Spot the ghost in China’s material girls

YouTube Preview Image

Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me
I think they’re O.K.
If they don’t give me proper credit
I just walk away

They can beg and they can plead
But they can’t see the light, that’s right
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash

Is always Mister Right, ’cause we are

Living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl

Material Girl (1984)

Madonna was not always the frightening figure she is today. Once upon a time she seemed to symbolize the enthusiasm and vitality of the 1980s — that golden age of conspicuous consumption, big hair, shoulder pads, Dallas,  and Thatcherism. An article in the Wednesday New York Times film section entitled “A Film-Fueled Culture Clash Over Values in China” brought those memories back (sans Margaret Thatcher), while also reminding me that I view the world through the lens of Christendom. What I assume to be vice can be celebrated as virtue by others.

The article reports that China is grappling with the consequences of the conspicuous consumption of its gilded youth — the vulgar ostentation of the children of the newly rich as captured in two light, but wildly popular films from director Guo Jingmin. The Times reports the films:

have also made an impact beyond the box office. They have become a lightning rod for this nation’s evolving view of its growing youth culture. Many established Chinese cultural commentators are outraged by these works’ overt celebration of materialism, and this anger has spurred a surprisingly robust counterattack by the movies’ many young fans.

Just as Ian Fleming’s sex, sadism and snobbery spy thrillers of the 1950′s captured the imagination of England as it emerged from the grim post-war years, Guo’s books and films speak to the voracious appetite for luxury in post-Maoist China. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero (without the sex and drugs) Guo’s work chronicles the void — but he does not condemn, he celebrates. The Times article states:

His books are stuffed with English-language brand names like Chanel and Gucci and choice phrases. (“Economy class kills me!” and “I hate Beijing!”) His films show the actual designer goods and include dialogue that has also riled commentators, like this exchange in “Tiny Times 1” between two star-crossed young lovers:

“I like you,” the young man says, “not because you’ve had a driver since you were little, and not because you have designer bags, and definitely not because you gave me expensive boots. Even if you didn’t have a cent, I would still like you.”

The woman then turns on him: “Let me tell you, love without materialism is just a pile of sand!”

How far China has come. The “love without materialism” line could have been spoken just as easily a Red Guard in the 1960s as by a Shanghai sybarite today. Materialism — the philosophical basis for Marxist thought — has been construed to mean economic materialism — the desire for possessions. The article nicely notes the clash of ideologies between the two materialist cultures — between China’s rural past and its urban present — before returning to a discussion of the film’s place in the contemporary Chinese psyche.

[Read more...]