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The Sublime Figure of History
Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China

Ban Wang

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Chapter 6
The Cultural Revolution: A Terrible Beauty Is Born
(pp. 194-228)

Yes, the Revolution was disinterested. This is its sublime side and its sign of divinity.

-Jules Michelet

The Aesthetic Dimension

I have been exploring the connections and the tensions between the aesthetic and the political in a number of literary and aesthetic writings. Yet nothing in theory and literature, nothing that springs from a writer's head and gets into print, can match the intensity, the poignancy, and the passion and violence enacted between these two realms of human life during the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution compressed and intensified much that had laid dormant in Chinese culture in the twentieth century. This ten-year-long catastrophe brought to light a new brand of cultural politics that is not confined simply to power struggles and politicking but is played out through a gamut of aesthetic formations, psychic transformations, and symbolic expressions in numerous spectacles of tragedy, comedy, or melodrama.

This unprecedented movement cannot simply be seen as a sequence of sociopolitical events engineered by a handful of policymakers in Maoist China. The word "cultural" in Cultural Revolution merits fresh attention and careful inquiry. It implies more than the banal fact that the revolution started in the cultural realm of the bureaucracy and social structure. The movement's initial attack was directed at how things looked to the eye, how names, phrases, and music sounded to the ear, how people dressed and bore themselves - superficial things that may nevertheless reveal a specific kind of cultural taste. The Red Guards' rampages destroyed the facades and trappings of the Four Olds: old ideas, old customs, old traditions, old habits. Styles and artifacts deemed culturally reactionary and hence aesthetically repulsive or decadent were smashed and wiped out: street names, fashions, hairstyles, public discourse, daily formalities and rituals, traditional architecture, long-standing conventions - the list is too long to enumerate here.

The fervor was "cultural" in another sense. It shook to the core various aspects of each and every individual's mental and material life. it ransacked, to use a word ominously reminiscent of the violent looting of the houses of "bad elements" by the Red Guards, the fundamental ways the Chinese organized their life and society; it confounded their deep structures of belief, their modes of thinking and feeling about themselves and others, and their sense of the past and future. The "cultural" is also captured by the phrase "A great revolution that touches every person's soul." Millions of souls indeed were shocked, criticized, deluded, tormented, and traumatized; many others were elated, thrilled, enthused, and aggrandized. Countless bodies are beaten, tortured, mutilated, injured, and killed - the consequences of a revolution that unabashedly claimed that torturing the individual's skin and flesh was a way of purifying the soul.

The cultural character of the Revolution points to the eminently aesthetic dimension of political life during those tumultuous years. The aesthetic, as emphasized frequently in this book, does not pertain simply to the arts or literature or even aesthetic theories, but embraces human pleasure and pain, enthusiasm and despair. It covers passion and apathy, the feelings of the ugly and the beautiful, torments and nightmares, the construction and destruction of symbols and images, and ecstasies and disillusions. In the context of the Cultural Revolution, the aesthetic may now conjure up the gigantic spectacles of mass rallies in Tiananmen Square, the horrifying, brutal scenes of torture and mutilation at street corners, the numerous lofty images of the great Helmsman, and the degraded "devils and demons" (niu gui she shen). The aesthetic here is whatever impinges on the intimately sensory and sensual strata of our existence; it is our psychic and bodily conditions and the symbolic forms expressing them. In this broad sense, the aesthetic is an existential category, part of life, something lived and experienced at the ends of one's nerves and tasted on the tip of one's tongue. In this light, a cultural event becomes a vast stage for aestheticized politics.

In this chapter, I look at the Cultural Revolution as a scene where politics and aesthetics played themselves out as partners and rivals and as an aesthetic experience. The Cultural Revolution has been an area of scholarly interest for historians, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and anthropologists. It has also furnished many unforgettable, lurid scenarios of nightmare for writers, biographers, and journalists. We have no lack of accounts on the movement's chronological sequence and analyses of its temporal causality. We have ample hard data about the movement's origins, developments, climax, conclusion, and aftermath. Nor are we short of descriptions of the political mechanisms, policymaking processes, and doctrines behind the surface events. But few have bothered to look closely at the arts and literature of the Cultural Revolution, perhaps because of the dismissive but unquestioned assumption that the period was a cultural desert. Don't we all know that the Revolution produced nothing except the eight model plays?'

I depart from the practice of current studies and approach this intensely political event from an aesthetic point of view. This may seem odd at first glance. A cultural destruction in the name of cultural revolution, the movement appears to be a travesty, a brutal insult to anything worthy of the description aesthetic and cultural. Cultural life during those years was barbarized: aesthetic taste was crude and primitive, the feelings of the populace became impoverished and uncouth; sensory and artistic enjoyment was reduced to the most arid, infantile, and repetitive expressions and was rendered uniform everywhere. Material life was no less impoverished. The phrase "cultural desert" seems a feeble metaphor when we consider the stark literalness of the term, which corresponds to the aesthetic aridity and the sensuous deprivation of average individuals in that bleak middle-age of the twentieth century. Thus it may not be feasible to discuss the aesthetic dimension of the Cultural Revolution.

But it is precisely in a cultural desert marked by aesthetic aridity and sensory deprivation that the value of the aesthetic can be brought to the fore and deeply appreciated. Good health is a matter of course for those who enjoy it; yet frequently it is poor health or an incurable illness that makes the thought of health loom large in one's desire. The aesthetic can be brought to its full potential when there is too little in reality to match it, for it is a standard, indispensable to any healthy human existence, that reveals its unfortunate lack in a given reality.

It may be hasty to assert, however, that there was too little of the aesthetic during the Cultural Revolution. Behind this assertion is the illusion that there is one absolute, ever to be refined standard of the beautiful or the sublime. The Cultural Revolution had its own aesthetic; or, more precisely, it made a different use of that portion of human experience that can be described as aesthetic. On the one hand, there was the desert barren of aesthetic and sensuous pleasure; on the other hand, there was too much enjoyment derived from the aesthetically engaged activities. Signs of lyrical revolutionary enthusiasm were everywhere: feelings of euphoria burst forth, passions ran high, ambitions soared, a tidal wave of energy and creativity was unleashed. A whole new set of symbols and images emerged from one day to next, born of phantasmagoric dreams and fantasies. Most people who plunged into political activities were riding high on waves of emotional ecstasy and excitement. Whatever we can say about aesthetic experiences in the Cultural Revolution, the concept of the aesthetic has much to tell us about the peculiar way politics played its game, with or without aesthetic cloaks and costumes.

To glimpse the aesthetic dimension, we may dwell briefly on a familiar scene from the Cultural Revolution -the ecstatic passing of millions of Red Guards through Tiananmen Square under the review of their great commander, Chairman Mao, all of them eager to catch a few glimpses of the remote, awe-inspiring figure standing atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Such rallies occurred eight times between August 18 and November 26, 1966, and brought together some 13 million Red Guards from all over China.2 Many eyewitness accounts by Red Guards describe the solemnity, the ensuing confusion, the gigantic spectacles like a raging ocean of red, the frantic enthusiasm, and the fever pitch of emotion. What is most striking about these accounts is the irrational behavior of the crowd, whose psychic features I analyze below.

Liang Xiaosheng, a former Red Guard and a well-known writer, has recently written a book about the Red Guards' experience. Entitled The Confession of a Red Guard (Yige hongweibing de zibai), it is an intimately personal story whose fascinating details are embellished with a novelist's narrative skill. Liang tries to delineate the Red Guards' experience from what he calls the "socio-psychological perspective." It may more accurately be termed "psychoanalytical," for he makes frequent reference to Freud and psychoanalytical terms, which underlie some of his narration and comments. Liang's book may help us plumb the emotional and psychic depths of the Red Guards' experience and its symbolic configurations.

In narrating one of the rallies Liang captures the madness of the crowd. He describes the march of the Red Guards toward Tiananmen Square and their responses upon seeing Chairman Mao. At the approach to Tiananmen Square, the crowd, without catching a glimpse of Mao, spontaneously surged into a huge, undisciplined, and chaotic tidal wave, resounding with deafening cheers of "Long Live Chairman Mao." Upon seeing Mao, the Red Guards were consumed by frenzy and madness:

Tens of thousands of Red Guards shouted, yelled, and cried. This is one of the most frantic scenes ever to occur in human history!

