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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001) 1-27

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Guest Editor's Introduction

The seven essays and three commentaries in this volume bear out the sheer diversity of the heterogeneous cultural space drawn together by the term popular. In this critical introduction I will discuss the agendas and methodologies of the Chinese “popular.” Why does popular culture form a vantage point for contemporary Chinese cultural studies? In 1992 Deng Xiaoping went south and gave a series of lectures known as the Southern Excursion Talks to speed up the market economy. That year marked the beginning of a Chinese “consumer revolution” and the making of a popular culture that has cultivated consumers' desires for soap operas, fast food, convertibles, and much more. Culture has gone hip for some. Lifestyles are in. A new common sense is born: cultural capital and economic capital are mutually transformative.

To celebrate or to mock China's consumer-popular culture belongs to Western journalists' stock in trade. For concerned scholars, this is a propitious time to journey beyond the familiar Western constructs of China represented in shifting sensational headlines. A typical example is “China's [End Page 1] Fast Drive to Riches” earlier or “Chinese Face Ugly Reality: Deflation” in the wake of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. An inquiry into the fundamental categories to which the scholarly, journalistic, and political communities have resorted to conceptualize contemporary China's historical transformation is long overdue. One such category is “the popular.”

Old Binaries, New Problematics

There has been a consensus among Western theorists to problematize the notion of “the people” as a given entity so as to strip the concept of the popular of its underlying expressive unity. This deconstructive drift has subverted both the mass culture critique (people as dupes in the hands of producers) and certain cultural populist assumptions (people as an active consumer-audience). While a methodological middle ground promising the simultaneous articulation of the productionist and consumptionist approaches to popular culture has yet to be broken, in cultural studies in the West at least, the old binary paradigm of the high and the low—constructs premised on the absolute divide between the people and intellectuals—has long since tumbled down.

When we come to modern and contemporary studies of Chinese pop culture, we confront a conceptual habit that locks the “popular” into two binary schemes: high versus low, and the official versus the unofficial. While the first binary has been in circulation for thousands of years, the second can be seen as the recent product of a Cold War ideology. As the great “other” to the hegemon (whether the latter is identified with intellectual elitism or the autocratic [post]socialist regime), the Chinese “popular” has been sanctioned and romanticized by the competing regimes of Maoism-socialism and Western liberalism in turn. Never mind that the officially sanctified “people's art and literature” did not survive Mao's era. The “popular” gained a second life in Western scholarship about China even before the Tiananmen Square crackdown (1989). It returned in the 1980s and 1990s to wed the second term, unofficial, in an ideological dyad, articulating the Western liberal, utopian vision that imagines a nation of enslaved people rising up against an oppressive communist state.1 [End Page 2]

What is the current status of these two binaries specific to the logic of the Chinese “popular”? The year 1992 signaled the beginning of a new era that witnessed increasingly fluid boundaries between high and low. Today, as both high and low culture have entered the circuit of commodity production, the terms of opposition between the two can no longer hold. Box-office booms in high culture have multiplied since 1996, when the concept of the cultural market (wenhua shichang) took root in various sectors of refined culture (gaoya wenhua). One example is the sensational news in the publishing industry in 1996 that the rare book edition of Ershisi shi [The twenty-four dynastic histories], published by Zhonghua Book Store, was in short supply. The volumes, gold plated and wrapped in sheepskin, were sold...


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