Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 30, 2007

Round up

A quick round up of interesting things caught floating about in the blogosphere recently.

Exhibition of twentieth-century Chinese toys (from Jottings From the Granite Studio)

During the Japanese invasion of the 1930s, war-related toys such as fighter planes, tanks and soldiers dominated production,. Later on, toys were often used as a propaganda tool. This was especially true during the Cultural Revolution.

“Beside Mao-suit-clad dolls, you can find cars with political slogans, and building block cubes with propaganda scenes on them,” said Man Wing Sing, a Chinese antique toy collector. Among the toys made in the ’60s, the most valuable in the museum’s collection is the “Liberate Taiwan” game.

Chan, who has done extensive research on the subject, points to a distinctive change in style for toys pre- and post-1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established. “Before the 1950s, the toy designs are very influenced by Europeans, but after, the toys have a more Oriental feel to their patterns and design,” he noted.

Manufacturers started incorporating more modern technology in the ’50s, using battery-operated controls, magnetic control, sound and light controls. (From the International Herald Tribune article that the writer of ‘Jottings’ – himself a China studies PhD himself – links to.)

Jottings also links to Sinocidal’s bitingly satirical timeline of Chinese history. I particularly the appreciate the verity behind this entry:

1949: After years of civil war, Japanese invasion, and national humiliation, a giant poster of Mao gains control of China. The giant poster wields power through an army of smaller, photocopied, versions of itself, and promises to rid all China of stamps featuring Queen Victoria and placards of Chiang Kai-Shek. The giant poster of Mao is head of the Chinese Communist Party, which at the time was the biggest, and probably the best, Communist Party in the whole world.

Jeremiah writing at The Peking Duck asks whether the kitschy use of Mao’s image is morally and ethically justifiable (I particularly like the last sentence from this extract; ‘Can you de-fang a tyrant by turning him into kitsch?’ sounds like the title of a great thesis chapter to me!):

The CCP came up with the rather neat figure of 70% correct and 30% incorrect. But how does one split a canvas 70/30? Does this mean it is okay to wear a silkscreened Mao t-shirt 70% of the time? Does it mean the next time I’m at Panjiayuan Market in Beijing, I should ask for a 30% discount on a Mao cigarette lighter that plays “Dong Fang Hong” when it lights? Can you de-fang a tyrant by turning him into kitsch or does that trivialize the horrors he perpetrated?

Finally, a review of a contemporary detective novel, the theme of which deals with China in transition, written by a Chinese author and now available in translation here (that should please those commentators complaining about the lack of non-victim/non-culture clash Chinese fiction available in English).

More interesting snippets soon…

March 26, 2007

Ipswich target of Cold War mappers

Filed under: Cold War, USSR, Weblinks — amyjaneb @ 9:48 pm

This doesn’t have anything to do with China, but a lot to do with the Cold War.  And it’s about my home town (well, my nearest large home town) so I’m going to blog about it anyway!

To a large extent I feel the paranoia engendered by the Cold War to be its the most sinister effect, one which clearly continues to linger today (though now transposed onto Islamic Fundamentalism).  The images these quotes conjure up are quite brilliant (perhaps you have to know Ipswich and Ipswichians, for that matter, to really appreciate the full impact of these revelations on the local populace ;)):

Produced in 1984, the map reveals the exact location and purpose of every structure of possible military importance – and would have provided Russian leaders with the directions of exactly how to get to your house by tank…

It is so detailed that the KGB – the Soviet Union’s secret police – knew the width of Ipswich’s roads, the height of the town’s bridges, the depth of our rivers and the names of our streets.

Evening Star (Ipswich’s ‘tabloid’) journalism par-excellence.  But I have to say, the thought that little old Ipswich could have been a Soviet target still seems a little incredible.  ‘Structures of possible military importance…’?

