2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions

CHINA & INNER ASIA SESSION 113

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Session 113: Power and Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s China: Representation or Mystification

Organizer: Enhua Zhang, Columbia University

Chair and Discussant: Ban Wang, Rutgers University

Keywords: representation, the Long March, Mao Zedong, mass line, speaking bitterness, memory.

This panel addresses the negotiation between power and discourse in Mao’s China from the interdisciplinary points of view: anthropology, literature, and political science. Mao’s legacy lies not only in leading revolutions one after another, but also in masterful manipulation of discourse under different guises of rhetoric. We investigate in what way and to what extent power is involved in producing the national myth and building up the collective memory, and how discourse operates in practice. Three significant discourses in Mao’s China are under discussion: the Long March, mass line, and speaking bitterness. By tracing the origin of a national myth along the Long March and delineating its representations in historiography, literature, cinema and other fields of cultural industry, Enhua Zhang explores the legitimacy, necessity, and limits of the Long March as an epical myth in modern China. Yu Liu debunks the rhetoric of "mass line" in Mao’s mobilization of political movement. It is argued that mass line in Mao’s China, is neither a type of democracy, nor an alternative to democracy, but an unchallengeable method of dictatorship. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in northern Shaanxi, Kaming Wu examines how the suffering and bitterness during the revolutionary past are remembered and why as such. Methodologically supplementary, the papers offer insights into the role of power in the production of discourse and the power of discourse in actual political implementation in Mao’s China.


The Long March Unveiled: Epic, Myth, and Beyond

Enhua Zhang, Columbia University

Thanks in part to Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China (1937), the Long March served as an entry point for the world outside China to first know Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist revolution. The Long March also became a foundational myth for the nation of modern China under the operation of discourse. It was revived by the cultural industry at the turn of the millennium: the big hit TV series "The Long March" (1999) and "The Long March: A Walking Visual Display," launched by curator Lu Jie in 2002. Readers today hardly think of the Long March as a military fiasco, as it was de facto. Focusing on the Long March, I raise the following questions: How was this military and political disaster transformed into a glorious national myth? What kind of mechanism operates in this myth-making in a Communist nation? Why does the Long March succeed in becoming a drive for the national subjectivity within and continue to be a focus, or even an intended spectacle outside? What is behind the (inter)national fever of the Long March in recent years? This paper will respond to these questions from four aspects: the historical reality, the formation of a national myth, its verbal and visual representations, and the feverish cultural phenomenon of the Long March. It is divided into four parts: (1) In Search of a Promised Land; (2) The Birth of a National Myth; (3) Melodramatic Representations of the Long March; (4) The Long March Fever at the Turn of the Millennium.


From the Mass Line to the Mao Cult: The Production of Legitimacy in Revolutionary China

Yu Liu, Columbia University

"Mass Line" was a central theme of Maoism. The rhetorics of "mass line" played a key role in legitimizing revolution and mobilizing political movements in Mao’s China. The nostalgia for Mao nowadays is largely boosted by the idea that the politics of Mao is a politics of "mass line." This paper examines the concept of "mass line," arguing that the "mass line" practiced in Mao’s China is neither an alternative to democracy nor a type of democracy; instead, the mass in "mass line" is only a mobilized enforcer of unchallengeable policies made above.

I will first test my argument with several major political movements in Mao’s China, showing that the seemingly mass participation means anything but democracy because the participating "mass" was not autonomous actors but cultivated agents of the party and the state.

I will then discuss why Mao was fond of "mass line." On one hand, it is usually only among the mass, the most active part of which are often mobs, where Mao could mobilize solidarity to bypass rational institutions and implement fanatic policies; on the other hand, "mass line" generates legitimacy by dressing dictatorial policies with mass participation, and in that sense, it’s an economical means of policy implementation.

I will lastly discuss how the "mass line" helps us understand the meaning of democracy, concluding that autonomy of the public sphere and deliberation between public sphere and the state are two internal requirements of democracy, without which "popular sovereignty" is just a facade of dictatorship.


Remembering the Revolutionary Past: Schizophrenia and the Memory of Absence

Kaming Wu, Columbia University

While existing literatures and memoirs written by urban subjects inevitably confine and define the revolutionary past as a rural and suffering (ku) experience, this paper investigates how peasants in rural China remember the past regarding life during the production brigade and the Cultural Revolution. It traces a genealogy of meanings about suffering or bitterness (ku) inherent in the historical processes of building the modern Communist China. The paper argues that memory of the revolutionary past should be understood in the context of how the meaning of bitterness has been utilized in modern Chinese history. Bitterness was first used against the landlords during the land reform period of early 1950. Later, bitterness in the practice of "remembering past bitterness and savoring present sweetness" (yiku sitian) was aimed to rescue state legitimacy after a series of policy failures, such as the Great Leap Forward and the collective dinning practice. During the 1960s, peasants were required not to remember the near past about starvation and poverty but the feudal past before 1949. 1 argue that this is where memory of the past becomes schizophrenic and why schizophrenia becomes integrated into the way memory of revolutionary China is configured. Lastly, the paper looks into other unconscious and unspoken forms of memory. How does memory reside in space where the violence of words never intrudes? Can memory practice resist and repress remembrance? How do we understand the revolutionary past through an absence of memory? The paper is based on an ethnographic research conducted in rural areas in Northern Shaanxi from November 2003 to December 2004.