Blog Post

Politics as Aesthetic Experience in the Chinese Revolution

In modern China aesthetic experience—emotional life, the appreciation and creation of art, and symbolic activity—has intermeshed with politics. But less well known is the way politics has been turned into aesthetic experience and on such a massive scale as to become a hallmark of political culture. Aesthetic writings by Kant, Hegel, and Marx have well-received Chinese translations and aesthetics is a prominent university program, finding its way even into the curricula in the School of the Communist Party.

As a concept the aesthetic does not simply refer to the experience inherent in the making and savoring of art, literature or expressive forms. While art or literature is one variety, the aesthetic embraces those experiences in the daily life of individuals and communities that are analogous to art-related experience. When we have a sharpened perception of certain cultural forms, certain modes of behavior, certain textures of living; when we derive pleasure or even ecstasy from these emotion-drenched expressions, feel a heightened sensibility and consciousness, undergo an enrichment of the self’s sensory and bodily capacity, we are having an aesthetic experience. Suddenly, we are experiencing an uneventful life as it were edging toward a work of art. Emotional impoverishment and sensory deprivation can also be aesthetic, because they, for a moment, call into question our innately aesthetic way of existing in the world. That is why images of death or evil can be fodder for art, generating intense aesthetic experience often called sublime or grotesque. Although nurtured by culture into unconscious habits and unthinking reflex, aesthetic experience animates cultural forms with different tenors of the pleasant, the beautiful, the sublime or grotesque.

Various political programs in revolutionary China have been carried out not simply by means of mobilization, empowerment, party organization, and mass movement, but also by way of aesthetic experience and expressive activity. The need to forge a form of modern subjectivity and to foster national and class consciousness in the struggle against imperialism and colonialism has been addressed aesthetically---in ways that intimately involve the bodily, sensuous, and emotional dimensions of the individual’s lived experience. Take the example of the classic revolutionary narrative in literature and film under socialism. People often believe Chinese political culture represses desire or libido. But a politico-aesthetic perspective reveals that far from repressing the individual’s psychic and emotional energy, revolutionary culture is quite inclined to release and display it. It recycles the energy, as if it were waste products or superfluous material lying outside the teleological march of history, by re-channeling it into a new political task. This task is to transform the old and make the new individual. The revolutionary narrative launches individuals on the way to a passionate and exalted state of mind. Utopian, socialist culture aims not only at changing the old society; it also engages in fashioning the right kind of moral character, constructing revolutionary subjectivity, giving birth to a new human of the future and constructing a new nation-state. In tackling this task, the emotional dimensions of the individual have to be taken into account. Emotion can be deployed to enhance rather than diminish political identity and agency. Thus an intense emotional exuberance suffuses revolutionary, socialist culture. With glorious fanfare and rapturous flourish, the classic narrative projects visions of individuals who embark on revolutionary careers.  Through trial and error, the initiate ascends to the lofty position of the bearer of the historical mission. It is in the harnessing of the individual’s libidinal and emotional energy for the world-transforming purpose, in the constant displacing of the individual’s life and enjoyment into collective projects, that we find politics working in close concert with aesthetics.

This is a feature of modern Chinese culture often lost to critics, who see only dry slogans and rhetoric in political art and images. To displace the individual’s emotional energy into politics does not necessarily mean replacing it with something cut and dry. It often means that politics acquires an experiential richness and intensity, takes on sexual hues, becomes a full-blooded lifeworld. It means revolution affords personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Thus it is that politics—national and collective politics--becomes aesthetic experience. We can say that one can enjoy things of politics—one’s nation, class, and people—as oneself.

Wang Ban is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature at UCLA. In addition to his research on Chinese and comparative literature, he has written on English and French literatures, psychoanalysis, international politics, and cinema. He has been a recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, SUNY-Stony Brook, Harvard University, and Rutgers University before he came to Stanford. His current project is tentatively entitled China and the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Cosmopolitanism. His interests include modern Chinese literature and film, comparative literature (East and West), aesthetics, intellectual history, psychoanalysis, transnational politics and culture.