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Slow Boat in China (2)

A. D. Coleman, 2010. Photograph copyright by Willie Chu.To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art delivered in 1942 by Mao Zedong, the Writers Publishing House, one of mainland China’s most prestigious fiction houses, recently brought out a peculiar volume titled One Hundred Writers’ and Artists’ Hand-Copied Commemorative Edition of the ‘Yan’an Talks.’ As its title suggests, 100 prominent contemporary authors and artists provided autograph copies of Mao’s notorious dictates, effectively endorsing anew his insistence that literature and art must first and foremost serve the programmatic needs of the Chinese Communist Party. (See Eric Abrahamsen’s June 6, 2012 New York Times report, “Chairman Mao, in Their Own Hand.”) I’m acquiring several copies, for my own bemused contemplation.

Commemorative Edition of the Yan’an Talks (2012), cover.

Commemorative Edition of the Yan’an Talks (2012), cover.

Mao’s “talks” clearly derive from the chilling keynote speech to the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 of Stalin’s representative, Andrei Zhdanov, in which the stultifying principles of socialist realism found their first clear enunciation. Like Zhdanov before him, Mao was making the artistic and literary constituencies under his control an offer they couldn’t refuse. I can’t help wondering if, in turn, Mao’s variations on Zhdanov influenced Stalin’s 1946 “Discussion in the Meeting with the Creative Intellectuals.” (Stalin spoke rarely and published less on the arts.)

Be that as it may, nobody believes or subscribes to that crap anymore, at least not outside North Korea, save perhaps for some academic Marxists in the west. (Worth noting that the scornful locution “discredited,” ascribed by assorted pomo critics to designated styles, methods, works, and artists and writers, derives from the ideologically driven criticism that applied these hermeneutics in specific exegetical situations under Stalin and his successors.)

Nor, to my knowledge — and relief — does anyone anticipate a widespread revival of audience interest in the eminently forgettable junk that artists, writers, musicians, and other creative lost souls cranked out under those strictures — not in the former Soviet Union, and not in mainland China. Today only scholars delve into these period pieces, creaking under the weight of their rusty ideological armor. Both the theory that engendered them and the practice in which they found embodiment lie forlorn in the dustbin of history. Mikhail Sholokhov, anyone?

Writers Publishing House logoUnimaginable that — except as explicit satire — 100 writers and artists from the former Soviet Union would inscribe by hand today the loathesome principles set forth by Zhdanov and enforced thereafter by his goon squads. What a bizarre reaffirmation of a long-discarded set of prescriptions and proscriptions this book represents, then — a self-abasing modern version of the obligatory “loyalty dance” performed under his portrait as a morning ritual by all mainland Chinese citizens at the height of Mao’s cult of personality. And what an odd historical moment for its appearance, with the CCP moving toward a momentous changing of the guard at the November 2012 National Party Congress, a handover of the baton that could swing either comparatively liberal or even more deeply conservative.

Mao in Yan'an, 1946. Photographer unknown.

Mao in Yan’an, 1946. Photographer unknown.

The fact that a state-owned publishing house could persuade a hundred established cultural figures to participate in such an hommage and thus revalidate these antiquated, oppressive guidelines tells us much about the situation of the arts in 21st-century China. Such cautious sucking up to the CCP by writers and artists on the “approved list” understandably earned the opprobrium of the ICPC gathering in Hong Kong on June 9. It’s in the light of such CYA toadying to the reactionary elements in the current and imminently upcoming regimes that the resistance of individual writers and artists willing to speak truth to power, like Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo and their ICPC colleagues, gets measured, appropriately.

The Soviet Union began its de-Stalinization process more than half a century ago, just three years after Stalin’s death, and neither the populations of those countries nor their political structures have yet freed themselves fully from his influence. Mao outlived Uncle Joe by 23 years, but he died 36 years ago — and the process of de-Maoization in China has not even begun. In this culture, centered around father worship, letting go of their “Great Helmsman” won’t come easy. Till it starts, liberalization will remain a tough row to hoe. If artists represent, as Ezra Pound proposed, “the antennae of the race,” then a bunch of those in China are putting their bets on the continuing dominance of what Pound despairingly called “the bullet-headed many.” A good description of the Chinese Communist Party and its supporters everywhere, steeped in Mao’s assertion that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

(Note: Between Zhdanov’s diktat and Mao’s came the “Manifesto
for an Independent Revolutionary Art,” published in Partisan Review in its Autumn 1938 issue, co-signed by André Breton and Diego Rivera but largely written by Breton and Leon Trotsky while the latter lived in exile in Mexico. It calls for “complete freedom for art.” You can see why Stalin needed him dead.)


