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  • Art and Politics in China 1949–1984
  • Teresa Chi-Ching Sun (bio)
Maria Galikowski . Art and Politics in China 1949–1984. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1998. 289 pp. Paperback HK $230.00, ISBN 962–201–469–9.

This book chooses the most devastating period in twentieth-century Chinese cultural history for a critical examination of the arts and its entanglement with politics in China from 1948 to 1984. The complexity of involving this key element of Chinese civilization with political ideology was managed with sophistication from one political movement to the next and intimately intertwined with the larger cultural and literary tradition. From 1949 to 1979, the intensity with which artists and other intellectuals were brought into line as an effective means of disseminating political propaganda by the Communist Party, and the extent to which Communist authority was able to reach almost every social class and geographical location, turned culture and the arts in China into a permanent political battleground. For Westerners interested in Chinese affairs, a book that provides an in-depth survey of this subject in English is of great value.

The author provides a brief historical background starting with the May Fourth Movement, and this is followed by a discussion of how Marxism, as it was interpreted by Russian cultural theorists and superficially grasped by left-wing Chinese intellectuals, shaped the cultural policy of the Chinese Communist regime as early as the 1920s. Adhering to this ideological interpretation, Mao Zedong, in his 1942 Yan'an Talks, defined and promoted his policy for the subsequent development of literature and the arts in China throughout the period of his rule. For the period after 1950, the author helps us to experience how this policy [End Page 439] was first promoted, then reinforced, and finally intensively applied in order to maintain control of each major conference and political movement. In the final chapter, on the "New Era" of Chinese art (1976–1984), the author shows us how a regeneration of the arts in China took place after the Bamboo Curtain was lifted.

The author's analysis begins with a discussion of ideology. Marxist theory, which made art subordinate to politics, was the framework for promoting proletarian art and literature in China. In order to graft this foreign system onto the thinking of Chinese scholars and artists, the Communist Party initiated discussions on the content and aesthetics of the folk arts, the traditional Chinese arts, and Western art. Since Soviet Socialist Realism insisted that art should truthfully reflect the life of the masses, with its social contents evaluated according to Communist ideals, "art for art's sake" was ruled out completely.

It was stipulated that all art be a manifestation of whatever was of political significance, such as the lifestyles and contributions of workers, peasants, and soldiers, and that these things be interpreted from a socialist standpoint. Even the use of color, the position of the subject figure, and the application of brush strokes in an oil painting had to reflect a socialist point of view. Mao's Revolutionary Romanticism and the art works produced in this style are mentioned, but, as the author states, the difference between this style and Socialist Realism is "mainly one of degree"; it involved "an over-emphasis on the romantic dimension" (p. 102) until it became an absurd and implausible exaggeration.

To demonstrate how this compulsory Socialist Realism operated in art circles, the author discusses major social movements, such as the Hundred Flowers and the Anti-Rightist campaigns, through which political control was consolidated. These movements were not limited to a discussion of the traditional "arts" of painting and sculpture, but were intended to encompass all aspects of cultural activity—and literature in particular. As the major political movements ran their courses, artists and writers were always grouped together under Mao's guiding principle of continuous criticism of the bourgeoisie and the revisionists. In most cases, major political campaigns were sparked by the criticism in academic circles or by news medias of a literary work or some other artistic creation or activity (including the performing arts). Political debates on a national scale usually followed. Eventually a movement would end with the...


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