Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 12 November 2007

Zhu Dake 朱大可 on the “etatist aesthetic,” violence, and the image of the rascal

Caroline Grillot and Zhu Xiaolong gave me an interesting book, 流氓的盛宴by Zhu Dake 朱大可. Although the book was published last year by New Star Press (新星出版社)in Peking, its highly critical view of Chinese cultural production is remarkably similar to Geremie Barme’s (whom he cites). Its main focus is the so-called “hooligan/rascal” (流氓) theme, but Zhu, a University of Technology Sydney PhD and now a professor at Tongji University in Shanghai (according to the blurb on the book, “被认为是中国最优秀的学者和批评家之一”!) treats in conjunction with rather than just in opposition to the “etatist discourse” (国家主义话语) and the “state aesthetic” (国家美学) in post-Mao Chinese literature and art.

Zhu deals extensively with the trope of violence in literature and art, but more importantly in language, something quite central for the topic of this site. He traces terms such as fandong 反动(“reactionary”), dadao 打倒 (“down with”) back to the May Fourth and New Culture movements of the 1920s and ’30s, when they were of course used against traditionalists.

Zhu also devotes much space to the rise of the totalising nationalist (or statist) aesthetic, beginning with the 1980s. He notes that the CCTV’s Spring Festival gala (which I talk about in the chapter “On Language”) has since 1983, when it was first broadcast, replaced literature as the definitive stage for this state aesthetic, from which people are supposed to take the cue for the current language. Its female-male host pairs , especially the early pair Zhao Zhongxiang – Ni Ping (赵忠祥、倪萍) have embodied the “warm father” and “loving mother” of the nation (p. 38). Zhu, clearly influenced by the Australian school of Chinese cultural studies (Barme, but perhaps also Wanning Sun), believes that the etatization of language and aesthetics has been very effective, to the point that Chinese audiences are unprepared to accept subversive discourses. Zhu argues that when Wang Shuo 王朔, the best-known “hooligan” writer who still retains a maverick persona (despite being well entrenched and popular; see the last chapter of China Can’t Stop Saying No), wrote the script for the super-popular 1990 TV series Expectations 渴望, his message of subversive cynicism was widely misunderstood by viewers craving for a new set of ethical norms as a moral tale (p. 40). Conversely, Zhu draws a line from the popular 1980s martial-arts novels to the 1990s essays of Yu Qiuyu (which he classes as imperial nostalgia, but see Yu Qiuyu’s latest utterances against kneejerk nationalism in the last chapter of this site!) and to the 2000s film aesthetic of Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which he calls a fascist aesthetic of physical beauty and obedience to the masses, reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl. (He suggests, however, that Hero conveys more than just the message of statist nationalism and “stability above all”; it also gestures towards the new American obsession with security and anti-terrorism.

 Zhu identifies three areas of art that have not succumbed to the “etatist aesthetic:” performance art (which, he says, has retreated to navel-gazing after being subjected to ridicule by mainstream audiences);  documentary filmmaking (which survives on Western funding); and architecture. Architecture is what provides for Zhu a ray of hope: city image designers have abandoned the project of putting “Chinese-style” roofs on skyscrapers, which they pursued in the 1990s (there used to be even special committees for vetting roof designs!) and which Zhu unequivocally identifies as a statist-nationalist project, and instead opened up to the cosmopolitan aesthetic represented by Koolhaas’s CCTV Tower and the Olympic structures in Peking.

Zhu only analyses texts, so he does not offer an explanation for the tenacity of this aesthetic. But the book itself is testimony to the diversity of public voices in China and to the remarkable degree of freedom that academic-style writing can get away with — or the remarkable inconsistence of censorship. Zhu doesn’t mince his words: he calls what he describes as the spontaneous outbursts of joy after 9/11 that both intellectuals and rural workers joined in the “danse macabre of the ‘patriots'” (p. 299). (This and other events he mentions, like the attack on the American consulate in Chengdu after the bombing of the Chinese embasssy in Peking in 1999, are of course events never reported in China — and yet Zhu got away with including them in the book.) Just like during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, “etatism,” he writes, uses nationalism but is also afraid of it getting out of control; it differs from the latter in that etatism wants to reserve power to an elite, whereas nationalism wants to extend it to all “patriots.” But the state during the Boxers was a dying dynasty, he continues — and stops short of drawing the obvious parallel to today’s government. Calling Zhang Yimou, a celebrated state artist, a fascist is apparently okay, as long as it is not stressed that he is a celebrated state artist…

Zhu’s book is a very complex and extensive anamnesis of contemporary Chinese cultural politics, and it does not have once central argument (apart, perhaps, from the dialectic between the “etatist aesthetic” and the “rascal aesthetic”). Unlike Zhou Yongming, Zhu sees the cultural landscape as almost entirely enveloped by the mesh of China’s brand of state  capitalism, with little room for independence, and he links the prevalence of nationalism in art to this and to the powerful trope of violence rooted in 20th-century Chinese history — a view quite close to that taken on this site.

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