What Did the Cultural Revolution Look Like?

Many people outside of China get their first ideas about the Cultural Revolution from reading memoirs or works of fiction that deal with the years 1966-1969 or the final decade of the Maoist era (1966-1976). It is also possible, though, to start to grapple with the meaning of that complex and traumatic period via its visual culture, and finding out about a new exhibit and a new online collection (new to me at least) has inspired this Top Five List. It includes some sites that have been mentioned before at China Beat, but seem worth referring to again.

1. The always alert Danwei bloggers have just alerted their readers to a fascinating website devoted to Cultural Revolution photographs. It's well worth checking out their post or going straight to the website by a Cornell professor that they praise.

2. The Asia Society has a new exhibit up on "Art and China's Revolution" (it runs through January 11), which is introduced well by Emily Parker in a recent Wall Street Journal piece that comes with a slide show, made up of powerful images on display. More images from the same show are available to click through courtesy of the New York Times.

3. I know I'm biased, since I've worked as a consultant on various Long Bow Group projects, but the website associated with that organization's award-winning documentary "Morning Sun" (a film by Carma Hinton, Geremie Barmé, and Richard Gordon that was recently screened at the Asia Society to accompany the exhibit alluded to above) remains the single best place to go for a visual introduction to Cultural Revolution.

4. Posters were a particularly powerful vehicle through which images and ideas were conveyed during the Cultural Revolution, of course, and the Danwei post mentioned earlier directs readers to the excellent online displays created by Stefan Landsberger. But another place to turn if you just can't get enough of these materials is the virtual version of a late 1990s traveling exhibit of materials from the wonderful collection held at the University of Westminster (full disclosure: I was one of the exhibit's co-curators). This is the same collection that served as the basis for Picturing Power in the People's Republic of China, a book edited by historian and gender studies scholar Harriet Evans and media studies scholar Stephanie Donald that includes many color images and chapters by the likes of art historian Craig Clunas, longtime Guardian China correspondent and poster-collector John Gittings, and literary critic Chen Xiaomei.

5. And there are many other places to turn on the web for those interested in these topics, including this online collection of reproductions of posters held at Berkeley's East Asian Library. This online source, as well as some of the others mentioned above, includes material that falls outside of the Cultural Revolution's chronology, which makes it possible to think in new ways about the continuities and ruptures between that period and those that immediately preceded and followed it.


Mark Anthony Jones said...

Jeff, I also highly recommend Paul Clark's new book, "The Chinese Revolution", published by Cambridge University Press. I have just finished reading it, and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Here is the publisher's blurb:

The "book seeks to explode several myths about the Cultural Revolution (officially 1966–1976). Through national and local examination of the full range of cultural forms (film, operas, dance, other stage arts, music, fine arts, literature, and even architecture), Clark argues against characterizing this decade as one of chaos and destruction. Rather, he finds that innovation and creativity, promotion of participation in cultural production, and a vigorous promotion of the modern were all typical of the Cultural Revolution. Using a range of previously little-used materials, Clark forces us to fundamentally reassess our understanding of the Cultural Revolution, a period which he sees as the product of innovation in conflict with the effort by political leaders to enforce a top-down modernity."

Incidentally, I recently bought a copy of your book, "China's Brave New World - And Other Tales for Global Times", which I also enjoyed. I was particularly interested in what you had to say about the Chinese tendency to appropriate what is foreign in ways that are culturally-specific, as this is one of the main themes that courses through my book, "Flowing Waters Never Stale." I loved your example of how the Chinese, in the 1980s, appropriated Mickey Mouse.

Like you, I drew on Yunxiang Yan's article from the book, "Golden Arches East", and was heavily influenced too by Frank Dikötter's book, "Things Modern: Material Culture and Everyday Life in China", published by Hurst & Company, London, 2007. It's a brillant book too!

I have tried to develop this theme in an essay which you can find in the "Essay" page of my site, in case you're interested.

Mark Anthony Jones

Jeff Wasserstrom said...

Thank you for bringing Paul Clark's new book to the attention of readers of the blog. We may well do a piece about that down the road; I have heard good things about it and thought of mentioning it, but didn't feel right doing so without having given it a look.

It is also nice indeed to read your kind words about my own book, and now having looked at the website for yours, I definitely see that we are interested in a lot of similar issues. I'll need to get your book and pick up the conversation after I've had a chance to read it.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Jeff, although my book seems to be selling reasonably well here in Australia, I’m rather disappointed with the quality of editing provided by my publisher, Zeus. They overlooked numerous typing errors. The word “recurring” for example, which is used in the Preface, appears mistyped in the book as “reoccuring”, and in the chapter on "Shenzhen - city of kitsch" the word “furry” appears mistyped as “fury”. In the chapter on Tibet the word “barley” appears mistyped as “barely”. Aside from these embarrassing typos, I’m reasonably pleased with the overall result.

"Flowing Waters Never Stale" is only a simple travel narrative really - aimed at the general market. It's certainly not as professionally written and produced as your book.

Paul Clark's book is definitely worth tracking down though. I'm sure you will find the book very insightful.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones