- Re-envisioning the Chinese Cityscape:Tabula Rasa and Palimpsest
In 1958, Mao Zedong famously compared China's 600 million people to a "blank sheet of paper free from any mark," on which "the most beautiful words can be written" and the "most beautiful pictures can be painted."1 In his view, China's vast landscapes and its people's mindscapes were a tabula rasa awaiting transformation through his utopian blueprints. Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shifted its center of gravity from rural to urban areas in the late 1940s, however, China's major cities have received the greatest makeovers, in both physical and visual terms. The two books under review in this essay present interdisciplinary inquiries into urban space and visual media in the People's Republic of China (PRC), with a shared focus on Beijing. In Mao's New World, Chang-tai Hung examines the forging of a brand new political culture and national identity in the 1950s, when the CCP remade the old capital as a tabula rasa to lay down its foundations. In [End Page 202] Painting the City Red, Yomi Braester inquires into the symbiotic relationship between cinema and cities from 1949 to 2008, when city planners, writers, and filmmakers continually remade Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei as urban palimpsests.
Mao's New World argues that the Communist experiment did not merely restructure China's political, economic, and social systems but also transformed China's physical spaces and cultural landscape. The book gives a panoramic view of various political and cultural projects that the CCP undertook to build up nationalism and to affirm its legitimacy in the 1950s. Such projects included the expansion of Tiananmen Square and the construction of monumental buildings (discussed in part I of the book, "Space"), the staging of dances and parades (part II, "Celebrations"), the exhibition of revolutionary history through museum artifacts and oil paintings (part III, "History"), the dissemination of visual propaganda like cartoons and "New Year prints" (part IV, "Visual Images"), and the creation of a martyr cult and the Monument to the People's Heroes (part V, "Commemorations"). Drawing on newly available archival documents as well as interviews and memoirs, Hung chronicles the processes by which these new spaces and symbols, images and rituals came into being. His account gives special attention to the decision-making processes of CCP leaders, architects, and artists, as well as Soviet advisers, taking us behind the scenes to consider blueprints, debates, and paths not taken at the planning stages. Indeed, official planners sought the counsel of Soviet city planners as well as Chinese experts regarding the locations, dimensions, shapes, and styles of public architecture (chapter 1, 2, 10). They also appointed cultural bureaucrats and recruited artists to monumentalize the Chinese Revolution in live performances, museum exhibitions, and pictorial images (chapter 3-8). In almost every case, the book shows that the new government's political ideology trumped all other concerns, be it architectural heritage or people's livelihood, historical accuracy or aesthetic diversity. This often resulted in impressive and monumental, yet monolithic and stultified, forms that never became truly popular or sustained appreciation from later critics.
What was to be the identity of a new China and its new capital? Even among Communist Party officials, there were contestations over the form and content of this new political culture, for the new regime had to negotiate a balance between tradition and modernity, foreign influence and Chinese [End Page 203] characteristics. China's "Big Brother" in the 1950s— the Soviet Union— served as an important model by sending advisers to China. Chinese leaders and cultural bureaucrats also visited the Soviet Union, while Chinese artists studied Western painting from imported Soviet magazines and art exhibitions. Yet even though the Soviet Union represented the China of the future, Hung emphasizes throughout the book that China never blindly followed this foreign model but rather strove to create a distinctly Chinese identity. This...