Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

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.

April 20, 2007

Books: recent purchases

Filed under: Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 8:41 pm

I’ve been plugging away at catching up on some reading this week, hence my relative silence.  But I have bought a couple of books from Abebooks, which is always exciting. 

The first is a reprint of Isaacs’ Scratches On Our Minds, which I enjoyed so much when I got it on inter-Library loan, I just had to buy a copy.

The second is a copy of The Wrath of the Serfs, published by the Foreign Languages Press in 1976 (it’s as old as me!).  It’s a catalogue of the life-size tableaux created towards the end of the Cultural Revolution to propagate the official CCP version of life in pre-‘liberation’ Tibet, in a similar vein to the earlier Rent Collector’s Courtyard

Looking forward to reading both, though I intend to get the rest of my ‘books on the go’ out of the way first!

What was particularly notable about the latter was that the box it was packaged in had been opened by US Customs.  Not only that, it looked like they’d chucked it about a bit.  Was all battered and bent and squashed.  Luckily the book was well protected and undamaged.  Why did my innocent little parcel attract all this attention?  I can only think it was flagged up for investigation because it was sent to me by ‘Revolution Books’ based in Chicago.  Honestly, haven’t they got more important things to worry about?!

April 13, 2007

I’m back and ‘Stasiland’: a review

Filed under: Eastern Europe, GDR, Memorials, Museums, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 10:52 pm

I got back to Leicester this afternoon and immediately set to work.  No, not really – my brain is still very much elsewhere.  This is where blogging comes in. I find it a really useful way of getting back in ‘the swing of things’. 

While I was away, I abandoned the other books I’d been reading and settled down with my second-hand copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, as recommended to me by Mary.  It was great – obviously it’s a personal account/reflection on post-1989 Berlin and the fall of communism, but – as it’s based around a series of personal testimonies recorded by Funder in interviews with Stasi victims and operatives alike – it offers a good introduction to the subject from a ‘human’ perspective.  Funder’s writing style is warm and engaging, and the stories she presents equally moving and disturbing.

I want to single out a few points which correspond with my research.  In particular Funder’s personal reflections on the various museums/memorials related to the Berlin Wall, communist Germany and the Stasi , and their visitors, are richly descriptive and considered, reflecting my thoughts that – to a large extent – the memorialising of locations, such as the Stasi HQ, serve to contain the memories, experiences and power associated with the old regime.  But they also lend an authenticity to the documents and artefacts to the objects housed within them, something which visitors clearly value.   In a particularly illuminating passage Funder contrasts the brand new, but soulness – and, more crucially – sparsely visited (at least in her telling) Contemporary History Forum in Leipzig, with the ‘real deal’, the Runde Ecke (the Stasi HQ in Leipzig). (Incidentally, in her comment on my post about communist relics, Mary picked out a telling passage from this section of the book.)  In addition, there is a suggestion that the museumfication process heralds the death-knell of the ideology of the regime.  Miriam, a correspondent of Funder’s who ‘haunts’ the narrative throughout, expresses great satisfaction at the conversion of the Runde Ecke into a museum.  For her it represents a triumph over the regime (p. 46).  The survival of such sites – though much contested, by various ‘interest groups’ in the former GDR – into post-communist Berlin and Germany are clearly vitally important to several committed ‘activists’,  whom are simply not prepared to allow the unified nation of Germany to forget what happened in the GDR. 

Finally, Funder documents the ostalgie for and tourist kitsch related to the Berlin Wall. She describes hawkers of spurious relics: ‘genuine’ pieces of the wall, communist memorabilia and cheap GDR-themed souvenirs, who continue to peddle their wares despite the increasing ‘sanitisation’ of communist Germany, represented most iconically by the Berlin Wall, of which very little now remains in situ.

Overall, the impression one gets from Funder is of a country – for many residents (or at least those interviewed by Funder) still appear to consider themselves as Other from the ‘Wessis’ – struggling to find the best way of dealing with the legacy of communism and negotiating Kapitalismus.  It’s a great read, which – I’m sure – will continue to resonate with me for some time.

April 1, 2007

Books on the go

Filed under: My research, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 7:17 pm

I’ve already got a ‘to read’ page on this blog, but I thought what would be really useful, really motivating, would be to keep a record of books that I am currently reading.  That way I should embarrass myself out of my current state of lazy torpor and actually get on with this research business, and when I tick each one off the list I can write a quick review (which can go towards my literature review). So, what follows is a list of every book I’m currently in the process of reading (this includes things I started AGES ago, but still haven’t finished):

The Chan’s Great Continent
Jonathan Spence

The Order of Things
Michel Foucault

Orientalism: History, theory and the arts
John Mackenzie
(I’m actually re-reading this one.)

