Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 10, 2007

Inside Red China

Filed under: China, Images, Mao, Propaganda, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 10:29 pm

Have been concentrating on finalising my research seminar presentation and revising for my Chinese exam on Tuesday for the last couple of days, but have been catching up with all my blog feeds and alerts this evening.

This review of Nym Wales’* Inside Red China (1939) caught my eye, not least because I haven’t got hold of a copy of it yet.  In particular Amandina’s comment –

And when she started devoting the second half of the book to women in the revolution, one literally gets infused with the sense of purpose that the book speaks of. It became impossible not to be inspired and caught up with the spokes of revolution and for a while I wondered if I was turning communist myself.

 – I think demonstrates the potential power of this writing on western readers.  Especially when one considers that, at least in Britain, much of this material – i.e. eye-witness accounts from the ‘front line’, in Yenan and The Long March – was distributed by left-wing organisations.  Authors like Nym Wales, Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley# probably didn’t achieve a huge readership at the time of the original publication of their works (though their writing had a ready, sympathetic audience), their accounts have endured, particularly Snow’s Red Star Over China, which gained a new readership in the West during the years contemporary to the Cultural Revolution.  The 1972 edition I’ve currently got out of the University library has a fantastic Korda’s Che-esque cover, with a young (photogenic) Mao in silhouette against a red background; the very essence of the young revolutionary.  Such an obvious visual comparison between Mao and that most iconic and ubiquitous of images of Che could not have been accidental. 

I am reminded of the impact that the Modern China module of my GCSE History course had on me.  It was split into two parts, a term apart. The first concentrated on the Long March and the Yenan years and left me with a real sense of why the communists found so much support from the ordinary people of China.  But, I wonder how much of what we learnt was influenced by these frontline reports – for example, it’s clear that the Party engaged in quite a degree of myth-making about the early struggle against Japanese and later the KMT post-establishment of the PRC.  Incidentally, the second half of the Modern China course focused on the developing economy and opening of China to the rest of the world, culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre (hey, I’ve already attracted the attentions of the PRC censors, I needn’t pull any punches!), just eighteenth months after the event.  For me it was the first time that history (though I had always loved it as a subject) seemed relevant to the contemporary.

* Incidentally Nym Wales was the pen name of Helen Foster Snow, wife of Edgar Snow.

# Agnes Smedley’s novel Daughter of Earth is one of my favourites – nothing to do with China, just a fantastic piece of early twentieth century feminist writing.  Well worth a read in my opinion.

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