What is the catalytic element that brings about widespread participation in a mass campaign? Is it ideology? Self-interest? Emotional states of fear, hatred, or love? Taking into account the recent proliferation of sound studies approaches to the history of the People's Republic of China, this article explores this question through the sonic experience of the campaign. Previous studies of the soundscapes of the Mao era have focused upon state initiatives of sound-borne propaganda and their role in the transmission of revolutionary ideas. Using a case study of the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaigns of 1956–58, I examine the reception of such propaganda with a focus on silence, sound, and voice and their affective qualities. Through the use of diaries, memoirs, contemporary newspapers, and interviews, I explore the extra-linguistic aspects of the campaign to ask what, outside of revolutionary words and emotions, brought the subjects of a campaign from silence to vocal participation.
In a 1951 essay, the writer Lao She described the experience of being pulled into a collective chant at a struggle against “evil tyrants” (e ba 惡霸):
The audience, at appropriate moments, group after group, from front to back and left to right, shouted out “knock down the evil tyrant” and “support the People's government.” After that, the whole group yelled as one, making a sound like one great tide. The sound of the people is precisely the power of the people, a power great enough to make the evil shudder.
Lao She continued, describing his own transformation as he joined the chant:
I, with the intellectuals beside me, also unconsciously shouted “beat!” “Why don't [you] beat?” The police blocked the way to stop us striking the tyrants, but my mouth and a hundred other mouths yelled as one “must beat, must beat!” It was this chant that transformed me into another person. I was always very refined. Make no mistake, I hated tyrants and bad people, but if not at that meeting how could I have madly shouted out “Beat! Beat!”? It was the People's anger that aroused me, and I became one among all. (Lao She 1951)
Lao She's depiction of the dynamics of a struggle session has been often cited (especially following his own demise by the same mechanism). But it leaves us with a riddle: what force brought Lao She to voice in the gathering? How did he make the metamorphosis from “intellectual” to “one among all”? How does one come, or how is one brought, to vocal participation in a collective action? His passage, as laid out here, moves from silence, through apprehension of the calls of others, to a communion of his voice and theirs. It was this same process that took place on an enlarged and national scale in the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaigns of 1956–58 and is explored in the pages that follow.
Recent sound studies approaches to the People's Republic of China (PRC) have shown the importance of the sonic in efforts of state building, the propagation of ideology, and the mobilization and transformation of political subjects during the Mao era. From such work, we know of state initiatives deploying sonic propaganda through radio and the simultaneous rollout of a vast network of wired loudspeakers beginning in the mid-1950s (Lei 2016, 300). These loudspeakers, attached to factory walls and located throughout villages and schoolyards, became a key tool of sonic propaganda (Lei and Sun 2017, 323). Record production boomed during the same period, while struggling to remain effective for lack of plurality (Steen 2017). Magnetic tape production and its propagandistic and eventual popular appropriation have also been surveyed (Xu 2019). Recent work has revealed more striking figures (100 million loudspeakers installed from the 1950s to the 1970s) and more detail of sonic transformations at the local level, showing the human element in both implementation (as radio receptionists and rooftop broadcasters) and reception as broadcasts became noise, entertainment, and weapons of “sonic warfare” (Li 2020). Such research indicates the importance of the aural in the transformation of twentieth-century China, and thus the value of a sound studies approach for our understanding of the era. To date, however, the research has aligned itself with histories of the Mao era more generally in a concern with sound as a medium for the circulation of language and a tool of mobilization through the circulation of revolutionary words (Li 2020, 48).
Sound studies scholars have long noted the dual nature of sound and voice as both a medium for the conveyance of words and a material and sonic force (Dolar 2006; Lagaay 2008, 60; Weidman 2015, 233). It is this latter aspect of the sonic, beyond the conveyance of ideology, that remains underexplored in PRC history. If people were moved from silence to speech by the “voice” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), how did this happen? How did they experience the sound of calls to mobilization, and how did their subjective experiences interact with and create new social forms? These questions demand that we note not only the newest sonic technology and infrastructures, but also the oldest—including the human voice—and how the new and old interacted. They deal with the ideology and institutions of mobilization, as well as with the materiality of the sonic medium, the interiority of its target, and how the two interacted to shape the social.
When we have turned away from ideology as a means of mobilization, it has often been toward the emotional. Elizabeth Perry and Lee Haiyan have both pointed us toward the determining factor of emotion work in CCP propaganda and mobilization efforts, as old emotional ties were replaced with what Lee calls the “socialist grammar of emotion,” and new ways of feeling either usurped or rode as parasite upon old emotional bonds (Lee 2006; Lee 2019, 23–24; Perry 2002). While research on the Mao era reveals the Party's goals for emotion work, it has been less effective at uncovering the reaction to this work among “the masses.” Even very recent work, when attributing emotion to audiences at suku (訴苦 speaking bitterness) or “struggle sessions,” does so predominantly through the eyes and written records of the Party. We read that a crowd of soldiers, upon hearing of the deeds of a landlord, “through gritted teeth, avowed to avenge the people” (Javed 2019, 259–60). But who gritted the teeth of these soldiers? Evidently, the cadre in charge (whose words we experience the session through) had picked up and perpetuated the Party's focus on emotion work, perhaps feeling such emotions himself, but this is not evidence that the circulation and mobilization of feeling actually reached its intended audience (here the soldiers, but more generally “the masses”).
