Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

August 6, 2008

Hamlet Goes to Anyuan

It may be because I’m mired in CultRev art, but I can’t help but see a marked similarity between RSC publicity for David Tennant’s Hamlet, and Mao Goes to Anyuan…


November 3, 2007


The BM is stealing my ideas!!!¬† ūüėȬ†

Seriously, could be an absolutely fascinating exhibition if it comes off.

October 6, 2007

A Soviet Poster A Day

Filed under: Images, Material culture/art & design, Propaganda, USSR — amyjaneb @ 9:39 pm

A Soviet Poster A Day is a great little blog; simple, yet offers a very effective way of presenting propaganda posters to external and non-specialist audience.¬† In particular I concur with the comments in the¬†introduction, that…

¬†…every Soviet Poster has a historical reference essential for understanding the layers of meanings it carries through time.

Which is, of course, so true for propaganda posters and political art more widely, i.e. that we can appreciate these posters as examples of graphic design, but to really understand them, as their original audience would have done,¬†we need also to consider them as historical documents, and¬†have access to¬†contextualising information (be it interpretive, or historical text; film; oral history recordings, etc).¬† We need to be able to decipher the symbolism, ‘get’ the cultural or political references, ‘read’ the slogan.¬† Something exhibition designers could do well to remember!

August 9, 2007

I am still here…really

I’m writing a couple of book reviews at the moment. They’re sapping ALL my creative strength. Until normal transmission resumes, here’s an interlude…

(Found here)

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 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).

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 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.

April 15, 2007

Revolution is Not a Garden Party

I’ve been bad.¬† Rather than finishing the¬†books I’ve already got on the go, I’ve done a ‘Stasiland’and picked up something else instead.¬† However, I have a good excuse.¬† A family bereavement just before Easter has left me feeling fairly ‘numb’.¬†But I’m not going to beat myself up about abandoning schedules and reading plans .¬† I’m just going to read/write whatever appeals for however long it takes.¬† At least that way I’ll continue to make progress, if a little haphazardly.

Anyway, back to the publication in question: Revolution is Not a Garden Party – the catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition of the same name currently on display at the Norwich Gallery (which I missed the chance – through no fault of my own – to see.¬† I’m still seething!).

Taking Mao’s famous quote and applying it to the legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, the organisers have gathered together a collection of contemporary (Eurocentric)¬†works and installations that consider ‘the resonances of social and political revolution’.¬† So, while there’s little (despite the title) tieing the exhibition to China, the essays and responses to the works compiled in the catalogue have provided me with a few ideas and pointers for my own research and a list of theorists to investigate; Deleuze, Levinas and Guattari.

One particular installation which caught my eye (though – of course – I’ve only seen it on paper and on the Internet, dammit!) is Sanja Ivekovic’s ‘Figure and Ground’ and the response to it written by Dora Hegyi.

Revolution is Not a Garden Party Flyer (see second page of the pdf for excerpt)

Ivekovic has taken a series of fashion shots produced for the Face in 2001 and juxtaposed them with photo-journalist images of terrorists¬†published in Der Speigel in the same year.¬† The models are clothed in a ‘terrorist look’ without consideration of the ideological meaning behind the reality.¬† Hegyi argues that through these images (which are, despite the connotations, really quite beautiful – I’m totally inspired by the slash of red eye shadow sported by the model featured in the exhibition flyer) consumers are encouraged to identify with the terrorist as ‘hero’.¬† In my opinion the associations are little more fuzzy and less fixed than that.¬† I doubt these visual references were used in as considered a manner as that.¬† Surely the¬†representations employed by¬†the¬†stylist and photographer¬†have more to do with¬†an enduring image of rebellion, the outsider,¬†the individual rallying¬†against the norm/society?¬†¬†¬†¬† I’m immediately put in mind of the Manic Street Preachers’ infamous performance of ‘Faster’ on Top of the Pops. Which is sadly no longer available on YouTube and so I can’t share it here (though it is featured on the DVD which accompanies the 10th anniversary edition of ‘The Holy Bible’).¬† Anyway, it featured James Dean Bradfield in a balaclava on a stage set inspired by Irish paramilitary stylings, replete with burning torches.¬† Still – supposedly – the catalyst for the most complaints ever received by the BBC in the shortest period of time.¬†Hurrah for the Manics!¬†

Hegyi does go on to make the point that in these images, fashion is making a [superficial] connection between freedom and terrorism [without recourse to the ideological baggage of course].  Though, it has to be said, in the case of the Manic Street Preachers, the images they invoked through the appropriation of paramilitary and Рindeed Рcommunist iconography in the mid-1990s carried considerably more power and shock-value than they might today.  The overall effect was really quite seditious and menacing at the time; the IRA had not yet announced its ceasefire and the menacing spectre of communism in western imaginings remained fresh, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR.

I appear – as ever – to have gone off on a bit of a tangent…

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