Show Trial as Method
A Twin History? Pidouhui and Shizhong
The Exposure Complex
Pidou(hui) as A Visual Matter
A Tale of Show/Trials
Show Trial within the Frame
Show Trial across the Frame
Show Trial off the Frame
Coda: Cinema as Show Trial?


Identifying who was “inside” and who was “outside” of the proletarian masses is a matter of violent urgency for the Marxist class struggle. In China, popular practices of unmasking, accusing, and expulsing class enemies (jieji diren 階級敵人) functioned as guarantee of the continued purity and transparency on which the China’s communist revolution and its permanent revolution after 1949 depended (1). I describe the preoccupation with such practices in the Chinese revolution as “class exorcism,” a working concept inspired by both Peter Baehr’s sociology of unmasking and what Barend J. ter Haar suggests as the Chinese “demonological paradigm” from a religious perspective (2). The brutality of class exorcism in China was specifically manifested in pidou 批鬥 (denouncing and struggling) or pidouhui 批鬥會 (struggle sessions), as coined by the Chinese Communist Party. Pidouhui is an elaborate assemblage invented during the heyday of Chinese socialism, as well as a constellation of generic practices that caused ordinary people to commit extraordinary (bodily, linguistic, or symbolic) violence in the name of pursuing people’s justice. By staging and choreographing class struggle as a sight to be seen, pidouhui referred to the session of mass gathering in which those labelled as “class enemies” were accused and tormented in public. Comparable to the Soviet phenomena that ranged from shop-floor scapegoating to agitation trials, pidouhui incorporated theatrical elements and seemingly judicial procedures, such as interrogation, trial, and punishment.

Pidouhui stands out as one of the most spectacular icons of China’s socialist class struggle, with a few highly visible formal elements: gesticulating and slogan-shouting masses, the objects of the struggle with their heads hung or kneel down (sometimes also wear the “dunce caps” or hold their arms in a humiliating and painful position called the “jet plane style”), big sign boards with a denunciatory label written on it and with the person’s name crossed out, among others. Such a scene visualizes and frames an open spot where the line of demarcation between the “people” as enclosure and their “enemies” as the center is drawn both spatially and symbolically, and the question of membership must be at stake.

Received as the pervasive and the mundane during the Chinese Great Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and also the period’s iconic form of violence, pidouhui has been a politically verboten image in China, with varying degrees of restricted circulation across time. One might readily access the images of pidouhui by way of, either the group of Chinese films marked as “the underground,” both the banned drama films (such as Blue Kite 1993, Farewell, My Concubine 1993, and To Live 1994) and the independent documentaries (such as 1966 My Time in the Red Guards 1993, Though I am Gone 2006), or dissent artists’ personal testimonial artifacts (Wang Shui-bo’s Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square 1998, Liu Dahong’s Childhood series 2013, and Zhang Xiaotao’s The Spring of Huangjueping 2016) (4).

Besides, pidouhui has become even more visible and materially accessible not just abroad but also within China, with the ascendancy of the digital and the all-pervasive use of the image electronically. An increasing body of archival images (mostly undated or unauthored, from untraceable sources) have appeared on media websites, in WeChat public accounts, across the frames of amateur photos and educational videos (about Maoism or Chinese revolution), and in the digital flea markets, particularly among the stock photos of e-commerce platforms like Kongfuzi or 7788. One of the most eye-catching examples from overseas Chinese website would be a set of undated photos with one of “Anti-Party Element Xi Zhongxun” being paraded through the streets by Red Guards (6). Another example that has been circulated domestically is one among a list of photos (without traceable sources of individual photos) from Sohu, with a sensational title “Shameful Struggle Sessions in the Cultural Revolution: Pushing and Struggling against People into the Mass Grave” (7). Scholars have noted the Maoist or post-Maoist period’s popular cultural fascination with pidouhui in different occasions, but rarely as the primary concept of historical analysis, rarely as an art history or a broader (audio)visual culture of its own, and never in terms of the interrelated socio-cultural and judicious functions so often assigned to it. Few scholars addressed pidou(hui) directly as something beyond the chaotic violence of the Great Cultural Revolution and fewer made it a specific subject of their research inquiry (8). Susie Linfield is an exceptional one among the very few scholars whose work sheds light on visual representations of pidouhui. While Linfield turns to the newly released photographic records of pidouhui, she considers pidouhui merely as “the calling card of the Cultural Revolution,” as the legitimized lawless practice during the specific decade-long period, a kind of public humiliation marked by “rule of the mob” in opposition to legal punishment (9).

The conventionally assumed “bloodline” between pidouhui and the Cultural Revolution remains suspicious and problematic, an example of which is aligned to the recent debates over an unusual film. Completed in 2012 for celebrating Tsinghua’s hundredth anniversary in 2011, Chinese film Forever Young (2018) was blocked by censors until January 2018. The film became a box-office hit when it was finally released. What is more stunning is neither its over-the-top craft and sensationalist approaches that attract extremely polarized reaction, nor the multi-perspective, intertwined storylines about four generations of Tsinghua University graduates (all-star cast) based on real cases, spanning a hundred years of modern Chinese history. Rather, it is concerned with one episode that traces the life of a young woman whose accidental mistakes lead to political charges and resulted in social ostracism, humiliation, torture, and eventually, another woman’s suicide. One of the most controversial moments in this film is a scene of the young woman being cruelly shamed in public. Through the technical and formal details of the scene, people have easily identified it as pidouhui which is supposed to be a politically sensitive image and previously unachievable in a film permitted for public release all over China. The questions that audiences’ debates have engaged around the film remain unsolved: Is it really a reference to the Cultural Revolution while the scene of pidouhui is moved up about five years, to 1962 in the film (10)? Is the scene historically authentic or not (11)? Is such representation either a form of “historical nihilism” due to the lack of factual rigor, intellectual sophistication, and historical reflection, or a filmmaker’s bold move through playing with the censorship policy and making the sensitive subject matter somewhat explicit? Or is it merely a byproduct of the negotiations between the filmmakers and censors behind the long wait? Some of the debates were expanded to the generic pattern of pidouhui in other comparable contemporary films, historical photographs, and vernacular printed illustrations. People discussed how others would take a political stance and evaluated a person’s attitude toward the history of socialism according to one’s response to the scene of pidouhui in Forever Young (12). Whether or not one can realize the pidouhui scene as integral to a history of images, the film Forever Young makes pidouhui an image of images rather than just one single kind of Maoist visual icon in its own right. While people hold different and even conflicting views, the film scene perceived as “pidouhui”, through such debates, appear to be a site of symptomatic, trial-like encounters with images where cinema renders “the condemned body” visible, people execute “the truth”, and spectators are also put on trial.

As such, the case of Forever Young debate is a three-fold, symptomatic reminder: the popular perception of pidouhui as dominantly trapped in the Cultural-Revolution discourses, the agency of pidouhui as a container of images realized in fleeting contexts, and its displaced status in contemporary recycling and memory work. It is not my intention to supply any essentialist response to the Forever Young debates by correcting the “authentic” image of pidouhui or restoring a more valid version of film textual and historical analysis. My aim, in this paper, is rather to free the notion of pidouhui from the confines within which the prevailing historiographies and representations have imprisoned it.

It is my contention that pidouhui is an enduring construct that has to do with images and their social lives, at the intersection of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. Such images that, in Hans Belting’s words, neither equate with living bodies, nor with lifeless objects, have been a kind of mental construct “negotiated between us [bodies] and the medium” (13). There has been even no clear boundary but an intertwined dynamic between fiction and nonfiction, within the highly emotion-driven project of pidouhui and its images, in which some fictions become more real than others, insofar they were politically productive. My work seeks to unearth the historical logistics of pidouhui within a long-term network of its variables, from the material, the rhetorical, to the symbolic; from the pictorial, the theatrical, the exhibitionary, to the cinematic (14). While pidouhui is well known as a Maoist invention and the landmark of a bygone era, it leads a vibrant afterlife in contemporary mediascape and art worlds, continuing today to arouse powerful desires. One of my lines of inquiry is to rethink, through the lens called “pidouhui,” how socialism is remembered, how its images have been archived, circulated, and remade, and its work in doing and undoing what people call justice. In other words, what are the previously enduring and still-existing signifiers of the lost and/or ideally-existing socialist state? What follows might offer a potential response. I historicize pidouhui as found image, as well as a regime of visibility not necessarily coded in “class”, an imaginary structure of (criminal) justice, one that needs to be located much beyond the Cultural-Revolution paradigm and also the overall communist framework. I suggest that pidouhui could be fully produced and known only through an ongoing process of its dynamical and even belated circulation, recycling, and re-circulation. Without such recycling and reproduction across medium, genre, and time, both the still and moving archival images of pidouhui would have all but disappeared and perhaps never have become available for viewers and scholars today.

My claim is also to reconsider and perhaps hold open the meaning and role of images in history, historical thinking, and historical writing. The case of China’s pidouhui presents the very enduring ontological approach to what images are, what they mean, and how they engage, circulate, and justify violence. As a local Chinese response to the anthropological turn in visual studies (Poole 1997; Pinney 1998; Srinivas 2016), my paper generally deals with the visual economies of violence and suffering—the production, circulation, distribution, and reception of images about, for, and as violence per se—within which the prominence of human encounters is brought into focus. This paper intends to keep the visual economies alive as I see the images in their recycled narratives side by side with their archival versions. I seek to propose a methodology that bridges archival examination, textual analysis, historical ethnography, and cultural critique and brings those into dialogue among one another. Such a methodology considers images as both primary and secondary sources, as the central frame of references and then works outwards, making imaginative theoretical and temporal links across a range of social apparatuses including sovereign displays, legislative sign systems, disciplinary arrangements, and cinematic institutions that are of universal concerns. It allows me to critically scrutinize and challenge the oversimplified discourses of Maoist visual culture as propaganda or pidouhui as one-sided spectacle bound up with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and reflect on what had been concealed, highlighted, and misrepresented in dominant narratives of revolution, art, media, and history. For me, the case of pidouhui and its images holds the potential to bridge the gap between the disciplines and fields of art history, penal sociology, criminology, legal history, media archaeology, and so forth.

In order to understand pidouhui, we need to return to the workings of class exorcism as mentioned earlier. In the first decades of the PRC, beginning in 1949, a “demonizing discourse,” as historian Michael Schoenhals addresses, “[as] the ‘essential’ distinction between people and non-people,” started to permeate all kinds of mass campaigns led by the Chinese communist party (15). Such a discourse was expressed as a binary framework on the heroic exploits of the good and the demonic machinations of the bad. The first sentences on the first page of the first volume of the canonical Selected Works of Mao Zedong served to define the parameters of this framework by asking “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution.” (16) Then, a decade and a half later, this claim reappeared in the August 1966 publication of Mao Zedong’s “mother of all mass movements” with the same quote in a full version: ‘Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution, as well as a question of the first importance for the Great Cultural Revolution” (17). Literary scholar Wang Xiaojue shares the same observation and further points out that it has to be understood within the Cold War framework deeply ingrained in the Chinese politics, society, and culture since the late 1940s (18). The framework provided a foundation for the whole sets of claims, semantics, concepts, historical and cultural representations surrounding heroes and demons, proletariats and landlords, revolutionary masses and counterrevolutionaries, and the people and “the enemies of the people” in Maoist China. The penetration of class exorcism into Chinese people’s every life took the form of violence that was driven and enacted by a singular and overarching system of partitioning coded in “class”, which embodies a complex of practices in the name of or without being entitled but related to pidou(hui). On the one hand, class exorcism appeared to be practiced as corporeal violence widespread in various forms of shame penalties, sanction, and public execution. On the other hand, it was also implanted and embodied in the cultural production of incrimination and media forms that articulated or enforced “class justice”. Without downplaying either side of the story of class exorcism across time, the paper highlights the need to explore pidou(hui) through the methodological lens called “show trial”.