Emotion and Affect
Part of the problem is that we are still developing an understanding of what emotions are (and are not). While much of the research on emotion work in the PRC relies on early definitions of emotion, more recent psychological research suggests that emotions are not the basic building blocks of interiority that we once presumed them to be. James A. Russell (2003) argues that the problem of using emotions such as fear or anger as “psychological primitives” is that they imply a cognitive structure as well an “intentional object”—that we feel anger at someone, empathy for someone. This precludes emotions from a role as primitive states. Russell instead argues that a model of “core affect” better describes our interior precognitive state. In this model, hierarchies of feeling remain, but they move only along axes between pleasure and displeasure, and between activation and deactivation (Russell 2003, 146–48). These are the interior states that may crystallize into the meaning and signification of emotions but exist prior to them. Russell argues that the way core affect is altered is complex and involves both internal and external causes. In some cases, core affect may be altered by a single stimulus, but more often it is influenced through the incremental impact of multiple factors over time (Russell 2003, 8). This suggests that the portrayal of emotions in PRC historiography—as basic motivators to action that can be triggered by the theatrical emotion work of the CCP—can only be one part of a much more complex story of the interior affective state of the individuals and communities concerned.
The affective turn in psychology has occurred in parallel with an affective turn in the humanities and social sciences. In a recent summary of affect theory, Christabel Stirling (2019) draws out three key aspects of the nascent field. First, it retains a focus on the body but avoids emotion-centered explanations. Affect is used to refer to the constituent elements of experience “over which humans have the least control [such as] hormonal flows, especially of adrenaline; breathing . . . and those absolute intensities, which cannot be contained within a logic of signification” (Gilbert 2004, 11). In doing so, affective approaches stress the limits of discourse, signification, and meaning, and move away from models of culture that rely on the master metaphor of language. Second, affective states are held to be nonpersonal in that they are “trans-subjective, shared, contagious, and tied to non-intentional ‘pre-personal forces’” (Stirling 2019, 55). This refers to a view of the individual that is not necessarily at odds with the linguistic-centered Lacanian model, but is certainly transcendent of, and unable to be exhaustively explained by, this model. Third, there follows a concern with how bodily states create the social, in a way that bypasses the individualism of Lacanian psychoanalysis and instead conceives sociality as “inherently mobile and dynamic, constantly forming and re-forming through the associations and suggestions that unfold between human and non-human bodies” (Stirling 2019, 55). Here, the question is how individual subjectivities are influenced not by ideology, but by their “capacities to affect and be affected” (Stirling 2019, 55).
Followers of the affective approach clearly seek a fundamental shift in how we view our interior and social worlds, and they work away at long-held divisions between discourse and materiality (for this discussion, see Gilbert 2004). Participating in such theoretical revolutions is beyond the present author, but from the foregoing, the challenge to earlier ideological and emotional models of political mobilization is evident, as is the potential for affect to augment such models. Here, my goal is to use the affective approach, combined with a sensitivity to sound that draws on recent sound studies research, to explore how subjects were moved to vocal participation during political campaigns—specifically, how and why individuals initially stayed silent, how they apprehended the voices of the campaign and their new mediums of conveyance, and how and why they came to add their own voices to the campaign. Finally, I consider how such mobilization in turn altered individual and collective understandings of silence, sound, and voice. In doing so, I connect the history of the People's Republic, via the growing field of sound studies, to a broader historiography of the twentieth century that offers analogs not only for the experience of life under state socialism, but also of life in a world transformed by technology.
I apply this sonic focus to the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaigns of 1956–58. Using contemporary diaries, newspaper reports, memoirs, and interviews, I examine these twin campaigns as sonic and affective rather than discursive events. In doing so, I argue that while the Party's sonic infrastructure relayed the semantic content of the campaigns, it was in individual and collective acts of silence, listening, and voice that the campaigns drew in participants and, in the process, reshaped the social.
This research sits on empirically shaky ground. The accounts cited in this article were often written after (in some cases, many years after) the campaigns in question. Interviews took place nearly sixty years later. Such memories of auditory experience suffer from all the foibles of memory in general, but with the added problem that there are no other surviving sources by which to corroborate or refute their accuracy. Scant audio traces remain from the period, and, as pointed out by Annelies Jacobs (2017), any recordings would by no means transport today's listeners into the audio cultures of the time—subjective experiences as recorded in text remain crucial to reconstruct the auditory past. Yet these accounts of audition exist, and in them, aspects of the campaigns that have lain on the sidelines while other sources (Party documents, eyewitness accounts made at the time), all with their own weaknesses, undergird our reading of the period. Thus, the problematic sources are presented rather than ignoring them, and the importance of silence, sound, and voice, completely.1
Background: The Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist Campaigns
The twin campaigns of 1956–58 occupy at once a central and enigmatic place in the historiography of twentieth-century China. Broadly, the Hundred Flowers campaign (which culminated in the Rectification of the Party by those outside its ranks) represented a period of relaxed ideological and cultural control (Leese 2011, 55), and the Anti-Rightist campaign its opposite—a clampdown and subsequent political labeling and reeducation of at least half a million people, with dire effects beyond the Mao years for those labeled and their families (Wang 2017). Both the popular and scholarly imaginations have been caught by the Janus quality of the campaigns, with concern shifting from elite politics (MacFarquhar 1974) to the role of intellectuals (U 2012) and the grassroots experience (Cao 2015). A central question, as with the witch hunts to which the campaigns have been compared, has to do with participation and mobilization. How were people drawn to voice opinions in the Hundred Flowers campaign, and how were (often the same) people convinced to criticize and condemn others in the Anti-Rightist campaign? Divides between left and right, and between Party and intellectual, have broken down under analysis and thus failed to offer a framework resolving these key questions (Wang 2017, 189–91). So what happens when we remove, temporarily, the question of political and ideological discursive positions from the equation and turn to dynamics of silence, noise, and voice?
