Q&A with Denise Y. Ho, Author of Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China

Denise Y. Ho is assistant professor of history at Yale University and a specialist in modern China. She recently published her first book, Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China (Cambridge University Press, 2018), an examination of the exhibitionary culture of the People’s Republic between 1949 and 1976. In Curating Revolution, Ho explores different ways that exhibitions brought revolution to the masses and taught Chinese Communist Party (CCP) narratives about the past, present, and future to them.

The six case studies of Curating Revolution are all located in Shanghai—itself a living exhibition, a former treaty port undergoing a socialist transformation under CCP oversight, and thus the embodiment of the contrast between the pre-1949 Old Society and Mao’s New China. Visitors to Zhabei District’s Fangua Lane, for example, toured both thatch huts that had provided shelter to the area’s dwellers in the late 1940s and modern five-story apartment buildings constructed to replace them in the early 1960s. Fangua Lane residents were on hand to describe their lives before and after the CCP victory, providing testimonials about the improvements in material conditions that had come under Communist rule.

The “Love Science, Eliminate Superstition” Exhibition (1963-64), the Class Education Exhibition (1965-66), and the Exhibition of Red Guard Achievements (1966) discussed in Curating Revolution were all temporary displays assembled to accompany political campaigns of the moment. But two of Ho’s case studies cover exhibitionary sites still in operation today: the Site of the First National Congress of the CCP (now surrounded by the glitzy Xintiandi neighborhood) and the Shanghai Museum (previously housed in the former Race Club building, now located in People’s Square). When writing about these two long-standing exhibition sites, Ho recounts in fascinating detail how museum curators and local officials were regularly compelled to tweak the content of their displays to accord with shifts in the political winds.

Curating Revolution will be of interest to specialists in museum studies and political culture, as well as all scholars of 20th-century China. To learn more about the book, please see the interview below, which I conducted with Denise Y. Ho over email.

MEC: You describe museum work and exhibitionary culture in Mao’s China as operating in two modes: that of a state in power, and that of a state in revolution. What do these terms mean, and can you provide an example of each?

DYH: To describe these two modes of exhibitionary culture, I borrow two terms used by historical actors themselves. Shanghai museum curators used the phrase “socialist museum” for New China’s institutions, like the Shanghai Museum, which was established in 1952. “Socialist museums” denote the kinds of institutions of a state in power, which in turn curated exhibitions that lent legitimacy to the regime: displays of historical narratives or revolutionary origins. The term “new exhibitions” comes from grassroots displays that began during land reform. I trace the exhibits that accompanied political campaigns—like the Socialist Education Movement or the Cultural Revolution—to their origins in “new exhibitions” that taught ideological lessons about class and modeled how to participate in political movements. An example of the “new exhibition” would be showcases put on by Red Guards, which—I argue—suggested to visitors how they might also identify and struggle against class enemies.

MEC: Although the focus of Curating Revolution is on the period between 1949 and the late 1960s, you point to some continuities in museology and exhibition culture that carried over from the Republican era (1912-1949). What were some of these similarities across 1949, and what changed with the transition in government from Nationalist to Communist?

DYH: The “socialist museums” I examine—despite declaring their discontinuity with “old China”—actually drew from pre-1949 museology. The Nationalist government, for example, had its own exhibitions of the revolution and displays about revolutionary martyrs. Likewise, museums of art and history were established during the Republican era; perhaps most famously, the Palace Museum opened its doors in 1925. Another kind of inheritance came from individuals—collectors and art historians—who were employed by “socialist museums” to teach a new generation about art history, appraisal, and connoisseurship. Of course, “socialist museums” had other influences, including and especially, the Soviet Union. At the same time that the Shanghai Museum’s young workers were learning from artists and collectors from “old China,” its designers were studying with Soviet specialists and its leaders were going to the Soviet Union to visit its museums. And certainly, there are aspects of “socialist museums” that come from “new exhibitions,” such as class education displays. These were grassroots and class-based in ways that pre-1949 Republican period exhibits were not, and while “new exhibitions” taught a Maoist ideology of class, one of the things I argue is that some of the techniques came from traditional Chinese culture.

MEC: A number of scholars have written about the propaganda posters of the Mao era and the role they played in promoting political campaigns through visuals and slogans. How does your focus on exhibitionary practices interact with the work of those scholars? Were there any differences in the Party’s use of propaganda artwork versus exhibitions?

DYH: There is certainly a lot of overlap between the use of visual material like posters and the use of material objects as in these “new exhibitions.” In fact, some propaganda posters illustrate exhibitions like Anren’s Rent Collection Courtyard and these same posters also feature artifacts that could be used to incite class hatred. For example, this poster from the Revolutionary Committee of Nanjing’s Film Studio has a worker in front of the Rent Collection Courtyard holding both gun and the archetypical bloodstained shirt, which as an artifact was frequently used to stand in for “revolutionary martyrs.” Both posters and exhibitions are part of the propaganda universe of the Mao period. At least two things are different about exhibitionary practice, however. First, exhibits occupy a formal space, so they are consumed in groups and under the eyes of others; they also become a space for political rituals like “recalling bitterness,” shouting accusations or making denunciations, and even a narrative reenactment of something like a house search. Second, exhibitions rely on the use of real, tangible things—which are at least presented as authentic. In this way, the objects on display are presented as proof, as evidence, and—I argue—as class.

MEC: In the chapter about the Shanghai Museum, you write about how museum staffers embarked on a series of “rescue missions” during the “Smash the Four Olds” campaign in 1966; they sought to protect cultural relics (wenwu) from groups of Red Guards intent on destroying any object imbued with a capitalist or feudalist past. How did curators distinguish between wenwu and objects that could “legitimately” be destroyed in the campaign? It seems like their protective actions could potentially be viewed as counter-revolutionary—did any museum workers face Red Guard accusations of being feudal or reactionary?

DYH: This question can be answered on a number of levels. On the one hand, cultural relics were and are defined as objects with artistic, historical, revolutionary, and scientific value. Immovable cultural relics, like temples and other buildings, were labeled wenwu and protected by their administrative level and that immediately above. So cultural relics had already been defined and had their own status. On the other hand, that status was linked to the bureaucracy that gave them that status. You see cultural officials in the 1960s, for example, sent to temples and asked to extricate the wenwu from “superstitious things.” So what is or isn’t a cultural relic is fluid even before the Cultural Revolution.

But the cultural officials I write about were experts in their own right; they had been training for years and were trained to identify a painting, the artist who made it, and the reasons for its value. For their part I think there was no question about what was wenwu and what should be protected. One tension that such officials describe is the difference between wenwu—from the Qianlong reign and before—and what was handicraft (gongyipin). This was the more important distinction, because wenwu had to stay in China and handicrafts could be exported. The cultural officials saw themselves as there to educate: first Red Guards who didn’t know the difference between “four olds” and wenwu, and then higher-level officials who didn’t realize that objects from after Qianlong were part of China’s art history too.         

MEC: When looking at museums or exhibitions in the PRC today, what similarities and differences do you see with those from the Mao period that you discuss in Curating Revolution?

DYH: I’ve structured my book in such a way that each chapter concludes in the present, as an opportunity to reflect on the legacies of each theme: I look at the First Party Congress Site in the reform era and today, I trace the exhibition of “ordinary” homes to the Shanghai Expo in 2010, I examine the revival of “anti-superstition” exhibitions around contemporary cults, I draw links between the “class education exhibitions” and the Red Guard exhibits and today’s anti-corruption exhibitions. Finally, I illustrate how the Shanghai Museum became an institution for reform-era diplomatic exchange and present day cultural nationalism.

For the most part, museums in China today follow the exhibitionary culture of the state in power. That is, they provide narratives that support the political legitimacy of today’s party-state. These narratives remain revolutionary: think of Xi Jinping bringing his new Politburo Standing Committee to the First Party Congress Site last October. They are also clearly national: think of the renaming of the Museum of the Revolution as the National Museum of China in 2003. The exhibitionary culture of the state in revolution, however, reemerges when China is in political campaign mode: in 1989, for instance, or more recently with Xi’s anti-corruption exhibitions. But there is a key difference: today’s “new exhibitions” are not calls for revolution. They too, support—and reinforce—the authority of the state.    

MEC: Finally, what are you working on now?

DYH: I’m starting work on two interrelated projects: a border history between Hong Kong and China, and a history of Shenzhen as China’s reform-era city. I’m excited to revisit some of my earlier interests in urban history and planning, and also to think more globally and to expand my temporal scope. I had the good fortune of living, for almost three years, right next to the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, so this new direction also allows me to explore South China and its relationship to the world.