Category Archives: The China Blog

LARB’s China Blog covers the life, culture, politics and literature of China. It is edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. If you’re looking for blog posts prior to September 2013, please visit our China Blog tumblr page.

Red_Guards

The Cultural Revolution at 50 — A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part Two)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the second of a two-part interview Alexander C. Cook conducted with four specialists in the study of China’s Cultural Revolution. We will have at least one more post related to this year’s anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, in the form of a list of suggested readings that flags recommended books, most of which deal with issues discussed in this two-part interview.]

ALEXANDER C. COOK: We left off last time talking about the culture of the Cultural Revolution. Of course we know about the Little Red Book of quotations at the center of the Mao cult, and also the famous model works that were meant to represent the new revolutionary culture. But Yiching Wu also mentioned that artistic and literary works of the period were both more diverse and more successful that we have usually acknowledged.

DENISE Y. HO: In the past, Cultural Revolution culture has been easy to dismiss. Despite Western fascination will objects that we might call “Mao kitsch” — buttons, statues, and posters — and Chinese nostalgia for Cultural Revolution music or plays, we have written off these cultural products as “just propaganda,” or not really culture at all. Recent scholarship has tried to change this view. One historian has suggested that the Communist Party created its own political culture, and that this was a key source of its legitimacy. Others have examined the art and music to show how Cultural Revolution culture was a modernization of both Chinese and Western traditions, part of a much longer project. Still others have focused on audience reception of these works, which could produce meanings beyond their propaganda messages.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What does a better understanding of culture contribute to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE Y. HO: My own research offers an illustration. I examine the use of exhibitions as part of political campaigns conducted before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. I show that exhibits were a political and cultural practice that taught people how to make revolution. For example, during one campaign in the years before the Cultural Revolution, officials displayed individuals’ personal possessions along with posterboards explaining why they were political enemies. Then, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, Red Guards invaded people’s homes and confiscated their belongings, putting objects on display along with posters describing their crimes. So political culture provided ordinary people with a repertoire, with an idea of how to act and how to describe their actions. This kind of evidence helps us understand where the Cultural Revolution came from, and how such propaganda was deeply powerful — sometimes producing tragic consequences.

YICHING WU: This issue of how ordinary people were provided with political repertoires to be acted on helps account for the characteristically dispersed and explosive character of the Cultural Revolution. While the rebels looked to the Maoist leadership for political guidance, the relationships between Mao and those who responded to his call were tenuous and fragile. With the breakdown of the party hierarchy, political messages transmitted from above were interpreted in different ways by different agents. People responded to their own immediate circumstances, giving expression to a myriad of social grievances and antagonisms. The forces unleashed by Mao took on lives of their own.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What happened to those forces?

YICHING WU: The disorder caused by mass insurgencies from below and paralyzing power conflicts at the top created a crisis. The nation was on the brink of anarchy. For example, some young radicals, invoking the historical example of the Paris Commune, claimed that China’s “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” would have to be toppled in order to establish a society in which the people can self-govern. Mao decided the crisis would have to be resolved. Quashing the restless rebels, the revolution cannibalized its own children and exhausted its once explosive energy. The demobilization of freewheeling mass politics in the late 1960s helped to restore the authority of the party-state, but also became the starting point for a series of crisis-coping maneuvers which eventually led to the historic changes in Chinese society and economy a decade later.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How did the party-state manage to maintain its monopoly on power after the Cultural Revolution?

DANIEL LEESE: Our present explanations are usually quite terse. Besides the threat of brute force and censorship regarding historical issues, the stimulation of economic growth is cited as the most important factor guaranteeing political and social stability. However, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution forced the party to deal with past injustices in much more detail than is commonly known. While the trial of the Gang of Four and the resolution on party history are common knowledge, below the surface, the CCP was faced with millions of cases that did not easily fit these simplistic ways of dealing with the past. Who was to be considered victim or perpetrator and based on what standards? How were victims to be compensated for their ordeals and what about stolen property and withhold wages? Were party members or groups whose participation was important to reform to be treated differently than ordinary citizens? These questions were of fundamental importance and constitute core issues that can be considered part of what we now call “transitional justice.” Although China did not witness the fall of a dictatorial regime, and therefore seems ill-suited for the application of this concept, nevertheless there can be no denying the fact that the party consciously adopted certain elements and rhetoric associated with transitional justice, even while taking every effort at distinguishing between the Chinese situation and human rights violations in other contexts.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Can you tell us more about transitional justice in post-Mao China?

DANIEL LEESE: Previous injustices were interpreted as temporary miscarriages of justice to be solved on an individual basis in a political system portrayed as generally sound. The party tried to preclude the formation of collective claims or the overburdening of local budgets. In both scope and timing, it was inevitable that case revisions saw great regional differences. Just as Yiching has turned historians’ attention to local history, our research group in Freiburg analyses how the party dealt with Maoist era legacies in different regions, ranging from the rehabilitation of former capitalists to the purge of persecutors within the party. Yet despite the political character of the “rehabilitation campaign” and the obvious continuities in the Chinese judiciary, the reversal of verdicts changed the fate of millions of people. Not least, the research leads us to rethink many aspects of what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the long-term significance or global legacy of the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: It is difficult to generalize globally, because the Cultural Revolution was an example that was interpreted, used, and deployed differently in different circumstances. But, going back to some of the themes I highlighted previously, we can essay a provisional assessment. At the risk of being overly dramatic, I would say the Cultural Revolution (including its global repercussions throughout the 1960s and 1970s) marks the end of Communist project, at least as embodied in the form of the party-state.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Yiching, would you say the same characterization is true for China?

YICHING WU: I absolutely agree with Fabio that the Cultural Revolution and its global repercussions marked the end of Communist project. But it’s also important to note, as Daniel does above, that the Chinese party-state survived the upheaval, and I would add that it has even thrived — however precariously — as the steward of “reform and opening up.” Fifty years ago Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to forestall the slide of Chinese socialism to capitalism, and the emergence of a new ruling elite which might lead China toward a class-stratified society. However, this is exactly what has happened in its aftermath. In order to understand this profound historical irony, I think that we must fundamentally rethink the conventional scheme of historical periodization, which typically portrays China’s post-Mao transformation as a radical break from the Maoist past. I argued in my book that the key to understanding China’s post-Mao shift of course lies in the late Mao era. In spite of its militancy, the Cultural Revolution attacked individual bureaucrats more than the very system of bureaucratic power. While the mass movements that it unleashed challenged the Party, the Cultural Revolution was unable to provide a viable alternative to the Leninist party-state. Leaving a regime in deep disarray and tens of millions of people traumatized and exhausted, the ideological failure of late Maoism paved the way for China’s ruling stratum to reorganize its rule by resorting to market-oriented policies as forms of political appeasement and readjustment. In this view, the post-Mao reform forms part of a continuous process of ideological and political maneuvers to contain, neutralize, and displace the prevalent antagonisms that resulted from the Cultural Revolution, when the mass movements unleashed by Mao threatened to undermine the foundation of the party-state. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that views changes in post-Mao China as in opposition to Mao’s utopian “last revolution” — and dates their starting point to the late 1970s, I therefore would argue that the origins of these changes in fact can be traced to the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968-69, when mass demobilization and restoration of party and state organizations were in full force.

FABIO LANZA: We usually think of 1989 as the iconic date and the collapse of the Berlin wall as the iconic event in the collapse of Communism. But by then, the promises of political innovation within that framework had already been exhausted. As Yiching mentioned, the Cultural Revolution configured an attack against the Communist Party itself as the crucial element in the reproduction of inequalities in a supposedly class-less Chinese society. Globally, that attack reverberated in the form of radical movements that challenged established structures and political organizations — especially those which were supposed to be representatives of the disenfranchised (trade unions, leftist parties, black leadership in the US). The ultimate failure of the Cultural Revolution, in this sense, signaled the impossibility of change within and marked the end of decades of experiments centered on that model. In this perspective, it is not surprising that, globally, by the end of the 1970s we witness a massive tectonic shift in the political horizon — what Fukuyama called “the end of history.” The result was the apparent triumph of neoliberal capitalism everywhere, including in Deng’s China.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Thank you, Denise, Fabio, Daniel, and Yiching.

