Crossing the 1949 Divide: Rethinking Cultural Continuities in 1950s’ China

Title: 1310 | Crossing the 1949 Divide: Rethinking Cultural Continuities in 1950s’ China
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Literature
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Anne Rebull, University of Michigan, United States (chair, discussant)
Keyue Wang, Beijing Dance Academy, China (presenter)
Hui Yao, Ohio State University, United States (presenter)
Yucong Hao, University of Michigan, United States (organizer, presenter)
Chuanhui Meng, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, United States (presenter)
Xuenan Cao, Duke University, United States (presenter)


Our panel series rethink the 1950s’ Chinese cultural production by situating the decade within the dual context of the continued exploration of cultural modernities in twentieth-century China and border-crossing movements of world literature and transnational cinema. In doing so, we join the recent reexamination of Chinese culture across the 1949 divide and recognize how the transitional period appropriated earlier developments while foregrounding future experiments. With interdisciplinary inquiries of film studies, media archaeology, book history, and intermedial theatre, the panel reveals the extraordinary creative energies at the turn of 1949.
Wang Keyue’s paper examines the invention of the labor of aesthetics in the early years of the People’s Republic of China, when workers were encouraged to integrate industrial labor with artistic creation. Hui Yao investigates the use of music in Fei Mu’s Six Chapters of a Floating Life, the intermedial experiment of which contributed to the introduction of musical accompaniment in spoken drama in subsequent decades. Yucong Hao compares the sounding schemes and sound technologies in early PRC documentaries, and identifies the stylistic transition from Yan'an documentalism to Soviet-inflected socialist realism. Studying Rhapsody of the Ming Tomb Reservoir (1958), Chuanhui Meng considers how Revolutionary Realism and Revolutionary Romanticism were founded upon and yet simultaneously rewritten the theoretical traditions of Soviet socialist realism of the 1930s and Mao’s Yan’an Talk in 1942. Xuenan Cao’s discovery of the lost documents in the 1950s navigates her way into these irretrievable artifacts and their residual, sensuous past.

Panel Abstracts:
People’s Art and the Aesthetics of Labor: Factory Drama Movement in 1950s’ China
As an artistic style introduced from the West to China in the early twentieth century, spoken drama (huaju) has been indispensable to the enterprise of cultural enlightenment, mass education, and the building of a modern nation-state. Since then the art form has undergone multiple processes of adaptation, localization, and nationalization. Compared to drama practices in the 1940s, such as new drama or yangge opera in the Liberated Area, which remolded folk traditions and local forms by intellectuals and local artists, this paper focuses on an amateur variant of spoken drama, Guiding Factory Drama Movement (gongchang xiju fudao yundong) that was initiated after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Responding to the directive of consolidating the legitimacy and presenting a picture of New China on stage, this movement strived to train workers for drama production and performance, create new narratives and discourses about peasants, workers, and soldiers, and experiment with new representational modes. Among the many theatrical works, Unloading (zhuangxie), an award-winning one-act play produced in Dalian, Liaoning Province in February 1950, provides an emblematic example to investigate cultural production of this transitional period, from which we can re-scrutinize how some major binary oppositions throughout the socialist period, such as intellectuals/workers, reality/aestheticization, realism/naturalism, were played out and negotiated. The production and representation of the play demonstrate the laborious efforts to summon up the subjectivity of the workers and construct the aesthetics of labor, which ultimately would contribute to the emergence of socialist “new and well-rounded person.”

Six Chapters of a Floating Life: The Rise of Musical Accompaniment in Spoken Drama
Shanghai in the 1940s witnessed an increasing interest in incorporating choruses, orchestras, and various sound effects in the performance of spoken drama. Before that, as criticized in a 1948 book, “spoken drama was just about speaking.” This paper focuses on a 1943 spoken drama Six Chapters of a Floating Life (Fusheng liuji) and argues that the successful use of music in the play acts as the catalyst for a rise in musical accompaniment in spoken drama. Floating Life is adapted from the eponymous autobiographical prose account written by a Qing dynasty literatus Shen Fu (1763-1832) around 1808. Directed by Fei Mu (1906-1951), an acclaimed filmmaker who turned to spoken drama during his time in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the play was well-received by the audience right after its debut and was restaged six times with 342 performances in total. Due to the wartime milieu and the artist’s personal choice, however, it has no scripts, no video recordings, and almost no photos remain. However, its musical accompaniment was highly praised and was discussed extensively. Drawing on resources from advertisements, reports, reviews in newspapers, and memoir of actors, directors, and other film practitioners, I reconstruct the play with particular attention to the central role of its musical accompaniment. I further argue that music is key to the director’s ambition of “bringing film and theater closer,” and that the play has inspired other performances in the subsequent decade. More importantly, the music accompanied drama brings new expectations of “new music drama” in Chinese theater.

