09 April 2012

‘Worse than’ - and in part because of - ‘the Cultural Revolution’

Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre head Tian Qing 田青

Via China Study Group, an interview of Mr Tian Qing by Mr Ian Johnson of the New York Review of Books:

Ian Johnson: The government has declared culture to be a national priority. It’s also promoting Chinese culture abroad as a kind of soft power.
Tian Qing: I think it reflects a genuine desire by people to preserve their culture. It doesn’t matter what system you have, but governments often reflect popular desires. It’s the same here. It’s a very popular issue so the government is addressing it.

What accounts for this interest?
We wondered why it was like this. It’s because for thirty-five years we have opened our doors and studied foreign things with the aim of modernizing China. That became our top priority, our national priority. But modernization is a foreign concept, it’s a Western concept. We did whatever the West did, that was modernization for us.

And then there was the speed. When you run so fast you can only look ahead, you can’t look back. But after a while we realized that the little treasure my grandfather had left for me was falling out of my pocket. I’m not saying there haven’t been huge advantages but people are wondering what they’ve lost.


Sometimes I wonder if people want to have their old traditions protected. You note that people flood to museums, but in daily life it’s a different story.

The problem is that modernization and protecting heritage are at odds with each other. It’s like driving a car and then you tell someone to look back. You can’t do it. On the one hand everyone says yes, yes it’s great, wonderful, let’s do it. But you say, for example, to a Miao woman, “Your clothes are beautiful,” but she says, “No, I want to wear jeans”. The old clothes are so difficult, they take half a year to make and you can’t wash them easily; jeans are better. Or you say to a Dong person [an ethnic minority concentrated in south China’s Guizhou province], “Your homes are great—wow, it’s made of bamboo, it’s great!”—and they say, “I don’t want it. It’s cold and there’s no running water”. People want modernization.

Can’t one unite the two? For example, Bach’s sacral music is now more often than not performed in a concert hall. The music has been preserved but has a different function in society.

It’s possible. But it can lead to horrible things too. In Yunnan Xishuangbanna [a popular tourist area in China’s far south] there’s a Water Splashing Festival of the Dai minority. It’s related to the birthday of Sakyamuni and used to be once a year. But now people splash water on you every day. As long as tourists come, they splash water. It’s lost its religious function. Or after [the director] Zhang Yimou filmed Red Sorghum and showed the bride in a sedan chair. That used to take place in a really small area of Shanxi province. Now across the country at every tourist spot are people with sedan chairs for hire—hey, for 50 yuan you can ride in it. Tourism. It’s terrible.

As for Bach, yes, he left the church but it was slow. Your modernization took two hundred years. For us it’s been thirty years. You went step by step. We ran. So a lot of the experience that you had isn’t applicable here. Humanity hasn’t ever experienced such sudden change, where such a large number of people are going through modernization at such a fast pace. No one before us has had that.

What about Taiwan? Maybe its experiences are applicable?

Definitely. We can learn a lot and we have exchanges with Taiwan. But they are a lot smaller and had more time than we did.

They also didn’t have a Cultural Revolution.

Yes, the Cultural Revolution was terrible, but sometimes outsiders exaggerate it. It lasted at most ten years but really the main attacks [against cultural traditions and monuments] were limited to the early years. The key point is the Cultural Revolution was top-down. Ordinary people really didn’t like it. They resisted it and protected many things. I went with the British scholar Stephen Jones around Beijing and we found many things that had been saved, like Qing-era musical scores. As the locals recalled, “They ordered us to destroy them but we didn’t. We buried them.” This was despite the fact that the Cultural Revolution was worst in the environs of Beijing. Mao himself recognized this. When Nixon met Mao, Nixon tried to flatter him by saying “You changed China” and Mao said, “No, I just changed Beijing and a few areas around it.” He knew it.

I visited a Daoist music troupe in Shanxi and the youngest member of the troupe is ninth generation. He has an eleven-year-old son and said he won’t let his son learn the music because it’s a poor job—there’s no real money in it despite the subsidies and it has no status.

There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s from their own heart. This is typical in humans. Most people look forward and forget the past. It’s mainly a few intellectuals and experts who say that the past is ke ai (可愛, cute). You can go to the countryside and say to a musician, why don’t you use sheep gut strings for your stringed instruments? But they want to use steel. They say it’s longer-lasting.

How do you feel about your work? It sounds hopeless.

