Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

February 28, 2007

Some reflections on the post-Cultural Revolution generation as presented in film and text

Filed under: China, Film, Publications — amyjaneb @ 12:17 pm

A long title – couldn’t decide how to put what I wanted to say by way of something pithy and catchy!

Didn’t get a lot done yesterday.  Wasn’t feeling very well and missed a publishing workshop (which I’d really been looking forward to) and my Chinese class.  But I did get some reading done and watched a film, Platform (or ‘Zhantai’) , which was about a group of friends in a cultural work unit during the years 1979 to 1989.  It was very long (two and a half hours!), and a bit slow at times, but really did capture the dramatic changes in China during this decade from Mao suits, to designer gear, communes to privatisation, revolutionary songs to rock music.  I suspect there was a lot of metaphor which I didn’t get, but I think what the title refers to, i.e. train platform, is the universal desire to break free of the restrictions of family and one’s home town to find one’s own way in the world.  Which, if this had been a Hollywood film, would have been pretty hackneyed, but because it followed the lives of a group of young people as they tried to negotiate the dizzying social changes and limited freedoms opening up to them, this device worked well in this instance as a vehicle to present Deng’s China.

It also roughly corresponds with the era examined by the book I’m reading (and have nearly finished) at the moment: John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.  In it he charts the live stories of a group of his classmates at Nanjing University, when he studied there as a foreign exchange student in 1981.  I’m not going to write in depth about this now, but I will say that it’s engaging and well worth a read.  Although it makes me wonder if he compromises any of his subjects in his writing, vis-a-vis the Chinese authorities.  Raises some interesting ethical questions….


February 26, 2007

Nixon in China

Filed under: China, Language, Mandarin, Publications, Reading, Useful links — amyjaneb @ 10:54 pm

Not much time, nor energy for blogging today.  Have spent most of the day trying to learn Chinese vocab and working on the three minute presentation for the exam in a couple of weeks (which is going to be about the part of the country from which I hail – allows me to talk about directions, weather, types of buildings, etc) and working (all too briefly) on my research seminar paper. 

But, I have had time to check out my feeds on Google Reader. 

This – Nixon in China « History News – is a good roundup of reviews and discussions about Margaret MacMillan’s new book Nixon in China, which – for some reason I dismissed, when I had the opportunity to buy it over Christmas (I think the blurb on the back cover might have put me off for some reason?).  Anyway, having had a quick read of the collected links (though not in depth – suffering from ‘woolly brain’ tonight), I think it is something I should have a look at.  Will work well as a companion piece to Isaacs’ preface to the 1972 edition of Images of Asia, which discusses changing perceptions of China and the Chinese in America immediately in the wake of Nixon’s visit:  contemporary assessment versus historical study.

Oh, and this Dokuticker thing that John Russell mentions looks interesting too…

February 25, 2007

Self-reflexivity and the researcher

Filed under: Images, Methodologies, My research, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 6:53 pm

At the moment I’m reading Harold R. Issacs’ Images of Asia.  I say reading, I’ve only managed the preface to the 1972 edition, and the Introduction which outlines the interviews conducted in the course of research for the book which first appeared in print in 1958.  Ostensibly I’m reading it as a primary source, to get a sense of prevalent western ideas about China in the years immediately following the foundation of the PRC in 1949.  However, having read the Introduction, I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit – someone who shares, not only my passion for China, but the construction of images of it, and even the way I’m going about my research.  I love Isaac’s description of his quest for tidbits to illuminate his research, which he found not only in the answers of his respondents, but in snatched, random conversations on planes and in references to Hollywood films and comic books.