Red_Guards

The Cultural Revolution at 50: A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part One)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the first of a two-part roundtable interview we invited Alexander C. Cook, editor of the well-received Cambridge University Press book Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, to conduct with four scholars who have been doing important work on the final decade of Mao Zedong’s rule and were part of a recent American Historical Association panel that he chaired.]

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning, and the 40th anniversary of the end, of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Despite the passage of time, the Cultural Revolution remains one of most controversial and least understood periods of modern Chinese history. I have invited Denise Ho (Yale University), Fabio Lanza (University of Arizona), Daniel Leese (University of Freiburg), and Yiching Wu (University of Toronto) to look back and help make sense of what we know — and what we still don’t know — about the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the standard “textbook” view of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE HO: When we teach the Cultural Revolution here in the United States, our textbook version is that Chairman Mao, fearing “revisionism” within his own Communist Party, launched an attack on perceived internal enemies. Our students tend to be most fascinated with the Red Guards, young people who Mao called on to “make revolution” by joining him in an attack on the old world.

YICHING WU: The problem of mass politics has fascinated scholars, as well. Mao’s attempt to cleanse the Communist Party of pernicious “bourgeois” influences involved the mobilization of a ferocious mass movement. Many ordinary Chinese who responded to Mao’s call for rebellion had long been discontented with the established system and were eager to take advantage of the newly sanctioned “right to rebel.” For several decades, we have examined how the charismatic mode of mass politics mobilized existing societal antagonisms and effectively undermined the ruling party’s bureaucratic authority.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How different is the standard view in China?

DENISE HO: One interesting thing is that the standard view in the West and the standard view in China overlap a great deal. Both our textbook version and the Chinese Communist Party’s official verdict (published in 1981) offer similar explanations: that the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s responsibility, that it was a period of great chaos, and that it was an ideological movement gone terribly wrong.

DANIEL LEESE: As for Chinese textbooks, they contain little or nothing about the Cultural Revolution and render the period as a distant and irrelevant past, akin to Neolithic history. A disturbing consequence is the near complete lack of knowledge about the Cultural Revolution among the younger generation. Nevertheless, there is definitely a standard or official view that still predominates. That view is largely negative. The party resolution of 1981 still defines the boundaries of permissible interpretation, and describes the Cultural Revolution as an aberration of the otherwise correct path of party-led socialist construction.

DENISE HO: In China the standard narrative is one of chaos, describing the Cultural Revolution as a “turbulent decade” in which not only were lives lost but also lives wasted. The official Party line is to lay responsibility at Mao’s feet but also to rescue his legacy; despite the Cultural Revolution being a mistake, the Party says, Mao was still a great revolutionary. Was the Cultural Revolution an aberration? To answer yes is to say that this was an extremist period and China has since returned to a path of modernization and development. To answer no is to suggest firstly that the Cultural Revolution came out of longer traditions, and that it has left a lasting imprint on Chinese politics, society, and culture. As historians I think we’re all trying to look for elements of both change and continuity.

DANIEL LEESE: Yes, and while Mao is blamed for having committed many mistakes, not everything of that 10-year period is officially negated. There were many continuities. It was not all chaos. The party continued to exist. Economic growth picked up as of the early 1970s. Also, China achieved foreign policy successes such as its 1971 entry to the United Nations.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So the real picture is more complex than we have previously assumed?

YICHING WU: Very much so. First of all, the sociological interpretations that previously dominated the study of mass factionalism have been seriously challenged by a new wave of scholarship. This new research contends that mass political conflicts were not derived from preexisting sociopolitical grievances, but rather were shaped by contingent events and dynamic interactions between the masses and the political leadership. Second, scholars interested in the ideological aspects of the Cultural Revolution have challenged existing views for their tendency to over-systematize and over-interpret late Maoism. The newer works highlight areas of incoherence in the official ideology and explore how ambiguities became exacerbated by the chaotic political circumstances in which ideology was interpreted and deployed.

DANIEL LEESE: While a powerful coalition of party members and intellectuals victimized during the Cultural Revolution has dominated public discussions of the period — and, understandably, emphasized the ordeals experienced — some other aspects of the period are remembered and even romanticized. The recently purged politician Bo Xilai tapped into heroic memories of revolutionary fervor and revolutionary idealism for example by way of singing “Red songs.” Former Cultural Revolutionary activist Qi Benyu recently expressed the hope that current Chinese president Xi Jinping would become a second Mao Zedong, meaning he would curb corruption and lead China back on the path of socialist revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: The Cultural Revolution has been romanticized from the beginning, and not just in in China. Why is that?

FABIO LANZA: In the 1960s, Maoism provided the vocabulary to describe and express new political ideas around the world. The global fascination with the Cultural Revolution has usually been viewed as orientalism of a sort, with Gauloises-smoking rive gauche intellectuals mesmerized by a revolutionary East they really did not know anything about — the “China in our heads.” But I believe we should take seriously the interest that activists and intellectuals around the world demonstrated for the experiment of the Cultural Revolution. Why should we? Precisely because they took it seriously at the time and because, no matter how misunderstood and misinterpreted it was, the experience of the Cultural Revolution seemed to be tackling head-on many of the issues of the day.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What globally relevant issues did the Cultural Revolution touch upon?

FABIO LANZA: First, the Cultural Revolution addressed directly the relationships between learning and teaching, politics and education, theory and practice. It was then not strange for student protestors in Paris, Turin, or New York to see similarities and connections between the Red Guards’ attacks against stultifying university learning and their own actions against the school system in the spring of 1968. Similarly, the integration of politics and education that the Cultural Revolution proclaimed echoed the political challenge that student organizations spearheaded against supposedly “neutral” pedagogy in Mexico, Chile, and across Europe. Second, the blossoming of the Red Guards in 1966 signaled that people could independently organize themselves outside of the Party-State and even use those organizations to attack the Party or other centers of political power (“Bombard the headquarters,” as Mao said). Third, Maoism seemed to embody an alternative to the existing development models, either capitalist or Stalinist. This was an alternative that was described and perceived as more humane, one that potentially could produce progress without sacrificing the quest for equality.

DANIEL LEESE: In China in the early 1980s former participants in the Cultural Revolutions began to argue that the elite power struggles between Mao and his rivals need to be differentiated from the “public” dimension of the movement, with its salutary elements of mass democracy and anti-bureaucratism. These aspects are still held up by many old and new critics of capitalist exploitation as an alternative path to modernity.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: So they feel there are positive things we can salvage from the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: The global appeal of Maoism was made possible by the fact that it did not offer a fixed model, a set of steps to follow, or a rigid scheme to apply. Rather, Maoism presented itself and was viewed as a method of analysis of reality and as the lived experience of revolution. The lesson of the Cultural Revolution was not one of easily transferrable programs, but one of a massive, and still open experiment; a localized but inspirational experience. In this sense, it was not a “Chinese thing”: as one French Maoist worker quipped at the time “we don’t give a f — about China.”

DENISE HO: And yet the Cultural Revolution was, and continues to be, very much a product of Chinese culture. The Cultural Revolution has “culture” in the title, and yet in the past scholars have often written off cultural explanations for why the Cultural Revolution happened. Recent scholarship has tried to put culture back into the conversation.

YICHING WU: That’s right. Conventional wisdom has portrayed the Cultural Revolution as merely an era of chaos and violence, in which culture, education, and literature and art were ruthlessly destroyed. The reality, however, was far from one-dimensional. Several recently published studies have carefully examined films, drama, music, dance, fine arts, and popular literature during the Cultural Revolution, arguing that Mao’s last decade, rather than a cultural wasteland limited to a few hyper-politicized revolutionary plays, in fact witnessed considerable cultural innovation and artistic success.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Then we will pick up next time with the problem of culture….

Zhou Enlai book cover

The Secret Sexual Life of Zhou Enlai and the Limits of Historical Knowledge

By Jeremiah Jenne

Zhou Enlai remains one of the most enigmatic figures in modern Chinese history. For nearly five decades, he served the Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China. He was the original technocrat, orchestrating foreign policy and stabilizing domestic politics in an era of campaigns and the chaotic whims of Mao Zedong.

He might also have been gay. At least so claims Hong Kong journalist Tsoi Wing-Mui in her new book, The Secret Emotional Life of Zhou Enlai (Zhou Enlai de mimi qinggan shijie).

