Popular China: Unofficial Culture in a Globalizing Society by Perry Link, Richard P. Madsen and Paul G. Pickowicz, editors. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002, 336 pp. ISBN 0742510794, paperback. Cost: $21.95 Amazon.
A Review by Glenys Goulstone
Popular China provides an excellent scholarly overview of diverse aspects of everyday life in China today. Contributions from a wide variety of scholars present valuable insights into popular culture and, at the same time, highlight questions and areas for research.
The characteristics of Chinese society today have been created by the interaction of two main factors. One, Party control and direction, remains significant—the one Party dictatorship continues unscathed—but the second, economic, social and cultural forces created by globalization (which are outside Party control), is powerful and irresistible. Together these key factors have forged a creative tension and unique social environment within which the members of China’s social groupings play out their roles and look for meaning.
Each chapter of Popular China, twelve in all, selects a particular social grouping or topic. Through description and analysis, the various authors help us to hear the voices and values of basketball fans, urban and rural women, young entrepreneurs, beggars, gay men and women, and rural migrants. Chapters on tabloid newspapers, lifestyle magazines, and popular sayings demonstrate the role of the media in revealing and shaping popular culture. An entire chapter is devoted to the issue of corruption—attitudes toward it and ways in which ordinary people deal with it. The real-life stories in these articles allow us to identify with millions of people, whether they are struggling with hardship and injustice, reveling in success and status or seeking to come to terms with their sexuality. Many of these personal stories are deeply moving.
Considering the deep influence that spirituality has on popular attitudes and values, it is surprising to find no articles on religion and its impact on modern China. After all, this is a major area in which the Party-State and forces of globalization have hit head on. Chinese believers (whether their faith is in Christ, Falungong or whatever) are just as much caught up in the moral and social confusion as gays and beggars, and are just as numerous. This silence on religious issues is especially surprising in view of the fact that Richard P. Madsen, one of the editors, has written thoroughly on the subject of the Catholic scene in China and is part of a team of sociologists who have recognized the importance of religion in modern American life. I do not know why this area has been omitted and hope it will be addressed in subsequent volumes.
However, in the areas it does cover, this book skillfully introduces and illustrates representative slices of Chinese life that those of us living or visiting in China will encounter on a daily basis. Even if you do not have the time or interest to read every article (and for the non-scholar like myself, some are more esoteric than others), I would recommend that you read the introduction and the chapters concerning your own special interest groups. The chapters on women’s issues and beggars are particularly enlightening.
In the introduction, we learn that significant changes have come about since 1989 due to developments in mass media and the emergence of new themes. Before that crucial year, domestic tensions between state control and social change were central. Now we find that the forces of globalization have created new tensions, moving society away from conventional socialist characteristics towards more pluralistic and consumer-driven values. Global popular culture has, on the one hand, invaded the Chinese social landscape; on the other, it has been contextualized—is this “globalization with Chinese characteristics”? Almost none of the people portrayed in the book see local culture in opposition to the forces of globalization. The chapter on basketball culture spends a lot of time on this question. We read that globalization either “traps you in a cage or gives you wings to fly.” For example, the workers who produce upmarket sports shoes are locked into their miserable factories, whereas the flamboyant slam dunk star is flying high.
Throughout the book we find references to “post-socialist China,” “pseudo-Marxist neoliberalism,” even “social Darwinist neoliberalism.” What do these terms mean? Belief in authentic Marxism has long since collapsed, and the authors propose these terms as a way of defining today’s ideology. It is the new way to react to and deal with daily realities. For example, the beggars of today may not have benefited greatly from China joining the WTO, but they do not completely reject it either. At the same time, the spirit of social criticism is alive and well (not new in China but more out in the open today), and in chapter four, “Shunkouliu: Popular Satirical Sayings and Popular Thought,” we find a powerful tool for gaining access to this criticism. These sayings deal with such themes as materialism, corruption, the demise of socialist values, politics, retrospection concerning revolutionary days, regional differences and women’s roles.
It is interesting how the stories in this book bring out personal tensions as well as social ones. As ministers of the grace of God, we can take careful note as interviewees share their individual aspirations, hopes, dreams, and struggles though these stories. Aspiring basketball stars are a good example— they want fame and recognition, seeking to rise above their peers. Unlike the corporate glory and team spirit valued in the past, these ball players have far more self-orientated goals. At the same time, market forces and the thrust of global advertising stress personal image and status. Is the team more important than the individual star? This is a good question in a culture that has a strong group mentality and in which nationalism is growing stronger by the year. Global basketball culture makes Chinese young people more aware of outside possibilities, raising their hopes and expectations as they participate in this “virtual” global community.
The subject of corruption had to be included. As one of the main causes of the 1989 demonstrations and a serious threat to both China’s economy and the Party’s legitimacy, the authors set out to discover how people define and deal with corruption today. How angry are they? What can be done? They come to the conclusion that most ordinary Chinese citizens have half-formed, ambiguous views. As economic crime committed by public officials, corruption is condemned and strong emotions are generated by press coverage. However, swindling, speculation, profiteering, counterfeiting or tax evasion are seen differently; they exist because the system “does not work” or “cannot be changed.” There is a sense of inevitability and a survival mentality kicks in. The rule of man is, as ever, more powerful than the rule of law; dishonesty is seen, not so much in terms of personal moral failure, but as caused by structural pressures and temptations that are impossible to resist. Wealth creation by corrupt officials is “wrong,” but public applause may be offered to successful entrepreneurs who have made the system work for them. Did not Deng Xiaoping himself start something when he said, “To get rich is glorious”? One thing we learn from this chapter is that the glory ascribed depends on how you chose to achieve it.
Concerning rural women, in some respects the reform era has accentuated their inferior position in society. A magazine devoted to women’s issues, Rural Women Knowing All, has been a rich source of data for this study. Due to the one child policy and resulting gender imbalance, poorer women are treated as commodities and arranged marriages are widespread because of this. Domestic violence and divorce are both increasing to an alarming pitch— be prepared for the horror stories. Little wonder the suicide rate among rural women in China is the highest in the world. Mass migrations of rural men have created a new category of “women who stay behind.” They are responsible for children and parents and are vulnerable to abuse by other men.
Chapter Nine, “Beggars in the Socialist Market Economy” draws some surprising conclusions. Putting begging in historical context—going right back to the Shang dynasty—it makes fascinating reading. In some cases, beggars are seen to be “government controlled tax collectors” (raising funds for poverty relief), or a “chosen profession” (with recognized skills, allocation of locations and regulations of conduct). It can certainly be an easier and more lucrative lifestyle than that of sweatshop laborers in Guangdong, many of whom are cheated out of their wages. We read here of diverse groups, some of whom group themselves into companies for mutual support and protection. “Begging with Chinese characteristics” confounds the moral categories of both communist and capitalist ideologies; it represents the persistence of a pre-modern tradition in forms that have adapted themselves to modern political economies.
I’m glad I read this book. Its stories, analyses and conclusions have opened my eyes to many key issues and my heart to many desperate needs.