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The current status of Chinese intellectuals reflects traditions established in the imperial period. For most of this period, government officials were selected from among the literati on the basis of the Confucian civil service examination system. Intellectuals were both participants in and critics of the government. As Confucian scholars, they were torn between their loyalty to the emperor and their obligation to "correct wrong thinking" when they perceived it. Then, as now, most intellectual and government leaders subscribed to the premise that ideological change was a prerequisite for political change. Historically, Chinese intellectuals rarely formed groups to oppose the established government. Rather, individual intellectuals or groups of intellectuals allied themselves with cliques within the government to lend support to the policies of that clique. [Source: Library of Congress]

“With the abolition of the civil service examination system in 1905 and the end of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, intellectuals no longer had a vehicle for direct participation in the government. Although the absence of a strong national government would have been expected to provide a favorable situation for maximum intellectual independence, other inhibiting factors--such as the concentration of intellectuals in foreigncontrolled treaty ports, isolated from the mainstream of Chinese society, or in universities dependent on government or missionary financing--remained. Probably the greatest obstacle to the development of an intellectual community free of outside control was the rising tide of nationalism coupled with the fear of being accused of selling out to foreign interests.

“In 1927 the newly established Guomindang government in Nanjing attempted to establish an intellectual orthodoxy based on the ideas of Sun Yat-sen, but intellectuals continued to operate with a certain degree of freedom in universities and treaty ports. Following the Japanese invasion and occupation of large parts of China in 1937, the Guomindang government tightened control over every aspect of life, causing a large number of dissident intellectuals to seek refuge in Communist-administered areas or in Hong Kong.

Policy Toward Intellectuals in China Under the Communists

When the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, intellectuals came under strict government control. Educated overseas Chinese were invited to return home, and those intellectuals who remained in China were urged to contribute their technical expertise to rebuilding the country. Intellectuals were expected to serve the party and the state. Independent thinking was stifled, and political dissent was not tolerated. [Source: Library of Congress]

“In mid-1956 the Chinese Communist Party felt secure enough to launch the Hundred Flowers Campaign soliciting criticism under the classical "double hundred" slogan "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend." "Let a hundred flowers bloom" applied to the development of the arts, and "let the hundred schools of thought contend" encouraged the development of science. The initiation of this campaign was followed by the publication in early 1957 of Mao Zedong's essay "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People," in which he drew a distinction between "constructive criticisms among the people" and "hateful and destructive criticism between the enemy and ourselves.”

“In August 1957, when it was clear to the leadership that widespread criticism of the party and party cadres had gotten out of hand, the Anti-Rightist Campaign was launched to suppress all divergent thought and firmly reestablish orthodox ideology. Writers who had answered the party's invitation to offer criticisms and alternative solutions to China's problems were abruptly silenced, and many were sent to reform camps or internal exile. By the early 1960s, however, a few intellectuals within the party were bold enough to again propose policy alternatives, within stringent limits.

“When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, party functionaries assumed positions of leadership at most research institutes and universities, and many schools were closed or converted to "soldiers', workers', and peasants' universities." Intellectuals, denounced as the "stinking ninth category," either were purged or had their work heavily edited for political "purity", which severely hampered most serious research and scholarship.

“Following the fall of Lin Biao, Minister of National Defense and Mao's heir apparent, in 1971, the atmosphere for intellectuals began to improve. Under the aegis of Zhou Enlai and later Deng Xiaoping, many intellectuals were restored to their former positions and warily resumed their pre-Cultural Revolution duties. In January 1975 Zhou Enlai set out his ambitious Four Modernizations program and solicited the support of China's intellectuals in turning China into a modern industrialized nation by the end of the century.

Culture During the Cultural Revolution

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China has a long tradition of yingshe, “shadow assassination,” in which writers use allegory to criticize high officials. The Cultural Revolution was, in fact, directly triggered by such suspicions: in 1965, a historical drama written by a Party intellectual was accused of being an oblique attack on Mao. The charge was absurd, but Mao took it seriously; he ordered the newspapers to denounce the au thor (who eventually died in custody, having been beaten), and the self-fuelling paranoia grew into a frenzied nationwide campaign.

