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Exhibiting the Past

Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China

Kirk A. Denton

Publication Year: 2014

During the Mao era, China’s museums served an explicit and uniform propaganda function, underlining official Party history, eulogizing revolutionary heroes, and contributing to nation building and socialist construction. With the implementation of the post-Mao modernization program in the late 1970s and 1980s and the advent of globalization and market reforms in the 1990s, China underwent a radical social and economic transformation that has led to a vastly more heterogeneous culture and polity. Yet China is dominated by a single Leninist party that continues to rely heavily on its revolutionary heritage to generate political legitimacy. With its messages of collectivism, self-sacrifice, and class struggle, that heritage is increasingly at odds with Chinese society and with the state’s own neoliberal ideology of rapid-paced development, glorification of the market, and entrepreneurship. In this ambiguous political environment, museums and their curators must negotiate between revolutionary ideology and new kinds of historical narratives that reflect and highlight a neoliberal present.

In Exhibiting the Past, Kirk Denton analyzes types of museums and exhibitionary spaces, from revolutionary history museums, military museums, and memorials to martyrs to museums dedicated to literature, ethnic minorities, and local history. He discusses red tourism—a state sponsored program developed in 2003 as a new form of patriotic education designed to make revolutionary history come alive—and urban planning exhibition halls, which project utopian visions of China’s future that are rooted in new conceptions of the past. Denton’s method is narratological in the sense that he analyzes the stories museums tell about the past and the political and ideological implications of those stories. Focusing on “official” exhibitionary culture rather than alternative or counter memory, Denton reinserts the state back into the discussion of postsocialist culture because of its centrality to that culture and to show that state discourse in China is neither monolithic nor unchanging. The book considers the variety of ways state museums are responding to the dramatic social, technological, and cultural changes China has experienced over the past three decades.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-26

In March 2011, after more than four years of renovation to its building on the east side of Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China (Zhongguo guojia bowuguan) reopened with a new permanent exhibition of modern history titled Road to Revival (Fuxing zhi lu). As many Western journalists commented at the time, the exhibition presents a retrograde history of modern China from the Opium...

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Chapter 1: National Origins and Local Identity: Museums of Premodern History

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pp. 27-44

Forging a “tradition” of the pa st, as Eric Hobsbawm (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, 4–5) and others have pointed out, is a fundamentally modern enterprise that reflects at once a severing from the past and a longing to reconnect with it. Hobsbawm (4–5) writes that the “invention of tradition” will “occur more frequently when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which...

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Chapter 2: Exhibiting the Revolution: The Museum of the Chinese Revolution

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pp. 45-74

“Revolution” (geming) is, of course, one of the keywords of twentieth-century Chinese historical discourse. Beginning in the late Qing, geming became a standard term of the emerging lexicon of modernity (L. Liu 1995).1 Geming meant a radical political and social transformation that offered an exit from the trap of imperial history, with its endless cycle of dynastic rise and decline, and an entry into a new historical trajectory...

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Chapter 3: Commodification and Nostalgia: Revolutionary History in the Era of the Market Economy

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pp. 75-94

In the mid- to late 1990s, consensus emerged among museum workers that Chinese revolutionary history museums were in a general state of crisis. For some, this was highlighted when the Yuhuatai Martyrs Park, one of the country’s most sacred revolutionary sites, was used for a dog show, resulting in calls to “save the revolutionary memorial hall” (“Jiujiu” 1994). Drawing on surveys and the collective...

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Chapter 4: Martyrdom and Memory: Monuments, Memorials, and Museums for Dead Heroes

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pp. 95-115

Near the end of the Cultural Revolution Model Drama Red Detachment of Women (Hongse niangzijun), the male leader of the detachment, Hong Changqing, is captured by the evil landlord Nan Batian and burned at the base of a banyan tree. After the detachment succeeds in defeating Nan, its members solemnly gather around the tree, bow their heads in deep respect, and recall the memory of Hong’s heroic...

