Blast from the Past: Chinese nostalgia for the 1980s in the 2010s

In a speech at the 35th anniversary of academic exchanges between the United States and China earlier this summer, David Moser, one of the doyens of the expat community in Beijing, recounted a recent conservation with a friend. He asked his Chinese classmate which word best summed up the 1980s in Beijing. The classmate, without hesitation, responded: romantic. As Moser reflected on his days exploring Beijing and studying Chinese, showing pictures of his old bicycle and mounds of cabbage piled high in preparation for winter, he decided his classmate was correct. For the duration of Moser’s speech, the next speaker, Shi Yigong, current Qinghua University professor and a student at Qinghua from 1985-1989 smiled and nodded his head. Moser was right.

A wave of 1980s nostalgia seems to be slowly bubbling to the surface in Chinese popular culture and collective memory. Thus far, it is most apparent in film and television. This trend marks a much needed addition to the usual historical dramas one encounters on the big and small screen that are generally dominated by Qing dynasty palace intrigue and the war against Japan. When a headline in The Global Times declares, without a hint of irony, that “Prime Time TV to be more anti-Fascist,” 1980s nostalgia is quite welcome, if only for slightly diversifying the cultural landscape.

Now for some examples.

One of last year’s most popular movies, 中国合伙人, centered on the friendship of three classmates at Peking University in the 1980s and the founding of the English-language training center that closely resembles New Oriental (新东方). From a certain point of view, it is a propaganda film about the company. That said, the first part of the movie is really about the sense of possibility that had a hold students over students in the 1980s. China was changing and everyone, at least as the movie portrays, tried to define their dream (梦想) and figure out how to fulfill it. The English title of the film directly reflects this sense of possibility: American Dreams in China. One of the few English-language reviews of the film in Variety, called it “indulgently retro.” Of course it was; that was the whole point. As the credits rolled, the movie closed with pictures of now-famous entrepreneurs when they got their start: This story, the film seemed to say, might also be yours.

Likewise, a popular TV show this summer, 相爱十年,begins at a university in the late 1980s and follows group of classmates through the intervening decade. “Going into the seas,” (下海), a series from a few years ago, recounts the experience of starting up a business in the 1980s; “Post-80” (80后) traces the lives of people born after 1980 through the early 2000s; the upcoming film (一生一世) with Xie Tingfeng and Gao Yuanyuan takes the same approach, following the course of the relationship between two people for thirty years. Even the new TV series about Deng Xiaoping might fall into this genre of 1980s nostalgia as it covers the years between 1976 and 1984, the time Deng started to gain momentum in the Reform and Opening Period.

Why all the seeming nostalgia for the 1980s?

In analyzing the popularity of Mad-Men, the inimitable Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker, proposes the “Golden Forty-Year Rule” of American culture. This rule offers a simple and convincing explanation for cycles of American memory: “The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past.” His explanation for the forty-year cycle is equally elegant. The people in charge of creating cultural content—the “gatekeepers,” and “the “suits who make the calls”— are, “and always have been, largely forty-somethings, and the four-decade interval brings us to a period just before the forty-something was born.” The forty-year gap, Gopnik continues, is always a period when “when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.”

Does this rule have explanatory power in China? The wave of 1980s nostalgia in China is, according to the ““Golden Forty-Year Rule,” a bit ahead of schedule. This makes sense. Things in China usually take place of a sped up timetable. But Gopnik already has an answer. Beyond the forty-year cycle there is also a twenty-year one “by which the forty-something recall their teen-age years.”
This second cycle fits the current climate of Chinese cultural nostalgia. Take Yu Minhong, the founder of New Oriental, and the central character in 中国合伙人. Now in his early fifties, the bulk of the movie looks back at his formative time at Peking University. Here, it is important to mention Gopnik again. These waves of nostalgia spring up not simply because they are “a good setting for a story” but because it “was a good setting for you.” Nostalgia is always a self-selecting story. In all the shows and movies named in above there is no mention of campaigns about spiritual pollution or the student protests at the end of the decade.
It is also important to keep in mind that nostalgia for the 1980s is just one of several competing historical memories. At a talk last year, Wang Hui, professor at Qinghua University and generally regarded, perhaps unwillingly, as a spokesperson of the New Left, recounted a recent trip to North Korea. When he mentioned that houses there were still allocated under the fenpei system and visits to the doctor were free, the audience burst out into applause. Their memory and interpretation of the 1980s is certainly a lot different than the one embodied in the recent wave of films and tv shows.