Show Trial as Method

To understand the complex history of pidouhui and the social lives of its images, I would see show trial as a mode of thinking by employ its meanings in a twofold manner. It refers to a staged trial (mostly as of political opponents) in which the verdict is rigged and a public confession is often extracted, and more generally it connotes the normalized interpretation of that trial, with media treatment as the essential ingredient, as a way of performing justice in and/or outside the court of law. Both two are fundamentally visual events with a desire to lay claim to the truth and to colonize the ideological “common ground” of justice through spectacles and sensations. However, there is a difference between the two uses of the term: the first referring more to the eventful practiced within the material space and the second focusing on the mediated encounters with justice as a fluid process across time and space. As a relatively new phrase in English, “show trial” was first used by journalists who covered Stalinist trials in Moscow. The dual essence of the courtroom has been conveyed in the literary use of show trial: “as a didactic space (a space to show something) and as a theatrical space (a space for shows).”(19) The belief about the staged nature of the courtroom and a deep mistrust of theatricality is at once intertwined within people’s perception and imaginaries of show trials, both practically and metaphorically. “Show trial” rhetorically points to the ambivalent relations between theatricality and law.

It is not my ambition to examine the historical specificity of show trials from the Soviet past and trace its judicially discursive construction across time and border. Instead, my aim is, through adopting the term show trial with full awareness of its intertwined and contradictory connotations, to develop a form of reflection on pidou(hui), a mode of thinking about images, and a way of making sense of both two as mutually embraced. Using show trial as an analytical tool serves to recognize the encounter with images that is both a show and a trial. Such a conscious recognition, specifically located in the context of Maoism and its legacies, highlights the role of images plays in producing trial-like encounters that render the condemned visible, execute the truth, and put spectators on trial. Show trial as method prominently helps us to understand the complex entanglement between images and pidou(hui), as integral to the workings of “the exposure complex” in the intermediate aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (20). The coupling of “show” and “trial” foregrounds the underlying anxiety born of the thin line among visibility, publicity, and theatricality. Such anxiety is shared by both pidou(hui) and imaging as two kinds of justice’s showcases lying on a continuum among theater, tribunal/trial, and political ritual. Inspiringly, historian Yann Robert points out the internal tension that judicial theater in the French Revolution carried: how to perform (revolutionary) justice without having it seem just a performance (21). One might find, in this case, that the intertwining of cinema (and other visual media) and pidou(hui) is built on and struggles with a similar challenge, as I would term it differently, how to showcase justice without making it just a show.

Pidouhui should neither be confined to a compositional form for creating, displaying and shaming enemies, nor be merely a visual metaphor of the physical or virtual assembly among which an exclusive line of demarcation is drawn between the “people” and the “enemy”. More importantly, I rather understand pidouhui as a tale of multiple frames. Pidouhui repeats itself as a transformative presence within and across pictorial frame, screen, symbolic threshold, inserting the encircling crowd as a dynamic frame into its essence. Moreover, it also functions as a judgmental paradigm forged from the symbiosis between visibility and violence framed by social, political and ideological needs. Through the lens of pidouhui, this paper exposes how flexible, mutable, and contested socialist visual culture and its legacies have been the sites through which the adversarial knowledge and dichotomous identities are produced, framed, imposed, and questioned.

A Twin History? Pidouhui and Shizhong

Pidouhui has been, within and of itself, an image-making machine. Interpreting pidouhui as both institutional and performative, I approach it as a matter of violence and visibility that mutually define each other. It was an unfolding dynamic central to the making and functioning of class struggle, much beyond a fixed set of social signs, popular spectacles, and visual representations. Any reckoning with the visibility and significance of pidouhui will require us to understand it as a network of images in a long history of images. While not all images of pidouhui are works of art, not all the artifacts of pidouhui are images, their representation of public shaming, mass gathering, and hostile confrontation (both in terms of spatial setting and technical composition) in a time of “class war” belong to a very large, and culturally and historically prestigious set. It also speaks to a rich visual culture that has evolved around sensational violence and spectacularized punishments: countless images of barbaric cruelties and tortures have recurred in artworks, woodcuts, drawings, lithographs, and still and moving images, which is never unique in China but all times worldwide. Art historians have traced how such imageries across picture, photography, architecture, and sculpture were and have been socially and judicially coded, mostly in the European contexts (22). The humanistic intervention into the classical issue of crime and punishment in American history and society is exemplified in scholarship concerning visuals ranging from the paintings and prints of Salem witch trials, courtroom sketches, lynching postcards, execution actualities, to contemporary Abu Ghraib photographs (23).

Likewise, punishment has an art history in China. Several scholars have demonstrated the value of attending to it by way of issues such as pain, sympathy, cruelty, and the material culture of violence (24). Pidouhui cannot be fully understood without acknowledging such a history in relation to an age-old Chinese obsession with public exposure (shizhong 示眾, displaying the condemned or “evil” others in public). The form pidou(hui) took when it was made and embodied in correspondence to and collaboration with the revolutionary period’s new systems of political othering and moral imagination was the visual form of both a new and old kind that I associate with shizhong. 

Foucault’s characterization of executions as displays of sovereign majesty becomes an archetypal image that has shaped much thinking about the modern subject, violent spectacle, and power ever since. Discipline and Punish has exerted enormous influence on various academic disciplines among which the social and cultural history of capital punishment, execution, and shaming share concerns about social control and the spectacular, performative violence as its essence (25). Beyond the dominant Foucauldian model in the fields of modern social control (such as surveillance studies) that mostly bring the political out of its concealment, central to this paper’s claim is an acknowledgement that public displays of violence, in fact, never disappeared in modern Chinese history—within visual culture as well as on the spot. For centuries in pre-modern China, shizhong was known as a loosely-defined, necessary component for public shaming and punishment. In other words, shizhong describes the spectacular nature of a set of penal and punitive practices. While similar practices, at least in Europe, were largely removed from public sight much earlier, ​shizhong​ in China has even remained as corporeal reality rooted in a long history of violence, shaming, and cruelty till today (26). By the mid-nineteenth century, visual representation of what the umbrella term shizhong connotes, including various Chinese executions and judicial practices, had become generic images and a popular source of ethnographical knowledge about China. Such visual materials, alongside official archives and intellectual discourses, worked in tandem with the popular prints, scholarly works, travel accounts, and particularly photographic media to create an enduring myth of Chinese torture and cruelty. Kathleen Poling reads the 19th-century public executions both as a site of internal and international interaction (27). Legal historian Chen Li points out the sentimental and discursive politics that characterized the transnational representation of Chinese punishments and national character (28). In various accounts, the images of Chinese executions really stood out to occupy a spot where Chinese pain was treated as a source of fascination in the name of sympathy, humanism, and modernity for Western historians, sociologists, and writers (29). The execution photographs as postcards and souvenirs not only capitalized on the scene of the execution but also played a crucial role in producing and reproducing the spectatorship of violence as another form of violence. Through such images, shizhong also becomes a self-fantasy for Chinese intellectuals. One of the best known and most repeated origin stories of modern Chinese literature is the one about shizhong told by Lu Xun (1881-1936) in the preface to his first short story collection Nahan 呐喊 (Outcry), first published in 1923. While Lu Xun was studying in Japan at the Sendei Medical School from 1904-1906, he came across a slideshow in the classroom. The slide might be one of the many lantern slides shown to fill the class time during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). It revealed a scene in which a Chinese prisoner was about to be executed for serving as a spy for the Russians while a crowd of Chinese gawkers encircled and looked on with blank facial expressions. Lu reads such a scene of shizhong as synecdochally representative of the Chinese people in his criticism of Chinese national character afterwards: “An ignorant and backwards citizenry, no matter how strong and healthy their bodies may be, can only serve as the materials and Kanke (onlookers) of such meaningless public spectacles.” (30) Lu Xun’s narrative and its genealogical legacies help to recognize shizhong as an enduring visual metaphor, in other words, a kind of pathos formula in Chinese history, and reminds us of its dual meaning: revealing the encircling and gawking crowd as spectacle (“zhong”) and making the crowd encircle and gawk (“shi”) (31). Much insightful scholarly attention given to “the lantern slide incident” have revolved around a variety of critical issues via the iconic image of shizhong (32). However, not only has shizhong in China rarely been traced historically, the imaging of shizhong seems to be much beyond the paradigm of most art historical concerns. While a few historians deal with shizhong as components of Chinese legal and social culture to some degrees, shizhong itself has yet to be considered as a specific object of historical analysis or an interrelated history of the spectacle and the crowd that have informed each other. Indeed, shizhong has recurred as either a ​type scene​ across time and genre—a site of judgment where a physical or virtual assembly is numbed by spectacles, present or invoked—or a ​moral discourse​—the idea of public display in the name of doing justice, at the core of which visuality is ethically contested. I would read shizhong as integral to a media history widely acknowledged though never treated as a “history.” Such a history has linked pidou(hui) and shizhong in the ways that have yet to be fully recognized and understood. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor mutually inclusive; but they are conceptually and rhetorically intertwined and must be studied together in order to appreciate the relationship between them which has been encapsulated in the Chinese social imaginary of justice.

The Exposure Complex

In light of shizhong, I share the views legal historian Børge Bakken and anthropologist Ann Anagnost hold that the Foucauldian model cannot simply fit into the Chinese context in which disciplinary power is crucially exercised through visibility and publicity (33). With that in mind, my exploration of pidou(hui) in particular highlights that Chinese communist revolution and the Maoist regime was bound up with the visibility of “real” violence as fundamental to the mechanisms of class struggle and a social imaginary of (class) justice. In Maoist China, pidou(hui) was specifically characterized by the discursive currency of terms with the connotation of “exposing” or “unmasking” (baolu 暴露, jielou 揭露, chuochua 戳穿, tear off the mask 撕開畫皮 and so on). Shizhong was specifically one among the most used and recognizable terms (“drag out for public display 揪出來示眾”) in political campaigns that adopted pidou(hui) of many kinds.

Instead of spectatorship, I employ “exposure” to describe the mode of watching-as-judging that drives and performs the logic of pidou(hui) whereby the People-as-One is acknowledgeable and perceptible by popular masses only through the visibility of class enemies (34). The concept of “exposing” is developed as central to the culture of class exorcism that should be understood as the Maoist and the Cold-War all at once. I propose “the exposure complex,” in which a matrix of socio-cultural forms and institutions, including religious ritual, political assembly, criminal justice, theatrical performance, and (audio)visual practices such as lantern slideshow, photojournalism, and cinema all shared the spectacular, punitive form and partook in class exorcism. The exposure complex functioned to routinize pidou(hui) by encouraging horrific violence against the enemies and giving it social acceptability, legitimacy, and popularity (35). By “exposure,” I mean an effect of being made public, considered as the necessity for any form of struggling against 鬥爭/鬥. In other words, I want to stress the highly visible mode that enabled and shaped the Maoist class exorcism. The foundation of class exorcism could be even understood as a culture of all-pervasive exposures in which anyone could be exposable to one another. Exposing refers to the act of making oppositional others visible, viewable, and visually knowable as “the evil,” besieged and governed by a judgmental view from the collective body. It describes and theorizes the primary mode of interpersonal networking and class-knowledge production that came to characterize the Maoist lifeworld. People exposed one another as opposites, through which the collectives were brought into being. As mutually exposed, both the “people” and “enemies of the people” dealt with the problem of violence and vision vis-à-vis identity formation in the project of class struggle. Seeing exposing/exposure as a dynamic process helps to move beyond the dominant top-down approach by stressing the complex socio-political dynamics that defy conventional binary determinations of simple relations between either the (Party-state) authority and people, or spectators and spectacle (36). Thus the exposure complex also points to a multilateral network of practices and its mediated encounters through which multiple simultaneous exposing and exposed bodies play dynamical and interchangeable roles.

