Sebastian Veg (editor), Popular Memories of the Mao Era: From Critical Debate to Reassessing History 毛時代的民間記憶：從批判性辯論到歷史的再評價, Hong Kong University Press, 2019. 256 pgs.
Previously, I reviewed Maoist Laughter, a set of essays covering the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) manipulation of comedic mediums to endorse Maoist China as a sole and righteous reality, for Cha Review of Books and Films. Now, after Maoist Laughter’s narrative of official censorship, resistant forms of culture in Maoist China take centre stage in Popular Memories of the Mao Era; these essays explore the aesthetic innovations that underground artists took to sidestep censorship and expose truths about CCP’s failures (most notably the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution).
Popular Memories of the Mao Era’s discussions about Chinese artists’ resilience and commitment to their craft is particularly timely considering China’s current struggles with the Western world. Across Western media, China features as an anti-democratic bully with no regard for human rights. Beginning with anti-Chinese sentiment attached to the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia-China relations soured considerably during the period in which I reviewed Maoist Laughter and Popular Memories of the Mao Era. First, Australia pushed for an independent inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus. Following this, China and Australia engaged in disagreements over tariffs on products such as barley, lobsters, and wine. More recently, the Chinese government tweeted a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child, which Chinese officials refused to remove and apologise for.
Popular Memories of the Mao Era reminds us that China continues to have inventive intellectuals who are accustomed to resisting and sidestepping censorship for the sake of exposing ordinary people’s truths and experiences. Sebastian Veg, the editor of the volume, sets out two research questions: 1) how do these popular initiatives to obtain unofficial and alternative narratives reconfigure our understanding of the Mao era? 2) How does each differ from previous popular expressions of the Mao era? The book’s three sections cover different aspects of Veg’s research questions. “Unofficial Memories in the Public Sphere: Journals, Internet, Museums” studies the short-lived survival of official journals and the rise of faster, more informal media in exposing the truth about CCP disasters. “Critical Memory and Cultural Practices: Reconfiguring Elite and Popular Discourse” zooms in on the aesthetic techniques and underground arenas that artists used to protect their anti-Mao undertones from outright censorship. Lastly, “Unofficial Sources and Popular Historiography: New Discourses of Knowledge on the Mao Era” shows how legal documents of illegal sellers and protests by rusticated youths expose the reality of economic impoverishment underlying a communist system that falsely promised collective wealth.
The first section “Unofficial Memories in the Public Sphere” discusses the lifespans of official journals (e.g., Annals of the Yellow Emperor) and unofficial accounts (e.g., Our History, social media, oral history). In defence against criticisms regarding the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution, the CCP tried to characterise itself as China’s protector through two means: 1) emphasising its role in fending off Japanese imperialism and 2) minimising or erasing fatalities and impacts. In Chapters 2 and 3, Jean-Philippe Béja and Wu Si suggest that upholding these two aspects relied on what they call enforced “public amnesia”: the government’s alteration of historical records and educational materials about Chinese history were part of an effort to brainwash the public into believing that, although the CCP had made miscalculations, it has always striven for the people’s freedom from imperialist and capitalist evils. All anti-CCP publications were equated with support for Japanese imperialism. One of the targeted journals was Annals of the Yellow Emperor. This journal’s capacity to reveal corruption in CCP history was down to its unusual editorial team: many members were old enough to personally remember and comment on CCP flaws and had official (or former official) status which gave them privileged insights into party workings. Shortly after Annals of the Yellow Emperor enjoyed popularity among overseas and mainland Chinese, the CCP forced the original staff to resign and replaced them with pro-CCP personnel. Similar to the downfall of official journals, attempts to form state-sponsored memorials for the Cultural Revolution’s failures were either never realised, or forced to downplay tragedy.
While official communication modes were degraded into pro-CCP propaganda, fluid mediums were more difficult to regulate. Local histories, social media and private museums committed themselves to remembering the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. In Chapter 4, Jun Liu’s content analysis of social media notes the importance of social media in the “emergence, dissemination and dissension of historical information”, features which we have also seen used to intensify political polarisation and disinformation in modern times. In Chapter 5, Kirk A. Denton’s essay states that private museums arising in the 1990s and onwards were potential spaces for protecting alternative narratives. The State encouraged private museums as methods of enhancing the cultural economy, something essential to maintaining communist China’s image as a pluralistic and culturally rich nation at home and abroad. Anti-CCP hints often sneaked themselves into the establishments, even under strict censorship rules. For example, Jiachuan Museum Cluster illustrates how private museums’ ambiguous need to satisfy market-consumers (who privately yearned for truth) as well as pro-communist conditions facilitated flexibility in telling alternative histories. Even recent scholars cannot agree whether the museum is a form of nostalgia, a disruption of mainstream pro-Mao history or a pro-State attempt to provide a watered down version of the tragedy. Avant-garde spaces, unofficial journals and private museums remained the key (if not sole) mediums for holistic representations of the CCP’s blunders.
