When China Meets Hollywood:
Global Collaboration and State Intervention in a Creative Industry
My current book project, an ethnography of how Chinese conglomerates and Hollywood studios co-produce films, explores the interplay between creativity, commerce, and politics. Drawing on a year’s participant observation in the Beijing office of a Hollywood studio, two years of fieldwork on film sets and at festivals in Los Angeles, and interviews with rarely accessed industry insiders, I show how filmmakers from the two industry sites negotiate disparities in the writers’ room and on locations to create global stories with Chinese elements. Working to reveal the decision-making behind closed doors, I explain how and why their creative collaboration often results in an aesthetic of mediocrity and creates new forms of cultural hierarchy. Also, I move beyond what is (self-)censored to take up the challenging task of uncovering the inner workings of state censorship that drive Hollywood into complicity. I argue that the intertwined relationship between art, markets, and the state has led to a new model of global cultural production, shaping both what gets made in the global media industry and how it is made. Ultimately, this project offers a micro-sociological account of the “uneven collaboration” between two national industries at different stages of development, set against a background of difficult geopolitics.
This work, which I plan to publish with a major university press, has won fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, the University of Chicago Ethnography Incubator, and Northwestern’s Buffett Institute for Global Affairs.
Beyond the book project, I have been engaged in three complementary streams of work that examine creativity, identity, and methods, with peer-reviewed works published in top journals in cultural sociology.
Creativity & Class
The first stream involves creativity in the new economy, bringing China’s artists and creative class into the large theoretical debates about taste, class, and the self. In my article, “Tensions in Aesthetic Socialization: Negotiating Competence and Differentiation in Chinese Art Schools” (published in Poetics), I examine how young artists negotiate competing conceptions of creativity between Chinese and Western art worlds to navigate professions. I argue that art students resolve three areas of tension in the making of art and selves: a processual practice of learning to unlearn; a reconciliation of present demands and long-term goals; and a paradox of weighing the contrasting identities of artist and designer. These tensions comprise the sites of artistic negotiation, enabling scholars to analyze creative decisions rarely verbalized in explicit terms. In a second article, “The Visual Arts in the Chinese Middle-Class Home: Occupational Status Groups, Abstract Art, and Self-Presentation” (published in Sociological Studies), I use mixed methods to investigate how Chinese middle-class families display art at home, especially abstract art. I argue that consuming abstract art is associated with one’s occupational status and interacting with abstract art creates one’s imaginative capability to wander and connects one’s own life experiences. In doing so, I contribute to a growing literature in the new sociology of art by emphasizing the aesthetic properties and materiality of art and taste in action.
Naming and Identity
Second, I investigate identity construction in light of transnational mobility, intersecting naming, assimilation, and self-presentation. In a co-authored article with Gary Fine, “Names and Selves: Transnational Identities and Self-Presentation among Chinese International Students” (published in Qualitative Sociology), we show how Chinese students in the U.S. use multiple names to construct global selves. We argue that their identity construction is engaged in transnational processes and situated practices, constituting what we call “cross-cultural naming.” These students negotiate between multiple names to signal ethnic distinctions, distinguish themselves from others, and manage public presentation. Names are multi-layered and temporal, as they evolve throughout school lives, shaped by power relations in American cultural contexts and channeled by images of their home country. The findings show a new form of cultural assimilation, shedding light on transnational identity and challenges facing international students.
Finally, as an ethnographer, I write on qualitative methods. In our article, “Idioculture” (published in SAGE Research Methods Foundations), Gary Fine and I present the central theory of idioculture – or local culture – as a concept that helps provide a hinge between the actions of individuals and the structure of systems. We argue that culture is actively constructed through interactions in local communities, suggesting group cultures as the locations for cultural creation and preservation. This concept has proved useful in understanding cultural dynamics in various social domains, as well as examining methodological implications of cultural research on the meso-level of analysis.