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  • Writing Cultural CelebritiesThe Year in China
  • Chen Shen (bio)

Biographies of cultural celebrities are well received by readers in contemporary China. Books about outstanding people in cultural areas such as art, calligraphy, drama, literature, and philosophy appear frequently on bestseller lists, and in 2019, what drew the most attention were biographies of the painter Zhang Daqian, the dramatist Xia Yan, the publisher Wang Yunwu, and the actor Yu Shizhi.

Over the past seventy years in contemporary China, biographies of cultural figures have been produced in various forms and include many classic works. Major publishing houses often launch biographies of cultural figures in succession. Shanghai Joint Publishing House has published several significant biographies in the past few years, including Bao Tianxiao's Chuan Ying Lou Hui Yi Lu in 2014, and Zhang Xinying's two biographies of Shen Congwen in 2018.1 Since 2012, Guangxi Normal University Press's "Imaginist" series has published collections about cultural figures in Republican China. Television documentaries representing cultural figures also appear every year. CCTV has been producing serial documentaries about masters of modern China in the fields of painting, architecture, literature, and ceramic craftsmanship since 2012.

Why are biographies and other forms of life writing production so fond of cultural celebrities? Biographies of cultural figures popular among readers are not "great" biographies, whose writers are specialists in the field, conduct comprehensive research to present the subject from all sides, and cover the entire life—from birth to death. Such great biographies have great reference value for other researchers in their fields, but they generally are not easy to read for common readers. Especially those written under the direction of the government, some biographies turn their subjects into exemplars, focusing their narratives on the personalities' success, and on their possession of mainstream values.

What makes celebrity biographies attractive is not the subject's great career, but what they reveal about what is behind the flashy or famous appearance. A collection titled Imperfect Understanding, a 1934 compilation of forty-six essays [End Page 30] published by columnist Wen Yuan-ning in his column in China Critic, was very popular for a long time because of the author's skill in presenting vivid images of the celebrities. The essays were brief portraits of contemporary cultural figures such as Hu Shi, Gu Hongming, Wu Mi, and Zhou Zuoren. Wen Yuan-ning was writing in English, and as Qian Zhongshu has shown, his essays show the influence of William Hazlitt's The Spirit of the Age in their use of brief but piercing words to present the subjects' personalities, and to offer the author's own evaluation. Typically these essays display the author's incisive satiric but honest criticism of the celebrities. Although some of these figures were offended, by representing these celebrities as complex personalities, Wen Yuan-ning made them more "familiar" to readers.

Cultural celebrities always play leading roles in their times. Though their reputations are firstly generated by great achievements in a specific field, their legendary life experience and glamorous spiritual world attract the attention of readers from a wide range of backgrounds. Rather than simply praise their achievements, or support their reputations, the biographer's responsibility is therefore to find a way to represent their subjects as a zeitgeist of their time, and to reveal their complicated and splendid inner world. Leon Edel once said that "the biographical process is a refining, a civilizing—a humanizing—process" (1). What is important is to clarify the subjects' personalities, and especially in their famous relations with the society. The biographer does not therefore necessarily have to make a profound study of the subject's works. The life is the most important concern.

Looking at biographies of cultural celebrities published in 2019, we can see the writers struggle with this concern. First appearing in 1999, then in a revised edition with some supplements in 2019, Zhang Da Qian Yi Shu Quan takes a unique approach to presenting the painter's personality. In the preface, biographer Bao Limin writes that because he is not a painter or an art critic, he would not make any scholarly comments about Zhang Daqian's paintings (viii). Instead, his writing resembles idle talk...


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pp. 30-35
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