Peking lifts its ban on art for art's sake

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The Independent Online
CHINA is belatedly seeking to match its economic reforms with a move away from doctrinaire Communist control of the arts, easing restrictions on everything from bikini calendars to classic novels and 'artistic books on the human body'.

An announcement from the Press and Publications Administration, published in official newspapers yesterday, lifted a ban on calendars showing women dressed in bikinis. Pictures of singers and film stars from Hong Kong, Taiwan and other foreign countries can also be used on calendars for the first time, and publishers who want to issue classic novels, martial arts action stories or 'artistic books on the human body' will be able to do so without prior approval from Peking.

There have been several calls recently for more artistic freedom. One of the most explicit came earlier this week from the Communist Party's leading official in culture and the arts, who spoke out against the notion that every work of art was required to serve the cause of socialism. Li Ruihuan, one of six members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, told an arts festival in Inner Mongolia: 'It is impossible to instil in every work of literature and art the function of political education. Works that are not against the constitution and laws of the country should not be banned.'

China still needed art works which could contribute to political education, said Mr Li, but this should not be the sole criterion for judging their value. 'Literature and art have their purposes in entertainment, aesthetics, understanding and education.'

Mr Li suffered for his relatively liberal views in the wake of the 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, when conservatives seized control of China's cultural establishment and reimposed strict censorship on news media and the arts. As the economic reforms sponsored by Deng Xiaoping, the supreme leader, gather pace, ideology and cultural affairs have become the last stronghold of the hardliners. The position of such conservatives as He Jingzhi, the acting Culture Minister, and Gao Di, editor of People's Daily, has come under increasing attack, however, with the approach of this autumn's crucial party congress.

While political liberalisation remains out of the question, the latest measures appear to show impatience with the hardline tendency to view everything from Taiwanese pop music to an interest in Western painting as a threat to the Communist Party. Such an approach has undermined the party's credibility among younger Chinese, encouraging them to see the leadership as out of touch.

In another sign of revolt against the cultural bureaucracy, one of China's leading actresses has rejected the country's main theatre prize, saying the award had been 'tainted by corruption'. Song Dandan, who recently played the title role in the first Chinese production of Major Barbara, said she had refused to accept the Plum Blossom prize because of 'the scandal of corruption and lies behind the selection process'. In an open letter published on the front page of People's Daily, she added: 'To preserve the sanctity of my artistic endeavour and my moral integrity, I refuse to accept this tainted prize.' Ms Song was one of 31 artists chosen for the prize earlier this year, but the newspaper reported that four had been named after the initial selection process had been completed.