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June 3, 2015

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Expanding definition of culture raises disturbing implications for social morality

In a small room in Pudong, just before 7pm, an attractive woman of about 20 is getting ready for work.

Wearing a stylish low-cut blue dress that shows her bare shoulders, she exudes a charming mystique. For the next several hours she will chat with an online audience as if they were old friends. She’ll also sing a few songs, crack a few jokes, and maybe even take part in some mild flirting.

This is Yaya, one of the many “hostesses” who have become hugely popular on the Chinese Internet. From subscription fees and other earnings, Yaya — who was profiled recently in a story by the Xinmin Evening News — makes about 20,000 yuan (US$3,225) per month from her online escapades.

This figure would represent just a drop in the bucket though for some of China’s most popular hostesses — who can make millions of yuan per year, according to the paper. Yaya and her hostess peers are working in what is broadly defined as the “cultural industry,” a developing area of the economy which some people say is the field of future.

In this cyber age of ours, some have taken a quite liberal view of what constitutes “culture.” And to avoid being left behind in a rapidly changing cultural landscape, many have tossed aside both their morals and their better judgment. To be relevant in today’s life, one has to be familiar with the many sub-cultures which define modern urban life. Consumer culture, for instance, is now a daily preoccupation for millions of people.

Pregnant with meanings

Of course, many other species of culture occupy our thoughts, our online communications and column inches in our newspapers — including the culture of winning, coffee culture, test-prep culture, bathroom culture and sex culture. Is it any surprise then that, pregnant with such a multiplicity of new meanings, “culture” was identified as the 2014 word of the year by Merriam-Webster?

Along the way to our current position, our language has become increasingly value-neutral as we adopt less judgmental and less prescriptive stances on a widening array of “cultural” products, including social media apps, video games and online chat-sessions with buxom ladies.

Nowadays, many cities are striving to promote and position culture and creation as their pillar industries which, upon scrutiny, often turn out to be little more than video games design.

In urban China, consumption has gained a considerable foothold in our daily lives thanks to the rise of the Internet and related technologies.

According to a report published on, about 70 percent of women in Chinese cities say they would share pictures of themselves, their food, their clothing or their latest purchases with their friends via social media. In the US, this figure reaches 80 percent.

If such figures offer an accurate reflection of reality, this would add up to an avalanche of sharing considering that the average resident in Shanghai received 53 parcels in 2014, according to the online newspaper.

Getting and spending

There was once a concern that mindless consumption might undermine communal attachment or promote social alienation.

But what if consumption, in and of itself, has become a new reason for being? According to experts, by ordering new purchases online, big spenders are doing a salutary service for their community and economy.

Thanks to the spread of WeChat, people are more readily and eagerly coopted into fads of consumption, whether these fads are related to eating, traveling, dress, cosmetics, or cars.

Will this lead to conformity and a more unimaginative populace?

As if in answer to this question, today’s consumers just keep on spending more, sometimes on borrowed money. “Getting and spending,” as their spending is celebrated as a contribution to general prosperity or “culture.”

On a much larger scale, many governments around the world continue to proffer incentives to big spenders devouring resources which could be passed down to future generations.

We once entertained the delusion that increasing wealth would liberate us from daily drudgeries, enabling us to devote more time to cultural pursuits that would elevate the mind and ennoble the human race.

Will our evolving notions about culture reduce us to a species moved only by base instincts to acquire and consume? Time will tell.


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