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…

January 17, 2008

Making a mockery of Mao

According to the BBC, the French car marker, Citroen, has apologised for an advertisement featuring Mao which ran in the Spanish newspaper El Pais.  What I find interesting about this is the response of, presumably, young(er) commentators.  Given that their parents and grandparents are likely to have suffered to some extent during the Cultural Revolution, their support for Mao seems surprising.  Perhaps the unwillingness, or sheer inability (due to trauma and fear of repercussions) of the older generation to discuss the human aspects of the Cultural Revolution, has created a chasm between the experiences of those who lived through it, and the popular imagining of China under Mao?  Would a ‘remembrance’ museum of the Cultural Revolution make a difference?

December 27, 2007

Mao suits and revolutionary dress

Here’s a fascinating little online exhibition from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney that charts the development of Chinese revolutionary dress, and in particular the Mao suit (zhifu).  It’s part of a larger virtual exhibition entitled Evolution and Revolution: Chinese dress 1700s-1990s.  Check out the page on the sartorial ideology of the Cultural Revolution as well.  When I was  much younger I desperately wanted to be a costume historian when I grew up.  Perhaps there’s still a chance!

(Via The Museum of Online Museums)

Modern Mao papercuts

To commemorate the Great Helmsman’s 114th birthday, Wu Suizhou, whom CCTV describes as a ‘folk artist’, has produced a set of papercuts.  The photographs on the CCTV website aren’t very clear (Xinhua is better), but it looks like he has chosen classic propagandist modes of representations of Mao and other communist icons as his models.  Indeed, there’s nothing very new here.  In the bottom right-hand corner in black is a papercut showing Mao, Lenin, Marx and Engels in profile.  This is a copy of similar papercuts available during the Cultural Revolution.  (The British Museum and Musee du Quai Branly have examples in their collections.)

July 21, 2007

More Mao kitsch

…this time available from Good Orient.  Isn’t the featured messenger bag, the one that got Cameron Diaz in so much trouble recently?  Just goes to show the wealth of connotations this sort of material engenders.

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 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.

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…

March 30, 2007

Round up

A quick round up of interesting things caught floating about in the blogosphere recently.

Exhibition of twentieth-century Chinese toys (from Jottings From the Granite Studio)

During the Japanese invasion of the 1930s, war-related toys such as fighter planes, tanks and soldiers dominated production,. Later on, toys were often used as a propaganda tool. This was especially true during the Cultural Revolution.

“Beside Mao-suit-clad dolls, you can find cars with political slogans, and building block cubes with propaganda scenes on them,” said Man Wing Sing, a Chinese antique toy collector. Among the toys made in the ’60s, the most valuable in the museum’s collection is the “Liberate Taiwan” game.

Chan, who has done extensive research on the subject, points to a distinctive change in style for toys pre- and post-1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established. “Before the 1950s, the toy designs are very influenced by Europeans, but after, the toys have a more Oriental feel to their patterns and design,” he noted.

Manufacturers started incorporating more modern technology in the ’50s, using battery-operated controls, magnetic control, sound and light controls. (From the International Herald Tribune article that the writer of ‘Jottings’ – himself a China studies PhD himself – links to.)

Jottings also links to Sinocidal’s bitingly satirical timeline of Chinese history. I particularly the appreciate the verity behind this entry:

1949: After years of civil war, Japanese invasion, and national humiliation, a giant poster of Mao gains control of China. The giant poster wields power through an army of smaller, photocopied, versions of itself, and promises to rid all China of stamps featuring Queen Victoria and placards of Chiang Kai-Shek. The giant poster of Mao is head of the Chinese Communist Party, which at the time was the biggest, and probably the best, Communist Party in the whole world.

Jeremiah writing at The Peking Duck asks whether the kitschy use of Mao’s image is morally and ethically justifiable (I particularly like the last sentence from this extract; ‘Can you de-fang a tyrant by turning him into kitsch?’ sounds like the title of a great thesis chapter to me!):

The CCP came up with the rather neat figure of 70% correct and 30% incorrect. But how does one split a canvas 70/30? Does this mean it is okay to wear a silkscreened Mao t-shirt 70% of the time? Does it mean the next time I’m at Panjiayuan Market in Beijing, I should ask for a 30% discount on a Mao cigarette lighter that plays “Dong Fang Hong” when it lights? Can you de-fang a tyrant by turning him into kitsch or does that trivialize the horrors he perpetrated?

Finally, a review of a contemporary detective novel, the theme of which deals with China in transition, written by a Chinese author and now available in translation here (that should please those commentators complaining about the lack of non-victim/non-culture clash Chinese fiction available in English).

More interesting snippets soon…

March 22, 2007

Mao, Mao, Mao and yet more Mao

Grow a brain has a nice little collection of miscellaneous Mao-related links, including more stuff from The East is Red, some examples of contemporary commie kitsch and something I can genuinely say I haven’t seen before…ketchup art! (As well as some rotten poetry by the man himself).

(I’m trying to catch up on reading at the moment – so don’t expect any intellectual musings for a while, until I’ve had a chance to digest all this stuff!)

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