Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 4, April 9 -15

Cultural Studies on the Mean Streets of Beijing
by Julian Scarff

Streetlife China
Edited by Michael Dutton
Cambridge Modern China Series (1998)
Available through for US$19.95

Babysitting, migrant workers, consumerism, housing projects, tattoos, prostitutes, criminal slang and Mao cults: these are some of the subjects tackled in Michael Dutton’s anthology Streetlife China.

Dutton is not strictly a Sinologist. He teaches in the University of Melbourne’s department of political science and is co-director of its Institute of Post-Colonial Studies. His book is about Chinese culture but not the Tea and Tang Poetry kind. Dutton has compiled a diverse range of Chinese writings and illustrations, focusing on the ways in which the Middle Kingdom’s masses are adapting to the conditions of the reform-era PRC. Although the book focuses on Beijing, it discusses issues of relevance to all Chinese cities, in particular how people who have been thrown out of the nest of state-sponsored housing and employment are reacting to their abandonment. As the sections on migrant laborers, prostitutes and criminals make clear, being thrown out of the nest is tough but it also permits a new freedom of movement and expression that was unimaginable in pre-reform China. Dutton is interested in the developing unofficial popular culture that exists in the uncomfortable space between Mao’s China of nanny-like work units and reform-era China where people are free to move around, use their own slang and - if they are lucky - find their own jobs . The book also documents the reaction to these trends by the government and particularly by the police.

Sinology and Cultural Studies
Examining popular culture in China is not a new idea. Sinology was once an academic discipline that attracted three types of researcher: interpreters of Chinese politics and economics in the service of foreign companies and governments, specialists in the arcana of Chinese history and traditional culture and, since the 1960s, intellectually dishonest Maoists who used communist China as a model system to be held up with pride to the Western world. Into this morass entered a new breed of Sinologists, spearheaded by Dutton’s fellow Australian academic Geremie Barmˇ. Not only did Barmˇ and some of his peers look at China’s contemporary political and cultural life with a hard-nosed realism gained from living in China during the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution, they also did so with the tools of a new approach to the study of people and their culture, a field now known as cultural studies.

Cultural studies is an academic discipline that is always trying to escape the academy. Avowedly anti-elitist and streetwise, the extent of cultural studies’ achievement, both large and small, has been to use the devices of psychoanalysis, literary theory, anthropology, ethnography and the like - previously applied to high culture or the practices of Ōprimitive’ foreign peoples - to instead study contemporary popular culture. But over-reaching and theoretical self-indulgence are major occupational hazards in this postmodern discipline. Although some cultural studies texts stick to an empirical description of their subject, making the odd theoretical observation, an increasing number are philosophical musings with the most tenuous of connections to reality, or "reality" as cult studs are fond of calling it. Even in the second type, there is a chance of finding some truth amid all the voodoo - if you can allow yourself to read the material more like poetry than reportage. Examples of this include a treatise by Umberto Eco, the Italian literary critic and author of The Name of the Rose, on the ideological impact of wearing blue jeans. Most of the articles contained in Streetlife China are less theoretical - straight accounts of Chinese pop cultural fads and contemporary lifestyles written by Chinese commentators in the last two decades, but the Chinese sources are framed by short, theory-heavy essays of the second kind written by Dutton himself.

Tattoos and Mao Badges
The book’s section on tattoos offers a good example of the anthology’s style and some of its insights. Xu Yiqing and Zhang Hexian in their 1988 book on tattoos and Gao Jian in his 1993 article on the subject, chart the history and breadth of social influence of the tattoo in China. Xu and Zhang refer to a Tang dynasty (618-907) account of kun ÷’ (bald-headed criminals) with fuza ·žŌś (tattoos) on their arms who would fight, carry out armed robberies and "coil around saloons like snakes and use sheep’s bones to attack and rob patrons." A magistrate serving in Guizhou in the same period used to threaten minstrels at banquets with the tattooed jaws of a snake which gaped between his thumb and forefinger and continued on down the entire right side of his body. Yue Fei, a legendary hero from the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) was tattooed by his own mother with a four-character phrase which read: energize, be loyal to and protect the nation. Shi Jin, a character from the classical novel Water Margin had nine dragons on his back, also known as "the nine lines of the dragon of Shi Jin."

