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Report from the 5th Annual Meeting of the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC)

During the APEC meeting in Beijing the skies were clear and blue. By the time of the meeting at Beijing Normal University just over a week later the haze had returned. The moral of the story is that the Chinese government can control the heavens (天下), but not for very long.

During the APEC meeting in Beijing the skies were clear and blue. By the time of the meeting at Beijing Normal University just over a week later the haze had returned. The moral of the story is that the Chinese government can control the heavens (天下), but not for very long.

On the 28th and 29th November 2014 I attended the 5th Annual Meeting of the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC) (中国文化国际传播研究院第五届年会). The theme of the meeting was ‘International Communication of Chinese Culture: Discourse System and Cultural Image’ (中国文化国际传播:话语体系与文化形象). The AICCC is located in Beijing Normal University (北京师范大学). Here is a brief report from the Chinese media on the meeting (in Chinese).

The AICCC’s mission is to ‘introduce and disseminate Chinese culture worldwide more effectively and contribute to a harmonious world culture through solid, in-depth research and art works with Chinese characteristics’.   Besides holding regular conferences and meetings the AICCC also is actively engaged in encouraging content production (novels, films, documentaries, art, and so on). It must be said that the approach is very state-centric, as one would expect from any ‘academy’ attached to a prestigious Chinese university. Don’t expect anything too critical of the government or forms of content that are not in ‘harmony’ with the mainstream. I nonetheless found the meeting very informative on a number of levels and, since I’ve now been appointed as a ‘guest researcher’, I hope to be able to utilise this platform to engage, especially with fellow ‘guest researchers’ and local Chinese scholars, in some very serious work on the ‘Chinese culture and cross-cultural communication’ front.

The title of my paper was 'Chinese Tea: Past, Present and Future'. It examined the possible role of tea as a form of cross-cultural communication. Note that my name in Chinese should be '席格伦'.

The title of my paper was ‘Chinese Tea: Past, Present and Future’. It examined the possible role of tea as a form of cross-cultural communication. Note that my name in Chinese should be ‘席格伦’, although ‘咖喱G’ does have a certain ring to it.

The AICCC is headed up by the indefatigable Professor Huang Huilin (黄会林). Professor Huang has a CV longer than the Great Wall. Her main area of focus is film and drama. At 82 years she is full of energy and enthusiasm, a prime example that you can keep doing what you love so long as the mind is clear and the body willing. She would have been in her late teens when the People’s Republic was founded (1949) and then subsequently experienced the various trials and tribulations of the Maoist period, and in turn the ups and downs of the reform era. In this sense Professor Huang embodies a life experience that crosses four major periods in modern Chinese history: pre-1949, the Maoist period, the Deng Xiaoping reform period, and the period China is now embracing of the ‘socialist market economy’. I think her life cycle definitely plays into the kind of work she does as a strong supporter of the authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and as defending the legacy of the May Fourth Movement (1915-1921). Most notably, Professor Huang has recently written extensively on the notion of the ‘Third Pole’ – her great theoretical legacy. To put it briefly the ‘Third Pole’ theory holds that there are three major ‘cultural poles’: 1) Europe; 2) the United States; and 3) China. This is how it is explained on the AICCC website:

Among the current diversified culture patterns around the world, there are three major forces that have high influences on the world culture: the European culture, the American culture and the Chinese culture. If the European and American culture are the ‘Two Poles’ representing the western world, then the Chinese culture, with its deep root and strong vitality developed over thousands of years, can be called ‘The Third Pole Culture’. Rooted in the traditional Chinese civilization, the Third Pole Culture advances with the times and respects cultural differences under the premise of initiating cultural diversities. Currently, the diversified patterns of world culture co-exist under mutual influences. The Chinese ‘Third Pole Culture’ advocates the idea of ‘harmony’ through a practical and creative approach, adjusting itself with the times and learning from each other with the purpose to build a commonly recognized code and order for the world culture and to contribute to the ever-evolving development of human society. ‘The Third Pole Culture’ is not only an academic subject, but more importantly a cultural mission with strategic significance to enhance the soft power of Chinese culture. Academic research, creative production, cultural communication and resource integration are the most important means to achieve this mission.