Pidou(hui) as A Visual Matter

I suggest that pidou(hui) is fundamentally a visual matter and does have an art history of its own, while it was readily received as either a set of functional objects outside the terrain of “art” or as amateur artifacts that addressed transient subject matter of the political campaigns in a certain period. Many of the visuals of pidou(hui) are susceptible to a banal marginalization as “ephemera” that blurs the boundary between high and low art. Then, what was pidou(hui) and its image? What did they look like? There are two possibilities of understanding this question at first sight. The first is grounded in any general consideration of penal spectacle in which the body as shown to and seen by the beholding eye corporeally in a face-to-face encounter between two binary parties usually called “the spectators” and “the spectated”. The second may occur via some kind of medium such as a picture, a mirror, a photographic lens, or cinematic apparatus. However, pidou(hui) and its images are not, as they literally appear, different things that fit into the two respective kinds; rather, they are both sides of the same coin. While mediation matters, we need to be aware that seeing is always already “mediated”, involving a camera-like apparatus at work with a complex physiological machine to generate images and also by means of the verbal, the audible, and anything other than the visible. Pidou(hui) produced images and was produced through images since its inception. Seeing pidou(hui) is a multi-faceted process of image-making. The pidou(hui)-images is a co-product of both the material and the mediated.

Since the pre-1949 wartime periods, the pervasive pidou(hui), without being named literally as such, has been as a visual “landmark” of the land reform that forever transformed the tradition-bound rural China during the mid-twentieth century. It developed into a certain compositional form for displaying, identifying, and shaming a certain category of enemies: local tyrants and evil gentry (土豪劣紳), more generally, the landlords (地主). In those areas controlled by CCP, usually called “the liberated areas”, the scene was made visible on the spot and in a set of illustrated newspapers (such as 晉察冀畫報, 冀中畫報, 華中畫報, etc), diversely in forms of “douzhengdahui”(鬥爭大會) or “douzhenghui” (鬥爭會), “shuolihui” (說理會), “qingsuanhui” (清算會), or “qingsuan douzhenghui” (清算鬥爭會) and so forth (37). While different forms of such meetings carried out different agendas at varied stages of class struggle in rural areas, a practical visual paradigm was shared in their representations in which a semi-trial or trial-esque mode of people’s open court significantly took shape. Examples included the woodcut prints and drawings Rent Reducing Meeting (jianzuhui 減租會, 1943) by Gu Yuan, Denunciation (kongsu 控訴, 1947) by Xia Feng, Democratic Criticism Meeting (minzhu piping hui 民主批評會, 1947), Struggling against the Landlords (douzheng dizhu 鬥爭地主, 1947) by Yan Han, and Picture of Settling Accounts (qingsuan tu清算圖, 1949) by Mo Pu. In most cases, the practice of “struggling against the landlords,” fittingly enough, takes place on the village courtyard, square, or stage, where the evil landlord is forced to kneel down, humiliated, and beaten up. A line of demarcation is spatially and symbolically drawn between the “people” and the “class enemies”. The crowd of peasants occupy the major space, while the presence of a landlord shrinks to a position, a bit off the center, either inclinedly encircled or horizontally squeezed by the crowd.

The unbalanced composition foregrounds the hostile confrontational nature of such an encounter and also its overturned power hierarchy between the exploited and the repressed. The anger and hatred of peasants brought to focus is reinforced through both the formal gestures in high contrast between the two binary groups and the overall spatial order (38). On the one hand, punishment, assumed to be the embodiment of retributive justice, is frozen in action that is yet to happen or just about to get more visibly violent. On the other hand, the spatial relationship within the frame articulates a visual rhetoric of punitive violence. The general emphasis on a way of seeing (the evil other) defined by encircling or crowding around (wei 圍) echoes what Bao Weihong notices in the late Qing illustrated journal Dianshizhai Huabao. As Bao addresses, the pervasive appearance of the urban crowd as “the spectacle of the onlookers” who engage in a public viewing event implies an emerging viewing subject that is drawn for and frames attentions (39). Such visibility of a structure of crowding around was never new and needs to be located in the visual form of shizhong. As such, the panoramic view of the “struggling against the landlord” scene enables the viewers not to immediately or fully identify with any individual figure. The viewers identify with the structure rather than the visually depicted human subject. The crowd serves as a frame to distinguish who is “us” and who is not, to highlight the encircled as the excluded and to push it to the sensible and affective “center” of class struggle. Meanwhile, through the “zooming-in” effect of the promised encircling gaze 圍觀, more judgmental attention is given to the target who is being struggled against. In this sense, to frame is to demarcate; to demarcate is to put transgression on display and shape it as a focus; to focus on is to exclude, to disregard, to discriminate, and fundamentally to expel. One might find that the way of seeing “the excluded focus” is brought into play in a form of judging and punishing the evil others performatively, at once to shape and be shaped by the images of pidou(hui).

It is important to note the “‘wei’ (encirclement, or crowding around 圍) composition” as an aesthetic pattern at play in the staging of “struggling against the landlords” and its several avatars, which bear implications for the years to come. As shown in novels (like Zhou Libo’s The Hurricane and Ding Ling’s The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River), scenes of “struggling against the landlords” that share the emotional pattern and sequence of action, most likely with a trial-like face but not necessarily as a judicious procedure, embody the “decisive battle” and are always built up as the triumphant climax toward the end of the story. The conceiving of the aesthetics of “wei” was exemplified in the debates around Wang Liuqiu’s charcoal sketch Struggling against the Evil Tyrants (fan e’ba douzheng 反惡霸鬥爭 or 反殲大會1950). Pidou(hui)-images started with less a representational pattern of violence as a subject matter than one of visual framing itself as violence. A set of review essays were published in People’s Fine Arts in the early 1950s, categorized into two camps, discussing the problem of Wang Liuqiu’s artistic style and compositional strategies. People understood much of its ideological incorrectness in relation to the foregrounding of the masses as an angry mob that besieges the “evil tyrant” in the sketch. Man Yin, one of the art critics, argues for the sketch’s misrepresentation of the official policy in the land reform movement due to Wang’s approach to bringing the accused to the ground, with violent means visible (40).

In contrast, another critic Ren Min who calls the sketch a “masterpiece”, highlights its affective power and engagement of class hatred as a product of setting, framing, and specifically the way how the “evil tyrant” (as Ren suggests, which should be distinguished from “normal landlords”) is placed (41). The most supportive voice was from Zhong Dianfei who was trained in fine arts and just started to move to the field of film criticism in the 1950s. Zhong published a piece on Struggling against the Evil Tyrants, in which he gives a balanced overview of the debates and summarizes both the ideological obedience and technical shortcomings of the sketch. Zhong points out the lack of dramatic tension between the accused enemy and the accusers (two of the peasants who stand alongside with the accused) as well as that of a closer mutual encounter between the two in Wang’s drawing. However, he ends up with an appreciation of “revealing the spirit of the party line better from within [rather than disregarding it]” as art’s potential power through Wang’s case (42). Wang’s sketch became a testing case that executed both some primary aesthetic elements of struggling against the landlords and the negotiations that turned those elements into the politically legitimate: class enemies rendered visible as the target of struggle, an encircling mass crowd always literally foregrounded and emotionally charged, and a certain degree of spatial depth and layers that shows the unbalanced, confrontational dynamic between the two. 

Another classic example is Wang Shikuo’s The Bloodstained Shirt (血衣), an epic depiction of struggling against the landlords, as integral to the long visual tradition of recording the process of redistributing land among Chinese peasants as a radical and justified revolution (43). Different from Struggling against the Evil Tyrants, it is well-known, as “a successful example of the revolutionary realist art of New China”, exactly for the highly radical conflict and nuanced tension among the characters (44). In line with the artist’s other earlier works such as Reforming a Village Bum (1943), this work is also one for which Wang Shikuo himself did numerous character studies and experimented with a variety of compositions. Along with other media and materials, The Bloodstained Shirt provides “a motivating template for conducting public meetings, in particular those ‘struggle sessions’ against denounced officials or authority figures, during the Cultural Revolution,” according to Tang Xiaobing’s observation (45). Indeed, until the end of the Cultural Revolution and even much later, the “bloodstained-shirt” paradigm remains recognizable.

A scene in the film Maple Valley (1976) animates the scene of The Bloodstained Shirt through a moment when an old woman shows a bloodstained shirt as evidence of the local tyrant’s crime during the 1920s peasant movement (the period of Northern Expedition) (46). One of Wang’s contributions that distinguishes his work from the previous artifacts (such as Wang Liuqiu’s) is to juxtapose the accused enemy and the accuser (the female villager) who is able to speak up while displaying the evidence. In the scene of struggle session in the film, more or less equal spatial importance is given to both. A close up shot of the bullet hole in the shirt echoes and transcends the “bloodstained shirt” moment that was reenacted and (re)created in Wang Shikuo’s work. The very way of exhibiting the body to the gaze of a spectatorial crowd, is a figuration of social standing. By developing critical inquiries into such figuration via the lens called “scene-ritual,” art historian Yang Xiaoyan suggests three models of Chinese revolutionary art: the leader model, the “enemy-us” model, and the people model (47). The “enemy-us” model constitutes two types of representation: “speaking bitterness” 訴苦 and “hostile confrontation” 敵對. A lot of scholars note the functioning of the communal “speaking bitterness meetings” that were organized by work teams to supervise land reform and to mobilize the peasants (48). Speaking bitterness took place when peasants recounted their exploitation and denounced “class enemies” in public sessions. These testimonials were used as models for reworking consciousness in order to revolutionize the mass population. Even though the speaking-bitterness meetings did not equate with pidouhui, both physically and conceptually, but those material practices and associated images received as either one or both share the spatial framing (“the aesthetic pattern of ‘wei’ composition” as addressed above) to varying degrees. The major difference between the “speaking bitterness” model and “hostile confrontation” model only lies in the presence/absence of “class enemies” alongside the encircling crowd (“us”).

Compared with the visual patterns of supplice around European executions, the Chinese counterparts (potentially traceable as an iconography of shizhong, shown in Jérôme Bourgon’s discussion) are singled out by four main differences: the absence of any scaffold or stage, no plot and no roles, no religious background, and no public/communion (49). Further, what centrally differentiates the pidou(hui)-images from other punitive-images labelled “shizhong” is a pedagogy of beholding: crowding to watch as judging-acting and seeing the excluded focus as necessary to class struggle. The older practices and images conventionally labelled as shizhong mainly served a pedagogical function in the context of what legal historian Børge Bakken calls “the exemplary society”: to educate people not to become a criminal or wrongdoer like the condemned body on display (50).

In other words, the spectators viewed executions and punishments to learn from what they were seeing. Taking action was not necessary. They gathered in unorganized ways to do nothing but just watching in an occasion in which moral instruction was conveyed through bodily torment alongside other components of the punitive ritual initiated by the authority. In the case of pidou(hui), nevertheless, people learn more from the fellow viewers and the seeing itself than what is shown to them on the spot. Apart from the modeling effect (through the condemned body and bodily torment) promised by previous forms of shizhong and its imaging, the pidou(hui)-images hold a different and even more vital kind of educational function: to visualize and model a specific way of crowding and watching as acting, never watching passively as the spectator but rather actively performing among “the masses” by participating in the collective act of seeing, shaming, and judging, as well as imitating how others take action and present themselves while reacting to the condemned body. In this regard, mutual watching becomes an act of judging, namely, evaluating who is qualified as a revolutionary subject of class struggle and justifying the violence of exposing and shaming who is not. Mass performances through doing so rather than the conventional corporeal spectacle distinguished from the spectators define a kind of (class) justice that has to be spectacular, watchable, and performative. Overall, there is no clear boundary between what is on stage and what is off stage, the spectacle and the spectators, the physical and the representational any more.  