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Why isn’t China commemorating the anniversary of the Russo-Japanese War?

It has been hard to get away from the Sino-Japanese War. To commemorate the 120th anniversary of the start of the war on August 1, 1894, Southern Weekend devoted a special section to the topic. Newspaper stands across were filled to the brim with anniversary issues. Even The Wall Street Journal published an interview about the war’s legacy with Ma Young, an historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom pointed out earlier this year, in China, the 120th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese War is much more significant than the 100th anniversary World War I.

Thinking about the origins, course, as well as short and long-term consequences of this war is quite logical but also diverts attention from other anniversaries: The Russo-Japanese War began 110 years ago in 1904. Admittedly, the number 110, reckoning according to the Western or Chinese calendar, does not exactly set the historical imagination on fire, but, for some, it was “the first great war of the 20th century.” Though fought between Russia and Japan, in many ways the conflict was about China, particularly influence in Manchuria.

As commemorations of the Sino-Japanese War peaked in early August, Professor Cheng Yinhong (程映虹) of Delaware State University published two articles that went against the grain of this year’s historical discourse. Professor Cheng is not concerned about the Sino-Japanese War but the Russo-Japanese War. He first asks: “Why doesn’t China commemorate the Ruso-Japanese War?” and in last week’s edition of Southern Weekend he ponders “Why did Zhou Enlai not forget the Russo-Japanese War.”

In answering the first question, he seizes on the current political atmosphere in China. As he points out, previous anniversaries of the Sino-Japanese War did not receive as much attention or produce as much reflections as the one this year. With the perceived rise of the Japanese right leading to worries about the rebirth of Japanese militarism, the Sino-Japanese War takes on much more significance. Conversely, with Sino-Soviet relations not nearly so fraught, the Russo-Japanese War gets played down.

Professor Cheng, however, thinks this is a problem: the anniversary of the Russo-Japanese War in China should actually be played up. China’s greater shame came not in the Sino-Japanese War, which the Qing actively contested and lost, but in the Russo-Japanese War when the Qing let two other countries fight on and over its territory, without doing anything at all and accepted the final result. Making the same point in a metaphor, the Sino-Japanese War, Cheng argues, was fought on the Qing’s doorstep, while the Russo-Japanese War was fought inside the Qing’s house but without the Qing actively opposing it. Isn’t that the greater shame (chiru 耻辱)?

Certain figures at the time thought so. Cheng first recounts the story of why Lu Xun switched from medicine to literature. While studying abroad in Japan, Lu Xun, saw photos from the war in which a Japanese soldier prepared to execute a Chinese man accused of spying for the Russians while a number of Chinese observers made no acts of protest. As he wrote in the preface to his first collection of short stories, this set him on the course of being a “literary physician,” to diagnose, treat, and hopefully cure what he saw as much more serious problems than physical disease. Cheng also shares the story of a young Zhou Enlai visiting the battleground of the Russo-Japanese War with the father of a primary school classmate. This visit, Cheng insists, stayed with him. When negotiating the exit of Soviet forces from China in 1955, the Russian side wanted to construct a memorial to its soldiers that died in the Russo-Japanese War but Zhou staunchly refused.

Cheng thinks that the excessive focus on 1894 instead of 1904 becomes a distorting mirror (haha jing 哈哈镜). Next year, he mentions, is also an important one in Chinese historical memory, the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan and the end of the World War II. Cheng, though, thinks it likely that next year’s discourse will focus more on China’s victory rather than yet another unequal treaty: the concessions granted to the Soviet Union in Manchuria, privileges granted in a treaty that Russia had lost in war 40 year before.

These articles serve as an interesting and unexpected addition to the growing discourse on the significance of 2014. It is always good be jolted out of conventional patterns of thought. However, while acknowledging the usefulness of the articles it is also important not to lose track of their broader point. They accept the narrative of national shame but insist that it is artificially directed toward the wrong events and years. Put plainly, the argument runs as follows: the Sino-Japanese War was bad for China but the Russo-Japanese War was worse. Instead of questioning the and moving beyond narratives of national shame, advocated by historians Orville Schell and John Delury, these articles embrace it. In this way, they are not too different from much of the commentary on the Sino-Japanese War.

