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Dealing with cultural garbage

Woodcut from Outlaws of the Marsh

At the two-day Fourth Annual Forum on Chinese Cultural Industries held at Peking University earlier this week, GAPP vice-director Liu Binjie spoke about the race toward the bottom in contemporary culture. According to the Beijing Daily Messenger:

"Recently, the curtain has been pulled back on sex in the arts world, cultural products have been promoted fraudulently, serious scholarly works have been parodied, and there has been continual sensationalism in the cultural domain. There is too much excess; culture seems too light and thin."

In an interview afterward, Liu Binjie said that culture is serious creative thinking. Interpreting traditional culture and the classics as you wish, dressing up settled questions of history with inappropriate content, and distorting normal scholarly activity into commercial opportunism leads to negative consequences for the transmission of traditional culture.

Liu Binjie said the standard for judging whether a cultural work or action is or is not cultural garbage lies in whether it will cause harm to society and posterity. Culture, particularly that for mass consumption, does have an entertainment function, but it does not represent the leading direction of culture.

People's Daily has an even tougher quote from Liu: "You can't produce cultural garbage under the auspices of the cultural industries." And it cites GAPP Law and Regulations Department head Wang Tao as saying that the current vulgarization of the cultural marketplace arises from homogeneity; when creativity is lacking, then naturally one can only repeat what others have said.

This kind of hand-wringing has been going on for some time — Super Girls and parodies corrupt traditional culture and hamper cultural innovation — but what makes this particular complaint different is that Liu (and by extension, GAPP) now provides a standard by which the value of cultural works can be measured. Are they harmful? Then they must be resisted.

GAPP's opinion has a number of implications. Commentator Xie Fuming with Sichuan News Net wonders whether the classic Outlaws of the Marsh would be considered "cultural garbage" under Liu's standard:

What "causing harm to society and posterity" means is not so easy to get a handle on, however.

Here's an example. Outlaws of the Marsh has been very well regarded and is one of the four classic novels. The book's plot revolves around "officialdom forcing the people to rebel" and spins stories about strongmen and plundering at the end of the Northern Song Dynasty. It tells the whole course of action as 108 worthies rise in revolt, gathering at the marshes and Mt. Liang, through their acceptance of amnesty. It is a positive paean to forest thieves who dared rebel. It exposes the heinous crimes of feudal landlords, bureaucrats, vagrants and bandits, and exposes the social roots of how the misgovernment in feudal society forces the people to revolt. This novel in the eyes of people today is a classic of literature, but when it first appeared, the authorities slapped it with a ban, since it "spread sex and violence" and "caused harm to society and posterity."

If we look at the negatives, Outlaws of the Marsh does indeed "spread sex and violence" and "cause harm to society and posterity." Among the 108 generals are highway robbers, burglars, ruffians, bandits, and drifters in no small number - a collection of the dregs of society. The code of ethics followed is an outlaw's give as good as you get, with right and wrong hinging on your own personal grudges. Repay good with good with no thought for whether the benefactor is a crook, and settle scores without regard for whether you were actually in the wrong. And there's no hesitation to slaughter innocents. With no small indignation, people have evaluated Outlaws of the Marsh as a book in which "reason and conscience are utterly absent."

The league at the marshes of Mt. Liang, were it placed in today's society governed by laws, would be "organized crime," or a "terrorist organization." The chaotic, blind "natural order" and "benevolent justice" is enough to divorce people from a correct, rational analysis of the order governing everyday live, and would lead to even more negative conduct and radical, angry youth. For the country and the people, the harm would be unfathomable.

Overseas Sinologist C. T. Hsia in The Classic Chinese Novel said that the men of Mt. Liang "created a reign of evil and terror that was more frightening than the corrupt officials." Many of the blood-spattered acts were done without even the pretense of pursuing justice; they arose completely from a savage blood-lust. Li Kui, extolled as a positive character, is the epitome of bloody, savage, inhumanity. For instance, at Dijiazhuang, disguised as a Daoist priest expelling ghosts, he cheated his way into large quantities of meat and liquor which he stuffed himself with, and then he charged into a house and hacked to death a pair of lovers playing at being ghosts. He chopped at their corpses a while, and then laughed: "No life for these two!"

We can see that according to the standard that Liu Binjie mentioned, the ever-popular, universally-praised Outlaws of the Marsh is actually a piece of cultural garbage and should be severely stamped out! What a joke! So weighing what makes up cultural garbage does not seem to be too easy.

Striking at cultural garbage is indeed necessary, but never, never be careless with the standard and wipe out things for no reason. If you wash a baby, and in the end dump the baby out with the bathwater, that's just sad.

Most reactions in the media acknowledge the existence of such a thing as "cultural garbage"; where they differ is how to identify and get rid of it. And some commentators think such a mission is completely unnecessary. In New Life Daily, op-ed chief Liu Jiannan says that all we have to do is wait it out — people will ultimately get tired of parodies and mockery — after which we can get down to the business of creating real, serious culture.

