Communism, Comics, and Cultural Revolution

On the Raymond Williams Society blog this month, Virginia L. Conn shares some of her fascinating research on lian huan hua. Virginia approaches these Chinese ‘comics’ as works which operate within the ‘parameters of science fiction’ in order to engage with and construct notions of utopia and futurity. Such concepts were also addressed by Williams in his writings on similar subjunctive tendencies, notably in the essay Utopia and Science Fiction, for Science Fiction Studies, and collected in Tenses of Imagination. Here, Virginia, who recently spoke at the RWS Annual Conference, explains how, within the context of the Cultural Revolution in China, a range of fictional and visual practices were deployed as both propaganda and pedagogical tools during attempts at state modernisation and technological development.

Virginia writes…

Labour was a complicated issue in socialist countries, conceptualized both as a necessity of every citizen but also a hardship from which the populace could be freed by further technological progress, allowing them to live a life of unburdened luxury. Before such a post-scarcity future could be achieved, however, states required the mass participation of their citizens, working both individually and together, to physically labour for the benefit of the body politic. In mainland China during the Cultural Revolution, for example, Mao Zedong claimed that to strengthen the nation would require curing ‘the first four illnesses’: ignorance, poverty, selfishness, and weak physiques. Each of these would be addressed and improved through manual labour, thus imposing legitimacy upon the national call for the populace to work at the limits of their physical capacities. To do so, however, required that the people be mobilized in the first place to contribute towards this shared vision of futurity; it was a difficult proposition given the relative isolation of many communities during the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) coupled with widespread illiteracy and a lack of access to contemporary mass entertainment culture.

A-long shifu yu xiaofeima (阿龙师傅与小飞马)
‘Mr. Ah-Long and Pegasus’

Here I will focus on a relatively unique textual exception to this state of affairs – the serialized booklets known as lian huan hua (连环画) or ‘linked serial pictures’ which can be very loosely translated as ‘comics’ – and the role they played in mobilizing individuals within a broader push towards nation-building labour. These were small booklets, usually between 50 to 100 pages in length, with about three-quarters of each page taken up by an illustration and the bottom quarter dedicated to explicative text. They were widely published in mainland China beginning in the 1920s but reached the peak of their dissemination in the 1960s and ‘70s following the Cultural Revolution and were largely promulgated as a way to bring information to the illiterate masses. Lian huan hua were used as a tool of education and propaganda in the state’s move towards modernization, and as a result there were innumerable examples contained within their pages of the impact of trains, mining, agricultural improvements, electricity, telephone lines, and shipping techniques on both the development of the country and on individual lives. By combining public health and public works propaganda with narrative and images, lian huan hua were used as pedagogical tools for children, peasants, and the illiterate, and as such the narratives being presented are idealized in the extreme. This does not detract from their value as historical artifacts, however, and indicates the way that the publishers sought to establish and shape mass opinion of the nation-building process.

What’s more, despite popular misconceptions, lian huan hua were never exclusively intended as youth literature, though they were, indeed, popular with younger readers. Their sequential illustrations were also popular with readers possessing low levels of literacy: a broadly-defined umbrella group particularly targeted by the Communist Party leadership during the Cultural Revolution as a means of bringing the utopian drive towards modernity to the country’s peasants, upon whose shoulders the process of nation-building was borne. It has been estimated that as much as 85-90% of China’s total population was illiterate by the time the Communist Party seized power in 1949, after which, through mass literacy campaigns, that rate was reduced to roughly 15% by 1990 and 6% by the turn of the twenty-first century.

Feiying ya (飞鹰崖)
‘Eagle Cliff’

Yet while lian huan hua saw their heyday in the decade immediately following the Cultural Revolution, they eventually faded into obscurity with the rise of increased access to television and the growing popularity of Japanese manga on the international market. Increased literacy also had some degree of influence on the gradual scaling back of these materials, especially their dissemination amongst the peasantry. At the height of their popularity, though, they were often the only textual materials available in rural or impoverished areas while remaining a staple of urban centres and among the elite. A cornerstone of their popularity was that they were often intended to didactically convey information without the necessity of literacy. Those peasants and uneducated ‘readers’ could often glean basic information without needing to follow the accompanying text, while literate readers were able to supplement their experience through both words and images. Central to the aim of my wider research project is the interplay between what was envisioned and what was explained, and the way that the text often created various tensions with the image in its vision of the role of the individual’s labour to national development.

The texts analyzed here were never intended as a group to be classified as science fiction or to be received by the audience as such. So, instead of focusing on the recognition and dissemination of science fiction by the state, I want to focus on the ways in which certain socialist realist texts functioned within many of the same parameters used in science fiction for defining, demonstrating, and representing a development plan for futurity that was immediately actionable. One of the most salient characteristics of the lian huan hua considered here is the visual component, which made visible the embodiment of the individual and the group in a very literal way. The link between ideological ideation and corporeal representation was explicitly remarked upon in Maoist rhetoric, which saw ‘the people’ as a blank page upon which the state could be drawn:

‘Apart from their other characteristics, the outstanding thing about China’s 600 million people is that they are “poor and blank.” This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for changes, the desire for action, and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written; the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted’.[1]

China’s ‘600 million people’, described in aggregate as a blank sheet of paper upon which the ‘most beautiful pictures can be painted’, must be written, drawn, and created into a future that does not yet exist. It is by their own actions that such a future can and will be conceptualized; to bring about something that does not yet exist, they must labour to create a vision that is already dependent upon their creation in the present. The concept of ‘envisioning’ the future is not idle metaphor here; as both a prediction of future development and as a material practice, the future and the roles that citizens would play in it were described and shaped through visualization.