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China-Hands, China-Watchers, Friends of China and 知华派: What does it mean to understand China?

Buried in the recent controversy over Yanjing Academy at Peking University is a debate about what it means for foreigners to study, research and hopefully understand at least a little bit about China. As tensions between the Peking University administration and the student body about the plans for Yanjing Academy crested in mid-July, Jiang Guohua, 姜国华, head of the General Office of Yanjing College, and Jiang Langlang, 蒋朗朗, spokesperson for Peking University revealed more about the goals of the proposed college as well as some interesting rhetorical choices and terminology about foreigners who study China.

Jiang Guohua, when describing the purpose of the new academy let slip a line unlikely to make it into the institution’s English-language recruitment materials. After stating that Yanjing Academy is in the service of China’s soft-power goals, he went into the specifics of what types of foreigners it hopes to attract and develop: ones who understand China, love China, make a contribution to the world, who know China and are a friend of China: ( “燕京学堂”是培养了解中国的人才,这是我们服务国家战略很重要的一部分,我们希望培养了解中国,热爱中国,奉献世界、知华友华的人.)。

Jiang Langlang supplements this position by saying that Yanjing Academy has two important goals: first, to educate students in Chinese history and culture so they become someone knowledge about and interested in China (比较系统地了解中国历史文化和现实,对中国文化和情况产生浓厚兴趣,将来成为一个对中国有兴趣的知华派). Second, and very much related to the first, he believes Yanjing College will help students think about questions from a Chinese perspective and to recognize the special aspects of each country’s development. (试着从中国文化和中国的角度去观察问题,思考问题,自觉地防止西方中心主义的思维,全面认识人类文明的多样性和各国发展道路的独特性).

It is interesting to note what type of terminology Jiang Guohua and Jiang Langlang use and leave out when discussing the goals of Yanjing Academy. They eschew the familiar Zhongguo tong (中国通), usually translated as China-hand or China-expert and instead go with Zhihua pai (知华派). Jiang Guohua also uses the term friend of China (友华的人). In order to think more about what it means to be a 知华派, it is worthwhile to briefly overview the terminology, in Chinese and English, of the various ways to describe foreigners studying, researching and thinking about China.

Let’s begin with English-language terms that were once common but now are comparatively rare: Orientalist and Sinologist. Except for the names of certain Academic groups (The American Oriental Society) the first term is not used that much.  For fairly obvious reasons of political correctness it is rare for someone to self-identify as an Orientalist. Likewise, not that many people use the term Sinologist to describe themselves. For one thing, the creation, expansion and institutionalization of modern Chinese studies, at least in the United States, meant moving away Sinology, a field that was perceived as antiquarian, irrelevant and, damningly, European. Like so much else of the history of Chinese studies in the United States, the attack on Sinology, as a term and as a field, tied very closely to the attitudes and beliefs of John King Fairbank. He thought Sinology—as he conceived of it, the pouring over of ancient texts to make narrow philological arguments— as a refuge for “nitpickers”[1]; its adherents too often becoming “the servants of the language, if not its bond slaves.”[2] Sinology was on the way out; identifying as a historian or social scientist was on the way in.

China-hand, a term about as far away from Sinologist as possible, solidified in the period before, during and after World War II, and implied more knowledge about the present conditions in China rather than its ancient history, which remained the domain of Sinologists. It ultimately became closely associated State Department officials of the mid-20th century, who were often born in China, the offspring of merchants or missionaries, and though well-versed in Chinese language, culture and history, they used this knowledge to report on and evaluate the strength, weakness and future prospects of the KMT and CCP. They were chiefly concerned with present-day domestic Chinese politics and social conditions rather than, say, Buddhism in the 9th century. Being a China-hand, though, was dangerous, especially in the 1950s, when foreign service officers John Stuart Service and John Payton Davies were purged from the State Department for correctly predicting the triumph of the Communist Party and being viewed as too sympathetic to the Red Cause. Now, it seems the term-China hand appears most frequently in books by and about this group of people.[3]

During the latter part of the 20th century, the term China-watcher slowly came to prominence in American discourse. The verb “watch” is key. From 1949 to the late 1970s, Americans could not go to China, the best they could do was to “watch” it through various means at their disposal: reading The People’s Daily, trying to say in touch with old contacts, gathering whatever they could from outposts in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The job of a China-watcher was (and is) to read the tea leves of Zhongnanhai and try to figure out what is going on; they are likely be wrong more often than right.  The term was a creature of the Cold-War. A google ngram shows the phrase taking off after 1960, peaking in 1974 and falling steadily since then. This Cold War legacy and the idea that China-watching involves looking into things one shouldn’t is very clear in UCLA political scientist Richard Baum’s delightfully titled memoir: China Watcher, Confessions of a Peking Tom. 