Anne Anagnost has argued that the preexisting hierarchy of text over speech was inverted during the Mao era as oral expression became the primary means to connect and commit the bodies of the Chinese people to the nation-building project of the CCP. Scholars of the reading practices of dynastic China might argue with the depiction of earlier textual practices as nonvocal, but Anagnost (1997, 31) certainly uncovers the extent of CCP attempts to occupy vocal practices. Perry (2002) has also pointed to the importance, specifically for the Anti-Rightist campaign, of oral performance in the mobilization of individual emotions and thus of collective campaigns and intellectual remolding. Both Anagnost and Perry reveal the power of speech to connect a national narrative to a personal experience, and, as Anagnost (1997, 55) says, to recreate individuals as “little ‘fictions,’ as objects through which the larger fiction achieves its material reality.” Less attention is paid to the act of staying silent. But despite its obvious tendency to be unrecorded in historical records of suku and struggle sessions, not speaking was an act carried out by uncountable participants. During the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaigns explored in this article, the question of whether to speak or remain silent was omnipresent. It necessarily preceded the question of what to say once one was speaking. Amid increasingly strident calls to “raise opinions” and “speak out,” and assurances in slogan form that no retribution would follow (yanzhe wuzui 言者無罪), a great number of people, despite harboring dissatisfaction with the state of the Republic seven years after liberation, remained mute.
The act of falling silent has been read as representing fullness (Ephratt 2008, 1917; Gautier 2015), as an act of eloquence (Dolar 2006, 153–55; Ephratt 2008), or as an absence (be it through refusal to join, inarticulacy, or exclusion) of one's voice from the public (Gautier 2015; Zerubavel 2006). In Chinese contexts, silence retains such multivalence, from Laozi's “those who know do not speak” (zhizhe buyan 知者不言) (fullness), to Tao Yuanming extracting himself from political affairs (absence), to Qian Zhongxu's (1998, 185–88) notes on the importance of silence in representing its other (eloquence). A review of silence among the literati throughout dynastic China is beyond the scope of this article. However, that the act remained an operative part of the social vocabulary in the twentieth century is perhaps best evidenced in the work of Lu Xun (魯迅 1881–1936), whose writings remained key ideological and cultural texts during the Mao era.
Depicting characters, most notably Ah Q, as tongue-tied and inarticulate, Lu Xun (2010) drew readers’ attention to the disparity between one's interiority and its explication. Lu Xun (2003, 2–3) also gestured to both the appeal of the perfection of silence in comparison with the flawed medium of speech, and the attraction and perils of remaining mute at times when speech became an act of testimony or confession (90–93). Indeed, in Lu Xun's writing, not only do we observe concern with silence as a meaningful public act, but also we are presented with a taxonomy of the plural interior states that lead to not speaking, as well as the forms of silence acted out. The silence of Ah Q, struck dumb by his inability to find the language for his audience, is very different from that of the accused man in the vignette “Another Fairytale” (You shi yige tonghua 又是一個童話) (Lu Xun 1957, 270–71), who, under interrogation, knows he will be trapped by either speech or silence. It is also different from Lu Xun's own rumination on silence in the introduction to Wild Grass, which, in channeling Lao Zi's “those who know do not speak,” hints at a private, rather than public, meaning in silence: “When I am silent, I feel replete, when I open my mouth to speak, I am conscious of emptiness” (Lu Xun 2003, 2–3). Thus, the interior and exterior functions of not speaking are brought to our attention.2
Falling Silent in Fear of Reprisal
Despite, or because of, successive campaigns that relied upon the mobilization of participants’ speech, such plural motivations for falling silent—fear of retribution or incrimination, a lack of appropriate language by which to express oneself, and a desire to protect one's interior state—all remained operative in the early stages of the Hundred Flowers campaign. Most immediately patent are those who kept or fell quiet as a way to avoid trouble. We can see that this situation was the subject of parody in mid-May 1957 in a cartoon from Wenhui bao (figure 1) depicting lively conversation being stifled as superiors arrive in earshot.
More poignant and personal expressions of this tactic can be found among diaries of the time. Wu Mi, (吳宓 1894–1978), a scholar of comparative literature at Southwest Normal Teachers College, recorded in his diary many attempts to avoid speaking at Rectification and then Anti-Rightist campaign meetings—deferring when called on to speak at meetings, or offering to write an essay on the topic in lieu of a vocal performance in front of his peers (May 13, 1957, in Wu 2006, 80–84).3 Throughout the “blooming and contending,” Wu Mi remained quiet wherever possible, even feigning illness to avoid meetings altogether (May 21, 1957, in Wu 2006, 89–90).
Falling Silent as Social Ineptitude
While Wu Mi remained silent because of his awareness of the danger of a slip of the tongue, others kept to themselves for more prosaic reasons. In some cases, the inward turn was prompted less by fear of stepping out of political bounds than by an inability to connect socially with peers. Xu Chengmiao (徐成淼 1939–), a second-year journalism student at Fudan University, recorded in his diary for 1957 recurring run-ins with classmates in which he felt misunderstood, had romantic advances rejected, or was one-upped by academic, literary, or romantic rivals. He failed, rather than refused, to speak at meetings (March 29, 1957, in Xu 2005, 87), instead returning to his dormitory to pen fantasy responses to what others had said (June 11, 1957, in Xu 2005, 109–10) and dividing his time between writing poetry to prospective girlfriends (January 21, 1957, in Xu 2005, 74–75) and submitting work for publication in literary journals (April 13, 1957, in Xu 2005, 90). Throughout, he reported repeated experiences like those of Ah Q, such as inarticulacy in front of his peers (June 11, 1957, in Xu 2005, 108–9). What he desired most, and what seems to have motivated much of his actions during the year and eventually led to his being labeled as a “rightist,” was for someone to understand him (July 13, 1957, in Xu 2005, 122). Later in the year, as he came under suspicion and then was accused of “rightist tendencies,” he hoped that the publication of his literary works would save him in the eyes of his peers (September 12, 1957, in Xu 2005, 136–37), but as his fate became clear, he noted that it was the distance between himself and his classmates that led to his labeling and that he deeply regretted his silence (December 12, 1957, in Xu 2005, 212).
