Tossed into the marketplace: performers striking it rich or making ends meet since the early 1980s

A very small part of this essay was included in an article I wrote for titled 'Seafarers and Cave Dwellers' in February 2008:

To Get Rich is Glorious

The early 1980s saw a small but growing private sector of private entrepreneurs and private businesses develop. The economic reforms smashed the iron rice bowl of lifelong employment and introduced a more dynamic and competitive form of job recruitment. Many seized this opportunity to make an extra income as an increasing number of state-run enterprises struggled to make profits and stay afloat in ‘the brave new world of the market economy’.

Reform of state-owned enterprises and major restructuring of job recruitment in the mid to late 1980s meant that newly-hired workers were no longer guaranteed cradle-to-grave employment and would sign five-year employment contracts. A highly fluid work force emerged for both newly hired workers and 'permanent' employees searching for other sources of income.

The opportunities to find other work did not exactly signal a pending exodus of employees across China. Most were unwilling to leave their jobs to risk the financial and social uncertainties of private business as well as social welfare benefits such as housing, medical care and pensions that work units provided. To solve this problem, a solution was found by which one spouse could leave work to engage in private performances or other business endeavours, while the other remained at the work unit to ensure they received social welfare benefits. This practice became known as 'one family, two systems' (yijia liangzhi), an obvious pun on Deng Xiaoping’s 'one country, two systems' (yiguo liangzhi).

A growing number of performers spent working hours engaged in other business activities without the permission of their employers, disrupting rehearsal time and the public performances. A spokesman from the Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble told a reporter in 1988 that it was no longer possible to control or monitor employees leaving work to increase their earning potential. Performers were also been lured by shady businesspeople and profiteers called erdao fanzi and daoye.

During the Maoist years, there was no independent job centres as state-run work units looked after the welfare of their workers, but in the reform period, labour exchange centres, which were in fact employment agencies, become more conspicuous as individuals had to take become more self-reliant in finding work. Students from performing arts schools, conservatories and music colleges across the country could still be assigned jobs after graduation, but increasingly they had to search for work themselves. The Cantonese Opera Troupe in Guangzhou, for example, teamed up with other municipal cultural organizations and set up four Cantonese opera schools in the early 1990s attracting more than 800 students. These schools taught a number of subjects including history, performance and basic voice training.

By the early 1990s, performing troupes in Shanghai only hired performers on a contract basis. State-run cultural organizations also increasingly sought financial support from the private sector. A reporter writing for Outlook in November 1989 observed that reforms had created a healthy relationship between culture and business. Among 18 state-owned literary and artistic organizations in Shanghai, 11 had already found 'mother-in-law industries.'

Government promotion of private business saw work units diversifying into private businesses, referred to as 'compound wall economics' (yuanqiang jingji). The Hubei Song and Dance Theatre, for instance, opened restaurants, amusement parlours, three wine shops, an amusement park, and rented out more than thirty shop fronts creating an annual income of 1.8 million yuan. The Xiaoxiang Film Production Factory in Hunan and the Overseas Chinese Friendship Store in Changsha opened a department store making 10 million yuan a year.

A new urban professional emerged, the 'cultural entrepreneur' and 'freelance professional.' They worked for both the private and public sectors and networked among like-minded souls far removed from the constraints of the work unit. These urban professionals were no longer confined to a nine-to-five world and work—concerts, recordings, television appearances and invitations from other work units or municipalities were increasingly discussed in bars, teahouses, joint-venture hotels and clubs. Mobility to move outside the work unit signalized new forms of social relations between employer and employee. Working in the new cultural market required the assistance and help of an intermediary, an agent or manager referred to in the eighties as xuetou (lit: 'head of the cave'). The xuetou's job involved looking after all the organizational details, including billing acts, choosing venues, arranging promotional events, and negotiating contracts with record companies.

Contract employment among urban professionals, including performers, not only created a competitive entertainment market, but a highly fluid one. In the early days of contract employment, it was not uncommon for singers to sign up with several record companies without the consent or permission of any employer. The aggressive tactics of these singers were referred to as 'guerilla warriors' by one writer, jumping from one short-term contract to these next like 'heavenly steeds soaring across the sky.'

While the practice was publicly frowned upon, it reflected the growing economic reality of keeping one step ahead in a competitive and fierce job market. A reporter writing in the Guangming Daily in March in 1997 warned singers that signing up with several record companies was 'extremely unstable and unprofitable to the long-term development of any singer', but added that financially, 'networking with several "mother-in-laws" was crucial.' Litigation cases were increasingly conspicuous and 1995 was an especially acrimonious year. In January the following year, the Ministry of Culture set up an artistic and talent centre in Beijing which included a department to mediate and settle disputes.

