Utopian Ruins:
A Memorial Museum of the Mao Era

By Jie Li

Reviewed by Kirk A. Denton

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2021)

Jie Li. Utopian Ruins: A Memorial Museum of the Mao Era Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. 384pp. ISBN: 978-1-4780-1123-1 (paper); ISBN: 978-1-4780-1018-0 (cloth)

The past few years have seen a bonanza of excellent books dealing with memory of the Maoist past—Lingchei Letty Chen’s The Great Leap Backward: Forgetting and Representing the Mao Years, Margaret Hillenbrand’s Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary Chinaboth of which I reviewed for MCLC, Sebastian Veg’s edited collection Popular Memories of the Mao Era, and the book under review here, Jie Li’s Utopian Ruins.

Utopian Ruins is framed as “a memorial museum of the Mao era,” with each chapter centered on different sorts of “artifacts”—prison texts “written in blood,” personal dossiers (檔案), photographs, films, and museums/memorials. Li sees herself as a curator—an overused word these days but one that is certainly apt in this case—who sifts through artifacts, choosing them judiciously for what they can tell us about the multivalenced nature of the Maoist past, and then glossing them with nuanced analyses and contextualizations. It goes almost without saying that her “museum” is self-consciously different from PRC state museums, such as the National Museum of China, which whitewash the Maoist past and make what is left serve political narratives of China’s “rejuvenation.” Although Utopian Ruins was conceived in part as a response to Ba Jin’s appeal for the creation of a Cultural Revolution museum, the kind of museum Li has in mind is a far cry from his “official” museum, which, if it were ever to materialize, would be shaped and distorted by state interests and would elide the trauma of the Maoist past.

The kind of museum Li envisions avoids the binary opposition that characterizes current representations of the Maoist past—that is, the opposition between the neo-leftists who uphold its “utopianism” and the liberals who find it a barren landscape of “ruins.” As Li puts it: “This book mediates between these two polarized positions within the critical framework and curatorial strategy of ‘utopian ruins,’ which highlight, on the one hand, the hopes and aspirations that moved so many to participate in the Chinese Revolution, and, on the other hand, the mass suffering and cultural wreckage that occurred in its wake” (5). Li’s imagined museum is a “plural” exhibitionary space that harbors multiple forms of representation and interpretation of the past; it is, as she writes in the final sentence of the book, “an inclusive and reflective memorial museum of the Mao era” (276).

Li fully understands the state’s role in enforcing amnesia—indeed, this is I imagine what most motivated her to write the book—but she also finds traces of the Maoist past everywhere in the Chinese memoryscape. The book centers not only on historical fragments and vestiges from the Mao era, but their remediation in postsocialist China as “post-memory” (Marianne Hirsch’s term). In this sense, it both complements and supplements Hillenbrand’s Negative Exposures, which forefronts the process of remediation. Li treats the “Maoist regimes of memory” and the censorship we expect from an authoritarian state, but also how the technologies of repression sometimes preserved the past and allowed it to circulate as part of the “post-Mao memory ecology.” The book shows that far from being completely erased by the state, memories of the Maoist past in China are rife, come in many forms and media, and are layered and complex. The book’s introduction nicely lays out the framework, discussed above, and then proceeds to cases studies of particular “artifacts.”

Lin Zhao. Source: Wikipidea.

Chapter 1 focuses on Lin Zhao 林昭, a Peking University student in the 1950s who fervidly embraced the revolution, but who then became disillusioned with the communist regime and actively participated in producing China’s first samizdat journal, Spark (星火). Lin was eventually arrested in the early 1960s and then executed in 1968. During her years in prison, she wrote copiously, often using her own blood as ink; in what Li calls “graphomania,” Lin tirelessly wrote letters, diaries, essays, etc. in a passionate, almost feverish, language that often denounced the regime in strikingly stark terms. In one letter, for example, she writes: “Is this not blood? This evil regime, which has stained the history of this nation as well as of human civilization, was established, strengthened, and sustained by blood” (46). Lin Zhao was clearly a victim of state repression, but Li finds in her writings both the “utopian” idealism propagated by the state and the “ruins” created by that utopianism. Li also presents a very informative account of the various traditions, both Buddhist and revolutionary, that informed Lin’s practice of blood writing.

