Posts tagged: Cultural Revolution

Xie Jin’s “Two Stage Sisters” & Xi Jinping’s Recent Thoughts on the Arts

By , October 26, 2014
Movie Poster for Xie Jin's Two Stage Sisters

Movie Poster for Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters

The China Institute‘s Cultural Revolution film series kicked off with a bang the other week with a rarely-viewed Xie Jin (pronounced Sye Gin) film, Two Stage Sisters (舞台姐妹).  All of the films being shown  makes this little series a gem.  But it is the series’ fortuitous timing – with President Xi Jinping’s (pronounced See Gin-ping) recent speech on the arts – that makes it a must see for anyone trying to understand the possible direction China’s arts may take in the future.

Two Stage Sisters, filmed in 1964 during a more open time before the onset of the Cultural Revolution, breaks down any notion that  propaganda films from this time period could not also be art.  The film follows the lives of two Shaoxing opera actresses – Yuehong and Chunhua – as they travel through a turbulent time in China’s history.  The film opens in 1935’s rural China.  Chunhua, who has run away from her in-laws who had plans to sell her, finds herself hiding in the store room of a local opera troupe.  The troupe – run by Yuehong’s father – adopts her and discovering that she has a natural talent for Shaoxing opera, makes her the star of the show along with Yuehong.  Showing the abusive practices of pre-revolution China, after the father dies, the two stage sisters are sold to a Shanghai opera troupe to pay off their father’s debts.

In early 1940s Shanghai, Yuehong and Chunhua become stars.  But slowly, as China begins to change, so does the relationship between the two women.  Chunhua remains the virtuous peasant.  Even when a wealthy patron wants to adopt her as her daughter, Chunhua, ever pure to the art, rejects the patron’s advances.  Yuehong questions Chunhua’s decision and is slowly seduced by the opera troupe’s manager as well as the Guomingdang, bourgeois lifestyle that he offers.  While Chunhua, inspired by Lu Xun’s work, begins to write revolutionary operas, Yuehong retires and fills her life with pearls, furs and diamonds.

Two Stage Sisters is marked by amazingly intense melodrama with the growing tension between the two sisters and the impending revolution

Chunhua (left) and Yuehong begin to lead different lives

Chunhua (left) and Yuehong begin to lead different lives

building in every scene.  It is in that melodrama that director Xie Jin excels and makes this film into a masterpiece.   The drama crescendos in an artfully shot courtroom scene that demonstrates that if history did not get in the way, Xie Jin could have been China’s Kurosawa.

But like most things in China, history and politics did get in the way, essentially putting Xie Jin’s career on hold for the next twenty years.  Two Stage Sisters, filmed with the approval of Xia Yan (pronounced Syia Yen), China’s Vice Minister of Culture, was produced at time when Mao Zedong’s power was at its lowest due to the tragic debacle of the Great Leap Forward.  But that period would not last and it is the Cultural Revolution itself that becomes Mao’s plan to regain complete power.

With the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Xie’s film was condemned precisely because it had not been hard enough on Yuehong, the sister that succumbs to materialism.  Xie Jin’s art of portraying even the “villain” in a nuanced and sympathetic manner did not fly during the Cultural Revolution.  For the Red Guards who would begin to rule society for the next few years, Chunhua’s forgiveness of Yuehong came too easy.  For them, Yuehong – an enemy of the socialist state – should have been punished more for her capitalist ways.

Director Xie Jin at work.

Director Xie Jin at work.

Additionally, produced with the assistance of Xia Yan, a vocal critic of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and a target of Mao’s wife and former actress Jiang Qing, Two Stage Sisters’ condemnation was inevitable.  Soon after the start of the Cultural Revolution, Xia was purged and jailed for the eight years.  Xie Jin would spend much of the Cultural Revolution and what should have been the prime of his career in a labor camp.

Two Stage Sisters, and the history that surrounds it, shows that art in the People’s Republic of China, while ostensibly required to “serve the people” in fact serves the political whims of its leaders.  Given this history, Xi Jinping’s recent October 15, 2014 meeting with China’s artists might be a bellwether for his attempts to tie art not just more to the Chinese Communist Party but more to his rule.  The Cultural Revolution found its origin in Mao’s 1943 speech at the Yenan Talks on Literature and Art.  For Mao, the revolution had two fronts – the arts and the military; there was no such thing as art for art’s sake.  Art and literature were essential for a successful revolution and the Yenan Talks made clear that art and literature needed to extol the masses and propel them forward for greater revolution.  At a point though, Mao noted that with the masses’ rising cultural levels, art standards would have to rise as well.  But the art would still need to serve the people.

