I have a short essay in the latest issue of Frieze magazine, on consumption, conflict and the Beijing cityscape. Sadly paywalled for now, so pick up a copy from any good bookshop!
Capitalism is a relatively new process in China. Although the reform-era economy is deeply marked by Chinese characteristics, it is nevertheless premised on production methods developed in Britain two centuries ago. Much ink has been spent in telling the story of the Chinese artistic avant-garde as it emerged, deeply shaken, from the excesses of the Maoist era. But the post-millenial generation are living through a different trauma: that of socialist neoliberalism. China’s third wave artists exist at a critical time, in which Communist vocabulary enacts a capitalist imagination.
The third wave’s turn to animation has been a powerful development in the story of Chinese art, even as the Chinese film industry runs up against the power of Japanese anime and Western disneyfication.
Yang Yongliang, born in Shanghai in 1980, apes the mannerisms of the Chinese landscape painting tradition, and then radically uproots them from their origins in cerebral reflections on the natural world. In Yang’s animations, quiet motifs of the Chinese landscape are subjected to the nightmare of Chinese urbanisation: mist is indistinguishable from polluted smog, trees make way for forests made of cranes. As Yang explains, “if I love the city for its familiarity, I hate it even more for the staggering speed at which it grows and engulfs the environment.”
London’s Hayward Gallery is currently screening a series of films from the animator Sun Xun, who was born in 1980 within the northeast Chinese province of Liaoning. If Yang Yongliang wanders through a ravaged world, the oppressive art of Sun Xun screeches through it in malevolent fashion.
The contradictions of Chinese history have haunted every step of Sun Xun’s life. As a child, Sun would come home from a day of schooling in official history to listen to his father recount how his grandmother was publicly humiliated as a bourgeois collaborator during the Cultural Revolution. And the dislocations did not end there. As Sun Xun’s home province transitioned from mining county into China’s rust belt, its symbolic life still largely played out to the tune of loudspeaker propaganda. When Sun moved to the Huangzhou Academy of Art to take up calligraphy training, he experienced a profound sense of disconnection. While the prevailing ideology of his hometown “thought that people in business were evil capitalists,” he told theNew York Times last year, “in Hangzhou, everyone was doing business.”
Sun Xun’s art plays out in a fantastical plain where mythology meets modernity. His films flow out of traditional silk printmaking, calligraphy and the pages of old Communist literature. As word and image are set in animation, frame by frame, Sun Xun revels in history and lies.
In his 2010 animation piece, “21 KE” (21 Grams), top-hatted men assemble in plazas as steampunk flying machines fill the sky overhead, all smeared through with an indefinable sense of threat. Sun Xun renders China as imagined through the lens of 19th century western capitalism, where riotous modernity is made possible only through it’s sinister underside. It is an apt portrait for a country in which the logic of capitalist development has gone hand in hand with bloody exploitation.
In his 2006 Dissent essay, “Marx in China”, Marshall Berman observed that the rhetoric of development since Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist turn offers striking historical parallels: “The government speaks in a triumphalist discourse that is actually a remarkable echo of the language of nineteenth-century England.” And yet at that time of Industrial Revolutionary celebration, so many of the brightest lights depended on the perpetual poverty of the industrial working class.
Sun’s 2011 film “Some Actions Which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution”, built up from the carving of over 5,000 different woodcuts, converges in a pulsating dreamscape filled with the revulsion of putrefaction; flies and rats exist in a heady state of animation, while a man draws out an insect from his mouth, only to ingest it. The film’s medium invokes the spectre of the 1920s New Woodcut Movement in China, in which the new efficiency afforded by the artistic form was put to the work of political propaganda. But in Sun Xun’s hands, nostalgic dalliance is corrupted in the brutal conflicts of New China.
In Sun’s animations, the figure of the politician often melds with the character of the magician. The magician embodies the dynamics of a revolutionary century which often played out as pseudo-tragedy, in which death was carried out according to brutal farce. The leaders of the Chinese revolution proved highly skilled in manipulating the rhetoric of progress, while at the same time, dangerously inept at mitigating the destruction of false development.
But China is no longer the latecomer to modernity, and there is none better than Sun Xun to expose the violence that rages through a society which has fused the most savage tools of capitalism and communism.
The luminary of China’s emergent “New Left” speaks to openDemocracy about the lessons of labour unrest, the Cultural Revolution as taboo, and post-party politics.
As a leftist and writer living in Beijing for the past four months, the ways in which the capital is haunted by its Maoist ghosts have fascinated me. From Cultural Revolution-themed restaurants to evenings of revolutionary opera, the memory of the Revolution is relegated to a highly commodified pop culture and depoliticized nostalgia.
And every morning as I cycled through Peking University teeming with students, I would pass the campus ‘triangle’ where demonstrators once massed during the heady 1989 protests. As that generation navigated the reform era, I wondered, what legacies did they cling on to?
Wang Hui was there in 1989. Writing bitterly years later, he remembered, “as I departed from Tiananmen Square in the company of the last group of my classmates, I felt nothing but anger and despair.” But banished to a re-education camp in Shaanxi province, Wang made some revelatory discoveries as he opened his eyes to the injustices rural China was being subjected to: “I suddenly realized how far my life in Beijing was from this other world.” Wang’s voice has emerged as one of those of a number of Chinese critical thinkers capable of ripping through the nation’s collective cultural amnesia, in its devastating attack on the social and ecological costs of the Chinese miracle. This strain of leftwing thought is a vital counter to those of China’s liberal enlightenment who advocate neoliberal reform. Talking to Wang, now a specialist in Chinese intellectual history at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, I began to sense how the revolutionary legacy is in fact inseparable from the intellectual life and labour disputes that are shaping modern China.
Refusing to seek salvation in the dichotomy of state and market, Wang’s critical thought is grounded in a deep sympathy for the potential of labour movements. A valuable tributary to this was Wang Hui’s own fight several years ago against the illegal privatisation of a textile factory in his home town of Yangzhou, in which he helped workers bring a lawsuit case against the local government.
Wang’s “small story”, he tells me over tea in his university offices, is one way of getting inside the larger “macro-landscape of China, from the late 1990s to the early years of this century, in which the privatisation of state-owned companies and industries has left huge numbers of workers unemployed, without proper compensation.” China’s capitalist turn, begun in the late 1970s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, has constituted a privatisation project through which state and party officials have enriched themselves.
The “institutional basis for corruption”, Wang argues, flows directly out of this private ownership of state-owned enterprises. “Corruption is not only about the corruption of individuals,” he reminds me, “but also the process of privatisation through which many who are in power, together with investors, can shift money from public property into private pockets, and get rid of the state’s responsibility for the working class.” These days distinguishing between public and private in China has little meaning. In both, bureaucracy rules, according to a shared logic of political pacification, economic growth and the narrow interests of a propertied class. During the 1990s there was a liberal hope that China’s new entrepeneurs would create a democratic vanguard. But they forgot that the new business elite was fully dependent on the one-party state and above all its exploitation of labour.
Wang has consistently centred his concepts of social justice in the importance of social movements. One of his greatest intellectual insights was to show how western neoliberal visions of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, seen as purely a student movement for democratic rights, had failed to appreciate how other parts of society shaped their defiantly socio-economic tone, massing in revolt against privatisation and in anticipation of future movements against neoliberal globalisation. Tiananmen’s latter stage had been strengthened by the deeply socialist underpinnings of significant worker participation, rising in support of the students, and it was this prospect of a mass withdrawal of labour that so frightened Party elites into the massacre of 4 June 1989.
But if the scale of worker involvement imbued 1989 with remarkable potential, what of the volatile labour unrest that continually erupts today? The Chinese working class is fighting, Eli Friedman writes in a recent essay for the radical journal Jacobin, in “undeniably the epicenter of global labor unrest.” But reflection on such resistance leaves Wang Hui far from sanguine: “China may have the biggest working class in the world, but it is a different story when you talk of its politics. Of course every day you see different protests, but what of its class consciousness? Predominantly we see disputes focused around raising incomes or certain guarantees of social security. This is a legal struggle focused on individual rights rather than the working class.”
“But we also have strikes, such as in the Honda factory a few years ago,” Wang concedes. “Such strikes resume the collective struggle, either against the boss or local governments for unfair treatment of workers, or, as in the Honda strike, workers can try to establish a new union by themselves. This is a more classical form of the working class movement, in its organisation, but there are few cases of it.” The relocation of industrial capital from the coast to the interior is a new development that has also influenced labour struggles. “When global capital like Foxconn moved inland, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, they suddenly faced the reality of a labour shortage. This forced factories into improving working conditions,” Wang explains. “Still,” he adds, “this is far from a fully formed class consciousness.”
Over 400 million workers in state-owned enterprises were sacked in the mid-1990s, to be substituted by a new working class of rural migrant workers. Meanwhile the ‘hukou’ system of household registration keeps such workers in a violent state of apartheid, formalising the denial of peasants’ education and welfare rights, upholding low wages, and refusing them roots in the city. This spatial separation means migrants’ struggles remain spontaneous, isolated, and show similarly little sign of class consciousness.
The absence of a growing consciousness in the numerical expansion of the working class might seem like a contradiction. But it has been conveniently enforced by privatisation, which suppressed working class politics by dealing a fatal wound to state sector workers. Morale among those who persist in the state sector is low, while rural migrant workers have little expectation of any rights. And the indelible memory of Tiananmen has informed the repressive government model for dealing with labour resistance. In 2002 during the Daqing Oilfield workers’ protest, tanks were sent in to circle the city. “In twentieth century China, the working class was small compared to the population – only a couple of million by 1949. Now we have hundreds of millions of workers. In the Cultural Revolution you saw various forms of active class politics. But now with the biggest working class, there is no comparable class politics,” Wang says, adding, “which is when I begin to talk of a crisis of depoliticization.”
