A Review of Performing an Absent China: Cultural Propaganda in Anti-Communist Taiwan in the 1950’s and 1960’s, by Ching-Yi Huang.
Dr. Ching-Yi Huang’s dissertation touches on two academic areas of enquiry typically overlooked by Taiwanese scholars, studies of the diaspora and the link between state-building and visual and oral sources, especially dramas and plays. On the former, Taiwanese scholar Antonia Chao notes that, compared to Western academia, diaspora studies has not been utilized by many scholars in Taiwanese academia. She suggests that under the framework of “ethnic studies” researchers often identify “Chinese exiles” with Waishengren (Mainlanders who fled mainland China for Taiwan after 1949) and usually neglect their multiple life experiences, as well as being blind to gender. (Antonia Chao, “A forever banished uterus: Chinese diaspora, fertility, and the politics of suffering,” Taiwan: A radical quarterly in social studies 41 (March, 2001): 55-60.) Huang’s research fills this gap. Her dissertation, Performing an Absent China: Cultural Propaganda in Anti-Communist Taiwan in the 1950’s and 1960’s, presents a clear picture of the means by which Mainlanders tried to construct their homeland, memories, and identity in Taiwan after 1949.
On the latter, research into visual and oral material has been treated as a source of important historical evidence by researchers in the last decade. Peter Burke, a historian of cultural history suggests, “It would not have been possible for them to carry out research in these relatively new fields if they had limited themselves to traditional sources such as official documents, produced by administrations and preserved in their archives.” (Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images of Historical Evidence. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001, p. 9) In her dissertation Huang, a drama scholar, deftly uses both visual and oral sources in order to shed light on how the anti-Communist propaganda of the Nationalist Party (KMT) shaped its social and cultural ideology as an anti-Communist regime.
Due to their popularity, theatre and cinema were the two most important arenas through which the KMT demonstrated its anti-Communist ideology during the 1950s and 1960s. These abundant visual and verbal representations, however, have seldom been examined by either Chinese or Western scholars. Huang utilizes other sources to complement her analysis such as stories, novels, poems, literary criticism, and public speeches. This is therefore not simply a study of “anti-Communist propaganda,” but as the researcher herself puts it, “In my examination of the verbal and visual texts, I consider how state policies, political agendas, social attitudes, and psychological desires can be understood in terms of nationalism, feminism, class distinctions, and recent theories of post-colonialism” (p.17). Throughout this eloquent interdisciplinary study of profuse verbal and visual sources, five dimensions in “anti-Communist” Taiwan emerge. They are Chinese nationalism, the omnipresent and omnipotent image making for Chiang Kei-shek, virtuous Chinese women, class, and ethnicity in an imaginary China.
In Chapter 1, “Performing Chinese Nationalism in Anti-Communist Taiwan: National Language and Chinese Spoken Drama,” Huang first analyzes the power relationship between Chinese language and other languages of Taiwan, including how Mandarin became a privileged language on the island. As a tool to “de-Japanize” and “Sinicize” the Taiwanese people, cultures, and languages through schools and government policies (p.29), Mandarin in the 1950s became the only legitimate language for cultural activities such as dramas, films, and traditional operas in Taiwan, making it dominant among other local counterparts. After elaborating the intimate relationship between Guoyu (the National Language), spoken drama, and cultural policies in post-war Taiwan, Huang closely explores the origins of the ideology of spoken drama in the individualism and nationalism of the May Fourth movement. Taiwanese spoken drama (xinju) was incorporated into the ideology later to serve these goals as Chinese spoken drama became part of the anti-Communist ideology of the Cold war era. Once an intellectual and revolutionary activity during the Republican era, spoken drama was transformed in the 1950s to correspond with the social values at the core of the KMT’s nationalistic goals. This nationalism became an “active dissemination of ideology” and the “conduct of everyday behavior.” Huang explains, “spoken drama allows playwrights to dissolve a nationalistic ideology into everyday realism—a realism that depicts an everyday life constantly filled with Communist threats” (p.60).
In Chapter 2, “Performing an Omnipresent and Omnipotent Chinese Leader: the Image Making for Chiang Kei-shek,” Huang closely examines the process of Chiang Kei-shek’s glorification. Through an analysis of the imagery, visual codes, and verbal descriptions used on stage, in theaters, newspapers, textbooks, and public spectacles for Taiwanese people, this chapter demonstrates how “performativity” was central to the process of Chiang’s glorification. As he was an unfamiliar, remote, and physically absent political leader to Taiwanese society, anti-Communist ideals, films, and plays became the most effective vehicles for constructing an omnipresent and omnipotent image of Chiang in Taiwanese everyday life. Moreover, national celebrations such as Chiang Kai-shek’s birthday and National Day (Double Tenth Day) also became occasions to demonstrate Taiwanese reverence toward Chiang. Though he seemed omnipresent in Taiwanese society at the time, the irony was that Chiang was physically absent from Taiwanese life. People could only come into contact with his representation, not his physical presence. Meanwhile, through assertions of Chiang’s connection to Koxinga (also known as Zheng Chenggong, cast as a Ming loyalist who stabilized Taiwan as a military base from which he and his followers fought against the Manchus who had conquered the Mainland) (p.82) and Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Chiang whitewashed his previous failures and established his legitimacy as leader of the whole of China. However, these illusions all collapsed after the death of Chiang and his son, which can be seen clearly by how Chiang’s statues are ill-treated in contemporary Taiwan.