Some of these writings, which were part of her prison dossier, were circulated and published in the post-Mao period, giving rise to an almost cult-like commemoration of Lin’s “martyrdom” that was enhanced by Hu Jie’s 胡杰 well-known documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (尋找林昭的靈魂, 2004). Ironically, it was the state incarceration system that preserved Lin’s writings and made it possible for us to know of her persecution. The latter part of the chapter concerns Hu Jie’s digital remediation of Lin Zhao’s textual and corporeal remains and the netizens who then posted stories about Lin Zhao in “thousands of blogs and created fan sites as well as poetic, fictional, and musical tributes” (61). Li also chronicles how Lin Zhao’s grave in Suzhou became a memorial site, one the state sought to close but that was protected by a group of devotees.

Chapter 2 turns to the fascinating, and disturbing, case of Nie Gannu 聶紺弩, a zawen-style essayist who suffered from political persecution beginning with the anti-Hu Feng campaign in 1955 and through the Cultural Revolution. Li uses Nie’s dossier, which included his writings, letters, confessions, diaries, interrogation notes, investigations into his family and personal relationships, court verdicts, prison warden notes, and the classical poetry he wrote while incarcerated, as her “artifacts,” arguing that dossiers like this should be treated as part of what Chen Sihe 陈思和 has called “invisible writing” and that Li calls “dossier literature.” Unlike Chen, however, Li wants us to look at dossiers not just as manifestation of state oppression and resistance to it; the “archival regime of memory,” she writes, “has a repressive, censoring side and a generative, productive side” (72, my italics), and was “both a treacherous tool of and treasurable sanctuaries from totalitarian power” (78). In her desire to avoid absolutes—either vilifying the Maoist state or glorifying its victims—Li perhaps exaggerates the positive side of state ideological institutions.

Li devotes some space—I wish there had been a bit more—to Nie’s classical poems and how he uses wit, irony, and allusions to attack his oppressors. But the remarkable thing about his writing is his apparent lack of bitterness about his experiences, as well as his tolerance and compassion toward people like Shu Wu 舒蕪, a member of Hu Feng’s 胡風 literary coterie who famously turned on his mentor by handing over private letters to Party bureaucrats as evidence of Hu Feng’s perfidy. In a 1982 letter to Shu Wu, Nie wrote: “I saw some compare you to Judas and got quite angry. . . . Hu Feng was crucified, but then hundreds of thousands were crucified in all kinds of ways. Did you anticipate this? I certainly didn’t, even after decades as a CCP member. I would never have dreamed of the ‘ten years of catastrophe.’ Yet how strange that people hate Judas but not Pilate who sent him to the cross? I feel that the Judas story was invented so that people could change their target” (91). A remarkably intelligent denunciation of a system that encouraged betrayal of friends and family.

His case might never have come to light in the post-Mao era if a retired judge had not published extensive excerpts from Nie’s dossier in a literary magazine, which in turn stirred debate in journals and online about Maoist persecution and the complicity of some intellectuals in that persecution. In the debate, some questioned the judge’s motivations and recognized that his elite status gave him unique access to Nie’s file; some wondered what public good it served to denounce complicitous intellectuals; some called for a general opening up of the archive of personal dossiers, whereas others said they should all be destroyed. As Li writes: “Since many individuals targeted in one political campaign had been activists in a prior campaign, I argue that a memorial museum of the Mao era must reckon with this imbrication between victimhood and perpetration, revolutionaries and the revolutionized, motivating ideals and human costs” (69). For Li, personal dossiers “feature not so much narratives of revolutionary salvation, heroic martyrdom, or traumatic victimhood; rather, they provide more nuanced stories of complicity, accommodation, and survival under socialism; tangled skeins of confessions and denunciations that reveal widespread complicity with authoritarian power as well as a network of eyes, ears, and writing hands so essential to the party’s surveillance and control of the populace” (98). I find this argument very convincing.

