Over the past thirty years, the generations who lived through the Mao era (1949-1976) have turned China's public parks into stages for amateur performances of old socialist anthems or revolutionary model opera. My book project explores these reverberations of Maoist culture in China's urban public space, drawing on 13 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Beijing. At the center of the analysis is the seeming paradox of displaying political messages in the heart of the capital city while framing these gatherings as ziyu zile, 'self-entertainment', or wan’r, fun without specific pursuits. Departing from previous interpretations in terms of political expression or nostalgia, the book takes these claims to non-seriousness seriously. What happens when commitment is made largely irrelevant, as people engage with cultural forms once conceived as the very means to mold committed socialist subjects?
The term wan’r drives the book’s theoretical ambition: to foreground casualness as a mode of engagement predicated upon the irrelevance of the correspondence between action and referential meaning. Though inspired by recent socio-anthropological work on play and fun, I privilege casualness over these terms as a rendering of wan’r, encompassing not only playfulness and pleasure but also non-commitment, detachment, inconsequentiality and inaction. Casualness speaks of detachment from a Maoist 'commitment politics', indexing a distance with past political experiences. As amateur public performance was, during the Mao era, conceived as infrastructural to the (re)production of the new political order, performers were expected to enact a correspondence between acting and being. Despite their seeming reiteration of loyal sentiments toward Mao and the Party, self-organized performances today speak of the possibility of being non-literal about politics in public without being held accountable for it. Ultimately, it connotes non-involvement in ways that raises questions regarding the (un)accountability of being non-serious about a lived historical past: How can Maoist tunes be performed 'just for fun' when they are so inherently tied to a period of political violence?
Historical scholarship has already demonstrated how the generations who lived through the Mao period remain deeply attached to the musical productions of their youth beyond their political functions and ideological meanings. But to re-enact and reframe such performances as wan’r publicly, the book argues, marks a creative intervention on the part of those who lived through the Cultural Revolution. Through the making-casual of a cultural form once supposed to produce revolutionary commitment, parkgoers enact new experiences of being-in-public, togetherness, and shifting relationships to the Maoist past.
Arguing that this re-contextualization of singing practices matters in its own right, Casual Assemblies departs from existing interpretations of collective singing as a politics that is either inherent in the song meanings or read off from the form and spaces of public presence. For what if our interpretive moves encroached on our informants’ operations over their own social reality? What if it is precisely the making non-political of 'what used to be politics' that mattered to those who lived through the political violence of the Mao era? The book argues in this direction, reflecting on the conditions under which the ethnographer can give her interlocutors credit for their non-literal engagements with contentious forms. It does so in line with an anthropological line of thought that rehabilitates vernacular claims to the non-political while reintroducing the largely overlooked distinction between politics and the political. To engage casually with a cultural form once supposed to produce revolutionary commitment is no mere echo of a state-led depoliticization deemed to characterize the post-Mao era. For if park singers often reject politics, their casualness still leaves room for the political.
Lisa Richaud is preparing her first monograph, tentatively entitled Casual Assemblies: Afterlives of Socialist Performance Culture in Beijing Public Parks; an ethnography of retirees performing Mao-era songs 'for fun' in public space (under contract with Amsterdam University Press).