Is high-brow culture for the masses?

Earlier this week the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), China’s television authority, announced a clean-up of entertainment programming on the country’s 34 provincial satellite television channels, citing what it characterized as a worrying slide into lowbrow programs of questionable morality.

Beginning January 1, 2012, SARFT said it would limit the number of entertainment programs that could be aired by satellite channels, and that they would be required to offer no less than two hours of news content between 6pm and midnight.


[ABOVE: A live audience crowds in to watch "If You Are the One," a popular dating program on Jiangsu Satellite TV that has come under fire for being too "low-brow."]

Media scholar and CMP fellow Zhan Jiang (展江) has been one of the most outspoken critics of SARFT’s intrusion into entertainment programming. The following is an interview Zhan did last July with Phoenix Online, which the site re-ran this week in the midst of the debate about “low-brow” entertainment.

Phoenix Online Entertainment: Have you seen “If You Are the One?” or other programs like it? These kinds of programs have been accused of fabrication, of whipping up negative issues, of creating characters like gold-digging women and men who flaunt their wealth. How do you see this whole thing? [NOTE: "If You Are the One" (非诚勿扰) is a television dating program launched in January 2010 by Jiangsu Satellite Television.]

Zhan Jiang: I’ve watched a few episodes. As for concerns about fabrication, of puffing up certain topics and the like, I think this should be tolerated. This type of program is a necessary outcome of market economics, and so long as they do no great harm they should be tolerated.

As for questions of morality, talking about whether they are good or bad is fundamentally pointless. And what should be the moral standard here? Responsibility has an active dimension and a passive dimension. If doctors, police and lawyers and people in other professions maintain passive responsibility that already pretty good.

Phoenix Online Entertainment: If you’ve seen any recent episodes of “If You Are the One” you have the sense that it has become more restrained, and I understand this is because the State Administration of Radio Film and Television sent down an order for the clean-up [of such programs]. Do you think there’s a need to strengthen control of entertainment programs like this?

Zhan Jiang: To be perfectly honest, I don’t pay a great deal of attention to entertainment programming. But there is a place for them. I’m opposed to public authorities cracking down on the media. On the matter of public authorities cracking down on the media, I stand on the side of the media. And if, in turn, media do harm to the public, I stand on the side of the public. Whoever is in a position of weakness, that’s where I stand.

Phoenix Online Entertainment: But being in a position of weakness doesn’t necessarily mean one is in the right.

Zhan Jiang: Why must we be so intolerant about the so-called “three vulgarities”? Why should entertainment be so conservative? It’s like expecting those who are born slaves to consider the tastes of their masters. Why should underclasses [in our society] think about what elites think? On the surface the critics are all about goodness and morality, but in fact they are first and foremost intolerant.

Phoenix Online Entertainment: When phrases like, “I would rather weep in a BMW than smile from the back of a bicycle,” [emerge from entertainment programming], is this leading the audience to erroneous ideas in your view?

Zhan Jiang: Ma Nuo (马诺), [the contestant on "If You Are the One" who said these words], is guilty only of not being noble. If you launch accusations against her, does that ennoble you? In the entertainment industry, there are so many things that are far more “three-vulgar” than that. Entertainment programs have simply made us of various aspects of people’s natures.

When it comes down to it, ratings are a good thing! If you say they are bad, is that going to change anything? It changes nothing. Ratings are impossible to ignore for programming. This is the way its always been: few join the chorus of high-brow songs, while cheap ballads are sung by all. When the weaknesses and natural inclinations of human nature come out of the shadows, there are always those who make great pretensions to elegance and sigh about how things are getting worse.

7 Comments to “Is high-brow culture for the masses?”

  1. ltlee says:

    @Jon
    What did the court say about Chen Guangcheng?
    (Sorry for not able to respond sooner. I last time I respond to another poster, my post was block and I was informed with the something like the following “Slow down, you are posting too fast”.

  2. Jon says:

    Itlee, what is your view on the continuing incarceration of Chen Guangcheng?

  3. ltlee says:

    @andao
    Concerning Chinese government not following Chinese law, please provide special case example. Without the specific, I can only say, many a times, this kind of accusation reflect the accuser’s attempt to impose his or own interpretation on the Chinese law. Just like how the west has tried to impose its cultural value on China.