By comparison the phrase, Zhongguo tong, roughly translated as China expert, gets thrown around a fair bit, especially to individual foreigners who impress locals with their knowledge of the language. After a brief conversation, even a fairly modest command of Chinese language might win the compliment that you are a Zhongguo tong. However, at an official level, a much more charged terms dominates current discourse: a friend of China.

Compared to the phrase Zhongguo tong, being a “friend of China” is a much more overtly political phrase. A “friend of China” is an identity that can be conferred by China, self-proclaimed or both. On his recent trip to Venezuela, Xi Jinping hailed the country’s former leader Hugo Chavez as a “great friend to the Chinese people.” A Chinese diplomat visiting India called Narenda Mondi, the recently elected Prime Minister, “an old friend of China.” Henry Kissinger, perhaps one of the oldest friends of China, professes to the appellation and Chinese officials confirm he is just that. One can be a Zhongguo tong but not a “friend of China,” as official discourse defines it (think Perry Link and Andrew Nathan) and a “friend of China” but not a Zhongguo tong.

How does one become a “friend of China,” at least form the Chinese point of view? The minimum requirement is not doing or saying anything that might “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” This club is also a diverse one: including Angelina Jolie, any national leader who meets with the Dali Lama and, as a wonderful Danwei map illustrates, entire countries.
Here we get much closer to the political nature behind the “friend of China” discourse. Hurting someone’s feelings is not what a friend does. Uttering the wrong opinion at the wrong time means you hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and are not a friend of China.

The question, then, is where the term 知华派 stands in relation to being a “friend of China,” or a Zhongguo tong. Compared with the latter two terms, Zhihua pai is a newer one. In Chinese it appears the nomenclature originally referred to Japanese government officials who had spent time in China. The term grew beyond its original scope. A Chinese article from several years ago indentifies three generations of 知华派 in the United States: the first-generation of John Fairbank, A. Doak Barnett and Ezra Vogel, the second generation of Michael Oksenberg, Ken Liberthal and David Lampton, the third-generation of Elizabeth Economy and Susan Shirk.

A few things stand out about these groupings. They are all academics though a number of them maintain or maintained government of think-tank positions. Next, and significantly, at one time or another, a lot of them have said or written things that while not overtly critical to the point of being accused of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” they also might not be referred to as a great “friend of China.” Being a Zhihua pai, then, is perhaps a middle ground between these charged discourses. However, the use the character 知 in 知华派 implies a kind of certainty that is always and necessarily lacking when it comes to researching and writing about Chinese politics and society. Perhaps the most important attribute of someone who is named or self-indentifies as a Zhihua pai is always remembering how much about China they do not know.

Its also hopefully an attribute the “next generation of global leaders” who study at Peking University’s Yanjing Academy and as Schwartzman Scholars at Qinghua Univeristy will be able to cultivate.

[1] John Fairbank, China Watch (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1987), 41.

[2] Paul Evans, John Fairbank and the American Understanding of Modern China, (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 62.

[3]See, for example John Payton Davies China Hand: An Autobiography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Lilley, James R. Lilley and Jeffrey Lilley, China Hands: Nine Decades Of Adventure, Espionage, And Diplomacy In Asia. (New York: Public Affairs, 2004). A google ngram shows that the term peaked in the 1930s and 1940s but fell off quite quickly after that.

 

 

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The Academic Arms Race and Yanjing Academy at Peking University

Peking University, China’s most famous and most prestigious, increasingly suffers from PR problems. Of course, a steady stream of foreign dignitaries drop by the campus, like First Lady Michelle Obama, providing great photo-ops and gobs of prestige, but in the past year, conflicts between the administration and faculty and the administration and the student body increasingly spilled into the open. First came the fight over the expulsion the Xia Yeliang, professor in the economics department, that became an international story and a symbol of larger debates about academic freedom as Wellesley College faculty members signed a petition saying that if Xia was fired, the college should “reconsider” its newly established ties with Peking University.