Falling Silent to Protect One's Private Self
For others, in addition to protecting themselves from the threat of later incrimination or representing social ineptitude, silence afforded them the inner ruminative space that Lu Xun gestured at in his preface to Wild Grass. Jiang Rende (蔣仁德, dates unknown), a Communist Youth League member and an employee of the Chongqing Geology Laboratory, was extremely disillusioned with the Party, its leadership, and his colleagues. He acted on these feelings, but not vocally. On July 18, 1955, Jiang arranged two bunches of grass in a little bottle on his desk. Noting that his classmates mocked him for his “romantic style,” Jiang recorded in his diary that the botanical display signified his own character:
In fact, I am these little blades, and [when I look at them] I think of two lines from Lu Xun: “I love my wild grass, I yearn for the fire underground.” (June 30, 1955, in Chonqingshi youpai yanlun xuanji di er ji 1957)
Jiang, like Wu Mi, seems to have been refraining from speech in part to protect himself from the danger of voicing potentially objectionable opinions. But more is going on here than a fear of reprisal. Jiang, through his lack of social and public engagement, was protecting a private world in which he was free to imagine both himself and society as he wished. If Anagnost is correct about the writing of little fictions as part of the creation of the larger fiction of the revolution, here Jiang was resisting, through silence, his role as a “little fiction.” His diary entries reveal the plurality of attitudes and thoughts that developed within the space created through reticence—the personal as well as the public function of silence.
If the inward turn of Jiang Rende resulted in his falling silent, for others, it necessitated seeking out quiet places in an increasingly noisy world. Fei Xiaotong (費孝通 1910–2005), in his fateful essay of 1957, “The Early Spring Weather of Intellectuals,” summed up the wishes of intellectuals in that year as wanting to become full-time professors or researchers. Beyond the position as a title, what concrete conditions were desired? Fei passed on the words of Kang Zhenhuang (康振黃 1920–2018), who said that all a professor wanted was
“One room, two books”—That is, to devote oneself to one's work in peace and quiet. (Renmin Ribao, March 24, 1957)
Kang's wishes sat uncomfortably with the contemporary goals of the Party, which sought to recruit intellectuals for the collective task of socialist construction. What Kang wanted, having been asked, was to be left alone in silence. He was not alone in this desire, but for those who were not granted private spaces, finding quietude could be more difficult. For Xu Chengmiao, the happiest days of 1957 were those he spent alone in nature as he got up before dawn to enjoy the solitude of the countryside surrounding Fudan University (March 19, 1957, in Xu 2005, 82–83).
Being silent during the Hundred Flowers campaign was at once a political and a personal act, and as such, it involved the mingling of social practices that predated the campaign, as well as those that responded directly to its presence. Of the reasons for either being, or seeking out, quiet during the campaign, all were extant prior to 1957, most prior to 1949, and many prior to 1911. Many were not peculiar to China. Jiang Rende's preservation of a hermetic subjectivity, Xu Chengmiao's failure to feel “understood” through his physical voice, and his attempt to be “heard” from afar through text could all find parallels in both the greater Soviet world, and indeed in depictions of independent spirits or lost youths worldwide. All three could be likened to the voice of J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, who is surrounded by “phonies” and avoids sharing himself with them because they “wouldn't have understood anyway.” Kang Zhenghuang's call for a quiet place to work is relatable to the experiences of intellectual workers of all stripes in an industrialized and urbanized world (Bijsterveld 2008, 53–137; Mansell 2017). To escape the noise of modern life was to escape social and industrial as well as political distractions. Qian Liqun (2019) describes the plight of the intellectual during the Mao era as a struggle to find personal space. A sound studies perspective reconnects this plight with the global changes underway in the mid-twentieth century and shows that Chinese intellectuals were not alone in their search for quietude.
The Problem of Silence in a Campaign of Speech
Whatever the motivations for falling silent or seeking quiet, the act of withdrawing inward ran against the ethos of the Hundred Flowers campaign. While the spread of the campaign, more than any before, relied upon the increasing availability and effectiveness of technology for conveying and amplifying the voice of the Party, its titular slogan called for a plurality of voices to respond. This spirit of open airing of views was reinforced by Mao's frequent citing, and thus the wide circulation, of Su Xun's (蘇洵 1009–66) “nothing known is left unsaid” (zhi wu bu yan 知無不言) as an aphoristic rebuttal of Laozi's “those who know do not speak.” The silence of those offered the lectern or microphone was thus not only vexing, but a serious setback for proponents of the campaign. Intra-Party reports from the spring of 1957 showed less concern with what was being spoken by extra-Party personages than with what was stopping them from speaking at all (Neibu Cankao, May 11, 1957). Again, this issue was not peculiar to the time and place under study. Mark Smith (2001, 68) has described the challenge presented by silence among those one is attempting to govern, specifically how the silence of the enslaved became a threat to slave owners in the American South. Culturally and temporally closer to the case in question, Rossitza Guentcheva (2006, 212), in her study of sounds and noise in Socialist Bulgaria, writes of the connection of silence with suspicious beliefs or motives and particularly the capitalist enemy, “who now acts secretively and furtively, and tries to not make noise on the squares.” In 1957 in China, silence carried similar connotations, as alluded to by an unnamed professor interviewed by Pan Wenbin (潘文彬 1927–66). The professor claimed that during the Republican era, many intellectuals kept to their studies and expressed their contempt for the regime through silence (Guanming ribao, April 25, 1957). While ostensibly speaking of the Republican era, his words were a clear message to intellectuals of the day: silence is the sharpest critique.
