Interview with Juliane Noth

This interview is with Juliane Noth, the author of “Militiawomen, Red Guards, and Images of Female Militancy in Maoist China,” which appears in the May 2021 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Dr. Juliane Noth is a Heisenberg Fellow at the University of Hamburg, Germany. Read the article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

I studied at Freie Universität Berlin in the 1990s with two majors, the first being art history and the second sinology. Art history meant European art history, and in sinology there were very few art-related courses. When I graduated, a professorship for East Asian art history was established at our department, and that became my field of specialization for my dissertation. But I still think that this dual training in European art and sinology has had a strong influence on how I work.

Your article focuses on militiawomen and the photographic portrayal of femininity and militarism in Mao-era China. How did you choose to focus on militiawomen?

Several years ago, I taught a course on the art and visual culture of socialist China, and I started to think about how to teach a class on gendered representations and images of working women in an interesting way. I started searching for the photograph on which Mao Zedong had inscribed his poem “Militia Women.” I never found it, but I realized that photographs and other images of militiawomen were very numerous in all kinds of publications throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, pictures of militiawomen from all over the world were used to express solidarity with revolutionary struggles in the respective countries. Several aspects that interest me intersect here: the ways in which images shape conceptions of gender norms and social reality; the complex relations in which images influence texts and vice versa; and what happens when an allegorical image is taken as reality and enacted, for example when young Red Guards militarize to carry the revolution to the end.

Most histories of popular art in the Mao-era focus on socialist realism and propaganda paintings, while you examine the often overlooked photography of the era. How did you come to analyze photography and photographic “ideal reality”?

I think that photography from the Mao era is best described with the term “socialist realism” as well. Both painting and photography project an ideal reality by using motifs from social reality and then rendering them, to use Mao’s words from the Yan’an talks, “on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal.” They describe an ideal, but one that is based on lived experiences and thus seemingly within reach for everyone. In this regard, photography is even more convincing than painting because of what Tom Gunning has called its “truth claim”: because we normally assume that what we see in a photograph was actually in front of the lens at the moment of exposure, we more easily believe the ideal to be real.

This article is set in China during the Mao era, specifically during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Are these concepts dependent on the temporal framework of these campaigns? Do you see these trends as continuing after 1976?

During the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the militarization of Chinese society was intensified, women were more fully integrated into the workforce, and both campaigns foregrounded the revolutionary masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers. All three aspects blend in the figure of the militiawoman, and this is certainly an important reason for the popularity of these images. These were also periods when the political function of images became more important than the aesthetic function. But the images’ aesthetic qualities are nonetheless of crucial importance for the successful conveyance of their message.
With the policy shift towards modernization after 1978, the working class triad of male worker, female peasant, and male soldier are replaced with, for example, female doctors and male engineers in propaganda posters. In painting, revolutionary realism, with its aesthetic of “red, shiny, bright” (红光亮), was discredited after the Cultural Revolution, so that even in official works, other realist modes were explored, and there is a very clear shift in terms of style as well as subject matter.

In the article, you discuss the transnational symbolism of militiawomen, particularly in the context of the Vietnam War. How do these depictions contribute to or complicate our understanding of Chinese nationalism and socialist internationalism?

These images show how an ideal international community of peoples united in anti-imperialist and revolutionary struggles was imagined and projected for domestic as well as international audiences. They functioned particularly well as means of communication because of their basis in the visual idiom of allegory. Militiawomen from China, Vietnam, Cuba, Mali, and other countries symbolize the determination and fearlessness of their respective nations. Because of the iconographic similarities, they embody the common goals of socialist internationalism, and because of their beauty they are ideal models to identify with.

Studies by Emily Honig and Gail Hershatter have explored the shifting gender norms and concepts of femininity in China. How does your research into the photographic depiction of militiawomen and female militancy complement and complicate such prior work?

I believe that a study of photography and other images put to propagandistic use can add a new dimension to our understanding of changes in gender norms and ideas of femininity and of how new norms were communicated and shaped. It is important to keep in mind that such images are not documentary, despite the fact that they show real persons; they construct an ideal, and they work on a symbolic level.
While working on this article, I realized that these images are not about women’s role in society or concepts of femininity, at least not in the first place. As allegories of a socialist nation ready to defend itself against all enemies, they stand for the entire nation, women and men. By using the portraits of women, the artists employ the visual language of international socialism, which in turn evolved out of the classical European tradition of allegorical imagery. That the photographs show actual, living persons makes their message all the more convincing and natural.
And they did shape reality, together with literary and journalistic texts and films. The Red Guard movement is a moment when a whole generation consciously styled themselves to assume a revolutionary role that conformed to the ideals projected in these works. They enacted symbolic expressions and thus turned them into reality.