Note here the explicit mention of ‘soft power’ (软实力). In China ‘soft power’ does not have any negative connotations, but instead simply refers to the ability of a nation to be able to project its cultural values upon the world stage. Whereas until recently it is Europe and the US which have been very successful at doing so, the Third Pole theory argues that it is now China’s turn to project its culture upon the world. The Chinese government has been attempting to do this, for example, through the establishment of Confucius Institutes around the world, a project that is beginning to attract a lot of negative publicity and may require a bit of rethinking on the party of the Chinese authorities (I will write on this subject in the coming weeks).

China has a very rich and diverse cultural heritage. It has a large population full of well educated and talented people. It has a government that, when it so desires, can implement effective policy. All the conditions for China to create cultural products that will appeal to a domestic and foreign audience are in place. And yet, in my opinion, the primary stress on social stability and public security is taking the wind out of China's creative sails.

China has a very rich and diverse cultural heritage. It has a large population brimming with well educated and talented people. It has a government that, when it so desires, can implement effective policy. All the conditions for China to create cultural products that will appeal to a domestic and foreign audience are in place. And yet, in my opinion, the primary stress on social stability and public security is taking the wind out of China’s creative sails.

It should be noted that the AICCC has no links with the Confucius Institutes and has no intention of cooperation on the ‘soft power’ front with them. One thing they do have in common, however, is an emphasis on ‘harmony’. The Chinese are well aware that the rise of Western power was accompanied by a great deal of violence and power mongering in the form of imperialism and colonialism. As Chinese rises the Chinese authorities, and auxiliary agencies such as the Chinese higher education sector, are keen to alleviate any anxieties that China is going to follow the Western pattern of war and violence. Hence the emphasis on ‘harmony’. This does indeed have deep roots in Chinese statecraft as an ideological means of presenting an idealised Chinese culture that is benevolent and peaceful. Of course traditional Chinese statecraft also viewed the world in very hierarchical terms with China as the ‘civilised centre’. The further one moved away from the Chinese centre the less civilised and cultured the world became. Hence, in addition to ‘harmony’ the Third Pole theory also stresses ‘equality’.

Of course I hear many people already shouting ‘what about the rest of the world! Sure there are more than three poles!’. I was a bit taken aback too and in the final plenary session of the meeting – of which I was a keynote so  had a good chance to express my opinions – I asked politely how Australia fits into the scheme of things. Some professor from the audience said in response that Australia could be regarded as part of Europe. After just having delivered a unit last semester on ‘Australia and Asia’ I noted that if Chinese scholars were going to put Australia into this category they were sorely misguided. Anyway, Professor Huang and others explained that the notion of the three poles was not meant to exclude other cultural centres, it is more of a reaction to the way they, as the officially endorsed cultural elite, see China’s cultural challenge in the 21st Century. It still smacks of Sinocentricism, but I think I can offer something of an explanation. The first part of the explanation refers to the notion of ‘civilisational self-worth’. With a rich and ancient ‘civilisation’ Chinese cultural elites rightly regard Chinese culture very highly. Despite all the trials and tribulations Chinese culture has experienced in the last century, they feel it is only right and proper that Chinese culture – with the aforementioned emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘equality’ (thereby highlighting what is also regarded as the innate benign nature of Chinese civilisation) – should take its rightful place on the world stage. China is now (re)emerging as confident and powerful force. This indeed is the precondition for cultural resurgence. The party-state and the cultural elite are keen to compare Chinese culture to what they regard as ‘world class’ (they are doing the same in almost all fields of endeavour: education, scientific research, business, sport, and so on). So, therefore, it seems logical that ‘Europe’ and the ‘US’ – as the two major hegemonic cultural centres of the last century – should be the ‘benchmark’ for an resurgent Chinese culture.

Secondly, the first two poles – Europe and the USA – refer to those cultural centres that have dominated the last two centuries and that have, in turn, had a huge impact on the rest of the world. The influence of Hollywood was raised numerous times throughout the meeting, in fact one could say they were quite fixated on Hollywood and its impact on the Chinese box office. Why should Chinese scholars and officials be concerned? In short, they hold that culture embodies social values and through the dissemination of culture a receiving society can, over time, experience ‘social value transformation’. The CPC is currently promoting what it calls ‘Core Socialist Values’ – these are list of patriotic, good citizenship and party loyalty values (see the image and caption below for more details). Since China opened to the outside world in the late 1970s the ‘cultural world’ of China has indeed undergone a dramatic transformation – too complex for me to outline here, other than to stress that there are two elements that seem to be of particular concern to the scholars attending the meeting: 1) globalisation (read ‘westernisation’) and, 2) commercialisation (that is, the impact of market forces in the realm of culture and social values).

