Rectifying China's entertainment sector
The Chinese Party-state’s campaign to rectify the entertainment sector, and reshape the cultural environment more broadly, is currently unfolding. The immediate target is China’s rowdy celebrity culture. But the reverberations have already travelled far from the epicentre. The campaign is the latest development in the pattern of political and cultural tightening since Xi came to power. It is driven by the Party-state’s aim to reinforce control and legitimacy by presenting itself as the guardian and exemplar of the Chinese moral order. But its efforts to enforce moral and aesthetic standards will run into resistance from below. Putting aside the glaring hypocrisy, the Party-state is delivering a clear message: in the Chinese political and moral firmament, there can only be one star, and it has to be red.
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Introduction and Translation by Adam Ni
On August 27, the Chinese Communist Party’s top internet policy-making body issued a notice ordering a crackdown on China’s online celebrity fan culture. This notice (translated in Section III) extends and intensifies a prior operation that took place in June and August. The crackdown is part of a broader campaign currently unfolding against the entertainment sector.
The notice, issued by the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, prohibits celebrity popularity rankings, orders internet platforms and celebrity management agencies to better regulate fan group activities, and restricts the participation of minors. The notice also orders a cleaning up of entertainment programmes, fan group channels and forums of what the authorities deem as harmful information and conduct, such as the spreading of celebrity-related rumours.
China’s celebrity fan culture is colourful, rowdy, and hyper-capitalist. Idolatry (celebrity worship) has become an important activity for many millions of young Chinese. The ecology of this culture is complex with a myriad of players, including celebrities, management agencies, funders, movie and music studios, online platforms (streaming services, social media, apps), fans and fan groups, influencers, etc.
The Party has decided it’s high time for rectifying the entertainment sector: the rotten apple can no longer be ignored lest the corruption spread further. Here is how the Party group secretary of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, Li Yi, put it in a recent symposium on professional ethics:
For some time now, the entertainment industry of which practitioners in literature and the arts is an important component has seen some chaos. We have seen the disorderly development of capital in the entertainment industry, the lack of responsibility from media platforms, and the lack of rigour in industry and market supervision. We have also seen a very small number of celebrity actors constantly breaking through the bottom line of social morality and the red line of national law with bad behaviour, including charging sky-high fees for appearance in films, tax evasion, pornography and drugs, false endorsements, and other moral misconducts and deplorable practices. These have triggered a high degree of social and public concern, strong criticism, and affected the literature and arts world in an extremely negative way.
At the symposium, 46 prominent cultural figures signed a letter of appeal (translated in Section III), condemning the “chaotic situation” in the entertainment sector, and calling for the building of a “clean and upright ecology for literature and the arts”.
The signatories of the appeal are all well-known in their respective fields and hold leadership positions with officially sanctioned associations representing, for instance, authors, filmmakers, musicians, etc. These associations are controlled by the CCP as part of its United Front system. They are essentially the cultural appendage to the political establishment, existing in symbiosis (and tension) with the Party-state.
This appeal articulates what the Chinese political and cultural establishments see as the ideal “literary and arts worker” — one brimming with moral integrity, self-possession, cultivation, and critically, a red beating heart. The appeal contrasts this idealised image with the current “chaos”, and urges those working in the cultural sectors to “practise the Core Socialist Values” and “bravely climb the peak of the arts under the Party’s guidance!”
As part of the broader campaign, the authorities have been targeting high-profile celebrities for alleged sexual assault, tax evasion, lack of patriotism and other moral and political misconduct. In quick succession, Chinese authorities have also put out new regulations or announced the tightening of existing rules, including on online gaming for minors [Chinese | English] (August 30), online performance talent management [Chinese | English] (August 30), cultural programmes and their staff [Chinese | English] (September 2), and online streaming services and content (September 9).
What are the underlying drivers and logic of this campaign? The People’s Daily published a timely piece on September 6 (translated in Section III) that helps us with answering this question. The piece is part of the ongoing Xi thought Q&A series of which one issue has been published every weekday since July 19. The piece puts forward the Party’s current views on the role of literature and the arts, and argues that:
Under the conditions of a socialist market economy, many cultural products have to realise their value through the market…However, economic considerations must come second to social considerations, and when the effects and values of the two are in conflict, economic considerations should be subordinated to social considerations, and market values should be subordinated to social values.