Xi’s October 15 speech, while not as obvious, has aspects that are eerily similar to Mao’s 1943 Talks.  According to Xinhua News agency, which summarized Xi’s remarks rather than print them, Xi called on artists and authors to be one with the people and to use their art to promote the Party: “Literature and art must reflect well the people’s wishes; it must persist in the fundamental orientation of serving the people and serving Socialism” (translation courtesy of Rogier Creemers).  Xi also digressed on the need to produce quality works for the masses’ increased cultural awareness.

Will Xi try to dominate the arts the way Mao did during the Cultural Revolution?  Or was this just a roundabout way to state the obvious: even

Xi Jinping speaking on arts in literature in today's China

Xi Jinping speaking on arts in literature in today’s China

Chinese people don’t really want to watch Chinese movies and there is a genuine need to improve quality?  Or is it something else?  For sure we won’t be seeing a Cultural Revolution anytime soon.  But if I was an artist, author or director in China right now, with a speech that makes reference to “a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend (百花齐放、百家争鸣的方针),” I would certainly sit this round of art-making out.  That unfortunately means the arts in China – at least those sanctioned by the state – will continue to stay at its current level.

Two Stage Sisters
Director: Xie Jin
Rating: ★★★★½

The China Institute’s Cultural Revolution Film Series runs now through November 19, 2014 with a movie shown every Wednesday night.  Tickets are $15 and each movie is followed by a Q&A session with either the director or someone expert in the movie.  The China Institute is located at 125 E 65th Street in New York City. 

How to Remember a Past – 24 Years Since Tiananmen

Spring 1989 - Peaceful Protest on Tiananmen SquareTwenty-five years is a silver anniversary; fifty a golden and seventy-five, a diamond jubilee.  But 24 years?  There is nothing in particular to mark a 24th anniversary – no special color, no special symbol, little attention in the press.

On Tuesday, the world will mark this nondescript 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.  The 20 year old idealistic college students who called for greater equality and believed in their government back in 1989, those kids will turn 44.  The parents who had to bring home a dead son or daughter, they will have to face another lonely anniversary of remembering.

But their remembrance will be in silence.  The Chinese government does not mark the passing of its violent crackdown on thousands of unarmed, college students on the night of June 3, 1989 and doesn’t allow its state-controlled press or its people to do so either.  The American author William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  But in China, that’s just not true of the Tiananmen Square massacre.  Since 1989, the Chinese government has effectively expunged the events of that night from society’s collective memory, especially among the young.  Today, it is not uncommon to find college students – students the same age as those killed in 1989 – who know little or nothing of the event, who have never heard of the “Goddess of Democracy,” and have no clue about the bravery of their countrymen in attempting to form a more perfect country.

Unfortunately, the Tiananmen Square massacre is not the only part of China’s past that has been forgotten.  Take the Cultural Revolution.  From

Some of the dead discovered on June 4, 1989

1966 to 1976, China, at the behest of Mao Zedong, descended into chaos.  Various factions of high school and college age Red Guards were in charge, parents, teachers and intellectuals were publicly ridiculed, some tortured and the unfortunate ones killed.

Today’s youth do know about the Cultural Revolution but only the white-washed version.  Walk into any hip shop on the cute street of Nanluoguxiang in Beijing and it will be filled with kitsch Cultural Revolution memorabilia.  Red Guard hats and armbands, t-shirts with puns of popular Cultural Revolution slogans on them, Mao wristwatches.  All of these are bought with gusto by Beijing’s youth.  But while certain aspects of the Cultural Revolution are allowed to be discussed, the seamier parts – the hundreds to thousands of people killed (either by their own hand or by overzealous Red Guards) and a generation of dreams shattered because of insane policies of the government – are largely unknown to the young.

Every society and every culture has parts of its past it would prefer not to remember.  The United States, with its sordid treatment of various ethnic groups throughout its history, is no stranger to forgetfulness.  The 1862 mass execution of 38 Dakota Indian men for war crimes is known by very few.  In fact the specifics of our treatment of Native Americans is rarely taught in school.  It’s not uncommon for a high school lessons on the United States’ treatment of Native Americans to – sadly – be concluded with a showing of Dances with Wolves.

Tank Man – A man, celebrated throughout the rest of the world but not in China.

Although historical forgetfulness is never good, there is a difference between a people deciding to forget their past and a government that gives their people no choice.  A people should be allowed to acknowledge those actions it deems significant to its culture.  For the United States, many of the marches, protests, and bravery of ordinary Americans during the civil rights movement have come to be celebrated, even those events that at the time that seemed pernicious.

But for China, the people have not been given that opportunity.  The Chinese people have not been allowed to celebrate their fellow countrymen and women who, during one spring season believed in a better country and who in one night lost their lives at the hands of their own government.