More recently, faculty, students and alumni openly questioned and actively opposed Peking University’s plans for Yanjing Academy (燕京学堂) , a one year M.A. program, taught in English, with special facilities based at the historic center of the Beijing campus, providing scholarships and stipends for 100 students a year, 65 from foreign countries and 35 from China the opportunity. The program is aimed at the global elite. When Michelle Obama visited the campus in March of this year, Peking University President, Wang Enge, hoped that the First Lady’s daughters would one day come to study at Yanjing Academy. Sasha and Malia, it seems, were admitted before they applied.

Internal opposition to the proposed campus on Peking University took place on several levels, some general to university governance and others specific to this case. First, and a common complaint wherever there is a university, is the claim that administrators did not adequately consult teachers and students about the proposed plans for Yanjing Academy. Students and faculty think they were hoodwinked; administrators insist they consulted with key stakeholders and went through appropriate channels. Students and faculty, the administration points out, tend not to pay attention to projects like these until they are already far along. It is an issue of communication.

Next, comes the worry about location. Plans for Yanjing Academy put it in one of the historical hearts of Peking University, 静园 . In an earlier period the buildings around the area were dormitories (Li Keqiang lived there). In more recent years it was was home to various humanities departments before they moved to a larger, more modern building. Right now the area looks like this. The plans for the dormitories of Yanjing College call for the space to look the second picture in this article. Students thought these plans would ruin a historic campus center.

Related to the planned location of Yanjing College, but at a more abstract level, are concerns about how the academic traditions of Peking University mesh with the Yanjing Academy. Critics claim that the creation of a “school within a school” (校中校) is incompatible with the university’s traditional emphasis on open and equal education (公平教育). It was unclear to students whether or not they would still have access to this part of campus. A recent issue of Southern Weekend featured a large, color photo of a locked gate in 静园. On this level, protests by the faculty and student body were most effective. Peking University decided to move the site of the proposed school.

At a more practical level, Mao Liang (毛亮), a professor in Beijing University’s English Department, says that the stated goals of the program, educating people about China and increasing understanding between young people won’t really work. If that is the goal, Bei Da should change all of its programs so that Chinese and foreign students live, study and eat together for four years. One year, the thinking goes, is not really enough. In a powerful close to the essay, Mao points out that the quick, cursory and isolated experience offered by Yanjing Academy might actually serve to exacerbate differences rather than bridge them.

Beyond opposition to the planned campus, another discourse probes the motivation for creating Yanjing College in the first place. As one professor surmised at an off-campus meeting to discuss the recent controversy, the Yanjing Academy cannot be separated from the Schwartzman Center at Qinghua University. In 2013 Stephen Schwartzman, founder of the private equity behemoth Blackstone, donated money $100 million and raised another $250 million for the creation of a college on the Qinghua campus to host Chinese and foreign students in a one-year M.A. program, taught in English, offering majors in public policy, international relations, economics and business and engineering, all tied to contemporary China. If Qinghua has something like this, the thinking goes, Peking University needs one too.
That is an important point and one easily discernable from the proliferation of American university centers, campuses and facilities around China and the world: NYU in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, Yale in Singapore, Duke in Kunshan, the Harvard Center in Shanghai, the Columbia University and University of Chicago Center in Beijing and the Stanford University Center on the campus of Peking University. These centers though, can be the source of tension between the faculty, the administration and the student body. The former question the academic freedom and integrity of the news school in far-flung places without traditional American protections on intellectual discourse and freedom of speech and protest while administrators stress the need to internationalize and plant the university’s flag abroad.

In an era when everyone in higher education throws around words like “globalization,” “global citizenship” it is important to think about the root of these ideas in a university setting. Mao Liang makes the perceptive point that international education cannot be manufactured or forced by the administration but instead is something that evolves naturally out of academic interest. I meet you at a conference, like your research and invite you to come lecture at my university. Eventually we perhaps exchange students. The scale increases. Mao thinks that is how international exchange should happen.