The three documents discussed above help us understand the key drivers of the Party-state’s campaign to rectify the entertainment sector and reshape the cultural environment more broadly.
China’s culture sectors have evolved considerably since the end of the Mao era. Today, the majority of creators of cultural works compete in the marketplace rather than relying solely on the largess of the state. Thus, it should not surprise us to see hyper-capitalist practices in sectors such as music, film, celebrity, and gaming.
There are two trends in tension with each other that are worth highlighting. First, there is increasing friction between the ideologies and political objectives of the Party-state on the one hand, and the artistic ideals and market imperatives of those creating cultural works on the other. Second, there is increasing incentives for intellectuals, writers, filmmakers and other creatives to align themselves with the Party-state because it has leverage over market opportunities.
One dilemma is that in order to achieve success in the market you have to differentiate yourself, but moving too far and too fast risks bringing you unwanted attention from the powers that be. In some ways, the challenge is for you to edge as close to the precipice as possible without falling (you are wearing a blindfold and standing on an active volcano, by the way).
The eruption currently rocking the entertainment sector is testing the nerves of many standing close to that metaphorical precipice. The current crackdown is the latest manifestation of Xi’s political philosophy that emphasizes the centrality of the Party in regulating the lives of the Chinese, including in the interconnected realms of morality and aesthetics.
It is the latest in a pattern of political and cultural tightening in China that we have witnessed in the last decade. Since Xi came to power in late-2012, the Party has tightened its grip on the economy, internet and technology, intellectual life, public discussion, education, and so on. The imperative to re-centralise Party-state control is best captured by a Mao-era formulation, one that Xi revived in early 2016:
Party, government, military, society, education, east, west, south, north, centre, the Party leads all.
As I noted previously:
the CCP under Xi has become increasingly paranoid about the possibility of losing power. China has been transformed by its opening to the world four decades ago. Titanic forces were unleashed. Party leaders appear to believe that to stay afloat the Party must again reinforce its supremacy.
Cultural sectors are critical to Party supremacy because of their influence on political and social priorities and moral values. Revealingly, mass political campaigns in the history of the PRC have mostly been preceded by escalating attacks on cultural and intellectual works and their authors. The assault on the play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, for example, helped to light the fuse of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The attacks on cosmopolitanism and individualism of the May Fourth tradition and the resultant demise of the “wild lilies of Yan’an” (left-wing writers, such as Wang Shiwei and Ding Ling), were central to Mao’s Yan’an Rectification in the 1940s.
To be sure, we are not seeing the advent of Cultural Revolution 2.0 (as some leftists in China and foreign observers have suggested). “Profound changes” may be afoot in Xi’s China, but we should remember that this China is a world away from Mao’s China of 1966. Moreover, Xi and Mao’s political aims differ. In launching the Cultural Revolution, Mao aimed to destroy his political enemies and the party-state apparatus that they controlled; Xi’s priority is to re-centralise and consolidate the power of the Party-state and maintain the stability of the current order. The Cultural Revolution involved grassroots mobilisation and civil strife on a gargantuan scale; it’s hard to believe that Xi, with his top-down and disciplinarian approach to ruling, would want this today.
Rather, the point is that culture and the arts are inextricably linked to political power in the People’s Republic. In the context of the current crackdown, we should pay particular attention to its moral aspects. In tightening its reins over the entertainment sector, the Party is invoking its self-appointed role as the guardian and exemplar of the Chinese moral order. As I explained previously:
Today, the Party-state is trying to regain its control over China’s pluralising moral landscape.
The Communist-Maoist moral order collapsed after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The party-state continued to hang on to the remnants of that moral order even as massive social and economic transformation had opened up the moral landscape to pluralisation. Individualism, the pursuit of happiness and material wealth, and critical thinking became acceptable and even desirable. Remember the tumultuous decade of the 1980s when the horizon of possibilities had been wide open for China?
In any case, in the Mao era, you achieved social esteem and material betterment by being politically astute. Today, you can also gain social status and material wealth by becoming a financier, tech entrepreneur or online celebrity. You have more choices in life.