Silence as a Rare Commodity: Campaign as Sound
Party anxiety over those not speaking meant that while silence remained of value to many individuals, in 1957, it was becoming increasingly rare. This was due to both increasing pressure on individuals to speak up and advances in the technological and organizational capacity of the Party to convey and amplify sound. Eddy U (2012) has written about attempts to coax intellectuals to come forward in 1957 through offers of privilege and material reward, suggesting a broader historical framework of patron-client relationships between those who spoke up and those who needed their voices. Below the elite that Eddy U describes, however, blunter techniques were deployed as individuals were rostrated against their will. In an interview with the author in Shanghai in early 2017, Wang Qingshan (王慶山), a grandson of Wang Guowei (王國維 1877–1927), spoke about his first impressions of the campaign—of simply observing from the sidelines and reading the newspapers. He read as much as he could but thought of the campaign as belonging to others. But, as the campaign wore on, he was approached by his teacher to voice an opinion. He did not want to and told the teacher to find someone else, but the pressure increased until he agreed to speak.4
Wu Mi, who had remained so carefully guarded through the first half of 1957, wrote in his diary of the daily pressure to speak at Rectification meetings. He was not offered privilege, but was asked to speak by his superiors, and he felt his silence become conspicuous (May 31 and June 5–8, 1957, in Wu 2006, 96, 99–102). Both Wang Qingshan and Wu Mi, badgered by their superiors and without the shelter of organizational or social status, reveal an inversion of our conventional understanding of communication and power. In the Hundred Flowers campaign, it was not the right to speak up and be heard that was reserved for those in positions of power, but the right to keep one's voice out of the unfolding campaign.
In addition to the organizational and social pressure to speak, this period was one in which the soundscapes of China were undergoing rapid transformation. We know well of the boom in textual circulation as controls on the media sphere were relaxed and the circulation of newspapers and journals both increased and diversified (Leese 2011, 56, 62). But 1957 also witnessed a marked upswing in the Party's capacity to relay and amplify sound, as outlined in the opening of this essay. Along with the goals of rapid industrialization, China was undergoing a rapid transformation of its sonic environment, one that other societies had made only gradually during the first half of the twentieth century (Lei and Sun 2017, 4). Such sonic technology transformed disparate spaces—spaces where one previously could seek out silence—into echo chambers for the voices of the national propaganda effort. But how were these voices apprehended?
Hearing the Campaign
Certainly, we can read such increased levels of sonic activity for their intended goal—to mobilize targets of the campaign toward their own vocal participation. But a focus on Party goals for the medium of sound ignores the complexity of the listening experience of its targets. In some cases, such initiatives worked as designed, but it was not always the semantic content of broadcasts or recordings that convinced listeners. In his memoir, Xu Jin (許進, dates unknown) a factory worker in Fu County (currently Wafangdian 瓦房店), Liaoning, described the day that Mao's “On Correctly Handling Contradictions” speech was broadcast at his factory. Xu was struck by hearing laughter, interjections from Liu Shaoqi, the liveliness of the occasion, and Mao's near-comedic demeanor even as critical issues were discussed (Xu 2010). These sonic clues about Mao and the atmosphere at the Supreme State Conference were all more notable to Xu than the content of the speech, which he recorded only in passing. Having been transported to the conference, the distance between Liaoning and Beijing collapsed, he then acted on the impression gleaned from Mao's tone of voice and humor and later decided to speak up about the problems of bureaucracy at the factory in Fu County.
A direct broadcast of the unedited version Mao's speech was rare (a fact that would become a point of contention during Rectification), and elsewhere listeners were bombarded with, rather than transported by, the voices of the campaign. Thus, while Xu's attention to the extra-linguistic sounds of Mao's speech drew him into active participation, for others, it was the sonic dynamics of local Rectification meetings that repelled them, drawing even sharper lines between the mobilizers and those to be mobilized. He Chengye (賀承業 1936–), a fourth-year mathematics student at Southwest Normal University, despite his position as secretary of the Communist Youth League of the school, experienced campaign meetings not as meaningful debate but as simply as
That sound. Meetings every day, only the same few people with only the same few words. Very quickly there was nothing to say . . . we could only sit in awkward silence. But the few party members among the class wouldn't give in. They would accept nothing but repeated speeches from everyone—constantly pressing the classmates. (He 2004)
Thus, it seems that for He Chengye, the bluster of the Rectification meeting did not pull him into vocal participation, as it did Xu Jun. Instead, the acoustics kept him and his classmates outside the campaign even as they were pressed to participate, appearing to be sonic and social impulses that had little to do with hearing opinions from the student body and more an awkward attempt to force their vocal participation in the noise underway.
This fissure in relations between mobilizers and mobilized, created in part by the excessive blast of Rectification meetings, was also apprehended as such largely through the dynamics of sound and silence—the volume and strident nature of the campaign only drawing more attention to the silence of those called on to speak. Jin Xixia (金錫暇, dates unknown) recalled the acoustic imbalance of a meeting at Zhejiang University at which the “speakers blast out noise,” and the secretary recited campaign slogans to call forth the voice of the students. But, “after this address, the whole room is completely silent, like an airless ball. How can you bounce a ball with no air! The class bell rings from afar and draws closer, someone sighs: ‘may as well go study’” (Jin 1957). Jin's depiction of the scene—of a Party committee at bombastic volume issuing forth words with so little meaning that he does not bother to record them in full, followed by total silence from the students—gives us a sense of the collective taciturn state of the students at Zhejiang University, but also how important sonic dynamics were. The Party's volume and tone were unable to spur students to voice and instead called attention to its own irrelevance.