Thousands upon thousands of Red Guards converged into a sea of people, twisting and turning on Tiananmen Square into a huge maelstrom as in a deep sea. Each person is like a tiny rock, being turned and swirled in a gigantic whirlpool, neither rising nor sinking. Whichever way one should face the Tiananmen Gate is completely beyond one's control, as he or she is being forced to turn round and round by the swirl.3

This description is typical of many accounts of this frantic moment in print and on film. I want to draw attention to the emotional and sensory elements in the scene. Many of the Red Guards in Tiananmen Square felt that the gathering was a momentous instant of historic significance, and the day they were the happiest people in the world. Many of them recorded in their red book of Mao's quotations, with blood from their own fingers, the exact time they saw Mao. It was also a spectacular, exhilarating, awe-inspiring scene, with slogans blaring from loudspeakers, the solemn music, the sheer magnitude of the gathering, the wave upon wave of human bodies, and the cheers that seem to converge into one voice and spring from one heart. The overwhelming explosion of sensory stimulus is captured in the phrase the "ocean of red" (hong haiyang); it was indeed a tumultuous and raging ocean. The sensory and nervous pressure was both overpowering and all-consuming: the individual became submerged and "drowned" in the surging crowd. It was also uplifting and empowering. Liang is speaking for many Red Guards when he writes that each felt his ego suddenly strengthened by the magnitude and dynamics of the raging crowd, like a proud soldier in a huge, magnificent army.

The officially choreographed setting and proceedings were ritual-like, carefully timed and regulated, but the actual rally far transcended the bounds of the ritual. The moving scene gave a sense of sublime limitlessness and boundlessness, a sense of invincible power. The imagination falters before such mind-boggling scenes. The peculiar psychic state was one of tremendous exhilaration and intense gratification, as the crowd's libidinal energy was instantly and powerfully released upon seeing the loved object, the figure of Mao.4

Although my observations barely scratch the surface, they may touch a sensitive aspect of the Red Guards movement and therefore the aesthetic dimension of the Cultural Revolution. The aspect in question is the aesthetic-psychic stratum. A focus on this experience raises questions that cannot be adequately dealt with through historical, economic, political, or anthropological analyses. These approaches tend to treat a series of historical events as an impersonal process propelled by certain objective factors. Human beings are active in this process only as socially and culturally conditioned beings, with conscious motivations and rational designs to make things happen the way they did. I want instead to delve into what goes on in the individual's head, including what goes on beneath the conscious mind, driven and animated by the impulses of the body.

Many Red Guards felt that at the end of the rally they seemed to step out of a dream. From Freud, we know that it is not in the retelling of the dream that we can find its meaning but in the dream work, in which the unconscious can be seen forcefully at work. Here I treat the individual not just as a thinking, calculating, balanced being, but as a sensing, feeling, loving, hating, imagining, fantasy-spinning, pleasure-seeking, symbol-creating being. The aesthetic joins hands with psychoanalysis. In uncovering the aesthetic in Freud, Eagleton observes that the aesthetic infiltrates the psychoanalytical doctrines of Sigmund Freud. Pleasure, play, dream, myth, scene, symbol, fantasy, representation: These are no longer to be conceived of as supplementary matters, aesthetic adornments to the proper business of life, but as lying at the very root of human existence.... Human life is aesthetic for Freud in so far as it is all about intense bodily sensation and baroque imaginings, inherently significatory and symbolic, inseparable from figure and fantasy. The unconscious works by a kind of "aesthetic" logic, condensing and displacing its images with the crafty opportunism of an artistic bricoleur.5

The dual perspective of the aesthetic and psychoanalysis gives rise to some intriguing questions whose significance extends far beyond the Tiananmen scene to the wider field of human conflict during the Cultural Revolution. What were the sensory imprints and emotional effects of these rallies on the Red Guards? The Red Guard group at its peak of enthusiasm seemed to display a mind of its own, sharply different from the psychic makeup of an individual. What is the nature of the group mind? How does a group bind itself together? What does the collective mind of the Red Guards have to do with the collective mind of the culture? How does the figure of the great leader function in the group mind? What role does the leader image play in shaping the conscious and unconscious life of the people? What gave rise to the intense love and worship of Mao? What was the aesthetic character of pleasure and displeasure experienced by the Red Guards and other people? In the following, I organize these questions into four interconnected sections. I first analyze the mass mind, taking the Red Guard mentality as an exemplary case. I attempt to explore the group's binding principle and figure, its libidinal sources, and its emotional tenor. Then I discuss an aesthetic phenomenon in the Cultural Revolution: the large-scale ritualization and theatricalization of daily life. In the third section, I narrow my scope to the violence of the Cultural Revolution, especially self-inflicted violence. In the last section I place all these questions within the frame of the aesthetic of the sublime.

The Revolutionary Masses

Like other political campaigns in Communist China, the Cultural Revolution was a large-scale mass movement. In response to the Red Guards' cheers of "Long Live Chairman Mao," Mao replied: "Long Live the Red Guards" and "Long Live the People." Mao's slogan signified an elevation, unprecedented in Chinese history, of the revolutionary masses to the absolute, unquestioned status of authority and power. In sharp contrast, the behavior of the masses during the Cultural Revolution appeared absurd, pathetic, and horrifying. Liang Xiaosheng writes that the Cultural Revolution helps us understand the masses a little better: "When they are overthrowing an old regime and establishing a new system, the masses are great. When they piously bow down to religious totems, they are a trifle. When swayed by a certain unrealistic, abstract theory, they are pitiable. When subject to manipulation and ready to manipulate others, they are disgusting."6

Contempt and disgust aside, we are forced to confront the question of the masses. From works of literature and biography we may generalize some major features of the masses engaged in revolutionary activities. The most salient are their irrational tendencies and intensely affective orientation. The "mass mind," if we can thus name the psychic pattern of a group, is predominantly unthinking and unconscious. In the frenzy of passion, the individual, spellbound and propelled by others' influence and contagion, loses his conscious mind: his critical faculty dwindles to nothing, his ego consumed by the forces of the collective unconscious. A widespread uniformity of thought and feeling and a fixation of psychic energy in one single direction mark the group mind. The maniacal masses have a tendency to carry out their intentions and satisfy their passions immediately: between violent ideas and actions there must be a shortcut.

These features apply not only to the revolutionary masses but also to other types of mass formation. Many Chinese writers have pointed to the fascist and even tribal nature of the masses during the Cultural Revolution. The most important features - the irrational tendency and the disappearance of the individual's critical mind in the crowd -may be keys to understanding the psychological mechanism by which an individual is transformed into a member of the masses.

Li Zehou touches upon this point when he asks why, during the Cultural Revolution, most people- students, workers, peasants and cadres-did not resist what now seems to be flagrant political manipulation and deception. Intellectuals, who possessed knowledge and supposedly had stronger critical and reflective capabilities, were even more submissive to the coercion and manipulation of the political power.7 Ba Jin, the well-known Chinese writer, has recorded that he felt genuinely guilty in the presence of the Red Guards persecuting him, and that he resolved to transform himself, heart and soul, into a "new" proletarian person through forced labor.8 "When others held high the banners, I followed closely."9 Ba Jin's attitude was quite common among intellectuals, despite some dissenting voices. Instead of standing their ground, many intellectuals trembled and felt guilty of their "privileges" when the Red Guards were ransacking their houses for evidence of their "bourgeois lifestyle."

In tracing out the ways the individual yields to the outside influence and becomes submerged in an irrational crowd, we can use Adorno's psychoanalytical interpretations of the mass formation. Adorno drew on Freud's work on mass psychology to identify the psychological features of Fascist groups and of mass consumers in the compulsive atmosphere of the capitalist cultural industry. Although Adorno talks about a different kind of masses in a different historical context, his interpretation seems right on target in the Chinese context. It speaks to the similarity of the masses across cultural boundaries, a similarity reinforced by the triumph of various national and racial collectivities over the autonomy of the individual in modern times, and it provides a coherent explanation of how individuals yield unquestioningly to political manipulation by external social and political agencies.10

The central question about the formation of the masses is what is the bond that joins individuals into the masses and how does this bond affect and transform the sense of self? What psychic states render the individual liable to absorption into a mass organization? As I noted above, the individual tends to lose his sense of individuality in succumbing to the emotion of the masses. In discussing the link between group psychology and the unconscious of the individual psyche, Freud argued that the development of the group mind derives its force from the propensity of the individual's desire to seek pleasure in the gratification of unconscious wishes. "Emotions are stirred in a group to a pitch that they seldom or never attain under other conditions; and it is a pleasurable experience for those who are concerned to surrender themselves so unreservedly to their passions and thus become merged in the group and to lose the sense of the limits of their individuality."11 The passions of the masses tap directly into the unconscious sources of each individual and are unleashed through the breakdown of the conscious mind.12

One unconscious wish is love of oneself. Self-love is fulfilled through identifying with other persons and objects. This is described by the more specialized terms "narcissism" and "identification." These two processes may suggest some answers to how the individual succumbs to the masses. Identification is the earliest expression of an emotional attachment to another person. A child's first identification is mostly with the authority and privilege of the father, but the father does not have to be the sole object of identification. Significant other persons in the child's formative environment -all the revolutionary models, the heroes, and the great leader -can also be exemplars to identify with. Primary identification with parents is driven by libidinal love, as the child takes parents as objects of love. Libidinal ties with parents in the child's later development lose their erotic color and take on the socially acceptable aspect of "affection," but the earlier desire of an infantile and even erotic nature still exists in the unconscious.

