Revolution #151, December 28, 2008
A Weekend of Discovery: The Younger Generation and the Weekend Symposium “Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution: Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation”
Coming from one of the younger generations today, born well after the death of Mao and the defeat and reversal of socialism in China, we learned next to nothing about The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that occurred there from 1966-1976. But the small amount we did learn was the standard narrative that this was a horror, filled with anti-communist lies and distortions. I remember for my world history class at a public high school in the Midwest we read Wild Swans the memoir by Jung Chang, which I learned this past week is part of the wave of “scar literature” that came out from intellectuals and petty bourgeoisie in China, after the Cultural Revolution had ended and socialism was defeated—these personal accounts are often full of lies and distortions and rip things from their social context. This is what passed for history in the U.S.
The weekend Symposium “Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution: Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation,” defied the standard narrative, and brought forward an incredibly deep and exciting conversation about this history, and what it has to do with what economic and social change is possible and desirable today.
For many of us born in the post Mao era, this whole weekend was a very moving experience that will have a lasting impact. For the first time ever we heard first hand accounts of what it was like to actually live through the Cultural Revolution. Dongping Han, author of The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village described the dramatic transformations of education, work, and way of life in his village. He talked about the ways in which the peasants became active participants in the struggle of the Cultural Revolution taking up theory and participating in politics. Hearing these stories from a not-so-distant past was in a funny way like having a time traveler come from the future to tell of a society that is liberated.
Hearing this presentation and others gave me a sense on a whole other level how worthless this system is! After the first two days of the symposium I was on the subway train where a homeless person was telling the story of losing his apartment in a fire. I talked with my friends who can’t find work and are struggling to survive, filled with anxiety at the uncertainty they face, and I thought—this is fucking awful! What a terrible society!! The most basic necessities cannot be provided under capitalism. But it was one of those feelings where everything around you starts to look different, because you understand more deeply that it has not always been this way and it doesn’t always have to be. It’s insane we are going on living this way. In socialist China they got rid of homelessness, they eliminated drug addiction, prostitution, and crime.
And as was deeply evaluated at the symposium, this society did not fail, but was defeated. More deeply grasping the reality of this gave me a whole new sense of what it means when Bob Avakian talks about how we want state power and we should want it. Hearing first hand accounts of how what is only dreams and illusions in this society, was actually accomplished on a mass scale under socialism, really made me want state power in the hands of the masses of people and a vanguard leadership! The personal accounts as well as historical analysis showed that the dictatorship of the proletariat can bring about real changes that meet the needs of the people.
It was a rich and inspirational thing to explore the art and culture that took place at this time, and the role it played in society. Li Onesto’s presentation brought to life the new understanding of the role of art and culture that Mao brought forward, and how this was taken up in the Cultural Revolution as people were challenged to “Bombard the headquarters,” criticizing the capitalist roaders right within the communist party and fighting for the socialist road. At this time on a society wide level peasants and others who were locked out of the realm of art and culture previously, now took up painting and performed revolutionary cultural works. Along with this, the “Eight Model Operas” were produced under the leadership of Jiang Qing. It was amazing to learn how these works broke new ground and transformed the culture on a mass scale. The music and style of the traditional Chinese Opera, ballet, and along with that, minority cultures, were incorporated into these operas which depicted the lives and the struggle of the masses as had never before been done. In particular, the role of women was revolutionized. For the first time women were seen as the protagonist of the story, they were seen as Revolutionary leaders, challenging their oppressors, and conveying confidence and strength. Onesto also pointed out that, secondarily, there were problems during the GPCR—for example there wasn’t enough air for artists to breathe and experiment, to strike out in different directions, including creating art that represents dissent. We all really enjoyed hearing about this first hand from author Bai Di who grew up in that era and spoke of how this transformed the way young women looked at themselves as they aspired to be Revolutionaries like the characters in the works of art they knew and loved. And it was a treat to watch some of these works performed on Sunday. Afterward, the director commented that for the young female actors of today, to play strong confident heroes was an unfamiliar thing.
