Exhibiting the “Old Society”: Shanghai’s Fangua Lane and Propaganda in the Maoist Era

By Denise Ho

At the base of the Oriental Pearl Tower is an exhibition of Shanghai history. The Shanghai History Exhibition Hall (Shanghai chengshi lishi fazhan chenlieguan), created in consultation with the Shanghai History Museum, recreates dioramas of everyday life in the Republican era (1912-1949). A popular tourist attraction for domestic and foreign visitors alike, it has attracted commentary from scholars and China-watchers for two reasons. The exhibition, which focuses on entertainment culture, is taken to represent popular nostalgia for the glamour of the 1920s and 1930s. Others remark upon the fact that the exhibition is decidedly apolitical; neither the labor movements of the period nor the founding of the Communist Party is featured, and these omissions are interpreted as evidence that revolution has dropped out of history. Instead, the vignettes of “old Shanghai” celebrate a history that was both modern and cosmopolitan, a history which serves today’s agenda of economic growth and globalization.

One diorama, however, is neither modern nor cosmopolitan. Past a scene of singing Chinese choir boys and another tableau of swirling dancers in an elegant ballroom, a series of straw-thatched hovels comes into view. This diorama depicts an urban shantytown; mannequins dressed in rags stand in front of slum dwellings that recede into a trompe-l’oeil background under a grey and ominous sky. Though this shantytown scene contrasts sharply with the rest of the exhibition, there is no explication of it, and the visitor could easily overlook the beggar mannequins on his way to the next diorama of consumer culture and urban leisure.

While the shantytown diorama might be viewed as an out-of-place curiosity or perhaps ignored altogether, it actually has a history as an exhibition, one which is older than the presentation of any of the other buildings presented in the Shanghai History Exhibition Hall. In fact, the diorama presents two histories. The first is the history of the urban poor, the story of refugees and laborers who lived on the margins of Shanghai society, and who built makeshift homes in the International Settlement and concentrated in the Chinese-governed area of Zhabei. This narrative has been explored by historians such as Hanchao Lu and Janet Chen, and Christian Henriot has described the particular wartime devastation of Zhabei District. The second history is less well-known, and that is the history of exhibiting the poverty of pre-Liberation Shanghai. In the Maoist era, a fragment of the shantytown was preserved, an artifact of the past saved for propaganda.

This exhibition was located in Fangua Lane, the site of a residential “new village” in the experimental district of Zhabei in post-Liberation Shanghai. Fangua Lane, located north of Suzhou Creek and near the Shanghai Railway Station, was one of the largest slums in the city when the Communist Party came to power in 1949. The area, caught between the Chinese and the Japanese during the war, was literally burned to the ground; in the aftermath of war, the municipal government did not rebuild and refugees fleeing civil war poured in. In 1949 the Fangua Lane area hosted over 3,800 of the straw-thatched shacks and makeshift tents that comprised the slum. Naming the area an “experimental district,” the new Communist government addressed problems of labor and sanitation, and in the 1960s it built 31 five-story buildings, which provided housing and utilities over 1,800 households. While these concrete apartment blocks will be familiar to any contemporary traveler to China as remnants of the Socialist period, in the 1960s they were entirely new. To underscore the new buildings and their promise of New China, the Zhabei People’s Committee and the Shanghai Municipal Cultural Relics Commission preserved eighteen of the old thatched huts on the northern edge of Fangua Lane New Village. Thus, even while completing new buildings in 1965, the state simultaneously engaged in creating a life-size exhibition that juxtaposed conditions in the “old society” before 1949 and the “new society” since “Liberation.” In two of the old houses, the Cultural Relics Commission put up an exhibition called “Fangua Lane Past and Present.” Over the years of the Cultural Revolution, Fangua Lane played host to thousands of official foreign tour groups and visiting schoolchildren. Foreign visitors were led through the old shacks and visited families in the new apartment buildings; the fragment of shantytown served as a backdrop for old residents who retold stories of their lives to Chinese schoolchildren. In 1977 the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee designed the site as a cultural relic unit (wenwu baohu danwei) and well into the reform period Fangua Lane was presented as an object lesson, a place to compare old and new (xinjiu duibi) and to contrast the bitterness of the past with the joys of the present (yiku sitian).

Stories about Fangua Lane would have been familiar to Shanghai residents, as the local newspapers covered the construction of the new buildings and the fate of its inhabitants. During the dramatic makeover of the neighborhood, the press included photographs of the new construction and poems about life in the new buildings, and portrayed celebratory moments at Chinese New Year. In all of its portrayals, Fangua Lane was taken to exemplify life in New China; its residents were examples of the laboring poor who had been oppressed in old society and who had “stood up” in New China. Reporters concluded that Fangua Lane was a microcosm of China and that the families taken together stood for the untold numbers of laboring people who had “stood up” (fanshen).

At face value, these narratives of the residents of Fangua Lane are typical examples of propaganda in Maoist China. Though the Communist understanding of history is premised on the idea that ordinary people are its makers, the characters of the Fangua Lane stories were flattened into political correctness and the recipients rather than the makers of history: a beggar who had suffered the twin oppressions of feudalism and imperialism was remade into a post-1949 Party Secretary, a laborer who had faced the greatest privations now found honorable work, and the old savored retired life in New China, surrounded by children who were educated and employed. Though we learn little about these people through their stories, we learn about the nature of propaganda: individuals with exemplary lives were presented as representative, the identity of the individual mattered less than the type of character they were chosen to portray, and model behavior and model narratives were outlined for all to imitate.

The exhibition of “Past and Present” within the larger exhibition of the shantytown remnants also illuminates the nature of propaganda and the usage of exhibitions as propaganda in the Maoist period. Here the boundaries between life and exhibition were blurred; Fangua Lane’s inhabitants were written into “Past and Present” and lived themselves in the apartments that were open for tourism. A visitor would see in the exhibition a dialogue between an elderly resident and a foreign friend before replicating the conversation himself. The beggar-turned-Party Secretary was featured in the display, and she might be standing in the courtyard when the visitor emerged from the preserved straw shack. The authenticity of narratives about “old society” was supported by numerous artifacts—by shreds of old clothing in the display, by the buildings themselves, and by the individuals who lived in Fangua Lane. Without the “old society,” it was explained, one could not understand the new. The objects of the old society were saved to lend credence to narratives of the new, no matter how much the foundations of new society were shaken.

Without this context, the shantytown diorama in the Shanghai History Exhibition Hall has no message. The fragment of slum saved as a “cultural relic unit” in the Maoist period gained its ideological message through juxtaposition with new buildings, through the narratives of old residents who related carefully crafted stories, and through an explicitly didactic exhibition. And yet, tucked in between scenes of commerce and culture and displays of entertainment and leisure, the shantytown diorama is a re-created artifact that shows what poverty lurked behind the neon lights of old Shanghai. In this way, its function echoes that of the Maoist-period Fangua Lane exhibition, and—especially if the Oriental Pearl Tower exhibition is meant to foreshadow life in today’s China—the shantytown diorama becomes the most political scene of all.

Denise Ho is assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Her first book, Antiquity in Revolution, studies the politics of culture in twentieth-century Shanghai through its museums and exhibitions.

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