The Chinese movement termed the ‘New Left’ is fundamentally different from the 1960s new left of the west. The former is used to designate an emergent interrogation of globalization and privatization on the Chinese left different from the challenge of the old Stalinists, and actually originated as a mud-slinging label applied to certain intellectuals accused of wanting to return to the Cultural Revolution.
But setting such slander aside, there is no doubt that there are those in the Chinese New Left who believe the revolutionary tradition in China is far from exhausted. “I grew up during the Cultural Revolution as a student in primary and middle school. Our generation therefore was quite familiar with workers, peasants and industrial technology. Every semester we went to the factories and the countryside to work with peasants and workers. Back then students had a broader social experience,” Wang remembers. “For our generation, this was our experience, and I do believe there were positive elements there.”
Wang warns against the perils of making easy simplifications reducing the Cultural Revolution to mob rule. Such analyses so often find themselves aligned with a liberal dislike of workers’ struggles, fearing that such labour movements will go beyond civil rights and call for redistribution of power and wealth. “Is the Cultural Revolution a historical period, or a campaign, or a movement for different factors? We need to ask what we mean when we talk of the Cultural Revolution,” Wang asserts. “If you define it as a monolithic period, then you blame it because of the tragedies that happened, without an analysis of the responsibility for such tragedies, their historic causes, and whether there are more radical, progressive values also to be found in these events. Talking about good and bad is not historical analysis.”
“Nobody can defend the Cultural Revolution as a whole, and also you cannot simply say that any period in history was just completely wrong,” Wang continues. “We talk about the Cultural Revolution mainly from the point of view of elites. But very few talk about it from the perspective of workers, peasants, and their different generations.” One controversial element in Wang’s thought is his focus on drawing out a socialist tradition that, he argues in The End of the Revolution, “has functioned to a certain extent as an internal restraint on state reforms” and still gives, “workers, peasants and other social collectivities some legitimate means to contest or negotiate the state’s corrupt or inegalitarian marketization procedures.” This discourse of a ‘living’ socialist tradition within the one-party state, common among leftists and nationalists, risks straying into an endorsement of the repressive Party system. But it becomes clear that Wang’s thought steers its course far away from such gullibility.
“The Communist Party depends on the revolutionary legacy for its legitimacy. This allows the possibility for people from within and outside the Party to use this legacy to negotiate policy. When you look at working class movements, in organisations and strikes, they readily draw on this tradition and its slogans. And because such slogans are legal, the government is in difficulty,” Wang explains. “Ironically, in our constitution, China is a socialist state led by the working class. If you use such a slogan, the government must face this challenge. If they negate this legacy, without negotiation or compromise, they lose legitimacy.”
For oppressed social groups, then, the revolutionary legacy is a vital historical resource that informs the struggles of working class’ rhetoric, as it formulates its protests against injustice according to the imaginary of earlier ideals. This is what the sociologist Ching Kwan Lee means by the ‘spectre of Mao’ haunting China’s class struggles.
Hence the relevance of the spat around Wang Hui’s 2012 essay in the London Review of Books: “The Rumour Machine”, examined the fall of the former party chief Bo Xilai, in a spectacular series of murderous revelations and corruption intrigue. Bo’s pursuit of a set of socio-economic policies in his municipality of Chongqing which redirected state resources towards addressing investment in social programmes, had been dressed up in neo-Maoist rhetoric. Wang’s commentary provoked a scornful riposte from the journalist Jonathan Fenby on what he considered, “Wang Hui’s predictable take on the fall of Bo Xilai – it’s all a neoliberal plot”. Indeed, “what Wang dismisses as neoliberal reforms,” Fenby insisted, “are just the changes China needs if it is to progress.”
Wang tells me that Fenby is guilty of a fatal misreading. “My argument was not over whether or not Bo Xilai was corrupt. Instead I examined how the former premier Wen Jiabao blamed Bo Xilai and the Chongqing Experiment for its return to the Cultural Revolution. To this day, the Cultural Revolution is a taboo in China, which people cannot study. But it turns out that you can use this taboo to attack people. If you link somebody to the Cultural Revolution you can delegitimise him,” Wang laments. “It is such a difficult issue, and Wen Jiabao deployed it so cheaply. Chongqing may not have been that radical, since it was still a market economy, but its possible political alternatives worried interest groups within the Party”.
Such a manipulation of history, Wang warns, is deeply unhealthy. “This makes for a very dangerous situation. On the one hand the Cultural Revolution is still very much taboo, but on the other hand, precisely because it is a taboo, you can use it against anybody you may dislike.”
Jonathan Fenby’s foray onto the letter’s page repeats a criticism commonly lodged against China’s New Left, that obsessed with the one-party state, many of their arguments are drenched in a strong statist flavour. When I suggest this to Wang Hui, he replies with a rejection of the idea that liberal democracy and parliamentary elections are sufficient to fight against the monopoly of power by any state bureaucracy. “Firstly we need to understand what we mean by parties. Talking about one party or multiple party systems is not the real crisis at hand, when we talk of China. You can, like in Russia, create lots of political parties, monopolised by the powerful and the wealthy. In Iran, the levels of mobilization in elections are higher than in any European country, but people still call it a religious authoritarian regime. I recently returned from India, where there is deep disappointment with party politics. There you have very strong social movements, but with very little voice in Parliament. And it is easy to see how, if you announced that China would have a multi-party system with elections tomorrow, Parliament would immediately be taken over by China’s big capitalists. In the multiparty system, all illegal poverty, now through ‘democratisation’, will be made legal.”
Wang extends this vision into what he sees as the universal decline of the political party, whereby both China and the west’s parliamentary democracies exist in a deep state of depoliticization. In the latter, amidst macroeconomic consensus, parliament is merely a tool for enforcing stability: “There has been a tendency in the last few decades, of political parties becoming state parties. Here, the Chinese Communist Party is no longer the Communist Party in its twentieth century sense. It is a state party. It is almost completely integrated into the framework of the state, and functions as such, rather than as a political organization. And this has occurred across the world. What we witness is the political system detaching itself from the social form.”
Wang does not relinquish his democratic aspirations. “We need to think of a different kind of politics. Democracy is a very positive value, but it is for everybody. In this sense, I do not align myself with liberal democrats, nor traditional socialism. Many might believe that the Communist Party still recognises socialism as positive, and that we can convert the Party back to its earlier tradition. This is impossible, because there are so many different interest groups within the Party.” In Wang’s vision of Chinese constitutional reform, “when the Party is no longer their representative, we need autonomous organisations of workers and peasants and other social organisations to express their voice in policy-making in the public sphere, and we need all policy to be passed not only by the Party but also by Congress.” Subjecting the bureaucracy to democratic checks and opening space for democratic debate is, of course, pure anathema to the Party, which is otherwise content to deliver economic compromises from time to time, under threat of protest.
Wang Hui’s intellectual vision, led by a deep commitment to labour movements, is an important guiding force for China’s nascent new leftists. “Socialism’s legacy in China was a failed effort to find a logic for the socialist state to overcome its contradictions. That’s why the Cultural Revolution happened, in the search for a flexible division of labour,” Wang says. “For the leftwing, we need to seriously recognise and reflect on the failure to overcome inherited legacies of hierarchy and bureaucracy. But if we say all socialism’s twentieth century experiments were ‘wrong’, or that historic socialism is not actually socialism, we are simply giving up,” Wang tells me. “There is a certain political correctness among the left that implies that talking about this history links you to its disasters. This is a cheap way of doing history.”
In his slow burning 2006 film Summer Palace, the “Sixth Generation” Chinese director Lou Ye delves into the memories, trauma and disillusionment of the Tiananmen generation. In a harrowing scene, many years after the crackdown, the Chinese student Li Ti walks through Berlin, and encounters a leftwing march accompanied by the banner of Mao. Her subsequent violent suicide perfectly captures how that generation’s search for a truthful reconciliation with the failures of the Maoist era has long been fraught with danger. From the left to the right, from China to the west, reflections on the Maoist legacy are riddled with too many half-truths, dogged by euphoria or monsterisation, so preventing the emergence of a truly radical politics. “Mao has a huge, emotional legacy. He excites and irritates. People appropriate him for different purposes. Nationalists use him, and this often worries the Party. On the one hand, he is an unavoidable figure for the Party, since they cannot simply negate him, but on the other, they try to treat him in the abstract,” Wang muses. “But his legacy is still alive, both within and outside the Party. And it is alive in increasingly chaotic ways.”
Wang Hui’s “The End of the Revolution” is published by Verso
Still denied his passport after nearly three years, Ai Weiwei exists in a strange purgatory. In this exclusive openDemocracy interview, the dissident Chinese artist speaks truth to power, as China’s exploitative processes of development demand great responsibility from the nation’s intellectual and artistic currents. Interview.
While China prepared for the 2008 Olympics, the artist Ai Weiwei was busy collaborating with the Swiss architectural firm, Herzog & de Meuron, on the Bird’s Nest stadium. Gradually, Ai began to experience a deep sense of disgust: “I was so involved in architecture that it opened my eyes to society, dealing with bureaucracy, policies and workers,” Ai observes, “and then you start to realise why they are building, and how they are using it. It is a very political act.” He denounced the Games as nothing more than a totalitarian spectacle. Profoundly disenchanted by the enforced relocation of Beijing inhabitants as a result of the Games, Ai began a journey from radical but successful artist to infamous activist.
But Ai reaches back to a longer history when he stakes out his political battleground today. The line between Ai’s performance and politics has constantly pushed against the artist’s remit in an authoritarian situation. He is the son of the modernist poet Ai Qing, who found himself banished to a labour camp along with his family during the 1950s anti-rightist movement. “Now my own position is very simple,” Ai tells me. “I am an individual. I am an artist. I am living in this society which my poet father also lived in. Many other artists and writers live in it. And I just have to give out my opinion on the matters that occur in my daily life.”