I don’t read a lot of research reports, but I’m pretty sure that very few are as engaging and well written as this.  In Isaacs’ hands even a table reporting the political affiliation of each of his respondents is interesting.  But it’s the level of self-reflexivity in his approach, which I’m guessing – though I don’t really know – was fairly unusual in the 1950s, which I appreciate the most.  This quote is going in my thesis:

Whether he [or she!] learned it long ago from the philosophers or the poets, or more recently from the nuclear physicists, the student of human behaviour must know that the observer, his location, and his method are all undetachable parts of every observation, and that every observation remains subject to the awareness that the aspect of knowledge is constantly changing. (p. 34-35)

In the same way I fully recognise that my research is firmly embedded in my own perspectives and viewpoints and I intend to go into some depth in my introduction explaining the background behind my research, the reasons I’m interested in China and the reasons I’m interested in communism.  Unlike Isaacs I won’t be doing masses of interviews – just a few for background research – and so I am aware that my thesis will be my personal interpretation of the information I have gathered.  And I quite like that.  My approach will be similar to the message I’ll be trying to get across: That images are illusory, ethereal things, that find no basis in fact or objectivity, and that while museums and exhibitions are held up as makers of objective fact, they are – in fact – no different from the rest of us; the messages they transmit are just as subjective and prejudiced and driven by impressions and misconceptions as the images held by their audiences. 

Just as an aside, I see that Amazon reviewers of the book, Stasiland, that Mary mentioned in her comment on my previous post, have criticised the author for her personal approach.  It seems they wanted something scientific and detached, and what she gave them instead was her personal impressions via the genre of travelogue.  I can’t wait to read it!

February 23, 2007

The reinvention of relics of communism

Here’s a post about a bizarre relic of the GDR.  Can it really be true?  How can an entire population forget about a whole (albeit small and unpopulated) island?  Is it another example of the, frankly understandable, ‘sweep it under the carpet’ attitude of former communist states in eastern Europe? 

 East Germany Lives On – As A Tiny Carribean Island « strange maps 

The need to replace the symbolism of communism and reconstruct national identity as a feature of post-communist society is a theme taken up by Laura Mulvey in her excellent documentary Disgraced Monuments (1996).   While it certainly is understandable that societies, especially the ex-Soviet states, emerging from the communist era would want to move on and build new futures, there is an argument that the process of destroying statues of Lenin and Stalin, for example, was an act akin to the reconstruction of national histories formerly instigated by the communist state itself.  And yet Western Europeans, myself included, are fascinated by the legacy of communism (at least in its visual, material and iconographic forms), for which a whole tourist industry has developed to cater.  While it would be untrue to state that ‘ostalgia’ (as it is called in Germany) is only consumed by westerners, I’m intrigued by the tension between the impulse of the (fairly) newly democratic nations to abandon the past and look to the future, and the need for the rest of us to continually rake over the past, recycling and endlessly appropriating icons of communist ideology: the Che Guevara t-shirt, the CCCP sweatshirt to name but two examples.  This emasculating and denuding of symbolic power is similar, I think,- like I was discussing in my earlier post about Kim Jong-Il – to how we look upon communism today.  In the post-Berlin Wall era ‘communism’ means little more than ‘retro-chic’.  And by emasculating the power and the threat it once meant by assimilating it’s iconography into our popular culture we are reaffirming to ourselves the triumph of West over East.

This is an interesting theme taken up by James Hevia in an article of his I read earlier today (which I’ve left in the office, and can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called!).  He discusses the looting of the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860 by British and French troops, the eventual destinations of these objects and the meanings contemporaneously ascribed to them once they reached the colonial centres of London and Paris.  He argues that the identification of several items as having belonged to the Emperor himself not only adds a cache to their provenance and value, but their positioning (virtual or physically) in relation to objects pertaining to the British monarch, came to symbolise the defeat of the Chinese nation.  In my summation, the use of communist iconography in fashionable contexts, is much the same.  Both trophies of war, both (subconsciously perhaps in the case of the latter) symbolising the defeat and humiliation of the contexts of their original loci of production.

Phew – all that philosophising has worn me out.  Had better have a cup of tea to recover.  Oh, and I need to find out about Creative Commons licenses and whatnot.  😉


Filed under: Interviews, My research, Weblinks — amyjaneb @ 12:30 am

It’s late, but I wanted to blog this while I was still basking in a sense of achievement and relief, and not tomorrow, when I wake up remembering that I forgot to do that, and I should have mentioned such-and-such. 

