- A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture by Barbara Mittler
Barbara Mittler’s A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture is a valuable and stimulating monograph on artistic and cultural theory, practice, and experience during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). This book revolves around two interrelated questions: How shall we characterize Cultural Revolution culture? And what shall we make of it? Investigating the multifaceted landscape of the lived experience during the Cultural Revolution, the author reveals for the reader a period of complexity, paradoxes, and contradictions, and the book is a useful source for both academic and general readers.
The author offers three core arguments: (1) Cultural Revolution culture comprised a diversity of both official and unofficial activities, and it itself experienced changes during its ten-year period. (2) Synchronicity played a crucial role in reaching out to an extremely wide public because the same messages were repetitively presented at every possible location and in every possible form. (3) Cultural Revolution culture was a pivotal moment in the pursuit of a new, Chinese, modern culture, from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. (All audiovisual resources under discussion in this book are collected in an online archive available at http://projects.zo.uniheidelberg.de/continuousrevolution.)
Employing aesthetic experience as the base of this study, Barbara Mittler organizes her book around senses. In “Introduction: Nose—Smells,” the [End Page 617] author presents the overall ideas on some fundamental characteristics of Chinese propaganda art and proposes three reasons for the extreme popularity of Cultural Revolution culture, thus offering the initial “odors” of the scholarship. In the three subsequent divisions, each of which consists of two chapters, the author focuses on the audio, literary, and visual experience, respectively: part 1 is about the musical aspect of the model works and revolutionary songs, part 2 focuses on Mao Zedong’s writings and the fate of Three Character Classic, and part 3 is dedicated to Mao portraits and Cultural Revolution comics. In “Conclusion: Hands—Touch,” the author finishes with an analysis of the far-reaching and lasting popularity of what the author calls “Cultural Revolution Culture” from the perspectives of style, localities, and connections to the pre–and post–Cultural Revolution.
Oral history is a significant dimension of this study. Not only acknowl-edged artists, writers, and scholars, but also forty anonymous interviewees with different family backgrounds provide their firsthand experiences with Cultural Revolution culture. At first reading, their narrations may appear overwhelmingly contradictory—people’s recollections of any given aspect of their cultural activities may differ from official statements and/or general assumptions regarding the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, people may relate widely divergent experiences, and one individual may even have different approaches to one issue at various points of a single interview. When the author juxtaposes these recollected personal experiences with discussions of artistic productions, however, a larger picture of the Cultural Revolution culture—one incorporating hatred and love, horror and pleasure, pain and joy, and destruction and construction—begins to emerge.
In the study of Cultural Revolution culture, artistic creativity and the connection between the Cultural Revolution and previous periods have already attracted academic attention (see Paul Clark’s The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History and Xiaomei Chen’s Acting the Right Part: Political Theater and Popular Drama in Contemporary China). In challenging the long-term oversimplification of Cultural Revolution culture as homogeneous and stagnant, Mittler’s book complements the literature in this field by presenting official model works in the context of audience reception and reenactments, and she juxtaposes the officially approved pieces with unofficial cultural experience. Moreover, in declining to isolate the Cultural Revolution as a discrete period in China’s cultural history, she examines not only theatrical and musical performance, but also literary and visual experience, and contextualizes Cultural Revolution culture within the larger picture of Chinese history from the late nineteenth century to the present. For the reader of Asian Theatre Journal, I will focus on part 1 in the...