2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 132

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Workforce: Representations of Labour

Organizer: Elizabeth Parke, University of Toronto, Canada

Chair: Yomi Braester, University of Washington, USA

Discussants: Minna Valjakka, University of Helsinki, Finland; Elizabeth Parke, University of Toronto, Canada

The worker, one of the three exemplary class figures (peasants and soldiers being the other two), is celebrated in PRC state mythology. This panel examines representations of the worker, reconsiders the toiling body in Chinese artistic production (1950-present), and illuminates how ideas of work/working are mobilized by the state and in the name of nation building. For the purposes of this panel, the representation of work is broadly defined embracing depictions of physical labour as well as the intellectual work of the artist. In addition to scholars of Cultural Revolutionary visual culture, the panel’s scope extends to participants whose work addresses collective (jiti 集体创作) art from the 1950s, as well as scholars who focus on contemporary art production that deals with themes of the ‘worker.’ This breadth of temporal scope will allow for a comparative and ‘thick description’ in order to reexamine ‘labour’ as it is visualized in contemporary and historical Chinese artistic productions. Moreover, a variety of visual media are considered: film, painting, posters, and set-design, demonstrating the totality of the Communist vision for how and what labour ought to be depicted.

All work and no play? Leisure in Chinese propaganda posters
Stefan R. Landsberger, Leiden University, Netherlands

Judging by the propaganda imagery produced in the People’s Republic of China since 1949, if the aim of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was to create a socialist Utopia, this future state offered hardly any room for leisure activities. Back-to-back mass movements, part of the disciplining involved in state building, sapped the strength of the people, leaving them too exhausted for almost anything but sleep. Only children could be shown at play, as long as their games were politically or didactically meaningful. Despite the assumptions above, as more and more propaganda posters have been unearthed over time, it becomes possible to tease out a distinct subgenre of materials devoted to leisure activities, even during the most climactic campaigns. Imagery ranges from after-work sports events, group excursions to places of revolutionary significance or grenade-throwing challenges to bouts of tug-of-war. As with so many other aspects of Chinese society, the changes resulting from the reform-and-opening policies and the emergence of a consumer society since the early 1980s have influenced the leisure imagery of declining number of propaganda posters in such a way as to suggest a Utopia of all play and no work.

Collective Brush-Work
Christine I. Ho, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA

Under the demands of the Great Leap Forward, the collective work (jiti chuangzuo 集体创作) became a widespread mode of cultural production in literary and visual arenas. The collective work was borne of functional and ideological considerations: produced by school and work units to meet quotas for speed and quantity, it simultaneously enacted socialist ideals of collective solidarity, equality, and harmony. This paper examines the particular problems presented by the formerly elite, individualist genre of brush-and-ink painting, focusing upon broadly disseminated, large-scale projects created through the painting academy system: Ming Tombs Reservoir, by the Beijing Painting Academy, Move Mountains, Fill the Sea, by the landscape department at the Shanghai Painting Academy, and People’s Commune Dining Hall, completed by the Jiangsu Provincial Painting Academy under the direction of Fu Baoshi. The size, profuse detail, and urgent circumstances of each painting required several artists for their completion. Assembled in service of declamatory narratives about national development and state construction, these paintings did not simply act as commemorations of political sovereignty, but more significantly bear witness to the complex processes wherein brush-and-ink painters coordinated, negotiated, and suppressed differences in personal brushwork and training in search of a collective realist style. Through the conscious attenuation of the roles of traditional specialization and hierarchy, the subsumption of singular trace in favor of a seamless integration of multiple artistic hands, the practice of collective painting proposed the re-assimilation of brush-and-ink painting into cultural work as a form of political labor, and the formulation of painter as producer.

Posters, history, and marketisation: revolution in Reform
Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, , Australia

This paper investigates the use of revolutionary poster art in set-design. The paper focuses on films made since 1978, but refers also to films made prior to Mao’s death and indeed prior to the Cultural Revolution period. It thereby questions how the immediate past has been interpolated into cinematic narratives of Reform, and thus how the spaces in which stories are situated are deemed to retain traces of discredited visual fields. Noting the degree to which the contemporary Party has invoked and policed visual and narrative hegemony in more recent years, specifically since the Beijing Olympics, the paper discussed how we might read, and re-read these older juxtapositions, thirty-five years after the death of Mao Zedong. The paper is theoretically interested in issues of disappearance and reappearance in the construction of private memory, and in the pursuit of iconographic coherence in the post-revolutionary Party-State.

The right to cinematic representation: Challenges to the gongnongbing doctrine and the development of Chinese cinephilia
Yomi Braester, University of Washington, USA

The Hundred Flowers policy gave rise to a challenge to the tenet, rooted in Mao’s Yan’an talks, that film should represent workers, peasants, and soldiers (the gongnongbing doctrine). Chen Huangmei, Zhong Dianfei, and other critics paid lip service to the doctrine only to claim that film policymakers had consistently misinterpreted it. The most famous of these challenges, Zhong’s “The Battle Drums of Cinema,” was singled out by Mao in one of the earliest reversals of the Hundred Flowers policy, leading to the anti-rightist campaign of 1957–58. Why did Chen, Zhong, and others single out the gongnongbing doctrine as an obstacle to revitalizing the Chinese film industry? Rather than focusing on state-level politics, in what would amount to adopting the viewpoint of the instigators of the anti-rightist campaign, I regard the debate as a struggle for reshaping film production and reception. The critics explicitly called for revising the system of film vetting and distribution. In so doing they were redefining cinema itself, taking as their model European cinephilia. The right to represent workers, peasants, and soldiers had been appropriated by the state apparatus; rethinking that right was the first step in creating a critical film community in the New China.