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In mid-June 2014, I set out to Beijing, a mere month after returning from my year abroad. Having now decided upon a suitable dissertation topic and received the appropriate go–aheads from staff at my faculty, I set out with all the excitement of a year abroad student, but thankfully none of the nerves.
Beijing, in the height of summer, is filled with a furious heat that tests every visitor’s ability to acclimatise. It forms part of the capital’s dry, smog-filled atmosphere. Mercifully, my accommodation was equipped with an air-conditioning unit that pumped out a cool breeze all day long.
But dissertation research is not about remaining in one’s home all day, enjoying the luxuries of air conditioning that many Chinese can ill-afford. It’s about throwing oneself into Chinese society, asking the right questions to the right people, and going further than Cambridge academics can in their dust-gathering offices.
Knowing little about Xi Jinping’s propagandist concept known as the “Chinese Dream”, my first port of call was interviews with Chinese people. Having designed a range of interview questions aimed at discovering modern views on government propaganda, I set out to interview people from a range of ages and backgrounds, from the affluent new Chinese elite, to croaky-voiced roadside workmen, from bright-eyed middle-school students to elderly, sedentary mothers, calmly waving their paper fans in the vicious midday sun.
Some of the interviews had been arranged beforehand, others were performed on the spot. While my pre-arranged interviews allowed for in-depth conversation, conducted in Chinese, on-the-spot interviews offered a different viewpoint. Without pre-considered answers, people responded with a passion and emotion with which I hope to imbue my dissertation. One member of the communist party, when asked about Chinese Communist Party Propaganda Manuals, told me, “Nobody but a fool would believe what’s written in them”. A rural immigrant gardener, with clear pride in his voice, told me, “The Chinese Dream? It’s the dream of the great revival of the Chinese Nation!” as he swept crusty leaves from the pavement.
But while interviews offer fascinating insights into views on modern propaganda, they are just one part of my collection of primary resources. During my year abroad, I had noticed that propaganda posters on the Chinese dream had been posted all around the streets of Beijing.
The word propaganda conjures up amusing images in Westerners’ minds. We imagine Cultural Revolution posters from 1950’s China or Russia, replete with muscular peasants, gripping an AK–47 in one hand and a hoe in the other. We imagine the face of Mao adorning the sun, as peasants look up adoringly.
Modern Chinese propaganda posters are nothing of the sort, as I discovered. They are often de-politicised. The latest series of posters depicted peaceful, almost pastoral Confucian scenes, where children revelled in the wonders of the natural world, before coming home to show respect to their parents. Slogans which once asked readers to prepare for the imminent invasion by imperialist America now implored for students to work hard at school, and for the elderly to save their spare pennies.
By day, I was able to trawl these streets, meticulously photographing each type of poster I saw. I documented all types of slogans on the Chinese Dream, seen anywhere from Line 1 of the Beijing underground, to Tiananmen Square, to public botanical gardens (where a hedge had been carefully cut to form the Chinese Characters for “Chinese Dream”).
I was even able to visit the birthplace of the Chinese Dream. In 2011, on a visit to the National Museum at Tiananmen Square, Xi Jinping first spoke and articulated his Chinese Dream. Since then, the internet, schools and public discussion forums have come alive with talk of the concept.
On my own research visit to the Museum, I attended two exhibitions, one purporting to display children’s’ views of the Chinese dream, and one aimed at fomenting nationalism, showing China’s degradation at the hand of Western imperialist powers during the “Century of Humiliation”. In combination, they offered starkly contrasting presentations of China’s national dream.
While the children of Beijing schools had produced visions of a futuristic China not dissimilar to the West, complete with hover-boards and astronauts, the Road to Revival exhibition called for a return to China’s prominence and leadership on the world stage, and elegantly displayed AK-47’s that had warded off aggressive Japanese imperialists. It was a call to arms, within a museum exhibition.
But through my research, I discovered a newer, more intriguing phenomenon, something I hope to touch on during my dissertation. Numerous brand adverts, be it on television, on billboards, or in motor vehicle exhibitions, featured the idea of the Chinese dream in their advertising slogans.
By no means were these government owned businesses. They were private companies, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, hoping to make a fast buck in Beijing. One advert directly associated the Chinese dream with alcohol consumption. Blue Dream, a popular spirit in China, published an advert that I discovered in an airport, on which were the words, “The Chinese Dream: The Dream of the Blue” (referring to the popular beverage). A catchy slogan had been seized, even hijacked by companies, who were using its prominence in the popular imagination for publicity purposes.
On a trip to the southwestern city of Xiamen, in Fujian province, I tried to discover if the hype surrounding the Chinese dream was limited to Beijing, or whether it had spread to other areas of China. It was perhaps naïve of me to think that, even in the age of the Internet, of instant digital communication, Chinese propaganda might be less prominent in areas immediately outside the government’s sphere of influence. This was proved true. Xiamen University had hundreds of China dream posters pasted upon its surrounding walls. Students there demonstrated a similar positivity to the “Chinese Dream” idea, using an almost identical lexicon to that used by Beijing students.
Mr Yip’s kind funding made all of this possible. As I approached the end of my year abroad, I was deeply unsure about the topic of my dissertation. This made any research while I was still in China impossible. Without the scholarship, I would have lacked key primary resources, such as photos, interviews and video clips, all of which will form the basis of my dissertation.
Therefore, I would like to once again express my gratitude to him for funding my trip to China, not just this year, but indeed in the previous three years that I have been at Churchill. I hope that the College’s strong record of success in the field of Chinese studies continues, thanks to his generous support.
I would like to express my sincere thanks to Mr. Wing Yip and his associates, for providing me with such a generous travel grant. With his funding, I was able to carry out detailed research on my 4th–year Chinese Studies dissertation, which will be based on the propaganda campaign of the Chinese Dream (中国梦).