Trading on Heritage
Xu Zhiyuan 许知远
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
'Trading on Heritage' or, more literally, 'Everything is up for Trade' (Yiqie dou shi keyi jiaohuande 一切都是可以交换的) is an essay by the Beijing-based writer, editor and journalist Xu Zhiyuan. Written in the style of the 'casual essay' (zawen 杂文), it offers a sardonic consideration of commercialised heritage in contemporary China. Xu also observes the uncomfortable truth about popularisers of 'traditional wisdom' like the omnipresent media nanny Yu Dan: that they are more like Party commissars than teachers of the classics. While the author's observations touch on the impact of neo-liberal economic policies on the hybrid authoritarian cultural environment of China in the new millennium, Xu's concerns will daresay also resonate with readers far beyond that country's borders.
This essay was originally published on 30 May 2007. The Chinese text can be found in the author's book Chinese Affairs which appeared in early 2008 (许知远著《中国纪事》, 海口：海南出版社，2008年), or in Xu's blog. I would like to thank the author for his kind permission to publish this translation. For a different consideration and approach to Chinese classics, see 'The Wujing Project' in the New Scholarship section of this issue.
The SMS flashed onto my mobile phone screen along with a flurry of other text messages, including one seeking buyers of contraband cars and another offering to install a GPS system for me. The Chinese love mobile phones. Not only have mobiles generated a global presence for China Mobile and China Liantong, they've also become a way for people to express feelings and display creativity. In the world of the SMS reticence and circumspection are transformed; everything becomes direct, immanent. People can play all kinds of word games on the small screen; sexual, as well as political, jokes proliferate. SMS is, however, a commercial realm, and we are becoming a country of salespeople. Everyone wants to sell you something, or just sell themselves.
Of course, there are countless examples of how the Chinese classics have been bundled with management training programs. There's nothing new about that. Most restaurants specializing in Hunan cuisine boast a portrait of Mao Zedong; everyone knows that the Qianlong Emperor had a fondness for sweet black sesame paste and modern-style furniture. At the Fuzi Miao 夫子庙 temple in Nanjing it only costs 1RMB to be blessed by Confucius.
Walking past the eastern gate of Peking University recently, I was arrested by a brilliant red real estate advertisement promoting 'the First Humanities Office Block of Peking University'. It's as though the tradition nurtured by [leading past Peking University figures such as] Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培, Hu Shi 胡适 and Lu Xun 鲁迅 must now now help boost property values. [The mid-Qing novel, Cao Xueqin's 曹雪芹] Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦 has become like a version of China Idol. Not only can young people emulate Andy Lau [Liu Dehua 刘德华], Jay Chou [Zhou Jielun 周杰伦] and Mariah Carey, they can also compete to be like [the novel's characters] Jiao Baoyu 贾宝玉, Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 and Wang Xifeng 王熙凤. [Note: a nationwide talent contest was held to select actors for a new TV version of the novel directed by Li Shaohong 李少红.] We constantly see husbands and wives crying on TV, as well as mothers and daughters pursuing family squabbles on the airwaves. It is as though tears and suffering should instantly translate into higher ratings… ….
I'm afraid I'm fast turning into a conservative, a grumpy old man who finds fault everywhere. What's wrong with Yu Dan's 于丹 interpretations of Chinese classics, as long as she gets people to go back and read Confucius' Analects 论语 or Zhuangzi 庄子? So what if they have a national competition to find actors for the new TV adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber? It might actually get people to read the novel. Isn't this a way of showing respect for literature? Moreover, what's wrong with TV talent quests like 'Female Super Star' and 'Happy Man', if they give people new insights into democratic voting practices [as voters indicate their acclamation via text message]?
Yet, I'm increasingly aware that such superficial rationalisations entrench a particular attitude: everything is up for sale. No matter what, whether it come from the tradition or belongs to the realm of the private, whether it's part of a value system, or some outstanding historical figure, everything can be traded. Nothing has any unique or ultimate value in its own right. At any given moment, any and everything can be transformed into something else, become some kind of material fodder for commercial exploitation. The 'truth' to which we cleave so fervently today will be just as readily abandoned when some fresh seduction appears tomorrow. We have no fixed beliefs, no principles; these too are but transitory consumer items.
Of course, economically speaking this is emblematic of our tireless 'neophilia', an obsession with the new. Each new wave breaks over the last, subsuming it and itself disappearing in turn. In reality I don't believe that more people will be drawn to Confucius or Zhuangzi just because of the advent of Yu Dan. Her TV persona is little better than that of a political commissar; in fact, she reminds me of my high-school politics teacher. Both in spirit and in style she is closer to the dogmatism of Communism than the moral order of the Confucians or the transcendence of Zhuangzi. Nor do I think 'voting by mobile phone' [for contestants in China TV talent quests] is going to enhance democratic awareness among the masses. Over night this too can become another kind of scam. All you have to do is buy up a string of mobile phone numbers and you can vote numerous times for your favourite contestant with impunity. And, no, I don't really think that young people are suddenly going to find some heartfelt enthusiasm for Dream of the Red Chamber. What they're getting is nothing more than a caricature of literature, a new kind of self-indulgence to lighten their mundane lives. As for the show [to select actors for the TV version of the novel] that claim's to 'reproduce the true sentiment' [of the novel], all that is being inculcated is a voyeurism and second-hand emotion of a kind that we have long been familiar with. Don't forget those businesspeople who pretend to enjoy disquisitions on the Heart Sutra 心经 and Zen Buddhism. It's all just commercial patter. Such discourse provides a cover behind which lurks the impulse to make a deal… … Such a vaunted love of heritage has no realisable value unless it can generate, say, four million sales, one million SMS votes, or a 5% boost in TV ratings.
Maybe this is a viable way to measure China's social achievements and values. Just about every Chinese is a homo economicus; every local government is run like a company; every organization strains to make profit, and that includes universities. They devote themselves to generating material wealth, yet in the process they have no qualms that they are compromising their values and ethics. But, nowadays, values are valuable. The focal point of social activity is the regnant political power that is wedded to a newborn need for economic advantage. There is no other value system that can act as a corrective or mediating force. If people living in such a society as ours suffer anxiety, a sense of loss, fury and insecurity it's because they are at a loss to find their independent significance or a sense of self worth and value—other than being able to make more money or be even more famous.
Our status as homo economicus has delivered us twenty years of enlivening activity and freedom. It's been far more joyous than our previous role as homo politicus [or what could also be called homo sovieticus after Aleksandr Zinovyev]. But aren't we increasingly aware that we want to live in a community, a society, and not just exist in a company? But a community requires trust, security, compassion, literature, art, poetry, and not just stockbrokers, managers, salesmen and pop stars... ... Moreover, we increasingly feel that if we don't have a pluralistic value system it will be difficult to nurture truly creative talent, hard to achieve real technical and commercial innovation. Instead, society will be mired in a homogenous world in which the lowest common denominator holds sway and yet where competition remains fierce. Is this not a reality reflected in the anxiety of today's university students and all of those karaoke singers who strain to become famous?