Written by Rebecca Scott.
Hung, Changtai (2011), Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic. Cornell University Press.
At the start of his influential work, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic Chang-tai Hung terms ‘political culture’ as the values, socio-political attitudes and expectations of the political elite, which are disseminated down by means of recurring symbols, images, rhetoric and rituals through the cultural sphere to reach the wider population. After 1949 the Chinese Communist Party sought to extend its political and military conquest into the cultural sphere and impose its own ‘political culture.’
In addition to highlighting continuities between the Republican period and cultural production under Mao, a wealth of scholarly work has so far focused on diverse genres of Communist political culture and developments in specific time periods,. However, as an impetus for his study, Hung convincingly argues that as yet insufficient attention has been paid to the cultural transformation as a whole. Understanding this transformation is fundamental not just to appreciating the ways in which values and attitudes were disseminated, but also to understanding how the CCP impacted on people’s daily lives.
Examining political culture holistically, Hung’s book predominantly discussing visual cultural production, examines genres as diverse as the building of the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, dance and manhua (cartoons). These genres are explored under the banner of overarching notions of space, celebration, history, visual imagery and commemoration. Additionally, from his intertextual analysis Hung draws out three recurring themes, namely the dominance of the CCP over cultural discourses, Soviet influence and nationalism. Hung’s approach to examining the recurring symbols, imagery, rhetoric and rituals which comprised this ‘new’ political culture, is complemented by an exploration of the ways in which genres were conceived, debated and implemented by the State. He also reflects on how language and artistic styles were used to communicate their message and ultimately glorify and demonise.
In part one Hung argues that the State’s physical domination of space in Beijing in practise allowed for the creation of an ‘appropriate’ setting for controlled political demonstrations. At the same time, space was central to CCP notions supremacy and legitimacy. This section of the book provides an institutional history of the building of Tiananmen Square (chapter one) and the construction of the Ten Monumental Buildings (chapter two) flanking the square in 1958. Through these analyses, Hung in particular highlights both the leadership’s desire to learn from Soviet advisors, but ultimately their aim to surpass Red Square in terms of scope and scale in the later 1950s.
Part two discusses the political dances and national parades which were a key part of CCP celebrations. Yangge was a form of dance which originated in rural North China (chapter three). After 1949 it was adapted to incorporate themes relating to class struggle, while at the same time its ‘traditional’ spiritual and erotic elements were suppressed. Through yangge the State ultimately created what Hung terms ‘a narrative history through rhythmic movements.’ In addition, the May Day and National Day parades adopted a highly visible and immersive style, which was nevertheless also tightly controlled (chapter four).
The CCP leadership’s construction of a historical master narrative is addressed in part three. The Museum of the Chinese Revolution (chapter five) held the relics of Party history and displayed Mao’s writings and personal effects, while a series of paintings commissioned to hang in the museum likewise supported the dominant historical narrative (chapter six). However, through his analysis Hung reveals that the implementation of the ‘new’ culture was a negotiated process as elites clashed over how best it should be defined. For example, he describes how the museum became the centre of the internal factional ‘Red Line’ dispute, concerning Mao’s centrality to the revolutionary narrative.
In part four Hung shifts the focus to visual imagery and a study of manhua (cartoons) and lianhuanhua (serial picture stories), which were he argues used to demonise class enemies and international foes (chapter seven). On the other hand, nianhua (New Year Prints), which drew on rich folk artistic traditions were used to celebrate CCP policy (chapter eight). New Year’s prints of gods and chubby babies were replaced with socialist realist pictures of labour heroes and political leaders. Hung convincingly demonstrates that audiences themselves at times rejected these new cultural discourses in favour of familiar styles and themes.
Focussing on commemoration, part five discusses the imagining of the ‘Cult of the Red Martyr’ and the construction of the Monument to the People’s heroes. The Qingming Festival was turned into the Martyrs Memorial Day to create a unified symbol and celebration of national heroism (chapter nine), while the construction of the monument was part of the Party’s attempt to shape collective historical memory (chapter ten).
Hung’s book provides us with a unique and vivid account of 1950s culture in China under Mao. However, his approach can, at times, be problematic. This is because comparisons are made across political cultural genres, which do not necessarily apply. For example, he combines an analysis of manhua and lianhuanhua, despite the very significant differences between these two genres in terms of origin, audience, production and distribution. The nuances between genres are to some extent lost in this ‘panoramic’ approach.
Nevertheless, Mao’s New World demonstrates that Maoist ‘political culture’ needs to be regarded as far more than a visual accompaniment to CCP practises. Rather, it was a central part of many people’s everyday lives and of the CCP’s quest for legitimacy. This highly accessible and engaging book should be essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the socio-political landscape of China in the 1950s.
Rebecca Scott is a PhD student in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. Rebecca is researching the production and distribution of lianhuanhua from 1949 to 1966. Image Credit: CC by Daniel Lombraña González/Flickr.