Are the Chinese fascists?


Jed Perl has a piece up attacking Chinese art at TNR. As any number of people have pointed out Contemporary Chinese ArtTM is booming. For Perl, however, it’s all totalitarian crap. I would actually agree with Perl that a lot of the stuff being produced by Chinese artists and purchased by China’s new ultra-rich (and their foreign buddies) is kinda questionable, and I certainly think that a lot of Chinese young people seem to be buying into a pretty sanitized view of Mao and the Communist period. The nostalgia for communist-period idealism you sometimes hear I always find hard to figure out.

For Perl, however, the only possible reason to think about China is to denounce Mao and the Cultural Revolution (which are of course the same thing.) Thus it becomes impossible for Chinese to be anything other than toadies unless they are in jail. The theme of “Revolution” comes up a lot in the art Perl is talking about, in part I think because he is talking about western collectors, who probably don’t know much about China but do know there was a revolution and in part because lots of Chinese artists do use Communist iconography and themes from the past. Some of them are probably toeing the official line, some are subverting the official line, some are doing both, some think they are doing both but actually are not.1 For Perl though it is pretty easy. If you see anything that looks “China-y” it’s crap.

I have studied the catalogue of this collection, The Revolution Continues: New Art from China, and I am pretty confident that it is the most hateful art book published in my lifetime. For the revolution that is continuing is none other than the Cultural Revolution.

Really? The modern smiley-face authoritarianism of China is the same as the Cultural Revolution? One begins to suspect he does not know much about the CR, which is pretty rapidly confirmed as he scoffs as a curator for suggesting that

“reprising the Red Guards’ antiauthoritarian stance to art, sought to bring down the institution of art itself through Dadaist strategies”?

Perl asks

In what sense, pray tell, was the Red Guard anti-authoritarian?

“Pray tell” suggests that he has no clue what the Red Guards were. The first thing a youth was supposed to do after strapping on the red armband was to “bombard the headquarters” and attack the authorities that actually controlled their lives, teachers, party bosses, etc. Everyone in China over a certain age knows this, which is why it is always so hard to figure out what Chinese artists might be doing with Mao images or CR images or whatever. Not everybody in the world needs to know (or can know) all the things Maoist references can mean in China, but if you are going to write about Chinese art it helps to have some idea what you are talking about. One can imagine touring the Louvre with Perl and having him be stumped by why there were all those pictures of a lady holding a baby. The only tool Perl has for understanding Chinese art is “Radical Chic” which may be useful for understanding why Westerners are buying this stuff but does not help much for understanding the art. After all, the main market for Chinese art is China. Why are wealthy Chinese (many of whom did not have much fun in the Maoist period) buying this stuff?

At the top of this post is a painting by Zhang Xiaogang. Perl..

His paintings are said to reflect the tensions of the Cultural Revolution, when children were known to turn their parents in to the authorities. In the Louisiana catalogue, this schlock is described as showing people “isolated in their own emotional universes” or shaped by, “mysterious, unknowable forces.” The only mysterious force from which Zhang is isolated is the art of painting.

I actually find it an interesting piece, in part because the isolation from family and others is a theme that always comes up in Cultural Revolution memoirs. Maybe Zhang is a hack, but I’m pretty sure I am not going to take Jed Perl’s word on that without something to back it up. Perl again

By aestheticizing historic catastrophe, the art world’s unholy synthesis of Maoism and kitsch enables people to blur their own memories.

That’s pretty bold for an American. What should Chinese people do? Commit mass suicide to prove they are free of the Maoist taint? Abandon art for a few centuries? There are lots of ways for Chinese artists and people to deal with the past, including ignoring it, but lumping every Chinese artist from Wang Guangyi to Cai Guoqiang in with the Red Detachment of Women is just sloppy.

I suppose what is particularly depressing is that with a minimal amount of effort Perl could have found lots of Chinese artists denouncing the people he talks about as talentless hacks and sell-outs. Had he been writing about British art or French art or maybe ever Japanese art he probably would have done so, or his editor would have sent him back to do it. He then could have written something interesting and informative.2

  1. I think things like this have happened in other authoritarian societies. Maybe someone who knows art can give Perl some references 

  2. Perl is also dismissive of the originality of Chinese art, claiming that pretty much all of this has been done before. Some of this I buy (lots of hacks out there) and some I don’t. The dividing line between being influenced by someone and copying them is always a tricky thing, but apparently for Perl any vague link to a western work of art renders anything a Chinese does completely derivative. I remember being struck by the “defiance in the sunset” scene in Red Sorghum and realizing that at least in 1987 the visual world of Zhang Yimou was different than mine. He could use a scene like that and not be referring to Gone With The Wind in any meta-critical way. He was, as I took it, just pinching a visual from a foreign film only artsy types would have seen. 


