Saturday, February 14, 2015

文革 (Caught a scent III)

I took advantage of the mild Springlike day by venturing into Shanghai today, my first exploration of new turf here in a while. My objective was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, a place I'd seen and heard recommended but had put off seeing. Snickering at posters from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution seemed too easy for a foreign visitor like me. Indeed, I'd started to share some Chinese people's irritation with westerners' "obsession" with the Cultural Revolution. Sure, it was bad, but why focus so relentlessly on the negative all the time? It can seem like sour grapes; isn't China's progress since the Reform and Opening ushered in by Deng Xiaoping the envy of the world?
Now it seemed possible, indeed necessary, for me to go, since I'm trying to think through Yang Huilin's arguments about the unmet challenges of the CR for Chinese moral life. I've also read my share of cultural revolution narratives, from those in Yu Hua's China in Ten Words to Liao Yiwu's amazing interview series entitled The Corpse Walker, seen Chen Kaige's Farewell, my Concubine and other films. I've also come up against the eye-popping extent of the CR's destruction of culture and disruption of lives - even as I'm sympathetic to the view that it resonates more with observers like me than the Great Leap Forward, which cost far more lives, since it mainly affected urban intellectuals.
I was glad to find that this gallery - the work of a single individual, seeking out traces of periods which had largely disappeared - chronicles poster art from the time of nearly pornographic "Shanghai ladies" a century ago through all the stages of the Communist People's Republic. He professes to be interested in them as art, and many are quite striking: the political poster was, after all, one of the major art forms of the 20th century! (My pictures aren't very good; it was my cell phone; sharp images of most of the extensive collection can be found on the website.) As I see it the Cultural Revolution was only the last of several disasters which happened under Mao's leadership. Several things I'd
thought distinctive of its savagery, such as the "struggle" sessions supposed to conduce to "thought reform," in fact trace back even to before the revolution. And of course the campaign against the "Four Olds," which resulted in the destruction of so much religious heritage, has roots a century ago. Am I saying that the Cultural Revolution isn't distinct enough to be ranked with Auschwitz as a moral defeat for all humanity? Not necessarily. But what makes it important needs to be defined. Is it the rejection of all tradition, the view of struggle as never securely ended, the mobilization of the young against their elders, the anarchy, the hollowing out of all forms of discourse, its sheer scale?

* * *

Yang Huilin mentions five challenges the Cultural Revolution poses, questions which seem to me closer to the kinds of questions Historikerstreit-generation Germans ask about the rise of Nazism than general reflections on what the lessons of "Auschwitz" are for all humanity:

1. Why did traditional Chinese morality, which had survived until then despite indoctrination, suddenly collapse in 1966?
2. Why was criticism and castigation of alleged individual ethical failings so central to this moment of collective ethical collapse?
3. How was CR different from earlier campaigns which were later condemned?
4. How should the hypocritical collaboration of so many intellectuals in the CR be understood?
5. If at times even Mao seemed to have lost control of the CR, who was pulling the strings? (68-70)

These imponderables are what lead Yang to the claim that, as in "Auschwitz," a "collective unconscious" was at work, and in a manner which undermines the self-assurance of any and every ethics. It is such considerations as these that motivate his call for a "pursuit of responsibility" not at the individual but at a more fundamental level - and his sense that the relativizing tendencies of Chinese tradition (including sinified Christianity) make them powerless in the absence of some absolute point d'appui (74).

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