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A Tale of Two Revolutions: Towards a Study of Western Sexual Stereotypes of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the ‘Age of Aquarius’. [Unfinished Rough Draft]

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

-Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’ immortal opening words from A Tale of Two Cities makes a sharp point about privileging contemporary political considerations, over maintaining an integrous standard of historical inquiry; characterised less by the ‘noisiness’ of it’s assertions, and more by the acknowledgement of ambivalence that surrounds human interactions, both past and present.
Charles Dickens’ criticism of historical thinking that relies on superlatives to make sense of events is echoed many years later in Arif Dirlik’s invitation to ‘ambivalence’ when reflecting on the perception of the Cultural Revolution in the United States: “Much of the problem with the past and present interpretations of the Cultural Revolution lies in a refusal of ambivalence in favour of clear-cut positions that have ideologically suppressed one aspect or another of this complex historical event.” (Dirlik 2003 p159).
It is difficult to come up with reasons as to exactly why, a “refusal of ambivalence” dominates Occidental understandings of the Cultural Revolution. However, if we can identify the most prevalent superlatives that dominate the discourse we can begin to see the emergence of certain central tropes and the kinds of cross cultural interactions these tropes legitimise.

The deployment of the symbolism attached to the Cultural Revolution has first come to my attention during an online debate taking place on Facebook. At the time I was residing in Taiwan and was engaged in a fieldwork among Western expatriates to determine how they perceive the sexual identity of East Asians. A news article had come to my attention regarding an incident that had occurred in the girls’ dormitory of one of the top universities in Taiwan (Taipei Times 2011). According to the article a group of drunk foreign students, led by a Danish girl had harassed a Taiwanese neighbour. A few days later some hundred concerned students had organised a demonstration outside the same dormitory to protest what they considered to be the administration’s inaction in face of the issue.

I found the incident to be relevant for my own research and shared it online to stimulate a conversation. The controversy generated turned out to be way over my expectation as the debate raged on for days and reaching occasionally vulgar climaxes. At one point during the debate, one of the participants made a comment that particularly attracted my interest. After suggesting that the students who demonstrated have over-reacted to the incident, he drew a parallel between the protestors and Communist ideology. Upon being challenged to elaborate, he made the following explanation:

Even if we completely disbelieve the Danish girl’s story, I still don’t consider it bullying. She acted stupid, sure, maybe none of us would like her as a person in real life. But this was more of a drunken, one-time incident than a habitual use of force or coercion. The Taiwanese girl got scared and what she apparently did (and should have done) is called the management of the dorm. If that didn’t help, she should’ve called campus security. That’s it.

But alas – someone called the media, informed the head of the school and got a hundred people in front of the dorm to protest “bullying”. All over a drunk incident involving a (potentially) stupid and irresponsible foreigner (or group of) and an easily-scared Taiwanese (herself accused of bullying by the other party). And I didn’t call those people Communists, just the rally seemed a bit in the flavor of the Cultural Revolution, with a common enemy and phrases like (I quote from one guy speaking out at the rally): “違規同學應該寫下自白” [Translation Below]. Sorry, but this just brought to my mind the mass rallies in mainland China in the 60s and 70s.

[weigui tongxue yinggai xiexia zibai- Fellow students who violate the rules should write self-criticisms.]

What is noticeable here, is the introduction of the Cultural Revolution to the debate for the purpose of undermining the credibility of both the “easily-scared Taiwanese” student and the protesters. A classic scenario of disgust (Mary Douglas) is in the folding here. We can identify two ideological undercurrents running through.
First is the effeminisation of the Taiwanese. The tradition of amplifying the “feminine” attributes of Asians goes a long way back and is well documented (Marchetti, Shimizu). The speaker associates “feminine” attributes to the Taiwanese both through the obvious reference to the cowardice of the original student, and the portrayal of the protestors as a hysterical crowd. The entire statement is essentially a patronising ‘calm down dear’ from the Western male subject to the object of Eastern woman.
Related to the former argument, the second ideological undercurrent present here is the notion that Asians/Chinese are more likely to prioritise collectivity over individualism. The suggestion made by the speaker is that the incident in question is a private matter, and the proper way to handle it would have been for the individuals involved to settle the dispute without involving the community. Despite the suggestion in news resources and some participants in the conversation that the victim had contacted the relevant authorities, who have failed to respond adequately, the speaker presents this course of action as the only legitimate one: “That’s it.” Once the victim has exhausted the meagre list of possibilities presented, she is expected to resign to her fate. All community action, regardless the lack of evidence to suggest xenophobic intent, is denounced.

