Peoples of China

A New Voice

Trends in Chinese Pop Culture


Despite more than twenty years of “opening and reform” policy, three images of China continue to dominate the Western imagination. One is the rich culture of China—the grand architecture, the artistic tradition, and the mystical landscape. Another is that of homogenized masses subsuming all of their dreams and aspirations over to the state. Yet another is the image of idealistic youth bravely facing down tanks in the hopes of bringing about a better, more just society. Having been conditioned to these images, we are not prone to think about popular culture in China for we tend to assume that popular culture, as we understand it, cannot exist in a totalitarian state.

In her paper, titled “Popular Culture in China,” Lisa Movius defines popular culture as “the expression of the cultural tastes of the masses,” or the common public, as differentiated from the academic and political elite.”[1]  In other words, popular culture is that aspect of society that is created by and for the masses, or that which is popular among the people. Popular culture includes the so-called “expressive” forms of a culture—books, magazines, movies, art, TV and so on.

When held up against this particular definition then, popular culture is a relatively new phenomenon in the People’s Republic of China. To the extent that popular culture existed in China during the Mao years, it was a top-down affair. All aspects of expressive culture were dominated by the state, which dictated what people wore, sang, read, and watched.  There was one fashion—the “Mao suit.” (Chinese actually call it the Sun Yat Sen suit.) Music consisted of revolutionary “praise songs” to Chairman Mao. There were only a dozen or so “state approved” plot lines for all operas and movies, all with the goal of extolling the revolution and instilling class-consciousness in the masses. There was nothing spontaneous and nothing unapproved. It was popular culture only in the sense that all participated, but not in the sense of being a true expression of the cultural taste of the people.

Things have changed drastically in China since the beginning of the reforms in the early 1980s. While not relinquishing total control, the state has increasingly backed out of the spheres that are commonly considered to be part of popular culture, thus allowing it to come up from the people rather than be imposed from on high. The boundaries are still set by the state but, within the boundaries, there is in China today a flourishing pop culture scene.

As we survey the landscape of Chinese pop culture, what themes or characteristics emerge that we can see as both influencing pop culture and thereby influencing the society at large?

The first characteristic is that Chinese pop culture is consumer driven. For all the talk about the changes taking place in Chinese society, in effect it boils down to this: the fundamental shift that has taken place is from China being a communist society to a consumer society. In many ways, consumerism is a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of pop culture in a society because, more than anything else, it is the marketplace that will both determine and reveal what is popular among the masses. Popular culture reflects the values and attitudes of consumerism—accumulation of wealth and instant gratification. A quick glance through the many life-style magazines on sale at kiosks in China will reveal article after article on fashion, balancing career and work, love and dating, or getting ahead in the business world. Like their counterparts in the West, these magazines are full of glossy ads for all of the items necessary to achieve the sought-after success and status.

A second characteristic of Chinese pop culture is that it is global. Through the internet, satellite TV, international travel, and China’s economic integration with the world, Chinese can now participate in the global pop culture. In the wired world of the 21st century, urban Chinese no longer live in isolation as they did in the Mao years. Gone are the days when young people had no idea what rock music or dance clubs or TV game shows were. Rather, they know as much about Michael Jordon, Mel Gibson, and Madonna as do their American counterparts. Participation in Chinese pop culture is now participation in global pop culture. Crowds line up to buy tickets for the Rolling Stones, weep at the death of Princess Diana, keep track of Bill Gate’s billions, and closely follow Michael Jordan’s every slam dunk and retirement.

A third characteristic of Chinese pop culture is individualism. In a recent BBC News special report, the reporter described what he called the “me” generation—young people who are primarily interested in self-expression and personal gratification—and that is one of the messages of pop culture. Dye your hair. Slam dunk like Michael. Find your true love. Rely on no one but yourself. The BBC report quotes a young singer: “I really sincerely wish people would live hard, no matter what they do. Whether they’re rich or they’re poor, or they have complicated or simple lives, I really want people to take living seriously. What’s important to me is myself.  I think the first responsibility I have is to myself. And then you think about other people. You can do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt any other people.”[2] These stand in stark contrast to the messages emanating from the Party, namely sacrifice, communal values and welfare of the masses.

The fourth characteristic of Chinese pop culture is the absence of political themes, reflecting the political indifference that marks China’s youth. Chinese pop culture is apolitical. In the early days of the Reform Era, musicians and artists did flirt with political expression and even dissent, but that largely dissipated after the Tiananmen Square Movement and subsequent crackdowns. While steering clear of politics outright, Chinese pop culture is increasingly addressing social themes. One of the most popular movies in 2000 was Shower, by director Zhang Yang. Set in a traditional bath-house in old Beijing, the movie explores the tensions between old and new in contemporary China, openly wondering what is being lost in the mad rush to modernization.

The significance of all this is that popular culture in China is a reflection of an increasingly pluralistic society, with the Party/state no longer being the only voice. The emergence of a popular culture has given the Chinese people an avenue of expression not directed by the state. To be sure, the voice of the state remains, and it is heard loudly and clearly through the nightly news, the official newspapers and the party propaganda machine. However, now it has competition and, given the choice, most would rather listen to the popular voice.

Image credit: Joann Pittman.

Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting. View Full Bio