Performing Cultural Revolution Nostalgia

I have been mulling over and trying to make sense of what exactly took place at the Cultural Revolution theme restaurant that I visited last week. I have photos, video, and some notes I wrote after returning to my hotel room that night, but none of them help very much. I thought maybe some time to reflect would make a difference, but the past seven days have just made things seem even more unreal.

It all comes back to one photo–an image of me being struggled against by a group of former Red Guards. I’m not kidding. It was play, and everyone involved at the time was enjoying themselves. Afterwards we exchanged contact information and promised to have dinner together next time I visit Beijing.

There I am, however, with a white placard around my neck with the words, “Beat down capitalist roaders!” written on it. I am joined by one of the others, with a white dunce cap on his head, who is playing another struggle object. Red books are flying and fists are shaking in the air as they surround us. What the photo didn’t capture were the cheers of “Long Live Chairman Mao!!”

The photo is a nearly perfect staging of one of the most iconic photos of the CR in China. In fact, even I am so familiar with the conventions of that photograph that I immediately knew the appropriate facial expression and posture to take. Each time I look at the image I am astounded by the fact that with, the exception of me, everyone was actually a former Red Guard. The clothing and books are originals and were brought to the restaurant by the patrons. The dunce cap and placard are not original but were brought by the group to the restaurant.

How did I get there and how should this performance be interpreted? I’ve been thinking this through for the past week and have only begun to scratch the surface. Perhaps a longer analysis would be a good addition to some future paper.

The restaurant is located in the distant Beijing suburbs. Inside it is filled with images of the Cultural Revolution and the period when the Zhiqing were sent to the countryside. There many banners with revolutionary slogans and numerous images of Mao and other CR era leaders. The waitresses are all attractive young females dressed as Red Guards and the male employees, mostly busboys and food-delivers are dressed in less flattering peasant-style overalls. Food at the restaurant is a mix of Sichuan and Northeastern food in a “big pot” rural style reminiscent if the countryside. Each table has it’s own collection of little red flags that patrons can waive during the performance.

The highlight of dinner at the restaurant is an hour-long performance of revolutionary classics replete with waving red flags, dancers with sunflowers and gestures toward rural work and socialist idealism. Song lyrics are projected next to the stage for sing-a-longs. Behind the stage, the fatherly image of Mao looks down on the assembled diners. During the performance guests are encouraged to cheer and sing along.

My first interaction with my former Red Guard friends came when I noticed a group of people in full dress at the back of the room dancing and singing along. At one point in the performance some of them ran up next to the stage and performed a mock struggle session. Having spent a lot of time with members of China’s CR generation while researching my dissertation in the late 1990s I am very familiar with how contentious the CR period is. It is officially condemned as a period of “great chaos” in China. As I discussed in my dissertation, the repudiation of the CR is foundational in defining the reform period. Contrary to those who want to paint it with a big brush, many from that generation are ambivalent about the period and, with History all but closed off by official party resolution, nostalgia is the only register available. A decade ago, however, members of that generation could only openly deal with the “sent-down” period that began in late 1968, because it was seen as less problematic (for reasons too long to go into here). To see the folks in the restaurant publicly recreate a scene from the earlier years of the CR was, quite frankly, unbelievable.

For the rest of the performance and while eating afterwards, I often glanced back at the group and watched them as they performed for one another, singing and dancing. Soon after the performance finished one of the women in the group ran to a waitress and asked for permission to let them take the stage to sing. After a brief discussion, the MC came on to announce that some of the guests wanted to perform. And, perform they did. While the singer belted out his song, some of his female friends accompanied him waving flags and striking the appropriate revolutionary poses. I got up from dinner to shoot photos when they noticed me.

After the former Red Guards’ encore some of them came over to me. (Being a tall white guy with a camera tends to attract attention.) I introduced myself and talked with them a bit, mentioning in passing that I wrote my PhD dissertation on Cultural Revolution nostalgia. While we talked, some of the others in the group came running over with a green army coat for me to put on. They thrust a red book in my hand and asked to take some photos. Familiar with the photographic conventions of the period and happy to play my role as “foreign friend of China”, I joined them in striking poses, laughing and chatting. It was a bit surreal, but everyone was in good spirits. The group of about ten people had all been together at that time, and had decided to come to the restaurant that night to celebrate a visit from a friend who had just come from the US.

Then came the money shot. In the middle of our photographic play, out came the dunce cap and placard. They put the dunce cap on the male singer and I got the sign around my neck. Seconds later our friends “turned” on us and began to act out struggling against us! “Long live Chairman Mao!!” mixed with laughter and the flash of cameras.

What could it have meant? By definition, play is about confounding categories, inverting meanings and, of course, having fun. The best play does the best at eluding a single interpretation. In the case of the Cultural Revolution, as I have described in some of my professional work, avoiding definitive meanings is desirable given how contentious that period of history is. I’m still working though the details, but one thing I think this nostalgic play does suggest is that those who dismiss the period as “ten lost years” or a some kind of “red holocaust” are missing something–perhaps oversimplifying for their own ideological ends. There is more context to understand. People don’t play “holocaust”, they play with serious things that have important social meanings.


  1. Richard Wilk

    I just read a piece about diaspora tourism – including concentration camps, slave castles, and Sephardim going back to Portugal 500 years after. There wasn’t anything much on humor or laughter in the piece, which makes for an interesting contrast with the CR survivors. Perhaps because people were forced into being willing victims in the CR? The story is not straight victimology, and at the same time many of the participants must have wanted to laugh at the time, to deal with the pain through humor. But that was closed off and the laughter was suppressed. It sounds to me like you were attending a kind of group therapy session, where people get to do it again, but finally laugh at it. I got the same sense that something weird was going on when I read Schrift’s book on the badges. Or about the Trabant collectors in East Germany. Or a wonderful museum exhibit – I saw the catalogue – of all the hideous gifts that other heads of state had given Honeker when he was premier of E. Germany.


  2. jackforeigner

    Good God, that’s the thing between Asian sensibilities and Western ones. Whatever happened to the shame culture/guilt culture dichotomy??

    Well, I guess it’s progress when you can laugh at yourself and your own mistakes, anyway….


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