What’s Up with Chinese Contemporary Art: An Interview with Brian Wallace

By , December 28, 2012

Red Gate Gallery’s founder, Brian Wallace

If you want to understand Chinese contemporary art, a conversation with Brian Wallace is a must.  Although a humble man, much of China’s contemporary art field is a result of Wallace’s early efforts.  In 1991, barely a decade into Deng Xiaoping’s dismantling of the socialist economic state and only two years after the Tian’anmen crackdown, Wallace opened China’s first contemporary art gallery, Red Gate Gallery.  Housed in the infamous Dongbianmen Watchtower in Beijing, for the past 21 years, Red Gate has been a mainstay in the Chinese contemporary art field, identifying and promoting some of China’s best-known artists.

With its 21st anniversary and it’s current exhibit – 20th+1 where older, established Chinese contemporary artists identify some of China’s up-and-coming young artists – China Law & Policy sat down with Wallace to discuss the beginnings of China’s contemporary art movement, the impact of the hot art market on Chinese art and the future of the field.

Red Gate’s current exhibit – 20th+1 which identifies some of Chinese up-and-coming young artist – is only open for a few more days, until December 31, 2012.  So if you want to see some great pieces, better high-tail it to Beijing’s Watchtower to check out Red Gate’s show.

Click here to listen to the audio of the interview with Red Gate Gallery’s founder, Brian Wallace
Length: 17:35 minutes (audio will open in a separate browser)

Click here to open a PDF of the transcript of the Brian Wallace Interview

[01:00] EL:  Thank you Brian for inviting us today.  I want to start with the beginning and a simple question.  Why?  What made you think to open a contemporary art gallery in Beijing when no one else had?  And what was it about 1991 that caused you to open it? 

[01:14] BW:  Thanks Liz.  While I was at University here studying Chinese language, my Chinese friends were artists.  So back in the ’80s I started to help them organize exhibitions at different venues around town.  As you know there were no commercial galleries, no private galleries.  So we had to hire different spaces and these turned out to be Ming dynasty buildings; structures like the Ancient Observatory – that is where I was doing shows in ’88 and ’89.  But other groups of artists were organizing shows at the Temple of Longevity, the Temple of Law, the Confucian Testing Center and such places which were empty and in some cases in quite bad states of repair.

[02:02]But anyway we were able to use those places.  So during those few years I got to know many of the artists and enjoyed helping them

One of the remaining vestiges of Beijing’s Ming Dynasty city walls, the Dongbianmen Watchtower. Since 1991 it has housed Red Gate Gallery.

while I was studying Chinese language at the same time.

[02:14] In 1989 everything stopped of course, so I went to the Central Academy of Fine Arts and did a bridging course in contemporary Chinese art history.  Not that there was much of that at that time.  Then in ’91, I’d been here for 5 years and was wondering what I was going to do – go back to Australia or look for a job.  It made me think about what we had been doing and we thought we would try and open a gallery at the Observatory.  So we went back there and they said no, but down the road was this Ming Dynasty Watchtower which had just been restored and was re-opening to the public.  So they [the Observatory] gave us a very good introduction to the management here [at the Watchtower].  That’s how we opened Red Gate in 1991.

[03:00] EL:  When you first opened the gallery, so you were already friends with the artists.  But how did you, for the gallery purposes, did you have to choose between which artists’ works to show and how did you do that?

[03:14] BW:  Well yes, I was friends with many artists but we wanted to work with a particular group so we just got them together.  Our first show I think had about 7 artists.

[03:26] EL: And who were those artists in the first show?

[03:28] BW: There was Wang Luyan, Zhang Yajie, Da Gong, just to name a few.

[03:37] EL:  And in terms of having a Westerner open a gallery here, how did the Chinese art field in general respond to your presence?  Were they happy that have a gallery here interested in their work or were they confused as to what your goals were?

[03:54] BW: No because they knew me.  And they also recognized that this was the first time someone was doing something like this so they were quite enthusiastic about being involved in it.  And we all were supported by the very small foreign community, mainly diplomats, cultural attaches, students, a few business people who were around at that time.  Many were very, very involved with the Chinese economy, the Chinese lifestyle, meeting Chinese, learning Chinese.  So they were very interested in seeing this develop even though we were developing from nothing and learning from the ground up.

[04:40] EL:  So it sounds like back in 1990-91, it was basically a group of artists and then a lot of Western support, supporting their work morally as opposed to financially.  What about mainstream Chinese people?

[04:51] BW: The interest was very limited to the artists and that group of foreigners. Outside of that there was no interest whatsoever in contemporary Chinese art.  People had plenty of other things they had to worry about before then.  And they didn’t have any experience in going to galleries or understanding art.

[05:13] What we have seen over the last 20 years is a huge educational learning curve for everyone, not just Chinese but foreigners and Western supporters.

[05:26] EL:  Let’s focus now on the shift in Chinese art.  Back in 1991 it was pretty much a very small field. What in addition to having more mainstream Chinese people support Chinese contemporary art, what are some of the major changes you have seen in the past 21 years in Chinese contemporary art in addition to just the support and the prices? 