The second section of the book, “Critical Memory and Cultural Practices“, explores aesthetic practices either used to expose the horrors of the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution through allegory (in the case of literary fiction) or raw authenticity (in the case of documentary). The second section ties back to the introduction’s set-up of political categories and artistic mediums that developed under authoritarian communist structures. In the introduction, Veg distinguishes between liberal and authoritarian conceptualisations about history versus memory. In liberal societies, history attempts to rationalise the past while memory sacralises it. Although often characterised as opposites of one another, history and memory according to a modern liberal mindset can run in parallel with one another, with history privileging factual correctness and memory foregrounding subjective experience. This is not the case in authoritarian societies: state-sanctioned official history and popular/underground memory are entirely impermeable to one another. The divorced nature of history and memory in authoritarian-socialist societies makes attention to suppressed, alternative stories key not only to discovering both individual experiences but also basic concrete truths about the Mao era. In response to communist attempts to suppress alternative narratives, artists and writers needed to devise innovative ways of addressing social issues.
The introduction established three mediums through which alternative Maoist China’s narrative expressed themselves: journalism (print and internet), cultural production (literature, film and visual art), and amateur history (memoir, oral history and autobiographical). At first, I was somewhat surprised by the book’s separation of cultural production and amateur history, since amateur histories are curated the way cultural production forms are. However, the negligibility of the difference between cultural productions and amateur histories only applies in liberal societies where artists in any form do not need to worry about criminal punishment or wilful distortion of their work. In authoritarian arenas, differences in intention and technique between amateur history and fiction subject the two genres to different forms of control: amateur histories could be twisted and reframed as part of a pro-communist narrative that upheld myths of proletariat concern; cultural productions featuring anti-Mao ideas would either have anti-Mao elements erased or whole performances and styles banned entirely.
Both fiction writers and amateur historians needed to maximise their forms’ capabilities to fight against false myths of the CCP as China’s protector from a corrupt external (usually Western- or Japanese-imperialist) world. Cultural productions use drama to unveil conceptual flaws in their government’s structures. In chapter 6, Veg’s comparative study of literary texts by Yang Xianhui, Yang Jisheng and Yan Lianke suggests that literature capitalises on fantasy and allegory to emphasise irony in communist totalitarian structures that tout collective harmony but incentivised backstabbing and self-interest. For these four authors, being a respectable citizen of communist China is a purity competition in which proving allegiance to authorities was a survival game that involved dobbing in fellow citizens. The amateur histories’ quest for realism Judith Pernin covers in Chapter 7 contrasts the four authors’ capitalisation on fictional devices. Amateur histories attempt to capture the real-life atmosphere and ground-level attitudes of a time period. Working on low budgets, amateur historians and filmmakers relied on metafictional tactics (e.g. “behind-the-scenes” tropes, handheld camera, low-resolution footage) to highlight their works’ spontaneous and thus authentic exploration of people’s daily realities. This mimesis often required artists to use sophisticated qualitative techniques (e.g. role-playing situations) to trigger honest performances from participants, since traditional interview styles often caused participants to reproduce typed pro-communist phrases.
In chapter 8, Aihe Wang zooms out from Pernin and Veg’s examinations of aesthetic practices and provides a snapshot of underground artists themselves to show the ways they maintained their careers. Wang focuses on the Wuming painting group which consisted of about 15 members spanning two generations and a variety of manual labour jobs. The members exchanged, smuggled and created dissident art that added to their clients’ private art collections, subverting western misconceptions that Chinese people were helpless brainwashed beings under Mao. These artists and their consumers outsmarted the system, superficially complying with government rules in the day time while indulging their aesthetic interests in private.
Opening the third section, “Unofficial Sources and Popular Historiography”, Frank Dikotter maintains Wang’s idea of people employing pro-Communist public personalities versus aesthetically liberated private lives but extends this to the economic domain. In Chapter 9, Dikotter states that a “second economy” arose in response to the government’s incapacity to promise sufficient and equal wealth to its entire people. The second economy consisted of underground sources of income such as working in illegal factories or private plots. Beneath well-documented ideological cleansing strategies (e.g., book burning, re-education camps), the CCP’s targets, such as religious followers and underground sellers, continued their dealings and traditions underground. They traded forbidden western texts which were sometimes hand-copied for circulation: these ranged from religious teachings to erotic stories, both of which were banned. The underground nature of these activities developed a literal dimension, with people establishing tunnels to connect strategic areas of trade.
