Revolutionary art about more than just nostalgia and irony

At the Panjiayuan antiques market in Beijing, there are sleek sculptures of Chairman Mao Zedong, old stamps and yellowish newspapers representing the revolutionary age. Many who stop and ask about prices are elderly. They like these collectibles as much as they miss the red-tinged old days.

Looking through albums at wedding clubs, one may notice pictures of young Chinese couples dressed like Red Guards from the era of Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Indispensable elements are a spick and span uniform, a red star in hat and a Mao badge on the coat. Such wedding images, just like T-shirts and mugs with Maoist slogans, are part of a fashion among Chinese youngsters.

Browsing online, one may bump into a few video spoofs making fun of red classics. A latest example is a video integrating Cultural Revolution model drama with a recent Chinese folk song “Tante”. A male character from the model drama, who’s supposed to be very dignified, appears very amusing with his distorted face expressions dubbed over.

Both older people’s nostalgia and young peoples’ adoption of red fashion may help foreigners reinforce the impression that red culture is used for nothing more than nostalgia or irony.

But red culture has undergone a few changes. One important change is collective reflection on the pre-1980s personality cult. For many foreigners, images of China’s red culture are instantly reminiscent of the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution, and “red” is at times a sarcastic word. But that blind aspect of red culture has been removed for decades. Chinese society has a general consensus that such times will not come again.

But the red culture, which has undergone changes and shucked off prior excesses, remains a mainstream culture here in China. One of the primary reasons is that its basic contents are in accordance with age-old ideals in China.

Take equality and collectivism. In ancient China, these were held up as ideals for building an egalitarian society, and collectivism was something that helped foster Chinese temperament until today. Red culture is nothing mysterious – to some degree, it inherits and enlarges traditional Chinese values.

Patriotism is another major theme in red culture. Many of the old songs either depict the beauty of the country, or remind people of the possible dangers of foreign imperialism that China faced when it was previously weak. Some of these songs, like “My Motherland,” are still popular today and were sung by many during crises such as the 2009 Wenchuan Earthquake.

Today some young people claim they wanted to go back to the 1980s, or even the 1950s. They “miss” the supposed equality, plainness and social collectivism of those days. They long for meaning and wider purpose, and so talk up the past. Traditional Chinese values, or those of the revolutionary era, attract those who feel lost in an era of chaotic and contradicting values.

Three decades of economic shake-up have tarnished some old views, and make the society more pragmatic and rational. But meanwhile, the backbone of social ideas from traditional Chinese culture will continue.

China needs to do more in taking resources from red culture. It should vigorously take on the ideas of boosting equality, practicing diligence and bettering social integration through patriotism and collectivism.

Red culture is not a few symbolic elements that can be randomly cut and spliced for amusement. It includes much more serious social ideals that deserves to be carried on today.

By Chen Chenchen

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

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