Reviews / March 2017 (Issue 35)

A New Theory of Cultural Production and Practice: Pang Laikwan's The Art of Cloning

by Michael O'Sullivan


Pang Laikwan, The Art of Cloning: Creative Production During China's Cultural Revolution, Verso, 2017. 320 pgs.


The Art of Cloning: Creative Production During China's Cultural Revolution is a ground-breaking and brilliant study of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. It opens up a period—which for too long has been something of a blank page in both English and, of course, Chinese textbooks—to the non-expert and the expert alike in exciting new ways, by providing the reader with a revisionist reading of the Culture Revolution, in terms of its art and cultural production. Critics and historians often describe the Cultural Revolution as having been an excuse for purging "revisionists" and "capitalist roaders," as responsible for a lost generation[i] and even as a "gross error"[ii] in official Communist Party history. Pang's deeply insightful and wide-ranging study, in taking us from porcelain workshops to ballet performances of The Red Detachment of Women, and from the archives and diaries of former Red Guards to readings of Maoist romantic society through the theories of Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu and René Girard, offers a new view of the period which gives us insight into the mindset of a community that inaugurated possibly the greatest mass movement of copying and cloning ever achieved.

Pang's understanding of cloning and copying is a complex one. She offers various symbols and tropes derived from Chinese terms for her innovative descriptions of cloning and copying. There is mofan, yangbanzi and social mimesis, as well as the more transcendental forms of copying that apply to Mao's unique philosophy. Pang describes how this philosophy, perceived as doxa (popular opinion or common belief), can even be regarded as encompassing individuals such as the intellectuals of the Cultural Revolution. Her reading of these intellectuals as themselves a product to be copied and coaxed into the endless production of copy—such as in rehashed statements and verifications of their "enemy" status in a form of sacrifice—leads to an important enquiry on the nature of intellectuals and what one might today call academics. Pang argues that these intellectuals were "not entirely passive" in regard to their own torture and ridicule at the hands of the State. The suggestion seems to be that they should have been better able to "perform this mimetic power" of the Cultural Revolution that "ordinary people" were well used to playing in their villages when they impersonated "powerful officials." Pang argues that these "'mimetic acts" become a means of play, so that the "regime of 'truth' is made to reveal its own fictive and self-referential nature," a situation that could even describe our own "post-truth" age. However, one wonders whether the "regime," which needed an enemy, would have accepted the "mimetic play" of the intellectuals no matter how well copied. The intellectuals were ghosts and the meaning of "ghost" kept changing to suit the latest dictate from Mao.

When Pang, an academic/intellectual, finishes her chapter on the intellectuals of the Cultural Revolution with the suggestion that "we might start considering negating the intellectuals as the defenders of our polity and humanity," one wonders whether it is tongue in check, a mimetic act or an appeal to the "ordinary people" to start defending the polity and humanity for themselves. As an academic/intellectual working in Hong Kong today, I'm reminded at this point of recent speeches by the contemporary PRC "regime" that argue that all universities should be grounded on Marxist thought.[iii] It is clear then that intellectuals either as ghosts, guai lou (ghost person), or simply the undead, are already, in a sense, being "negat[ed]" in this knowledge economy. However, Pang's Gramscian reading of the organic and traditional intellectuals would appear to be calling for us to go further than Derrida did in speaking of the spectres of Marx. Yet, the overall sense one gets from this chapter on the intellectuals as ghosts is that Pang offers incisive readings that clearly demonstrate how the theories of such writers as Antonio Gramsci and Georges Bataille come up short in describing the realities of the Cultural Revolution. Her readings offer many rich possibilities for Chinese critical thought and maybe even for Asian humanities thinking to reappraise situations and histories that have for too long been read through the theories of predominantly Western intellectuals.

Pang carefully details a philosophy of copying that explains how Maoist copying had to both copy a model but also emphasise "human creativity." In a manner somewhat reminiscent of what Walter Benjamin suggests for the work of art prior to the age of mechanical reproduction, Pang asks whether Maoist subjects in copying from models could "ultimately transcend Maoism to master themselves." Could they somehow leave their mark on what they copied to the extent that it allowed them to momentarily throw off their Maoist subjectivity? Pang argues that "because Maoism worked to remain all-powerful to the Maoist subjects, the model had to somehow resist appropriation by the copying subject to maintain its 'aura.'" And yet Maoism, Pang also suggests, "believed in human creativity and encouraged the people to surpass any existing boundaries to carve out a brand new world." The Cultural Revolution "made it difficult to clearly differentiate subject and object," and therefore Pang believes we "need a more complex model to understand the contrived and multiple subject-object relationships formed during the era […] which would also help us understand why the Maoist subject could be understood as 'singular' instead of 'collective.'"