Cultural Revolution ‘Victim’ Literary Genre: A publishing phenomenon

Filed under: China, Cultural Revolution, Publications, Weblinks, Writing — amyjaneb @ 9:32 pm

This reviewer for the Taipei Times makes some interesting points about the increasing number of autobiographies published by survivors of the Cultural Revolution.  I take issue with his comment ‘Why are there so many books about Chinese nightmares, and why are they all published in America?’, because – of course, they aren’t just published in America, nor written by Chinese now living in the US (Jung Chang is the obvious example to the contrary).  But his next point:

 Is this some aspect of an on-going New Cold War, a veiled propaganda campaign waged through the corridors of literature? Books about the delights of life in the People’s Republic are certainly hard to come by.

This is not to say that the tribulations visited on millions by China’s Red Guards are a figment of anyone’s imagination. The evidence is far too extensive, and the testimony of survivors too similar. No, it’s not the phenomenon itself that’s in any doubt, but rather the motives of those who flood the market with accounts of those terrible years. History has undoubtedly provided the ammunition, but who’s firing the guns, and at whom?

– followed by his comment on the formalaeic ‘plot’ and inevitable stereotyped ‘characters’ that seem to turn up in these accounts on a regular basis:

Even so, this book is part of a distinct modern literary genre, a tale of Cultural Revolution woes, both lived through and finally escaped from. All the stereotypes are here — the wicked petty tyrant (in this case Old Crab, the local “team leader” and the only Communist Party member in a small village), a populace happy to chant “Your plans to restore a bourgeois society have been revealed and smashed” one day and something close to the opposite the next, Western literary classics hidden under mattresses and treasured as bulwarks against the Red Guard onslaught, senior academics being made to crawl through the mud to collect animal droppings, the persecution of “black” (as oppose to “red”) families and their eventual banishment to remote mountain areas, and the meeting up of the hero with some kindred spirit (who invariably also has Western books secreted about his person).

– hints, I think at a possible reason for the popularity of such books.  They confirm what us Westerners think we know about the PRC, i.e. that it is bad; a totalitarian nightmare wherein individuality is suppressed and freedom – as we understand it – does not exist.  But they are also similar to those age old stories of the eventual triumph of good versus evil, of overcoming hardship, that probably exist in all cultures at all periods of history, and must therefore reflect a deep human need.  So, perhaps the focus on the Cultural Revolution is simply time-specific.  Similar themes will continue to exist in literature even after the reading public, and perhaps more pertinently, the publishing world has tired of the Cultural Revolution and moved onto the next big human interest theme.

Battlepanda takes a slightly different tack in their post about the same review:

I would really like to see some books in English by Chinese writers that isn’t about their experiences in the cultural revolution or novels about defiant young woman growing up in a oppressive culture (or both). And I would like to see some books in English by Chinese-American writers that’s not about the clash of cultures between their mother’s generation and their’s.

While I agree that Chinese writers are, perhaps, ‘ghettoised’ by English-language publishers, personally I feel it is a little unfair to solely blame writers for these trends.  As they go on to say, but perhaps don’t fully appreciate, publishers hold sway – obviously – in what gets published and what doesn’t.  There may well be (and I’m sure there are) Chinese and Chinese-American authors out there writing sci-fi and romance and crime fiction, but even if it’s good, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will get published.  Fiscal justifications probably always win out over artistic merit.  Publishers will be aware of the enormous success of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans for example and, just like the market was flooded with ‘chick-lit’ in the wake of Bridget Jones’ Diary, theywill undoubtedly perceive a ready-market for similar books for all the reasons I’ve suggested above.

Having said all that I think it is important to consider that, just like how a fair proportion of artists and filmmakers in China use their work to literally ‘work through’ and come to terms with the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s legacy by making use of their own experiences, or those of their parents’ generation, Chinese authors might be driven for the same reasons.  I can’t think of any examples of the top of my head, but there must be parallels to be found in other parts of the world which have experienced war, social and political upheaval, etc.  Simply put, the Cultural Revolution was a big deal, which continues to haunt China and its people.  And while the PRC tries to avoid dealing with its social, political and cultural legacy, it’s hardly surprising that writers will use their art to explore the collective experience.

March 22, 2007

Mao, Mao, Mao and yet more Mao

Grow a brain has a nice little collection of miscellaneous Mao-related links, including more stuff from The East is Red, some examples of contemporary commie kitsch and something I can genuinely say I haven’t seen before…ketchup art! (As well as some rotten poetry by the man himself).

