My aspiration as a Chinese art historian and critic has been to account for cultural developments in China in a way that is appropriate to the country’s historical course. One approach I have adopted is to try to understand the internal logic of this development through close and repeated readings of primary source materials. In this regard, I have been drawn to the work of Chinese literary historian Hong Zicheng.
Published in 2016, Materials and Annotations is by far the most important volume in Hong’s prolific oeuvre. This collection of essays lays out excerpts of primary documents related to Chinese contemporary literature from the 1950s to the ’70s: an era of significant political change in Chinese history. The book mostly comprises records and accounts of key speeches, symposia, social commentaries and the public confessions of cultural officials made between 1957 and 1967. In some instances, the same event is described by different parties while, in others, the same person recalls an event at different periods and under differing circumstances. For instance, Hong looks at the 1967 confession of Lin Mohan, head of literature and art at the Propaganda Ministry in the 1950s and a political prisoner for ten years during the Cultural Revolution, to analyze the responses of his colleagues and peers. Juxtaposition turns these into conversation partners for one another, revealing the multifaceted nature and complexity of history. Like a detective, Hong identifies telling clues by combing through the source materials and allowing revelations to emerge from the most unassuming descriptions of facts.
First published in Issue 200