Yue Minjun, an early Chinese contemporary artist. This painting – Execution – sold for $5.9 million at auction in 2007.

[05:52] BW: Well, for the artists that I have been working with, if we want to talk about their message, it’s all been a very strong commentary on what has been going on around them because they have been part of this dramatic change.  They have seen it from very much the inside.  That first group of artists from the ’80s, early ’90s, they were all post-Cultural Revolution graduates and part of the first group that came out of the Universities after they re-opened.  So they have seen a lot.  Those people are in their 40s and 50s now.  That generation of artists is one that I keep going back to.  I’m not looking for that particular age group but it is that maturity in their work, that content.

[06:41] EL:  So what kind of….the changes I guess from 1991, what do they paint now, what kind of work do they do now in terms of reflecting their environment?

[06:50] BW: Well, many of them are still working on the same subject matter and that could be anything from corruption, the environment, the state of living, freedom, things like that.  Many, many topics that they talk about and comment on.  Some of it is quite direct, some of it is very subtle.  That’s their way of negotiating their particular environment here in China.

[07:24] EL: And what about the next generation that is coming up  – the 20 and 30 year olds. 

[07:29] BW: Part of our current show addresses that issue.  The subtitle of the show is “Two Generations of Contemporary Art.”  We ask the older [artists] or the artists who have been with Red Gate for 20 years to nominate someone who they have had their eye on who is very good.

China’s younger contemporary artists – when will they grow up?

[07:44] The problem with looking at that younger generation is that many of them are quite well-skilled but they’re not that creative; they’ve landed in the art scene at the time of the boom in the art market.  Many of them have chosen being an artist as a career over being a doctor or a lawyer.  That’s changing but that’s sort of breed a younger generation of people who were not that experienced, not very creative.  So finding the very, very good ones among them has been a difficult task.  Finding the strong ones, the independent ones, we’ve found a few over the last few years.  But by having this particular show, all the artists we asked picked 10 very, very good [younger] artists.  Some of them are quite young, some are in their 30s and even there are a couple in their 40s, but they are quite unknown in the art scene.

[08:43] So these nominators took their time and took this role very seriously because they knew people were going to see who they chose.  We are very happy with the result.

[08:58] EL:  Just to go back to some of the younger artists who have chosen this more as a career because of the boom in the art field.  What do you think has caused the market for Chinese contemporary art to become so hot in the past 5 years?

[09:13]  BW: The introduction of a lot of money from the domestic market.  Just before that there was the international auction houses picking up a lot of Chinese artists from the secondary market and putting prices very, very high.  That sort of led the way.  And then very quickly followed by a cashed-up group of Chinese collectors but primarily investors who were looking for a quick return.  They landed in that market at the right time and took advantage of it.  Some of them did make a lot of money and lots of them had lots of fun.

[09:55] But now things have been dragging on since 2008.  Things have settled down and a lot of those people have moved on as well.  So there has been a maturing in that market.

[10:08] EL: Do you think that will be better for the younger artists to have less of this hot market? 

[10:14] BW: Definitely.  Some of them will move away completely from this career – if the money is not there, they are not that interested.

[10:28] EL:  In terms of the art, Chinese contemporary art; what is it about it that makes it “Chinese?”  Is it a continuation on a spectrum of

Traditional Chinese art techniques – brush painting.

Chinese art?  I mean, I am very familiar with a lot of the more classical art pieces, the calligraphy.  And then I see Chinese contemporary art and it doesn’t really look that “Chinese” to me.  Should I even view it as something that should be on a historical perspective with traditional Chinese art? 

[10:58] BW: That’s pretty hard.  There are artists who are still using the traditional techniques in contemporary art.  They are more or less proponents of maintaining those traditions but they’re using very contemporary content.  Apart from that, there’s a whole range of media being used now and people are addressing issues which are to them individual.  It is very much about where they are and where they are living – that’s China.  But the issues are global.  So people could come in and say, well some of the artists are talking about the environment and they would think that it could be back home.  So that kind of thing, these issues are very, very global.

[11:52] What people see in this group of artists, these people in their 30s and 40s, they are surprised by it because their reference to Chinese art going back a few years was the more traditional: was the calligraphy, was the scholar rocks.  So they are very surprised that over the last decade, the last 15 years there is this very vibrant contemporary scene.  That’s what’s been a catalyst for their interest.

[12:27] EL:  In terms of the art that is in the current exhibit, can we look at one of the pieces and maybe explain to somebody like me who knows little about modern art what about it that makes it a valuable piece of art.

[12:42] BW: Sure.

Chen Ke’s Red Sacred Mountain No. 6
Red Gate Gallery

[12:43] EL: I’ll let you choose one of the pieces.  So which one are we going to look at here?