In Chapter 3, “Performing a Virtuous Chinese Woman in the Nation Building of Anti-Communist Taiwan,” Huang shows how the KMT came to focus on the role of women in the process of building an anti-communist state on Taiwan. For the KMT, women became a metaphor for national dignity, a border between man and monster, and the private and public sphere. A sexual line was also drawn between good and bad women. At the outset of this chapter, Huang elaborates how the need for a “home” to satisfy those Mainlanders who fled to Taiwan in 1949 confined women to the private sphere, while it also reinforced a Confucian hierarchy of nation-building. The hierarchical relationship between the nation and the family can also be seen in the image-making of Chiang as the leader of “Free China” and his wife, Madame Chiang (p.124). Both became gender role models, advocating the view that women take care of the family while men protect their nation in the army. While women who followed the KMT’s ideology were cast as “good,” female Communists were seen as evil and dangerous. This was vividly depicted in plays, literature, comic books, and films in 1950s Taiwan. Also, “sex” was used rhetorically to stigmatize Communist women as a threat to the chastity of women who held anti-communist beliefs. At the end of this chapter, Huang discusses the intriguing relationship between women’s physical appearance—their dress, hairstyles, adornment, and body language—and the sexual line drawn between good and bad women. She shows how women’s bodies were constructed according to concepts of nation-building and male desire.
How upper- and middle-class society was imagined differently and depicted in plays and films in anti-Communist Taiwan is investigated in Chapter 4, “Performing an Upper and Middle class Society in Anti-Communist Taiwan.” Huang uses realist films as analytical texts, a genre which the KMT government launched in the 1960s when it realized that the slogan of a return to China was politically ineffective. Class, however, in this context is viewed as a term to “classify” people in Taiwan. The main reason for distinguishing class difference is to shape the middle class (primarily Mainlanders) and the lower working-class (mainly native Taiwanese people). Huang closely compares the difference in definitions of class between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT. By using political theories (Sun’s “Three Peoples Principles” and Communism), the KMT replaced upper- and lower-class in its campaign against the CCP (p.159). All classes would live happily under Sun’s doctrine carried out by the KMT. Since the reality of different classes was not the concern of the KMT, it is not difficult to understand why the countryside was constructed as a heaven for the working class. However, the absence of the working class in anti-Communist propaganda has been discussed publicly since the late 1970s. Zhu Tianxin’s work, Xiangwo juancun de xiongdimen (想我眷村的兄弟們 Thinking of My Fellow Brother in the Military Dependents’ Village) (Taipei: Maitian chubanshe, 1992) was one of the most important to reveal class divisions among Mainlanders in post-war Taiwan. Zhu explains that Mainlanders perceiving themselves as an elite and superior class was a fraud. She argues that this protected the Mainlanders’ sense of self-identity and their place in the government’s hierarchy (p.195).
In the last chapter, “Performing an Imaginary China in Time and Space: Presentations of Ethnicity in Anti-Communist Propaganda,” Huang discusses how Chinese nostalgia was represented in Anti-Communist plays, films, songs, and opera. Huang dwells on the mentality of those Mainlanders who retreated to a small island with Chiang Kei-shek when they were young boys, which led to an increase in the production of literary works of nostalgia, especially in novels, poetry, and plays during the 1950s. To represent the deep nostalgic idea of China as “the lost homeland,” Mainlanders who fled to Taiwan after 1949 retold an imaginary history of China, reconstructed memories from China, and created a Chinese time and space in anti-Communist songs. In these anti-Communist plays, films, songs, and opera, Taiwan was absent and Taiwanese culture was misrepresented. From Huang’s dissertation, we can vividly perceive how an absent China was performed in the cultural propaganda of anti-Communist Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s.
Academic Writing Education Center
National Taiwan University
Anti-Communist films (反共電影 fangong dianying) such as:
Jietouxiangwei 街頭巷尾 (Our Neighbor)
Meiyou nüren de difang 沒有女人的地方 (Where There Is No Woman)
Healthy Realist films (健康寫實電影 jiankang xieshi dianying) such as:
Yangya renjia 養鴨人家 (Beautiful Duckling)
Taiwanese language films (台語電影 Taiyu dianying) such as:
Wangge Liuge you Taiwan (Brother Liu and Brother Wang on the Roads in Taiwan 王哥柳哥遊臺灣)
Plays such as:
Chen Wenquan 陳文泉, Yinrongjie (Reunion 音容劫)
University of Washington, 2013. 275pp. Adviser: Thomas Postlewait.
Image: Yangya renjia 養鴨人家 (Beautiful Duckling). Courtesy of http://tavis.tw/files/16-1000-11237.php.