This database online exhibit accompanies a book published by Harvard University's Asia Center: "A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture." It provides all the (audio-/)visual materials mentioned and analyzed in the book and more, in an attempt to provide new entryways to understanding cultural production and reception during the so-called “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” a name now commonaly assigned to the period 1966-76 in Chinese history.
When I first began my research on the topics that have some bearing on the materials collected here many many years ago, in 1994, my institute had just proudly (and surreptitiously) acquired a full set of the infamous model works (样板戏 yangbanxi), a set of 18 pieces, ballets, operas and symphonic works, hailing from the Cultural Revolution. Yet, since 1994, almost two decades have gone by and things have changed dramatically: No longer is owning a full set of the model works a special distinction, as they are sold (and bought) everywhere in China.
Is it still necessary, then, to study Cultural Revolution Culture? It is, and perhaps even more so than before: it is precisely the commercial success Cultural Revolution Culture sees today that makes it an intriguing topic to study. Why is it that China’s people still go back to Cultural Revolution Culture in spite of the fact that many of them paid dearly—in terms of personal relationships, in terms of education and career opportunities, and in terms of economic and social growth—during the Cultural Revolution? The book that this database accompanies attempts to provide some tentative answers to these difficult questions.
There have been many studies of the Cultural Revolution. This one aims to be different. It looks at the cultural experience of the Cultural Revolution from the point of view of both its production and its reception, exploring people’s perceptual, sensory, emotional, and physical encounters with the period’s cultural products not only during the Cultural Revolution but before and afterwards. The book and this accompanying database intend to show that the development and the aesthetics of revolutionary art and culture for which Cultural Revolution Culture became a symbolic stand-in is a “Continuous Revolution” that began sometime in the late nineteenth century and continues to the present day. This continuous revolution drew on the past and the foreign and then marched forward in its own distinctive style.
Book and database thus attempt to fill a gap in scholarship of the Cultural Revolution by offering an analysis of some of the key media and texts propagated during this time, together with their circulations before and after the event. I intend to show the very contradictory qualities of Cultural Revolution Culture by describing it, primarily, as a lived experience. For this purpose, the book and this database juxtapose analyses (by way of close readings of the cultural products from this period) with a discussion of firsthand impressions given by contemporaries in a series of interviews and snippets from these interviews (a full list and description of the interviewees can be found in the book, appendix 1) also reappear throughout the database.