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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001) 29-68

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Making a Name and a Culture for the Masses in Modern China

Li Hsiao-t'i

Almost half a century ago, when the late intellectual historian Benjamin Schwartz published his pioneering study on Communist China, he was apparently not on the right side of the current to assert China's or, for that matter, Mao's ingenuity in making a Chinese version of Marxist revolution. Even now, we can still feel the undisguised anger from his opening remarks: “To those who dwell on the presumably Olympian heights of sociological, economic, geopolitical, and historic abstraction, everything which has happened in China may seem to have flowed inexorably from the ‘objective situation.'”1 In theoretical terms Schwartz is here aiming at those who see Chinese revolution entirely as the result of the working of social classes or modes of production and deny the role of human will or the subjective thoughts of human agents in making the revolution. In practice he is refuting the cosmopolitan claim of the Soviet Union in designing or planning a revolutionary scheme for China in advance.2 [End Page 29]

Now, after the fading away of the old “objective situation” for a Communist revolution, a new form of universal explanatory scheme, an international market economy, comes to challenge our imagination about the direction China will take in the rapid process of globalization. For cultural critics of different backgrounds, the predictions varied. Those trained in the Marxist tradition see in the multinational cultural industry a renewed form of imperialist exploitation of the Western powers, or Japan, on China. Those trained in the liberal academic institutions tend to take the booming mass culture market as corrosive of the totalitarian regime. Whether they assume a critical or a positive view of the growing force of mass culture, both approaches somehow still maintain a universalistic stand in evaluating the impact of the objective market economy on Chinese culture and society in general.

Jing Wang has well elaborated the implications and purposes of this project on Chinese popular culture. I will add a few words about the relevance of my own historical archaeological work to the general scheme on contemporary Chinese mass culture. In speaking of a peculiar Chinese way in dealing with cultural affairs, what strikes us most is the intervention of the party-state. Though, as David S. G. Goodman suggests, we should not exaggerate the extent to which Mao influenced the cultural realm, we can hardly deny the role played by the authorities. Actually, it was Mao and other political leaders who in 1942 urged the adoption of “folk forms” (minjian xinshi) to serve national and revolutionary causes.3

Mao, in his turn, was carrying out a cultural policy set forth a decade earlier by Qu Qiubai and Feng Xuefeng (1903–1976) in Shanghai, which I have documented carefully in this work. Qu, in his turn, dwelled upon a “popular culture as enlightenment” discourse that existed since the turn of the century. Bearing in mind this “taking popular culture seriously” genealogy, we should find it easier to map out a peculiar post-Mao cultural contour.

In his comprehensive and fascinating study of the Yangge movement, which best testified to the felicity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in manipulating popular cultural forms, David Holm ascribes a paramount place to the Comintern in rendering the use of “old forms” an integral part of the “united fronts from below.”4 Through this study, however, I argue that Qu Qiubai was largely following an indigenous discourse in turning [End Page 30] popular culture into an enlightening business, only to drive it further along the route of political propaganda.

Not only is the extent to which popular culture was politicized from the 1930s onward unique as compared with modern Western liberal states, it is unusual even when measured against China's own experiences in the past. By saying this I am not suggesting that rulers and bureaucrats in imperial China left the culture of the people...