The retroactive outing of somebody of Zhou’s stature is sure to court controversy, and this could well have made Ms. Tsoi’s book the most buzzed about title on the private life of a Chinese leader in years — had it not appeared around the same time that Hong Kong booksellers associated with salacious works on Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan’s behind-closed-doors activities began mysteriously disappearing.

Homosexuality was illegal in the PRC until 1997. Before then, men who had sex with other men risked the charge of “hooliganism.” And it was only in 2001 that the Chinese Psychiatry Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. While social mores are changing, especially in China’s cities, it is still far from unusual to encounter members of the older generation who believe that homosexuality is a foreign vice, an unfortunate by-product of China’s opening to the outside world.

An admittedly unscientific poll in my neighborhood park resulted in several mocking dismissals of any notion that Zhou Enlai might have been gay, plus one stern lecture regarding foreign slanders of China’s leadership.

Ms. Tsoi is not the first to raise questions about the nature of the fifty-plus-year relationship between Zhou Enlai and his wife, Deng Yingchao, for their marriage has previously been the subject of whispers and speculation. The pair famously never had any children, and Zhou’s courtship of Deng — he proposed with a postcard after having not seen her in over five years — was singularly unromantic.

Ms. Tsoi claims, however, that there is textual evidence — in the form of Zhou’s diary — to support her claim that his deepest love was for a member of his own sex, and that he was generally more attracted to men than women.

That diary, written in 1918 when Zhou Enlai was a 20-year-old student in Japan, contains numerous passages that suggest that the relationship between Zhou and some of his classmates was less than platonic.

In the very first entry, dated January 1, 1918, Zhou wrote: “For the first time in my life, I am immersed in this word ‘love,’ as to the heart of the passion […]” The last line is then blurred with a thick brush stroke across the page.

There is always interest in the sexual lives of famous historical figures, even more so when that sexual life runs counter to popular perception or official history. From Alexander the Great to Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt, history’s alleged closet would seem to be a crowded space.

But retroactively outing a historical figure remains problematic, not because of the sex — Zhou Enlai may well have had erotic relations with other men — but because such studies are often methodologically flawed. Too often, contemporary understandings of romance and sexuality, gay or straight, are read into texts from another time period. But doing so can prejudice the data and lead to shaky conclusions. It is an error of perception when we use present-day standards to judge or categorize evidence of past behavior.

Richard Burger, whose own research into the subject led to the 2012 book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, knows the pitfalls well. “It is tempting to project our contemporary attitudes about homosexuality onto men in China who enjoyed sex with other men,” says Burger, whom I interviewed by email. “But it is important to understand that these men did not identify as gay. They were family men who enjoyed having sex with boys, who under the Qing were commonly referred to as ‘song boys’ (they often read poetry, danced and sang songs for their patrons).”

Many studies of homosexuality in Chinese literature or history have relied on texts, poetry, and letters, which require close reading and are open to considerable interpretation. The relative absence of gender signifiers in classical Chinese language adds to this challenge. Bret Hinsch’s 1992 Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China is a well-known example of the limitations inherent in this approach. While homosexuality was known to have been commonly practiced in China, in a variety of forms, into the modern period, evidence for specific individuals or circumstances can be frustratingly vague.

For example, an entry in Zhou’s 1918 diary includes this passage:

In these months, the moon or the morning breeze, the rain against my window, and flowers; all make me long for my family, and thinking of my brother Hui, I suffer terribly!

Ms. Tsoi argues that the object of Zhou’s passionate sentiment (“Brother Hui”) was a younger classmate named Li Fujing, who had moved to Hong Kong during Zhou’s time in Japan. But while the passage clearly shows Zhou’s emotional attachment to Li, it doesn’t say very much about the nature of their relationship.

In an American Historical Review (December 2000) essay on “The Male Bond in Chinese History and Culture,” historian Susan Mann argued that patterns of education and career advancement ensured that men spent the better part of their working and social lives interacting almost exclusively with other men.

Many male relationships were homosocial — the strongest emotional bonds felt by the individual were toward someone of the same gender — but not necessarily sexual. One imagines a continuum from non-sexual emotional attachment to sexual and romantic attachment. This continuum might also include cultural practices such as the “gifting” of concubines or, as is sometimes still the case today, sexual expression in a group setting as described by author James Palmer in his 2015 ChinaFile article “The Bro Code: Booze, Sex, and the Dark Art of Dealmaking in China:

Perhaps that’s why some bosses demand a more public performance. The ultimate are what participants describe as frequent forays into group sex, often with more male than female participants. Sharing women appears to bring men closer to each other, in a perversely familial fashion. As one northeastern saying goes, “Once two men share a woman, they’re brothers.”

These wildly disparate examples of male bonding suggest why it can be difficult to find the kind of definitive evidence necessary to out a historical figure who, by all other accounts, presented as straight.

Even the tepid nature of Zhou Enlai’s married life is in danger of being misread. Many descriptions of Zhou borrow heavily from Confucian tropes: he was devoted to his work. He was a loyal official. He was upright in his personal life. In this way, Zhou’s lack of an overt romantic or sexual life contrasts favorably with the notoriously libertine Mao. In the male world of Confucian (and later revolutionary) officialdom, excessive interest in women could be construed as a weakness.

This conflation of devotion to duty with resistance to feelings of romantic or sexual attraction to women could, in some cases, tip over into open misogyny. One of the unfortunate tropes that surround women who get too close to power in China is that these women have an over-developed desire for sex, particularly transgressive sex. The most recent example is Gu Kailai, the imprisoned wife of deposed Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was accused of orchestrating the murder of her foreign lover in 2011.

In this way, hagiographic depictions of Zhou that borrow from the tradition of the official unsullied by preoccupations of romance and sex can be read, in another context, as Zhou Enlai living an uncomfortable life as a closeted gay man prohibited from the open expression of his true sexuality.

This critique is not to detract from the intention of Ms. Tsoi’s project. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just as researchers need to take care not to impose contemporary understandings of gay-ness back into history, it’s equally important not to assume heterosexuality as a historical norm. The onus is on Ms. Tsoi to refute a relatively large body of textual and other evidence, including what we know of how Zhou Enlai presented his own sexuality. But wishing for more evidence to support Ms. Tsoi’s claim that Zhou Enlai was gay is not the same as wanting to suppress that evidence or a desire for additional credentials to boost Zhou’s “straightness.”

Zhou Enlai may well have had sex with other men. It’s even possible that his greatest romantic and erotic attractions were toward other men. Certainly that is the case with many historical figures. If this were the case with Zhou, it would be an important insight into not only his life and career, but also the limits of the historical record.

According to Richard Burger, “If Zhou was indeed gay he must have been careful to leave no trace of it, and documenting such a thesis would be extremely difficult. Homosexuality was such a taboo under Mao (and continued to be until the 1990s), it would be unthinkable for Zhou to have left any evidence that would have incriminated him as being gay.”

Unfortunately, while Tsoi’s is a much more carefully researched work than some of the most titillating recent books about Xi and Peng, such as one that claims to reconstruct the night the latter lost her virginity, the evidence presented on Zhou’s romantic inclinations is still too flimsy to be conclusive. The emotional life of one of China’s most respected leaders, like many aspects of just how the five Hong Kong booksellers ended up in custody on the mainland, remains a mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unicorn

The Next Unicorn?

By Austin Dean

It’s hard to keep up with Chinese economic news: CEOs being detained by the public security apparatus, the release of economic statistics that no one believes, the fluctuations between the Chinese yuan’s value on the mainland and offshore, the day-to-day gyrations of the stock market. It’s enough to keep you up at night, or for those of us in the United States, get you out of bed early to see what happened in Asia while we slept.

No one knows what will happen next. The cautious optimists do not see a Chinese financial crisis around the corner, while the pessimists think a hard landing is imminent. If you want to find the real optimists, though, watch Chinese reality TV shows about entrepreneurs.

The original show in this genre was Win in China, which aired on CCTV 2, the business and finance channel. As James Fallows chronicled in 2007, the program pitted entrepreneurs in a series of challenges to win funding for their ventures. As one of the producers told Fallows at the time, the show wasn’t just about money. There was a larger purpose: “We want to teach values. Our dream for the show is to enlighten Chinese people and help them realize their own dreams […] There is no religion in China, so it is very important to promote the right kind of values. Today for our society, the entrepreneur can be our hero.”