(I’m trying to catch up on reading at the moment – so don’t expect any intellectual musings for a while, until I’ve had a chance to digest all this stuff!)

March 20, 2007

Cafe Mao

What goes through the mind of someone who names their chain of ‘funky’ and ‘minimalist’ (I’m quoting from online reviews here) cafes after a dictator who killed more of his own people than Stalin?

Cafe Mao

It’s fascinating how differently we approach the iconography of communism and fascism.  And, for that matter, Soviet Communism and, say, that of China or Cuba.  I guess the ideology – the concepts of equality, a united workforce, shared ownership and community – of Marxism/communism continues to capture the popular imagination.  Its attraction is so compelling that people can look past the reality of daily life under communist regimes.  And I also imagine that while Soviet Russia was just too close to home, too much of a threat to the West during the 1950s and 1960s, China and Cuba (not in the US) remained just distant enough (spatially and ideologically) to develop a veneer of ‘cool’.  Plus, as far as Mao is concerned, the closed nature of China allowed the myth, that he had created a socialist utopia, to perpetuate (until his death and the arrest of the Gang of Four), while Khruschev had – through his criticisms of Stalin – fundamentally destroyed any western illusions of life in the USSR. 

But, in hindsight, we know how disastrous the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were, so why does this idea of Mao as a benign paternal figure perpetuate in western subcultural (and increasing popcultural) contexts?  Is it because people – especially those students/intellectuals who bought into the whole Maoism thing in the 1960s and 1970s cannot face to have their illusions shattered, once again?*  As Heath and Potter discuss in their book The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, it is these very people who have gone on to work in the creative industries that promote and repackage subcultural coolness for a mass audience.  And, as the well heeled ‘movers and shakers’ of industry, they themselves constitute a key demographic for marketers. 

Hmmmmm – methinks this has given me lots of things to think about…

* For example, the vitriolic response to Jung Chang’s recent, and oft criticised, biography of Mao, by Sinologists and other intellectuals in the field, did smack of petulance to a certain extent (IMHO!).  It was like they couldn’t bear the thought of their image of Mao – which formed, perhaps, the basis and catalyst of their academic careers – being shown to be an illusion.

March 19, 2007

Chinese ‘Clip Art’ and other exciting stuff

Oldtasty has uploaded some wonderful pics of CultRev era mastheads, ‘clipart‘, and record sleevesto his Flickr album.  Certainly haven’t seen examples of revolutionary mastheads and so-called clipart before.  He’s also got some photos of Panjiyuan Market in Beijing too, which show stalls selling CultRev stuff.  Okay, I admit, some of this looks genuine (the paper items?), so perhaps I have been a bit hasty to point the finger in my previous couple of posts – the real stuff is out there if you know where to find it, perhaps?

Link to album via WFMU and the merguez frites blog (the writer of which appears to share my doubts about some of this material).

March 18, 2007

Mao badges

Continuing the theme of my last post, I came across this online collection of Mao badges.  In his blog, the collector says:

I buy a bunch every time I go to China, adding them to the ones I started wearing as a teenager in the late 1960s.

There are two interesting points here. 

i)  he adds to his collection each time he goes to China.  It’s got to be assumed, therefore, that a large proportion are reproductions;

ii) he began collecting and wearing the badges as a teenager in the 60s.  This is really interesting, because, for my research, I am collecting examples of the contemporaeous appropriation of CultRev material culture in the West.

As I suggested in my last post, reproductions of CultRev material culture satisfy a ready market for revolutionary ‘exotica’.  Presumably much of this is purchased by tourists and collectors outside China (though, of course, there are examples of Chinese collectors – see Jennifer Hubbert’s paper – though it appears that they collect for very different reasons than Westerners).  But does it really matter if the objects they purchase are genuine artefacts or not?  I suppose, so long as they haven’t been mislead, it doesn’t.   But a quick look at Ebay suggests that some sellers of supposedly genuine CultRev material are less than scrupulous.

March 16, 2007

CultRev Retro Chic

I’ve recently come across just a couple of examples (of many, I’m sure) of websites (here and here) which purport to sell genuine artefacts from the Cultural Revolution. 

