China & Inner Asia: Table of Contents
Organizer: Yingjin Zhang, Indiana University
Chair and Discussant: Perry Link, Princeton University
This panel examines critical issues surrounding popular culture in contemporary China from the perspective of transnational cultural studies. Grounding their concerns in case studies of four popular genres of cultural production (i.e., music, cinema, TV soap opera, and memoirs), the four panelists not only investigate a number of hugely successful works by Chinese and Chinese diasporas, but also pose serious questions to various methodologies employed in studying these texts, their producers, and their cultural and political significance in the transnational world system.
Sue Tuohy starts with reflections on what popular music means to scholars over time and how the term "popular" has been defined by and negotiated with other unsettled terms such as "elite," "(un)official," and "folk." Sorting through a range of alternative terms and methodologies, Tuohy questions this contradictory move in cultural studies: while insisting on multiplicity and diversity, many scholars tend to take certain critical categories for granted and thus foreclose the possibility of recognizing other critical options. Turning to cinema, Yingjin Zhang demonstrates the ways a narrow definition of Chinese cinema as the "Fifth Generation" films in Western studies has misrepresented the field of Chinese film production and has denied legitimate place to many new genre developments in recent years. The Oriental discourse of a timeless China and its exotic sexuality, Zhang argues, lies behind the Western choices for festival screenings and film studies alike. Sheldon Lu points out a different kind of exoticization in Chinese TV dramas. Transnational fantasies of interracial romance in Chinese soap operas, he contends, have constructed a new image of Chinese masculinity, one that aims to boost the national pride and to alter ethnic-racial power distribution through the mass media. Xiaomei Chen further draws attention to the construction of a new Chinese female subjectivity in memoirs on the Cultural Revolution written in English by Chinese women diasporas. She analyzes the reception of these best-selling memoirs in the West as a phenomenon of the "Asianization of America"that is, Asian writers recasting of their native experiences as a quest of the American dream.
Through these four genre critiques, the panelists seek to engage transnational cultural studies and to explore new options in scholarship of popular culture in contemporary China.
Sue Tuohy, Indiana University
Critical terms in the discourse on Chinese popular music cross over disciplines and cover other genres to form a web of categories that are as much embedded in as they are descriptive of the values and identities we study. We are often not sure what we mean by "popular." We define it by the means of transmission, but the mass media also transmit the non-popular. We look to lyrics, but their diverse content confounds us. We link "popular" to "unofficial," form a contrasting set with "elite" and "official," and distinguish them from "folk." The discourse then absorbs the folk, as popular music becomes the "voice of the people"those seemingly passive and homogeneous masses whose feelings are now "given a voice" by named singers. Because we are not sure how we feel about it, we phrase popular music as a tool of resistance and of manipulation, a site of contest and the sound of conformity. In our ambivalence, we often resemble those early romantic nationalists who searched for the voice of the people and, upon hearing it, decided it needed editing.
We list instances of music used to pull on national heartstrings or to harmonize voices. Relationships between political dissonance and the vocal qualities of cultural noise combine with early theories of the powers of music and its correspondenceswith emotions, identities, rulers and ruled. Thus, siren songs seem prescient alarms, sweet melodies luring listeners into deception, while the voices of celestial songsters appear to be new stars of the public sphere.
We are surprised by transnational melodic movement as if it were something new that people refuse to stay within seemingly immutable and supposedly natural categories. What is surprising is that we take this categorical stance while maintaining a theoretical position that identities are negotiated, histories constructed, and meanings contingent. Within a scholarship that criticizes master narratives for their universalist and essentializing techniques, we have to learn to deal with the multiplicity we encounter as we move beyond reading master narratives to resist the writing of new ones.
Yingjin Zhang, Indiana University
This paper intervenes Chinese film studies at three interconnected junctures that all pertain to transnational cultural politics: (1) the impact of international festival screenings on Chinese film production as well as on their Western reception; (2) the inadequacy of the "Fifth Generation" as a critical term for Chinese film studies; and (3) alternative routes to go beyond current confinements in Western studies of Chinese cinema.
Starting with a brief analysis of a European film festival catalogue, this paper draws attention to the types of expectations the Western press and festival organizers have placed on recent Chinese cinema, and to some "successful" or "unsuccessful" attempts (depending on critics criteria) Chinese directors have made in response. The political and aesthetic expectations from the West have led to a problematic characterization of most Chinese films as "Fifth Generation," a term that misrepresents the development of Chinese film history. Moreover, this inappropriate "naming" has resulted not only in a confusion of critical terms in Chinese film studies but also in a reconfirmationhowever unconsciousof the power the West assumes in designating what would pass as "Chinese" in a given Chinese film. Zhang Yimous "Ju Dou" modelthe visualization of the repressed, sometimes incestuous, desires of sado-masochistic charactershas emerged from the Western screening as most "Chinese"; ironically, it is this kind of "Chinese" desires that have received most critical attention in Western academia over the past decade.
