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China’s political colours: from monochrome to palette

About the author
Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He writes for a wide range of academic and other periodicals.

A dramatic but largely unacknowledged shift has recently taken place in how the past is understood in China. One way to think about this Chinese transformation is to see it as a sort of "colour revolution" - albeit one very different from the associations this term has with the popular upheavals in Georgia or Ukraine.

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is China's Brave New World-And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), and his next will be Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, forthcoming).

He writes for a wide range of academic and general interest periodicals and is a founding member of a new group blog on Chinese issues, The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read

Also by Jeffrey N Wasserstrom in openDemocracy:

"One, two or many Chinas?"
(15 February 2008)

"The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq"
(27 March 2008)
Within a few years of Mao Zedong taking power after the communist victory of October 1949, a colour-scheme took shape in which the only parts of the past which could be celebrated were those considered to be completely “red” - that is, tied to the revolution and useful in adding to its lustre. But more than three decades after Mao’s death, China is making room for parts of its past that fall into two other colour-coded categories. It is no longer off-limits to praise things associated with the colour “blue” - which in China has sometimes been linked to the sea, and by extension objects and fashions coming from the west. The fall of another taboo is reflected in favourable comment about historical artefacts or figures regarded as “yellow” - which, in addition to certain sexual and pornographic connotations, conjures up traditional modes of thought and imperial rule.

The crowds that have attended this very Chinese “colour revolution” are gazing at tourist sites, not protesting in city-centre squares. True, even in the newest of new China, it remains acceptable to visit and take pride in the classic “red” locales, such as places where Mao himself fought battles or held meetings. Indeed, 2005 was even declared a year of “red tourism”, marked by the publication of books about specific cities and provinces where sites with sacred revolutionary significance could be found.

But it has also become acceptable to revel in aspects of China’s past that are “blue”, in the sense of symbolising the country’s ties to international currents that have more to do with consumption and capitalism than to radical action. The refurbished neo-classical structures that line Shanghai’s waterfront Bund are an example. In a sign of just how far things have moved on from the days when these buildings were disparaged as symbols of “bourgeois decadent” lifestyles, some Shanghai residents clamour to see them become China’s latest addition to the United Nations list of world heritage sites.

Perhaps even more strikingly, it is now routine for citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to trek to “yellow” sites linked to the Confucian and dynastic past in a spirit of reverence. Some of these places were indeed seen as appropriate destinations in Mao’s day, but to be reminded of the injustices of “feudal” times rather than to take pride in their splendour. Even Beijing’s “forbidden city”, which Mao considered tearing down completely to make way for buildings more representative of the new China, has been recast as a symbol of the nation.

The forbidden city's renewed sacredness became clear when a popular television personality spearheaded a campaign for the removal of a Starbucks outlet at the edge of the old palace complex. If the network of imperial buildings had still been seen as a polluted and degenerate space, such a protest would not have made any sense (nor been successful, as it ultimately was). It is equally notable that, three decades after Confucianism was being denounced in virulent campaigns that derided it for elevating men above women and intellectuals above workers, a visit to Confucius’s birthplace in Qufu is seen as a natural way to pay homage to one of the “great thinkers” of world history. The citizens of the PRC are encouraged to take pride in the fact that China produced such a sage.

Also in openDemocracy on China's Olympics and Tibetan tensions:

Li Datong, "Beijing's Olympics, China's politics"
(22 August 2007)

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk"
(12 March 2008)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez,
"How to think about Tibet"
(28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power"
(28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind"
(1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt"
(4 April 2008)

Kerry Brown, "Taiwan and China: an electoral prelude"
(4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens"
(7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a
Guangzhou report
"
(8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

openDemocracy
, "Chinese intellectuals and Tibet: a letter"
(15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

openDemocracy
, "Tibet scholars and China: a letter"
(22 April 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China's Olympics: after the storm" (6 May 2008)

Chang Ping, "Tibet: looking for the truth" (8 May 2008)
An eclectic mix

This new eclecticism influences much more than tourism. It has also given rise to a mix-and-match approach in official propaganda. Hu Jintao and other leaders now move easily from appeals to "social harmony" ("yellow") to reminders that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) saved the nation from Japanese imperialists ("red") to references to the importance - evident in the (albeit so far limited) acceptance of aid following the Sichuan earthquake - of opening up to the west ("blue").

