kind of error. The saying goes that you can't have a book without mistakes. So mistakes in speaking, in writing, or in printing aren't anything to be surprised about....
However, people persist in "correcting" Yu Dan. Are there perhaps other problems in her lectures?
After Yu Dan went big, she took part in a web chat on Sina, and one of her responses resonated. The host asked her whether The Analects was required reading for a harmonious society, and Yu Dan responded, "Actually, The Analects are quite mainstream; that is, many things in The Analects are ideas brought up by our harmonious society today.".....Looking through relevant explanations in her Insights, perhaps we can find an awakening. Yu Dan says, "China has always seen harmony as beautiful. And what is true harmony? Exercising tolerance of others, blending together while sustaining different voices and differences of opinion" (p 62); "The mental state of the doctrine of the mean is everything situated in harmony. This harmony is when all heaven and earth is in its place (p 110); "We often hear people complaining that society is not fair, that their lives are difficult. Actually, instead of blaming everyone but yourself, why not examine yourself?" (p 49) - Oh, turns out that this book talks about the importance of the "harmonious society." If you blame everyone but yourself, your voice sharp and loud, then everyone will be fraught with anxiety; if everyone remains in their places, thinking behind closed doors at night, performing self-inspections three times a day, then this would probably gradually enter a beautiful phase of harmony. Looking at it like this, we really can't underestimate the insights Yu Dan has gained from The Analects. It may be an entertaining document produced out of the Lecture Room program, but why can't it be the political document that mainstream ideology has been waiting for? The new moderator of Lecture Room, Wang Liqun, said that when Yu Dan lectured on her insights from The Analects over the National Day holiday, it came out swinging. The reaction was huge after it aired, and caught the attention of the government. The old guy's really cute, telling the media such secrets. What ought we to do?
Some might ask, is it wrong for Yu Dan to take old things for new uses, for living scholarship? No, no one will say that she's wrong. That the thought of Confucius and Laozi became the mainstream discourse through successive dynasties says that they do indeed possess something that mainstream discourse may make use of. So there is absolutely nothing wrong with Yu Dan's very mainstream desire to make the harmonious society borrow the climate of The Analects. What's wrong is that she's a scholar, a classic intellectual according to the western definition. And as an intellectual, she ought to have her own system of discourse and means of expression. We'll not talk here of Said's "speak truth to power"; rather, we'll go back to Max Weber's standpoint, scholars that take academics as a "vocation" ought to maintain a certain neutrality of values. But we cannot see this in Yu Dan's Insights. In this way, her position immediately becomes suspect: when she stands speaking on the Lecture Room dias, it is obvious that she appears in the person of a modern academic, but why is it that her thinking and her lecturing resemble a scholar-official from the feudal society? A member of the modern intellectual class has undoubtedly undergone the baptism of the May Fourth New Culture Movement, yet you've made your explanations like the vestiges of the old society. How can this please people?
Recently, the media asked Chen Danqing for his views on Lecture Room. He said that Lecture Room was a product of drills - there's only one voice, only one tone, only one format, and he couldn't take it. "I finally watched Yu Dan's program. Her gestures and tone are all guided by CCTV. I cannot bear that stuff."
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Books on China
The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.