The list of 'Socialist Values' being promoted by the CPC. 'Strength and Prosperity'; 'Civilisation'; 'Freedom'; 'Justice'; 'Patriotism'; 'Integrity'; 'Democracy'; 'Harmony'; 'Equality'; 'Rule of Law'; 'Professionalism'; 'Friendship'.

The list of ‘Socialist Values’ being promoted by the CPC. ‘Strength and Prosperity’; ‘Civilisation’; ‘Freedom’; ‘Justice’; ‘Patriotism’; ‘Integrity’; ‘Democracy’; ‘Harmony’; ‘Equality’; ‘Rule of Law’; ‘Professionalism’; ‘Friendship’. Note that the assumption is that all of these values have ‘Chinese characteristics’ (that is, they are to be determined and expounded by the CPC).

Hollywood is definitely having a major impact on Chinese cinema. Chinese citizens are flocking to the cinemas to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters, so much so that Hollywood now sees China as a major market and is beginning to produce films specifically for a Chinese audience (the latest Transformers movie being a good example). In 2013 China earned the American film industry US$3.6 billion (42% of the Chinese box office). The conservative elite in the CPC and society more broadly are concerned that younger generations are not getting very healthy ‘spiritual sustenance’ (精神粮食) from the influx of foreign cultural products (which also includes the popularity of, for example, Korean television dramas). Actually these discussions are very reminiscent of early 1990s debates over the ‘loss of human spirit’ (人文精神) (unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be anything on this debate in English). I’ve a feeling a number of the participants would have been very active in those debates. It seems to me that, firstly, what they fear is the influence of products and texts over which they have little control. And secondly, as the cultural elite, that their influence over Chinese cultural production is also very limited. A foreign and domestic double whammy. Whilst the authorities, as we shall see below, do still exert a high degree of overall authority over the cultural market, the commercial imperative to appeal to the audience does not coincide with the visions of ‘culture’ espoused by the the cultural elite (which can be crudely summarised as the divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture).

As a form of cultural critique on the impact of contemporary forces on society I found the focus on film and Hollywood to be very narrow. I attempted to draw attention to the fact that it is not Hollywood that is the major influence on the values of society, but instead that Hollywood is only a reflection of what the mainstream regards as acceptable (and we know that the American film industry is actually quite conservative in many respects). I suggested we should focus on the more obvious impact of consumer culture, fueled by advertising and the projection of consumer appetites, that is creating a certain form of individual (that is, ‘I shop therefore I am’) and a cycle of unsustainable growth, economically, culturally and environmentally. My comments, however, seem to fall on deaf ears and blind eyes. In fact I found that at this meeting there is clearly a big divide between the older generation (there were many scholars and ‘cultural workers’ in their 60s and 70s) and the younger generation, particularly those cohorts born after 1980. Even a number of these older scholars openly acknowledged that they have difficulty understanding the digital and social world of the younger generation. There truly is a huge generational gap in China between those who still have strong memories of the Maoist era and the old-fashioned planned economy, and those whose formative years have been the world of the Internet, television dramas and popular music. I often wonder what China will look like when the ‘old guard’ finally departs.

Any well trained historian, sociologist, anthropologist, cultural theorist and so on, would have little problem in taking apart the notion of ‘traditional culture’ that is forwarded in the ‘Third Pole’ theory. But this critical approach to ‘culture’ is not to deny the actually existing cultural and artistic forms that, if they are going to survive, need to respond somehow to the 21st Century (this is why I include ‘culture’ in the cycle of unsustainable development, ‘culture’ in China is being crudely packaged and reworked for the market in ways that undermine its intrinsic value and appeal). Therefore, I think the overall mission of the AICCC is meaningful but it certainly needs more input from different directions to gain traction. Unfortunately in China the authorities are more concerned with ‘security’ than they are with ‘creativity’. The aforementioned notion of ‘harmony’ is also an important domestic policy. As Chinese society continues to develop and transform it naturally becomes more difficult to govern. Fracture lines are appearing all over the country. The current stewardship of President Xi has firmly put ‘harmony’ on the agenda with a large scale party rectification campaign (which I have discussed in a previous post) and intensification of existing security measures. Under these circumstances ‘creativity’ will come a poor second.

