Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

May 24, 2007

Westerners surveyed on Chinese cinema

Filed under: China, Film, Images, Mao, Popular culture — amyjaneb @ 9:42 am

This is fascinating. A survey carried out by a Chinese film magazine to identify westerners’ attitudes and impressions of Chinese film. No British respondents here, but plenty of Europeans, so it gives a compelling snapshot of the images of China propagated by film.

Several points caught my eye:

  • the confusion of Japanese films with Chinese ones, and mis-identification of Hollywood productions (i.e. Memoirs of a Geisha) with China (presumably causing much chagrin!)
  • Kung-fu features heavily, in films watched, Chinese actors identified and genres.
  • But, many respondents were able to name a number of Chinese directors, which is interesting. Could you do for same for Hollywood? Perhaps Chinese films are largely viewed as ‘art-house’, meaning that they become more identified with the director’s vision than the cast?
  • It’s unsurprising that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was so popular amongst respondents, as it was – perhaps – the first true ‘cross-over’ film (i.e. distributed in the West, and shown in mainstream cinemas) since the kung-fu mania of the 70s. Shame that not more than 2% cited In the Mood for Love though. That has to be one of my favourite films.
  • When asked ‘when you hear the term ‘Chinese film’, what is the first thing you think of?’ and the question about ‘Chinese characteristics’, it is – again – hardly surprising that people single out martial arts and ancient China (the predominant features of the vast majority of the films that have achieved popularity at the box-office in the last decade).
  • However, when asked what they would most like to see in Chinese films, a much larger number (though still only 8% of respondents) said ‘Mao Zedong and the red Chinese revolution’, suggesting there is some ‘appetite’ out there for finding out more about twentieth century China (which museums could latch onto?).
  • Another set of illuminatory responses are to the question, ‘What is your impression of China, from your own country’s cinema’. Apart from those who choose not to respond, the majority of people cited martial artists, gangsters and illegal immigrants. In addition Chinese people are mysterious and ‘never change their way of life’, and further down the list, 2% of respondents have mentioned queues and opium smoking.
  • But, when respondents were asked, ‘which Chinese figure are you most familiar with’, the majority (31%) said Mao Zedong, possibly because most were interviewed in China where Mao’s image appears to still be ubiquitous?

    As the ‘commenters’ say, there’s clearly some confusion about the origin of several of the actors cited, and between Taiwan and mainland China (which, let’s face it, probably makes the Chinese authorities quite happy!).

  • Is that Keira Knightley in a dreadful wig on the cover, or just someone who looks vaguely like her?


May 23, 2007

A temporary hiatus

Filed under: My research — amyjaneb @ 10:01 pm

I’ve been a bit quiet recently.  That’s mainly because I’ve been really busy the last few days.  It’s the Department’s PhD Research Week and I seem to have been out and about for at least 10 hours each day since Monday!  So, I haven’t had much time for anything else.  I presented a paper about one of my case studies on Monday, a summary of which will appear on The Attic – along with reviews of other sessions – over the next few days.

But, in addition to that, I’m helping to organise a conference here in Leicester in June, which is taking up a lot of my time too.  Not to mention the Museological Review.  Phew!  I don’t know how I pack it all in.  I have recently resigned as PhD Student Rep, however, so that should afford me a little more time to spend on my research – afterall, that’s what I’m here to do!

Normal service should resume shortly.  🙂

May 14, 2007

Someone takes matches to Mao

Filed under: China, Mao, Material culture/art & design, Protest — amyjaneb @ 6:08 pm

As reported by – amongst others – The Peking Duck, a 35 year old man, Gu Hai’ou, was arrested on Saturday afternoon after throwing a burning torch at the monumental portrait of Mao that overlooks Tiananmen Square. The authorities have said that Gu is mentally ill and he has been taken into custody. The portrait – a new version, which had only been on display since October last year – suffered a small scorch mark and has already been replaced. No other details have been released at present.

What fascinates me is how quickly the damaged portrait was replaced, suggesting that the Chinese authorities readily anticipate that, from time-to-time, people will take out their frustrations on the Great Helmsman.  Indeed, this isn’t the first time the portrait has been vandalised.  The last, most infamous occasion, occurred during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, when a group of three young men threw paint-filled eggs at Mao’s image.  The whole incident, and aftermath, has been documented in video by Kempton in Egging Chairman Mao.

Incidentally, the original painting on which the current Tiananmen portrait of Mao is based was set to be auctioned off last year, but internal pressure (i.e. ‘advice from the Government’) halted the sale.  It is now ensconced at the National Museum in Beijing.

May 13, 2007

Doing a PhD: Self-indulgent, or what?

