- Culture in the Contemporary PRC
Edited by Michel Hockx and Julia Strauss, Culture in the Contemporary PRC is the sixth of a series of China Quarterly special issues. The volume is comprised of papers commissioned for an October 2004 workshop jointly sponsored by the China Quarterly, the Fairbank Center, and the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS). Workshop participants were invited to reflect on the changing roles of the state, the market, and globalization in cultural production in contemporary China. According to the editors, the papers collected here are also linked by a common concern for "the role of cultural producers as gatekeepers, brokers and taste makers" (p. 3). Although the belatedness of this review means that some of the trends analyzed in this volume have already been eclipsed, readers will, nevertheless, find valuable insights into ways in which film, poetry, music, fashion, museums, advertising, and consumption practices have been reshaped and reimagined amid the relentless commodification of social life in late twentieth-and early twenty-first-century China.
Essays by cultural studies professor Jing Wang and sociologist Deborah Davis focus on aspects of urban consumption. Wang's piece, "Bourgeois Bohemians in China? Neo-Tribes and the Urban Imaginary," draws upon research she conducted while interning at the Beijing office of the advertising firm Ogilvy in 2002 and 2004. Inspired by Thorsten Veblen's notion of pecuniary emulation—a tiered consumption logic driven by the desire of lower social strata to identify with higher by mimicking the latter's purchasing proclivities—Wang describes how advertisers [End Page 197] strive to appeal to increasingly rarified consumer niches and how urban consumers scramble to fill them. On the one hand, such targeted marketing creates novel opportunities for consumers to distinguish themselves from one another through identification with changing "tribes"; on the other, it forces us to rethink notions of autonomously forming, politically oppositional subcultures. Deborah Davis's essay, "Urban Consumer Culture," appraises the simultaneously emancipating and disempowering dimensions of consumption with respect to the urban home. Davis insightfully analyzes how residents of a Shanghai neighborhood narrate their experiences of the privatization of domestic space and the explosion of consumer opportunities to individualize these spaces through shopping at Ikea and similar stores. While Davis's interviewees typically characterize these experiences as liberating, in light of memories of Mao-era domestic crowding and consumer-good scarcity, Davis underscores the possibility that such assessments will change as memories of deprivation fade. Davis compellingly addresses the complexity of consumption at the level of subjective practice, though she might have dwelled a bit longer on consumption's objective dimension. As Wang's essay implies, it is unnecessary to understand the market as a "ruse" to recognize the ways in which it inevitably mediates and structures individual desires and holds its participants accountable to a logic beyond individual control.
The editors characterize essays by film scholar Yomi Braester, literary scholar Kirk Denton, and historian Antonia Finnane as addressing the "production and consumption of visual culture," though production for an increasingly stratified, fickle, and global market is perhaps their strongest connecting thread. Braester explores how the collapse of the state-owned studio system and China's entrance into the World Trade Organization have altered but not eradicated the literary sensibilities and social conscience of contemporary filmmakers. Through the figure of the dawan'r (a high-level manager with the power to create and shape markets; also the Chinese title of a 2001 Feng Xiaogang film), Braester describes how directors strengthen their ties to real estate and advertising firms while expressing ironic detachment from said funding sources in their films. As Strauss and Hockx observe, "the capital and investment requirements for film production are enormous, so it should come as no great surprise that networks of film producers are now increasingly intertwined with those of big real estate developers—that is where the money is" (p. 9). Kirk Denton's essay on museums and memorial sites richly details how state-funded museums have, in the past two decades, shifted...