As Pang writes earlier, in reference to having seen first-hand a beautiful handwritten notebook containing an "underground novel," a "truly 'conservative' culture cannot be sustained by mechanisms of copying, as deviation is the necessary by-product of any copying process." Copying then begins to sound like a process that allowed for a new kind of individualism or subjecthood that was different to Western "possessive individualism." However, the non-expert may well begin to ask at this stage whether such copying also applied to punishment and killing under Mao; was there a sense in which the copying culture was also applied to the means and methods through which individuals or subjects were singled out for penalty or death? One might then well ask whether it was not only the copied object's Maoist "aura," or a difficulty in differentiating subject from object, but a singular sense of fear for one's own life that also curbed the subject's efforts to individualise a copy? One would imagine that in designing a "more complex model" to come to terms with the "subject-object relationships" created during the Cultural Revolution that at some point the emotional and psychological influence of this fear on the copying subjects would have to be considered.

Pang argues that Maoist aesthetics is grounded in a new reading of Mao's social realism, which she describes as Maoist romanticism, a revolutionary kind of political idealism that encouraged the people to "imagine and transcend." The difference with the romanticism of the May Fourth movement, which Maoist social realism worked against in the 30s, was that instead of being individualist and sentimental like traditional Western romanticism, it was all about collectivist and enhanced "nation-building." A further difference between the European and Maoist forms of romanticism that Pang highlights is that whereas European romanticism focused on a triangular relationship between "human thoughts, human language and things," Maoist romanticism took language "for granted." Pang suggests, in focussing on the English poet Wordsworth, that Western romantic poets employed poetic language to create the notion of an "independent consciousness" that could exist entirely by and for itself "independently of all relationship with the outside world." This is essentially, for Pang, about asking whether language can really represent such diverse things as thought and external objects, and it works against the homage to reason. It describes an awareness of doubt that ushers in a hermeneutics of suspicion in Western thought, a suspicion that gave the West some of its most enduring and less enduring philosophies. Many language philosophers have related these differences to the different natures of the writing systems, but Pang does not dwell on this. She does however extend this sense of "disjuncture between the artistic form and human thought" to "almost all other modern artistic and literary movements in the West," arguing that these movements have shared a "common exploration of the layers of meanings below a world of order and reason" that questions "the countless and nameless things appearing in the new bourgeois society, and in the unfolding senses that are never able to be wrangled into order."

Pang rightly argues that the Cultural Revolution arose out of a very different context than that of Western romanticism. Emerging from a chaotic political reality, and with language "taken for granted," the aim of Maoist romanticism was to "celebrate the human mind, which could be employed to engage with or even change material reality." This describes a clear dichotomisation between Chinese and Western aesthetic systems and philosophies that has become popular in many recent books in East-West studies. This dichotomisation is most often defined in terms that contrast a system that privileged a broadly community-focussed philosophy with one that privileged a broadly individualist-focussed philosophy, the latter being taken as Western. Pang generally follows this approach in suggesting that whereas European romanticism was individualist and focussed on new ways to "imagine and connect with language and nature," Maoist romanticism emphasised "the transcendental unity of the people." This dichotomy between Maoist and "Western" subjectivity and identity, specifically revolutionary subjectivity, is returned to and developed by Pang throughout the book; Mao and Maoism it seems could imagine itself to be anything so long as it was different to what the "West" offered. This line of reasoning is understandable considering present political realities.

Pang also describes in her blurb for the book that "freedom" "under Western capitalism" expresses "individuality through a range of consumer products" and inside the book itself that the revolutionary subject of the Cultural Revolution was radically different from a Western revolutionary subject "produced under capitalism" "whose prime ideological structure is possessive individualism." These are curious but also useful catch-all definitions of both Western freedom and revolutionary subjectivity; however, one wonders are they also useful strawmen? One might ask whose "West" is this and what kind of revolutionary subject in the "West" is being spoken of? Is it, to name but one form of Western revolutionary subjectivity this reviewer knows quite well, the Irish romantic revolutionary subjects who were wholly anti-capitalist because capitalism had also not fully come to Ireland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? However, Pang does not go into great detail on the precise nature of the Western freedom and revolutionary subjectivity taken from European romanticism, a movement that we must remember was in its heyday well over 100 years before the Cultural Revolution.

Pangs' ground-breaking study of aesthetic practices and first-hand accounts of the impact of the Cultural Revolution are without question illuminating in offering a much-needed revisionist reading of Mao through Maoist aesthetics. The differentiation with the Western model is consistently returned to. Pang gives a brilliant reading of Bourdieu, for example, and his description of Western subjectivity in describing the unique nature of Chinese subjectivity under Mao. Pang argues that whereas "Bourdieu is clearly less interested in the intrinsic value of the [artistic] works than in them as carriers of cultural capital, which embodies the need of society to differentiate people into classes," the "absolute Maoist values invested in each Cultural Revolution propaganda work were meant to guarantee the equality of the people." However, despite the fact that Bourdieu did emphasise the importance of "cultural capital," surely it was so as to question regimes of cultural production and reproduction that perpetuated systems of inequality, and of course, equality for Bourdieu and for Mao were very different beasts.

