Members of at least one segment of Chinese society aren't entirely on board with the country's headlong social and economic transformation. Vibrant and creative, their discontent is finding a grassroots outlet through various media, including rap music.
Jin Liu is an Assistant Professor of Chinese in the Ivan Allen College's School of Modern Languages. Drawing on cultural and literary theories, media studies, and sociolinguistics, her interdisciplinary research examines contemporary Chinese popular culture and media culture, including youth culture, as it is expressed through local languages.
While Standard Mandarin is the official language for mass media and education, China's mosaic of regional sub-languages or dialects is a fundamental feature of the Chinese people's everyday life. Non-mainstream languages -- in film, television, the Internet, fiction and popular music -- comprise an often-overlooked aspect of Chinese culture, and provide a unique vantage point from which to articulate the marginalized and unassimilated identities in post-socialist China. Their use alone conveys meaning beyond the literal definitions of the words themselves.
Case in point: rap. Liu notes that as this originally local and continually globalized music genre is re-localized in China, the rhythmic vernacular transforms into distinct colloquial, non-standard local languages. In sharp contrast with the mainstream love songs dominated by Standard Mandarin, rap in local languages is characterized by strong social messages.
"The lyrics may denounce the educational system, criticize pop stars, bash mainstream media or make some political commentaries," she said.
Still, to Western ears Chinese rap comes across as pretty tame, lacking the violence and savage imagery of the ghetto or the ''hood.'
"When I play the Shanghai Rap to my students, their first reaction is, 'Wow! This is a bad imitation of American rap!'" Liu said. "They take an America-centric approach and question its authenticity."
"But in a sense, everything is imitation, particularly when you're talking about this kind of transnational cultural product. There are also abundant examples to show that imported cultural forms can be invested with fresh meaning and transformed by local musicians, so original authenticity and local creativity are often inextricably intertwined."
Liu exhorts her students to look at Chinese rap from a different perspective: the local cultural and social contexts of the songs; the impact of the global music genre on the local community and local musicians; and the role of local language as a non-institutional language in facilitating an "alternative cultural space" that allows Chinese young people freer expression than they would otherwise find within the orthodox culture. In other words, Liu wants her students to think about Chinese rap in terms of the "dynamics between the global and the local as a dualism."
Liu also notes that the Internet is the major venue for the production, circulation and consumption of local-language rap songs. Compared with mainstream record companies and music markets, the Internet offers a largely unofficial, uncensored music space for Chinese youth to voice their discontent, frustration and rebellion against their parents' cultural and hierarchical system.
Her students point out that the Chinese government is authoritarian and heavy-handed in its censorship of the Internet and other forms of expression, "but that's just one side of the coin," she explained. "There's a dynamic between the government's dominance and citizens' resistance. It's kind of a gray area. The government is too clever to use force explicitly or have direct confrontations in these cases; it's more like a negotiation."
"Chinese citizens are not just passively controlled by the government from above, either," Liu continued. "They are very creative. They have their own ways to ridicule and criticize the government and vent their resentment. And this is best illustrated in 'Internet Language,' which is in constant flux." She introduces her students to these highly subversive neologisms, such as the newly coined Chinese characters, along with the "Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon," a compilation of online resistance discourse.
"Young people's subversion of the official discourse is very nuanced, packaged and symbolic," she added. "This way, they can protect themselves and they don't get censored."
Film is another cultural artifact that Liu incorporates into her teaching. She said that in recent years, an increasing number of independent and "underground" motion pictures have used local language and dialects to represent characters who don't fit well into the mainstream of Chinese society.
"Local language provides a way to express the unassimilated voice, especially for those underclass characters who can't adapt to rapid societal changes."
Liu's groundbreaking research informs her teaching, and addresses the larger question of cultural homogenization, which is occurring in China just as it is in other major economies of the world. She challenges her students to explore important questions such as: Does globalization necessarily come at the expense of local cultural identity? Is local language and indigenous culture worth preserving?
"Does the global and the local have to be cultural polarities, or are they forging a dialectic 'glocalization,' interacting, interpenetrating and mutually signifying?" she asked. "And what would this 'glocalization' be like? Would it be a kind of 'McDonaldization'-style localization under globalization, or would it be localization, diversity, and heterogeneity in the real sense?"
Liu's research dovetails with Georgia Tech's commitment to international education. "In this age of the Internet, the world has become very interconnected and interdependent," she observed. "Tech students need to develop intercultural understanding and perspective, critical thinking and an open mind so they can provide better global leadership."
Assistant Professor, School of Modern Languages
- Ph.D., East Asian Literature, Cornell University
- M.A., Chinese Linguistics, Peking University, China
- B.A., Chinese Language and Literature, Peking University, China
Jin Liu joined the faculty in the School of Modern Languages in 2008. Her interdisciplinary research studies contemporary Chinese popular culture through the lens of (local) language. Liu has written articles in the areas of film study, popular music, popular culture and sociolinguistics. Her work has appeared in scholarly publications including Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese, Chinese Language and Discourse, and Harvard Asia Pacific Review. She recently co-edited the book, "Chinese Under Globalization: Emerging Trends in Language Use in China" (World Scientific, 2011). She is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively entitled "Signifying the Local: Media Productions Rendered in Local Languages in Mainland China in the New Millennium." Drawing on cultural and literary theories, media studies, and sociolinguistics, this book project will examine recent cultural productions rendered in local languages in the fields of film, television, the Internet, popular music, and fiction in mainland China. Liu received Georgia Tech's 2012 CETL/BP Junior Faculty Teaching Excellence Award and the Course Instructor Opinion Survey (CIOS) Teaching Excellence Awards (2010-2011).