China’s economic liberalisation and its accompanying changes have led to a perceived moral crisis in Chinese society, especially among social conservatives. Corruption, financial scams, fake food, social distrust, are seen as evidence of moral corruption. Individualism and the pursuit of profit are often blamed for these. But such discourses often overlook their benefits.
Today, the CCP is trying to regain its moral leadership by recasting the remnants of the old moral order through the Core Socialist Values (社会主义核心价值观). These are the [national] values of “prosperity”, “civility” and “harmony”; the social values of “freedom”, “equality”, “justice” and the “rule of law”; and the individual values of “patriotism”, “dedication”, “integrity” and “friendship”.
There is actually a considerable level of public support for tougher regulations on the entertainment sector (as well as other sectors that have come under recent scrutiny). But, of course, popular support does not (necessarily) good policy make.
The current regulatory storm has wide-ranging (and some regressive) effects on gender diversity and equality, public morality, and national identity. For instance, the September 2 notice (on cultural programmes and their staff) from the National Radio and Television Administration banned “sissies” (effeminate men) from the screens and called it a “perverse aesthetic.” As Yun noted:
Enforcing strict gender norms does enormous harm to LGBT+ people in society, including nonbinary and genderqueer people. But even for young people that are cishet (cisgender and heterosexual), it can foster unhealthy behavioural expectations
Moreover, the same notice also specified that those with “incorrect political stances” shall not be allowed air-time on Chinese state media.
These two examples highlight the perils for individual rights and pluralism when the state tries to regulate morality, political correctness and aesthetics. To be sure, all states (democratic or otherwise) enforce morality to some extent; the real question is what moral values should be enforced and how far states are allowed to go in enforcing them.
One particularly thorny problem in enforcing morality is that many Chinese simply do not share the Party-state’s views and values. With respect to culture, the Party wants writers and artists to prioritise social values and considerations over economic values and considerations. It wants them to prioritise “the people” in their creative process.
While that may sound reasonable on the surface, you may ask: who determines what these social values are? The people? Who are the people? Who speaks for the people? Can you separate social and economic values and considerations so neatly?
Millions of Chinese in rural areas resisted Bejing’s collectivization policies from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. They resisted, actively or passively, through everyday activities such as trading on the black market. Ultimately, Mao’s dream of a communist utopia was torpedoed by resistance from below.
Beijing faces the same problem today in enforcing moral and aesthetic standards. Resistance may not come in an organised or overt form, but you can be sure that it will come in the form of everyday activities and decisions made by the Chinese.
What strikes me most about the current crackdown is the sheer hypocrisy and doublespeak. First, while the authorities have banned celebrity popularity rankings, the ranking of political “celebrities” continues unabated. In fact, the ranking of its top leaders is a key feature of the Party-state’s system for displaying power and hierarchy.
Second, while the authorities are now targeting law-breaking and other misconducts by celebrities, such as false advertising/endorsement, using artificial ways to inflate their popularity and influencing public opinion, such practices are, in fact, normal practice for the Party-state.
Third, while the authorities are now discouraging idolatry (celebrity worship) by restricting fan group activities, there is one celebrity in China whose fan club is not being constrained. On the contrary, the Party-state has put its full weight behind promoting his cult. Ironically, at the same time as minors are been told by the authorities to stop worshipping celebrity idols, they are essentially invited to join the cult of Xi through intensified ideological education and indoctrination.
In much of China’s dynastic history, emperors claimed universal moral authority. Such claims gave them legitimacy, but also carried responsibilities and limitations on how they exercised their powers. In the Ming Dynasty, for example, the conduct of the emperor was widely seen as critical to the moral order, and stability, of the empire.
Like past emperors, the CCP today claims to be the guardian and exemplar of the Chinese moral order. But what moral authority does the Party-state have in cases where its hypocrisy is so glaringly obvious?
Whatever the answer may be, the Party-state’s message is clear: in the Chinese political and moral firmament, there can only be one star, and it has to be red.
