Scribed On Demand

Two opposite poles of art creation in Paul Clark’s acclaimed art history of the Cultural Revolution, the slightly misleadingly titled The Cultural Revolution: A History, illustrate his thesis marvellously. Clark argues, with voluminous examples, that the Cultural Revolution was an artistically productive time, even if it was also a politically terrifying one. He takes aim particularly at the received wisdom in a common joke; 800 million people watching 8 performances (八亿人看八个系).

方海珍(李丽芳饰)是《海港》里的女主角; Fang Haizhen (played by Li Lifang) from The Harbour

The first pole of art creation is the model operas (样板戏). These were highly professional productions closely supervised by the cultural leadership including Jiang Qing (江青). These have a reputation as clumsy kitsch. Clark points out, with their production values, long lead time, and close executive supervision they are actually the very pinnacle of high kitsch. They made a number of technical innovations that moved Chinese opera smack in the middle of the twentieth century. Their focus on clearly delineated roles, modern settings, post-war language and ideological agenda – arias about revolutionaries and Mao Zedong are commonplace – make them distinctively modernist projects. Also, far from cultural troupes being entirely disbanded, certain parts of the culture industry were kept very busy on large productions of this kind. The striking film still above is from one of these model operas, 《海港》 (The Harbour).

To me, the Antarctic counter-pole to the model operas are the hand-published books. Amongst metropolitan youth sent into the countryside when schools and universities closed, there developed a subculture of letters, poems and entire novels written by hand, copied by transcript or mimeograph, and distributed by being passed from person to person. 《第二次握手》(The Second Handshake) was the most successful of these, eventually landing its author in jail for two years, followed by being published and filmed in the eighties. Works written in this fashion were enhanced and edited by their readers and transcribers, in a cultural movement part schoolroom note, part monastic rescribe and part wikipedia collective publication.

Clark was a student in Beijing at the end of the seventies, so he’s able to add personal anecdote to careful scholarly description in a tone reminiscent of antiquarian journal Arts of Asia. Though a fair number of pictures are included, it’s best annotated by Google to get a fuller impression of the many works he mentions.

Finally a minor quibble – why do academic books on China, written in English, use (non diacritical) pinyin rather than Chinese character translations? I doubt much of the audience is able to use the pinyin that is not able to use the characters themselves, which are also far less ambiguous. Is it a printing cost limitation? It seems archaic in a time of Unicode and print on demand PDFs.

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