This essay surveys the scholarship on Chinese cultural politics in the reform era and argues that popular culture is a crucial realm where politics is manifested, shaped, and challenged. Based on an overview of this literature, this essay finds that Chinese popular culture remains subversive despite evolving political rule and changing socioeconomic structures. Meanwhile, the state has kept up with popular culture and managed to dominate various cultural spaces ranging from television, film, literature, music, and comedy, to celebrities and public discussions on morality.

The studies reviewed here collectively illustrate a fragmented yet vigorous popular culture that actively responds to changing political and socioeconomic conditions, challenging while also reinforcing how political power is received at the grassroots level. To explain the simultaneous advancement of state control over popular culture and the cultural creativity in popular expression, this essay proposes a framework centered on authority to capture and forecast the dynamics of power struggles in popular culture. To create, compete for, and manifest authority is a key mechanism of cultural power, and it can reveal the contentions among political, market, and traditional cultural forces.

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