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Seeking Truth Through Karaoke In Chinese Communist Art

There’s Communism in the air here in Beijing! With the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party having just passed (per official accounts, the Party was founded July 1, 1921), China is in the midst of a country-wide celebration.

The Chinese Military Museum, officially known as the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution. Image courtesy Jean Wang on a Creative Commons License.
The Chinese Military Museum, officially known as the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution. (image via Flickr user wang_qian_021386 on a Creative Commons License)

The Chinese Military Museum, situated on the west side of Beijing and about as far as you can get from 798 Art Zone, now features the work of China’s national artists, with state-sponsored art to celebrate the season. Artinfo’s Madeleine O’Dea has posted a terrific review of the work in her article “Happy Birthday, Communism!: 5 Things We Learned From China’s Official Communist Party Art Exhibition“.  The Military Museum is something like the Air and Space Museum but more… official.

There was a crowd lined up in 100-degree heat when I arrived, but not for the art. Instead the main draw was the museum’s more popular martial attractions, which include ferocious motherland-protecting hardware as well as captured American tanks from the Korean War and souvenirs from China’s space program.

Some art being discussed these days might seem vacuous, but official art has a special place in art history for its innovative banality: “From this show you might conclude Chinese painting was in deep trouble: like much official art, there is little here that confronts, challenges, stimulates, or inspires.”  The article features an excellent slide show of work from the exhibition.

A screen shot of Youku's site dedicated to the founding of the party, featuring crowdsourced and Party-sponsored video art.
A screen shot of Youku's site dedicated to the founding of the party, featuring crowdsourced and Party-sponsored video art.

Can’t make your way to Beijijng before the celebrations are over? Have no fear! In the 21st century, Communist art has also seeped into Youku.com, China’s YouTube-like service, with a mixture of crowdsourced and Party-sponsored videos alike. Here’s a random selection of three pieces of video art that just might whet your appetite for more red in your life. (Note: The Youku video embedding doesn’t seem to be cooperating today; click on the screenshots below to view the videos on Youku.com)

Start your celebration off right with a hong’ge (红歌), or Red Song, in karaoke. This video wishes Chairman Mao Zedong, who founded the Party but died in 1976, many more years to come. It’s a metaphoric gesture!

 

Next you’ll want to be sure to tune into the 90th Anniversary evening gala. Featured on the official CCTV, the opening dance routine is particularly impressive. It’s not quite the scale of the Olympics, but it certainly shows the same panache for gestural performance art. This particular dance opens the gala and celebrates the scarlet flag of the party.

 

Then wrap it up with Tom the cat singing another red song, this time subtly recontextualizing the Communist Party—stating that without the Party, there would be no new China. According to Wikipedia, the song appeared in 1943 as a riposte to the phrase, “Without the Kuomingtang, there would be no China.” What exactly is the cat singing about? Wikipedia has a lovely translation of lyrics, complete with Romanization for the Sino-linguistically challenged.

 

For the full exhibition of video art, visit Youku’s site dedicated to Memory of the Struggle (fendou de jiyi). The site features more performances from the celebration gala, feature-length films, interviews and even crowdsourced videos. A knowledge of Mandarin is encouraged, but not required.

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