The politics of spoof culture

2006-10-12 - oiwan

In Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, the blind librarian Jorge committed a series of murders in order to hide the secret of Aristotle's Book of Comedy, Book II of the Poetics because he regarded laughter as the most threatening heresy. The story shows the fragility of authority / truth.

Eco's story plot has been repeating in contemporary China.


China's State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) announced a new set of regulations in Mid-August aimed at strictly controlling online videos. It will probably cripple the latest trend in Chinese blogsphere, the creation and posting of video spoofs of cultural, historical and social images. By the end of August, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress passed a bill in the name of youth protection against spoof culture and expressions. The China Youth Daily published a footnote to the bill in its commentary on August 24:

Some media programs, layouts, websites were becoming more vulgar, banal, violent, some media even publish false news, bubble news, back news in order to attract eyeballs, and the trend has been extended to mobile ringing tone, messages and daily speech. Worse still, it is praised as "new form of literary arts" and "grey culture". It has poisonous effect on the society...

Spoofing is actually a way how people talk to the authority without direct challenge. As cultural critics Leung Man Tao pointed out, spoofing is a tone-changing of the official / authoritative story version. It opens up spaces for another world view and interpretations. It does not directly deny the official story version, but seek dialogue by flirting with the texts in playful mood. The spoof is not to struggle for interpretative power of the truth; it reproduces, praises and bows with exaggeration to the authority for opening up spaces for imagination. Spoofs can be subtle and wild reflections; can be laughable and sober realization; and can be irony and mockery.

Contemporary spoof tradition: the Red classics

Lu Xun's Old tales retold can be understood as an ironic spoof, Cui Jian's Red Rock can be read as wild reflection, Stephen Chow's Western Journey (大話西遊) has been perceived as laughable and sober realization. Such cultural practices have resulted in a new wave of reinterpretation of tradition in the 90s. Until 2003-04, the reinvention of the Red Classics has entered T.V drama industry. In 2004, there were 45 Red Classics dramas lining up to be broadcasted around the nation. However, in the same year, SARFT demanded the media to stop reproducing the Red Classics - all the production has to be censored and approved by SARFT before shooting:

Some audiences believe that the T.V dramas have distorted the original version of Red Classics and "misled the readers and market"... in order to create multiple and diverse personalities for the historical heroes and to recreate the humanized side of negative characters, the dramas are deviated from the spirits and ideas of original versions.

Once the T.V drama has been subjected to censorship and prohibition, the Red Classics moved to the internet. In March, 2006, Lei Feng's biography (雷鋒 - a young contemporary hero representing the ideal image of communist youth) was published, Guangdong Superstar film company announced the shooting of online film Lei Feng's puppy love girlfriend. The film describes Lei Feng as a round figure, adventurous, youthful, had teenage love fantasy. He joined the youth vanguard team, voluntarily went to the rural area to experience the peasants' livelihood, became a civil servant and learned how to use tractor. He loved photography, writing, became a worker, wore leather jacket, joined the red army, studied selected writings of Mao, etc. Both the new biography and the film want to show that Lei Feng's life is typical of his time. And revolution has been a significant part of his time. However, in April 2006, the SARFT decided to ban the production of the online film. Upon the announcement of the ban, netizens start to produce their own story plots and versions of the film.

The spoof culture has disseminated to the society via the internet. Apart from the puppy love of Lei Feng, another example is the online trailer of The murder caused by a Bun produced by a blogger and freelance film maker, Hu Ge. The 20 minutes video appeared in the Internet early 2006 as a parody of Chen Kaige's (a most famous local director with some government backup) latest movie The Promise. The spoof is to criticize the monopoly of Chinese film industry and the loss of local character under the consideration of international market. The authority / director (Chen) did not respond to Hu's question and claimed that he would sue Hu for violating the copyrights. Later, he ended the debate by calling Hu Mr. Shameful. However, the internet and commercial forces joined hand, and "the bun" became a famous online gang.

The regulation imposed the SARFT in mid August against spoof echoed Chen's attitude, refused to enter the conversation by labeling the spoofs as "false", "black" poison.

Can prohibition work?

Political dissent Liu Xiao-bo traces the spoof tradition to Wang Shuo's Pi-zi (痞子) literature tradition and claims that it has the potential to challenge the post-authoritarian state. However, the subversiveness of Wang Shuo's Pi-zi culture doesn't lie on its negation of the logic of the society. Instead, it pushes the iron logic to its extreme in order to reveal its ridicule. Feng Xiao-Kang's movies, such as Cell phone (2003) and the Big shot's funeral (2001) have inherited such pi-zi tradition and posed a series of question on Chinese modernity. When such questions did not receive their answers, whenever the authority starts re-presenting its self-image, people / netizen would uphold the spoof mirrors: "Look, this is you!" Well, if the authority had been confident, it could have laughed about it or defended its image by open debate. However, it acts hysterically, yelling "this is not me!" and picks up stones to break the mirrors.

What has been broken are in fact part of itself.

(p.s the photo is taken from the online advertisment of Lei Feng's puppy love girl friend)

leifeng.jpg40.62 KB