Jiang Fuyuan’s report "Survey of Criminal Tattoos and How the Situation Should be Rectified" records the number and variety of tattoos on inmates in Hubei province’s labor camps and prisons. The detail and range of the information collected is of the sort that only a Chinese statistician could ever hope (or wish) to compile. Of the 7,200 found tattooed, we learn among other things that 1334 or 18.4 percent are marked with sword or knife motifs, 1369 or 19 percent are convicted thieves and that the majority - 4092 or 56.8 percent - are "unenlightened, spiritually empty or seeking spiritual stimulation."

Dutton himself discusses the traditional belief that a person’s body is not their own but merely on loan from their ancestors. For that reason, to be tattooed is to shame one’s family - a grievous consequence made use of by the Emperor’s magistrates in the Ōink punishment’ or the tattooing of criminals. Dutton suggests that tattoos are a sign of personal rebellion and a general mark of the excluded, but does not comment on the broader social and political implications of the survey findings in Gao Jian’s essay which show that 7.6 percent of Chinese students at tertiary level have a tattoo.

In the sections on the Mao craze of the late 1980s and early Ō90s and the influence of commercialism in reform-era China, Dutton takes up a more active commentating role. Before 1969, it is estimated that as many as 4.8 million badges bearing Mao’s image were produced in over 100,000 different designs. Almost a quarter of a century later in 1993, after the near wholesale rejection of the Chairman’s policies, 3.5 million cassettes of his Cultural Revolution anthem The East Is Red (disco mix) were sold and over 11 million prints of his portrait were made. Mao’s image was fetishized and attributed with powers of supernatural protection. Zhou Jihou, reporting from a busy intersection in Xi’an on a spring afternoon in 1992, counted that 193 of the 214 vehicles stuck in traffic, and later 204 of the 326 passing by, had a Mao portrait hanging in their window.

As a general phenomena, Mao’s image seemed to be replicating and fragmenting into a myriad of alternative personalities and icons: Mao the young rebel; Mao the mystic sage; Mao the austere and resolute leader; Mao the dimple-cheeked sensualist. Dutton seizes upon this as proof of a nascent pluralism in Chinese society and one that threatens the Communist Party’s attempts to control the dominant ideology: "The Party must now fight for ownership of [Mao’s] body and image so that it can have a chance at Ōownership’ over the collective soul."

But where’s the fighting? Which way to the front Mr. Dutton? Rather than being an icon around which alternative notions of history or politics have developed, the Chairman’s image is so flexible that he can hang from a xiali rear-view mirror, a gallery wall, or over Tiananmen without any apparent contradiction.

Bagging on Barme
Dutton’s attack on Chinese pop cultural Sinologist Geremie Barmˇ is also rather heavy-handed. Barm wrote an essay in 1994 that expressed his reservations about the seemingly quite conscious marketing by Mainland artists and media entrepreneurs of a "dissident label"; a style and content that expressly appeals to foreigners’ fantasies about artistic rebellion and integrity in the PRC. Dutton’s knee-jerk response assumes that Barmˇ is attacking a sacred cow of cultural studies, namely that something commercial can still be politically subversive. Barmˇ clearly accepts that there is some truth in this: in his 1995 book Shades of Mao on the reform-era Mao craze (which Dutton’s Mao section in Streetlife China mirrors but fails to mention), Barmˇ comments on the use by a Hong Kong clothes designer of Mao images created by Zhang Hongtu; the clothes are products of the highly commercial fashion industry but they are as provocative as anything produced by Mainland-based artists.

What Barmˇ was alluding to in his earlier article and in his most recent work on the adoption of corporate marketing strategies by the Communist Party (which recently changed the name of its ideological branch from the Propaganda to the Publicity Department), is that commercialism goes both ways, or rather just as in a Beijing street, the way that the largest mover wants to go. In the Chinese commercial and media economy, the Party remains the biggest mover. So even if alternative expression is possible, it is always in danger of being censored or co-opted by the Party. This more complicated situation is not something Dutton’s arguments seem to have taken into account.

In his preface, Dutton describes how Streetlife China evolved from a fairly empirical work on the Chinese police toward a cultural studies orientation. The book is an excellent resource for comment on contemporary Chinese culture by contemporary Chinese writers. But in terms of the opinions offered on the possibilities of pop culture, Streetlife China is overburdened with a new convert’s strident enthusiasm and lack of circumspection.

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