AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 326

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Session 326: Approaching the Socialist New Man in China: Aesthetics and Politics

Organizer and Chair: Xiang He, University of New Mexico, USA

Discussant: Peter R. Button, New York University, USA

The Socialist New Man has been for a long time falling under the rubric of ideological propaganda and criticized as manipulation by totalitarian regimes. In China’s revolutionary and socialist era, however, the New Man has a wide cultural appearance and is regarded as the most important agency of historical transformation and social movement. Our papers seek to problematize the above claims as well as to complicate the understanding of this modern subjectivity in relation to aesthetics and politics. By evoking the question “where the idea of the New Man comes from”, the first two papers make a theoretical dialogue from the perspectives of inside and outside of China, respectively. Through analyzing Guo Moruo’s literary writings from 1920s to 1950s, Pu Wang argues that the New Man is never entirely “new”; nor is it an isolated phenomenon in Socialist China, as Angel Ferrero shows a historical trajectory of a worldwide travelling of this figure. This theoretical and historical picture is followed by two case studies. Xiang He focuses on how the image of the New Man fuels China’s Great Aesthetic Debate from 1958 to 1964, which ironically reveals the fundamental contradiction of this idea in its heyday. From a particular Red Guard troupe, Amy O’Keefe discerns an important development of the New Man during the Culture Revolution that also predicates its decline. Coming from different disciplines, our panelists formulate a coherent discussion on the Socialist New Man as a controversial moral-historical subject and its social, aesthetic and political problems.

Primitive Communism, the Ancient Society, and the "Socialist Newness:" A Genealogy of the Human from Engels to Guo Moruo
Pu Wang, Brandeis University, USA

This paper focuses on the intellectual prehistory of the "Socialist New Man." Using Guo Moruo as a case study and examining some of his texts from the 1920s to late 1950s, I will provide a genealogy of the reconceptualizations of "the human" (ren) in Chinese New Culture. This genealogy shows that the idea of "New Man" is not merely the aspiration to the new; rather, it involves a historical re-imagination of the ancient. This genealogy can be traced back to Engels. Firstly, in Guo Moruo's early works, he praised the communal primitives as the model of true humanity, and condemned the private property as the downfall of humanity. This tendency is reminiscent of the Rouseauist tradition of "civilization critique," which is also crucial to Engels. Secondly, Guo's Marxist historiography from the 1930s on was under the conscious influence of Engels' Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. The hymn of the “primitive man” gave way to the "scientific" study of the "ancient society" in China. Like Engels, who predicted the restoration of humanity after thousands of years of "regression," Guo viewed every transitional periods of ancient China as the emancipation of humanity. Lastly, this paper provides some tentative remarks on the imagination of the "Socialist New Man" in the Great Leap-Forward and the role Guo played in this movement. In this sense, the “Socialist New Man” not only pointes towards a radical rupture, but also indicates a critical restoration or redemption of lost humanity.

The Construction of the New Man: From The October Revolution to The Post-Communist Era: A Historical Perspective
Angel Ferrero, Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain

The purpose of this paper is mainly to draw the historical background of the panel, presenting the figure of the Socialist New Man from his beginning in the avant-garde circles in 1917 after the October Revolution in Russia –specially in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s technique of typage, a major influence in the Soviet filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein– to its oversimplification as official aesthetic during the Stalin's regime –hardly criticized by Meyerhold itself and later labeled by the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs as “bureaucratic naturalism”– and to its adoption by the newborn People's Republic of China and the motivation behind it. The iconic and extremely codified images of the Socialist New Man are analyzed under the new light of the recent essays about art in the former “really existing socialist countries” (Boris Groys, Susan Buck-Morss, Roman Gubern), which defy the traditional image among scholars of this artistic style as ossified, monolithic and lackluster. The later part of the paper deals with the fading away of the Socialist Realism during the 80s as the Soviet bloc disintegrated and China evolved into a so called “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics”, but persisted, applied adamantly, in North Korea, who exports it to African countries like Senegal or Namibia through Mansudae Overseas Projects.

The Anxiety of Legitimacy: The Socialist New Man and His Aesthetic Judgment, 1956-1964
Xiang He, University of New Mexico, USA

This paper investigates how the image of the Socialist New Man was promoted and discussed in aesthetics in the 1950s and 60s’ China. It was during the Cold War era that China, even though succeeded in a nationwide socialist transformation in 1956, was obliged to differentiate itself from both the former Soviet Union and the US. Facing this challenge, from my point of view, a symbolic solution of “the Socialist Aesthetics” was proposed. During eight years (1956-1964) of the Great Aesthetic Debate (meixue da taolun) numerous discussions on and critiques of classical German philosophy, the works of Marx and Engels, the Soviet Marxist writings, as well as British and American aesthetic theories were generated among Chinese philosophers, college professors, students, literary critics and even general audience. The appeal of this debate, I would argue, lies in its efforts to incorporate Socialist China’s rapid changing reality – the concrete and particular, the sensual and local to reinvigorate aesthetics under a new historical condition. At the center of this unfolding process was located the image of the New Man, a self-renewal subjectivity that aimed to bridge the gap between subject and object, theory and practice. This subject-object binary, I argue, predicts an immanent paradox of the New Man as legislator of his world of being and leaves a mark in his aesthetic judgment as well as political practice.

The Curtain Falls on the Socialist New Man: Case Study of a Red Guard Literature and Arts Propaganda Troupe
Amy O'Keefe, University of California, San Diego, USA

In early 1967, a group of Beijing high school students formed a literature and arts propaganda troupe to represent the April Third Group, a student faction that opposed the chauvinism of the early Red Guards. This paper will examine the April Third Group propaganda troupe’s formation, structure, show content, and rehearsal and performance experiences to show the ways in which the troupe adopted and propagated the ideal of the Socialist New Man. As part of this process of transmission, the troupe reshaped the New Man to reflect themselves, victims within the early, chauvinistic stage of the Cultural Revolution student movement.In this propaganda troupe, as in others like it, we see a late iteration of the ever-New ideal of the Socialist Man. While he was transformed from model worker to bumbling Lei Feng to stalwart victim of Old Red Guard persecution, the New Man had maintained his faith in socialism, Mao, and the Party, and his idealistic determination to be part of creating a golden future. This faith and this devotion was dispersed to the countryside with the sent-down youth and there extinguished. The April Third Group propaganda troupe is an example of the student ideological and propagandistic action of the early Cultural Revolution, the Socialist New Man’s last hurrah before his ultimate decline.