Society and Culture during the Cold War: A conference at ECNU

I had the privilege this week to attend a conference held by East China Normal University on society and culture in the background of the Cold War. The conference was held in Chinese, which was an interesting surprise for me. I learned a lot, and I got to practice a lot of Chinese. Below, I would like to list some of the more interesting topics from the conference. I admit, the topics I found interesting are slightly biased, not only because of my own areas of interest but also because of what I was able to understand; a few of the presentations I really struggled with. But a lot of great ideas were presented, and I am glad to see a lot more research on Chinese social and cultural history in the Communist period.
I found Karl Gerth's presentation really interesting because of the more theoretical issues it raises. He argues that the attack on capitalists and consumers by the Communist party cannot be understood simply in the context of early Communist policy; in fact, much of the justifcation for the anticonsumer/anticapitalist policies and the main reason it was so accepted was because of earlier practices and situations of market capitalism in the 1930s and earlier. That is to say, much of the justification the Nationalists gave for high spending and buying national goods was recycled to justify state ownership of all market activity in the 1950s. This is important I think because much too often we make a clear break from before 1949 to after 1949, refusing to acknowledge the fact that much of Communist policy was borrowed from earlier political and cultural models.
A few presentations taught me events and ideas that I had never even known about. Sen Pingchong's 森平崇's presentation talked about the cultural figure Ah Fei, a symbol of rowdy and disobedient children (from what I understood of the presentation). He shows how the figure Ah Fei and his stories, which cropped up in movies and books, represents a cultural model based upon American culture, a wanton unfilial lifestyle that should be avoided. In pictures, he reminds me of Elvis, with high hair that looks like an airplane, holding a cigarrette and mainly being immoral. The Ah Fei campaigns became most popular in 1950 and 1957. He argues that Ah Fei was important in 1950 because of the early communist campaign to wipe out American and Guomindang influence, especially through movies. There was a resurgence of Ah Fei's story again in 1957 because, while American movies and other media influences had mostly been elimintated, there still existed many of the institutions associated with Ah Fei's American deviant behavior, such as coffee shops; also, rock and roll had become popular, and it was immediately associated with Ah Fei. One of the professors during the free discussion time pointed out that the "Anti Ah Fei culture" was not exclusive to China, and in fact this cultural stereotype was equally attacked in the United States at the same time.

Another interesting fact I learned through these presentations was that in 1969, the Communist party, fearing a Soviet nuclear attack, evacuated a large portion of Tianjin's population and dispersed them throughout the countryside. In this process, they lost their urban residence cards, thus making them ineligible for higher living stipends and other benefits. Jeremy Brown's presentation explores this dynamic, showing that the Communist's reasons for this campaign was not only national defense but also domestic.

There were a few great presentations on Soviet-Chinese relations and comparisons. You Ji's presentation explains how the alliance deteriorated over the 1950s, explaining this deterioration over a battle for control and the Chinese desire to maintain autonomy in decision making. Izabella Goikhman's presentation explains the academic interactions among Chinese and Soviets. I found it interesting that, as Goikhman explained, there were limits on both sides as to how much they would share or use, but many of the limits were determined not by the government, but instead by the scientists themselves. The Soviet scientists were not given clear instructions on how much to share with the Chinese, and it was up to their judgment. Martin Dimitrov, the non historian of the group, compared Soviet and Chinese models in dealing with ethnic minorities. He showed that because of certain factors, it is not surprising at all that racial tensions led to the downfall of the USSR while China has maintained its sovereignty over its minority populations. These factors include: the percentage of minorities (Russia is only 51 percent Russian while China is 92 percent Han); the right of minorities to secede in the constitution (the USSR constitution gave that right to minorities, China's constitution does not); levels of urbanization (in China, the level of urbanization is much lower in provinces with many minorities whereas in the USSR it was much higher in high minority regions); and levels of education and social programs (in the USSR many minority groups had education levels above the national average while in China the level of education for minorities is below the national average. Interestingly, health care and welfare benefits is much higher for minority provinces than the national average).

There were also a few presentations which I found interesting and unique. Li Peide 李培德 from Hong Kong University gave a presentation on Hong Kong movies during the Cold War. In the 1950s, when the Hong Kong film industry was really taking off, Hong Kong was stuck at a crossroads between Taiwan and the PRC. While the Hong Kong film industry was influenced by a certain competitve atmosphere, the largest struggle it had to contend with was political pressure from Taiwan and China, both of which wanted to influence the movie industry in this critical location. Another interesting presentation, simply because of my past research, was Chen Yan's 陈雁 presentation on the New Chinese woman. She compared magazine pictures from the 1930s and from today, showing how in both these times, femininity and fashion were admired, and the ideal woman was one who presented her femininity through her clothes, makeup, and decorum. In contrast to that, in the women's magazine "New Chinese Woman" (新中国妇女)the ideal woman was quite difference. Femininity was not emphasized. Instead, women were shown as leaders in the new China, they drove trains, they worked in fields, they defended their countries, and the reared good revolutionary children. One problem I found with Professor Chen's argument, however, is that I found a lot of crossover from the 1930s woman and the New China woman. She used the magazine Ling Long for her comparison (a magazine with which I am quite familiar), and she claimed that Ling Long only emphasized this feminity like today's women's magazines. However, while they were few in number, there were still a substantial number of articles in Ling Long that emphasized female patriotism, female soldiers, and most importantly, female education; in fact, the emphasis on education was not slight, but a prevalent theme throughout the magazine. Thus, as Karl Gerth pointed out, making a clear break at 1949 doesn't work, as there is always a lot of cultural overlap between the two periods.

The conference was fascinating, and I learned a lot from these professors. I am now looking forward to another conference, beginning Friday, where I hope to absorb even more information.

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