Tuesday, 22 May 2012


'Sightings': the term used by Prof. Jonathan D. Spence to describe formative encounters of China by Westerners.

Here is a real gem. At the start of the 1970s, China was tentatively opening itself up to the rest of the world (with the exception of the Soviet Union). Mao and his inner circle recognised that they needed to try and carefully manage the process of opening in order the shore-up the legitimacy of the Communist Party.

Alongside openness would be an effort to control which of its many faces China presented to the world - and in 1972, the Party invited the Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni to visit China and assist with the construction of cultural "soft" power in a new phase of triangular diplomacy.


Antonioni was a distinguished art house director, famous for works such as L'avventura (1960) and Blowup (1966), and as a leading light in the development of neo-realist film-making earlier in his career. But in a China still reeling from the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution - in which being "red" was more important than being an "expert" for a person's career prospects - it was Antonioni's left-leaning politics that made him the candidate of choice.

Here is Antonioni:

Maoism had been an influential force amongst the radical left in the student movements in the late 1960s, across Western Europe and North America. This was especially so at the time of the Cultural Revolution, which seemed to be in sync with the same frustrations of the younger generation - and the subsequent 'counter-culture' movements - against the bureaucratic restrictions of the elders of the First World.

In his book, 'The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s', Richard Wolin gives a fascinating account of how the various Maoist sects and factions across Europe wielded a degree of power and influence in public life that vastly outweighed their actual numbers.

Initially, the Maoists in Western Europe were dogmatic 'true-believers' who saw in Communist China what they wanted to see. As Wolin puts it:

"Cultural Revolutionary China became a projection screen, a Rorschach test, for their innermost radical political hopes and fantasies...China became the embodiment of a "radiant utopian future." By "becoming Chinese"...they would rid themselves of their guilt both as the progeny of colonialists and, more generally, as bourgeois."

These 'Maoists' tended to be de facto disillusioned Stalinists who found abandoning their belief in "actually existing socialism" too painful to bear. Wolin describes this mindset: "the "successes" of Chinese communism - or its imagined successes - would magically compensate for the abysmal failures of the Communist experience elsewhere."

But this all changed when the Maoists found themselves utterly sidelined in the dramatic revolts of May 1968. They found themselves forced by the libertarian spirit and 'new issues' agenda of the moment to broaden their appeal, or sink into irrelevance. As usual, they split into two such camps, with one group continuing to centre their political platform around venerating whatever Mao was doing at that moment, and the other group embracing the more open-minded, grassroots spirit of the times.

"The idea of 'cultural revolution' was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habits, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability."
Here are Black Panther supporters brandishing Mao's 'Little Red Book' in Oakland, 1969:

It is hard to miss the irony of using the rhetoric of the Red Guard movement to promote this new 'post-power' politics, when the Cultural Revolution inaugurated by Mao was precisely concerned with restoring his power inside the Party machine - the "rebellion" against established authority that he encouraged amongst the young was a means to the end of strengthening, not transcending, the power of the Party.

Here is a clip from a documentary about the period, which gives some idea of what it was really about:

The key moment for these neo-Maoists in the West came in the aftermath of 1968. Wolin presents a crucial argument that one of the legacies of the upheavals of 1968 was that it instilled a deep sense of humility in Western European public intellectuals, particularly in France and Italy. This was in part because some intellectuals had failed to predict the momentous events using their elaborate theories (Lucien Goldmann aptly observed that "structures don't go out into the streets to make a revolution"), but also because the bottom-up, anti-paternalistic ethic was so integral to the movements themselves.

And writers, artists and intellectuals had a new sense of themselves as being somehow "above" the masses, telling them what they ought to read, look at, and think - which was something they had a duty to resist.