After the season finale in 2007, Fallows hoped the show’s place in China’s cultural landscape would eventually become “an unsubtle and perhaps over-sincere effort to teach people the rules of peaceful prosperity” and not “another bit of evidence about the Chinese bubble: the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.”

And that’s still the important quandary.

A more recent entry in the genre is We Are The Hero (Chuangye yingxiong hui), which began in late 2014 and also airs on CCTV 2. The most noticeable difference from Win in China is the age group — We Are The Hero is much more youth-oriented and aimed at the post-1980s and post-1990s generations. As one entrepreneur said in an early episode, his generation of post-90s youth is not only interested in making money, but also in doing something that that will make people remember them. Some might say this attitude comes off as arrogant, but it might simply reflect that people born in post-1990s China have only known economic growth. For them making money is a given. They want more.

Unlike Win in China, which followed contestants on a week-to-week basis, We Are The Hero runs through three to four entrepreneurs each episode. In that way, viewers don’t have as much of a chance to identify with a particular candidate as they did in Win in China. Win in China was more like The Apprentice, while We Are The Hero is a bit closer to Shark Tank.

After taking the stage on We Are The Hero, entrepreneurs give a pitch to a group of twenty investors who decide whether or not they’re interested in the idea being offered. The contestant moves on to the next round if they reach a certain threshold of investor interest. In the next segment, the contestants interview with two “tutors” (daoshi), who themselves are famous entrepreneurs. People serve as tutors on a rotating basis, and there have been some pretty big names, such as Yu Minhong, the founder of the English-language training school New Oriental, and Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi, often called the Apple of China. If the entrepreneurs are able to convince the two tutors they have what it takes, they move on to round three, when investors from round one can make offers. It is at this point that other members of the company take the stage (they’re backstage during the first two rounds). If the entrepreneurs and investors agree in principle to a deal, they sort out the details off camera.

The other big difference between the two shows is what types of ideas entrepreneurs pitch to investors. In the first season of Win in China, one contestant wanted investment in order to expand production capacity for making lingerie; another wanted to get into “direct-response marketing,” which, as Fallows wrote, was “the polite name for the infomercial business.” In We Are The Hero, it’s all about smartphones and the app economy.

We Are The Hero is actually a bit tame compared to a show currently being filmed, The Next Unicorn (Xunzhao dujiaoshou). The point of this show is to find the next billion-dollar company, which in the lingo of Silicon Valley and venture capital are known as unicorns.

The Next Unicorn is also explicitly international in ways the others shows are not. Although Win in China had a handful of international contestants, most famously Henry Winter, it was still very much a China-based show. The Next Unicorn, on the other hand, is filming in Shanghai, Taipei, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley, and other locales. Produced by CBN (Diyi caijing) and offering a $2.5 million dollar prize, the show will feature entrepreneurs based around the world. The Australian creator of an app that allows users to rate clothing flew to China at the beginning of the year to begin filming. As the founder said, “We’ve given our pitch a complete overhaul while keeping it obviously true to our vision. But it’s very tailored to the Asian market, its problems and how we would tap into that.”

Of course, The Next Unicorn is filming at a time when many are beginning to talk about “dead unicorns” or “unicorpses”—companies unable to continue raising money at high valuations that have to drastically shrink or close down their operations. In what venture capitalist Bill Gurley called a must-read article, Reuters chronicled the story of Shequ001, a Beijing start-up that delivered groceries ordered on smartphones. In less than a year, the company went from 2,000 employees to fewer than three dozen, with many of those who left still owed pay.

Maybe it is this show and not Win in China or We Are The Hero that will represent “the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.” Stay tuned. The Next Unicorn is set to air in early April.

TShirtDetention

Watching Big Brother: A Q&A with Chinese Political Cartoonist Badiucao

By Sophie Beach

The invaluable China Digital Times website, which has a regular “Drawing the News” feature and publishes related illustrated e-books is releasing a new collection today — Watching Big Brother: Political Cartoons by Badiucao. Along with a rich sampling of works by the artist, who was born in Shanghai and is now based in Australia, the ebook includes an interview with Badiucao (a pen name) conducted by Sophie Beach, executive editor of CDT. The Los Angeles Review of Books has been given exclusive rights to run an excerpt from that interview for “The China Blog.”

SOPHIE BEACH: You have been the subject of Twitter smear campaigns in recent months. Who do you think is behind these attacks, and what was your response? Has it changed your attitude toward your drawing? Has it changed your approach to being active on the Internet?

BADIUCAO: In recent years, I have been subjected to large-scale Internet attacks twice. I believe these attacks are linked to the Chinese government’s control of the Internet, for two reasons: First, both attacks happened after I had drawn cartoons in support of human rights activists who had been imprisoned, and the drawings had been picked up by Amnesty International and the international media. Second, all the slanderous attacks against me use show the political positions of the Chinese government—the language used by the attackers is full of clichés and their user profiles seem to be automated fake accounts. This shows that these attacks are not from individuals, but are organized systematically. The goal of this kind of attack is not just to threaten me, but possibly to pollute search results for “badiucao,” and to block the visibility of my cartoons online.

The first time I faced an online attack, I was terrified. I had previously received sporadic threats, but never this type of coordinated attack. Some “fifty centers” [a nickname for people paid by the authorities to post comments on line] wrote several essays to specifically “expose the ugly soul of hypocrisy under my skin.” From this essay I could see that they had very carefully examined my words and collected specific personal information about me. When it reached this degree, I slowed down my drawing.

But then, I felt I couldn’t control my creative impulse. I also understood that the only way to overcome the fear of such attacks was to make them public and to continue to draw. It is like when facing the threat of terrorists: once you compromise, the other side will only intensify. The second time I was attacked, I could face it calmly. I even saved all the words and articles attacking me, to keep as a witness. In the future I hope to use them as creative materials.

Since we last spoke, fellow cartoonist Rebel Pepper has been living in exile in Japan after being attacked in the official media in China. Do you think there is any space currently for political cartoonists living in China, or is it just too dangerous?

I believe that the Chinese space for political cartoonists in the mainland has already closed.

In the era when Weibo [a Chinese counterpart to Twitter] first launched, online satirical cartoonists were very active. We could see Kuang Biao, Dashixiong, and dozens of other cartoonists commenting on current events.  But now, I almost never see domestic cartoonists’ work.

But I don’t think we can be too hard on cartoonists for not fulfilling their full duties because the threats they face are real. Like the incident with Rebel Pepper; if you have no way to get away, you may have no choice but to shut up.

TShirtDetention

Read more about this image at China Digital Times.

Over the past year or so, you have drawn several portraits of human rights defenders that have been very well-received online. They are a departure from your previous, more narrative drawings. Is this a direction you plan to take your work in the future, away from the political “cartoons” and into more traditional drawing and painting styles?

This year, I drew several portraits of rights activists who had been detained.

I had three reasons for doing this: First, this year, the suppression of human rights activists was more severe than in years past. In the first half of the year the pressure was concentrated on NGOs and journalist groups. The second half of the year saw the crackdown on rights lawyers. It seems that after the authorities cleaned up competition inside the Party, they had a hand free to interfere with social dissent. Moreover, authorities used CCTV confessions as propaganda. Second, for those who have been on Twitter a long time, they understand Chinese rights activists and when these familiar people encounter problems, it can inspire a strong sense of solidarity. Third, from analyzing the two attacks on me, I have learned that authorities are very concerned about international media attention on the suppression of human rights activism. This encouraged me to continue creating portraits of China’s prisoners of conscience. Cartoons and portraits can create a unified visual symbol, which can help spread the message and attract sustained attention, in order to create pressure from public opinion. Maybe this pressure can improve the situation for those who are imprisoned, as well as comfort the family members of the persecuted.

But, this will not cause me to give up paying attention to and finding inspiration from current events. Showing solidarity for human rights activists and commenting on current events are not in conflict with each other; they both offer excellent opportunities to profile China. However, if you only have activists’ portraits without their background stories or a depiction of China’s overall environment, my work will become dull and weak, and even risks becoming a simple and emotional propaganda tool.

As for my own development, I will not stop creating cartoons. Cartoons and the Internet are already a part of my life. Drawing cartoons has helped form me and my identity.

