"Fine art works should be like sunshine from a blue sky and breeze in the spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles." - Xi Jinping, October 14, 2014
It is easy enough to see the importance China's President Xi Jinping attaches to art as a means to extend power in society and for bettering the world. But will what he is proposing take China backward to straight-jacketed political correctness or forward to the authentic creation of culture?
When my architect friends heard about Xi's speech on the arts, in which he said he has had enough of "weird architecture," they laughed -- and also worried about the philistinism implied in institutionalizing style and taste in state policy.
But if we looked back on how much China's traditional architecture has been destroyed in order to provide sites for Western architects to experiment, there is a more informed argument for having enough of "weird" architecture.
China never developed a Modernist tradition. In architecture, traditional Chinese buildings cannot become high rises simply to adapt to growing urban populations. And the architects of former generations had no access to any genuine modern architectural education, except for the Soviet influence after the Second World War. In effect, the Communist Party closed China as much as the Qing Dynasty had done.
But now, after 35 years of "reform and opening up," young architects have studied in the West, and truly have a firsthand experience of contemporary architecture. It's time to win back the opportunity to design and build our own architecture in a way that integrates our own culture. If we reflect on our own behavior and admit how much we ourselves have simply copied the Western model without considering our own culture and civilization, then perhaps we will stop laughing.
Growing up in Mao's time, Xi Jinping even spent some time in the rural U.S.. But the very conditions of Xi's generation ensured a degree of cultural brainwashing by Mao. Recently, his reading list was published. Besides the Chinese classics, the most Western culture he has read are a few classics translated not later than 90's. Few were of living authors.
Most of the Chinese artists who attended his speech on arts and literature were older than Xi himself. Communication between such figures who use the old Communist Party language, and the most active population -- now under 40 and with no firsthand experience of the Cultural Revolution -- is practically impossible.
When Xi talks about how art should advance with the times, he would do well first to remove from the stage the kitsch genre paintings that blend traditional Chinese landscape and Socialist Realism -- the very style his words unfortunately evoke. They are the artistic equivalent of Party-speak.
There is always a fence between the interior and the exterior of the Communist Party. It would be useful to break down that fence in a way that would allow the Chinese to really learn from the successes of the West on our own terms without fearing accusations of betraying our civilization or somehow being unpatriotic. But with the sort of nationalist challenges Xi faces from within the Party, it is clear he is constrained in doing anything on his own.
The great pre-revolutionary Chinese writer, LU Xun (1881-1936) wrote that, "When there is no longer a road ahead, more people walking will make the road."
There is no one way for China to go forward. All Chinese should make the road ahead together, not for the ruling or for any opposition party, but for our own culture.