Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Cultural Revolution in the world

An exhibit of photography by Solange Brand, a French journalist, taken during the Cultural Revolution, has been getting attention from prominent blogs recently, and yesterday I stopped by to take a look. I’m glad I did: on display were some of the best photographs I’ve seen from the period, and in color!

(Photos from the China Beat)

Too often the Cultural Revolution is remembered as a kind of surreal, almost dream-like event that doesn’t seem to really have happened. It is surrounded by a chilly silence here in China, usually punctuated only by fiction or personal memoirs that don’t see wide circulation. It is also often treated somewhat abstractly—part of the official “30 percent” of what Mao did wrong. That’s why these kinds of photographs are valuable: they bring what happened down to earth.

However, what I found especially interesting was how the exhibit’s curator, Jean Loh, chose to frame the events depicted in the photographs. A blurb about the Cultural Revolution written by Loh briefly discussed the events in China, then offered an unexpected quote from John Lennon: “The sixties saw a revolution among youth, not just concentrating in small pockets or classes, but a revolution in a whole way of thinking; the youth got it first and the next generation second. The Beatles were part of the revolution.”

Why did Loh put a quote from John Lennon alongside photographs from the Cultural Revolution? The Beatles preached love and world peace; the Cultural Revolution saw the destruction of the careers and lives of millions of people, the devastation of valuable artifacts and ancient structures, and the blind vilification of foreign and domestic enemies. What on earth could they have in common?

I think Loh was getting at an insight that is really very valuable: that the Cultural Revolution did not happen in isolation; that it was part of broad transnational forces; and that it was complicit—and is still complicit—in more than what we might at first believe.

When we think back with nostalgia to the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution almost never enters the picture. Indeed, when we do think of it in relation to the period, it is usually treated as a source of shame. Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers, for example, is about a small group of students that sequesters itself in an apartment in Paris in the summer of 1968, where they discuss revolutionary theory and, above all, cinema. Bertolucci portrays their affinity with the Cultural Revolution as a mere distraction, diverting his beloved young people away from what should be their real concern as 1960s students—mutual love and devotion to art, which Bertolucci treats as antithetical to the regimental priorities of the Cultural Revolution. Bertolucci’s 2003 portrayal of the 1968 movement in France absolves these students from any real involvement with the now discredited Cultural Revolution.

But is it really so easy to separate the two? Nowadays it’s almost taken for granted that the Cultural Revolution was a destructive, terrifying event; and indeed it was. But it was not simply that. It also served as an inspiration for millions of young activists around the world. Its origins were ugly, but the myth that it created became an important part of the sense of possibility and change that ran through the global movements of the 1960s, movements that fundamentally changed our world.

It is certainly not my intention to offer an apology for the tragic events that occurred in China during those years. But I do believe it is worth remembering that the Cultural Revolution was an event that informed radical movements around the globe, in a period that had sea-changing ramifications in world history. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to think of it, not just as “good” or “bad,” but also as a great historical force that had a significant influence on how we live today.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Daoism and conservatism

Just a quick plug for Sam Crane’s succinct dissection of American conservatives’ tendency to compare themselves to Daoists:

It's true that some Daoist sensibilities have some resonance with certain conservative ideas. Less government: the Daodejing moves in that direction. Just letting people do their things: to the extent that libertarianism is a part of the incoherent mish-mash that is contemporary conservatism, sure that's kind of like a Daoist orientation. But here's the big problem for conservatives: Daoism is not, and cannot, operate as a political ideology.

In general, I’m usually suspicious of attempts to relate ancient Chinese thinking, or any kind of ancient thinking, to modern issues. Such attempts tend to be overly simplistic and ignore the complex, and completely pre-modern, cultural, intellectual, and historical milieu in which such thinking developed. A character such as ren 仁, for example, is usually translated as “benevolence,” “humanity,” or something along those lines, but the ways in which we understand those words have been shaped by numerous historical factors that didn’t exist in ancient China.