And in Yangcheng Evening News, Xu Guangmu says that "Culture without garbage is not culture":

Of one thing we can be certain: regardless of what standard we use to determine whether culture is or is not garbage, cultural garbage definitely exists. Like bird droppings, or dry leaves that fall from the trees in Autumn, under normal circumstances these are viewed as garbage. They are the products of the life cycle; they will not vanish just because you oppose them nor will they take to flight simply because you support them. Cultural garbage is a product of the life cycle of human society. It has an objective existence, one that is not displaced by any person's will. Opposing cultural garbage is no different from banning bird droppings. In a nutshell, cultural without garbage is not culture.

However, we cannot overlook the enormous value of "garbage." To a certain extent, our present and future civilization is established on the recirculation and reuse of garbage; the transformation of trash into treasure is no longer anything to be amazed at. The same for "cultural garbage" — we cannot ignore its value and importance simply on suspicions of sensationalism or public deception. Perhaps it is in poor taste, or perhaps it lacks innovation and creativity — everyone in the world knows that innovation is something that comes as a flash of inspiration to very few people under very limited circumstances. It is absolutely not something ordinary.

Culture can be divided into levels, and people from different backgrounds who live in different social classes have the right to enjoy different levels of culture. You cannot oppose the existence of so-called "cultural garbage" simply because it follow current fashion. To some degree, that is a form of cultural hegemony.

As far as GAPP is concerned, prolific cultural critic Luo Tianzhu sees Liu's speech as just the tip of the iceberg. The problem extends far beyond the actual producers of these low-class cultural products, and as a result will require more than just a general standard to clean up:

Cultural sensationalism and cultural garbage appear to be the work of a few no-account artists and writers who want to take advantage of the effects of negative publicity to increase their own popularity and achieve things that through normal channels they could only dream of. But in actuality, it is media entities whose concern for circulation numbers, viewership ratings, and click volumes that leads them to take the initiative to collaborate with those writers and artists, encouraging them in their "hype-fests" and "garbage bins." If there were not this encouragement and collaboration from the media, then even if these writers and artists were superhuman they would not be able to build up a sensation. Obviously, the key to resisting the trend toward manufacturing cultural garbage under the auspices of the cultural industries lies in arresting the bandwagon sensationalism of the media.

To reject cultural sensationalism and cultural garbage, "the one who tied on the bell is the one to untie it." The media's bandwagon sensationalism is driven by the pursuit of profit. Behind circulation, ratings, and traffic lies the shimmer of silver. The profit motive is a double-edged sword; it can induce some among the media to jump on the bandwagon, but it can also be used to resist the sensationalism of some of the media. According to the principles of the profit motive, a set of reward and punishment rules can be set up for the media: media entities that actively seek out and collaborate with writers and artists to engage in vulgar sensationalism and the production of cultural garbage can be given economic punishments to make it not worth their while. At the same time, media entities that voluntarily resist vulgar sensationalism and cultural garbage and that uphold the forward direction of advanced culture can be given material rewards so that they do not suffer economic losses. In this way, the profit motive can be put to good use to produce a positive result.

When GAPP officials expressed their resolve to reject the trend toward cultural garbage manufactured under the auspices of the cultural industries, they were giving a signal. We now await the regulations that will follow this signal.

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There are currently 1 Comments for Dealing with cultural garbage.

Comments on Dealing with cultural garbage

Thanks for this very good article. It seems to me that this discussion is connected on some levels to the earlier controversy regarding the introduction of Christmas customs and iconography to China (also covered by Joel).

One idea that appears prominently in traditional Chinese thought is that leaders should direct society by example rather than through coercion. I would like to suggest that one reason for this is that, in Confucian and Daoist thought, coercion represents moral and cultural weakness. This assertion can certainly be challenged - for example, the Book of Rites (a core Confucian text), calls for the execution of anyone who plays the wrong music. However, I think a case can be made that Confucian thought largely conflates morality and culture, and largely eschews the coercive methods advocated by Legalist thinkers.

So what? So, if the attempt to close one's culture to undesirable influcences is a demonstration of weakness, then such a strategy is entirely self-defeating, as it reinforces a cultural and moral impoverishment. If this is correct, then promoting what is beautiful, true and distinctive in one's own culture will preserve what merits preservation, whereas restricting cultural production and communication cannot.

Garbage is easy to produce. We all generate it every day. It will always be with us. Those cultural activities, practices and objects which we consider precious frequently demand a greater commitment. If calligraphy, opera, guqin (a personal favorite) etc. continue to touch the hearts and enrich the imagination of the Chinese people, they will continue. If not, who will mourn their demise?

So what direction should be taken to perpetuate and enrich one's culture? Just as proper hygiene reduces the prevalence of garbage and disease, education improves cultural awareness, increases involvement and productivity. This education is something that can be undertaken by the state.

However, culture is also like democracy, in that it demands a certain personal commitment. If we desire its benefits, we must actively participate in its development. Without such commitment, any complaints represent nothing more than the voice of a spoiled child, who has not understood his responsibility for his own destiny.

Maybe that child has been denied many opportunities available to children elsewhere, who were born into a stable environment with ample resources. However, it seems to me that we have no choice but to be where we are. If nothing else, our children can build on our accomplishments.

These few words cannot be said to add anything substantial to either the acerbic comments of Xiao Feidao or the eloquent observations of Xu Guangmu. It is merely my intention to underline the importance of this discussion, and express my appreciation for its appearance on Danwei. Thanks.

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