Slogans of HK’s Umbrella Movement

P1010891Just published: “Creating a Textual Public space. Slogans and Texts from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement,” Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 75.3 (Aug. 2016).

In this article, using textual material collected on site, I identify the central claim of the Umbrella Movement as an assertion of agency by a community with fluid borders. This community is performed through a variety of cultural repertoires, varying from traditional Chinese philosophy to contemporary pop music, but, most importantly, it is also enacted in the space of a deliberative forum.

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (Sept-Dec 2014) represented a watershed in Hong Kong’s political culture and self-understanding. Based on a study of over 1000 slogans and other textual and visual material documented during the movement, this study provides an overview of claims, which are oriented towards an assertion of agency, articulated at different levels: in a universalistic mode (“democracy”), in relation with a political community (Hong Kong autonomy and decolonization) and through concrete policy aims. At the same time, slogans mobilize a diversity of cultural and historical repertoires which attest the hybrid quality of Hong Kong identity and underscore the diversity of sources of political legitimacy. Finally, it will be argued that by establishing a system of contending discourses within the occupied public spaces, the movement strived to act out a type of discursive democracy. Despite the challenges that this discursive space encountered in interacting with the authorities and the public at large, it represented an unfinished attempt to build a new civic culture among Hong Kong’s younger generation.


Art exhibit: 95th anniversary of the CCP


In July, the National Art Museum of China 中国美术馆 organized a vast exhibtion of paintings from its own collection to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the CCP.
Some notes below from my visit:

The exhibit was organized into three sections, each section taking up three exhibition rooms:
1) The New Democratic Revolution 新民主主义革命时期 1921-1949
2) Socialist Revolution and Construction 社会主义革命和建设时期 1949-1978
3) Reform and Opening-up and Socialist Modernization 改革开放和社会主义现代化建设新时期 1978-
There is a nice presentation with a good number of paintings featured on the museum website.

As you come in, you see two monumental oil paintings of the First Congress held in 1921, one at the historic venue in Shanghai (above), the other on the boat at Jiaxing (below), both prominently featuring Mao Zedong. They are part of the pre-1949 section which continues on the left hand side, followed by the Mao-era section on the right-hand side of the museum.

By far the most impresssive is the third section, devoted to post-1979, which occupies the central part of the museum, and in particular the main exhibition room right in the center. It is dominated by 6 huge paintings featuring CCP leaders: in the center a famous full length vertical scroll-style painting of Mao made in 1960, flanked by a wide horizontal one of Mao leading delegates to the first CCPPC. On the left hand side is Jiang Zemin, at the center of a famous painting commemorating the handover of Hong Kong, and on the far left an oil painting of Xi Jinping visiting the Northern Frontier.
On the right of the CCPPC is a wistful, romantic portrait of Deng Xiaoping, and on the far right a huge oil painting of Hu Jintao saluting China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei with an uncharacteristic grin.
So when you look at the whole wall, the two big Mao’s in the center are flanked by Xi and Jiang on the left, and by Deng and Hu on the right. I’ve inserted the paintings below in the order in which they appear from left to right.

Left side:《踏雪边防》  王吉松, 2014;《香港回归》王颖生 2009

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Center: 《主席走遍全国》李琦 1960; 《当代英雄》, collective, 1960.



Right side: 《疾风》李秀实, 1979; 《出征》王吉松, 2007.

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You could engage in quite a bit of political tea-leaf reading with these six paintings that are clearly the star of the show. First, Mao is a cut above the others, getting two paintings, although in one of them he is just part of a vast collective. Second the choice of representative paintings is somewhat eclectic. Mao gets commemorated both in his personal capacity (Li Qi’s painting seamlessly ties together traditional and socialist imagery) and for setting up the institutions of the new state. But how about Deng? Does this romantic portrait with a title taken from a classical poem do justice to his political role? The only other major event memorialized in the series is the handover of Hong Kong, also in a huge, impressive triptych. Deng appears in the background of that one (with Thatcher), making up for the unpolitical flavor of “Jifeng”. Hu and Xi receive a more allegorical treatment, with Hu commemorated for developing technology and Xi for defending China’s borders.

The work representing the May Fourth period was generally weaker, formulaic, and produced either in the Mao era or in the last decade, like the mannerist oil painting of the Party conference on Jiaxing lake above (2009).

There were however some very remarkable works on display from the Civil War years, especially 1947-48. In addition to rare woodblock prints by Li Hua 李桦 (民主进行曲,起来饥饿交迫的奴隶) and Wang Qi 王琦  (洪流), I particularly enjoyed a 1948 Brueghel-ian oil painting recording in stark detail the denunciation of a landlord by the masses, and a 1950 ink painting portraying the peasants’ new-found enthusiasm when paying their agricultural tax.

莫朴 《清算》1948;潘天寿《 杭县农民争交农业税》1950

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The recent focus on ideology and campaigns was also on display, with Jiao Yulu and Lei Feng both featured prominently, the Jiao Yulu painting dated 2009.











Nixon made a brief appearance in another recent painting, looking positively villainous, perhaps reflecting a new  understanding of the 1972 meeting, many years later… By contrast, the 2015 victory parade, already immortalized in oil, glowed with rainbow colors… Certainly, Xi Jinping’s 2014 exhortation to artists to record important political events has not gone unheeded, and the official art industry seems to be booming.

《毛泽东会见尼克松》马刚, 2009; 《二〇一五年九月三日》陈坚, 2016

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Finally, events of the Cultural Revolution were almost absent from the exhibit, although it coincided with the 50th anniversary of its inception. However, a modest but moving series of picture book illustrations caught my eye, titled, “The Call of the Great Northern Wilderness,” dated 2014, and appearing in the contemporary section of the exhibit.

侯国良 《北大荒的呼唤》/连环画,2014
1 “我们纵使离开了这里,北大荒也永远不会从我们心中抹去。”
2 “随着时间的推移,我们越来越觉得北大荒的亲切、可爱。”
3 “也许在我们一生的记忆里,最重要、最宝贵的位置将永远被北大荒所占据。”
4 “想念曾经生活过的这块地方。”
6 “我问过许多人,她们都想回来看看。”
(couldn’t find the caption for no. 5 which is probably a self-portrait of the artist)


The captions tell the story of the Zhiqing or Educated Youth who were sent down to learn from the “lower and middle peasants” and spent their most productive years in hardship. Although some may see them as overly idealized, these wistful, personal paintings that capture the ironic nostalgia of a sacrificed generation were also a glimpse of individuality in an exhibition otherwise strongly geared to the needs of the state and the collective.

English presentation:
Chinese with slideshow:


The troubles of Yanhuang Chunqiu and the dwindling public sphere

杨绛走好Just published: “Debating the Memory of the  Cultural Revolution in China Today”, MCLC Resource Center, August 2016.

This is a short piece that tries to explain the significance of the monthly magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu (Annals of the Yellow Emperor) and the reasons why it was forced to shut down in early July. By connecting Annals with the 50th anniversary of Bian Zhongyun’s still unelucidated death on August 5th and the heated debate about intellectuals’ responsibility after Yang Jiang’s death in May, the piece argues for the importance of the public sphere in dealing with issues of memory. The illustration is a poster that appeared  on certain subway lines in Beijing this summer bidding farewell to Yang Jiang.