Theses Doctoral

Revolutionary Times: Temporalities of Mobilization and Narrative in China’s Revolution

Chambers, Harlan David

This dissertation investigates roles of cultural practice in China’s revolution. It begins with cultural experiments in the War of Resistance to Japan (1937-1945) and culminates with the agrarian cooperativization of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s. I interrogate how China’s “cultural workers” –– meaning the writers, performers, artists, and filmmakers engaged in the revolutionary project –– participated in mass mobilization. In doing so, I develop elements for a new approach to analyzing cultural works in their relations to political movements. This approach aims to address my study’s driving question: how did the practice of cultural workers advance, challenge, and transform China’s revolutionary process?

My formal approach is drawn from an issue at the heart of revolution; namely, that of time. I argue that revolutionaries repeatedly wrestled with remaking time–– whether to and how to break with the past in constructing the future. My study investigates this problematic as it was developed in two temporal fields: campaign time and narrative time. Activists developed campaign time, or standardizing temporal structures, to reform society through sequences of mass mobilization. Distinct from campaign time, cultural workers articulated narrative time through acts of narrative creation in literary prose, theater, art, and cinema. I argue that by analyzing the collisions, collusions, and contradictions between campaign time and narrative time, we can define cultural workers’ interventions in the revolutionary process.

The first four chapters focus on the historical emergence of campaign time through mass movements of the Communist base areas during the War of Resistance to Japan. I seek to demonstrate: first, that a coherent series of strategies for mass movements was developed, bearing consistent, repeatable patterns for social reorganization; and second, that cultural workers contributed to, contradicted, and at key moments innovated mass movements through expressions of narrative time. Each of these four chapters proceeds chronologically through major mass movements: the reform of “vagrants” in chapter one; family reforms and women’s labor in chapter two; the hygiene movement in chapter three; and chapter four takes up the anti-spirit medium movement.

Chapter five argues that the narrative time of novels stretched the political imagination of campaign time in the scope of the agrarian cooperative movement (approx. 1953-1957). The sixth and final chapter focuses on the case of Liu Qing’s unfinished epic The Builders. I interrogate fraught relations between narrative and campaign times in the novel’s historical trajectory to foreground a problem I call campaign-narrative equivalence. When cultural narratives were conflated with historical movements, such equivalences were produced. The campaign-narrative equivalence is not only a problem for historical interpretation but also for the political imagination. By disentangling these equivalences, which have been grafted upon histories of cultural creation and political transformation, I seek to grasp the distinctive contributions and transformative valence of the cultural worker in China’s revolution –– for then and now.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Liu, Lydia H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 13, 2022