[12:50] BW:  This is Chen Ke.

[12:52] EL:  Okay, this is Chen Ke.  What’s the name of the piece?       

[12:54] BW:  The name of the piece is Sacred Mountain No. 6, Red Sacred Mountain.  He was one of the artists nominated by a senior artist in the gallery, by Wang Yuping in fact.  Now apart from a wonderful piece of craftsmanship – very thick oil paint, the coloring all in red and shades of red, which is just quite striking.  He is talking about, after 1949, new China.  The future was bright, the future was red, communist red; everybody was working together.  There was this unity and common purpose of all these people who were part of the new China.

[13:45] So you can see that in his painting that people are just having fun in the field; they probably had a long work day.  They’re in their regular, probably nylon outfits, nylon white shirts that we used to see everywhere.

[14:01] What Chen Ke is talking about, he is looking at this nostalgic view about what things were happening in the ’50s, maybe early ’60s and comparing it with today and this dis-unity out there, this chaos in comparison to that previous time which was not so much a utopia but there was very much a common purpose in doing things.  Here, today in contemporary China right now there’s not that unity.

[14:35] EL: Right, right, you have a growing disparity in wealth and interests. Are there any other pieces you want to talk about? 

[14:44] BW: Well, we were talking about the environment earlier.  There is Zhou Jirongover here who is from southern China but has lived in

Zhou Jirong’s Mirage
Red Gate Gallery

Beijing since he graduated back in the ’80s from the Central Academy of Fine Arts.  His theme has always been about the environment.  You can see this mixed media work is rather hazy.

[15:04] EL:  What’s the title of this one?

[15:07] BW: Mirage.  So on some of the days you look out the front door here…

[15:15] EL: It sort of looks like….

[15:16] BW: ….this is what you see, this is the landscape.  And again, this could be anywhere in the world: a very polluted environment; a very quickly developing environment, uncontrolled.

[15:27] Then you have this other younger artist over here, Li Xiang from northern China with this very bare, barren landscape.  Maybe the environment has been destroyed.

[15:50] EL: Just in terms of what else Red Gate is doing…you talked about how when you originally started Red Gate it was helping to foster the art community.  How are you continuing to do that with the Artists in Residency programs.  Can you talk a little bit more about those?  

Li Xiang’s Night scene No. 3
Red Gate Gallery

[16:04] BW: We’ve been doing that for 11 years now.  We invite artists from all over the world and inside China to come and work in Beijing in studios.  They’re averaging about two months, sometimes three months.  Most of them have never been to China before so they have to come through this cultural barrier landing which we help them with and get them to work as soon as they are ready.

[16:30] They might be working toward a show back home.  Some of them, we are finding more and more, work their way into shows in Beijing – either group shows or have some solo shows or even become represented by galleries here.  So they’re finding opportunities here of meeting other artists, that’s one of the main things, but also meeting curators and dealers and collectors from around the world who are all passing through Beijing.  It’s something that they didn’t envisage and they realize that they may not of had that opportunity back home.  So they find that that is another very rewarding side of the program for them.

[17:08] EL:  And they also interact a lot with the Chinese art community? 

[17:13] BW:  Oh yes, very much.  They are finding that they are not here by themselves, but there’s a large artist, foreign artists community, who are living here on a long-term basis, so they get to know those people.

 [17:26] EL: Brian, this show – 20+1 – is on until December 31?

[17:34] BW: Yes.

[17:34] EL: Great.  Thank you so much for your time and for teaching us about Chinese contemporary art.

Book Review – The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

By , October 10, 2012

Too often Westerners’ views of China are shaped through the eyes of a select few – Ai Weiwei, Han Han, and in the legal world, He Weifang, Xu Zhiyong, and Chen Guangcheng.  How they see China is often how we see it.  China is far from an open society and these individuals are educated, media savvy, and maintain a good rapport with foreign reporters.  Make no mistake, they have important stories to tell.

But it is rare to know what the average Chinese person thinks and feels about his own history; what is important and what shouldn’t be forgotten.  Although China has a history that spans more than 2,000 years, it doesn’t have the same respect for the individual history and experiences of the everyman.  There is no Library of Congress that attempts to collect the stories of former slaves before they die or a StoryCorps project where anyone can go to a recording booth and interview a friend or family member.  In some ways, there are likely stories that the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) would rather forget.

Fortunately for China and for us, there is LIAO Yiwu and The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.  In his way, Liao Yiwu is trying to be the Library of Congress, interviewing average people before their histories are forgotten.  In The Corpse Walker, 27 of Liao’s interviews with average Chinese people are translated into English, giving the reader a more democratic view of China.

