The little-known Qian Shan Shili had the opportunity to travel in the days of upheaval at the end of the Qing dynasty and at the dawn of a new republic. She was the first woman to record her thoughts in two travelogues and felt strongly that China’s new education system paled in comparison with that of other countries such as Japan. She concluded that education should have the aim of building critical-thinking men and women rather than just nurturing a crop of scholars with exceptional talent. After all, she notes, without citizens, how can there be talents? And without citizens, there can certainly be no society. These are wise words, says cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai, that remain relevant even today.
For China to spread its culture abroad successfully, the China story needs to be modernised, says Wu Guo. Ancient Chinese history and literature may be too daunting, while mooncakes and fan dances may be too superficial. People want to know what the Chinese man on the street thinks about, and what his culture of today is. Contemporary cultural products such as idol dramas and pop groups may do the trick, but so would down-to-earth insight into the lives of Chinese people. Often, just a peek into the everyday is enough to know we’re all not so different after all.
Heroes in Harm's Way, a Chinese television series based on the Covid-19 pandemic, has drawn flak for inaccurate portrayals and gender discrimination. While the depiction of such a catastrophic event would have touched many a raw nerve in any case, the drama’s lack of finesse in telling China’s story has offended not only those outside China, but those within China as well, especially the young. Writ large, those running China’s inability to frame a credible narrative will only see them lose their cachet at home and abroad.
The fan economy is a huge business in China, driven mostly by young women in their 20s. But while these fans are willing to spend money on their idols, some chalk up mountains of debt to feed their passion. Given that the idols are endlessly trotted out on a conveyor belt and few escape the cookie cutter, how long can the fan economy last?
Hit Chinese television series Nothing but Thirty has struck a chord with scores of working women in China, says young academic Lorna Wei. Unlike one-dimensional portrayals of women in previous dramas, this one seeks to give women in China a voice as she copes with trials in work and in love. If this is art imitating life, it seems that Chinese society is becoming more like any other modern, in fact, westernised, society we see today. Only entrenched attitudes about their roles in society can keep women back as they seek a better future for themselves.
“Little sisters” — young women urbanites between 20-40 who have high spending power and little financial commitments — are the new darling demographic for those targeting China’s domestic market. In fact, the 2020 market size of the “little sisters economy” in China is expected to reach five trillion RMB. In keeping their buy-in, integrating e-commerce with social apps is key.
A television series about Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history, has Cheng Pei-kai reflecting about the semantics (read: politics) involved in the title bestowed on this charismatic figure. Did she live up to her many labels, or even more powerfully yet, was she really a character that defied any labels? History refuses to make a definite call.
For years, poor Chinese peasants, especially girls, were led to believe that they had failed their college entrance exams. Little did they know that schemers had misappropriated their identities. With a greater number of cases coming to light, some justice is being done. But many more steps still need to be taken, says Han Yong Hong, to show that the rights of vulnerable groups in Chinese society cannot be trampled on.
China's grassroots civil servants have been sandwiched between their demanding supervisors and the people, while braving the elements standing guard outside different communities and organisations throughout winter and spring during the pandemic. Young Chinese academic Lorna Wei tells the story of one of these non-medical frontline workers amid the tough fight as she salutes the numerous nameless heroes among them.