Aesthetic Afterlives of the Cultural Revolution


A review of Wounds in Time: The Aesthetic Afterlives of the Cultural Revolution, by Yiju Huang.

Yiju Huang’s dissertation is an investigation of the Cultural Revolution through its aesthetic and literary afterlives in the post-Mao era. The dissertation takes as its point of departure the widespread notion that the Cultural Revolution was a “colossal catastrophe,” and proceeds to examine the ways in which traumatic traces were embedded within works of literature, art, and cinema. Focusing on how people produce meanings in the aftermath of a major historical event, Huang argues against the attempts of the CCP to bring the subject of the Cultural Revolution to premature closure, in its attempt to transfer the country’s attention to a fetishized future of economic development and modernization. Instead of understanding the Cultural Revolution as exclusively belonging to a bygone era, Huang urges us to reopen the subject as “a nexus of unresolved and unfinished problems that spill beyond the threshold of the past” (p. 4).

The dissertation is divided into six chapters and a coda. The Introduction begins with a conceptual distinction between a wound and a scar. Unlike the scar, which entails hard tissue and is healable, the wound is “open, deep and festering” (p. 4). The wound, argues Huang, elicits aesthetic responses and artistic creativity from the wounded, thereby lurking “tenaciously in the shadow of historical time and disturbs its logic of progress and development” (p. 9). This is then followed by an investigation of the literary phenomenon known as “scar literature” in the early post-Mao years. In its desire to part with the traumatic past and celebrate a shining new era of modernization and progress, Huang argues, “scar literature” subscribed to a teleological vision of history and remained an integral part of official developmental narrative.

In Chapters 2 through 5 Huang examines several key moments of literary, artistic, and cinematic production in post-Mao China. Chapter 2 focuses on the “root-seeking” project of Han Shaogong 韩少功 (1952- ), one of the most important writers and cultural critics in contemporary China. Huang highlights the significance of plural forms of roots that Han has engaged with, and contends that what Han seeks after is not a canonical cultural root but a constellation of roots scattered in different spatial temporalities. Huang situates Han’s project of a pluralistic aesthetic in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution and China’s state-socialist legacy, arguing that Han’s project questions the history and language of centralization and universalization, and a splintering of the prevailing cultural norms of centrality, mastery, universalism, and developmentalist teleology.

Chapter 3 examines the autobiographic novel Daughter of Hunger 饥饿的女儿 (translated as Daughter of the River) by Hong Ying 虹影 (1962- ), one of the most talented female Chinese writers. The chapter reflects on the psychological and historical legacies of the great famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This chapter investigates three tropes that relate to the question of history, secrecy, and forbidden knowledge — the spatial, the bodily, and the psychological. In Chapter 4, Huang examines the series of paintings “Bloodline: Big Family” 血緣: 大家庭 by the prominent Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang 张晓刚 (1958- ), whose work represents a contribution to the understanding of the entanglement between past, present, and future. Zhang’s melancholic fixation with a ghostly family, according to Huang, speaks to the breakdown of familial and social relationships in China’s tumultuous recent past, and his artistic work function as a cultural remedy in response to the silence of official historiography.

Chapter 5 examines representations of the Cultural Revolution in film. The chapter seeks to go beyond the familiar double images of the youth — either “Mao’s flower children” or “Mao’s forsaken children.” Focusing on two filmic texts, In the Heat of the Sun 阳光灿烂的日子 and Postmodern Life of My Aunt 姨妈的后现代生活, Huang explores narratives revealing an alternative poetics of youth characterized by pluralism, malleability, and indeterminacy, arguing that their varied styles expose the limits of the prevailing monistic and homogenous image of history.

The last chapter is devoted to a discussion of writings of Ba Jin 巴金 (1904-2005), one of modern China’s best known writers, on the Cultural Revolution. Huang argues that Ba Jin, in pleading to build a Cultural Revolution Museum, in fact does not tell a simple, black and white story of perpetrators and victims, but rather constructs a more complex picture by raising important questions of moral ambiguity and responsibility.

Huang’s dissertation highlights the importance and urgency of historical reflection. Maintaining that the Maoist past is not a fixed temporal entity but a phantom that finds continuous cultural expressions, Huang’s work forms a meaningful moment in the tenacious process of historically reflecting on one of modern China’s most tumultuous episodes.

Yiching Wu
Assistant Professor
Department of East Asian Studies
University of Toronto

Primary Sources

Han Shaogong 韓少功, An shi 暗示. Yang Liu (ed.) Beijing: The People’s Literature Publishing House, 2008.
Han Shaogong 韓少功, A Dictionary of Maqiao (Maqiao cidian 马桥词典). Julia Lovell (trans.) New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Han Shaogong 韓少功, Da Ti Xiao Zuo 大题小作. Yang Liu (ed.) Beijing: The People’s Literature Publishing House, 2008.
Han Shaogong 韓少功, Homecoming and Other Stories (Hun xi guilai ji qita 魂兮归来及其他). Martha Cheung (trans.) Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 1995.
Hong Ying 虹影. Daughter of the River: An Autobiography (Ji’e de nü’er 饥饿的女儿). Howard Goldblatt (trans.) New York: Grove Press, 1998.
In the Heat of the Sun (Yangguang canlan de rizi 阳光灿烂的日子), directed by Jiang Wen 姜文 (1998).
The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (Yima de houxiandai shenghuo 姨媽的後現代生活), directed by Ann Hui 许鞍华 (2006).

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2011. 239 pp. Primary Advisor: Gary G. Xu.


Image: Poster of The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (Yima de houxiandai shenghuo 姨媽的後現代生活), directed by Ann Hui 许鞍华 (2006). Wikimedia Commons.

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