Innovation key to cultural soft power

By HU YIFENG / 04-22-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTOS (1 to 4): movie adapted from online literature “The Lost Tomb”; movie “The Founding of a Republic”; variety show “The Voice of China”; the online game “Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds” 

Culture reflects a country’s zeitgeist; a booming culture indicates a country’s prosperity and the mental wealth of its people. With rich culture in ancient times and self-improvement in modern days, China is now moving towards a national rejuvenation in all respects. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and particularly since the reform and opening up, China has greatly developed its culture. 

Culture runs through people’s social lives while motivating the country’s economic growth, shaping its zeitgeist, and displaying its national image. As an essential part of culture, literature and art are powerful mediums which deeply move their audiences. 
Fueling creativity 
Different times call for different cultural and aesthetic demands, and these demands are the fuel for artistic creation. As socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, the principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved into one between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life, which naturally includes a higher demand for thought-provoking and well-made literature and art. 
It is well-known that all art is created within a certain social and historical backdrop. If we compare creativity to an ever-flowing river, then history is the broad riverbed which both confines and guides the way the water flows. 
During China’s economic structural reform and social transformation, the country’s creative vitality surged. A case in point is the video named “The Rear Waves” that gained over ten million hits and 170,000 danmu (bullet comments) within two days since its debut on mainstream media and new media platforms in May 2020. This shows the convergence of a wellspring of artistic sources which are combining to drive cultural creation in the new era. Going beyond direction by art departments or organizations, China’s literature and art industries are now more like a kaleidoscope, reflecting a multifaceted spectrum of colors in China’s ever-changing society. The internet has allowed each aspiring individual and organization to create art. 
Reviving old, creating new 
Innovation flows in the life blood of a country’s culture and tradition. Every human improvement in civilization is accompanied by art. The root of culture can neither be cut off nor transplanted in different soil. 
At the same time, art, as an outlet of human expression, can only be kept alive through inheritance. In recent years, people’s views on traditional cultures have gradually become more mature, and more people have begun to support bringing traditional culture back into daily life. There is much more to China’s traditional culture than the four great inventions of ancient China that we see in textbooks, cultural relics stored in museums, Confucian concepts studied in research papers, or Chinese philosophy and cultural heritage that interests Western sinologists. In fact, traditional culture exists in Chinese people’s daily lives, and thus continues to inspire modern art and literature, in terms of their values, subjects, formats, and styles. 
More importantly, traditional culture is no longer simply an element of Chinese modern art, but a primary feature. Chinese people today are experiencing the artistic charms of traditional Chinese culture in various ways. By reconnecting with their forebears through art, Chinese people have gained more confidence in the new era. 
Art is a carrier of traditions, and traditions include both the past and the future. The value of traditions lies not only in recording the past, but also in showing us the best ways to move forward. 
For art and literature to transform and boost traditional culture in a creative way, we have to learn from the past while adapting the old to the new era. Art creation is not as simple as pouring old wine into new bottles. Instead, artists should try to revive traditional culture in a way that allows people to truly appreciate the beauty of traditional art. 
A Chinese saying goes, a river hits high water levels when its tributaries have enough water, and when the river has low water levels, its tributaries dry out. Culture’s ecology resembles nature in this way. Although cultural barriers exist among different groups of people, different types of culture diverge, intersect, or converge just like a river. The more confident Chinese people are in their culture, and the more inclusive and open China’s cultural ecology is, the more likely it will be for the country’s cultural branches to intersect with one another, thus generating more common ground with greater diversity. 
Undoubtedly, the key to enhancing China’s cultural soft power lies in strengthening the country’s mainstream culture, which is also an important gauge to assess China’s cultural achievements. Nevertheless, art should never be made from the same mold; otherwise the outcome will be derivative and off-putting. 
From ancient times, the Chinese realized the importance of harmony in diversity. Art and literature in contemporary China have followed the principle of “letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” Diversity is essential for a booming culture as variety fits the law of development. Only in a sound cultural ecosystem can new cultural elements combine to generate a booming industry for Chinese culture. 
The history of contemporary Chinese literature and art provides vivid examples for China’s endeavors in this regard. By “breaking-through-the-barriers” and integrating literature and art, creators have paved the way for innovation, which can be seen in pop songs, genre films, urban dramas, variety shows, online literature, online games, live webcasts, desktop films, and interactive dramas. 
Examples of groundbreaking works range from the songs, TV series, variety shows, to online games. Creators range from writers like Louis Cha, Chiung Yao to Wang Shuo and Guo Jingming, and then to Internet novelists like Jr-Heng Tsai, Nan Pai San Shu and the famous video blogger Li Ziqi. Mediums range from to; from QQ to WeChat and Tik Tok; from “big screens” to “small screens”, and from “landscape” mode to “portrait” mode. For each emergence of a new literary form or phenomenon there is always attention, and sometimes controversy. 
These amazing cultural “barrier-breaking” or “counterculture” works which either pop up unannounced, as overnight sensations, or exert influence unconsciously, lead to the sudden realization that under the influence of social transformation, technological development, and media changes, new cultural factors quietly gestate and grow with tenacity, nurturing and enriching mainstream culture. 
In the process of economic and social development, along with people’s changing ideas and aesthetic needs, new cultural factors and art forms have flourished. Whether they are popular, fashionable, commercial, or grass-root, non-mainstream, and even marginal, all combine to cater to people’s diverse tastes for art—provided that they adhere to a common baseline of social values and do not violate public order and good morals. 
In this way, the subjects of cultural creation can continuously emerge, allowing new culture to expand into a broader space for development. Meanwhile, our society’s core values can also be displayed through diverse cultures, entering people’s lives in a way that truly appeals to youth without losing touch with society. Thus, mainstream culture is able to absorb endless creativity and expand its influence, enhancing its overall strength, and helping construct a culturally strong country in a way that can be more easily felt by the people. This will allow people to enjoy the passion, pleasure, and joy of a diverse culture in their daily lives, and enhance the sense of cultural gain and satisfaction for all society. 
Hu Yifeng is from the Editorial Office of China Literature and Art Criticism. 
Edited by WENG RONG