Red Legacies in China:
Cultural Afterlives of the Communist Revolution

Edited by Jie Li and Enhua Zhang

Reviewed by Xing Fan
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2017)

Jie Li and Enhua Zhang, eds., Red Legacies in China: Cultural Afterlives of the Communist Revolution Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016. 424 pp. ISBN: 9780674737181

Red Legacies in China: Cultural Afterlives of the Communist Revolution pays close attention to three interconnected questions: What constitutes red legacies in post-Mao China? How do these red legacies interact with the present? And what do we make of these interactions? The anthology includes twelve essays whose authors employ multidisciplinary, multifaceted, and multidimensional approaches, interpretations, observations, and reflections. Red Legacies in China is an important title for scholars, educators, students, and general readers who are interested in the cultural legacies of the Communist Revolution, read in the context of China’s economic, political, and ideological transformations.

In Chapter 1, “Making a Revolutionary Monument,” Denise Y. Ho delves into the “tension between authenticity and interpretation,” a red legacy that “persists into the post-Mao era” (26). Based on meticulous archival research, Ho highlights instances of that tension in a number of cases: the strain between authenticating the original site of the Chinese Communist Party’s First National Congress and the desired interpretation in the early 1950s of the revolution’s origins; the stresses in museology from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s, when museum officials’ frustrated search for an accurate and authentic portrayal of the original Congress was obscured by ambiguous official narratives; the circulation of a revised party history (as political broad-side against Mao’s perceived enemies) at the same time revolutionary relics were being presented to the masses during the Cultural Revolution; the promotion of a truthful representation of party history by those paradoxically advocating for the revolutionary narrative during the reform era; and finally, the somewhat embarrassing dilemma of curators stressing the significance of genuine revolutionary relics to viewers in a contemporary context where the party’s legitimacy was open to interpretation.

In Chapter 2, “Building Big, with No Regret,” Zhu Tao examines “building big” as a socialist legacy in the People’s Republic of China. Zhu first examines the Great Hall of the People, the core of the “Beijing’s Ten Great Buildings” project, within the historical, ideological, and cultural context of the Great Leap Forward, delineating its twelve months of planning, design, and construction. Zhu further discusses the socialist legacy in today’s China and counters two generalized views of the “building big” concept—as either a Chinese imperial heritage or a strategy shared by international dictators of grandiose monumental buildings. Emphasizing the context of modern and contemporary China, Zhu explores how the notion of “bigness” is deeply rooted in the ideological foundation of nationalism, how the pursuit of “bigness” exerts a sweeping influence in China, and how “bigness” stands at the core of a paradox: mega-buildings serve as landmarks of a developing modern socialist China, yet they are constructed in a “State-Capitalist style” (80).

In Chapter 3, “Ambiguities of Address,” Harriet Evans challenges the reader to see beyond the face value of propaganda posters. She points to negotiated readings to account for the enduring appeal of Cultural Revolution posters, arguing that the appeal and understanding of these posters are far from consistent or unitary across time and place. Evans presents the perplexing picture from four perspectives: poster imagery which—whether or not featuring Mao’s iconic figure—evokes different emotions and motivations from readers in different times; the fluid relationship between posters and their painters (involving, among other aspects, personal interests, private fantasies, artistic skills, and aesthetic choices); images of women that give rise to a variety of readings in different genders and generations; and the re-reproduction of Cultural Revolution posters, with their various themes appealing to diverse viewers in different temporalities, intricately associated with contemporary consumers’ ever-changing, mixed feelings regarding the past, the present, and the future.

In Chapter 4, “Socialist Visual Experience as Cultural Identity,” Xiaobing Tang revisits the work of prominent contemporary artist Wang Guangyi, whose history of identifying, defining, exploring, and constructing socialist visual experience constitutes a legacy transcending ideology. With a careful contextualization of visual artistic practices and experiences in socialist China, in particular those of the Cultural Revolution era, Tang analyzes how Wang’s early series ignited the artist’s interest in socialist visual culture. He explains how Wang’s choices and strategies of juxtaposition in the Great Criticism series allowed remnants of the past to contribute to a contemporary politics of vision, and how Wang’s shift of attention to monumentality when presenting the socialist tradition as comprised of plural histories challenged the hegemonic, post-Cold War reading of history. Finally, Tang shows how Wang, through his recent Cold War Aesthetics, reflects on themes such as art and the people, a socialist legacy.