Mao’s wife Jiang was put in charge of the arts during the Cultural Revolution. She and her group of loyalist intellectuals and artists controlled everything: film studios, operas, theatrical companies and radio stations. They destroyed old movies and replaced them with new ones which were allowed to depict only eight revolution-related themes. Worker committees took over the studios and many administrators and actors were labeled as "devils and monsters" and dismissed and harangued. Even children's puppet theaters were closed down for being counter-revolutionary.

One of the objectives of the Cultural Revolution was to "socially purify" the arts.The popular play that many scholars say triggered the entire Cultural Revolution --“The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office”--was a drama by historian Wu Han about an obscure Song dynasty official. The play was widely seen as as a traitorous critique of Mao's dismissal of Peng Dehuai, a military leader who criticized the Great Leap Forward.

Poets, artists and opera singers were imprisoned and exiled. Pop music was banned for being capitalist "poison" and Beijing Opera troupes were disbanded because they fit into the category of the "Four Olds." Among the banned writers were Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Balzac, Jonathan Swift, Victor Hugo, Dickens and Mark Twain.

The most widely read book was “The Little Red Book”. See Little Red Book

Culture After Mao

Since the late 1970s, when China began to turn its back on Maoist totalitarianism, the country has gone through several cycles of relative tolerance of dissent, followed by periods of repression.After the Cultural Revolution artists and performers that survived resurrected their art forms. Restrictions were loosened. The period from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s was considered by some to be a “high tide" for the arts, as pent up frustration that built up during the Cultural Revolution was released.

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The intellectual climate was relaxed under Deng Xiaoping, who realized that he needed the cooperation of intellectuals if his reforms were to fully take hold. Banned books by J.D. Salinger, Allen Ginsberg and Gabriel Garcia Marquez appeared. Modern art exhibitions were held State-supported intellectuals were given a salary, health care, house and opportunities to go abroad. There was a great burst of creativity. Works that addressed China’s dark side and the injustices of the Cultural revolution appeared.

Decline set in as the Deng reforms began taking hold and making money was given precedence over creativity and expression. The arts were dealt another blow after Tiananmen Square in 1989 when restrictions on all forms of expression were tightened. The Tiananmen massacre destroyed the tenuous bond between the Party and the intellectuals: some renounced their Party membership and broke with the regime; some went into exile or were jailed.

In his book the “The Party and the Art in China”, Richard Krause wrote: “By 1992 the Party had given up trying to purge all dissident voices and opted instead for the strategy of urging all arts organizations to strive to earn money.” Those that worked with the system could expect to be rewarded with high posts, raises and be well paid for their teaching. Those that found success in the market place could possibly become very rich. Those that rebelled against the system could expect to be punished. In this way artists censored themselves.”

Artists, directors and writers that that raised the ire of censors and authorities were not sent to jail or re-education camps, they are simply not given work and deprived of opportunities to make money. The internationally-known artist Ai Weiwei told the New York Times, “People are really selling their talent in a way that can make them money. They really know if they work with the government, they’ll benefit.”

Jiang Zemin launched a "Spiritual civilization" campaign in the mid-1990s with a 15,000-word directive that aimed not only to crack down on criticism of the Communist party but also on anything that encouraged "social vices" or made people "doubt the future of socialism." With language that was reminiscent of Cultural Revolution slogans, the directives exhorted to become "soul engineers" battling people who "pander to low tastes." Pulp novelists were banned, foreign programs on Chinese television were criticized and journalists were encouraged to be "engineers of people's minds."

A commentary in the People's Daily said that some artists and writers are "bent on describing normal people's trivial affairs, tempests in teacups, even to the point of including bedroom scenes. Not only did the works of some artists lose their ideals and sink into moral depravity they even went so far as to ridicule noble values and promote the worship of hedonism and extreme individualism. This situation cannot but draw the proper attention and anxiety.”