One salient feature of Chinese political culture is the subtle way it draws on the individual's infantile emotional dependence on parents and the libidinal need for a love-object. From early childhood, children are taught that love of the parents is not the only feeling they should entertain and is not to be regarded as appropriate and valuable as the love for the great leader or the party or the motherland. The lyrics of a song during the Cultural Revolution bear out this point: "Father is dear; Mother is dear, but they are not as loving as Chairman Mao. The rivers are deep and the seas are profound. Yet they are not as deep as the party's nourishing affection." A slogan exhorts those with a problem not to talk it over with their parents but to turn to their party organization for consolation and solutions. It is as if the collective were both a warm maternal embrace and a benevolent fatherly presence, always close at hand to soothe and care for a troubled child.

The Great Leader, the party, and the motherland as well as various collectives became love-objects, assuming the place of parents. Contrary to the common assumption that this kind of love was insincere, timeserving, or a means of self-preservation, it can be strong, passionate, and authentic, because it derives from a tenacious emotional source in unconscious libidinal drives. Its power comes from the love of one's self, which extends with the same force and intensity to significant other persons and grand objects in one's cultural environment. Love of those grand objects is "blind," and the love-objects are immune to criticism. In loving them, the ego seems to find an avenue of satisfaction in bestowing its narcissistic libido on those objects. The grand love objects are lovable and worth striving for, because they are more powerful and are ideal versions of ourselves.13

This observation explains certain behaviors of the Red Guards. The Red Guards were not passive foot soldiers who slavishly and blindly carried out any "supreme directive" of the Great Commander. They also took the initiative in creating their own brand of revolution and displayed strong if somewhat maniacal personalities. Their creativity and initiatives may be seen as a form of self-assertion, rooted in the need for narcissistic gratification and expressed in forms of revolutionary activities. And many grand objects of love were available: the Leader; the magnificent Tiananmen Square; the powerful rallies of the Red Guards, symbolizing a powerful army; the heroes; the socialist motherland. These, because of their sublime qualities, were seen as an enlargement of their own selves. By loving these objects, they loved themselves even more. And by taking pride in these objects, the Red Guards became prouder of themselves. In a sense, the Red Guards' activities were a collective projection, a huge lengthened shadow of their own subjectivity.

Liang Xiaosheng's analysis explores the cultural and political background of this love of the leader (and many other images and things similar to the leader imagery) as self-love. Ever since early childhood, the Red Guards had been fed - through revolutionary films, arts, theater, literature; through constant talks and visits to museums, monuments, and exhibitions -with panoramic views of their parents' heroic deeds and the historical achievements of the Communist revolution. The epic Long March and the Communist victory seemed to have happened only yesterday. Although they might pay homage to these grandiose spectacles, the younger generation also felt it had been born too late and had missed the opportunities to accomplish anything quite as magnificent and epic. On the one hand, they were exhorted to emulate these grandiose superhuman deeds; on the other hand, history offered them little more than a front seat to watch and applaud the re-enacted unfolding of the epic. It is certainly not a comforting thought that one would never have the opportunity to have one's name carved on a monument and would sink unsung into the grave. In the huge gap between their ego demands and prosaic reality, their parents' achievements might look like an unabashed brandishing of authority and cause resentment and frustration and sow the seeds of rebellion.14

The Cultural Revolution came as a welcome opportunity for many young Chinese to assert and aggrandize their increasingly diminished ego. The Red Guards were rebels with a cause. The most impressive and "epic" challenge by the Red Guards to their parents' heroism was nothing less than a repetition of the most sublime and epic of all their parents' achievements -the Long March. They set off on the many "new long marches" during the period marked for the exchanging of revolutionary experiences. During the marches, they re-created the hardships suffered by the Red Army more than thirty years before. They took the same routes, passing through the revolutionary bases and historical sites where crushing hardships had been endured or decisive victories won. They traveled the same length of 25,000 li; many walked all the way from Yan'an to Beijing -the symbolic journey that ended in the Communist victory in 1949. The Red Army solders were imitated down to the last detail. A Red Guard records, "During all of this we were to wear facsimiles of their coarse gray uniforms and straw sandals, carry heavy burdens as they had done, and travel at the forced march pace of an army at war."15 The challenge to authority later turned into the usurping of it, when the Red Guards found a new form of release for their energy in destructive and violent activities.

The unleashed narcissistic libido fueled the fever pitch of revolutionary frenzy and was appropriated by political cliques intent on creating chaos. Another aspect of this link between narcissism and identification is the total submission to the object of love to the point the ego is effaced. This is reflected most dramatically in the worship of Mao. The cult of Mao was hardly forced on the Red Guards and the broad masses. At least it cannot be explained as due entirely to external political manipulation and pressure. The worshipers met the "divine" idol halfway, driven by libidinal needs for love-objects. But love, not to say the love of an erotic nature, is diverted from its libidinal aim and is kept entirely unconscious. Love is sublimated into idealization and reverence. In this extreme case of being in love, wrote Freud, "the ego becomes more and more unassuming and modest, and the object more and more sublime and precious, until at last it gets possession of the entire self-love of the ego, whose self-sacrifice thus follows as a natural consequence."16 This unquestioned devotion to the object parallels a similar case, common in the Cultural Revolution, of an intensely emotional devotion to an abstract doctrine.

This total devotion of love was one of the psychic sources for the deification of Mao, and it is confirmed by the Red Guards' behavior. For them, Mao was the supreme leader and commander. One was ready to lay down one's life, to "climb the mountains of knifes and plunge into the sea of fire" (shang daoshan xia huohai) in order to protect him. No one and nothing else had a stronger claim on one's emotion. The apparently "spiritual" nature of such single-minded religious devotion had a strong sensory and aesthetic aspect. In the period before Mao's reviews of the Red Guards, for most of the young people Mao was still a remote and abstract figure, in spite of all the deification in the propaganda. The infantile affective attachment, as shown in emotional ties and bodily closeness to the parents, was not quite apparent or intense. During Mao's reviews, the unconscious somehow took a drastic turn. The infantile libidinal impulsion, which had been repressed and remained unconscious, came to the fore with enormous strength and intensity.

Although the worship of Mao might seem spiritual and political, it drew much of its strength from the libidinal need for physical proximity to the love-object. Many Red Guards were obsessed with seeing Chairman Mao with their own eyes. The emotional intensity and outbursts at the sight of Mao exceeded the level of the emotions that normally accompany a child's reunion with his long-missed parents or the reunion of long-separated lovers. "I was bawling like a baby," wrote a Red Guard about his feelings upon seeing Mao, "crying out incoherently again and again, 'You are our hearts' reddest, reddest sun!'"17 More emotionally exhilarating was the physical touch of Mao in a handshake. Those who were fortunate enough to shake hands with the Great Leader would transfer the sacred touch to other people, who would in turn pass on the magic power and the sacred aura. "And so it went, down the line, until sometimes handshakes were removed as much as one hundred times from the original one, spreading outward in a vast circle like waves in a lake when a meteor crashes into its center."18

The craving for physical proximity extended from Mao's person to the place where he lived. Beijing became a sacred place, and residents of the city, especially the Beijing Red Guards, were regarded as privileged citizens simply by residing under the divine halo of Mao. Objects around the Gate of Heavenly Peace were treated as material carriers of the divine aura. Before they left Beijing after the rallies, many Red Guards would scoop up "happiness water" from the Gold Water Bridge in front of Tiananmen Gate, or they would scrape up some dirt and bring it home as a great treasure.

This psychic state of total devotion comes close to religious feeling. For a person experiencing religious feeling, the boundaries between self and other are effaced through an expanded state of mind characterized by Freud as "oceanic." Religious feeling is one of total submission to authority, an affective remnant from a child's total dependence on parental authority. Narcissism, on the other hand, seems to be a craving for authority through imitation, the secret wish that one can somehow take the place of the parents and other authority figures. The seemingly contradictory tendencies -the wish for authority and the desire to submit -have a common origin in the libidinal tendencies of self-love and object-love. These tendencies are repressed in the child's development but survive with varying strength in adult life.

