Ready or Not, Here Come China’s Pop Culture Intellectuals
Last month, the well-known Chinese author and commentator Xu Zhiyuan became the latest public intellectual to take the reality TV plunge. In his first appearance on “Roast!” — a talk/game show where celebrity guests earn points by poking fun at one another — Xu used his opening monologue to simultaneously establish his intellectual credentials and acknowledge his embarrassment at his new gig. Beginning with the question, “How did I end up here?” his speech meandered from Plato and Aristotle to the father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun. Even his barbs were erudite: Referencing Karl Marx, he jokingly called a fellow panel member and e-commerce entrepreneur a “commodity fetishist.”
Audience members weren’t particularly amused. Xu came in second-to-last in the show’s popular vote portion, a result Xu’s defenders chalked up to the lowbrow tastes of the typical Chinese viewer. But the story here isn’t Xu’s roast ranking, it’s that he was competing at all. After graduating from a top-ranked university and rising to eminence as a journalist, the 44-year-old was tapped to host the talk show “Thirteen Guests” in 2016. Although the show has not made him a household name, it nevertheless confirmed his status as a prominent public intellectual, while giving him a platform to interview some of China’s most famous philosophers, directors, singers, and entrepreneurs.
If Xu’s “Roast!” monologue was any indication, he may be a little insecure about making the jump to the variety show circuit. He shouldn’t be. Xu’s performance on “Roast!” doesn’t prove that intellectuals are ill-suited to Chinese variety shows, nor is it evidence that their declining public image is forcing them to lower themselves to the level of mainstream entertainment. For decades, China’s public intellectuals were lionized; more recently, however, those who wear the label — particularly self-styled liberals — have come under fire for their out-of-touch politics. Many have retreated from the spotlight. Xu’s decision to join “Roast!” is an indication that some of them may be staging a comeback, not as trendsetters or punching bags, but as mass entertainers.
Xu grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s, a “golden age” for Chinese intellectuals — a broad, if exclusive category encompassing not just academics or commentators, but just about anyone working in a knowledge-based field. Between the restoration of the country’s college-entrance exam in the late 1970s, official acknowledgements that the Cultural Revolution was a mistake, and the rise of values like freedom of thought and speech, the social status of scholars and intellectuals experienced a meteoric rise.
These two decades gave birth to a host of important literary and artistic masters, who were in turn revered by young Chinese of all social classes for their iconoclastic, individualistic, and humanist leanings. Few got rich, but it was a time when writers and poets were the country’s rock stars — literally so, in the case of rocker-poet Cui Jian. Importantly, the often-challenging work they produced dominated Chinese popular culture. That’s how the future Nobel Prize-winning author Mo Yan could publish his novel “Red Sorghum” in 1986 and see it turned into a popular movie by the rising director Zhang Yimou just one year later.
Ironically, this intellectual scene ultimately contained the seeds of its own destruction. In particular, although many intellectuals vocally embraced the spirit of democracy, the production of knowledge remained essentially elitist and highly dependent on universities, traditional publishing and film companies, and television networks. The very term “intellectual” was defined by what it excluded: members of “the masses,” including farmers, workers, and businesspeople.
Meanwhile, beginning in the 1990s, audiences on the Chinese mainland gradually gained access to a wealth of new popular music, films, and TV shows from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. These siphoned off intellectuals’ audiences and, coupled with tighter content regulations and Chinese society’s growing obsession with making money, gradually caused them to lose their dominance over the cultural zeitgeist. Some became businesspeople themselves.
The emergence of intellectuals on social media over the past decade and a half would follow a similar pattern. Intellectuals first flocked to platforms like microblogging service Weibo and the college student-centric Renren in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but they soon found themselves marginalized on the sites they helped build. Weibo, for example, opted to expand its user base by focusing on more marketable and less sensitive content, such as entertainment and shopping. For their part, many intellectuals eventually learned to avoid controversial topics in favor of sharing expertise or engaging in harmless banter.
Elsewhere, intellectuals have reacted to their reduced sway over public opinion by accommodating themselves to the reality of life in a market-based, consumerist economy. Take the rise of “pay for knowledge” platforms, for example. Some services allow intellectuals to charge their fans for the right to ask them questions on social media, a la Twitter’s proposed “Super Follows” feature; others help them market paid courses to their followers. It’s a business model in which intellectuals contribute their expertise; platforms assume responsibility for planning, examining, and marketing the resulting content; and users pay for knowledge — and the sense of security it provides in an increasingly competitive society — that they might otherwise have had to acquire themselves.
The obvious problem with this model is that it cuts intellectuals off from the public. Are you really still a public intellectual after you’ve privatized your knowledge? Offering paid courses may help keep the lights on, but it also exasperates social inequalities, as intellectuals share their insights and legitimacy only with those able and willing to pay. It’s worth noting that Chinese internet users, especially those from less affluent backgrounds, are still overwhelmingly of the opinion that online content should be free.
As public intellectuals have grown increasingly dependent on middle class consumers to buy their products, it’s only natural that they would work to embody middle class perceptions of highbrow sophistication. Unsurprisingly, the once prevalent image of public intellectuals as boundary-pushing, norm-defying iconoclasts is fading, replaced by a variety of curated, personal brands —the more distinctive, the better. On the talk show “U Can U Bibi,” the once-controversial firebrand Xue Zhaofeng has positioned himself as an “ultra-rational economist.” Meanwhile, on “Roast!” Xu is trying to brand himself as an intellectual with a sense of humor.
To be fair, intellectuals have to eat, too. Chinese have long romanticized the label, tending to view all intellectual heavyweights — not just the influential Xu Zhiyuan types, but professors, journalists, and writers — as aesthetes, rather than individuals with families and jobs. This assumption that ideals are enough to live on is often deployed by bosses to strip people far less influential and powerful than Xu of their rights. Last year, for example, an editor went viral after accusing her bosses of depriving her of her copyright.
Whether during the “golden age” of the 1980s, or their more recent fall from grace, Chinese society has failed to recognize intellectuals as a diverse group with vastly different social statuses, opinions, and tastes. Personally, I look forward to seeing the breakdown of mental divides sectioning off intellectuals from the masses. Much like any other “laborer,” contemporary intellectuals have to follow the rules of China’s market society, and they have the same worries as anyone else when it comes to things like kindergarten tuition and housing prices. There is nothing inherently wrong with Xu’s “Roast!” appearance, even if it ultimately still trades in the same tropes of bookish, cynical intellectuals that have plagued the label for years.
What we need is a more nuanced view of intellectuals, and ideally well-funded cultural institutions that let them do what they do best. At the very least, trope-laden personal brands like “intellectual rock star” or “ultra-rational economist,” should be optional, not mandatory. And who knows? Perhaps if society and intellectuals can abandon their idealized images of what an intellectual should be — and the tendency toward either blind worship or hatred that those images engender — then Chinese intellectuals may have a better chance at promoting the social progress they want to see in the world.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from Vectorstock/People Visual, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)