Notice concerning Further Strengthening the Regulation of the “Fan Circle” Chaos
All provincial, autonomous region and municipal Party Committee cybersecurity and informatization offices, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Party Committee Cybersecurity and Informatization Office:
Since the launch of the special operation Cleanse: ‘Fan Circle’ Chaos Rectification, all localities have implemented the relevant work requirements and achieved certain results in the thorough rectification of the chaotic situation with respect to celebrity fan communities. These efforts have focused on celebrity popularity charts, trending topics [on social media], fan communities, internet discussion and commentary, and other priority items.
In order to further up the intensity of regulatory and governance efforts, tighten the dominant responsibilities of websites and internet platforms [as opposed to individual users], achieve practical breakthroughs on key and difficult problems, continuously consolidate and expand on the achievements of this special operation, and strike with heavy blows to revolve the problem that is the chaotic situation with respect to celebrity fan communities, the relevant work measures are, hereby, notified as follows:
1. Abolish celebrity popularity charts. All popularity charts involving celebrities, either as individuals or as part of a group, shall be abolished. New or covertly uploaded [celebrity] popularity charts from individuals and related products or functions are strictly prohibited. Popularity charts on works of music, film and television, etc, can be retained, but no name of celebrities or distinctive signs that identify them may appear.
2. Optimise and adjust ranking rules. When ranking works of music, film, television, etc, the weight of [digital] check-ins, likes, comments, and other indicators should be reduced. The weight of the work’s orientation, professional evaluation, and other indicators should be increased. Functions that induce and guide fans to assist celebrities to climb ranking charts are not allowed to be set up. Paid sign-in functions, recharge membership, and other methods used to [artificially] increase the number of sign-ins are also not allowed to be set up. Fans should be guided to pay more attention to the quality of the cultural products and reduce the fervour of star-chasing.
3. Strictly regulate celebrity management agencies. Reinforce the responsibility [liability] of website platforms in managing the online behaviour of celebrity management agencies (studios), formulate relevant online operational standards, and devise clear regulations concerning account registration and certification, content publishing, commercial marketing, crisis public relations management, fan management, and other online activities of these agencies. Strengthen the responsibility [liability] of celebrity agencies (studios) in guiding fan groups. Measures shall be taken against celebrities, management agencies (studios), and fan groups that incite antagonism between fans, sling mud and catalyse conflicts on purpose. These measures could include limiting information flow on their accounts [for internet platforms], prohibiting them from communicating [with their accounts], account closure, etc, at the same time as reducing, or even stopping all dissemination of information pertaining to the relevant celebrities across the entire [internet] platform.
4. Regulate fan group accounts. Strengthen the management of accounts of celebrity fan groups, support groups, etc, and require that these groups be authorised or authenticated by [the relevant] celebrity management agency (studio) with the latter taking up the responsibility for their day-to-day maintenance and supervision. Without exceptions, unauthorised individuals or organisations are not allowed to register celebrity fan group accounts [on internet platforms].
5. Strictly prohibit the presentation of information that causes mutual antagonism [between fan groups]. Earnestly fulfil management responsibilities; in a timely manner, discover and clean up harmful information, including verbal abuse, slung mud, malicious rumours, and other information that may lead to antagonism and catalyse conflict. Accounts that violate law and regulations shall be strictly dealt with. The temperature of [negative] public sentiment must be effectively prevented from rising and festering. Websites and platforms that fail to discover [the above-mentioned behaviour] in a timely manner and/or fail to satisfactorily deal with them shall be harshly punished.
6. Clean up fan communities and forums that violate rules. Continue to disband fan communities and groups with themes such as popularity rank voting, supporting celebrities [through online and offline activities], fundraising, controlling public discussions, gossip, and explosive news material, etc. Close internet forums and channels that easily lead fans to congregate, used for exchanging experience in participating in celebrity popularity ranking activities, discuss celebrity gossips and scandals, and help each other in carrying out digital activities [in support of celebrities]. Block avenues that generate inducements to fan groups to behave in a negative manner, or even encourage them to stir up trouble.
