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339 Imagining China through the Culture Industries: The 798 Art Zone and New Chinas Elizabeth Brunner I n 2014, the Chinese government made a move to ban wordplay, alleging that it was creating “cultural and linguistic confusion” among the people of China.1 When this story hit the United States, it ignited conversation fueled by both amazement and disdain. Why would the Chinese government ban puns in China? As the story bounced from television to radio to social media it was met with befuddled media personalities who, baffled by this edict, repeatedly made fun of the Chinese government for seeking to control its people to such a ridiculous level. Jon Stewart addressed the issue on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, poking fun at the Chinese government for being so overly controlling that it took away its citizen’s ability to make the simplest of witticisms and, as many people from the vantage point of the United States see it, to engage in the most harmless form of critique.2 Yet, from the perspective of the leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC or the Party), the purpose of this law was not to prevent “cultural and linguistic confusion” at all; 340 Elizabeth Brunner rather, the government was trying to prevent netizens from developing alternative languages for activist purposes. Puns are widely used in China to circumvent censorship in a language rife with homonyms. Netizens trade widely in puns and use them as an alternative language that can (at least temporarily) elide censors, criticize the government, and raise awareness about sensitive issues. In fact, such language games are so common that China Digital Times publishes up-and-coming puns in its regular newsletter and keeps a database of phrases and their multilayered meanings.3 I open with the censorship issue for two reasons. First, I want to acknowledge the fact that censorship exists in China and is a force with which people have to contend, especially those who are politically active. Second, at the same time, this story shows how U.S. media framings perpetuate a limited understanding of how censorship operates on a daily basis.4 Attention to censorship in China is perfectly warranted, as it is a deep and tangled problem throughout the country; yet people all over China are responding to censorship by circumventing the Party’s “harmonizers ” in creative ways.5 The story of censorship in China is not that of a unilaterally effective edict; rather, it weaves in and out of government offices, dorm rooms, Weixin group chats, IKEA dolls, and the offices of software engineers. As Fan Yang argues, studying the “visibility” of messages that circumvent censors is a much more productive way of discussing the issue of censorship in China.6 Unfortunately, when “censorship represses all Chinese people” determines how media consumers in the United States understand China, this narrative flattens the intricacy of events unfolding on the ground. Within this Orientalist imagination, outdated images of gray, staid citizens defeated by censors prevail, despite ample evidence that China is now a rapidly changing and boisterous nation brimming with creative activism. Such simplified portraits are in dire need of an update, one that acknowledges the sheer messiness and complexity of daily life in China. Indeed, if U.S.-based readers and viewers continue to approach China through the singular lens of censorship, they will miss out on the eruptive protests filling its streets and the vibrant online debates cascading across its social media. Ultimately, if we cannot embrace a more nuanced portrait, a more supple and subtle imagination, then our policies toward China will prove inadequate and our intercultural The 798 Art Zone and New Chinas 341 dealings will clash. I argue, then, that a subtler interpretive lens is needed to open up new ways of connecting with this emerging global partner over important environmental, social, and political issues. Accordingly, in this chapter I critically examine the ways censorship influences interpretations of a specific category of visual rhetoric: contemporary Chinese art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the censorship framework does not end with stories about banning puns, high-profile dissidents, or “the Great Firewall.” This framework has also come to dominate how many in the United States understand the contemporary Chinese art scene. Whether addressing the censoring of Ai Weiwei from Chinese galleries7 or the censoring of performance artist Han Bing by exiling him from Tiananmen during the enactment of his “Cabbage” piece,8 the conclusion is alltoo familiar: Chinese artists are perpetual victims of censorship...


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