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Reviewed by:
  • Travels in China by Roland Barthes
  • H. Swindall (bio)
Roland Barthes. Travels in China. Translated by Andrew Brown. Edited by Anne Herschberg Pierrot. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2012. xi, 219 pp. Hardcover $19.95, isbn 978-0-7456-5080-7.

This journal normally reviews works of formal scholarship on China, and rightly so. However, a take on China at a critical point in its modern history by a major man of letters is also worthy of attention here, especially for a specialist interested in a Western eyewitness account of the final stage of the Cultural Revolution, or anyone wanting to know about the propaganda workings of a dictatorship striving to maintain its power. The notebooks of the famed French semiotician Roland Barthes of his tour of China in the spring of 1974 with his colleagues from Tel Quel, the leftist avant-garde literary magazine that was then going through a Maoist phase, provide a witty account that will interest readers wanting to understand the place and time from a phenomenological perspective. Ultimately, Barthes’s notebooks are a narrative of an encounter between the West and China at a time when both were going through extreme sociopolitical turmoil. They provide much reflection on the ideological conflicts of the late twentieth century.

According to the volume’s foreword, the trip was initiated by one Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, a writer on China evidently on some kind of terms with the Chinese embassy in Paris (China and France had maintained diplomatic relations since 1964, when de Gaulle had recognized the People’s Republic of China). All members of the Tel Quel group (including its founder, the writer Philippe Sollers; his wife, the feminist and literary theorist Julia Kristeva; and the intellectuals Marcelin Pleynet and Francois Wahl) paid out of pocket for the three-week tour, which was organized and guided by the Luxingshe Travel Agency and followed a preplanned itinerary, which kept them from contact with any Chinese not preapproved (p. vii). The fact that what they were seeing was a prolonged Potempkin village was not lost on Barthes, who felt stifled by the control over the tour exercised by the Chinese and the lack of any spontaneous occurrence (pp. 14, 75, 94, 103). The group arrived in Beijing and then went to Shanghai, Nanjing, Luoyang, and Xi’an. The leg of the journey to Yan’an was cancelled because of bad weather, and so the members returned to Beijing for a few days before departing for Paris.

The three notebooks Barthes filled with observations about the factories, schools, hospitals, communes, and museums through which the Tel Quel group was ushered were intended to provide the material for a book, but it was never written. As they stand, they consist of terse descriptions and impressions of places and people, along with Barthes’s bracketed asides on aspects of gender, sexuality, uniformity, and the ideological signifiers he observed around him—all well outside of what Luxingshe wanted him to think. Throughout the trip, he complains continually of insomnia and migraines, as well as the usually cold and cloudy [End Page 419] weather. At the same time, the overall tone of these notes is strangely lighthearted, almost tongue-in-cheek, considering the severity of China’s situation in 1974, when the Cultural Revolution was in the throes of its Pi-Lin Pi-Kong, or “criticize Lin and Confucius,” phase.

The central focus of the notes is the official ideological lines, or “bricks,” as Barthes calls them, to which the Tel Quel group was subjected at every stage of its journey, with most bricks condemning Lin Biao and Confucius, as well as Liu Shaoqi, who stood accused of wanting to restore capitalism. On his first day in Beijing at the Xinhua printing works, Barthes sees the slogan “fight victoriously against the influences of the Liu Shaoqi clique.” This is the first of many bricks to which he is exposed, and he resolves to record them “and show their combinatorial rules” (p. 15). He immediately realizes that Lin Biao is “a scapegoat who can be made to fit every occasion” (p. 16), and this is borne out at each of the places he visits, with Lin...