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  • Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film, and the Afterlives of Propaganda by Xiaomei Chen
  • Ying Du
Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film, and the Afterlives of Propaganda, by Xiaomei Chen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 384 pp. US $60.00. ISBN: 9780231166386.

The cultural process that contemporary China underwent and continues to undergo endlessly intersects with and is interwoven into state power, cultural agents, and reception. In recent years, scholarly publications in Chinese with respect to cultural transformations from the Republican era to the Maoist era have demonstrated a widely accepted view that Chinese socialist culture was not monolithic; moreover, Maoist cultural formation was not a simple story of the victimization of writers and artists and their works by state power. However, such a view does not mean that in the histories of cultural production and reception the force of these cultural elements inversely trumped state powers of the day. In historical retrospect, numerous modern literati, and artists already had engaged themselves with the modernization process of China by using literature, drama, film, and other media as weapons for consciousness raising, political interventions, mass mobilization, national revival, and other purposes. Meanwhile, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Kuomintang (KMT) authorities had always exploited cultural agents to advance their political agenda through cultural works and activities, including ideological indoctrination, policy promotion, political penetration, and so on. To identify influencing factors in the cultural process of the modern and contemporary China and to explore intriguing relations between them—including collaboration and confrontation, accommodation and appropriation—still calls for systematic study.

Xiaomei Chen's Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film, and the Afterlives of Propaganda ofers a multidimensional and detail-supported picture of cooperation and struggle in propaganda performance in contemporary China involving performance businesses, stardom, artists, political leaders, government authorities, and others. Chen's book opens a way to deep understanding of the evolution of the political-cultural context of these pieces and the dynamic mechanism of the cultural process in flux from the 1960s to the present. With a focus on propaganda performances created during the Maoist and post-Maoist eras, the book tracks the twisting process of representation of the revolutionary past and of three founding fathers—Chen Duxiu, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. Chen explores the cultural politics behind this representational process and the consistent or inconsistent political-cultural habitus and [End Page 172] national identities that are configured in this process throughout different historical periods. This book continues Xiaomei Chen's ongoing concern with the complex and intriguing relations between culture and politics in the PRC cultural field. This concern is also an important thread running through her previous books, including Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-Discourse in Post-Mao China (1995) and Acting the Right Part: Political Theater and Popular Drama in Contemporary China (2002). In her new book, Chen is trying to trace this thread back to the three founding fathers of modern Chinese theater Tian Han, Hong Shen, and Ouyang Yuqian, whose leftist literary and dramatic tradition during the Republican period paved a way for the construction of Maoist propaganda performance culture.

What is propaganda in the context of contemporary China and why propaganda has been significant to both the top—the rule of state government, and the down—everyday life of ordinary people in the PRC? Why does the propaganda culture of the PRC merit our systematic study? An ever-popular view regards Maoist literature and arts as nothing less than propaganda, in a sharp contrast to the flourishing and diverse Republican counterpart. Not to mention propaganda performance in the Maoist and post-Maoist eras. However, topics on propaganda culture that characterized the PRC culture, including its construction, dissemination, reception, institutionalization, and function, remain understudied.

On the first pages of Staging Chinese Revolution, Chen already provides a definition of propaganda that she uses in her studies as follows: "a complex, dialogic, and dialectical process in which multiple voices and opposing views collide, negotiate, and compromise in forming what looks like a mainstream ideology—and indeed functions as such—to legitimize the powerful state and its right to rule" p. 1). Chen sees the insinuation of propaganda in forms of commercial culture, popular culture, star culture...


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