AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 415

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Session 415: China in the World: National Culture on the Global Stage

Organizer: Wendy A. Larson, University of Oregon, USA

Discussant: Rui Shen, Morehouse College, USA

Despite increasing interest in “de-nationalization” that terms such as global, cosmopolitanization/cosmopol, hybrid, border-crossing, transnational, and the third space imply, the relevance of cultural identity has not disappeared. It is within this seemingly paradoxical situation—the many forms of globalism proliferating even as nations seek to express a clear cultural core—that this panel is contextualized. The desire to establish and promote a foundational set of qualities, beliefs, tendencies, and practices emerges from the presentational and symbolic aspects of the nation-state political form. In the Chinese case, it mandates attention to both Chinese culture as imagined over time, as well as to the requirement that China be included as an equal among nations in the contemporary world. Chinese writers, bloggers, and filmmakers to different degrees have embraced or rejected this mandate, in the process investigating its viability and limitations. Each proposes both a position and theory of whether, why, and how it is worthwhile for China to carve its position within the global imaginary—the “family of nations”—that underlies the political organization of the nation-state model. Some avidly support the notion that China must continue to struggle for cultural parity. Others propose regarding “culture with national characteristics” as an illusion, a deceit of the powerful, with true power resting in economic, political, and military realms. And still others argue through their particular cultural forms that because the nation-state itself is a dying form, fighting on behalf of a nationally specific culture is a useless endeavor.

Chinese Net Idols: Poverty, Cosmopolitanism, and Affective Economy
Hai Ren, University of Arizona, USA

Net idols or celebrities (wangluo hongren) may refer to famous actors, musicians, business people, and politicians, but they may also include ordinary people. The Chinese Internet has become the most popular mass media for ordinary people to express and entertain themselves, create social networks, discuss and comment on social, economic, and even political issues, and engage in business activities. One may reach to notoriety – often through a process of “stir-frying” (chaozuo) – to become a net idol. Consequently, the person draws a large group of followers usually within certain period of time. This paper examines the popularization of beggars as net celebrities. A historical understanding of this phenomenon can be developed through a comparison of net idols with socialist “models” (mofan). It also discusses how beggars are treated in media representations before the proliferation of the Internet. Then, the paper offers an in-depth analysis of one particular case involving a homeless man from Ningbo in the first half of 2010. Not only did tens of thousands of Chinese netizens report and discuss the beggar’s activities, but they also created various writings and visual materials about the beggar. Moving beyond the conventional understanding of a netizen’s positive and active agency, this project explores how such a media practice underscores the relationship between liberty, affect, and poverty in the neoliberal do-it-yourself life-extension process. It aims both at understanding the cultural practice of Chinese new media and at contributing to the debate about the net idol phenomenon in the East Asian context.

Shanghai Postmodern? Cultural identity, cosmopolitanism and class in literary representations of Taiwanese transnationals
Darryl C. Sterk, National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

According to Homi Bhabha, any proponent of a ‘global ethic’ is faced with the “fundamental challenge” of “[rethinking] ... ‘nationality’ in the partial and incipient conditions of global, cosmopolitan itinerancy.” In this paper I take up this challenge by discussing a recent collection of stories by the writer Zhang Yuan about the conditions of life for Taiwanese transnationals in Shanghai. Though the author may not have the intention of expressing a clear cultural core on behalf of her nation, nor the ambition of a global ethic, her stories about migrants to Shanghai invite consideration in terms of a dialectic of cultural tradition and cosmopolitan vision; far from home, her characters become more aware of the anxiety of identity, and some of them even begin meditating upon where they stand in relation to nation and in the world. In this paper, I examine the significance of Zhang Yuan’s representation of the Shanghai experience for outsiders who have, each in his or her own way, ‘crossed boundaries’ – Crossing Boundaries being a translation of the title of the collection – in getting and living there. That her outsiders include not just Taiwanese managers and their wives and girlfriends but also Chinese factory workers also reminds the reader of the painful importance of class in ‘postmodern’ Shanghai.

Zhang Chengzhi and the Global Chinese Muslim
Wendy A. Larson, University of Oregon, USA

Criticized as a religious zealot and an irrational idealist, and praised as a seeker of a pure spiritual devotion that can counter both commercial culture and cultural nationalism, Zhang Chengzhi 张承志 (1948-) has carved out a unique spot among contemporary Chinese writers. Zhang’s identification with the downtrodden Jahrinya Muslim sect in northwest China motivated his fictionalized history History of the Soul 《心灵史》(1991), and as one of the original Red Guards, he has not given up his admiration of Mao Zedong and the spiritual commitment demanded by revolutionary ethos. In 2002, Zhang published a short article called “Eyes that force you to see them” 〈逼视的眼睛〉, a deconstruction of a National Geographic television special, and in 2004, “Fresh Flower Ruins” 《鲜花的废墟》, a travelogue. Taken together, these pieces mark a shift in Zhang’s recuperation of a radical and overlooked ethnicity and spirituality, as well as criticism of multiple repressions, toward the crafting of a Muslim identity that reclaims moral agency by means of a global subject position. The vision Zhang puts forward in these pieces is a clear rejection of the demand of the nation-state that each nation put forward a “national culture” to represent it on the global stage, arguing instead on behalf of a spiritual alliance that derives from many possible sources: religion, language, ethnicity, community, and history.