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  • A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture by Barbara Mittler
  • Bonnie S. McDougall (bio)
Barbara Mittler. A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture. Harvard East Asian Monographs 343. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012. xvi, 486 pp. Hardcover $59.95, isbn 978-0-674-06581-9.

The first thing a reader might notice about this splendid book is its unusual structure, where the word “sense” in the subtitle provides the cue for divisions in the main text: introduction (Nose/“Smells”), part 1 (ears/“Sounds”), part 2 (mouth/“Words”), part 3 (eyes/“Images”), and the conclusion (hands/“Touch”). These chapters are supported by a preface; copious illustrations (supplemented by an online version); prologues and codas for each part; three appendixes; a twenty-nine-page, two-column list of works cited; and two indexes. Altogether, the reader is promised an intriguing new look at a subject that already has a massive bibliography in several languages. [End Page 136]

One of the most innovative and valuable aspects of the book is its reference to interviews conducted, for the most part, in 2004, in Chinese, with forty people whose birth years range from 1913 to the 1970s (details on gender, family background, and experience in factories or in the countryside, along with the interview questions, are provided in the appendixes). Inevitably, most of the interviewees are well-educated professionals now connected with universities and the arts, although many of them spent part of their lives in factories or in the countryside. Despite an initial appearance of uniformity, however, their comments on aspects of the Cultural Revolution (CR) are remarkably diverse, thus substantiating one of the author’s main themes: the myriad inconsistencies and discrepancies in people’s actual experiences during the CR and also their memories of it, after several decades of dramatic change. Mittler “argues for a more comprehensive view of the Cultural Revolution that acknowledged both its horrors and its pleasure, both its dictatorial and democratic natures” (p. 5).

Many other recent works on the CR attempt a similar balance, but this work is probably more successful than most by virtue of its length and the variety of its sources. Although her sample of informants is small, Mittler is one of the very few researchers to provide identifiable evidence to support her propositions on the reception of literary and artistic works in China in the twentieth century. For this reason alone, her book is a major addition to investigations into the culture and social history of the CR and the decades preceding and following it.

Mittler is best known for her research in music, and part 1, on music and musical theater, is the most rewarding section of the book. Even nonspecialists (such as I) will find it worth persevering with, since its detailed musical analysis goes a long way to establishing her argument that the model operas, rather than constitute a radical departure from traditional Chinese theater, simply modified Beijing Opera, changing and even improving it (p. 90). Thus, Mittler places the beginnings of modern Chinese music as early as the middle of the nineteenth century with the rise of New Chinese Music and helpfully explores its post-CR incarnations; its geographic range is also extended from the mainland to Hong Kong and Taiwan. The multiplicity of interpretations of and responses to CR music and musical theater is usefully underlined in the coda to part 1 (p. 127).

The choice of texts for intensive analysis in part 2 (“Words”) is unexpected (and to me, somewhat disappointing). The prologue begins with observations about inaccurate but still current statements by foreign and Chinese commentators on limited cultural fare during the CR. However, since the 1980s, such claims have been shown repeatedly to be false: new fiction and poetry flourished in the early 1970s (although, for the most part, in content and style they were little more than variations on the same themes), while older and foreign works (the foreign works being in Chinese translation) were acquired, read, and circulated surreptitiously. Instead of proceeding to studies of literary works published before, during, or after the CR, however, the first case study is on the Sanzijing [Three character...


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