Remembering and Forgetting the Traumatic Past:
A Review Essay

The Great Leap Backward: Forgetting and Representing the Mao Years, by Lingchei Letty Chen
Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China, by Margaret Hillenbrand

Reviewed by Kirk A. Denton
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2021)

Margaret Hillenbrand, Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. 292 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4780-0800-2 (paper); ISBN: 978-1-4780-0619-0 (cloth)

Lingchei Letty Chen, The Great Leap Backward: Forgetting and Representing the Mao Years Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2020. 304pp. ISBN 9781604979923 (cloth)

In The Fat Years (盛世), a novel by Koonchung Chan 陳冠中, a character named He Dongsheng tries to explain to his captors—it’s too complex to delve into here—why the Chinese people have forgotten an entire month: “What I want to tell you is that, definitely, the Central Propaganda organs did do their work, but they were only pushing along a boat that was already on the move. If the Chinese people had not already wanted to forget, we could not have forced them to do so. The Chinese people voluntarily gave themselves a large dose of amnesia medicine.”[1]

Much has been made of efforts by the state in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—famously referred to by Louisa Lim as the “People’s Republic of Amnesia”[2]—to repress memories that do not fit the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) politically-driven historical narrative, which emphasizes its central and singular role in driving the revolutionary past and modernizing the  present. It propagates this narrative through museums, party historiography, state-sponsored “main melody” films, textbooks, mainstream news media, etc. And it suppresses other forms of history that seek to recover memories of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen protest movement, and the plight of migrant workers in more recent times.

The two books under review here expose the small ruptures that breach the edifice of PRC state memory—the way writers, intellectuals, photographers, filmmakers, and artists excavate and explore memories and manage, within a repressive environment, to offer what some call “alternative” memory. The books undermine the image of the PRC as a monolithic state that maintains absolute control over how the past is remembered and articulated. At the same time, both their authors are also, like Koonchung Chan, interested in how people are complicit in their society’s amnesia. They reject neat binaries of victim and perpetrator, repression and resistance, to paint a more complex picture of the relationship between the state and its people in terms of the remembrance of things past.

Despite these commonalities, the books are very different, both in their theoretical orientation and in their object of study. Lingchei Letty Chen’s The Great Leap Backward explores the sometimes subtle, though often problematic, ways that trauma resurfaces in literary works and documentary films in the post-Mao era. Margaret Hillenbrand’s Negative Exposures wants to break down any neat binaries between state control and victimized citizens with a paradoxical framework she calls “public secrecy”—that is, a pact between the state and the people recognizing that “the past lives on despite the silence that shrouds it” (18). Although Hillenbrand is concerned with the public’s complicity in silencing traumatic memories—a collective “hushing of history” (2)—she also explores how the repressed past can reemerge on the cultural landscape. Whereas Chen’s focus is literary and filmic texts, Hillenbrand treats photography, or what she calls “photo-forms,” which creatively play with photographic images.


The Great Leap Backward seeks to show how the tragedies of the Maoist past have left their imprint in the form of trauma and how that trauma gets expressed in literary and filmic works of the post-Mao period. Chen’s methodological framework takes shape through engagement with trauma studies. More specifically, she looks at the Maoist past through the lens of the Holocaust, which serves as a “prism . . . to truly understand the consequences of the Mao years” (17). As she puts it in the epilogue: “China scholars should borrow from the methodologies of Holocaust studies, which have laid the groundwork for building a system of critical vocabulary and theoretical approaches to further study the complex dynamic between memory, literature, and history. With such collective, concerted efforts, the truth of the heinous Mao era can be uncovered and faced” (236). She continues: “Naming the Maoist atrocities as ‘genocides,’ ‘holocausts,’ or ‘categorical murders’ [Zygmunt Bauman’s term] is not a matter of political ideology or positioning, but an effort to be historically accurate and morally responsible” (239).

The field of memory studies in the West has, to a large extent, taken shape around the Holocaust, so Chen, who is working firmly in a memory studies scholarly mode, cannot avoid the Holocaust. But does looking at the Maoist past—or, more precisely, at post-Mao representations of the Maoist past—through the lens of the Holocaust lead to a deeper understanding of the literary and filmic works under analysis or of the Mao era more generally? Indeed, other scholars have read many of the same texts Chen discusses from different perspectives and with different theoretical concerns: modernity/postmodernity (Xudong Zhang and Xiaobin Yang), alternative historiography (Andrew Stuckey, Howard Choy), subjectivity in crisis (Rong Cai), and gender (Xueping Zhong).[3] Moreover, Chen never squarely addresses the issue of whether the tragedies of the Mao era are really equivalent to those of the Holocaust. Comparing human tragedies is, of course, an intellectual dead end, but as I read The Great Leap Backward I couldn’t help but ask myself if the famine of the early 1960s or the executions of the Cultural Revolution are really akin to the Holocaust? One might ascribe the 30-40 million who died in the Great Famine to a failed political system that inculcated subservience and blind obedience to the central government/party and rewarded those who lied about conditions at the local level and who enforced state directives. But is that the same as the systematic killing of Jews? As for the 2-3 million executions during the Cultural Revolution, they too were carried out mostly by local officials, red guards, and militia. The Holocaust is an example of the “state-policy model” of genocide, but the executions of the Cultural Revolution, as Yang Su has described, don’t fit that model.[4]

Scholars in the field of memory studies have diagnosed the phenomenon of the “globalization of Holocaust memory,”[5] in which tropes and modes of memorialization travel from Europe to other parts of the world to serve their local needs for victim narratives. Indeed, Holocaust memorialization has been instrumental in shaping how Chinese museums remember the Nanjing Massacre and in the competitive global politics of victimization.[6] For Chen, Holocaust studies helps her formulate a theoretical apparatus, but it also serves her purpose of ramping up the suffering and the tragic tenor of the Maoist past. That said, it is the participation of “ordinary people” who sought to benefit in certain ways by engaging in deceit and violence that for Chen makes the Holocaust and the Mao-era atrocities parallel. And she may well be right that this is a necessary tactic for bringing proper attention to the real horrors of the Maoist past.

Another filter for Chen’s analyses is the “ethics of remembrance.” Memory, she says, drawing from Paul Ricoeur, can be “used and abused.”[7] She recognizes full well that memory of the past is shaped by the present, its politics as well as the personal needs of individuals, and that the political situation in post-Mao China does not allow for the full expression of memories of Maoist atrocities. But Chen also holds the writers and filmmakers she discusses in the book accountable for the ways they represent that past and how they sometimes “abuse” memory.

In addition to an introduction and short epilogue, the book consists of five main chapters. Chapter 1 looks at early post-Mao literary texts through the lens of “trauma” and “postmemory,” the latter a concept developed by Marianne Hirsch to capture the notion that it is often the generation after those who experienced trauma that picks up the memory mantle. Chen recognizes that “postmemory” does not fit neatly for the generation of writers she examines in the chapter, so she coins the term “the 1.5 generation,” who were “child survivors” of Maoist horrors.

Chen begins with scar literature in a revisionist effort to restore the “unspoken message and buried truth in such testimonies” (36). As one can see in her language here, reading these texts requires some active decoding to uncover what is not, and cannot be, made more explicit. The remainder of the chapter analyzes the various strategies writers in the 1980s adopted to address, in oblique ways, past trauma: Mo Yan’s 莫言 grotesque imagery, Han Shaogong’s 韩少功 crippled and mentally disabled protagonists, Can Xue’s 残雪 nightmarish psychic world, Yu Hua’s 余华 aesthetics of violence, Ge Fei’s 格非 haunting feeling of déjà vu, and the desire to escape in Su Tong’s 苏童 fictional world.

In her analysis of Can Xue’s “The Hut on the Mountain” (山上的小屋), to take but one example, Chen reads the story as an exploration of the “violated space of the individual and the torn fabric of the family and the community [that] are reminiscent of a past troubled time when there was little trust in the society, when the unbreakable bonds between family members, friends, teachers and pupils, and citizens and their government were routinely broken” (50). The story, like many of the texts treated in this chapter, is only indirectly about the Maoist past, but in its orientation toward the psychic effects of trauma—“the psychic abyss that traps the narrator in her frightened paranoid state” (50)—it may constitute a more effective way of treating that past than direct or realist representations, which can lead to comforting melodrama or easy catharsis.

Whereas the texts treated in chapter 1 focus largely on victims, chapter 2 reads those that are explicitly about perpetrators of violence. After a long foray into victim/perpetrator studies in the West, Chen turns to an analysis of Dai Houying’s 戴厚英 novel Humanity, O Humanity (人啊人) and two stories by Yu Hua. Humanity, O Humanity is a semi-autobiographical novel centered on issues of guilt and personal responsibility. In that sense, it marks a step away from the victimization that pervades scar fiction and represents what Chen calls “confession by proxy.” But the confessional nature of the text is limited in scope: in Humanity, O Humanity, Dai Houying does not “confess,” for example, to leading the attacks on her advisor, the philosopher Qian Gurong 钱谷融, at the Shanghai Literary Research Institute where she worked—an example of an “abuse” of memory.

Chen reads Yu Hua’s well known story “The Past and the Punishments” (往事与刑罚) as an exploration of the “perpetrator-victim dynamic” that is “mediated by shared traumatic memories” (101). Yu Hua, as a member of the 1.5 generation who did not experience the violence of the Cultural Revolution directly, presents a complex picture of the intertwined relationship of victim and perpetrator, but for Yu Hua “neither amnesia nor amnesty is acceptable or achievable for his generation at this point in time, and in China’s current social and political circumstances” (103). The past is a “specter”—a word that pops up frequently in both studies reviewed here—that has a haunting power but that cannot be easily pinned down.

Poster for The Satiated Village, one of the films in Zou Xueping’s trilogy

Chapter 3 investigates memory of the Great Famine in documentary film, reportage, and fiction. It begins with a trilogy of films by Zou Xueping 邹雪平 that were produced as part of Wu Wenguang’s 吴文光 Memory Project. The films document the famine through oral interviews with aging villagers, but they also include the filmmaker’s personal reflections on the causes of the famine and the reactions of different generations of villagers to the films themselves, so they are as much about the workings of memory as they are about documenting the famine.

Chen then turns to Yang Jisheng’s 杨继绳 investigative reportage Tombstone (墓碑), a book that has received some attention both in China and abroad, especially after its translation into English.[8] The book documents eyewitness accounts—of both victims and perpetrators—but, like Zou Xueping’s films it also frames those accounts as part of Yang’s personal journey of enlightenment and adds his own views of why the famine happened. As Chen describes it: “Yang is unreserved in laying bare his own interpretation . . . [he] reports how party leaders and cadres from top to bottom systematically set up harsh measures to intimidate peasants and prevent them from fleeing to other places in search of food, and how methods of punishment were devised for those caught attempting to flee or to obtain food without official permission” (131). In Chen’s view, Yang points the finger directly at the CCP: “The perpetrators behind the colossal scale of death from mass starvation and excessive brutality could be found in every level of the bureaucratic system and every stratum of the society. The culture of cruelty that would dominate the Cultural Revolution had already been in the making long before 1966” (133).

The final stage in the chapter’s trajectory from documentation, to narrativization, to fictionalization is the writings of Yang Xianhui 杨显惠, who has penned multiple accounts of the famine at the labor camp Jiabiangou 夹边沟 that some see as reportage and others as fiction. Chen emphasizes their use of the narrative techniques of fiction. She analyzes three “stories” from Farewell to Jiabiangou (告别夹边沟), one for each of the modes she diagnoses: some are in the form of memoirs contained within a larger narrative (“The Woman from Shanghai”); some are from survivors’ first-person point of view (“The Doctor’s Remembrance”); and some are narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator (“The Thief”). In various ways, these stories dramatize the famine and thus highlight its traumatic effects on survivors.

The focus of chapter 4 is The Four Books (四书), by Yan Lianke 阎连科. I discuss this chapter in some detail below.

Finally, chapter 5 moves to a “connective reading” (194) of Cultural Revolution memoirs by Chinese expatriates living in the West and by writers living in China. Both groups, Chen argues, “share the purpose of fashioning a new identity with which to cope and respond to the demands of a new sociocultural environment” (194). The texts of both groups also suffer from abuses of memory. In the diasporic memoirs, key abuses are their emphasis on “victimhood” and “finding salvation” (in the West). Chen criticizes Jung Chang, the author of the bestseller Wild Swans, for her “rather feeble reflective consciousness” (209): “By portraying herself as a person unable to think on her own and blaming her lack of reflection on fear and blind worship of Mao, Chang does not take responsibility—she was a victim in a crazy time, and whatever she did or did not do in the face of right or wrong, she cannot be held responsible because she was a passive young person unable to reason, much less take action” (210). Chen then turns to a very different kind of book: Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era, which self-consciously asserts a “counternarrative” to the prevailing view of the horror and victimization of the Cultural Revolution. She chides the contributors to this volume for “overcorrecting” and for downplaying the political violence: “Nine narratives all point to this one large statement that the Mao years were not all bad, that in fact there are plentiful fond memories to be had” (217). Although I personally find this verdict overly judgmental (full disclosure: one of the editors/authors of the volume was my doctoral student), I admire Chen’s consistent concern throughout the book with the ethics of remembrance.

