Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

April 28, 2007

The Illustrated [and sung] History of Communist China

Filed under: China, Cultural Revolution, Film, Humour, Mao, Music — amyjaneb @ 2:41 pm

I love this!

Need to think of some way of incorporating it into a future presentation…


April 26, 2007

Review: The Chan’s Great Continent, by Jonathan Spence

Filed under: China, Images, My research, Publications, Reading, Writing — amyjaneb @ 4:02 pm

Not so much a review as a brief summary perhaps?  I started reading this book about six weeks ago, but had a three-week break from it, so I can’t write a particularly coherent review at present, especially as I have’t yet written up my notes.  But here are a few thoughts that immediately occur to me.

I really enjoy Spence’s style of writing.  Intelligent, but not overly academic, this is the sort of book which would make good bedtime reading.  It is the result of a series of lectures that Spence gave at Yale University in 1996, which perhaps accounts for the almost conversational style.  Beginning with Marco Polo and ending with Nixon’s visit to China, Spence surveys the history of western literary reflections on China, drawing links between accounts through time and showing the continuation and development of some central ideas about China and Chineseness, which have characterised Western imaginings of China from the earliest contact.   

Of course, he writes about lots of characters and texts which I have already come across, but highlights a few others I wasn’t so aware of.  The book is particularly strong, I feel, on twentieth century writings about China and I can imagine I will refer to it frequently as I begin to write my background chapter on the first part of the twentieth century (up to the declaration of the PRC in 1949).  Planning a structure for that section is next on my ‘to do’ list.

I may have some more comments to make after I have typed up my notes, but in the meantime, I’ll conclude this rather brief and insubstantial review here, by stating that The Chan’s Great Continent is an excellent introduction to literary imaginings about China in the West, and well worth a read.

Welcome to Pyongyang

Filed under: Images, North Korea — amyjaneb @ 9:53 am

Some intriguing photographs of North Korea by the photographer Charlie Crane ( in association with the official state-run tourist agency), as reported by BBC News Online.

April 22, 2007

我会说中国 (I can speak Chinese)

Filed under: Language — amyjaneb @ 9:45 pm

Thanks to this post from Sinosphere, I’ve finally worked out how to type characters on my laptop.  It’s fantastic!  What a shame I’ve already forgotten all the Chinese I learnt last term!

The aesthetics of totalitarianism (or what not to say when being interviewed by a German magazine)

Bryan Ferry got into hot water this week (as reported by the BBC) for describing the visual iconography of Nazism as ‘beautiful’.

“My God, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves,” he gushed to the German magazine Welt am Sonntag. “I’m talking about Leni Riefenstahl’s movies and Albert Speer’s buildings and the mass parades and the flags – just amazing. Really beautiful.”  (Via BBC Online)

While it was a pretty naive thing to say, it highlights the inherent problems associated with attempting to critically analyse the aesthetics of totalitarian regimes.  It also serves to force me, once again, to confront my own reservations about my area of research.  I’m sure a lot of people that I mention my work to, think I’m a little peculiar, and part of me worries a lot about what sort of image they are constructing of me (as a raving Communist or something!).

I’ve written before about the double standards reflected by the rejection (rightly so, of course) of Nazi iconography, while visual references to communism are embraced by popular culture. While I would baulk at suggestions that Nazism was aesthetically beautiful – approaching, as I do, like the vast majority of ‘normal’ well-adjusted people – the subject with a mass of unpleasant and disturbing associations, I find it compelling, even though it makes me intensely uncomfortable.#  Afterall, it was meant to be powerful and soul-stirring.  Goebbels was a master propagandist.  He completely understood the power of film, in particular, to shape public opinion, create a sense of and identification with the ‘Fatherland’, and lay the ground for widespread acceptance of the eugenics programme, which resulted in the ‘Final Solution’.  And it was the films of Leni Riefenstahl that first got me interested in visual propaganda while I was studying for my A Level in European History. 

