What hinders the rise of Chinese culture?

The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and China’s robust economy that year, despite the global financial crisis, made many Chinese citizens immensely proud of their country. They felt that China had regained the admiration of the world and resumed its rightful place as a global superpower. But such feelings are often undercut by worries about the growing imbalance between China’s international economic might and the perceived insignificance of Chinese culture on the world stage.

Professor Zheng Yongnian 郑永年, the mainland-born Director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore and a well-known political commentator on China, is one among many ethnic Chinese scholars (in and outside China) who have worried in print about China’s relative lack of global cultural influence. In 2008, Zheng published an article titled ‘What has hindered the rise of China’s cultural soft power‘ 是什么阻碍了中国文化软力量的崛起 in which he argued that excessive government control, leading to a massive cultural bureaucracy, was to blame for stymieing creativity in the People’s Republic. He wrote that this type of cultural management system could only lead to the loss of ‘cultural instinct’ (wenhua benneng 文化本能) and ‘cultural intuition’ (wenhua zhijue 文化直觉), hindering ‘the revival of Chinese culture and the rise of China’s soft power’.

In his 2013 piece ‘Why has China not risen culturally?’ 为什么中国没有文化崛起? Zheng expanded on this argument:

Government control of culture results in culture being highly dependent on the government, which leads to its decline. Intellectuals who want to keep a certain level of independence can survive and develop only by fighting against the government. This creates another culture that opposes the government which then becomes over-politicised.

In the same article, he observed that the loss of China’s ‘spiritual core’ had produced a general confusion about what were Chinese values:

Without new ideas and values, people can only seek solutions from Confucius and to build Confucius Institutes. These Institutes moreover have been reduced to places for studying the Chinese language. Neither those who established the Confucius Institutes nor those who engaged to publicise them know what kind of culture or values these Institutes are supposed to spread.

Some ethnic Chinese commentators locate the problem of China’s lack of global cultural influence in the power of Western countries. In a discussion hosted by Phoenix TV in 2008, various cultural and policy studies scholars in China as well as mainland officials in charge of cultural communications, examined the challenges of exporting the nation’s culture. Qiu Zhenhai 邱震海, a commentator and international relations researcher identified Western prejudice as a key obstacle:

The West has judged China’s development by its own jungle logic, one that it has maintained for several centuries. Now that China is promoting its own culture to legitimise its own mode of development, it will certainly encounter the resistance of the West.

Others see Chinese culture as innately weak in certain respects. For instance, Zhang Lifan 章立凡, a historian of Republican China (1912-1949) and an influential social commentator, explains the loss of China’s cultural core from an educational perspective. In a 2010 essay titled ‘Chinese-style Westernisation and Wholesale Westernisation: the Historical Pinnacle of Republican China‘ 中体西用与全盘西化:民国思想界的历史高度, he wrote:

In the past sixty years, our education went from ‘complete Westernisation’ to ‘complete Soviet Unionisation’… Education became an assembly line: a standardised product… This instrumentalised approach is the typical Soviet Union-style education: it does not produce all-rounders, neither geniuses nor independent thinkers, it just serves the system. The same can be said of traditional culture.

Professor Wang Hui 汪晖, of Tsinghua University professor is a leading New Left thinker in China and a national member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. He blames marketisation and an over-commercialised media environment for China’s lack of influence. During the ‘2012 Global Times Annual Forum‘ 环球时报年会, Wang pointed out:

In contemporary China, media now set the political agenda but the media are also driven by market needs and their own self-interests… This has encouraged politicians to become ‘media-fied’, and intellectuals to become ‘politicians’, conducting short-term performances of opportunism… The current situation is one where the culture of traditional intellectuals is dying because intellectuals can only survive by becoming part of the media. Within this context and this type of background, how is it possible to form a genuinely active ideological and cultural space instead of the culture of ‘public intellectuals’ we now have?

When discussing the cause of China’s cultural decline, Zheng Yongnian has argued that part of the blame must be assigned to the New Culture Movement 新文化运动 (roughly 1916 to 1925) whose leading advocates included Hu Shi 胡适 and Lu Xun 鲁迅. Zheng explained that these cultural luminaries hastened the erosion of traditional values with their concerted attacks on Confucianism. Against this negative assessment of the New Culture Movement, there are those who see it as representing a hopeful period of cultural diversity in modern Chinese history.

In a recent interview, Zheng stated that even though culture necessarily changes over time, modern Chinese culture has nonetheless always remained deeply rooted in its ancient tradition, of which the uniqueness of the Chinese character writing system should be viewed as a key strength. Chinese characters, he said, have endured even as the country has changed and become cosmopolitan. Zhang Lifan has expressed a similar view:

Because of the New Culture Movement and May Fourth Movement, the old order and structure were disrupted. After a period of confusion, [a new order and structure] began to emerge.

This preoccupation with the place of Chinese culture in the world has led some such as Qiu Zhenhai (in the Phoenix TV discussion mentioned above) to ask:

Why do we desire the rise of Chinese culture? … Is it to explain the development of China? Or to build an alternative mainstream culture to compete with Western culture? Or is it to build a more balanced and harmonious fusion of the Eastern and Western social orders?