The reasons for invoking the Cultural Revolution in this debate are manifold. First is a claim to authority. The speaker is relying on an Orientalist mechanism to display his command of some arcane knowledge regarding the eternally predictable Orient. Having followed the epistemological assumptions of Cromer, it is no surprise that the speaker reaches a remarkably similar conclusion, namely that “logic is something ‘the existence of which the Oriental is disposed altogether to ignore.’” (Said p36)
Another reason for the employment of the Cultural Revolution is the emotional power of the imagery to put an end to all deliberation. It is deployed as an Intellectual Atom bomb to impose surrender on the side of the opposition. The official interpretation of the Cultural Revolution as the “ten years of catastrophe” (shi nian haojie) (Gao 2008 p9), is typically brought in by the CCP as a big gun against deliberation, during periods of political tumult, like the Bo Xilai scandal (Hui 2012).

Finally, the Cultural Revolution occupies a central position among the litany of tropes derived from the cold war. Like all stereotypes, these are assumed to be ‘common knowledge’, and yet need to be recited ad nauseam to re-affirm their validity (Bhaba 1992).
The stereotype concerned here is the favourable contrasting of Western civilisation that privileges individualism, against Communist China that insists on effeminate notions of altruism in the face of all the established “facts” regarding human nature. The necessity to repeat tropes like a clash between the ‘naturalness’ of Western individualism; with the evils of Chinese altruism may partially have to do with legitimising colonialism, of which Western nations are agreed to be the prime economic beneficiaries (Spivak). However the argument I wish to make is that it has more to do with domestic concerns. The heir of Cromer’s colonial racism is less concerned with conducting an attack on the rest of the world, to exploit it’s resources and workforce; than it is with organising the defence of it’s values. The demographic rise of Europe’s Muslim population, along with the economic dominance of China during an unprecedented slump in Western economies, has turned the tables. In this scenario, the contemporary racist discourse is not brought in to legitimise Balfour’s agenda of active expansion and exploitation (Said pp33-34). Instead it speaks to a paranoia of infiltration, fuelled by nightmares of the “decline of Western civilisation”. An early incarnation of this trope comes from Edward Hunter. In a statement he delivers to the Committee on un-American Activities on March 13 1958, Hunter reveals his fantasy of Chinese infiltration of the American education system.

The Communists have been operating for a full generation, taking strategic advantage of the American principles, exploiting the best sides in our characters as vulnerabilities, and succeeding for a generation in changing the characteristics of Americans.  I remember when I was a young man, every personnel department was looking for leadership qualities.  What was sought was a man’s capacity as an individual to achieve new things.  Today that is not even considered by personnel departments in their “employment policies”.  They ask, instead, if the man “gets along” with everybody.  They do not ask what is his individuality; they ask how he conforms.  (Hunter 1958)

What is at stake here is no more how the colonial apparatus will legitimise it’s perpetual expansion, but how it will defend itself against aggressors. Even though as suggested by Bhaba, (1992) discriminatory practices contain a fundamental contradiction and thus defy all attempts to describe them coherently. We can nevertheless identify a persistent concern with the problem of infiltration. This infiltration is almost invariably targeted at the section of society most vulnerable to ‘brainwashing’: the young.
A notable illustration of how the Cultural Revolution has impacted the Western psyche can be observed in Maurice Freedman’s second presidential address to the Royal Anthropological Institute, delivered on 26 June 1969, at the height of the student unrests both in China and across the ‘free world’. Freedman notes the debasing of expertise during the Cultural Revolution era in favour of ideological purity, and laments the prevalence of this attitude among the student protesters in the late 1960’s:

“Least of all would you have expected it among students. A university is a place [...] dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of learning; scholars reason, observe, contemplate. The students in revolt are often irrational, sometimes cruel, violent, and (not least reprehensibly) without humor. Much may be forgiven them in their religious mania, but the teacher finds it impossible to reconcile himself to the idea that his pupils are anti-intellectual. How can such a thing be?” (Freedman 1979 p408)


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