Of course, I am now trying to use more artistic means to express myself: print-making, oil painting, sculptures, installations. Different media signify different forms of expression, and different platforms (for example streets, galleries, museums) mean different audiences. I hope to become as diverse an artist as Banksy or Ai Weiwei.

释永信 拷贝

Read more about this image at China Digital Times.

新华社照片,北京,2014年3月6日
    老百姓是怎样关注两会的
    全国两会的召开既是国家政治生活中的大事,也与百姓生活息息相关。这组照片呈现了不同年代的群众对两会关注的场景,从中我们既可看到生活环境和社会环境的变迁,也能看到传媒技术的进步使得两会离人们越来越近。
    1954年9月15日至28日,第一届全国人民代表大会第一次会议在北京召开。图为北京郊区农民收听会议实况转播的情形。  

    新华社记者 张瑞华 摄

Everyday Life in Mao’s China: A Q&A with Historian Covell Meyskens

By Tong Lam

In addition to teaching at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, historian Covell Meyskens also curates Everyday Life in Mao’s China, a website filled with photographs and other images from 20th-century China. In this interview, Meyskens discusses the project with historian, photographer, and regular China Blog contributor Tong Lam.

TONG LAM: I noticed that you have been posting a lot of old PRC photographs on your blog. Could you tell us more about this project? What are your goals?

COVELL MEYSKENS: In the early 20th century, Paul Valery predicted that one day in the not too distant future, it would be possible for someone to access information from all over the world without having to travel anywhere. With the arrival of the digital age, this prediction has become our reality. The possibilities that this condition has opened up for contemporary scholarship are truly exciting. A few months ago, I began my first venture into this realm, when I created the website Everyday Life in Mao’s China.

The website came about largely by accident. Over the past few years, I had collected a number of digital photos of the Maoist period, but I had not made much of them, except as illustrations in my dissertation. Then, last fall, I began to show some in my courses to spur discussions. A few lively class sessions later, I realized how useful it would be to have a website where people could access all sorts of images of China under Mao.

So, as a public service, I founded a website on life in Mao’s China and started posting photos and paintings from roughly the 1930s to the 1980s. I have chosen this broader timeframe in order to encompass China’s transition both into and out of socialism. So that people can more readily locate images about certain topics, I am careful to appropriately categorize all postings. I also try as much as possible to include their date and location.

Where did you obtain these images? Did you collect them from the internet? Or did you scan them from old magazines, newspapers, or even from the archive?

All of the images are from the internet. The majority of images are from websites based in China, though I have found some on websites from other countries as well. I normally search for images using Mandarin, so most end up being from Chinese or Taiwanese sites. Some of the images come from Chinese archives, which have digitized and made public some of their visual holdings. These images are particularly interesting, because they tend to be more candid than pictures made for national media outlets like Xinhua. From what I can tell, work teams or local journalists appear to have produced most of this type of image. So, for instance, when a work team went to inspect a railroad or city, sometimes they would bring a camera in tow and take images. In archives, I have not come across these photos attached to documents. The only photos I have seen are ID type images attached to personnel files. This is perhaps because of the way that archives file materials. I am not sure.

In any case, another source of images is personal blogs, the biggest treasure trove probably being Sina blogs. Quite a few elderly people in China have written online memoirs on Sina blogs and formed online memoir communities, where people with common experiences exchange and comment on each others’ memoirs. Some people have also uploaded images onto their blogs. Some of these photos come from other sources, such as Xinhua, but individuals also post images that they took on their own. One really large genre is photos taken by sent-down youth, who probably due to their relatively privileged access to basic appliances, were to able to use cameras to document quite extensively their lives in rural China.

As you know, there has been a resurgence of interest in Mao and the Maoist era. Within academia, scholars from a wide political spectrum have been debating the meanings and significance of this period. Do you see yourself contributing to this debate?

Many documents from Maoist China are very programmatic. They are bureaucratic objects. They are about how effectively local areas have carried out some task set by higher levels in the bureaucracy, such as collecting leftover scrap metal, achieving a production target, or teaching correct safety procedures. Their writers focus on telling upper administration about how they are handling whatever administrative assignment they have been charged to do.

Of course, there are also cases where local officials decide not to allow upper levels of government to see into local life and occlude from view certain problem areas or willfully neglect to respond to certain queries by upper administration. Report writers might also employ the reigning wooden language of the day, a dissimulation tactic that also provides very little insight into the happenings of a local area. Occasionally, a bureaucrat might bring up other issues outside the assigned purview of discussion, but bureaucratic documents normally concentrate their descriptions and analyses on a fairly defined range of topics.

I’m not surprised at all that these images as well as their intentions could be very diverse. Instead of speculating on their intentionality, for me at least, it is just wonderful to look at the everyday life, material objects, social and rural spaces, and so forth. These images are telling stories that cannot not be easily captured by texts.

Yes, images are a different sensory apparatus than texts. They allow readers to visually experience time and space in a way that is much different than a text. A document on a given factory might spend pages talking only about whether workers were meeting production targets. On the other hand, a few images can provide a window onto what sort of everyday routines and activities workers engaged in, what clothes people wore, what their hair looked like, how their workplace was arranged, what sort of machinery it had, how people led work singalongs, what sort of tools laborers used, how well a factory workshop was lit. To cover such a wide variety of topics in a text, a bureaucrat would have to write a rather lengthy detailed report and would probably risk being reprimanded for not staying on point and not following proper report writing guidelines.

To look at the same question from a different perspective, some of the images on the EDL website are Potemkin images, which like the famed Soviet village present an ideal representation of socialist life for visitors to experience. In the case of photos, these are images where it is fairly obvious that a photographer has asked for people to arrange themselves in a particular place in a certain way and in which the people in the photos almost always smile, even when they are engaged in practices that would have probably involved a much wider range of emotions than happiness.

This tendency to have one emotion dominate the visual realm of socialist cultural production suggests that there was probably an official rule that everyone in photos distributed in the mass media had to look like they were enjoying what they were doing, as if everyday life was an experience of constant happiness in a country, like Maoist China, where people were in theory incessantly working for the creation of a socialist universe of experience not just in China, but in the entire world. Historians of visual images from Maoist China may have uncovered such a rule already, I do not know, but even if such a rule did not exist, the abundance of smiling faces in Maoist era mass media implies that there was at least a tacit expectation that photographers knew that a good socialist cultural worker would airbrush cheer onto nearly every visage approved for wide distribution.

To be fair, staging for documentary purpose is hardly unique to socialist photography. Many, if not most, of the iconic scenes that we see in poster shops are staged or at least reenactments of something that the photographer had encountered earlier. I guess your point here is that those socialist stagings are rather formulated. But are there also photographs that do not fit into this genre?

There are definitely counter examples, even for such icons of Maoism as Lei Feng, who apparently rode a motorcycle through Tiananmen Square. Other images show that the State wish — fantasy of socialism incessantly lighting up every face with positive feelings was patently not true. For instance, this photo contains a family reading Mao’s works at home. No one in the family looks particularly happy, enthusiastic, or excited, as the dominant ideology prescribed them to be when reading Mao. Nor do they appear to be especially enlightened, even though they are imbibing the great beacon of international socialism — Mao Thought. Instead, most of the figures in the picture look rather bored or amused that someone is taking their picture. Their minds seem to be not there, but elsewhere. They are not occupied with contemplating Mao’s words, nor are they engaging in a lively discussion to more fully understand Mao. They seem instead to be distracted.

The Potemkin style of course was not restricted to images. It had a sort of analogue in the world of documents. It is the kind of document I referred to earlier which consists almost entirely of wooden political slogans, like “lift high the great red flag of Mao Thought” and other bureaucratic phrases that are almost completely abstracted from a specific place or time. These documents erase locality, subtract out geography, and make all China appear as a simulacra of the reigning ideology at any given moment. They make it seem that there is only one China that is the nearly the same everywhere. How a specific political campaign played out at a mine in Sichuan was exactly the same as how it was unfolding in rural Hubei or a Beijing market.

Scholars of China use another type of simplifying language, when they, for instance, describe the few years after the Great Leap Forward (1961–1964) as a period setting the stage for the Cultural Revolution, all the while occluding from view the plethora of social practices various groups engaged in, such as kids riding a hobby horse, professional gamers playing in an international Go competition, families taking portraits, city folk attending a Lantern Festival, a reporter making a newscast from a flood zone, a family going to a pastry shop in Shanghai or taking a stroll in a park, an old man receiving a telegram in Lhasa, thousands of people gathering for an anti-Vietnam War protest, holiday revelers setting off May Day fireworks in Tiananmen, engineers designing a public bus for Beijing, or an artist painting a dam.