The modes of framing as expelling in the pictorial image, as mentioned earlier, are informed by and enact seeing as punishing within/through such pictorial images. The dynamics between the two speak to “the conceiving of punishment as a mode of image-production” and “the punitive performance of disfigurement [through the images]” identified by Phil Carney, which is in conversation with the very insightful inquiries into the relationship between the visual and the punitive from scholars who have proposed visual criminology as a necessary discipline (51). At the core of “struggling against [the landlords]” as a visual matter lies the question of “how does the image punish” in a performative way as part of a tradition of disfiguring image-punishment and punitive pictures, “a tradition which can be opened up through a genealogical consideration of the longue durée of state power.” (52) Such framing shown in the works of Wang Liuqiu, Wang Shikuo, and Ghazi Ahmed seems to be a visual structure of the people’s power. In the name of class justice, a privileged position is made available for the “encircling crowd” both within and off the pictorial frame to be imagined as people-as-one opposed to the evil others. Yet the Chinese case is different from what is called state power in the case discussed by Carney. It served the Maoist designation of “the people’s democratic dictatorship” from the beginning and was practiced afterwards, with a face of “the dictatorship of the masses,” as a matter of the Party-state’s outsourcing (53). In the case of the pidou(hui), as people performed the act of watching as judging, seeing as punishing, according to models and “model scripts”, they drew on a structure of feeling authorized by the Party to create identities as revolutionary subjects defined by “class”. Significantly, pidou(hui) functioned as a model of imaging as much as generic images of modelling within the workings of the wei pattern, to portray an old society and a new one through the search for class justice locked in an absolutely moral drama of good versus evil.

A Tale of Show/Trials

Pidouhui could be understood as a tale of show trials within the frame, across the frame, and off the frame. Maoist propaganda and kirsch have been repackaged into political pop art and avant-garde with irony and cynicism. A body of artworks and material objects with the label of “the Cultural Revolution” come to be exhibited in art galleries, museums, and consumer spaces around the world. The scenes of pidou(hui) have proliferated as a web of “found” images that are varied and also fundamentally generic scattered in recycled archival collections, autobiographical accounts, testimonial artifacts, and marketplaces of unofficial Maoist memories. Those have been the visual encounters with the potential appeal to transitional justice, in which the Maoist regime, specifically the Great Cultural Revolution, is “put on trial” rhetorically and symbolically by painters, photographers, filmmakers, video artists, curators, historians, art critics, and the audiences. One might see many of those in line with the larger global network of film and art production, noted by film scholar Catherine Russell, as archiveology, a critical approach derived from Walter Benjamin’s thinking that provides valuable tools for grasping the implications of the practice of remixing, recycling, and re-configuring the image bank (54). In what follows, I set out to highlight various kinds of pidou(hui) as found images that produce multiple kinds of show trials in contemporary Chinese art and mediascape.

Show Trial within the Frame

The first category points to the “belated exposures” that characterize the non-fictional accounts of the Cultural Revolution, through photographical media, that had not been published until recent years. These are newly found in the sense that they were taken in secret and never shown in the period of their production but “(re-)discovered” belatedly in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Beyond the previously little known or unrecognizable amateur footage, the photographic archival images deserve special attention. The first example is about Li Zhensheng who worked as a photojournalist for the party newspaper Heilongjiang Daily and was allowed to show up in different occasions to take photos that served political agendas. Li risked a lot to doggedly hide and preserve twenty thousand of original negatives for nearly forty years. In turning those negatives into the very rare photographic records of the history of a largely unknown era, he published the book Red-color News Soldier, branded as “secret archive” and “the first visual history of China’s Cultural Revolution [that] includes the complete set of surviving photographs” when the book was finally published in 2003 (55). Many of Li’s photos depicted the scenes of pidou(hui) in Northeast China, which made both the masses attending a struggle session and the “class enemy” forced to bow at the waist in humiliation highly visible and equally important. Since their deferred release, those images have appeared and reappeared within the exhibitionary spaces, in classrooms, and across the old and new media. Likewise, Masayuki Aramaki, a Japanese photographer (former photojournalist for Mainichi Shimbun, 每日新聞a Japanese daily newspaper) who went to China as a freelancer on a tourist visa in 1967 took three thousand photos inside the bus or secretly on the street in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. A body of photos taken by Aramaki show the scenes of pidou(hui) in public space, mostly in the form of shame parade (56). The collection had not been exposed to the public view until its recent publication in Aramaki’s solo exhibition on the 50th anniversary of the start of China’s Cultural Revolution (2016) and the photography-monograph 1967 The Chinese Cultural Revolution: Masayuki Aramaki’s Works (2017) (57). Besides, another remarkable photographer is the Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser’s father who was able to document the early years of the Cultural Revolution in Lhasa in the 1960s, since he had been working with the People’s Liberation Army when it entered Tibet in the 1950s.  

After Woeser tracked down and interviewed people who appeared in the photos taken by her father, she published two books in Taiwan in 2006. One is Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution based on her father’s photographs and the other one is Tibet Remembered, an oral history narrated by twenty-three people as the photographed subject. Again, the varied scenes of pidou(hui) in Tibet were rendered visible through such contemporary discoveries and publications enabled by the second generation of the actual witnesses. Different from the cases of Li Zhensheng and Masayuki Aramaki, Woeser’s book is much more than a visual biography, or a family-historical collection of archival images produced and curated by the photographer and his daughter. It significantly serves as a metacommentary on the archival images and their belated circulation, with a self-reflexive reflection on and metacognitions of photography, history, violence, and traumatic memory. For example, there are some more analytical than explanatory moments where Woeser makes comments on the photographic scenes of pidouhui:

Among the many onlookers that encircled the city, we have no way of knowing how many came to celebrate liberation, how many came out of fear or apprehension, and how many came to serve their personal interests. But one thing we do know is that slaves remained slaves. When their new masters emerged smiling, when the venues previously used to spread Buddhist doctrine became courts of injustice, when an individual was subjected to a humiliating trial on trumped-up charges, those elders and children, men and women among the onlookers may not have qualified as accessories to the crime, but at the very least their superficially docile acceptance revealed that that they remained slaves. The truth was that they had never been truly liberated.”(58)

She recognizes the belated nature and limits of contemporary reception of the historical photos. These photos have to be recycled to be the archival since their belated release. While pidouhui used to be perceived as the people’s open court in the name of justice.

Only through being caught on the camera of Woeser’s father in the past and being (re)viewed only in its aftermath, it would be able to turn into, as Woeser addresses, “courts of injustice”, a photographic spectacle of atrocity. It is retrospectively readable as a kind of “show trial” paradoxically at the intersection of the making and unmaking of justice (59).

In his review of Woeser’s book, Hu Jie discusses the photographic representation of pidou(hui) and clearly addresses making atrocities a form of group behavior that absolved individual participants of culpability as “the secret to the success of Mao’s tactic of class struggle” (60). In particular, Hu makes connections between (according to Woeser’s observation and analysis as quoted above) the photographed onlookers and the paradigm of shizhong:   

Particularly worthy of our gratitude and admiration is Woeser’s refusal to be constrained by concerns of “face”; she does not whitewash the actions of Tibetans themselves during the Cultural Revolution, nor does she simplistically place wholesale blame on the Han “invaders.” Facing historical truth solemnly and sincerely, she does not skirt around the ill conduct of many Tibetans in various political movements, including the Cultural Revolution. She candidly informs the reader that “onlookers” and “participants” also existed among the Tibetans. In this book’s many photographs, the hustling and jostling Tibetan “onlookers” are the spitting image of those Lu Xun wrote about.” (61)

For Hu, the onlookers become the focus of a reflection of Woeser’s reflection. As discussed earlier, the exposure complex that socially and culturally enacted pidouhui blurred the boundary between people as perpetrators, victims, or bystanders by making them categorizable into the twin groups: the exposer and the exposed that were never mutually exclusive and yet dynamically interchangeable.  

The second set of images is marked by what I borrow from Verónica Garibotto’s words (in her work on Argentine cinema and memory politics), iconic fictions (62). In these artworks and films, the use of fiction allows for a predominance of iconicity over indexicality – a predominance that entails sexuality, playfulness, spectacle, crowdedness, and violence, as the key icons of what is a “real” scene of the Maoist era. Liu Dahong is one remarkable example of “incorporating the convulsions of the Communist Party State’s scopic regime in the late Maoist period” as addressed in Stephanie Hemelryk Donald’s analysis (63). Liu’s Fairytales of the Twelfth Month (Childhood) depicts the Cultural Revolution as a collage of childhood memories. Depictions of denunciations and scenes of torture nestle in the squares, streets, and other public spaces of Liu Dahong’s hometown Qingdao. As the memorabilia from an age of troublemaking, one of Liu’s “childhood” series is a recreated scene of pidouhui, in which theatricality plays a key role in troubling and transforming the wei pattern.

The theatrical setting as part of childhood memories complicates the condition of what was perceived as pidouhui in the time of its proliferation by giving the contemporary viewers a position that falls between the witness and the participant. The depicted kids and Young Pioneers show up occasionally sitting on the stage, running off the stage, walking by the street, peeping from the back or among the crowd, playing alongside the rally, or ghostly hiding in a corner. As the surrogates of Liu and his generation, the children are neither fully participants nor bystanders of the pidouhui scene. They at once look on and partake in but never fully engage and also rarely step away. Just as I discuss elsewhere, regarding the child figure as a viewfinder of history, many contemporary images and artifacts intentionally stage the child to be a witness rather than an onlooker to confront historical violence (64). One key example under discussion is the closing scene of a film in which the main protagonist, a young boy, decides not to see pidouhui (in the form of gongshen/gongpan 公審公判and execution by shooting near the end of the Cultural Revolution) and thus literally the so-called pidouhui only happens off the frame. The boy’s final refusal to watch remarkably echoes the discourses of shizhong (65). Paradoxically, the intentional representation of taking a witness’s stand is enacted by a denial of being an eyewitness.

Through the same vein of critical hesitation to claim as a fully reliable witness, Liu Dahong’s work complicates the theater of the Maoist lifeworld by embodying and questioning pidouhui as a playful site of violence where everyone is a player. Those children play a key role in performing and festivalizing pidou(hui) to both bridge the gap and break down the borderline between seeing and the seen, reality and fantasy. The child vision is sharpened to serve two goals for filmmakers and artists like Liu and Wang: at once addressing the impossibilities both for the child figure and their adult-selves, to witness in the here-and-now past and to bear witness to the past in the present, through a sense of playfulness and the integrity of absence, vagueness, and blindness in memories; nonetheless offering the possibility of regarding that integrity as an alternative, performative testimony.

Pidou(hui) has been also depicted as the highly iconic site of struggle, conflict, and dynamic around sexuality and eroticism. One of the most remarkable examples is Gao Ke’s works labelled as “Erotic Pictures of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” 文革春宮畫 (chungong hua, literally, spring palace pictures), including the “literature and art propaganda team” series 文藝宣傳隊. 

In such works, the central paradigm of wei composition and spatial dynamics is removed and instead, only the iconic elements such as the shameful “dunce caps” and body gestures called “the jet plane style”, and big sign boards (but without the denunciatory label written on it or the person’s name crossed out in this case) remain visible (66). Pidouhui becomes a ghostly and ambiguous presence, around a corner or in the background, no longer recognizable as the excluded focus but as the defocused inclusion. In other words, pidouhui is still included as part of the historical scene and yet the appearance (how it very generally looked like) replaces with its mechanism (how it worked as a visual matter, as structure, and as an unfolding dynamic). Interestingly, such kinds of images marked by iconic fictions have troubled the binary constructions of archival visuals and recreated images, the artistic and the commercialized, as well as high-culture aspirations and low-brow sensationalism.

