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From Novel to Transformation – The Making and Remaking of China’s “Red Classics”: Politics, Aesthetics, and Mass Culture, Edited by Rosemary Roberts and Li Li

Red Detachment of Women (1961)

Red Detachment of Women (1961)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

On the surface, most of this edited collection of essays from Hong Kong University Press (2017) appears to have little to do with media save for the last section. But today, Film (and by implication Media) Studies has long passed the time when it had to be defined as a unique “Seventh Art” to claim its distinctive difference from those other forms of study, such as Literature, to which it appeared to be an unjustified, upstart competitor. If auteur studies has long given way to the more complex realms of “authorship” that involves intersecting features such as culture, history, ideology, and industry to be considered alongside personal aspects of creativity, so today any responsible study of Media must consider other elements in addition to those of the intrinsic aspects of technology. Lenin once said, “For us, Cinema is the most important of all the Arts”, but he did not mean it to be seen in isolation devoid of the relevant cultural and political problems of his era. Other features intersect with the issue of Artistry, whether in the past or present. Many generations ago, representations of the Confederacy were ideologically linked with the “Lost Cause” thesis whether viewed affirmatively as in Gone with the Wind (1939) or critically as with The Sun Shines Bright (1953) or Mandingo (1975). Similarly, any examination of The Free State of Jones (2016) necessarily involves a close acquaintance with the revisionist Southern historical research of scholars such as Victoria Bynum and David Williams rather than the dubious premises of Shelby Foote promoted by the equally dubious popular media historian Ken Burns (as Film International’s own Christopher Sharrett notes in the piece linked above). The value of Making and Remaking is that despite its concentration on literary texts and their revisions in a post-Mao era, they also relate directly to any country reworking past traditions in newly changed economic and political circumstances. While concentrating on China with the possibility of access to new representations of literature, film, and media in new translations, this collection has relevance to a world outside frequently undergoing its own form of historical revisionism.

Red 01This two-part, ten-essay collection by distinguished Chinese and Western scholars covers various aspects of the formation of “Red Classics” in the Maoist era and its transformation in the very different era of post-Maoist Reform. Initially coined in the early post-Mao era during the 1990s, the term “Red Classics” referred to widely popular major novels published in state-run companies between 1949 and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. While initially stylistically and thematically diverse, these works became increasingly homogenized though a complex process of appropriations and revisions to fit the rigid confines of the Cultural Revolution. Those familiar with certain Chinese films know that Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters (1965) and Red Detachment of Women (1961) became absent during the period of the Cultural Revolution, the last being remade as an “acceptable” 1972 revolutionary Red Film Ballet along the same lines as other “permitted films” such as Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (1970), the title of which was used by Brian Eno for his non-Maoist 1974 L.P, and The East is Red (1965).

Although many of the novels still awaiting translation may be unfamiliar to Western readers, the essays dealing with their formation and necessary changes have much in common with other “changes” that have occurred elsewhere, due to new historical and political circumstances. Example would be the Red Scare that destroyed Hollywood’s progressive cinema movement of the 1940s, and the various alterations of literary and cinematic works in the former Soviet Union. Despite the fact that such parallels are not explicit in this study, close examinations of texts and necessary changes as well as the role of melodrama and diverse issues of characterization are implicit “pleasures of (this particular) text” whose implications may be applied to other national forms of artistic expressions, to say nothing about the excellent scholarship contained in these essays.

Despite the focus on books, several illuminating footnotes often appear concerning the existence of other types of expression such as two documentary narratives dealing with the novel Red Crag (45, n.10) as well as allied issues of political legitimacy affecting the contemporary films of Xie Jin (50, n.26) and the presence of a certain melodrama of revolution involving the body and the aesthetics of suffering (see 52) that have cinematic as well as literary resonances. Since the role of traditional and popular novels are key areas for any reputable adaption studies in Hong Kong and Taiwan Cinema, so too are the various texts dealt with in the first part of this study. Also, in view of the acknowledged importance of understanding the influence of both calligraphy and Beijing Opera in the films of King Hu, the illustrations of Early Socialist Chinese Art provided by Kuiyi Shen in his “Shaping the ‘Red Classics’ of Chinese Art in early Socialist China: Manipulating Tradition to Establish New Guohua” provide both a feast for the eye and pathways to visual interpretations to whatever films may emerge from the archives in future.

Tunnel Warfare (1965)

Tunnel Warfare (1965)

The four essays comprising Part Two form the richest part of this study, as they concentrate on multi-media forms of representation. Co-editor Rosemary Roberts refers to picture story manuscripts of “Red Classics” popular during the Seventeen Year Era of 1947-1966 that reappeared in the 1970s following the decline of the Cultural Revolution in terms of Martin Barker’s Comics, Ideology, Power, and the Critics (1989). Frederick Green provides an insightful essay on “The Cultural Indigenization of a Soviet ‘Red Classic’ Hero” during the changing transformative times of post-1949 China supplying an insightful parallel to the 1966 work of Arjun Appadurai – Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (see 152, n. 51). While Qian Gong examines the various remakes in different forms of The Red Sister-in-Law, Lara Vanderstay notices ideological influences affecting the Red Classic film Tunnel Warfare (1965) and the 2009 children’s animated version New Tunnel Warfare, the latter involving the rehabilitation of the intellectual in an era that has seen the return of Confucianism in the post-Maoist era. So much for the anti-Confucian campaign in the Maoist era, especially since Hong Kong movie icon Chow Yun-fat appeared in the title role in the 2010 Mainland Chinese biopic.

This collection of essays is a significant contribution to understanding the transcultural and transnational transformation of text in the new millennium, whether literary or cinematic, and forms a welcome stimulus to further studies on these issues.

Tony Williams is Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and Contributing Editor to Film International. He’s fully aware of the lack of any ”revolutionary peasantry of Southern Illinois” or “Carbondale Liberation Front” in the Land of Trump!

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