By exploring the intersection of militarism and femininity, how does your article reveal more about each of these important concepts?

Both concepts should be understood as relational. If the state politics propagate an ideal of femininity that builds on the assumption that women can do the same work as men, then militant women represent an extreme form of realization of this ideal. On the other hand, if society as a whole is to become militarized, then women in arms serve to represent thorough militarization. But I also wanted to show that the ways in which these totalizing ideals were received, interpreted, and enacted were actually quite diverse and cannot be reduced to a single model.

How does your research into militiawomen and femininity fit into the greater historical narrative of Mao-era China?

It shows the importance and agency of visual representations and fictional narratives in shaping people’s behavior and, in consequence, reality. The Communist state attributed great importance to propaganda and the superstructure, and historians and art historians should do so too. There are many aspects that remain to be explored with regard to the receptions of propaganda art as well as visual and material culture in general. Propaganda art should be analyzed as a sophisticated means of communication that employs elaborate aesthetic modes of expression. The importance attributed to propaganda by the state should be taken seriously, and it should not be discarded as a mere instrument of politics.

In your article, you argue that peasant militiawomen became an allegorical figure for the concept of the nation as a whole. Does this concept translate into current Chinese nationalism?

While there are certainly strong continuities between the socialist period and the current situation in terms of nationalist discourse (I don’t feel expert enough to give a very qualified assessment on this issue), the social and economic changes since the 1980s have made the peasant woman irrelevant as a symbol for the nation. The Everyone a Soldier campaign of 1958 was the response of a developing country against enemies with a far superior arsenal that included nuclear weapons. Today, military prowess is displayed through images of battleships staffed with professional (male) soldiers rather than photographs of fisherwomen with aprons and straw hats on wooden boats. This change in representational strategy of course is also symptomatic of the fact that rural women are socially marginalized, both in terms of class and gender; their class status and gender do not confer the same symbolic capital as they did before 1976.

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

It really developed out of the teaching situation described above, but it is related to a wider project that is titled “Artistic Practices during the Cultural Revolution: Actors, Media, Institutions.” Here I investigate how artists from different generations, different fields of specialization, and different political positions responded to political exigencies, restrictions, and opportunities that the Cultural Revolution brought about.

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?

As an art historian, I would like to draw historians’ attention to the relevance of art and visual culture for a more thorough understanding of twentieth-century China and also to the complexity of visual expressions. Historians often use images as sources for information, but they sometimes overlook the facts that they are not transparent windows onto social reality and that this in turn does not imply that they are fabricating a distorted version of reality. Pictures are shaped by pictorial conventions, interpictorial references, genre, and formal choices, and artists (including photographers) respond to the works by other artists. This is common knowledge for art historians, but it is something that, in my impression, many historians are not sufficiently aware of. I submitted this article to Twentieth-Century China because I hope that it will contribute to heightening the awareness of these connections.

Where do you see your research going in the future?

Right now, I am moving toward studying the institutional frameworks of art education, art production, and distribution both in my project on artistic practices during the Cultural Revolution and in another project on the history of art academies in China. These projects will probably occupy much of my time in the coming years, but I think that afterward I might return to what has so far been my main field of interest: the formal explorations in and discursive formations of ink painting.

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

The wealth of research on women in socialist China as a whole has been an inspiration to me as I tackle the topic from the perspective of an art historian. Tina Mai Chen’s work in particular has been inspiring, especially her text on “They Love Their Battle Array, Not Silks and Satins” (published in the volume Words and Their Stories, edited by Ban Wang, 2011), where she rolls out the histories and receptions of this phrase. Also, I would like to recommend a special issue of positions (vol. 28, no. 3, 2020) edited by Suzy Kim on Cold War feminisms in East Asia that appeared after I finished working on this article.
An article that I found very helpful in addressing the issue of Cultural Revolution violence and guilt is Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik and Cui Jinke’s “Whodunnit? Memory and Politics before the 50th Anniversary of the Cultural Revolution” (China Quarterly 227, 2016).

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

There are many facets in the art and visual culture of socialist China to be explored, and I hope that lots of research will be done by many colleagues in the future. I am looking forward to reading it!