Chapter 3 concerns the profusion of propaganda photographs extolling the achievements of the Great Leap Forward, on the one hand, and the near-total absence of photographs of the ensuing famine, on the other. Li argues that these inseparable phenomena are, at least partly, the product of the history of the Western photographic gaze in the preceding Republican era, when images of opium smokers and women with bound feet seemed to shape global perceptions of China as poor and backward. As a result, after 1949 photography was charged, as Li puts it, with “transforming China’s image of shame into images of pride, photographic ‘exposures’ of societal darkness into photographic ‘projections’ of the nations’ bright future” (107-08). The ideological underpinning of this type of photography was, of course, “revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism.” The trick for photographers under the new regime was how to balance making the country look good and being truthful, with the latter mostly losing out to the former.

Yu Chengjian’s “Rejoicing on an Early Rice Sputnik” (People’s Daily, Aug. 15, 1958), an example of Great Leap Forward propaganda photography.

The Great Leap Forward was, somewhat surprisingly given the paucity of documentary images of poverty and hunger, the beginning of the emergence of mass photography in China, when domestically-made cameras could be purchased by a widening populace. The periodical Mass Photography was also founded in the Great Leap and served as a textbook for budding photographers on how to see and how to photograph the world around them. More from a sense of “patriotic sentiment” than from “political censorship” (141), Li argues, photographers were thus primed not to take pictures of poverty, hunger, and other social problems.

Propaganda photography during the GLF was, of course, not innocent: it contributed to the utopian fervor that led directly to the worst famine in human history. But these sorts of artifacts should be included in a memorial museum: “Rather than dismissing propaganda photos or treating them as objective windows onto a historical past,” Li argues, “we should recognize both the aspirations they express and their complicity in the catastrophe” (147).

Chapter 4 adds two well-known foreign documentaries about China during the Cultural Revolution—Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo (1974) and Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan’s 12-hour Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976)—to the memorial museum. Li sees these films as the product of three contexts: “the Maoist audiovisual regime, the global audiovisual economy, and postsocialist audiovisual memories” (151). That is, the films are “coproductions” between a Western and Maoist aesthetics/ideology (151), but they were also rediscovered in post-Mao China and reinterpreted both as visions of a “world of simplicity, serenity, and stability” and of a time of “poverty, conformity, and stilted performance” (152).

The Cultural Revolution reaction to these films, especially Chung Kuo, was grounded in a long history of imperialist filmic representations of China and Chinese people. Led by Jiang Qing, the attack reviled Antonioni for not adhering to Chinese regulations (e.g., he filmed shots surreptitiously using telephoto lens or demanded to stop at places not on the official itinerary), for portraying China as backward (e.g., filming bound feet and oxcarts) and deemphasizing its modernization in the new society, and for filming national icons, such as Tiananmen Square and the Nanjing Bridge, in ways that understated their grandeur. In short, Chung Kuo conformed to an orientalist ideology that wants China to remain as an “ancient and exotic other” rather than be a modern socialist nation (181). For its part, Yukong Moved the Mountains conformed more closely to Mao-era expectations, but still managed to go off-script, particularly through its use of long-take realism.

Particularly interesting in the chapter is Li’s discussion of the postsocialist remediation of these films as responses to the frenzied and alienating world of China’s neoliberal economy, but also the influence they had on shaping the aesthetic orientation of a generation of Chinese film documentarians in the 1990s and 2000s.

Opening establishing shot in West of the Tracks of a factory complex in Shenyang.

Chapter 5, entitled “Factory Rubble,” analyzes “physical spaces and material relics as tangible testimonies of the Mao era” (194), but the chapter is primarily about postsocialist filmic representations of factory spaces. For Li, these films belong in a memorial museum because they “museumify” socialist-era memories. To my mind, the term “museumify” suggests a rigid reification of the past, but I think Li understands this process in largely positive ways. She focusses on three films: Wang Bing’s 王兵 West of the Tracks (鐵西區, 2002), Jia Zhangke’s 賈樟柯 24 City (二十四城記, ), and  Zhang Meng’s 張猛 Piano in the Factory (鋼的琴, 2010), the first two in the documentary mode and the latter a feature film. All three films are set in and around socialist era factories that have been abandoned and/or demolished. The dilapidated factory is a metaphor for the tenuous place of the socialist past in postsocialist China. MCLC readers will be more familiar with these films than with other things treated in this book, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that Li is a sensitive and sophisticated reader of the films and highlights in her analysis how “Such cinema not only remediates vanishing physical spaces, material artifacts, aging bodies, and fading voices into audiovisual images but also serves as a virtual museum whose collection of memory fragments inspires further recollections by their audiences” (226).

