Popular Propaganda? Art and Culture in Revolutionary China1

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A POPULAR JOKE from the 1940s runs like this: "Goebbels is sent back at the gate of heaven: he should go to hell. In order to L. incite him to go, Saint Peter allows him a gaze at hell through binoculars. What Goebbels sees is a beautiful, elegantly decked-out bar with expensive drinks and smashing girls. When he finally arrives in hell, however, he finds something completely different: a place of horror, suffering, and pain. Quite annoyed, he complains and asks whatever that was he had seen. The devil answers: 'Propaganda.'"2

What this joke shows very clearly is that, at least to German ears, propaganda is evil. It amounts to nothing but blatant lies and false pretense. Propaganda is manipulated and manipulative. Whenever propaganda has an effect, this is bound to be negative; an enthusiastic recipient of propaganda cannot but be deluded. A system creating propaganda is to be despised; everybody hopes for it to end. The times in which propaganda flourishes are considered unhappy times, times that everybody hopes will pass very quickly.

Considering all this, it is unsettling that the propaganda from one of the most tragic periods in Chinese history, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which is linked very closely to one important figure in Chinese history, Mao Zedong (1893-1976), is so very popular today. The radical politics of the Cultural Revolution brought suffering and death to many, especially intellectuals. But still, the propaganda products from this time continue to thrive. For the Chinese public, Maoist propaganda art has been rehatched and modernized for almost two decades now: this propaganda art appears in the form of jubilee editions and karaoke versions of the eighteen infamous model works, ballets, operas, and symphonic works canonized during the Cultural Revolution; it appears in rock and pop versions of revolutionary songs in praise of Mao; it can take the form of trendy T-shirts, watches, ping-pong racquets, mousepads, and even porcelain. Cultural Revolution propaganda objects decorate restaurants (not just in Beijing, but in London, too). Even Taiwan has begun to read the Little Red Book recently, and Sotheby's intermittently offers to sell a wide selection of Cultural Revolution relics, too, describing Maoist propaganda as "some of the most potent and fascinating propaganda art of the 20th century."3 But especially in China, Maoist propaganda from the Cultural Revolution sells extremely well, to different generations and different classes. Even the successful manager, so recent media reports tell us, may now be turning back to read Mao's writings for strategies of (capitalist) success.

How does one explain that a people will not reject the propaganda of a time that for many of them means painful memories, memories of torture and violence, of slander and treason, of psychological strain and terror that drove many of them to madness, even death? Even for research purposes, it is difficult to get hold of the propaganda films from Germany's Nazi regime, but the propagandist model works from the Cultural Revolution are not only not restricted, but have been selling extremely well in the last few years, published in ever-new formats and luxurious editions in VCD and DVD formats. There are television series and memorial publications narrating the stories of their actors, and even internationally renowned stage directors such as Zhang Yimou will venture revival performances of these propaganda pieces.

Why this is so is an extremely difficult question to answer. I came across it for the first time more than a dozen years ago, when, researching for my Ph.D. dissertation,4 I interviewed some fifty Chinese composers from various generations and backgrounds. Many of them told stories that were extremely different from the textbook versions of Chinese history known to me. The Cultural Revolution, the time of "grand propaganda," was described not as a time of censorship and restrictions - to the contrary. …