By Emily Williams
In late May 2018, an exhibition opened at the Shanghai Workers’ Cultural Palace entitled “Red Shanghai: Documents and Objects” (红色上海文献实物展). Over 500 objects were on display, ranging from propaganda posters and newspapers to Mao badges and military medals, and dating from the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 through to the Reform Era – all loaned by local collectors. The objects, the exhibition text claimed, directly reflected Shanghai’s role in China’s revolution. We might tend to associate Shanghai more with cosmopolitan capitalism than with Communist construction, but, as the exhibition made clear, the city can easily stake a claim to preeminence in Chinese socialist development. Less explicitly, the exhibition also suggested the power of objects in shaping our understanding of place, history, and politics.
This is the topic of Denise Y. Ho’s important new book Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China. An assistant professor of twentieth-century Chinese history at Yale, Ho deftly and persuasively argues that exhibitionary culture was one of the key ways in which Mao-era citizens were taught not just how to understand history, but also how to make revolution: exhibitions were both textbooks and handbooks. Through exhibitions in museums, memorial sites and “living exhibitions” throughout the city of Shanghai, visitors imbibed the approved narrative of history and revolution, but they also learned the rituals of being a revolutionary citizen, and, it was hoped, took them to heart. Indeed, one might argue that what was being curated through the multitude of exhibitions that Ho outlines is less revolution itself, and more revolutionary subjecthood, the new Socialist man and woman of New China.
While an emerging body of literature over the past decade has insisted on the social, cultural, and political importance of Maoist material culture, Ho’s exceptional archival and oral historical research makes her book stand out. Her book provides an abundance of new evidence and well-formed case studies, and, by probing the organizer’s motivations, highlighting the complex politics that they were juggling, and surveying a range of visitors’ responses (from political awakening to bored dismissal), Ho brings to life these often little-known exhibitions. The book’s six chapters are organized thematically and roughly chronologically, and convincingly demonstrate how thorough exhibitionary culture was.
The first chapter looks at the establishment of the commemorative museum at the site of the CCP’s First Party Congress. This process turned out to be anything but straightforward. When the project began in 1951, no one was even sure exactly where the meeting had been held. Furthermore, constructing a narrative that celebrated the event of the First Congress, while simultaneously excluding those many early members who had left the party (through choice or force) and giving a central role to a then rather unimportant Mao Zedong proved to be no easy task. Although the chapter suffers from some overlap with the Introduction on the history of museums in China, it serves as a fascinating introduction to the swirling eddy of interests and ideologies that curators had to navigate.
The second chapter switches tack and investigates the area known as Fangua Lane in Shanghai’s Zhabei district. Badly damaged in the wars of the 1930s and 1940s, Fangua Lane was associated with poverty and squalor until it became a model worker’s village in the early 1960s and was given a makeover. Eighteen of the old shantytown houses were eventually preserved, and Fangua Lane became a “living exhibition,” a site for school groups and work units to visit, where they saw old and new architecture side by side and, equally importantly, listened to the residents’ stories of the transformation of their lives in New China. But as Ho carefully teases out, Fangua Lane’s efficacy as a living exhibition was compromised by the fact that the transformation depicted was available only to a minority of Shanghai’s poor.
The third chapter focuses on Anti-Superstition Exhibitions and highlights one of the key targets of exhibitionary culture: children. While the young revolutionary successors were born in New China and thus educated under the CCP, parental and grandparental influences perpetuated the existence of “feudal” and “superstitious” beliefs. When surveys showed persistent belief in supernatural forces, exhibitions were mounted that tried to offer scientific explanations for ghosts, gods, and spirits. But as Ho clearly demonstrates, these exhibitions had limited effectiveness because they functioned by proffering another type of faith (in science) in place of existing faiths.
While Chapter Two focuses on pre- and post-Liberation transformation, Chapter Four considers the Class Education Exhibitions of the mid-1960s, which presented the differences between rich and poor in pre-Liberation China and suggested to their viewers that the class enemies, who in Shanghai were mostly former capitalists, were plotting a comeback. Class ideology was made material in these exhibitions through the juxtaposition of objects owned by the poor and the rich, which aimed to provoke an emotional response from the viewers, to heighten their proletarian conscience, and to remind them of the need for perpetual class vigilance.
The display of objects formerly owned by Shanghai’s rich took new form after the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, as the fifth chapter outlines. The numerous house searches carried out by Red Guard groups provided mountains of “treasures,” which were displayed as the “achievements” of the Red Guards. These exhibitions disappeared in 1968 with the wrapping up of the Red Guard movement, and as Ho suggests in other chapters, the exhibitionary culture of the remaining years of the Cultural Revolution was very different. While Ho does not make this point explicitly, it is a good reminder that the Cultural Revolution was not a monolithic whole, as the phrase “10 years of chaos” suggests. Rather, the political movements waxed and waned and the exhibitionary culture mirrors this.
Ho’s final chapter is a fascinating analysis of the Shanghai Museum. Despite its self-proclaimed status as a socialist museum, it was clearly doing something rather different from the other exhibiting units discussed. Shanghai Museum officials spent the early years of the Cultural Revolution defending the “Four Olds” (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas) as cultural relics, and took thousands of privately-owned antiques under the Museum’s protection to prevent their seizure in Red Guard house searches. Ironically, the Shanghai Museum as we know it today – one of the world’s preeminent collections of Chinese art – would have been impossible without the Cultural Revolution. While many objects were returned to their original owners in the 1980s, thousands of objects were also taken permanently into the museum’s collection.
While the research presented is impeccable, the book’s argument would have been stronger if Ho had further developed her key concept of “curation,” which she uses to describe all stages of putting on a display (collecting, display, creation of narratives, etc.). While the process is, of course, a holistic one, labelling these all as “curation” at times erases the different politics inherent in different stages of the process. Ho outlines a framework of curating in two modes: one as a state in power, the other as a revolutionary movement. These two frameworks work well to show the contradiction the Communist movement faced after 1949. On the one hand, it was a revolutionary movement dedicated to change and upheaval, but it was also a state in power, aiming to ensure stability, and Ho notes the possible overlaps of these two frameworks. The class education exhibitions, for example, both affirmed CCP rule and mobilized the masses for further revolutionary action.
These overlaps come out clearly, but at times Ho could have done more to pull out the conflicts between these two curatorial modes. For example, relics of imperial China feature in both chapters five and six, but they appear in very different curatorial strategies. In Red Guard exhibitions, they are evidence of elite exploitation of workers and wealth inequality; in the Shanghai Museum, they are reminders of the magnificence of Chinese civilization. For Red Guards, house searches were opportunities to find loot and glory, while for Shanghai Museum officials such searches were desperate attempts to stave off disaster. Exhibits at the First Party Congress site and the Shanghai Museum constantly tried to navigate the changing political winds, whereas Class Education Exhibits and Red Guard Achievement Exhibits were direct responses to or outgrowths from political campaigns. They produced very different exhibitions as a result, and Ho’s insight on what this tells us about the process of “curation” would have been appreciated. Ho writes of these exhibitions letting objects speak, but to me the objects felt largely silent, or, if they spoke, they were compelled to tell a story driven more by politics than materiality.
That small criticism aside, this book is a much-needed addition to the growing body of literature that aims to take seriously the material culture of the Mao era and the ways it has been seen and experienced. This is crucial, because as the 2018 Red Shanghai exhibition demonstrates, the story of Shanghai’s – and China’s – revolutionary history is still being curated today.
Denise Y. Ho Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018
Emily Williams is a Lecturer in China Studies at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou. Her research looks at Chinese and international collections of Mao-era material culture.