Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 13, 2006
Wu Hung Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space Chicago: University of Chicago Press in association with Reaktion Books, 2005. 240 pp.; 60 color ills.; 133 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (0226360784)

Wu Hung, Chinese born, has become a well-known U.S. art historian. Author of a number of distinguished books discussing the art of his native country, in Remaking Beijing he tells the history of Tiananmen Square, the gate to the Imperial Palace. Every tourist who goes to Beijing visits this central site. Coming from the east, you go north to buy a ticket and enter the Forbidden City. But if you walk south just before entering the Square, you reach the Museum of Chinese History, which now contains displays of art and a waxworks exhibition showing the communist rulers, various emperors, and three non-Chinese figures—Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Alternatively, going straight across the heavily trafficked Square, you can view the tomb of Chairman Mao. In any event, you see the gigantic portrait of Mao above the entrance to the Forbidden City. When I first saw it, I thought of Andy Warhol’s large Mao. But there is nothing ironical about the picture in Tiananmen Square. This entire area is heavily policed, as the Chinese authorities are very worried about political demonstrations. Some recent protestors have immolated themselves, and so uniformed observers stand on platforms above fire extinguishers.

In straightforward prose without superfluous jargon, Hung tells the story of this space. Tiananmen Square, set at the southern entrance to the Forbidden City, traditionally marked the transition from royal palace to society at large. When the communists took power in China in 1949, they decided to make Beijing the capital. They then created political symbolism that both preserves and modifies the older meaning of the site. In old China, power radiated from the emperor who, invisible to the ordinary people, saw everything from his central position. Now “the Square stands for the whole nation—a significance,” Hung notes, “that has given rise to the most ostentatious and extravagant displays and self-displays” (86). China has abandoned foot-binding, and no longer do eunuchs guard the emperor’s concubines in the Forbidden City, which now contains a Starbucks and tourist shops. But in certain ways, power in China is still very traditionally defined. When you walk beneath the portrait of Mao to enter the Forbidden City, how can you not think that he really was the last emperor? China now is a bustling commercial country. A short walk from Tiananmen Square takes you to busy shopping streets. But the Square itself has been preserved, with modern high-rise buildings kept at a distance. China may be dedicated to capitalist values, but it is still ruled by the Communist Party, which has not yet decided how to present Mao’s highly ambiguous legacy. This is why changes within Tiananmen Square deserve close interpretation.

In the late 1930s, a portrait of Chiang Kai-Shek was placed in the Square. After the revolution, Tiananmen Square was the setting for public festivals celebrating the communist regime, the revolutionary masses gathering for National Day celebrations. In the 1950s, the nearby buildings such as the Museum of Chinese History were built using an architectural style imported from the Soviet Union. Mao said that “the past must serve the present” (120), which meant that the monuments of Tiananmen Square should serve the party. When Mao died in September 1976, the Cultural Revolution soon ended, and the Square took on a new significance. Mao’s tomb and his portrait above the tourist entrance to the Forbidden City remain. But as China modernizes, brave young artists stage unauthorized happenings in the Square, photograph Mao’s portrait from unexpected angles, and create doctored photographs, hijacking its symbolism to serve their own purposes. Subverting the official iconography “through manipulating points of view” (192), these artists reinterpret the square in subversive ways. In doing that, they offer a critical perspective on Maoism, a perspective the Chinese government remains unable to provide.

Hung interweaves this historical narrative with the story of his childhood and adolescence, describing some of the most prominent nearby buildings. When he was five, his nanny took him to visit Drum Tower to the north of the Forbidden City. And when he was in tenth grade, his mother after considerable sacrifices found a Swiss-made watch for him. Later, when he was a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he witnessed beatings of his teachers by the Red Guards, and he suffered because his parents were bourgeois intellectuals. Identified as an enemy of the people, his punishment was to polish lithograph slabs used to make images of Mao. “Any slip in making Mao’s image would get us into great trouble” (79). Wu Hung is a survivor of this period. “No other time in my life has been as depressing and hopeless as 1975–6, the final years of the Cultural Revolution. It was like a deadly plague had finally arrived, consuming anything left in a battered battlefield” (126). Hung survived the famines and political repression, to work in the Museum of Chinese History. By 1989, when the Chinese military massacred students demonstrating in the Square, he had become a professor in the United States. In 1999–2000, a year-long sabbatical enabled Hung to look at the radical transformations of the larger city and the more subtle transformations of Tiananmen Square.

Hung gathers valuable information about Mao’s portrait and the way it has been analyzed, caricatured, and interpreted by recent artists. There is no prior tradition of Chinese political portraits, and so creating this picture required importing Western ways of thinking. Just as Mao engaged in the signification of Marxism, so his official artists reworked exotic styles of political propaganda to suit the communist regime. Maoism sought to destroy individual freedom; as a result, during the Cultural Revolution self-portraits were “naturally identified with bourgeois self-indulgence and . . . thus (were) counter-revolutionary” (196). It is unsurprising that artists now have turned against this repressive tradition. Song Dong, for example, whose 1996 performance Breathing is illustrated on the cover of Remaking Beijing, “rejects any form of monumental expression” (244). His art “gains its significance by creating a space for individual remembrance and imagination” (244). But as Hung honestly notes, like other Chinese artists of his generation, “as a public artist (Dong) is still looking for his public” (233). Doctrinaire Marxists frequently were hostile to bourgeois individualism, which in China was not traditionally much admired. And so Song Dong and his contemporaries probably face a long uphill struggle.

The Western reader can attempt to better comprehend Hung’s lucid analysis by asking: What sites in the West can be compared to Tianamen Square? We art historians may think of the Louvre, circa 1760, where the Salons described by Diderot were held in a royal palace that soon became a public art museum. As Thomas Crow has famously observed, these displays of art marked the birth of a public space, a place devoted, ideally, to free discussion of art and its political implications. Once the French felt free to analyze visual art, then it was natural for them to turn to broader political debate. In China, by contrast, the whole category of public space was and still remains deeply problematic. Notwithstanding close commercial contacts with the West and the presence of many Westerners in Beijing, China obviously has very different traditions. Every visitor, even those who speak Chinese, is aware of the great difficulties in understanding China, and the extreme problems involved in predicting its future development.

Hung’s magnificently revelatory book ought to be mandatory reading for intellectuals visiting China, for even as it sympathetically tells this history, it warns about the perils awaiting naïve visitors. Remaking Beijing is a great guide for the art tourist; but if its analysis is at all correct, then it will be a long time before this book is sold at the Beijing airport. Not the least amazing feature of Hung’s book is the modest but essential presence of its author. As he explains, he resisted writing this account for a long time. “Leaving China at a time when historical scholarship there was equated to political statements, I enjoyed the freedom of detaching myself from my research subject” (10). Writing Remaking Beijing must have taken courage, for doing this book required looking at very difficult times in the author’s life and thinking critically about the history of his native country. It truly is amazing that Hung survived to chronicle the events described in a book whose sane tone is a magnificent tribute to his essential good nature and scholarly instincts.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar