The special issue’s editors introduce the rationale for the following articles, all of which take up aspects of the relations among the production of artworks, the behavior of audiences, and the state’s interest in assembling, regulating, and transforming what it knows as its people through the responses to art.
When Chinese literary thought is put in a global context, it is often characterized by its disinterest in mimesis and its correlative faith in the legibility of direct lyrical expression, both of which features would derive from a general epistemic optimism common to all schools of Chinese thought. Early writing on music, however, attests to a distrust of the art and to a consequent urge for reform. Suspicious mimesis, linked with the promotion of moral exemplars, is shown in this historical essay to be the ground of aesthetics in the Confucian tradition.
In Mao’s era, China’s policy makers and intellectuals viewed aesthetic experience and thought as handmaidens in the service of the political order. As China opened up and engaged more intensely with modern traditions of the West, aesthetic thinkers such as Li Zehou critiqued the subordinated role of aesthetics and reasserted notions of aesthetic autonomy and liberal humanism, calling for the separation of arts and literature from political, social, and moral concerns. This truncated aesthetic view stems from a modernist version of Western aesthetics that favors sense and sensibility as the sole sources of aesthetic value—a view that considerably diminishes the horizon of concerns inherent in traditional and modern Chinese aesthetic thoughts. This article seeks to recapture a repoliticized aesthetics by considering the ways early twentieth-century Chinese thinkers linked aesthetic thoughts to moral and political considerations in the reconstruction of China as a modern nation-state. Instead of transcendent, pure aesthetics over and above political processes and social experience, prominent aesthetic thinkers like Wang Guowei, Cai Yuanpei, and Lu Xun invoked traditional Chinese aesthetic legacies and reconsidered intimate and necessary ties between aesthetic categories and broader concerns about cultural crises, moral reform, and nation building.
1966, the inaugural year of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, was also the thirtieth anniversary of Lu Xun’s death. Quotations from and praise of China’s best known and preeminent modern writer were in abundance that year and an official commemorative event, reportedly attended by more than seventy thousand people, was held in Beijing. The anniversary date presented the Maoist state with a prime opportunity for boosting the cultural and intellectual authority of their doctrinal assertions by association with Lu Xun. In asking what Lu Xun was in 1966, I seek to bring to view the thingness of his afterlife (or afterlives) under CCP rule. This paper discusses how the Maoist treatment of Lu Xun turned him into a political icon, to add aesthetic value to Mao Zedong Thought. Insofar as aesthetics turns on what can be felt, heard, seen, sensed, touched, or imagined, aestheticization is generally accompanied by a certain process of reification. I thus consider the concrete instances by which people came to experience Lu Xun—such as selected quotations from Lu Xun, Chairman Mao’s formulations about Lu Xun, and images of the writer in poster art—focusing in particular on the widely publicized speeches presented at the official commemoration of his death in October 1966. Since the 1980s, these 1966 commemorations have been routinely disparaged in China as an aberration. To take the Maoist version of Lu Xun seriously as the careful construction of an aesthetic object is to do more than elucidate its ideological abuse of Lu Xun. By engaging productively with the Maoist craving for an ideal revolutionary comportment, we may yet catch a glimpse of the kind of world it took for Lu Xun to make sense as a Maoist icon. Without this Maoist intensity of feeling, there would not have been the post-Maoist preoccupation with recovering or defending, as it were, Lu Xun’s true or real form (if such a phenomenologically pure act is even possible).
If indeed aestheticization and enchantment are perennial traits of state discourses and practices in China, it is perhaps unsurprising that a countertradition in modern literature should emphasize disenchantment. Cultural productions that originate from outside the sphere of the state have often questioned its authority. Where the state seeks to enchant, literature has sometimes sought to kindle doubt, to arouse debate. Although such debates have often been curtailed or suppressed, it is worth reexamining the connections between literary production and political debates in different historical contexts throughout twentieth-century China. Drawing on theories that stress the intentionality of literature and the speech act value of the literary text, the present essay attempts to characterize the communicational dynamics both within the text and in the context of its reception. In this perspective, it revisits some of the literary debates that took place in China in the May Fourth and Republican periods (represented by Lu Xun), the early postwar years and the ROC—PRC transition (Lao She), in certain works written during the Cultural Revolution (Jin Fan/Liu Qingfeng), as well as post-1979 literature on the mainland (Yan Lianke). It does so by selecting texts that seem to have been produced with the intention of challenging the aesthetics of enchantment, using literary devices to interrupt readers’ enjoyment and thus open a space for public discussion of both aesthetics and politics.
This essay defines Maoism as an experiment in intimate governance and an attempt—albeit a failed one—to dismantle the divide between political leaders and ordinary people. The Communist Party’s claim to intimacy with the people needs to be constantly reenacted in the relationship between party cadres and ordinary citizens––a cadre’s gestures, habits, and attitudes are magnified and scrutinized under the lens of party legitimacy. The special privileges (tequan, 特权) of party leaders are what I call metrics of exceptionality, which separate the party from the people. The promise to govern on the basis of intimacy with the people did not eradicate ruling class entitlements and arrogance but delegitimized them and opened them up to public scrutiny. Although the process of eradicating privileges was always several steps behind their elaboration and intensification, the former was a normative goal that shaped how ordinary citizens perceived and interacted with party cadres. This dual movement in opposing directions still constitutes the fundamental contradiction of China’s political system as seen from within. This essay revisits and examines crucial historical junctures in the People’s Republic of China as framed by popular contestations of special privilege. The fact that in the post-Mao period, party leaders still speak in the language of intimacy, proximity, and distance indicates the aesthetic importance of this relationship in party ideology, despite public complaints regarding its absence. Even when intimacy as a political mode of communication is able to communicate nothing but its own failure, the proximity between the party and the people takes center stage as the aesthetic foundation of party legitimacy.
