Cities in Northeast China were critical locations for the industrial construction in the FFYP (the first five-year plan). Liaoning province was even called “the son of the republic”. As Liu Yishi demonstrates in his article, FAW became the icon of FFYP.1 Besides these physical constructions taking place in the Northeast of China, the construction of industrial cities also included the construction of propaganda and ideologies. Propagandizing the spirit of revolution or revolutionary work was an important task for city planning. By referring to Bakhtin’s carnival sense of the world, I will demonstrate that the political propagandization comprised the carnivalization of public space, which led to the creation of dystopian space in China, especially during the period of Cultural Revolution.
In Liu Yishi’s Competing Visions of Modern, he quotes an article from Dongbei Ribao, a daily newspaper founded in 1945. It presents statistics on industrial production in the Northeast.2 With further investigation into this daily newspaper, one interesting phenomenon could be observed: the spiritual construction of citizens and industrial/ urban construction were treated equally in the socialist construction process in the Northeast. Many columns were devoted to explaining the importance of individual behaviour in maintaining sanitation and being a diligent worker in state-own enterprises. More on that, there were also patriotic education and lectures on the Party’s fundamental guiding principles.
Instead of only printing promotions in newspapers, cities were used as the media to spread these ideas. Two articles published in Dong Bei Daily Newspaper (Dong Bei Ribao) on 27 August 1950 discuss the importance of using the city as the centre to connect villages due to ‘its significant political influence on villages’ and how to exploit the function of cities in real life. One article further explained that if a problem could be solved or figured out in the city, then surrounding villages could receive the same information so that problems would be solved thoroughly.3 The other article provided readers with eight specific methods which could be used in the propagandization work in Dalian. I will quote two of them here:
“Street radio – Radio is the best tool for propagandization/publicization in the city, it has great efficiency. Especially at the location where people gather, such as the shopping mall. Turning on the speaker, playing a CD first, attracting the attention of the masses, then giving a speech, but the speech needs to be concise and short, with incitation. Because people on the street are very mobile, some people leave, some people will come, and some will return. The speech could be repeated several times.”
“Festooned vehicle – using the festooned vehicles (big scooters or automobiles), hanging slogans around them, decorating them with beautiful flags, parading around. First, drumming attracts the public’s attention, then letting the publicist give speeches. After the speech, a short drama and peepshow could be following section.”3
The mutual characteristics could be derived: 1) the emphasis on the public space like streets and shopping malls; 2) the entertaining element in the process of propagandization, such as the short drama and the CD playing; 3) the political propagandization was hosted in a similar way to the celebration of festivals. These spatial practices match with Bakhtin’s carnival world, which includes the following characteristics: familiar and free interaction with people, eccentricity, carnivalistic mesalliance, and profanation.4 The gathering of a significant number of people in public locations blurs individual differences and makes ideas given by the speaker universal and applicable to all. Social hierarchy is eliminated. Everyone could be a part of the event. Public spaces also enable the occurrence of interaction and communication. The masses could react directly to the one giving the speech and communicate with many audiences surrounding them. However, this interaction is one-way since the audience cannot offer sophisticated and critical comments to the publicist. The only reaction they can give is either to cheer or to leave.
The addition of entertainment makes the masses subconsciously link political ideas and activities to drama, music and plays. Political propagandization is carried out in a format similar to operas and dramas. The request to use short, concise, and provocative language has a similar function to lines written by the playwriter to provoke the audience’s emotions so that they will experience the same feelings synchronously. Entertainment and the selection of public spaces where people’s everyday lives are carried out remind me of Zhang Jingsheng’s aesthetic society. In his Mei de shehui zuzhifa, Zhang proposed that music should be amplified and could be heard around the city, a subconscious form of education as people went about their daily routines.5 The political propagandization through radio and festooned vehicles are like Zhang’s music, played in the background of people’s everyday life, affecting them subconsciously. As L.A. Rocha states at the end of his article on Zhang’s urban theories, the aim of his utopian city was to reproduce the same minds and the same bodies.6 His aesthetics were basically authoritarian through and through.7 The underlying authoritarianism and the attempt to unify people’s minds could also be found in the propagandization work in Dalian.
This reshaping of public space later became the embryonic form of denunciation rally during the Cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976. While the core of this format of propagandization remained the same, the content upgraded from education of patriotism and internationalism to the public execution and criticism of people. Political propagandization was conceived as a kind of public performance. Public spaces become theatres and playgrounds. The seriousness was lost under that scenario, causing collective violence more likely to happen. The utopian space, which could have been constructed if the masses learned from these teachings, transforms into a dystopian space where dehumanized activities and fearful behaviours take place, just like the performance of grotesque roles in carnivals if the political propagandization work is carried out in a carnivalized manner.
- Liu, Yishi. “Competing Visions of the Modern: Urban Transformation and Social Change of Changchun, 1932-1957.” Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2011, p.117.
- Ibid, p.111.
- Dongbei Ribao, 27. August 1950.
- “Carnivalesque” in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnivalesque [Accessed 15.10.2022].
- Leon Antonio Rocha, ‘A Utopian Garden City: Zhang Jingsheng’s “Beautiful Beijing”’, in The Habitable City in China: Urban History in the Twentieth Century, 2017, p.155.
- Ibid, p.157.
- Ibid, p.156.