The mass mind, as exemplified by the Red Guards, is a regression toward the infantile in the individual and a regression toward a "primitive" (organized on blood ties) stage of human culture in the group. This regressive process has been elaborated by writers on the modern masses. Many Chinese writers and philosophers have also argued this case by tracing the violent and irrational behavior of the masses during the Cultural Revolution to the feudal and even earlier stages of Chinese civilization. The depiction of primitive and infantile psychic workings in the irrational masses points to libidinal sources in the unconscious of the individual. The bond that holds individuals together in a crowd is not simply doctrines and propaganda. That ideological propaganda worked quite effectively -and the irrational behavior of millions of Chinese during the Cultural Revolution proved that -shows that a certain form of politics can speak to the unconscious. Or to put this the other way around: politics can enlist the unconscious drives of the individual psyche as its most powerful driving force. In this situation, the individual finds his or her self overwhelmed by the unconscious currents. His critical, perceptive, reflective faculty is reduced to silence. She is not aware of what she is doing in shouting slogans with the crowd. He does not pause to think, to judge, to discriminate: all he does is follow the mood and movement of the crowd. The individual is completely under the sway of "gut feelings," which get absorbed into the gut feeling of the masses and then mediated and manipulated against the individual.

Theatricalization of the Political

What role does the aesthetic play in the unconscious effacement of the individual ego? How did the aesthetic experience during the Cultural Revolution contribute to individuals' manipulation by external social and political agencies? A common and trite notion about the aesthetic is that it is a path to moral perfection and self-cultivation. The aesthetic experience is, it is claimed, able to nourish and bring out all that is essentially human in an individual, enabling the realization of capacities and potentials, and developing an all-around, beautiful personality on the model of art. The aesthetic, in short, validates the sensual and libidinal dimensions of human existence, reconciling them with higher aims of culture.

For such a fancy, the lessons of the Cultural Revolution (and the recent political culture of China in general) are exceedingly embarrassing. They show that this fond hope for aesthetic improvement and self-cultivation, rather Confucian with a Schillerian tinge, is too optimistic and naive within an authoritarian context. True, the aesthetic is a royal road along which body and soul can travel in harmony to higher aims of culture. But what if the "higher" aims are so impossibly high and remote that their insistent pull becomes destructive to the here and now? So inhumanely high that one has to sacrifice one's earthly existence for some infinitely deferred future and pleasure? What if cultural aims are but noble pretensions camouflaging political domination? Ideals can be hopelessly idealistic, blatantly political, and overtly ideological but nevertheless remain aesthetically seductive. The aesthetic experience can be used to give form to the higher aims of culture that make you feel pleasure when you are actually suffering, make you perceive beauty when all is ugliness, make you loyal to the leader when your real feelings are attachment to family and friends, make you expect a bright future even if there is not the slightest trace of it amid the bleakest reality.

Much emphasis has been put on the Cultural Revolution as a political struggle among rival political groups and factions, but the most enduring memory of it is not related to committees, groups, cliques, decrees, or policies. It is, rather, an endless stream of images and patterns from daily life: the eight revolutionary model plays, the wearing of Mao badges, the green army uniforms, the red armbands of Red Guard organizations, the waving of red flags, the singing of songs and shouting of slogans, the never-ending study and criticism sessions, the solemn morning prayers and evening reports at the altar of the Great Leader, the loyalty dance (zhong zi wu) and loyalty halls (zhong zi tang), and the ocean of red ... the list goes on.

The Cultural Revolution created not only its own art, as in the numerous paintings and portraits of Mao and in the revolutionary model plays (yangban xi), but also an "artistic" way of life, an elaborate pattern of daily living that puts enormous premium on forms - forms of speech, behavior, bearing, and countless other ritualistic details. In the violent overhaul of the old and introduction of the new, there was no longer a "natural way" of carrying oneself and living one's life. One had to enter a prescribed "theatrical" realm in which the individual acted out well-demarcated roles. The Cultural Revolution had created a life that was aesthetically driven, ritualistic, and theatrical.

This does not simply imply that life imitates art. If art is considered a form at once rule-bound and expressive of human feelings and values, and if the experience of art is both richly sensuous and abstractly suprasensory, then we can say that political life during the Cultural Revolution transformed itself into a work of art. That life can be a work of art, like a theater stage where men are both actors and creators, is certainly not an idea alien to Chinese culture. Confucian doctrine insists that the only way for an individual to transform himself into a morally perfect man is through participation in artistic and aesthetic activities. One establishes one's character and ennobles one's mind, as it were, in an artistic ambience of poetry, music, and ritual. The popular tradition of theater, local opera, and performances, which the people love and perform frequently as homemade amusements in parks and on street corners, also contributes much to the Chinese penchant for blurring life and art. However, although we could relate the fusion of art and politics to earlier traditions and popular taste, we might trace its more recent lineage to Maoist discourse on the link between art and revolution.

Mao's Yan'an talks on literature and art is one of the most important documents in twentieth-century China for understanding the interplay between the aesthetic and the political. It contains a number of seminal assumptions that laid the foundation for the fusion of art and politics in the Cultural Revolution. References in the West to Mao's talk are apt to dismiss its Leninist dogmatic notions of art and literature as mere handmaidens of revolution -the cogs and wheels, as the phrase goes, of the revolutionary machine. It is customary to think that Mao's talk elevates politics and revolution while denigrating the autonomy of art. This view of Mao's work and of the literature and art created on the Yan'an principle is worse than an error. It has led to pervasive and dismissive notions that Communist art is mere crude propaganda and indoctrination with no aesthetic value, and that it is a waste of time to analyze it as an object of intellectual inquiry. The simplest retort to this view is that literature and art created on the Yan'an principle nourished and fashioned a whole generation, or several generations of readers, who may think very differently from the detached critic. These readers did not see this brand of literature as propaganda when they first read it, and many of them were inspired by this literature to become enthusiastic participants in revolutionary movements. Even if we concede that Communist literature is propaganda, we still have to consider seriously why it worked - often effectively.

We may find some answers by rereading Mao's Yan'an talks. It is quite true that Mao placed priority on politics and revolution. "In the world today," he stated, "all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake."19 In the same passage, Mao quoted Lenin's remark that proletarian literature is "cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine" (Selected Readings, p. 271). The cogs and wheels may be less significant than other major parts, but they are, Mao stressed, an "indispensable part." Was Mao proposing that literature and art may have more than a subordinate role, even if they take second place to politics? As a poet and an avid reader of classical Chinese literature, Mao realized that literature can have an existence apart from politics. At several points in the talk, he pointed to artistic value as distinct from political motives. For him, works of art and literature have methods and styles peculiar to themselves. "Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however progressive they are politically" (Selected Readings, p. 276). He set artistic value in opposition to the crude "poster and slogan style" and proposed two standards for assessing literature and art: the political and artistic. There is no question that the political standard takes precedence over the artistic. On the other hand, said Mao, the political is only half the critic's job: it is necessary to subject politically correct works to the "criteria of the science of aesthetics, so that art of a lower level can be gradually raised to a higher and art which does not meet the demands of the struggle of the broad masses can be transformed into art that does" (Selected Readings, p. 275).

Mao made the "higher" level of art, an aesthetic value, coincide with meeting the demands of the mass struggle -- a political goal. What, then, does the science of aesthetics mean? What is the meaning of artistic quality? It would be difficult to understand the specific meaning of aesthetic quality in Mao if we confined ourselves to a narrow definition of literature and art. It seems that for Mao literature and art embrace much more than the texts and works of imaginary creation. Literature and art amount to an emotional and edifying power, which is one of their major values. Mao wrote, "We do not favor overstressing the importance of literature and art, but neither do we favor underestimating their importance. Literature and art are subordinate to politics, but in their turn exert a great influence on politics" (Selected Readings, p. 271). Literature and art are a dynamic force, capable of acting on and influencing the direction of politics, a driving force of revolution -- hence, his conception of literature and art "in the broadest and most ordinary sense" (Selected Readings, p. 272).

By conceiving literature and art "in the broadest and most ordinary sense," Mao extended the category of the artistic to revolutionary movements and armed struggles and pushed the aesthetic into the arena of the political. Two important theses in the talk support this interpretation. The first is the thesis about the relationship between literature and life as implied by the notion of the typical (dian xing). The second is the close analogy Mao draws between the artist and the revolutionary statesman.

