Transnational China Project Sponsored Commentary:
"Diverging Cultural Values in Contemporary China"

Wang Meng Photo at 3/11/98 Talk at Baker Institute

Talk by Wang Meng, Writer and Former Minister of Culture, PRC,
James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University
March 11, 1998
(Translation by Zha Jianying)

How wonderful it is to be here! It's my first trip to the South of the United States. Since 1980, I have visited this country seven times. I have talked many times and to many audiences. I talk about Chinese contemporary literature, the cultural situation in China, and a variety of other topics. I feel confident to discuss these subjects because I have had so many experiences in China. I have been and I like being a professional revolutionary. I have been labeled a rightist and I had to keep silent for more than two decades. I have also been a high government official and served as the Minister of Culture for more than three years.

In all of these settings I have met a great range of people. Among them there were political leaders, prisoners, intellectuals, real or not-so-real dissidents, farmers, members of national minorities and so on. The titles, positions and the identities in my life have come and gone. But one thing has never changed. I mean that I was a writer, I am a writer, and I will always be a writer. I want to be a good writer and hope that I can serve as a witness to life in contemporary China. I want my writing to preserve a memory of modern China. I believe that I know China well. I have never been so sensitive or so angry that I lost my objectivity. I have never become so exited or so optimistic that I believed political or social dreams would become true immediately. I doubt that I can save China simply by writing fictions, but I can do my best to reach the reader's soul and save my self in the process. I hope my readers and I in our communication through writing can become more kindly, more wise, more sober, more farsighted. China is my home, my motherland, my subject and my object, my goodness, my badness, my sadness, my happiness, my soul and my body. Writing is the way that I choose to make concrete this relationship.

My experiences have followed the course of new China since 1949 and I think that I have kept my objectivity through it all. What is more, I think I as a reasonably good speaker I am comfortable when I describe the complex picture of a changing, developing China.

 In 1986 when I took part in the 48th International Pen Congress, a gentleman asked me: "How can you Chinese writers write? People say that in China every book must examined by the government." I smiled and I asked him: "Do you know how many types of books are published in China each year? About 90,000 new titles come out every year. If all books were examined by the government, then the entire government, all of the ministries, including the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Finance, and Public Security would all have to stop their work and all Chinese officials and staff members would need to concentrate all their energy on reading, reading, and reading the thousands of manuscripts that are produced by Chinese publishers. From January to December, from this year to next year, they couldn't do anything else but read, read, read. If this was the case, the entire Chinese apparatus of state would disappear and be replaced by a "Chinese reading club." How wonderful this would be!

Once at a conference in Beijing a foreign visitor asked me: "How is it possible that in your China, the literature and art is directed by the Communist Party?" I answered: "To you this seems impossible, but for us, it's our reality, it's our daily life. Not just literature and art but also the Qingdao beer and the Laoshan mineral water that you are drinking are also produced under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. She replied: "Yes, I understand." This conversation occurred in 1986 but now, in 1998, some things have changed dramatically.

My purpose is not to tell you that everything is OK in China. We all know how hard it is to accomplish important and good transformations in China. In the process of seeking change we have to face problems, troubles, and pain. We know this deeply and clearly. But I hope you will pay attention to the fact that we Chinese writers and intellectuals have had a rich experience in our country since 1949 and are trying to do our best as changes continue. Indeed, we did do our best in the past and we know the way to do our best in China. We do not need to be instructed too much about the life of our society because we are part of the fiber of the society. It is worth paying attention to the fact that Chinese, especially Chinese intellectuals know the basic facts about our society all too well. A, B and C are clear to us; we need to go on to examine E, F and G.

