Reading Recommendations

Gems on China often appear in unexpected places, and we were recently alerted to a handful worth looking into at the Literary Review of Canada. These three pieces review recent works in Chinese studies that touch on issues central to current discussions on the China blogosphere. We’ve included short excerpts below, but encourage you to make the leap to the longer versions.

The first is a review by Timothy Cheek, the author of a book on Mao that we flagged in one of our first posts last January, and a regular commentator on contemporary China, as here and here. In “The Karaoke Classics: A view from inside China’s Confucian revival,” Cheek reviews Daniel Bell’s China’s New Confucianism, addressing a theme that has emerged at China Beat a few times before and also been taken up by China Beatniks in other venues: How is Confucianism relevant today? (For instance, see Xujun Eberlein’s piece, “China: Democracy or Confucianism?,” Jeff Wasserstrom's "Confucius: China's Comeback Kid" or Daniel Bell’s own piece, “Imperial Ways.”) Bell, moreover, is becoming known as something of a Confucian provocateur. As Cheek describes, Bell’s take on contemporary Confucianism may be a shock:

"Bell’s approach is resolutely iconoclastic and, he claims, Confucian. He aims to entertain and instruct, but he also aims if not to offend then at least to chide western academic and cultural presumptions. This is the job of the Confucian educator, he says: 'the task of the morally committed individual is to resist the excesses of the dominant [intellectual/cultural] fashion in order to bring things into balance.' So, those who are sure proper scholarship should be 'objective' (or at least safely harnessed in abstract theoretical frameworks) and who embrace ideas of modernity (or the Good) that include the sanctity of individual rights, electoral democracy and contractual protection of labour, along with the perniciousness of prostitution—be prepared for rebalancing.

"Bell’s approach comes together in his spirited treatment of the recent Chinese karaoke boom, hardly the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Confucianism. But he connects this trend with Confucius’s advocacy of music and the relationship-building effect of singing together. True to his claim in a later chapter that 'Confucians Needn’t Be Old, Serious and Conservative,' Bell then goes on to defend the parallel rise of a new form of prostitution, in which karaoke hostesses charge clients for sexual favours between songs. He explicitly engages the questions that leapt to my mind: Is this bad for women? Bad for the family? Is it moral? His answers are relativistic and pragmatic, much like his reading of classical Confucianism. He is less concerned with abstract virtue and more concerned with actual relationships and their social consequences. He makes a reasonable argument for a form of prostitution that builds something more than a cash nexus in the sex trade, constrains passions with the sociability of group singing and limits extra-marital sex to time-limited engagements (contrasted to affairs with co-workers or others that may compete with the marriage, and therefore family, bond).

"Not my conventional, Fung Yu-lan understanding of Confucianism. Nonetheless, Bell makes a compelling case that such views can be argued from the tradition’s fundamentals."

Continue reading at “The Karaoke Classics: A view from inside China’s Confucian revival.”

In “An Informed Citizenry?: Expanding media in China does not necessarily mean a challenge to power,” Bernie Michael Frolic examines Yuezhi Zhao’s Communication in China: Political Economy, Power and Conflict. Particularly relevant in this moment of what China Media Project has been calling “Control 2.0” (not just suppressing news but actively shaping its narrative), Frolic meditates on the Western belief that more media will eventually lead to democracy in China. Of Zhao’s book, Frolic writes:

"What emerges is the uncertain conclusion that the neoliberal forces of marketization and globalization have taken root in China, but not that deeply. Democratic outcomes remain a distant prospect. The rising middle class is surprisingly supportive of the current authoritarian system. The CCP maintains its control, reinventing itself when necessary to preserve its power. While socialist ideology is in retreat and neoliberal commercialization of the media has made substantial gains, resistance from the old and the new left creates tension and contradictions, for example, by unleashing Chinese nationalism, polarizing urban and rural sectors, or creating new elite and class conflict.