Show Trial across the Frame

I would like to highlight two works and their cross-media engagements with pidou(hui) rooted in self-reflexive or meta-cinematic concerns with the image and image-making, or art and art historiography. The documentary Red Art 紅色美術 (2007) is one that reflects the development of poster art during the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966, and how posters were used as propaganda. The film contains interviews with former painters, Red Guards, contemporary researchers and collectors at home and abroad who talk about the production, meaning, and political implication of the posters.

What’s most stunning about the documentary is its documentation of pidou(hui) through filming a body of rare and less circulated archival images and reenacting the scene of how pidou(hui) took place and how its images were produced and circulated. As such, the documentary participated in the (re)production and recycling of pidouhui-images. While it is mainly about one specific kind of graphic art during the period of the Cultural Revolution, most of the images depicted in the documentary shape a wide spectrum of pidou(hui)-images across time, genre, and media. Apart from the big-character posters, earlier popular prints about land reform, peasant’s paintings, stills from Maoist films and even the contemporary TV show, archival photographs (such as the works of Li Zhensheng), red guards’ illustrated publications, cinematic model plays, amateur or newsreel footage from various sources, and other forms of visual ephemeral are also included. Another “bloodstained shirt moment” is brought to life in the cinematic dramatization of pidouhui on the stage. The dynamics between stillness and movement matter at the heart of Red Art mainly because of its large use and cinematic recycling of still images and multi-media materials.

The documentary itself turns into a virtual museum in which both still and moving images are put on display as much as put on trial. As the audiences watch the film, the images are being evaluated as a complex of “red art” and also in terms of the hybrid identities of what counts as art or an image both during and beyond the period marked by “red”. In this sense, this is a documentary involving the images about images, meta-pictures (or meta-images), as termed by W. J. T. Mitchell, “explain what pictures are-to stage, as it were, the ‘self-knowledge’ of pictures.” (67) It shows the making of certain kinds of images about and for pidou(hui), as well as makes sense of such image-making practices that also defined, were informed by, and served pidou(hui). A form of justice emerges across frame, which promises that we can make pidou(hui) and its images stand trial

Pidou(hui)-images needs to be approached both as an image-bearing object (poster, photograph in printed flyer, illustrated storybook, and the film itself etc) and as a pictorial image. Therefore the “self-knowledge” of the documentary as a meta-image and metacinematic work must also be twofold, in terms of both medium and representation.

Pidou(hui) is not limited to the on-screen space but has to do with the relationship between what is visible within the cinematic frame and the way how film viewers critically perceive the mediated pidou(hui). Furthermore, the mediation itself becomes a kind of pidou(hui).

Another exemplary film is The Spring of Huangjueping (2012-16), an animated video artwork by Zhang Xiaotao, which draws parallels between the Cultural Revolution and, nearly twenty years later, the youthful days of his generation. One key moment of Zhang’s work is specially related to pidou(hui) and its imaging. Zhang Xiaotao digitally animates one of the most recognizable paintings in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, a period marked by the “scar” literature and art, Snow on a Certain day in a Certain Month in 1968 (1979, by Cheng Conglin) (68).

The visual fascination of The Spring of Huangjueping is clearly given by the digital afterlife of Cheng Conglin’s oil painting, when the main protagonist, a young student who seeks entry to the Fine Arts Academy enters, walks within, and passes through the painting. He literally walks in cinema as well. Echoing Kurosawa’s engagement with Van Gogh’s paintings in his Dreams (1990), Zhang Xiaotao situates the boy as a travelling ghost to stop by, look on, and seemingly to interact with the depicted figures in the historical scene. Pidou(hui) is not animated but a gaze at and within its image is. Anything but the boy is stilled. The sightline of the boy seems to be mediated into the pictorial world as he horizontally comes across the frame. As he moves slowly, he pauses a bit with an (imaginary) eye contact with the crucial figure as depicted in the original painting: the female protagonist at the center who is the leader of the defeated faction, with clothes torn, barefoot, and an ecstatic look. Is the boy a witness of the pidou(hui) or its image? What kind of gaze does he deliver? What does it mean for people to encounter a scene as such, pidou(hui) as an image of image-making? Zhang Xiaotao recycles a famous painting of a certain period via digital animation to re-enact and recreate, not the scene of what the painting visualizes, an image about pidou(hui), but a boy’s perception of such an image and its making from within. In another word, the perception of pidou(hui) and its imaging is doubly internalized. The boy serves as our eyes to look across the cinematic frame and to “see through” both the scene of pidou(hui) captured by Cheng Conglin and the (re)imaging of such a scene digitalized by Zhang Xiaotao that still haunts today (69). As seen by the viewers of the animated video art, the dual nature of pidou(hui) as show trial both within and across the frame is brought into play.

In line with Zhang’s work, Chen Shaoxiong’s video work Ink History—a found-image (rather than found footage) film across photography, cinema, drawing, animation, conceptual art, etc—is a digital container of over 150 ink drawings of historic photos of major events in China from 1909 to 2009 (70). Chen’s ink drawings are already the recycled forms of the “historical scene”, which are then recycled again and turned into a three-minute videographic “walk through” of modern Chinese history as the clock ticks in the musical score (71).

Among those recycled and reproduced images, pidou(hui)-images stand out since Chen’s border-crossing approach to animation helps to bridge a variety of pidou(hui) scenes and their multi-media engagements into dialogue.  

Show Trial off the Frame

What does it mean to look at the photograph of pidou(hui) from the present in a completely different context? Li Luo, among the young artists and experimental filmmakers of his generation, offers a potential response differentiable from his predecessors who may be more obsessed with a parallel between autobiographic storytelling and grand historical narratives. Blending fact and fiction, documentary and feature, Li Luo’s work Li Wen at East Lake (2015) deals with a matter of in-between-ness. It is a story of Li Wen, a complex figure whose identities oscillate between police investigator, amateur artist, former criminal profiler, and so forth. Li’s experience unfolds around East Lake (Dong Hu), the scenic area in Wuhan, threatened by new amusement parks, high-rises and even an airport. While enjoying painting, collecting, art-appreciation, and a search for his lost abilities, Li tracks crazy men, debates over castration anxiety with a young female graduate student, prepares for the visit of unnamed officials, monitors environmental activists, and has an obsession with a possible dragon in the lake. In particular, an insightful sequence confronts Li Wen with a collection of historical photos of pidou(hui) in unexpected ways. Pidou(hui) photographs appear in some kind of space in between. Li Wen happens to be the only viewer whose experience seems to have nothing to do with pidou(hui).

Film critics and art scholars who have discussed Li Wen at East Lake (2015), such as Jasper Button, have already remarked the central ideas of the film—the repressive violence of collectivism, the self-contradiction of urbanization, the ominous influence of encroaching commercialism, and the power of mythological history (72). Beyond such obviously remarkable concerns, I suggest the need to also see the very important and yet little discussed presence of pidou(hui) photos. There are multiple fragmental moments when Li Wen’s encounters with the images of pidou(hui) seem to make little sense but actually speak to a consistent line of inquiry throughout the whole film. As a private collector, Li Wen owns and displays a set of archival photos of pidou(hui) that took the form of staged public trials/executions (公審公判). He uses a reading glass to look at the photos carefully and give certain comments as he sees each one photo.

 In a different moment, Li shows a photographic album in which another set of pidou(hui) images are exhibited and draws connections to the “ancient tradition” of shizhong in his comments (see figure 21). He also shows some more images that might fit into a wider category of criminal photography, other than execution photos, including mugshots, visual arrest warrants, micro-sized wanted posters, and so on. These are not unrelated despite the seeming lack of mutual connections among one another. Li Wen, as a policeman who used to, trained in fine arts, work as a criminal profiler and now also tries to draw a portraiture of the “mad man”. Indeed, the image of a potential “criminal” or “class enemies” or the practice of making of such an image is a recurring motif that mediates and negotiates the gap between (the violence of) history and (the loss of) memory. History repeats itself in the way that however different the categories of enemies and evil others might be, the making of those categories and the mechanism of categorization remain necessary all the time. Li Wen returns a retrospective gaze to those photos either on the floor, in the album, or from a distance on the wall, enabling a show trial off the photographic frame. Meanwhile, his ways of seeing pidou(hui) with the lack of a wei pattern and certain context helps to identify how much we as film spectators off the screen know in order to see and how we position ourselves with him, as well as with those photos. It could be understood in conversation with what Anthony Levin terms as photographic trial to describe the ways in which photography explores the relationship between visibility and subjectivity (73). Li Wen’s showing of the photos becomes a form of trial-as-examination, both literal and figurative. As the on-screen individual viewer/beholder, Li Wen mirrors us and our perception. He also tells us as his contemporary fellow viewers, through the trial-like encounters where our perceptual process is projected on his body and the projection itself is ethically tested.

Another remarkable experimental documentary exemplifies show trial off the frame is Mr. Zhang Believes (2015) direted by Qiu Jiongjion, in which the pidou(hui) during the Anti-Rightists Campaign is reconstructed through a show, being juxtaposed with the verbal retelling of Zhang’s story by himself. The pidouhui scene in Mr. Zhang Believes disrupts the more conventional, dominant representations of “the Cultural Revolution” documentaries. The camera focuses on the group of spectators for the pidouhui show that seems poker-faced. Apparently, never are the masses watching pidouhui, they are being watched and they are being on trial until they are gone.

The pidou(hui) scene smartly foregrounds a moment of the mass spectators’ “disappearing act” in the auditorium. A reverse shot marks the gradual change of their looks and bodies from being present to being gone and the theater from being crowded to being empty, which serves as a way of directly addressing and mirroring the spectators of this film. It resonates a scene of Rithy Panh’s documentary The Missing Picture (2013) when the clay figures depicted as the people during the Khmer Rouge are being gradually disappearing as a symbolic representation of mass death.

As the pidouhui unfolds across frame (cinematic time) and across the narrative time, each event as described by Zhang Xianchi occurs at the same time as a corresponding event in the re-enacted show. Throughout the sequence, editing matters significantly in the way that the camera repeatedly cuts between the paralleling scenes with the soundtrack suturing the two. With each shift between the reenactment of pidouhui in the theater space and the documentary scene of Zhang’s “talking head”, an invitation for viewers to consider their own role in the state’s violence is intertwined with a reminder of considering themselves part of the spectators for an entertaining show. In doing so, Mr Zhang Believes (2015) forces the film spectators to reflect on what it means for them to watch a pidouhui and to recognize the blurredness of the line between pidouhui (in the form of punitive spectacle or public shaming) and entertainment, witnessing and viewing, fixation and performative pleasure. Even though the dynamics of such mediated experience of watching others “struggled against” (shamed/punished) and its representation differ case by case in terms of cultural context (Chinese or American), genre (painting, photo, film, video art, etc), and time period, there is considerable continuity in the way how pidou(hui)-images can link and call into question participation and responsibility, sometimes intensifying or diffusing it, but rendering spectatorship morally problematic all times. In particular, Mr Zhang Belives’s cinematic construction of pidou(hui), with on-screen spectators involved, frequently situate us as spectators in multiple senses, first by explicitly highlighting the collectivity of the viewing experience; second, by the performative and theatrical elements of the on-screen pidouhui it portrays; and third, by directly addressing the existence of the cinematic apparatus (the on-screen masses’ direct look into “us”/the camera), the cinematic frame, or rather, the boundary between the diegetic and the extra-diegetic in a reflexive sense.

Coda: Cinema as Show Trial?