The final part of the chapter looks at a range of memoirists working within China, mostly members of the zhiqing generation. Chen disparagingly calls their works “memory-lite” and finds in their reconstruction of the past yet more examples of “abuses” of memory: these texts traffic in tropes such as “sacrificed youth” and “having no regrets” that for Chen reflect an absence of any kind of deep reflection on the past and their authors’ own complicity in its horrors.

One of the problems with treating so many different works in a single volume is that the texts are not always allowed to speak to the reader. This is especially true of chapter 1 and the latter part of chapter 5, where most of the analyses of texts are not accompanied by plot synopses, which means that the reader unfamiliar with them cannot fully appreciate the analysis. In chapter 1, a whole range of texts are mentioned—by writers such as Lu Xinhua 卢新华, Zhang Xianliang 张贤亮, Mo Yan, Han Shaogong, Su Tong, Yu Hua, and Ge Fei—but each text is accorded a mere paragraph or two of analysis. Much more space is devoted to cobbling together a theoretical framework by drawing from a wide range of memory studies scholarship. The impression this reader sometimes comes away with is of forcing texts into an interpretive framework that might fit, but readers struggle to judge for themselves because the analysis is so slim. In The Great Leap Backward, texts sometimes take backseat to the theoretical apparatus.

As the book proceeds, though, the attention to the text improves, especially in chapter 4, which focuses on Yan Lianke’s complex novel The Four Books. The chapter presents an original and detailed reading of the novel, which centers on a group of intellectuals in a prison camp during the Great Leap Forward. Chen’s tone and her attitude toward the novel are sometimes equivocal. She clearly respects Yan and admires the novel’s daring and despairing depiction of intellectuals: “Yan’s intellectuals are Sisyphuses, working and living in District 99 labor-reform camp…. [they] toil, struggle to survive, starve, degrade themselves for morsels of food, betray their consciences to live another day, murder fellow inmates and eat their flesh, yet all for naught. There is no escape, nor is there any redemption” (163). But Chen also raises the ethical issue of associating the Child, who is the commandant of the labor camp, with “innocence” and “redemption”: “How are we to understand Yan’s reduction, or near-elimination, of such tremendous historical guilt in a character who represents exactly that?” (179). Chen sees the Child character as “ethically unacceptable and historically irresponsible” and a “creative disaster” (180).

She also upbraids Yan Lianke for failing to depict the suffering of peasants during the famine and for not appreciating the ethical implications of his narrative choices: “Yan intends to revive the Chinese collective memory of the traumatic Great Famine and to bring attention to both the intellectuals’ amnesia and the younger generations’ ignorance of and indifference to the calamity . . .  Yan is interested not so much in portraying the horrific reality of the Great Leap Forward, but rather in exploring intellectuals’ role in and after the disaster” (159). She wonders if, in focusing on intellectuals, “Yan has chosen to forget” peasants, and if he is “witnessing against the very historicity of the Great Famine” (160). “Where are the victims?” she wonders, pointing to an ethical lapse on Yan Lianke’s part. Yet, in drawing attention to the complicity of intellectuals in upholding the power structure of the labor camp, isn’t Yan contributing an important ethical perspective on the famine? As an earlier quote suggests, Chen appreciates the novel’s general skepticism toward redemption, but she criticizes Yan for exempting himself from the critique. I for one am not fully convinced by her reading. It seems to me certainly possible to turn Yan’s general skepticism (the whole Sisyphus theme of the novel) toward Yan himself, a reading that would be consistent with Chen’s overall interpretation of the novel.

When it comes to the documentary films and reportage treated in chapter 3, Chen is much less judgmental than she is toward Yan Lianke’s experimental novel or the memoirs of Chinese immigrants to the West or the politically-circumscribed memoirs of former red guards and zhiqing treated in chapter 5. For Chen, documenting and giving testimony lead, it would seem, to a truer and more authentic representation of atrocity and trauma. Yan Lianke’s motivations in The Four Books might be more akin, then, to Hillenbrand’s notion of “public secrecy,” to which I now turn.


Hillenbrand would object, I suspect, to me looking at her book through the framework of memory and forgetting. Indeed, she rejects the term “amnesia” as a descriptor of the current memoryscape in the PRC. She sees it as a euphemism, on a par with terms like “comfort women” and “ethnic cleansing,” favoring instead the concept of “public secrecy.” In this regard, Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China is rather different from The Great Leap Backward, which is explicitly shaped by memory studies theory.

As mentioned, the central concept of the book is “public secrecy”—the notion that facets of the past are known but not publicly acknowledged. The silence surrounding the past is not just a product of an authoritarian government that wants to maintain hegemonic control over how the past is remembered; indeed, Hillenbrand argues “that such a top-down view is missing a dimension and that the disavowal of history in China has many stakeholders, whether willing or otherwise, affiliated with the state or not” (2). She adds: “The forces of censorship and amnesia cannot adequately explain why parts of China’s modern history are missing from public discourse, and that it is also the collective decision not to talk—not to develop the negatives—that keeps the past in a state of restless quiescence” (3).

For Hillenbrand, it is more fruitful to look at memory from the bottom, rather than just as a top-down issue of state repression. Public secrecy, she argues, can create forms of social interaction that she calls “lateral sociality” (12) or “social interstices” (21), which make memory and forgetting not just the domain of the state but of society at large. She refers to this social complicity as “the tacit consensus on which prescriptive state narratives depend” (96).

Whereas Letty Chen analyzes literary works and a few documentary films, Hillenbrand focuses on the medium of photography and its treatment of three key historical moments—the Nanjing Massacre, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Movement of 1989—“to argue that understanding their afterlives in terms of public secrecy opens up new ways of thinking about the past as an ongoing process of making and unmaking that textures life in China today” (xix). Rather than focusing on the ways in which people find fissures through which to express alternative memories, Hillenbrand wants to look at the complicity of people in keeping secrets. At the same time, works that draw attention to, and participate in, public secrecy can, in the end, be effective in underlining the larger problem of memory and forgetting in China.

The paradox of public secrecy—that something can be at once secret and public—serves Hillenbrand well as an overall framework for capturing the complexity of historical memory in the PRC. But as I read the book, I kept asking myself: how can the cultural producers she analyzes be at once complicit in upholding silence on sensitive matters of the past and reveal that very past in ways that audiences (who are also complicit) understand? The book opens with a telling example that shows the subtle ways in which artists assert forms of alternative memory and who are not, at least as I see it, complicit in “public secrecy”—Xu Yong’s Negatives, a book of sixty-four (yes, 六四) color negatives of photographs of the 1989 Tiananmen Movement. One of her central tropes throughout the book is “knowing what not to know.” But I wonder how Hillenbrand knows what Chinese citizens do or do not know.

The principal object of analysis is what Hillenbrand calls the “photo-form.” Photo-forms are photographs “repurposed” into other forms (“paint, ink, celluloid, codex, mural, fabric, sculpted matter, the digital image, and even human skin” [xix]) that create “fleeting worlds in which the shape of things that are hard to say aloud can be seen or sensed” (xx). It is both the nature of the photograph itself—at once positive and negative—and the intermedial nature of the photo-forms that allow them to both conceal and reveal.