Three of the first four of Liao’s  interviews – The Professional Mourner, The Public Restroom Manager, and The Corpse Walkers – paint a picture of a China that is long gone.  But Liao is able to capture these  dying professions and the men who filled them.  And while they tell the stories of China’s past, their stories are still familiar.  The public restroom manager is still bitter from an incident with a young punk who teases him because of his work, but ultimately he is just happy to have a job.  The corpse walker discussing how to “walk a corpse” and tells his story with the nostalgia of an old man thinking back to other times.

But in each of the 27 interviews, not a single person has been left unscathed by the CCP’s various campaigns and politics.  Liao doesn’t have to delve deep to get these stories.  For each person, the Land Reform Movement, Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen crackdown, have shaped their lives.

It is particularly poignant in The Yi District Chief’s Wife.  The wife – Zhang Meizhi – and her family did not fare well during the Land Reform Campaign.  As members of the highest caste of the Yi minority, a caste-based ethnic group in southwest China with land being owned primarily by the highest caste, Zhang and her family were major targets of the Land Reform.  After witnessing her husband’s execution and the subsequent cutting of his tongue from his mouth,  Zhang’s struggle was far from over.  Her eldest son became a target, forcing him to live in a hole in a ground for years to avoid the same fate as his father, all the while degenerating into a wild existence.  Today, Zheng has not forgotten; she has forgiven to a degree, but she has not forgotten.  Unfortunately, as she points out, the children of those who want to forget already have.

In The Retired Official, Liao interviews Zheng Dajun, an official who headed a government work team in rural Sichuan during the Great Leap

Rural residents and victims of China's Great Leap Forward

Forward.  Zheng eye-witnessed a country descending into one of the worst famines in modern history and a people spiraling to a state of nature in the rural areas.  Slowly the starving people moved from eating white clay and drinking castor oil to cannibalism.  Although Zheng repeatedly informed higher officials, nothing was done to stop the export of needed grain from the rural areas to the cities.

Perhaps the most moving of all of Liao’s interviews is The Tiananmen Father.  As poor workers in Sichuan province, Wu Dingfu and his wife felt lucky that one of their sons excelled in school; both were ecstatic when their son passed the college entrance exam and attended college in Beijing.  Wu tells the story of his son, a young man who believed in something and then like many college students, got in over his head.  But before he could get out, he was killed by the troops on their way to Tiananmen Square.  In Wu’s interview, you can feel not just the ache of a father bringing not just his son’s body back to Sichuan, but the collapse of a dream that his family could do better.

The Corpse Walker is an important read since the voices of China’s average person are finally heard.  And what’s remarkable is that while their stories are different from ours, the emotions are not: the bitterness of working a menial job; the need to forgive to go on living; the anger of a former government official who tried to do the right thing; the emptiness of a father who has to bury his son.  If just for this reason – for showing the humanity of the average Chinese person – The Corpse Walker is an important read.

But The Corpse Walkeris vital as a depository of China’s history, the history that the people – not the Party – wants to tell.  The Chinese Communist Party is in denial of its past; it does not want to recognize the divisions and violence that has been a result of its rule and it hopes

The author, Liao Yiwu

that China’s economic miracle can serve as bread and circuses for the young, causing them not to even ask about the past.  But as Liao makes clear in some of his more prescient interviews, the past is often the catalyst for the future.  Can it be forgotten or more importantly, should it be?  For Liao, the answer is no, but for the rest of China, the answer is much less clear.

Not all of Liao’s interviews are as remarkable as the ones mentioned here.  Some are boring and at times, Liao can be rather didactic in his questioning of those that he has less sympathy for which detracts from the stories he is trying to tell.  But the interviews mentioned here, especially The Tiananmen Father, must be read.  Because to understand China’s present, we must understand how the victims of China’s past live today.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu (Anchor 2009), 352 pages.

Book Review: Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine

By , April 18, 2011

When teaching about China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), my Chinese history professor would remind students that history is not necessarily written by the victors but rather is written by those with the ability to transcribe and communicate their experiences, namely the educated.  A comparison of our knowledge of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a campaign largely against the Communist China’s remaining vestiges of wealth and educational elitism, with our knowledge about the Great Leap Forward proves his point.  A simple search on Amazon reveals 20 memoirs, just in English, about the Cultural Revolution.  The number of memoirs on the Great Leap Forward in English?  Zero.  We don’t even know how many people died as a result of one of the worst famines in modern human history (the traditional estimate is 30 million but many believe this is too low).

But Frank Dikötter, in his new book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, seeks to enlighten us on this horrifying period in Chinese history, or as he puts it in his opening sentence when “China descended into hell.”  With access to recently published provincial archives from the time period, Dikötter shows a China when all semblance of a rule of law vanished and society returned to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Dikötter goes deeper than just explaining the misery; instead he seeks to refute many common-held beliefs regarding the Great Leap Forward and hold the Chinese Communist Party, in particular Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, directly responsible for the tens of millions of peasants who unnecessarily perished.  For Dikötter the Great Leap Forward is not a famine but rather a genocide on par with the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags.