Filed under: My research — amyjaneb @ 8:30 pm

That’s a question that’s been lingering in the back of my mind for a while.  I recognise that a lot of PhDs will make a difference, maybe even change the world, but I have serious doubts that my thesis will ever have such a positive effect.  So am I just being a little bit selfish and indulgent?  Could my time (and money) be spent more proactively in another way?  My old job – in Student Support – wasn’t exactly my chosen career, but it wasn’t horrible.  And I enjoyed making a difference to peoples’ lives, if only in a small way.  I think I might actually be missing that – having a social purpose, contributing to something larger than myself.  This PhD thing can be a jolly insular experience.  Perhaps I’m just thinking too much.  Hey, that’s my job, in a way.  Thinking and analysing and obsessing about stuff!

May 8, 2007

Contemporary Chinese art: Art market con?

Filed under: China, Exhibitions, Material culture/art & design — amyjaneb @ 5:59 pm

This article on Times Online by Waldemar Januszczak is more than a little sniffy about contemporary Chinese art. Ostensibly a review for ‘The Real Thing’ at Tate Liverpool, it’s really a diatribe against the contemporary art market.  In my opinion he’s kind of missing the point about a lot of the work being made by those artists educated in Communist art schools he’s so dismissive of. There’s more to these works than their aesthetic qualities, and I guess that reveals the major issue facing those of us studying political and propagandist ‘art’, and by extension, the works produced post-Mao. To many it can’t be art, design maybe, but not art. But I feel it is impossible to divorce works produced by Chinese artists from politics. Artists are, undoubtedly, pushing at the limitations the Chinese authorities are placing on them; idealistic maybe, but certainly courageous. Okay, I concede that these issues aren’t necessarily at the forefront of the minds of those snapping up contemporary Chinese art for inflated prices, but it’s still a important point to be aware of. Not least because it can offer an illuminatory perspective from which to critically analyse Chinese art.

And besides, why shouldn’t people buy what they like? Even if Januszczak’s ignorant but fabulously wealthy Japanese collectors, for example, aren’t into anything particularly avant-garde, who are we to judge…really? What does it matter? One could argue that the money would be better spent, but hey, one could say that about a lot of things. What is comes down to in the end is cultural snobbery. That Eurocentric idea that non-Europeans can’t/don’t produce great art, nor – for that matter – can recognise it.  As Clunas has identified in a couple of papers, there can – from the western art canon’s perspective, itself haunted by the spectre of colonialism and imperialist attitudes – be no ‘modern’ Chinese artists.  Either they are Chinese (in which case they produce what we understand as ‘traditional’ Chinese art) or ‘modern’ (wherein their nationality and ethnicity become irrelevant).  Clearly this is rubbish.

To give him some credit, Januszczak does go on to question the political ramifications of the nascent Chinese art market. He believes it plays into the hands of the Chinese authorities who are actively engaged in ‘hoodwinking’ the rest of the world. To an extent I would agree; the growing reputation and visibility of contemporary Chinese art can only help to improve the image of the Chinese state, especially when one considers the position of artists in Maoist China (and the general antipathy towards art produced during that period which I hinted of at the beginning of this post). To an extent an active art scene/market equals ‘civilisation’, thereby apparently helping to rehabilitate China in western minds. However, I think this is just another example of the naivety of the Chinese cultural authorities, who are unaware perhaps of the subtexts behind many of the works being produced in China today. I am reminded of a -perhaps apocryphal – story about the flourishing installation and performance art scene in China during the 1990s, which – during a number of crackdowns against more conventional artistic genres – got away with much more simply because it didn’t confirm to the narrow concept of ‘art’ recognised by the authorities.

He’s critical of the newly wealthy artists, but fails to recognise that they’re just engaging in what all Chinese are being called upon by their government to do, i.e. get rich quick.  But his comments also reveal another facet of the western idealisation of the artist as a tortured genius, an outsider rallying against the norm.  For him the ‘real’ artists were those he found struggling in hovels five years ago.  We mythologise artists like Van Gogh because of their unconventionality and because of their apparent compulsion to create great art against the odds, for the love of it, not for financial gain.  And this becomes part of their mystique.  We’re buying into failure and distress and illness, as much as the aesthetic qualities of the art he produced.  Who’s to say that had Van Gogh been more stable and a tad more successful in his lifetime, the western art historical canon would still privilege his works as masterpieces?

May 6, 2007

Transcribing interviews: Argh! What a nightmare!

Filed under: Interviews, Methodologies, My research, Web resources — amyjaneb @ 3:06 pm

I’ve just completed transcribing the recording of an interview which lasted 29 minutes.  It’s taken me about four hours over the past three days.  Still, I musn’t complain, because all the other interviews I’ve done so far have been by email, plus my interviewee gave me lots of useful info and new leads.  And , I guess transcribing it would have been a considerably more painful experience without my trusty transcription software.  I’ve been using this.

It works pretty well; you can rewind and slow down recordings using the function keys or the ‘dashboard’ controls, and best of all, it’s completely free!