Sounding the New Nation: PRC Documentaries and the Creation of Socialist Senses
To celebrate the founding of the PRC, three documentaries were made in 1950: two Sino-Soviet co-productions, The Victory of the Chinese People (Zhongguo Renmin de Shengli) and The Liberated China (Jiefang le de Zhongguo), and a locally produced newsreel, The Birth of New China (Xin Zhongguo de Dansheng). These documentary films reenact the heroic revolutionary past and the New China through documenting the aural as its cinematic settings. Engaging closely with primary materials of visual and aural representation as well as literary and theoretical narratives of the 1950s, my paper argues that these documentaries not only commemorate the completion of a political revolution but also aspire to bring forth a revolution of the senses.The documentary films capture various auditory experiences in the everyday life of New China, from the newly acquired voices of the disenfranchised people to bodily innervations from listening, speaking, singing, and other intersubjective acts. With close-ups of the human bodily movements and recordings of the everyday sound, the political monumentality of the founding of a new nation is orchestrated into sensorial, sonic events. Sensorial excitements and vocal empowerment as recorded in these works illustrate the mediatic configuration of an intimate relationship between an emerging political subjectivity and an evolving socialist sensibility. The paper further considers negotiations between the Soviet cinematic tradition of kinopravda and the innovative documentation of sound in modern China and explores how early PRC documentaries appropriated transnational and indigenous aesthetic resources to represent on screen socialist sensibilities and locate sensuous reality.

Sensuous Truth in Socialist China: Revolutionary Realism, Revolutionary Romanticism and Rhapsody of the Ming Tombs Reservoir
In film and culture studies of socialist China, the Combination of Revolutionary Realism and Revolutionary Romanticism (2RR) as a guiding principle for artistic production have long been read as a repressive power on cultural production. However, this impression of bare socialist culture omits the mediated and embodied experience of socialism in 1950s China. Documentary art film (Yishu Xing Jilupian), defined here as feature films in a documentary style, emerged from genre experimentations in the time of 2RR. This paper traces the formulation of this new film genre based on a self-curated archive of films, focusing on both the theoretical discussion and actual production of the genre. Locating an openness of this genre alongside the ideological mechanism of socialist China, this paper proposes new stylistic articulation of socialism – sensuous truth and socialist reality. Through a close reading of Rhapsody of the Ming Tombs Reservoir, a film hailed as exemplar of the experimental genre and media infrastructure during the Great Leap Forward, this study conceptualizes the making of sensuous truth and its reworking of the 2RR principle. I contend that the socialist truth, as is rendered sensuously real and palpable by the new genre, is crucial in imagining 1950s as an era of frenzy socialist construction and artistic production. I further demonstrate the significance of this concept in registering sensual, conceptual, spatial and temporal continuities with 1930s Soviet socialist realism and its later adaptation under the revolutionary conditions in 1940s Yan’an

The Cultural Technique of Loss: Irretrievable Documents in 1950s’ China
This paper investigates areas where content and form have not been separated and when the production of a book and that of a culture were still one. During the Great Leap Forward in China, book-slimming, page-omission, and loss render massive number of brittle documents impossible to retrieve. The loss and a shortage of paper did not deter publishers and writers from producing more books. Paper quality dropped. Copyright information was sometimes omitted, rendering certain documents irretrievable from data-storage systems. Bibliophiles, meanwhile, neglected these disappearing books and protected rare prints in their clandestine networks; their fine books overwrote the lost past with their stories of preservation. This paper reconstructs an irretrievable medium of lost documents in late 1950s in China, bringing into view what is ontologically negative and cannot be empirically certified. This paper argues that techniques of cultural memory in this period, documentations through book-making, determine how loss itself becomes a lost story. This paper urges us to think about storage as an imposing form, often epistemologically and phenomenologically privileged. This dialectics of media and history contrasts the usual references to media as techniques of continuity (and opposes Wolfgang Ernst’ concept “cultural techniques of memory.”) This paper suggests that retrieving and reading is insufficient for analyzing documentations of loss, critiquing the preference for storage media of data-retrieval (the dominant notion of media in anglophone academia) as contrived, impractical, and illegitimate in the politics of the great leap.

This panel is on Friday - Session 01 - Room 7

Go to Room 7