The first thesis is a familiar one and is frequently dismissed in an offhand manner. Revolutionary literature and art are the reflection of the life of the revolutionary masses in the writer's brain. But artworks are not mere copies of revolutionary reality. Art is built on a higher plane, "more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal and therefore more universal than actual everyday life" (Selected Readings, p. 266). The artist confers a more intense and concentrated form on the raw materials of life. But this does not mean that an artwork is aesthetically superior to the "raw materials," which are crude and unrefined. As the source of inspiration for artwork, the materials of people's life are livelier and richer in content and have vivid patterns, making all "literature and art seem pallid by comparison" (Selected Readings, p. 265). Mao regarded these materials in their raw state as being already aesthetically appealing. What the artist does is to form and fashion the materials, already beautiful on their own, into something more intense and compelling. Through his work, the artist should "awaken the masses, fire them with enthusiasm and impel them to unite and struggle to transform their environment" (Selected Readings, p. 266). Notice the circular logic of this artistic creation: artworks bring to light what is already beautiful in the revolutionary masses, and by awakening the masses, the artist brings their full capacity and energies into play in revolution.

The circular process also applies to the method of politics, summed up in a well-known phrase about political policymaking and mobilization: "From the masses to the masses." Mao went so far as to say that revolutionary leaders and statesmen are artists, which is comparable to the Schillerian notion that politics is an art. A political artist works in much the same way as an "imaginative" artist, who writes or paints professionally. Revolutionary politics, like art, is the medium through which "the needs of the class and the masses find expression in concentrated form" (Selected Readings, p. 272). Like the imaginative artist, the statesman-artist also engages in the work of forming and fashioning: he must "collect the opinions" of the masses, "sift and refine them and return them to the masses, who take them and put them into practice" (Selected Readings, p. 272). It is in this figure of the statesman-artist, or artist-statesman, that the fusion of art and politics is completed. The truth of art and politics, Mao maintained, is the same and derives from the same source. "This is why there can be complete unity between the political character of our literary and artistic works and their truthfulness" (Selected Readings, p. 272). This statement implies: there can be a complete unity between the aesthetic quality of our political work and its truthfulness.

For Mao, revolution is a drama filled with exhilarating spectacles. In a conversation with the French writer André Malraux years before the Cultural Revolution, he said, "Revolution is a drama of passion; we did not win the people over by appealing to reason, but by developing hope, trust and fraternity."20 A politics suffused with an artistic and emotional aura, a political manipulation imbued with all the affective and authentic reality of the individual being -this is the predominant feature of the Cultural Revolution. To take the simplest case, aesthetic methods were employed to rewrite the history of modern China and to deify Mao. One sensational event was the production of an oil painting entitled Chairman Mao Visits Anyuan (Mao zhuxi qu Anyuan). A mine in Jiangxi province, Anyuan was the cradle of the workers' movement; historically Liu Shaoqi, condemned as a traitor and capitalist roader during the Cultural Revolution, played a much greater role than Mao in mobilizing the workers. To alter this history and its unflattering portrait of Mao, several important organizations decided to sponsor a museum exhibit. A large group of artists was dispatched to the mine. After talking with veteran miners about past revolutionary activities, the painter Liu Chunhua created a large painting 2.2 meters in length and 1.8 meters in width. He became a celebrity overnight. The spread and popularity of the painting were unprecedented in Chinese history. Reproductions were carried by all the major newspapers and shown in public places and textbooks, and made into stamps and other artifacts.21 This may serve as an obvious example of the aesthetic in the service of the political. One could go on endlessly picking examples of this kind, but it may be more helpful to focus on two exemplary cases: the eight model plays and the new rites of the cult of Mao.

What is peculiar about the eight model plays is not simply their deification of the revolutionary heroes, their formulaic artistic principles, and their overt political agendas. These have been studied by critics and scholars.22 What is missing from these studies, however, is an estimation of their hypnotic and seductive power. And to appreciate this, we have to look at the way these plays were made accessible and, more important, the effects they produced on the audience. Made into films, the eight plays reached the widest audience possible and were shown over and over again; in fact for many years they were the only entertainment available. If the sheer repetitiveness and lack of alternatives bored the audience, they nevertheless exacted a toll heavier than many a detached critic may realize. To say that these plays indoctrinate is to miss the point. They did not simply preach well-formulated doctrines and formally articulated ideologies; rather, they oriented the viewers' taste, penetrated into their feelings, and shaped their aesthetic judgments. The constant bombardment of images and music in them encouraged the defenseless and critically unsophisticated audience to believe that only the grandiose, the epic, the sublime, the heroic, and the monumental are legitimate standards of beauty and desirable modes of emotional expression. The plays were the "sentimental education" of a whole generation of young people, providing an atmospheric milieu for conditioning their aesthetic responses.

As the only aesthetic education one could possibly receive, the model play is not just another piece of art and literature for the viewer, who after the play can talk with critical savvy over a cup of tea with friends. For many people, especially for the young in their formative and impressionable years, the figures and images of the plays delivered a heartfelt experience, an experience as authentic as the taste of the madeleine for Marcel Proust as he described it in A la recherche du temps perdu. The endless stream of images and scenes of the model plays were deposited subliminally (in the sense of "subliminal advertising") in the audience as unconscious imprints: they bypassed the audience's intellect and penetrated the deepest recesses of their unconscious mind. This is why the restagings of the model plays in the 1980's and 1990's triggered enormous emotional responses -- recognition, enthusiasm, nostalgia, anxiety, fear, and disgust. Whatever the response, the sounds and sights of the model plays reappeared like a monstrous uncanny specter, both unfamiliar and secretly known all along, conjuring up that portion of the audience's forgotten but deep-seated collective experience.23

The audience of the model plays was not really an audience in the everyday sense. Given the staging of the plays, the members of the audience were not consumers who could sit back and savor the artwork with serenely contemplative calm and interest. They were exhorted to participate in the plays -by studying them, assuming the roles of the characters, and staging performances in the streets, neighborhoods, and workplaces. Numerous work-units formed "propaganda teams" - theatrical troops - for the sole purpose of staging the model plays. Even those who had no aptitude for acting were obliged to sing the songs and recite the lines. Through the constant reproductions of the plays and widespread immersion in them, the people no longer just performed the dramas and acted out the roles on the stage: they came to live these roles and act out the scenarios in daily life. They came to identify with the heroes, taking on the tone, pitch, and manner of their speech and assuming their bodily postures. They even gesticulated and moved in the same heroic and theatrical way.

In her study of the model plays, Ellen Judd draws attention to the image of the dramatic pose, liangxiang. She asks us to imagine the chief character Yang Zirong in Taking the Tiger Mountain by Strategy (Zhiqu weihushan) "posed before a detachment of PLA soldiers and officers against the background of an unfurled red flag, or imagine Li Yuhe in The Red Lantern (Hongdeng ji) standing upright in bloodstained shirt, striking fear into the hearts of his torturers."24 It is not an exaggeration to say that for many these dramatic poses have become models to imitate and emulate in everyday behavior. Literary works and personal records have described this phenomenon of theater turned life. I will cite a striking example taken from a short story entitled "Marriage of the Dead" ("He fen") by Li Rui, a contemporary young writer. An incident in the story describes how a group of educated youth, former Red Guards from Beijing, try to protect the terraced field of a production brigade from the onslaught of a flood. They find themselves in a situation that calls for courage and heroism, and the Red Guards brave the flood in imitation of the heroes in one of the model plays:

They had won a red flag, though the first mountain torrents of summer had washed away two of the fields. At the second flood, the young graduates had taken the red flag from the home of the Party secretary to the field, stuck it at the edge and pledged to fight the flood and save the field. Like a raging bull, the waters had engulfed the field dam in the blink of an eye. The young graduates had jumped in hand in hand, like they did in the films.25

This heroic gesture turns out to be a complete disaster. It backfires in the senseless death of a Red Guard, a well-liked young girl whose memory later in the story becomes material for a traumatic replay of the horrifying incident in the minds of the living. The ironic and grotesque light in which this incident is described by Li Rui can hardly overcome the more sinister sense that the individual can be subjected to manipulation by political pressures and yet maintain enthusiasm and passion for self-sacrifice.