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Chapter 5: Martial Glory and the Power of the State: Military Museums

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pp. 116-132

Military museums and museums devoted to war are common around the world. One of the first, the Yushukan Museum at the Yasukuni Shrine, was established in 1882 and served to propagate the glories of military culture for the modernizing Meiji government (Yoshida 2007). The museum was expanded in 1932, when Japanese militarism was on the rise, to include a new National Defense Hall, which...

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Chapter 6: Heroic Resistance and Victims of Atrocity: Negotiating the Memory of Japanese Imperialism

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pp. 133-152

As discussed in the previous chapter, the War of Resistance against Japan has played a key role in the narrative of the communist revolution propagated in the People’s Republic of China. The war years have been portrayed as the pivotal period in the revolutionary movement that allowed the CCP to emerge from the shadows and become a legitimate claimant to political hegemony in China. And since Mao Zedong...

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Chapter 7: Heroic Models and Exemplary Leaders: Memorial Halls

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pp. 153-176

In 1986, Ha Jin, a writer who had recently emigrated from his native China to the United States, published a poem in the Paris Review called “The Dead Soldier’s Talk.”1 The first-person voice in the poem is that of the eponymous dead soldier, who drowned during the Cultural Revolution trying to save a Mao statue from falling into a river. Someone—perhaps his wife—visits him at his grave, and he voices his undying...

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Chapter 8: Literary Politics and Cultural Heritage: Modern Literature Museums

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pp. 177-198

About halfway through the 1964 Film Stage Sisters (Wutai jiemei; dir. Xie Jin), the main protagonist, Chunhua, strolls with a friend through an exhibition about the works of the writer Lu Xun. They stop at a woodblock print of Sister Xianglin, a character from Lu Xun’s famous short story “New Year’s Sacrifice” (Zhufu; 1924). Chunhua looks intently at the figure of Sister Xianglin, a beggar woman who has suffered greatly in her life because of a patriarchal social system that prevents her from...

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Chapter 9: Ethnic Minorities and the Construction of National Identity: Ethnographic Museums

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pp. 199-213

In this chapter, I look at representations in museums and theme parks of what in the PRC are called “ethnic minorities” (shaoshu minzu), a term that speaks volumes about how these ethnic groups are constructed discursively in relation to the Han majority. Historically oppressed, non-Han ethnic groups in China came to occupy important places in political and cultural discourse and to constitute a central...

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Chapter 10: Revolutionary Memory and National Landscape: Red Tourism

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pp. 214-242

In the documentary film New Socialist Climax (Hongse Zhi Lü; 2009), a female boxing promoter from Beijing is asked by an off-screen voice what brought her to visit the famous revolutionary site of Jinggangshan (JGS). Her initial response: “Mainly to pay tribute to the revolutionary martyrs and also to cultivate patriotism in my son.” She explains that she had “yearned” from a young age to visit JGS, especially...

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Chapter 11: Museums of the Future: Municipal Urban Planning Exhibition Halls

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pp. 243-264

Chinese socialist art and monuments frequently point to a utopian future. Indeed, utopianism, as Maurice Meisner (1982) has argued, is at the heart of the Maoist ideology and is one of the elements that set Chinese Marxism off from its Western counterpart. As Jiwei Ci (1994, 4) puts it, Maoism’s promise of a utopian “future happiness” marked a “new dynamic to temporal experience” that was “unprecedented in Chinese history.” “In return for that future happiness,” he writes, the Chinese were prepared...

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pp. 265-268

On November 29, 2012, less than two weeks after becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping toured the Road to Revival exhibit at the National Museum of China, after which he gave what has been dubbed his “China Dream” (Zhongguo meng) speech. In the speech, Xi emphasized the need, in realizing the China Dream, to look back to the past, examine the present, and gaze...


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pp. 269-298


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pp. 299-308


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pp. 309-336


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pp. 337-350

About the Author, Production Notes, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780824840068
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824836870

Publication Year: 2014