Academic journal article China Perspectives

Masters of the Nation: Representation of the Industrial Worker in Films of the Cultural Revolution Period (1966-1976)

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Masters of the Nation: Representation of the Industrial Worker in Films of the Cultural Revolution Period (1966-1976)

Article excerpt

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Introduction(1)

The three decades since the end of Cultural Revolution have seen a sea change in the fate of workers. No longer the "elder brother" (laodage ...) of the population or the "advanced force" (xianjinliliang ...) among the social classes, workers are increasingly seen as a marginalised group on the social periphery. Life-long employment for workers, referred to as the "iron rice bowl," and various social benefits that made workers' jobs enviable, are now blamed for causing sluggish productivity. A whole generation of workers, mostly in their 40s, was left behind as the price to pay for China's march towards a market economy.

For workers experiencing the throes of marginalisation, however, memories of their glorious past have not faded so easily. In her interview with industrial workers in China's northeast industrial area, sociologist Ching Kwan Lee found that workers could not talk about the present without invoking the past. In particular, workers voiced indignation by making moral references to socialist rhetoric such as "workers are the masters of the enterprise." (2) This shows that the decline in the material conditions of the working class has been coupled with changing representations of working class subjectivities. For a long time, workers and peasants in films and other media forms represented the most politically conscious and morally progressive class subjects, the "mainstream" of society, and the socialist state's political backbone. (3)

While workers' marginalised status in economic, political, and social terms has attracted scholarly attention, (4) the symbolic transformation has received little emphasis. For a long time, films made during the Cultural Revolution (hereafter CR) period were considered propaganda tools designed to cultivate a "mass mind." These assumptions, according to film researcher Wang Zhuoyi, result in three inadequacies in dealing with this collection of filmmaking: first, neglect; second, dismissal; and third, homogenisation. (5) Post-Mao scholarship on art and culture often treats CR films as crude propaganda unworthy of serious academic attention. Despite the fact that the first three decades produced about 800 feature films, a variety of genres, and an industry of more than a dozen studios and a massive audience, the period went "missing" from the academic radar.(6) Paul Pickowicz's historical overview of studies on Chinese cinema has identified the early state socialist era (1949 to 1976) as one of the three "most ignored periods" in Chinese film studies. (7) In fact, the public perception of the whole period is that "there was no culture."(8)Outside of China, Cold War geopolitics meant no critical engagement by Western academics,(9)while inside of China, Maoist cinema is often viewed as made with the didactic purpose of conveying po1. litical messages. The devastation of political persecution has led intellectuals and common people alike to view the period as one of political excess, and its cultural products as a feudal anomaly.(10)CR films were seen by critics(11) as created within the straightjacket of ?three prominences? (santuchu ?? ?), which requires the central heroic characters to satisfy a number of preferred qualities, summed up in the formula of ?loftiness, greatness, and perfection? (gao, da, quan?, ?, ?).(12) The limited works singled out for analysis(13)do not fairly represent the diversity of the genre.

Recently, films made during the Cultural Revolution have started to draw more nuanced analysis from academics. The first round of investigations came from literary scholars who engaged in close readings of the representative works to reveal the multiple meanings embedded in these films. (14) These discourse analyses, while useful, are highly selective and omit much of the cultural milieu.More recently, ahistorical approach has been adopted to complement the textual analysis. Scholars such as Paul Clark,(15)Tina Mai Chen,(16)and Wang Zhuoyi(17)have attempted to tease out the power struggles between various agents from 1948 to 1978. …

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