Inflated Incomes and Making Ends Meet

Performance fees of entertainers, especially pop singers have been widely publicized since the late 1980s and fuelled endless controversies and debates within the entertainment industry. One report published in 1988 noted that the performance fees for any given concert by well-known pop singers ranged from 600 to 2,000 yuan. One reporter wrote that pop stars like Cui Jian could make 2,000 yuan for an evening’s performance, the annual salary for a primary school teacher in the late 1980s. In September 1993, the composer He Luting (1903-1999) criticized the fanatical craze for pop stars and their incomes, pointing out that Chinese society was now so swept by materialism that money measured the value of almost everything. 'This trend is as deadly for the future of China', he wrote, 'as corruption and economic crimes.' Other critics bewailed the increasing commercialization of the music industry where the music charts (paihangbang), were little more than ‘money charts’ (paiqianbang).

Earning an extra income not only reflected a growing consumerism, but concerns of inflation, cuts in welfare benefits and sharp-drop in employees' monthly wages and allowances. Salaries remained unchanged while the cost of living continued to rise. According to one report, by January 1993, one-half of the residents of Shanghai had a second job, earning an average extra income of around 250 yuan a month.

In the late 1980s, a middle-aged music teacher at the Shenyang Conservatory earned extra money as a part-time photographer at conservatory concerts and making and selling globular flutes or ocarinas (xun) to both local and international markets. He also earned an extra income as a freelance calligrapher, his brushstrokes prominently displayed on a restaurant in the heart of the city and on a large vertical scroll that hangs from a privately-owned restaurant on the grounds of the conservatory.

In the summer of 1997, the China Song and Dance Ensemble in Beijing was unable to pay many of its employees’ salaries, encouraging them to find other sources of income. A dizi (transverse bamboo flute) performer supplemented his 600 yuan monthly salary as a courier, and performed twice a week at bookstore-teahouse in Xidan. A similar story of having to supplement dwindling salaries was told to me by another dizi performer at the Liaoning Song and Dance Ensemble in Shenyang in the spring of 1999. The work unit was paying her just half of her monthly salary of 500 yuan. She formed a group with four other female instrumentalists, who performed at restaurants around the city. Later that year, the group signed a contract with a Japanese performing arts company and in December toured major cities in Japan performing traditional Chinese tunes.

Many young Chinese musicians specializing in Western instruments such as the piano, trumpet, saxophone and piano found part-time work in bars, clubs and joint-venture hotels. A pianist at the Central Western Opera Academy in Beijing found a part-time job to support her family who lived in a shabby room at the People’s University. 'I painfully made up my mind to abandon any notions of remaining aloof from material pursuits and find a second job, known around here as "doing the hotels."

Chinese musicians specializing in Western instruments were at a distinct economic advantage compared to Chinese musicians trained in Chinese instruments, but singers trained in Chinese traditional folk singing as well as instrumentalists could also transfer their skills to the pop 'n' rock medium. Li Guyi, originally trained at the Hunan Arts School and who became well-known to audiences across the country after appearing in the Huagu (regional) opera Mending the Cauldron in 1965, turned to pop singing in 1974. When China’s Central Television Station (CCTV) launched its first Spring Festival Gala Evening Program in the winter of 1983, Li was among the first pop stars in the reform period to appear on national television.

The Twelve Girl Band is arguably the most famous group of Chinese music instrumentalists to have their skills packaged for a pop market. The brainchild of the group was the Beijing-based rock producer Wang Xiaojing, who, according to Time Asia, auditioned some 4,000 professionally-trained instrumentalists in 2001. 'They had to be beautiful,' said Wang, 'twelve beautiful girls standing on a stage is a spectacle in itself, even without any music.'

Attitudes and Perceptions

There was initially considerable prejudice and resentment targeted at individuals who engaged in business. Before the reform period, there was generally no reason to discuss financial matters. Employees essentially earned the same salary. If a work colleague purchased a new shirt, coat or pair of shoes, you asked how much it cost, and you were told. Opportunities to make an extra income, however, saw a major shift in how the Chinese talked about and discussed money.

Resentment directed at private entrepreneurs and China’s nouveau riche (baofahu) echoed the position and social stigma accorded to merchants in traditional Confucian society. These social upstarts, however, defended their rightful position to make money encouraged by Deng Xiaoping’s brand of economic pragmatism and the rhetoric of reform slogans such as 'To Get Rich is Glorious' and 'It Doesn’t Matter if The Cat is Black or White, as Long as it Catches Mice.' These sentiments were reflected in a number of pop songs in the mid to late 1980s, including 'Taking the Straight and Narrow,' and 'New Big Shots on our Street Corners':

Big shots, big shots
Once paupers, we’re now big shots
We smoke foreign cigarettes
We go for a spin in our fancy cars
Trade pride in flaunting our money
We’re admired by so many.

We take gals to feast at Beijing Duck Restaurants
We travel the country with cameras
Generous and carefree
We’re the envy of so many.

As long as we’re earning a honest buck
What’s all the fuss?
We’re law-abiding citizens
Honoured to be called big shots.

Major restructuring of state-owned enterprises witnessed a massive numbers of employees become redundant, euphemistically referred to by the government as ‘stepping down from the post’ (xiagang). Since the Ministry of Culture introduced an assessment-appointment system of employment in 1996, thirty percent of performers attached to state-run troupes have been laid-off and seeking reemployment elsewhere. The actual figure might be much higher.

