Xi Jinping on What’s Wrong with Contemporary Chinese Culture

At the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art last October, President Xi Jinping spoke to a high-level audience of arts professionals about the role of arts and culture in China. The event, along with excerpts of the October 15, 2014 speech, given in Beijing and titled “Talks at the Forum on Literature and Art Work,” were widely reported, but Xi's full remarks were not released publicly until last week, when Xinhua first published them. 

Xi’s speech serves as a reminder that the control of arts and culture continues to preoccupy China’s leaders, and that freedoms gained through market reform are still subject to control. The speech would have been widely circulated among the official cultural organizations that sent representatives to last year’s forum, including the China Film Association.

Xi quotes Mao as well as Lenin and Marx. Mao’s calls for “revolution” are replaced by Xi’s emphasis on “rejuvenation” or “restoration” of Chinese culture as a global force able to hold its own with the rest of the world, particularly the United States. Xi acknowledges that the trend of globalization in the arts cannot be reversed, but asserts that at least within China it can be managed and controlled.

Xi’s words should embolden those who aim to fill Chinese media outlets with patriotic content, such as the producers of an upcoming 45-episode television series depicting life in the rural Chinese village where the Chinese president spent much of the Cultural Revolution. As illustrated in the case of recent allegations of practices involving ticketing price fraud to favor a homegrown patriotic war film over a Hollywood import, market-driven entertainment may find itself losing out when nationalistic content takes precedence. In a similar vein, the Chinese president’s speech could pave the way for new restrictions on imports of foreign entertainment in China.

Below, China Film Insider has translated a selection of passages from Xi’s speech “Talks at the Forum on Literature and Art Work,” which could have a particular bearing on Hollywood’s role in China.

Striking out at Vulgar Popular Culture

Since reform and opening, our nation’s arts have ushered in a new springtime, with the creation of a great many of acclaimed works. At the same time, it cannot be denied that, from the perspective of artistic creation, we have quantity over quality…and problems of plagiarism, imitation, stereotypes and repetition, assembly-line production, and fast-food consumption. Some works ridicule the sublime, warp the classics, subvert history, or defile the masses and heroic characters. In others good and evil cannot be distinguished, ugliness replaces beauty, and the dark side of society is over-emphasized. Still others blindly chase and cater to public tastes, vulgar interests, chase financial gain, and provoke the “ecstasy” of the senses. Others churn out baseless works of shoddy quality and make irrelevant comparisons, creating a kind of cultural “garbage,” while others pursue luxury…flaunt wealth and ostentation, and emphasize external appearance over content. There are also those obsessed with the so-called “art for art’s sake”… who remove themselves from the masses and reality. All of these should be a warning to us: the arts must not lose their direction within the trend of the market economy, they must not deviate on the question of whom they are for, otherwise art will have no vitality.

On the Fickleness of Contemporary Culture

In discussions with several people in the arts, I asked what was the most obvious problem in the arts. Without prior discussion, all brought up the same word: fickleness. Some feel that if you cannot realize a pragmatic value in a work of art or make money out of it… it’s not worth it. Not only can this type of attitude mislead the creative process, it can also allow vulgar works to become very popular, letting the bad money drive out the good. As the history of human artistic endeavors makes clear, shortsightedness… and creating shoddy works is not only a kind of injury to the arts, but also a kind of injury to the moral life of society. Entertaining the simple sense organs will not equate to a happy spirit. The arts must win the people’s approval, fancy but ineffectual work is not acceptable and egotistical self-promotion is not acceptable…

The Market Value of the Arts is Secondary to Social Value

Compared to social benefits, economic benefits are secondary. If a conflict arises between the two…, economic benefit must be subservient to the social benefit, and market value must be subservient to social value. The arts cannot be a slave to the market, they must not be covered in filthy lucre. When it comes to outstanding works of art, it is best if they first achieve success in terms of ideology and art, and subsequently are welcomed by the market. The ideals of aesthetics and the independent value of art must be maintained, and while we cannot neglect and ignore indicators such as distribution, ratings, click-through rates, box office gross, and others, we also cannot prioritize these indicators and be led by the market.

A Conservative and Patriotic View of Arts

Contemporary arts must also take patriotism as a theme, leading the people to establish and maintain correct views of history, nationality, statehood, and culture while firmly building up the integrity and confidence of the Chinese people.

Arts Must Not Chase After the Foreign

If we treat the foreign with reverence, treat the foreign as beautiful, only follow the foreign, take overseas prize-seeking as the highest goal, blindly following and unsuccessfully impersonating others… there is absolutely no future! In fact, foreigners have also come to us seeking inspiration and source materials, with Hollywood making Kung Fu Panda, Mulan, and other films using our cultural resources.

On the Need to Sanitize Foreign Art Forms

After reform and opening, our country widely studied and borrowed from the world’s arts. Nowadays, circumstances are still the same, and many art forms arise from overseas, such as hip-hop, breakdance, etc., but we we should only adopt them if the masses approve of them, while also endowing them with healthy, progressive content.

Foreign Films Stimulate the Domestic Industry

Nowadays the world is an open world, and the arts must also compete in the global marketplace, and without competition there is no vitality. For example, in the realm of film, which is experiencing market competition, foreign films have not defeated our domestically produced films, but have stimulated our domestic film production to raise its quality and standards, to develop in the midst of market competition, and possess even greater competitive power.

On the Need for Greater Control of New Art Forms

When it comes to the production and distribution of traditional arts and culture, we have a set of relatively mature organizational systems and management measures in place, but for new art forms we still lack effective management methods and techniques. In this matter, we must catch up and work hard to come to a resolution. We must deepen reforms, improve policies, and establish robust systems in order to create quality products and develop talent.