During the Cultural Revolution, everything was controlled from above. As a student of the journalism school, I had to learn according to Mao’s teaching methods; there was no question of being willing to follow or not, you just had to follow. (Journalist, 1946–)
Restrictions? Not really. . . . If I had been a peasant, I could have bought the Two Hundred Famous Foreign Songs [外国名歌二百首]; I would have owned a radio so that I could hear all kinds of traditional theatrical forms, like dramatic ballads [弹词 tanci], Shanghai Opera [沪剧 huju], and Cantonese opera [粤剧 yueju]. After the Cultural Revolution, on the other hand, there was no such thing anymore ... the Rice Sprout Song [秧歌 yangge] and all that, it is all gone. All these different cultures are gone. Mine was not quite like the experience of other intellectuals, but they, too, would feel that the culture now is rather more bland and monotonous [单调 dandiao] than before. (Musicologist, 1950s–)
How should I talk of the “culture” of the Cultural Revolution: it did not have any [没有文化]. (Huang Miaozi, 1913–)
When Wang Ban asks himself uneasily how it came to be, during the Cultural Revolution, that “politics can be made to look and feel like art” and how politics can “take on an intensity, passion, pleasure, and pain of the individual’s lived experience” (Wang 1997, 15), his question is based on the implicit assumption that politics and art, or propaganda and art, are at antipodes, never to be reconciled. In my attempt to see with fresh eyes what I have called “Cultural Revolution Culture”—a phenomenon that has turned out to be much more expansive, both in space and in time, and could more aptly be called “revolutionary” or “Socialist” rather than just “Cultural Revolution” culture—I have attempted to avoid commonplace distinctions between high and “pure” art and low and “dirty” politics (see Wang 1997, 15–16) but focused instead on the dynamics between these poles, which is where the experience of Cultural Revolution Culture seems to be played out.
Although Cultural Revolution Culture is indeed very political and extremely predictable, it may be important to consider that propaganda as art is not an invention of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao, or the Cultural Revolution, but a long-term Chinese reality. Richard Kraus puts this succinctly: “China’s arts have long existed in greater intimacy with the state than is typical in the West. Imperial grandeur and Maoist revolution both presumed that art would serve the state; while few artists attained positions of power, emperors, ministers, and Communist officials took care to present themselves as serious poets, calligraphers, and connoisseurs of painting. Art was twinned with power in a political culture in which claims to authority could be validated by association with beauty or undermined by poor aesthetic achievement. Morality was understood to be revealed through beauty, and Chinese politicians accordingly enfolded themselves in the habiliments of culture. In imperial times, politics and society were loosely enough ordered that this tradition allowed a great deal of slack for much cultural life to thrive at some remove from the state. The Chinese revolution’s modernizing project reorganized society more tightly, so that the traditional linkage of art and morality became an intense politicization of the arts. After 1949 it became increasingly difficult for artists to stand back from the Party’s cultural policies. The Cultural Revolution (1966–76) was the climax of this trend.” (Kraus 2004, vii–viii)
Political art, then, or propaganda, may have been a standard more easily accepted in China than elsewhere, which may have tilled the ground to make way for the success of Cultural Revolution Culture. Yet, the idea that the China of the Cultural Revolution was the realm of the “omnipotent propagandist,” a space completely occupied by propaganda, is paradoxical, if only for the fact that the onset of the Cultural Revolution brought not the strengthening but the dissolution of the old Central Propaganda Department (Leese 2006, 56). Many of the art forms that spontaneously erupted, and later became emblematic of the cultural experience of the Cultural Revolution (perpetuating what was standard in official propaganda), such as loyalty dances and quotation gymnastics, Red Guard newspapers and (comic) art, alike, were criticized and suppressed by the center. Propaganda art, then, can be read as both top-down manipulation and as an opportunity for agency from below, and again, this agency was not always completely “unexpected” or “accidental”: at certain, often very short-lived, historical junctures (the Red Guard movement being one example), it was in fact part of the top-down intentions, too. Complicity between “the Party” and “the People” (neither of which can be considered monolithic) is in fact much more commonplace than one would assume, and the unfolding contradictions and their resolutions during and after the Cultural Revolution also proved the Party’s very flexibility.
