OPINION> Chen Weihua
In defense of public 'vulgarity'
By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-02-07 07:57

I scorned Shanghai dialect comedy, or huajixi, in my college days, considering it low taste and "vulgar". I took a modern drama class and went to every play in town, from Shakespeare's Hamlet to Eugene O'Neil's Desire under the Elms.

But the same dramas, played in a small theater and attended by mostly college students, could not last for 10 days, while a "vulgar" Shanghai dialect farce, staged in a much bigger hall, would attract tens of thousands of people and go on for three months non-stop.

Nevertheless, I had held my contempt for huajixi for many years until my friend took me to the Tian Han Theater in Changsha, Hunan province, two months ago. There, an amateur type of Moulin Rouge or Las Vegas show was being staged 365 days a year with dancers from home and abroad.

Though it's not really my cup of tea, its wild popularity, just like huajixi, is evident from the packed hall and enthusiastic cheers from the audience.

I told my friend - an official in charge of the cultural industry reform - that such a show would not be approved in either Shanghai or Beijing. Revealing too much female body and some sexually seductive acts would simply invite severe criticism as being low taste and vulgar. However, I wouldn't doubt its potential box office success in the two metropolises.

The same is true for errenzhuan. A form of duet from Northeast China, it usually makes one of the hit programs on the annual CCTV Chinese New Year Eve gala. But many people still relate errenzhuan to vulgarity.

The question now seems to be: "vulgar to whom?"

Fast going back through the time tunnel to China in the 1970s, many of the things today would surely be regarded vulgar. Our clothing, hairstyles, movies and TV dramas, song lyrics, paintings, magazines, sex education and even some modern dramas in today's commercial world would all be deemed as vulgar, let alone the beauty contests, massage parlors, pole dances and sex toy shops.

So, whether something is vulgar or not differs from time to time. It also depends on who you are talking to. For the high society, many of the things being enjoyed and shared by the general public would be deemed low class and vulgar, while even high society has its fair share of "vulgar" activities.

In both Chinese and English, the word "vulgar" has at least two meanings.

While many people today tend to link vulgar with things that are indecent - pornography and offensive epithets - the word also means "the common people or belonging to the common people." It is simply something ordinary, common or shared by all. The massive popularity of many things that are labeled "vulgar" could only be explained by the second meaning. For "vulgar" things that are truly offensive or indecent to the general public, they should be restricted or rated adults-only.

Our catchphrase of "letting a hundred flowers bloom" means there will be tulips, orchids, lilies and peonies, as well as foxtail grass and many wild flowers, in our gardens.

Commercialization, a key message during 30 years of economic reform, has made things from art to clothing closer to the taste of the "vulgar" general public.

I agree with sociologist Li Yinhe who wrote the article "In Defense of the Low and Vulgar Society" after police made arrests of people watching pornographic clips. It is unrealistic to demand the "vulgar" general public read, watch, talk and wear things that are thought as refined and in good taste but will bore them to death.

I guess florists have found a good solution to the problem: Put each flower in different buckets and let the customers pick themselves.

E-mail: chenweihua@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 02/07/2009 page4)