This essay traces documentary cinema’s entanglement in material productions in industry, agriculture, and infrastructure during China’s Great Leap Forward (1957–1961) and uses documentary as a prism to investigate the intertwined histories of media practice and social transformation. I argue that as the fastest growing mode of filmmaking, documentary inculcated a complex temporal aesthetic in this period and propelled the Great Leap Forward as a productive force. Taylorist images provided sensorial training for a rapidly expanding labor force, instilling in new workers the rhythm and speed of optimal industrial movement. Meanwhile, a new mode of artistic documentary blurred the distinction between documentary and fiction, with a practice of documenting tomorrow that shunned uncertainty and brought the future into palpable proximity. Rapidly made to approximate the simultaneous time of television, but delivered manually by mobile projectionists to sites of mass labor all over the country, documentary films accompanied sleepless mass labor on a 24/7 schedule and played pivotal roles in disseminating age-old vernacular technologies, such as the backyard furnaces, to grave consequences. What was the Chinese revolution? How do we grasp its energies and entropies, and account for its failures? Understanding documentary as a critical media that articulated and supported the radical temporality and epistemology of the Great Leap Forward, this essay argues for the important role of media and mediation in delimiting the epistemological, political, and aesthetic possibilities that shaped the paths of the revolution’s actualization.
This essay argues for the primacy of aesthetic resources, which use appeals to the senses and emotions more than interpersonal negotiation or empirical reasoning, in contemporary Chinese political communication. Chinese officials and citizens create politically acceptable utterances by assembling existing aesthetic resources in particular orders. This strategy has partly been forced on the party state by its internally contradictory history and has partly resulted from the use of advertising and marketing techniques. Excessive reliance on aesthetic resources, and the miscellaneous and inconsistent nature of the resources chosen, may prove to be a political weakness for the party state.
In 1967 Guy Debord published the pamphlet-sized The Society of the Spectacle, a book written in the form of a collection of short theses. Debord was criticized for inventing the “spectacle” out of thin air by thinkers of his time such as Michel Foucault. We can, however, detect salient manifestations of the Debordian spectacular society in China of the 2010s. This paper demonstrates a deep and pervasive trend of spectacularization in China by analyzing (a) Taobao as a desire-creating machine producing the buy-buy-buy fanaticism, (b) the beautifying operation that has engendered perverted effects in sexual relationship, (c) the spectacular dialectic epitomized by the celebrity culture, and (d) the reality-twisting effects of the spectacles. The paper further offers a comparative analysis of the contemporary spectacles vis-à-vis the Maoist spectacles of the 1960s, which sheds light in understanding the enactment of antientertainment actions in recent years. The spectacles in contemporary China, in the fashion depicted by Debord half a century ago, have effectively produced a specific worldview of commodity and consumption, and this worldview transforms itself, through blind trust, into a type of objective force. The social terrains needed for spreading and cultivating socialist values were heavily colonized by the such spectacles (consumption, beautification, celebrity culture, entertainment); the latter have significantly absorbed the masses’ attention in the last decade to such level that it has almost occupied all spaces for communication and played the leading role in regulating people’s daily lives. The “Beauty is justice!” slogan that has been extremely popular in contemporary China reveals one significant change in Chinese culture and its sociopolitical effect: the trend of spectacularization, through elevating spectacle to the supreme value and turning the country into a spectacular (un)reality, has not only homogenized China but also effectively depoliticized the country.
On 24 July 2012, the Sansha People’s Government was established on an anthropogenic island in the South China Sea, more than 350 kilometers from the southernmost point of Hainan Province. Sansha is the PRC’s smallest city, occupying roughly ten square kilometers on Woody Island and housing a population of just over a thousand; at the same time, it is also the PRC’s largest city, symbolically laying claim to thousands of kilometers of space in the South China Sea. Alongside the ambitious logistical and military projects to build Sansha into part of China, highlighting an official shift from temporal to territorial nationalism, a corresponding state aesthetic project has consolidated in citizens’ minds a distant island that most will never see. The resulting cultural products portray a new addition of territory as an eternal part of China, while a remote island is constructed as an integral yet also mystical part of the nation-state. Examining artistic portrayals of the island across mediums including film, poetry, and painting, this article critically analyzes newly emerging trends in state and popular nationalism in China today.
The geohistorical disjunctures between Hong Kong—colonial territory, global city, and special administrative region—and China challenge understandings of the relationship. Hong Kong officially maintains certain core values that differ from those of the People’s Republic of China, while unofficial Chinese Communist Party united-front activity in Hong Kong has arguably narrowed the range of the sayable, in Jacques Rancière’s terms, in the public sphere. How does this admixture of core values, at turns antithetical and contested, appear in the space and time of Hong Kong? Interventions in the ideational dynamic between the city and the state—through images, utterances, performances, and alternative artworks—produce space for the appearance of subjects defined by the people. Not a postcolonial culture of disappearance but an ontology of politics where spaces of disagreement make apprehensible that which is politically unsayable. During the decade before the Umbrella Movement, in a fervent aesthetics of politics at the crossroads of hurtling urban transformation and accelerating illiberal governance, alternative art in Hong Kong populated social-movement activity with claims on public space and the possibilities of the people in the sightlines of a democratic future.