Every historian admittedly has to choose a topic, time period, and location to examine and characterize. But, for a historian to become aware of the panorama of practices current at any given time in Maoist China, she has to read a rather large volume of files from a number of different sections of the government, an endeavor that takes a huge amount of time and requires a high level of access to archives that is not likely to be possible in the CCP’s current drive to keep out of view the archival secrets of its past and not reckon with them in anything but political fables.

To attain the same level of scope, a handful of images sometimes suffice. For instance, another genre of photos on the EDL website is young people during the Cultural Revolution engaging in leisure activities such as celebrating the birth of a child, visiting the Leshan giant Buddha, or palling around with friends in Beihai Park in Beijing in 1967 and 1968, a time typically remembered as full of violent political factionalism, not a time for knitting a sweater, practicing martial arts, holding a wedding, or taking a selfie. Historical photographs also show the violent side of the Cultural Revolution in a different light. For example, they contain the kinds of weapons people had, ranging from machine guns to improvised tanks, and what they did with them, which included a whole host of activities, from posing for class photos and parading martyrs around the city to elementary school red guards and students standing by memorials for their classmates who had died in factional struggles.

This last batch of photographs that you are showing here are indeed fascinating. For me, many of these images seem to tell stories that are beyond the narrow confines of politics of the moment. These are also images of young men and women coming of age. These are images of joy, sorrow, love, narcissism, and so forth. It seems that their emotions really do reach out to us — the spectators of these photos. The bottom line is that we need to read photographs against and along the grain. In short, your project encourages to use the Chinese socialist photographs, including those propaganda ones, seriously. This, by the way, reminds me of all the mockery of the propaganda photographs coming out from North Korea these days. Perhaps there are other ways to read those photographs as well.

There is certainly more to learn from photos of North Korea than how ridiculous the regime is. In general, ridicule tells much more about the biases of the person giving the insult than about the insulted. I haven’t examined a large number of propaganda images of North Korea, but I am fairly sure that they provide avenues into understanding much more about life under the regime than how contemptible the [Workers’ Party of Korea] is. Contempt is only one mode of analysis. There are many others.

Image: “The Village Listens to the Radio, Beijing Suburbs September 1954,” from Everyday Life in Mao’s China.

Uncle Joe

Say Uncle

By Austin Dean

Who is Xi Jinping? What does he think? What does he want? How popular is he? Much writing on Chinese politics in the past three years has grappled with these questions.

Answers often rely on comparisons with Chinese history. Xi is the most powerful leader in China since Deng Xiaoping; there is a Maoist tinge to his rule; he shows much more personality than the Chinese leaders who immediately preceded him; his traveling with a stylish “First Lady,” Peng Liyuan, brings to mind the time when Chiang Kai-shek and Song Meiling hit the road together in the 1930s and 1940s; his proposal for a new national security council harkens back to the Grand Council of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Such are just a few of the nods to China’s past that have been used to help place Xi in perspective.

What has been done more rarely is to place Xi beside a past leader of a different place. That’s what I want to do here, through the admittedly idiosyncratic entry point of nicknames. Xi is known as “Uncle Xi” (one way to translate “Xi Dada”) — and this brings to mind two former Communist leaders, the Soviet Union’s “Uncle Joe” (Stalin) and Vietnam’s “Uncle Ho” (Chi Minh).

First, some background on Xi’s moniker is in order. The Chinese leader was not always Uncle Xi. When he started his term in 2012, a fan club emerged on weibo, the Chinese counterpart to Twitter, whose members referred to him as “Our Pingping,” an informal appellation using a doubling of the last character of his name. A little while later the fan club played with alternative nicknames and landed on Xi Dada. The government propaganda bureau may have been behind the creation of this fan club or it might have had no involvement. In either case, both some Chinese netizens and the official party apparatus quickly adopted the term. Even Xi seems to have embraced it. When Xi visited Beijing Normal University, a school for teacher education, one student asked him if he could call the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party “Xi Dada” and Xi reportedly responded in English, and with a smile, “Yes.”

Uncle Ho

Xi Peng

There are cartoons that show Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, who goes by the equally affectionate nickname, “Peng Mama,” as a happy couple. There is even a song talking about the love between them. The overall image is of a leader who is more accessible and relatable than his predecessors.

Of course, there are limits to how familiar one can be with this uncle. One 9 year old wrote a letter to the leader, which his father shared with friends and which eventually got picked up by a local newspaper, suggesting that Xi should lose weight. “There’s no need to be as skinny as Obama,” the boy wrote, but “like Putin is good.” That was too far. The story disappeared.

Let’s turn now to the other Communist uncles, beginning with Stalin. Franklin Roosevelt took to calling him “Uncle Joe” during World War II when Washington and Moscow were allies in the fight against the Axis Powers. At the Tehran conference in 1943, FDR tried to get through to Stalin at a personal level by making a series of mocking comments about Winston Churchill, drawing a smile from Stalin. Then “he kept at it up until Stalin was laughing with me, and it was then that I called him ‘Uncle Joe.’ He would have thought me fresh the day before, but that day he laughed and came over and shook my hand.”

The nickname stuck. To ring in the New Year in 1945, FDR’s family and friends drank champagne that Stalin had sent from his birthplace in Georgia. Although the guests thought it “too sweet” and “awful,” they still made a toast to “Uncle Joe.” By the Yalta conference in 1945, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, remarked that “All Russia knows you [FDR] call him Uncle Joe.”

Stalin might have had a hand in the creation of the “Uncle Joe” image as well. As Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, “The foundation of Stalin’s power in the Party was not fear: it was charm […] he constantly lost his temper, but when he set his mind to be a charming man, he was irresistible.” Lord Beaverbrook, an English diplomat, echoed this view describing Stalin as “a kindly man […] he practically never shows any impatience at all.”

The moniker did not stay at just the elite level. In 1943, the movie “Mission to Moscow” painted Stalin and the Russians in a favorable light. As historian Walter Hixson points out, American propaganda at the time portrayed Stalin as “tough but friendly.” Of course, the figure of Uncle Joe did not last much beyond World War II. It was tied to a specific time and place.

There are differences here. The Uncle Xi moniker began domestically within China and has not become widespread outside the country, despite an unfortunate propaganda video involving a group of foreign students who use the term continually in expressing their affection for the Chinese leader. The Uncle Joe label started outside of Russia and from the beginning got more play internationally, including from the lips of other leaders. It’s hard to imagine President Obama referring to Uncle Xi as FDR referred to Uncle Joe.
Others might point out that the Uncle Joe discourse obscured the brutal nature of the Soviet regime, just as the Uncle Xi narrative glosses over the more authoritarian aspects of the current Chinese administration.

What, then, of Uncle Ho? That was not the Vietnamese leader’s only nicknames. Revolutionary activities required anonymity, so he had more than one nom de guerre. In fact, Ho Chi Minh wasn’t even “Ho Chi Minh” until he was nearly 50 years old.

Unlike Stalin, Ho Chi Minh became Uncle Ho, as Xi became Uncle Xi, in a purely domestic context. Another difference is physical. While Stalin was solid with a thick mustache and Xi is rotund, Ho was thin, almost frail, with wispy facial hair. If Chinese netizens fret about Uncle Xi being too plump, Vietnamese might have worried that Uncle Ho was too abstemious.

Uncle Ho always left an impression, particularly on foreign interlocutors. As one remarked later, “Ho was a courtly, urbane, highly sophisticated man with a gentle manner and without personal venom.” That is not too far from some foreigners’ descriptions of Stalin.

What most sets the Uncle Ho nickname off from the Uncle Joe one is its endurance. In Vietnam Ho’s image, “ever serene and benevolent — is ubiquitous, even in the south where bitterness festers among those who lost the Vietnam war.” In part, the nickname lives on because it has to. Without it, “people would find it easier to envisage a time when the Communist Party wasn’t in power.”

Perhaps the important question is whether Xi’s avuncular nickname will go the way of Stalin’s and fizzle out or be more like Ho’s and live on. How long will Xi Jinping be Uncle Xi?