Chapter 1 treats Nanjing Massacre photos, which during the Mao era were classified artifacts unknown to all but a few in the “club,” but that were released to the public after 1989 and then repurposed into commemorative albums, popular histories, exhibitionary culture, websites, films, paintings, reportage, art, and videogames to propagate patriotism. Hillenbrand recognizes the ethical problem in the state proliferation of graphic images of atrocity, and says that such repurposing undermines and further conceals the trauma of the Massacre: “Retooling grotesque perpetrator images as nationalistic propaganda . . . , these photo-forms confine the Massacre—whose trauma will always confound stark visual reckoning—to a continuing place of interdiction and the unsayable” (41). She looks at these photo-forms in terms of shared secrecy—the massacre was a state secret in China during the Mao era and in Japan there are, of course, those who deny or downplay it—because they disrupt “the stubborn lockstep between proof and denial” (53). In their repurposing in the post-Mao era, the photo-forms come to function, she argues, like brand logos because they “compel a certain kind of unified compliance” (59) to feel “patriotic.” Although many might object to the logo analogy, it reminds me of Roland Barthes’ notion in Mythologies that propaganda and advertising function similarly to create mythic—that is, without ambiguity—representations that serve political/commercial interests. Like Barthes, Hillenbrand adopts a determinist view of the power of such propaganda, but do all spectators necessarily buy into the patriotism? Some might have a more humanist reaction: “I see the logo, and therefore feel sad that some humans can commit atrocities against others.” Or others who experienced the Cultural Revolution might think, “yes, the Japanese did this to us, but we also did it to each other.” Or they might even decry the patently political motivations behind the photo-forms. Again, how does Hillenbrand know what Chinese people do or do not know?

Chapter 2 concerns family photos of the Cultural Revolution and the transformation of the once private into the public realm. It starts with Liu Xinwu’s 刘心武  Private Family Photo Album (私人照相簿, 1988), a “photo-text” that has not received attention in English-language scholarship. She sees the album as the progenitor of the “old photographs” fever that swept China in the 1990s and led to the founding of the periodical Old Photographs (老照片) and then, indirectly, to later artistic remakings of, or plays on, these images. Liu’s book brings together photographs (of his own family and of others, not all used with permission) and short essays about the Cultural Revolution. Hillenbrand describes the photos in the book as “small bombs whose detonation could help crack the hard surface of the public secrecy that still shrouded key aspects of the Cultural Revolution during the 1980s” (93), but they were also “emblems of the continuity of the Maoist cryptosphere”—that is, Liu’s book both breaks with public secrecy and embodies it, the paradox at the heart of Negative Exposures.

Song Yongping’s 宋永平 “My Parents” (我的父母亲)

The bulk of the chapter centers on Cultural Revolution photo-essays in the journal Old Photographs. Hillenbrand positions these photo-essays as forms of “vernacular” memory of the Cultural Revolution that reach a much broader audience than, say, the roots or avant-garde literature of the 1980s discussed in Letty Chen’s book. In the final part of the chapter, Hillenbrand looks at artistic works that play with the “old photograph” format. One striking example, is Song Yongping’s 宋永平 “My Parents” (我的父母亲), a series of six photographs showing the trajectory of the lives of Song’s parents from the Cultural Revolution to their declines and deaths in postsocialist China. Hillenbrand analyzes other examples by avant-garde artists such as Feng Mengbo 冯梦波, Zhang Xiaogang 张晓刚, Zhang Huan 张洹, and Hai Bo 海波. These works are self-reflexive about public secrecy and, Hillenbrand argues, are a

kind of re-veiling, a visual avowal of the fact that public secrecy remained the macro mode of knowledge about the Cultural Revolution during the late 1990s and beyond . . . they show that the amorphous secrecy . . . should now be recast to designate the bigger and dirtier secret that the continued absence of a full societal reckoning about the Cultural Revolution is an arrangement that has served multiple constituencies: not just the CCP, but also those citizens who acted then in ways that they would now prefer to hide and disavow. (128)

Bian Zhongyun portrait

Chapter 3 traces the history of a single photograph, a portrait of Bian Zhongyun 卞仲耘, the vice-principal of the elite Girls Middle School affiliated with Beijing Normal University who was murdered by students in the early days of the Cultural Revolution. The photograph was part of her husband’s secret memorial altar to his dead wife. Hillenbrand traces the trajectory of a network of repurposings of this photograph: from Wang Youqin’s 王友琴 website Chinese Holocaust Memorial (the first Internet site to post the photo), to Hu Jie’s 胡杰 film Though I Am Gone (我虽死去), to artist Xu Weixin’s 徐唯辛 dyptich of the married couple as part of his series Chinese Historical Figures 1966-1976, to a sculpture (based on Bian’s original photo) erected in a courtyard at the Girls Middle School, to Song Binbin’s 宋彬彬 apology in 2014 in front of the “photo-sculpture.” The trajectory marks a move from private and hidden memorial to public confession, from the clandestine to “cracks in the ice of public secrecy” (42).

