Blog Post

The Chinese a Red Hot People?

A healthy government or nation or culture should be of the people, by the people and for the people.  But does the concept of the people as a democratic, social entity still count? Yesterday I went to the Annual Modern Language Association Meeting in Los Angeles and on a panel of professors of East Asian and comparative studies in the US, I discussed how English and European studies can and should try to have a share of Chinese culture.

Not that Western professors or cultural establishments at large have not been paying attention to Chinese or Asian culture.  With ups and downs, the scholarly study of Asian literatures and languages has been going on for more than a century in Europe and the US.  With the rise of China in the globalized network, Chinese culture is constantly stepping into the spotlight these days.  Yet more communication, more study does not mean more understanding--if the communicator only wants to see what he sets out to see: his own self-image reflected in other people.  Ironically, the gaps in understanding and in sharable interests seem to be widening in the age of globalization and economic interdependence.

Recently I taught Chinese writer Yan Lianke’s novel Serve the People.  In the story a peasant soldier is forced to provide sexual service for the wife of an impotent army commander and their affair is carried on in the name of serving the people.  “Serve the People” meant, officially, service for the Party, the nation, and ideology.  So the story evidently debunks the slogan.  But it also had a genuine vocation and a cultural agenda.  It was a rallying call in revolutionary China in the 1940s to democratize the traditional high culture and elitist legacy, so that cultural production could be in people’s, especially peasants’ hands. Later this notion became a guiding principle for creating a new culture and for judging works of writers’ and artists.  Good writers are those who put their heart and talent into serving the people’s intellectual and spiritual needs.  This populist principle, active in much of modern Chinese history, is now junked and forgotten.  And the whole history associated with this socio-democratic agenda is seen as having gone to the dinosaurs.  To Western eyes, a blank page is sandwiched between the colonial, capitalist glamour of Shanghai in the 1930s and the globalized 1990s, as if China today just fell out of the sky in the last two decades.  It is in this mindset of junking of history that Yan’s novel is celebrated by the Western media and critics. It is read as a Chinese Lady Chatterley’s Lover and as a satirical tale of sexual transgression and political subversion.  The blurb of the English translation raves that the novel is overflowing with sex.  It is both red and hot, a red, hot love story that is funny, satiric, and irreverent of the dominant ideology.

Does Yan the novelist only want to display sex? Or more generally, what happens to the understanding of a culture if all that matters is sexual abandon? “Red and hot” may recall “Red and Expert,” another slogan in revolutionary China that encouraged writers to serve the people with really good and expert writing.  The critical taste in the West and in China, however, declares this mission is dead and we can celebrate.  Red means nothing but hot. This recalls the American couple in the movie Reds, who, amidst their activities in the Russian Revolution, have sex intensified to the accompaniment of the stirring music of International.  Yan’s novel surely reveals “Serve the People” is abused and that it is rhetoric for private gains and carnal desire.  On the other hand, this Chinese writer, from pleasant stock and of the army, ponders a legitimate concern.  He holds on to the idea that politics and literature are of the people, by the people, and for the people.  For him literature needs to inject a public spirit, to serve people as citizens, as masters of Chinese society—a revolutionary tradition.  This people-oriented notion has been corrupted by the bureaucratic and technocrats of the current regime, by market power, by Western and Chinese critics out of touch with the current reality.  The peasant workers, the unemployed, the homeless, and downtrodden are completely under the radar of privileged critics in the West.  Yet many people oriented writers in China today still try to serve the people by writing about their plight, suffering, and worries, their hunger and anger in the crisis of global economy.  Faced with ruthlessly market and naked exploitation of the lowest stratum of the population, red and expert writers still hold dear the socio-democratic agenda and egalitarian ideals contained in Serve the People. The red, hot writers, in contrast, pursue the glamour of consumption, the sexy appeal of urban youth, and imperial grandeur of power and capital, the wasteful lifesyle in Shanghai’s glitzy hotels.  This trumped up array of money, sex, and power hardly touches 95% of the Chinese people.  It ignores that fact that it is owing to the people’s labor, initiative, and blood that China is able to step into to the spotlight of international attention.

Wang Ban is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature at UCLA. In addition to his research on Chinese and comparative literature, he has written on English and French literatures, psychoanalysis, international politics, and cinema. He has been a recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, SUNY-Stony Brook, Harvard University, and Rutgers University before he came to Stanford. His current project is tentatively entitled China and the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Cosmopolitanism. His interests include modern Chinese literature and film, comparative literature (East and West), aesthetics, intellectual history, psychoanalysis, transnational politics and culture.