Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

April 22, 2007

The aesthetics of totalitarianism (or what not to say when being interviewed by a German magazine)

Bryan Ferry got into hot water this week (as reported by the BBC) for describing the visual iconography of Nazism as ‘beautiful’.

“My God, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves,” he gushed to the German magazine Welt am Sonntag. “I’m talking about Leni Riefenstahl’s movies and Albert Speer’s buildings and the mass parades and the flags – just amazing. Really beautiful.”  (Via BBC Online)

While it was a pretty naive thing to say, it highlights the inherent problems associated with attempting to critically analyse the aesthetics of totalitarian regimes.  It also serves to force me, once again, to confront my own reservations about my area of research.  I’m sure a lot of people that I mention my work to, think I’m a little peculiar, and part of me worries a lot about what sort of image they are constructing of me (as a raving Communist or something!).

I’ve written before about the double standards reflected by the rejection (rightly so, of course) of Nazi iconography, while visual references to communism are embraced by popular culture. While I would baulk at suggestions that Nazism was aesthetically beautiful – approaching, as I do, like the vast majority of ‘normal’ well-adjusted people – the subject with a mass of unpleasant and disturbing associations, I find it compelling, even though it makes me intensely uncomfortable.#  Afterall, it was meant to be powerful and soul-stirring.  Goebbels was a master propagandist.  He completely understood the power of film, in particular, to shape public opinion, create a sense of and identification with the ‘Fatherland’, and lay the ground for widespread acceptance of the eugenics programme, which resulted in the ‘Final Solution’.  And it was the films of Leni Riefenstahl that first got me interested in visual propaganda while I was studying for my A Level in European History. 

The furore that accompanied Ferry’s comments immediately put me in mind of the outcry engendered by Crispian Mill’s (the singer in Kula Shaker, a 90s band heavily influenced by 60s psychedelia and ‘eastern’ mysticism.  That was a long time ago!!) when he commented in the NME that the swastika was a Hindu symbol.  Which, of course, it is – though one which was adopted and subverted by Nazism.  The response to what I suspect was a craftily edited version of the interview, not only revealed an ignorance about the historical and cultural life of the swastika*, but an understandable reluctance in society to accept critical analysis of the visual iconography of the Third Reich.  Somehow, while we have dealt with the spectre of facism in the twentieth century to an extent where we can watch endlessly repeated documentaries about Hitler and the Second World War on the telly in, what appears to be a fairly detached manner, we cannot see the swastika, or images from the Nuremberg Rally, without feeling utter repugnance.  These visual symbols, or identifiers, of the Nazi regime have retained their psychological power and menace in a way that communist iconography hasn’t.   And while the meaning of communist visual culture in the west has transmogrified into something else and infinitely less threatening (i.e. high camp Commie Kitsch, or – at the very least – youthful idealism), its Nazi counterpart hasn’t.  Consider two young men, one wearing a Che t-shirt and the other with a swastika tippexed on his jacket.  Who would you prefer to sit next to on the tube?  Okay, that’s probably a bit facetious, but you get my drift.   In the 1970s, the potent symbolism of Nazism lent itself to Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s promotion of the swastika in a sub-cultural context as a form of sedition.  On the surface of it, the wearing of fascist iconography was taken to mean an identification with the far-right.  But intellectually, it was more an act of social transgression.  Though I don’t doubt some were attracted to punk because they did identify with the far-right.  For more on this read Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, or The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol, by Malcolm Quinn.

I’m well aware that I’m rehashing the same old themes time and time again in this blog, but I’m really having difficulty getting to grips with this particular aspect of my research.  Why, when the outcomes of both ideologies were similar, i.e. oppression, death and destruction on unimaginable scales, are Communism and Fascism viewed so differently? 

