The Making and Remaking of China’s “Red Classics”:
Politics, Aesthetics and Mass Culture

Edited by Rosemary Roberts and Li Li

Reviewed by Yizhong Gu
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2018)

Rosemary Roberts and Li Li, eds. The Making and Remaking of China’s “Red Classics”: Politics, Aesthetics and Mass Culture Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2018. v-xix + 199 pp. ISBN: 9789888390892. (Hardcover: $60.00 / £47.00).

The Making and Remaking of China’s “Red Classics” not only reveals the mechanisms and operations of Maoist ideology within a variety of cultural products, it also teases out how aspects of the Maoist legacy have been inherited, twisted, and channeled to serve sociopolitical purposes in the reform era (chapters are broadly divided into those addressing issues from the “Maoist Era” and those from the “Reform Era”). In the process, this volume both instantiates a rigorous methodology for the scholarly analysis of “Red Classics” and demonstrates how socialist works of art and aesthetics continue to inform PRC cultural production in the present.

Since the origin of the term “red classics” is unclear, the volume wisely circumvents the question that could lead to a deadlock: which literary and art works can be counted as “red classics”?[1] Instead, it adopts “the broadest understanding of the scope of the ‘red classics’” (ix), investigating not just literature but “films, TV series, picture books, cartoons, and traditional-style paintings” (xi). The editors address this array of media according to three key characteristics: “their sociopolitical and ideological import, their aesthetic significance, and their function as a mass cultural phenomenon” (xi). The volume engages in dialogue between English- and Chinese-language scholarship (two essays are translated from Chinese), a quite welcomed effort since Chinese scholarship on socialist literature is relatively limited for English readers. Although essays vary greatly in subject matter and discipline, the volume still reads like an organic whole (the volume emerged from a 2015 University of Queensland symposium). The authors cross-reference one another’s essays and trace some key theoretical features shared among “red classics” that will be of interest and inspiration both to China studies scholars and general readers who are interested in modern Chinese literature, politics, and culture.

The first six chapters, which constitute Part I, are grouped under the theme “Creating the Canon: The ‘Red Classics’ in the Maoist Era.” In chapter 1 (translated by Ping Qiu and Richard King), Lianfen Yang compares the two versions of Wang Lin’s Hinterland (腹地), a lesser-known socialist novel. The first version of the novel was banned in the early 1950s, owing to its major theme (concerned with the “democratic constitution” 新民主主义宪政), its “naturalistic” writing style, and its loosely constructed narrative, all of which were incongruent with Mao’s “Yan’an Talks.” Wang Lin realized these problems and took about thirty years to revise the novel, making it “a standardized project that conforms to the ‘three prominences’ literary theory of the Cultural Revolution” (15). Unfortunately and ironically, when the second version reached the publisher in 1984, it was already politically out of date and doomed to oblivion. A pertinent case study to start off the volume, Hinterland shows the distinct thematic and stylistic requirements for the making or remaking of “red classics” in different eras, and the difficulties writers confronted when attempting to conform to the ever-shifting political milieu.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on literature’s claim to authenticity or truth, and the ideological suppression or manipulation of literary realism during the Mao era. In chapter 2, Richard King details the “painstaking realism” of Zhou Libo’s novel Great Changes (山乡巨变), including “its insistence on authenticity, and its portrayal of ‘middle characters’” (38). However, such literary realism was increasingly at odds with the intensified prescriptive idealization of revolutionary protagonists beginning  in the early 1960s. The novel was denounced under Jiang Qing’s 1966 “Summary,” which stipulates that “real people and real events” (真人真事) be elevated into overblown heroic archetypes, in accordance with “the universal characteristics seen at the time to apply to members of their class” (34).

The novel Red Crag (红岩), the focus of chapter 3, provides an excellent case that stands opposite to the “painstaking realism” of Great Changes. Li Li traces how Red Crag, originally a piece of reportage on “real people and real events,” concealed many “historical facts” in order to be elevated as a reflection of “historical truth” (57). The protracted writing and rewriting process involved constant negotiation between three authors and the seasoned revolutionary editors. Imprisoned by the Guomindang in the late 1940s, the authors were acquainted with many soon-to-be martyrs and had garnered a considerable amount of “real-life data” while in prison.[2] The editors, however, regarded the authors’ personal eye-witness accounts as “blood-drenched” “piles of data” (47), and they attempted to weave the “real events” into a grand narrative, according to a “prefigured and anticipated” historical truth (48). Red Crag was finally published in 1961, thanks to the senior editor Zhang Yu’s “blood transfusion” strategy of adding vivid but fictitious details and deleting real but inappropriate elements. Taken together, chapters 2 and  3 examine the complicated relationship between “truth” and “reality.” Readers are inspired to further speculate on the need for an ostensibly “truthful” historical master narrative–even if the narrative is an ideological construct of the state, it allows for the collective fantasy of a coherent reality in which one could negotiate one’s identity and place within the social structure.

