Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 16, 2008

Sometimes I feel like such a hypocrite

Filed under: China, Protest, Tibet, Web resources — amyjaneb @ 12:48 pm

I’m feeling really torn; between my love of China (my obsession, in fact) and distress at what is happening in Tibet.  Similarly, I cannot wait for the Olympics in Beijing, and yet I am uneasy about my resultant lack of interest in supporting the boycott of the Games over Darfur and Tibet.  Thus, I felt it was wrong for me not to recognise here the ‘cultural genocide’* taking place under the aegis of the Chinese authorities, even though it is decidedly off-topic.  ‘Though, having said that, contemporary Chinese activities in Tibet are likely to have a big impact on the image of China in the West, especially given the current attention focused on Chinese heritage and culture.  Though only if the media gives it full and due attention (something that appears a little lacking at present, IMHO).

Anyway, Jeremiah and the Peking Duck community are doing a valiant job at keeping readers informed and updated about the situation in Tibet.

In other news, my total lack of posts in recent weeks is mainly due to the fact that I am now well into the writing-up process.  And it’s sapping most of my time and energy (as it should!). 

*The Dalai Lama’s words, not mine – ‘though I am inclined to agree.


May 6, 2007

Transcribing interviews: Argh! What a nightmare!

Filed under: Interviews, Methodologies, My research, Web resources — amyjaneb @ 3:06 pm

I’ve just completed transcribing the recording of an interview which lasted 29 minutes.  It’s taken me about four hours over the past three days.  Still, I musn’t complain, because all the other interviews I’ve done so far have been by email, plus my interviewee gave me lots of useful info and new leads.  And , I guess transcribing it would have been a considerably more painful experience without my trusty transcription software.  I’ve been using this.

It works pretty well; you can rewind and slow down recordings using the function keys or the ‘dashboard’ controls, and best of all, it’s completely free!

I am so pleased my research doesn’t require me to do many, long interviews.  I have every sympathy and respect for my poor colleagues who have hours upon hours of recordings to transcribe and make sense of.  :S

May 1, 2007

Museum of the Battle of Ideas

Filed under: Cuba, Memorials, Museums, Propaganda, Web resources — amyjaneb @ 9:33 pm

Cross-ref’d from The Attic:

For a little while now I’ve been meaning to do a round-up of interesting little snippets of information do to with museums and related issues which I’ve recently come across. Most are via Museum Anthropology.

First up is a review of the Museum of the Battle of Ideas in Cuba. As Michelle Tisdel Flikke reveals in her engaging essay, the Museum was set up by the Cuban government in the wake of the ideological battle with the US over the custody of Elian Gonzalez. What’s interesting about this particular institution, is that it appears to be, not only a manifestation of the mythologising of history as a necessary component of the development of national heritage, but also that it is dealing with a fairly recent event. As discussions on this blog in the past have revealed, there is usually a time-lag between events happening and and them becoming part of the master narrative of nation. Often, in the case of war or revolution or occupation, a period of reflection appears to be necessary in order for the wrangling between various interest groups and different voices to reach some sort of dominant view which becomes historical ‘fact’. However, here, it appears the Cuban government, unsurprisingly, pounced on the propaganda value of the incident almost immediately, immortalising their version of events in a museum (which as I’m sure we’re all aware by now, seems to have the effect – outwardly at least – of objectifying history). But, what perhaps transcends this museum’s most basic propagandist function, is the imaginative way in which the Gonzalez incident is tied to a much broader historical narrative of migration to and from Cuba from the nineteenth century. Not only that, the museum has become an epicentre for popular imaginings of nationhood, with thousands of artefacts donated from Cubans all around the world, many of which – according to Flikke – relate to the revolution and perceived acts of aggression on the Cuban people. The museum thus has become a site of remembrance, memorial (to Elian and his family) and a repository of ideas of Cuban identity and nationhood. Perhaps appropriately enough in this context, a museum of the people. Although as Flikke reveals, the absences and ‘silences’ in the overall narrative are profound.