Away from the sprawling mass of glass and steel that cocoons Beijing’s hurtling development, Ai Weiwei’s studio house sits on a quiet street in the suburban Caochangdi district. A bicycle strewn with flowers is parked outside, in silent protest against Ai’s restricted travel arrangements. I pass through into a still courtyard of grass, trees and ceramics. In an unsubtle attempt to depoliticize him, Ai was imprisoned in 2011 on charges of tax evasion and served with a £1.5 million tax bill. “The problem is that the Party does not trust people, and is afraid of their power,” Ai says, “once that does not change, any talk of true social change is not possible.”
Ai’s arrest came as part of a broader crackdown amidst Party fears that China might learn something from the mass movements blazing across the Middle East, inspiring a “Jasmine Revolution”. He was released after 81 days. Freed from prison but banned from leaving China, Ai exists in a strange purgatory. “Even though I was hurt, or almost beaten to death, put through jail conditions and the fabrication of crimes, I am still alive,” Ai reflects wearily, as the morning sun begins to filter through his studio, “I appreciate this very much, and I am always ready for a clear minded fight.”
It is not long before a certain wildness of the artful agitator and social critic in Ai’s personality enters the conversation: “Once the internet age arrived we have had a very different kind of politics. An individual can bear much more responsibility and be much more powerful.” Ai Weiwei clearly delights in his role as free-spirited critic, fully immersed in the virtual society of the networked age, with all its promise. “Power in China lacks all legitimacy. After 60 years in control, how can you still not let people vote? When you disassociate yourself, without trust or credibility, any other talk has no meaning,” Ai fumes. “We may try to jump from the western frame to measure what China is. But what China really is, is a society which lacks the very most fundamental basis for a real social structure.”
He formulates his critique in deadly fashion via the daily documentation of his life on Twitter. In the networked individual’s embrace, social media becomes both a savvy tool with which to defy the State, as well as a transcultural gesture. In seeking to align technological power, the will for liberation and globalisation, Ai relegates his opponents to the hierarchical forms of the past: “My critics use the judgments of old society because they do not understand the internet. Now an anonymous person can speak a sentence so brilliant or poetic, and it is so readily accepted by others…”
Ai’s fostering of a fully-fledged social critique, on course for a showdown with the government, was compounded by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of children fell victim to shoddy architecture. “I do not care as long as my message is not an empty performance,” Ai asserts. “So my message is very clear: to fight for individual freedom, to fight for democracy, and by doing so, to clearly inform a society and become someone for others to reflect on.” Bypassing official news networks, Ai began his own “Citizens’ Investigation” in Sichuan, shoving his camera under the noses of government officials, blaming the province’s structural faults on systemic corruption, and then explosively linking this with the powers that be in Beijing. “This is a society in which there is so little space for non-governmental organizations to grow,” Ai laments. “The Party wants to take control of everything, even in areas it is incapable of dealing with.”
I am ushered past a monumental list of the 5,212 dead children, which fills the back wall of his studio. “The Communist Party are the lawmakers, but they do not follow the law, nor respect the constitution,”Ai rages. “They are constantly making contradictions in their policies. When the powers that be are like this, the whole system has no clear rationality and no clear settlement.”
Ai’s western critics fear that the western imagination could not have more perfectly dreamt up this artist. Some reach the rather misguided conclusion that the Party can confidently label Ai a charlatan, while it keeps the ‘true’ liberal political opposition in the prison cells. “I am just a normal individual. I do not want to be a hero, but I have a sense of right and wrong, and must speak out,” Ai maintains, “to put people who are a little vocal in jail is certainly not the answer. I cannot celebrate participating in such a crime, and will not remain silent on this.”
Ai may see his politics as above ambiguity; he is an iconoclast who values freedom of speech above any other right. “In every society, even in nations like the US, such independent voices are needed,” he states confidently. But it would not be cynical to say that Ai has been a gift for western editorial pages determined to further chastise China over its systemic problems. This is anathema to those western commentators who, with much hand wringing, duly deplore the idea that the west can still proclaim itself a global force for liberal enlightenment. And yet this simply glides over the very complex ways in which Ai Weiwei’s art has encountered ‘the West’, as it spilled out of the gallery, out of Beijing’s underground, and out of China.
“Many so-called democratic societies are rotten every day, as capitalism and bureaucracy eat right through them,” Ai tells me. “When we look at the case of Edward Snowden and others, you can easily see how the basic nature of the power there is to exploit, not to protect the people.” During the 1990s, Ai defaced ancient Chinese ceramics with Coca-Cola branding. This was both the start of a complex relationship with his western audience, and a repeated interaction with the idea of China. Ai’s art is no uncritical embrace of the west, and is well aware of the intertwining of the Party and American business interests that have marked the reform era.
In the wake of the suppressed Tiananmen protests, the Chinese Communist Party looked to the west for new sources of inspiration, and found it in Coca-Cola. By 1996, a Party textbook proclaimed the soft drink as a model for China’s new propaganda: “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.” The underlying assumption that those who dissent from the current economic and political status quo of Chinese society have fallen head over heels for western values may well be a fantasy. Ai’s constant demand for human rights is an easy fit for any western liberal, but his critical ideology encompasses everything from urban alienation through to the Party’s collusion with big business.
Ai is especially damning over the ways in which Beijing has developed during the reform period. “Each year Beijing has, in the last 10 to 20 years, built the equivalent site of the Beijing of 1949. It has developed so fast,” Ai explains. “Now, foreigners come and they say, oh it’s so fast! But where did the tremendous social resources to develop like this come from? You can see who has built it, and who has profited from it.”
Throughout the 1990s there was a hope that China’s new entrepreneur class would transform itself into a democratic vanguard. These days, the small circle of liberal dissent is powerless in the face of the bureaucratic capitalist collusion between business elites and the one-party state. In talking to Ai, you swiftly begin to sense that the dichotomy between market and state is, in many ways, meaningless. Meanwhile, the suffering visited on the vast reserves of migrant labour who flood the cities accelerates. “Those who come to build Beijing do not have housing, do not have any protection, nor can their children get schooling here. That’s how China develops,” Ai says scornfully. “The landlord is the Party, and it keeps these people in poverty. After so many years, did it think to provide anything for these people? Medicine or education?”
For Ai, Chinese history is full of contradictions that keep threatening to break through the façade of its new century. This is encapsulated in his 2011 bronze animal head sculptures, “Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads”, installed at the Pulitzer Fountain at the foot of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel. The zodiac animal heads ultimately derive from the fountain sculptures of the eighteenth century imperial Summer Palace of Yuanmingyuan in Beijing, torched and looted in 1860 by French and British soldiers. The plundered zodiac heads’ existence on the global art market has returned in recent years as a potent reminder of China’s humiliation at the hands of imperialist aggressors, while China’s demands for the repatriation of such plunder are steeped in its new nationalism. “Essentially, the Zodiac reflects the condition in which China realizes it cannot speak one sentence clearly. In every sentence it opens its mouth to speak, there are contradictions,” Ai explains. “Now, you can talk about the West taking away the Zodiac heads. Yet the Cultural Revolution destroyed such items a hundred million times over, daily. Some had to destroy the old world, others had to completely destroy the whole basis for aesthetics and philosophy.”
Writers and critics returning from Beijing over the last few years have been eager to regale me with stories about how the once meagre prospects of the avant-garde have escalated into an artistic ferment and cultural boom. “All these artists,” Ai tells me, “want to get into some gallery, or into some auction sale.”
Beijing’s vision of artistic modernity has left me with grave misgivings over the ways in which the global arrival of China’s culture fever has come severely lamed by both commercial and political pressures. Every Chinese artist in the aftermath of Tiananmen has had to face decisions regarding the extent to which they work within the system. And the economic logic of playing by the rules has emerged as a powerful invitation for cooptation.
The film director Zhang Yimou took this to its logical extreme, and found himself directing the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony. Ai Weiwei, in both performance and politics, chose a different, lonely path. “Today, it is not difficult to choose the road I took. Of course you do not have to be so extreme. But why should I look so radical? Only because we are so lacking in similar actions,” Ai exclaims. “If there were more artists and writers like this, how could the officials handle it? It’s not possible. But when there are just a few, they can easily find a way to deal with you.” For Ai, Chinese artists must “absolutely see it as their duty to dissent. If you profit, you are not bearing your responsibilities.”
While some artists have been less reserved, others are caught up in a more ambivalent dance. One of these is Xu Bing, an artist who renders the wash of traditional Chinese landscape painting in achingly beautiful installation pieces. Xu lived out a self-imposed exile in New York from 1990, where he shared Ai’s apartment. He returned to China a few years ago to take up a position as vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Such decisions are eagerly encouraged by the Party, which rewards playing the game with money and prestigious tenure. “We had lived together, talked about everything, and were so close,” Ai says bitterly. “After he returned to Beijing, he didn’t even call me.”
Another of Ai’s former friends, the director Zhao Liang, a celebrated figure of China’s independent documentary movement, also embodies what is at stake for the political future of Chinese art. Zhao’s 2009 film Petition is a furious documentation of Chinese citizens converging on Beijing, carrying various injustices for redress, and then the subsequent brutal suppression of such dissent by the government. But Zhao submitted to Chinese government pressure to withdraw his film from the 2009 Melbourne Film Festival, Ai tells me, when it became apparent that it would also be screening a film by the Uighur human-rights activist Rebiya Kadeer. “Zhao Liang thought he could use it as a platform to play at politics. But I think that is a very cheap act. He does not understand what the Party is. The Party will never trust artists,” Ai warns.