As a counter move, this paper seeks to broaden the conception of "Chineseness"as not just an ethnic or political marker but also a cultural and geopolitical markerby replacing the "Fifth Generation" films with "New Chinese Cinema," and by relating recent cooperations among Chinese filmmakers in the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong. By enumerating new developments (e.g., co-productions) in film industries of the three areas, this paper introduces a neglected "transnational"or perhaps "intra-cultural" and "inter-regional"aspect of Chinese filmmaking, thereby complicating an alternative critical termtransnational Chinese cinema.
Sheldon H. Lu, University of Pittsburgh
Prime-time TV soap opera is the most popular genre of cultural entertainment in contemporary China in terms of viewership, due to the high level of TV penetration in the Chinese population. My paper will focus on one particular group of soap operas, one that specializes in the depiction of the trafficking between Chinese and foreigners, and the portrayal of interracial, transnational romance. There has been an attempt on the part of the mass media and public culture to reconstruct a male subjectivity, or what may be called a new "transnational male imaginary" in the 1990s. In the present age of "global capitalism," Chinese visual culture inevitably partakes of a transnational, crosscultural politics of representation.
I analyze such top-rated TV series as Russian Girls in Harbin (1994) and American Babes in Beijing (1996). (The film Wildly Kissing Russia (1995) will also be briefly touched upon to flesh out the context.) These programs are stories of the resurrection of Chinese masculinity by way of the foreign in the condition of transnational public culture. I point out that central to narrative strategy of such programs is the self-aggrandizement of the Chinese male, the foregrounding of the foreign woman, and the erasure of the local Chinese woman.
I argue that in the domestic arena of cultural production and consumption, the media necessarily project a global cultural imaginary as a way of mapping and imaging Chinas own position in the contemporary world. (Such a strategy is the exact opposite of the packaging and selling of "China" for global consumption, which offers localized narratives and is characterized by the procedures of self-eroticization and self-exoticization, as in New Chinese Cinema.) By exoticizing, eroticizing, and ultimately domesticating the other (foreign woman, etc), Chinese public culture is able to achieve a self-definition and articulate its own political unconscious. The private fantasy world of such TV family drama is the psychic counterpart to Chinas political economy.
Xiaomei Chen, Ohio State University
This paper examines the recent flow of transnational capital from China to the West, a flow that reconstructed local Chinese "female subjectivity" for global consumption. It questions how Chinese women diasporas used the cultural and symbolic capital of their memories of the Cultural Revolution to advocate a neo-American nationalism. Writing in English, these memoirs narrate horror stories of the Maoist China in order to portray a negative experience of the Orient in search for a salvation by the Occident. From Nien Chengs Life and Death in Shanghai (1986) to Chang Jungs Wild Swans (1991) and Anchee Mins Red Azalea (1994), we see a pattern of representing the narrator herself as the only heroine while rejecting others as "persecutors" of the innocent. Most interestingly, these works often end happily with a success story in North America or Europe.
This paper argues that the selective memories of the Cultural Revolution were reconstructed by these writers to appeal to a largely English-speaking audience, whose national identity and national pride need re-affirmation and re-enforcement in the post-cold war era, when the central power of the West is being continuously challenged. This accounts for the popularity of these Cultural Revolution memoirs in America. The resulting phenomenon of "Asianization of America" (looking cheerfully at America through the lenses of the miserable Asian other) is further complicated by the recent financial success of these women writers. It is therefore not an accident that, while speaking to a Christian womens group in Ohio, Anchee Min deliberately omitted the "hot" story of homosexuality which originally made her book a hit. Instead, she focused on how she was "taught to hate Americans while growing up in China," and how her odyssey from China to America was only to testify "what the American dream is all about."
While exploring the recent globalization of "Asian experience," this paper questions the intricate relationships between memory, gender, race, nation, the flow of transnational capital from the cultural to the economic sphere, and the money-making strategy of highlighting hybridity and mix-identities in literary production. This paper ultimately reflects upon the discourses of power and knowledge in the writings of Asian experience in America, an America whose image of "the land of opportunity" is internationally and locally defined by the needs for self-reconstruction on the part of both Asian writers and American readers.