The Selling of Culture in China

Zhao Dayong

Zhao Dayong

How China is using art (and artists) to sell itself to the world” is an informative and insightful article in The Star by Murray Whyte. It analyzes China’s recent boom in cultural and media industries and its discontents – a burgeoning scene of individual expression. dGenerate directors Ou Ning and Zhao Dayong and producer David Bandurski are featured in the article as prominent representatives of the alternative art scene.

For Whyte, China’s recent supports and displays of cultural development reflect the government’s deep desire to raise “soft power”– “the ability of a political body to get what it wants through cultural or ideological attraction”–in order to match its huge economic development. The efforts include the plans for new museums and “creative districts” nationwide, proliferation of a glossy magazine industry that embraces Western excess, participation in global cultural events such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, the induction of formerly underground filmmakers back into state-run studios, and the production of big-budget political blockbusters such as The Founding of a Republic.

These splashy, showy displays, contrary to common expectation, do not indicate progress in free expression. Artist and activist Ou Ning, whom the article identifies as a “tireless campaigner for cultural freedom,” refers to the overwhelming urban reconstruction making place for the creative districts as “trading a specific brand of artistic freedom for a broader tyranny.” Commenting on the burgeoning media and culture landscape, David Bandurski (producer of Ghost Town) of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project notes, “This has nothing to do with the vibrancy of culture, or the diversity of culture.” Instead, he continues, “[The government] wants a renaissance, but they want it to happen under party control.”

Beneath this superficial and artificial glamor, the article also notices a “thriving underground scene” that represents a “new kind of expression that has sprouted amid the state-mandated cultural flowering.” Documentary film, as the article quotes Ou Ning again, is the country’s new frontier for individual expression. Among them, Ghost Town by Zhao Dayong and San Yuan Li by Ou Ning and Cao Fei both depict abandoned landscapes and lives, one left “on the distant margins of a country pushed into modernization overdue,” the other “swallowed by Guangzhou’s land-gobbling development.” Although Zhao Dayong defines his work as more individual expression than political act, Ou Ning and Whyte both see the progressive effects of this growing individual expression. The article concludes with Ou’s remark, “Everyone to make a small change in their daily lives. That’s how society can change: individually, step by step, by all of us.”

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