The Social Construction and Deconstruction of Evil
Landlords in Contemporary Chinese Fiction, Art,
and Collective Memory

By Guo Wu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 25, no. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 131-164

Using theories of sociology, personal interviews, textual and image analysis, and historical contextualization, the essay examines the portrayal of evil landlords in Chinese film and art, with a focus on the process of Chinese socialist state’s creation of difficult reputations of notorious evil landlords, the reception of the images, and their transformations today. The essay demonstrates how the image of fictitious landlord Huang Shiren is gradually demonized and caricatured from the original opera to the later film, ballet, and children’s comic book, and argues that the process of constructing Huang Shiren in White-Haired Girl is in line with the radicalization of Chinese politics from the 1940s through the 1970s.

The image of the Sichuan landlord Liu Wencai is another case under study. The state used multiple methods to make Liu Wencai an epitome of all evils of the old society by sponsoring the design and construction of the Liu Wencai manor museum as a class struggle education site and training his tenants to recall the bitterness they suffered from Liu Wencai. The state and local artists also created the famous Rent-Collection Courtyard sculpture of over 100 figures to enhance the effect in educating the masses about the evilness of the landlord class. The article also shows that in recent years, the descendants of the accused landlords have started to challenge the difficult reputation of their forebears. The grandson of Liu Wencai privately interviewed the former tenants of Liu Wencai, attempting to rectify the name of his grandfather, and the great grandson of Zhou Chunfu, another notorious landlord who allegedly mimicked rooster crowing to wake up his hired laborers to work early. Zhou Chunfu (Zhou Bapi)’s story is invented in the soldier-writer Gao Yubao’s semi-fictitious autobiography, and it was so popular in socialist China that his great grandson Meng Lingqian published a book to rectify the name of Zhou Chunfu. Finally, the essay argues that socialist China as a propaganda state had sophisticated top-down techniques and rhetoric to create propaganda discourse about the evil character of the landlord class through a variety of art forms, which became a part of socialist China art as well as collective memory and historical imagination and posed challenge to the definition of art, literature, and history. However, it is in turn being challenged by a new round of historical inquiry and personal memory.

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