Here are two recent examples of how the Chinese authorities attempt to control creativity, and in so doing thwart the development of cultural products that might have appeal on the world stage.

The first example concerns time travel. In 2011 the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) effectively placed a ban on the production of television dramas which incorporated time travel. SARFT announced that “the producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.” The television dramas were also criticised for encouraging belief in superstition, reincarnation and fatalism. Since this ban was announced I’ve asked a people I know in the film and television world what they make of this. I really haven’t received a very satisfactory answer. The strongest justification seems to be that time travel – and it should be noted that in Chinese the notion of ‘time travel’ (穿越) overwhelmingly refers to traveling to times past, an indication of the strong sense of the ‘cultural past’ in China (I’ll save analysis of this for another time) – in these dramas could give the misperception that people where just as happier if not – heaven forbid – happier than they are in the present. I guess it just goes to show that the CPC still believes in only one version of history in which it is the sole author, producer and actor.

The second example concerns puns. Puns are an important linguistic element in any language, especially as far as humour is concerned. Given that Chinese has a large amount of homonyms puns are particularly important, and are indeed the bedrock of poetry and humour. This year SARFT released a directive stating that: “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms … Idioms are one of the great features of the Chinese language and contain profound cultural heritage and historical resources and great aesthetic, ideological and moral values”. Most likely the real reason is that puns can be used as a form of political satire. Chinese Internet users have also been very adept at getting around the banning of certain key words and phrases by clever use of homonyms. A particularly clever example, which was also backed up by a large seemingly uncoordinated grass-roots and Internet campaign, is the rendering of ‘harmony’ (hexie 和谐) as ‘river crabs’ (hexie 河蟹). Over the last couple of years ‘river crabs’ have appear in iconic form to inform people that a piece of writing or content has been ‘harmonised’ (that is, deleted by the authorities).

The Chinese party-state certainly has resurrected tradition – the tradition of old-fashioned moralist Confucian statecraft combined with the hard and heavy hand of Legalism. This ‘tradition’ puts an overwhelming emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘stability’, and relies almost exclusively on the power of the prohibition (it’s safer to just say ‘no’). In the world of cultural production it prefers to control creativity and attempt to ‘pick winners’ that conform to its moral and aesthetic tastes. There is, however, another ‘tradition’ in China that values spontaneity and chaos (in a constructive sense): Daoism. Cultural creativity requires an environment that fosters risk and the acceptance that ‘accidents’ may actually produce results. Daoism has often been the refuge of scholars and officials tired of the prohibitive declarations of Confucianism/Legalism. It is also a major inspiration for China’s artists, writers and cultural creationists. It is perhaps also the best Chinese ‘tradition’ to promote creativity in the broad cross-section of the arts and cultural world. I look forward to the day when Daoism – as a force for creativity – finds its place back at the table of Chinese ‘traditions’.

Anarchy anyone?

Anarchy anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  • Dec 15th 201410:12
    by Michael Keane

    Reply

    Nice summary Gary: I’ve attended numerous similar gatherings: the term culture is dominant in the oft-repeated phrase ‘cultural creativity’ rather than ‘creative culture’, which is the ideal of most modern democratic societies. The state’s desire for soft power is partly driven by the obvious pop culture success of its East Asian vassals states as much as the everpresent challenge of Hollywood’s ‘western ideas’. Culture is an ordered system of inherited ‘civilizational’ values, many worthwhile, some redundant; creativity is the challenging of those values, bringing the new into existence, challenging order; hence the continued call for ‘cultural security’ among elites Creativity is the constant co-joining, co-evolving of the ‘ten thousand things’, a (co-creational) term found mostly in Daoist philosophy but also in Confucianism.

    • Dec 16th 201400:12
      by Gary

      Reply

      Thanks Michael for your excellent comments. Your notion of ‘cultural security’ is a good one. I’ll be using it henceforth.

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