21 October 2016
Xi Jinping told China's writers and artists they must never 'apply western theories to reshape Chinese aesthetics' and a correct political stance 'must not be compromised'. Photo: Xinhua
Xi Jinping told China's writers and artists they must never 'apply western theories to reshape Chinese aesthetics' and a correct political stance 'must not be compromised'. Photo: Xinhua

Xi shows how to squeeze 114 names into a speech

“Xi Dada [習大大 (Xi the Big Boss)] namechecked 114 virtuosi, poets and littérateurs in just one single speech.”

That was the headline on a recent feature that appeared on the mainland news portal Sina.

It is the latest indication of the heights to which the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine will rise in its paeans to General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平). 

The article said Xi mentioned 114 eminent artists and writers — ancient and contemporary, from China and abroad — when he addressed a state-level meeting on the role of the arts last year.

“Numerous netizens are amazed and awed by Xi’s genuine erudition and impressive memory,” the feature said.

The legion of philosophers, writers, painters, calligraphers, poets, musicians, dancers, choreographers, sculptors, playwrights and their works mentioned in Xi’s 14,000-character speech include some that not too many people may have heard of: for instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia, believed to be the first work of literature, and the Vedas, a large collection of texts originating in ancient India.

Others whose fame among most mainland Chinese may be limited include Aristophanes, a comic playwright of ancient Athens; J.M.W. Turner, an English landscape painter; Hector Berlioz, a French composer; and Karl Jaspers, a German psychiatrist and philosopher who had a strong influence on modern theology and psychiatry, according to Wikipedia.

We choose to believe that Xi, who is said to be a bibliophile, genuinely has a fair knowledge of and insight into these people and their works.

Also on Xi’s list are some big names more people in the mainland may be familiar with: Confucius, Laozi, Zhuang Zhou, Mencius, Li Bai, Su Shi, Lu Xun; Russia’s Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky; Britain’s Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw; Germany’s Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller; France’s François Rabelais, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Gustave Flaubert and Romain Rolland; Italy’s Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio; Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes; and America’s Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway.

What do all these artists and writers have in common?

One can’t help wondering whether China’s top leader was merely dropping names in an attempt to be admired for the breadth of his cultural knowledge.

But as Xi himself has put it, they all “extolled their own countries and people with all their loyalty, passion and patriotism”.

Popular sitcom actor Zhao Benshan (趙本山) said he was so moved by Xi’s words that he “couldn’t sleep”.

In a nutshell, Xi reiterated in his speech the party’s dogma that the arts must serve a social purpose, that is, moral education and ideological remodeling.

On numerous occasions, Xi, who managed to obtain a doctorate in law from Tsinghua University while serving as deputy party secretary and governor of Fujian province, has said he loves reading.

Last month, he told students during a visit to Lincoln High School in suburban Seattle that he always carried several books with him while pasturing sheep in the countryside when he was a teenager.

During the same visit, he was also quoted as saying that he found The Federalist Papers — a compilation of political essays by the fourth US president, James Madison, and other statesmen about the US constitution, a good and enlightening read.

Xi also said he is familiar with the life stories and political ideals of many US presidents, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

Nonetheless, one may be skeptical that Xi possesses a genuine interest in these foundations of western democracy, given that the “universal values” they express have been held in utter contempt by Beijing since Xi took office.

A more likely interpretation is that Xi was merely boasting of his knowledge of the culture of his hosts.

Xi’s Chinese teacher in high school told the People’s Daily, the party’s chief mouthpiece, that when Xi was sent to the rural areas in Shaanxi province in 1969 during Mao Zedong’s “down to the countryside” movement, “he carried with him a large suitcase of books”.

Former premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) was also known for his many — sometimes excessive — literary allusions and quotations from ancient poetry when addressing news conferences, causing a big headache for his interpreters.

But some think Xi is even more pretentious in this regard, citing as evidence a 300-page book, published by the People’s Daily earlier this year, that enumerates in detail the 135 selected ancient allusions Xi made in some of his official speeches.

Since all the senior leaders have their own teams of speechwriters, one wonders exactly how many of these quotations and allusions were Xi’s own idea. 

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EJ Insight writer

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