I would underline that those contemporary cases of art, videographic, and film production as discussed above enable us to rethink the scene of pidou(hui) as a site of multiple looks in a meta-photographic/meta-cinematic sense. When artists or filmmakers arrange the protofimic elements for either reenacting or recycling a historical scene of pidou(hui), they intentionally show a meta-cognition of the involvement of multiple players around the pidou(hui) scene. To put it differently, the reenacted and/or recycled scene is no longer simply a scene of pidou(hui), but instead a meta-scene of the pidou(hui) being mediated in its nature. Pidou(hui) itself becomes a meta-picture, a site of its own image-making, or a proto-photographic and meta-cinematic event. Show trial as method allows us to see how pidou(hui) as found and recycled in the contemporary art and mediascape explores both the allure and limits of Maoism and its own imaging in the Maoist period. Moreover, the potential contribution to current debates in art and visual media studies that I sought to make through rethinking cinema as show trial was to turn the dispositif notion – which, in recent years, has been widely explored as a theoretical concept – into an actual analytical tool (74).

What I would call the Maoist mechanism of cinema as show trial (much more than cinema as dispositif) speaks to the rich relationship between pidou(hui) and cinema at various intertwined levels: 1) pidou(hui) as pro-filmic event, 2) scenes of pidou(hui) in fiction films, 3) filmgoing and loosely-defined cinematic experience in the pidou(hui) setting that puts films, filmmakers, other people involved “on trial,” 4) Beyond the screening/exhibition space: human encounters with the paratextual world of films as pidou(hui); 5) the cinematic imagination of Maoist China in anti-Communist Taiwan and British colonial Hong Kong as an alternative form of pidou(hui) within the context of the Cold War. It is the first level that shows pidou(hui) recorded, archived, and depicted in a variety of photographs, documentaries, newsreels, and televisual footage. Usually staged in front of the (movie) camera in order to be photographed or filmed as it occurred, this mode of pidou(hui) was a mediated and doubly theatrical event. For example, in 1968, Zhang Chunqiao designated a form of televisual pidou(hui) for the case of the accused musician He Lǜting in Shanghai (75). As considered at the second level, pidou(hui) serves to distinguish the temporal boundaries in light of film narrative structure. It either marked the turning point of a narrative, as a key plot device that usually drives dramatic changes over the course of class struggle or reoccurred as a symbol of doing justice to class enemies at the “final-resolution” moment. People were supposed to locate pidou(hui) in fiction films as what they saw in two different, superimposed realities. One is the diegetic reality that refers to what happens to the on-screen characters within the film world. The other one, not necessarily the extra-diegetic, but what might be called “cinematic reality,” is the reality not belonging to what the on-screen characters could know and receive. As Michel Chion suggests, cinematic reality is what occurs on the screen and through the loudspeaker, which is not simply “an expressive mise-en-scène of diegetic reality” or “an external translation of the ‘interior’ psychological state of the characters.” (76) At the third level lies a specific mode of pidou(hui) in the form of film screenings. Such screenings usually consisted of pre-screening lantern slides lectures (映前幻燈),in-screening narration (映間插話), and/or post-screening discussion (映后討論), during which people watched the films condemned as “poisonous weeds” 毒草電影 in order to criticize and struggle against those on a massive level (77). The form of “poisonous weeds” film exhibitions (批判放映), its paratextual world, and associated practices much beyond the screening and exhibition settings mattered not just in its expressive and historic-specific essence, but also as a remarkable matrix that could never be experienced and understood in isolation (78). Understood at the first three levels, pidou(hui) revealed itself in spatial and site-specific conditions, as what supposedly happens in the various stages of image-making through a camera—of course on the set and also what precedes and what follows.

Such conditions are complicated at the fourth and fifth levels where cinematic experiences are made and structured through images in circulation. Particularly in fiction films, pidouhui recurred as a key moment of “exposure,” the purported enemies being made public in order to identify and address “the masses,” both on and off the screen. It occurs and recurs either as a plot device that usually drives the dramatic change over the course of class struggle (such as Liu Qiao’er 劉巧兒1956), or at the “final-resolution” moment (such as 暴風驟雨 1961 and 白毛女 1950); as rhetoric, as mental image, as a symbol of modeling class injustice and doing justice to class enemies (such as 收租院 1966). Sometimes the scene of pidou(hui) does even not take the form of a physical “session.” For example, in films like 農奴 1963 or 牛角石 1976, the on-screen masses gather in almost a circular shape where one of the main protagonists as the victim, the subject of “speaking bitterness” (苦主), stands out to denounce the concealed class enemy who previously appears be one among the masses. Through the act of finger-pointing enabled in a shot/reverse shot pattern, such enemies are put under spotlight and a clear line of demarcation is drawn between the “masses” (people) and the “enemies.” There are mainly three modes of composition and framing for representing pidouhui and the exposure of class enemies in cinema: the theatrical mode (such as 決裂 1975; 楓 1980; 小巷名流 1985), encircling mode (for instance, 燎原1962; 槐樹莊 1962; 嚴峻的歷程 1978), and parading mode (like 怒潮 1963; 沸騰的群山1976).


The images under discussion demonstrate that despite the end of the Cultural Revolution and the years of high socialism, the binary opposition between the “people” and “enemies” has remained highly functional in changing contexts (for example, in the form of an emerging tendency towards “qingsuan (settling accounts 清算/算賬)”). In the early post-Mao period, the sustaining cultural politics of class exorcism became more complicated with a new face: “exposing and denouncing the ‘Gang of the Four,’” (jiepi sirenbang 揭批四人幫) and the Gang’s followers (79). In October 1976, the Gang of the Four, like their many predecessors, became the public enemies of the revolution after being in the vanguard of a revolutionary campaign. In an extreme irony, they were condemned as “ultra-rightist,” “revisionist,” “counter-revolutionaries,” who represented “all the domestic and foreign class enemies” in their long-term attempt to “restore capitalism.”(80) To this end, however diverse the occasions for different periods, the practical mechanism of identifying the “class enemies” and enacting the rhetoric of people-enemy dichotomy retained its remarkable validity and visibility. Through pidouhui and its images, we are allowed to rethink such an enduring framework complexly imbricated in the period’s ways of othering and its moral imagination.

I would suggest that the working of pidouhui and its images entails four kinds of “show trials” that are interrelated to one another: the staging of pidouhui as “show trials” within the frame; image-making as a procedure of “show trial” (pidou), namely, performing justice; the execution of images that define and enforce (class) justice; and the use and reuse of images (about or for pidouhui) as the means to test the spectators and to put them on trial. Pidouhui as a tale of multiple show trials has been complicated as a Chinese response to the global constant reasoning, arguing, and struggling about the adequate and legitimate images of atrocity in the era of conflict and witness.


(1) Concerning the CCP’s theory and practice of class struggle and class analysis, see Jean-Francois Billeter. “The System of ‘Class Status,’” in The Scope of State Power in China, ed. Stuart R. Schram. (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1985), 127–169; Philip Huang. "Rural Class Struggle in the Chinese Revolution: Representational and Objective Realities from the Land Reform to the Cultural Revolution." Modern China1 (1995): 105-143; Wenhui Cai. Class Struggle and Deviant Labeling in Mao's China: Becoming Enemies of the People. (Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2001); Xing Lu. The Rhetoric of Mao Zedong: Transforming China and Its People. (University of South Carolina Press, 2017).

(2) See Barend J. Ter Haar, "China’s Inner Demons: The Political Impact of the Demonological Paradigm." China Information11, no. 2-3 (1996): 54-85; and Peter Baehr and Daniel Gordon. "Unmasking and Disclosure as Sociological Practices: Contrasting Modes for Understanding Religious and Other Beliefs." Journal of Sociology 48, no. 4 (2012): 380-96.

(3) See Sheila Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). There are various ways of naming similar historical phenomena such as accusatory practices, mass denunciation, and so forth. See Sheila Fitzpatrick, Robert Gellately, and Mazal Holocaust Collection. Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History, 1789-1989. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Sheila Fitzpatrick. Tear off the Masks!: Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-century Russia. (Princeton [N.J.]: Princeton University Press, 2005).

(4) It would be hard to suggest that their cumulative effect has been to endow that image with any kind of mass viral visibility, let alone the sort of iconic status that certain pidou(hui) images might possess in terms of political violence and human rights activism. Rather, my argument is that these images, in part because of their fugitive, ephemeral character, perform a key role within the context of ongoing memory politics.

(5) “Scenes of Cultural Revolution Denunication: 11 Photos of Xi Jinping's Father Xi Zhongxun, etc. Being Paraded Through the Streets”「文革批鬥場景習近平之父習仲勛遊街等11張圖  Wenge Pidou Changjing Xi Jinping zhi Fu Xi Zhongxun youjie deng 11 zhang tu」, Boxun News, January 11, 2012.

(6) “Scenes of Cultural Revolution Denunication: 11 Photos of Xi Jinping's Father Xi Zhongxun, etc. Being Paraded Through the Streets”「文革批鬥場景習近平之父習仲勛遊街等11張圖  Wenge Pidou Changjing Xi Jinping zhi Fu Xi Zhongxun youjie deng 11 zhang tu」, Boxun News, January 11, 2012. (accessed on December 21, 2018).

(7) See “Shameful Struggle Sessions in the Cultural Revolution: Pushing and Struggling against People into the Mass Grave” 「文革中踐踏人格的批鬥:把人推進‘萬人坑’鬥」,Sohu, Culture Channel, April 25, 2013. (accessed on Sept 5, 2018)

(8) Most of scholarly attention paid to pidouhuipartially touches on its different components and associated practices and is fixed to the field of Cultural-Revolution studies: for example, about criticism and “self-criticism”, see Lowell Dittmer. "The Structural Evolution of ‘Criticism and Self-Criticism’." The China Quarterly 53 (1973): 708-29; for linguistic practices of denunciation, see Fengyuan Ji. “The Public Criticism Meeting: Discourse, Ritual, and Formulae,” in Linguistic Engineering: Language and Politics in Mao's China. (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004), 161-72; as for rituals and symbolic practices, see Daniel Leese. Mao Cult: Rhetoric and Ritual in the Cultural Revolution. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Tuo Wang. “Enfranchised Violence: Public Struggle Meetings,” in The Cultural Revolution and Overacting: Dynamics between Politics and Performance. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014), 103-26; and many other works.

(9) See Susie Linfield. “China: From Malraux's Dignity to the Red Guards' Shame.” The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010), 101-23.

(10) While this episode of the film is set in 1962 before the Cultural Revolution, there have been noticeable misunderstandings and misrecognitions such as: “Forever Youngstraight-forwardly depicts innocent people falsely accused of spying being beaten to death by an angry mob during the Cultural Revolution.” See (accessed Sept 30, 2018)

(11) Most of the debates took place online, for example, people discussed via Zhihu platform “Is that true or not: The pidouhui in which a person could be tortured to death happened in 1962?” See August 15, 2018)

(12) During my field work and oral historical project in China, more than five interviewees immediately asked me about my opinion or talked to me about their or their friends’ various reaction to pidouhuiin Forever Young, once they noticed pidouhui as one of the most key topics and concerns in my research. 

(13) Belting, An Anthropology of Images, 2011, 10-13, 36.

(14) For instance, struggles against landlords 鬥地主, comrades’ trial 同志審判會, people’s court 群眾法庭, living newspaper play 活報劇, public accusation meeting 控訴會, shame parade 游鄉/遊街, show trial and public execution 公審/公判大會, speaking bitterness meeting 訴苦會, class struggle exhibition or counterrevolutionary evil exhibitions階級鬥爭或反革命罪惡展, one-hundred-clown photographic/cartoon poster publication 百醜圖/群醜圖, “poisonous seeds” film screening 毒草電影批判放映, etc.

(15) Michael Schoenhals. “Demonising Discourse in Mao Zedong's China: People vs Non-People.” Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions8, no. 3/4 (2007): 465-82.

(16) This was published in 1951 to mark the second anniversary of the founding of the PRC. About the English translation, see Zedong Mao. Selected Works of Mao Zedong(Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1967; 1977), vol. 1, 13.

