CORN February 2015 Edition.
Over the past decade, China’s media landscape has expanded dramatically. Domestic satellite TV channels have sprouted up by the dozens, offering audiences a range of programming previously lacking on China’s state broadcaster CCTV. And with Chinese television viewers increasingly migrating to online and mobile platforms, sites like Youku have rushed to provide users with free, streaming versions of hundreds of their favourite shows. Competition for viewers is fierce, and in response, Internet companies have begun promoting original web-only content, with many such productions enlisting the talents of prominent Chinese celebrities.
Few exemplify this trend better than music producer, film director and writer Gao Xiaosong [高晓松]. His program Morning Call [晓说], made exclusively for Youku and which began airing in March 2012, is described on Douban as “China’s first freely distributed intellectual celebrity talk show” [“中国第一档全自由发挥的知识类名人脱口秀”]. And while critics may argue about the accuracy of the term “intellectual”, Gao has undoubtedly carved out a unique place for himself as an online talk show host. Views of his videos online run into the millions and according to Douban Morning Call is screened on domestic airlines and high speed trains across China. To cap things off, Gao’s talk show has now been turned into a series of popular books, also titled Morning Call (the first of which is the subject of this piece). Similar online talk shows may have emerged since Morning Call’s debut, but Gao Xiaosong’s show remains the industry benchmark.
Born in 1969, Gao initially rose to fame for the “campus folk ballads” [校园民谣] he penned for famous singers, with a compilation of these songs released in 1996 under the title Gao Xiaosong’s Collected Works: No Regrets for Youth [高晓松作品集青春无悔]. While he has continued to work in the music industry as a producer, in recent years Gao has appeared on a number of popular TV musical talent shows, such as Hunan Satellite TV’s Super Girl [快乐女声] (2009) and Super Boy [快乐男声] (2010) and Guangxi Satellite TV’s True Talent [一声所爱·大地飞歌] (2012). Gao has also dabbled in movie making, directing such films as Where Have All The Flowers Gone [那时花开] (2002) and My Kingdom [大武生] (2012).
Gao first came to my attention, not for his work in music and film, but for his arrest and detention for drunk driving in November 2011. In the days and weeks that followed, pictures of his goateed-face were splashed across the web. My interest piqued, I began to read up on Gao and his work in the music industry. When his program Morning Call began airing in early 2012, I made a point of watching it (admittedly in an attempt to practice my Chinese). His eclectic interests intrigued me. Each episode promised the opportunity to hear Gao pronounce on anything from the quality of life in Australia and Singapore, to the behaviour of American police, to the history of China’s Republican period. I wasn’t sure if I trusted his opinions, but I liked his down-to-earth style. Just before I left Shanghai in the summer of 2013, I picked up a copy of his book.
Like the program from which it takes its name, the book Morning Call (Beijing Combined Press, 2012 – in Chinese) covers a diverse range of topics: the life of Ming Dynasty admiral (and eunuch) Zheng He, the specifics of US traffic law and the European Cup, just to name a few. References to his travels in the US and Europe crop up throughout the book and Gao takes an obvious pleasure in recounting the time he spent there. He’s a natural storyteller and his essays on the West read more like the gregarious recollections of a former ex-pat than the field notes of a journalist. Case in point: Gao’s essay on Hollywood. Gao is a fan of American cinema and describes with gusto the lobbying efforts behind the Academy Award nominations, as well as what lessons the Chinese film industry can learn from Hollywood. Despite not having any particular interest in Hollywood, I nonetheless found much of what Gao had to say on the subject intriguing in its own right.
Yet a small detail in this same essay also reveals Gao’s limitations as a writer. Quite offhandedly, Gao at one point asserts that “Jews don’t only control America’s economy, they also control Hollywood” [“犹太人不光控制着美国经济，还控制着好莱坞”]. (Gao, 5) To be fair, Gao’s words are clearly written without malice. Watching an unconnected two-part program of his, “Looking at America: Jews Who Exemplify The Best in Humankind” [“看美国：系列之人类精华犹太人”], it’s evident Gao feels a great admiration for America’s Jewish community. But this admiration leads him to espouse some patently ridiculous views, such as the idea (expressed through a short animated interlude in the same program) that “the root of the Jews intelligence lies in a hereditary trait that causes mental illness” [“犹太人的聪明起源于一种导致神经疾病的遗传基因”].
(It should be noted that such views are hardly unique to Gao. Much has been written about the often peculiar fascination many Chinese express towards Jewish individuals, as well as the discomforting similarity between Chinese praise for the supposed “natural” business acumen of the Jews and certain perennial anti-Semitic tropes.)
Calling out Gao for an off-handed—and off-colour—reference to Jewish influence in Hollywood may seem like petty nitpicking. But such comments are, I think, indicative of the kind of thinker Gao Xiaosong is. Despite his experiences abroad, Gao can come off as rather parochial. Broad claims about the innate qualities of various ethnic or national groups (including Han Chinese) dot his work, both on the page and online. It’s not just that such claims are wrong; it’s that such claims are no more well thought out than the kind of half-formed opinions on ethnic identity one frequently hears as a foreigner living in China. At the risk of putting her on a pedestal, it’s hard for me to imagine Liu Yu [刘瑜] (a writer who herself spent many years abroad and whose work I have written about previously) making such crude generalizations about America’s Jews (or any ethnic group, for that matter) without at least acknowledging how toxic these sentiments would be outside China.
This leads me to another issue with Gao’s work. People who approach his book with little-to-no understanding of the particular topics Gao discusses may find his arguments convincing. Personally, I found his analysis on the relationship between the literati and courtesans in imperial China quite fascinating. Yet I also suspect that my fascination reflected my own ignorance about the topic. For readers better informed than myself, Gao’s views on Tang Dynasty courtesans may be treated with greater skepticism. This is understandable. I get the sense that Gao’s interests are so varied—or that he is so committed to being a professional raconteur—that he doesn’t have the time or energy to pursue any one topic in great detail. Of course, this isn’t an indictment. Netizen comments on Douban and Tieba suggest that Gao’s intellectual dilettantism accounts for much of his popularity. But what comes across as provocative or informed on screen can seem trite and shallow on the page.
This is especially evident when one approaches his book independent of his talk show. So much of what makes Gao an engaging figure is captured in his fluid conversational delivery. Watching Gao Xiaosong on Morning Call—his rotund frame perched on a wooden chair, his hand waving a massive Chinese fan for dramatic effect—can feel like a personal audience with a member of China’s literati. Yet reduced to words on the page, Gao’s stories often come off as flat. The publishers of the book seemed to recognize this, which is probably why they decided to highlight in bold text some choice passages and to divide the book’s chapters with short comics illustrating Gao’s thoughts.
I don’t mean to be unnecessarily harsh on Gao Xiaosong and Morning Call. There’s much in his online program to recommend it to both Chinese and non-Chinese viewers alike, so long as one approaches it for what it is: an informal talk show hosted by one China’s most gregarious public figures. If one keeps this in mind, watching a few episodes of Morning Call can be an engaging way to spend an hour or two.
As for Morning Call the book: my advice is to skip it all together and head straight for his Youku homepage.
Emile Dirks is currently a PhD student in Political Science studying Comparative Politics and Development at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on local responses to Chinese hydroelectric projects in Burma/Myanmar and Indonesia. Prior to his doctoral studies, Emile worked in the NGO-sector on the Thai-Burma border and pursued language studies at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Emile can be reached at emile.dirks [at] mail.utoronto.ca