7. Fans may not be incited to purchase. Formulate and refine the details of rules on the selling process for the works of celebrities and artists and other related works and products. In every link of the sales process, an individual fan’s purchase quantity, contribution and other data cannot be displayed. It is prohibited to rank the purchase quantity and cost of products purchased by individual fans. No marketing activities to stimulate consumption by fans, such as task-based unlocking of app features, customised benefits, limited-time PK [player vs player competition], etc shall be set up.
8. Enhance the management of programmes. Strengthen the management of conduct [behaviour] in online entertainment programmes. These programmes may not set up [fan] “vote-buying” functions, and induce, guide or encourage netizens to vote for contestants on the programmes via other material means, including shopping and renewing memberships etc.
9. Strictly control the participation of minors. Further measures should be taken to strictly prohibit minors from paying rewards and purchasing in support of celebrities. Minors are prohibited from heading or administering related [fan] groups. Minors are restricted from voting for [celebrity] popularity rankings. It shall be made clear that the online activities of celebrities, fan clubs, support groups, etc, shall not interfere with the normal studying and resting of minors. It is prohibited to organise minors to launch all kinds of online gatherings.
10. Regulate [celebrity-supporting] fund-raising activities. Discover and clean up all kinds of rule-violating information with respect to [celebrity-supporting] fund-raising [activities] in a timely manner. Those internet platforms that have a concentration of problems, found inadequate in discharging their responsibilities, and induce and guide minors to participate in these fund-raising activities shall be punished and dealt with according to the law and regulations. Continue to investigate and deal with foreign websites that provide ranking voting, and celebrity-supporting fund-raising functions.
All localities must further elevate their political stance, and effectively enhance the sense of responsibility, mission, and urgency. The work of governing the ‘Fan Circle’ chaos must be driven and understood from the height of safeguarding online political security and ideological security and creating clear and clean cyberspace. They must immediately make the arrangements and implement [this notice], further break down [the tasks] for implementation, develop more detailed implementation plans, and urge website platforms subordinate to local authorities to effectively implement [this notice].
Secretary Bureau of the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission
August 25, 2021
修身守正 立心铸魂 — 致广大文艺工作者倡议书 [Xinhua report | letter text]
Cultivating integrity and forging the soul - an initiative for literary and arts workers
Literature and the arts is a soul-casting project, and literary and arts workers are the engineers of the human soul. Every word and every deed by practitioners in the literature and arts world, and in the entertainment circle, has a great impact on society, especially on young people.
Looking back on a century of history, the broad mass of literary and arts workers have obeyed the Party’s instructions and followed the Party. They have been courageous enough to be the early awakeners, pioneers and advocates of the zeitgeist.
Numerous major writers and artists from prior generations, due to the persistent pursuit of their ideals, outstanding artistic achievements and noble moral integrity, have become role models for generations and generations of us literary and arts workers.
In recent times, the entertainment industry has seen a concentration of chaotic situations in which right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, and values have become distorted. The celebrities concerned have overstepped the legal red line, deviated from public order and morality, and violated professional ethics. [Celebrity] “fan circle” culture and the profile of the “sissy” [effeminate men] are temporarily clamorous. The vile influence of deformed aesthetics have shocked society, and the people are discontent.
A small number of practitioners [in the entertainment industry] lack basic education, self-possession and cultivation. After becoming famous overnight, they are held hostage by market capital; there is no bottom line under their feet and no red line in their hearts. Their behaviour has polluted the ecology of literature and the arts. In the end, they are boycotted by the industry, abandoned by the market, and sanctioned by law. This makes one [us] indignant, grieving and deeply reflective.
To be an artist, first, [we] have to be human beings and not forget our [moral] roots. The people have given us the most enthusiastic affirmation, the motherland has given us the strongest backbone, and the Party has given us the firmest self-confidence.
In the face of the current chaos, we cannot turn a deaf ear and remain indifferent. It is our responsibility to build a clean and upright ecology for literature and the arts, to distinguish right from wrong, to start from ourselves and speak frankly. We, hereby, issue this proposal to the broad mass of literary and arts workers:
1. Apply strict self-discipline and always be respectful and cautious. We should firmly establish the rule of law thinking: know the law, understand the law and abide by the law. We must keep clear-headed despite fame and fortune, be respectful and cautious, and act with the bottom line in mind. We must consciously abide by laws and regulations and the requirements of industry self-regulation conventions, remember the red line, guard the bottom line, and actively accept the supervision of society. We must constantly strengthen the sense of social responsibility, awareness of the rules, and dedication.