(17) The English translation is from Michael Schoenhals (ed.), China’s Cultural Revolution, 1966–1969: Not a Dinner Party(Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1996), 33–43. About Mao’s claims about the people-enemy dichotomy, also see Mao Zedong 毛澤東. “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People,” 關於正確處理人民內部矛盾的問題, in Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol. 5 毛澤東選集第五卷, Beijing: People’s Press 北京: 人民出版社, 1977.

(18) Xiaojue Wang. Modernity with a Cold War Face: Reimagining the Nation in Chinese Literature across the 1949 Divide. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), 4-5.

(19) The English term derives from the Russian pokazatel’nyi protsess, which could be translated literally as either “show trial” or “demonstration trial.” For the historical and linguistic origin and rich meanings of “show trial”, see Minou Arjomand. Staged: Show Trials, Political Theater, and the Aesthetics of Judgment. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 4-6.

(20) I do not intend to argue for any intimacy or distinction between historical (and even ongoing) practices of pidou(hui)and show trial, but to examine the mutual tension between the two as different ways of naming and perceiving something fundamentally the same for different purposes and no less, neither one dominated by the other. 

(21) See Yann Robert. Dramatic Justice: Trial by Theater in the Age of the French Revolution. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

(22) Remarkable works among those include: Samuel Y. Edgerton. ​Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance​. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985); Lionello Puppi, ​Torment in Art: Pain, Violence, and Martyrdom​ (New York: Rizzoli, 1991); Katherine Fischer Taylor. ​In the Theater of Criminal Justice: The Palais De Justice in Second Empire Paris.​ (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993); Mitchell B. Merback, ​The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe​ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Robert Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture. (London: Reaktion, 2005); Graybill, Lela. ​The Visual Culture of Violence after the French Revolution​. (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).

(23) See works like Karen "Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture." American Historical Review100, no. 2 (1995): 303-34; Shawn Michelle Smith. Photography on the Color Line: W.E.B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004); Rachel Hall. Wanted: The Outlaw in American Visual Culture. (University of Virginia Press, 2009); Ross Barrett. Rendering Violence: Riots, Strikes, and Upheaval in Nineteenth-century American Art. (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2014); Courtney R., Baker. Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death. (University of Illinois Press, 2015); Rielle Navitski. Public Spectacles of Violence: Sensational Cinema and Journalism in Early Twentieth-century Mexico and Brazil. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), and so on.

(24) Jérôme Bourgon. “Obscene Vignettes of Truth. Construing Photographs of Chinese Executions as Historical Documents,” in Visualising China, 1845-1965: Moving and Still Images in Historical Narratives. Edited by Christian Henriot, and Wen-hsin Yeh. (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013), 39-91;Craig  “Dark Warriors: Cultures of Violence,” in Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Cultures of Ming China, 1368-1644. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007), 160-87; James L. Hevia. “The Photography Complex: Exposing Boxer-era China (1900-1901),” in Morris, Rosalind C., Thomas, Nicholas, Spyer, Patricia, Hevia, James L, and Siegel, James T. Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia. (Durham: Duke UP, 2009), 79-120.

(25) See Pieter Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering: Execution and the Evolution of Repression: From a Preindustrial Metropolis to the European Experience(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Esther Cohen, “‘To Die a Criminal for the Public Good’: The Execution Ritual in Late Medieval Paris,” History of European Ideas XI (1989), 407–16; Richard van Dülmen, Theatre of Horror: Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1990); Arlette Farge, Fragile Lives: Violence, Power and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); V.A.C. Gatrell. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770–1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); Jody Enders. The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999); and Lisa Silverman. Tortured Subjects Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

(26) For discussions around China’s long and ongoing history of violence, shaming, and cruelty, see works such as David Der-wei Wang. The Monster That Is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-century China. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Robert E. Hegel.“Imagined Violence: Representing Homicide in Late Imperial,” 中國文哲研究集刊  25期 Dec 2004, 61 – 89; William T. Rowe. Crimson Rain: Seven Centuries of Violence in a Chinese County. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007); Timothy Brook. Death by a Thousand Cuts. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

(27) “Executions, Idealand Real: Nineteenth Century Perspectives on Public Executions in China.”

(28) See Li Chen. “Sentimental Imperialism and the Global Spectacle of Chinese Punishments”. Chinese Law in Imperial Eyes: Sovereignty, Justice, & Transcultural Politics. (Columbia University Press, 2016), 156-200.

(29) For example, about Bataille’s reading of lingchiphoto, see Robert Buch. “In Praise of Cruelty: Bataille, Kafla, and Ling’chi” in The Pathos of the Real on the Aesthetics of Violence in the Twentieth Century. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 27-53. For detailed discussions on Chinese torture as a construct of imperialism and China as a privileged object of American and European discourses on cruelty, see Eric Hayot. The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 14-25.

(30) See Lu Xun. “Preface to a Call to Arms” 吶喊自序. The story was remembered by Lu himself and later (re-)interpreted by Chinese intellectuals and literary historiographers, as a Lu Xun’s life-changing moment when he realized that medicine could only cure the body rather than people’s souls and soon decided to give up medical studies to pursue a literary career (qiyi congwen 弃医从文).

(31) Pathosformelor "pathos formula" is a term coined by the German art historian and cultural theorist Aby Warburg (1866–1929) in his work on the afterlife of antiquity. Here I use pathosformel more as a methodological paradigm, inspired by Colleen Becker, than just a Chinese version of emotionally charged visual trope. See Colleen Becker. "Aby Warburg's Pathosformel as Methodological Paradigm." Journal of Art Historiography, no. 9 (2013): CB1-B25.

(32) In Chinese and Japanese scholarship, the authenticity of the story as a faithful biographical record has been questioned. The particular slide in question never been identified and scholars also address that drawing from different sources of that time (for instance, a 1905 photograph discovered by Ōta Susumu that depicts a similar scene, Lu Xun might misremember or create a narrative. The decisive “lantern slide incident” has been studied within English-speaking scholarship in relation to the discourse of national character, as a demonstration of national sympathy as a problem, and from the perspective that historically foregrounds questions of technologized visuality, spectatorship, and subjectivity. For detailed discussions, see Marston Anderson. The Limits of Realism: Chinese Fiction in the Revolutionary Period. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 76-92; Michael Berry. A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 21-49; Yomi Braester. “Introduction,” Witness against History:Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-century China. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 2003); Rey Chow. “‘One Newsreel Helped to Change Modern Chinese History’: An Old Tale Retold” in Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography and Contemporary Chinese Cinema. (NY: Columbia UP, 1995), 4-11; Haiyan Lee. Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950. (Stanford University Press, 2007), 222-239; Lydia H Liu. “Translating National Character: Lu Xun and Arthur Smith”, in Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937. (Stanford University Press, 1995), 367-383; and so on.

(33) Ann Anagnost. ​National Past-Times: Narrative, Representation, and Power in Modern China.​ (Duke University Press, 1997); Børge Bakken. ​The Exemplary Society: Human Improvement, Social Control, and the Dangers of Modernity in China.​ (Oxford University Press, 2000).

(34) My dissertation project discusses four sites of display and perception that exemplify people’s sensorial and embodied experience of class exorcism: the courtroom-like or punishment spot, the exhibition space, the “frame” of print culture and photojournalism, and the cinema screen. In establishing the centrality of the violence-spectacle dynamics in enacting class struggle, those sites shared a similar motivation: to expose, namely, to render the “evil” others visible for the sake of justice, at once to produce punitive images and to perform the act of display as punishment.

(35) Some significant and yet fragmental attention has been paid to a wide-ranging spectrum of practices related to pidou(hui), either with or without being named as such: for example, about criticism and “self-criticism”, see Lowell Dittmer. "The Structural Evolution of ‘Criticism and Self-Criticism’." The China Quarterly53 (1973): 708-29; for linguistic and literary practices of denunciation, see Cheng-Chih Wang. Words Kill: Calling for the Destruction of "Class Enemies" in China, 1949-1953. (New York: Routledge, 2002); for “kongsu hui,” namely, public accusation meetings particularly during the Korean War and the “Suppression of Counterrevolutionaries” campaign, see Julia C. Strauss, "Paternalist Terror: The Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries and Regime Consolidation in the People's Republic of China, 1950-1953", Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 44, no. 1 (2002), 80-105; for 打土豪鬥地主 as both the predecessors and avatars of struggle sessions, see 張世瑛. 罪與罰: 北伐時期湖南地區懲治土豪劣紳中的暴力儀式 “Crime and Punishment: The Violent Punishment Done to the Landowners and Gentries in Hunan during the Period of Northern Expedition,” 國史館學術集刊 9 (2004): 49-101; for public execution, see Chang-tai Hung. "The Anti–Unity Sect Campaign and Mass Mobilization in the Early People's Republic of China." The China Quarterly 202 (2010): 400-20; for speaking bitterness as political confession, see Feiyu Sun. Social Suffering and Political Confession: Suku in Modern China. (Singapore: World Scientific, 2012); for people’s court, see Xiaoping Cong. “‘Ma Xiwu's Way of Judging’: Villages, the Masses and Legal Construction in Revolutionary China in the 1940s.” The China Journal, no. 72 (2014): 29-52; for struggling against landlords in the form of “class evil” exhibitions, see Haiyan Lee. “The Enemy Within,” in The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 2014, 197-242; and Denise. Y. Ho, and Jie Li. "From Landlord Manor to Red Memorabilia: Reincarnations of a Chinese Museum Town." Modern China (2015): 1-35; and there are many more other works.

(36) Peter Kenez. The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929. (Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Lynn Mally. Revolutionary Acts: Amateur Theater and the Soviet State, 1917-1938. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

(37) The Land Revolution has always been considered the most crucial episode leading the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to its final revolutionary victory in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

(38) Scholars have noted the “genesis of class hatred” involved in the visualization of struggling against the landlordsin the broadly defined land reform movement. As for insightful and detailed analysis of what art historians have identified as the images of douzhenghui mainly produced during the rural land reform periods土改鬥爭會圖像, see Gongming Li. “ ‘階級’與 ‘怨恨’的圖像學分析: 以毛時代美術中的地主一農民題材為中心 in Overwatching Memory: Thinking about Some Issues in the Contemporary Chinese Art  守望記憶:中國當代若幹美術問題思考; Xiaoyan Yang, “場景與儀式:一種視覺的政治修辭術”; Yuan Feng, “被壓迫的‘美學’:《血衣》與階級鬥爭的圖像政治; Bin Hu,“運動與鬥爭的圖像建構—以解放區土改鬥爭會圖像 研究為中心” in The Reform of Visuality: An Episodic Reading of the 20th Century Chinese Fine Art 視覺的改造:20世紀中國美術的切面解讀, 2-52.

(39) Weihong Bao. “A Panoramic Worldview: Probing the Visuality of Dianshizhai huabao,” Journal of Modern Chinese Literature, no. 32 (2005): 445-6.

(40) Man Yin. “A Few Critiques on Struggling against the Evil Tyrants.” Renmin Meishu 人民美術 (People’s Fine Arts), Vol.5, 1950, 37.

(41) Ren Min. “How I Understand Struggling against the Evil Tyrants.Renmin Meishu. Vol.5, 1950, 36-7.

(42) Zhong Dianfei. “My Thoughts on Struggling against the Evil Tyrants.” 32-5.

(43) Wang Shikuo’s work directly also engages a rich tradition of visual images: the most prominent art form in visual representations of land reform, namely, the black-and-white woodcut from the early 1940s to the early 1950s. As for the rich history of woodcut movement in China, see Xiaobing Tang. Origins of the Chinese Avant-garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

(44) Pan Gongkai.“Shidai zhi zi” (Son of the Times), Cong Yan’an dao Beijing: ershi shiji Zhongguo meishu jujiang Wang Shikuo從延安到北京:20世紀中國美術巨匠王式廓(1911年至2011年)(From Yan’an to Beijing: The Great Artist in TwentiethCentury Chinese Art, Wang Shikuo), edited by Xu Bing, Wang Huangsheng, and Yin Shuangxi. (Beijing: Wenhua yishu, 2011), 11.

