Like the recent Olympics, the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China has supplied spectacular images of brightly colored, state-sponsored performance art on a grand scale. Many of the photographs are of military troops marching on parade.
Something seems to be lost in translation, however, as what we see here is a far cry from the amateurism and informality of a typical Fourth of July parade in the U.S. A better comparison would be with an Army drill team–if the U.S. Army drill teams had 10,000 troops.
These massive formations of perfectly entrained, tightly choreographed, visually striking troops embody design principles seen throughout Chinese public arts–again, think of the many displays of common movement at the Olympics. Given the work that goes into it, the performers must take great pride in what they do, and from comments at photo blogs it seems that Chinese spectators around the world really like what they see.
But what do you see if you are not Chinese? I confess to being somewhat baffled by these images, not least because I can’t help but see them as the latest iteration of the Victory Day parades in Moscow during the Soviet era. That is, I have the ideological reaction that I was supposed to have when being shown these images in the U.S. press at the time: I see the totalitarian state revealing itself all too clearly in its supposed show of force. Where the Soviets or the Chinese want us to see massed might, we see the state using enforced conformity to crush freedom and individual expression.
LIFE, Time, and other media outlets loved to shoot the Victory Day/May Day parades, and no wonder.
Today, it looks shabby, perhaps even comical, but at the time it was seen as the work of a state using all its resources to mold Mass Man. The USSR is gone, but the Cold War interpretive framework is maintained by shots of marching troops in North Korea and elsewhere. (Russia continues the tradition as well, but coverage now is more varied.) And if that isn’t enough, there still are movies of goose-stepping Nazis, which probably is where the visual convention started.
But are the Chinese formations living monuments to conformity? Is the authoritarian reality behind Chinese capitalism being revealed–worse, is it being made appealing through their production of the visual spectacle?
I think the answer probably is, in a word, “no.” Public art does not have one style, different nations share some conventions but also draw on unique cultural traditions, and in any case times change. The ideological categories of the cold war are not completely out of date, but they are about as good as cars from the same era. Rather than hazard a reading, I’d rather ask others what they see, whether they like the images, and why. Even so, I can’t shake my basic reaction and think that, for all the progress that China is making economically, they still are experiencing something like culture lag when it comes to fashioning civic performances to articulate their version of modern development.
Of course, one of the characteristics of the new China is that they can set their own fashions, thank you very much.
Photographs by Joe Chan/Reuters, Howard Sochurek/Life, Sipa Press/Rex Features.