Badiucao’s “A Piece of Red Cloth” (一块红布; 2014)

Similarly, chapter 4 explores the afterlives of the Tank Man image, the unknown figure facing down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. Hillenbrand frames her analysis with the strange appearance of a tank man–like image in the nationalist film Wolf Warrior 2, which marks a “patriotic snatching back of this most global icon of civic dissent” (175). But the bulk of the chapter concerns subversive repurposings of the image by cartoon artists like Badiucao 巴丟草, Rebel Pepper 变态辣椒, Crazy Crab 疯蟹, and Kuang Biao 邝飙. She also analyzes Chen Shaoxiong’s 陈劭雄 three-minute animated Ink History (墨水历史), which presents ink painting–style animations of famous photographs associated with key moments in modern Chinese history from Sun Yat-sen to the Beijing Olympics. Everything looks pretty conventional, until minute 2:29 when a fleeting image of Tank Man is inserted, almost surreptitiously, into the film narrative. Central to Hillenbrand’s analysis here—and throughout the book—is the notion of “spectrality,” or ghosts. The Tank Man, whose identity has never been discovered and whom the state has sought to “disappear,” constitutes spectrality par excellence.

The conclusion, “Out of the Darkroom,” focuses on Zhang Dali’s 张大力 A Second History (第二历史, 2012), which juxtaposes real archival photographs with versions doctored by the state to remove political enemies, make aging leaders appear younger and more heroic, etc. A Second History “is as much about public secrecy, and our acceptance of it, as it tells the story of the clandestine darkrooms in which the immaculate visuality of the Chinese revolution was manufactured” (215). In undoing state remediation, Zhang’s work is the flipside of the photo-forms treated in the body of the book.

Negative Exposures tries to strike a balance between “theorizing” public secrecy and related concepts—drawing from and responding to the likes of Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Benjamin, Taussig, Žižek, et al.—and close attention to the photo-forms that are the object of study. Although the theoretical stuff can be a bit of a slog, it is often rewarding for how it illuminates the subject. And I appreciate how Hillenbrand weaves the theory through the close readings, rather than, as one commonly sees in academic books, establishing a theoretical edifice in the introduction that gets shunted aside when it comes to the analysis.

On the whole, this is a beautifully conceived and nicely written book that is always interesting and thought-provoking. Chapter 1 strikes me as somewhat out of place in the book, because the state and state agents are the main instigators of the proliferation of Nanjing Massacre photographs. But the other chapters are gems that bring out the ways in which artists both push back against the state monopoly on historical memory and exemplify the public secrecy that is so critical to how the state maintains that monopoly.


These two fine and important books tell us much about the state of historical memory in a single-party state like the PRC. First, they draw attention to how and why the state seeks to control historical memory and shape historical narratives. More important, however, they expose the ways, often quite subtle, that various agents worm their way through the edifice of state memory to reveal both historical trauma and facets of the repressed past. At the same time, in showing how elites can be complicit in forgetting—both in terms of abusing historical memory or upholding public secrecy—they inject into our continually-evolving narratives/discourses of the PRC memoryscape a strong ethical component that holds cultural producers accountable for their blind spots and mnemonic lapses.

Kirk A. Denton
The Ohio State University


[1] Koonchung Chan, The Fat Years. Trs. Michael Duke. (New York: Anchor, 2013), p. 287.

[2] Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[3] See Xudong Zhang, Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reform: Culture Fever, Avant-Garde Fiction, and the New Chinese Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997) and Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Xiaobin Yang, The Chinese Postmodern: Trauma and Irony in Chinese Avant-Garde Fiction (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002); Andrew Stuckey, Old Stories Retold: Narrative and Vanishing Pasts in Modern China (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010); Howard Choy, Remapping the Past: Fictions of History in Deng’s China, 1979-1997 (Leiden: Brill, 2008); Rong Cai, The Subject in Crisis in Contemporary Chinese Literature (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004); Xueping Zhong, Masculinity Besieged? Issues of Modernity and Male Subjectivity in Chinese Literature of the Late Twentieth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

[4] Yang Su, Collective Killings in Rural China during the Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 9.

[5] Jacob Eder, Philipp Gassert, and Alan E. Steinweis, eds., Holocaust Memory in a Globalizing World (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2017).

[6] Kirk A. Denton, Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014), pp. 133-52.

[7] Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting. Trs. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[8] Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. Trs. Stacey Mosher and Guo Jian (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).