In a Field of Red Ruins: Yang Zhichao’s Chinese Bible

The following essay is the text of a speech made by Geremie R Barmé, Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World, at the opening of Yang Zhichao: Chinese Bible, 楊志超《中國聖經》(2009), an installation curated by Claire Roberts for the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF Project 26), Paddington, Sydney, 16 May 2015. — The Editors


It is a particular pleasure to have been invited to speak at the opening of this powerful new SCAF Project exhibition which features the work of another prominent contemporary Chinese artist. In March 2011, I was invited to SCAF by Gene Sherman to introduce the work of No Snow on the Broken Bridge, a multi-screen cinematic work by Yang Fudong, and it is a pleasant surprise to find that Yang’s work is also featured in the sororal exhibition of works from  Gene and Brian Sherman’s masterful collection, Go East, that opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales earlier this week.

In the first months of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, the people of China were called on to follow Mao Zedong and paint the world red. China was to be swept by a ‘sea of red’ 红海洋. Many took this exhortation literally. Soon, the Chinese capital Beijing was festooned with massive billboards and slogans featuring quotations from Chairman Mao painted on a red background. In the city of Shenyang, capital of the northeastern province of Liaoning, the main shopping street was not only plastered with Mao quotes, but many of the buildings were quite literally covered in red paint. Some forty years earlier, when the Nationalist (Kuomintang) forces of the Northern Expedition under Chiang Kai-shek approached Beijing, revolutionaries of that earlier age had suggested that the roofs of the Forbidden City be painted blue, the colour favoured by the Kuomintang.

Chinese Bible.Display

When I arrived in Shenyang as an exchange student, the red paint on the buildings in the heart of the city was fading, along with the spent ardour of those who less than a decade earlier had thought by destroying vestiges of the old order and covering everything in revolutionary red they would somehow transform China into the world centre of revolutionary change and progress.

A year before reaching Shenyang, I had been sent from the language school I’d been studying at in Beijing to Fudan University in Shanghai. One of my first, and most powerful, memories of that time was that of the acrid smell of burning paper and plastic that suffused the grim cement corridors of our dormitory. Late at night you would come across small smouldering piles of ash and debris, reminiscent of burnt paper offerings to the ancestors and gods that featured in the streets of Hong Kong on Hungry Ghost Festival, or the immolated sacrifices to deities in Tibetan towns. But these noisome ash cairns were of a different order. It was 1975, the dying days of the Cultural Revolution, and I soon learnt that the smokey piles were the remains of family correspondence or diary entries that my fellow students — called ‘Worker Peasant Soldier Study Officers’ 工农兵学员 in keeping with the risible egalitarianism of the day (teachers were not known by such feudal appellations as laoshi 老师 or xiansheng 先生, but as jiaoyuan 教员, ‘Instructional Officers’) — had consigned to oblivion in fear and trepidation that they might be found by a nosey classmate or a zealous political counsellor. Heaven knows, such things happened: the first struggle session I was subjected to came about when our Chinese invigilators found a front page of the People’s Daily sporting a portrait of Mao Zedong that had been used by a fellow foreign student in the communal toilet when he had run out of rationed loo paper.

Yang Zhichao’s Chinese Bible is an amassed account of unity in diversity. Three thousand diaries and notebooks contain entries as random as shopping lists and aides-memoir as numerous as the monotonous political study notes of Invincible Mao Zedong Thought that everyone had to jot down in that age of non-mechanical reproduction; but they share one distinct feature: they all conform to the general story, the only story allowed officially in China, during the Maoist years of 1949-1966 and then during High Maoism from 1966 until the Chairman’s death in 1976. This is a story of constant vigilance against ideological wavering and backsliding; unity in the face of shadowy threats, be they lurking in the hidden depths of one’s soul, or in the corrupting ideas and influences of the past or the outside world. They are The China Story of Mao Zedong writ large.

Today, Xi Jinping, China’s party-state Chairman of Everything, also extols and promotes a unified China Story. It’s a narrative that, like that of the days of Mao, would force a country of immense diversity into the straight-jacket of uniformity.
Chinese Bible.MaoLenin

Diaries are generally seen as a personal, and private record, but in the Surveillance Society of socialist China, the diary was, quite literally an open book, as indeed were those who wrote in them. A sad fate met many individuals who presumed to speak truthfully, and quietly, to themselves in the pages of a diary. One of China’s most famous ‘tragic diarists’ is Yu Luoke. A young man from a bad (that is, bourgeois) family background, Yu in the early phase of the Cultural Revolution recorded with extraordinary insight his views of Mao’s cataclysmic political movement. From its very inception he regarded it as a ‘palace coup’ 宫廷政变, one in which the broad masses and Red Guards were but useful idiots and cannon fodder, part of a parlour game of shifting political alliances and arcane power struggles. As the mayhem unfolded in Beijing and spread nationwide he noted in his diary that there was neither anything ‘cultural’ nor indeed ‘revolutionary’ about the movement at all. These are views now oft-repeated in the official Chinese media. At the time, they were an anathema.

Eventually, Yu Luoke’s diary fell into the hands of the authorities; it secretive mutterings led directly to him being shot in 1971. To this day, the Beijing police have only released a few precious pages of this astounding book. Other diaries in which their authors spoke frankly led to long prison terms, deprivations and years of repression.

By contrast, fabricated diaries of figures like the ‘good student of Chairman Mao’ 毛主席的好学生, Lei Feng, provided a model of pro-party bombast and sycophancy that continues to influence China today—Lei Feng is still held up as a paragon of virtue. As the oral historian Sang Ye notes in his illuminating, and disturbing, survey essay of the Chinese diary in the catalogue of this exhibition, the latest deluxe edition of Lei Feng’s Diary appeared as recently as 2013. The new publication comes with an accompanying blank diary that the publisher says will ‘encourage readers to carry on the diary of Lei Feng and spread his spirit’. Readers are encouraged to fill the pages of these exemplary new diaries in mimicry of China’s Red Samaritan Lei Feng and submit them to the publisher for reproduction and public edification.

In Yang Zhichao’s Chinese Bible we have diaries of a different order, as discussed by Claire Roberts in her wonderfully descriptive essay in the exhibition catalogue. Just as Yang and his wife spent months washing and cleaning the diaries they acquired at Panjia Yuan, what I call the ‘Garbage Garden’ of Beijing, so too their authors had spent years being ‘washed’ 洗澡 by political indoctrination so that nothing untoward sullied what were essentially public performances of the private.

The Communist era of China is known as a period of ‘mountains made of documents; oceans of drowning meetings’ 文山会海. In the very mass of diaries assembled by Yang Zhichao we have an installation reflective of both the physical volume and screaming logorrhoea of that time. Their covers and art work reflect the changing political impulses of China from the 1950s, and the fluctuating economic fortunes of the country (the quality of covers, paper and design are a measure of the rise and fall of the Chinese economy). They lie silent now, these prone mini paper corpses of aspiration and hope, remains of the quotidian grind and performative politics. They are a colourful and, to the uninitiated, a nearly comic mass, but they should allow also for sober reflection and melancholy, a mood born of the monumental and profligate waste of human ingenuity. This is a graveyard of plastic and paper, ink and art.

Chinese Bible is a Trümmerfeld, a field of ruins, and Yang Zhichao’s thoughtful endeavours are an elegy to the follies of mass manipulation.