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Socialist Commodities: Consuming Yangbanxi in the Cultural Revolution

  • Author(s): Coderre, Laurence
  • Advisor(s): Jones, Andrew F
  • et al.
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Whereas contemporary postsocialist China is typically depicted in terms of rampant, ideologically vacuous commodification, the Mao era––and especially the apogee of Maoist fervor, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76)––is normally cast as a time of ubiquitous politics and scarce goods. Indeed, the Cultural Revolution landscape of things has been strangely stripped of the mundane: with the exception of the likeness and words of Mao Zedong, the material culture of the Cultural Revolution is most notably characterized as a void out of which the postsocialist world of commodity consumption sprang fully formed. This dissertation instead examines how interactions between individuals and things during the Cultural Revolution were themselves intertwined with the circulation and consumption of ‘socialist commodities.’ I focus on objects associated with the yangbanxi, or ‘model performances,’ as a critical part of ‘real existing’ Chinese socialism, with which individuals interacted on a daily basis. Hailed as the pinnacle of socialist artistic production, the yangbanxi repertoire of Beijing operas, ballets, and orchestral works was intended to act as vanguard in the revolution in the performing arts. Objects promoting the yangbanxi were therefore produced spanning every conceivable form. I focus here on paraphernalia in three ‘media’: recorded sound, porcelain statuettes, and amateur bodies. Interactions with these instances of yangbanxi remediation, I argue, constituted a critical way in which revolutionary subjects and socialist commodities produced themselves as such. Moreover, this dissertation ultimately contends that, in this way, socialist commodity consumption made the consumer subjectivities of the postsocialist period possible.

I begin by focusing on the theorization of the socialist commodity and its role as articulated in Chinese political economic texts of the Cultural Revolution. I argue that these works, intended to counteract the enchantment of commodity fetishism through the popularization of Marxist political economy, were themselves fetishistic in their privileging of discourse over materiality. A similar predicament arises with the notion of the ‘newborn socialist thing’ (shehuizhuyi xinsheng shiwu) as well, supposed herald of the transition to commodity-free communism. Too often the relational nature of newborn socialist things meant that they were not really things at all. I ask how we might nonetheless benefit from thinking about the yangbanxi—quintessential newborn socialist things in their own right—as relationally complex, systems of remediation and, furthermore, how those systems’ economies of signification mirror the workings of the socialist commodity. As I argue in my second chapter, the production and organization of revolutionary space was enmeshed with a complex topography of consumption in which persisting pre-revolutionary notions of (bourgeois) domesticity played an enduring role. Drawing on vinyl records, flexi-discs, and published photographs, I examine the positioning of the citizen-subject as an aural consumer of yangbanxi in a ‘public’ soundscape, which was nonetheless facilitated by that most ‘domestic’ of recorded sound technologies, the record player. The home itself remained a crucial site of socialist consumption, and in my next chapter, I consider the importance of yangbanxi porcelain statuettes, as components of politically au courant home decoration, in emplotting subjects in socialist time as well as a temporality very much reminiscent of the always-already passé postsocialist commodity. Moreover, these pieces of home decor also constituted idealized, prescriptive models for the sculpting of bodies and subjectivities, particularly for amateur performers of yangbanxi, the focus of my final, full chapter. Implicated in a highly (re)mediated system, the performer’s very body is ultimately rendered as exchangeable and consumable as the record or ceramic tchotchke. I close the dissertation with a coda, in which I analyze contemporary discourse on collecting Cultural Revolution memorabilia and what I read as a continued longing for an alternative to the—now explicitly capitalist—commodity-form.

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This item is under embargo until May 14, 2020.