Altogether the essay is, for me, a fascinating insight into the workings of museums and heritage in a communist state; an intriguing mix of stock socialist imagery (note the evocative sculpture of the boy casting away an imperialist doll), revolutionary propaganda versus what appears to be a genuine sense of ownership, identification and engagement with the museum and its themes by its audience.

April 22, 2007

Asian History Carnival

Filed under: Blog notices, Useful links, Web resources — amyjaneb @ 12:48 pm

I’m really chuffed that the post I wrote about ‘Though I Am Gone’ has been included in the thirteenth Asian History Carnival!  Chuffed and a little guilty, because it’s not like it was a particularly original post, seeing as lots of other blogs had already given the documentary a mention.  But it’s very gratifying to get a little recognition nevertheless.

 There are lots of other really interesting sounding posts flagged up by the Carnival which I’ll be checking out over lunch.

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’.

March 6, 2007

Stuff available on YouTube on a Cultural Revolution theme

I’m really frustrated – I found a link to a download of Antonioni’s (1972) Chung Kuo (‘China’) via this blog.  (There’s some background info about the film there too.) I downloaded it, but I can’t play it – argh!  Nevertheless, there is a small section available (in Italian with Chinese subtitles) on YouTube.  And it got me thinking about blogging about the other Cultural Revolution-related stuff I’ve found on YouTube recently.  So, here’s a quick overview…

To start, here is that clip of Chung Kuo, focusing on Tiananmen Square

Shame my Italian is non-existent. Will have to work on recognising those characters! (If anyone knows what I need to do in order to get the download to play, please do let me know.)

And this is an all too short extract from Red Detachment of Women. (There’s a serious ‘technicolor’ effect going on here.)

Finally, a short film about theThe Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, featuring contemporary film clips, stills and material culture from the Cultural Revolution. The narration presents an…ahem… ‘uncritical’, shall we say, perspective of the decade 1966-1976. (There are, incidentally, no clues about its authorship, or indeed whether it was made especially for YouTube.)

That’s enough for now. I’m sure there’s loads more good stuff on YouTube though. I shall invest a little time in ‘digging’ and present my findings in due course. 🙂

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).

February 22, 2007

Chinese: a break through!

I wrote about the difficulties I’ve been having learning Mandarin the other day and how my goal was to be able to read and understand slogans on propaganda posters (and how I thought that was a long way off).  Well, this morning, I received a new book through the post that I ordered from (I love Abebooks – not sure what I’d do without it): Paint it Red by Stefan Landsberger – a collector and recognised authority on revolutionary posters.  And guess what?  I realised that I could pick out several characters.  The key ones (rendered in pin-yin and without tone marks – sorry) are ren (people/person), da (big/large), xiao (small/little), xue (study) meiguo (America) and zhong guo/ren (China/Chinese people).  I reckon all I need do is learn the characters for ‘Lei Feng’ and ‘Mao Zedong thought’ and I’ll be laughing.  😉

Seriously, it’s a big confidence boost and given me the necessary motivation to get on with revision for my exam in about a fortnight’s time.

February 19, 2007

My first task…

Filed under: Blog notices, Useful links, Web resources — amyjaneb @ 4:41 pm

…is to consolidate all the useful links and bookmarks I’ve collected over the past eighteen months in one place.  I’m adding them (slowly) to a separate page (‘web resources’ – see right-hand sidebar).  They’re not organised or categorised in any way, at the moment.  Hopefully, if I get time in the near future, I’ll be able to sort them into categories.  At present, I’m just keen to get them all in one place so that I can keep on top of them all.  It’s so easy to lose or forget about really useful web resources and until now they’ve been very unsatisfactorily filed in my (rather chaotic) mind.  This job – though long and tedious – should free up a bit of brain space for philosophising and sounding clever.  😉

And when I’ve done that, my next task will be to beautify my template.  Or, at the very least, ‘red’ theme it!

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