Chinese Cultural and Creative Industries and the struggle for Rights in Chinese Opera.

Author:Ma, Haili
Position:Cultural Rights and Global Development


The concept of "Rights" may be universally recognised, and universal in its theoretical application, but is always subject to national, regional and cultural political economy. Indeed even where a country is signatory to international treatises (in 1997 China ratified The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights or ICESCR), it does not follow that the terms of the treatises will be self-evident in a regional or local cultural context. The context of this paper is China--as a society whose conditions of development is its recent socio-cultural history. Indeed, China has recently been supportive of the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), and the following Sustainable Development Goals (the SDG's, from 2016), and also various cultural trends in creative cities, intangible cultural heritage, the arts and creative industries. Nonetheless, the concept of "cultural rights" in China is only partially intelligible (as is the concept of "human rights" in general--notwithstanding its new National Human Rights Action Plan 2016-2020).

In this article, I do not want to assess the relationship between human rights and culture, or attempt to discern the nature of cultural rights within Chinese society and its political regime. I wish to pursue a subject where the struggle for cultural rights can be identified as immanent to the socio-historical development of China's culture--that is to say, in a form whose conditions are the ideological shifts in China's stratified governance, enduring Communist Party (the CCP), and the management of economy and demography. The ideological shifts are vast, and here I can only refer to the arts and creative industries, but it is possible to articulate how the arts and creative industries have become a site for a struggle of legitimacy--for both artists and Communist Party. This article attempts to untangle this interrelated struggle, and with a view to understanding the concept of "rights" in a sense that registered the complexity of a political economy only obliquely related to Western norms. A "right" in China is not a simple self-assertion or self-evident in its application; it is embedded in a complex struggle for identity, legitimacy and authority, and always involves culture.

Chinese Opera and Chinese Cultural Industries

On 15th October 2014, after Xi Jinping's inauguration, the President gave Talks on Literature and Art at the Beijing People's Congress. In the Speech, Xi articulated that "arts and artists must not lose direction in the wave of market economy, must not be the slave of capital" and that "the future of Chinese cultural industries was to be anchored on traditional art forms" (China News, 2015). After having delivered the Beijing Speech, in December 2014, Xi, along with all six members of the China Central Standing Committee of the CCP--the most powerful decision making group in China--attended a Chinese Opera performance in celebration of the New Year. This extremely rare occasion was broadcast nationally and internationally (Xinhua Net, 2017).

There are two 'firsts' in the above events: this was the first time since Mao Zedong's 1942 Yan'an 'Talks on Literature and Art' that any leading CCP chairman had delivered a speech on the role of arts and artists (using the same title). Secondly, this is the first time since Mao's era that CCP leading members have collectively attended a Chinese opera performance, and which has been repeated annually to this day. This paper explores the significance of Chinese opera in relation to the CCP ideological evolution, contextualised in the broader and significant cultural industries reform. China market reform was launched in 1978 in selected rural areas under the theme of the "responsibility system". Once it proved successful, in the mid 1980s, it was expanded to urban cities, across material and art sectors. Under this scheme, art institutions take responsibility for their own economic survival, and individual artists are encouraged to create and make profit outside the institutions. Market reform may have accelerated since 1992 (following the Tiananmen Square event) but for the art institutions, it was not until the early 2000s that art market reform was intensified with a newly emerging discourse of Cultural and Creative Industries. In 2004, the phrase 'Cultural and Creative Industries' first arrived in Shanghai when the Shanghai Creative Industries Development Forum 2004, the first of its kind in China, was held in Shanghai (Li 2011: 13). The discourse follows closely the 1998 UK policy of reviving the post-industrial society through culture and creativity (DCMS, 1998). It was not until 2009, however, that Chinese national policy adopted the term and formed a visible policy discourse. Between the policy synonyms of cultural industries, cultural economy, creative industries and creative economy, China preferred "Cultural and Creative Industries"--hereafter, CCI (White and Xu, 2012). Since 2010, we have seen intensified nationwide art market restructuring under the new name of CCI reform. China's new political and economic ambition is set to make the CCI its pillar economy by 2020 (Zhang, 2017, Ma, 2015, White and Xu, 2012, Su, 2011, Zheng, 2010, Hartley and Montgomery, 2009, O'Connor, 2009, Chang 2009, Kong, 2005, Keane, 2004).

