Chinese Culture and the Red Line of Morality

Last week, members of China’s television, radio, and online entertainment sectors were made to attend a symposium in Beijing with the theme Love the Party, Love the Country, Advocate Morality and Art. They were instructed to abandon vulgarity, hedonism, the worship of money, and “extreme individualism.” These vague injunctions arrive amid China’s heaviest cultural crackdown in years. Film stars like Zhao Wei have been mysteriously memory-holed, their movies completely removed from streaming platforms, their credits erased from film information sites. “Once you touch the red line of law and morality,” warned state mouthpiece the People’s Daily, “you will reach the finish line of the road of performing arts.” If the exact nature of this “red line” remained unclear, another editorial put a finer point on the matter: Chinese films must be more socialist from now on.

American Idol-style TV shows have been banned; next on the list are karaoke songs that fail to “promote socialist core values.” These moves are part of an attempt to end the “worship [of] Western culture.” True socialism has no time for smut, and so the sale of sex toys has been banned during livestreams hosted on e-commerce websites. One week before the symposium, the Party zeroed in on the specific problem of effeminate male TV celebrities: “Resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics,” broadcasters were told. Days later, building on recent video game restrictions for Chinese children, gaming companies Tencent and NetEase were ordered to cut content that encourages effeminacy.

All this machismo is beginning to attract admiring glances and approving noises from Westerners worried about their own culture’s alleged feminisation, but these lessons in morality are being delivered by the worst conceivable teacher. Lest we forget, this is a regime that packs ethnic minorities into concentration camps where the prettiest women are raped every day, sometimes with electric batons. This is a country where the founder of an orphanage for deprived children is arrested, tortured, and then sent to prison for 22 years. Bangri Rinpoche’s orphanage was declared an “illegal organisation” and the children he had saved were turned onto the street. In Communist China, civil society is always smothered in the crib. The moment we turn to such a regime for lessons on morality is the moment we lose our way completely.

The Party’s stern alternative to all that sex and pop and sissy chaos is “Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture, and advanced socialist culture.” Numbers two and three on the list indicate that Beijing understands culture about as well as it understands morality. George Orwell saw the problem clearly back in the pre-war years. As he observed in The Road to Wigan Pier, “Nearly everything describable as socialist literature is dull, tasteless, and bad. … Every writer of consequence and every book worth reading is on the other side. … Socialism has produced no literature worth having.”

This truth is borne out by the miserable state of China’s literary scene. When Anna Sun (assistant professor of sociology and Asian studies at Kenyon College) analysed the work of modern Chinese writers, she found that almost all of them had been infected by socialist language dating back to the Mao era—a clumsy jumble of communist jargon and Mao-ti (Maoist literary form). In fact, it’s not just the artists and intellectuals who speak this language—everyone does, from the diner in a restaurant who casually asks his friend to “Xiaomie [annihilate] the leftovers,” to the young mother who tells her little boy, as he struggles not to wet himself on the bus, “Jianchi! [Be resolute!]”

Originally fashioned to represent the authentic voice of the proletariat, Mao-ti is a language “repetitive, predictable, coarse, and mostly devoid of aesthetic value.” Sun argues that the most celebrated of today’s Chinese novelists actually owe everything to their translators. The language in which they were trained acts as a trap constricting thought, and as a result they can neither think nor write with the precision and truthfulness required of genuinely great novelists. Some have found that the only sure way to spring the trap is to abandon Chinese altogether, and write in English.

Even the Soviet Union had its Bulgakovs and its Pasternaks, of course, and there is no doubt that art sometimes flourishes in an atmosphere of oppression. But right from the very beginning, the CCP took the totalitarian impulse further than its predecessors—far enough that its natural supply of great literary voices was never allowed to develop. This was not the case in pre-revolutionary China. Sun cites with admiration Shen Congwen, Wang Zengqi, Lao She, Bing Xin, Qian Zhongshu, Fu Lei, Eileen Chang. In each of these cases the writer’s education occurred before Mao’s takeover, allowing them to develop a voice before they were exposed to the infection. Chang (widely considered the greatest short story writer of 20th-century China) even participated in re-education sessions once the communists were in charge, but it made no difference. Her writing still had too much complexity, too much depth, too much of her own voice. Incapable of descending to their crude level, she left for Hong Kong.