Policy Toward Intellectuals in the Post-Mao Era

The Third Plenum of the Eleventh National Party Congress Central Committee in December 1978 officially made the Four Modernizations basic national policy and reemphasized the importance of intellectuals in achieving them. The policy of "seeking truth from facts" was stressed, and scholars and researchers were given freer rein to pursue scientific research. Most mainstream intellectuals were content to avoid political involvement and to take on the role of scholar- specialists within their spheres of competence, with the understanding that as long as they observed the four cardinal principles--upholding socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the party, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought--they would be permitted to conduct their research with minimal bureaucratic interference. This was accomplished more easily in the natural sciences, which are generally recognized as apolitical, than in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts. [Source: Library of Congress]

Bai Hua and Bitter Love

The first serious challenge to the more tolerant policy toward intellectuals came in 1980, as conservative ideologues in the military and the party stepped up their calls to combat "bourgeois liberalization," a loosely defined appellation for any writing or activity believed to stretch the limits of the four cardinal principles. By early 1981 opposition to "bourgeois liberalization" was focused on Bai Hua, a writer with the Political Department of what was then the Wuhan Military Region. Bai had long been a strong advocate for relaxation of cultural and social policy, but what especially alarmed the guardians of cultural orthodoxy was his screenplay "Bitter Love," which depicted the frustrated patriotism of an old painter who faces misunderstanding and ill-treatment when he returns to China from the United States. [Source: Library of Congress]

“When the screenplay first appeared in a nationally circulated literary magazine in the fall of 1979, it caused little stir. The motion picture version however, which was shown to selected officials, drew strong censure. A commentary in the April 18, 1981, issue of Jiefangjun Bao (Liberation Army Daily) accused Bai Hua of violating the four cardinal principles and described the screenplay as an example of "bourgeois liberalism." The commentary was reprinted in the next month's issue of Jiefangjun Wenyi (Liberation Army Literature and Art), along with other articles critical of "Bitter Love." Over the next few months the criticism was taken up by most civilian newspapers, and acting minister of culture, Zhou Weizhi, singled out "Bitter Love" for attack in a speech delivered to the Twentieth Session of the Fifth National People's Congress Standing Committee in September. Finally, Bai Hua yielded to the ostracism and wrote a letter of self-criticism addressed to Jiefangjun Bao and Wenyibao (Literary Gazette), in which he apologized for a "lack of balance" in "Bitter Love" and for failing to recognize the power of the party and the people to overcome obstacles in Chinese society.

“Bai Hua was out of public view for the next year but remained active, writing four short stories in the period. In January 1983 he was invited by the Ministry of Culture to participate in a Shanghai conference on film scripts, and in May of that year the Beijing People's Art Theater presented his new historical play, "The King of Wu's Golden Spear and the King of Yue's Sword," thought by many to be a veiled criticism of Mao Zedong and perhaps even of Deng Xiaoping. Although the "Bitter Love" controversy caused considerable anxiety in the intellectual community, it is as noteworthy for what it did not do as for what it did do. Unlike previous campaigns in which writers and all of their works were condemned, criticism in this case focused on one work, "Bitter Love." Neither Bai Hua's other works nor his political difficulties in the 1950s and 1960s were part of the discussion. In fact, as if to emphasize the limited nature of the campaign, at its height in May 1981 Bai was given a national prize for poetry by the Chinese Writers' Association.

Deng Xiaoping’s Campaign against "Spiritual Pollution"

After a mild respite in 1982 and most of 1983, "antibourgeois liberalism" returned in full force in the short-lived campaign against "spiritual pollution" launched by a speech given by Deng Xiaoping at the Second Plenum of the Twelfth National Party Congress Central Committee in October 1983. In the speech, Deng inveighed against advocates of abstract theories of human nature, "bourgeois humanitarianism," "bourgeois liberalism," and socialist alienation, as well as the growing fascination in China with "decadent elements" from Western culture. Conservatives, led by Political Bureau member Hu Qiaomu and party Propaganda Department head Deng Liqun, used the campaign in an effort to oppose those aspects of society that they disliked. The campaign soon was out of control and extended to areas beyond the scope that Deng Xiaoping had intended, raising fears at home and abroad of another Cultural Revolution.

