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  • The Party and the Arty in China: The New Politics of Culture
  • James Gao (bio)
Richard Curt Kraus . The Party and the Arty in China: The New Politics of Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004. xi, 247 pp. Paperback $27.95, ISBN 07425-2720-4.

It is well known that economic reform has transformed China from an economic backwater to a strong competitor in the global market. Less well understood are the accompanying political and cultural changes that have taken place in the reform era. In this well-researched book, Richard Curt Kraus analyzes the reformation of Chinese cultural life that has until now been obscured by ignorance and ideological bias.

The book is organized into seven chapters. It begins with a succinct description of the Chinese cultural landscape and then moves to the ongoing reforms. [End Page 144] To help the reader understand what changes have taken place in the arts system, Kraus describes the evolution of artistic life from the Confucian tradition to the Guomindang experience, and from the legacy of Yan'an to the politicization of the arts under Mao. According to Kraus, "reforming culture has been a central issue in Chinese politics for more than a hundred years" (p. 29). Various political forces have affected the thinking of artists and inspired them to translate new visions into artistic expression. Yet, the current transformation of Chinese culture has been the product of a newly developing market economy, which has eroded the former domination of communist ideology.

In chapter 2, Kraus examines two revolutions in patronage that occurred in 1949 and after 1976. The first made Chinese artists into employees of the communist state; this brought stability to their lives but at same time placed them under a restrictive, repressive control. Believing that "revolution was not simply a material process, but also a matter of ideological commitment" (p. 49), the Communist Party established various institutions to administer the arts. The author's description of these complex institutions is generally correct, with a few minor inaccuracies. For example, the "Oriental Song and Dance Troupe" does not belong to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Culture never administered Chinese television and broadcasting. To explain how the market economy is redefining the Party-arty relationship, Kraus argues that China's second patronage revolution is manifesting itself in the way that cultural markets supplement state employment. The substantial changes taking place may be summed up in the statement that "art-as-propaganda gave way to art-as-commodity" (p. 64); the market for commercial culture has expanded at the expense of bureaucratic control.

One should perhaps read the author's discussion of Chinese censorship (chapter 4) before moving to the case analyses on nude paintings (chapter 3). Kraus criticizes "a double standard for China and the West" on censorship and argues that "our understanding of Chinese censorship would be advanced by greater honesty about the West's own censorship" (p. 134). He sees Chinese censorship "as a kind of game, in which state officials and artists contest the extent of free public expression" (p. 108). China has not established an official censorship apparatus, but Party leaders at different levels do have the power to censor artistic works according to their own understanding of Party policy and their own moral standards. Direct criticism of Party politics can be silenced before the critics speak out, but the censorship of artistic works might take place several years after their appearance. The practice of post-publication censorship and the changes in the political climate make the occurrence of censorship all the more erratic and unpredictable. Serious punishments are meted out to a few writers, while others receive only a warning. This strategy of "killing the chicken to scare the monkey," as the Chinese expression goes, explains how the state has been successful in getting artists to hold to a strict self-censorship. [End Page 145]

Kraus examines the reasons why censorship has eased in recent years. This is "not mainly due to the party's goodwill, but because many intellectuals pressed successfully for fewer restrictions and because the emerging cultural marketplace has complicated the censor's job" (p. 122). The...


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