Showcase Justice: Class Struggle and the Visual Economy of Violence in Revolutionary China, 1925–85

Sunday, January 5, 2020
3rd Floor West Promenade (New York Hilton)
Belinda He, University of Washington
Whereas many existing studies take for granted the practices associated with class struggle, my project traces an alternative history of how class struggle was made in China. Identifying who was “inside” and who was “outside” of the Chinese people was a matter of intense publicity at the core of Maoist class struggle. While much emphasis has been given to either the violent components of “class war” (Thurston 1990; Tsai 2001; Strauss 2002; Chang 2004; Su 2010; Wu 2014) or class struggle as a project in which power was granted and conveyed through performances, displays, and spectacles (Leese 2011; Hung 2011; Wang 2014; DeMare 2015; Pang 2017; Ho 2017), the intersection of both, class struggle as spectacular violence and spectatorial violence remains underexplored.

Colin Lucas (1996) historicizes the necessity of denunciation as violence in the French Revolution resided in the fragility of a revolution perceived to be surrounded by pervasive and dangerous enemies. Sheila Fitzpatrick (1999), in the same vein, reveals the staging of comparable Soviet phenomena that ranged from shop-floor scapegoating to show trials. Sophie Wahnich (2012) points out the historical working of revolutionary terror and its contemporary implications as “the archetype of a violence inflicted and assumed on the body of the enemy” and “an imaginary of cruelty at once exceptional and unbounded” (13). My project participates in such endeavors and yet seeks to demystify not the recourse to violence per se, but rather the larger mode of functioning and its everyday penetration that made this kind of violence inevitable and necessary, as it was legitimated, through the visual and the spectacular, in the minds of those who performed it by their sentiment of doing good and justice.

In the Chinese context, the intertwined violence and spectacle vis-à-vis class struggle was specifically manifested in pidou 批鬥 or pidouhui 批鬥會 (struggle sessions), a constellation of generic practices that caused ordinary people to commit extraordinary (bodily, linguistic, or symbolic) violence in the name of pursuing people’s justice. As a way of staging and choreographing class struggle, pidouhui referred to the sessions for mass denunciation, in which those labelled as class enemies were accused and tormented in public. In this project, pidou(hui) is understood as a type scene of Chinese “show trial” on two interrelated levels: as practiced on the spot, in various forms of public shame penalties that incorporated theatrical elements and seemingly judicial procedures, such as interrogation, torture, and punishment; as embodied in the multitude of mediated, trial-like encounters that rendered the condemned visible and enforced “class justice”. Drawing on archives, fieldwork, and an audiovisual corpus, the poster suggests that pidou(hui) has been, in and of itself, an image-making machine and a regime of visibility not necessarily coded in “class”. It argues that the mutual constitution of image and justice, upon which class struggle was legitimized, in effect produced everyday violence. The poster seeks to offer a must-need, non-Western response to the recent and lively global debates about political violence, witnessing, and the ethics of spectatorship.

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