But at this moment things seem quite different. China itself is becoming different with every new day. Some things, of course, stay the same but other parts of the social picture now vary quite drastically from the past. The Chinese society of 1998 is a mixture of elements; some are static while others shift in swift currents of change. In the past I could generalize about Chinese life with some confidence. Today that confidence has been shattered. You can make any number of statements about China and they are all true: Things are good, things are bad; China is quite developed, and yet also underdeveloped. China has so many luxury hotels, malls, department stores, and restaurants. You can buy everything that you can find in stores in the United States. A German friend told me that she thinks China is not a developing country but a developed country. And yet at the same time, it is also possible to say that China is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Chinese government recognizes that there are more than 50 million people in China who do not have enough to eat. Both pictures of China are right. There is both luxury and poverty. You could say that personal freedoms are greatly limited in China. That is true. And in this respect it is not difficult to criticize China. But if you understand the pattern of history you might also say that this the best period in China's life as a society. I mean that it is the best period in hundreds of years of recent history. This is not only my personal opinion, but also that of the former US ambassador in Beijing, Stapleton Roy, who drew a similar conclusion in a speech four years ago. Today the Chinese people enjoy a peaceful existence and the quality of life is steadily improving.

I would like to tell you a joke about Chinese freedom. A Singaporean friend told me about a funny experience he had some years ago when he traveled in China. When he was obliged to spend some time in the Beijing Airport he was greatly disturbed because there were so many smokers. He hates smoking deeply and was outraged when he saw people, even members of the airport staff, smoking everywhere and even under a sign that said "No Smoking." He felt very unhappy because there was no place he could breathe freely. It was impossible to find a place with fresh and clean air. Finally, however, he did find a place in the airport where there was neither smoke nor people. Where do you imagine this fantastic place was? Why, of course, it was in the lounge where smoking was permitted. My Singaporean friend's conclusion was that the freest people in the world are the Chinese: In China people possess legal freedom, they can smoke in a smoking room set aside for them, and can also enjoy their illegal freedom by smoking everywhere else.

Returning to the topic of literature, there are so many debates, discussions, and critical views. Who is right and what is correct? At the beginning of the 1990s, the novelist Wang Shuo became very popular. In Shanghai an opinion poll in which people were asked to select the writers they liked best was given. The result was that the No.1 novelist was Jin Yong, a Hong Kong writer who is famous for his many gongfu novels. No. 2 was the great writer Lu Xun who after 1949 obtained a position so high that he seemed to be the spiritual leader of all Chinese intellectuals. But the No.3 writer was Wang Shuo whose specialty is humor. He makes fun of everything. In the past politics, love, sex, ideology, commerce, the Soviet Union and the States have all been the subjects of his jokes. He has a new attitude and always feels there is something funny in China's general situation. One of his novelistic heroes is famous for the saying: "I am a rascal; who should I be afraid of?"

Wang Shuo has also written that in the past there were a lot of rascals among writers while nowadays there are so many writers among the rascals. Wang's works have enjoyed great commercial success. And yet many good quality writers hate him strongly. They say Wang is the true rascal: He is mean-spirited, lowbrow, and quite degenerate. They think Wang is an insult to Chinese literature. This opinion has sometimes been shared by the state. Once one of Wang's jokes so offended leaders of propaganda and ideology that he almost disappeared from view. I have been blamed a lot because I tried to say some words in defense of Wang. The result was that many talented young writers--all of them my friends-- felt angry and attacked me.

Jia Pingwa's novel The Abandoned Capital also has a remarkable story. Jia published this novel in 1993. In it he described all of the hopeless feelings in Xi'an. He wrote: The earth is the "abandoned capital" of universe, China is the "abandoned capital" of the earth, and Xi'an is the "abandoned capital" of China. There is a lot of sex in this novel and many concrete details; so concrete, in fact, that not only the leaders but a lot of good quality writers were so angered that they criticized Jia sharply and harshly. Female writers especially thought that Jia's novel was a serious affront to women. But recently Jia got a famous prize from a French prize committee of feminist critics. All good quality Chinese writers are confused. One Chinese professor said she thinks the French are simply intrigued by strangeness. Anyway, Chinese good quality writers reject Jia's Abandoned Capital.

In China we always say we are constructing socialism with Chinese characteristics. But what are Chinese characteristics? I'll try to tell you something about this. Since my first trip to America in 1980 the relationship between China and the United States has developed rapidly. In recent years as I have visited various American universities I have seen many faculty dining halls where they attempt to make Chinese food. But what does the cook mean by Chinese food? They have no training in Chinese cooking but imagine that they can throw into the wok and mix together chicken, pork, tomatoes and potatoes, peppers and chili sauce and vinegar, doufu and beans, and that this is Chinese cooking. While it is true that one of the secrets of Chinese cooking is mixing things together, the mixing follows certain fixed rules. For the American cook of Chinese food, mixing substances used by Chinese chefs but without the rules makes a dish Chinese. In China, we face a similar situation as many things, Western and Chinese are also mixed together in a random way. Political forms and economic models, ideologies and commercial interests, socialism and capitalism, and even feudalism are all blended and mixed together in China. Since this is the case, generalizing is hard--particularly to generalize in a correct or comprehensive way. Nonetheless, I will try to draw some conclusions about contemporary Chinese intellectuals.

In this part of the talk I will introduce the debate over values brought about by China's rapid transition. What kind of modernization should we look for? What is the mission of the intellectuals in this process of rapid social transition? Indeed, what is the significance of the enlightenment discourse for us? Why are there so many disputes in print in recent years among Chinese literary circles and the field of the humanities? In particular, I will introduce a new radical trend which has become popular over the past few years, and which is characterized by its criticism of modernity.

Conflicting interpretations of value systems in a period of transition. Many new conditions and problems have emerged in China where a rapid transition is taking place. How should intellectuals respond to them? Opinions vary greatly. Since the mid-1990s, a fairly radical new trend of thinking has emerged. Its proponents emphasize the loss of "humanistic spirit" (ren wen jing shen) in an environment of a rapidly developing market economy, criticize the secularization of the masses, and especially that of the intellectuals, and call for a resistance against surrendering to the market. They also criticize the negative effects of science, technology, and industrial development. They criticize Western-centralism, and the global homogenization of the economy. They expose the Chinese mentality of worshiping the West to the point of becoming a tendency to be ready to serve as traitors and collaborators.

They criticize the negative influences of mass culture and mass media, especially television. They demand an elevation of the spirit, spiritual life, and the position of intellectuals. They demand that intellectuals stick firmly to their own elite position and their critical mission.

This trend of thinking has developed and reached relative maturity in the late 1990s. Their basic views are the following:

1. Elements of capitalism are increasing in Chinese society. The present social evils come mainly from the innate contradictions of capitalism, not from Soviet-style planned economy or residuals of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. The main task of the intellectuals should be criticizing capitalism and transnational capital, not hard-line leftists or the Cultural Revolution which, along with autocracy, have become so totally outdated and irrelevant that only those white-haired old court ladies trapped in the glories and horrors of a great dead emperor could be obsessed with them.

2. There is a need to sort through and criticize all the concepts and ideas that intellectuals have pursued over the past century: modernization, enlightenment, science, democracy, the emancipation of the individual, the legal system and the rule of law, and all the way to liberalism, tolerance, and the development of productive forces, because all of these belong to the ideology of the international bourgeoisie and serve their interests, i.e. the interests of transnational corporations. Many of these concepts are part of colonial discourse. Furthermore, the realization of modernization has not brought China ideal happiness and justice.

3. Criticizing the Euro-centrism of culture. Criticizing the May Fourth Movement for its acceptance of Western colonial discourse which led to the disruption of Chinese cultural tradition, and in turn caused the general loss of values and cultural roots, as well as the complete loss of language in culture. They demand a strengthening of consciousness in the self-orientation of Chinese culture.