  1. Good article.
    This is a response primarily to your first paragraph:
    I think from an outsider’s perspective, nostalgia for a time period that involved so much ‘bad’ is definitely a difficult thing to comprehend. But people did live their lives, grow up, fall in love, and do things during that decade. I think it is not a matter of having had “fun” or not during the CR, but rather a sentimental longing for one’s youth, which is even more understandable when you think about how dysfunctional that youth was for so many.

    To illustrate, my Italian great grandfather would tell stories of his youth in the old country to my brothers and I when we were young. He grew up a poor and hungry farmer and left for America at a young age after seeing two siblings die in unrelated accidents. According the the standards of my brothers and I, everything about his youth seemed painful and downright opposite from everything we had experienced. But when he told the stories of those times, no matter how bad they were, you could see a twinkle in his eyes, and hear the longing in his voice. Was it rational? No, so it may be hard understand that type of nostalgia in an academic context, but it is quintessentially human.

    So, to sum up, think of CR nostalgia from the viewpoint of a newly rich, middle aged Chinese art buyer. Perhaps with the amount of turmoil and change somebody in that position has witnessed and been a part of, CR nostalgia helps them put things in perspective.
    Just an idea…

  2. Great piece. The way the CR is abused in journalism generally is appalling. It is treated again and again as a mere “dark age” of authoritarianism. This lack of nuance leads, I would argue, to some pretty big misunderstandings about today’s China and the sources of its dissent.

  3. I read Perl’s piece, and it’s shockingly bad, but not terribly surprising: there’s a portion of the conservative intelligentsia which sees everything Chinese — everything socialist or leftist, actually — through the lens of totalitarian fascism, and does indeed have the “dupe or martyr” dichotomy firmly fixed.

    The complaints about unoriginality are hypocritical, at best, and the argument that all art about historic atrocities must be politically useful, not merely “aesthetic”, echoes Mao’s own pronouncements on art so thoroughly that it boggles the mind.

  4. Jonathan,

    I actually wanted to put that point on the politics of aesthetics in there somewhere, but it did not fit. Particularly with films, (Ju Dou and the cloth springs to mind) I always saw the emphasis on aesthetics in 80’s and 90’s Chinese art as being a fairly explicit rejection of Maoist ideas of Socialist (maybe Perl-ist) Realism and the idea that all art should serve a political purpose. I hesitate to draw a line from Ju Dou to the present, since so much has changed in China (reacting to Mao seems a less obvious reading of stuff that is going on now) but I suspect some of the same stuff is still going on.

  5. “One can imagine touring the Louvre with Perl and having him be stumped by why there were all those pictures of a lady holding a baby.”

    Loved this.

    I’d like to engage you a little regarding your caveat allowing the possibility that Zhang Xiaogang might be a hack. My reading is that your intent is to write in the voice of a responsible academic: you imply that Zhang’s work is too far outside your area of expertise for you to judge its quality, but that you can nevertheless reject Perl’s criticism due to its own obvious flaws. Fair enough.

    However, as this is a blog rather than an academic paper, I’d like to draw you out a little. Looking at the image you posted, how do you react to the work? Does it elicit any feelings? I’m not asking you to take an academic position. I’d like to know about your experience. You will also doubtless note I’m not sharing my own impressions of this work, Zhang’s oeuvre, contemporary PRC art, etc. (for whatever they’re worth) in this comment, as I don’t want to suggest anything.

    Of course, I won’t be offended if you ignore this, but it could turn into an interesting conversation.


  6. Somewhat disappointed that you are not addressing the Far Eastern Economic Review’s insistence that China’s political and economic structure is most similar to that of a fascist state but instead are ripping into bad China journalism.

  7. Du,

    I actually liked it, as I said. Of course maybe it’s just the historian in me, and the fact that I read 老照片 too much. It’s also the only work of his I’ve seen, so I’m not sure what to say about his work as a whole

  8. Dear Professor Baumler

    Thanks. I like your choice of verbs regarding how you engage old photos (which I also took as a nod to the Chinese language). In fact, I had hoped to learn more about your own personal impression of this particular work, since you chose to post this image. I appreciate the care with which you qualify your statements, but my intent wasn’t to test your opinion; rather, just to know how the image looks to you.

