Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

October 19, 2007

The Red Detachment of Women (1970)

I’ve been neglecting this blog recently.  Mainly because my final year has crept up on me, and the ensuing panic has caused me to devote a little more time to actually writing-up my damn thesis!  But I have been watching The Red Detachment of Women on DVD (in two sittings – the casts’ endless ‘determined fists’ get a little wearing after a while!).

Well, I can see why this and the other revolutionary operas were so appealing to audiences.  I know very little about ballet, but the performance of the cast is clearly dazzling (unsurprising given the harsh regime meted out by studios – read Anchee Min’s Red Azalea for more details), the score is rousing and colours vivid (and of course, red predominates).  Added to that is the fact that there would have been very little ‘entertainment’ available during the Cultural Revolution, making the opportunity to see a film – regardless of its propagandist content – a real treat.

The story is a fairly formulaic, gender-role reversed take on good vs. evil; girl escapes from dastardly landlord, hero saves girl, girl joins the Red Army (okay, that’s not in the vein of most classic stories!), girl leads her detachment into battle, hero is injured but survives only to be captured by evil landlord, girl single-handedly does for evil landlord and saves the hero, the masses are liberated by the victorious Red Army, etc, etc,.  Added to that is the propagandist sub-plot, i.e. join the Red Army, it’ll be fantastic.  You’ll have a great time (much like the adverts for the forces currently shown on TV!), plenty to eat and the locals will think you’re great!  Plus, if you’re a woman, you’ll get to wear a natty knee-length shorts with leg warmers combo (a sartorial choice which had no – as far as I am aware – basis in reality).  A half-arsed attempt at ‘sexing’ up the film to appeal to the masses, perhaps?  Seems a rather bizarre decision for the costume designers to take, given that they were working in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, with its emphasis on androgyny and desexualisation of women.  Still, having said that, cultural supremo, Jiang Qing, was a rather peculiar woman herself.

Of course, Mao’s famous proclamation that ‘women hold up half of the sky’ is the basis for this tale, and – perhaps – for the reversal of roles between the male and female heroes. In many ways it is a celebration of women; overcoming the barriers, restrictions and mistreatment imposed upon by men (some men – not their enlightened male comrades in the Red Army, of course).

 Another interesting aspect of the film I’ve noted, refers back to Bright Sheng’s comments in the radio interview I’ve blogged about before.  The strange mixing of traditional and Western elements in the production of these revolutionary ballets, which seems at odds with the ethos behind the diktats imposed on practitioners working in other creative fields.  The influence of Western ballet is unmistakable here, as is the only slight adaptation (the inclusion of occasional ‘bursts’ from traditional Chinese instruments) of Western classical music for the score.

Anyway, back to the film itself… I’m not certain how available this, and the other revolutionary operas are in Britain.  This copy came from China.  Thankfully, this is where YouTube, as a research tool, excels

The heroine escapes and hides in the forest from the landlord’s henchmen:

After suffering a brutal beating at the hands of the landlord’s henchmen, the heroine stumbles upon a detachment of the army…

An ensemble piece which follows the detachment’s assault on the landlord’s compound:

Enjoy!

Oh, and finally, I should apologise for the rather strange appearance of Cogs and Wheels at the moment.  I’m working on a re-design.  🙂

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?

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 22, 2007

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.

April 15, 2007

Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works

Writing of documentary films, I have to see this, not least because it seems to have been highly contentious for the Director’s (Yan Ting Yuen) decision to avoid dwelling too much on the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and focusing instead on the kitsch value of the model operas, albeit with the constant haunting presence of Jiang Qing (aka Madame Mao) who provides a voice over (fictional, but based on her biography) from beyond the grave.

More info here (Guardian article) and here (official film ‘presskit’ -pdf file).

And there’s a podcast of a Q&A session with Yuen available here in which she discusses the difficulties associated with gaining interviews with the original performers, filming in China, recreating the Yang Ban Xi for the musical segments and the rehabilitation of the once banned operas and their growing popularity in China in recent years. Well worth a listen.

