Utopian Ruins review

Source: http://www.biblioteca.montepulciano.si.it/node/1155 (1/12/21)

Jie Li, Utopian Ruins, a Memorial Museum of the Mao Era. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020
Reviewed by Silvia Calamandrei

Utopian Ruins but also Ruins of an Utopia are the subject of Jie Li’s work, enquiring how to build  a memorial of the Maoist era, an archive-museum assembling together different pieces and traces of the past: on paper, in films and photographical work , as objects of articraft, as architectural environmental and landscape  signs, so to help new generations to fight against imposed amnesia and old generations to awaken  and remember: in fact historical narrative is  the fruit of intergenerational imbrication and stratification of memories, open to new readings.

A result of the “cultural studies” approach, this study of materials and signs evoking Maoist China memories is a useful tool in the debate on history and research into archives: the open question is how to narrate a controversial past as the Cultural Revolution period,  not flattening it to the reasons of the winners or the losers and reflecting all the contradictory aspects and complexity of past experiences.

Even in jail or in labour camps it was possible to leave signs and testimonies and the police and court archives keep precious records to understand the reasons and the motivations of the “culprits”.

In Eastern Germany, once opened, the Stasi archives offered precious and controversial materials, apt to generate new conflicts. The Chinese archives, yet secret, had their moments of partial accessibility, mainly when ancient verdicts where revised, leaking documents and testimonies that circulaetd on social media, generating new debates. The most interesting case is  the ancient judge revisiting the files of Nie Gannu, a poet confined to labour camp as a rightist, that he had contributed to sentence to jail.

In Italy we know how important are court archives to search on terrorism and Secret service involvment in bomb attacks in the Seventies, as shown by Benedetta Tobagi work on the “strage di stato” processes and the scientific editing of Aldo Moro’s Memorial by the State Archives.

In the judge investigation, he happens to find not only poems that Nie Gannu had burned to avoid being accused, copied by friends who gave him up,but also poems written in jail, on request of his jailers, that can be read with  different interpretations: “reading through the lines” of what is written under dictatorships is what Piero Calamandrei was encouraging in relation to his own writings under fascism. In his files he finds salso the recording of conversations with friends that belonged to the same intellectual circle, the Hu Feng clique, under attack as rightist and counterrevolutionaries since 1955. Under totalitarian pressure each individual tries to show his willingness to cooperate, giving evidence against friends: but realistic portraits emerge of these intellectuals, each betrayng the other, persecutors and victims at the same time.

The author, professor at Harvard, shows us how in a totalitarian regime personal files portray a multiple layered truth, where the same person is a believer and an opposer, a propagandist of utopia and a critical viewer of the disasters provoked by propaganda.

Following Ba Jin’s invitation to build a memorial of the Cultural Revolution,  Jie Li expands its temporal scope to previous disasters, as the Great leap forward and proposes to enlarge the portrait beyond the intellectuals who were the main victims, to focus also on workers and peasants mobilized in the gigantic effort to build a New China.

Two chapters are dedicated to written testimonies, the first the written in blood memories of Lin Zhao, a journalist sentenced to death in 1968 who was able to transmit her thoughts to future generations, never giving up her willingness and hope to leave a message to be heard.  In the second chapter a study of the personal files that we have already commented.

Chapter 3 and 4 deal with photographic and film images of the epic construction of Socialism, coping with the difficulty of finding any negative image of famine and persecutions, and considering the foreign documentaries of Ivens and Antonioni ad an useful realistic input contrasting with the rhetoric of propaganda.

Chapter 5 deals with the ruins  and left overs of huge State factories and People’s Communes, industrial archeology of epic efforts of workers and peasants, dismissed or scattered in the Modernization of the Eighties and Nineties, and maybe nostalgic of their pivotal role in the past and the privileges of a working class who was nominally directing the  Socialist State. These industrialisations ruins are the locations of documentaries and movies of a new generation of filmmakers, as Wang Bing (West of the Tracks) or Zha Jiangke (24 Hours) and sometimes are reconverted in new fashionable compounds.

Finally, in chapter 6, the author gives us a survey of existing memorials, most of them fruit of local or private initiative: ruins of previous labor camps, or graveyards of Red Guards who died in factionnalistic struggles, but also collections of memorabilia following the Maoist consumeristic revival in the new millenium. Red memorabilia sites or trauma sites, if combined,  contribute to a better understanding of the past and to give suggestions to future curators.

What I personally find astonishing is that no mention is made of another important subject of amnesia: the Tienanmen massacre, whose memory is still very much alive and dangerous for China’s rulers. But it was out of the scope of this investigation, and too recent and politically sensitive to be musealised.

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