CCTV logo

Such pressuring of artists reflects a broader policy of conforming all public communication to Politburo policies. That certainly includes the mass media, all of it state-owned and rigidly controlled. They make no bones about that: Last year, CCTV President Hu Zhanfan remarked unequivocally, “The first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and being a good mouthpiece,” adding, “Journalists who think of themselves as professionals, instead of as propaganda workers, were making a fundamental mistake about identity.” (See the PBS NewsHour report of March 23, 2012, “China’s Programming for U.S. Audiences: Is it News or Propaganda?”

Which doesn’t exactly mean that if their lips are moving they’re lying — just that, without verification from a reliable outside source, one shouldn’t believe anything one reads or hears from the mainland Chinese press. It also means that the Chinese don’t now have, and have never had, any historic model for the independent critic (of anything) and/or the freelance journalist. This explains a certain blank stare I get when I describe to people here my professional situation and practices; hard for them to grasp that my opinions, however benighted, are simply my own, that I’m not mobbed up with some branch of the U.S. government — not a “mouthpiece” for some organizational propaganda.

Richard Nixon resigns the presidency of the United States on national TV in the wake of the Watergate scandals, August 9, 1974.

Richard Nixon resigns the presidency of the United States on national TV in the wake of the Watergate scandals, August 9, 1974.

That has begun to change, due largely to the internet, especially the blogosphere and other social media. But that’s still very new, and unprecedented here. This week the western press (especially from the States) has commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal that drove the Republican Party’s Richard Nixon from the Oval Office, and the investigative journalism that helped send him into disgraced retirement. Reading those tributes, I bemoaned, along with others, the conglomeratizing and corporatizing of the western media, their deterioration from the high points of the ’60s and early ’70s. But spending time here never fails to remind me how free the western press remains by comparison, and how precious that is to at least some of us, myself always included.

Iron Man, Orange Hotel, Beijing, June 2012. Photo © copyright by A. D. Coleman.

Iron Man, Orange Hotel, Beijing, June 2012. Photo © copyright by A. D. Coleman.

Anna and I spent several days in Beijing, June 14-17, primarily for the purpose of making contact with people close to Liu Xia and supportive of our exhibition project involving her photographs. They’ll go unnamed here, for their own safety, but it was an honor to meet them, just as it’s an honor to work on this project.

We didn’t meet covertly, and spoke of these matters out loud and frankly among each other in the restaurants where we convened. Yet one of our number spent the next day under house arrest (though not necessarily as a result of our gathering). And while I’ve seen no visible military presence anywhere during my many visits here, and no more policemen than I note on the streets of New York, there’s really no forgetting that this is a military dictatorship and a police state. Symbolized, perhaps unintentionally, by the giant stainless-steel sculpture in the lobby of the art hotel in which we lodged, part of the reasonably priced Orange chain, with its trendy decor and youthful staff. Faceless, impersonal, indestructible, there to provide support for the superstructure, it dominated the space — the 800-pound gorilla in the room, as it were.

Orange Hotel logoWhen the State Security Police here summon you for interrogation, they invite you to “he cha” (drink tea, 喝茶) with them, which has become slang for that experience. Not an experience anyone relishes. I don’t expect our involvement in this project to have that consequence, but you never know. In the States, if my internet connection goes out suddenly I first troubleshoot and then call my ISP. When that happened to me in Shenzhen in mid-June, my immediate thought was that the Chinese government had tracked me down and cut me off. Turned out it was just a tech glitch, but the spontaneity of my response bespoke the underlying anxiety that anyone but the most innocent of tourists must feel here.

(To be continued.)

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