In Chapter 5, “Performing the ‘Red Classics’,” Xiaomei Chen examines the negotiation between presenting the past and serving the present through three grand revolutionary music and dance epics: The East is Red (1964), The Song of the Chinese Revolution (1984), and The Road to Revival (2009). Weaving the three pieces’ political and historical contexts into a comparison of their themes, creative processes, and styles, Chen analyzes a series of ironic paradoxes in the red legacy of the PRC’s state performance culture. Chen notes that a tailored, revised, and “correct” past is presented to legitimize the present, despite China’s shift from socialist revolution in the 1960s to semi-capitalism in the reform era, and then to capitalism in the early twenty-first century. She further examines the historical variations that emerged from an unwavering faith in a massive theatrical form: the cult of Mao, the cult of Deng, and finally the cult of the production director. The chapter also remarks on the advantage of possessing sufficient artistic and financial resources in the constant pursuit of spectacles, which evolve into the visual extravaganzas Chen terms “post-epic theatricality” (176).

In Chapter 6, “Red Legacies in Fiction,” David Der-wei Wang focuses on the intriguing interplay between the fictional dimension of red legacies and the evocative, metahistorical potential of fiction, figuring fiction as an imaginary garden that nurtures red legacies. Wang contextualizes polyphonic post-socialist fiction in literary pursuits and experiments since the turn of the twentieth century, and scrutinizes three dimensions of the red legacy in fiction. He pays special attention to the two traditions formed from the 1950s to the 1970s: the revolutionary-history novel and the peasant novel. In viewing and writing history, Wang argues, more writers are turning to “an archaeological inquiry into the terms in which human relationships in the Communist regime are lived out and therefore become meaningful” (192). The tension and ambivalence between enlightenment and enchantment continues to be negotiated in both urban- and rural-focused narratives. Wang finally turns to red legacies that “have proven both utopian and dystopian” in more recent science-fiction writers’ melding of personal fantasies with futuristic projections of China’s present (202).

In Chapter 7, “Post-Socialist Realism in Chinese Cinema,” Jason McGrath identifies post-socialist realism as the red legacy in post-Mao era Chinese cinema and discusses its intriguing manifestations, including a dialectical other in form alongside a subversive narrative content. McGrath first analyzes how post-socialist realistic cinema subverts the genre conventions of Maoist socialist realism, via tactics such as undermining the CCP-promoted master narrative of China’s history, the popular message that Communists have more fun, and the myths of progress in the PRC. McGrath then discusses two aesthetics of post-socialist realism’s striving for the autonomy of art from politics: long-take and importance attached to incidental detail, both of which negate Mao-era cinema’s socialist realistic approach and its emphasis on conflict-based dramatic events and purpose-oriented narratives. McGrath concludes his analysis of “post-socialist realism” by stressing the ongoing vitality of “post-socialist realism,” a realism of the post-socialist condition.

In Chapter 8, “Mao’s Two Bodies,” Haiyan Lee offers a nuanced interpretation of the cultural phenomenon of Mao impersonation in the post-Mao era. Treating Mao’s body as a red legacy, Lee proposes the “two-body” approach: the Mao body natural and the Mao body politic, and analyzes the post-Mao theatricalization of Mao as practices of “Mao’s depoliticization, or de-Maoification” (253). Lee traces three types of Mao impersonation, illustrating a process of secularization and marketization: portraying Mao as a larger-than-life political leader in quasi-documentary representations from the late 1970s and into the 1980s; giving increasing attention to Mao’s human attributes and allowing performers’ improvisation in professional filmmaking since the 1990s; and performances by freelance Mao impersonators, which has given rise to a “veritable rent-a-Mao cottage industry” (257). Based on this discussion, Lee criticizes two of the West’s misunderstandings of the post-Mao craze: a failure to recognize the myriad and ever-changing features of the craze; and the misconstrual of Mao impersonation via Western-style satire.

