China's celebrity mothers: Female virtues, patriotism and social harmony

Publication Type:
Chapter
Citation:
Celebrity in China, 2010, pp. 45 - 66
Issue Date:
2010-12-01
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For most of China's imperial history, the state, the family and the individual were considered the three key building blocks of the social system. As Mencius (372-289-BCE) wrote: 'the foundation of the world lies in the state, the foundation of the state lies in the family, and the foundation of the family lies in the individual' (Mengzi IV A: 5). Followers of Confucianism also believed that the family and state were 'perfect forms of social organization' because they were based on the truest moral principles such as benevolence, rightness, loyalty and filial piety. Hence, traditional Chinese statecraft sought to bind the individual, the family and the state together in a singular status hierarchy so that they would act in unison, as if they were a unitary, interdependent organism. Within this systematized conception of the role of the family, women's virtues were conceived as revolving around modesty, quietude and chastity as well as obedience to fathers and husbands. Women were charged with responsibility for maintaining the domestic harmony that underscored state harmony. In over a century of modernization and revolution in China from the late 1890s to the late 1970s, these conceptions of the family and female virtues were labelled 'feudal' and came under concerted assault from avantgarde intellectuals and activists across the political spectrum, including liberals, anarchists, feminists, republicans, nationalists and communists. In their view, the traditional family was an instrument for oppressing women, a major cause of China's backwardness and weakness, and an obstacle to China's modernization. The family system required a major overhaul in order that China regain its lost status in the world and that women gain liberation from patriarchal structures. With the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this attitude became enshrined in Chairman Mao Zedong's dictum 'women hold up half the sky'. However, since the beginning of China's reform in the late 1970s and the shift to a socialist market economy, the family has been reaffirmed as the basic social institution by the current CCP in a bid to prevent the further disintegration of the social fabric that is perceived to have resulted from rapid social change. As Elizabeth Croll (1983: 70) explains, the stability of this pivotal institution has once again become the mainstay of social relations and social order. The importance of family values, female virtues and motherhood have been further highlighted in the last decade or so, due to what Chinese academics and the media have described variously as China's 'moral crisis', 'family crisis', 'marriage crisis', and 'motherhood crisis' (Liu 1999). Examples of China's social 'crises' that are enumerated by commentators include: rampant prostitution; prevalent extramarital affairs; growing numbers of de facto second wives; increasing divorce rates and domestic violence; the common practice of unmarried men and women living together; declining interest among young people in getting married or having children; deteriorating bonds between mothers and babies as more mothers reject breast-feeding and pass on most postnatal care to nannies; and the spoiling of children by parents (Liu 1999). The Partystate has responded to these 'crises', and the gap between what remains of the Chinese socialist value system and the changing social environment, by promoting the 'people first' principle (yiren weiben) and by concerted efforts to construct 'spiritual civilization', a 'new socialist core value system' and 'harmonious society' (Hu 2005). Women and the family are given a particularly prominent role to play in moral regeneration and social harmonization. One of the most publicized state projects to establish and promote exemplary motherhood as a means to encourage moral regeneration and social harmonization is China's 10 Outstanding Mothers [Zhongguo shida jiechu muqin] campaign conducted in 2006 by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) and sixteen other co-sponsors. Women with a select range of desirable attributes were projected to national fame and achieved a form of state-sponsored celebrity through extensive publicity. This campaign surpassed the inaugural Outstanding Mothers campaign of 2001 in terms of scale and publicity and, if the lead-up to the 2008 version is anything to go by, such media events will continue to create mothers as celebrities in the future. This chapter assesses the utility of the 10 Outstanding Mothers campaign as a means to promote social cohesion not least because the Party-state has attached great importance to a new value structure in national integration. From the perspective of value theorists such as Chalmers Johnson (1966) and Talcott Parsons (1964), the concrete rules of behaviour attached to various social roles and the institutionalized norms that guide the allocation of roles are inspired and legitimized by the values of a social system, which must be transmitted to its members and transformed in response to changes in the society's environment. These theorists argue that norms are subject to frequent violations in societies where values are insecure as a result of social change. As socialized values diverge and the gap between values and the environment grows, integration becomes a more challenging task, requiring creative action by the state in order to resynchronize the values with the social environment (Johnson 1966: 43, 52-3). One of the principal strategies by which the state fulfils its integrative function is to mobilize social roles and institutions that perpetuate, assert or demonstrate the basic values of the system essential to its integration, and to appeal to conscience or invocate the moral standards of right and wrong (Parsons 1964: 42). In its promotion of model mothers, the Chinese Party-state is undertaking 'creative action' to resynchronize social roles and values, although the exemplary motherhood that is promoted primarily reflects the official value system rather than a changed moral climate. There is nothing surprising about this given that social integration is a state function and the CCP's authoritarian rule depends heavily on compliant social conduct. More striking is the fact that the Party's propaganda machinery has embraced commercial promotion culture and relies to a large extent on the celebrity effect in its promotion of exemplary motherhood. As this chapter shows, the 'exemplary mother as celebrity' is a peculiar hybrid that combines traditional virtues and Maoist values and is publicized like a popular star. This unique phenomenon demonstrates the ongoing power of the Party-state to mobilize impressive media forces to promote moral campaigns and its increasingly flexible and sophisticated use of publicity mechanisms to propel individuals as role models into public prominence. Since China's 10 Outstanding Mothers for 2006 were selected, they have been promoted in the media like celebrities: Their photos and stories were spread across China and cyberspace as they were presented on national TV and arranged to speak to audiences which local government departments had organized in various cities about their outstanding qualities and achievements. However, the Party-state's adoption of a new mode of propaganda in this instance is handicapped for three reasons. First, the model mothers differ from the typical entertainer-celebrity and hold less appeal. Second, the official conception of motherhood is self-serving in so far as it is intended to legitimatize and facilitate a set of desirable social roles that the Party-state is assigning to Chinese women. Finally, this set of social roles, despite overlap here and there, differs significantly from common perceptions of motherly roles and virtues. An examination of the 10 Outstanding Mothers campaign therefore points to a growing divergence between the value system of the Party-state and social norms on the role and nature of the family. © 2010 by Hong Kong University Press, HKU. All Rights Reserved.
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