Wednesday, July 6, 2011

So many of the people I know in China have shed their old skins and picked up new lives

The final book I've read for my China Rican reading challenge was Jianying Zha's China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture. I'd mentioned in an early post that Boyfriend had this book from one of his college classes and it looked interesting enough. Learning about Chinese culture through their pop culture? Sounds good to me. Plus after finishing up Beijing Coma, which deals with the massacre at Tiananmen Square, I needed something up-lifting about this topic.

Zha focuses on a small period of time, from Tiananment to when the book is written in '95. She mentions the past only in order to give context to the direction things have gone but focuses on contemporary issues. This is what drew me to book. Well that and the bright colors. I wanted something to tell me that things weren't as pessimistic as I was feeling at the end of Beijing Coma. And I knew nothing of Chinese culture except the basic stereotypes that have filtered through my own pop culture. Even after reading this I can't say I know much, not because Zha does a bad job explaining and exploring the culture but because there is so much to know and obviously one book is not going to make me an expert. But this was an interesting introduction

Here's the thing: I'm not quite sure anyone's really explained to Zha what really constitutes pop culture. The book starts off on this foot, discussing the insanely popular soap opera Yearnings, how it came to be, how it's seen by different groups in China and some effects it's had on the culture. But after this she moves into city planning and architecture, avante guard movie making, literature and the business side of Hong Kong's proliferation in pop music. Not the music itself, but the way the company expanded and ran after internal changes. This was still interesting but not what I was lead to believe I would be reading.

Her chapter Yellow Peril about the author Jia Pingwa's book The Abandoned Capital probably does the best job of bridging the gap between the pop culture she say's she's going to talk about and the high art she actually tackles. The book captured the nation's attention because of the explicit, by China's standards anyway, sex scenes. The book was eventually banned, which of course just made the book that much more popular. She interviews the author about the response to his book as well as several "elite intellectuals" about the book and its affect on the culture. Maybe because this chapter had to do with a book I found it one of the most interesting ones.

Unless you're looking to learn more about China's culture in the years right after Tiananmen, I wouldn't recommend picking this up. It was interesting for what it was but if it hadn't been for this challenge I don't think I would have stuck with this book.

Title quote from page 7

Zha, Jianying. China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture. The New Press, 1995.