This vision, one many academics are likely inclined to agree with, is an admittedly idealistic. From the point of view of administrators, haunted by the specter of what “peer institutions” are doing and accomplishing, this interpretation of how international education is supposed to happen likely seems too slow and on too small a scale. Despite the many differences between Chinese and American academics, the recent controversy over Yanjing Academy reveals one commonality: students and faculty seems naturally inclined to administrators when it comes to big campus projects.

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Age of Anxiety: More Dispatches from the Chinese Conference Circuit

If it is July in China, it must be conference season. While American academic meeting are spread throughout the year, ones in China seem to be packed into the summer months. If an conference organizer wants the event to be “international”—and many do—it is easier to secure the participation of foreigners, particularly from the United States, in the summer and not, say, February.

The rhythms, formalities and language of a Chinese academic conference are quite distinct from American ones. First, lets look at style. A Chinese conference will have an opening and closing ceremony with various leaders thanking each other for helping put together the conference and discuss the significance of the topic. These speeches are more about statistics than real substance: so many people from so many countries participated, there were so panels on such and such topics. An opening and closing ceremony implies formality—suits and ties—but in fact some people wear T-shirts and shorts. The same goes for the conference itself, no one wears a tie. Though the sartorial freedom for American academics, especially younger ones, generally ends when a conference begins (no one looking for a job wants to come across as a ruffian), in China the freedom to wear what you want extends through the conference. After the opening ceremony comes most important part of the conference: the group picture. If there is not a group picture, it is as though the conference did not actually happen. There needs to be photographic evidence that a certain group of people gathered in a certain place at the same time to discuss a certain topic. The conference program does not cut it.

Next, especially from the graduate student perspective, the financial arrangements for Chinese conferences come as pleasant surprise. Unlike American conferences where travel, lodging and food are generally self-financed or partially covered through a small institutional grant, some Chinese conferences cover the costs of hotels and meals and perhaps provide a travel subsidy or reimbursement. Of course, these arrangements involve a sacrifice of some freedom. Instead of being on your own in a new city to explore various restaurant options, you end up eating at the same hotel restaurant nine times over three days. These arrangements get at perhaps the biggest difference between American and Chinese conferences: the former provides more freedom while the later more stability.

Moving from style to substance, the July conference circuit revealed some abstract but important worries within the Chinese academic community. Though the new book by Evan Osnos, the former New Yorker correspondent in Beijing, is titled Age of Ambition, listening to the opinions of political scientists, international relations scholars and professors in media and communication studies, a more appropriate title for the book might have been Age of Anxiety.

As one professor of media studies at Peoples University of China (人民大学) nicely summarized, one of the biggest worries in China, from the point of view of the government as well as intellectuals, is that China has no values to offer the world. It can’t talk about freedom or democracy. It can’t really talk about free trade. It can’t really talk about human rights.  At the moment, the only real concepts floating about are the Chinese Dream (中国梦), ideas about a peaceful rise (和平崛起) and Xi Jinping’s nascent and evolving rhetoric about an international relations security architecture “Asia for Asians.” The China Dream suffers from two important drawbacks: no one knows what it is and, by its nature, it is meant for domestic consumption and not for export. The peaceful rise of China is not a value with universal appeal but a reassurance to the rest of the world that looks increasingly hollow. Xi’s nascent talk about the evolving nature of Asian security architecture can easily be interpreted as simply another version of Japanese rhetoric in the period before and during World War II. None of these ideas have much crossover appeal.

At an academic level, this anxiety manifests itself in terms of creating Chinese theories of international relations, of communication of media studies, of sociology and in any of the other social sciences. Think if it in this way: the United States maintains a negative balance of trade with China, with more imports than exports. In intellectual exchange, however, the terms of trade are just the opposite. The U.S. exported theories in the major academic disciplines to China but Chinese intellectuals did not have much to offer in order to balance the trade in intellectual discourse. American faces a trade deficit but China faces an idea deficit.

The key dynamic at play here is whether Chinese intellectuals focus on critiquing theories produced in Western countries, in certain times and places, or whether they set out to create specifically home-made Chinese theories of international relations, communication or a host of other disciplines. At first glance, not much appears to separate these two positions, but in fact they are quite different. Several prominent American academics at July conferences noted that major theories entrenched in academic discourse were created by Caucasian from the Untied States and Europe and emerged and solidified in the years after World War II. These theories deserve to be critiqued. Doing so from different points of view enhances academic discourse. Creating Chinese-centered theories, however, risk the same shortcomings that plague current theories.