2. Study diligently and improve the level of cognition. Consciously and actively learn from the people, from books, from life, from [professional] predecessors, from the classics, from the excellent Chinese traditional culture, from the red revolutionary culture and the advanced socialist culture, and from laws and regulations and industry standards. Through enhancing the accumulation of ideas, knowledge, cultural cultivation and artistic training, we must establish correct views on history, nation, state and culture, and constantly enhance our learning, self-possession and cultivation.
3. Put heart and soul into creating, and hold fast to artistic ideals. We should always bear in mind that [art] creation is [our] central task, and artistic works are what defines our worth. We must adhere to a creative orientation that centres on the people, respect the laws [norms] of literary and artistic creation, stay away from impetuousness, focus on the purity of art, and devote more energy and attention to creation. We must always insist on taking social benefit as the first criterion of creation, never be too eager for fame and fortune, never be coarse and indiscriminate in creating, and never rush into the trap of desire to become a “slave to the market”. We must create good works that have depth and strength, morals, and empathy. We must be responsible to the people, responsible to history, and responsible to [our] era.
4. Uphold the original intent and practise both moral and artistic cultivation. We should consciously merge our personal ideals into the cause of the country and the nation, make honouring and pursuing virtue and artistry a lifelong task, promote a new and righteous moral atmosphere, resist harmful trends, and strive for true talent, good moral conduct and high-quality taste. We should doubly cherish the honour bestowed on us by the Party and the people, work harder to practise the Core Socialist Values, and be literary and arts workers of the new era with [the right] faith, sensibilities and commitment.
The new journey to achieve the second centenary goal has already begun. Literary and arts workers are currently fighting side-by-side with the people of the nation in a common struggle. Let’s gather together our power and take action, cultivate ourselves and uphold righteousness, set our hearts [on the purpose] and forge our souls. Let us pass on an excellent culture across the breadth and width of our motherland, realise artistic innovation in the tide of [our] era, and bravely climb the peak of the arts under the Party’s guidance!
Artists who signed the letter of appeal at the site [of the symposium] (in the order of the number of strokes in their surnames):
Ding Liuyuan, Ding Yinnan, Shan Chong, Wang Ge
Wang Beng, Wang Yabin, Wang Xiaoying, Wang Tieniu
Feng Shuangbai, Gulimina, Ye Peigui, Liu Jin
Liu Zhibing, Liu Quanli, Sun Yuanyuan, He Muyang
Wu Weishan, Zhang Ji, Zhang Kelly, Zhang Tiecheng
Zhang Dexiang, Li Ning, Li Ge, Li Jing
Li Xincho, Li Youbin, Du Jiang, Yang Fei
Wang Hailin, Chen Li, Chen Xiaoduo, Chen Mengxin
Chen Daoming, Zhou Dongyu, Shang Hui, Ha Yiqi
Jiang Kun, Liu Jianwei, Hu Zhifeng, Yin Huili
Huang Bo, Cheng Du, Tong Rong Hua, Xie Hailong
Lei Jia, Huo Yong
The “Five-in-One” magnificent chapter (Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era Q&A issue number 36 ) — On the overall layout of the Socialism with Chinese characteristics enterprise
Question 71: Why do we say that literature and the arts cannot lose their way in the tide of the market economy?
On the morning of October 15, 2014, the East Hall of the Great Hall of the People was filled with prominent figures, both old and young. There, General Secretary Xi Jinping presided over a forum on the work of literature and the arts. At the forum, literary and arts workers spoke freely and frankly. One participant was blunt:
There are some works that audiences scold while watching them, and the creators make big money while being scolded. Such works are financially beneficial, but what about the social effects?
In response to the problems in the field of literature and the arts, General Secretary Xi Jinping clearly pointed out:
Literature and the arts cannot lose their direction in the tide of the market economy and cannot deviate on the [answer to the] question of for whom they are made for, or else literature and the arts will lose their vitality.
These words are so powerful that even the deaf can hear them!