As it happens, I meet Zhao Liang the following morning in Caochangdi’s Three Shadows Gallery, where he has agreed to help me with my research on Beijing’s underground artists during the 1990s. “Back then the artists were proud of their utopian way of living,” Zhao wistfully remarks, “nowadays, artists are rich and poor, but at the time all were the same, and shared ideals about both art and economics.”
But if these days Ai continues to play his dangerous games with the authorities, Zhao prefers to keep one foot dipped in the official world. In Ai’s philosophy, such compromises – the price for working inside the system, will eventually manifest themselves in the artworks themselves. “In every dictatorship you have intellectuals and artists that, in selling out their aesthetics or judgments say, only by working within the system, can we change it. But look at what they produce afterwards,” Ai angrily says. “They cannot say anything meaningful.” When I return home later that evening, I watch a video in which Ai Weiwei challenges Zhao on camera over the withdrawal of his film. The resulting confrontation is upsetting. “We were harmonized,” Zhao mumbles in reply, in a satirical expression aimed at the Chinese leadership’s declaration of a ‘harmonious society’.
After visiting Ai, I spend the afternoon wandering through Beijing’s disorientating 798 art district, not far from Ai’s Caochangdi residence. A former factory now transformed into an exhibition space, 798 is a suffocating haze of tourist shops and plush galleries that perfectly captures all of modern China’s soft power pretensions and market fever. The district’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art opened in 2007 with a survey of the ’85 New Wave forged by China’s radical artists’ movements. When I visited late last year, the Center was busy showcasing an exhibition of luxury Swiss watches.
Amidst such new confusion, Ai’s defiant politics remains deeply concerned for China’s artists. He continues to act as their conscience, showing them radical possibilities as they navigate the heady excesses of China’s socialist neoliberalism. “How can you be an artist, which I think is the most powerful position since you truly are an individual, and then at the same time give up that position to attempt to become a bureaucrat?” Ai despairs. “How can you not speak out, and encourage other individuals who also have the same potential to make independent judgments and beautiful work? Then at least you understand how important it is to be an individual, at its most meaningful.”
This was the lesson of Ai’s rogue “Fuck Off” exhibition back in 2000, launched as a counter-movement to the Shanghai Biennale, which asserted artistic integrity in the face of official cooptation. Did China’s artists listen? “Right and wrong is so simple, but we cannot talk about it in public. What does that mean?” Ai reflects. “So I was there, and I talked about it, once. Maybe I will be forgotten later, but at least somebody has talked about it.”
The trial of the disgraced Chinese politician is hurtling towards its predictable conclusion. But a spectre still haunts the Party, and all those at play in China’s political life. It is the spectre of the Cultural Revolution.
The demons are dancing for Bo Xilai. The former party chief is now far from his humid, smog-drenched municipality of Chongqing. Instead, Bo has spent the last week on trial at Jinan’s Intermediate People’s Court, facing an inevitable suspended death sentence over corruption and power abuse allegations. Separating Bo from his power base by putting him on trial in the provincial capital of eastern Shandong province has been just one of the various strategies employed by the Party in an attempt to take control of proceedings.
Bo’s trial, in other words, is an event charged with emotion. The narrative is well known. In February 2012 Bo’s right-hand man and Chongqing’s police chief Wang Lijun appeared at Chengdu’s US Consulate, setting in motion a train of surreal revelations which implicated Bo’s family in the mysterious death of the British businessman Neil Heywood, revealed the amassing of an extended family fortune of $136 million, and a son busy leading a hedonistic, champagne-fuelled lifestyle in elite western universities. The economic interests of China’s political clans are eyewatering. And Bo, of course, was just the tip of the iceberg, emanating from the web of corruption that holds the CCP together. In August of last year, Bo’s wife Gu Kailai was given a suspended death sentence for the murder of Heywood. Gu’s appeal for leniency was a textbook show trial performance, right down to her praise for the prosecutors, who, in her words, “opened the curtains a little bit, to reveal the hidden dirty secrets”.
Most China watchers expected that, once the Party machine had swung into action, Bo’s trial would be similarly predictable. “We would witness no courtroom drama” asserted Minxin Pei, writing for Bloomberg, “Bo will almost certainly be presented as a broken and penitent man”. The Party’s control of the situation, through the usual surfeit of political machinations and disinformation, stretched from a spate of online posts declaring the CCP’s “determination to fight corruption”, the swift arrest of the journalist Song Yangbiao who had called on Bo’s supporters to gatecrash the trial, to the physical scrubbing of all references to Bo Xilai in Dalian’s Modern Museum, where he had served as mayor during the 1990s.
The logic was that if Bo fought his charges, he knew that he would get a harsher sentence, instead of allowing President Xi Jinping to keep the washing of dirty linen to a minimum. The prosecution would be given clear instructions to strike a deal. And leaks to the press were consistent with this dampening strategy.
Then the trial began. Bo has put up a surprising defence, claiming that he was framed in bribery charges and laying the blame on psychological pressure during interrogation. Meanwhile there has also been a startling shift on the Party’s part to publicize the trial with updates and transcripts from the official Weibo account of the Jinan Intermediary People’s Court. The essence of the matter is that nothing is secret any more with China’s netizens. And the uneasy information flows that feed the rumour-mill can be worse than reality. The CCP’s experience with trials of similar stature has been far from smooth. In the late 1970s Deng Xiaoping televised the trial of the Gang of Four, led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, blamed for the bloody reach of the Cultural Revolution. The trial reached Euripidean heights in Jiang’s theatrics: “if I am guilty, how about you all!”
But critical responses to Bo’s trial have been, frankly, astonishing. Rebecca Liao, writing in The Atlantic, has praised the trial for opening up a new era of jurisprudence. Despite the predetermined nature of the trial, Liao gushed: “if the Chinese government now views the law as something to be navigated and not simply ignored, then it has already overcome a significant ideological obstacle.” Far from it. All the choreography we have seen so far is that of a Party fiercely retaining control of the conversation. But the truth is that there are issues at stake that stretch far beyond the courtroom. The uneasiness surrounding the trial of Bo Xilai has always been more than stripping back the veil of the power struggles that play out right at the top of the Party, but rests instead with the very spectre that continues to haunt China’s political life. What is at stake is the legacy of the Cultural Revolution.
Over the last five years, Bo pursued a distinct set of socio-economic policies, the ‘Chongqing model’, in sharp divergence to a state policy of privileging investment and export over living standards. And in doing so, Bo pulled his city out of economic stagnation. Chongqing’s radical redirection of state resources suggested a third way that looked to direct public policy towards addressing investment in social programmes and easing rural-urban conflicts.
Bo’s neo-Maoist rhetoric provoked a wave of leftwing nostalgia and openly challenged Party consensus. His ‘sing red’ campaigns of mass revolutionary sing-alongs threatened to create an independent power base. Of course the Chongqing model, as ever, still perpetuated inequalities. Urban private development and forced evictions sat in collusion with officialdom. Audrea Lim, writing for n+1, is damning: “the Chongqing I saw, a few months before Bo Xilai and his Experiment met their fall, already showed evidence of how the bureaucratic, top-down approach was blind to individual experience”.
A spat that erupted in the London Review of Books last year in many ways encapsulates the critical ideological battle within China. “Chongqing may not have offered a perfect blueprint”, Wang Hui acknowledged in his essay The Rumour Machine, “and it’s hard to know whether Bo himself was corrupt, but its architects stressed the importance of equality and common prosperity”. Wang Hui, a figurehead for China’s New Left, presents the fall of Bo as cover for the Party to push forwards with a new neoliberal economic wave that promises to foregound development over any notion of social justice. Wang Hui’s argument draws on his now infamous Tiananmen thesis in which he sees the accelerating marketisation of 1992 as being dependent on the crackdown of 1989. In the letters page, the journalist Jonathan Fenby dismissed “Wang Hui’s predictable take – it’s all a neoliberal plot”. “What Wang dismissed as neoliberal reforms are just the changes China needs if it is to progress”, Fenby concluded. How Fenby squares this conventional economic analysis with manifest social unsustainability is far from clear.
For China’s New Left, authoritarianism and neoliberalism form part of the same machine. But the Chinese revolutionary tradition is far from finished. Last year, I wrote of the collective cultural amnesia that has been so central to Party strategy. This is what the New Left strikes at.
The former leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1981 ‘Resolution on History’ labelled the Cultural Revolution a “disaster for the country and the people”. And in 2011 the liberal Southern Weekend newspaper commemorated this – the implication being that this framing of the narrative draws significant support from China’s liberal reform faction, against the New Left. Again, in a news conference foreshadowing Bo’s toppling, the former Premier Wen Jiabao invoked the ‘historical tragedy’ of the Cultural Revolution as a threat to the reform era ‘status quo’. But its spectre continues to haunt modern China. The Cultural Revolution’s pop cultural nostalgia that Bo so skilfully drew on, despite an offical historiography of trauma, reveals a chasm. How genuine are these repositories of Cultural Revolution nostalgia? Should we take the more negative view, of a highly commodified, depoliticized nostalgia, that is perfectly aligned with a neoliberal regime in which no proper platform for genuine alternative thought is offered? And yet there is no doubt that the revolutionary legacy remains key to China’s nascent labour movement. For the sociologist Ching Kwan Lee, the ‘spectre of Mao’ continues to haunt China’s class struggles.
In his seminal work The Age of Wild Ghosts, the anthropologist Erik Mueggler travelled through China’s Yunnan province during the 1990s where, even then, complex memories of the Cultural Revolution still drifted. I had always struggled with Mueggler’s beautiful, often elusive prose. And then I realised that here, in the trial of Bo Xilai, was the very spectre of the Cultural Revolution. The official narratives seek to paste over the ideological cleavages that persisted from the end of the Cultural Revolution. And it is this lack of resolution that means we shall see eruptions such as Bo Xilai rage across China’s political landscape again and again.
The latest reincarnation of Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s ongoing exhibition encapsulates both the allure and danger of participatory art.