Historians, first personally inclined and later professional trained to, as Hu Shi advocates, talk less about –isms and more about problems, are not burdened by creating theories. Their task is already great enough—trying to explain how China has changed over time. At the 6th annual conference on Late Qing history sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there was no mention of theories but plenty of talk about politics, personalities, reforms and missed chances.

No matter at the level of theory or fact, there is still a lot to talk about at next summer’s conference circuit.

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Thoughts on Attending the Qinghua University International Relations Conference

Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Ukraine—it is quite difficult to keep up with all the recent developments in international politics. In fact, the seventh annual political science and international relations conference hosted by Qinghua University from June 5-7 expanded to three days this year rather than the normal two. There was a lot to talk about.

With 113 panels over two days filled with Chinese researches from all over the country and one day with more senior scholars from China and the United States, it was impossible to attend every interesting talk.  Topics ranged from current international headlines like China-Vietnam relations and stability in the Middle East the more abstract and academic question of how to become an effective teacher and productive researcher.  Panels about current events were often not much more than people simply giving their opinion on recent news. Although there is not much research behind these discussions, they do provide a way to gauge the pulse of some prominent people. The more overtly academic panels provided heaps of interesting tidbits about how young Chinese academics and graduate students view their own education (one Peking University  student was very critical of the training he received in the International Relations PhD program).

A number of panels focused on expansion of Chinese economic interests abroad. The Charhar Institute, an independent think-tank headed by Han Fangming, sponsored a three hour session on Business Diplomacy (公司外交), several forums focused on the recent strategy (but not quite yet a policy) of 一带一路 and several young researches in political economy organized a three hour session on China’s special economic diplomacy (中国特色的大国经济外交). Like at any conference, people haggled over definitions: What exactly do we mean by 公司外交? What is a 大国? Is China a 大国? In this case, though, with tacking on business and economics to the term diplomacy, the discussion never really got to key matter. How long can the PRC maintain its basic foreign policy principle of proclaiming not interfere with the internal affairs of other countries as it accumulates assets and interests abroad? No one addressed this issue directly. Perhaps one definition of a 大国 is a country where economic interests slowly come to trump established principles.

It was also interesting to attend several panels on the PRC’s public diplomacy and the general task of spreading Chinese culture abroad, especially in light of all the recent discussion about the proper role of Confucian Institutes. Several people in attendance had actually worked in Confucian Institutes abroad. As one participant observed, each year the themes of these panels are about the same but nothing seems to actually change: China’s public diplomacy is not really succeeding. People who had spent time teaching at Confucian Institutes, made an important and seldom-heard point about the content of the offered at these centers. The Confucian Institutes usually teach Chinese calligraphy and other types activities that are supposed to represent “traditional Chinese culture” but as one educator said, foreigners, especially ones without that much exposure to China, don’t really care about this kind of thing. Many Chinese people, she said, don’t do much calligraphy once they get past primary school (in the unrepresentative sample of people on the panel, no one did any calligraphy at all!). It was not a discussion about Confucian Institutes and limiting academic freedom but a more basic one about whether Confucian Institutes are succeeding in their stated mission.

This discussion confirmed a thought that I have been formulating for some time: China’s public diplomacy views China’s culture and history as its best asset and tries to spread it abroad. Instead, it is possible that the PRC’s best asset in is actually the Chinese people themselves, whose lives, aspirations and worries and hopes are not all that different from Americans. Unfortunately, this group does not play much of a role in Chinese public diplomacy.

The United States, of course, was the subject of numerous panels. In fact, it only took about 90 seconds into the first panel on the first day for the first mention of declining American hegemony. Later in the day, a group of Chinese political economists agreed that future historians would look back at the period between 2008 to 2013 as a key watershed in world history, an important break in the system of international relations that emerged after World War II.

Not all the panels about the U.S. had quite the same flavor of American decline. One young researcher from Qinghua just back from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins had an interesting project on youth voters in the United States. Diao Daming of the American research center at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, who understands U.S. Congressional politics better than most Americans (myself included), had a number of insightful remarks about the state of American studies in China: it is often too much simply in the service of policy.

