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Reviewed by:
  • In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture
  • Richard King (bio)
Geremie R. Barmé . In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. xxii, 512 pp. Hardcover $26.00, ISBN 0-231-10614-9. Paperback $22.50, ISBN 0-231-10615-7.

Perhaps the most perceptive metaphor for the Chinese psyche emerging from the Maoist age comes in Feng Jicai's Sancun jinlian (1985; translated by David Wakefield as The Three-inch Golden Lotus [Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994]). The analogy is with footbinding: just as feet that have been constricted and maimed cannot assume a natural form when their bindings are removed, so, Feng implies in his novel, spirits that have been distorted and warped by tyranny cannot spring back into shape merely because of instructions from above to emancipate the mind. Feng's metaphor of the pains of unbinding is instructive as we consider Geremie Barmé's brilliant and wide-ranging investigation of the politics of culture in the age of Deng Xiaoping.

Rather than presenting a single narrative, In the Red offers a series of topical essays on urban (principally Beijing) culture to be read in parallel, with cross-references to related passages elsewhere in the text. The essays, many of which have already appeared in journals, are the fruit of the author's quarter century of engagement with the contemporary Chinese cultural scene. Barmé's perspective is an extraordinary one: one of the best-informed and trenchant Western critics of Chinese culture, he is also the confidant of many of those he portrays; with others, he is a sparring partner, the "anarchic bourgeois element" of his student days matured into an "academic with a counter-revolutionary agenda" (p. xii). His involvement in many of the polemics he describes, and his acquaintance with the players, are a source of much insight and reading pleasure. His emphasis on the social, political, and personal factors behind cultural change also set the book apart from another recent work on contemporary Chinese culture, Claire Huot's China's New Cultural Scene: A Handbook of Changes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), where the concentration is more on cultural products.

Barmé's concern is with artists and intellectuals in their relations with each other and the state as they go about their creative business in a volatile political and economic environment. There are conflicts between personalities, between factions, between generations, and between exiles and those at home; China's intellectuals appear as a fractious bunch, well-schooled in internecine fighting and [End Page 389] seldom able to maintain the united front that was shiningly evident in the spring of 1989. Barmé writes that "the themes of my story are rebellion and co-option, attitude and accommodation" (p. xiii), and much of that story is about artists steering a path between the demands (as often implicit as explicit these days) of the Party and state and the need to appeal to their various publics.

An important source for Barmé's critique of contemporary China is to be found in the writings of intellectual survivors of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact: these include Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, and, most significantly, Miklós Haraszti, whose metaphor of the "velvet prison" Barmé uses effectively to monitor the "self-imposed acquiescence" of artists in the reform era. Like the Eastern European writers he cites, Barmé is scornful of those he sees as succumbing to the temptation to compromise; in the Chinese case, these include former Minister of Culture Wang Meng, whose media jousts are described extensively, but who finally stands accused by the author of "well-meaning but wishy-washy whateverism" (p. 313).

Barmé is also harshly critical of the way that many prominent artists promote themselves globally as the objects of official censure at home; two notable targets here are the rock singer Cui Jian and the avant-garde filmmaker Zhang Yuan. Cui Jian appears as an aging poseur, prolonging his career by presenting himself to the West as an oppressed voice of conscience while "negotiating space for survival" with the authorities (p. 134). Zhang Yuan is observed using the notoriety of his underground film Beijing Bastards...


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