Rosemary Roberts and Li Li (editors), The Making and Remaking of China’s Red Classics: Politics, Aesthetics, and Mass Culture, Hong Kong University Press, 2017. 236 pgs.
Chinese Communist art has long evolved from stereotypical Socialist realist paintings of peasant marchers wearing fake grins and pro-Mao insignia. While scholars have documented the deterioration of China’s intellectual life under Communist rule, The Making and Remaking of China’s Red Classics (hereafter Red Classics) deviates from others in its scrutiny of Communist cultural circles’ internal politics. Most academic texts on cultural life under Communism assume a binary between the Communist Party’s indoctrination tactics and dissidents’ attempts to preserve individual freedom and dignity. Two such academic texts featuring this binary include the essay collections Maoist Laughter and Popular Memories of the Mao Era (hereafter Popular Memories), both of which have been reviewed for Cha Review of Books and Films. Maoist Laughter tracked the promotion of humorous mediums which worked to legitimise the Communist leadership’s status as the nation’s protector against Western imperialism. Popular Memories explored aesthetic techniques and underground networks used to circumvent official censorship attempts.
Red Classics granulates the relationship between Communist indoctrination and artistic practice. In exploring conflicts within Communist cultural arenas, the book demonstrates how the standards for Communist canon or Red Classics exposes: 1) the hypocritical aesthetic standards embedded in Socialist realist practice and consequently 2) the incoherent political ideals promoted within Communist culture.
HYPOCRITICAL AESTHETIC STANDARDS IN SOCIALIST-REALISM PRACTICE
Communist parties’ prohibitions of romanticism and European values in various countries are well documented. For example, the essays in Popular Memories investigated black markets used to circulate forbidden texts (e.g. religious teachings, Western art pieces and books) and humanistic ideas among ordinary people. However, Red Classics suggests that only foreign styles which undermined Communist leadership were rejected as emotionally wrought and individualistic. Otherwise, the Communist Party welcomed Western visual techniques and Soviet archetypes if these supplemented socialist visions. Rosemary Roberts’s exploration of Western-inspired visual techniques found in lianhuanhua 連環畫(Chapter 7) and Chinese texts’ appropriation of the Soviet hero Pavel Korchagin (essay by Frederik Green, Chapter 8) illustrate the open importation of pro-Communist European modes. Lianhuanhua were palm-sized picture books consisting of an illustration and two to three lines of text on each page. Many Red Classics were adapted into lianhuanhua and distributed to low-literacy people (e.g. peasants, factory workers) for easy dissemination of Communist ideas. Despite prohibitions on foreign texts and art forms, lianhuanhua flaunted Western visual comic techniques. In Chapter 8, Green notes the dominance of the Soviet role model Pavel Korchagin, hero of Nikolai Ostrovsky’s novel How the Steel Was Tempered. The novel follows the young Korchagin, and his journey from poverty-stricken youth to a revolutionary in battle. Chinese Communism developed the term “Pavel spirit”, an ideal of life-affirming commitment to the socialist revolution which citizens should model themselves on.
The leniency towards pro-Communist foreign texts and elements extended to an acceptance of outright gothic narratives that would have otherwise been dismissed as too sentimental. Two such pro-Communist texts featuring gothic aspects and melodrama are the novels Red Crag 紅岩 (1961) by Kuang-pin Luo and Yiyan Yang (covered by Li Li in Chapter 3) and Tracks in the Snowy Forest 林海雪原 (1957) by Bo Qu (covered by Yang Li in Chapter 4). In Red Crag, melodrama appears in the display of prisoners’ bodies, animalistic names for enemy characters and vicious weather conditions used to emphasise the epic moral struggle between righteous Communist heroes and their opponents. Similarly, Tracks in the Snowy Forest depicts Communist revolutionaries as literally pure-hearted compared to the enemies: in violent scenes, slashed Communist martyrs’ flesh smells pure compared to the stinking entrails of counterrevolutionaries. In contrast, attempts to eliminate any sentimentality not used for propaganda show in authorities’ paranoid edits to stories by Hao Ran (1932-2008) (covered in Chapter 6 by Xiaofei Tian). For example, Hao Ran’s original line about a woman “laughing with him [(her lover)] like nothing had happened” had the words “with him” deleted to reduce sexual tension.
Meanwhile, Communist leaders’ opinions on traditional Chinese painting styles was ambivalent: initially, they saw traditional styles as elitist nostalgia to be erased. Upon realising traditional art forms’ capacity to enhance patriotism, the Communist Party tried to reintegrate them with a socialist flavour. In Chapter 4, Kuiyi Shen observes the changing views of traditional Chinese art through guohua 國畫, a prestigious oil painting style centred on landscapes, bird-and-flower arrangements, and human figures. Along with other indigenous Chinese art forms in 1949, Communist authorities banned guohua, accusing it being conservative and elitist. Guohua artists either fled or were liquidated. In 1951, Communist authorities realised the need for traditional art forms to maintain national spirit. They reintroduced guohua with modifications for socialist aims: guohua artists would focus on human figures, specifically socialist idols such as peasants rather than natural subjects as former guohua practice had. The ideological biases behind these changes are never revealed, at least not immediately: they are always framed as shifts towards “realism” and “relevance”.
