Casual echoes of the Mao era in Beijing’s public parks
Lunch Lecture by Lisa Richaud, Research Fellow at IIAS.
This lecture takes place in the IIAS conference room from 11:00-12:00 a.m. Amsterdam Time (CET).
Please register by Monday, 20 February, if you want a warm lunch during the talk!
In this talk, Lisa Richaud presents her monograph (in progress) on retirees' amateur performances of Mao-era songs in Beijing’s public spaces. Offering up a journey in Jingshan and Beihai Parks, two of Beijing's former imperial domains, the talk traces the tensions between the ambiguous expressiveness of these practices and the lived, affective experiences of participants, most of whom came of age during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
As parks have become the sites where socialist culture is being redeployed on an everyday basis, this revival has to be located within a larger socio-cultural phenomenon. Since the late 1980s, as the state untightened its grip on urban space, public parks in Chinese cities have become gathering places for middle- and old- age individuals, whiling away the imposed idleness of retirement. Encounters take shape through dancing, qigong and taiji quan, singing, or music playing. Bodies amassing and amplified sounds turn these spaces into ad-hoc stages and places of vibrant sociality. Formed largely outside of institutional frameworks, this wide range of activities is often described by parkgoers as wan'r. Commonly translated as “having fun” or “hanging out,” the term wan'r also suggests a kind of practices devoid of pursuits beyond themselves. While seemingly reiterating sentiments of loyalty toward Chairman Mao and the revolutionary project, performances of socialist repertoires such as Cultural Revolution model operas, revolutionary songs and poetry are no exception: to participants who have met in parks over decades, they are merely wan'r, “for fun,” casual.
Wan’r, some might argue, could be used as a convenient dissimulation, framing a collective, political practice as innocent leisure. Or, it may register state-led depoliticization and promotion of a sanitized version of happiness in post-Mao China. Yet, Richaud argues, this reframing of singing political songs as mere wan’r matters in its own right: central to this casual mode of engagement is a normalization of the tension between representation and experience that takes on historical significance in contemporary China.
Lisa Richaud holds a PhD in Anthropology from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (2016) and is currently a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS). Based on fieldwork carried out in urban China, her latest publications explore the sociality of public spaces, affective experiences of urban precarity, and the afterlives of Maoist public culture. She is also guest editor of “The Political Work of Negative Affects: A View from Post-Reform China,” a special section of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (2021).
Registration is required as seating is limited. Please use the form on this page. We will serve a warm lunch to attendees who have registered by Monday, February 20.