Palimpsests of Propaganda10 min read

Yifu Dong reviews Curating Revolution by Denise Y. Ho


Propaganda is a concept that refuses to translate smoothly between English and Chinese. The English word “propaganda” seems to have a direct counterpart in the Chinese word xuanchuan, but the connotations diverge: in English, propaganda means Orwellian doublespeak, whereas in Chinese, propaganda is the carrot of persuasion that often precedes the stick of coercion. The differing perceptions of the same word stem from the varying degrees of tolerance for the distortion of truth, because propaganda not only aims to persuade and agitate but also does so by using alternative versions of the truth, such as untruths and half-truths.

While state propaganda is not unique to China, China’s demands of loyalty to official narratives, coupled with measures against dissenting voices, are among the most stringent in the world. It is often tempting to dismiss Chinese propaganda as irrational or untruthful, but propaganda’s prominence in Chinese society warrants our attention. If we are to comprehend the frame of pseudo-reality in which Chinese politics operates and the basic components of the official worldview that ordinary Chinese people are force-fed, we must navigate its convoluted waterways.

One book that provides a fascinating close-up look into the workings of Chinese propaganda is Denise Y. Ho’s Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China. On first look, the book may seem just like one of those esoteric historical volumes that gather dust on the library shelf, waiting for eager students seeking fringe topics for academic papers. Those kinds of history books do not lack intrinsic value, but often they don’t make an active effort to inform the present. After a dose of academese, however, Curating Revolution proves to be a carefully researched work that not only fulfills what its title promises to cover, but also touches upon crucial themes surrounding Chinese propaganda that are relevant today.

Curating Revolution is a collection of six case studies of revolutionary exhibits in Shanghai during the Mao era. Chapter 1 tells the story of the establishment of the site of the First Party Congress – where the first meetings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were held in 1921 – as a revolutionary museum that untruthfully placed Mao at the center of the CCP’s founding. Other chapters recount the rise of Shanghai’s Fangua Lane as a model workers’ show village; the campaign to eliminate “superstition” in young schoolchildren by teaching them the ideology of science; class education exhibitions during the Socialist Education Movement of the early 1960s; how Red Guards turned objects inside Shanghai’s famed Yong’an Department Store into an exhibition; and a little-known story of how officials at the Shanghai Museum saved historical artifacts from destruction during the Cultural Revolution by arguing the importance of the role of cultural relics in the communist revolution.

Although the Mao era might sound like ancient history to those who didn’t experience it, any Chinese citizen over the age of 50 is almost certain to have been influenced by its propaganda. Today, the people who grew up with Mao-era propaganda are dominating China’s bureaucracy and shaping policies that will likely determine China’s future. In this sense, Curating Revolution is full of clues as to what Chinese decision-makers – and ordinary citizens – were made to believe when they were at their most impressionable, half a century ago.

“Any Chinese citizen over the age of 50 is almost certain to have been influenced by Mao-era propaganda.”

The first question I would ask of any history book on Chinese propaganda is: how did China become the society that it is today, whose public rhetoric is almost filled to the brim with the language of propaganda? These changes could not have occurred overnight, and must have happened gradually. From conversations with my grandparents, all of whom grew up amid the war and chaos of the Republican period and later became avowed Communist Party members, I often wondered how the communist ideology spread at the individual level, and how they were drawn in to such a complex system of belief larger than themselves.

Across multiple chapters, Ho delineates the ways in which Mao-era propaganda was designed and spread. Propaganda did not take over the public sphere and seep into the private sphere with a single campaign; it achieved dominance through the ritualization of exhibitions. Such rituals involved the curators of propaganda exhibits constructing official narratives, and the visitors acquainting themselves with the language of propaganda. It is by repeating these rituals of propaganda that people acquired sympathy for exploited workers and poor peasants, cultivated hatred for landlords, learned to appreciate life in the “new society” under Mao, and began to view the pre-communist “old society” with indignation. To make their political baptism all the more persuasive, Ho argues, the exhibition curators displayed material objects as indisputable evidence that spoke to the truth of propaganda.

Delving deep into the archives and presenting firsthand reactions from visitors, Ho suggests that these Mao-era propaganda exhibitions were not always successful in persuading their audience. For example, a number of visitors to an exhibit laying out the possessions of landlords became fascinated with the gold on display, and seemed to forget about class hatred. After the ‘Love Science, Eliminate Superstition’ campaign, which attacked organized religion, some Catholic schoolchildren simply wrote: “Chairman Mao teaches people to study hard, God also makes people study hard.”

In fact, the ‘Love Science, Eliminate Superstition’ campaign, which involved school exhibits offering counter-explanations against “superstitious beliefs” from folk and organized religions, can be seen as a failure of propaganda. The reason for such ineffectiveness, as Ho points out, is that the campaign did not cultivate scientific thinking in children but instead imposed an ideology of science. Since the science was told as facts but not proven with a consistent and convincing methodology, the exciting myths that the campaign aimed to debunk were, in the end, more attractive.  Such illustrations are crucial reminders that although China’s top-down propaganda campaigns often seem unrelenting and overwhelming, they aren’t always effective.