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Darth Vader and the Triceratops—A Q & A with Maggie Greene on “Stars Wars” in China

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

There’s been a lot of commentary lately about the challenge that Disney faces marketing the new Star Wars film in China, due to comparative lack of familiarity there with the story and characters.  When the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films premiered on the mainland, things were very different, since they began appearing at a time when Chinese and Western popular culture were increasingly entwined.  They also included characters from books that many Chinese had read in translation.  By contrast, the Star Wars films do not ride the coattails of books that are well known in China, and the previous movies in the series have only rarely made it into Chinese mainland theaters.  When the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, it was not shown on the mainland for years.  This was hardly surprising, given how cut off from the flow of Western popular culture China was throughout the Mao years, and for a decade or so after that period ended.  Mao may have already been dead when American viewers first met Leia, Luke and Han Solo, but China was still, “for all intents and purposes,” as Julie Makinen put in a recent Los Angeles Times article on the topic, “in a different universe.”  

And yet…there was one curious intersection of the early Lucas and early post-Mao universes back in 1980 that historian Maggie Greene discovered via, of all things, collecting lianhuanhua, a genre of illustrated story books.  She first wrote about her find in 2014, in a piece for her own website titled, naturally, “A Long Time Ago in a China Far, Far Away…” This led to all sorts of websites, such as iO9, and news services including the BBC describing her find, running excerpts from her post, and/or interviewing her.   Reminded of this while reading news coverage of the latest Star Wars film opening in China, I persuaded Greene to respond to a few questions.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Can you describe in a few sentences what you found and how you found it?

MAGGIE GREENE: In the spring of 2011, I was living in Shanghai while researching my dissertation. I always enjoyed hitting the Sunday book fair at the Confucian Temple (Wen Miao 文庙) to see if I could find anything of use to my work on traditional opera in the 1950s and 1960s. Many sellers had heaps of vintage lianhuanhua — “linked picture books,” little comic books, basically — which are generally very cheap ($1 USD or less), so inexpensive and easy to collect. I asked one seller if he had anything related to my research subjects, and he pulled a few out — including this one. It took me a beat to realize what it was: a 1980 lianhuanhua adaptation of Star Wars. It was so incongruous, and the price was right (about 8 RMB), I simply couldn’t leave it behind.

What is your favorite page from the comic?  Why?

There are almost too many to mention! Many discussions of the comic have gone to some lengths to show the source material — such as a cameo appearance of the Yamato from the mid-1970s Japanese anime Space Battleship Yamato — for some of the stranger parts. Learning about those has been one of the neatest things of following up on where the post has been linked. But if forced to pick one, I would probably say Darth Vader and the triceratops. Darth Vader’s pose apparently goes back to an illustration by the fantasy and sci-fi artist Frank Frazetta — where the triceratops came from is anyone’s guess.

What is strangest about the way people and objects from the Star Wars universe are presented in this text?

I think what fascinates me most is how many sources the artists drew from. The lianhuanhua may not have been licensed, but this is really creative “bootlegging.” I like to think of it as a visual remix of a wide variety of sources. I’ve seen some references to comic panels being taken from 1940s comic books, which is pretty amazing if you think about it, especially when combined with the diversity of other materials found in the comic.

How would you define the lianhuanhua genre, for those unfamiliar with it?

Lianhuanhua are little books — most are about the size of your hand — that consist of pictures with captions, originally designed for children or less literate adult readers; they originated in the early 20th century. Generally, traditional stories from mythology, operas, novels, and the like were the sources, although after 1949, the Chinese Communist Party also used them to promulgate socialist virtues and political lessons. Many of the ones I own are exquisitely drawn, so while the text is not necessarily very sophisticated, they are beautiful little pieces of popular art in their own right.

Is there anything important you think has been missing from the reporting on The Force Awakens opening in China — other than allusions to this text, if it indeed hasn’t been mentioned (it may have somewhere I haven’t seen)?*

I think many reports have missed the historical background of Hollywood in China. A number of articles I’ve seen refer to this global film market as if it is some new phenomenon. It’s not! During the Republican era (1911-1949), major cities like Shanghai and Tianjin had a robust market for Hollywood films, and not just for Western residents. Major newspapers carried advertisements for scores of American films being screened — many quite current. Flip through popular magazines like Linglong, and you will see photos of Western film stars like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Shirley Temple, stills from contemporaneous Hollywood films, even sheet music for Marx Brothers musicals! Western films were even put in service to domestic issues — I once saw a very late 1936 ad for a Hollywood Western that made clear allusions to the threat of a Japanese invasion. My students are often surprised by how “globalized” the world was “way back then,” since we often treat this as [if] it’s something that only came about in the 1990s or after.

You noted in your post that this kind of thing isn’t your main focus. Is there any link, though, between your Star Wars post and, say, what you do in the classroom?

Well, as a cultural historian, I use a lot of visual sources in my teaching and like meditating more generally on the refashioning and reshaping of culture over time (and this adaptation certainly counts as “refashioning”!).

How about your research and writing?

I do think these seemingly trifling bits of culture can often reveal a lot about society at specific moments; in that vein, I have an article coming out in Cross-Currents this month on mahjong’s changing position from the late 19th century to 1949. My main task at the moment, however, is pretty far removed from the realm of the Force. I’m preparing a manuscript based on my dissertation entitled “The Sound of Ghosts: Cultural Reform and Censorship in the People’s Republic of China.” In it, [I] examine the relationship between intellectuals, artists, and the state in the 1950s and 1960s, largely by tracing debates and policy regarding classical literature on supernatural themes — particularly ghosts. A commenter on the original blog post expressed surprise that a story about “fighting tyranny” would’ve been so casually published in early 1980s PRC — something that didn’t surprise me at all when I thought about it. In a follow-up post, I connected this kind of story and historical moment to the literary products I study — most of which are stories about fighting tyrannical social systems or corrupt and callous government officials. Will Star Wars have the staying power of something like Tang Xianzu’s famous opera The Peony Pavilion (1598)? I guess our descendants will find out!

*Interviewer’s Note: Since conducting this Q&A, I have seen that at least one publication, TimeOut Beijing, has brought Greene’s find into their discussion of the Chinese opening of The Force Awakens— in a piece with some nice illustrations from the original text.

Qin Hui cover

Out of Autocracy, Off the Shelves

By Jeremiah Jenne

It is an unfortunate axiom of publishing in China that the best way for your book to gain international attention is to have the Chinese government make it unavailable to domestic readers. Such is the fate of Out of Imperial Autocracy (Zouchu dizhi), the latest book by the eminent public intellectual and economic historian Qin Hui, published earlier this year.

International coverage of the ban has focused on the book’s treatment of constitutionalism in modern Chinese history. It is a timely topic. The question of whether the Chinese Communist Party should be subject to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China has become a third rail for writers and academics in the Xi Jinping era. The banning of the book so close to the government-promoted “Constitution Day” holiday, as well as the recent trial of free speech advocate Pu Zhiqiang, have put China’s constitution in the spotlight. But while Qin Hui does discuss constitutionalism, he does so in the context of a much larger and wider-ranging assessment of the political transformations in China from the late-19th into the early-20th centuries.

Out of Imperial Autocracy is a collection of essays on modern history, many of which appeared previously in mainstream publications in China on the occasion of recent centennials: The 1911 Revolution, the outbreak of World War I (1914), and the beginnings of the New Culture Movement (1915). Articles on the Taiping Rebellion and Sino-Japanese relations round out the collection. The result is nothing less than an overview of Chinese modern history by one of China’s most celebrated intellectuals and gifted polymaths.

Given the wide range of topics reconsidered, Qin Hui’s perspectives on constitutionalism may not be as objectionable from the point of view of government censors as some of the other positions taken in the book. What is interesting is why these arguments are now sufficiently controversial to have the book removed from the shelves when most had already been published in one form or another.

In recent years, China’s leaders have made it clear that they are in an all-out ideological war against the intrusion of Western values into the Chinese political system. The banning of Qin Hui’s book, and the continuing pressure on academics in China, is evidence that the government is not only looking out for views that radically depart from party orthodoxy, but is now no longer willing to tolerate any view that does not seamlessly fit with set narratives on a range of issues, among them history. In the past year, there has been a concerted campaign by Party publications and officials attacking “historical nihilism,” defined broadly as, “anything that challenges the historical orthodox that depicts the Party as the decisive force in the Chinese people’s struggle for independence and liberation from suppression.” As the party continues to rebrand old ideological terms, think of it as Anti-Revisionism 2.0.

