By Shuyu Kong
Reviewed by Hui Faye Xiao
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2017)
Continuing the scholarly investigation of China’s radical socio-cultural transformation in her Consuming Literature: Best Sellers and the Commercialization of Literary Products in Contemporary China (2004), Shuyu Kong’s latest book, Popular Media, Social Emotion and Public Discourse in Contemporary China, examines the burgeoning cultural public sphere shaped by the widespread use of new media, “including the internet, mobile communications and other social media” (3). In the past few decades, a fast-growing body of scholarship has paid attention to the escalating coverage of new media in contemporary Chinese society and speculated upon its socio-political ramifications. Jürgen Habermas’s ideas of public sphere and civil society have been frequently cited by intellectuals and scholars concerned with China’s democratization. However, Kong’s use of public sphere stretches Habermas’s definition, which tends to emphasize the participatory politics of free-willed rational bourgeois individuals. Rather, this book revolves around a new conception of popular media as a public site of cultural production and participatory consumption as well as a transmitter of social emotions and affects. This innovative approach is much needed for a better understanding of today’s Chinese society, which is experiencing yet another change in the “structure of feeling” as a result of an ongoing post-revolutionary “cultural revolution.”
Kong’s book consists of an introduction and five main chapters. The introductory chapter delineates China’s changing mediascape in recent years with a focus on two prominent trends: the rapid development of a profit-driven entertainment industry and the quick spread of new media. Since the 1990s, the “cultural system reform” (文化体制改革) has instilled a market logic into cultural production and dissemination. Rather than being mainly tools of political propaganda, as they had been under Maoism, cultural products have been redefined as commodities for sale on a “free market” powered by domestic and transnational capital, but one also closely monitored and regulated by the state. As a result of the increasing capitalization and state-sanctioned marketization, cultural production in today’s China faces double censorship: a new profit-oriented commercial censorship and state political censorship, which has received far more attention from the mainstream media in the West. The recent deluge of Chinese TV dramas, blockbuster films, and reality shows attests to the phenomenal expansion of an entertainment industry in which state-owned media conglomerates such as China Film Group (中影集团) and China Central Television (CCTV) have played crucial roles. The seemingly unlikely bedfellows of state and market have put into question the optimistic liberal belief that comprehensive marketization would weaken state power and ultimately bring democracy to China.
But Kong does not indulge in the elitist pessimism about cultural commercialization as a new form of hegemonic oppression that will “amuse us to death,” as Neil Postman famously predicted for the media-saturated American society. Rather, Kong shows how popular media can serve as new venues for public articulation of social engagement and affective communication, particularly given the fact that the formal public sphere is still constrained by censorship. This reading of new media is powerful because it manages to go beyond the conventional binary structures of public vs. private, production vs. consumption, rational vs. affective, and natural (human body) vs. artificial (machinery and technology).
In the following five chapters, Kong borrows the cultural anthropologist methodology of “thick description” to present a handful of fully-contextualized case studies about the changing cultural landscape in contemporary China. The first two chapters focus on the production of sentimentalism in recent media products as a means to offer release for social discontent and therapy for national trauma.
Chapter 1 examines Aftershock (唐山大地震, 2010), directed by Feng Xiaogang, famous for creating the lucrative genre of “new year’s film” (贺岁片). Deviating from Feng’s earlier works, which are peppered with jokes, puns, parodies, political cynicism, and social satire, this “main melody” film re-presents the catastrophic earthquake in 1976 as a visual spectacle (it was filmed and screened in IMAX format) and a tear-jerking domestic drama of an average Chinese family from Tangshan. Drawing from traditional family melodramas, particularly TV dramas since the 1980s, Feng manages to establish an affective link between family reunion and national rejuvenation. Conducting a thorough survey of the production conditions of the film, Kong concludes that the sentimentalization and domestication of the historical trauma is a product of the converged forces of a state agency (the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television), a local government (Tangshan Municipality), and film production companies (the privately-owned Huayi Brothers and the state-owned China Film Group). This type of political and commercial business partnership has become a fairly common practice in the recent restructuring of the Chinese film industry for both profit and political safety.
Whereas in Feng’s case audience tears are channeled “toward a positive emotional identification with the difficult growth of their nation” (36), the recent “dramas of bitter emotions” (苦情戏), which are centered on laid-off female workers, demonstrate a more complicated and ambivalent “affective articulation.” Through a close analysis of the formal features of these TV dramas in Chapter 2, Kong contends that they replace the social problems of the massive layoff of female workers in China’s economic liberalization with touching personal stories of survival through self-entrepreneurization in the roaring market economy. However, Kong does not reduce the Chinese audience to being simply passive “ideological subjects” (p 47); rather, through a nuanced reading of audience responses published in various online forums, Kong argues that despite the efforts of the mainstream media, alternative audience voices can still be heard, voices that re-interpret and re-create the meaning of these TV dramas to articulate their grievances over prevailing social injustice and economic deprivation.