Even at universities where students and professors did wish to express opinions, the sonic system sent mixed signals—announcing freedom of speech from horns of large loudspeakers that only Party Committees had control over. At the end of May 1957, at a meeting for non-Party cadres and teachers held by the Henan Education Department, Guo Jiahuan (郭家寰, dates unknown), a teacher from Kaifeng Prefecture, raised the problem of leadership listening only to reports from a few members of the Youth League and not talking directly to the teachers. Guo was “sick,” he said, of “only meeting the leadership through the hole in a megaphone” (Henan ribao, June 5, 1957). At the Chengdu College of Engineering, a group called the Forum Society (lun tan she 論壇社) issued a statement complaining about the lack of response to students’ big character posters and the lack of attendance of Party members at student-held meetings. The statement described a weekend on which the students first wrote big character posters and then held meetings on the contradiction between education and “blooming and contending.” These were ignored by the branch committee and Communist Youth League, which announced its own meetings on the same topics over the loudspeakers installed throughout the college. “Please let me ask,” an editorial for the Forum Society wrote, “is this the leadership running ahead of the masses?” (Luntan she 1957). Here, the loudspeaker represented neither a path of communication between Party and people, nor a prompt for speech, but a material sign of the Party's deafness. Interrupting ongoing discussion to announce a parallel meeting on the same topic, it seemed to members of the Forum Society that the Party was interested in making sure that students spoke, but it did not much care what they said.
While the sonic dynamics of the campaign struck off-notes with many, in other cases, they created precisely the affective qualities required to mobilize individuals to speech, as the acoustics of “blooming and contending” meetings created a bond between speaker and audience. In a memoir written under the name Teacher Cao (Cao laoshi 曹老師), a teacher at Baohe (包合) elementary school in Anhui, where Rectification took place nearly half a year later than in major centers, recalled the experience of being drawn forth to speak. Rectification meetings would begin with the leader holding forth and raising issues to inspire the audience. Cao at first simply listened, but he was eventually drawn in by a “resonance” (gongming 共鳴) with the speaker and his words. Cao recalled the atmosphere as “a form of siren song, each step obscure, and making the listener at once startled and muddleheaded,” and that those who spoke were “unable to resist the thumping of our hearts and opened up our voice boxes to ‘bloom and contend’” (quoted in Zhu 2013). Cao remembered being drawn into the act of speech almost without volition as he listened to the officiator of the meetings. The issues he was presented with were not emotionally charged in themselves; rather, it was through the affective impact of the speaker's tone of voice that he felt a somatic transformation take place within himself, first the thumping of his heart, and eventually his throat opening to let forth his own voice.
Speaking Up in the Anti-Rightist Campaign
The subsequent shift to Anti-Rightist struggle that began on June 8, 1957, marked an about-face of central policy and a subsequent inversion of roles and targets at the local level, as well as the beginning of persecution of individuals by their peers (Wang 2017). On the pivotal question of how many were vocally engaged in the campaign underway, however, it represented a continued escalation. As attendees acclimatized to the increased pitch and rhythm of the meetings, it became the patches of silence and those not speaking who stood out. Wu Mi had held his tongue through the first months of the year, despite confessing to his diary his concerns over the blooming and contending (June 9, 1957, in Wu 2006, 103). But the time came that the professor noticed the danger in his taciturn stance. After several months of keeping a low profile during the meetings at his school, he finally wrote in his diary of a contribution to a meeting to discuss how the Anti-Rightist campaign should be launched at his school:
I spoke up, praising the small group informal discussions held by the department. But I did so to show that my silence held no hidden meaning. (July 3, 1957, in Wu 2006, 122–23)
Thus, as Rectification, from one direction, pulled those such as Teacher Cao into the collectively produced sound, the opening of the Anti-Rightist campaign, from the other, drew in those such as Wu Mi, as staying silent became a “louder” act than a careful statement such as Wu Mi finally uttered. What Wu Mi learned to do—and he would be followed by many of those either accused or called to testify against their peers during the Anti-Rightist campaign—was to refine the act of speech so that it not only ceased to be a semantic statement of truth, but also ceased to be the sort of performative speech act described by J. L. Austin. Rather, the key significance of speech was that it was not silence, and thus it drew the speaker into what Barry Truax (1984, 58) calls the “acoustic community.”
Following Mao's June 8 editorial “Why Is This So?” that labeled heterodox opinion as “rightist,” many more individuals yielded to the same pressure as Wu Mi as they felt their silence grow first conspicuous and then unendurable. Zhang Wenyue (章文岳 1935–) recalled a struggle session against his dean, Qian Duansheng (錢端升 1900–1990) at the Beijing Institute of Political Science and Law that took place in mid-July 1957. The Beijing People's Broadcasting Station had come to his school and set up to record the criticism. Zhang “stood on the stage in front of the microphone, and my nervousness made my head at once confused and empty, I didn't know how to begin.” He was “so distressed” that, rather than adjusting the microphone, he spread his legs further and further apart, until his “posture became exactly like the character 人” (Zhang 2015).
Feeling the pressure to say something to the waiting crowd, Zhang finally grasped the microphone and began to speak in his thick Ningbo accent, uttering a somewhat qualified criticism of Qian Duansheng, trailing off as he realized he was not giving the crowd what it wanted. There then followed a period of silence, both from Zhang and from the audience, in which “there was no shouting of slogans, no questioning or investigating, just total silence,” until it grew too much for young student and he pressed on with a non sequitur about Qian's son studying in the Soviet Union and how Zhang “yearned for the Soviet Union!” (Zhang 2015). Zhang's recollection conveys the precariousness of his silence; he noted the acoustic clues that urged him to say more, and that he felt compelled to speak on. Like Wu Mi, he filled the silence with words designed to circumnavigate, rather than meet head on, the topic of discussion. He was not mobilized to speech by either ideological or emotional concerns. Rather, there was a social tension created through his silence, a silence that he perceived through auditory clues and that he felt the need to resolve with the sound of his own voice.