I’ve just sent of a list of questions to my first interviewee.  I’m planning on doing as many interviews as possible by email.  Mainly because they’re really an information-gathering process, not integral to my research.  Just there to provide some contextual information (all being well).  But also to save on time and money.  I know some people might feel that email interviews remove the level of spontaneity that characterises conventional interviews, but I’m not too bothered.  In fact I’m looking forward to some thoughtful and considered replies.  Plus it means I won’t have to transcribe hours of recorded interviews either, which has got to be a good thing.

However, I did want to get it right:  Pitch the questions at an appropriate level using the right sort of conversational tone.  I searched google for advice, and was pleased to find that I was, for the most part, on the right track.  But there were a few useful points which I hadn’t considered.  So – for future reference, what follows, is Amy’s top ten things (in no particular order)to consider when planning an interview by email.

  • Think about what you need to know and what you want to find out from your interviewee.  Explain what you’re after from them (you could even give reasons why you’re asking particular questions).
  • Devise open-ended questions that will encourage ’emotional’ responses (this helps to get over that lack of spontaneity issue and provide opportunities for respondents to produce some really good, quotable material).
  • Limit the number of questions (I confess I ran to thirteen – some of which had three or more parts), and keep them as clear, uncomplicated and as short as possible.
  • List questions numerically and leave a space for answers (but give your interviewee the opportunity to submit their answers in an alternative format if they wish).
  • Start your email with an apology for the daunting list you’ve sadlled them with and thank them in advance for their time.
  • Finish your list/email by asking your interviewee if there is anything that they would like to add, or a question they feel you should have asked (I’m hoping this might reveal any areas I’ve not considered…or more likely, forgotten about).
  • Give a (gentle) timeline or deadline for their response.
  • Suggest that you may contact them to follow-up their responses and/or to clarify any points at a future date.
  • Give your interviewee the option not to answer particular questions if they feel they cannot or would prefer not to.
  • Promise to send them a copy of the written-up ‘interview’ in good time so that they can check it for accuracy (this is probably more important when conducting in-person and telephone interviews, but I think it’s good manners to keep your respondents ‘in the loop’).

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the consent, release – whatever you want to call it – form.  That’s a whole another post! 

I await a response eagerly.

February 22, 2007

To plan, or not to plan…

Filed under: My research — amyjaneb @ 6:16 pm

…that is the question.  At the beginning of this week I made a plan of everything I needed to get done and when, which is very unlike me, as I tend to just muddle through on a wing and a prayer.  I set myself realistic tasks (bearing in mind I’m fairly lazy), and it had been going quite well.  But today the plan has completely gone to pot.  I overslept (and missed yoga) and then spent a large part of the afternoon at the Lansdowne (for those that know Leicester) discussing the planned relaunch of the Museological Review with the rest of the editorial committee.  After that I spent a couple of hours in the office just dossing about really, because by that point I’d decided that there was no point starting anything, and now I’m at home thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner.  Perhaps I’ll be up for a bit of reading later on…

Chinese: a break through!

I wrote about the difficulties I’ve been having learning Mandarin the other day and how my goal was to be able to read and understand slogans on propaganda posters (and how I thought that was a long way off).  Well, this morning, I received a new book through the post that I ordered from (I love Abebooks – not sure what I’d do without it): Paint it Red by Stefan Landsberger – a collector and recognised authority on revolutionary posters.  And guess what?  I realised that I could pick out several characters.  The key ones (rendered in pin-yin and without tone marks – sorry) are ren (people/person), da (big/large), xiao (small/little), xue (study) meiguo (America) and zhong guo/ren (China/Chinese people).  I reckon all I need do is learn the characters for ‘Lei Feng’ and ‘Mao Zedong thought’ and I’ll be laughing.  😉

Seriously, it’s a big confidence boost and given me the necessary motivation to get on with revision for my exam in about a fortnight’s time.

