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Session 177: Roundtable: ‘Memory of the Past, Capital of the Present’: Red Legacy in China

By Miri Kim

This intellectually and visually stimulating roundtable was chaired by Carma Hinton (George Mason University) and focused on the legacy of China’s socialist past in China’s not-quite-so socialist present. I’d like to think I took good notes, but this was a session very rich in materials and ideas (and excellently managed time-wise, which means things moved along at a brisk pace), so apologies in advance for any errors or omissions.

The roundtable began with Michael R. Dutton (University of London), who presented three short videos exploring how political icons can become de-politicized through commodification, “museumification,” and the processes of nostalgia and memory-making about the past. These changes are not relevant to just China but other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, which have been experiencing dramatic changes in recent years. It is imperative, Dutton argued, to consider how and why objects created to serve a particular political purpose (e.g., to instill a visceral awareness of class-based social injustice in the viewer) are deliberately moved away from their original intended meaning.

The first video, “The Political Life of Inanimate Objects,” led us through Grūtas Park in Lithuania (known unofficially as “Stalin World”) where the statues of socialist leaders like Lenin have been literally put out to pasture in a forestland theme park. It also offers visitors a chance to mosey through re-creations of Soviet gulag camps. Peopled by statues of former leaders, this controversial park, Dutton suggests, is one example of how icons of the socialist past can be de-contextualized, even trivialized, reducing the possible range of positive and negative emotional engagement (“affective connection”) with the past thereby.

The second video, “Fabrications,” was a short introduction to Chinese conceptual artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s equally controversial installation at the 1999 Venice Biennial, where he exhibited “Rent Collection Courtyard,”  a reproduction of statues made in the 1960s depicting a rapacious landlord and the suffering of his peasant victims. Made in the socialist realist style, the 1960s statues are not individual characters but a representation of a politically unambiguous, unified collective experience–the landlord symbolizing bourgeois oppression and the figures of the peasants standing in for the whole of China’s downtrodden masses. During questions, Chang Tan (Pomona College) brought up the need to understand politics as an art form with specific emotions, and Dutton commented that the problem of trivializing and exploiting the Red legacy raised by Guo’s work opens up the question of what kinds of things, exactly, we should be considering “politics.” Guo’s installation is framed in part as a critique of Western artistic traditions that value originality–a “re-contextualization,” in other words, that takes a piece of China’s socialist past to serve an aesthetic goal. However, some still see a trivialization of a traumatic past that is far from over, several decades into the future.

The third video, “Communities on Patrol,” showed a Chinese policewoman on her neighborhood beat conversing with a resident about his concerns, an example of interaction between the state and the people that forgoes the mass politics of emotion, with its potential to rouse millions of individuals, in favor of a individualized experience. Seen in this way, how the Chinese state mobilizes “affectivity” today appears distinctly opposed to the one-size-must-fit-all approach of the Cultural Revolution.

Next, Harriet Evans (University of Westminster) presented some of her findings from interviews with Chinese artists active in the 1960s and 1970s, part of a larger joint project with Stephanie Donald (RMIT, Australia) into the “biography of the Cultural Revolution poster.” From interviews conducted in 2008 and 2009, she has gathered highly valuable insights into how Chinese socialist posters functioned on multiple levels, starting from their production by individual artists to their reception by mass audiences. Although these posters were commissioned by state authorities who wanted to convey a clear message about the value of collectivity, the posters contained “multiple registers of appeal” to audiences and even the artists themselves. “Seagull” (“Wo shi haiyan”), a popular poster painted and produced in 1972, prompted a flood of letters to the artist, Pan Jiajun, from men who admired the woman in the poster for her beauty and erotic appeal. Some of the artists valued poster-making more for giving them an opportunity to improve their technique and achieve a particular aesthetic vision than for its political significance.

This presentation underscored the multiplicity of people’s experiences of the Cultural Revolution while raising issues of artistic agency, the connection between emotions and aesthetics, and the (inter)dependency of visual materials to text, which is really interesting as this project is also performing another layer of contextualization and stabilizing meaning for a body of visual materials of diverse affect. I look forward to seeing more of this project.

Peter R. Button (New York University), the panel’s third presenter, traced the evolution of Jiang jie (Sister Jiang), the revolutionary martyr of a famous socialist realist novel. Based on historical events, this novel deals with the tribulations of Jiang jie as she tries to further an underground newspaper’s revolutionary goals. For his analysis, Button drew upon the work of Régis Debray, who uses a tripartite system to track the development of media: logosphere (encompassing writing), graphosphere (printing), and videosphere (materials audio and visual). He argued that the transition of the Jiang jie character from the graphosphere (a published book) to the videosphere (iconographic films in the 1960s and 1970s, operatic productions in this century) was consciously shaped by various artistic directors who wanted the character to appeal to a wide audience.

Re-imagined versions of Jiang jie gradually disengaged the character from socialist ideology and transformed her into a visually appealing heroine of stories that emphasized affection and femininity. According to Debray, socialism flourishes in the graphosphere, where ideological messages can be delivered as they were intended. In contrast, the videosphere is for the formation of capital; it’s interesting, Button noted later in response to a comment/question from Zhou Liu (New York University), that now there are ways people can make donations in Jiang jie’s memory (presumably to the literary estate—I didn’t catch this part entirely).

Enhua Zhang then discussed “Red Tourism,” a phenomenon kickstarted by a 2004 CCP directive to promote China’s revolutionary period (but which, as she added later, was also a post-SARS move to revitalize the tourism economy). She pointed out that although tourism to sites like Mao Zedong’s hometown is a rapidly growing industry, it is not always economically beneficial to local governments, nor entirely successful in achieving the above goal. It fuses history (the past) and the physical geography of the tourist sites (the present) in order to educate, enlighten, and entertain, but in so doing, transforms the revolutionary legacy it is trying to preserve into a consumer product.

Lastly, Jie Li screened a portion of a longer documentary project that focused on Shaoshan, Mao Zedong’s hometown. If I noted everything that was intriguing in this video, this already long-winded write-up would be even longer, so suffice to say that it concerns the creation of a miraculous aura around the figure of Chairman Mao for the sole purpose of selling this aura in commodity form (and some of these forms are hard to believe). Harold Tanner (University of North Texas) in the question-and-discussion section pointed out the similarity between the ritual activity surrounding Mao with Chiang Kai-shek, and Jie Li, noting that more work remains to be done on the tourist side of the equation (who they are, what they’re looking for at these sites, etc.) commented that this actually seems to vary site by site, depending on how their histories are contextualized. The feelings that could be gleaned from the footage of people doing the selling, buying, and participating were extraordinarily varied and rich.

Comments on the roundtable by Chair Carma Hinton and the lively discussion that followed rounded out this session. Nicolai Volland (National University of Singapore) wrapped things up with his informal comments that because these re-interpretations of the Cultural Revolution seem to have different audiences, who may or may not overlap, it might be more apt to talk about “Red Legacies.” Another commentator noted that “revolution is also a heteregenous category.”

The issues raised by this session are important, not least because of things like Budapest’s Statue Park and the popularity of Che Guevara T-shirts. The roundtable suggests that political messages delivered in a visual mode (whether 2-D or 3-D), while capable of generating extremely strong and intense unified reactions, are inherently unstable. They seem rather vulnerable to the passage of time, as referents for the visuals shift or change or disappear, even though their physical manifestation might endure unchanged. The potential for de-contextualization or re-contextualization of visual materials cannot be underestimated, but complete disengagement from the past they represent might not be such an easy thing, as Red tourism, “Rent Collection Courtyard,” and Cultural Revolution posters and heroines suggest.

The question of how best to deal with politics and emotion is also timely. How do we recognize, quantify or unitize, and evaluate human emotions in relation to politics, particularly those of times past? As Harriet Evans remarked in the last part of the session, it seems that part of the challenge lies in finding the most apt way to deal with each particular case, something that the panelists demonstrated with significant success.

As announced at the AAS session, Enhua Zhang and Jie Li, along with David Der-wei Wang will be hosting a conference on these issues later this week (“Red Legacy in China,” Friday and Saturday, April 2-3) sponsored by Harvard University’s Fairbank Center, where conversations about these different and difficult legacies will continue.

Miri Kim is a graduate student in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine.

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