The final chapter turns to physical museums and memorial sites. As in the book’s introduction, Li begins with Ba Jin’s call for a Cultural Revolution museum and various efforts, in book and online formats, to heed that call. She then turns her attention to a Mao era museum—the Dayi Landlord Manor Exhibition Hall (大邑地主莊園陳列館), which opened as a public museum in 1959 and then gained national attention when the Rent Collection Courtyard (收租院) sculptural series was erected within the compound in 1965. At the time, the museum served to reinforce the Maoist discourse of class struggle, but unlike many other Mao era lieux de mémoire, this one has survived into the postsocialist era. Visitors to the museum are now confronted with contradictory messages that, on the one hand, continue the Mao era vilification of the landlord class and that, on the other, eulogize the wealth, taste, philanthropy, and economic benefits brought to rural China by wealthy landlords, the latter a message that resonates with the ethos of the present neoliberal economy.

Li fills out the chapter with fascinating dicussions of several other sites. For example, the Jianchuan Museum Cluster (建川博物館聚落), a private museum that displays Cultural Revolution artifacts in a “Red Era” series of exhibition halls and that wavers between commodification of the Maoist past and a serious attempt to critically reflect on that past. She then looks at several “trauma sites,” at which horrors of the Maoist past took place: the Jiabiangou Labor Camp (建邊溝勞動), made famous by several works of post-Mao reportage and of documentary films; the May Seventh Cadre School in Xianning (咸寧五七幹校), where the likes of Shen Congwen 沈從文 and Bing Xin 冰心 underwent ideological retraining; the Shapingba Red Guard Graveyard (沙坪壩紅衛兵墓園) in Chongqing and the short-lived Cultural Revolution Museum in Shantou (汕頭文革博物館), both burial grounds for victims of violent factionalism among Red Guard units.

This is a wonderful and important book. Important not only because of its nuanced readings of Mao era artifacts and their post-Mao remediation, but because it points in practical ways to possibilities for remembering the Maoist past. Li is not naïve; she recognizes that in the present political climate a state museum dedicated to an objective chronicling of the Mao era is simply impossible. Keep in mind that when the Museum of the Chinese Revolution (folded into the present National Museum of China) was established in 1961, it had a mandate to establish an exhibit on “contemporary” China (e.g., after the revolution). Because of the political sensitivity and ever-changing politics of post-revolutionary PRC, however, that exhibit never materialized. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2011, fifty years later, that a contemporary history exhibit was finally mounted at the museum. Not surprisingly, that exhibit is a thorough whitewashing of the horrors and trauma of the Mao era. Li holds little hope for a state museum that might treat the Maoist past fairly and objectively. Clearly, the “utopian” part of Li’s archaeology is anathema to the present regime because it can be turned against its market-oriented, neoliberal economic policies, but so too are the “ruins,” which can undermine the legitimacy of a party that continues to see its modernizing achievements as built on the foundation of the Maoist past. Instead, as discussed in the Epilogue, which is subtitled “Notes for Future Curators,” Li holds more hope for smaller, local, and non-confrontational modes of memorialization. As discussed above, she favors an approach that both tells the stories of victims of persecution and mass mobilizations and that accounts for the sincere longings of the Chinese people for revolutionary change. I’m less sanguine than Li about these forms of memorialization and wonder if it’s possible to disentangle Maoism’s utopian dreams from the resulting dystopian nightmares in the ways she seems to in this book. Many Western-based academics will read the book, but I doubt that the people who should read it—cultural bureaucrats, historians, museum officials, and curators in China—ever will, which would be a shame. How to allow the artifacts Li analyzes to percolate up into the official space of state museums and Party historiography remains a daunting task.

Kirk A. Denton
The Ohio State University