Book: China Pop

Despite the column-yards given over to news from China, I often feel that the only stories I read from that country are ones about money. There are other, less business-oriented voices around — how could there not be, given the number of people constantly travelling to and from China — but you have to go and hunt them down rather than waiting for them to arrive on the front page.
So [on Cosma’s recommendation](http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/notebooks/china-today.html) I bought myself a copy of [Zha Jianying](http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/23/070423fa_fact_zha?currentPage=all)’s book [China Pop](http://www.nytimes.com/1995/08/02/books/books-of-the-times-now-china-has-its-soaps-and-celebrity-authors.html).
Written in 1995, this is a a tour of the Chinese culture industry – books, film, television, art and the press. Zha wisely avoids the temptation to cover everything. Instead she focuses mainly on her Beijing-intellectual friends, people she understands and who will be willing to talk with her. So we get telling pen-portraits of a handful of successful artists. There is the team behind TV melodrama Yearning (ke wang), a mix of highbrow writers such as Zheng Wanglong, who devoted their energies to building a chinese equivalent to Mexican soaps. Or there isChan Koon-Chung, one of the breed of ambitious Hong Kong media entrepreneurs trying to expand onto the mainland.
Many of Zha’s subjects are intellectuals who have consciously abandoned an inward-looking and elitist ‘avant-garde’ in favour of the mass market. It all sounds strikingly like Yeltsin-era Russia, where some professors become millionaire wheeler-dealers, while many of their colleagues end up bewildered and impoverished, unable to find a position for themselves inside a new world. Even as she focusses on the success stories, Zha does manage to point out the number who have lost their way.
What’s truly striking, though, is how dated the book feels. She writes of the fledgling contemporary art scene in Beijing; now, [artfacts](http://www.artfacts.net) lists 149 galleries there, and Chinese influence on the international world is growing exponentially. Equally, much of the media – the press, music, even porn – has been transformed beyond recognition by the internet. I’d love to see Zha write a similar book now, and capture what has changed in the past 15 years. Unfortunately her [latest book](http://new.artzinechina.com/display_vol_aid247_en.html) won’t help: she’s devoted it entirely to the 1980s.

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