“Because of the campaign against spiritual pollution, intellectuals (including scientists and managerial and technical personnel) and party and government cadres were hesitant to take any action that could expose them to criticism. Peasants, whose production had greatly increased under the responsibility system adopted in 1981, felt uncertain about the future course of central policy. Because of this, many of them returned their specialized certificates and contracts to local authorities, sold their equipment, and lowered production targets. Many ordinary citizens, especially the young, resented the sudden interference in their private lives. Foreign businessmen and government leaders expressed serious reservations about the investment climate and China's policy of opening to the world.

“Because of these adverse results, the central leadership reevaluated the campaign and limited it to theoretical, literary, and artistic circles and did not permit it to extend to science and technology, the economy, or rural areas. All ideological, theoretical, literary, and artistic issues were to be settled through discussion, criticism, and self-criticism, without resorting to labeling or attacks. By January 1984 the campaign against spiritual pollution had died out, and attention was once more turned to reducing leftist influence in government and society.

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More Openness After the Failure of the "Spiritual Pollution" Campaign

Following the campaign's failure, and perhaps because of it, the position and security of intellectuals improved significantly. In 1984 the party and government turned their attention to promoting urban economic reforms. A more positive approach to academic and cultural pursuits was reflected in periodic exhortations in the official press calling on the people to support and encourage the building of "socialist spiritual civilization," a term used to denote general intellectual activity, including ethics and morality, science, and culture.

“Writers and other intellectuals were heartened by a speech delivered by Hu Qili, secretary of the party Secretariat, to the Fourth National Writers' Congress (December 29, 1984, to January 5, 1985). In the speech, Hu decried the political excesses that produced derogatory labels and decrees about what writers should and should not write and called literary freedom "a vital part of socialist literature." But as writers began to test the limits of the free expression called for by Hu Qili, they were reminded of their "social responsibilities," a thinly veiled warning for them to use self-censorship and to remain within the limits of free expression.

“These limits, still poorly defined, were tested once again when Song Longxian, a young researcher at Nanjing University, using the pseudonym Ma Ding, published an article entitled "Ten Changes in Contemporary Chinese Economic Research" in the November 2, 1985, issue of the trade union paper Gongren Ribao (Workers' Daily). The article urged a pragmatic approach to economic theory and sharply attacked much previous economic research. A somewhat toned-downed version was republished in a subsequent issue of Beijing Review, a weekly magazine for foreign readers, and immediately became the center of a controversy continuing well into 1986. Ma Ding's supporters, however, far outnumbered his critics and included some important government officials. In May 1986 the editor of Gongren Ribao, writing in another economic journal, summed up the controversy. He termed the criticism of the article of far greater significance than the article itself and commended the "related departments" for handling the "Ma Ding incident very prudently" and "relatively satisfactorily," but he expressed the hope that "more people in our country, particularly leaders," would join in "providing powerful protection to the theoretical workers who are brave enough to explore.”

“In 1986 there were numerous calls for a new Hundred Flowers Campaign, and there were indications that these calls were being orchestrated from the top. At a May 1986 conference to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the original Hundred Flowers Campaign, Zhu Houze, new head of the party's Propaganda Department, sounded the keynote when he said, "Only through the comparison and contention of different viewpoints and ideas can people gradually arrive at a truthful understanding. . . ." Qin Jianxian, editor of Shijie Jingji Daobao (World Economic Journal), carried this theme further when he called for "unprecedented shocks to political, economic, and social life as well as to people's ideas, spiritual state, lifestyle, and thinking methods." In a July 1986 interview with Beijing Review, Wang Meng, the newly appointed minister of culture, held out great expectations for a new Hundred Flowers Campaign that he said "could arouse the enthusiasm of writers and artists and give them the leeway to display their individual artistic character." During the summer of 1986, expectations were raised for a resolution to come out of the Sixth Plenum of the Twelfth National Party Congress Central Committee in September, a resolution that General Secretary Hu Yaobang promised would have a "profound influence on the development of spiritual civilization." The actual document, however, was a watered-down compromise that fell far short of expectations. It became clear that intellectual policy is not a matter to be easily resolved in the short-term but requires lengthy debate.