The Sound of One's Fate—Hearing Verdicts
Although those such as Wu Mi and Zhang Wenyue mastered the art of speech acts that were substantively empty and semantically infertile, the foreclosing of meaningful debate did not mean that the sounds of the struggle sessions were ignored, or thought of as only noise. In contrast to listening experiences during Rectification, as the Anti-Rightist campaign got underway and its inherent danger to all involved became clear, the voices of the campaign were imbued with import, and listening to them became an essential survival tactic. Key moments, when recalled either that night in diaries or much later in memoir, are marked by the sonic. Voices knowable through their pitch and timbre became linked with the act of labeling. In the literary editor Wei Junyi's (韋君宜 1917–2002) recollection of a 1958 labeling within the China Writers Association (中國作家協會), it was the specific sound of the voices of two leading female cadres that signified one's fate. As the verdicts were read, “the sound was firm and clear, ghastly to make your flesh crawl. It made you feel that the sound was itself lethal, and every word a knife” (Wei 1998). Clearly the content being relayed was significant: these were perlocutionary speech acts that redrew the divisions of society as classmates and teachers were split off from their peers. But it was the frequency and the timbre and intensity of the sounds that anchored abstract concepts to social reality, and thus rendered them affective as well as cognitive.
Among the People—Chorus and Solos in Struggle Sessions
Having thus been ordained by the voices of Party committee leaders, the new social divisions were then put into practice through the active involvement of the peers of those who had been labeled. Again, voice and listening became the primary modes. At struggle sessions, it became the sounds of the audience—the chants, the collective berating, the sonic dominance exerted by tens or hundreds over one or two—that crystallized and rendered affective the new social relations. Teacher Cao remembered the sonic dynamics of the struggle session against him. Having first watched several other teachers being struggled against while he waited his turn, Cao was perplexed by their silence as they were accused in what was meant, Cao thought, to be a “great debate” (da bianlun 大辯論). He was thus even more determined to speak when his turn came, but things did not go as he had planned:
Whenever I moved to speak, a peel of shouts knocked down my words like a roaring tide. Even as a sound gathered in my throat as I began to talk it would be buried by the clamor, the thunderous noise of insults. It was then that I woke from my dream. (quoted in Zhu 2013)
For Cao, then, it was being confronted with this barrage of chants from his former friends, rather than his original labeling, that viscerally displayed to him the impotence of his voice against those of the crowd and rendered real his new relationship with those who had been his peers and thus his new position in society. The experience also revealed to him that his understanding of the act of listening, as an attentive, rational, and finally discursive process, was no longer operable in the struggle sessions of 1957.
The same dynamics between single and collective voices were replayed across campuses and factories nationwide. Li Konghuai (李孔懷 dates unknown) a student at Fudan University, recalled hearing attacks on the history professor Wang Zaoshi (王造時 1903–71) over the classroom loudspeakers:
The sound from the auditorium was extremely noisy, I remember that Wang Zaoshi only needed to say one word, and he would immediately be shouted down. (Li Konghuai, in Zhang 2018)
Thus, the loudspeakers that had previously relayed the atmosphere at Mao's February 27 speech into the hallways of Xu Jin's workplace, presenting a sonic picture of social relationships and the disposition of leaders at the highest level of the state, now conveyed not only the verdicts in Rightist trials, but vividly relayed to those not at the meetings the newly established divisions. In both cases, it was the sonic depiction of a social scene, rather than any ideological message, that listeners found notable. The chant, even disembodied and piped through the loudspeaker, had the power to render abstract labels into social fact.
The affective properties of this chant, and what it achieves, have been studied elsewhere. Daniel Morat (2017, 186–87), in his study of the Augusterlebnis (August experience) at the outbreak of World War I, argues that ostensible displays of support for the war in German cities as citizens sang and cheered together in public were not so much an expression of patriotic emotion, but rather the collective creation or intensification of those feelings. Public “support” then, was not “let out” in such rallies, but produced. Exploring a similar phenomenon, Jeremy Gilbert (2004, 15) uses the analogy of a football match, at which the crowd is joined together through the expressive and affective activity of the cheer—a physical identification with each other, as much as with their team, that involved “shared physical experience, of proximity and tactility and the transversal transmission of affective force.” Here, Gilbert offers us a way, through the metaphor of a football match, of thinking about the socializing process of voice, speech, and hearing that sets aside both ideological and emotional centered explanations and focuses instead on immediate affective qualities.
The mass campaigns of the Mao era differed in important ways from the experience of a football match, not least in the question of choice in participation. Further, while Morat (2017) depicts the affective properties of a vocal and phatic conjoining with peers in a patriotic context, and Gilbert (2004) shows us the social bonding active in a crowd who all support the same team, in both cases, the other to the group lies elsewhere. In the struggle sessions of the Anti-Rightist campaign (and throughout the campaigns of the Mao era), there were present both those drawn in to the resultant community and those pushed out. But there are parallels. To be shouting slogans as part of a crowd roaring down the objections of one labeled was to have one's position in relation to one's peers secured through the affective qualities of sound and voice. The semantic content was important, and so was one's emotional motivation—but it was the joining together in voice that bound student to student and teacher to teacher as much as it bonded either to the Party, as illustrated by Lao She. Conversely, to be outside the group was to be denied even a solo voice. For both those labeled and those attending meetings, then, the experience was a separation into those chanting as a group and those who, in silence, became the targets of the chant.