At the China Song and Dance Ensemble, some employees became fully unemployed and lost all ties with the work unit, while others forms of redundancy allowed some performers to retain some connection with the work unit receiving a partial salary or other benefits.

The transition from 'permanent' to laid-off was for many all too swift and sudden. Restructuring was understood in the broader context of market reforms, but when one singer found herself laid–off she was mortified. 'No sooner is the word laid-off uttered, and I find myself one of those redundant.' A laid-off pingju regional opera performer considered becoming an accountant, though she still hoped to be reinstated as a full-salaried performer at her work unit. She didn’t have her head entirely buried in the clouds. 'Reform has been good for everyone, but if you don’t fully utilize your abilities, you won’t survive.'

Others resigned their fate to the political and economic vicissitudes of the past thirty-odd years. One laid-off worker at the Shenyang Conservatory, who was working part-time in the music library, cited a popular saying among the so-called lost generation: 'In the 1970s, we were "sent down" (xiaxiang); in the early 1990s, we tried to "plunge into the sea" (xiahai); and now we must be "laid-off" (xiagang). The plight and discontent of laid-off workers has been well-documented literature, film and at least one pop ‘n’ rock song entitled 'I’ve Been Retrenched' (Xiagang le) sung by the Beijing-based singer Wan Xiaoli.

By way of a conclusion

State-owned enterprises have dramatically changed in the post-Mao reform period. Cradle-to grave employment is no longer guaranteed and work units which once subsidized a number of social benefits such as health care, education, housing, pensions have had to move with the times or face an increasing uncertain future.

A significant drop in state subsidies since the early 1980s has forced state-owned performing troupes to become more financially independent, procuring sponsorship from within the private sector. However, the categories of 'state-owned' and 'private' are by no means clear. The government is still the majority shareholder in many restructured enterprises, including some that are listed as 'private.' Other performing art enterprises have struck up deals and partnerships with foreign art companies. The Wuxi Song and Dance Ensemble, for example, signed an agreement with a Japanese company in September 2003 to jointly organize and fund a ballet version of the 1996 Chinese film Red River Valley.

Music conservatories and private performing art schools not only train professionals, but also offer a number of training courses to the general public. The Midi School of Music, established in 1993 and boasts to be 'the most famous private conservatory of modern music in China,' offers a number of courses in pop and rock performance, including jazz. State-owned music conservatories also offer interdisciplinary programs such as art management and electronic audio engineering. Some conservatories have joined forces to establish private music schools. The Central Conservatory in Beijing, The Shanghai Conservatory, and the Xinghai Conservatory in Guangzhou, for example, jointly founded the Guangzhou School of Piano Stars.

Debt-ridden state-owned performing arts agencies have also formed conglomerates or corporate groups (jituan). The China Arts and Entertainment Group, founded in April 2004 after the merger of the China Performing Arts Agency and the China International Exhibition Agency, is funded by the State Council and supervised by the Chinese Ministry. While focusing on promoting performances, the Group has a niche in other markets including publishing, audio-visual products, television and the Internet.

The emergence of talent exchange centres, cultural service departments, performing art agencies, job classifieds in newspapers and on-line websites cater to an increasing number of performers who have been laid-off or employees who are considering work options. Market reforms and an increasingly competitive job market, as a China Daily reporter wrote in March 2000 ‘are not simply trendy words anymore, but the harsh reality.’

Prior to the reform period, society was remodelled along proletariat lines in accordance with Maoist prescriptions. In the early 1980s, individuals and state-owned enterprises were now remodelled in accordance with the state’s program to restructure society as a free market economy. Within the performing arts, employees have severed ties completely with the work unit while others have been giving their marching orders. The sea change transition for many others, however, has been neither sudden nor total.

The ubiquitous circled character chai (‘tear down’) branded on old buildings, shop fronts and other dilapidated structures across China not only vividly depicts an ever-changing landscape, but serves as a metaphor for changing mentalities amid the gradual transformation of society in the past twenty-odd years. The shared and disparate fate of performers be they pop and rock celebrities, conservatory-trained musicians, concert managers, public relation organizers, not to mention the many performers, who overwhelmed by a bleak and uncertain future, have changed profession, or continue to pursue their artistic careers while branching out into other diverse business endeavours, highlights an immensely complex social fabric that deserves alot more space than I can provide here.

Over a decade ago, the economist He Qinglian wrote that as 'wealth aggressively launches its offensive, poets, artists and scholars can no longer ignore the increasing importance of money in a growing capitalist and global market economy.' The ability of the artist to survive or flourish in China, however, is perhaps no different from other consumer societies in the West. As Richard Kraus reminds us:

Both China and the United States cut public art support in the name of efficiency, forcing artists into new and often uncomfortable roles. When we think of China’s cultural policies, we might bear in mind that half of the budget of the Berkeley Symphony comes from running a weekly bingo game [1].


[1] Richard Kraus ‘China’s artists between plan and market,’ in Deborah S. Davies et. al., Urban Spaces in Contemporary China—the Potential for Autonomy and Community in Post-Mao China, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, United Stated of America, 1995, 173-192.

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