I am so pleased my research doesn’t require me to do many, long interviews.  I have every sympathy and respect for my poor colleagues who have hours upon hours of recordings to transcribe and make sense of.  :S

May 4, 2007

Review: Asia in Western Fiction

Filed under: China, Images, My research, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 12:15 pm

Asia in Western Fiction
Robin W. Winks and James R. Rush (eds.)
Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 1990

So, I’ve just finished reading and making notes on the above, which is a useful survey of western literature which deals with Asia.  The particular sections I was interested in were Jonathan Spence’s ‘Chinese Fictions’ and C. Mary Turnbull’s ‘Hong Kong:  Fragrant harbour, city of sin and death’.  Both chapters deal predominantly with fiction from the early twentieth century.

The basis of Spence’s paper are six genres of western fiction dealing with China, which he identifies as:

  • The Chinese in China, i.e. works like Buck’s The Good Earth
  • Westerners in China
  • Overseas Chinese, which included characters like Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan
  • China as a focus for a political statement, i.e. literature that uses China as a mirror upon which to reflect the ills of western society – a continuation of a theme which has existed since the Enlightenment in western Europe.
  • Scholars of China
  • Internal Chinas

In this article Spence contributes little more than that already covered in The Chan’s Great Continent (in fact this paper predates the later and, perhaps, represents the initial phase of research that culminated in his book).  But he offers a useful way of thinking about western image-making of China in the first half of the twentieth century;  each genre appears to correlate with discrete sets of images of China.

Turnbull’s chapter focuses on Hong Kong, and particularly literature that takes as its theme ‘Westerners in China’, to coin one of Spence’s genre descriptors.  Inevitably, images of China act as a foil for Britain and the foreign inhabitants of the colony.  She argues that during the twentieth century, Hong Kong (which is, to be fair, out of the scope of my thesis for a range of reasons) was largely utilised as a trope for debauchery, crime and espionage.   Nationalist and later Communist China exists as a spectre of ‘otherness’ on the horizon.  Incidentally, Turnbull discusses W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, an adaptation of which is currently screening in cinemas (and on my ‘to watch’ list).

May 1, 2007

Museum of the Battle of Ideas

Filed under: Cuba, Memorials, Museums, Propaganda, Web resources — amyjaneb @ 9:33 pm

Cross-ref’d from The Attic:

For a little while now I’ve been meaning to do a round-up of interesting little snippets of information do to with museums and related issues which I’ve recently come across. Most are via Museum Anthropology.

First up is a review of the Museum of the Battle of Ideas in Cuba. As Michelle Tisdel Flikke reveals in her engaging essay, the Museum was set up by the Cuban government in the wake of the ideological battle with the US over the custody of Elian Gonzalez. What’s interesting about this particular institution, is that it appears to be, not only a manifestation of the mythologising of history as a necessary component of the development of national heritage, but also that it is dealing with a fairly recent event. As discussions on this blog in the past have revealed, there is usually a time-lag between events happening and and them becoming part of the master narrative of nation. Often, in the case of war or revolution or occupation, a period of reflection appears to be necessary in order for the wrangling between various interest groups and different voices to reach some sort of dominant view which becomes historical ‘fact’. However, here, it appears the Cuban government, unsurprisingly, pounced on the propaganda value of the incident almost immediately, immortalising their version of events in a museum (which as I’m sure we’re all aware by now, seems to have the effect – outwardly at least – of objectifying history). But, what perhaps transcends this museum’s most basic propagandist function, is the imaginative way in which the Gonzalez incident is tied to a much broader historical narrative of migration to and from Cuba from the nineteenth century. Not only that, the museum has become an epicentre for popular imaginings of nationhood, with thousands of artefacts donated from Cubans all around the world, many of which – according to Flikke – relate to the revolution and perceived acts of aggression on the Cuban people. The museum thus has become a site of remembrance, memorial (to Elian and his family) and a repository of ideas of Cuban identity and nationhood. Perhaps appropriately enough in this context, a museum of the people. Although as Flikke reveals, the absences and ‘silences’ in the overall narrative are profound.

Altogether the essay is, for me, a fascinating insight into the workings of museums and heritage in a communist state; an intriguing mix of stock socialist imagery (note the evocative sculpture of the boy casting away an imperialist doll), revolutionary propaganda versus what appears to be a genuine sense of ownership, identification and engagement with the museum and its themes by its audience.

Stalin’s bunker to become a museum

Filed under: Communist kitsch, Eastern Europe, Museums, Stalin, USSR — amyjaneb @ 9:28 pm

Found this via a Museum Studies email list.  Two things:

i)  the entertainment centre – strange juxtaposition.  Does it mean that Moscovites have genuinely ‘moved on, and consigned Stalin to the historical ‘dustbin’?  Or is this just another manifestation of commie kitsch or ostalgie (as it would be called in Germany)?

ii)  Moscow’s chief ‘digger”s comment

“The best solution would be to restore these facilities in their original shape and connect them by a common transportation system, and use them as a wonderful museum complex that would continue performing its strategic functions,” [by italics]

Isn’t that notion just a little bit bizarre? What ‘strategic functions’ could Stalin’s ex-bunker possibly perform in 2007? Especially if it was abandoned in the 80s. Nostalgia for the old regime, or future insight? Perhaps the real meaning is ‘lost in translation’.

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