    It seems to me that one doesn’t need to have conducted a detailed study of the CR – or to have lived through it, for that matter – to engage with this work, just as one doesn’t need to be an expert in Late Medieval Central European Christianity to appreciate the beauty and/or pathos of a pietà. It’s obviously informed by a certain culture and history, and knowledge in these areas can enrich one’s understanding of it, but its relevance need not be confined to this set of references.

    Without consultation of any critical reviews regarding Zhang Xiaogang’s work, it seems to me that the CR is not the most important reference to bring to this image. The first is family, and the second is the posed family photo (a family portrait available to the masses, unlike the earlier painted version – of course, this image is also painted, but more on that later). I’m not sure how someone from a society without similar importance accorded to conjugal structure and without knowledge of this technology would react to this image, but I’d be interested to know.

    My first impression is that this work expresses an unresolved struggle regarding the meaning of family.

    There is a certain tension between the portrait, in which everyone poses formally in socially appropriate clothes, and the dynamic lives and relations of the persons it depicts. To the extent this fixed picture represents a societal ideal, it also questions itself. Of course, what I’ve written in this paragraph could be said of any social portrait. Does anything make this image different? Well, it’s a painting in which each detail is knowingly chosen, and that wasn’t made for a particular family. It’s a study of a portraiture in the form of a portrait.

    (In fact, we aren’t given the names of specific individuals in the picture. The title is 《大家庭》 “a big family”, and it’s one of many paintings with the same name. The painting uses anonymity as a means of investigation, which is interesting – but let’s get back to first impressions.)

    My experience looking at this image is a series of conflicted feelings, which I take to be what its creator intended me to feel. Chief among these are a sense of reassurance in the enduring power of family, and the intense frustration of controlled emotion. Of course, I could have that reaction to an ordinary portrait. I could discover one on my own, or the artist could have placed one on display in a gallery. This is what makes details like the facial expressions, distorted heads, misaligned eyes, red lines, blotches and peculiar use of color important. They constitute a distinctive emblematic language, and both their selection and execution are thoroughly personal. Why develop such a visual system? As a method to address certain concerns.

    It seems to me that if we want to judge the quality of this work, we should consider whether these concerns are compelling, and whether his method to address them is effective.

    I personally find at least certain of his concerns extremely compelling, and particularly difficult. This image is also quite haunting. I keep returning to it in my mind as an unresolved problem, and every time I return it rewards me with further concerns. I find this worthwhile, and frankly, nourishing.

    I also wonder whether he developed a signature style to address a rather different concern, namely marketability. I see no reason why not. I personally don’t find this concern equivalently riveting, but don’t consider it objectionable. If this was in fact his strategy, it has evidently been very successful.

    I could go on, and I will.

    No, no, I won’t. That’s enough from me about that. I hope it was interesting.

    Inst: I take it you’re referring to the article by Michael Ledeen in the May 2008 issue of FEER, which I happen to have read. Since you brought it up, I have a question for you: Let’s suppose the PRC is best defined as a fascist state. So what?


  9. Dear Du Yisa,

    Actually, when I said I liked reading 老照片, what I really meant was the magazine 老照片, which encourages readers to send in old photographs and explain the stories behind them. Of course just like real history most of the stories end up being pretty pointless (so you completed military training, took this picture and then? Nothing just boring garrison duty.) Still, a lot of the contributors try to fit themselves into historical themes.

    When I look at the Zhang Xiaogang photo I -do- link it to the CR, or the Maoist period in general (which may just be me) in part because one family member is red and the others are not and also the fact that one family member is missing. That and the fact that the family members seem to be very intimate and yet very isolated that the same time.

    Also, I don’t think Fascism is really helpful for looking at modern China, but have not yet read the FEER thing.

  10. While many of the pieces that connect modern China with fascism do have problems and deserve scrutiny, I do think that we need to scrutinize ourselves and figure out why we react so negatively to claims that China is fascist. One reason is of course the fact that we, who have spent years of our lives studying, working and living in China, do not like to be connected with anything that can be called fascism. Another reason is our (somewhat justified) suspicion that many of those who promote the idea that China is fascist have a neo-con agenda and would like to include China in an axis of evil.

    All these are legitimate concerns, but if we try to look dispassionately at the issue, we will find that modern China conforms quite well to the classical definition of fascism, that is a one-party, corporativist regime that relies on mass-mobilization to achieve national strength and to pursue an irredentist agenda. When we conjure up the idea of fascism in our minds, we tend to think of the worst years of Nazi Germany and forget how popular fascism was at its peak.