4. Criticizing the commercialization of cultural production and communication; criticizing kitschification (or the tendency to cater to vulgar taste) and de-elitism; stress the inevitability of the fragmentation of the intellectual elite; criticizing the wholesale, vulgar nature of mass culture and how it is part of bourgeois ideology.

5. Demanding a more correct evaluation of Mao Zedong's thought and practice in his late years, a more correct evaluation of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard movement. For the first time after Deng's death, articles promoting the idealism of the Red Guards have appeared in print.

6. Calling for the establishment of a firm consciousness of the ordinary people (which is the opposite of the masses) and an unofficial popular stance; demand to be the spokesman for the poor and oppressed; demand a reanalysis of China's class structure and criticize middle-class tendencies among the intellectuals.

Some of the proponents of these views belong to the generation that grew up during the Cultural Revolution, especially the writers among them. Others are scholars in the humanities who have returned to China in recent years after completing their studies in Europe and the USA. At the present, their voices and the debate over these topics have a limited reach, but they are an energetic core group in the present sphere of humanities, and their views have won much applause from many of those who have benefited relatively little in the course of reform and openness and are troubled by the new social ailments.

The main intellectual sources of this trend:

1. Western Marxism, the Frankfurt School, Eisenstadt's theory of modernization; the critique of science by Horkheimer and Marcuse; the critique of capitalism by Ardorno and Habermas.

2. Cultural patriotism; Chinese intellectuals' century-old complex about national culture, their emotional need and the pragmatic necessity of finding a path that is different from that of the West.

3. Post-modernism. From Chinese practice and European/American theories, the Chinese intellectuals have increasingly realized that modernization is not the panacea for all problems. They even doubt whether it is the best solution.

4. The idealism of classical socialism. The long heritage of leftist trends.

5. Mao's anti-system thoughts, especially the spiritual forces of the Red Guard movement. Mao's efforts to take a development road that is different from the Western countries are once again affirmed; even the attempt to link Mao with post-modernism has attracted people's interest.

The favorable conditions for the development of this trend:

1. They have been able to uphold the banner of independent criticism without conflicting with certain basic propositions of Marxism and Maoism, sometimes even echoing these propositions.

2. They have a sense of justice in their mission to help the common people (wei min qing ming).

3. The brand-new banners of post-modernism and "Western Marxism" have the appeal of a new trend.

4. China's reform and openness deepen daily and encounter new difficulties daily. The complexities and unromantic nature of the consequences of reform and openness.

Criticism and worries for this new trend of thinking:

Its analyses and conclusions smack of wishful thinking on the part of its proponents, including a moralistic idealism or utopian socialism that is cut off from the course of history; they have neglected and avoided the most prominent issue in Chinese society: its non-modern and pre-modern conditions; there is a sense of empty talk lacking in constructive contributions.

Chinese intellectuals in the field of the humanities have entered a new round of discussion, confusion, debate and exploration, which shows their efforts in forming their own value system. This effort is very important and will take a long process to reach fruition. Chinese intellectuals often find themselves in a situation of conflict with the mainstream of society; they also often find themselves in a situation of adjustment. Thus, some adjust themselves to circumstances while adopting a confrontational attitude, others act confrontationally while giving the appearance of adjusting; the adjusted condemn the ill-adjusted, while those in conflict condemn those who are not. The violent charges against one another by Chinese intellectuals have often gone beyond the boundaries of rules allowed for such debates. On the one hand, this shows that Chinese intellectuals are ahead of their times in their thinking and pursuits, and this makes it possible to truly bring about a state of "Let one hundred flowers bloom, and one hundred schools of thought contend," and also to a certain degree a pluralistic coexistence of value concepts and cultural goals. On the other hand, it shows this group's immaturity, rashness, and its lacking in a solid foundation of knowledge, ideas, and rationality. Because of this, it will be difficult for it to become a force that will make more contributions to social transition and development. 


NOTE: Translated and Transcribed from English/Chinese Text and Audio Tape by Zha Jianying. Contact Zha Jianying at