Chapters 4 and  5 investigate how revolutionary content was married to traditional forms in shaping some of the “red classics.” In chapter 4 (translated by  Krista Van Fleit Hang), Yang Li’s rereading of Tracks in the Snowy Forest (林海雪原) answers a common question that many English readers may have: although “red classics” are ideologically saturated, why are many of them still popular in China today? Li argues that underlying the “revolutionary popular novels” are narrative structures and elements from pre-modern Chinese novels and folk stories that attract Chinese readers. “Tracks in the Snowy Forest wholly redeployed the narrative tactics from Journey to the West [西游记]” (62). Its popularity is also attributable to numerous elements borrowed from martial arts novels and chivalric romance that most Chinese readers would be familiar with. In chapter 5, Kuiyi Shen examines the incorporation of revolutionary themes into China’s indigenous form of painting, guohua 国画. Fifteen exquisitely printed color inserts of guohua allow Shen to deftly guide readers through his analysis of each painting’s composition and texture while providing relevant details of the painters’ lives and perspectives. Shen concludes that revolutionary content gave rise to creativity for these enthusiastic socialist painters, who “successfully created a new kind of art,” the “new guohua,” whose aesthetic vocabulary still dominated the Chinese art world in the 1980s and 1990s (90).

In chapter 6, Xiaofei Tian compares Hao Ran’s early short stories to his works from the latter years of the Cultural Revolution. Hao Ran’s early short stories possess “a fascinating mix of socialist ideology and a raw sexual energy that refuses to be entirely subsumed by the revolutionary discourse” (95). His late works, such as “Spring Snow” (春雪), however, are “unapologetically harsh and violent, reflecting both the changed political atmosphere and Hao Ran’s personal changes” (109). Although Hao Ran’s late works conform strictly to political ideology and Tian argues that they are less energetic, fresh, and rich than his early works, Hao Ran himself, if he were alive, might not agree. Consider, for example, comments Hao Ran made during a 1998 interview, where he stated that “I have never felt regret about my previous works . . . Although The Golden Road (金光大道) emphasized class and line struggles, and downplayed some other things, it recorded people and society of that period in a truthful way.”[3] In the political milieu of 1998, it was common—and much more politically correct—for writers to express feelings of remorse that their works had been promoted by the “Gang of Four.” In this regard, why does Han Ran still feel no regret and insist on the historical validity and truthful representation of that era in his works? This perhaps suggests a more subtle and complex interplay between the prescriptive “truth” imposed on Mao era writers and those writers’ personal perception of the authenticity of the “reality” represented in their works (characters, events, and milieu). For me, this is among the key theoretical issues in the study of socialist literature.

Part II, consisting of chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10, are grouped under the theme “Making over the Canon: The ‘Red Classics’ in the Reform Era.” Each chapter focuses on aspects of the transformation of themes, styles, and ideological connotations of the “red classics” from their Maoist origins to their remakes in the Reform Era. In chapter 7, Rosemary Roberts compares themes and styles of the picture storybooks genre (连环画) between the two eras. The Maoist storybooks are more crude and abstract, designed to stimulate children and low-literacy readers’ revolutionary identification with the “peasants, workers, and soldiers” (123). Storybooks of the reform era, on the contrary, are more refined and detailed, so that their targeted reader group—the middle class—can “appreciate the sophisticated artistry” without necessarily identifying with the peasants (133). The remake of the storybooks gives testimony to the changing relationship among politics, aesthetics, and mass culture in the reform era, which is further discussed in chapter 8, in which Frederik H. Green delineates the long-term indigenization process of the Soviet novel How the Steel Was Tempered in China and argues that the novel has become an inseparable part of modern Chinese popular culture. The protagonist Pavel Korchagin turns “from war hero and popular icon of the Mao era, to unlikely role model during the reform period, and, finally, to a symbol of nostalgia in postsocialist China” (136). The essay analyzes the Soviet influence on modern Chinese culture and, more important, how foreign texts and contexts are selectively adopted, edited, and reinterpreted to serve changing sociopolitical purposes in Chinese society.

