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.  🙂

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September 1, 2007

The East is Red…as a study tool

I’ve decided it is about time I tackled this blinking thesis.  So, in an attempt to promote an appropriate frame of mind, this afternoon I have been listening to The East is Red.  Loud, ambitious and unstintingly bombastic, not to mention really quite barmy, it’s done the trick.  I managed to brain storm section 2 of my thesis.  Hurrah for choirs and cymbals and China for bringing forth a Mao Zedong (the latter said with a tinge of irony, of course)!  You can download the whole shebang – all two hours worth – from emusic.

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 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 – indeed – communist 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…

March 7, 2007

Is Communism Good for the Arts?

I love the Internet.  I love trailing little references here and there like bunnies down rabbit holes, and finding great stuff with just a little bit of digging.  This is a real gem.

Is Communism Good for the Arts?  Radio programme on-demand, from WNYC New York Public Radio (5th March 2007)
32 mins

A very useful discussion of the arts and communism, with a focus on traditional and classical music, in the Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution-era China and Fidel’s Cuba.  A quick, fairly off-the-cuff review follows:

On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, this discussion reflects on seriousness with which communism has taken the arts.  Reminds me of comments made by a curator whom I recently met, who had studied Chinese political history at university in the US; a course which omitted discussion of the arts, despite their central position (as ‘cogs and wheels’) in the ideology of the communist state.  So, it’s encouraging that a serious arts programme thought to treat communism culture as a valid subject for discussion.

The programme began with a focus on classical music under Stalin, with the musicologist Solomon Volkov’s assertion that in the USSR, propaganda art could still be ‘real’ art, at least in the realm of classical music, under Stalin, providing it met the ideological functions of the state and that Stalin personally liked the work.  Otherwise it would be deemed ‘formalist’ and it’s composer shipped off to Siberia.  Volkov felt that under Stalin there were similarities between the cultural sphere of the USSR and the relationship between Renaissance artists and their patrons.  He made the useful assertion that all culture – even today, in capitalist societies, operates as state propaganda to an extent (willingly or otherwise).  This put me in mind of ‘Cool Britannia’ and the explicit links that New Labour made between itself as a ‘social movement’, or a force for change in Britain and the development of the YBAs, Britpop, etc during the mid-90s.  For a time, Britain was sold to the rest of the world through it’s culture, so – yes – to a degree it operated as propaganda for the new government.  Good point from Volkov there.  😉

To an extent, he felt that today in Russia, the propagandist works of composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, are accepted as great art, despite the political influence on their production.  He feels that sufficient time has passed to consider them objectively as historical documents perhaps.  Up pops that historical time-lag again, which seems to be psychologically necessary for people to deal with the heritage of the recent past.

The discussion then moved to Cultural Revolution-era China.  Bright Sheng, the US-based composer, who himself was sent down to the countryside at the age of 15, but because of his musical talent avoided physical labour, gave a brief overview of the role of Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) in the control of the arts.  He felt that she had an obvious, but – of course – unstated taste for western romantic classical music, which he feels one can detect in the Eight Model Operas, for example.  While everything was sloganised and heavily referenced traditional Chinese opera, he describes the musical output of the CultRev as a ‘strange hybrid’.  This is an interesting point.  Once again it highlights the hypocrisy of the ideologies supposedly behind the CultRev: while ostensibly ridding China of bourgeois, capitalist influence, it was a pretence.  Because the western influence remained.  The same could be said for propaganda posters of the era – while they bear the influence of traditional nianhua prints, they are essentially a continuation of the aesthetic ideas of the woodblock prints of the Lu Xun/’May 4th’-inspired 1920s and 1930s, which was itself rooted in the style and ideologies of European artists like Kathe Kollwitz.

Sheng revealed that while he was restricted in the performances he could make as a pianist, he was able to largely self-direct his learning privately through the works of Chopin and Mozart.  Again, this adds weight to my impresion that the CultRev was, to a large degree, all show.  It was about the superficiality of the performance, rather than the practice (if that makes sense?), the CultRev operated through the control of individual’s outward expression.

Sheng himself has composed two works based on his experiences of the Cultural Revolution, ‘Madame Mao’, an opera and ‘Hun’ (Lacerations), which he described as a ‘musical memoir of the Cultural Revolution’, and his most angry piece he has ever written.  While he had never before believed in catharsis through artistic expression, he says that was, for him,  the ultimate outcome of writing the piece; it helped to get rid of a lot of anger, which he hadn’t previously realised was there.

Volkov and Sheng went on to discuss the role of the arts in communism.  Volkov felt that it had a lot to do with the personality of the leader, i.e. Stalin – as a ‘connoisseur’ of the arts – understood the propaganda potential of culture.  And of course, art and performance played a central role in the earliest pro-communist propaganda campaigns in China.  But culture was also an indicator of strength and power.  The presenter offered a link between culture in Russia and the development of sport in the GDR.  In a similar fashion, Sheng felt that the Eight Model Operas were Jiang Qing’s ‘claim to fame’.  He then went on to make a really crucial point, I believe, that these operas have not been forgotten in China, largely because – in his opinion – for people of his generation they constitute the only culture that they grew up with, so remembering them is largely a ‘nostalgia thing’.  That ties in very well with the paper I referred to the other day in my discussion with Mary about communist relics, which discusses the sensual recollection of socialism facilitated by the Grutas Sculptural Park in Lithuania.

The discussion then moved on to Cuba – which is a slightly different ‘kettle of fish’, so I won’t linger too much on that here.  However, the writer Robin Moore, did offer a (persuasive) argument for why the arts are so important to communist regimes, and why they have to be so closely watched:  Whereas in capitalist society people have financial incentives to go about their daily lives, in socialist societies basic domestic needs, healthcare and education are largely taken care of by the State, so moral incentives are needed instead to keep people ‘on target’.  This means ideas are more highly prioritised in communist states than in capitalist societies.  But it also means that the artistic community has to be more closely monitored.

Finally, the dicussion was brought to close with the guests’ predications for the future.  In China, Sheng felt that the arts were following the US lead – largely commercialised, and pretty free, so long as political themes were avoided.  In 10-20 years,  he could foresee a cultural renaissance happening in China as a result.  However, although communism has poured money into culture, he felt that overall it has been a ‘bad thing’ for the arts in China, because it ‘stopped creativity’.  But, as the presenter said in conclusion, ‘ideas are hard to kill’.

February 19, 2007

Revolutionary trance music

This is quite bizarre.  Found it via Free Albums Galore while ‘tag surfing’ China. Ostensibly the people behind ‘Red Unit‘ are Chinese and sampling revolutionary music dating from the Cultural Revolution. But the discussion on Global Noise Offline suggests this is actually a Japanese project.  So, why the subterfuge?  Why pretend to be Chinese?  Is it satire?  Is it commie kitsch?  Is it youthful (if misguided) enthusiasm for ‘the revolution’?  Either way, a really interesting appropriation of the material culture of revolutionary China, especially coming from Japan, given the current poor state of relations between the two nations.

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