On the other hand, the participatory nature of Communist propaganda accommodates the inevitable dilution of state-initiated narratives (Schrift 2001, 7). Put differently, this also means that the Party’s ability to control is far less absolute than is often assumed, and at no time is this more (and less) so than during the Cultural Revolution. The mobilizing, inspirational, energizing, and populist character of mass politics during the Cultural Revolution meant that we have many individualized and localized experiences of the spread and reach of Cultural Revolution official and unofficial propaganda.
Among the relatively small sample of people interviewed for this study, most of whom came from urban areas (while many of them spent long sojourns in the countryside), memories of Cultural Revolution propaganda vary substantially with age, class, and locality. Their experiences illustrate the importance of delving deeper into the multiple Cultural Revolutions that took place in multiple spaces, geographically as well as sociologically. Most importantly, it is time to let the peasants and the workers speak for themselves. Although it is something this book has not been able to do, their voices—so often muted—have been heard in Han Dongping’s pioneering work (Han 2000) and in some of the essays collected in The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History (2006) and Re-Envisioning the Chinese Revolution (2007). We need to listen more closely to these multiple voices in order better to explain some of the repercussions of Cultural Revolution propaganda in China’s cultural production today.
The idea, that the China of the Cultural Revolution was a space of total propaganda, the propagandist omnipotent, must appear paradoxical in view of the many radically different memories it produced. It is also paradoxical in view of the astounding, yet deeply under-researched, evidence of alternative spaces (and thus experiences) of cultural life during the Cultural Revolution—those that took place behind closed doors and in undisclosed niches underground.
This study has mentioned some of the secret reading, painting, and listening to music that took place during the Cultural Revolution. Throughout, reference to this clandestine enjoyment of works of art has served to show how the official propaganda art discussed here was unofficially contextualized. These memories of alternative cultural consumption have, however, only served as pointers. The works themselves have not actually been analyzed in detail. Future histories dealing with the cultural experience of the Cultural Revolution, however, ought to engage with this legacy of underground and alternative as well as semi-alternative/semi-official (for example, Red Guard) cultures: the hand-copied works as well as the translations from foreign literatures, literary and philosophical works from the Chinese traditional canon, foreign and Chinese music and film, as well as painting traditions, and the many compositions, texts, and artworks that were created only to be hidden for some time from the public.
In addition, a wealth of official art that did not become model art but that was nevertheless performed, read, and practiced throughout the Cultural Revolution, locally, as well as nationally, should be (re-)considered. Only by highlighting these neglected works, as well as the underground popular arts created at the local and grassroots levels, can we begin to capture the diversity and complexity that characterized cultural life in China during the Cultural Revolution; only then is it possible to understand the strong competition that Cultural Revolution propaganda was faced with and why—in spite of everything else that happened during those years—it has been able to remain popular decades later.
Here emerges one more spatial dimension of Cultural Revolution Culture that has only been mentioned in passing in this study: it is one that transcends China’s territory, as recent successful auctions in Sotheby’s and more distant responses like Andy Warhol’s Mao series from the early 1970s show. The story of the international repercussions and transcultural dimensions of Cultural Revolution cultural experiences should be told in another study.
We know that Jiang Qing loved to watch Hollywood movies, but which ones did she see and how did they influence her conception of the model works? And did they influence the many changes she suggested that, in post-Cultural Revolution polemics, eventually made the elephant look anything but like an elephant (ill. 0.0)—in other words, revolutionary opera no longer opera? Chinese artists were trained on Russian models, but which of the many Mao portraits used which models? And why? Were audiences ever aware of this? If Stalin, too, is the sun, his physical body a signifier for nature just like Mao’s became, can we make out the flows between one iconographic culture and another? How did they translate into audience reception?
There were flows in both directions, as Europe, and the West generally, have extensively used the propagemes from Cultural Revolution propaganda since the days of the 1960s student movements.
Thus, the popularity of Cultural Revolution propaganda is clearly not just a Chinese internal affair but should be reconsidered from quite a few spaces far removed. These transcultural flows of Maoist propaganda and people’s individual experiences with this propaganda have seldom been traced and described in detail (see Diehl 2006).
The history of Maoist propaganda and its legacy beyond China, as well as its flows back into China, in turn remains largely unwritten. What appears to be crucial in future studies of Cultural Revolution Culture, then, is a focus on the international, the national, as well as the local and the personal dimensions of this experience.