The gallery audience seems happy to dance to Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s tune. The air is thick with the smell of Thai chilli paste and fragmented conversation; scattered coloured notes are periodically swept from the floor; lemons are squeezed on an inverted bicycle seat. Do It is a series of artists’ instructions, firmly rooted in the appeal of the conceptual avant-garde, steadily accumulating over two decades, and freshly interpreted in each new reenaction.
In 1993, curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist sat down with artists Christian Bolstanski and Bertrand Lavier in a Paris cafe. Bolstanki and Lavier had previously been exploring the role of written instruction in the translation and interpretation of artwork. Now, drawing from this personal obsession with instruction, as well as Duchampian ideas of the lifespan of exhibitions, the trio’s conversation led them to the idea for a compilation of “interventions”. “The exhibitions we remember are the ones that invent new rules of the game,” Obrist recently observed. Do It looked to capture the ethic of a DIY handbook filled with artists’ instructions for staging artworks, and the possibilities that this offered of a perpetual exhibition, constantly regenerating itself. Between its multiple reincarnations, Do It remains in a kind of stasis.
Do It has had over 60 different lives, infusing both the underground and mainstream, embracing over 250 artists from Marina Abramovic to Damien Hirst, and issuing demands that border on the surreal and psychotic. The radical movement grew up in the age of the internet and the rise to prominence of the curator, both of which have been critical influences on its evolution. Its latest resurrection as part of the Manchester International Festival has taken up residence in the Manchester Art Gallery’s annexe, where visitors engage with instructions in an Active Room, while Archive and Film Rooms document the exhibition’s history. But Do It’s spirit of instruction, risk and chance also permeates through the gallery’s corridors of neoclassical and contemporary architecture, with engineered conversations and rapid performances spreading virus-like down to the permanent collections of predominantly Victorian art.
Beneath Do It’s unabashed enthusiasm for written instruction are darker spaces where living artists confront the instructions of artists past. So Louise Bourgeois’ instruction ‘Smile at the Stranger’ is submerged in shadow via Tracey Emin, who instead proffers: “I smile at a stranger, the stranger I know, but they didn’t smile back…” Do It derives its artistic force from this idea of a living score and the art of interpretation.
But Obrist’s collective of stellar names might easily induce sickening overload. Yoko Ono instructs us to “make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around a branch of a wish tree.” Elsewhere, Olafur Eliasson’s Your mindful meteorite positions a piece of space rock in front of half silvered glass. I last encountered the Scandinavian artist dealing with similarly cosmic themes back in his 2003 The weather project which bathed the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in dampened sunlight. Here he notes that this is the first time the observer will have touched something from beyond the earth. “Take your asteroid perspective,” Eliasson advises. “Be outside and inside yourself at the same time, present in the multiverse. Become an asteroid. Do it.”
Obrist, who in 2009 topped ArtReview’s Power 100 list, deftly plays his part as the art world’s guru. But the exercise in self-delusion begins as Obrist seeks to relate Do It’s open curatorial model to a particular sense of activism. “The instructions from the last couple of years have a kind of parallel energy to Occupy Wall Street,” he told ARTnews.
Perhaps Do It’s subversive potential is at its most tangible in a set of instructions from the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on how to tackle a CCTV surveillance camera, utilising a spray paint can, pole and corkscrew. Elsewhere, Suzanne Lacy’s Cleaning Conditions seeks to bring museum staff together in “cleaning actions” and “cross-sector meetings” as a consciousness-raiser over low-paid working conditions.
This might all seem rather well-intentioned, but for the fact that Do It encapsulates a far wider problem. Participatory art’s political retreat under neoliberalism has been a phenomenon well documented by radical critics such as Claire Bishop. Far away from its origins as an empowering counter to the gold rush fever infecting the art market, it now acts as an image, not reality, of social cohesion.
As Bruce Altshuler notes, Do It’s very title evokes two seemingly conflicted messages: both the familiar Nike advertising slogan, “Just Do It”, as well as the spirit of protest as embodied by activist Jerry Rubin’s 1970 publicationDO IT! Do It plays a rhetorical game that, while partly offering concessions to audience empowerment, is far more rooted in insidious obfuscation. On recognition of this, the spectacle becomes increasingly obnoxious. In this interrogation of artwork, exhibition and curator, ideas are sometimes darkly comic, and all too often divorced from meaning.
Until September 22, www.manchestergalleries.org
The essential tenor of the British Library’s provocative exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is that the age of propaganda persists in our age of globalisation. Although we might be confidently distant from the Orwellian imagination, the systems of information control are being perpetuated. How then, can we read this age-old manipulation, as it appears in ever more insidious forms?
Quietly hidden away behind more familiar exhibits such as Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and the infamous Iraq War playing cards issued by the US Military, the curators have found space for an Occupy Wall Street poster. Emblazoned with the bold Occupy aphorisms, “Fight Back Worldwide: capitalism is the crisis” and “the 99 per cent have no borders; decolonize globally”, the poster’s protagonists emerge from radiant sunlight. At first glance, the Occupy Wall Street poster phenomenon seems to be illustrative of the particular fusion of bold graphic design and protest rhetoric in the age of social media activism. The curators are not giving away much either, merely observing the ways in which Occupy imagery subverts the iconography traditionally associated with the state. In doing so, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion misses out on telling the critical narrative of propaganda as it exists in the 21st century. Of this, more anon.
In many ways the most compelling argument of the exhibition is how it searches for a more neutral portrait of propaganda, scraping away the extreme negativity surrounding it. The origins of the term in papal text are documented here, in the literature produced by the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), a committee founded in the 17th century by Pope Gregory XV to counter the Reformation. Within this singular argument lay the seeds of our wholly oppositional understanding of propaganda, and through both world wars the emotional charge of the word was reduced to pure deception. And yet the global history of propaganda has been far more complex. In China, ‘propaganda’ (xuanchuan) cannot be distinguished from the more innocuous ‘publicity’. Instead it is a legitimate mechanism for the Party’s construction of society. The question the exhibition poses is essentially: can you engage in rational dialogue with a mass audience? Is propaganda more than just persuasion dialogue, but rather a mechanism aiming to elicit action, in which the ‘truth’ is no longer the logical endpoint? In getting to grips with the very essence of propaganda, the Aldous Huxley quotation resonates through the exhibition chamber: “The propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water he digs in vain.”
The sources upon which the curators draw on, from Josef Goebbels’ ‘Volksempfänger’ radios designed for Nazi broadcasts through to the iconic imagery of Mao kindling the flames of revolution in Anyuan in the autumn of 1921, are breathtaking in scope. At the exhibition’s heart are the Norman Rockwell posters The Four Freedoms, aimed at Americans buying war bonds in World War II by appealing to core familial and religious values. Above all, this exhibition excels in showcasing state propaganda, whether in the form of Boer War board games, Cold War imagery or even public health campaigns. Exploring themes of ‘nation, enemy and war’, the wash of propaganda reaches for increasing sophistication. But nuance is looked for in the explorations of a ‘national branding’ project that was implicit in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a side perhaps missed out when compared to the unambiguously aggressive glorification of the state that so thoroughly informed the previous 2008 Beijing Games, in which regulated spectacle celebrated ‘shengshi’, an age of prosperity.
While the exhibition may be aesthetically impressive, from the opening floor of projected viral imagery through to the close in which a wall forms a cascading screen of twitter streams reacting to the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and Obama’s re-inauguration, by the end we are no closer to really grappling with propaganda today. In the age of social media, “everyone is a potential propagandist”, we are told. But what is constantly alluded to but never properly addressed is perhaps the untold story: the elision of systems of state propaganda, modes of dissent and the framework of advertising. In the wake of the Tiananmen protests, the Chinese Communist Party looked to the West for new sources of inspiration, and found it in Coca-Cola. By 1996, a Party textbook proclaimed that the soft drink brand was the example par excellence to be followed: “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.”
The iconic Occupy Wall Street pamphleting, in its stylistic borrowings from the romantic well of Russian Revolutionary and Soviet propaganda, is the perfect evocation of how 21st century activism embodies all the trademark hallmarks of marketing. The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote of this process in his 1981 Simulacra and Simulation: “The whole script of advertising and propaganda comes from the October Revolution and the market crash of 1929”. Baudrillard went on to observe that “both languages of the masses, issuing from the mass production of ideas, or commodities, their registers, separate at first, progressively converge. Propaganda becomes the marketing and merchandising of idea-forces, of political men and parties with their ‘trademark image’.” The Occupy poster is the epitome of this convergence of the worlds of advertising and activism.
In one of the many video portraits scattered across the exhibition space, the journalist John Pilger recalls a Czech dissident telling him during the Cold War: “You believe everything you see on the TV or read on the papers, but we’ve learnt to read between the lines.” Deploying everything from money to stamps and charting the shift from print to social media, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion offers a powerful insight into state influence and the flows of information that fashioned the 20th century political landscape. With Nazi propaganda nestled next to Britain’s own war campaign imagery, the exhibition never shys away from foregrounding the monsterization techniques behind audience appeal. Its co-curator David Welch argues that the danger only lies in a monopoly of propaganda, as seen in totalitarian states. But the sorry truth is that we can no longer afford to make political and commercial distinctions in propaganda today, when faced with a real loss of meaning, reading between the lines becomes all too urgent.
Given China’s influence in the global economy, where is the Chinese Psy?
In October 2012, U.K. producer Terror Danjah, the so-called Godfather of Grime, made his first tour of China. Grime emerged as an East London phenomenon at the turn of the millennium, heavily propagated by a pirate-radio underground that was broadcasting increasingly aggressive strains of bass music. At first glance, Terror Danjah’s arrival in China seemed to confirm the global arrival of Beijing’s rapidly expanding (albeit predominantly expatriate) dance-music scene, which has been incorporating ever more adventurous streams of electronic music.