The Maoist sects played an important role in this, largely because they were merely in the right place at the right time, armed with the right (and suitably ambiguous) slogans. The police in Paris chose to target the Maoist groups, and their publishing outlets, to send a signal to other radicals, because they were small enough to be manageable. But heavy-handed intervention only made a public martyr of them and rallied intellectuals to their cause, most notably Sartre and Foucault. Wolin describes how all these processes interacted to undermine an older model of the engaged French public intellectual as a member of an elite 'vanguard' class:

"They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalised the virtues of democratic humility...insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truths."



Maoism in the West had helped to destroy the belief that an artist has a right to decide what an audience should be exposed to, and what meanings they ought to take away. Maoism in China had instituted extremely restrictive censorship across all arts and entertainment. Here were two superficially similar political discourses with a great deal getting lost in translation.

Ever since Edgar Snow wrote Red Star Over China Western leftists had visited the People's Republic and painted it in a positive light. The Party had the same expectation of Antonioni, who had a reputation for using his films to criticise the exploitation he saw in his own society. Like many of his generation, he was haunted by the living memory of fascism under Mussolini. Like the radical left in post-war West Germany, he felt burdened by a sense of duty to guard against the ever-present danger that fascism might resurface in a disguised form.

His earliest feature films addressed the social alienation that afflicted the working- and middle-classes alike under capitalism. The alienating effects of modernity was a theme that ran through his career - at their best, his films force his audience to honestly confront the restlessness and anomie of modern life, and to abandon the self-deception of thinking that there exists a 'strong man' ruler who could restore a long-lost semblance of permanence, order and meaning.

In 1997 the BBC dedicated an edition of Arena to Antonioni. Here is the start - it is worth watching in its entirety to get a feel for the man less as an individual and more as a representative of a restless post-war generation. (Further down the page I have included the section that deals directly with Chung Kuo.)

During the programme, he describes how his philosophy of being an artist changed over time. His comments from the 1960s foreshadow the difficulty the Chinese government would have in trying to use him as their mouthpiece several years later. He describes losing confidence in his judgment about which features of the world around him are worth observing, which aspects of daily life carry some greater significance.

It is not something that ought to be overly rational - you should freely range the camera over anything and everything that might be of interest.


In 1972 Antonioni was invited to China to record a documentary of everyday life. His visit lasted five weeks, and the result was Chung Kuo China, a three-part film that was subsequently shown on Italian TV. The first part was filmed in Beijing, the second in rural Linxian and the southern cities of Suzhou and Nanjing, and the final part focuses on Shanghai. Below are some screen-shots from the film.

Here is Part 1 of the first episode (the entire film can be found on there):

It is a strangely hypnotic film, meditative and never intimate yet offering a glimpse of a China that has since disappeared. Everyone is wearing drab 'Mao suits', there are no tourists, and the old parts of cities like Beijing are untouched by high-rise urbanisation - in the third episode there is a shot of the Pudong area of Shanghai consisting of a shipyard, an oil refinery and expansive fields.

This is what the Pudong financial district looks like today:

From the outset, Antonioni as the narrator declares that he is "not pretending to understand China", but is merely providing an objective portrait - though the narration is not always consistent in its value-neutrality. He is frank about the restrictions placed on him by his political supervisors during filming, such as when he describes being instructed not to film the entrance to Mao's residence - but films it anyway.

Other politically-sensitive sections were filmed in secret using hidden cameras, including what he describes as "free markets", which were officially prohibited. Even more galling for the authorities, he speculates that it is these "gaps" in the collectivist economy that are responsible for diminishing "the tragedy of Asian malnutrition." There is an interesting parallel between the Party's boasts that it has opened up previously hidden areas of the Forbidden Palace to commoners, whilst it has erected new barriers of secrecy around the most routine features of daily life.

I think a very interesting section of the film is the recording of a discussion amongst factory workers in the first episode. Antonioni tells us the workers have met after work to discuss a new art exhibition, under the supervision of a Party cadre. But, he says, "there are no real debates" in the group - each takes their turn to recite monotonous slogans. One worker proclaims their need to spin enough cotton for the coming World Revolution. When the sole purpose of art is to glorify the workers, that becomes the sole criterion for evaluating art, and even the discussion of art becomes a dull and dry task - which in turn makes the real-life workers seem ever-more distant from these heroic figures...it is a kind of vicious cycle. The clip comes early on in the segment below.