Culture in Modern China

The message these days seems to be that you can have punk rock, sex radio and shock art as long as it doesn’t threaten the Communist dictatorship. Even so many writers and artists have made a name for themselves outside of Asia. They find the intellectual atmosphere at home which emphasizes hierarchy and seniority oppressive.

On one hand the Chinese system supports schools that produce dancers, singers, actors and performers at rate much higher than almost country on earth. But on the other hand it stifles creativity and innovation in the way it attempts to control everything. One modern dancer told the New York Times, "The speed at which culture has developed has no comparison to the economy. We have a very rich culture full of artists, but we don't have art. Propaganda and politics have messed everything up."

Spending in the arts---which includes performing arts, sports, film television and radio---has increased from $3.6 billion in 2000 to $6 billion in 2005 but much of money has gone into building projects like National Grand Theater in Beijing which cost $365 million and other showcase theaters, concert halls, museums and other culture facilities, leaving relatively little money for cultural groups such as theater groups, orchestras and artist unions whose funding in many cases has been cut.

State-owned dance and theater companies, musical and theatrical groups and even military dance ensembles have been encouraged or become financially independent and create shows that can make money abroad.

People in China are used to going out and eat at night. They’re not used to going out to the theater and buy tickets. For many decades, tickets had been given away by employers or other sources. Changing this expectation of free tickets has been one of the great challenges in the development of the live performance market in China, performing arts promoters have said. [Source:Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, New York Times, July 9, 2010] “Many cities in China have built a top-notch performing arts centers in the hopes of lifting its cultural credentials and offering new forms of live entertainment to the increasing numbers of middle-class and wealthy Chinese. Yet many arts professionals from the West say China has a long way to go. Audiences remain small. Many of those who attend are not accustomed to paying for tickets. And after years of state-financed performances, the government is increasingly looking to the private sector to support both foreign and domestic arts troupes.”

Cultural groups often don’t have a clue on how to market themselves or raise funds. Some in the field have attended seminars at the Kennedy Center in Washington on how to pursue donors and sustain ticket sales. Much of the money that cultural groups do get from the government is in the form of loans that are tied to producing works that audiences will want to come and see.

Chongqing, Center of Red Culture

Reporting from Chongqing, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Chongqing, the largest city in China's southwest, is the front line of the red revival. It has a reputation for hot temperatures, spicy food and the fervor of its populace. Now, in one of those puns for which the Chinese language is so well suited, the metropolis is sometimes called the "tomato," xihongshi, a homonym for "western red city." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 03, 2011]

The Cultural Revolution ravaged Chongqing. The city experienced some of the heaviest losses of that 1966-76 era as a result of a clash between two rival gangs of Red Guards who seized weapons from the city's munitions factories. They fought so fiercely that much of the population fled. Stung by the historical references, Chongqing officials have said that participation in the campaign is voluntary.

Han and Han on Why China Cannot Be a Cultural Power

Earlier in 2010, China's most famous blogger, Han Han, made a speech at Xiamen University discussing "why China cannot be a cultural power". The speech was an instant hit after being posted on Internet forums. "When our writers write, they are self-censoring themselves every second," he said. "How can any presentable works be created in such an environment? If you castrate all written works like you do with news reports, and then present them to foreigners hoping they will sell, do you think the foreigners are such morons?"

"The government wants China to become a great cultural nation, but our leaders are so uncultured," he told The New York Times. "If things continue like this, China will only be known for tea and pandas."

Echoing a similar sentiment, Julia Ju, who writes on mainland cultural affairs for several Hong Kong newspapers, said, "You can't have a cultural renaissance initiated by the state. Creativity is individual and basically the whole concept of a state-backed cultural revival is an oxymoron. If there are new and interesting things happening in China's culture, it is all due to individual efforts and not because of state policies."

Image Sources: 1, 2 and 4) University of Washington; 3) Ohio State University ; 5) Poster, Landsberger Posters ; Wiki Commons, Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: ; Asia Weekly (Han Han)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2012

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