Such eclecticism is not unprecedented. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the architect of modern China and leader of the republican revolution of 1911, was a very “blue” figure: he studied abroad, sometimes quoted Abraham Lincoln, and just before his death lived a cosmopolitan lifestyle in Shanghai’s French concession; there, he and his American-educated wife, Soong Qingling, entertained dignitaries such as the American philosopher John Dewey and sometimes played croquet to relax.

Yet Sun Yat-sen also had a very “red” side, which showed through in his championing of radical land reform and temporary alliance with Moscow. He also made occasional “yellow” gestures - most notably, the western-style (‘blue”) inauguration of his short-lived tenure as the first president of the Republic of China was followed by a filial visit to the tombs of members of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the last Han Chinese family to rule the country. This framed the 1911 revolution as also in part an act of restoration, an effort to return the land to its traditional owners after a period of control by the Manchu usurpers of the Qing (1644-1911).

The kind of eclecticism Sun represented became increasingly rare, however, in the course of China’s turbulent 20th century. One reason was the ideological divide between the Guomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) and the Chinese Communist Party that opened up after Sun - who had briefly drawn them together - died. Mary C Wright, near the end of her classic study The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism, uses a poster from 1926 to illustrate how quickly after his death Sun became the object of competing efforts to transform him into either a thoroughly “red” or an “anything but red” figure (although she uses different terms, the colour-scheme does capture the sense of her argument).

Wright describes the poster, used by a Peasants' Association, as follows: "On one side was a Confucian temple, on the other a ‘world park,' featuring Marx, Lenin, and a vacant third position. In the center a man in Chinese Nationalist uniform was carrying the portrait of Sun Yat-sen toward the Confucian temple. The legend read: ‘Sun ought to be in the world park but [Guomintang conservative Dai Jitao] wants him in the Confucian temple".

This fight over where Sun "belonged" was matched, Wright argues, by a general slicing of the Chinese past, with the ever-more virulently anti-red nationalist followers of Chiang Kai-shek coming to treat as villains any groups that the communists claimed as patriotic heroes (such as the leaders of the millenarian Taiping uprising [1850-64] or the Boxer insurgents [1900]). Each side's embrace of "its" Chinese past was then reinforced in propaganda, assimilation, identification and emotion, until the polarised versions took on their own - homogeneous and monochrome - reality.

The palette's politics

Is there anything wrong with the new multihued eclecticism, in which Sun Yat-sen, who remains a venerated figure in China, might find his portrait placed in a pantheon that included Karl Marx and Confucius? Should it be troubling to visit Shanghai's main library and gaze at a statue of Confucius in the courtyard (a fittingly scholarly symbol for a structure devoted to books), from beside an exhibit commemorating a proletarian revolutionary struggle? Isn't the ability to recognise and value the "blue" and "yellow" as well as the "red" parts of the past a good thing?

In the sense that anything which breaks from the overly rigid Maoist colour-scheme is welcome, then yes. In China no less than in other settings, being able to find value in multiple strands of the past can open up possibilities for creatively thinking through current dilemmas. It is also unreserved progress that Chinese citizens no longer fear ruin if official scrutiny of their lives found them insufficiently "red" - perhaps simply because of having a relative who had migrated to a "blue" land like America or because they possessed a "yellow" book like Confucius's Analects.

There are darker sides, however, to the new eclecticism. It is a great loss, for example, that in mixing "red" with other colours some of the most admirable elements of the revolutionary vision - such as the concern with female equality that resulted in a revised marriage law being the first major piece of national legislation introduced by the communists - have largely disappeared from view. The "blue" current that has swept through China to take its place has been the sort of objectification of women in the interests of selling products that has long been familiar in the west.

Another disturbing - and, in light of the reaction of Chinese media and people to the Tibetan and Olympic-torch protests, topical - side-effect of China's recent colour shift has been the way that "red" and "yellow" themes have been blended in official history textbooks in a manner that fuels a vehement nationalism. It is important to note that - some western media commentary notwithstanding - there are multiple forms of Chinese patriotism and nationalism in play just now, not a single ferocious kind. But it is unarguable that one rising variety - fuelled partly by the internet - combines an obsession with past imperialist humiliations and a chauvinistic vision of the Han Chinese as an ethnic group with a uniquely glorious tradition of accomplishment.

This intertwining of "red" and "yellow" themes, alas, can create a palette just as rigid and distorting in its own way as was the all-red-all-the-time Maoist paint-bucket that China has left behind. The implication is that the selection of "colours" used to portray Chinese history matters less than the attitude that informs the attempt to understand this history. If that is got right, then the colours will take their own shape rather than the past being bent to suit them.


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