We know that theater - theater going and theatrical production -as a collective activity developed out of traditional rituals. The phenomenon of theater turned life or the theatricalization of life is only an epitome of the large-scale ritualization of the political culture -- the Maoist cult and the revolutionary ritual. The Cultural Revolution purportedly demolished traditional customs and habits, but paradoxically even as it busily destroyed the old things, the Revolution resurrected ancient rituals and rites or created modern versions of them. These modern rituals were practiced on a much larger scale and more thoroughly than any past political regime could have dreamed and managed. For a few years, the whole life of mainland Chinese was inundated with a high tide of rituals and rites. Homes and workplaces were turned into altars of worship, with Mao's portraits hung in prominent places. The Little Red Book of Mao's quotations and the four "grand volumes" of Mao's selected works became holy scriptures, to be carried around, studied, recited, and discussed at endless study sessions. The most ritualistic of all were the morning prayers and the evening report (zao qingshi, wan huibao), with their rigid formulas, gestures, and words, performed in private or in groups with religious solemnity and seriousness. People plunged into a whole whirl of artistic activities: the loyalty dance in which almost everybody participated and the exhibition halls where artifacts glorifying Mao were put on display for worshipers. These so-called Loyalty Halls sprung up all over the country. On top of all these activities and institutions was a new speech, a Maoist Newspeak, which is hard for anyone not involved in the movement to decipher.

One may be tempted to see these rituals as a form of political control aimed at reaffirming and reinforcing the authoritarian order.26 Undeniably they were concerned with the existing order of power relations of domination and submission. But this interpretation is a bit too facile. This view seems to mask a desire to evade responsibility and signals the consoling thought that some bad guys in power, the Gang of Four, thrust on us all these silly rituals in order to dupe and control us. Why is it, as many have asked, that almost all of us (except a few resistant souls), including the best educated and most sober minded, engaged in these rituals with an enthusiasm that was as blind as it was sincere, as irrational as it was earnest? Why did we acquiesce in the rituals and the cult, in the, modern myths, which led to the national disaster?

The question of why can be better approached through an exploration of how ritual works in its psychic-aesthetic dimension. Ritual, as Emile Durkheim's interpretation of the phenomenon suggests, contains an aesthetic and an affective dimension. Ritual casts collective representations in a dramatic form and endows them with a mystical ethos. The immersion in the communal ritualistic experience not only compels acceptance of the collective representations but also drums into the psyche of the individual a deep-seated affective response to them.27 The power of ritual, in this view, lies not so much in its educational and ideological effectiveness but in the mystical atmosphere and the affective aura permeating various fixed forms and prescribed activities. In the trance-like proceedings, our intellect is thrown off guard-we no longer ask questions, compare, or discriminate; our sensuous capacity and unconscious drives are in full play. They are exposed and rendered vulnerable to the slow, monotonous, and steady solicitations. Ritual is mesmerizing and hypnotic. The Cultural Revolution rituals did not purport to convey messages or even explicit ideologies. The main thrust of the rituals was implied in the remark of Mao to Malraux in reference to revolution quoted above. The Communists won the people over not by appealing to reason, "but by developing hope, trust and fraternity." Hope and trust are psychic states not readily amenable to formularization, and "fraternity" points to a social solidarity based on the affective and libidinal attachment typical of a closely knit family.

If Mao's remark gives some hints about revolutionary ritual, it is that the ritual does not simply work outwardly as an external form of control; it cannot work without our consent and voluntary partnership. The revolutionary rituals appealed to our senses and inner psyches, to our desires, and they worked on the surface of our bodies. They functioned on a cynical premise about individual human beings -- on the supposition that the individual's mind and body are malleable, amenable to modeling and shaping by the imagistic and sensuous medium of a ritual. A person's emotion is capable of being modified and re-educated; one's aesthetic taste and unconscious cravings can be trained, altered, and then pushed in the service of the authoritarian order. The personal identity of the individual, already eroded in the encroaching domain of collective regimentation, dwindled to nothing and gave way to the establishment of collective identity. Individual identity was no longer something unique but was extensively socialized and standardized, the local mark of a homogeneous communal identity.

The operations of ritual show that this notion about the individual gets at an ugly truth. This is a psychological insight into the human psyche and its strategic usefulness for exploitation by political power. The workings of ritual mimicked the psychic operation of hypnosis. In the preceding section, I discussed the Red Guards' idealization of Mao, which is interpreted as a libidinal fixation or total devotion to the object of love. Freud observed that a person who becomes hypnotized exhibits a more intense form of libidinal fixation and hence presents an excellent analogy to someone head-over-heels in love. The hypnotist has a total claim on the devotion of the hypnotized and is able to replace the latter's ego. Being hypnotized is a conversion of libidinal energy to the extreme purity of affection and devotion to an outside object, leaving no trace of sexual aims. In other words, it is an extreme form of sublimation, a channeling of libidinal energy, which originally has erotic satisfaction as its aim, toward nonsexual objects. This helps to explain why the individual can be assimilated into a group and be made to "love" a hypnotizing presence - the image of a powerful leader or a figure of collectivity -with as much or even more passion than he or she is able to love in the mundane, romantic sense. Freud stated that it is this libidinal resource that fuels and sustains the enduring ties and solidarity of a social group. Love between man and woman can be weakened when it is consummated sexually.

But love in the idealistic, Platonic form of "affection" and devotion - the sublimated love -precisely because its underlying libidinal satisfaction is infinitely deferred, is longer lasting.28

It is a love, sadly, that cripples and paralyzes our critical faculty. We are made to love, to quote Shakespeare, "not wisely but too well." The ritual undermines the critical function of our conscious mind by its repetitive regularity and numbing rhythm. The interminable brainwashing study sessions of the editorials of People's Daily, the meetings to recall the bitterness of the past and appreciate the sweetness of today, the struggle and condemnation rallies, the public recitation of Mao's sayings and poems, the daily morning worship and evening report sessions, the watching and performing of the model plays, the celebrating of the newly issued directives of Mao -all this occurred and recurred at regular intervals and at set hours during the Cultural Revolution. Musical, auditory, metrical stimuli converged in the repetitive movement of the rituals to swamp and numb our senses. Revolutionary ritualization made life an interminable round of talking, performing, singing, chanting, criticizing. In this repetitive beat, time seemed to cease to exist, for every moment was the same as the next; every act was identical to another. To make a judgment, the conscious mind needs to know difference and to be aware of the flow of time. But in the monotonous chant of the ritual, time came to a standstill, and all forms, images, and objects seemed to be frozen in eternity. The performative act in a mystical aura was all that absorbed and riveted our attention. Despite the sessions to recall the revolutionary tradition and the "bitterness of the past," the important thing was to keep abreast with the here and now as the moment of eternity and, indeed, to follow the monotonous beat. The revolutionary rituals turned the whole life of the nation into a vast arena of repetitive movements, prescribed theatrical acts, rhythmic beat, lyrical prosody, and episodic ecstasy - in brief, into art and aesthetic performance.

Li Zehou rightly points out that during the Cultural Revolution, revolution was often treated as if it had its own intrinsic value and was celebrated for its own sake.29 If we press Li's implication further, the large-scale ritualization can be thought of as a radical form of the aestheticization of politics. A view similar to Li's was expressed by the French historian Jules Michelet about two hundred years ago, when he wrote that the French Revolution was a sublime spectacle.30 Here politics does not employ the aesthetic but has become aesthetic. In its ritualistic aspect, the Cultural Revolution is intensely aesthetic, because it treats revolution as a spectacle, as a show, as something absolute, mythical, and transcendental, a shining and timeless fetish. It takes politics as if it were art - in the spirit of art for art's sake.

Nothing could work more effectively to lull our critical judgment to sleep than the interminable, uniform, and steady performance of the same rituals; nothing could affect and absorb our senses and sensibility more seductively; nothing could take away our sense of self and self-awareness, our feeling of personality and our power of discernment, more quickly; nothing was more effective in compelling us to plunge, body and soul, into the tumultuous currents of the revolution. Through ritualization, political manipulation bypasses the ego's capacity to think and judge and directly appropriates the sensuous stratum and unconscious desire of the individual. The individual acts and moves, not out of self-motivation, but in Adorno's words, "mirrors objective trends like an automaton."31 With their souls sacrificed to the collective ideal, millions of individuals in the Cultural Revolution "enact[ed] a senseless ritual to the beat of a compulsively repetitive rhythm and bec[a]me emotionally impoverished."32

Self-Criticism: The Enemy Inside

I am not claiming that all participants in the revolutionary rituals were swimming in sensory delight to the oblivion of their own personal interests. The "aesthetic experience" during the Cultural Revolution can better be described as a pleasure-in-pain series, a structure of feeling that I have noted at work in the experience of the sublime. The Red Guards and other enthusiastic young people were able to derive pleasure from what now looks like human misery in the extreme. The motto for this strange experience was "Take suffering as honor; take hardship as pleasure" (yi ku wei rong, yi ku wei le). This was especially true of the educated youth who were subject to harsh labor in the countryside, as well as of the populace at large, who in their enthusiasm for the revolution, seemed to be able to take intolerable material deprivation and wretchedness in stride. Liang Xiaosheng's description captures this experience well.

