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  • The Making of a Subcultural Revolution
  • Xiaobing Tang (bio)
Paul Clark. The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 368 pp. $88 (cloth), $26 (paper).
Paul Clark. Youth Culture in China: From Red Guards to Netizens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 294 pp. $90 (cloth), $30 (paper), $24 (ebook).

To read the two most recent books by Paul Clark, renowned for his earlier contributions to the study of Chinese cinema, is to marvel both at his vast and enviable knowledge of the subject matter and at the vast and fast-changing landscape of modern and contemporary Chinese cultural experiences and expressions. It is to be constantly amazed by the dots that the cultural historian connects, by the different terrains that he leads us through, and by the expansive vistas that he brings into focus. Students interested in almost any aspect of modern and contemporary Chinese culture (from film to fiction to music to dance to bodybuilding) will appreciate the wealth of materials and references contained in these two volumes. Similarly, scholars of the Cultural Revolution and the developments since will have much to think about and to address, because what Clark presents here is a richer and more complex narrative of recent Chinese cultural history than has heretofore been packaged or popularized. It is a narrative that underscores the continuing evolution of modern Chinese culture in the twentieth century and beyond. [End Page 529]

It makes good sense to read Clark’s examination of “youth culture” from the 1960s into the twenty-first century as a sequel to his patient cultural history of the Cultural Revolution, which focuses on the decade from 1966 to 1976. The “assertion of youth identity” that he reconstructs in the first main chapter of the 2012 study, for instance, originated with the rebellious Red Guards, who became “sent-down youth” in the last years of the 1960s. “The developments in these years,” states Clark at the outset, “laid the groundwork for the emergence of youth popular culture in the 1980s and later” (Youth, 10). This groundwork took the form of new spaces being opened up for youthful expressions, either of political idealism or of personal sentiments. Such new spaces, or domains of possibilities, receive careful investigation from the historian in the final chapter of The Chinese Cultural Revolution, where the structural tension between “public and private fictions” undergirds the narration of the ineluctable ending of the Cultural Revolution. Alongside a robust underground movement among the young of writing, storytelling, and even translation—which proved to be “in the long term the most significant” literary activity of the early 1970s (History, 226)—Clark also notes that many key and innovative writers of the 1980s and beyond, such as Han Shaogong and Jia Pingwa, made their literary debut in official publications in the final years of the Cultural Revolution.

Yet these two studies are not conceived of or organized in the same way, as they tell of different subjects and have divergent plotlines. The history of the Cultural Revolution, as Clark narrates it, begins with the orchestrated efforts made by what he identifies, aptly and later in the book, as the “cultural insurgents” to modern Chinese opera in the first half of the 1960s. One plotline of this history therefore revolves around how these insurgents, headed by Jiang Qing with the backing of Mao himself, created model operas with tremendous resources at their disposal, sought to institute and perfect them, and mandated systematic transplantation of model opera aesthetics and creative methods onto other forms of cultural production. In the process, these “Cultural Revolution insurgents” or activists ascended rapidly as “power-holders” and authorities, eventually turning into desperate “defenders of Cultural Revolution faith.” It is, in other words, a sad tale of a radical avant-garde project betraying itself and growing tout court conservative and “decidedly rearguard” (History, 217–235). [End Page 530]

The protagonist of the subsequent tale about youth culture is, by comparison, both more amorphous and yet more constant. Different youth groups or identities, from the Red Guards of the 1960s to the “post-1980” generation, are profiled and treated in turn, but the main story is how successive “youth...


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pp. 529-539
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2020
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