The furore that accompanied Ferry’s comments immediately put me in mind of the outcry engendered by Crispian Mill’s (the singer in Kula Shaker, a 90s band heavily influenced by 60s psychedelia and ‘eastern’ mysticism.  That was a long time ago!!) when he commented in the NME that the swastika was a Hindu symbol.  Which, of course, it is – though one which was adopted and subverted by Nazism.  The response to what I suspect was a craftily edited version of the interview, not only revealed an ignorance about the historical and cultural life of the swastika*, but an understandable reluctance in society to accept critical analysis of the visual iconography of the Third Reich.  Somehow, while we have dealt with the spectre of facism in the twentieth century to an extent where we can watch endlessly repeated documentaries about Hitler and the Second World War on the telly in, what appears to be a fairly detached manner, we cannot see the swastika, or images from the Nuremberg Rally, without feeling utter repugnance.  These visual symbols, or identifiers, of the Nazi regime have retained their psychological power and menace in a way that communist iconography hasn’t.   And while the meaning of communist visual culture in the west has transmogrified into something else and infinitely less threatening (i.e. high camp Commie Kitsch, or – at the very least – youthful idealism), its Nazi counterpart hasn’t.  Consider two young men, one wearing a Che t-shirt and the other with a swastika tippexed on his jacket.  Who would you prefer to sit next to on the tube?  Okay, that’s probably a bit facetious, but you get my drift.   In the 1970s, the potent symbolism of Nazism lent itself to Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s promotion of the swastika in a sub-cultural context as a form of sedition.  On the surface of it, the wearing of fascist iconography was taken to mean an identification with the far-right.  But intellectually, it was more an act of social transgression.  Though I don’t doubt some were attracted to punk because they did identify with the far-right.  For more on this read Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, or The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol, by Malcolm Quinn.

I’m well aware that I’m rehashing the same old themes time and time again in this blog, but I’m really having difficulty getting to grips with this particular aspect of my research.  Why, when the outcomes of both ideologies were similar, i.e. oppression, death and destruction on unimaginable scales, are Communism and Fascism viewed so differently? 

#Please don’t think I identify with Nazism on a personal – or any – level.  At the last election I did one of those online surveys designed to help floating voters make up your mind who to vote for.  I categorised myself as ‘left of centre’ and answered a series of questions about burning issues like immigration and fox-hunting (broadly for, and against, if anyone is wondering!).  I was slightly bemused to find out at the end that while most people who place themselves in that political ‘zone’ are actually slightly more right-wing than they might admit, I was significantly of the leftist persuasion – even more so than I thought.  Which I guess does make me a raving communist!  😉

*As an aside, I remember seeing a Victorian tea service on display at York Castle Museum, which prominently displayed the swastika as a decorative device.  To its credit, the museum discretely, but directly acknowledged its presence, and the connotations it now holds, while explaining its original function as a good luck symbol.  It could have been so easy to remove the tea set from display and pretend it didn’t exist.  We have to confront the difficult and the disturbing and the uncomfortable sometimes, to better understand the world in which we live.  If we avoid the problematics of history, well, we might as well be Holocaust deniers ourselves.

Asian History Carnival

Filed under: Blog notices, Useful links, Web resources — amyjaneb @ 12:48 pm

I’m really chuffed that the post I wrote about ‘Though I Am Gone’ has been included in the thirteenth Asian History Carnival!  Chuffed and a little guilty, because it’s not like it was a particularly original post, seeing as lots of other blogs had already given the documentary a mention.  But it’s very gratifying to get a little recognition nevertheless.

 There are lots of other really interesting sounding posts flagged up by the Carnival which I’ll be checking out over lunch.

April 20, 2007

Books: recent purchases

Filed under: Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 8:41 pm

I’ve been plugging away at catching up on some reading this week, hence my relative silence.  But I have bought a couple of books from Abebooks, which is always exciting. 