Now, indeed, some of these may be the real deal, but as large quantities of this material were collected and destroyed by the Chinese state after Mao’s death (see Schrift, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge) and the arrest of the Gang of Four, it seems more likely that much is being produced to cater for an increasing demand for CultRev stuff.  As early as 2000, I was told by a curator of a museum which had actively been collecting Mao memorabilia and CultRev material culture, that it had become prohibitively expensive.  And I was told by a curator at another museum that a recently published price guide to CultRev artefacts predominantly (perhaps inadvertently) features reproductions itself.  Not only do these examples reflect the growing demand for CultRev stuff from (western?) private collectors, it is kind of reminiscent of the Sinomania that gave birth to chinoiserie in the eighteenth century, which was – at least to begin with – produced to slake the fashionable demand for ‘Oriental’ exotica.  To date, revolutionary China hasn’t made much of an impact in popular cultural contexts*, i.e. images of Mao are not ubiquitous as Che, or even as frequently referenced as Soviet Russia (I’m thinking of the Tescos advert from a couple of years ago, which I can’t – unfortunately – find on Youtube), – dynastic China, or even contemporary ‘capitalist’ China is evoked – but at some point interest in the Cultural Revolution is going to tip over from the ‘cult’ sector into the popular consciousness and I wonder what might be the catalyst? 

* off the top of my head I can only think of a handful of examples, most notably the current advert for the V05 hair styling range.

But, talking of revolutionary China and popular culture, with a dash of commie kitsch, my Chicago-based friend who shall remain nameless (but she knows who she is!) sent me this (Me modelling hat) from China Town in New York, which arrived this morning.

March 14, 2007

Controversy surrounds new exhibition of Tibetan artefacts

Filed under: Censorship, China, Cultural Revolution, Propaganda, Tibet, Weblinks — amyjaneb @ 10:39 pm

Mary Stevens wrote about this exhibition ages ago on her blog – I’m just trying to catch up after my busy week!  Unfortunately (for me) the article she links to is in German, but I’ve used Google’s nifty translation tool (I got a D in GCSE German) and can offer a, slightly dodgy, English translation of the article here.  I’m intrigued by Horst ‘Charcoal Burner!.  😉  Anyway, the basic gist is that this new major exhibition of Tibetan objects from China at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin avoids discussion of the 1959 Chinese ‘liberation’ of Tibet and the resulting destruction of many religious and culturally significant objects following the Dalai Lama’s flight to India.  The Der Spiegel article suggests that it was a Chinese condition for the loan of these objects that any political context was glossed over by the curatorial team.  This is an issue I’ve been thinking about for some time.  To what extent do the Chinese cultural authorities control the representation of China without its borders?  For example, I would be really interested to find out whether, for example, the V&A and British Museum – who have entered into a cultural exchange programme with Chinese museums (which has lead to the Qin Shihuangdi exhibition at the BM later this year) have had to agree to similar conditions.  I have a strong suspicion that there has, at the very least, been some self-censorship in anticipation of visits by officials from the Chinese Embassy, which is backed up by some anecdotal evidence passed onto me (admittedly second hand).  Of course, this all has implications for how the Cultural Revolution is – or, indeed – if it can ever be sufficiently explored in the museum environment.

‘The Great Firewall of China’…

Filed under: Blog notices, Censorship, China, Language, Weblinks — amyjaneb @ 9:45 am

…as blog censorship by the Chinese authorities has become known.  Here’s a good overview of the current situation from The Peking Duck.  It seems that all wordpress blogs are currently blocked from China.  Damn!  I was hoping Cogs and Wheels had attracted the specific attentions of the censors.  Last Friday me and a friend and a friend of that friend went to an evening of Beijing Opera at the Richard Attenborough Centre.  The cultural attache (is that the right title?  Not sure) from the Chinese Embassy was in attendance.  I had visions of him having a list of enemies of the State with my name on it.  😉

(I’m addicted to smileys.)

Now my research seminar is done and dusted – as is my Chinese exam (as predicted, went horribly badly) – I’ll soon have more time for research and reading and intellectual business like that.  Just got a small backlog of admin-type tasks to clear first…

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