Zha Jianying. 1996. _China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture_. New York: The New Press. Pp. 210. ISBN 1565842502 (pbk).
Zha Jianying captures in this book the ferment – intellectual, artistic and commercial – of China’s post-Tiananmen urban culture industry. She presents a lively mix of reportage, personal revelation, personality profile and ethnographic insight centered on pop culture events and trends in the People’s Republic. Through her focus on creators and consumers, _China Pop_ illustrates people who have “…shed their old skins and picked up new lives.” (p. 7).
China’s developing pop culture industry is media-driven; like its Western counterparts, the industry spans TV, movies, literature, journalism, music, art and more. Zha looks at a hugely successful TV melodrama, Yearnings, and traces how the show was conceived, written and produced (chapter 2). She lays out repercussions the show had on its writers’ and producers’ lives and careers and its effect on China’s TV industry. In “The Whopper” (chapter 5), she shows how money and business combine to corrupt journalists; corruption is so severe, she thinks, that “…most of what the Chinese read in the paper or see on television as ‘news’ these days is little more than paid advertising.” (p. 117). She tackles developments in the movies by contrasting the career trajectories, personalities and works of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, China’s leading directors in the 1990s (chapter 7). Chen directed the 1993 Cannes winner Farewell My Concubine; Zhang is perhaps known best in the west for his Red Sorghum (1987). Zha explores the sensation over author Jia Pingwa’s ribald novel The Abandoned Capital (1993), and describes how readers, critics and state censors responded to it (chapter 6). (Beijing banned the book in 1994 only after sales cooled, pp. 127-8). Her account of the CIM Company, an investment outfit that “…is the first major Hong Kong company that has stepped into the tricky waters of joint venture media and cultural productions with China.” (p. 165), is a tutorial on doing business in China as well as a close look at marketing hot pop performers. Chan Koon-Chung, a former avant-garde Hong Kong publisher who for a time was the CIM point man in Beijing, makes a telling comment: “Both economically and culturally, China looks similar to the Hong Kong of the seventies_so I can see clearly where the market is heading, where China is going to end up. We know exactly what to do and what will work. It’s a huge market and this is an exciting time to be here” (p. 171).
Zha’s book succeeds on several fronts. It is an artfully written commentary on changes sweeping China’s media. The nation is developing a culture of mass consumerism, and the media market and propagate this culture. _China Pop_ documents this. Second, Zha ties her observations and interviews together using a keen sense of what being an urban, hip Chinese in post-Tiananmen China means. Her viewpoint moves adroitly between insider (native Chinese) and outsider (overseas Chinese or huaqiao); the book can be read as an ethnography minus overt theorizing. _China Pop_ is well worth reading as an accessible, intelligent commentary on urban cultural change in the People’s Republic.
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Written more than 12 years ago, Ms Zha, at 34, wrote one of the first books on the effects of popular media in the New New China. Written by a native who later emigrated to the US in her mid-20s for graduate school in Lit, the reader should look at is what is said and just as important what is not said. She emigrated right after Tiananmen incident, which had a great impact on her while attending Beijing U. Her arguments with her father, a researcher at one of the China Academies in BJ, caused a great dichotomy in the family. She believes that “…culture will save China, I (father) believe the economy will (p14).”
As most American readers, we have to filter the official mouthpieces of China Daily, Xinhua, and People’s Daily, which are approved newsources of the China Gov’t. And there are different editions, for Chinese and English consumption. We have to evaluate their points of view for any hidden agenda. And so it goes in the US too, such as the Epoch Times newspaper published in Chinese in NYC publishes a slant critical of the China Gov’t, pro Falun Gong.
Now 46, with a 2003 Guggenheim fellowship under her belt, she has returned to BJ to write more fiction, perhaps break into the movie / TV biz and write a sequel to this book. Her husband, Benjamin Lee, a PhD who has been recently been appointed Graduate Dean of Social Research at The New University, NYC, a 1st gen Chinese anthropologist is also joining her as a mentor and confidant in BJ. His topic of social research is in the field of speculative finance.
Her book, which reads like a novel and easy-to-read multi-layered one like a Tom Clancy novel. Enticingly it gives pomp and circumstance, before delivering a B-school reader in disguise. This book is less about modern Chinese culture as it is about the business of culture. It belies the fact that this serious book is used as required readings at her alma maters, USC, Rice, Chicago, Columbia Chinese culture courses. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have an index to locate people, books, films, and SOEs and there is no bibliography or pixs.
The great thing is that her perspective is part BJ native and part BJ expat that is proper for writing books and giving a more dispassionate view on the evolution of the national media. Shunning the myopic view that changes at first glance at warp speed, she gives an insiders view as case studies, to the three major mass-media venues, TV soaps (Chap 2), movies (Chap 4), pulp fiction (Chap 6), and lastly the media impact from Hong Kong (Chap 7) before its 97 repatriation. Lots of research into the insider interviews by the movers and shakers themselves.
In Chap 2, she profiles the creation of a new TV media, soap operas, and how the National TV propaganda machine changed its tune after seeing the popularity of foreign movies on TV. They needed to popularize the social realities of the New China and give a feminist’s twist to make sure it appeals to the older generation of retired women too. As in all new and risky endeavors, Zha writes about the key five people involve in bringing out a weekly evening soap, Yearning. The sweatshop mentality, impossible deadlines, dedication at low pay, and eventual burnout. And the series viewership exceeded their wildest dreams. Definitely a close-up of a saga that portends the future of Central Chinese TV.
In Chap 3, she profiles the changes in Beijing’s skyline from an architectural viewpoint. She writes about four architects and their futile efforts in instilling cultural preservation and retaining a dignified city. In over 24 pages, she discusses how walls and courtyards previously defined the Chinese family culture and neighborhoods, came down during the Soviet-inspired model city era and the wanton reconstruction of the 80s. And that modern Chinese architecture is now defined in the new Olympic village in northern outskirts of BJ, with the few remaining relics of history left abandoned by modern BJers.
In Chap 4, she profiles two movie-making directors by contrasting their styles and techniques, Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern). Over 25 pages, she mainly talks about the insider’s stories on ego involvement where together they are greater than in competition with each other. She also shows that these expensive cultural epics also drained the State Film industry coffers, such that the succeeding 6th generation of filmmakers had little if any State support for their craft. Fairly shallow discussion on the emerging domestic film industry.
In Chap 6, Ms Zha writes about the insatiable demand for Jia Pingwa’s “The Abandoned Capital,” pulp-fiction for the masses. In 35 pgs, she shows that after Mao there was such a dirth of sex education, that this type of literature was needed in the city by the politburo, scholars, as well as factory workers. She interviews the…
Face it. When it comes to China, most Westerners — especially those of us in the United States — are clueless. That is why ”China Pop” is such an important book, even if it seems, at first glance, to be about a frivolous subject.
Even as many in the US are, for political reasons, demonizing ”Red” China, China is opening up to a greater extent than it has in centuries. (Yes, it still has a long way to go, but it has come a long way from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution.)
”China Pop” is a helpful study of one result of China’s slow opening: the rise of an increasingly Westernized and increasingly commercial popular culture.
The Chinese are already embracing economic freedom. After reading ”China Pop” I have little doubt that freedom of expression is only a generation away.