In Chapter 9, “‘Human Wave Tactics’,” Andy Rodekohr analyzes contemporary appropriation of the revolutionary visual grammar of crowds, with Zhang Yimou’s films as case studies. Rodekohr focuses on two intertwined themes: mass representation, which has been at the core of China’s revolutionary narrative; and the changing notion of the crowd’s role in post-1980s China. Rodekohr observes that Zhang’s various ways of deploying the crowd image can be characterized by two primary notions: “ideological ritual and the technologies of mass reproduction” (272). He notes an expansive sense of wholeness and sublimity embodied by the unified crowd in the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony. He also discusses Zhang’s maximalist techniques of depicting crowds and how they problematize the relationship between the leaders and the masses in Zhang’s depiction of epic “histories” in the films Hero (2002) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Other examples of Zhang’s cinematographic style are examined, such as those used in The One and the Eight (1983), Yellow Earth (1984), and The Big Parade (1986), techniques which visually confront constructed unity and formed ritual in the crowd image. Citing Red Sorghum (1987), Rodekohr concludes with comments on the interactions between onscreen bodies and audience.

In Chapter 10, “Time Out of Joint,” Carlos Rojas offers a close reading of China’s transition from communism to capitalism as presented and criticized in Yan Lianke’s novel Lenin’s Kisses. Set in 1998 and in one of the poorest and most populous regions of China, the novel tells the story of a local bureaucrat organizing performance troupes comprised of disabled residents of Liven village, with the purpose of raising money to purchase Lenin’s corpse and to install it in a special Lenin Memorial Hall in order to develop a regional tourist industry. Rojas interprets the multiple layers of ironies that Yan associates with Lenin’s embalmed corpse and the Liven villager’s disabled bodies. For example, Lenin’s corpse, a revolutionary relic, is desired for its economic promise to bring profit exceeding the support that local villagers receive under communism; at the same time, the Liven villagers’ disabled bodies, as touring cultural commodities, symbolize the subaltern population who serve as a key element in economic growth predicated on their own marginalization. Drawing on Julia Kristeva’s and Jacques Lacan’s theories, Rojas further analyzes the supplementary status of the corpse and the disabled bodies. Noting parallels between the Liven villagers’ self-commodification and Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Noam Chomsky’s concepts of “dead souls” and “unpeople,” respectively, Rojas calls attention to Yan’s strategic inversion of “the dehumanizing consequences of China’s capitalist logic” (313).

In Chapter 11, “Museums and Memorials of the Mao Era,” Jie Li examines memories of the Mao-era as a red legacy, surveying existing sites and advocating for new curatorial proposals. Based on field research, Li first guides us on a tour of red legacy places of memory in China. With keen observations of the motivation and development behind the sites’ establishment and management, Li brings forth a series of critical issues: the dilemma of Manichean representation confronting ideological vacillations; how the marketing of red memorabilia as commodities for private collectors or as public tourist sites simultaneously opens spaces for collective remembrance while eliding the revolution’s human costs; how victims are sometimes inverted into heroes and martyrs in presenting the bitter experience of human loss; and how museums’ struggles for political and symbolic capital face state-sponsored amnesia. Li’s proposals for future curators stem from the fundamental notion that the memory of the Mao-era should and can acknowledge different types of victimhood. Li advocates for the “stumbling stones” memorial paradigm that allows local and unofficial memories, remnant traces of the Mao-era as “public memorial art” (344) in diverse public spaces, and grassroots participation in curating public and communal memory work, in different fashions and through different media.

In Chapter 12, “Red Allure and the Crimson Blindfold,” Geremie R. Barmé argues for the complexity of red legacies and urges a thoughtful reflection on their impact on the present. Contextualizing High Maoism (1949-78) both in its enduring allure in contemporary China and in the political culture reaching back to dynastic China, Barmé examines a series of red legacy spheres at the intersection of language, thought, history, culture, and politics. One is the Cold War paradigm of China’s search for liberation and independence and its enduring appeal. Another sphere, based on rumors, fantasies, and/or official interpretation, is comprised of cultural products recapturing the past and contributing to a multifaceted narrative of revolution that reflects both mainstream discourse and its opposition. Barmé examines China’s New Left intellectuals and other elites with direct bonds to first-generation political leaders who, though similarly critical of the “capitalist road,” engage with the masses in different ways. Barmé’s intersections are also the loci of discrepancies between intellectual activities associated with High Maoism and the lack of activism—a legacy of the Mao Era—as well as the tradition of blurring “loyal opposition” and “line struggles.”

