Revolution #151, December 28, 2008

Report from Groundbreaking NYC Symposium

Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution—Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation

An unprecedented symposium took place in New York City, December 12-14: Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution—Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation—co-sponsored by the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, Revolution Books and Set the Record Straight Project.

Revolution newspaper will be featuring further coverage of the symposium. And we are calling on people to volunteer to help transcribe the presentations from the panels for possible publication.

The symposium brought together scholars and people from outside the academy. And in addition, what really stood out were the voices of people who grew up during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) and regard it as a tremendously liberating experience. All this amplified the event’s impact, not only on those who attended, but more broadly in society.

The symposium started Friday night with a talk by Dongping Han on the occasion of the release of his new book, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village. 85 people came to the event co-sponsored by Revolution Books and Monthly Review Press. Mr. Han gave a riveting account of what it was like to grow up in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, working as a manager of a collective factory and participating in the revolutionary transformations in his village.

On Saturday, 130 people attended the panel, “Art and Politics During the Cultural Revolution” which featured an exciting mix of speakers, coming from different perspectives and experiences: Lincoln Cushing, historian and archivist of social and political graphics, and co-author of Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, sent a video presentation. And the discussion of the creation and role of revolutionary art in the GPCR was discussed from different angles by Bai Di, Director of Chinese and Asian Studies at Drew University and co-editor of Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era; Li Onesto, author of Dispatches from the People’s War in Nepal and writer for Revolution newspaper; and Aly Rose, who teaches at NYU and choreographed and danced for the Chinese National Song and Dance Operatic Troupe in China for 11 years.

The second panel, “The International Impact and Historical Significance of the Cultural Revolution” was attended by 180 people and also featured a very interesting mix of viewpoints and experiences: Dongping Han, Professor of History, Warren Wilson College; Raymond Lotta, Maoist political economist, writer for Revolution newspaper, and editor of Maoist Economics and the Revolutionary Road to Communism; Andrew Ross, Professor of American Studies, Chair of Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University and author of Fast Boat to China: Lessons from Shanghai; and Guobin Yang, Associate Professor in Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College-Columbia University and co-editor of Re-Envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China.

On Sunday morning about 50 people attended the symposium-guided tour of the exhibition, “Art and China’s Revolution” at the Asia Society. And then in the afternoon, 80 people got a taste of the model revolutionary works created during the Cultural Revolution: clips from the revolutionary ballets, The Red Detachment of Women and The White-Haired Girl and a theatrical reading by 11 New York actors, directed by Joann Shapiro.

Quite a lot of buzz and anticipation got generated in building for the symposium. An important positive factor was the Asia Society exhibition which created interest and controversy about the GPCR. Posters went up widely, the event was announced on listservs, it was listed in the New York Times, and one of the organizers was interviewed on WBAI. Calls came in from other parts of the country from people saying they were very interested and regretted they could not attend.

Some people traveled from Connecticut, Boston, Chicago and Houston to attend. The audiences were a good mix of students and faculty, people from the arts, various social movements, from the `60s generation, revolutionaries, and quite a few young people who knew very little about the Cultural Revolution (including performers from some of the Chinese-American theater companies who did the theatrical reading).

Organizers have received some initial feedback from those who attended. Clearly people got a lot out of the presentations and discussions, with people commenting on particular issues of culture and revolution, the history and turning points of the Cultural Revolution, and the relevance of this to today. A number of people were struck by the diversity of panelists—with speakers pursuing very different lines of inquiry, analysis, and experience—but how these talks also turned out to be very complementary, even as there was disagreement and controversy. And quite a few people commented that being able to hear the accounts of the “lived experience” of the Cultural Revolution was a major element of what made this such a unique and provocative symposium.

It really isn’t an exaggeration to say that the symposium had a profound impact on many of those who attended.

For a good number of the young people who came, this was the first time that they got a living sense of what it means for society to be organized around radically different and liberating principles—cooperation, serve the people, and the continuing need to revolutionize all spheres of social life. And then to understand more deeply that this historical experience of socialist transformation has been systematically hidden from view and distorted…this too was eye-opening. For many people of the `60s generation who attended, this truly was a “rediscovery” of a liberating chapter in human history that had deeply influenced people’s lives and sense of possibility in the 1960s and 1970s—and some came away from the weekend events with new appreciation and understanding of that past and new-found enthusiasm.

And throughout the weekend many people were introduced to Bob Avakian’s new synthesis—what it means to uphold and stand on the achievements of the Cultural Revolution and at the same time to identify its shortcomings and limitations, including what Avakian has been emphasizing about the importance of the intellectual and cultural spheres, the critical role of dissent, and the struggle for truth under socialism.

The weekend left many people thinking about China’s Cultural Revolution in a whole different way. This symposium represented a major contribution towards opening up and reframing the whole discussion of this historic period in Chinese history. And all this had a big effect on many who attended.


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