China in the Socialist World: Translation, Adaptation, and Appropriation

Saturday, January 7, 2023: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Room 306

Pu Wang, Brandeis University

Ilya Ehrenburg in China: “Internal Readings” and Competing Visions of Soviet Revisionism during the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Yaowen Dong, University of Memphis

“Workers Shall Be the Masters of Philosophy”: The Reception of Joseph Dietzgen and the Making of Marxist Tradition in Socialist China
Yiming Ma, University of California, Santa Barbara

René Étiemble’s Odyssey of Maoism: Illusion and Disillusion of Maoist China in France between the 1960s and 1970s
Ying Xing, The University of Hong Kong

Comment: Pu Wang, Brandeis University

Panel Description

This panel discusses the transmission, translation, and adaptation of Western and Soviet Marxist writers in Socialist China between the 1950s and 1970s. Yiming Ma’s paper complicates the notion of “circulation” by incorporating mass movement and transnational transmissions into the formation of Marxist orthodoxy in China. Yaowen Dong’s paper investigates the official and underground reception of the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenberg in Mao’s China and the discursive ways in which “revisionism” shaped Chinese political identity. Ying Xing examines the productivity of circulations, focusing on how French and Chinese leftist writers encountered misunderstandings and misinterpretations because of their ambiguous political stances. By discussing the spread of socialism around the globe diachronically and synchronically, this panel presents a transnational circulation of socialist ideas that are not systematically guided from the top, but a bumbling network full of detours and confrontations from all sides.

Paper Abstracts

  • “Ilya Ehrenburg in China: ‘Internal Readings’ and Competing Visions of Soviet Revisionism during the Chinese Cultural Revolution”, Yaowen Dong, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Since 1959, to prepare for the confrontation with the Soviet Union, the Chinese Propaganda Department of the Central Committee organized scholars, writers, and publishers to translate a series of “revisionist” Soviet literature and political writings that reflect the alleged post-Stalinist Soviet ideological deviations such as humanism, liberalism, and individualism. The access to these books was limited to an “internal” group of officials. While the official publication and circulation of these books were halted in 1966 with the onset of the Cultural Revolution, the chaos of the Red Guards movement had led to a proliferated underground consumption of these “Internal Readings” among Chinese youths. Ilya Ehrenburg’s memoir People, Years, and Life became an underground cultural icon among Chinese youths who became increasingly disillusioned with the Cultural Revolution. This paper examines the discursive ways in which Ehrenburg’s work was curated and consumed in both official and underground settings in Mao’s China. While the official deemed his memoir an example of Soviet revisionism, Ehrenburg’s pre-war experience in the European literary and artistic circle made him a medium for Chinese youths in underground reading groups to be exposed to western literature, arts, and ideology. Through official presentations and underground circulations, Ehrenburg’s memoir unintendedly became a site of intensive ideological and cultural contestation.

  • “‘Workers Shall Be the Masters of Philosophy’: the Reception of Joseph Dietzgen and the Making of Marxist Tradition in Socialist China”, Yiming Ma, University of California, Santa Barbara

This paper examines the Chinese translations and commentaries on the 19th-century German worker-philosopher Peter Josef Dietzgen in the context of the movement of mass philosophy learning. Marxists often credited Dietzgen with conceptualizing dialectical materialism independently from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Since the Great Leap Forward, his philosophical works were reprinted, and monographs on Dietzgen from the Soviet Union were introduced and translated in China. As a result, Dietzgen’s biography and significance were widely cited by workers and professional philosophers alike till the 1980s. However, the tensions between his class identity and the deviation of his theory of the mind from materialism led to debates over how to characterize his epistemology and situate him in the Marxist tradition. I argue that the consolidation of philosophical orthodoxy in Socialist China was a dynamic process involving not only theoretical debates but also mass movements and transnational circulations. 

  • “René Étiemble’s Odyssey of Maoism: Illusion and Disillusion of Maoist China in France between the 1960s and 1970s”, Ying Xing, The University of Hong Kong

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a political vogue for Maoist China in France when China was in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution. Disillusioned by Stalinist communism, students became fascinated by Maoist slogans in the Little Red Book, and influential intellectuals were keen on visiting China. However, French “intoxication” with Mao, which unexpectedly sparked the May movement, quickly vanished within one decade partly because of the failure of May ’68. The trajectory of René Étiemble, a committed Marxist sinologist, coincided with the short history of French fascination with Maoist China. Whereas René Étiemble expressed reverence for Mao and appreciation for Maoist theories in Do We Know China (1964), he deviated from Maoism and criticized French Maoists as misguided intellectuals in the early 1970s. This paper examines the reception of Maoism in France in light of Étiemble’s direct involvement in China and indirect involvement through research and writing. By tracing Étiemble’s twists and turns in his exploration of Maoism, I argue that the spread of Maoist ideas around the globe was not a systematic circulation of ideas guided by communists, but emerged from a set of experiments, failures, detours, and frustrations shared by orthodox and unorthodox leftists who struggled with political impasses confronting Marxism.