Indeed, silence often acted as precursor to an individual's ultimate exit from society. Shen Bo'ai 沈博爱 (1936–) recalled the last days of a struggle session against his teacher Yu Xueyu (喻學甫, dates unknown). Shen recalled that Yu remained completely quiet as he was accused, and he remembered the silence pervading his own dormitory following the noise of the struggle sessions, and then seeing a still wordless Yu the next morning moments before the teacher threw himself into a vat of boiling water and ended his relationship with his peers and the Party (Shen 2013). Silence was thus transformed from a marker of fullness, á la Lu Xun and Laozi, to one of absence and even death.
Echoes of the Campaign—Sound and the Social
The marking of social divisions through sound began in meetings like those described earlier, but spilled over into the performance and reception of sound in daily life during and following the Anti-Rightist campaign. Two examples illustrate this. First, we can see in a memoir of the early stages of the Great Leap Forward in 1958 the way that the sound of others cheering acted as a call to join for those who had not had their position in society called into question in the Anti-Rightist campaign. Liang Lixing (梁立興, dates unknown), a fourth-year student at an agricultural college in Tai-an, Shandong, recalled being woken by a riot of noise the night his school managed to smelt molten iron, being pulled out of his bed, into the streets, and joining throngs of others in a march to the municipal committee as “the loudspeakers sang out loud and clear, everyone swarmed together” (Liang, n.d). For Liang, the tumult called him into the company of others: first other classmates, then the whole school, then finally connecting with the Party municipal committee. For those who had been pushed outside “the people” in 1957 and 1958, on the other hand, the sounds announcing events of import to the public had an entirely different effect. Xu Chengmiao, who by the last day of 1957 was aware of his position as an outcast, went to bed alone on New Year's Eve:
From the speakers I heard a few songs and then drifted off to sleep. At midnight I was woken as a loud chime rang from the speakers, following which came the voice of the announcer as he sent his blessings to the whole city. In any case, such blessings to me are only mocking, so I quickly went back to sleep. (January 1, 1958, in Xu 2005, 230)
In Liang's and Xu's two reactions to these nighttime sounds, we can see how the campaigns not only attributed political labels to individuals, but also transformed the way such individuals perceived the sounds around them.
Finally, however, it must be noted that such social bonds and cleavages were, in addition to being carried out at the local level, open to clandestine subversion. In memoirs of the time, we see uncovered subtle ways in which the role of silence and voice created social bonds that were outside the confines of the political and national community. The sounds of others were often apprehended as pre-linguistic and pre-semantic, marking transitional moments between, rather than in the thick of, ideological or political struggles. And they were performed to and with peers, creating new social as well as state-citizen relations in the process. One memoir described the scene in a kitchen as the sounds of coquettish laughter alert a worker to a woman's presence outside the back door. The uninhibited cadences of her laughter told the memoirist that she must be the girlfriend of an official, and when she came into the kitchen and helped herself to meat from a platter while the workers kept their heads bent to their tasks, it was the solo cough of his coworker that let him know that he was not alone in his silent critique of her privilege (Zeng 2011). If the silences and voices of the mass campaigns of the Mao era mobilized in line with revolutionary goals, they also created social eddies at odds with these goals in which bonds were formed and communicated.
Let us return to the intersecting interests of this essay: What acts to mobilize political subjects to voice in a mass campaign? What role do sound and voice play in this process? Of the first question, certainly ideological and emotional factors played a key role. However, these factors were not requisite for bringing individuals from silence to voice during the campaigns in question. In many cases, people were coaxed out of passivity or even reclusiveness through the affective experience of hearing the voices of others over loudspeakers, at raised volumes, repeated ad nauseum, and en masse, and then feeling their own voice either fill the silence or coalesce with the voices of others in acoustic communion. To see the two campaigns from this perspective means regarding them as one continuous process of activation into an affectively created social world, rather than as an ideological U-turn or political drawing of boundaries. As a discursive system, the significance of debate both before and after the shift to the Anti-Rightist campaign may be brought into question, particularly given incidences of coercion to speech in both campaigns. But as mechanisms by which individuals were rearranged within society through the affective qualities of voice, sound, and hearing, the campaigns in sequence represented a consistent enhancement of activation and participation.
In the Anti-Rightist campaign, the descent into noise and away from discourse could be, and has been, read as a tragic development of the Mao era, one that enabled the excesses, then the deficits, and then the mass deaths of the Great Leap Forward. But foreclosing the discursive as the primary model and metaphor by which to understand a mass campaign means revealing another level at which the back and forth of utterance and listening created meaning. It was through this process that new lines of collectivity, as well as the borders of the diwo guanxi (friend-foe relationship), were redrawn. While new labels were causally determined by Party quotas, grudges, and occasionally the words and deeds of those labeled, at the social level, they were put into practice and made real through sound, speech, and silence.
Space prohibits it here, but for an example from the extensive discussion of the question of sound in memory, see Street (2015). For the argument that such texts can be used as historical materials, see Birdsall (2009, 169–71).
For another sonically oriented approach to Lu Xun, see Gloria Davies, “Hearing Voices with Lu Xun,” public lecture at the Australian Centre on China in the World, November 30, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3rVlwARV0Q (accessed April 5, 2021).
Wu Mi turned down the chance to speak and said that he would write something for the Xuexi tongbao 學習通報.
Interview with Wang Qingshan, February 19, 2017.
Heartfelt thanks to those who offered critical input that enriched and transformed this essay, including Anne McLaren, Timothy Cheek, Bo Ærenlund Sørensen, Laura Di Giorgi, Lena Henningsen, Damian Mandzunowski, Li Youxuan (李宥璇), three anonymous reviewers, the editors of the JAS, and Deborah Ring. This research would not have been possible without the assistance of the University of British Columbia, the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation, and Gao Qi and Celia Chan at the Universities Service Center for China Studies.