Popular culture is lagging behind real life in the new China, as political control over mass communication remains strict. James Harding explains how the film industry, in particular, experiences the tension at the heart of modern China: a liberalising economy within a one-party stateby James Harding / January 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The old cathay cinema in downtown Shanghai is in a sorry state. The art deco fa?ade has been tarted up with green neon lighting; the styrofoam is popping out of the grubby seats inside. The sound system crackles, the projector is faulty, the auditorium is dank and all but empty. The films are equally drab: heavy on political and patriotic content, most films still reek of a government propaganda department which treats the cinema as a means of educating the masses, rather than entertaining them. “There are no good movies being made in China,” says Zhang Yimou, director of films such as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, explaining why people are deserting the cinema. On the streets outside, Shanghai is a city blooming with choice, a metropolis striving to be modern. The Communist party is gradually relinquishing control. Opposite the Cathay, one of the many new fashion emporiums is crammed with shoppers browsing the designer labels. Those who do not want to shop can play: a few years ago, karaoke was the thing, then tenpin bowling; lately go-karting tracks have sprung up to compete with the pool halls, health clubs and space invader parlours which serve a generation discovering the meaning of leisure.
In China today, life is more colourful outside the cinema than inside. Skyscrapers are sprouting, shiny car showrooms are opening in place of old state shops. A class of affluent young professionals has arrived, with many of the accessories of metropolitan life, but without a contemporary cinema. It is a conspicuous absence; one which spreads out to most forms of popular expression. A society is being reborn, but one which does not articulate itself in the media of the modern age. It is an incomplete renaissance-a cultureless revolution.
This is not for want of talent or know-how. The popular arts remain actively underdeveloped by the Communist party censors, a restraint felt all the more keenly as other creative minds in China have been unleashed by the country’s leaders, to develop companies, products and technologies. The result is a popular culture increasingly out of step with its population, moving on a slower treadmill than the economy at large. Not quite two decades since China launched its transition to the free market, manufacturers are making colour television sets which rival the best brands in the world. Sadly, the home-grown content is not worthy of the picture quality.