The incompatibility of classical Chinese with Mao-ti—of beauty with ugliness—shows the hopelessness of the Party’s dream to usher in a new culture that is at once “traditional” and “socialist.” These two cultural strains may have co-existed uneasily for decades in China (along with Western influence), but there can be no happy union of the two. They sit at opposite poles. Any emphasis on one of them will automatically undermine the other. It would be better to simply let go of the reins and allow Chinese culture to develop organically—something which has happened only once before.

While state propaganda paints the relatively open pre-communist period (1912–1949) as a time of chaos, societal weakness, and general regression, historian Frank Dikötter makes a convincing case in The Age of Openness: China Before Mao that those years really bore witness to a veritable golden age. Not only did China make political advancements; she enjoyed greater cultural diversity than at any point before or since. Religious movements long persecuted under the Qing were given their freedom. In the absence of both empire and socialism, Shanghai rose to become the Asian jazz Mecca; its numerous venues frequently played host to top musicians from the United States.

With the liberation of culture came the fast flourishing of individualism. Dikötter notes that “Women of all social backgrounds selected scarves, skirts, blouses, gowns, and corsets from a growing range of sartorial possibilities, using them in combinations which were often strikingly original: the use of the one-piece gown with a scarf and coat is but one example.” By 1934, when discussing new developments in public transport, the British traveller Peter Fleming was able to observe: “The running of a bus service, as compared with the running of a railway, is not only easier but offers more scope for individualism, and is therefore better suited to the Chinese character” [emphasis mine]. So much for the inherently collectivist nature of the Chinese. Just a few short years after the cultural shackles were removed, the natural human tendency towards individual self-expression had already asserted itself.

Then came the communist revolution, and the life was abruptly sucked out of China. Shanghai’s cafés and dance halls closed down; the Race Course at Nanking Road was transformed into a military barracks. Lipstick and makeup disappeared. Soon all of the men had crewcuts and all of the women wore their hair in short bobs. Everyone dressed in the same faded blue or grey cotton. And then in the 1960s, of course, Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution saw the widespread demolition of statues and temples, the smashing of antiques, and the burning of books. Today’s ominous developments do not mean that China is about to experience a second Cultural Revolution, but the promise of an “advanced socialist culture” bodes ill.

At last week’s Beijing symposium, one film director delivered a sycophantic address in which he said, “It is our creators’ duty to do every work simply and unadornedly, and to pass positive energy silently to the audience.” This sentiment chimes with Stalin’s pithy proverb about writers being the engineers of the soul (a line echoed in recent years by Xi). And yet, the truth is that creators have a duty to their art and nothing else—not to their audience, not to “positive energy,” and least of all to some high-minded state-determined notion of the improvement of the people. Certainly art elevates, but not for reasons that we will ever be able to fathom.

As for the karaoke singalongs and American Idol copycat shows that sit at the other end of the spectrum, we might imagine that Chinese culture will suffer no great loss. But millions of people are about to have perfectly innocent pleasures removed from their lives, and this matters. In the small ways as well as the large, Xi Jinping continues to impose on a vibrant nation his narrow, pinched, joyless vision.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/09/20/chinese-culture-and-the-red-line-of-morality/

It is depressingly true that to say ‘Communist Party of China’ and ‘Culture’ in the same breath is to utter an oxymoron whose roots go back to the beginnings of the Soviet regime in the 1920s. Turgid and formulaic work of the socialist realist school is hard to differentiate from the very similar kitschy rubbish that came out of fascism.