Shang daxue (上大学)
‘Going to University’

On one hand, then, we have visual depictions of the individuals who are themselves drawn into being through a process of visualization that imagines them as blank canvasses upon which the future can be written. On the other hand, we have an image of the future that can only be envisioned by depending on the contemporary labour of this in-process labour force performing to bring it about. Two separate acts of creation are in play: the present individual and mass body politic, visualized as the present of a future yet to come, and the developed national future, predicated on the actions of the contemporary body politic. Neither can be envisioned without the other, and their development as separate goals is co-imbricated in the concurrent conceptualization of the other.

This is the point at which the futurity of a science fictional register becomes intimately intertwined with the developmental goals and dissemination of the state. In revolutionary-era China, throughout the rise of the early communist regime, the imagery of futurity used to describe the inevitable development of individuals and groups was appropriated to depict the extant technological and social prowess of the state.

Socialist realism’s ideological commitment to representing the world as a diegetic and explicable phenomenon was a direct result of its outgrowth from a Marxist dialectical materialism that eschewed abstract concepts of ‘progress’ with a measured commitment to explication and superstructural foundations. It may be stating the obvious to note that such an artistic vision was fundamentally incompatible with the concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ or of an aesthetic register divorced from ‘real’ experiences. Art and artistic representations were meant to reflect lived realities and, in the aspirational register often adopted by socialist realism in a broad sense and socialist science fiction in a narrower one, the immediate future that could and would be attained.

Thus, while Maoist strictures regulated the flights of fancy that could be taken in pursuit of a communist national future, they produced an equally interesting mode of narrative utopianism that Nathanial Isaacson has identified as a ‘quotidian utopia’.[2] This was a mass-produced vision of a utopian future brought about through decidedly non-fantastical means and promulgated to the public as an explicit part of Mao’s modernization strategy. It is perhaps best understood here as a mode of implied development, rather than a narrative centred around an advanced technological system. Examples might include enticing volunteers towards public works in order to create a national railway system, the development of new agricultural techniques to ensure a post-scarcity future, or achieving the dream of physical and moral hygiene through a hand-washing campaign. That is, a utopian future for the nation was not described nor presented to the public as science fiction as such, yet retained its eye for future progress through quotidian means. This is where the value of reading lian huan hua as science fictional (if not explicitly science fiction) lies.

Shamo de chuntian (沙漠的春天)
‘Desert Spring’

What’s important to note here is twofold: one, the shift away from ‘science fiction as such’ to science fiction as a predictive mode utilizing realist narrative and unremarkable technologies, and two, the fact that such literatures have not, historically, been recognized as belonging to the strictly-defined genre of science fiction because their setting is firmly in the present. Yet I would argue that they are no less science fictional simply because their future utopian dreams now seem to us to be rather commonplace for having (largely) been achieved; on the contrary, their use of innovative technologies to bring about a scientifically-advanced modern society and their wide dissemination to the people renders this brand of quotidian utopian fiction an unparalleled attempt to bring the masses to the future through literary means. The fact that much of this literature and writing is dismissed as propaganda or not treated as worthy of academic investigation is an oversight very similar to the dismissal in the Western canon of science fiction as an inconsequential genre literature. While it may very well be true that few ‘great’ works of science fiction were produced during the Mao years, the shift in emphasis to the utilization of mass technologies is symptomatic of a still-extant utopian drive in literature that, despite increased state crackdowns on the freedoms afforded authors and the broad social denigration of non-realist imaginaries condemned as bourgeois, the science fictional imaginary continued to produce.

As a meta-narrative of the national drive towards utopia, lian huan hua not only contained explicit instructions for both individual and collective improvement, they themselves were wielded as a tool of that improvement. They served the dual purpose of disseminating utopian praxis while also being an extension of that same quotidian development. As part of the Communist Party’s mass literacy campaign, they were used as pedagogical tools in and outside the classroom, shaping a future for the country through a process that enrolled even those traditionally excluded from a nation built by and for the educated class. Theoretically, even those incapable of becoming literate through the process of reading lian huan hua could still receive edification from and contribute to the vision of the future promoted by these materials and their illustrations.

Lian huan hua offered a uniquely visual means of disseminating a national future-oriented vision couched in a language of historical socialist materialism that was intended to be accessible to all citizens of the newly-communist state. That it was neither categorized as science fiction as such—focusing as it did on explicitly quotidian practices of development—nor necessarily unproblematic in its execution of collective modernization and accessibility, does not remove it from consideration as a cultural literary artifact enrolled in the literal (and literary!) process of nation-building. It may be controversial to Sinologists and scholars of revolutionary ephemera to categorize these texts as falling within the genre of science fiction, but in their vision of a future free from hunger, disease, suffering and even inconvenience, which everyone reading them contemporarily had played a part in creating, they were instrumentalized in the communist metanarrative that constructed itself.

Virginia L. Conn is a comparative literature PhD candidate at Rutgers University, New Jersey whose work occurs at the intersection of comparative languages and literatures (Sinophone, Anglophone, Francophone, Germanophone, Russophone, and Esperantist literatures) and science and technology studies, particularly those aspects which investigate circulations of knowledge and biopolitics. Her dissertation (‘The Body Politic: Socialist Science Fiction and the Embodied State’) focuses on science fiction as a tool of nation-building in Mao-era China, Soviet Russia, and the GDR. She can be found on Twitter @VirginiaLConn.

[1] Mao Zedong, ‘Introducing a Co-operative’, in ‘Selected readings from the works of Mao Tse-Tung’ (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1971), pp. 499–500.

[2] Nathaniel Isaacson, ‘Science Crosstalk in China’s Shifting Cultural Field’, talk given as part of the Science Fiction and Asian Histories panel at the 2016 ACLA Conference, Harvard University, 2016.

Images courtesy of the University of Hawaii