The first is a reprint of Isaacs’ Scratches On Our Minds, which I enjoyed so much when I got it on inter-Library loan, I just had to buy a copy.

The second is a copy of The Wrath of the Serfs, published by the Foreign Languages Press in 1976 (it’s as old as me!).  It’s a catalogue of the life-size tableaux created towards the end of the Cultural Revolution to propagate the official CCP version of life in pre-‘liberation’ Tibet, in a similar vein to the earlier Rent Collector’s Courtyard

Looking forward to reading both, though I intend to get the rest of my ‘books on the go’ out of the way first!

What was particularly notable about the latter was that the box it was packaged in had been opened by US Customs.  Not only that, it looked like they’d chucked it about a bit.  Was all battered and bent and squashed.  Luckily the book was well protected and undamaged.  Why did my innocent little parcel attract all this attention?  I can only think it was flagged up for investigation because it was sent to me by ‘Revolution Books’ based in Chicago.  Honestly, haven’t they got more important things to worry about?!

Note-taking: I need a system

Filed under: My research — amyjaneb @ 8:27 pm

In all the years I’ve been studying, I’ve yet to hit on a really effective method of note-taking.  As an undergraduate and while I was doing my MA I used to take hand-written notes as I was reading (which meant I ended up practically copying the whole text with minimal analysis).  When I started my PhD, I tried to do the same thing, with annotated notes (i.e. my thoughts as – and when – they arose) in red pen down the margin.  That was just too much like hard work.  It became increasingly difficult to absorb what the text was about.  So, then I started just reading, but marking quotes or sections of interest with post-it page markers, and followed up with hand-written, or typed notes at a later stage.  This worked okay, until I kept running out of page-markers (and damn they’re expensive!) and ended up with an enormous backlog of notes to be made.  So, at the moment, I’m back to reading books and making hand-written notes (or jottings really) as I go, and typing them up afterwards.  I have got better at analysing and assimilating and cross-referencing texts, but it’s not a satisfactory solution.  I’d be really interested to hear about any other tried and tested note-taking systems!

April 17, 2007

Books on the go #2

Filed under: My research, Reading — amyjaneb @ 6:13 pm

Here’s a revised list of all the books I’m currently in the process of reading, the idea being that when I finish them, I can write a little summary here which will, eventually, go towards my thesis’ literature review.  I’m also hoping it will shame me into getting on with some damn reading!

Lily Briscoe’s Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China
Patricia Laurence
(This is a ‘new’ one which has marched to the head of the queue, cos it’s an inter-library loan, and I’ve got to get it read and ‘processed’ before the 23rd April!)

The Chan’s Great Continent
Jonathan Spence

The Order of Things
Michel Foucault

Orientalism: History, theory and the arts
John Mackenzie
(I’m actually re-reading this one.)

Mao’s Last Revolution
Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
(This is – believe it or not – my bedtime reading.  Yes, I am a strange girl.)

I’ve started a list of books finished in my sidebar.

April 16, 2007

Long overdue (and completely random and disorganised) round-up of good stuff…

Filed under: China, Images, Material culture/art & design, Propaganda, Useful links — amyjaneb @ 10:45 pm

…just cos they’re useful links that I want to record, but haven’t got the time to organise them into categories, etc (some date from as far back as February.  You’ve got to get a grip girl!).

Frog in a Well’s really interesting discussion of the semantics of, and the history of, the western usage of the term ‘peasant’ with reference to China.

The Chinese media completely overreacting to poor reviews of The First Emperor carried in the American press, an opera starring Placido Domingo as Qin Shihuangdi, as told by Jeremiah at The Peking Duck.

A bewildering response to environmental concerns as reported by The Guardian (via Expresso Served Here).

– and finally (for now, at least):

A review of Jane Portal’s Art Under Control in North Korea posted on Museum Anthropology Review (via Museum Anthropology).  I’ve got this, but I haven’t yet got around to reading very much of it (another of those ubiquitous ‘books on the go’).

More links tomorrow…maybe.

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