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January 7, 2017

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Perils of turning into the society of the spectacle

EVERYONE knows that China has made huge strides in development over these past 30-plus years. A large part of the achievement is due to its opening up to the outside world, which has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the process.

But China’s “spectacular turn” hasn’t been without consequences, Professor Wu Guanjun argues.

The professor of political theory at Shanghai’s East China Normal University made his case at a recent public lecture at the Wooden Box Café, which he called “China Today: The Society of the Spectacle.”

It was a full house — mostly expats listening intently with a beer in hand — who had come to listen to Professor Wu’s thoughts about one of those consequences.

The crux of his argument was that China, in its breakneck race toward development, has been reduced to a society of the spectacle.

But what does that mean?

The argument is that China has entered an era where life has been reduced from being into having, and having into merely appearing. Still confused?

Basically he argues that in modern-day China, every aspect of society, including ourselves, has been reduced to a commodity.

Everything has become a glitzy representation of a less spectacular truth.

In short, it’s a big critique of commodity fetishism. As any good professor of theory should, Professor Wu based his arguments on an already established theory, first put forward by philosopher Guy Debord in the aptly titled “The Society of the Spectacle” in 1967.

Professor Wu argued that Chinese society today has perhaps become more flashy and more spectacular than any other modern society, with images and advertisements of endless commodities assaulting our senses all day, from every angle, whether we’re walking down the street or sitting at home after work playing on our phones.

Some of his key examples included Internet dating, personal live streaming (zhibo), and the now infamous Double 11 festival created by Taobao.

He argued that whereas dating in China in the past may have been organized by matchmakers, today people look for love online, and the way they do that is by turning themselves into spectacles.

We often laugh at the ludicrous photoshopping that happens in print advertisements and billboard campaigns, but we’re all guilty of the same crime, he argued.

These dating apps feature pictures that are carefully taken, and later edited and beautified on apps like Meitu, before being posted online with bios that are also designed to turn the body into a commodity ready to be “bought.”

Professor Wu levelled perhaps his biggest criticisms at the latest development that has turned into literal craziness, Taobao’s Double 11 festival (I wrote about that here on November 12).

That festival, which started as a way for singles to celebrate but was hijacked by Jack Ma and developed into a spending frenzy, is particularly designed to suck you in, offering thousands and thousands of “spectacles” that for many are hard to resist, whether they can actually afford to splash out or not.

Then he touched on zhibo, which I talked about here in-depth on December 17, as a particularly apt example of Debord’s society of the spectacle. He argued that streaming hosts (zhubo) have no particular talents, apart from being attractive to the eye having reduced themselves to mere spectacles for mass consumption.

But this is where I felt I had to disagree since, at least in my experience, zhibo really is a space of the unspectacular, where average, ordinary people can shine by performing what would otherwise be considered boring tasks. Eating. Talking. Arguing. Shopping.

Professor Wu admitted that most of these zhubo have no particular talents, and perhaps that’s exactly the point.

Perhaps China has been so swamped with the spectacle over the past 30 years that people are turning off, being attracted instead to the decidedly unpolished, the decidedly raw. The zhibo industry, as I mentioned in my previous column, is set to overtake the movie industry in earnings very soon.

Has China reached the tipping point, on the brink of becoming a post-spectacular society? Only time will tell.


Editor’s note:

Andy Boreham comes from New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, and has lived in China, off and on, for the past four years. Now he is living in Shanghai earning a master’s degree in Chinese culture and language at Fudan University. He welcomes your feedback on all of the issues he covers — you can reach him at


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