In Chapter 10, Daniel Leese’s analysis of criminal case studies zooms in on the ways individual accounts occurring in the “second economy” exposed alternative perspectives through which to view social rights and norms. In criminal cases, the deviant person attempts to transform the accused wrongdoing into a convincing story that will excuse him or her or lessen the punishment. These justification attempts revealed that breaches (e.g., selling Western goods) often resulted from inadequate government attempts to address poverty. Although materials denouncing Maoist ideals were forbidden, the case files were similar to the Jiachuan Museum cluster in that their ambiguous and complex purpose allowed them to escape outright detection-and-removal mechanisms built into the state.
In Chapter 11, Michael Bonnin continues Leese’s ideas about case studies as counterattacks to mainstream narratives in his dismantlement of official versus unofficial accounts with respect to the rusticated youth movement. The rusticated youth movement was an institutionalised 1960s-1980 scheme during which urban-educated youths were sent to work in the countryside to eliminate the chance of them rising against government rule. The official narrative suggests that the leader of the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping (ruled 1978-1989), offered youths the chance to return from the countryside to take up urban jobs but that the youths resisted because they had been successfully transformed into enthusiastic rural workers. However, a reconstruction of unofficial records indicates the true reason for the rapid return of the youths to their cities was a series of youth protests. Rusticated youths were forced to sign up as “volunteers” to leave for the country—noncompliance with CCP requests meant extreme punishment. Rapes, abuses and poor healthcare in the countryside led to death and crippling among many rusticated youths, who then fought for the right to return home. Dikotter and Leese show that, contrary to Western ideas about Chinese citizens accepting oppression and brainwashing, people created economic and social buffers to make up for the inadequacies in official structures.
CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS
Popular Memories of the Mao Era shows that even during the strictest censorship periods, Chinese intellectuals, writers and everyday local historians worked to preserve historical truths. While the state eliminated formal attempts to resist amnesia (e.g. official journals such as Yellow Annals of the Yellow Emperor), unofficial artistic forms were cracks through which people’s real life dissatisfactions could be expressed. In totalitarian societies, the survival of political dissidents and their work relies on underground operation and careful tactics. Such subtlety and strategy are alien concepts in liberal-democratic societies, where so-called activists tattoo slogans and allegiances onto their bodies and social media accounts. They parade around metropolitan centres, haughty about their moral superiority over a silent mass whom they judge to be even guiltier than the very perpetrators of injustices. Activists in democratic countries should remember that their public displays of political virtue-signalling are only possible under liberal governments who protect free speech and individual rights to dignity, even for those conducting anti-authority, anti-government rampages. Just because resistance within China against its government’s national and global injustices is not visible does not mean that critical thinking is dead and that Chinese civilians are silent conformists.
The doctored Australian soldier tweet shows that attempts to distort history continue today. However, modern misinformation occurs on a scale more dire given technological capabilities for sophisticated truth manipulations (e.g. deep fakes, enhanced photo editing capacity) and rapid dissemination. While the Australian government and allied powers are justified in their rejection of false photographic evidence, I disagree with the generalised anti-China rhetoric which has accelerated since the onset of the coronavirus. Anti-Chinese generalisation further marginalises and erases critical thinkers within China, whose intimate knowledge of their own country’s history and politics are key to promoting open debate and truth-telling. Instead of descending into anti-Asian tantrums during every China-related grievance, we should acknowledge and support China’s critical thinkers. They continue to risk their lives and reputations to expose memories of ordinary people’s sufferings and defy state-enforced silences and distortions of history.
How to cite: An, Frances “Underground resilience in Popular Memories of the Mao Era.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 02 Feb. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/02/02/mao-era/.
Frances An is a Vietnamese-Australian fiction and non-fiction writer based in Perth. She is interested in the literatures of Communism, moral self-perception, white-collar misconduct and Nhạc Vàng (Yellow/Gold Music). She has performed/published in the Sydney Review Of Books, Seizure Online, Cincinnati Review, Sydney Writers Festival, Star 82, among other venues. She received a Create NSW Early Career Writers Grant 2018, partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet Literary Program 2019, and 2020 Inner City Residency (Perth, Australia). She is completing a PhD in Psychology at the University Of Western Australia on motivations behind ‘curbstoning’ (data falsification in market research).