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32 C hapter 2 Popularization of Traditional Culture in Postsocialist China A Study of the Yu Qiuyu Phenomenon For more than two millennia, the prose (sanwen) of traditional literati has played a central role in both culture and politics in China. Over the centuries, such figures as Zhuang Zi, Zuo Qiuming, Sima Qian, Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan, Su Shi, Ouyang Xiu, Li Zhi, Yuan Hongdao, Zhang Dai, Huang Zongxi, Gu Yanwu, and Yao Nai have served to shape a significant part of Chinese culture and society. The prose of Lu Xun, Zhou Zuoren, Bing Xin, Zhu Ziqing, Lin Yutang, Liang Shiqiu, Yang Shuo, Liu Baiyu, Qin Mu, and so on, have contributed in disparate ways to the dynamic social and cultural scene of the twentieth century. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there appeared a sudden surge of what we may call the cultural prose (wenhua sanwen). Most of these were profoundly influenced by Yu Qiuyu; sometimes they were little more than crude imitations of his work. It might not be an overstatement to say that Yu, indeed, was probably the most representative figure of this type of writing. His work can therefore serve to illustrate the special fate of prose writers under the conditions of uneven sociocultural development. The former principal of the Shanghai Academy of Drama and a scholar of Chinese drama and culture, Yu Qiuyu is more widely known as a prose writer. From the first book that brought him fame, Bitter Journeys in Culture (Wenhua ku lü), to his recent publication Lend Me a Life (Jie wo yi sheng), his writing covers a wide range of cultural events: from prehistorical China to contemporary China, from the Middle East to Europe, from big moments in history to everyday life, from historical figures to his beloved wife. In all these works as well as in his responses to public queries, Yu assumes the air of a cultural master. In addition, he goes from his deep study in Shanghai to a beautiful villa in Hong Kong, from his university classrooms to television studios, from agonized travels in Mainland China to a happy journey around the world sponsored by a commercial TV station . A scholar cum writer, Yu has become a new cultural symbol. Although he is championed as a master of prose, vehement criticism also accompanies him. Popularization of Traditional Culture 33 As one critic says, “Yu Qiuyu does not simply exist as a writer, but he also lives as a cultural symbol, a cultural phenomenon of an age—what we call the ‘Yu Qiuyu Phenomenon.’”1 A specific study of the Yu Qiuyu Phenomenon will reveal the complexity and paradox in contemporary Chinese culture, because his success is not a simple result of the commercialized society of China, but is overdetermined by numerous intertwining factors: the transformation of social structure and ethos, the intellectuals’ self-repositioning, the influences of the mass media, the relation with modern and traditional culture, and so on. The Yu Qiuyu Phenomenon raises many questions: How has the current social condition of commercialization and globalization reshaped Chinese society and culture? Under such conditions, how does culture, especially elite and classical culture, become popular? How do contemporary Chinese intellectuals reposition themselves and negotiate their roles in this social transformation? While discussions of the Yu Qiuyu Phenomenon have appeared in China, discussions published in English are scarce. It is high time that we pay more attention to this phenomenon and the complicated cultural politics behind it. I would argue that Yu Qiuyu’s cultural prose writing exemplifies a paradoxical cultural logic deeply symptomatic of postsocialist China: traditional culture, with all its cultural elitism, strategically responds to the sweeping commercialization and reidentifies itself in the social transformation. Historical Background: Historical Ruptures, Elite Culture, Nationalism Bitter Journeys in Culture came out in 1992. There is an absorbing story to tell about the tortuous process of the publication of the book. Yu tells this story about the “agonized journey” of the manuscript in the afterword to the book, as a continuation and conclusion of the book proper: Many independent pieces in the book were first serialized in 1988 in a special column in a distinguished Shanghaibased literary magazine, Harvest (Shouhuo). They were subsequently reprinted in foreign newspapers and magazines. Because of its warm reception, seven famous publishers from Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou requested the manuscript . But “for some reason,” Yu decided to give it to a small “provincial” press, and asked it to publish the book...


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