No, we’ve had some successes. One is the national holidays. In the past we just had three: Chinese New Year, Worker’s Day on May 1, and National Day on October 1. But now we’re celebrating soon the Qingming Tomb-Sweeping Holiday on April 4 [during which families visit cemeteries and leave offerings or flowers for departed ancestors] and we have others as well. A few years ago the government announced that half a dozen traditional holidays were now national holidays. That changed people’s awareness. Most young people are still more interested in Western holidays like Valentine’s Day. But now people are aware of these other festivals and some will learn about the stories behind them or the traditions associated with them.

The real problem is modernization. It’s worse than the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was forced on people. But modernization is yearned for by people themselves, it’s their own desire. You can’t force the Miao girl to wear traditional garb. If she wants to wear jeans, she will.

It is very common for Western observers, in the news media or in the expat community, to blame the Chinese government for the deterioration of local cultures, languages and traditions, citing unequal language education practices, unequal development and Han colonisation of minority regions. A number of these criticisms are very much warranted, and a number of others are not; one has to be very careful about educating oneself about the individual case in question, and be aware of the interests and stakeholders on all sides.

But I think Mr Tian’s point is a good one. The Cultural Revolution was ultimately a failed and self-destructive policy as far as the Chinese government should be concerned: its success in destroying the social and familial networks of trust was matched only by its success in undermining the legitimacy and mandate of the very ideology Mao sought to promote. But the neoliberal modernity which took its place has been infinitely more insidious and successful in eroding what remained of China’s organic, traditional order, largely because it is so successful at displacing any discussion of spiritual, religious or otherwise ‘intangible’ goods, and at creating artificial desires for itself and its own artefacts, largely from nothing. This holds just as true for the minority (Miao, Nuo, Qiang, Tibetan, Dong) peoples as for the Han.


  1. Good find.

    A very important point was made on tourism. Many ethnic groups look at tourism as a mixed promise; they are happy for the awareness but unsure if they are celebrated for their culture or are just seen as performers. The Ainu in Japan, for example, perform their dances and their songs for tourists along with telling their story of struggle for equality. But ask them if they think they are gaining ground with the public and they will disagree; they feel like the tourists only care about the performances and the stuffed bear dolls at the gift shop. In essence, tourism puts culture at risk of becoming mere entertainment for outsiders.

    As for individual yearning for westernization... yes, modernized life seems easier. Humans will always desire a way to make life easier which will include having air conditioning, clean water, and plumbing. I can't say I don't blame them. It would be wonderful to find a way to bridge the gap between comfort and culture!

    One last point: Westerners really need to take a step back before they pin cultural destruction on the PRC. Yes, many accusations are valid; the Cultural Revolution has done so much to destroy real China just to rebuild it through Mao's vision, whether it was a failure or not. What is also true is the cultural destruction by the western nations during the Age of Imperialism and even the modern era of globalization and neoliberalism. Isn't the western world the source of things considered "modern"?

  2. Thanks, CA Constantian, for the insightful comment!

    I completely agree with you on tourism, and don’t think it’s true just in Asia, either - Jamaica is a prime example of the double-edged sword of tourism, practically in our own front yard. On the one hand, tourism creates a Potemkin Jamaica which serves as a playground for wealthy Americans and British, but on the other, it provides a better standard of living for a number of people living in the real Jamaica. Until Jamaica develops an economic model which serves its own purposes, tourism will continue to play a significant role and receive a great amount of public support.

    I don’t really want to offer a wholesale condemnation of modernisation here, though, because I can’t really blame Mr Tian’s hypothetical Miao girl for wanting to wear jeans rather than the traditional dress. Same with Kazakhs who feel more comfortable wearing Russian-style suits than their own traditional garb; they have their reasons, and as it is their own culture they have to decide how best to express it.

    Actually, I think you may find interesting Kang Xiaoguang’s take on both Marxism and Western neoliberalism; he makes the case that both ideologies are imperial imports from outside, and both have had incredibly detrimental effects on the social order. It is a very Chinese point-of-view, but I think a very faithful one to the initial ideals of Confucianism. I cannot find a free English version of Kang’s essays themselves, but the JSTOR link to his essay is here:


    And a free (though somewhat critical) overview of Kang’s thought can be found here:


    I do not necessarily agree with Ownby on Kang necessarily being a pragmatist; Kang’s critiques of Marxism and of neoliberalism do in fact speak out of a deeply Confucian worldview and a deeply Confucian critique both of state power and the market.

    Anyway; thanks again for stopping by, and thanks for the link-love on your own blog!