But Terror’s visit had strange roots. In 2003, grime had spawned a subgenre, Sinogrime, as London producers set their sonic sights east. By appropriating everything from martial-arts-movie soundtracks to cheap video-game muzak, grime’s East London soundworlds were briefly submerged in East Asian glitz. For a genre obsessed with futuristic aesthetics, this shift meant much more than a momentary orientalist indulgence. Music journalist Dan Hancox saw Sinogrime as part of a sociopolitical vision, reflecting the “current, gradual shift in superpowers from west to east, incorporating China, and rejecting America: in terms of the U.S., it’s notable that grime has always been nothip-hop.”
Sinogrime pointed to the reversal of a long one-sided and humiliating musical exchange between the West and China. A 2011 performance by the New-York based Chinese pianist Lang Lang at a White House state dinner in honour of China’s President, Hu Jintao, also reflects this. Lang Lang performed the Korean War anthem “My Motherland”, whose original lyrics boast “we deal with wolves with guns” — an explicit reference to the U.S. As Lang Lang wrote in a blog post the following night, “I was telling them about a powerful China and a unified Chinese people.”
Beyond delighting the Chinese delegates present, it is remarkable just how Lang Lang’s performance managed to channel the political intent of Beijing. This is a pianist who is celebrated in endorsement contracts that stretch from Adidas to Montblanc. Why does the music of the People’s Republic continue to exert such a nationalist project in the reform period? Unveiling the entwined relationship between market and state is crucial to understanding the drivers behind Chinese pop culture. The state still engages in the direct fostering of Sinopop. But parallel to overt policy, the state also deploys its silent control through the market itself.
Pop sounds from the People’s Republic of China walk a fine line between dabbling in adventurous experimentalism, selling out to the lure of big business, and negotiating political pressures. When I visited the capital last year, the finishing touches were being put to Beijing’s Dada club, which had already started hyping appearances from a whole host of dubstep pioneers including Pinch and Kode9. Meanwhile the vast National Centre for the Performing Arts, nicknamed ‘the Egg’ for its organic, titanium architecture, was featuring an evening of patriotic opera. One night in Beijing offers a kaleidoscope of incongruities, from manic pop-stardom to triumphalist hipsterdom.
But while the cacophony on the surface might suggest that China’s market reforms have eroded the Party’s capacity for cultural control, the reality is far more sober. The seeming diversity of Chinese pop only masks how institutionalized it is. While Chinese pop stars like Cui Jian, the grandfather of subversive Chinese rock, and the gender-transgressive Li Yuchun, who found fame in 2005 on Super Girl, an Idol-like contest that attracted hundreds of millions of viewers in an unprecedented “democratic moment” for the Chinese pop-music industry, seem to suggest diversity, their talent was nurtured by the music-conservatory system. Beijing’s cultural academies are inextricably bound up in the state’s system of rewarding those who play the game with prizes and prestigious tenure.
Musicians like Li Yuchun form a singularly useful component in the state’s cultural project, stifling truly dissident art in a haze of superficial unorthodoxy. And in 2012, Beijing officials announced a £1.4 billion “China Music Valley” project, encompassing studios, music schools and five-star hotels, fully displaying the state’s persistent investments in soft power.
Observers have long been optimistic about the submission of Chinese pop culture to the full gold-rush fever of the market. In The Party and the Arty, Sinologist Richard Kraus observed that “by 1992 the Party had given up trying to purge all dissident voices and opted instead for the strategy of urging all arts organizations to strive to earn more money, an approach that ultimately feeds professional autonomy.” But market reforms and globalization have done little to introduce freer political expression or ease the Chinese Communist Party’s influence. It turns out that a superficially diverse, profit-driven, market-oriented culture industry is perfectly consistent with state censorship and the Party’s nationalistic aims. Although the influence of Party orthodoxy is less crudely visible, it still exercises ubiquitous control via private business and the media.
The rise of the market for cultural goods in China has had many disturbing repercussions. In her survey of 21st century mainland Chinese fiction, historian Julia Lovell examined how literary commercialization, sharply accelerated by the emergence of the internet, has led to a blurring of professional standards: “As market hype threatens to drown out reasoned literary judgment, nationally renowned professors of Chinese for a fee have taken to puffing works of uncertain literary value in reviews.” The same infection can be found in the PRC’s musical culture, where the boundaries between music criticism and press releases are frequently indistinct.
Even more problematic is the CCP’s particular system of oppression and reward. With more private investment in the cultural sector, Party censorship has begun to give way to self-censorship, as culture-industry firms must embed themselves more deeply within the party-state system to maximize their market leverage. Website operators are held responsible for all the content that appears on their sites. Instead of being incompatible with market models, self-suppression becomes a necessity in order to maintain market access and profit. Far from guaranteeing human freedom, the free market is perfectly at ease with censorship.
Arguably, Chinese pop has become less diverse in recent years, not more. Hong Kong Cantonese pop, first smuggled into China via pirated cassette tapes, rose to prominence in the late 1970s. But from 1997, this balladic “cantopop” music began to decline severely in market share, as Cantonese artists increasingly chose to perform in Mandarin. Taiwanese pop’s chances of success on the mainland similarly revolves around prospective performers’ self-censorship. Taiwanese musician
Jay Chou, arguably one of the biggest Mandarin pop artists of the last decade, has carefully cultivated an apolitical act, avoiding all references to issues of Taiwanese independence and even promoting traditional Chinese cultural elements in his music. In short, the rise of the mainland has seen a fall in transnational cultural pluralism.
It’s not just commercial pop music that has been ensnared in this state-cultivated exclusivity. More than anything else, the sanitization of Chinese rock illuminates how the Party has seized firmer cultural control. During the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, Chinese protest rock’s subversive qualities converged. Cui Jian pioneered Chinese-rock protest songs, drawing on satire and 1940s revolutionary music. In 1987, his version of the Chinese communist song “Nanniwan” got him banned from public performance for two years. But by 1989, his music was being taken up as an anthemic declaration of heady times.
By 1993, however, Chinese rock had lost its bite as politically safe music was marketed more intensely on the mainland and the state imposed ever more stringent restrictions on performance, including a ban on televised rock music. China scholar James Millward, a research student in Beijing in the aftermath of the Tiananmen demonstrations,
recalled singing Cui Jian songs at the Peking University ‘Beida’ Guitar Club in 1990. But he observed later that “the image of these students at Beida” — roughly, China’s Harvard — “reviving a banned Tiananmen anthem in a candle-lit classroom seems like a final frisson of student political engagement that has given way to today’s frenzied consumerism.” The utopian promises of market diversity offer nothing but wishful thinking. Consumerism has been an essential factor in the CCP’s implementation of social control. While the scene has seen numerous revivals since then, from an extraordinary explosion in metal bands to festivals of Chinese rock, its subversive element had been effectively curtailed by the mid-1990s.
But even in 1993, Cui Jian was claiming that Beijing-based rock pointed to a socially progressive future, a musical vision very different to the decadence of Western rock. While such rock musicians are viewed with suspicion by the state, the cultural critic Geremie Barmé argues that ‘in the larger realm of China they are actually patriots.’ Despite sitting far outside state sanctity, Chinese rock’s ‘super-patriots’ have long demonstrated an extreme predilection for nationalist exclusivity.
Nationalism has been an essential force in Chinese consumerism. The hegemony of the mainland market ties soft power and pop culture to the Party’s nationalist agenda. But in many ways the state’s huge investments in building Sinocentric Asia’s cultural attractiveness is a project doomed to fail. Soft power is not something you can just buy.
The state’s persistent hand in Chinese pop culture reflects the Party’s profound anxiety over pop, especially compared with the vibrant musical cultures of its Asian neighbors. China may loom over its neighbors in financial and political capital, but the narrow potential of its cultural capital has become glaringly apparent in the face of the Hallyu wave — the Asian term for the 21st century dominance of Korean popular culture. China has its own ambitions for a soft-power offensive through homegrown culture, but the inadequacy of its initiatives was plainly illustrated by the massive international success of Korean star Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”
K-pop, which is rooted in Korea’s relaxation of state censorship in the 1990s, has been rapidly developing a pioneering musical hybridity and consumer vision. Its preoccupations with the virtual world, and the marketable and disposable nature of its music, uphold uniquely futuristic ideals. But beyond enthusing over the pillowy soundscapes and monolithic production values, from the architectural possibilities offered by “Gee” by Girls Generation
to the kaleidoscopic synths of Hyuna’s “Bubble Pop,” it is the way that K-pop merges art and commerce that fully makes it at one with the accelerated digital age. In 2009 boy band Big Bang released their single “Lollipop” as part of LG’s promotion of its new cellphone, also called Lollipop. Refusing to draw hard lines between composition and business, K-pop reaches for unabashed global pop domination.
The Hallyu wave has long been a source of contention for the CCP and has provoked a series of Chinese attempts to counter its effects. In the past, China has used its protective regulatory environment to deny Korean firms direct access to Chinese markets, pushing them into relying on Chinese partners. Now the state maintains its strong regulatory position but combines this with a private-sector presence. This subtler offensive looks to effectively blacken the Hallyu wave as a Korean ”invasion,” while cloaking the state’s nation-building agenda in the domain of cultural industries.
But the real loss lies at home. The mainland circulation of pirated tapes of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop during the 1980s was a formative experience for China’s burgeoning pop culture. Yet gradually, the linguistic and market hegemony of the mainland has enforced self-censorship and consumer uniformity within the PRC soundscape. Earlier this year, construction workers from Wuhan protested their unpaid wages by dancing “Gangnam Style” outside the nightclub they had built. But where was China’s Psy? The sounds of the People’s Republic have drifted a long way from 1989, when Cui Jian’s song “Opportunists” roared across Tiananmen: “Oh, we have an opportunity, let’s show our desires, Oh, we have an opportunity, let’s show our power.”
