Curating Revolution

Lei Ping

Denise Ho’s book Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China studies exhibitionary culture and politics in China’s Mao Zedong era (1949–1976). The chapters investigate the intertwined relation between museums and exhibitions in socialist Shanghai, and regard exhibitions as a ‘political, social, and cultural practice’ (p. 13). Centering on seeking a new understanding of the historical transition from a state in revolution to a state in power, Ho finds that socialist exhibitions served as a key linkage that connected political movements and mass mobilization.

‘Curating revolution’ in this sense is to answer the questions as to how the Maoist revolution was successfully materialized and received by the masses and how politics were put on display under Mao’s leadership. Ho provides the readers her answer by considering exhibitions as a form of participatory propaganda. Relying on extensive archival research, oral history, and ephemera, Ho argues that exhibitions make revolution not only authentic and significant, but also relevant and present. Exhibitionary culture thus served to localize the revolution, making propaganda at the grassroots (p. 4). Built on previous academic scholarship on Maoist revolutionary cultural production, Ho’s compelling work expands the scope of the research by showcasing various crucial aspects of what she calls ‘making the revolution’.

Legitimizing Revolution: Exhibitionary Culture on Display

Choosing Shanghai as her archival and ethnographic field, Ho delves into a series of case studies. She begins by recognizing the city as the historic site of the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Simultaneously tracing the history of the Shanghai museum, Ho sees family resemblance between the two political and cultural spaces, namely, collection and display. In Ho’s view, cultural relics (文物 wenwu) and artifacts were made ‘alive’ and given voices and emotions in front of visitors, docents, and participants during the post-1949 Mao era. ‘The stewardship of wenwu lent a political legitimacy that was acutely felt in 1949’ (p. 247). It is through revisioning and revaluing the significant roles played by these ‘museumized’ and participatory spaces that Ho discovers the revolutionary force of the materiality emphasized in Mao’s political thoughts. As Ho points out, materiality conveyed historical truth while the aura of authenticity legitimized revolution under Mao.

In addition to detailing the physicality and historical complexity of the exhibition spaces centered in Shanghai, Ho directs the readers’ attention to some of the prevalent ideological themes carried out in the Maoist state. One of the major revolutionary rhetoric was ‘speaking bitterness’ (忆苦思甜 yiku sitian) which means ‘remembering the hardships from the past and reflecting on happiness in the present’. Ho argues that this kind of thought education was effective because it taught the ordinary masses how to take part in a revolution. Immersed in the politicized cultural surroundings provided by socialist living exhibitions, the ‘speaking bitterness’ narrative and story-telling were materialized through both artifacts and affects.

What is worth noting is that the dialectical relation between old and new, and friends and foes are carefully scrutinized by Ho’s case studies of Fangua Lane and the class education exhibition. Ho states that ‘Fangua Lane Past and Present’ was made into an exhibition, model, and textbook to show the stark contrast between the pre-1949 and post-1949 transformation of a shanty town located in Shanghai (p. 90). Addressing on a comparable note, Ho regards the Socialist Education Movement and the class education exhibition as part of the Maoist legacy that cultivated class-based consciousness of the people during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Ho observes that physical and symbolic scars from the ‘Old China’ were made into politics on display and purposed to ‘spark class feeling’ in socialist ‘New China’ (p. 155).

The chapter on object lessons of the Cultural Revolution and exhibitions of Red Guard achievements is probably one of the most intriguing sections of the entire work. Ho brings a refreshing perspective on what was new in the genre of Red Guard exhibitions. She discovers that ‘the objects on display were arguments for the Cultural Revolution and for the Red Guards as the correct interpreters of Mao Zedong Thought’ (p. 197). According to Ho herself, the docents’ notes were an illuminating part of her archival research because they were the first-hand and at the same time controversial evidence of violent house searches during the decade of turmoil, let alone historical narratives on how material objects were innately associated with class status and thus became the so-called ‘proofs of class crimes’ by Maoist standards. Ho inspires readers by stating that although Red Guard exhibitions were ephemeral, they played a long lasting role in exhibiting class struggles and in calling on the masses to attack and condemn in a city that was often critiqued to have housed material abundance and ideological contamination by the bourgeoisie before it embarked on the socialist journey.

Inspiration and Critique

Written from a unique vantage point, namely, how revolution was curated to make itself successful at the local and grass-roots level in the Mao era, the book unfolds the myth behind Mao’s continuous revolution. It is in this sense that it has brought new light to the field of modern Chinese history and studies of the Cultural Revolution.

What remained theoretically and empirically challenging for the author is the question as to whether the culture of curating revolution in Shanghai could represent that of the entire nation. Although Ho briefly discusses her choice of research site in the introduction of the book, the historical particularity of Shanghai often known as a city that has battled with socialism and yet kept the bourgeois cultural, ideological, and political tradition that distinguishes itself from the rest of the nation needs further mention and elaboration. It would also be necessary to include the word ‘Shanghai’ in the book title and clarify how the city is deemed the unarguable showcase of the nation’s rather diverse revolutionary and curating experience.

Another perhaps more of a theoretical concern seems to be that rather than foregrounding the dialectical nature of the Maoist revolution by examining how the masses were able to consciously transcend themselves and become the ‘Socialist New Men’, the book regards revolutionary practices such as curating under Mao solely as externalized ideological propaganda. Thought reform in the Mao era has engendered polemic discussions in the academic and political worlds in the past decades, nevertheless, if revolution is only seen as an imposing force to an assumingly uncritical mass then this kind of argument fundamentally overlooks the Marxist historical-material tradition.

Such quibbles are meant to provoke a continuous intellectual debate on China’s socialist revolutionary legacy. The enormous amount of information and invaluable historical findings provided by the book contributes greatly to the rigorous research on the Cultural Revolution. The book would be an insightful text for undergraduate and graduate students, scholars, and general readers who would like to study history of museums, curation, and the Cultural Revolution during China’s socialist period.