The inconsistent treatment of art styles across the Asia-Europe divide reveals the extent of Communist bias and determination to indoctrinate its population. Communists happily accepted European visual styles and sentimentality that validated socialist ideas, while rejecting or distorting home-grown forms if these did not overtly exhibit political support. However, the pretence at realism inevitably disintegrates into incoherent political ideals: the Party’s claims to represent working-class people’s prosaic concerns conflict with their demand for stylised depictions of political and social progress under their government.
INCOHERENT POLITICAL IDEALS
Actual realistic portraits of military and civic life under Communism were either shunned or officially demonised. One such realistic portrait was Wang Lin’s novel Hinterland 腹地 (1942) which Lianfen Yang covers in Chapter 1. Hinterland depicts the resistance of the Communist army against Japanese invasion in the central Hebei base areas. Although the story follows a pro-Communist arc (i.e., Communist army as protector against Japanese imperialism), authorities rejected Wang Lin’s initial drafts of the novel. Having occupied various positions within Communist cultural institutions, Wang Lin infused his novel with realistic and unflattering aspects of Communist practice. These corruptions include rigged local elections and depiction of the army’s avoidant fighting style, which the authorities felt undermined the Communist Party’s progressive messages. Furthermore, Hinterland’s protagonist Xin was considered too intellectual, sentimental and passive. Thus, the authorities deemed the novel anti-progressive and uninspiring to the nation’s adoption of socialist utopia. Wang Lin spent his lifetime complying with demands to create a more empowering Communist narrative. At the revision process’ conclusion, Hinterland’s characterisation was flat and received little public attention. Wang Lin’s failure cautions against the artist’s Sisyphean quest for social approval under a contradictory political model: the Party claimed to endorse holistic representations of proletarian life yet wanted these imbued with epic glamour to further its political agenda.
In Chapter 2, Richard King states that true realism was so odious to the Party that the Party developed Eight Black Theories, a list of propositions which flag anti-Communist undertones in texts. These included items such as the portrayal of characters less than wholeheartedly committed to socialism and illustrations of realities misaligned with socialism. Texts containing any of the Eight Black Theories would be accused of treachery, of superficially following pro-Communist narratives but infested with doubt in the regime through subtle details and characterisation choices. The crackdown on texts suspected of anti-Communist undertones shows in the sharpened moral binaries across adaptations of the Red Classic Red Sister-in-Law 紅嫂 (1961) by Liu Zhixia (covered in Chapter 7 by Rosemary Roberts and Qian Gong in Chapter 9). Red Sister-in-Law is the story of a young married woman who saves a wounded Communist soldier by feeding him her breastmilk (at her baby’s expense), the poor family’s only chicken and concealing him from the enemy. While Red Sister-in-Law depicted the close relationship between peasants and the Red Army, the 1961 version also voiced the relatable jealousies of the husband Wu Er. The 1977 and 1991 remakes of Red Sister-in-Law amplify its pro-Communist overtones by casting Wu Er as a staunch revolutionary who fully supports his wife’s actions. The 1977 and 1991 versions also include an epilogue where the married woman sends her grandchildren and children to join the Communist army, promoting the penetration of Communist loyalty into people’s private lives across multiple generations.
Similar to officials’ changing approach to guohua, the Party needed to compromise between two conflicting social realities: that “bourgeois” structures such as family and intelligentsia could undermine their aims of collectivisation, but that these same structures facilitated national pride and cohesion. Lara Vanderstaay (Chapter 10) uses the children’s animated film New Tunnel Warfare (2009) to show ways in which the Communist Party tried to incorporate intellectuals and the nuclear family into its political visions. New Tunnel Warfare is about three school-aged children and their community’s triumph against Japanese invaders. The inclusion of an intellectual teacher-character gave cultural respectability to the Party. However, this intellectual in Red Classics could only be a staunch pro-Communist who sacrificed himself or herself for the State against Japanese imperial violence. The reintroduction of family values was pragmatic as well as socially beneficial. Family values such as filial piety encouraged elder care, which the State realised it could not support alone. While New Tunnel Vision arguably shows a flexible and culturally tolerant version of Chinese Communism, it relied on Chinese unification against an enemy outgroup (i.e. Japanese imperialists). Once this outgroup had been overcome, the disconnection between the Party’s pro-working-class slogans and reality of cultural oppression and poverty is stark.
CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS
Red Classics’ case studies of artists and their works show that the quest for public admiration under Communism has limited options. One option is to operate underground and risk one’s life and reputation. For artists desiring mainstream professional acclaim, the only choice is to kowtow to political ideals and compromise their works’ integrity. Yet as Hinterland’s disappearance into obscurity shows, sacrifice of one’s personal aesthetic ideals is no guarantee of public success. In all cases of political indoctrination, the ruling party’s goal is to enforce a Manichaean moral standard that legitimises its dominance over people’s public and private beliefs. Disadvantaged groups become human shields for the ruling party’s ascent to tyranny. In Maoist China, these human shields were the proletariat. In today’s woke-Leftist climate, they are ethnic and sexual minorities. Anyone who undermines the State’s moral self-image is shunned as irrelevant and elitist. Amid corrupt cultural landscapes, Red Classics urges artists to have faith in their practice. Creative practitioners must protect their work from political distortion, which institutions will try to justify through claims of moral superiority and concern for “everyday citizens”.
How to cite: An, Frances. “Amid Corrupt Cultural Landscapes: A Review of The Making and Remaking of China’s Red Classics.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 07 May 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/05/07/red-classics/.
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).