THE CHINESE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
By Paul Clark,
Cambridge University Press, 352pp
Reviewed: 29 November 2008
The yawningly bland title of this book is not a fair description. Chairman Mao launched his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, ostensibly to challenge conservatism and elitism within the Chinese Communist Party and to create a new culture of Perpetual Revolution in China. Its scope was limitless, challenging and disrupting all cultural norms in China’s social, economic, political and even scientific fields, as well as in the arts and intellectual life.
There have been many Western accounts of what transpired between that launch and the arrest of Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, and her “Gang of Four” cohort, just three weeks after Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. Why would we need just another general history? Paul Clark quickly advises that this is to be a comprehensive history of “cultural production and consumption” during the Cultural Revolution period. He distances his project both from the many political histories that focus on power struggles among the Chinese Communist elite, and also from the more recent spate of popular personal memoirs, in the vein of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, that chronicle the sufferings of individuals (usually middle-class émigrés) under Maoist extremism.
Clark was a student in Beijing for two years at the end of the Cultural Revolution era. He went on to a Harvard doctorate in modern Chinese popular culture and is now a Professor at Auckland University, teaching mainly Chinese film.
So this is not a history of the Cultural Revolution in all its ramifications. It is a very specific, almost clinical, review of what was going on in the production of Chinese public culture over that period – mainly the mass media of film and public performance, but also painting, sculpture and literature. The “consumption” side of the analysis is limited, since Chinese audiences had very little choice, heard no independent critical voices, and experienced saturation marketing of state-prescribed products.
Clark argues that this period is not simply to be written off as an unmitigated disaster. His case is that the peculiar circumstances of massive state intervention, absolutist control over the arts, and insistent didactic purpose, also stimulated or facilitated some significant development and “modernization” of arts practice in China.
It’s a controversial, almost revisionist case to be making in relation to the Cultural Revolution, which Westerners generally associate with bizarre extremes of dogmatism, vandalism, and dictatorship, backed by personal violence against any artist thought possibly sympathetic to “class enemies”.
Clark knows a great deal about the production history of movies, operas and the wide range of popular performance forms practiced in China. He can quote the recollections and views of many Chinese who were active within Chinas cultural production units over the period. He can demonstrate many innovations in style and technique that took place as the political tides of the Cultural Revolution washed this way and that over the heads of cultural workers, who were doing their best to survive, or in some cases prosper, in drastically uncertain times.
China at the end of the Cultural Revolution had a cultural vocabulary and repertoire that was significantly enriched, compared to where things had stood ten years earlier. Conservatism in style and content had been discried (except where applied to Communist dogma). Middle-class “high” culture had been forcibly impregnated with “worker, peasant and soldier” concerns, tastes and modes of expression.
In state-controlled mass culture factories, especially film studios and theatre companies, the irresistible patronage of Jiang Qing and her commissars had generated a canon of works often at higher technical standards than previous norms. Money was no object in the filming of a Model Opera for national distribution, since the Cultural Revolution included suspension of conventional economics.
Clark’s final argument is that the long denial of public self-expression generated a sub-culture of private and mainly passive resistance, which would flower dramatically in artistic innovation as the reins began to slacken from the late 1970s. Well, yes. The lotus does grow from the mud.
Artifacts often acquire a lasting aesthetic value that transcends or even contradicts their original purpose. The art of the Cultural Revolution was overtly utilitarian. Chairman Mao demanded that art must “serve the people” (in reality, what the Communist Party decided was good for the people). A good deal of that art – iconic movies, posters, or kitsch memorabilia – now finds an appreciative audience whose taste is flavoured by post-modern irony or nostalgia, rather than by the threatening, propagandistic hysteria from which it was created.
But who is to say whether, in the absence of the extremism that characterized the Cultural Revolution, these advances might have occurred anyway, and at far less human cost?
Clark assigns a consistently positive value to “modernization”: a term I find rather slippery in application to a culture over an isolated historical period. Modernising trends in China were evident at least a century before the Cultural Revolution. Much of the arts practice that developed during the Cultural Revolution closely followed imported practices of “socialist realism” that typified Stalinism, and a great number of China’s power-broking “cultural producers” were Soviet-trained. Massed choirs, symphony orchetras and classical ballet were some of their “modernisations” in Chinese culture. And can any real modernity be promoted by mediaeval dogmatism linked to a magical personality cult?
This is a book of deep scholarship providing a wealth of information and many valuable observations, including 100 pages of reference notes for the dedicated reader.
Clark aims to show that the Cultural Revolution was not a “sidetrack” on China’s road to modernity, but firmly “part of the process”. Since the same could be said of civil wars, religious revolutions, invasions, natural disasters and other cataclysms in the history of any human society, I found the argument interesting but not compelling.
Richard Thwaites lived in China 1978-83, when the Cultural Revolution was known as “The Ten Years of Chaos”