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 17, 2007

Books on the go #2

Filed under: My research, Reading — amyjaneb @ 6:13 pm

Here’s a revised list of all the books I’m currently in the process of reading, the idea being that when I finish them, I can write a little summary here which will, eventually, go towards my thesis’ literature review.  I’m also hoping it will shame me into getting on with some damn reading!

Lily Briscoe’s Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China
Patricia Laurence
(This is a ‘new’ one which has marched to the head of the queue, cos it’s an inter-library loan, and I’ve got to get it read and ‘processed’ before the 23rd April!)

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.)

I’ve started a list of books finished in my sidebar.

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 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 7, 2007

The China fantasy

Filed under: China, Cultural Revolution, Images, Reading, Useful links — amyjaneb @ 8:33 pm

Here’s an interesting little item from

In it the reporter reviews a new book by James Mann, The China Fantasy:  How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression.  I haven’t read it, but the gist of Mann’s argument – former Beijing Correspondent at the LA Times – is that it is policy makers, politicians and diplomats who skew information about China, thereby creating false images in the West. 

The author of the article starts with a tale about an exchange between Shirley MacLaine and Deng Xiaoping.  MacLaine – as a potentially sympathetic to the regime – was invited to travel in China with a group of ‘ordinary’ American women towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, which she records in her book, You Can Get There From Here (1977).

While it does, in many ways, document a personal journey – MacClaine charts the struggle she goes through, as she attempts to reconcile her own political ideologies with contemporary American society and what she finds in China, while – at the same time – negotiating between the different ‘camps’ in her party (herself – the Hollywood Star, the ‘ordinary women’ – from a diverse range of backgrounds, and her film crew), and their Chinese ‘minders’, it is a useful first-hand resource (i.e. it offers a contemporary western account of the Cultural Revolution), by someone who – by dint of their position and public profile – could themselves affect changes, perhaps, in the popular cultural imaginings of her potential readership.  I think it feeds into a discussion of the image of China in 1960s and 1970s counter and youth culture (and by extension, popular culture) fairly well.

But returning to Mann’s book, although the review suggests it doesn’t offer a terrible balanced perspective, it sounds like a useful read.  Will add that one to the ‘to read’ list…

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.

March 3, 2007

Quick update

Not much to report.  Working on paper for research seminar.  Never doing it this way again.  Next time I’m writing something from scratch.  Started reading Mao’s Last Revolution, by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals and started to teach myself to meditate (need to cultivate some inner calm!).  Have been adding to and reorganising my web resources page tonight, in between watching and taking photos of the lunar eclipse.

My plan for tomorrow, apart from getting some groceries in, is to get to grips and hopefully finish my seminar paper and the presentation for my Chinese exam (nearly there).

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