February 21, 2007

Kim Jong-Il: uber-Mao?

Reading this post from the Times news weblog, about the 65th birthday celebrations put on for Kim this week, reminds me of how struck I was by the aesthetic and ideological similarities between the Korean revolutionary art in the British Museum’s collection (dating from 1990s) and the propagandist art produced in China in the 1950s and early 60s.  Click on the following links to view photos I took at the BM last summer, which – I think – will demonstrate my point.

News from the Front

A Foundry

“Let’s promote a great surge in coal production”

Surely the scenes played out in Pyongyang this week and the promulgation of the cult of Kim bears more than passing resemblance to (and was presumably inspired by) the cult of Mao during the 1960s, yet even more stylised and stage-managed, if that were possible.  It’s extraordinary and, frankly, ridiculous.  And if you’re not convinced take a look at this Channel 4 news report:

These kind of large scale expressions of devotion to the ‘dear leader’ seem to belong to the past; something that I associate with the Cold War era and certainly very incongruous in the twenty-first century.  And as such somehow devoid of the sinister threat that the old May Day parades in Red Square, for example, represented.  Which says a lot about the West’s perception of who its enemies now are and how ‘we’ position ourselves in relation to the rest of the world.  Has communism been ‘defeated’?  Is that why we can now regard Kim Jong-Il – like the author of the Times article – largely as a figure to poke fun at and I’m thinking ‘Team America’ here (see below), rather than as a threat to western democracy and civilisation as we know it?  And what factors are at play in manipulating our world-view.  These are themes which fascinate me.  Realistically not for in-depth analysis in my thesis, but a project for the future perhaps?

(If you’re a bit sensitive about the f-word, or puppets – or musicals for that matter, probably best not to view this video!)

Argh! Writing…

Filed under: My research, Writing — amyjaneb @ 6:12 pm

I’m trying to write a paper for presentation at my Department’s research seminar series in about three weeks.  It’s going to be based on the chapter I drafted in November.  Somehow I’ve got to condense 16,000 words into a forty minute-or so talk.  It’s proving to be a real nightmare already.  But, I’ve found the tactic which seems to work best is to skim each section of my chapter and then launch into a brief summary of the content for my seminar paper. 

Nightmare it may be, but it has proven to me that when time is of the essence, I can pull things out of the bag at the last minute (three weeks may not seem like ‘at the last minute’, but for me – a near obsessional perfectionist – it’s pretty close to it).  Perhaps I really should start to believe the people who tell me – repeatedly – that I am capable of completing a thesis (theoretically sometime around October 2008).  At the moment I have resolved not to think about when I might submit.  That’s way too pressurising.  I’m telling myself I’ll need at least six months extra writing up time.  Which helps.  Not least because the thought of life sans PhD is too, too scary to contemplate.

Having said all that, I really do enjoy the writing process.  It’s takes a while to get started, but I quickly get into the zone and the words and sentences and paragraphs just flow out of me.  Admittedly, in fairly short bursts, and it takes a bit of editing, but mostly the structure is in my head already and I’m able to get fairly well-formed ideas on paper pretty much spontaneously.  Now, if I could just apply myself in the same manner to the rest of the time, life would be much less stressful!

February 20, 2007

China Reconstructs

Filed under: China, Cultural Revolution, Propaganda, Publications — amyjaneb @ 1:41 pm

I’ve just taken delivery of a package containing copies of the English-language propaganda magazine China Reconstructs, dating from the Cultural Revolution.  Most are from the early seventies, although there are a couple from 1966.  They are amazing pieces of source material, given as they represent one of the very few windows on China for the West from the mid-sixties and until Mao’s death in 1976.  From just from a quick flick through some of the copies, it is clear how in the West – and particularly in Britain, given the influence of left-wing politics on the intellectual environment – China must have seemed like a utopian vision; the ultimate expression of socialist society.  All those smiling, happy faces: the abundant harvests and technological progress.  Once I’ve had a chance to digest I’ll write more…

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