Repression in Zhang Xiaogang’s “Comrade”: The State, The Individual, and The Psyche

Zhang Xiaogang’s “Comrade” undoubtedly deals with the repression of the individual as a result of the hegemonic culture present in China. This is of no surprise as the totalitarian forces of the Chinese state have made it difficult to distinguish the line between the individual and the masses, in an attempt to normalize deindividuation in an Orwellian fashion. Therefore Zhang Xiaogang’s depiction is not one that simply deals with politics, but also the psyche of the suppressed individual.

The theme of the state against the individual has come up profusely in Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodlines, but nowhere nearly as amply as in his ghoulish “Comrade”. This piece is a representation of the lack of individuality in the incessant battle of the individual against the powers of a totalitarian regime, which has gone beyond just despotic control but rather the institution of a culture of repression. In a sense it is the product of years of suffering, both historically and socially, at the hands of the Chinese quasi-socialist government. This is best evidenced not only by the current trends of authoritarianism in China, but also historical collectivization programs, mass imprisonments through events such as the Great Leap Forward and the infamous Cultural Revolution. These have played an immense role in the formation of a culture of subjugation- one which Xiaogang depicts through two characters, one female and the other male who lack any distinguishing characteristics of individuality or personal identity. In fact, their blank stares depict the negative effects that absolutism and collectivism have on the mental health of the individual, and her overall psyche. This, I dare say, has been influenced by Zhang Xiaogang’s own experiences while growing up in Communist China. Yet, the question remains: what is the importance of this artwork?

The reason this piece is important is because it is a reaction to the subjugation of the Chinese people, but more saliently also a denouncement of mass conformity. The two red blotches of paint on each of the the individual’s faces are suggestive of the slight retention of individuality amid the collective, but could also be indicative of something more sinister. Thus as a result of this complexity the question is: what is the inherent relationship between the state, the individual and his/her psyche in the context of China as depicted by “Comrade”? Before this even becomes relevant it is important to start with a terse definition of the culture of repression.

“Comrade” is indicative of the cultural repression that is present in China that has stripped the individual from any means of expression. Despite the fact that Ganito calls it the “punitive intrusion” in all aspects of people’s lives, this is not enough to understand the actual extent of governmental control exercised over the Chinese populace. There has been a trend in recent years in systemic surveillance as a means to impose control over the masses but also to keep socialization as a part of the individual’s life. The two morose characters surrounded by a grayish background therefore signify the Chinese male and female abstract both physically and psychologically within the totalitarian system of absolute control, under constant watch. Yet, what is a culture of hegemonic domination exactly? Not to be confused with Gramsci’s idea of cultural Marxism, it is by definition exercised by the state from the top-down in order to promote subordination not only to the government but its leadership through coercion and more importantly forced deindividuation. In other words the creation of a hegemony, in this case run by a pseudo-socialist state. Interestingly, most of the mechanisms that support this structure have been exercised in China’s recent past.

The present trends of the Chinese government’s coercion, surveillance and censorship are all mechanisms that create the forced state-induced complacency indicative in the two individuals in “Comrade”. In other words the ‘sameness’ exhibited is something promoted by the government’s modern authoritarianism, even to this today. The post-1989 China, although more relaxed, still continues to coerce its population into the subordination to socialist principles. China’s own version of “politieserung” of human rights has played a substantial role in the propaganda of promoting less political interference in the lives of individuals. All the while executions and mass imprisonments have been taking place regardless of the state’s international promise of tackling the abhorrent condition of human rights in China. They have used this tactic not only to conceal the discrimination against political dissidents but also to form the fabrication that the state is actually interested in human rights. The internet in China has become a new medium for heavy surveillance and censorship in order to limit the amount of non-socialized and anti-Chinese state material that reaches individuals. The well known story of Ai Wei Wei’s internet activism which resulted in his imprisonment should itself be evidence of the state’s control of the internet, as well as wider surveillance tactics that can reach even the most influential of individuals. The point is that presently coercion and surveillance still play important roles in the totalitarian capacity to create a mass mentality by keeping the expression of individuality under control. However, all of these elements have their roots in China’s far more atrocious past.

The collectivism exhibited through the two subjects in “Comrade”, has its roots in the brutal tactics of Mao’s dictatorship to abolish independent thinking for the consolidation of socialist dogma but also for his own hold on China. In other words, the early years of The Great Leap Forward, as well as the mass collectivization and the famine that instilled a trauma within the populace that had remained ingrained through the generations.  This of course very much in tune with Xiaogang’s own use of the generational family portrait motif, which is meant to imply the sheer pain that has passed down from each generation ever since China’s loss of 30 million recorded individuals due to famine. Although Mao’s policies were inherently economic, their underlying effects had instilled within the population a fear and acceptance of their subordination not only through famine but also death. The promises of wealth distribution and collectivization although did profit the poorest of China, mostly insured that the uniformity of the individuals similar to those exhibited in “Comrade” was normalized. This creation of a new culture ultimately became state policy as of 1966.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution, although extremely complex, was inherently the destruction of an old culture which promoted the individual, and commenced the creation of a culture of conformity through incessant repression. What is meant by this is the disintegration of old educational and historical elements in order to create a society completely subordinate not only to the dogmas of Maoism but the right sections of Mao’s party. In a sense, Mao’s consolidation of power essentially led to the dehumanization of the Chinese populace. This destruction of individual character can be seen in “Comrade” not only through the striking similarity of the man and the woman, but also through the abolition of gender norms, through the use of similar clothing and short hair. They are seen as the opposite of the intellectual whose gaze is far warmer but easily just as detached. However this is in line with the fact that ‘intellectuals’ had no place in Mao’s China, as their imprisonment, humiliation and execution was carried out by the youth who participated in the very epitome of the repression of the individual. Interestingly, it is between 1966 to 1976 that the word “comrade” truly became meaningful to the new culture of pure Maoism, in other words a symbol of absolute equality, not in function but rather in form, for all but the party elite. The significance of the Cultural Revolution is paramount to the formation of Chinese society in our own contemporary which is why “Comrade”, painted in 2005, is still very much relevant as a reminder of China’s past and present subjugation of the Chinese populace.

From China’s institution as a Communist state, through its relaxation of state policy post-1989, to the present new form of authoritarianism, the individual has always been subordinate to varying extents to the power of the state. Chen implies that China’s move from absolutism to simple authoritarianism in the 1990’s although might only have been a reform to ensure self-preservation still yielded to several concessions towards liberalization. Yet, the scars and trauma of China’s past have had an negative effect on the psyche of the ‘respective person’ despite of these changes, which is perhaps Zhang’s main intent in “Comrade”.

The historical trends as well as the present condition of China’s totalitarianism has had a negative effect on the psyche of the depersonalized subject. The stare of the man and the woman imply a certain lack of presence, I dare say, similar to a comatose state of individual awareness which is indicative of the the melancholy and lack of personality exhibited under a system where social homogeneity is common. There is evidence that the traumatic experience of the famines in the late 50’s to early 60’s as well as the Cultural Revolution has led the Chinese populace to suffer from depression. In fact some argue, that it had instilled in them a sadness that has come to define their characters both inside and outside of China. This of course should be of no surprise, as Wei-ching-sheng argues that totalitarianism is utterly incompatible with individuality and sociability. In fact he goes as far to suggest that the question of freedom and slavery is one which is superfluous to the Chinese condition, but rather what matters is individuality and its expression. The Chinese psyche, in this context, although might seem as an abstraction should not be understood as an indicator of concrete reality, but only an extension of Xiaogang’s belief that despotism creates unhappiness, which of course still might be true. The emotional detachment present on the subjects’ faces in fact exhibit just that. The reason this argument might seem precarious is because there is no real certainty to the depth of the negativity caused to one’s psyche by living under a totalitarian regime. Although we might be able to conceive that it is not at all pleasant, the empirical evidence from places such as China is minute, precisely because the state will not allow such studies in mental health to be conducted in fear of forming a negative image of Chinese styled socialism.

Kleinman, a psychology professor at Harvard, goes as far to argue that it is part of Chinese culture to downplay sadness and depression- something which doesn’t seem to irrelevant when staring at the blandness of the facial expression of the woman and man in “Comrade”. However, with this in mind these ideals are by no means arbitrary as they have been carefully selected by Xiaogang not only from China’s historical condition but also his own personal experiences.

Zhang Xiaogang’s own tumultuous life in Communist China in the 60’s and 70’s plays a substantial role in the motifs of forced complacency and subordination in “Comrade”. As a child Xiaogang did not receive any formal education due to the fact that his family, along with thousand others, were forced to relocate to the countryside for socialist re-education, or rather reformation of class consciousness. This, along with his mother’s schizophrenia had instilled in him an anxiety which continued on into his adulthood accompanied by alcoholism and illness- all of which have led him to create his Bloodline portraits due to his own experiences in a culture and state where the freedom of expression was highly controlled. In his own words he implies that he set out to fight the notion of repression, not only as a political mechanism but one on a human level within the community and familial structure as well. However, in “Comrade” the issue of sameness is outside the paradigm of the nuclear family or even community, but rather deals with the individual and his/her relationship with the state at an abstract level. It is for this reason why the very polemical nature of this piece makes it so pertinent.

“Comrade” is an attack on the sinister system of oppression and brutality that the Chinese government has and is employing to make sure that it holds on to power. Moreover, it is an incursion on the mentality of conformity that has been created through violence, imprisonment and intimidation since the creation of the PCR. However, besides breaking down these currently taboo subjects in China, it is also offers a more positive perspective, and even a form of hope. More precisely, despite the morose aesthetics and subject matter, “Comrade” does seem to allude to a form of individual awareness amid the conformity.

Despite the abolition of distinctive personality visible in this piece, the individual blotches of red paint on the man and woman’s face are indicative of remnants of difference between the two. The two blotches are inherently disparate and signify that amid the subjugation, diversity might find a place despite overwhelming social uniformity. However, the fact that they are red-the colour of Socialism- does seem to imply a mark of ownership perhaps used by the government to signify and define each individual from one another, while also assuring their allegiance to the state. This rather pessimistic interpretation does seem cynical, but is more in line with Xiaogang’s earlier works and themes. Whatever the case may be the important thing is the way this piece deals with the relationship between the state, the individual, and the psyche.

The relationship between the state, the individual and her/his psyche is one of adverse degradation. In other words, the individual and his or her mental health is oppressed for the profit of the state, as has been historically evident in China. However, the complexity of this relationship is daunting, and although it might be pernicious to generalize on this scale, it is evident in “Comrade” and Zhang’s other works, especially in the rest of his Bloodline series. Although scholars have dealt with the depreciation of the individual in his works, very rarely has the issue of the state against the individual come up within the context of its effects on the psyche.

Zhang Xiaogang’s “Comrade” is ultimately a study not only in human nature but also its position within state and individual organization. This of course was very much influenced by China’s totalitarian past, and current authoritarian present, but also remnants of his own experiences within that greater narrative. His portrayal of China’s culture of repression, although dramatized and made more personal, does indeed represent some truth to the current state of its reality.

View the piece here on the Saatchi Gallery website.

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