The East Looks Red: China, Roland Barthes, and the Problem of Resisting Imperialism
Adviser: Neetu Khanna
Spring 2014 comparative literature honors thesis
“I feel that I won’t be able to shed light on them in the least – just shed light on us by means of them. So, what needs to be written isn’t So, what about China?, but So, what about France?”
French literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes penned these words in his private notebook as he began his trip to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in April 1974. He and four other Paris-based intellectuals associated with the literary review Tel Quel departed France for Beijing on a four-week guided tour, motivated by the promise of Communist China to present a radical difference from the numerous problems they identified within Western society and the bipolarity of the Cold War. Among these ills included the ongoing legacy of imperialism and global wars of decolonization, mass consumerism, and capitalist culture. For these intellectuals – Tel Quel editors Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, and Marcelin Pleynet; François Wahl, an editor at the Seuil publishing house; and Roland Barthes, Tel Quel contributor – the search for an alternative to Western culture was furthermore animated by their work in deconstructing language in the growing field of semiotics. With academic and cultural motivations couched in radical language, the trip would become highly controversial in later years as the tide of politics and scholarship changed. Yet as Barthes’s notes demonstrate, even at the start of the journey, its potential significance for constructing or reshaping relations between France and China was uncertain.
Meanwhile, the process and politics of hosting Western visitors in the PRC was a likewise delicate situation. Since the foundation of the PRC by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, China was ostracized by the Western international community. From 1949 to the mid- to late-1970s, numerous visitors to the PRC, of whom the Tel Quel group represented only a small fraction, arrived from both socialist and non-socialist countries. Under the Cold War context they became influential representatives whose testimonies could shape global perceptions of the new socialist state. Tourism thus functioned as an important site of negotiation between East and West as the PRC presented itself to Westerners on its own turf and its own terms. As the CCP sought to build a strong state in spite of the West’s non-recognition, to resist the forces of imperialism that had controlled China’s fate, and to position itself as a leader for other non-Western decolonizing states, crafting tourist experiences for both politically antagonistic and politically sympathetic parties became critical and complicated tasks.
Photo source: Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 174