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UCB Dean on Chinese culture

Elizabeth F. Clayton

Reviewing the significant cultural movements in China, Orville Schell, Dean of the School of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley, offered a look at the ever-changing, important modern society.

“While I can’t tell you the future of China, I can possibly sketch out the past,” Schell said to the mixed audience of Mills professors, faculty, students, alums and trustees Tuesday night at Lisser Hall.

Schell covered a number of important trends that have taken China from the oppressive 1950s rule of Head of State Mao Zedong to the present-day, highly-marketized society.

Schell began his personal observation of Chinese culture in the 1970s working in an electrical machinery factory in Shanghai. He described the cultural climate in-depth, often referring to the controlling rule the Mao government had on the People’s Republic of China, the republic Mao himself established.

Artists in China, interested in expression during the Mao rule, were often stonewalled by the oppressive nature of the government, he said. While many of them viewed the cultural significance of China, they were unable to express it through art. “There was no room for people who wanted to paint it, write it or create a score of it,” Schell said.

During the Mao rule, according to Schell, the art and culture were expected to be propaganda for the ruling government party. “Everything had to have a political view, and a correct political view,” he said.

Mentioning a few of his observations of Chinese society, Schell spoke of a culture with no advertisements or fashion. Distance from society and self-expression were unwelcome, and the media was completely run by the state, he said.

“Mao’s rule was anti-western, anti-capitalist and anti-individualist,” Schell said. “It is nihilistic, destructive and counterproductive to completely wipe out your culture, and no one did it better than Mao.”

But with the death of ruler Mao Zedong in 1976, China saw the influence of leader Deng Xiaoping. The cultural climate of the People’s Republic of China began to change, and in a sense “open up,” Schell said.

“It was like watching a black and white photo become a color photo,” Schell said. The government began to allow a certain amounts of interchange with societies outside of China’s borders. With this, Schell said, Western culture started seeping “a little bit here, a little bit there” into the once very isolated Chinese culture.

With a new leader in place, Schell said he started to observe mere hints of self-expression appearing in women’s clothing. Blouses and buttons started displaying hints of design and differentiation, and the heels of shoes started getting taller.

Music, novels and film also started to express more. The “Mao-Pop” movement started to tie Western culture into art. He described art from this period showing images of the very Western drink Coca-Cola and mentioned a specific artist that cut an image of late ruler Mao Zedong and placed it in the image of the Quaker Oatmeal man.

“It was tweaking the seriousness of which everyone had to take Mao,” Schell said. “It was difficult to take a very potent, forbidden symbol and mess with it.”

Additionally, music started to change. Schell described “disco beats” becoming popular and “MTV” versions of serious revolutionary songs started to emerge. Rock and Roll made its appearance, and a rock group comparable to the Rolling Stones became popular.

Museums started to show performance pieces and Schell recalled one museum with an exhibit of inflated condoms. The new culture experienced bursts here and there of literature and poetry, according to Schell. “The culture started to break out of a field of gravity that tied everyone down to Mao’s idea of how things should be,” he said.

1989 saw the social unrest of the Chinese population. Outcries of discontent were expressed by the protests staged in Tiananmen Square by students and intellectuals. The protests resulted in a halt to further social reform, according to Schell.

In the early ’90s, Western concepts of “getting rich” and “stock markets” started gaining popularity in China. As the culture continues to be “marketized,” China has become more of a “normal” society, according to Schell. “Market came rushing in and there was no one to stop it,” he said.

China is still in the process of economic growth. “China is now run by engineers,” Schell said. “The whole of the Chinese government are technocrats – there isn’t a humanist among them.”

“There have been so many times when China has reinvented itself only to cancel itself out again,” he said. “Now we have the market rushing in and no one is there to rewrite the culture. There is very, very little energy to support, shepherd or be the custodian for the culture.”

As the market continues to rush in and grow significantly, Schell seemed hesitant about China’s future. “Has no one in China heard of a business cycle? Has no one heard of what happened to Japan?”

Schell is the author of 14 books, nine of which are about China. He has also served as a correspondent for the PBS show Frontline and the CBS program 60 Minutes.

Provost Mary Ann Milford spoke to Schell’s expertise on Chinese culture. “We are observing and trying to understand these complex issues from the outside,” she said. “He’s [Schell] one of the most noted experts on China and Western relationships.”

English professor Yiyun Li connected very much to Schell’s discussion of the cultural transition China has taken. “All the events he talked about, I lived through, so there’s a connection there. A lot of it was news to Western cultures, but to me, it’s what I experienced everyday.”

Junior Laurel Fedor thought that Schell’s speech was very informative. “I think it’s something students need to pay attention to,” she said. “By 2020, China will be the second largest economy in the world. People don’t get that. And the more we hear about these things now, the fewer mistakes we will make in the future.”

But senior Pamela Caserta didn’t find the speech as informative as fellow audience members. “I was waiting for him to get into the meat of the topic and he never got there,” she said. “I was also disappointed because I thought he said a lot of things from an ethnocentric point of view.”

The speech was sponsored by Nancy T. Lin Li and Amy T. Lin Shen Fund for Cultural Understanding. The fund was named after two Mills alumnae, Amy Lin Shen, class of 1948 and Amy Lin Shen, class of 1951. It was endowed with gifts from the families of the alumnae and established to promote cross-cultural understanding. Schell’s speech was the Li Shen Lecture.