Both chapter 9 and chapter 10 highlight the return of traditional (i.e., pre-Maoist, pre-modern) Chinese values in the remakes of the “red classics” during the reform era. In chapter 9, Qian Gong looks into the 2011 TV drama adaptation of the 1961 short story “Hong Sao” (红嫂), and points out that the TV adaptation reflects the CCP’s promotion of Confucianism to establish “the core values of society and the new basis for their ruling legitimacy” (164). The Confucian ethics of “benevolence and compassion,” “gratitude and return of favor,” as well as “filial piety and chastity” pervade the TV series. A similar centrality of Chinese traditional values is also seen in the animated film New Tunnel Warfare (新地道战, 2009), adapted from the Maoist film Tunnel Warfare (地道战, 1965). In chapter 10, Lara Vanderstaay examines how New Tunnel Warfare represents a return of traditional family values and promotes filial piety to young viewers. This ideological promotion has a practical socio-economic purpose: “the state cannot afford to support the disproportionately large elderly population created by decades of the one-child policy” (179).

These ten essays gathered in The Making and Remaking of China’s “Red Classics”: Politics, Aesthetics and Mass Culture convincingly prove the necessity and value of research on the red classics— their Maoist origins, their connection with the reform period, and their meanings in today’s China. Maoist legacies ceaselessly interact with China’s current political regime, sometimes at an accelerated pace, as has happened in recent months. On March 22, 2018, the original State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) issued a notice to ban the production and dissemination of online videos that distort, mock, or defame “classic literary and art works” 经典文艺作品.[4] On April 10, 2018, the State Administration of Radio and Television (SART) ordered the permanent shutdown of Neihan Duanzi 内涵段子,[5] a mobile app that accesses many audio-visual jokes and spoofs of the “red classics,” uploaded by Chinese netizens. Additionally, on April 27, 2018, the Second Session of the 13th NPC Standing Committee passed a law to protect the honor of heroes and martyrs, effective from May 1, 2018. Offenders who defame martyrs or distort their heroic deeds could face “administrative or criminal punishments according to the severity of their actions.”[6]

Such increasingly tight ideological control over the “red classics” shows the importance of this volume and its timely contribution to our understanding of Maoist legacies in China today. “Red classics” do not hibernate in museums and libraries; they reverberate vigorously in current politics and are powerfully inscribed into collective memory, attesting to the inseparably strong connection between China today and its Maoist past.

Yizhong Gu
University of Washington


[1] Roberts and Li mention in the Introduction that “the term ‘red classics’ first emerged in the early post-Mao period and became established in Chinese cultural discourse during the 1990s” (iix). However, they do not pinpoint the exact origin of the term. Nicolai Volland also notes the uncertainty of the term’s origin: it is likely traceable to the marketing efforts for the bundled collection of several socialist novels by Renmin wenxue chubanshe 人民文学出版社 or Huashan wenyi chubanshe 花山文艺出版社 in the mid-1990s. Wang Chunyan suggests another possible origin of the term: it may come from the 1992 album The Red Sun 红太阳, a collection of revolutionary songs set to a vaguely disco beat. See Nicolai Volland, Socialist Cosmopolitanism: The Chinese Literary Universe, 1945-1965 (New York: Columbia UP, 2017), 6. Wang Chunyan, “Hongse jingdian yanjiu zongshu” 红色经典研究综述 (Summary of the Scholarship on “Red Classics”), fn.1,, accessed on Apr 23, 2018.

[2] Li Li points out that one of the three authors, Liu Debin, was accused of being a rightist in 1958 and subsequently excluded from the writing group. Although Liu contributed to the original reportage and the revision process before 1958, it is still under debate whether Liu’s name should be listed as one of the authors (48, fn.18).

[3] Chen Tushou 陈徒手, Renyoubing tianzhifou: yijiusijiu nianhou zhongguo wentan jishi 人有病 天知否:一九四九年后中国文坛纪实 (Does heaven know of the people’s malady?: Documents on Chinese literature after 1949) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 2000), 383-384.

[4] Xinhua News Agency, “China warns against distortion of classic literary, art works,”, accessed on April 23, 2018. After the First Session of the 13th National People’s Congress on March 20, 2018, the original SAPPRFT was divided into the State Administration of Radio and Television (directly under the State Council), the General Administration of Press and Publication, and the State Administration of Film (both directly under the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee).

[5] SART, “SART orders Today’s Headline website to permanently close its Neihan Duanzi app, along with the vulgar video products,”, accessed on April 24, 2018.

[6] Xinhua News Agency, “China adopts law protecting reputation of heroes, martyrs,”, accessed on April 27, 2018.