Dame Jane Goodall’s use of Wikipedia is part of a more decisive shift in authorial culture.
In the 21st century, a writer facing allegations of copying is in for a distressing time. The veteran naturalist Dame Jane Goodall certainly discovered this for herself several weeks ago, when she admitted that her forthcoming book Seeds of Hope lifts passages verbatim, without proper attribution, from several internet sources including Wikipedia. Goodall, known for her pioneering primatology work in the 1960s, has seen the publication date of her 25th book put back as well as finding herself the subject of intense media scrutiny.
[The following is an op-ed and, as such, does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]
Last year Thaddeus Ma Daqin declared his resignation from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Assocation (CCPA). Ma’s announcement was honoured with applause in Shanghai’s cathedral of St. Ignatius. But the decision taken by the Vatican-ordained bishop, a blow to the credibility of state control, was taken as a calculated violation by the powers that be in Beijing. Ma soon found himself under house arrest.
The election earlier this year of the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, as the first non-European Pope in close to 1,300 years, was a move full of resonance. Standing at the head of a global flock of 1.2 billion, Pope Francis needs to reach out to the estimated 12 million Roman Catholics that reside in China. For decades, China’s Catholics have been split between underground “house church” membership, loyal to Rome and defiant of the government, and the state-founded CCPA.
As a Jesuit, Francis is surely aware of the extraordinary influences his 16th and 17th century predecessors left on the Chinese literati and imperial court. For the sake of his church, Francis must now rebuild the Vatican’s ties to China in the 21st century.
Many overlook the unique foreign policy potential that the Catholic Church wields.Writing in the Guardian, Nick Spencer dismissed the new Pope: “Francis has no more than words and example to work with.” But the decisions taken by Conclave should not be underestimated. They have surprised us in the past. Absolutely nobody expected the appointment of a Polish Pope in 1978. Pope John Paul II went on to play a critical role in the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
As the Vatican comes under ever increasing global scrutiny, Pope Francis needs to show that the Holy See remains a force to be reckoned with. But China remains elusive for the Vatican.
The problems stretch back over half a century. China severed its diplomatic ties to the Vatican in 1951, after the atheist Communist Party came to power and expelled papal representatives to China. As the CCPA was born, so were the secret “house churches” which sheltered Catholics across China, still loyal to Rome and under threat of state persecution.
In the past decade, the most significant form of tension between Vatican legitimacy and Beijing’s insistent control has been over the appointment of bishops. With the Vatican frequently threatening excommunications and Beijing in turn accusing the Holy See of violating religious freedom, there is little sign of relief.
The Chinese reaction has been shortsighted at best, warning the Vatican to cease its relations with Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, striking out at Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s presence at Francis’ inauguration, and calling on the Pope to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, including in the name of religion.”
Such hawkish posturing within the Party continues to assert power in narrow terms, but the moral capital of the Party is in short supply in the People’s Republic, especially for those left behind by their country’s economic zeal. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, is particularly sensitive to the discontents of economic modernization. China’s extraordinary religious revivalism has poured into the vacuum left by the ruptures of Communist ideology, and in the last decade has increasingly infused the educated and wealthy. As CCPA bureaucracy and the underground church pull spiritual allegiances further apart, the mainland has created a singularly unhealthy atmosphere for Catholics — forced to operate in the shadows or under the control of an atheist bureaucracy.
The Holy See needs a diplomatic breakthrough to make its moral authority and international influence worthy of the new age. Writing in the Huffington Post, David Gosset has proposed possible diplomatic smoke signals — the canonization of the 16th century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, so emblematic of the Jesuit China Mission, for instance — that could pave the way to China’s opening up to the Vatican.
For their part, Beijing’s leaders need to awaken to the unstoppable religious dynamics that are shaping Chinese society, and look for an alleviation of the internal tensions that are pushing Chinese Christianity into an increasingly fraught arena.
The Chinese artist’s visual-linguistic imagination unfolds in this exhibition of his landscapes
In 1999, trekking in the Himalayas, the Chinese artist Xu Bing explained a particular sense of resonance: “Sitting on top of a mountain, facing another mountain, I sketched a mountain. In China, painting and writing a mountain is the same thing.”
Xu filled his Himalayan journals with landscapes composed of Chinese characters, exploiting the pictographic origins of the script and returning it to its organic setting. Born in 1955, as a child Xu had performed daily calligraphic exercises under the instruction of his father, a historian at Beijing University, mastering both brush and language, and becoming rooted in this traditional Chinese symbiosis of painting, calligraphy and poetry
The Ashmolean Museum’s Landscape/Landscript exhibition traces Xu’s visual-linguistic imagination, as it flowed from the pages of his Himalayan sketchbooks into his series of Landscripts, vast natural worlds populated with Chinese characters. Composed on Nepalese paper, Xu’s vistas form mountains built by the Chinese character for “stone”, expanses of “grass” characters and rivers of semantic meaning, created in the tactile contours and monochrome wash of traditional Chinese landscape painting.
The violent, traumatic extremes that language reached during the Cultural Revolution, so utterly divorced from all meaning, form a thread that runs through Xu Bing’s artistic life. As a teenager Xu learnt of the arrest of his father from one of the handwritten character posters denouncing reactionary intellectuals. While his father was paraded through the streets in disgrace, Xu found a kind of solace in print catalogues, woodcutting tools and French printing ink. In 1974 Xu was sent to the remote farming commune of Huapen, labouring in the fields as part of the Cultural Revolution’s educated youth policy. Landscape/Landscript collects the immersive pieces he made there, documenting this formative time spent in the mountainous northwest where, each evening after work, Xu would take wrapping paper from the production brigade’s store and draw the landscape and life around his village.
Even with the end of the Cultural Revolution, rural imagery followed Xu in his emergent work during the late 1970s while at the Central Academy of Fine Arts’ printmaking department. The Ashmolean pulls together his Shattered Jade woodcuts, quietly conversant with socialist realism, folk traditions and memories of Huapen. But Xu was on the verge of making his break with orthodoxy and reaching for contemporaneity. At a time of intellectual ferment, Xu found himself exhausted by the feverish heights reached by the reform period’s cultural consumption. In his McKenzie lecture in Oxford earlier this year, Xu described his disorientation: “My generation has a strange relationship with books. We became very thirsty when the Cultural Revolution ended. I was able to read all sorts of books, but then I felt lost after taking in so many things.” In the summer of 1986, Xu removed himself to the northwest of China. “Mountain Rhythm” is the product of his etchings made at the Longyang Gorge in Qinghai Province. Xu engraved the landscape en plein air on copper plates which had been waxed in Beijing. Using a portable printmaking set, Xu scratched through the wax with a needle, adding acid later in the evening.
Landscape/Landscript follows Xu’s concentrated contemplations on the printmaking process. The Repetition Series of 1987 narrates the textural life of a printing block, carved and printed in 11 sequential stages to reveal its untouched, black space in the first print, an emergent patchwork landscape by the middle print and then gradually cut away to a final, almost blank reduction. Spread across a gallery wall, the “Ziliudi Scroll” from Xu’s Repetition Series details plots of land, with their crop patterns arranged in evocation of printed text.
Xu’s new meditative approach culminated in his maximalist 1988 project, Tianshu, in which he invented and handcarved 4,000 meaningless Chinese characters, displaying them as draped scrolls hanging in the air, wall panels and books spread across the floor. His expressive qualities increasingly found common ground with China’s new wave artists, part of the wider mid-1980s political movement that reached its tragic conclusion in the Tiananmen demonstrations. Caught up in the ensuing critical backlash against the avant-garde, in 1990 Xu left for the US, where western life pushed his work into further realms.
Standing at the heart of Landscape/Landscript, the Suzhou Landscripts lithographs, nearly a decade in the making, draw on a lifelong obsession with nature and language, as well as personal encounters with Chinese and western traditions. Taking 17th-century idyllic ink paintings of the Ming and Qing dynasties from the Suzhou Museum’s collection of hanging scrolls, Xu renders them in radiant fashion, layered in red characters that act as reminders of the ancient pictorial forms that appear on oracle bones. But the Suzhou Landscripts are also adorned with Xu’s square word calligraphy, a system of “masked words” he designed back in 1994 which places Roman script within the idioms of Chinese calligraphy. Challenging the assumptions of linguistic signification, the Suzhou Landscripts straddle the boundaries of different language systems. “My characters are like a computer virus, ruining our brain mechanisms,” Xu playfully observed in his Oxford lecture.
The closing act of Xu’s Ashmolean collection, the “Mustard Seed Garden Scroll”, picks away at the illusory effects of the artistic landscape tradition. Xu takes as his cue China’s venerable tradition of copying as pedagogy, as exemplified in the 17th-century Mustard Seed Garden Manual, an anthology codifying brushwork conventions. Such prescriptions for creating the motifs of landscape within the Chinese tradition have an almost linguistic structural quality. Xu rearranges images from the Manual, carving them into pearwood blocks and reinstating them in print as a new composition.
Landscape/Landscript is a cerebral submersion in nature, as well as a vivid set of reflections on the power and treachery of words. Xu’s Landscripts teach us another way of seeing the world, where language flows over the landscape, becoming a feature of the natural world itself.
Until May 19, www.ashmolean.org
'Taking Mstislav Rostropovich's interpretation as a guideline is a big mistake': I interviewed cellist Alban Gerhardt about his new recording of Britten's Cello Symphony for Gramophone magazine's February issue http://www.gramophone.co.uk/latest-issue/february-2013
Last year the controversial Chinese novelist Mo Yan, in a Stockholm press conference before receiving the Nobel prize for literature, compared censorship to airport security checks. I argued at the time that the Nobel laureate’s stance on the necessity of censorship was unforgivable. Last week Mo consented to his first interview with foreign press since receiving the Nobel. Speaking to Der Spiegel, Mo broke silence to provide a vigorous defence: “I have emphasized repeatedly that I am writing on behalf of the people, not the party.”
