Week 2 QQC Thread: Mao’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum” and Jason McGrath’s “Communists Have More Fun!”

1937 Mao Zhou Qin in Yan'an.jpgFor our first “QQC” discussion (see syllabus) we’ll be exploring two texts. One, a primary source, is Mao Zedong‘s “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Art and Literature” from 1942 (for a brief background on the talks, see here.)

The other text is a secondary work (i.e., a work of scholarship and analysis of the topic) by Jason McGrath entitled, “Communists Have More Fun! The Dialectics of Fulfillment in Cinema of the People’s Republic of China,” from the journal World Picture 3 (2009).

See the course syllabus for guidelines for readings and the QQC – Quote / Question / Comment – assignment. Simply share your QQC thoughts on one of the assigned readings below in comments here. (Don’t forget that both are to be read for classtime, of course…)

Posting deadline: midnight on Sunday.

Image: Mao Zedong (center) along with Zhou Enlai (left) and other comrades, at the Yenan base area, 1937. Source: Wikimedia commons.

14 thoughts on “Week 2 QQC Thread: Mao’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum” and Jason McGrath’s “Communists Have More Fun!”

  1. Hi All!
    Just learned that we had an old thread from 2014 for this film discussion appearing–so two threads were up at once. I’ve removed the old one and will copy the new comments that had started at the end there below. More in a sec! – Dr. Fernsebner

  2. From brilliantz:
    “At the time (when Mao was a student) I felt that intellectuals were the only clean people in the world, while in comparison workers and peasants were dirty…but after I became a revolutionary and lived with workers and peasants and with soldiers of the revolutionary army, I gradually came to know them well, and they gradually came to know me well too. It was then, and only then, that I fundamentally changed the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois feelings implanted in me in the bourgeois schools.” (Mao 462)
    I really like this passage because of it’s powerful language. The imagery of clean vs dirty is especially strong. The issue is that Mao is putting all the pressure on the educated urban elites to change their ways and become “clean.” In fact, his statement abut bourgeois feelings being “implanted” in him through education is troubling.
    This passage is also very useful for Mao as a leader. It depicts him as the literal personification on a unified China which has transcended social and class boundaries. It helps ally him with both the educated elites and the poor masses without really alienating either one.
    I wonder how much of an issue the educated masses were for the communist authority. In the documentary, they showed that in the 1970s most young students seemed to be very much a part of the cult of Mao. Though this speech was given in the 1940s it could be the explanatory factor for how the propaganda that targeted the youth really got started. Did Mao ever think that China might be too big or too populated for them to think with “one mind and one heart?” Or did he believe that if the art and literature was cunning and persistent enough he could actually succeed?
    -Zainab Imbabi

  3. And Taylor O’Dell:

    “Whether sex is sublimated by politics or politics by sex, an interesting question that arises is how the repressed might return. In both cases in the history of PRC cinema, it appears to return in the form of narrative conventions or genre citations that ultimately are subverted or belied by the overall narrative system of the film (McGrath 5).”

    This section from Jason McGrath’s research of communism in Chinese cinema brings up questions of the use of sex interlaced in politics. Or as otherwise stated, the use of sex in a film portrays governmental control or actions. McGrath specifically examines how the repressed is portrays in relationships in Chinese film. For instance, in relationships that happen on screen (such as Letter from an Unknown Woman or Summer Palace); there is some connection the political actions occurring at the time that the film was made. There is someone who is in control and someone who is the repressed. Or there is someone who is a representative of a government ideology. In the Red Detachment of Women, McGrath examines how the female protagonist advocates for the communist ideals and the development of her relationship balances her efforts. Another important note to make is that Mao’s government controlled the media/entertainment. Therefore, the Communist party wanted to portray the ideal citizens in their film. An ideal citizen is one who would put the purpose and motives of the party above their own needs and interests.

    Ideals can also be challenged. If the protagonist is representing an ideal and their love interest is against that ideal, how will the protagonist act? Will the protagonist still have a fling with the love interest or will the ideals rise above all to show that the government is superior to all, even love?

    The aspect of love and relationships in Chinese cinema bring up other questions about human nature. What is more important to humans (specifically the Chinese during Mao’s era); love or the government (e.g. Mao’s regime)? Could it be justified to say that people will have a stronger alliance to the teachings of their government as opposed to love because of the actions during the Cultural Revolution?

