Exhibition as Theater

Denise Y. Ho on Art and China After 1989 at the Guggenheim

The first time I saw Ai Weiwei’s art, I was appalled. Almost twenty years ago, long before he became an internationally-known contemporary artist, one of my Chinese-language classmates at Qinghua University brought me to Ai’s studio on the outskirts of Beijing. What I saw that afternoon remains imprinted in my mind’s eye: photographs of him giving the middle finger to monumental buildings, rows of ancient pottery casually whitewashed, and elegant Ming dynasty tables sawed in half and reattached at bizarre angles. It was not irreverence to power that bothered me; it was those last two artworks. Never having taken an art history course, and never having heard of the “readymade”, I was horrified that someone could take antiquities and destroy them.  Years later, as a graduate student in Chinese history, I researched and wrote about the idea of “cultural relics”. To this day, my seminar students at Yale take one session to debate the question of who owns art and artifacts.


The Party is Just Getting Started

Notes on the Nineteenth Party Congress – by Jude Blanchette

In August 1980, Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader until his death in 1997, addressed an enlarged session of the Political Bureau (Politburo) of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee. Having just emerged from the wreckage of the ten-year Cultural Revolution in 1976, China was plagued with what the Party’s aging Marxist revolutionaries liked to call “contradictions.”

For Deng, four such challenges confronted the Party and the political system it dominated:


Russia and China’s Diplomatic Dance

The Russian ballet that offended Mao and harbingered the Sino-Soviet Split – by Eveline Chao

On June 30, China’s state-owned paper People’s Daily declared “China-Russia ties better than ever in history”. A few days later, Xi Jinping reiterated the sentiment during a state visit to Russia. While rhetoric never quite reflects truth, it’s certainly a major leap forward from 1969, when the two nations spent seven months in undeclared military conflict over their shared border, during the height of the Sino-Soviet split.

Unsurprisingly for two enormous and ambitious countries, relations between the two have always been touchy. One the one hand, they have been brought together by common concerns: fighting in the Korean War, countering the United States, and, more recently, keeping North Korea in check. On the other hand, they are also rivals: they have fought often for control of Mongolia and Manchuria, and each nurtures a vision of former glory that, if restored by one, could put the other at a disadvantage. Each country’s fate impacts the other’s.


The Afterlife of Lu Xun

How the man became the brand, both political and commercial – by Julia Lovell

On 19 October 1936, Lu Xun died of tuberculosis in Shanghai, still mired in quarrels with the leadership of the League of Left-wing Writers, and especially with Zhou Yang, the literary politico who would become Mao’s cultural tsar after 1949. “Hold the funeral quickly,” he set out in a mock testament written a month before his death. “Do not stage any memorial services. Forget about me, and care about your own life – you’re a fool if you don’t.” And finally, a message for his son: “On no account let him become a good-for-nothing writer or artist.”