As his first novel to arrive in English translation since the Nobel debacle, doesPow! shed any light on Mo Yan’s political mystique? Does its defiant use of hallucinatory affect absolve it of a lack of political consciousness, or is it quietly doing its bit to uphold the Party’s erasure of China’s traumatic history? The disturbing confessional of Luo Xiaotong, who narrates his life to a monk in a crumbling temple, weaves together themes of corrupt local officialdom, China’s deep rural poverty and a village’s transformation into a gargantuan meat processing plant. In his afterword, Mo cites his debt to Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum. Grass’ Oskar, a boy whose mental age progresses but body doesn’t, is reversed by Mo’s Luo who keeps his child’s mind in a grown body.
Mo describes Pow! as autobiographical. The setting itself mirrors Mo’s rural Shandong upbringing. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Mo thanked “the fertile soil that gave birth to me and nurtured me. It is often said that a person is shaped by the place where he grows up. I am a storyteller, who has found nourishment in your humid soil.” But the novelist also warns that his protagonist is singularly unreliable. Luo is a “powboy” – particularly prone to lie and boast. The kaleidoscopic narrative itself draws on a fantastical vein of ghosts and fox fairies, via which Mo’s characters are frequently reduced to their violent, animal appetites.
With the departure of her husband, Luo’s mother attempts to save money to build her own house and in doing so, subjects her son to a tortuous deprivation of meat. Luo’s consequent perpetual lust for meat is elevated to a central vehicle for ironic observation and sexual craving: “I knew the meat preferred the feel of my skin. When I gently picked up the first piece, it gave out a joyful moan and trembled in my hand.” But this story is in turn repeatedly crashed by a series of manic appearances, from the “Carnivore Festival’s Meat Appreciation Parade” through to the staging of an opera “From Meat Boy to Meat God”. Illusory visitations surrounding Luo’s surrealistic narrative propel the novel towards a literally explosive finale in which Luo fires off 41 old Japanese Army mortar shells.
Does this visceral orgy of butchery point to disturbing trends within the whole spectrum of modern Chinese literary culture? With its heavy dose of hallucinatory realism, critics have argued that Mo’s literary landscaping escapes the very real problems of contemporary China and that his crude strokes can even be seen as a symptom of an increasingly marketised writing culture. It is hard to square this with Pow!’s dark, satirical take on the violent, materialist and morally corrupt undercurrents of society. The village’s meat factory spends a vast proportion of the novel coming up with new ways to disguise its produce, from injecting water to increase its weight to applying formaldehyde to keep it fresh. Luo’s ingenious contribution to this is to suggest filling the animals with water while still alive. As he proudly proclaims: “the move from post-slaughter to pre-slaughter injection was nothing less than revolutionary, a turning point in animal slaughter history.”
The ways in which Mo’s writing manages to fully align itself with official censorship rules has troubled many critics, fuelled largely by that very Western predilection for the “banned in China” label. But there are surely more nuanced ways of talking about Mo than stridently taking his apparent political cronyism to task or accusing his Western critics of cultural imperialism. From its reflections on capitalism’s moral vacuum to its invocation of China’s history of famine, Pow!’s taste for the grotesque offers a bitter vision of contemporary China as a whole.
Those in search of a West-centric conception of Mo have often called him China’s Faulkner, but perhaps this is the root of the problem. At its best, Mo’s brand of highly ambiguous satire mocks all concerned. Wang Shuo, the best-selling sensationalist author of tough Beijing working-class narratives, once crudely remarked to the New Yorker: “Now Liu Xiaobo (the dissident Chinese writer) is in a labour camp and I am here (in a Beijing disco). I was proved right. A writer is a writer. He should stay away from politics.” Certainly there are many Chinese writers contentedly sitting in a gilded cage. It would be a mistake to definitively say this of Mo Yan’s slippery writing.
The Nobel Literature prize laureate’s comments on literary censorship were unforgivable.
“Why is modern China lacking in great writers?”, asked the Chinese author Murong Xuecun last year, in a speech itself banned in China. “Because great writers are castrated while still in the nursery”. Such lamentation gained a particular bitterness last week when the 2012 Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, provided a defence of censorship during a press conference in Stockholm before receiving his award. Mo compared the necessity of censorship to airport security checks, warning of the dangers of defamation and rumour. The critics were quick to line up. “Mo Yan is the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet Russian aparatchik writer Mikhail Sholokhov: a patsy of the regime”, concluded Salman Rushdie. But should we have been so surprised? In an interview for Granta earlier this year, Mo spoke of how “censorship is great for literature creation”.
China’s long frustrated pursuit of a Nobel laureate comfortable with the political establishment – a “Nobel Complex” embedded in the national psyche, was finally sated in Mo’s win this year. It was a controversial decision for the Nobel committee, given the author’s longstanding Party credentials, including a position as vice-chairman of the state-sponsored China Writers’ Association. Mo’s problematic history was swiftly seized upon by his detractors, from his public rejection of exiled writers such as the 2000 Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian to his part in the state project of hand-copying Mao’s 1942 Talks at Yan’an, a text celebrating art as a state tool.
The dissident artist Ai Weiwei called the award an “insult to humanity and to literature” while for the 2009 laureate Herta Müller, it was “a slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights”. Yet in the wake of his Nobel success, Mo managed to put much potential international concern to rest by expressing the hope that the 2010 Peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned for incitement to subvert state power, “can achieve his freedom as soon as possible” – a statement of well-crafted intent aimed at quelling Mo’s critics. But the tensions have been brought into the open once more following Mo’s behaviour in Stockholm.
Can Mo’s literary voice tell us something of why the writer might choose to make such comments on censorship? It is a voice that embodies above all the complexity of an artist symbiotically linked to an authoritarian system, despite his frequent claims of the separation of literary and political spheres. Mo was a child of the post-Mao literary thaw – a generation laden with symbolic capital, healing literary rupture by embracing traditional and avant-garde aesthetics. The shattering of sexual taboo in his novel Red Sorghum was typical of this 1980s “Enlightenment” and Mo’s “hallucinatory realism”. But while Mo would frequently cast his attention on a troubled land, these were often criticisms of local social exploitation and bureaucracy. His voice is firmly aligned to a state strategy of apportioning blame away from the political centre.
The sinologist Julia Lovell has noticed that “hysterical realism”, the term applied to Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace and others by the literary critic James Wood to describe their chaotic language and its consequent denial of meaning, could be readily applied to Mo Yan. Instead of meaningfully engaging with moments of deep national trauma, whether the Great Leap Famine or the Cultural Revolution, Mo seeks refuge in a manic, ironic voice, that dances around open dissent in a Kafkaesque nightmare.
“I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this”, Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, told the Associated Press last week in her first interview in 26 months. The AP journalists managed to visit Liu, confined to house arrest, while her guards had left for lunch. China’s literary freedom has significantly expanded, with the state’s focus shifting to the suppression of mass media. But the Party’s ability to adapt to changing cultural norms should not be underestimated. “We have not only lost the right to criticise, but the courage to do so”, Murong warned.
Mo’s comments were, in truth, unforgivable. But behind his stance on censorship lies a commitment to collective cultural amnesia. Beyond the perpetual balancing act of state collaboration that China’s artists play, Mo represents a suffocating sickness deep-rooted in China’s literary scene – a problematic relationship with history.
An obsession with the human voice was a central project in the music of British composer Jonathan Harvey, who sadly passed away this week. It was a preoccupation present right from his first explorations of acoustic and electronic borders at the Paris music research institute IRCAM – the brainchild of Pierre Boulez. Harvey’s 1980 tape piece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (I lament the dead, I call the living) delved into the particular sonorities of Winchester Cathedral’s Great Bell and his chorister son’s voice – a soundworld where spiritual boundaries met submerged acoustics via groundbreaking digital synthesis. Nearly two decades later, emerging from a period of intense research at Stanford University’s Centre for Composition Research into Music and Acoustics, Harvey’s ecstatic approach to aural shape-shifting elevated the voice to orchestral grandeur.
The voluminous power of sound crosses from instrumental expression towards the voice at its most primal in Harvey’s pulsating 1998 essay, Tranquil Abiding, written for chamber orchestra and extended percussion. Organic symbolism is given physical life as a backdrop of oscillating chordal movement – inhalation and exhalation blown up to universal proportions – while timbral life flickers across the surface. Fractured melody is streaked through this perpetual breath, before drifting into cathartic resonance. The title, described by Harvey as ‘a state of single-pointed concentration’, is typical of how eastern philosophy infuses his music.
The seminal influences of Stockhausen’s musical mysticism and the electronic soundscapes that Harvey encountered while at Princeton during the 1970s, combined with a personal and intensified spiritual shift to the East, pushed his music out of the confines of the British canon towards a state of ‘Gregorian Paradise’ – a strange meeting of plainchant and Tibetan ritual. Within Harvey’s interest in rendering emotional issues strange by digital technology was a great paradox. Here the electronic world had become a way of discarding the obsession with suffering inherent to 19th century music, reaching for a pure land beyond.
And yet despite its evocation of transcendent realms, the articulation of chant and intense radiance, Harvey’s music has always been a far cry from New Age escapism or the minimalist oases of Arvo Pärt’s ‘new simplicity’. Writing tonal music ‘fills me with dread’, the composer once said. Tranquil Abiding’s elongation of soundscapes and unravelling of facades inhabits a complex environment. Buddhist conceptions make a perfect fit for Harvey’s spectralism, where sound is exposed in all its minutiae: ‘the materiality of the sound itself…the ‘suchness’ – to use a Buddhist term – the ‘thing in itself’: the grain, the richness, the quality of sound’.