Counter-revolutionary heroes

Super Voice Girls, we salute you!

Published October 17, 2006 8:17PM (EDT)

The sheer deluge of news, commentary and analysis that swamps the Chinese section of my blogroll every day defies competent comprehension. Some highlights of the last 48 hours include:

  • The New York Times' Sunday Magazine story on Wang Hui, "China's New Leftist"; a thoughtful, cogent exploration of the contradictions that swirl through modern China -- a land where leftists are reactionaries, a socialist state has embraced the free market, and the Beijing heirs to thousands of years of imperial central government can't seem to get anyone in the provinces to obey their orders.
  • "Unforbidden Cities": A two-part report originally published in California Magazine by Harrison S. Fraker Jr., dean of the College of Environmental Design at U. C. Berkeley, recounting both the awe-inspiring pace of infrastructural "progress" in China (50 new coal-fired power plants and 10 million to 12 million new housing units built per year,) and an extraordinarily ambitious (and maybe just a tad unrealistic) plan by an interdisciplinary Berkeley team to design environmentally friendly and sustainable urban communities.
  • A Bloomberg news report on how China's new ultra-rich spent some $63 million at a Shanghai trade show on "Hennessy X.O spirits, Porsche sedans, South African diamonds and other luxury goods" last week. You don't have to be Chairman Mao to think, gee, maybe the hundreds of millions of rural peasants still earning around $2 a day might get their dander up at such conspicuous consumption.

And so much, much more. Striving for a coherent narrative that makes sense of it all is daunting, if not simply kooky. The New York Times article makes a great stab at it, and then along comes a superb new China-analysis blogger from U.C. Davis to add yet another layer of interpretive gloss. Some days, it's just a lot easier to focus on something simple, like climate change or nanotechnology.

But then we encounter an image that sums up all the contradictions, paradoxes and sheer nuttiness that is modern China in one gloriously loopy fell swoop. I speak, naturally, of the statues of two Super Voice Girls unveiled at the Songzhuang art festival in Beijing over the last two weeks. The statues are in classic Chinese socialist realism style, which means the girls, who were the champion and runner-up of China's hugely popular version of "American Idol" last year, are presented as if they were revolutionary heroes.

The statues have set off an online frenzy. Millions of Chinese may be embracing capitalism with ardor as hot as any 19th century American robber baron, but millions more think that statues of pop-singing televised talent show winners in the style of Lei Feng is going just one step too far.

Personally, I prefer to think that the artists who created these statues knew exactly what they were doing, and are, as artists should, engaged in mockery of both China's history of elevating revolutionary heroes in the style of pop idols, and the newer trend of embracing pop idols as, well, revolutionary heroes. It speaks to a certain sophistication. It's clever. It reminds us of the contrasts that exist side by side in contemporary China: poverty and wealth, socialist and market values, the most vapid froth of consumer culture swirling across a civilization that likes to think of itself as 5,000 years old. It helps us avoid the trap of seeing China from just one perspective, as, say, neoliberal facilitator for transnational corporations seeking cheap labor, or ruthless totalitarian dictatorship, or environmental disaster, or model for globalization's potential, or superpower of the 21st century. Maybe China is all of these things at once, maybe it is none of them. Some people, in China, look at the monument to the Super Voice Girls and see a travesty, a betrayal. But one could just as well look at them and see the future. And laugh.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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