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10-08-2015, 22:48

CHINA’S CHANGING CULTURE

Like their contemporaries all over Asia, Chinese artists were strongly influenced by the revolutionary changes that were taking place in the art world of the West in the early twentieth century. In the decades following the 1911 revolution, Chinese creative artists began to experiment with Western styles, although the more extreme schools, such as Surrealism and Abstract painting, had little impact. The rise to power of the Communists in 1949 added a new dimension to the debate over the future of culture in China. Spurred by comments made by Mao Zedong at a cultural forum in Yan’an in 1942, leaders rejected the Western slogan of “Art for art’s sake” and, like their Soviet counterparts, viewed culture as an important instrument of indoctrination. The standard would no longer be aesthetic quality or the personal preference of the artist but “Art for life’s sake,” whereby culture would serve the interests of socialism. At first, the new emphasis on socialist realism did not entirely extinguish the influence of traditional culture. Mao and his colleagues saw the importance of traditional values and culture in building a strong new China and tolerated—and even encouraged—efforts by artists to synthesize traditional ideas with socialist concepts and Western techniques. During the Cultural Revolution, however, all forms of traditional culture came to be viewed as reactionary. Socialist realism became the only standard of acceptability in literature, art, and music. All forms of traditional expression were forbidden. Characteristic of the changing cultural climate in China was the experience of author Ding Ling. Born in 1904 and educated in a school for women set up by leftist intellectuals during the hectic years after the May Fourth Movement, she began writing in her early twenties. At first, she was strongly influenced by prevailing Western styles, but after her husband, a struggling young poet and a member of the CCP, was executed by Chiang Kai-shek’s government in 1931, she became active in party activities and sublimated her talent to the revolutionary cause. In the late 1930s, Ding Ling settled in Yan’an, where she became a leader in the party’s women’s and literary associations. She remained dedicated to revolution, but years of service to the party had not stifled her individuality, and in 1942, she wrote critically of the incompetence, arrogance, and hypocrisy of many party officials, as well as the treatment of women in areas under Communist authority. Such conduct raised eyebrows, but she was able to survive criticism and in 1948 wrote her most famous novel, The Sun Shines over the Sangan River, which described the CCP’s land reform program in favorable terms. It was awarded the Stalin Prize three years later. During the early 1950s, Ding Ling was one of the most prominent literary lights of the new China, but in the more ideological climate at the end of the decade, she was attacked for her individualism and her previous criticism of the party. Although temporarily rehabilitated, during the Cultural Revolution she was sentenced to hard labor on a commune in the far north and was only released in the late 1970s after the death of Mao Zedong. Although crippled and in poor health, she began writing a biography of her mother that examined the role of women in twentieth-century China. She died in 1981. Ding Ling’s story mirrored the fate of thousands of progressive Chinese intellectuals who, despite their efforts, were not able to satisfy the constantly changing demands of a repressive regime. After Mao’s death, Chinese culture was once again released from the shackles of socialist realism. In painting, the new policies led to a revival of interest in both traditional and Western forms. The revival of traditional art was in part a matter of practicality as talented young Chinese were trained to produce traditional paintings for export to earn precious foreign currency for the state. But the regime also showed a new tolerance for the imitation of Western styles as a necessary by-product of development, thus unleashing an impressive outpouring of artis- tic creativity later dubbed the “Beijing Spring.” A new generation of Chinese painters began to experiment with a wide range of previously prohibited art styles, including Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. An excellent illustration of Chinese artists’ tireless battle for creative freedom is the painting My Dream (1988) by Xu Mangyao. On the canvas, an artist, having freed his hands from manacles, seeks to escape from the confinement of a red brick wall. The painting represents the worldwide struggle by all the twentieth-century artists silenced by totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union, Latin America, and Africa. In music, too, the post-Mao era brought significant changes. Music academies closed during the Cultural Revolution for sowing the seeds of the bourgeois mentality were reopened. Students were permitted to study both Chinese and Western styles, but the vast majority selected the latter. To provide examples, leading musicians and composers, such as violinist Isaac Stern, were invited to China to lecture and perform before eager Chinese students. The limits to freedom of expression were most apparent in literature. During the early 1980s, party leaders encouraged Chinese writers to express their views on the mistakes of the past, and a new “literature of the wounded” began to describe the brutal and arbitrary nature of the Cultural Revolution. One of the most prominent writers was Bai Hua, whose script for the film Bitter Love described the life of a young Chinese painter who joined the revolutionary movement during the 1940s but was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution when his work was condemned as counterrevolutionary. The film depicted the condemnation through a view of a street in Beijing “full of people waving the Quotations of Chairman Mao, all those devout and artless faces fired by a feverish fanaticism.” Driven from his home for posting a portrait of a third-century b.c.e. defender of human freedom on a Beijing wall, the artist flees the city. At the end of the film, he dies in a snowy field, where his corpse and a semicircle made by his footprints form a giant question mark. In criticizing the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Bai Hua was only responding to Deng Xiaoping’s appeal for intellectuals to speak out, but he was soon criticized for failing to point out the essentially beneficial role of the CCP in recent Chinese history, and his film was withdrawn from circulation in 1981. Bai Hua was compelled to recant his errors and to state that the great ideas of Mao Zedong on art and literature were “still of universal guiding significance today.” 7 As the attack on Bai Hua illustrates, many party leaders remained suspicious of the impact that “decadent” bourgeois culture could have on the socialist foundations of Chinese society, and the official press periodically warned that China should adopt only the “positive” aspects of Western culture (notably, its technology and its work ethic) and not the “negative” elements such as drug use, pornography, and hedonism. One of the chief targets in China’s recent “spiritual civilization” campaign is author Wang Shuo (b. 1958), whose writings have been banned for exhibiting a sense of “moral decay.” In his novels Playing for Thrills (1989) and Please Don’t Call Me Human (2000), Wang highlighted the seamier side of contemporary urban society, peopled with hustlers, ex-convicts, and other assorted hooligans. Spiritually depleted, hedonistic, and amoral in their approach to life, his characters represent the polar opposite of the socialist ideal. Conservatives were especially incensed by the tendency of many writers to dwell on the shortcomings of the socialist system and to come uncomfortably close to direct criticism of the role of the CCP. The outstanding works of author Mo Yan (b. 1956) are a case in point. Viewed as China’s greatest writer, in his novels The Garlic Ballads (1988) and The Republic of Wine (2000), Mo exposes the rampant corruption of contemporary Chinese society, the roots of which he attributes to one-party rule (see the box on p. 230).

 

 

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