Spot the ghost in China’s material girls

Spot the ghost in China’s material girls September 5, 2013

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.

Yes, I know I am taking a sledgehammer to a souffle when I critique The Times movie page for not getting religion, but is there not a third, or even fourth element at work in this “clash of values”?

A 2010 article in Jing Daily reported China was unsure of the virtues of conspicuous consumption.

While many newly wealthy Chinese are quick to outfit themselves head-to-toe in luxury brands or have themselves chauffeured around in limited-edition Bentleys, and the pursuit of wealth is largely considered a societal imperative and not entirely without merit, broader social attitudes toward the wealthy are decidedly mixed. Last year, a study by the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences found that 96% of respondents said they feel resentment toward the wealthy, and another survey conducted earlier this year by the People’s Daily found that 91% of respondents believe that the country’s nouveau riche has leveraged government connections to build their fortunes.

Is this entirely class based, or does China’s Confucius culture play a role in this clash of values? Or does its emphasis on the family above all over against the Maost ethic of self-denial fuel conspicuous consumption?

Confucianism omitted out of the social relationships man’s social obligations toward the stranger. While theoretically care for one’s fellow man was provided for in the “doctrine of reciprocity” the relationship toward “others” was not one of the five cardinal relationships. The center of existence in the Confucian system was the family — and its prosperity was paramount.

The Hong Kong based psychologist, Michael Harris Bond, developed this theme in his book Beyond the Chinese Face:

The only principle that might guide behavior towards strangers is the Chinese ‘golden rule’ of Confucius, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.’ This counsel, however, is in the negative and prohibits harmful acts rather than promoting helpfulness. It is quite different in its consequences from doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This Judeo-Christian dictum is another universal principle, but one that endorses an active reaching out to strangers. It finds its expression at the broader political level in constitutional safeguards for minority rights and a social welfare system; at the interpersonal level, in a greater willingness to assist the underdog. Such a principle operates less strongly in Chinese society.

But traditional Chinese culture also eschewed vulgar displays of wealth. Confucius’ doctrine of the Golden Rule promoted a humble, calm way of life that frowned upon self-publicity and personal ostentation.

What is being reported in this article? Are the Shanghai society girls the moral monsters of Less than Zero, or do they represent religious and cultural flux underway in China.  Or, am I assuming a Christian worldview that sees gluttony and self-aggrandizement as a sin which separates me from God and my fellow men?

Since the liberalizations of the early 1980’s one of the key challenges that Chinese individuals have faced is the question, “What is the meaning of life? For what purpose do I live?”  A century of warfare culminating in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) not only undermined traditional Confucian values but shook the rhetoric and ideology of revolutionary Maoism. The new emphasis on individual freedom, prosperity and happiness stands in sharp contrast to the Maoist vision of self-sacrifice, self-discipline and self-restraint.

And into this mix comes the burgeoning Christian church in China with its tens of millions of new converts. Where does this Judeo-Christian worldview come into play? Perhaps this is a bit too much for a review of a review of frothy Chinese films, but it does permit me to speak to the biases I and almost all Western journalists bring to their reporting on the non-Christian world. Whether atheist, Christian, agnostic or Episcopalian — a Western reporter has been reared in Christendom (post-Christendom) where there are shared norms of good and evil. From time to time it is good to remind ourselves that the truths we assume to be universal are not always so.

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  • Anne

    You’re right that something called “materialism” was the basis for much of Marxist thought, but it’s a very different kind of materialism than the one in the quote you gave. Marx’s materialism wasn’t about being driven by the desire for material goods; it was about looking at how changes in material conditions influenced societies.

    • geoconger

      Yes, that was my point. China has moved from a materialist (Marxist) to a materialist (acquisition of goods) culture.

  • Julia B

    Another country heavily influenced by Confucian ideals is South Korea. This post brings to mind the Korean music video “Gangnam Style” which is depicting, and kind of mocking, the newly rich in S Korea. Gangnam is a new section of Seoul South of the Han where the trendy materialists live. Ancient traditions are bumping heads with a new hedonism. And you are right to note the growth of Christianity in Asia is complicating the situation.

    On the other side of the world, the growth of a gospel of prosperity style of Christianity in Latin America is also bumping heads with traditional mores. Welcome to the multi-cultural world.