  4. admin says:

    Itlee:

    Despite your sense of self-certainty, Phoenix Online (凤凰网) is an very well-known online site. What you say is like saying that the BBC is well known, but BBC.com is not. Its entertainment section (basically, the news desk dealing with entertainment) is just part of the online site, not a separate media.

    1. Yes, I would certainly agree that your view on dialogue/imposition is simple. . .
    And it’s totally illogical as well, Itlee. There’s a basic existential problem here, namely how can anyone ever now the “degree” to which an interlocutor is willing (consciously or subconsciously) to change his/her position? Dialogue may always have a level of conflict to it. Emotions rise. Each side expresses and feels a sense of frustration with the inflexibility of the other. But that doesn’t mean either side is IMPOSING its view.

    Again, I find it interesting that you turn a discussion about Chinese government media policy in an interview of a Chinese expert by a Chinese media to the issue of China versus the West and universal values. You seem to interpret any argument that does not neatly fit your own personal views as an attack on China. That is very presumptuous indeed.

    And how does that promote dialogue?

    Best,
    David

  5. ltlee says:

    Phoenix TV is of course well known but not Phoenix Online Entertainment. Thank you for the clarification all the same.
    1. Articulating versus imposing
    To me, the distinction between articulating and imposing a view is quite simple. To the degree that one can admit that he view reflects his personal quirk or cultural background and therefore not always right nor universally true, he is ARTICULATING a view. To the degree that he cannot, he is IMPOSING a view.
    Why arguments between people frequently lead to physical fight? Simple answer. Neither side could admit that their views could be wrong and both want to impose their views on the other side. When westerners criticize China on this or that human rights violation, do they also harbor the sense that what they conceived as universal truth universally applicable may not be universal truth universally applicable? If not, they are trying to impose their view on China.
    2. There are more than one You Are the One” (非诚勿扰) show. Jiangsu TV pioneer the show and it is the best. Similar shows by other stations are worse and more vulgar. Complaints against the vulgarities are not limited to the elites. The issue is whether the society should allow these entertainment programs to define deviance downward.

  6. David says:

    Itlee:

    Phoenix TV is of course a very well-known Chinese broadcaster, and Phoenix Online is its website — in this case the Entertainment section thereof. The original first posting of the Zhan Jiang interview is here: http://ent.ifeng.com/tv/news/mainland/detail_2011_07/12/7632825_0.shtml
    You can find plenty more of his views by searching 展江 + 限娱令.

    Thank you for raising two points worth addressing.

    The first, in my view, is a false logic perpetuated across China, arising from the Party’s own official discourse on “the West” and the perceived “infiltration” of Western culture and ideas. But when, honestly, have “westerners” ever imposed their cultural values upon you, Itlee? If you stop to think about it, there is a very clear difference between someone articulating a viewpoint you find objectionable and someone IMPOSING a viewpoint. Quite simply, when is the last time Chinese were forced to watch Sex and the City or CSPAN because all other programming was menacingly removed by intrusive American overlords?

    I submit that the whole premise behind your first question is false. Yes, of course Westerners should not impose their cultural values on China. But how do you actually see this happening? It is especially curious that you should make such a statement in the context of an interview about Chinese policy by a Chinese media outfit of a Chinese communications expert. How could that possibly make you feel that you are under cultural attack? Deep psychology at work perhaps.

    As to Zhan’s qualifications to comment, the idea that only a habitual viewer of a program is qualified to comment on broadcast policy is totally spurious. First of all, Zhan — one of China’s best known communications experts — is NOT being interviewed about an entertainment program per se. He’s being interviewed about a government policy toward entertainment programs. Secondly, if what you suggest was true, you should equally ask yourself: what qualifies Party leaders, who are presumably NOT regular audience members for shows like If You Are the One, to make restrictive policies about such programs?

    Best,
    David

  7. ltlee says:

    1. I agree that high brow should not imposed their cultural values on the mass. By the same token, westerners, most of them know close to nothing about China, should not impose their cultural values on the China.
    2. I find it curious that Zhan who professed that he did not “pay a great deal of attention to entertainment programming” was interviewed on entertainment program. Does the interview have a Chinese version? Was the interview in English only? Is this “Phoenix online entertainment” a Chinese organization? If so, what is its Chinese name?

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