The most interesting session took place at the end of the conference and was not so much a panel as a reading group. A number of media scholars read the newly translated version of Professor Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civil Life, and basically just got together for a seminar. The discussion was supposed to last 90 minutes; it went three hours and spilled over into dinner. It was a different crowd that the political scientists. They were no policy recommendations or predictions about the future course of US-China relations, just a number of very smart people coming together after having read a book to discuss the evolution of citizenship in American history and what citizenship meant in China today. Everything was on the table: from citizenship before and after Tiananmen to ideas about citizenship in the era of social media.

It was a very academic ending to a weekend concerned mostly with policy and international politics.

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Entertainment in an Age of Ambition: A Thought Experiment in the Future Histories of the Chinese Entertainment Industry

In the likely event that you have been detained with more serious matters, you might have missed all the celebrity scandals and other news in the Chinese entertainment industry during the first part of this year.  Even if you keep track of it, there was still a lot to digest.

First came the news that actor Wen Zhang cheated on his actress wife, Ma Yili, with one of his former co-stars for the show Naked Marriage (裸婚时代), Yao Di.  Wen, who co-starred in several shows with his wife, usually plays the role of the struggling youngster on the make. His apology on Weibo and his wife’s response was shared so many times that it made it into the international news.  The architects of China’s push to increase its soft power through movies, television and journalism likely did not envision Chinese celebrities making overseas news outlets due to marital issues.

A few weeks ago, the actor from last fall’s hit show Let’s Get Married (咋们结婚吧), Huang Haibo, was arrested for soliciting prostitution and detained for more than a week. The whole episode ignited another firestorm on Weibo and Wechat as Huang’s defenders said that he had not really done anything wrong since he was not married, did not have a girlfriend and was not taking advantage of his position of power in the entertainment industry to practice any “unwritten rules” i.e. promising to secure roles for young actresses in return for certain favors. His detractors, of course, stressed the simple fact that what he did was against the law.

Outside the realm of celebrity scandal, China announced that it would stop allowing websites to stream “The Big Bang Theory” and several other shows; Zhang Yimou released his most recent move “Coming Home” and the Shanghai and Beijing held their annual film festivals which continue to grow year after year.

Though it seems trivial, it is important to take the Chinese entertainment industry seriously, if only because the government does. In fact, the study of Chinese film is well-established in the academy and a number of interesting and informative works on the TV continue to emerge (See, for example, books by Ying Zhu). Chinese film, television and entertainment looks like a growth field now—for anthropologists, sociologists and media studies scholars—and in the future for historians. An interesting thought experiment is to brainstorm potential projects that might be written about the current period in the Chinese entertainment industry.

An important topic that stands out immediately is the waves of anxiety that generally fall under the question: “Why can’t we think of that?” This type of sentiment came to the fore with the King Fu panda movies and emerged again thanks to the recent popularity of the show “Dad, Where are we going?” that followed five celebrity dads and their kids as they traveled together in remote areas of China without computers, cell phone or their wives.   The show, whose first season was a surprise smash hit for Hunan Weishi and turned a bunch of five-year-olds into overnight celebrities, was not actually created in China. Instead, Hunan Weishi bought the rights to the original South Korean version. Here there are several potential research questions: How did people diagnose this problem? What prescriptions did they offer? Was the problem eventually solved?

Another worthwhile investigation might look at the relationship between celebrity scandals and politically sensitive stories.  For example, the arrest of the actor Huang Haibo for soliciting prostitution occurred at the same time as the anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam. On Weixin and Weibo, a common line of thinking held that these types of scandals always pop-up when censors want to distract people from more serious news stories. Here the research question is a simple but tricky: Does the government use the entertainment industry as a distraction? This project would be a tough one to carry out and would require the collaboration of scholars with different skill sets and interests but might uncover some interesting correlations, though getting at causation might be difficult.

A slightly more abstract but still worthwhile topic might be a study of masculinity in the early 20th century in terms of the rise and fall of certain male actors through an analysis of the characters they play and their personal scandals. For example, what will happen to the careers of Wen Jiang and Huang Haibo who before their recent incidents were both described as “中国好男人”? What is the social discourse about being a “good man”? How do these ideas get established? How do they change? How are they embodied in the lives and careers of certain actors?

Even though the gossip magazines that surround serious publications like “Southern Weekend,” at local newspaper stands look silly and unworthy of attention, they might actually be significant sources for present and future research on the Chinese entertainment industry in an Age of Ambition.

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