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  • Art, Culture, and Cultural Criticism in Post-New China
  • Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (bio)

For Katheryn M. Linduff

A visitor in Beijing these days can easily pick up a popular weekly titled Guide to Shopping High-Quality Goods (Jingpin gouwu zhinan) from a street vendor. The newspaper offers all kinds of useful information to Beijing consumers: car sales, new skin lotion products, latest fashion, interior design for apartments, tour packages to summer resorts, new affordable models of washing machines, effective diet, office rentals, “romantic connections,” and so forth. Interestingly enough, a regular column of the newspaper is appropriately titled “Cultural Consumption” (wenhua xiaofei). It features news about cultural activities such as performances of Swan Lake by the Chinese Central Ballet Troupe and the Moscow Ballet Theatre, upcoming films in town, good books to read, and so on. In a June 1996 issue, within “Cultural Consumption: Film and TV” (wenhua xiaofei: ying shi), there is also a subheading “Cultural Fast Food” (wenhua kuaican). 1 This section introduces two new TV serials that viewers should look out for: a thirty-part program Beauty Zhao Feiyan (Meiren Zhao Feiyan, the story of a famous imperial consort in the Han Dynasty), and a twenty-part program Bright Moon in Another Country (Taxiang mingyue, a tale of two mainland Chinese girls working in San Francisco’s Chinatown).

At the information centers of newly built, gigantic shopping malls such as Landao, Yansha, Guiyou, and Saite—symbols of Beijing’s modernization and Westernization—Beijing residents can book and purchase tickets for a series of art performances during 1996–1997. The China National Culture and Art Corporation (Zhongguo wenhua yishu zong gongsi) and Beijing professional performance marketing and promotion agency offer a variety of domestic and international venues, such as Nutcracker and The White-Haired Girl by the Shanghai Ballet, Don Quixote by the Grand Moscow Classical Ballet Theatre, Sleeping Beauty and Endangered Species by the Australian Ballet, Puccini’s Turandot by the Central Opera Theatre of China, Anne-Sophie Mutter’s China Tour, Yanni’s China Tour, and performances by the Martha Graham Dance [End Page 111] Group from America, the Toronto Dance Theatre from Canada, and Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Zubin Mehta.

As the Chinese nation is furiously modernizing itself to overtake the postmodernity of advanced First-World societies, culture and art have now inevitably become a matter of consumption and marketing in China as well, handled by corporations and businesses. Beijing residents, newspaper columnists, and art agencies all seem to have a rather savvy, cavalier, and matter-of-fact attitude toward the fate and function of high culture as well as popular culture in a consumer society. This is a time when even Mao is on sale. In the domestic market, sacred revolutionary icons and images from the past are now up for sale just like precious objects of traditional Chinese art, literati painting, calligraphy, and antique furniture. The oil painting “Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan” (Mao zhuxi qu Anyuan, 1968) by Liu Chunhua, the most famous painting of the Cultural Revolution period, was auctioned off for about a million Chinese yuan, setting a record, in an art fair. What is at stake, then, for the artist when art itself is a proper commodity, a “high-quality good,” a “fast food”?

In the present study, my wish is to come to terms with the “cultural logic” of contemporary China and at the same time outline a new tendency in Chinese cultural theory and criticism in the period after the Tiananmen incident in 1989. Evidently, 1989 is here taken as a turning point in China’s cultural and intellectual history. In a more euphemistic expression, Chinese historians and critics have drawn a dividing line between what they call the “New Era” and the “post-New Era.” The New Era is the post-Mao period that begins with the Reform in the late 70s. It came to a sudden end in 1989 as a result of the Tiananmen incident.

The post-New Era witnesses the rise of consumerism, the commercialization of cultural production, and the expansion of the mass media and popular culture. The populace is bombarded with the sound, images, simulacra, and messages emitted from the...

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