Throughout the book, Ho leads readers into the archives of propaganda exhibits – many of which are no longer accessible to scholars due to new official restrictions – and comes out with not only easily digestible narratives, but also the key methods and characteristics of Chinese propaganda. One such method is staging, which the Fangua Lane story exemplifies. In this case, erecting a model workers’ village in a former shantytown was not enough to project a positive image of life under communism. The key ingredient was the preservation of part of the shantytown, which made possible the contrast between the “new society” under Mao and the “old society” under the Republican government. The curators of this living exhibit, both officials and residents, staged a powerful and convincing message to visitors at home and abroad.

No matter how good the living conditions were staged to be at the new Fangua Lane, the simple fact is that not many deserving workers of the “new society” lived in similar conditions, and the shantytown perhaps only reflected the worst of the “old society.” The improvement in quality of life under Mao was far more modest than this propaganda suggested. What’s more, Ho discovers that the privilege which Fangua Lane once enjoyed has gradually become a burden amid Shanghai’s cutthroat modernization. Because of its fame as a Mao-era relic, Fangua Lane has seen little development. What was once the shiny contrast to an “old society” shantytown eventually became a modern-day slum.

“Although China’s top-down propaganda campaigns often seem unrelenting and overwhelming, pockets of resistance and deviation are almost always at work”

Propaganda not only involves human cost; it sacrifices historical facts, too. In the case of the First Party Congress site, Mao was yet not a central figure at the CCP’s founding, and many of the first party members later feuded with Mao and left the party. Sticking to the truth would sideline Mao and recognize Mao’s enemies. Therefore, despite the museum curators’ belief in presenting the facts, politics eventually trumped truth: Mao was depicted as a central figure at the First Party Congress, while details about many other delegates were made ambiguous on purpose. To many foreign visitors, the docents appeared unknowledgeable about history, but Ho discovers that the ambiguity was intentional, so that they wouldn’t lie to the faces of foreigners.

(A modern equivalent to this story is the consecration of Liangjiahe, a village in Shaanxi Province where the current president, Xi Jinping, lived as a sent-down youth in the Mao era. As he has amassed power as China’s top leader, Xi has credited his days in Liangjiahe for shaping his character and offering him “grand knowledge.” China’s propaganda organs then published a book titled Liangjiahe on Xi’s experience there, and the village is now a stop of red pilgrimage, just like the First Party Congress site.)

Topics such as class education have long been obsolete in China, and campaigns similar to ‘Love Science, Eliminate Superstition’ have taken on new forms. Ho’s last chapter, about officials at the Shanghai Museum who saved cultural relics from the Red Guards, reveals the ambiguous nature of Chinese propaganda. The Red Guards, young radical revolutionaries loyal to Mao, wanted to smash the “Four Olds” – old thinking, old culture, old customs and old habits – and antiquities in museums were obvious targets. The officials at the museum claimed that Mao once said that antiquities played an important role in the communist revolution, and thus the objects in the museum did not belong to the “Four Olds.” The point of conflict was simple: how should the people act if Mao contradicted himself?

The paradox reminded me of one of my paternal grandfather’s ordeals during the Cultural Revolution. As my grandfather remembers it, a Red Guard grabbed him and asked, “Can ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ be viewed from both positive and negative sides?” The question was tricky and cruel: “yes” would suggest a potential negative side of Mao Zedong Thought and thus signal dissatisfaction with the beloved Chairman; “no” would go against Mao’s teaching that everything should be judged from two sides. Without hesitation, my grandfather said “yes,” asserting his belief in the communist ideology over Mao’s cult of personality. Neither answer could have prevented him from accusations of being disloyal to Mao.

It is precisely this fluidity and ambiguity of propaganda that lead to its cruelty. When official propaganda is always recognized as correct despite its constant shifts, there is no reasonable basis upon which people can challenge it. Even though the museum officials’ interpretation of Maoist theory prevailed over the Red Guards’ radicalism, their victory was the exception that proved the rule. The Red Guards could have easily defied the museum officials and destroyed cultural relics, just as their counterparts did all over China, with barely any repercussions. Today, those Red Guards, who grew up immersed in Mao-era propaganda and committed atrocities in the name of revolution, are in their sixties and seventies. The stories in Curating Revolution tell a human tale to which many Chinese can still relate today, and Ho’s biggest achievement is tracing the human side of propaganda without getting lost in its inhumane totalitarian mechanism. ∎

Denise Y. Ho, Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China (Cambridge University Press, November 2017). Header image: Cultural Revolution clip art, c. 1971 (Kurt Groetsch on Flickr).