The generally balanced and open-minded tone of the film was anathema to the Party authorities who insisted that the primary purpose of the arts was to promote the Party line. In the seminal 'Yenan Talks', Mao expressed this bluntly:

"Writers and artists who cling to their individualist petty-bourgeois standpoint cannot truly serve the revolutionary mass of workers, peasants and soldiers."
This policy towards the arts was known as the "Two Servings" - serving the people and serving socialism.
Another slogan was "from the masses, to the masses." This slogan is perhaps the most useful in understanding how Antonioni and the Chinese government came to misunderstand eachother so completely. At the doctrinal level, Maoist theory rejected what might be called 'naive realism' - the notion that unmediated, universal "truth" exists in a directly-accessible form out there in the world - in the same way that the Italian neo-realists rejected it as a basis for making films.

But the crucial difference was that Mao believed that a 'vanguard' party could restore order and meaning in the world if it kept in touch with the masses, listened to their views, and then used the tools of philosophy and Marxism-Leninism to fashion a kind of rational, unified whole out of the assembled fragments of opinions and interpretations. The job of the Party was then to transmit this coherent construct back to the masses, and if necessary to impose it by force - the masses would recognise their thoughts and feelings as expressed in the Party policy, in a higher, more refined form.

It was not a cultural policy that allowed for ambiguity - a piece of work was either pro-China or anti-China. Chung Kuo China was condemned as the latter in a series of critiques in the Peking Review.

The most prominent criticism was that the film did not give sufficient coverage of the achievements of 'New China'. In an extreme instance, the soldiers guarding Tienanmen Square are reported as complaining that Antonioni distorted the sunlight over Beijing:
"When one looks up at Tienanmen Gate, one sees a portrait of Chairman Mao radiant with a kind and warm expression and the state emblem of the People’s Republic of China shining bright. But in Antonioni’s film neither the panorama of the Square nor the magnificence of Tienanmen Gate is seen. The film was taken on a bright sunny day in May. Nevertheless, the Square is shown in dim and dreary colours. The grand Square is presented in a disorderly fashion as if it were a market place of noisy confusion. Is this a result of Antonioni’s neglect or unique interest? Of course not. It is the result of a despicable technique with vicious intention."
Yet in the same newspaper, the film is also attacked by an official from Linxian for supposedly depicting the Chinese as glorying in their exceptionalism and self-importance (a sensitive topic at a time when Mao was trying to present China as a more co-operative player in the international system):

"This out-and-out anti-China imperialist agent Antonioni says that "for the Chinese, this great silent space is the centre of the world" and "China is the country at the centre." This is a vicious slander, intended to drive a wedge between the Chinese and other peoples. The Chinese people have all along adhered to Chairman Mao’s teachings that we Chinese people should "get rid of great-power chauvinism resolutely, thoroughly, wholly and completely". We never regard China as "the centre of the world." In imposing this allegation on the Chinese people, Antonioni’s criminal purpose is to create doubt and distrust between the Chinese and other peoples and undermine their solidarity and friendship."

Mao hated the film and it was not screened inside China until 2004.

But from another point of view, Antonioni achieved a more immediate victory - as the producer in the Arena programme says, Chung Kuo showcases the deep similarities between Antonioni's style and traditional bedrock themes in Chinese art - panoramic landscapes, the emptiness of the void, non-linear storytelling. The first wave of filmmakers to emerge after Mao died in 1976 - the so-called "Fourth Generation" - sparked a short-lived renaissance in Chinese cinema by fusing the arthouse stylings of Italian neo-realism with the more populist themes of conventional Chinese movies. And nothing quite like that brief burst of creativity has been seen since (but that is a subject for a future post).


Sighting No. 2 is in the works. Here is a clue as to who the subject will be - like China, this visitor is also famous for a teapot, but one rather far-removed...

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