The following two chapters zoom in on popular TV shows that connect individual affect and public discourses. Chapter 3 examines two talk shows produced by Shanghai-based Dragon TV: Magic Cube of Happiness (幸福魔方) and The New Family Mediator (新老娘舅) to demonstrate the ways in which mass media act as an outlet for urban dwellers’ negative emotions accumulated in their domestic disputes and social conflicts. Sharing similar moralistic teachings of conservative family ethics as well as the neoliberal message of self-making, these programs can be called “edutainment” that serves at once pedagogical and commercial purposes.
Chapter 4 focuses on the life politics of the post-1980s (roughly “200 million Chinese born between 1980 and 1989”) and post-1990s (“another 140 million who were born after 1990”) youth through a study of the TV dating show Are you the One? (非诚勿扰) produced by Jiangsu Satellite Television (87). This show has become wildly popular and controversial after some women participants in the show “shamelessly” confessed their strong wish to achieving material wealth through marriage, which stirred up waves of acerbic verbal attacks on these money-worshipping “material girls” by male contestants on-screen and spectators off-screen. Examining the heated online debate around the program, Kong argues that the romance-oriented dating show has become a rare public stage for the younger generation to express their opinions and frustrations in the face of expanding social stratification, cutthroat competition, and an uncertain future. However, this insightful reception study seems to gravitate more toward the urban-based male audience’s perspective, while the voice of the female spectator remains muted.
The last two chapters demonstrate how contemporary Chinese audiences generate new meanings through their participatory consumption and creative appropriation of media culture. Chapter 5 deals with the TV spy series Undercover (潜伏) and its internet fandom. Enthusiastically discussing this show set in the late 1940s, the young post-revolutionary generations often recycle and remix Maoist revolutionary rhetoric with light-hearted jokes, comic cartoons, cynical remarks on current social reality, and, occasionally, nostalgia toward the lost idealism of the Mao era. Capturing this popular trend of sentimentalizing politics, Kong pinpoints a cultural public sphere that is taking shape at the converging point of social affect, creative consumption, public engagement, and the younger generation’s yearnings for new forms of collectivism. Unfortunately, a gender perspective is missing again. Many lively online discussion threads have been devoted exclusively to comparing the three female characters in the show to see who would make the most suitable life partner for the male protagonist’s domestic bliss. This debate mirrors the reconfiguring in the postsocialist cultural imagination of a middle-class domestic space that redefines proper class and gender roles, often demarcated along age lines.
It cannot be an accidental arrangement that the book chooses to start with a case study of Feng Xiaogang and to end with one of Jiang Wen. In many ways, Feng and Jiang form an interesting pair. Feng shows up at the beginning of Jiang’s film Let the Bullets Fly (让子弹飞, 2010), a high-grossing Chinese Western full of wordplay and political allegory. More importantly, the two filmmakers represent two different “survival strategies” in the face of the double censorship system. Whereas Feng opts for domesticating national trauma, as discussed in the opening chapter, Jiang packages his highly politicized film with black humor, cinematic surrealism, and open-ended tropes. Instead of presenting her own reading of Jiang’s film, Kong shows us how the Chinese film audience engaged in an “interpretive carnival” (125) to de-code the audiovisual signs and re-code their new meanings through re-contextualizing the warlord era-set film in the socio-political conditions of postsocialist China.
Kong’s approach to the new participatory politics and meaning-producing practices of media audiences is inspiring, compelling us to ponder questions such as, where does production end and consumption start? However, it would be even more productive if Kong could have tied in her discussion of new media with another prominent trend: the changing mode of viewing characterized by the widespread use of “small screen” mobile devices and the fast-growing online streaming websites. This new trend makes it possible for media fans to watch, re-watch, pause, and take screen shots at will and pay minute attention to each obscure detail within the frame that would normally go unnoticed for spectators sitting at movie theaters or in front of TV sets. This “small screen” mode contributes enormously to the online cinephilia culture and media fandom that are discussed throughout the book. Its mobility and ubiquity not only make any time and place a convenient site for cultural participation, but also further blur the boundary between reality and media, production and consumption, human body and mobile technology. In this sense, this new mode has changed our daily experience with the media-saturated world and also our conception of reality or realism in cultural production.
In addition, there are also a few factual errors in the book. For example, the director of the spy film Qiu xi (2009) is Sun Zhou, and the leading actor is Guo Xiaodong instead of Liu Yunlong (121). And Happy Boy’s Voice (快乐男声) is a show produced by Hunan Satellite Television, not Dragon TV (68).
Overall, Kong’s new book is well-written and neatly organized, based on solid, sophisticated research of some of the most up-to-date and complex case studies. Its style is elegant and accessible. This work joins the expanding scholarship on new media and the public sphere, and it opens up a critical space for further exploration of the interface between cultural production, media fandom, public discourse, and social emotion. As a timely and significant contribution to multiple disciplines, it will engage students, scholars, and general readers interested in China studies, media studies, youth studies, cultural studies, and film studies. The book, or part of it, can be used as a main text in a wide range of classes including contemporary Chinese society, Internet culture, changing communication and new media, civil society and Chinese politics.
Hui Faye Xiao
University of Kansas