Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China

hillenbrand  knowing what

Speaker: Prof Margaret Hillenbrand

In the early years of this century, Chinese artist Zhang Dali carried out an extended archival project entitled A Second History (Di’er lishi, 2003-6). In this work, Zhang curated a series of paired images, one original, the other manipulated, to show how the Chinese Communist Party repeatedly doctored the photographic record of the Revolution in its secret photo labs. The photographs range from official portraits of Mao Zedong to images of model soldier Lei Feng to snapshots of ordinary citizens as they experienced the revolution. The targets for the airbrush also vary: sometimes people are wiped entirely from the frame, on other occasions a portrait of Mao is added to a bare wall, a slogan is re-written, a propaganda button removed, or the trees in the backdrop to a photograph switched miraculously from barren to blossoming. The motives for manipulation, meanwhile, oscillate from the strategic to the faintly absurd. All the images, though, are instructive on matters of the clandestine. In one sense, the archival installation takes some of the most iconic photographs of China’s revolution and exposes their hidden secrets; but in another, the series also explores secrecy as something out in the open – the notion that viewers of these images sometimes understood all too well that they were faked. In this talk, I discuss what Zhang’s work tells us about regimes of secrecy in China, and about how the pressures of ‘knowing what not to know’ have structured the processing of the nation’s twentieth-century past.  

Margaret Hillenbrand is Associate Professor of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, and a Fellow of Wadham College, at the University of Oxford.