Space does not permit looking in depth at all of the argument presented in this collection, but a few topics have attracted particular attention in the press and by reviewers.

If one thread can be traced throughout the collection, it is the question of how to proceed away from the imperial autocratic system and toward a republic in the early 20th century. Qin Hui argues that in Chinese history, there have been only two significant political transformations. The first was the move from the feudalism of the Zhou Period (1122-256 BCE) to the autocracy of the state of Qin (256 BCE-220 BCE), which marked the beginning of the imperial system. The second was in 1911, when a Republican revolution swept the Qing Dynasty from power and brought that same system to an end after nearly 2000 years.

The first transformation, from Zhou to Qin, lasted nearly 100 years. For Qin Hui, there is little coincidence that China today remains caught in the grip of the equally momentous second transformation that began just over a century ago.

Qin Hui concedes that the the 1911 transition out of autocracy did not fulfill the ideals of the revolutionaries insofar as a constitutional government failed to take hold in China. But was it a total loss? Viewed in demographic terms, the revolution avoided the calamitous population drops of early dynastic transitions. In the realm of foreign affairs, between 1911 and 1945, China went from being under the thumb of foreign treaties to a member of the UN Security Council. Surely, Qin Hui argues, that must count for something?

In fact, in one of the more controversial sections, Qin Hui argues that when the Chinese people famously “stood up” with Mao Zedong in 1949, it was not against foreign imperialism, as later PRC interpretations have emphasized. Instead, he contends, the people were taking a collective stance against the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. The Communists promised a system more in keeping with the ideals of the 1911 revolution, a move away from autocracy of the Nationalists and the corruption associated with their one-party rule. The appeal of the Communists, ironically, was the fulfillment of a 30-year dream of democracy.

Looking back then, the political fate of the 1911 revolution was not predetermined by cultural or historical circumstance. In today’s revolution-averse ideological climate, many scholars argue the revolution failed because it tried to do too much, too fast. Qin Hui feels that gradual reforms were unlikely to dislodge imperial autocracy; he argues that constitutional monarchies develop out of feudalism, as in the case of the British parliamentary system or the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Entrenched autocracies, such as those found in Russia and China, require revolutions. But are revolutions any more radical than reforms or political evolution? Perhaps not, answers Qin Hui. The 1911 Revolution was relatively bloodless by the standards of Chinese history and world revolutions, while the founding of a constitutional monarchy in Japan resulted in bloody civil wars and ultimately led to an aggressive militarist state.

Qin Hui can find autocracy and Legalism lurking everywhere. It can even bring together strange bedfellows in modern Chinese history, like the pseudo-Christian rebels of the Taiping kingdom, whom Qin Hui sees as carrying on the anti-intellectualism of the Qin period, and the vehemently anti-Christian pro-regime insurgents of the Boxer Uprising, who were rebels in support of the imperial order.

Systems matter. The transitions of Chinese history, whether from Zhou to Qin two millennia ago or out of autocracy in 1911, succeeded or failed based on the suitability of the systems for that historical moment.

Qin Hui focuses on systems because in his estimation systems can be judged as being either superior or inferior, whereas cultures, whether comparing ancient and modern or Eastern and Western, cannot be judged the same way. As he explains,

You may play basketball, and I may play ping-pong. The sports themselves cannot be defined good or bad. We cannot say that basketball or ping-pong is superior to the other. But the rules of the game can be judged good or bad. If in the rules of a sport, only one side gets to serve, or the referees may also participate as players, or if one team is allowed six players and the other team only three, no matter if we are playing basketball or ping-pong, then we must hold these rules to be of poor quality.

The Chinese Communist Party considers itself locked in an existential ideological struggle with the West. It regards even the idea of universal values as anathema to its own ideological survival. As a bulwark against these attacks, party ideologues have deployed shields of cultural and national exceptionalism. Their argument is that China exists as it is because that’s the way it was meant to be. Qin Hui’s separation of culture and systems knocks against the very foundations of this tautology.

While such arguments do not have the sex appeal of a scholar calling openly for the Party to submit to constitutional rule, the ability to disrupt entrenched historical narratives presents just as grave an ideological challenge. In China, history is taught as a set of facts. The answer is “A” or “B.” The idea that history can be composed of multiple — and often competing and contradictory — perspectives counter to the CCP’s attempts to control public opinion.

While copies of Out of Imperial Autocracy are still to be found by laboriously browsing through China’s e-commerce platforms (searches for the book by title invariable come up empty or say the book is out of stock), Qin Hui and his publishers have confirmed that the book is banned for now. Qin Hui has a way of simplifying complex narratives while complicating seemingly simple assumptions. Hopefully his book, a tour-de-force by one of China’s most intelligent, engaging and challenging intellectuals, gets the readership it deserves.

China Story Yearbook 2014

A Q&A with Jeremy Goldkorn

By Liz Carter

Jeremy Goldkorn is a researcher, writer, speaker, and podcaster on Chinese politics, economics, and society. He moved to China in 1995 and stayed in the country for 20 years, during which time he covered developments there for a number of prominent media outlets and founded Danwei, a popular media tracking website that grew into a research firm and was later acquired by the Financial Times. Involved with the Australian Centre on China in the World since its inception in 2010, he has been part of the three-person editorial team, the other members being Geremie R. Barmé and Linda Jaivin, who have edited each of its China Story Yearbooks. Via email, he answered some questions about the recently published Yearbook 2014: Shared Destiny, as well as his own take on recent developments in China.

LIZ CARTER: You’ve been involved with China Story Yearbook since its first edition. Can you talk a little bit about how it got started, how you got involved, and what it brings to discussions of China in media and academia? What do you think people have to gain by looking at years in review, as opposed to just following the news on a regular basis?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: The China Story Yearbook is a project of the Centre on China in the World at Australian National University. Both the China Story project and the Centre were founded by the noted Sinologist Geremie Barmé.

The intention of the Yearbook is to provide a historical record of the events, intellectual discussions, politics, economics and everyday life of each year covered. Although most of the writers are scholars and academics, not all are, and the intention is to make the work accessible to anyone interested in China.

Looking at a year in review allows for a broader view of current events than following the daily torrent of news does and allows us to expand on themes that are important to understanding China but may not make it into a news story.

How do you see the overall climate of the Chinese internet (specifically social media)? 

Although there are an extraordinary number of people on the Chinese Internet saying an extraordinary range of things about all kinds of subjects, the space for those who differ from the Party line of Xi Jinping’s propagandists seems to be getting smaller by the week.

Do you have any ideas about how this might change in the next year or two?

I don’t see any reason to believe that current trends will change. The recent “World Internet Conference” was merely the latest example of the government’s growing confidence in presenting censorship in a positive light: the Chinese internet is a great place to buy stuff or to be entertained, but there is no indication that the strict controls on it will be loosened.

Regarding the portion of the Yearbook you wrote about “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” do you think the crackdown on human rights activists and dissidents is the new normal? If so, how can media covering these issues adapt without sounding like they are beating a dead horse?

I believe this is the new normal. I think the only way to cover such issues to make sure that each case is handled as an individual case with an individual story rather than a mere statistic. But there is no way to avoid the fact that readers of news about China will get what one might call oppression fatigue.

What brought you back to the US? And what is it like watching China from here, as opposed to Beijing?

Not back: I am from South Africa. Arriving in the US for me is a little like going to China was: I have to adapt to a whole new culture, much of which I do not yet understand.

I am quite enjoying observing China from afar, but I do love going back. I was in Beijing in September for the first time since I left in February and I enjoyed it very much.

When compiling the 2014 Yearbook, what events or trends reviewed gave you the most cause for optimism, and which were the most distressing?

In the last half decade, the Chinese government has done a complete turnaround on environmental problems and now recognizes the threats of global warming, pollution, unsustainable agricultural practices and other dangers to the earth. That is a great cause for optimism.

On the other hand, the Party has over the last few years made clear that they explicitly reject individual rights such as freedom of expression as hostile foreign ideas: it’s hard to feel good about that.