Young and old alike seem fascinated by the Yang Ban Xi operas. When the operas are revived on stage today, both parents and their children flock to see them. Teenagers, Yuen says, regard them as “fun and campy – they look at the operas with so much irony. They like them but they laugh about them.”

Yuen is not apologetic in the slightest about tackling a seismic moment in Chinese history with “a big, big wink”. “You just have to look at the Yang Ban Xis with irony,” Yuen insists. “It’s like with Leni Riefenstahl. She is completely taboo, but nobody denies that she made perfect, beautiful art.”

(Guardian Unlimited, 4th March 2005)

So, the Chinese find it as ‘easy’ to ignore the ideological baggage of CultRev material culture as westerners, though I’m sure it goes without saying that the younger and older generations approach and mentally process this material from radically different perspectives.

In the podcast, Yuen makes the same points as Bright Sheng, i.e. Jiang’s appropriation of western forms (despite the attendent ideological issues) in devising the operas, and the nostalgia value of the Yuan Ban Xi for those that grew up with them. She also discusses how the failure of the Chinese Government to deal effectively with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution has left the post-CultRev generation bereft of education about this period, meaning that they too – like westerners – have few points of reference from which to fully appraise the true political and cultural significance of the Yuan Ban Xi, and other aspects of CultRev material culture.

Problem is I can’t find a copy of the film on sale in the UK and I’m really not 100% certain that region 1 DVDs will work on player. Do I take the risk? That’s a rhetorical question btw, I don’t expect an answer!

All this talk of the 8 Model Works and Jiang Qing also reminds me that I’ve been meaning to write a post about former revolutionary opera performer Anchee Min’s brilliant autobiography Red Azalea for quite some time (something to add to the ‘to do’ list).

Though I Am Gone: Cultural Revolution Documentary

Filed under: Censorship, China, Cultural Revolution, Film — amyjaneb @ 7:32 pm

Via Danwei and loads of other blogs is this Chinese-made documentary about Bian Zhongyun, supposedly the first teacher to be beaten to death (by her female students) during the Cultural Revolution.*  The documentary has attracted attention, not just for its powerful subject matter, but because its inclusion in a film festival in Yunnan lead to the event’s cancellation by the Chinese authorities.

The whole documentary, with English-language subtitles, is available in ten parts on You Tube.  I’ve only had a chance to view the first part so far (via the Citizen of Philadelphia blog), but I’ll definitely make the time to watch the rest over the next couple of days.

*In an addendum to the Danwei post Geramie Barme suggests that Bian was neither the first teacher killed, nor that she was beaten to death (though she was clearly beaten).  But that her death remains notorious, probably in no small part due to her husband’s efforts to document her death and the events and persecution she suffered leading up to it.

March 6, 2007

Stuff available on YouTube on a Cultural Revolution theme

I’m really frustrated – I found a link to a download of Antonioni’s (1972) Chung Kuo (‘China’) via this blog.  (There’s some background info about the film there too.) I downloaded it, but I can’t play it – argh!  Nevertheless, there is a small section available (in Italian with Chinese subtitles) on YouTube.  And it got me thinking about blogging about the other Cultural Revolution-related stuff I’ve found on YouTube recently.  So, here’s a quick overview…

To start, here is that clip of Chung Kuo, focusing on Tiananmen Square

Shame my Italian is non-existent. Will have to work on recognising those characters! (If anyone knows what I need to do in order to get the download to play, please do let me know.)

And this is an all too short extract from Red Detachment of Women. (There’s a serious ‘technicolor’ effect going on here.)

Finally, a short film about theThe Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, featuring contemporary film clips, stills and material culture from the Cultural Revolution. The narration presents an…ahem… ‘uncritical’, shall we say, perspective of the decade 1966-1976. (There are, incidentally, no clues about its authorship, or indeed whether it was made especially for YouTube.)

That’s enough for now. I’m sure there’s loads more good stuff on YouTube though. I shall invest a little time in ‘digging’ and present my findings in due course. 🙂

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….

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