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Mixed Reaction to China’s Plan to Send Artists to Countryside

FILE - Gallery visitors view 'Chairman Mao inspects the Guangdong Countryside' by Chinese artist Chen Yanning at the 'Mahjong' exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Art at the Kunsthalle museum in Hamburg, Germany.
FILE - Gallery visitors view 'Chairman Mao inspects the Guangdong Countryside' by Chinese artist Chen Yanning at the 'Mahjong' exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Art at the Kunsthalle museum in Hamburg, Germany.

Beijing's recently announced plan to send artists and filmmakers to the countryside to learn from rural communities and “form a correct view on art” is drawing both praise and criticism.

In a move critics call reminiscent of the country’s Cultural Revolution — when, from 1966 to 1976, artists and intellectuals were sent to the countryside to do manual labor — China's media and film watchdog unveiled the program December 1.

"The administration will ... send scriptwriters, directors and major casting staff for five films and TV programs on a given theme to live among the masses each year," state media reported, citing program guidelines by China's State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

“It’s still not very clear what it will actually mean, whether people will be sent to go and live in the countryside or sent to make documentaries about the countryside,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei, a Beijing-based media research firm. “It’s compared in the western media to the Cultural Revolution, which I think gives people the wrong idea, because this is not the time of the Cultural Revolution. [Chinese] society is very different.”

Anchee Min, a Chinese-born, U.S.-based writer who famously chronicled her youth in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, says she welcomes the new program because she believes Chinese literature has become too commercial.

“My first reaction was ‘it’s about time,’ because the profit-driven market has been China’s main thing for over 25 years, and everything is for money, and that’s pretty much out of control right now, and it’s kind of starting to hurt the children, the next generation,” said Min, author of more than five works of historical-fiction on Chinese culture. “I go back to China every year and ship boxes of books. It used to be quality literature, but nowadays there are no decent books, really. I find the boxes getting smaller and smaller.”

The new program follows an October speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping who implored artists and writers to promote socialist values and reject the “stench of money,” comments that Chinese media compared to Mao Zedong’s 1942 speech calling on artists to support communist efforts.

According to Judith Shapiro of American University, who has studied China’s cultural reforms and co-authored several books on the country's intellectual life, the arts have long been considered a vital part of communist society.

“The notion under socialism has always been that artists and writers are always engineers of human souls, and the duty of artists and writers under socialism is to help the state to mold a kind of citizen that has a healthy outlook,” she said.

Shapiro said recent market pressures have not always yielded the best artistic efforts in China.

“To an extent in literature and the arts, there has been a kind of turn to sex and violence as a way of simply selling copies or getting more viewers, so I think that’s where the Communist Party is coming from, but, that said, people stopped believing this stuff a long time ago,” she said, referring to prior government efforts to influence the country's arts and cultural output.

Goldkorn, however, believes the program to send artists to the country to live for at least 30 days sends a chilling message to those who want to express their own views.

“It’s difficult to see how it will have a beneficial effect on the arts when the room for free expression is so constrained,” he said. “Does that mean if you send people who have [spent] the last two years making TV dramas about urban people with family and real estate problems to the countryside for a month, [that] they’re going to come back and suddenly make deep works of significance that aren’t commercial?”

Min expressed similar reservations, saying that sending artists to rural areas might overstep boundaries of free expression.

“Yes, it’s a big thing on my mind,” she said. “Even though I support Xi Jinping’s point of view — and that he has the guts to come down and do this — it’s a very sensitive issue for us, because the memory of the Cultural Revolution, of Mao’s purge, is still fresh, and we haven’t really officially started to deal with what happened during the Cultural Revolution, and the spiritual pollution.”

But Chinese people, she added, have gained political maturity since the Cultural Revolution, and may reject efforts that go “too far.”

According to Goldkorn, Xi’s arts campaign is just another part of the Chinese leader’s involvement in all aspects of his country’s life.

“President Xi is more interested in everything than his predecessor [Hu Jintao] — foreign policy, the economy, the Internet, arts and culture — he’s trying to put his mark on every aspect of life in China, and this is one feature,” he said.

Numerous media outlets have reported on Xi's break from the traditional, collective leadership of Communist party rule, as he increasingly assumes personal supervision of myriad government reforms. Whether his efforts at cultural revitalization are going "too far," however, may be a question for filmmakers and artists to address as they take the long view of Chinese life from the countryside.