MCLC Resource Center has published my review of Utopian Ruins: A Memorial Museum of the Mao Era, by Jie Li. The review appears below and at its online home: https://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/kdenton3/. My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, MCLC literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.
A Memorial Museum of the Mao Era
By Jie Li
Reviewed by Kirk A. Denton
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2021)
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 China, both 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. Continue reading