Multiplicity is a significant contribution of this anthology, an exemplary work showcasing the urgency to acknowledge the magnitude, approaches, and methodology demanded by the research area. Together, the twelve essays—each an excellent piece of scholarship itself—chart a cultural landscape of complex dialogue between the past and the present in post-Mao China. The authors bring to our attention important red legacies from a broad range of cultural spheres: architecture, fiction, propaganda posters, paintings, sculptures, music and dance epics, cinema, screen-acting, impersonation, museums and monuments, and popular media, including many examples existing at the boundaries of, traversing, and/or combining different spheres. They present provocative perspectives and challenge us to re-examine the binary of the past and the present. The reader is encouraged to explore different manifestations of a continuing tradition/practice across different eras, locations, and contexts, and to revisit a too-often oversimplified past in search of its complexity and enduring appeal. These essays spotlight the unique features of particular cultural products and their genres while delving into an irresolvable tension between art and politics. They also confront long-term misunderstandings and contextualize post-Mao culture in both its narrower political context and in the broader context of China’s history. The essays are grounded in rigorous archival research, personal interviews, visual analysis, performance analysis, performance observations, textual analysis, film analysis, and psychoanalysis, applied individually and/or in combination.

This diversity of disciplinary perspectives and myriad of topics are united by the close attention paid to the practitioners of red legacies, reinforcing a principle for future research on red legacies: culture is the people who practice it. The anthology features some unforgettable moments: Denise Y. Ho presents how museum officials worked out categories of questions that foreign visitors might ask and prepped docents with appropriate answers (38-40); Zhu Tao guides us through the harrowing journey of planning, designing, and constructing the Great Hall of the People (62-73); Harriet Evans leads us to the studios of several artists in Canton, observing their artwork and tracing their personal paths; Xiaobing Tang contextualizes the Red Guards art movement in a much deserved but long-neglected artistic sphere (129-133); Xiaomei Chen narrates the interactions between top political leaders and artists during the process of producing epic histories (154-63); David Der-wei Wang analyzes how writers make word choices to convey a sense of history after posthistory (188-91); Jason McGrath shares statistics of average shot lengths and a detailed frame-by-frame analysis in describing the stylistic approaches of the long-take and the incidental detail (227-34); Haiyan Lee walks us through the life stories of two grassroots Mao impersonators (257-60); Andy Rodekohr describes a cinematographic work with such detail that we are invited into that visual experience (283-88); Carlos Rojas introduces the Liven villagers to us (300-9); Jie Li recalls her experience visiting sites of memory that are popular, banished, semi-official, or somewhat forgotten (325-41); and Geremie R. Barmé traces the family bonds of members of the Children of Yan’an Fellowship and the CCP’s top political leaders (368-74).

The book convincingly proves that, for contemporary Chinese studies, red legacies must be constantly revisited, re-examined, and rewritten. Some inquiries and observations, all inspired by this work, urge further exploration. The twelve essays in Red Legacies in China are organized in five parts: “Red Foundations” (chapters 1 and 2), “Red Art” (chapters 3 and 4), “Red Classics” (chapters 5, 6, and 7), “Red Bodies” (chapters 8, 9, and 10), and “Red Shadows” (chapters 11 and 12). This organization reflects the chapters’ blending of disciplines, subject matter, and themes, yet the book would have benefitted from further explanation of how each part contributes to an overarching framework and strategy. Also, when utilizing red legacies as a “critical framework and interpretive strategy” (4), how does one choose from (or combine) the various methodologies necessary for comprehending the overwhelmingly complex cultural realm?

I should point out a few editorial errors. Zhou Fohai’s wife’s name was Yang Shuhui [杨淑慧], not “Yang Chuhui” (30). The pinyin for 城记 “Cheng j” is missing a vowel (81). Hu Yaobang’s name in Chinese is 胡耀邦, not “胡耀帮” (160). The Chinese for actors who closely resemble historical figures is 特型演员, not “特性演员” (169). The female protagonist in The Peony Pavilion is Du Liniang, not “Du Shiniang” (177). Zhang Guotao’s name in Chinese is 张国焘, not “张国涛” (181). Despite these errors and a few other places needing more careful copy-editing, Red Legacies in China successfully accomplishes the four goals that Jie Li lays out in the introduction: it offers an original contextualization of the past in its interactions with the present; it examines the past in its constant transformations through transmission and obstacles to transmission; it calls for close attention to the productive and receptive process of cultural artifacts; and it adds to the current study of post-socialist China—often with a horizontal, global approach—a vertical lens through which to explore its interplay with its own past.

Xing Fan
Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies
University of Toronto