- Visual Culture in Contemporary China: Paradigms and Shifts by Xiaobing Tang
In his fine and thought-provoking book, Visual Culture in Contemporary China: Paradigms and Shifts, Xiaobing Tang presents a short history of visual culture in China from the mid-twentieth century to the present, a period that corresponds to the entire history of the People's Republic of China. Examining an array of artwork in various media and genres, from woodblock prints (chapters 1 and 6) and oil paintings (chapters 2 and 4) to films (chapters 3 and 5), Tang strives to excavate a vital tradition of socialist visual culture in China of the past sixty years or so—a tradition that has been shaped by two major imperatives: "to create an inspirational visual environment in support of the social revolution" and "to invent fresh national forms by modernizing indigenous traditions and nativizing modern imports" (p. 11). In examining the socialist visual legacy and rethinking its essential role in creating a distinct Chinese culture and identity in the modern era, Tang's book challenges two prevalent narratives in Western perceptions of Chinese society and culture today. The first narrative demonizes China as an authoritarian other and is linked to what Tang calls the "dissidence hypothesis," which "presupposes any expression of criticism voiced in China to be an act of political dissidence against a repressive regime and thus worthy of sympathy and outside support" (p. 7). The second narrative emphasizes the processes of Westernization and capitalist modernization—even to the point of essentializing them—in post–Cultural Revolution and post-reform China. Both narratives, Tang argues, are too reductive and fail to acknowledge the complexity of a rapidly changing China, not least the importance of the nation's revolutionary past as an indispensable foundation for much of its society or culture today. [End Page 1305]
As is clear from the preceding, a major goal of Tang's book is to revisit, and restore the centrality of, China's socialist visual culture, whose formation in the 1950s is the focus of chapters 1 and 2 and whose continual transformations and reinventions are examined in subsequent chapters. In chapter 3, for instance, Tang discusses four different rural films made over a span of thirty years and explores how certain features associated with the genre had remained salient even as they acquired radically different meanings amid changing sociopolitical and economic circumstances. A good case in point involves the recurrent figure of a rural woman protagonist, whose evolution from an idealistic heroine working enthusiastically for the collective good during the 1960s to an increasingly self-conscious individual attracted to and ultimately disillusioned by money and desire in the 1990s, serves as a symbolic marker of the drastic social changes underlining China's transformation from high socialism to post-socialist consumerism. True, the socialist visions of life (collectivism and an empowering political identity) may have waned across the films, but they remain pertinent and offer what is ostensibly lacking in the focus on individual desires and fantasies in the more recent films, thus serving to complement the latter and disrupting an overly complacent view of the present.
This continuing relevance of socialist ways of seeing in an increasingly capitalist China becomes even more evident in chapter 4, which examines the experimental work of Wang Guangyi and investigates how it negotiates the multitude of historical experiences coexisting in late twentieth-century China by splicing together images of Chinese socialist subjects and icons of global consumer goods. Similarly, chapter 5 considers the amalgamation of blockbuster aesthetics, patriotic rhetoric, and references to socialist musical and visual culture in The Founding of a Republic (2009), a film made to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the People's Republic of China, while in chapter 6 Tang uses three printmakers as case studies and looks into how printmaking, once at the center of a socialist visual order, has endeavored to reinvent itself in the...