Literature and the arts is the clarion call and the ablest representative and leader of the ethos of an era. Driving a great cause and realising a great dream requires a great spirit; the role of literature and the arts is irreplaceable in this regard, and there is great potential for literature and arts workers.
Since the reform and opening up started, China has ushered in a new spring for literary and arts creation. The broad mass of literary and arts workers have followed and contributed to the tide of the era and created a large number of widely popular works of excellence. These works and their creators have made an important contribution to the promotion of China’s spirit and the coalescence of China’s strength.
In 2018, China celebrated the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up in a grand fashion and honoured 100 reform pioneers among whom were many well-known writers and artists. All of them are excellent representatives of our thriving socialist literature and arts.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that there are still problems in the area of literary and artistic creation, including quantity over quality, the lack of masterpieces despite a large pool of excellent works, plagiarism and imitation, works that are stereotypical and repetitive, mechanised production of works, and fast-food style consumption.
Some use their works as “cash cows” in the pursuit of profit; some use them as “ecstasy” for sensory stimulation [for the masses]; some have created cultural “garbage” by making up nonsense, and crude and far-fetched claims, etc.
These phenomena have alarmed us. Although the development of the market economy has created the conditions for literature and the arts to thrive, it is also possible for literature and the arts to lose their way and deviate [from the correct path] in the tide of the market economy. We must maintain the correct direction in developing literature and the arts; we must not be slaves to the market, tainted with the stench of money.
Socialist literature and arts are essentially the literature and the arts of the people. The question of for whom [literature and the arts are created] is a fundamental question, one of principle.
Adhering to the fundamental direction of serving the people and socialism is a basic requirement put forward by the Party on the literary and arts front, and it is also the key to determining the future fate of China's literary and arts enterprise.
The people are the source and well-spring for all literary and arts creation. Once separated from the people, literature and the arts will become uprooted, pretentious and soulless. It is incorrect to think that the people do not understand literature and the arts, or that mass-oriented creations are not in good taste or upscale. The artistic life of all outstanding literary and arts workers originates from the people, and all outstanding literary and arts creations are for the people. General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out that:
"There are a hundred or [even] a thousand ways to create literature and art, but the most basic, crucial and reliable way is to be rooted in the people and in life."
For decades, the Ulanmu Riders [troupe] — the “Red Cavalry of Literature and Art” on the grasslands — braved the wind and snow and cold and heat, used the sky as a curtain and the earth as a stage, rooted in the fertile soil of life, and served the herdsmen and conveyed the message and care of the Party. People affectionately call it “Manai (our) Ulanmu Riders”. The longevity of the Ulanmu Riders shows that the people need literature and the arts, and literature and the arts need the people.
Literary and arts workers should adhere to the creative orientation that puts the people at the centre. They should always follow in the footsteps of the people, open up new grounds with their works, observe the world in its diversity, and synchronise their heartbeats with the pulse of the people. They should insert the joy, anger and sorrow of the people into their works, and aspire to create masterpieces of excellence that will circulate among the people for a long time to come.
Socialist literature and arts is literature and arts that prioritises social wellbeing. A good piece of work should be able to stand up to the evaluation of the people, experts and the market; it should prioritise social effects while also taking into consideration economic factors. For example, Ordinary World, Remember Nostalgia, My People, My Country, Minning Town, etc, are all works that have been critically acclaimed as well as well-received by the audience [in the market].
Under the conditions of a socialist market economy, many cultural products have to realise their value through the market, and of course, economic considerations cannot be completely disregarded. However, economic considerations must come second to social considerations, and when the effects and values of the two are in conflict, economic considerations should be subordinated to social considerations, and market values should be subordinated to social values.
It is the best when excellent works of literature and arts achieve success on ideational and artistic levels as well as being popular in the market[place]. Literary and arts workers should insist on putting social benefits in the first place, and establish correct views on [Chinese] history, nation, state and culture. They should be self-aware in terms of their aesthetic taste, [moral character] style, and responsibilities. They should consciously abide by national laws and regulations, strengthen the cultivation of moral character, and resolutely resist vulgarity. They should cultivate and enlighten minds and guide the moral atmosphere with healthy and positive works of literature and the arts as well as their conduct.
