Fifty years ago, China underwent a cultural revolution, and with the anniversary of this momentous moment in Chinese history so close, Jeremy Rose began the session by asking Xu Zhiyuan the question, “How will China celebrate this anniversary?” With certainty, Zhiyuan said that there will be no mention of this event. For the country, it is still taboo to mention this revolution, especially in the media and public spaces. While he was born in the year of the death of Mao Zedong, a post-revolution 1976, Zhiyuan says that there was still at that time a shadow that the citizens live under, and that this remains to this day.
He expanded on this by using a metaphor that he was told by a friend. “It’s like a snake’s shadow” coming from above, hanging on a chandelier, “even if it doesn’t move, it can eat you at any time.” It is this looming fear that creates this cultural crisis.
In admiration of well-known bookshops, such as Shakespeare & Company in Paris, Zhiyuan opened his own bookshop (One Way Street Library) in Beijing in an attempt to create a cultural icon for China. Here talks and discussions are held, but while initially these included everything from politics to current affairs, Zhiyuan says that in the last few years this has shifted more to talking about art and literature. The taboo and fear of the past generations still exists, it is an ever-present shadow. Rose asked, “How do you know what not to talk about?” Zhiyuan responded by saying, almost jokingly, “it’s like dating a lady”. When can you cross the line, when can and can’t you do and say certain things. Zhiyuan says that what might be okay today might not pass in a month, “it’s about feeling the mood”, and practicing walking on the border.
But this fear for Zhiyuan and newer generations moves into a slightly different space. With the globalisation of China as a major economic power, an element of consumerism has been introduced into mainstream culture. This has left people feeling fragmented, and fearful of losing everything. Zhiyuan says that everyone feels weak and has no expression. The materialism that is pushed in the home is creating a spiritually and culturally weak society.
And this is where for Zhiyuan this culture crisis comes from. He says that it is important for the new generation to learn about history and culture, especially in this globalising age. He compares China’s global economic expansion to the British Empire’s expansion. The main difference for him lies in the fact that the British expansion included culture, writers, anthropologists, and so on, where with China this is not present, even in the digital age.
Rose mentioned the tone of Zhiyuan’s book, Paper Tiger, as being very pessimistic. But Zhiyuan says that it is precisely because he is optimistic “that I can say a lot about the dark side of China.” He remains hopeful of the future, even with all of the problems facing China.
Attended and reviewed by Matthias Metzler
Paper Tiger: Inside The Real China, published by Head of Zeus, ISBN 9781781859797