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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001) 69-104

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Culture as Leisure and Culture as Capital

Jing Wang

My goal in this essay is to track the new career of the old buzzword culture (wenhua) in post-1992 China. Deng Xiaoping's 1992 Southern Excursion Talks marked a turning point, as portentous as the 1989 crackdown, on the calendar of China's market reform and cultural transformation. What do economists and humanist elites mean when they talk about this historical “transition” (zhuangui) in China, in celebratory or condemning rhetoric, and each in their own disciplinary perspective? Can such a transition be characterized as China's “progressive” movement from socialist state-planned economy to capitalist market economy, or in terms of a cultural transformation, from elitist to popular?

Neither of those clichéd formulas is of much explanatory value. Old dichotomous paradigms, steeped in cold war ideology (i.e., socialism versus capitalism) and imbued with culturalist aesthetics (i.e., high versus low culture), are inadequate conceptual tools for our task of capturing the [End Page 69] “transitional” or transformational logic at play in contemporary Chinese society. In fact, binaries are dissolving. There are only trends that come and go, accompanied by endless examples and counterexamples. Economists have provided innumerable clan-centered models of township economy that may appear more feudalistic than socialist or capitalist; the pop culture industry is said to have been taken over by the so-called dawanr (literally, magic wrists), new cultural intermediaries who, situated between intellectuals and “the people,” upset the simple distinction between the high and the low. Yet dichotomous thinking seems to have trapped all (cultural) tourists who, after a sightseeing trip to Tiananmen Square, are prone to turn themselves into instant China experts. Even a dialectician like Terry Eagleton is no exception. In his eagerness to define “contradictions in [Chinese] postmodernism,” the Marxist critic surrenders himself unwittingly to the dubious strategy of U.S. liberal journalism: pitting the visual icon of the “outsized portrait of Mao Zedong” at the square against the yellow-arch logo of McDonald's in the neighboring street.1 The allegory of communist authoritarianism versus laissez-faire capitalism would have worked but for the simple fact that a counterexample—the third term, so to speak—exists right across the street from McDonald's and pokes holes in Eagleton's neat binarism. I am referring to Red Sorghum, a traditional-style soup-noodle restaurant, which opened in 1995 in a confrontational spirit against U.S. culinary imperialism. The ensuing press hype about the Chinese palate à la Red Sorghum illustrates that neither socialism nor capitalism may have the last laugh when the dust settles in the land of contradictions, to whose inventory we may add the third term nationalism. Yet the noodles sold at the eatery owed their popularity less to popular taste than to the trademark of red sorghum sanctified by the culture of international film festivals.2 As a glaring example of chukou zhuan neixiao (an export re-imported right back), red sorghum already contains within itself the other that nationalism sought eagerly to exorcise.

All those conflicting signs deliver two lessons: First, to capture the flow of the historical transition of 1990s China, one can do no better than catalog, in lieu of dichotomizing, those divergent trends. Second, there is a legible narrative that coheres proliferating signs, symbols, and new laws that greet Chinese consumer-citizens on a daily basis; namely, political, cultural, and economic capital in post-1992 China now emerge as interchangeable terms of [End Page 70] value. I say value precisely because the conflation and collaboration of those three regimes are built on the epochal logic of investment. Capital builds new alliances. Innovative forms of complicity are being formed. Interests crisscross and the most unlikely partnership is being made. The capacity of China that can say yes and no at the same time is what keeps the country going, on to wealth and power and perhaps to the spectacle of a reform that may leave little room for ridicule.

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