Westerners have become hyper-aware of China’s remarkable economic growth over the last forty years. Many also know about the dramatic social changes that China has been experiencing during this same period, as a result not only of changes to family life in the face of the (recently-relaxed) one child policy but also of the movement of over half a billion people from the countryside into cities. Less well known, however, is that more recently, as a direct byproduct of those economic and social transformations, China has also been experiencing an enormous efflorescence of popular culture and the arts.
The Shi-Dati summer event at The Broad offered a skillfully curated compendium of some of the most creative pop-culture producers in China today, including hip-hop artists, “underground punk” musicians, mixed-media performance artists, and others at the cutting edge of street culture in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
In August, just before the event opened at The Broad, the Berggruen Institute hosted a salon at the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles to discuss this cultural fete, as well as the political and social cultural context underpinning China’s dynamic creative economy. The panel was hosted by the Director of the Berggruen Institute’s “Transformations of the Human” program, Tobias Rees, and featured the Shi-Dati curators Du Yun (composer and itinerant arts advocate for contemporary Chinese culture) and Sijie Liu (music producer and VP of Modern Sky, a hugely successful Chinese record label) as well as USC professor Stanley Rosen, a specialist on Chinese politics, film, and society. The subject of the salon reflected two of Berggruen Institute’s central commitments: first, to fostering dialog and cultural understanding between China and the West, and second, to exploring new spaces that are opening up beyond the established concepts and institutions in philosophy, politics, and the arts.
A key theme that emerged from the discussion concerned the dynamic mix of different cultural elements that are coming together to energize Chinese popular culture today. On the one hand, there is an almost gleeful uptake of cultural forms from the West — like punk and hip-hop — while at the same time these artists continue to draw on older vernacular Chinese musical and artistic traditions, such as the myriad local styles of Chinese opera. The panelists emphasized that this blending of old and new is particular to this specific moment in Chinese history, as these localized traditions remain still available to young artists who may have been born in big cities themselves and certainly have been avid consumers of global culture, but whose parents were raised without access to global culture, and whose own popular cultural frameworks were most often rooted in regional Chinese traditions and dialects — many of which are rapidly disappearing as China urbanizes and globalizes.
This transitional moment is driving the rich upwelling of today’s popular cultural production in China, as artists appropriate and amalgamate global and local traditions to create wholly original and unique works. Importantly, the concept of “appropriation” doesn’t have the same negative valence in contemporary Chinese popular culture that it often does in West today. This emerging generation of popular Chinese artists engage in an almost gleeful remixing of different forms and idioms, with a playfulness that recalls the happier moments of postmodern pastiche in the West back in the 1990s. Du Yun emphasized that different styles go in and out of fashion very rapidly in China these days: a few years ago neo-folk music was all the rage, but today hip-hop is where it’s at.
The salon also staged a significant discussion of the politics of “underground” cultural production in China. While political controls over popular culture have relaxed a great deal over the last two decades, government censors remain vigilant of anything that smacks of criticism of the political class in China. One thing this means is that the subversive political edge which has sometimes accompanied popular music in the West — from the social protest tradition in folk music to the anti-authoritarianism of punk to the racial critiques offered by rap artists — is often abandoned (or repressed) by Chinese artists who pick up on these styles and rework them for their own ends. With that said, the very visible presence at Shi-Dati of openly queer and pot smoking performance artists like the Asian Dope Boys shows just how much more forbearing the Chinese authorities have become with respect to non-conformism. This in a country that, within the adult lifetime of these artists’ parents, engaged in the brutal social and political repression of difference in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
As in the West, the rise of the social media in China has dramatically changed the process of artistic discovery and promotion in China. China now has more Internet users than the United States, Russia, Japan, and Mexico combined, virtually all of them on government-controlled Chinese social media platforms that are the primary distribution vehicle for popular culture. While Sijie Liu emphasized that her label still searches the streets for emerging artists in the “underground scene,” she also acknowledged that popular artists often go viral on their own via social media. As in the West, emerging Chinese popular artists are highly sophisticated managers of their own online personal brands. She also noted that television talent shows are extremely important in bringing forward new acts in China, perhaps more so than in the West.
Finally, while The Broad experience may represent a breakthrough, the Chinese pop-culture economy remains overwhelmingly nationally focused. Even when Chinese pop-cultural acts take their shows on the road overseas, they still cater primarily to overseas Chinese communities. (This is a significant market: there are 50-60 million people of Chinese descent living outside of China, many with large disposable incomes.) But to date, no major Chinese popular artists have broken through with Western audiences. This may be because the effort isn’t worth it: with an available audience of 1.4 billion in China, why go through the effort of trying to reach foreign audiences who are cut off by language barriers and a lack of feeling for the indigenous Chinese cultural traditions on which these artists draw? Then again, as Professor Rosen suggested at the close of the salon, this national focus might be seen as a missed opportunity for China: it’s not just that reaching an international audience offers a significant market, but also that it affords a kind of global cultural validation and as such represents a potential form of soft power for the cultural producer. From that perspective, the Shi-Dati happening at The Broad represents yet another milestone in China’s remarkable return to the center of world power and cultural authority.