From Socialist Utopias to Post-Revolutionary Consensus

Dismantling the “Gang of Four”
9:00 am – 10:45 am
Room 1

  • A. C. Baecker, “The Birth of a Genre: Conspiracy Film Criticism and the Gang of Four as Cinematic Auteur”
  • Benjamin Kindler, “Overcoming the Author, Overcoming the Wage: Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao, and the Theoretical Legacy of the ‘Bourgeois Right’”
  • Mei Li Inouye, “Jiang Qing, the Model Works, and the Confluence of 20th Century Theatre Reforms”

On July 17, 1974, Mao warned Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, and Yao Wenyuan to avoid acting as a “Gang of Four,” the first time the term had been used to describe the four prominent party officials. Although they had not operated as an organised group, the label stuck, quickly becoming a pejorative shorthand for the most revolutionary Maoist projects of the socialist period. This panel proposes a critical re-examination of the Gang of Four, separating the idea of the Gang as a post-Mao ideological construction from the Gang as a reference to a set of historical figures with intersecting understandings of socialist policies, cultures, and futures. Benjamin Kindler excavates Yao Wenyuan’s writing on the challenges of socialist cultural production, particularly the entrenched link between wage-labour and the concept of the author. Mei Li Inouye reassesses Jiang Qing’s role in developing model operas through attention to the substance of her career, including her exposure to traditional and folk operas, international musicals, and modern dramas. A. C. Baecker examines conspiracy film (yinmou dianying) criticism and its role in defining a genre of revolutionary filmmaking identifiable by thematic and stylistic markers, ultimately positioning the Gang of Four as cinematic auteurs. The panellists argue that in order to understand the transition from a contentious yet shared pursuit of socialist futures to post-revolutionary consensus, the Gang of Four’s conflation across multiple registers must be dismantled.

A. C. Baecker, “The Birth of a Genre: Conspiracy Film Criticism and the Gang of Four as Cinematic Auteur”

In the months following the Gang of Four’s arrest, prominent film industry workers in China published articles denouncing the Gang’s influence in Cultural Revolution film production. A canon of movies called conspiracy films (yinmou dianying) quickly emerged, films that were officially censured for complicity in Gang attempts to usurp the party through control of mass entertainment. Conspiracy film criticism consolidated Deng-aligned cadre control over the major institutions of film production in China, yet today its conclusions often serve as the basis for scholarship on film production during the Cultural Revolution, shedding its political implications in a consensus view of Cultural Revolution films as works of propaganda, not art.
In this paper, I argue that conspiracy film criticism effectively positioned the Gang of Four as a cinematic auteur, executing a singular artistic vision with consistent stylistic markers and thematic messaging. Conspiracy film criticism identified a signature Gang style (bangqi) recognisable across the conspiracy film canon. Further, by prosecuting or administratively punishing the film industry professionals who were involved in producing Gang-affiliated films, conspiracy film criticism linked the stylistic and thematic markers of late Cultural Revolution films with criminality. Using the 1975 film Juelie (Breaking with Old Ideas) as a case study, I explore Juelie’s production as an industrial process, contrasting the production’s structurally diffuse distribution of agency with the centralised account of Gang control in conspiracy discourse. In addition, I explore how the presentation of Jiang Qing as Gang ring-leader gendered the Gang’s authorial voice and contributed to its presumed illegitimacy.

Benjamin Kindler, “Overcoming the Author, Overcoming the Wage: Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao, and the Theoretical Legacy of the ‘Bourgeois Right’”

In his 1958 article On Manuscript Fees, Yao Wenyuan asserted that “the system of manuscript fees is a remnant of the system of bourgeois right, one which itself incorporates signs of the opposition between mental and manual labour in capitalist society.” The apparently innocuous issue of how authors should be paid as part of a series of debates around the problematic of the “bourgeois right” under socialism, itself sparked by the publication of Zhang Chunqiao’s Smash the Ideology of the Bourgeois Right. This presentation takes up the “bourgeois right” as a central component of radical thought in the Chinese Revolution and its proposed relation to new cultural subjects. This conceptual vocabulary, drawn from Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program re-emerged during the Cultural Revolution when Zhang and Yao sought to develop a new textbook on political economy presenting methods for super-ceding capitalist norms of distribution. Zhang and Yao argued that continued reliance on material incentives would re-produce the atomisation of labour and so inhibit the formation of communist social relations. I argue that the demands for the transcendence of the wage-form through the formation of a communist approach to labour were intimately linked to problems of culture. Furthermore, for Yao and others, the problematic of bourgeois right also extended to the challenge of overcoming the “author” as an individual subject of cultural production, investing cultural production with the task of creating the ideological conditions for the transcendence of material incentives.

Mei Li Inouye, “Jiang Qing, the Model Works, and the Confluence of 20th Century Theatre Reforms”

Jiang Qing (1914–1991) was regaled during the late Mao era as the mastermind behind the Cultural Revolution operas, ballets, and symphonic productions that came to be known as the model works (yangban xi). Since the post-Mao era, complex cultural, economic, and political landscapes have obscured the nature of Jiang’s role in modernising, politicising, and nationalising Peking opera during the Cultural Revolution—and what her efforts might mean in the larger context of cultural production and cultural politics during the Cultural Revolution. By examining Jiang Qing’s career intersections with traditional opera, modern drama, folk operas, and international film musicals, this paper conducts an interdisciplinary examination of the aesthetic influences that fueled the creation and production of Cultural Revolution model works. Engaging political theorist Claude Lefort’s theorisation of totalitarian societies, I offer a dramatic reassessment of the culture of the Cultural Revolution by illustrating how Jiang’s synthesis of aesthetic practices and theatre reform enabled her to restructure art with politics and politics with art.

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Room 1
Dismantling the “Gang of Four"