  4. From mbooth:

    “Since many writers and artists stand aloof from the masses and lead empty lives, naturally they are unfamiliar with the language of the people. Accordingly, their works are not only insipid in language but often contain nondescript expressions of their own coining that run counter to popular usage. Many comrades like to talk about ‘a mass style.’ But what does it really mean? It means that the thoughts and feeling of our writers are artists should be fused with those of the masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers.” (Mao 461-462)

    This passage really spoke to me because it in way it a lot like how we use persuasion today. The technique I see Mao using here is the “plain folk” technique. This is a technique where the speaker represents themselves as the average person so they can show how they can empathize with the audience. For example, cleaning supply commercials that portray a stay at mother. I think that Mao really executed this well as he understood the need for these artists and writers to understand and connect with “the masses”. Along with that, he went further with this by also pushing artists towards the revelation for all of the people in the masses who were illiterate.

    How many other propaganda techniques did Mao use? And if he did use many different techniques I wondering if he was aware of his use at that time and if he used these techniques intentionally.

  5. And jbaker24:

    The quote that I chose from Jason McGarth’s article, ” Communists Have More Fun! The Dialectics of Fulfillment in Cinema of the People’s Republic of China”. It states, “Nevertheless, it is fair to state as generalization that the idea of happiness conveyed by all of these genres revolved around the cultivation of an ever more public self, a forward-looking subject whose libidinal organization and object choices were intimately link to the total project of revoluion.”
    It can be viewed that the fil industry at the time was only showing one side of the Communist region. It was not able to picture what was happening around the country, total disarray, but a light and cheerful almost content. They try to portray that the communist life style was so much better and happier than those still believing in the old way of life. The people of China did not have a choice but to play along with these ideals.
    My question would be why was it so important for the Chinese government to portray their country, even to the people in it, so happy? What made it so demanding to keep up the facade of it all and why did people fall in line so easy to these ideals?

  6. Good start, btw! Very apt questions and observations here. Visions of workers and peasants vs. intellectuals invoked, and represented… notions of love (and ideals–how do these relate? Or are they opposed? How does that work amid revolution?….) What is a “public self” and what is its relationship to happiness in that revolutionary era? Keep it coming!

    One thing to keep in mind is that the government itself is also made up of people — we’ll want to think of what a director’s aim is as we watch the film tomorrow night and how it might fit with what Mao set forth in his text (and, perhaps, complicates it…)

  7. I chose to focus on Jason McGrath’s piece and particularly on the recurring theme of “libidinal sublimation” which I understood as “the hero gets the girl”. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, Mao Zedong as perfectly described by Ban Wong, masterfully controls politics and social discourse through the psyche of the individual. Chris Berry adds “attempts to arouse revolutionary ardor by the arousal of libidinal drives and their redirection towards the object of revolution.” (Berry, CHMF, 3). The quote I particularly latched onto was:

    “Far from repressing the individual’s psychic and emotional energy in a puritanical fashion, Communism is quite inclined to display it—with a political sleight of hand. It recycles the energy, as if it were waste products or superfluous material lying outside the purposive march of history by rechanneling it into transforming the old and making the new individual. This method launches individuals on the way to a more passionate and often ecstatic state of mind and experience… (leading to) an intense emotional exuberance (which) marks Communist culture,” and instead of seeing the sublimation process as “the dreaded ‘collectivization of the self’” of Cold War caricature, we should acknowledge that in revolutionary films of the Mao era (as was likely the case for many in the revolution itself), it is precisely through collective action that the individual finds the greatest meaning and fulfillment.”
    This idea of forgoing one’s personal identity for the greater collective good is an idea that has permeated all forms of society today. I find the ideology to be the most effective in team sports whether it be on the youth, recreational or professional level. Whether it be volunteer parents pushing kids to achieve their goal together, or pro athletes restricted by maximum contract allowance salaries, athletes have the idea beaten into their heads that no matter their own great personal achievements, monetary worth compared to others of similar skillsets, they are only ever remembered as great if they were a part of a championship team. Athletes are constantly criticized for choosing higher paying contracts on under performing collective teams, rather than taking a lesser salary, working just as hard as they would on other teams often times risking and playing through injury, at the possibility of being a part of a championship team.
    Other examples I have found of libidinal sublimation include political power, fame and fortune, giving oneself to the body of an established church within a religion, the main objectives within video games such as Super Mario Bros rescuing the princess or more detailed, expansive role playing games focused on character and relationship development such as Mass Effect. There is a driving factor of love, adulation, intimate romance, or less complex suggestion of lustful gains once collective goal is accomplished. The online theories of Super Mario Bros actually being a communist propaganda campaign of Joseph Stalin, the “communist super man” were extremely interesting and make a strong argument for the game’s purpose of implanting Marxist idealism of toppling established monarchy (http://www.nedmartin.org/v3/amused/communist-mario). True or not, it certainly was a fun adventure as a communist indeed! It even ends with you getting the girl.
    Films today even follow Wong’s example of the “political sleight of hand” for the opposite draw described by McGrath’s passage of “Reverse Sublimination” in reviewing “Summer Palace” where the line blurs of whether sex is used to drive towards politics, or politics is used to drive towards sex. The idea that sex is to be shamed and is self destructive outside of a meaningful collective, controlled union is displayed daily in American society and culture, throughout the news, politically conservative officials, movies which promote a religious message of self discovery (directed by Tyler Perry most prominently) and even by the religious Christian churches themselves. That uncontrolled, sex lowers human worth and value, causes spiraling destructive behavior, and leads to a life of unhappiness. The cause is what should never be lost sight of to control such carnal desires, and the cause is what will fulfill them. It’s a hypocritical message to say the very least, in my experience I have seen many individuals stray away from the church after a strict life of abstaining pleasure, shunning desires and constant threat of eternal damnation, not joining everyone else in the paradise of Heaven also used in China in Revolution, even after being married continuing to abstain from the intangible evil sin. Religion indeed is perhaps the most powerful political tool in world history used to justify war, social behavior, and unquestioned control.
    My question: Why? Why did people then under Mao’s regime as well as now in our political spectrum never stop to ask: Why am I doing this? Why is this of any concern to any omnipresent being? Why must I submit myself to a way of life that says only through this way of life will I achieve salvation, yet have to do so by the interpretation of the state which is in contradiction of the books teachings? Why am I never allowed to enjoy the same pleasures and advantages of the officials above me? Why does no one question a leader who fails to live by their own creed? Why do the rules apply until they don’t apply? Why am I to believe what a supposed leader is stating is true or false without showing proof of their claims?
    No one stopped to ask why Mao Zedong was able to contradict himself every several years, even when the economy was flourishing, famine subsiding, education and arts being imparted onto our youth in spite of his absence, if he stated it was wrong then loyal followers immediately changed their entire lives and goals. If there is one thing I want my generation to do now that I believe generations before us failed at doing so often throughout world history was asking the simple question.

  8. When I went to post originally saw another copy of this thread it had 24 replies and this one only had two. I wonder where all the other ones went I had been checking to see if I had a unique stance and then I signed in and poof. I hope we do not have any more technological snafus. Here is my QQC:

    I chose my quote from the writings of McGrath, “a certain pathology emerges that effectively makes some form of self-destruction a condition of personal fulfillment.” I read this to mean in order to find happiness we must in some way harm ourselves. This brought rise to a question I had about some of the things that we said happened in last class. Does this self destruction rise from destroying a piece of their past or are they destroying something else? Having the class below rise up, as the peasants did to the land lords, and change their perceived power and with greater happiness as a result. These peasants then had to share this land destroying the identity of who owns what it this arrangement but brought greater production. This then lead to giving up the idea that anyone person with in the community owned the land when communes were introduced which had thought to bring even greater prosperity. another instance of destroying something that should have lead to fulfillment would be when the students of the red guard rose up to “Revolution” and lost some identifying factor of their consciousness as human beings to recognize their actions as immoral. these all show some form of self destruction but does not really say what it is that was destroyed in the attempts to reach the forms of perceived fulfillment.

  9. As Jason McGrath wrote in his article, “The spectatorial desire to see the potential romance consummated is redirected to the didactic function of a cinema explicitly aimed at serving the Communist revolution.”
    I found this particular quote interesting. It described how movies like “Red Detachment of Women” and “Song of Youth ” by describing the relationships between the two characters, who are noticeably are drawn towards one another in both a romantic and political way. These movies reject the “classic Hollywood romantic” genre all the while using the same camera angles and shots for the potentially romantic scenes. This generates a romantic feeling towards the political lens.
    Is this style of editing convincing? Do you think that this helps the message to be sent or does it hinder it?

