Culture Paves the New Silk Roads

And if it doesn’t, it should.

When I flew to Bochum, Germany back in April of 2017 to teach a course on the political semiotics of arts criticism in China, I was unaware of how influential this five week long visit would be upon my intellectual and thus professional endeavours.

It was a small group of seven bright German students as well as one Chinese student, and I was able to pay special attention to what the students were most interested in. Early on, then, I grew aware that the students were fascinated by two central concepts, one was a notion in aesthetic theory; and the other was a sociological one.

Chinese aesthetics boils down to a trinity of ‘truth–good–beauty zhen shan Mei真善美.’ For our purposes here, I’ll just explain that the German students were blown away by the idea that, for the Chinese, beauty is not possible in isolation. That is, unless beauty is also good, and also true; it is not beautiful. Which then begs the question, at which point in Western aesthetics did something obviously ugly, even horrific, become beautiful? At which point did the unjust and villainous also grow beautiful, or at least desirous, to look at on television? This I’ll save for another day; but answering these questions requires looking into the history of Western art, especially at Modernism, with its abstraction, and rebellious anti-heroic. In the West, something can be untrue and even evil, yet imbued with an awesomeness that draws our attention to it, whether it is in a museum, on television, or in front of our eyes on the street.

The other notion which caught the attention of both my German students as well as the one student from China; was that of ‘cultural’ discount.’ This notion arises out of a study of cultural economy, which can’t be examined outside of the context of the political economy of culture in China. What we were looking at was the phenomenon of cultural products decreasing in value as soon as they exit Chinese customs, or Chinese cyberspace, or other Chinese cultural contexts. And when I say Chinese cultural contexts, these contexts are themselves contextualized necessarily within Chinese political and economic contexts. This is because Chinese State control over its cultural products is total. Even along its own margins of control, that is, in grassroots (in popular culture) or avant-garde (in the fine arts sector) pushback against official ideological cultural products; even in these voices, acts, and cultural commodities of resistance (such as an artwork by Ai Weiwei), we see an impression of the State cultural edifice. Thus, when these products, be they works of art, movies, comic, or books; even if they are translated, enter into another market; they decrease in value, suffering from a ‘cultural discount (wenhua zhekou 文化折扣).’

What shocked me most of all, having been in China for most of the prior 20 years, was how unfamiliar my German political science and international affairs students were with the connection between culture and politics. They were even more alarmed by the connection between economics and culture. I was moved to redesign my curriculum in situ, so that it focused more on these two notions, one aesthetic and the other sociological. Only when these two notions were thoroughly grasped would we be able to move forward with discussing and examining how Chinese art critics coded their treatment of artworks in ways that helped their articles get published in magazines, journals, online platforms and books within China. Note, by ‘helped their articles get published,’ I do not mean this in the sense that it made their articles more appealing, only that this helped their articles not get flagged as sensitive or otherwise problematic to the State’s cultural officers.

I start with this.

In my next entry, I will explain how this course, and the shifts we made mid-stream, changed my intellectual, and thus professional trajectory in the field of Chinese studies. Hint: It has to do with my title here, also the title of my forthcoming book with Palgrave MacMillan: Culture Paves the New Silk Roads.

Then in another future entry, I’ll start laying out some of the field research I gained both this past semester as well as in winter semester, 2019, when I taught ‘Culture Paves the New Silk Roads’ to classes of over 200 Chinese students, in China. Of particular interest will be presentations on the subject given by student focus groups. Also interesting, was how other focus groups presented on Classical Chinese canonical texts, such as the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史记), Book of Odes (Shijing 诗经), Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋), and the Classic of the Way and Virtue (Daodejing 道德经). Very interesting, how the ideas, language, and ideologies of these ancient texts resonated with discussion of China’s rebuilding of the ancient Silk Roads in a wholly new geopolitical context.