Mao’s Last Revolution
Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
(This is – believe it or not – my bedtime reading.  Yes, I am a strange girl.)

It’s Vintage Darling: how to be a clothes connoisseur
Christa Weil

Meditation for Dummies
Stephan Bodian

Of course, this list doesn’t include the mass of articles and journal papers I have to read.  :S   Here’s hoping I can make some headway over the next couple of weeks.

March 26, 2007

Cultural Revolution ‘Victim’ Literary Genre: A publishing phenomenon

Filed under: China, Cultural Revolution, Publications, Weblinks, Writing — amyjaneb @ 9:32 pm

This reviewer for the Taipei Times makes some interesting points about the increasing number of autobiographies published by survivors of the Cultural Revolution.  I take issue with his comment ‘Why are there so many books about Chinese nightmares, and why are they all published in America?’, because – of course, they aren’t just published in America, nor written by Chinese now living in the US (Jung Chang is the obvious example to the contrary).  But his next point:

 Is this some aspect of an on-going New Cold War, a veiled propaganda campaign waged through the corridors of literature? Books about the delights of life in the People’s Republic are certainly hard to come by.

This is not to say that the tribulations visited on millions by China’s Red Guards are a figment of anyone’s imagination. The evidence is far too extensive, and the testimony of survivors too similar. No, it’s not the phenomenon itself that’s in any doubt, but rather the motives of those who flood the market with accounts of those terrible years. History has undoubtedly provided the ammunition, but who’s firing the guns, and at whom?

– followed by his comment on the formalaeic ‘plot’ and inevitable stereotyped ‘characters’ that seem to turn up in these accounts on a regular basis:

Even so, this book is part of a distinct modern literary genre, a tale of Cultural Revolution woes, both lived through and finally escaped from. All the stereotypes are here — the wicked petty tyrant (in this case Old Crab, the local “team leader” and the only Communist Party member in a small village), a populace happy to chant “Your plans to restore a bourgeois society have been revealed and smashed” one day and something close to the opposite the next, Western literary classics hidden under mattresses and treasured as bulwarks against the Red Guard onslaught, senior academics being made to crawl through the mud to collect animal droppings, the persecution of “black” (as oppose to “red”) families and their eventual banishment to remote mountain areas, and the meeting up of the hero with some kindred spirit (who invariably also has Western books secreted about his person).

– hints, I think at a possible reason for the popularity of such books.  They confirm what us Westerners think we know about the PRC, i.e. that it is bad; a totalitarian nightmare wherein individuality is suppressed and freedom – as we understand it – does not exist.  But they are also similar to those age old stories of the eventual triumph of good versus evil, of overcoming hardship, that probably exist in all cultures at all periods of history, and must therefore reflect a deep human need.  So, perhaps the focus on the Cultural Revolution is simply time-specific.  Similar themes will continue to exist in literature even after the reading public, and perhaps more pertinently, the publishing world has tired of the Cultural Revolution and moved onto the next big human interest theme.

Battlepanda takes a slightly different tack in their post about the same review:

I would really like to see some books in English by Chinese writers that isn’t about their experiences in the cultural revolution or novels about defiant young woman growing up in a oppressive culture (or both). And I would like to see some books in English by Chinese-American writers that’s not about the clash of cultures between their mother’s generation and their’s.

While I agree that Chinese writers are, perhaps, ‘ghettoised’ by English-language publishers, personally I feel it is a little unfair to solely blame writers for these trends.  As they go on to say, but perhaps don’t fully appreciate, publishers hold sway – obviously – in what gets published and what doesn’t.  There may well be (and I’m sure there are) Chinese and Chinese-American authors out there writing sci-fi and romance and crime fiction, but even if it’s good, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will get published.  Fiscal justifications probably always win out over artistic merit.  Publishers will be aware of the enormous success of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans for example and, just like the market was flooded with ‘chick-lit’ in the wake of Bridget Jones’ Diary, theywill undoubtedly perceive a ready-market for similar books for all the reasons I’ve suggested above.

