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Fantasy and Ideology in a Chinese Film: A Ziz;ekian Reading of the Cultural Revolution
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positions: east asia cultures critique 12.2 (2004) 539-564

A Žižekian Reading of the Cultural Revolution

Tonglin Lu

The history of the Cultural Revolution, a traumatic event in the collective life of the Chinese people, has been articulated in various ways in and outside of China. Indeed, as a political movement, it has become the Real par excellence, because while the Cultural Revolution has generated many versions of history, none has exhausted its different layers of meanings. China's official account, that this movement was a manifestation of the people's struggle against the Gang of Four under the leadership of the authentic core of the Communist Party, does not hold water. How can one attribute a decade-long mass movement to four isolated troublemakers? Once the Cultural Revolution had ended, most literary and artistic accounts emphasized the victimization of good people by a few villains. Yet how could so many good people suffer so much under the oppression of such a disproportionately small number of villains? One obvious answer, appealing to many, has been that Mao's Communist Party victimized the victims.

Partly because this answer has simplified a complex political movement into a conventional division between good and evil, it held a universal appeal, and fictional and autobiographical works in translation or by mainland Chinese writers in diaspora have reinforced this perception. Despite their popularity, few scholarly works in English have tried to analyze popular literary accounts of this movement, though Wang Shaoguang's urban case study Failure of Charisma: The Cultural Revolution in Wuhan provides social scientific analysis and Roderick MacFarquhar's The Origins of the Cultural Revolution provides an historical overview.

Records of the Cultural Revolution, like records of traumatic political events of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, tend to elude the crucial aspect of individual participants' agency. Villainous groups and individuals tend to appear in historical and fictional accounts as either symbolic or abstract. A healthy number of recent artistic works in China have begun to expose contradictions such as these rather than repressing them. Partly because the several decades since this movement have emotionally distanced writers and artists from the collective trauma, some of them have been able to look at this past less defensively and less judgmentally. These highly personal works, then, may help us look into one neglected aspect of the historical records: individual responsibility for a collective frenzy. My objective here is to address the question about the persistence of collective frenzy in various places and periods, using as a test case a Chinese film on the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Wen's In the Heat of the Sun (Yangguang cailan de rizi).

Besides some studies of "Model Operas," there has been little literary critique that addresses the mechanism of the Cultural Revolution from an aesthetic point of view. Wang Ban is one of the few literary critics working in the United States to provide this sort of analysis. In The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China, Wang raises the question about mass participation, asking evocatively, "What goes on in the individual's head?" He deplores individuals' submission of their critical judgment to a "collective unconscious." Wang adapts Adorno's reading of Freud's "group psychology," according to which the superego directly appeals to the id by bypassing the ego in a collective action in support of a dominant ideology, such as fascism. Wang proposes that like children's narcissistic attachment to their parents, the unconditional love of Chinese people for the Great Leader Mao motivated them to participate in a collective frenzy. While Wang talks about theatricality and rituals, he does not question the sincerity of this love, and in this sense, I believe Wang has overlooked a crucial insight of Adorno's theory. Adorno thinks that Germans never worshiped their Nazi leader sincerely and did not treat Fascist ideology seriously. On the contrary, it is Adorno's thesis that they only acted as if they were believers. In other words, they kept an inner distance from the dominant ideology while outwardly performing its rituals.

Slavoj Žižek has also found Adorno's insight compelling. However, he acknowledges its limitations:

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