Mickey Mouse in China

There are some interesting articles in the current Modern China, and the one I would like to comment on at present is “Wang Luobin: Folk Song King of the Northwest or Song Thief?” by Rachel Harris of SOAS. The paper is mostly about the posthumous reputation of Wang Luobin, a (Han) collector and disseminator of “Uyghur folksongs” many of which have turned out to be quite popular, and thus profitable.

Picture of Wang Luobin

This has led to predictable debates about who owns these songs, bringing up all sorts of “questions of authenticity, ownership, and value.” (p.394) This is of course part of a debate on who speaks for Uyghurs that takes place in other contexts than music, and a debate on who owns music that is familiar to ethnomusicologists in places other than Xinjiang. Folk music is a particularly interesting place to bring up issues of copyright because folk music is validated in part by –not- being creative. In 1993 the Taiwanese singer Luo Dayou recorded versions of Wang Luobin’s songs and at first refused to pay copyright because the songs were the “property of the peoples of Xinjiang” and if anyone should get money it should be the Xinjiang government.(p.388) Wang Luobin then took out copyrights on the songs, thus admitting that he was not simply transmitting existing songs, but doing something to existing material that could be considered creative and thus could be owned. Harris cites Arjun Appadurai on what makes a thing a thing, and in general it is a very well-informed essay.

The thing that interested me most was that the things being owned were songs. One of the commonplaces of the reform era is that China needs to establish “modern” legal and property systems, in order to make itself more legible to international capital or as the necessary infrastructure for modernization, depending on your point of view. The one aspect of this process that foreign states pay most attention to is intellectual property rights, as this is the thing that is most likely to impinge on the profits of foreign companies. (China may need a more transparent real estate market, but this is not a concern for Disney.) The canonical Chinese response is to pay lip service to American demands for enforcement of IP, pretty much the same response as most developing countries. Enforcement of foreign copyrights is not at the forefront of most Chinese people’s minds. I’m sure many of us are familiar with the disconnect between reading U.S. accounts of China where the most important person in China is the guy with the pirated DVDs and, well, being in China.

This is what makes the Wang Luobin case so interesting. When the dispute broke out between Luo Dayou and Wang Luobin Wang copyrighted the songs and sold the rights to Luo. What interests me, although Harris does not discuss it, is why Luo would pay for the rights. I don’t think that there was any chance that a mainland copyright was going to be enforced on Taiwan, so I assume that he paid cash for Wang’s authenticity, as represented by the copyrights, even though by the act of copyrighting, and asserting creativity, Wang was “un-folking” the songs.

I find this interesting because it shows a new, and domesticated reason for people to adopt the form of copyright. Although American newspapers like to present copyrights and patents as transcendent goods they are of course socially constructed, and the construction is currently changing. When the last American copyright extension act was passed some people called it the Mickey Mouse law, because one of the things driving it was Disney’s fear that Mickey would go out of copyright. For modern post-industrial capitalism the idea that there are things that can’t be owned is not good. Well, there are some things that can’t be owned, and there is not much of a push to corporatize and commodify love or sex, it is not acceptable for something which has been commodified to go out of the commodity sphere.

Who will push for this type of commodification inside China? Disney will push from outside, and this will have some effect, but not a whole lot. To some extent it is in the self-interest of Chinese business community to push for commodification of ideas as they change their position in the international economy. When I was teaching English in Taiwan in the 80’s a number of my businessmen/students insisted that Taiwan was going to really crack down on IP violations because Taiwanese companies were finding it harder and harder to license really cool technology from overseas because of IP concerns.

Wang Luobin’s case seems to show a domestic, or at least inter-Asian reason to adopt the form of copyright. As China is deluged in ‘cheap,’ ‘fake,’ ‘copies’ a copyright is a way of assuring consumers that this is real. In the case of folksongs authenticity is more important than it might be elsewhere, but it might matter in lots of contexts. I’m not sure its a good thing, of course, but it does seem that we are moving towards “copyright with Chinese characteristics.”

1 Comment

  1. I posted on media representations of minorities in China focusing on the Uyghurs and Wang Luobin. Later I read Rachel Harris’ paper researching a paper I did expanding on the topic (and now that you’ve reminded me, I’ll put that up too).

    But the most interesting thing I found was that the song Qambarkhan, which Harris says was a khalq nakhshisi, or historical folk song, describing a soldier under Yakub Beg falling in love with a Uyghur girl. Yakub Beg’s brief independent republic is not even recognized in China’s official history of Xinjiang since it violates the rule that “Xinjiang has been a part of China since ancient times”. For that song to be translated into Chinese, and the love story be attributed to Han men and Uyghur women, is flat out colonialism.

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