Having said all that I think it is important to consider that, just like how a fair proportion of artists and filmmakers in China use their work to literally ‘work through’ and come to terms with the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s legacy by making use of their own experiences, or those of their parents’ generation, Chinese authors might be driven for the same reasons.  I can’t think of any examples of the top of my head, but there must be parallels to be found in other parts of the world which have experienced war, social and political upheaval, etc.  Simply put, the Cultural Revolution was a big deal, which continues to haunt China and its people.  And while the PRC tries to avoid dealing with its social, political and cultural legacy, it’s hardly surprising that writers will use their art to explore the collective experience.

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.

March 18, 2007

Mao badges

Continuing the theme of my last post, I came across this online collection of Mao badges.  In his blog, the collector says:

I buy a bunch every time I go to China, adding them to the ones I started wearing as a teenager in the late 1960s.

There are two interesting points here. 

i)  he adds to his collection each time he goes to China.  It’s got to be assumed, therefore, that a large proportion are reproductions;

ii) he began collecting and wearing the badges as a teenager in the 60s.  This is really interesting, because, for my research, I am collecting examples of the contemporaeous appropriation of CultRev material culture in the West.

As I suggested in my last post, reproductions of CultRev material culture satisfy a ready market for revolutionary ‘exotica’.  Presumably much of this is purchased by tourists and collectors outside China (though, of course, there are examples of Chinese collectors – see Jennifer Hubbert’s paper – though it appears that they collect for very different reasons than Westerners).  But does it really matter if the objects they purchase are genuine artefacts or not?  I suppose, so long as they haven’t been mislead, it doesn’t.   But a quick look at Ebay suggests that some sellers of supposedly genuine CultRev material are less than scrupulous.

March 10, 2007

Inside Red China

Filed under: China, Images, Mao, Propaganda, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 10:29 pm

Have been concentrating on finalising my research seminar presentation and revising for my Chinese exam on Tuesday for the last couple of days, but have been catching up with all my blog feeds and alerts this evening.

This review of Nym Wales’* Inside Red China (1939) caught my eye, not least because I haven’t got hold of a copy of it yet.  In particular Amandina’s comment –

And when she started devoting the second half of the book to women in the revolution, one literally gets infused with the sense of purpose that the book speaks of. It became impossible not to be inspired and caught up with the spokes of revolution and for a while I wondered if I was turning communist myself.

 – I think demonstrates the potential power of this writing on western readers.  Especially when one considers that, at least in Britain, much of this material – i.e. eye-witness accounts from the ‘front line’, in Yenan and The Long March – was distributed by left-wing organisations.  Authors like Nym Wales, Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley# probably didn’t achieve a huge readership at the time of the original publication of their works (though their writing had a ready, sympathetic audience), their accounts have endured, particularly Snow’s Red Star Over China, which gained a new readership in the West during the years contemporary to the Cultural Revolution.  The 1972 edition I’ve currently got out of the University library has a fantastic Korda’s Che-esque cover, with a young (photogenic) Mao in silhouette against a red background; the very essence of the young revolutionary.  Such an obvious visual comparison between Mao and that most iconic and ubiquitous of images of Che could not have been accidental. 

I am reminded of the impact that the Modern China module of my GCSE History course had on me.  It was split into two parts, a term apart. The first concentrated on the Long March and the Yenan years and left me with a real sense of why the communists found so much support from the ordinary people of China.  But, I wonder how much of what we learnt was influenced by these frontline reports – for example, it’s clear that the Party engaged in quite a degree of myth-making about the early struggle against Japanese and later the KMT post-establishment of the PRC.  Incidentally, the second half of the Modern China course focused on the developing economy and opening of China to the rest of the world, culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre (hey, I’ve already attracted the attentions of the PRC censors, I needn’t pull any punches!), just eighteenth months after the event.  For me it was the first time that history (though I had always loved it as a subject) seemed relevant to the contemporary.

* Incidentally Nym Wales was the pen name of Helen Foster Snow, wife of Edgar Snow.

# Agnes Smedley’s novel Daughter of Earth is one of my favourites – nothing to do with China, just a fantastic piece of early twentieth century feminist writing.  Well worth a read in my opinion.

March 4, 2007

Mao was mad

Filed under: China, Cultural Revolution, Mao, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 10:10 pm

Yep, that seems to be a fair assumption and one made by the author of the following post who bases his argument on MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’ book (the one I’ve just started reading).

Mao’s Cultural Revolution: Fact is stranger than fiction « AMPONTAN

I don’t think there are many benefits from reading a review before the book’s been read (least not for me – I’m easily led!), so I haven’t taken a look yet at the link to Nathan’s review (as mentioned by ampontan).  Will save that one for later.

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