Parts one and two of the book – which are perhaps the most interesting – convincingly argues that the highest echelons of power knew exactly what was happening on the ground during the Great Leap Forward and largely didn’t care.  For the leadership, proving to the rest of the world that China had already made the successful “great leap” to an industrialized, rich, Utopian communist society became paramount, even at the expense of Chinese lives.  Mao’s Great Leap Forward began with the complete collectivization of farms, village duties, factories, and most of society.  Dikköter shows that although some in the leadership, most notably Peng Dehui, criticized the rapid drive to collectivization as early as 1959, others like Zhou Enlai who was desperate to return to Mao’s good graces vigorously supported the Great Leap Forward, even with its half-baked ideas of digging crops deeper, smelting steel in backyard furnaces, and building useless irrigation projects that took farmers away from farming the land.

For Dikötter, the leadership’s stupidity was augmented by its arrogance.  To prove to the world that China had

French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson visited China during the start of the Great Leap Forward (1958) for Life Magazine. Here is a backyard furnance.

successfully made the transition to communism, Mao didn’t just pressure local leaders to meet agricultural and industrial targets, but to surpass them.  The excess grain and goods were sold, below market value even, abroad.  But in reality, as Dikötter makes clear, there was no excess grain – local cadres lied about the numbers, causing the central government to take what was viewed as excess, but which was largely the sum total of all that a particular village produced.

Dikötter disproves the notion that the central leadership was unaware of the mass starvation.  Instead, Dikötter portrays a leadership that made a choice: instead of returning the grain that it knew would keep people alive, the leadership, at the behest of Zhou Enlai, needlessly sought to pay off China’s international debts through grain’s export.  What is perhaps one of the more shocking aspects of the book, Dikötter goes on to explain that although most of China’s treaties provided 18 years for China to repay its debt, the leadership was intent on paying off all debt by 1965.  Because China did not have cash or bullion, the only commodity it could use to pay off its debt in only 5 years was grain.  For Mao, the choice was simple – “when there is not enough to eat people starve to death.  It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill”  – the image of China that Mao wanted to portray to the rest of the world trumped any local needs.

Mao’s Great Famine, with access to the provincial archives, focuses on the systems in place that allowed the famine to continue as well as the callousness of China’s leadership.  At times, one is left wondering what vestiges of the Great Leap Forward still remain; what is not unique to the time period but instead applicable to the modern-day CCP?  Today, the Chinese government still maintains targets for local cadres, and local officials are desperate to meet these targets, even at the expense of the law.  Prof. Carl Minzner has analyzed the current “cadre responsibility system” especially in terms of forced abortions to meet local one-child policy targets.  See Carl Minzner, Riots and Cover-Ups: Counterproductive Control of Local Agents in China (November 9, 2009). University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Vol. 31, 2009; Washington U. School of Law Working Paper No. 09-11-01. Available at SSRN:

Dikötter also describes the increasing politicization of the legal system, or what was left of it after the Ministry of Justice was disbanded in 1959.  “Every one of our party resolutions is a law.  When we have a conference it becomes the law….The great majority of rules and regulations are drafted by the judicial administration.  We should not rely on these….”  Epitomizing this politicalization of the legal system, Dikötter points to the creation of re-education through labor (laojiao), an extra-judicial proceeding where prisoners could be held indefinitely.  Interestingly, China today, even on its alleged quest for a rule of law, has maintained re-education through labor and has largely kept it an extra-judicial, politicized process.

Cartier-Bresson photographs children paving the road after school.

Dikötter’s book is a necessary read to understand the misery that the Chinese people, especially in the rural areas, suffered during the Great Leap Forward.  Its description of the idiocy of the central leadership in caring more about China’s image abroad than the suffering of its own people makes Mao’s Great Famine an important read, especially parts one and two, in any Chinese history class.  But the book itself isn’t a particularly enjoyable read; certainly not a good subway ride book.  The story of the Great Leap Forward is not told in a lineal way; instead, Dikötter breaks up the story by topics, making it difficult to follow the progression of certain events.  Additionally, Dikötter has a large amount of data to share which is impressive indeed.  But at times the constant recitation of numbers is overwhelming and largely causes the reader’s eyes to glaze over.  Dikötter would have done better to add more charts to the book to reflect these numbers.

Finally, Dikötter cites often to two books about Mao Zedong – The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician by Li Zhisui and Mao Zedong by Jung Chang and John Halliday.  The veracity of these books, particularly the latter, has been called into question by some academics.  Dikötter’s reliance on these books, particularly when it comes to quoting Mao, is slightly problematic.