I, together with my countrymen, am paying close attention to the revolutionary movements across the whole world and the situation of anti-imperialist and anti-revisionist struggles. I do not mind that my country gives me only a ration coupon worth half pound of meat a month; that the monthly ration of grain of 28 pounds is not enough; ... that I have to do homework by candlelight when electric bulbs are not available; ... that our new home was built during the Great Leap Forward by housewives, in the spirit of "one day is worth twenty years," a house as cold as an icy cave in winter, with the walls covered with frost, and in summer moist with dew and leaking. I don't mind it at all.... I do not have slightest reason to complain about our country, to doubt the happiness of being born under the red flag and growing up in the new China.33

In this vein, many accounts of the life of the educated youth describe their pride and pleasure in conquering nature and transforming the wildernesses, while they underwent unbearable sufferings and lived in often inhuman and bestial conditions.

Not only did they ignore suffering but they were also ready to inflict pain on themselves. Physical suffering through labor was regarded only as a pre-condition for purging "bourgeois" sentiments and habits. The real revolution was seen as taking place in the soul. Thus side by side with backbreaking labor, unrelenting self-criticism became a national pastime. For a time everybody got into the habit of finding faults with him- or herself, exposing weaknesses and improper thoughts at study sessions, in routine reports of private thoughts to party organizations, and in a diary of self-examination and self-condemnation.

Diary writing epitomized the prevailing trend of self-criticism and was a favorite practice of revolutionary zealots. The revolutionary model Lei Feng, whose diary was published as a sacred text, may have given impetus to this fad. The diary was envisioned as a combat zone where night after night one tried to ferret out and defeat that portion of one's self that seemed to have gone astray from the party line. A famous passage in Lei Feng's diary states: "I eliminate my individualism as an autumn gale sweeps away fallen leaves. / And to the class enemy, I am cruel and ruthless like harsh winter." The cruelty toward oneself was only a degree less severe than that exhibited toward the class enemy. The self was no less an enemy hidden inside us. In writing diaries, one acted like a detective on high alert, turning one's gaze inward to scrutinize the dark recesses of the mind in search of a potential criminal and sinner. One scanned one's mind to spot the slightest selfish thought and hastened to combat and drive it out. This is captured in the slogan "Fight ruthlessly against the flash of the private self" (hen dou sizi yi shan nian).

With its violence and self-torment, self-criticism can be seen as an institutionalized aggression, turned inward toward oneself. The rampantly violent behavior during the Cultural Revolution reveals the most ugly and the barbarous side of human beings. For many, such violence has raised doubts whether we have advanced from the barbarity of primitive times. It also forces upon us the idea of aggressive instincts inherent in human nature. This is not the place to argue whether it would be of any theoretical value to settle the question of an inherent aggressive instinct. It seems to me that the blood-stained history of modern China, as well as that of the twentieth-century West, has ended any lingering doubt about human aggressive potentials. What I wish to stress in this section, however, is aggression turned inwards to one's self. I want to examine the spread of this selfinfliction as a cultural practice and disease and to reflect on how this distorted self-image contributes to hegemonic power.

The aggressive tendency runs in two directions. One is sadistic and turns its destructive rage against other people. The other is masochistic and is directed inward, seeking to inflict pain on the ego. Both tendencies are rooted in libidinal impulses, which must find discharge and satisfaction, either on outside objects or inside the subject. The mission of culture in this regard is to keep this disturbing and irruptive energy in check. Culture is pacification and restraint. Yet the political culture of twentieth-century China seems to contradict this. Did not Mao say that Communist philosophy is a philosophy of struggle and conflict, which had been put in constant cultural practice? Is it not true that aggression has been seen as a driving force for permanent revolution?

The Cultural Revolution demonstrated that a culture that gives easy license to violence sows the seeds of its own destruction. A more intriguing question about the violent political culture, however, is how it can countenance aggressive tendencies while maintaining its rule for a considerable period of time. Many of us not only felt comfortable in the midst of violence, but even welcomed it when it was directed at ourselves: we hurt ourselves as vehemently as we hurt other people. Unless we acknowledge that some harsh mental agency must be at work in directing aggression on ourselves, it is almost impossible to see why so many people could voluntarily practice self-punishment and self-criticism.

This leads us to consider the superego, a concept with far-reaching political implications. The superego describes the relation of dominance and submission between the existing network of power relations and the libidinal life of the individual. Cultural precepts and ideals, prevailing assumptions, social and moral norms, and above all the models of parents and heroes are vital to the operation and maintenance of a given culture. But these external cultural frameworks cannot function until their authority is instituted as part of the subjectivity of individual members of a culture. When the cultural authority is internalized and introjected by the ego, a portion of the ego is separated from itself and becomes the superego.

Although Freud made no explicit reference to politics in his discussion of the superego, its political implications are clear. Freud's description of the superego is tinged with images of domination and control. A culture obtains mastery over the individual's libidinal drive, he said, by "disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city."34 The images suggest military conquest and the colonization of the subaltern underworld of libidinal drives and unruly desires as though in a colonial context. The colonial subjugation is not without its high-handed tyranny and aggressiveness: it is outward aggressiveness rounding upon the aggressiveness of the individual.35 The superego sows violent discords in the subject by generating a gnawing sense of guilt, a strong need for punishment. In this way, the individual can be his own judge, effect self-persecution, mete out self-punishment. The need for punishment is associated by Freud with masochistic wishes.36

This cluster of ideas can help us understand the enormous emphasis placed on the violent transformation of the human mind in selfcriticism during the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a violent revolution that, in Mao's words, "impacts on people's souls." Its target was not just hidden class enemies in the government hierarchy and obscure corners of Chinese society, but the enemy inside us, the time bomb ticking away in the dark recesses of our heart. As Mao insisted, "While transforming the world, proletarians must also transform their own outlook." We must not only carry out revolution against our enemies but also "launch a revolution in the depths of our souls."

The transforming of the soul is carried out through the voluntary cooperation of the participant, who must learn to hate him- or herself for the slightest deviation from the party line and watch over his or her mind with utmost vigilance. The practitioner of self-criticism must perform without hesitation a masochistic self-accusation and embrace punishment at the hands of authority. A thirteen-year-old girl's confession describes very well this pathological mentality. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the girl was dismayed to see her classmates rooting out flowers and plants, which were supposedly signs of the decadent, bourgeois lifestyle. But quickly she checked herself in her own thought process.

I was extremely sad to see the lovely plants go. But I did not resent Mao. On the contrary, I hated myself for feeling miserable. By then I had grown into the habit of "self-criticism" and automatically blamed myself for any instincts that went against Mao's instructions. In fact such feelings frightened me. It was out of the question to discuss them with anyone. Instead, I tried to suppress them and acquire the correct way of thinking. I lived in a state of constant self-accusation.37

At a tender age the young girl had already developed a firm and harsh superego, which was actually an identification with Mao. The image of Mao and his teachings were in fact the primary contents of the inflated collective superego in the age of Mao, implanted in the minds of millions of Chinese. As the severe "voice of the father," the superego put the child's self in "a state of constant self-accusation" and made her "frightened" of her feelings, and she blamed herself for harboring them. The self-blame and self-accusative state of mind prepared the individual to yield to official demands by making her or him desire penalties administered by the political power.

In his reminiscences, Ba Jin, who more than any other writer has agonized over his experience of the Cultural Revolution, acutely describes this self-accusative state of mind. His metaphor for the oppressive and omnipotent superego is "the magic word of the constricting ring" (fin gu zhou). The ring is a disciplinary device in the novel journey to the West (Xi you ji). The Buddhist monk, one of the main characters in the novel, used the device to control and tame the wild and rebellious monkey by chanting magic words; as he did so, the ring would constrict the monkey's head. With the political ring hanging over his head, Ba Jin lived paralyzed with fear and anxiety. He believed that it was his duty to live up to the demands made by the ring, however painful the efforts might be. During the Cultural Revolution, he was put into the cow shed, the Chinese version of the concentration camp, and was forced to labor in order to purge his mind of bourgeois thoughts. Like many innocent intellectuals, he welcomed this opportunity.