"In 2005, Hunan Province Satellite Television developed a show called Supergirls, modelled after American Idol. It quickly became the most popular show on Chinese television. The audience was asked to vote for their favourite candidates with their cell phones, at the rate of one yuan per message, ten times the regular price. I watched this show when I was in China and marvelled at its explosive success in winning audience participation. It showed how a provincial broadcaster could use market principles to outstrip the state-run national media. But within the year, Supergirls was marginalized by the authorities, not allowed to run in prime time and, according to Zhao, was criticized for its 'individualistic and consumerist value orientations.'

"China’s developmental path remains uncertain for Zhao, who is sympathetic to a more open Chinese society and liberalized political system. She hesitates to predict such an optimistic outcome. She writes, 'There are formidable structural forces against any substantive reorientation of China’s developmental path around the goals of human-centred and balanced development, environmental sustainability, social harmony, and "people’s democracy"—if these are to be more than hollow rhetoric.'"

Continue reading at “An Informed Citizenry?: Expanding media in China does not necessarily mean a challenge to power.”

In the last of LRC’s reviews, “Spiritual Dissent: Falun Gong, the Chinese Communist Party and their apocalyptic struggle for China,” Jeremy Paltiel reviews Falun Gong and the Future of China by David Ownby. Despite all the ink spilled over Falun Gong, as Paltiel points out, few scholars have conducted research on the organization. To that end, Paltiel writes:

"David Ownby’s first and most important contribution, I believe, is to put this movement in context. He does so in two ways: first, he places it in a line of syncretistic Chinese millenarian movements that meld Taoism and Buddhism with 'body work' and a moral message, dating back to the White Lotus movement that rebelled against the Qing Empire more than two centuries ago; then he traces the rise of Qigong as a component of the professionalization of traditional Chinese medicine in the 1950s and its explosion as a popular movement under charismatic leadership in the post-Mao reform era.

"Qigong involves practices that attempt to manipulate the esoteric energy of 'qi' (literally, breath or air) that according to traditional Chinese metaphysical beliefs pervades the universe. Efforts to systematize these practices and provide them with the legitimacy accorded the professionalization of traditional Chinese medicine were submerged by the Cultural Revolution but gained momentum in its aftermath. By the late 1980s Qigong claimed millions of adherents who followed dozens of Qigong masters. Li Hongzhi initially aligned himself with this movement, but went further by providing a spiritual text called the Zhuan Falun ('The Scroll of the Wheel of Law' or the 'Wheel of Dharma') to systematize his doctrine. The first edition of the Zhuan Falun appeared in 1993.

"More broadly, Ownby aligns Falun Gong with the struggles of the Chinese state with so-called heterodox movements going back to dynastic times. God and Caesar never eyed each other from a respectful distance in traditional China. While Confucius urged his followers to keep a respectful distance from the realm of the spirits, China’s literati-bureaucrats and the Son of Heaven always had a difficult time managing popular religion. They could neither leave it alone nor embrace it. Then as now, they were skeptical of its claims and deeply suspicious of its adherents. More than one millenarian movement gave rise to an uprising that shook the dynastic foundations. The founder of the Ming, Zhu Yuanzhang, arose out of just such a sect before he turned against his followers and embraced orthodox Confucianism upon assuming power in 1368. Likewise, mid 19th-century Taiping rebels embraced elements of Christianity as they proclaimed the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace that nearly toppled the Qing Dynasty."

Continue reading at “Spiritual Dissent: Falun Gong, the Communist Party and their apocalyptic struggle for China


Anonymous said...

Nice! I was definitely thinking about picking up "China's New Confucianism". Karaoke and Confucian ideals???? Now I just have to.

Anonymous said...

Nice book list! Just in time for winter. I was definitely eying "China's New Confucianism" at the bookstore last time. Now I just have to check it out!

Mark Anthony Jones said...

I purchased a copy of Bells' book over the weekend after reading this review. Bell has certainly altered my understanding of Confucianism. I find his
argument in favour of normalising polygamy through the institutionalisation of "time-limited engagements" to be quite revolutionary in fact.