#Please don’t think I identify with Nazism on a personal – or any – level.  At the last election I did one of those online surveys designed to help floating voters make up your mind who to vote for.  I categorised myself as ‘left of centre’ and answered a series of questions about burning issues like immigration and fox-hunting (broadly for, and against, if anyone is wondering!).  I was slightly bemused to find out at the end that while most people who place themselves in that political ‘zone’ are actually slightly more right-wing than they might admit, I was significantly of the leftist persuasion – even more so than I thought.  Which I guess does make me a raving communist!  😉

*As an aside, I remember seeing a Victorian tea service on display at York Castle Museum, which prominently displayed the swastika as a decorative device.  To its credit, the museum discretely, but directly acknowledged its presence, and the connotations it now holds, while explaining its original function as a good luck symbol.  It could have been so easy to remove the tea set from display and pretend it didn’t exist.  We have to confront the difficult and the disturbing and the uncomfortable sometimes, to better understand the world in which we live.  If we avoid the problematics of history, well, we might as well be Holocaust deniers ourselves.


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 1, 2007

Chinese Lessons

Filed under: China, Communist kitsch, Language, Mandarin, Mao, My research, Publications, Quote(s), Reading — amyjaneb @ 8:11 pm

I’ve finally finished reading John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons.  I’m rubbish at reviews, so I’m just going to pick out a few points that interested me.

In his first chapter he mentions how he first experienced China: ‘through my belly’.  ‘As a child, Chinese food was one of the first cuisines I was willing to eat outside of hamburgers’ (p. 5).  I guess the same could be said about me.  My Mum recounts tales of me sitting in my high chair at a Chinese restaurant in Southend slurping noodles!  And I would imagine that it would be true to say that this is the way most westerners first experience China, through its food (or something vaguely resembling it!).  He then goes on to say how he could remember as nine year old hearing anti-Vietnam War protesters shouting ‘Mao, Mao, Chairman Mao!’.  And later how his interest expanded to Chinese history and current events. (p.5)  But crucially, he states that he never bought into the idea that Mao Zedong had created a utopian society, ‘then voguish on U.S. campuses.’  This is interesting, because for most part, the contemporary and reflective accounts written by westerners I’ve read, at least begin with an empathy for the Maoist regime.

Something else that struck me were Pomfret’s comments on p. 211 about how the Chinese language had evolved to reflect the changes in society in the 1990s.

“Language had evolved, too.  When I first came to China in the early 1980s, pusu (frugal) was a compliment.  Now it had become a put-down, implying poverty and stupidity.  Kaifang no longer meant “open-minded”; it meant “promiscuous.”  Xiaojie no longer meant “Miss”.  It meant “hooker.”  Most notably, the all-purpose Communist greeting tongzhi (comrade) had all but disappeared from everyday speech, replaced by formal titles like Mister and Doctor – underscoring China’s new obsession with class and rank.  The only place Comrade still flourished was among the Bohemian demimonde in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou; it was what homosexuals called each other.  New words appeared.  Little honey meant “mistress.”  Ku, an import from Taiwan, meant “cool,” and hei ke (black guests) meant “hackers.”  On the streets of Shanghai, people bumping into each other said “Sorry,” in English, not duibuqi.  A popular book posed the question “Are You Middle Class?” employing another new term in a society that just a few years ago had fancied itself classless”. (p. 211)

Well, I’m glad I found all that out now – I’d been taught xiaojie for ‘Miss’.  It’s already easy enough to make a faux-pas in Mandarin by confusing tone marks.  The last thing learners like me need are double-entendres to wrestle with!

The other thing that caught my attention was his discussion of his classmate Song and his Italian-born daughter visiting Shaoshan, Chairman Mao’s hometown, in Hunan province.  He describes the town as ‘a capital of Chinese kitsch’. (p. 267)  It’s interesting to me that the Chinese are responding to Cultural Revolution era material culture in some respects in a similar way to how they are ‘dealt with’ in the West.  But, I’m sure there are different reasons behind it.  I like the idea Mary came up with in her comment on my recent post about the reinvention of relics of communism, that these seemingly trivial things are seized upon as a way of blocking out more negative memories and experiences.  Definitely some things to think about…

February 19, 2007

Cogs and Wheels

Filed under: Blog notices, China, Mao, Material culture/art & design, Quote(s) — amyjaneb @ 3:29 pm

The name of this blog, Cogs and Wheels, comes from a 1942 quote from Mao Zedong, about the central importance of art and design for the revolution:

 In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines.  There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.  Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine’.

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