China’s Political Colours: From Monochrome to Palette

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom writes on the

A dramatic but largely unacknowledged shift has recently taken place in how the past is understood in China. One way to think about this Chinese transformation is to see it as a sort of “colour revolution” – albeit one very different from the associations this term has with the popular upheavals in Georgia or Ukraine.

Within a few years of Mao Zedong taking power after the communist victory of October 1949, a colour-scheme took shape in which the only parts of the past which could be celebrated were those considered to be completely “red” – that is, tied to the revolution and useful in adding to its lustre. But more than three decades after Mao’s death, China is making room for parts of its past that fall into two other colour-coded categories. It is no longer off-limits to praise things associated with the colour “blue” – which in China has sometimes been linked to the sea, and by extension objects and fashions coming from the west. The fall of another taboo is reflected in favourable comment about historical artefacts or figures regarded as “yellow” – which, in addition to certain sexual and pornographic connotations, conjures up traditional modes of thought and imperial rule.

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is China’s Brave New World-And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), and his next will be Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, forthcoming).

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