In the monograph, Urban Politics and Cultural Capital, the case of Chinese opera (Ma, 2015), the author defines the interrelation between the struggle of Chinese art market reform/CCI reform in the new millennium and the CCPs' struggle in retaining political (representative) legitimacy. This is, as the author argues, because Chinese opera has been, and remains, the popular art form amongst peasants and workers. Under Mao, Chinese opera was institutionalised and Chinese artists were provided unprecedented political capital, and were made the new elite class. This act ensured that the historically repressed social class, and their associated art forms, gained distinction, which in turn provided the CCP with identified representation and legitimacy. In the post-Mao era, opera institutions are placed under dual pressures of gaining economic success whilst supporting CCP ideological legitimacy. Chinese opera companies are forced to abandon the traditional Chinese opera audience of the peasants and workers, who cannot provide the required economic success and legitimacy, whilst struggling to reach the new middle-class audience and nurture their new taste towards traditional opera. In this process, Chinese opera struggles to articulate its value and representation; such struggle mirrors directly the CCP ideological evolution in articulating its own representation and legitimacy (Ma, 2015: 2-10).

This article expands the above argument in relation to China's art market reforms within the latest discourse of cultural and creative industries. Contextualized in the case study of Xi'an Qinqiang (Qin opera) institution reform in the early 21st century, this paper argues that Xi Jinping's inaugurated speech on Literature and Art, together with the CCP's leading members collective opera viewing, highlight the urgency of the CCP's re-articulation of its representation and legitimacy. This paper suggests that despite fundamental alterations in CCP ideological representation, the reason for the CCP retaining legitimacy lies in the unique regional-central government structure and the social mediator role of the artists. The continued negotiation between central (ideology), regional (urbanization) and social community (artists) levels, supporting each other for their own survival and legitimacy, forms the structure of China's latest art market reform, in the name of "cultural and creative industries".

This paper consists of two parts. Part one conveys three key concepts of cultural and creative industries: cultural policy, urban development and artists--contextualized in terms of China's political, economic and social conditions. Part two exemplifies the uniqueness of Chinese cultural industries through a case study of Xi'an Qinqiang company reform, which took place in the late 2000s and early 2010s. For the completion of this paper, a one month period of field research took place in Xi'an, with the assistance of the Xi'an Arts Research Institution. Around twenty interviews were conducted, including scholars, performers, directors, senior administrators and audience members. The field research data forms the empirical basis of the argumentation.

Part 1: Discourse of Chinese Cultural and Creative Industries

CCP Ideology vs. Cultural Policy

It has been suggested that China does not have a national culture policy. Instead, the CCP has provided systematic direction for political, economic and cultural policy making (Wang, 2017; Su, 2015; Ma, 2015; Zhang, 2010). In this section, we will focus on the evolution of CCP ideology and how it influences Chinese art market development.

Fei Xiaotong, the founding figure of Chinese sociology, states in his book From the Soil (1947/1992) that the foundation of Chinese society emerges from the rural. In the creation of Modern China in the early twentieth century, whilst the Nationalist Party relied on economically powerful middle-class entrepreneurs to gain legitimacy, the Communist Party turned to the rural peasants and working class for support, (and which made up over 90 percent of the total population). In 1942, Mao Zedong delivered his famous 'Talks on Literature and Art' from the then CCP's headquarters in Yan'an. In this talk, Mao articulated that "our literature and art are for the workers, the class that leads the revolution; and peasants, the most numerous and most steadfast of our allies in the revolution" (1972: 29). The CCP gained a founding legitimacy and then ruling power through the support of the peasants and workers--with the promise of representing the historically repressed underclass and turning them into the new...

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