The creation of literature and art is hard creative work, requiring perseverance and determination. In the tide of the market economy, some people have acquired the “impetuous disease”. Some people feel that it is not worthwhile or cost-effective to polish a piece of work over and over again as they can not convert such effort into practical value, or we can say, into RMB, in a timely fashion. Such an attitude will not only misguide the creative process but will also lead to the proliferation of vulgar works at the expense of high-quality works.
The motivation for impetuousness is the pursuit of fame and profit, its manifestation is the dash for quick success. Underlying this is the deviation from the [correct] balance between social and economic considerations. This happens when the logic of capital has eroded the logic of [artistic] creation and when market standards have replaced artistic standards.
In truth, the best works of literature and the arts — those that are truly famous, popular and lasting — have always been made by creators who are not impetuous or merit-seeking; these works are all forged from the heart and soul.
Cao Xueqin finished writing Dream of the Red Chamber after five major versions across a decade. [Novelist] Lu Yao’s tombstone is engraved with the words: “Worked like an ox, gave like the earth.” It is exactly with this spirit of diligence and excellence that good works of literature and arts can be created.
The literary and arts workers should know the great virtues, adhere to the great virtues, and take honouring virtues and artistry as lifelong homework. They should remember that creation is their central task, and their works are what defines their worth. They should be able to endure loneliness and ensure steady minds and merge their artistic ideals into the enterprise of the Party and the people. They shall hold great righteousness in their chests, the people in their hearts, responsibilities on their shoulders, and behold heaven and earth with their pens.
Xi’s idioms and quotations:
[Quote #1] At every major historical juncture in human development, literature and the arts has been able to sound the clarion calls of the era, open up new spaces and spread wisdom, and become the vanguard and guide for epochal change and social evolution.
[Quote #2] If literary and arts workers want to hold high aspirations, then they must have the highest of ideals, and endure hardship and the loneliness that comes with brilliance. Even if the road becomes difficult and that no one appreciates their genius, they should have no regrets for, ultimately, they would come to the wisdom that true artistry requires no popular acclaim.
[Translator’s note: the two Xi quotes above appeared as a section wedges between the rump body of the Q&A and its conclusion. The first quote came from Xi’s speech, made on November 30, 2016, at the concurrent opening ceremonies for the Tenth Congress of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the Ninth Congress of the China Writers Association. The second quote came from his speech at the forum on literary and arts work held on October 15, 2014. This quote is a collage with bits taken from three Song Dynasty poetic lyrics: 《蝶恋花》, 《凤栖梧》and《青玉案·元夕》. In the interest of clarity, I translated it into prosaic English.]
Literary and art criticism is a mirror and a remedy for literary and artistic creation. It is an important force to guide the creative process, increase the number of fine works, improve aesthetics, and lead trends.
What is needed in literary and art criticism is criticism, and not only praise or vulgar flattery. We can not cut out the aesthetics for the Chinese using fabric made from Western theories, and more importantly, we can not replace artistic standards with simple commercial standards, equating literary and art works with ordinary commodities.
We must take good charge of the “steering wheel” of literary and art criticism, grind and maintain the “sharp weapon” that is criticism, praise the good and depreciate the bad, and drain away the turbid and inject the clear.
We must seek truth from facts with respect to literary and artistic quality and standards, and dare to express our attitude towards various undesirable literary works, phenomena and trends, and take a stance on the major issues of right and wrong. We must speak the truth, speak with reason, and create a positive atmosphere for the criticism of literature and the arts.
“The true face of spring is revealed by the numerous shades of violet and red of the season” [is a quote from the poem Spring by Song Dyansty’s Zhu Xi]. A great era calls for great writers and artists. In the face of the magnificent New Era, we have the responsibility to write a new epic for the Chinese nation. The broad mass of literary and arts workers should adhere to the Marxist view on literature and the arts. They shall be the conscientious practitioners of advanced culture and the leaders of social and moral trends.
Let us carry out literary and artistic creation worthy of our great nation and worthy of this great era. Let us strive to reach the peak of literature and the arts in the era of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Illustrations by Katharina Ni
Edited by Yun Jiang