Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Shopfloor as Stage: Production Competition, Democracy, and the Unfulfilled Promise of Red Flag Song

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Shopfloor as Stage: Production Competition, Democracy, and the Unfulfilled Promise of Red Flag Song

Article excerpt

In November 1947, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) took over its first major industrial city, Shijiazhuang (???). Lu Mei (??), a recent graduate of the literature department of North China United University (Huabei lianhe daxue??????), joined a group of cadres to take over one of the key industrial establishments in the city, the Daxing Cotton Mill (Daxing shachang ????). From the shopfloor, Lu wrote a series of reportage, poems, short stories, and plays, including a four-act play, Red Flag Song (Hong qi ge ???), which he began to write in November 1948, a year after he arrived at the factory. A culmination of Lu's year-long observation and participation in the take-over process, this play built its drama on the divisions and conflicts among the workers as the new CCP management launched a "work competition" campaign (laodong jingsai????) to raise productivity. Giving centre stage to a "backward" worker who openly resisted the competition, this play exposed some of the campaign's most harmful impacts, especially its divisiveness among the workers, and explored critical questions facing the workplace at the time: what should New China's workplace look like? To what extent were the workers able to own and manage the factory? And how could workers from diverse backgrounds and with different interests come together to form a coherent working class that the CCP could rely on to run the country?

These questions were particularly salient to the CCP, in theory a proletarian party, but one that had been largely separated from its working class base for the previous two decades. In its early years, the CCP had worked closely with the urban working class, yet the defeat of the armed uprisings in 1927 forced the bulk of Party operations into rural areas. While underground party cells continued to operate on a small scale in the cities, it was the Party's experience in rural areas and with military campaigns that shaped its revolutionary culture and organisational expertise. In 1947, when the PLA took over the City of Shijiazhuang, the Party had not yet moved from a strategy of "villages surrounding the cities" to that of "cities leading the villages": this shift in focus was announced by Mao Zedong a few years later, in March 1949. Therefore, as the first industrial powerhouse under CCP control, Shijiazhuang was an important testing ground for the Party to work out how industries should be run and how cities should be governed.

Penned on Shijiazhuang's shopfloor, by a writer serving simultaneously as a critical observer and a dedicated implementer of CCP policies, Red Flag Songreflected the aspirations, contradictions, and compromises during this critical period of the Chinese revolution, both on the shopfloor and in the field of literary production. Even though as a cultural cadre, Lu Mei wrote the play under the Party's supervision and for the purpose of propagating Party policies, as a writer Lu's adherence to the critical realist tradition and immersion in the factory environment allowed him to observe and register workers' lived experiences and struggles first-hand. Taking the working class not as a given, abstract concept, but as a collective and subjective experience constantly made and re-made through conflicts, deliberations, and workers' self-management, the play put forth bold political inquiries in workers' own language and revealed serious problems on the ground, even when it followed a Party-sanctioned narrative with a positive ending. After its enthusiastic reception in Shijiazhuang just months before the founding of the PRC, Red Flag Song went on to be staged in more than 30 cities in the first few years of the PRC, conveying to China's urban residents how Communism might operate in their workplaces. At the time, Red Flag Song's fame was comparable to that of The White-Haired Girl (Bai mao nü???). Both were considered exemplary works of political theatre from the Liberated Areas, with the latter representing the sufferings and revolutionary zeal in the Party's rural bases, and the former depicting the Party's reengagement with China's proletariat in the industrial cities. …

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