(45) Xiaobing Tang. Visual Culture in Contemporary China: Paradigms and Shifts. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 77.

(46) For the historical practice of “struggling against the landlords and local tyrants” and its punitive violence during the 1920s rural movement, see 張世瑛. 罪與罰: 北伐時期湖南地區懲治土豪劣紳中的暴力儀式 “Crime and Punishment: The Violent Punishment Done to the Landowners and Gentries in Hunan during the Period of Northern Expedition,” 國史館學術集刊 9 (2004): 49-101.

(47) Xiaoyan Yang, “場景與儀式:一種視覺的政治修辭術”; Xiaoyan Yang, An Iconographical Analysis of Several Kinds of Revolutionary Photography,” “幾種革命攝影類型的圖像學分析” from 新中國攝影60年 1949-2009, 29-64. One key element of what Yang terms as “a typology of staging in Maoist photography” is the binary contrast between “sweet smile” and “watchful gaze”.

(48) See Peter Townsend, “The Meaning of Land Reform in China,” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, vol. 5, no. 3 (1953), 127; Ann Anagnost, “Making History Speak,” National Past-Times: Narrative, Representation, and Power in Modern China(Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), ; Mary Farquhar and Chris Berry. "Speaking Bitterness: History, Media and Nation in Twentieth Century China." Historiography East and West 2, no. 1 (2004): 116-43; Guo Wu. "Recalling Bitterness: Historiography, Memory, and Myth in Maoist China." Twentieth-Century China 39, no. 3 (2014): 245-68.

(49) The supplicepattern, discussed by Bourgon, refers to a complex model that European executions obeyed by adopting religious deeds, aesthetic devices and performing art techniques which themselves called for artistic representations through painting, sculpture, theatre, etc. See Jérôme Bourgon, “Chinese Executions: Visualizing their Differences with European Supplices”, European Journal of East Asian Studies 2 (2003), 151–82.

(50) See Børge Bakken. ​The Exemplary Society: Human Improvement, Social Control, and the Dangers of Modernity in China.​ (Oxford University Press, 2000).

(51) Phil “How Does the Photograph Punish?” Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology, (Taylor and Francis, 2017), 280–292. Visual criminology emerges from a calling for rethinking the manner in which images are reshaping the world and criminology as a project. For others works concerning visual criminology, see Katherine Biber. Captive Images: Race, Crime, Photography. (Abingdon, OX, UK: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007); Michelle Brown. The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle. (New York: New York University Press, 2010); Sarah Armstrong. “Seeing and seeing-as: Building a politics of visibility in criminology. In M. Brown & E. Carrabine (Eds.), Routledge international handbook of visual criminology. (London: Routledge, 2017, 416-26), among many others. 

(52)Ibid., 281.

(53) See Zedong Mao, On People's Democratic Dictatorship; and, Speech at the Preparatory Meeting of the New PCC. (New China News Agency, 1949). According to historian Michael Schoenhals, one important and yet little-known component of the “dictatorship of the masses” designated by Mao is about “the outsourcing by the supreme state leadership of selected surveillance, inquisitorial and other violent tasks to what in a different political system would have been regarded as simply members of the public and/or non‐governmental organizations”. See Michael Schoenhals. “Outsourcing the Inquisition: ‘Mass Dictatorship’ in China’s Cultural Revolution.” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, vol. 9, no. 1, 2008, 3–19.

(54) For detailed discussion around the archival film and videographic practice, see Catherine Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices. (Duke University Press, 2018).

(55) Zhensheng Li. Red-color News Soldier: A Chinese Photographer's Odyssey through the Cultural Revolution. (London; New York: Phaidon, 2003). 蔣少武

(56) See 荒牧萬佐行. 1967中國文化大革命: 荒牧萬佐行寫真集 (chūgoku bunka daikakumei: aramaki masayuki shashinshū). Fukuoka: Shūkōsha, 2017.

(57) For a brief introduction about the exhibition, see“September 23, 2016 Manaka Aramaki photo exhibition "Chinese culture revolution 50 years and today,” (accessed on Feb 20, 2019).

(58) Weise, and Zerenduoji. Sha Jie: Si Shi Nian De Ji Yi Jin Qu, Jing Tou Xia De Xizang Wen Ge = Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. ed., (Taipei: 大塊文化, 2016).

(59) Woeser’s reading is by nature a political text that deserves further discussion from various perspectives (including photography theory, memory studies, political philosophy, and so on) and yet beyond the scope of this paper in its current form. I would analyze it in more details in a single case study of archival photographs around pidouhuiin my dissertation. 

(60) Jie Hu. "Reign of Terror on the Tibetan Plateau: Reading Woeser's Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution." China Perspectives. 2008, no. 1 (2008): 105-6.

(61) Ibid., 106.

(62) Verónica Garibotto. “Iconic Fictions: Narrating Recent Argentine History in Post-2000 Second-Generation Films.” Studies in Hispanic Cinemas. 8.2 (March 2012): 175-188.

(63) Stephanie Hemelryk Donald., “Liu Dahong—Stranded Objects and Shame in Chinese Contemporary Post-socialist Art”. Affirmations: of the modern, 2(2), (2015): 55–80.

(64) See Belinda Qian He. “The Child as a Viewfinder of History: Vision and Blindness in Cinema,” in The Child in World Cinema. Ed. Debbie Olson. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018), 375-408.

(65) In the closing sequence, as the radio announces a sentence of counter-revolutionaries including Jueqiang, another main protagonist in the film, the boy Wang Han runs with his friends to watch the execution of them right away, but on his way decides against it. The film ends with Wang Han’s gaze into the distance seen from behind in a medium close-up shot.

(66) In many cases, people were publicly humiliated at pidouhuifollowed by a shameful parade around the neighborhood while wearing a dunce cap.

(67) J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation(Chicago, 1994), 57.

(68) As for the detailed background and formal analysis of this painting, as well as its genealogical connection with other works like Wang Shikuo’s The Bloodstained Shirt, see Martina Köppel-Yang. “Snow on a Certain day in a Certain Month in 1968,” inSemiotic Warfare: A Semiotic Analysis, the Chinese Avant-Garde, 1979-1989. (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2003), 76-91.

(69) For cross-genre and multi-media encounters with pidou(hui)in contemporary cinema, another compelling case is one episode from Seeing China through the Kino-Eye II (2015, TV documentary series directed by Zhang Tongdao), which is a meta-historical reflection on the Chinese revolutionary past through focusing on the making of the Maoist documentary Great Land Reform (1953). Pidou(hui) in digital animation is also exemplified in

(70) Chen Shaoxiong’s video works—Ink Historyand Ink Media—as well as their companion ink drawings were exhibited in Seattle Asian Art Museum in 2014.

(71) Ink Historyis a resonance of the popular video The Founding Women (2016) as an encounter of “walk[ing] [the spectators] through the graphic ‘Chinese history’ across a selection of recognizable faces and names frame by frame, resembling the viewing experience of a slideshow for educational purposes”. For discussions about The Founding Women and animation as a methodology that takes the dialectical relations between stillness and motion as fundamental to cinema’ multiple lives rather than its death in the age defined as “post-cinema” or “post-media”, see Belinda Qian He. “Animating Herstory? Stillness/Motion, Popular Cinephilia and the Economy of the Instants in the Post-Cinema Age.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas, vol. 11, no. 3 (2017), 243–258.

(72) See Shelly “Of Time and the River: Mapping the Cinema of Luo Li.” Cinema Scope, no. 62 (2015), 41–43; Jasper Button. “The Art of Subversion: Luo Li's Li Wen at East Lake.” Metro, no. 187 (2016), 86–89

(73) Anthony Levin. “Making the Invisible Visible: Photographic Trials in Neil Abramson's Soldier Child.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 44, no. 2 (2013), 105–124.

(74) Concerning dispositif as a theoretical concept and the associated concept mise-en-sceneas method, see Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema,” in Philip Rosen (ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1986), 299-318; Gilles Deleuze. What is a dispositif? In: Michel Foucault Philosopher. Ed. by Timothy J. Armstrong. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 159-168; Barrett Hodsdon, ‘The Mystique of mise en scène Revisited’, in Adrian Martin (ed.), Film – Matters of Style (Perth: Continuum, 1992), 68-86; Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1986); Anne-Marie Duguet, “Dispositifs”, Communications, no. 48 (1988): 221-248; Frank Kessler, “The Cinema of Attractions as Dispositif”, in Wanda Strauven (ed.), The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 57-70; Frank Kessler, “Notes on dispositif”, 2006,;  Parente, A. & de Carvalho, V. “Cinema as dispositif: Between Cinema and Contemporary Art.” Cinémas, 19(1), (2008): 37–55; Giorgio Agamben (trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella), What is an Apparatus? (Stanford University Press, 2009); Adrian Martin, 'Turn the Page: From Mise en scène to Dispositif', Screening the Past, No. 31 (August 2011). www.screeningthepast. com/2011/07/turn-the-page-from-mise-en-scene-to-dispositif/ (Accessed Feb 15 2018); James Tweedie. The Age of New Waves: Art Cinema and the Staging of Globalization. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013); Adrian Martin. Mise En Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art. (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

(75) 肖丁, 許寅. “硬骨頭音樂家賀綠汀”. 黨和人民的好兒女. 北京: 群眾出版社, 1979, 204-13; 梁茂春. “文革中的音樂大批判,” in 中國音樂論辯, (南昌: 百花洲文藝出版社, 2007), 370-3. I will talk about pidou(hui)as television show 電視批鬥會 in more details in another essay.

(76) For Chion’s categorization of diegetic reality, cinematic reality, and profilmic realitythat has inspired my work, see Michel Chion, and Gorbman, Claudia. Words on Screen. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

(77) See 紅代會北京電影學院. “把電影界一小撮反革命修正主義分子揪出來示眾,” 中國電影研究資料(下卷:1966-1979)北京:文化藝術出版社, 2006), 186-194. (Originally published in 紅衛兵文藝專刊1968年第 10期); 啟之. 電影大批判: 發動與運作, East China Normal University Journal華東師範大學學報, 2012, Vol. 44(1): 46-52.

(78) Beyond the screening and exhibition settings, the paratextual materials and related practices around cinema included the lantern slides show (with lantern-slides, scripts, and the auditory practice), mass film criticism in any form of publication, illustrated storybook based on films 批判性電影連環畫, “one-hundred-evil” 百/群丑圖 style poster and satirical cartoon about films and filmmakers, and so forth.

(79) Anne Kerlan. "The Trial of the ‘Gang of Four’: Visibility and Invisibility of the Cultural Revolution." The Scene of the Mass Crime: History, Film, and International Tribunals. edited by Christian Delage and Peter Goodrich. (London and New York: Taylor and Francis, 2013), 89-99.

(80) Zhongguo gongchandang di shiyi ci quanguo daibiao dahui wenjian huibian中國共產黨第十一次全國代表大會文件彙編 (Collection of documents of the eleventh national congress of the CCP), Beijing: People Press 人民出版社, 1977, 17.


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Wood, Amy Louise. Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Wood, Elizabeth A. Performing Justice: Agitation Trials in Early Soviet Russia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 2005.

Xiao, Tie. Revolutionary Waves: The Crowd in Modern China. Harvard University Asia Center, 2017.

Xia, Yun. Down with Traitors: Justice and Nationalism in Wartime China. University of Washington Press, 2017.

Yang, Jie. The Political Economy of Affect and Emotion in East Asia. Routledge, 2014.

Young, Alison. Judging the Image: Art, Value, Law. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013.

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