In his retrospective and critical mood, Ba Jin says that his submission to self-criticism and forced labor was motivated by self-interest and the desire to survive. But Ba Jin does not flinch from the much more sinister fact that he succumbed to the political injunctions quite sincerely. He was struck, as he looks back, by the fact that when the Red Guards shouted "Down with Ba Jin!" he raised his right hand to agree. "But I was not pretending," he confesses, "I sincerely expressed my consent to be disgraced, so that I could start anew, to become a new man. I also had the determination to transform myself through the pains and sufferings of hard labor."38 Stigmatized as an ox, he "resolved" to let others cut off his "tail," the "bourgeois" remnants to be eliminated. When he was condemned to live in the cow shed, he was "determined" to live the rest of his life as a submissive ox. He sincerely believed he was inferior to his persecutors and envied them their right to sing the songs of the model operas -a prerogative pre- served for the revolutionaries.39

Ba Jin's "determination" to suffer pains points to the ambivalence implicit in the superego, which prompts me to call it the "revolutionary superego." The superego is sadistic and tyrannical, because it is a differentiation of the id, and thus is related to the aggressive tendencies and to libidinal processes. It is born of the child's earliest identification with parental authority. It is our first affective attachment to the external world. This identification will in the course of the child's mental development extend to authority figures, social models, and heroes.40 But since this all-absorbing love threatens to shatter our increasingly enfeebled narcissistic ego, the love is bound up with hate, with aggression against outside overbearing authority. The Cultural Revolution provides numerous examples of this aggression. The hatred of parental, political authority regularly vented its aggressive rage in the destruction and persecutions so rampant during the period. But the hatred could also take a masochistic turn, turning the external sadistic power round to the self.

Some psychic features of the self-criticism and self-struggle session offer a good illustration of masochistic self-aggression. The prevalent slogans and buzzwords accompanying self-criticism reveal its warlike unrelenting brutality: "To tell a true from phony revolutionary, you have only to see if a person dares to make revolution against his own life [ge ziji de ming]." "To make revolution against one's life, one needs the courage of a bloody sword fight. You die, and I live [ni si wo huo]." "To struggle against the very word 'self' [si zi], one must do it in earnest." "A clean knife in, a bloody knife out [bai _crdaozi jin hong daozi chu]."41 In their intensity of merciless brutality against the self, these slogans exude an impression of masochistic enjoyment, as though the more merciless and violent one is toward oneself, the greater one's narcissistic enjoyment and pleasure. The harsher and crueler one acts toward oneself, the more genuinely revolutionary one feels or appears to the public. "The more virtuous a man is," Freud dryly remarked, "the more severe and distrustful is its [the superego, conscience] behavior, so that ultimately it is precisely those people who have carried saintliness furthest who reproach themselves with the worst sinfulness."42 According to the logic of this remark, those who most insistently blamed themselves for harboring selfish thoughts would appear to be the true revolutionaries.

This mixture of jouissance and violence could also take the form of escalating one's imaginary crimes. The harsh demands of the superego and the failure of the ego to measure up created a tension, which was expressed in the unconscious need for punishment. This longing for punishment did not wait for a real deed to get what it desired. It could seize upon a tiny budding of an "evil" intention and escalate it out of proportion into a glaring crime. For example, a person who had used the stationery of a state office to write a personal letter would recall it in a session of self-criticism, and it would become an outrageous case of embezzlement. The "thief" would report his "crime," would cry, curse himself as worse than a dog, and would well-nigh kill himself. The crime would be aggravated and multiplied in a phantasmagoric scenario: if I do this every day of the year, and if all the people of China do it, how much damage would it do to the socialist nation? How much money would it waste?43 And on and on. The more harshly one accused oneself, the more admiration one expected from fellow practitioners of self-criticism, and the more masochistic enjoyment one could reap.

The Journey of the Self Toward Sublime Infinity

The program of self-criticism also has an aesthetic dimension. The overwhelming need for punishment shares a structural affinity with the feeling of the sublime and is linked to the Marxist sublime we have seen in the account of Li Zehou. Kant observed in the Critique of Judgment that the sublime is an experience of pleasure in pain. Confronted with the overwhelming immensity and power of a life-crushing nature, the subject's imagination is faced with annihilation. This produces pain in the feeling of a momentary blockage of our vital powers. The truly sublime moment begins for Kant when this setback to our powers immediately leads to a stronger re-assertion of them. This mental drama of powers lost and powers regained is correlated with the fact that the mind is alternately repelled and attracted by the sublime object. The regained powers do not, of course, reside with the pitiable ego on the brink of destruction but are suddenly rediscovered as originally inscribed in our own capacity to grasp the world. The sublime arises in a sudden awakening to our rational faculty and moral conscience, a reassuring realization that we are somehow invulnerable and hence can be just as sublime as the grand things outside us. It is in the discovery of this sublime power of reason that pleasure arises; it is a negative pleasure because it is born on pains felt by an ego previously in jeopardy.44

The revolutionary superego corresponds to the pleasure-in-pain series, which is manifested in the experience of self-criticism and diary writing. The superego embodies all the lofty goals of revolution and enforces the grand telos of Communist history. The ego may feel dwarfed and humbled before the seemingly unscalable height of the collective ideals (the superego is the "ideal" of ego) and experiences frustration and pain. It also feels the sense of guilt that underlies the self-criticism and motivates the individual to correct, improve, and reform him- or herself. But in transforming the self and striving to reach the collective ideal, the ego can also feel an uplifting pleasure, a pleasure in strenuous struggle and ceaseless endeavor.

The psychic structure of masochistic self-punishment and selfcriticism in the Cultural Revolution falls within this sublime aesthetic, an aesthetic of pleasure in suffering. This is at once an aesthetic, a social practice, a cultural institution, and a prevalent state of mind. This aesthetic captures the affective intensity and poignancy of the 11 revolution carried out in the depths of the soul" -the permanent revolution in the mind that mirrors the continuous revolution in the sociopolitical sphere.

The sublime is what is unattainable and unreachable. In the revolutionary practice of self-criticism, self-transformation is a neverending and painful process. The high demands of the superego and the inability of the self to achieve them give rise to a constant sense of worthlessness, of humility, like that the guilty child feels before an overly demanding parent. And this calls forth a masochistic wish for self-punishment. Ba Jin's determination to suffer pains and torture was quite characteristic of many intellectuals and alludes to the masochistic self-aggression that matches the sadistic aggression his persecutors inflicted on him. Such a contorted psyche was not limited to the period of the Cultural Revolution but can be found as well in the decades before it. Psychic self-aggression, perpetuated by the practice of self-criticism and self-struggle, mimics the strife in the political arena and renders the life of the individual an endless pilgrimage toward some unreachable destination, a constant striving in vain, yet it provides enough measure of fear, terror, and lyrical elation for one to keep on going. Ba Jin describes this endless journey of mind thus:

It is in this way that I went through ten years before the Cultural Revolution. As an intellectual, I was willing to transform myself but every day I had my heart in my throat in fear; I had no opinion of my own; I followed others' instructions. Step by step I trudged along the muddy path, plodding toward a red light in the distance. Every step forward was followed by a fall. Covered all over with mud and up on my feet again with tremendous effort and completely exhausted, I had to continue forward. But I felt I was still on square one. No matter how piously I tried to reform and improve myself, I still could not shake off the tight ring of constriction on my head. For ten years I had been thus trudging, crawling, trudging, crawling, up until the Cultural Revolution.45

This is a journey toward sublime infinity, the infinitely deferred utopia of the Communist millennium, the same journey indicated in Sima Qian's projected self-transformation by striving toward the lofty Confucius as if toward an inaccessible mountain peak.

By analyzing the practice of self-criticism from the double perspective of psychoanalysis and the aesthetic, I have tried to show that authoritarian power is much more insidious and subtle than it appears in the simplified view that sees only its absolute tyranny without considering the complicity of its victims. By working with the concepts of superego, aggression, and masochism, we may be able to see that even as victims we have a considerable share in our own victimization. Political coercion is detrimental to the autonomy of the individual, but when it is implanted in our psychic landscape as the towering and imperious superego, it is ourselves that we must be wary of. The purpose of self-criticism is to find the hidden enemy in ourselves, yet in the very earnest act of searching inward for enemies, we became our greatest enemy, working against our own interest and happiness. This is not to say that victims of political oppression ask for it and are themselves to blame. On the contrary, an analysis of how subtly power operates -through our bodies and minds and by raiding the sources of our unconscious - may, one might hope, reduce the not too slim chances that we will be victimized once again.

Ban Wang

The Sublime Figure of History
Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)


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[For full notes, see The Sublime Figure of History]

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