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It would be difficult to understand the specific meaning of aesthetic quality in Mao if we confined ourselves to a narrow definition of literature and art. It seems that for Mao literature and art embrace much more than the texts and works of imaginary creation.

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Literature and art amount to an emotional and edifying power, which is one of their major values. Mao wrote, "We do not favor overstressing the importance of literature and art, but neither do we favor underestimating their importance.

Literature and art are subordinate to politics, but in their turn exert a great influence on politics" Selected Readings, p. Literature and art are a dynamic force, capable of acting on and influencing the direction of politics, a driving force of revolution -- hence, his conception of literature and art "in the broadest and most ordinary sense" Selected Readings, p.

By conceiving literature and art "in the broadest and most ordinary sense," Mao extended the category of the artistic to revolutionary movements and armed struggles and pushed the aesthetic into the arena of the political. Two important theses in the talk support this interpretation. The first is the thesis about the relationship between literature and life as implied by the notion of the typical dian xing. The second is the close analogy Mao draws between the artist and the revolutionary statesman. The first thesis is a familiar one and is frequently dismissed in an offhand manner. Revolutionary literature and art are the reflection of the life of the revolutionary masses in the writer's brain.

But artworks are not mere copies of revolutionary reality. Art is built on a higher plane, "more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal and therefore more universal than actual everyday life" Selected Readings, p. The artist confers a more intense and concentrated form on the raw materials of life. But this does not mean that an artwork is aesthetically superior to the "raw materials," which are crude and unrefined. As the source of inspiration for artwork, the materials of people's life are livelier and richer in content and have vivid patterns, making all "literature and art seem pallid by comparison" Selected Readings, p.

Mao regarded these materials in their raw state as being already aesthetically appealing. What the artist does is to form and fashion the materials, already beautiful on their own, into something more intense and compelling. Through his work, the artist should "awaken the masses, fire them with enthusiasm and impel them to unite and struggle to transform their environment" Selected Readings, p.

Notice the circular logic of this artistic creation: artworks bring to light what is already beautiful in the revolutionary masses, and by awakening the masses, the artist brings their full capacity and energies into play in revolution. The circular process also applies to the method of politics, summed up in a well-known phrase about political policymaking and mobilization: "From the masses to the masses. A political artist works in much the same way as an "imaginative" artist, who writes or paints professionally. Revolutionary politics, like art, is the medium through which "the needs of the class and the masses find expression in concentrated form" Selected Readings, p.

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Like the imaginative artist, the statesman-artist also engages in the work of forming and fashioning: he must "collect the opinions" of the masses, "sift and refine them and return them to the masses, who take them and put them into practice" Selected Readings, p. It is in this figure of the statesman-artist, or artist-statesman, that the fusion of art and politics is completed. The truth of art and politics, Mao maintained, is the same and derives from the same source. This statement implies: there can be a complete unity between the aesthetic quality of our political work and its truthfulness.

For Mao, revolution is a drama filled with exhilarating spectacles. To take the simplest case, aesthetic methods were employed to rewrite the history of modern China and to deify Mao. A mine in Jiangxi province, Anyuan was the cradle of the workers' movement; historically Liu Shaoqi, condemned as a traitor and capitalist roader during the Cultural Revolution, played a much greater role than Mao in mobilizing the workers. To alter this history and its unflattering portrait of Mao, several important organizations decided to sponsor a museum exhibit.

A large group of artists was dispatched to the mine. After talking with veteran miners about past revolutionary activities, the painter Liu Chunhua created a large painting 2. He became a celebrity overnight. The spread and popularity of the painting were unprecedented in Chinese history. Reproductions were carried by all the major newspapers and shown in public places and textbooks, and made into stamps and other artifacts.

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One could go on endlessly picking examples of this kind, but it may be more helpful to focus on two exemplary cases: the eight model plays and the new rites of the cult of Mao. What is peculiar about the eight model plays is not simply their deification of the revolutionary heroes, their formulaic artistic principles, and their overt political agendas.

These have been studied by critics and scholars. And to appreciate this, we have to look at the way these plays were made accessible and, more important, the effects they produced on the audience. Made into films, the eight plays reached the widest audience possible and were shown over and over again; in fact for many years they were the only entertainment available. If the sheer repetitiveness and lack of alternatives bored the audience, they nevertheless exacted a toll heavier than many a detached critic may realize.


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To say that these plays indoctrinate is to miss the point. They did not simply preach well-formulated doctrines and formally articulated ideologies; rather, they oriented the viewers' taste, penetrated into their feelings, and shaped their aesthetic judgments. The constant bombardment of images and music in them encouraged the defenseless and critically unsophisticated audience to believe that only the grandiose, the epic, the sublime, the heroic, and the monumental are legitimate standards of beauty and desirable modes of emotional expression. The plays were the "sentimental education" of a whole generation of young people, providing an atmospheric milieu for conditioning their aesthetic responses.