But this is a small issue in what is otherwise an important addition to the understanding of the Great Leap Forward and today’s China.  As Dikötter notes throughout the book, the publication of the provincial archives is only the beginning; we will only know the truth when Beijing finally releases the central government’s archives from the time period.  Dikötter implies that this is an inevitably, but given the current political environment, we will likely be waiting a long time.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dikötter (Walker & Company 2010), 448 pages.

Just For Fun: Movie Review – Mao’s Last Dancer

By , August 22, 2010

Mao’s Last Dancer tells the true story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin’s defection to the United States in 1981.  The film is fairly average, not particularly well-acted (aside from Bruce Greenwood who plays the complex character of Houston Ballet choreographer Ben Stevenson and does a superb job) and at times way too dramatic.  Joan Chen makes an appearance as a poor Chinese peasant, raising seven sons in the stark mountainous countryside of Shangdong province, and of course, looks as beautiful as ever.

But the movie is not a complete wash out in that it takes a snapshot of a very important time in U.S.-China relations and tells the story of a tense 21-hour period in this new-found relationship.

The film opens in Li’s impoverished home village outside of Qingdao, Shangdong Province.  It is 1972, the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, socialist rhetoric is running high and Li is 11 years old.  When Party officials visit his mud-walled school, Li is selected for a competition in which the winning students will be sent to Beijing to study.  It’s not until the next day, when Li is asked to do various tumbles, twists, and handstands that his family finally realizes he has being selected to attend the Beijing Dance Academy.  The director, Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), does a great job of distinguishing the feelings of the two generations – Li’s parents want him to go to Beijing because they know that this will offer their son a better life; Li goes because he feels a sincere sense of obligation to his motherland.  And that is what is great about this movie – in a very nuanced way it shows the sincerity of the young people’s belief in the teachings of the Cultural Revolution.  Li was born on the eve of the Cultural Revolution and his whole life he has been indoctrinated with its teachings and has come to believe them.  No other movie I have seen about the Cultural Revolution has been able to effectively capture this subtle fact.

Fast-forward nine years (note: plot spoiler!) and Li is a star.  At least in China.  He performs twice for Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and when Ben Stevenson arrives as part of the various “good will” cultural tours immediately after China and the U.S. normalized relations, Li is the only dancer he considers talented.  As a result, Stevenson invites Li to study in Houston as an exchange student for six weeks in the summer of 1981.

Kyle MacLachlin in Mao's Last Dancer

Kyle MacLachlan in Mao's Last Dancer

Ensues are various skits about Li adjusting to American life – the usual “look how different America is from China”, “look at the extravagant Americans” scenes.  But eventually Li becomes a star, performing the lead role in one of the Houston Ballet Company’s premier summer events.  Li also begins dating one of the American ballerinas.  Needless to say, Li doesn’t want to go back when his time has come but because the Chinese government fears that Li is getting too soft, does not allow him to extend his visa.

Li speaks to a lawyer (played very well by former Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan) about his options, and (note: plot spoiler!) rushes into a hasty marriage to his American girlfriend.  When he goes to tell the Chinese consulate, he is kidnapped and held in the consulate for 21 hours. With the help of his attorney and the Department of State, Li is eventually freed but informed that he has been stripped of his Chinese citizenship and will not be permitted to ever return to China.

And this is where the movie gets weak.  We are never told what propels Li to choose America over his family.  How was he able to so easily break with the Communist rhetoric that he had learned his whole life (when he first shows up to America, he is constantly wearing his Mao pin)?  Aside from having sex with his girlfriend, we never see Li getting close with anyone in America.  How did he leave his whole family?  Was it just his youth?  There is so much here that the director could have easily used to better explain Li’s choice.  Instead, it seems to be a mechanical decision and on some level plays on the Western bias of “well of course he would want to live in the West.”  It wasn’t until I got home, researched Li Cunxin and read excerpts from his autobiography that I learned that his rejection of the Communist teachings was actually an important part of his decision.

The real Li Cunxin with his wife and two daughters. All live in Australia.

The real Li Cunxin with his wife and two daughters. All live in Australia.

But even in light of that, being reminded of the relationship between China and the U.S. soon after normalization in 1979, is an important thing, especially for younger China watchers.  China did not really enter my orbit until the early 1990s.  And by then, it was a very different China.  Seeing a China just entering its Reform & Opening period, and watching the U.S. and China (note: plot spoiler!) coordinate efforts to reunite Li with his parents at one of his performance (note, melodrama runs high in this scene) reminds us of a time when symbolic good-will gestures between the U.S. and China helped move a relationship forward.  How times have changed.

For the historical value, for some of the nuanced scenes of political indoctrination, Bruce Greenwood’s performance, and for the scenes filmed in China, it is worth watching.  But wait till it comes out on DVD.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

This movie is now available on DVD: Mao’s Last Dancer

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