History Writ Large: Big-character Posters, Red Logorrhoea and the Art of Words

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Geremie R. Barmé


The starting point of this paper is the 1986 artwork of the then Xiamen-based artist Wu Shanzhuan, called ‘Red Humor’, which reworked references to big-character posters (dazi bao 大字报) and other Mao-era forms of political discourse, recalling the Cultural Revolution. It explains how Wu’s installation offered a provocative microcosm of the overwhelming mood engendered by a logocentric movement to ‘paint the nation red’ with word-images during the years 1966-1967. This discussion of the hyper-real use of the dazi bao during China’s Cultural Revolution era (c.1964-1978) allows us to probe into ‘the legacies of the word made image’ in modern China. The paper argues that, since the 1980s, Wu Shanzhuan has had many emulators and ‘avant-garde successors’, since we have seen multiple examples of parodic deconstructions of the cultural authority of the Chinese character (zi) in recent decades.

Article Details

Politics and Aesthetics in China Special Issue November 2012 (Peer Reviewed)
Author Biography

Geremie R. Barmé, Director of the Centre ‘China in the World’, FAHA, Division of Pacific and Asian History, Australian National University, Canberra

Geremie R Barmé is an historian, cultural critic, filmmaker, translator and web-journal editor. He works on Chinese cultural and intellectual history from the early modern period (1600s) to the present. From 2006 to 2011, he held an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship and, in 2010, he became the founding director of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at The Australian National University. He is the editor of the e-journal China Heritage Quarterly (www.chinaheritagequarterly.org). His most recent book is The Forbidden City (London: Profile Books and Harvard University Press, 2008, reprinted 2012), and he edited Australia and China: A Joint Report on the Bilateral Relationship, a collaborative project in English and Chinese by the Australian Centre on China in the World and The China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, Beijing, published jointly in February 2012 (see: http://ciw.anu.edu.au/joint_report/). His previous work includes collections (Seeds of Fire; New Ghosts, Old Dreams; and, Shades of Mao), monographs (An Artistic Exile), films (with the Long Bow Group in Boston: ‘The Gate of Heavenly Peace’; and, ‘Morning Sun’), web sites (www.tsquare.tv, www.morningsun.org), translations (China Candid, by Sang Ye), numerous Chinese essays and two collections (西洋鏡下; and, 自行車文集).