There is something in the oracular didactics of communist dictatorships that mummifies artistic authenticity and claustrophobically entombs it in regime monuments to itself. It is the nature of the beast.

And yet the old socialist arguments about ‘art for art’s sake’ (rootless aestheticism) vs ‘art for life’s sake’ (socially relevant consciousness raising) were not without some merit in working out what it is about arts and culture that actually delivers tangible value to audiences and the architecture of public discourse beyond just providing entertainment filler to pass the time.

The answers Socialists came up with were particularly miserable and truncated, which was a pity because the question of whether the arts under Indulgence Capitalism (whereby a disciplined economy and culture built around a rational hierarchy of needs and wants give way to delimited fantasies of desire and immediate satiation) do much better, has never really been critically tested. The totalitarianism within those societies has almost never been overtly political enough to give away the extent of just how much consciousness control is being exercised over mass populations, or reveal the cultural mechanisms being used for rolling it out. It is nowhere near as ‘democratic’ as it looks and its voices nowhere near as ‘spontaneous’ as we believe them to be.

I would want to suggest that the deregulatory and privatization drivers of the new totalitarianism assist in eroding disciplined and rules based thinking to the extent that reality itself has become sufficiently blurred, that the boundaries between fantasy and delusion disappear into increasingly out-of-control, bizarre and erratic thinking and behavior. And I think that is what Xi Jinping and his Politbureau are responding to.

He and The Party have plans to return China to its once unassailable status as ‘The Middle Kingdom’ to which all roads, railways, ships and planes are led, and it needs an infection of western decadence like a hole in the head.

Xi does not have to be a genius to work out that western social and existential infrastructure is crumbling, along with the democratic consensus that has held it together since 1945. And he knows that weakness can be catching and the threats from a disintegrating world order mean tightening up China’s game across a lot of fronts, like Hong Kong, Muslim communities on the western borderlands, the Taiwan ‘problem’, the South China sea islands…and of course, non conformity in general, which in a population of well over a billion can be as virulent as the Delta strain.

China has a history of powerful centralization and then periods of weakness and disintegration, at a human and material costs so vast, Europeans have no conception of them at all.

Xi is a thoroughly pragmatic Chinese Red Emperor who senses he is moving into a period that is full of opportunity but very dangerous. And he is doing everything he needs to do to clear the decks for a possible storm.

Getting rid of the toyboys is just one of numerous variables he needs to have under control in order to make the moves when things really do start to unravel beyond his borders. And this isn’t just about Chinese aggression, but not sinking with the old order that began in Europe 500 years ago.

Interesting that we have here an independent demonstration of the close ideological affinity of Fascism and Patriarchy.

Unfortunately, articles like these feature the inherent weaknesses of China’s culture and political economy, while at the same time animating Western fear of and ire against a rising China. Since states like China which while strong are also hollowing-out of from the inside and for just that reason are particularly liable of falling into international conflict, one might hope that the 'ol Quad would take some advice from Sunzi: “When the enemy is making a mistake, do not interfere.” If the Dragon swallows Taiwan, it will swallow a burning ingot and will soon come to regret it.

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You say “unfortunately”. However I say “fortunately”. Different points of view.

I have never thought of it that way before. However I suspect you are correct. Like most, I tend to look at the immediate issues such an action would cause. You are right that such thinking may be too short sighted.

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I should clarify my thinking, here. China can conquer Taiwan; nothing can prevent that if the Chinese are determined to do it. And the brutality that China can exercise as the Occupier, is also plain (as we have the example of Xinjiang already right in front of us). The suppression of resistance in Taiwan will be complete, so it’s not like Taiwan will be able to put up a protracted resistance.

However, unlike Xinjiang, the CCP’s reduction of Taiwan will result in an utter loss of face for the Chinese, in world opinion. China already wrestles with loss of face over Tiananmen, and this would be worse by a few orders of magnitude. The negative soft-power gain that China would get from this would be profound and lasting.

And the Chinese fratricide it would entail, would impose an enormous karmic debt on the mainland. Again, the CCP does everything they can to memory-hole Tiananmen; but an event like this would compromise the legitimacy of the CCP regime in perpetuity.

China is a very, very dangerous adversary for the West, but China has many very serious internal liabilities (which Quillette has been very good about covering). In my view, nothing is worth war with China (or at least, nothing is worth war between China and the U.S.), but there is good reason to doubt the long-term sustainability of their current model of political economy. It can consume itself from the inside - so long as we don’t offer ourselves up as an existential threat forcing the people to rally 'round the Regime.

And I wouldn’t say that we can do nothing for Taiwan. If the West is actually serious about defending the welfare of the Taiwanese (or for that matter, Hongkongers) we should offer (starting now) to accept millions of them to our countries. The Taiwan Chinese are people who would make great immigrants, to the West. They would bring with them very high levels of social, intellectual, and financial capital, and would be an immediate benefit to our liberal societies. At a stroke we would thereby take away what was most valuable about the CCP seizing that rinkydink island; and more than that, by causing their Taiwan-brethren to flee to the liberal West, the CCP would suffer terrible loss of face.

So that’s why I’m not so keen on all the articles in all the Western media (running the gamut from Right to Left) ginning up anger at China and in effect getting us all to put the war-paint on. China is not worth that kind of sacrifice, and there are more effective ways of confronting them, in both the immediate and the long-term.

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At this point, China has a vigor that the west does not, absorbed as we are with Covid and our culture war. Along with steps of a kind that the west still recognizes, like their trade and infrastructure diplomacy or their space program, they are reining in their billionaires, promoting national fertility, and, most alien to us, taking active steps to prevent a Weimar-like culture from developing, as it has throughout the west.

The latter does seem to be something that most of the world doesn’t actually want. Russia, India, the Muslim world, they do seem to prefer their “social conservatism”. The significance of China is that it is the second full-fledged information society, after the US-led west, and so we now get to see which of our social novelties are inherent to the information age, and which simply express our idiosyncrasies.

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Yes, the West needs to understand that the CCP’s authoritarianism is doomed to fail and so we need to quietly stand back and let the inevitable happen. The last thing we should do is give the CCP the opportunity to blame the West for the problems and dissatisfaction that the CCP itself causes the Chinese people.

I totally agree. Many of the same warmongers who got us embroiled in the “endless war” against terrorism (which continues, despite our bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan) are champing at the bit at the prospect of military engagement with the Chinese. After the end of the Cold War, the military-industrial-Congressional complex was desperately searching for an enemy to take the place of the Evil Empire. They flirted with narcoterrorists during the 90s but jihadists proved to be a much better fit. As the perceived danger of that threat continues to fade we need another archrival to justify bloated military budgets and global power projection – hence all the bloviating about Cold War II.

China is an oppressive and totalitarian regime that persecutes its own people and engages in economic malfeasance vis-a-vis its trading partners. However, it’s a very different beast than the U.S.S.R.
As Damon Linker argues,

China’s “communism” shares little with the ideology that animated the Soviet Union. The country has developed an economically formidable blend of capitalism and authoritarianism that has fueled an impressive surge of growth in recent decades. China wants access to the largest possible markets for its products, and to exercise control over its near abroad. But there is little sign at all that the Chinese government thinks in messianic terms about itself or aspires to conquer the world.

What’s happening geopolitically between the U.S. and China today is much more accurately described as a return to the great power rivalry of the 19th century …
Instead of the ideologically simplified, Manichean world to which we grew accustomed after 1945, we now confront a geopolitical order marked by multifarious complexity, potentially including multiple crosscutting regional alliances, trade deals, shared technological projects, and economic rivalries and points of interdependence. (Donald Trump’s decision to back out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which China now aspires to join, may well come to be remembered as the biggest strategic blunder of his presidency, since it puts us at a significant disadvantage on trade with Asia at the very moment when we would benefit from a unified front in challenging Beijing.)

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