    These are serious issues involved here and when we read articles that make the claim that China is fascist, I wish we would be more generous and not dismiss the argument because we find occasional factual inaccuracies. For those who read Norwegian, I recommend the following article by Stein Tønnesson, who raised this argument four years ago:

  11. I apologize in advance for drifting a bit off topic.

    Honestly, I’m not very interested in the particulars of The New Republic article. What does concern me is the continued willingness of the Chinese (and many non-Chinese, for that matter) to excuse Mao for his crimes. Whatever successes Mao achieved, the ugly fact remains that he and his policies are responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese. Count ‘em. Millions. (Perhaps not the 80 million that was recently suggested in a discredited bio, but still – MILLIONS!) Add to that the tremendous waste of human capital that took place during the last 20 years of Mao’s life (1956 to 1976) and you would have to be out of your mind to suggest that Mao was good for China. He didn’t even break even. I am certainly not the first to say that it would have been much better for everyone involved had he died in 1949. Moreover, Mao’s reputation as a brilliant revolutionary is too often greatly overstated. Simply put, he was not essential. Like all tyrants, Mao’s singular talents were for politics and survival.

    An open and frank discussion of Mao Zedong is long overdue in China. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon as the legitimacy of the CCP is in many ways dependent on Mao’s legacy. (Unlike the Soviet Union, where criticism of Stalin’s excesses did not threaten Lenin’s legacy, China has only Mao.) For many Chinese who lived through the Mao years or who have relatives who did, the subject of Mao and his failures is of deep personal interest. As such, the continued unwillingness of the CCP to allow for frank discussion is disappointing to say the least. Likewise, the younger Chinese generation’s ignorant reverence of Mao is also worrisome.

    In the end, I’m far less concerned about how contemporary Chinese artists treat the subject of Mao than I am with the fact that Mao’s face is all over Chinese currency. Can you imagine what would happen if the Russians put Stalin on their money? Can you imagine the international outcry that would arise if, twenty years from now, a Republican U.S. administration succeeds in putting George W. Bush on the $20 bill? Then what about Mao? Didn’t he kill enough people to deserve our contempt? Or is it that he only killed Chinese people?

  12. Dear Professor Baumler

    Sorry about the confusion, and thanks for the link. Regarding your linkage of the Zhang Xiaogang painting to the CR, frankly, it would surprise me if someone even passingly familiar with PRC history failed to do so. My observation in this regard was simply that even someone unfamiliar with the painting’s historical context could notice details such as the lack of an adult male in the group and a certain tension in their distanced passivity, and that the painting might therefore be able to communicate something of what the CR meant to a viewer otherwise unaware of it – to recreate an experience of it, at least on some levels. This is significant because the painting is neither an historical nor political treatise, and depends heavily on tools other than critical distance and dispassionate analysis to communicate. Since you allowed the possibility that Zhang might be a hack, I chose to open the question of whether this particular work was successful.

    I’m not in a position to opine whether Mr Ledeen is correct in classifying China as the world’s first “mature fascist state”. It certainly seems to be a corporate state. To echo your words, I do question whether this classification is helpful. Ledeen ends his article ‘China Embraces Classical Fascism’ by asking whether “the world” should “prepare for some difficult and dangerous confrontations with the People’s Republic,” as “[t]wentieth-century fascist states were very aggressive; Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were both expansionist nations. Is it not likely that China will similarly seek to enlarge its domain?”

    He describes his answer as “yes, but.” He notes that the PRC military build-up is intended “to prevent intervention in any conflict on its periphery,” and follows it with the observation that “the Chinese tyrants do not urgently need quick geographical expansion to demonstrate the glory of their country and the truth of their vision.” This looks more like “no” to me.

    Nevertheless, he adds that “the short history of classical fascism suggests that it is only a matter of time before China will pursue confrontation with the West,” and that democracies should “disabuse ourselves of the notion that wealth is the surest guarantor of peace.” I personally find this entirely unedifying. As China becomes more powerful, its ambitions will necessarily expand, as will it capacity to act in its interests. This will inevitably create occasional confrontation with other countries. Moreover, being somewhat familiar with the history of various democracies’ pursuit of their interests internationally, I wonder who must be disabused, save for perhaps a small set of American neoconservatives unable to discriminate between ‘peace’ and ‘Pax Americana’. In other words, Ledeen is telling us what we all know already, whether or not we choose to use the F-word in reference to China.



  13. I quote from comment no. 3:
    [quote] The way the CR is abused in journalism generally is appalling. It is treated again and again as a mere “dark age” of authoritarianism. [endquote]

    I agree. It seems the CR was a maneuver by an authoritarian autocrat who mobilized antiauthoritarian feelings to serve his purposes. I was enlightened when I read the following testimony (from

    especially testimony no. II.

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