China pop

China’s entering global imagination through images and symbols. The Great Wall, Mao, pandas, terracotta warriors, Shanghai girls and Beijing Hutongs are somehow all part of a same ‘China province’ in the realm of global kitsch imagery.

Tourist shops offer multiple reproductions of this China kitsch in two dimensions, offering a choice between 30s oriental glamour, 60s red propaganda, and 90s childish exuberance.

In the height of Chinese communism, propaganda developed its own ‘pop’ aesthtics to convey official messages. These posters from the past have lost their agressive edge (or at least, the edge has gone slightly blunt), and are now somewhat nostalgic of a time when everything was clear-cut and simpler. Made innocuous (or less obviously mind-controlling) by the change in style, 50s war propaganda can be used as ‘pop’ decoration on the walls of a NanLuoGuXiang edgy card shop.

The figure of the Chairman itself, in its various propagandised incarnations, has taken on some sort of ‘ostalgic’ pop flavour – like the ‘Mao’ cafes which appear in Chinatowns around the world – eroding the revolutionary radicalism of his figure, keeping only the safe image of a benevolent grand-father figure.

Moo’s figure, reproduced now in many shapes and colours, is probably the poppest object in China now – highly ideological, but also rather innocuous – somewhere in-between the White Goddess and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Marylin and Che Guevara.

China’s not only relying on its past for pop. Artists have developed a very distinct contemporary ‘pop’ aesthetic of hilarious faces and distorted bodies. We could easily interpret their exagerated joviality as Chinese triumphalism – mixed with ironic criticism of exuberant capitalism in a communist country. We could also just welcome its playfulness, as a relative aesthetic success.

Pop has a strength of its own. With the rise of China, these images are likely to take on a certain ‘coolness’. Maybe teenagers will start wearing the laughing faces on t-shirts, or pinning them on their bedroom walls? Already, Chinese writing is all the rage for tattoos. And these images, pop and innocent looking as they are, carry a lot of ideology, like all pop culture does.

So we should welcome the arrival of China pop among the global federation of kitsch, as a powerful rush of new blood. But we should also try to clearly map out its ideological programme. There is danger – but also potential for fun – and maybe, Chinese and Western pop could cancel out each other, allowing for richer forms of life, more existential options – and who knows, more freedom from mass-produced imagery?


This is just a gratuitous post with random panda stuff.

Pandas in Tianjin.

A panda bag and a panda purse.

Pandas in Beijing (notice how they’re slightly posher than the previous set).