  10. “A person who acts solely by motive and does not inquire what effect his action will have is like a doctor who merely writes prescriptions but does not care how many patients die of them. Or take a political party that merely makes declarations but does not care whether they are carried out. It may well be asked, is this a correct stand? And is the intention here good? . . . In judging a party or a doctor, we must look at practice, at the effect. The same applies in judging a writer. A person with truly good intentions must criticize the shortcomings of their own work with the utmost candor and resolve to correct them” (Mao 481).

    In this quote and the surrounding text, Mao speaks of the importance of effect over intention, and thus the importance of self-criticism. Mao uses allegory to show the importance of self-criticism to the revolutionary artist. At the heart of the paragraph is the belief that art is serious business, and as such an artist must put thought into the effect of their expression. This belief is obviously very efficacious for a political party currently engaged in a revolution, however, it seems to regard art more as a tool rather than an end in itself. While arguably a limiting view, it does provide a solid rubric for the improvement of art, which, if art is viewed as an essential part to maintaining a healthy society, is a good thing to have. Parallel to this debate, there is also the question of whether art is improved by being based in a purpose outside itself, such as the advancement of politics, or whether this belief limits artistic expression by subordinating art to politics.

  11. My quote is from Mao’s “Talks at the Yan’an Forum”

    “Among the proletariat many retain petit bourgeois ideas, and both the peasants and the urban petite bourgeoisie have backward ideas; these are burdens hampering them in their struggle. We should be patient and spend a long time in educating them and helping them to get these loads off their backs and combat their own shortcomings…. so that they can advance with great strides. They have remolded themselves in struggle or are doing so, and our literature and art should depict this process.” (p.460)

    This quote ties in many of the themes that Mao’s speech at the Yan’an Forum. Above is mentioned, the need for revolutionary art to sprout from the common experience of the worker/peasant/soldier, a desire that art and literature accurately reflect the process of revolution, and the necessary reeducation all comrades whose class prevented them from ideologically correct maoist thought. The metaphor Mao uses in comparing the ideological burden of bourgeois thought as a physical weight upon the people is mirrored by the physical burdens taken on by the intellectuals and artists as they join the ranks of Mao’s cadre and the workers and peasants of China toiling in the field and working to resist Japan and create Mao’s China. Later on in the speech from Yan’an, Mao stresses that these bourgeois ideas are persistent and remain within many who now labor and resist the Japanese. Mao explicitly states that “at least eight or ten years” of working and living besides the peasants and workers of China would be necessary to truly reeducate the populace in the common values of Maoism. Furthermore this notion of reeducation would be prevalent in the People’s Republic China (PRC) under Mao’s rule. During the Great Proletarian Culture Revolution, Mao’s youth were educated to reject the values of their parents and to “struggle” against the wealthier landowners or intellectuals who had spoken out or criticized the Communist Party. These intellectuals were labeled as “rightists” and were ostracized and beaten.

    How did Mao’s use of the arts as propaganda for the anti-Japan movement compare to Soviet use of art to appeal to the patriotic interests of their citizens?

  12. Ok, so I’m operating on a better safe than sorry approach with this QQC. I thought that we had to do a QQC every week for that week’s readings but I can’t find a thread for this week’s. There might not be one but in case there is I’m posting one now on the Benson reading for the week.

    “Penalties could be harsh, including fines up to 15% of a family’s annual income and no free schooling or health care for an unauthorized second child.” -Benson 54

    This is interesting to me because the penalties are less harsh for rich families. But, you would expect that the richest families would be more educated and therefore want less children to begin with. It’s the farming families who would want as many sons as possible but the rich urban elite who could easily afford to have multiple children would probably be more drawn to the idea of having just one child.

    The book didn’t mention what would happen for multiple births. If you have twins or triplets would you be punished? Also, what if you wanted to adopt orphans or abandoned children? Could you easily do that to add to you’re authorized one child? That seems like a pretty easy loophole for those farmers to get extra farm hands.

    -Zainab Imbabi

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