Dao and Reconstruction of Cultural Identity
in Contemporary Chinese Literary and Mass Media Products

By Zuyan Zhou

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 28, no.2  (Fall 2016), pp. 223-284

This essay explores Chinese intellectuals’ efforts to search for inspiration in tradition after the Cultural Revolution. Against the background of two cultural movements that swept Chinese intellectual communities—the Cultural Reflection of the 1980s and the Traditional Studies since the 1990s—it traces the inscriptions of renewed interest in traditional culture in the writings of two groups of intellectuals: scholars of Chinese philosophy, who are constantly alert to the relevance of ancient thinking to modern society, and writers, who endeavor to imbue new ideas into their works to impact culture. In the detailed discussion of three literary and mass media products created in the three decades from the 1980s to 2000s, the author highlights a trend toward philosophical syncretism among Chinese intellectuals in conceiving a “contemporary” Dao.

In Chinese tradition, literati often projected their cultural ideals via the creation of cultural icons, or ideal personalities, of their respective ages. Similarly, the “Dao” evoked in the contemporary art works under discussion is often presented through the characterization of ideal personalities. In “Deaf-mute and His Suona” (1983) the “root searching” writer Han Shaogong creates a “root” human identity, a modern version of the Daoist “natural man,” who is impervious to the indoctrination of leftist ideology, as an ideal personality for the 1980s. In his 1999 film, Shower, Zhang Yang merges the Confucian value of social dedication with the Daoist value of transcendence in molding his cultural icon, the bathhouse owner Old Liu, as an ideal personality for the 1990s. In Dou Dou’s TV drama The Dao of Heaven (2006), the new value system, projected in its title and personified by its hero Ding Yuanying and heroine Rui Xiaodan, cultural icons for the 2000s, not only incorporates Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, but even includes elements from Western individualism. Judging from the changing configurations of Dao in these texts, this study concludes that Chinese intellectuals are moving toward a more syncretic approach in search for enduring values in re-constructing culture.