Zhu Dake is a noted cultural critic, scholar and essayist who rose to prominence in the 1980s alongside Li Zehou 李泽厚, Li Zaifu 李再复 and Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波. He was, and remains, widely admired in mainland intellectual circles as an independent voice on contemporary Chinese society. Zhu holds a professorial appointment at Tongji University in Shanghai where he is co-director of the Research Center for Cultural Criticism.
Zhu completed his undergraduate studies in the Chinese Department at East China Normal University and, upon graduation in 1983, was assigned to a teaching post at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. In 1985, he attracted intellectual attention with his essay ‘The Anxious Generation and Their Urban Dreams’ 焦灼的一代和城市梦. In 1986, another article ‘On the Flaws of the Xie Jin Model’ 论谢晋电影模式的缺陷, published in Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao 文汇报, caused a fierce debate in intellectual circles. Zhu had criticised the work of the acclaimed director Xie Jin 谢晋 as derivative, moralistic and amounting to no more than ‘cinematic Confucianism’ 电影儒学. At the time, Xie was something of a cultural hero as his 1986 film Hibiscus Town 芙蓉镇 about the persecution of ordinary citizens in the Maoist 1960s had struck a deep chord with mainland audiences. Meanwhile, Zhu’s article established his reputation as a polemicist.
In 1994, Zhu undertook doctoral studies at the University of Technology Sydney. He spent eight years in Australia, during which time he established the Chinese-language website Australia News 澳大利亚新闻网, later renamed Cultural Pioneer 文化先锋. It was around the time of his return to China in 2002 that Zhu declared he was abandoning his long-held belief in the agency of literature. He claimed that contemporary Chinese literature offered neither social criticism nor spiritual solace. However, he continued to write on current issues and a range of popular topics and his reputation as a cultural critic continued to grow.
His major publications include The Burning Maze 燃烧的迷津 (1991), a collection of literary and social criticism from the 1980s; Dossier of a Fugitive 逃亡者档案 (1999), a selection of early film reviews and essays written during his sojourn in Australia; The Lightning of Discourse 话语的闪电 (2003), which pairs literary criticism from the 1990s with more recent historical essays, and The Banquet of the Liumang 流氓的盛宴 (2006), a study of the history of hooligan culture in China which has earned Zhu high praise in the Chinese-speaking world and attracted scholarly attention internationally. In 2003, he collaborated with the cultural critic Zhang Hong 张闳 to edit and produce the annual publication Atlas of 21st Century Chinese Culture 21世纪中国文化地图, of which six volumes have so far appeared (the first in 2004 and the last, titled ‘2008’, was released in 2010).
As one of China’s best-known cultural critics, Zhu Dake publishes widely in the mainstream press and appears frequently on TV as a commentator on hot-button issues. In June 2011, for example, major Chinese news portals relayed critical remarks by Zhu comparing the market for Chinese cultural artifacts to a casino. Zhu warned that financial speculators were destroying the fundamental rationale for the collection and distribution of cultural artifacts and that it was increasingly difficult to find people who truly appreciate and want to protect China’s cultural heritage (see 天价文物和贱价文化, 《东方早报》, 7 June 2011). Zhu’s remarks on this occasion reflect a recurring theme in his writings of recent years: namely, China’s affluence has been accompanied by its cultural decline. In this connection, Zhu regards restrictions on personal independence in China as a major handicap in the cultivation of finer sensibilities.
Zhu’s recent work includes a study of the history of Chinese mythology. He began researching this subject in the early 1990s but stopped when he went to Australia. He returned to the subject in 2001 when he wrote a column for the Southern Metropolis Daily in which he discussed and retold well-known folk tales. In 2013, a collection of Zhu’s essays on Chinese folk tales was published under the title Myths 神话. The book is one of five volumes written by Zhu, published by Eastern Publishing Company, under the series title Keeping Faith 守望. The other volumes – Time 时光, Foreknowledge 先知, Utopia 乌托邦, and Judgment 审判 – also deal with key aspects of Chinese culture and their influence on society today. In an interview with Xinhua Monthly 新华月报 in December 2012, Zhu described how folk history has defined his place in Chinese society:
Xinhua Monthly: At the start of Myths, you discuss at length the place of martial arts masters (jianghu 江湖, ‘rivers and lakes’ – an allusion to their itinerant lives) in traditional Chinese culture as well as ‘hooligans’ (liumang). Does this have anything to do with your Hakka identity?
Zhu Dake: If it’s necessary to find kinship roots, then give me a moment to reminisce. I remember my family had a red ocher painted bamboo basket, handed down from my maternal grandfather’s generation. It had four black characters which read: ‘Li Family, Longxi’. My mother’s side came from Gansu and may have been distant relatives of the Li clan that founded the Tang dynasty, but they weren’t Hakka (which is a little strange). Genealogical records say my father’s side is descended from [the Song Confucian philosopher] Zhu Xi. They migrated to western Fujian around the tenth generation, where they began speaking Hakka. They have spoken the dialect for twenty-one generations, right up to my time. According to the genealogy, I am Zhu Xi’s thirty-second generation grandson. Not in the main branch of the lineage, of course. As one of those people with just some traces of Hakka ancestry, I am able to view that peculiar tribe quite rationally. Hakkas suffer from an acute split personality. They were always on the move, which led them to seek new ways of doing things, yet they also clung to ancient teachings and prized their clan genealogies and the Confucian tradition. I’ve always thought that by reflecting on the Hakkas, one can learn a great deal about Chinese culture as a whole. (See 新华月报·下 2012年第12期; text also on Douban.)
In 2006, Phoenix Life 凤凰生活 magazine named Zhu Dake as a prominent authority on Chinese culture and as one among the top fifty Chinese most likely to influence the future of the world.