Table of Contents
1. Making a revolutionary monument: The First Party Congress Site
2. Exhibiting New China: “Fangua Lane Past and Present”
3. Curating belief: Superstition versus science for Young Pioneers
4. Cultivating consciousness: The class education exhibition
5. The Cultural Revolution’s object lessons: The Exhibition of Red Guard Achievements
6. Antiquity in revolution: The Shanghai Museum
The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 heralded a transformation in politics, a realization of Mao Zedong’s “new democratic culture.” Of the many media that transmitted New China’s propaganda messages, it was exhibition that gave the revolution material form. Exhibits ranged from neighborhood displays on everyday life to municipal showcases of cultural relics, the former demonstrating the improvements wrought by the new regime and the latter establishing its legitimacy as steward of the nation. Both local officials and museum curators understood that viewers, as Mao had argued, required material artifacts to raise perceptual knowledge to the level of rational knowledge. Not only would visitors gain a new materialist worldview, they would be mobilized to participate in socialist China’s political campaigns. In this way, Mao era exhibitionary culture departed from other models, providing both a textbook and a handbook of the revolution—one that was grassroots, materialist, and class-based. Through the collection of objects, the narration of displays, and the political rituals of exhibit spaces, curation gave material objects political power.
Making a revolutionary monument: The First Party Congress Site
In 1950—one year after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949—the Shanghai Party Committee sent propaganda officials on a political mission: to find the site of the 1921 First Communist Party Congress. Chapter 1 traces the establishment and development of the First Party Congress Site as a revolutionary artifact and a museum of revolutionary history. Despite an imperative to create a definitive and authoritative textbook, the museum’s archives demonstrate how curators wrote and revised, how the exhibition was modified to support contemporary politics, and how the First Party Congress Site cultivated a founding myth with Mao at the center. First Party Congress Site officials, responsible for curating the Communist revolution, endeavored to adhere to what was known as the “Red Line,” interpreting history according to Mao Zedong’s writings and portraying Mao as both founder and leader. While the narrative at the First Party Congress Site changed over time, from textbook history to Cultural Revolution broadside to reform-era rectification, its “Red Line” persists into the present day.
Exhibiting New China: “Fangua Lane Past and Present”
To contrast pre-1949 “Old China” and socialist “New China,” Mao era curators often juxtaposed their respective living conditions. Chapter 2 studies a Shanghai neighborhood called Fangua Lane and its 1960s transformation from one of the city’s most impoverished shantytowns to the concrete apartment blocks of a workers’ new village. The renovation of Fangua Lane and the renewal of its residents was displayed in two ways: the neighborhood became the subject of an exhibition, and its site—which preserved a section of shantytown houses—became an object lesson in how China’s working people had “stood up.” In this way, Fangua Lane became a showcase where foreign visitors marveled at New China’s accomplishments. At the same time, Chinese schoolchildren used it as a classroom to learn about history and class, introduced through a storytelling genre called “recalling bitterness and reflecting on sweetness.” Fangua Lane—as a model neighborhood with many residents designated official models by the state—reveals the role of the model in Mao era political culture: both representative and exceptional.
Curating belief: Superstition versus science for Young Pioneers
In its most grassroots manifestation, Mao era exhibits were tools of mass education and indoctrination. Chapter 3 focuses on a small, local, and ad hoc exhibition designed for some of New China’s youngest political subjects, the Communist Young Pioneers. Refuting beliefs and practices that the state labeled “superstition,” this exhibition in Shanghai aimed to create modern subjects, children who would instead embrace science. However, the exhibition’s texts read as a question-and-answer catechism, replacing alleged superstitions with an ideology of science. In addition, teachers’ observations after student visits suggest that traditional beliefs persisted and that the exhibit’s lessons were harder to transmit than they appeared. This case of an anti-superstition exhibition reads such displays as texts of not only what ideas were promoted during the Mao period but also of how ideas and practices persisted despite repeated political campaigns against them. Though the “Love Science and Eliminate Superstition” Exhibition may not have fulfilled all of its organizers’ claims, its example shows how display was part of the repertoire of local propaganda.
Cultivating consciousness: The class education exhibition
During the Socialist Education Movement in the early 1960s, local officials throughout China—from the village level to the provincial capitals—curated class education exhibitions. These exhibits articulated two aspects of class ideology: that class continued to exist in socialist society, and that class struggle persisted in New China, with latent enemies threatening “peaceful evolution.” Chapter 4 explores Shanghai’s example of a class education exhibition. Here, extensive meeting notes and reports of visitor reactions show that an exhibit was a site to learn the vocabulary of the latest political movement. Using personal possessions—from old land deeds to luxury products—the class education exhibition curated examples of alleged class enemies, making objects proof of an individual’s class status. As the Socialist Education Movement became the Cultural Revolution in 1966, attendees who had copied the exhibition’s bulletin boards mimicked both its format and its content to compose big-character posters, searching for the kind of evidence that they had already seen on display. Shanghai’s class education exhibition demonstrates how exhibits motivated and modeled mass participation in the political campaigns of the Mao era.
The Cultural Revolution’s object lessons: The Exhibition of Red Guard Achievements
At the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966, Red Guards launched an “Attack on the Four Olds,” proclaiming a rebellion against old thinking, culture, customs, and habits. The Red Guard attack included the ransacking of individual homes known as the “house search,” followed by the display of personal possessions confiscated from alleged class enemies. Chapter 5 examines a showcase organized by the Red Guards from The East is Red Department Store, or what had been Shanghai’s famed Yong’an Department Store on Nanjing Road. Using objects and photographs that depicted their “fruits of struggle,” the Red Guards recycled formats, texts, and items from preceding class education exhibitions. Through display, Red Guards presented evidence of class crimes, making the argument that it was right to rebel. Exhibitions thus became ritualized spaces: visitors shouted slogans, docents reenacted the house searches, and both declared that the display steeled them for future class struggle. Accounts by the Red Guards who served as docents reveal how they cultivated emotion and how they saw narrating as itself “making revolution.”
Antiquity in revolution: The Shanghai Museum
The Shanghai Museum, established in 1952 as one of New China’s “socialist museums,” grew to become one of China’s most prominent art collections. Developing under pre-1949 experts and a new generation of curators, the museum exhibited Chinese art organized by dynasty but superimposed with the Marxist stages of history. In addition to displaying cultural relics, it hosted temporary exhibitions, curating revolutionary relics and class education exhibitions. However, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, the Red Guards’ “Attack on the Four Olds” threatened both the museum and cultural relics citywide. Chapter 6 uncovers how cultural officials confronted the Red Guards by arguing that cultural relics were not part of the “Four Olds,” or representative of old thinking, culture, customs, and habits. This defense drew on Mao’s writings on Chinese history and culture, incorporating antiquity into revolution. Though Shanghai Museum officials shut its doors at the Cultural Revolution’s height, it continued to collect and later to curate; when it reopened in the post-Mao era of reform, the institution built upon this previous legacy. The case of the Shanghai Museum demonstrates that the nation was an integral part of China’s revolution, the “socialist museum” projecting the power and legitimacy of the Communist state.