On Sunday I attended the guided tour of the exhibit of art from the Cultural Revolution at the Asia Society. Even though I had already been to the exhibit two times, I was seeing all the artwork in a new light. I had not understood before that the piece called Rent Collection Courtyard a sculpture showing the life for the peasants under feudal landlords before the revolution, was actually showing a young woman not only being ripped away from her child that would most likely not survive without her, but that she herself was being given to the landlord as payment. This realization brought me to tears, at the horror of life for generations, and what people were struggling to get out of when they sacrificed so much to make revolution.
I also didn’t realize the significance of the paintings in the first room of the exhibit which are large oil paintings, many of them depictions of Mao going to the masses in factories and in the countryside, but they were also depicting both literally and metaphorically the class struggle going on in China at that time, while also playing a role in that struggle. In particular, my favorite painting from this section, that I totally overlooked the first time, was Mao Swims the Yangtze River. This is a beautiful painting of Mao surrounded by youth on the deck of a ship, some, including a young woman in a Red Guard uniform. They are looking ahead to the future with smiling faces. This painting captures an historical turning point in 1966 just before the Cultural Revolution, when Mao actually swam the Yangtze River, to make a statement that he was ready to swim against the tide of the capitalist roaders emerging right within the party. The painting shows the choppy waters of the river dotted with the masses of people that joined Mao, who jumped right into the water with their red flags!
The young woman red guard is standing in a somewhat exaggerated pose reflecting strength and exuberance that seem to jump off the canvas. We learned the day before in Aly Rose’s presentation that this kind of pose started to appear in a lot of the artwork, influenced by the style of the model operas. She described throughout her presentation how as these works were spread all over the country, they had incredible influence on the lives and minds of people. She made an analogy to a familiar cultural reference from this society to capture the impact of such cultural works “When you breathe Mamma Mia, live Mamma Mia, Sleep Mamma Mia—You become Mamma Mia.”
As the weekend came to a close, again I found myself in the subway train watching the world around me, this time with the songs of one of the model works, The Red Detachment of Women, floating through my head. The music of this Revolutionary Ballet is so beautiful, and I was happy to have it stuck in my mind. But I looked around and I stopped short as I saw all of the ads in the subway and what they were depicting, the way people’s aspirations were dictated in terms of heightened individualism and commodity relations and especially how women were turned into sex objects with muted blank expressions on their faces. I saw right above the subway map the Mamma Mia ad with the wedding dress and all. I like musicals, and probably would enjoy seeing Mamma Mia, but I was thinking on another level, and I saw the stark contrast of the role of women in society, and the way in which people are being trained in an outlook and ideology.
Experiencing this symposium opened up new vistas of imagining a radically different world. I started to think about how, standing on the shoulders of the previous Revolutions and going forward based on Bob Avakian’s new synthesis, we could again revolutionize all of society under the dictatorship of the proletariat. In China they sent students to the countryside to depict the lives of the peasants in their artwork, and this was very good. But how about sending students into the realm of philosophy to create art depicting what people are exploring and how the political struggle gets expressed in that realm. Or how about basic masses in different ways going into the realm of science and creating works of art that explore the questions around that. How will there be an even greater amount of creativity and initiative going in many directions and not all directly tied to the political struggle or the state, but at the same time all moving in an over all sense in the direction of an emancipated world.
And I started to wrangle with other questions more deeply. Raymond Lotta’s presentation during the panel addressing the international impact of the Cultural Revolution, had a significant section exploring the short comings of the Revolution, particularly in how intellectuals were viewed, and also addressing the issue of “class truth”, where there was an underlying assumption that if you were from the peasantry or the working class, you would have more of the truth, or that there was one truth for the bourgeoisie and another for the proletariat. I want to understand more deeply how these problems arose and what the subjective and objective factors were. It was so good what was achieved in socialist China, but there were still shortcomings to learn from in order to do better next time.
This weekend symposium brought together hundreds of people from many different perspectives to rediscover and discover for the first time the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Many of us younger generation people who discovered this for the first time, have been talking about how this needs to be spread far and wide. Students and youth need to engage with this history, know what has been done, and wrangle with what it means for change in the world. And those of us who see the need for Revolution need to go forward in spreading this as part of building a Revolutionary Movement today.
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