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Cashing in on culture

[ 2009-11-02 12:36]     字号 [] [] []  
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Yu Qiuyu is in the news again.

Nobody should be surprised about the best-selling author making headlines, but what's different this time is he's in the business pages.

A venture he invested in eight years ago is set to be listed on the Shenzhen bourse. The 2.4 million yuan ($146,400) he put up then is expected to be worth at least 60 million yuan when the company goes public.

This follows filmmaker Feng Xiaogang, whose 2.88 million shares in Huayi Brothers Media Group, a film and television production company, will make him China's richest movie director with a market value of 82.1 million yuan.

The moral of the story seems to be: Let your money work for you. It beats working for your money. Fame may bless a creative person, but fortune arrives only when one is ingenious with money.

Yu is by no means the first celebrity of letters to dabble in investment. In the early 1990s, novelist Zhang Xianliang invested in a theme park-cum-movie backlot in northwestern China. It has since turned into a star attraction. The difference was, Zhang actually managed the business.

He was among the first writers and artists to dip his toe in the tempestuous ocean of wheeling and dealing. This raised a storm about the integrity of being an artist.

Since then, an artist does not have to be poor to earn credibility. Rather, like all industries, creative types have adopted the same standards for success that are usually found in business: The more money you make, the greater the status.

In this sense, Yu is not blazing a trail for other money-hungry scribes. Besides, he is not quitting his study and the television podium for the boardroom. He simply put some of his earnings in a startup. It's not that different from picking the right stocks or winning the lottery.

Yet, Yu is getting a lot of criticism. There have even been questions about how Yu got the shares in the first place. One online posting reads: "Short-term political and economic interests conspire to embroil a band of literati with the stench of money. This is the biggest misfortune of Chinese culture."

This is because Yu is China's most controversial author.

Last year, I compiled a collection of opinion essays for a publishing house. I found Yu got the most news and views. And it has been like that for many years.

For someone so much in the public glare, Yu is almost totally ignored by the international media. He is not someone you can put a label on. He is a conundrum that absorbs the ambivalence of several generations. He is admired and abhorred in equal measure. More than anything, he is a fascinating object for cultural scrutiny.

Last year, in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, Yu made a tearful plea to the disaster-struck survivors not to take their grievances onto the streets. If they did so, he said, their actions would only encourage the bad intentions of foreign media. This drew the public ire and some called him a "running dog". Yu responded that he was speaking as his conscience dictated.

Actually, I believe him. It's just that his sympathetic attitude took a different form from, say, Ai Weiwei's efforts to compile a list of school children killed in the quake.

Yu is not a government spokesman. He is not aligned with any organization, or danwei in the Chinese parlance. He does not hold any title or draw a salary, which is something he is proud of. His gravitas comes not from any official position, but from the words flowing from his pen or mouth.

The last "official position" he held was president of Shanghai Drama Academy. In 1992, he quit the job and became a freelance writer. Before that, he published a series of scholarly tomes on literature.

While in graduate school, I read his first book, a history of drama theories, and it was amazing. He was able to clarify the most arcane stuff and his prose is rarified. To my mind, he is China's Samuel Johnson.

The reading public did not get to know him until the 1992 publication of A Bitter Journey of Culture, his first collection of essays. It was the fruit of his travels across China "in search of the soul of Chinese civilization".

It's not an exaggeration to say Yu revolutionized the Chinese essay. Before that, the genres of fiction, essay and academic writing were clear cut and rarely ran into one another. Essays (sanwen) in Chinese literature are for recording your moods while sipping tea. When Yu wrote about a landscape, he combined the present and the past in a style so grand it swept readers off their feet. It was a travelogue with history; it was a history lesson with personal insight.

As Yu's books periodically became best sellers, detractors began to appear, criticizing his purple prose and his relentless historic sweep. Then someone accused him of participating in a writing group organized by the notorious Gang of Four during the last days of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Yu makes it a habit not to respond to critics. In the process he has carved out an image of arrogance and self-righteousness. He does not have a sense of humor and does not keep up with trends. Instead, he goes back to history for inspiration. Like it or not, he embodies the traits of a traditional Chinese man of letters. The values he espouses are those of China's past, but not necessarily those of its future.

It is not a coincidence that Yu is doing well financially. The whole nation is rediscovering the grandeur and glory of Chinese history. Costume dramas garner high ratings and historical novels sell like hot cakes. There are tens of millions, if not more, who love Yu's writing and see it as the perfect combination of truth and beauty. Others see him as a symbol of hypocrisy.

Yu represents the establishment not because he is an official appointee, but because he distills from cultural sources that form the bedrock of China. He is cheered and jeered for the same reason.

I don't see Yu as a person of contradictions. Rather he is a touchstone of people's attitudes toward the establishment. In one top 10 best-sellers list, Yu's books took four slots. He is not JK Rowling rich, but he has been among China's best-paid authors for a long time. Moving up a notch on the wealth meter does not make much of a difference to the quality of his life. It just gives his critics one more reason to voice their discontent toward the establishment and its practice of basking in the afterglow of history.




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