Once again, the sense appears to be here that Western society and subjectivity are produced through the possessive individualism of capitalism whereas the subject under Mao was more closely linked to "equality" and community. One important word in Pang's contrast between the "individualism" of the West and the "people" of Maoism is "propaganda." Whereas Bourdieu is challenging the reception and teaching of established works of art through reproductive forms of elitist education, "propaganda works" under Mao would clearly have had a different function. The question is whether we can equate a work of art such as a novel by Flaubert, with a "propaganda work" produced under Mao. Are they equivalent? One might say that Flaubert's work is also a work of propaganda for certain Western values, but does this sufficiently describe the work? It is clear from Pang's book that the copied objects and performances of Mao's Cultural Revolution such as certain revolutionary performances of Cantonese opera as "transplanted yangbanxi" pushed the envelope in terms of being copies and were also not reducible to propaganda. In the end, such Cantonese opera productions as Storm in the Countryside went too far and were banned for "reflecting regionalism." Of course, Western artworks were banned, too, right throughout the twentieth century; however, how firmly their production and performance were grounded on copying or mimesis is open to debate. At any rate, it seems that intertextuality has persuaded many Western intellectuals that artworks are always some kind of copy. An interesting question then—in thinking through this contrast between the "Western" artwork and the Maoist copy—is to what extent the millions of craftspeople, artists and copyists working under Mao used the confines of the dictates and formal guidelines given them to integrate revolutionary anti-Maoist elements into their works?

In finishing with a brief note on other recent works on this period, the non-expert, like me, could be forgiven for thinking that the Mao of the Art of Cloning: Creative Production During China's Cultural Revolution and the Mao of The Cultural Revolution: A People's History (Frank Dikötter)—two recent books on the Cultural Revolution by two of Hong Kong's leading academics—are two different people. Whereas Dikötter writes of Mao the "dictator" as paranoid and full of "malice," "insensitive to human loss," and a man who purged "over one in fifty people" in some provinces, Pang writes of Maoist romanticism, of "Mao's ultimate faith in the human consciousness" and of a Maoist cosmology built on "the belief in boundless human power [and] the belief in the whole world, wherein human beings are only a part." In other words, Pang's Mao is a Mao we have not seen very often; he is a "keen thinker," a "dialectician" and rarely, if ever, a dictator. However, Pang has clear reasons for presenting us with a different face of Mao, the architect of the Cultural Revolution, an event that Anne Thurston describes as an "extreme situation" characterised by "loss of culture and of spiritual values, loss of status and honour, loss of career, loss of dignity," in wich between 1.5 and 2 million people were killed.[iv] Pang's intention is not to take a "'historicist'" approach to the Cultural Revolution as this would mean "dichotomising description and interpretation." She argues that only focussing on the "calamities" or on the numbers killed "does not result in new perspectives when it comes to understanding history" because "description attempts to reinstate the past as it actually happened; it makes claims to be indisputable and unchangeable." Pang further argues that a "factual description makes any reading beyond the dominant ethical condemnation difficult, and it also allows the critic to easily detach from the object of criticism." In the age of alternative facts, one feels one must try to stand up for factual descriptions to a certain extent. Many disciplines such as history do for understandable reasons focus on "factual description" and details such as casualties and numbers killed. To argue that a focus on such details would always lead to a reading that is "indisputable" is something that any historian worth his or her weight in such archival detail would of course dispute. One could also argue that a "factual description" that included references to documents that detail human casualties for certain events would also not necessarily lead the critic to become "easily detach[ed] from the object of criticism," but, on the contrary, would lead the critic to be ever more mindful of the nature of the project in hand. One can only suppose that Pang is trying to justify an approach to the Cultural Revolution that does not make the violence and the brutality of the period the central focus, and of course, this is what non-experts like myself really need so as to fully understand this era.

Pang's book offers a brilliant and urgently needed approach, one that in our post-truth age takes up an oft-cited challenge to expertism. She returns us to the daily grind in the form of the art of the "ordinary people," and in doing so opens up theories of art, art practice and cultural theory to whole new vistas of enquiry that take their lead from Asian forms of cultural production. Pang's clear and incisive critiques and readings and her important first-hand archival discoveries and investigations demonstrate that popular Western theories come up short when detailing with the lived realities of life under Mao in the Cultural Revolution. In a sense, one feels this is a book that seeks to reinvent and reappraise our most basic understanding of what it means to be creative.

[i] Bonnin, Michel, The Lost Generation: The Rustication of China's Educated Youth (1968–1980), Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2013.


[iii] "Xi calls for strengthened ideological work in colleges":

[iv] Frank Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976, Bloomsbury, 2016. 432 pgs.

 Michael O'Sullivan teaches English literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and is a co-editor of the academic journal, Hong Kong Studies. He writes creatively on literature and education and also through poems and short stories. His recent book is Academic Barbarism, Universities and Inequality.
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