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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.2 (2003) 361-393

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Proletarian White and Working Bodies in Mao's China

Tina Mai Chen


Infused with the spirit of May Fourth critique of the enfeebled Chinese body politic of the past, a young Mao Zedong joined the chorus of intellectuals calling for renewed personal and national strength. In his 1917 essay “A Study of Physical Education,” Mao stated, “There is a saying: ‘Civilize the mind and make savage the body.' This is an apt saying. In order to civilize the mind, one must first make savage the body. If the body is made savage, then the civilized mind will follow.”1 He elaborated on these views on the interconnectedness of mind and body as he argued against the notion that persons with strong minds had weak bodies and those with robust bodies had deficient mental capacities. According to Mao, what was needed for perfection of body and mind was physical transformation that could elicit reconstitution of the mind. This dialectical relationship between body and mind advocated by Mao, albeit in pre-Marxian language, foreshadowed practices of body and education central [End Page 361] to the political culture of the People's Republic of China in the 1950s and 1960s.

Beyond body and mind, Mao peppered his commentary concerning why students of his generation disliked physical education with references to clothing. He wrote, “Our country has always stressed literary accomplishment. People blush to wear short clothes.”2 Mao explained students' reluctance to engage in physical activity in terms of sartorial and societal expectations. “Flowing garments, a slow gait, a grave, calm gaze—these constitute a fine deportment, respected by society. Why should one suddenly extend an arm or expose a leg, stretch and bend down?”3 He continued by advising May Fourth readers on the proper relationship between clothing, body, and exercise: “The best way is to exercise twice a day—on getting up and before going to bed—in the nude; the next best way is to wear light clothes. Too much clothing impedes movement.”4 Mao's comments configured clothing, mind, and body as a socially embedded complex central to one's identity and one's ability to contribute to the new society. Mao argued that change in consciousness could not occur unless accompanied by an understanding of the minimally clothed savage body as fundamental to vitality, civilization, and modernity. For Mao, the corporeal and cerebral occupied distinct yet mutually constituted spheres, with one offering strength and the other refinement in a continuous process of redefinition.

It seems but a small leap from these early comments by Mao to the images of socialist realist art dominant in 1950s and 1960s China. In poster art of the Maoist period, male and female bodies acquired biologically unrealistic proportions as specific body parts symbolized the strength of workers and peasants united. Forearms and hands commandeered canvases as they represented metonymically the power of “the people” in the new socialist state.5 The idealized figures of the People's Republic followed Mao's earlier advice: socialist citizens did not blush at wearing short clothes, nor did they respect a restrained gate. Their clothing encouraged and showcased bold movement.

These socialist citizens embodied peasant and proletarian resistance to domestic and international hegemonies in political, economic, social, cultural, and sartorial realms. Despite populist and egalitarian ideals, the iconography and cultural artifacts of Mao's China displayed in subtle manner a differentiated proletariat. A discourse of proletarian dress and body emerged [End Page 362] out of extensive media images and texts concerned outwardly with the work practices and political values exemplified by model workers. These materials publicized vestments and modes of dress deemed conducive to socialist China. In Mao's China, dress and body discourses constituted fundamental components of a political-aesthetic ideal in which proletarian subjectivity became aestheticized, and identificatory signifiers were internalized, desired, and displayed.6

As in all mass media systems, a complex relationship existed between images, internalization of messages, political practices, state policies, and appropriation of everyday culture. The purpose...


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