Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

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

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.)

December 22, 2007

More ethical concerns about Mao kitsch

Leading on from yesterday’s post, and also featuring a link which has sat overlooked on my desktop for far too long, is this blog post about the draw of Mao (and ‘Commie’) kitsch in both China and the West.  Also features a link to a small exhibition of Mao memorabilia held during 1998-1999, which I hadn’t previously come across.

I don’t feel there’s much point trying to analyse these posts too much.  They sum up my feelings about the appropriation of Communist iconography in popular cultural contexts perfectly.  Though, I have to admit, I bought a (reproduction) Mao badge in the British Museum shop last week.  Let’s call it ‘research’.  😉

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.  🙂

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?

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).

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 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!)

March 20, 2007

Cafe Mao

What goes through the mind of someone who names their chain of ‘funky’ and ‘minimalist’ (I’m quoting from online reviews here) cafes after a dictator who killed more of his own people than Stalin?

Cafe Mao

It’s fascinating how differently we approach the iconography of communism and fascism.  And, for that matter, Soviet Communism and, say, that of China or Cuba.  I guess the ideology – the concepts of equality, a united workforce, shared ownership and community – of Marxism/communism continues to capture the popular imagination.  Its attraction is so compelling that people can look past the reality of daily life under communist regimes.  And I also imagine that while Soviet Russia was just too close to home, too much of a threat to the West during the 1950s and 1960s, China and Cuba (not in the US) remained just distant enough (spatially and ideologically) to develop a veneer of ‘cool’.  Plus, as far as Mao is concerned, the closed nature of China allowed the myth, that he had created a socialist utopia, to perpetuate (until his death and the arrest of the Gang of Four), while Khruschev had – through his criticisms of Stalin – fundamentally destroyed any western illusions of life in the USSR. 

But, in hindsight, we know how disastrous the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were, so why does this idea of Mao as a benign paternal figure perpetuate in western subcultural (and increasing popcultural) contexts?  Is it because people – especially those students/intellectuals who bought into the whole Maoism thing in the 1960s and 1970s cannot face to have their illusions shattered, once again?*  As Heath and Potter discuss in their book The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, it is these very people who have gone on to work in the creative industries that promote and repackage subcultural coolness for a mass audience.  And, as the well heeled ‘movers and shakers’ of industry, they themselves constitute a key demographic for marketers. 

Hmmmmm – methinks this has given me lots of things to think about…

* For example, the vitriolic response to Jung Chang’s recent, and oft criticised, biography of Mao, by Sinologists and other intellectuals in the field, did smack of petulance to a certain extent (IMHO!).  It was like they couldn’t bear the thought of their image of Mao – which formed, perhaps, the basis and catalyst of their academic careers – being shown to be an illusion.

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