As the only aesthetic education one could possibly receive, the model play is not just another piece of art and literature for the viewer, who after the play can talk with critical savvy over a cup of tea with friends.

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For many people, especially for the young in their formative and impressionable years, the figures and images of the plays delivered a heartfelt experience, an experience as authentic as the taste of the madeleine for Marcel Proust as he described it in A la recherche du temps perdu. The endless stream of images and scenes of the model plays were deposited subliminally in the sense of "subliminal advertising" in the audience as unconscious imprints: they bypassed the audience's intellect and penetrated the deepest recesses of their unconscious mind.

This is why the restagings of the model plays in the 's and 's triggered enormous emotional responses -- recognition, enthusiasm, nostalgia, anxiety, fear, and disgust. Whatever the response, the sounds and sights of the model plays reappeared like a monstrous uncanny specter, both unfamiliar and secretly known all along, conjuring up that portion of the audience's forgotten but deep-seated collective experience. The audience of the model plays was not really an audience in the everyday sense.

Given the staging of the plays, the members of the audience were not consumers who could sit back and savor the artwork with serenely contemplative calm and interest. They were exhorted to participate in the plays -by studying them, assuming the roles of the characters, and staging performances in the streets, neighborhoods, and workplaces.

Numerous work-units formed "propaganda teams" - theatrical troops - for the sole purpose of staging the model plays. Even those who had no aptitude for acting were obliged to sing the songs and recite the lines. Through the constant reproductions of the plays and widespread immersion in them, the people no longer just performed the dramas and acted out the roles on the stage: they came to live these roles and act out the scenarios in daily life.


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They came to identify with the heroes, taking on the tone, pitch, and manner of their speech and assuming their bodily postures. They even gesticulated and moved in the same heroic and theatrical way. In her study of the model plays, Ellen Judd draws attention to the image of the dramatic pose, liangxiang. She asks us to imagine the chief character Yang Zirong in Taking the Tiger Mountain by Strategy Zhiqu weihushan "posed before a detachment of PLA soldiers and officers against the background of an unfurled red flag, or imagine Li Yuhe in The Red Lantern Hongdeng ji standing upright in bloodstained shirt, striking fear into the hearts of his torturers.

Literary works and personal records have described this phenomenon of theater turned life. I will cite a striking example taken from a short story entitled "Marriage of the Dead" "He fen" by Li Rui, a contemporary young writer. An incident in the story describes how a group of educated youth, former Red Guards from Beijing, try to protect the terraced field of a production brigade from the onslaught of a flood. They find themselves in a situation that calls for courage and heroism, and the Red Guards brave the flood in imitation of the heroes in one of the model plays:.

They had won a red flag, though the first mountain torrents of summer had washed away two of the fields. At the second flood, the young graduates had taken the red flag from the home of the Party secretary to the field, stuck it at the edge and pledged to fight the flood and save the field. Like a raging bull, the waters had engulfed the field dam in the blink of an eye. The young graduates had jumped in hand in hand, like they did in the films. This heroic gesture turns out to be a complete disaster.

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It backfires in the senseless death of a Red Guard, a well-liked young girl whose memory later in the story becomes material for a traumatic replay of the horrifying incident in the minds of the living. The ironic and grotesque light in which this incident is described by Li Rui can hardly overcome the more sinister sense that the individual can be subjected to manipulation by political pressures and yet maintain enthusiasm and passion for self-sacrifice.

We know that theater - theater going and theatrical production -as a collective activity developed out of traditional rituals. The phenomenon of theater turned life or the theatricalization of life is only an epitome of the large-scale ritualization of the political culture -- the Maoist cult and the revolutionary ritual.

The Cultural Revolution purportedly demolished traditional customs and habits, but paradoxically even as it busily destroyed the old things, the Revolution resurrected ancient rituals and rites or created modern versions of them. These modern rituals were practiced on a much larger scale and more thoroughly than any past political regime could have dreamed and managed.

For a few years, the whole life of mainland Chinese was inundated with a high tide of rituals and rites. Homes and workplaces were turned into altars of worship, with Mao's portraits hung in prominent places. The Little Red Book of Mao's quotations and the four "grand volumes" of Mao's selected works became holy scriptures, to be carried around, studied, recited, and discussed at endless study sessions.

The most ritualistic of all were the morning prayers and the evening report zao qingshi, wan huibao , with their rigid formulas, gestures, and words, performed in private or in groups with religious solemnity and seriousness.


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  4. People plunged into a whole whirl of artistic activities: the loyalty dance in which almost everybody participated and the exhibition halls where artifacts glorifying Mao were put on display for worshipers. These so-called Loyalty Halls sprung up all over the country. On top of all these activities and institutions was a new speech, a Maoist Newspeak, which is hard for anyone not involved in the movement to decipher. One may be tempted to see these rituals as a form of political control aimed at reaffirming and reinforcing the authoritarian order.

    But this interpretation is a bit too facile.