China Book Reviews


Paul Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-521-69786-6

Paul Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

by Jason Lee

In his new book, The Chinese Cultural Revolution, Paul Clark explodes several myths about the ten year period by examining a wide range of cultural forms - film, operas, dance, other stage arts, music, literature, and even architecture. Rather than unearthing a decade characterized by chaos and destruction, Clark discovers great innovation and creativity. The promotion of mass participation in cultural production and a vigorous promotion of the modern is what instead characterized the Cultural Revolution, concludes Clark. “Indeed, the commercial commodification of culture that has characterized Chinese artistic life in the last quarter-century was made possible by the ideological commodification of culture during the Cultural Revolution. Constant and repeated re-working of model works in those ten years included what we might now identify as cross-genre product tie-ins. A hero of a model opera would appear in posters, songs, comic books, even on pencil cases and enamel mugs. This commodification made the rise of the cultural marketplace in the 1980s and 1990s seem less of a break with the past than has generally been assumed.” (p.4)

Clark forces us to fundamentally reassess our understanding of the Cultural Revolution, a period which he sees as the product of innovation in conflict with the effort by political leaders to enforce a top-down modernity. He argues, very convincingly, that instead of being an aberration, “these years are better approached in the context of certain tendencies in Chinese cultural and social development in the twentieth century.” (p.5)

Clark traces the seeds of the Cultural Revolution at least as far back as the May Fourth Movement, whose advocates “called for the complete abandonment of Chinese values, personified for many by Confucianism, and their replacement by foreign morality and ways of organizing society. From among the exponents of radical change came men involved with founding the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. A Western ideology, Marxism, in its Leninist iteration, would provide a way forward for stagnant Chinese society…The powerful themes of the Cultural Revolution, including mass mobilization and the renewed push to combine Western and Chinese elements in a new-style mass culture, fit well with the previous decades’ obsessions.” (pp.5-9)

“The kind of hybridity see, for example, in the mix of Chinese and Western dance steps in the Cultural Revolution was a distinctly modern element in these cultural productions,” notes Clark. “Chinese folk dance, martial arts, and more high cultural dance movement were added to orthodox ballet or modern dance movement to create a new style of performance. These unique dances were clearly Chinese but based on international models. The modernized operas similarly incorporated movement, blocking, lighting, and other staging elements from the spoken drama  stage to produce a new kind of Chinese musical theatre.” (p.251)

Running counter to the rise of the modern specialist, these years, argues Clark, also “saw a renewed emphasis on amateur creation and performance. Mao Zedong had set up the Cultural Revolution in motion from his determination to undermine what he saw as elitist, increasingly entrenched superiority in political and professional life. Instead of well-paid, privileged holders of power and influence, ‘the broad masses’ would be encouraged to seize influence and topple those who felt born to rule, even as Communists. For many educated Chinese, used to lives of relative comfort and privilege, these years saw an appalling challenge to the normal way of the world in which, in many places, uneducated boors took charge and barked orders. Likewise, in the sphere of cultural production, the amateur challenged the entrenched elitism of the professional. Poetry writing, for example, was further popularized in these years. The quintessential cultural practice for educated Chinese over the millennia, poetry writing had been transformed in the twentieth century, at least I the rise of modern-style verse that could eschew the emphasis on rules, literary allusion, and precedent of traditional verse.” (pp.253-254) During the Cultural Revolution, as Clark demonstrates, the popularization of poetry writing was “facilitated by the greater availability in the revived literary journals and radio broadcasts of the early 1970s of models of poetry for emulation. The peasant painters…took another traditional scholar’s skill to folk producers and, through posters, to mass consumers.” (p.254)

Clark convincingly reconstructs the place of culture in people's lives during the 1960s and 1970s by focusing on the production, dissemination, and reception of the arts rather than on the factional and ideological struggles they represented. “The policies of the Cultural Revolution effort to produce a modern Chinese culture ultimately defeated the attempt,” concludes Clark. “The composers, choreographers, and theatre directors undertook their work in a political system obsessed with concepts of correctness. This fever over ideological right and wrong, in an era when factional rivalries became even more vicious, made public innovation on occasion too risky. Experimentation was so politically charged in most instances that artists, writers and audiences chose to avoid risk, at least in public.” (pp.250-251)

But the innovation encouraged in the early years of the Cultural Revolution simply went underground from 1968 onwards, as the “internal migration of millions of young people to the countryside set up conditions for the growth of less-controlled, unofficial cultural life.” (p.250) The private, unofficial pleasures of the hand-copied novel, “some of which were highly salacious,” co-existed with ritual enjoyment of more orthodox new art and literature. “Red Guards took their mid-1960s urban experiments in new performance forms and strange combinations of Chinese and foreign contents and settings and, as sent-down youth in the countryside, reproduced these kinds of innovation for themselves, often far from official interference or knowledge.” (p.251)

For example, a mimeograph machine at a propaganda station on the Inner Mongolian steppes might produce in daytime a broadsheet for the entertainment and edification of young people settled there from Beijing. “But at night the machine could be turned over to the production of hand-bound stories that gave a more emotionally florid and satisfying expression to the sent-down youth experience on the grassland. Amateur performing talent, cultivated to present model workers or heroes in spoken drama or dance, could stage, when the circumstances allowed, unapproved, heart-felt works that referred to real experience rather than idealized lives. Many such amateurs had gotten the taste for producing works of topical immediacy as Red Guard performers before being dispatched to the countryside after 1968. " (p.255)

Even in official contexts, say Clark, "the innovation and degree of experimentation by the mid-1970s in fields such as music and dance were striking.” (p.251) The opera, dance, and musical model performances of the Cultural Revolution era, concludes Clark, "represented an unprecedented degree of experimentation, even as they were appropriated by the cultural leadership. Red Guard innovation in the late 1960s [can be noted] in new-style stage works, even if the purposes were pure agitprop. As controls eased and possibilities widened, starting in 1972, various attempts to combine the specialist and the amateur, the conventional and the new, and the international with the Chinese made the era similar to other periods of Chinese cultural development in the twentieth century. Throughout the century, Chinese artists and audiences responded creatively to the new possibilities thrown up by China's changing engagement with modernity." (p.259)

This is a highly valuable, scholarly and detailed work, backed by a wealth of empirically-verifiable evidence, and one that I consider essential reading for anyone interested in this period of China's history.