Darwin H. Tsen, Anxiety as Method: Maoist Aesthetics and Cultural Capital in the Post-Revolution, a Review of and Response to Jennifer Dorothy Lee’s Anxiety Aesthetics: Maoist Legacies in China

Anxiety Aesthetics: Maoist Legacies in China, 1978-1985. By Jennifer Dorothy Lee. Oakland: University of California Press, 2024. xiv + 193 pp. Hardcover: $85, Paperback: $34.99.

How does one forge on when – there is no official bugle but a total eclipse in the heart – the revolution is over? Against conventional historiography of post-Reform Chinese art and with painstaking detail and analytical virtuosity, Jennifer Dorothy Lee’s Anxiety Aesthetics: Maoist Legacies in China conceptualizes how artists and intellectuals both repudiated and continued the revolutionary legacies of Maoism in their works. The book paints a fresh picture of the 1978-1985 period as one of labored beginnings in relation to Maoism’s influence, an era that is commonly overshadowed by the 1978-1979 Democracy Wall movement and treated as a clean break from Mao Zedong’s legacy by other scholars. Supported by Raymond Williams’ schema of the “dominant, residual, and emergent” (Williams, 121-127), central to Lee’s study is “anxiety”, a structure of feeling that drives the artists to reinvent the wheels that bind together the personal, political, and national. Anxiety Aesthetics is therefore a text about transitions, adaptations, and even hauntings and survivals. 

Lee structures the monograph into six chapters, with the introduction kicking it off with the philosopher Li Zehou’s observations of the second showing of the Stars art group in 1980. This introduces the historical and theoretical stakes of the project, where the anxious push-and-pull dynamic between Maoist legacies and new opportunities presented by the reform era are established. Lee then uses chapter 1, “Democracy Walls”, to establish a media-centered account to capture the larger context around the Stars – although she does not exceptionalize the Stars’ shine; she focuses on how citizens’ journals (minkan), the relationship between the bulletin walls and big-/small-character posters dazibao/xiaozibao, and photography created a post-Mao moment for art and social engagement that can be figured as a prehistory for later Chinese art developments. Chapter 2, “Memorializing Huang Rui’s Beijing”, documents how a semi-reluctant participant in the Democracy Wall Movement shifts his style as the movement subsides.  Huang moves from sketching disembodied, energetic limbs to painting abstract, geometric shapes where human subjects come up against the monumentality of Beijing’s walls, whether such walls are from palaces or alleyway hutongs. The third chapter and one of the book’s most theoretical, “Wu Guanzhong’s Abstract Expression”, shows us how Wu the painter and critic mobilizes socialist ideas on science and abstraction to perform a subterranean coup against socialist realism, establishing a value proposition for abstract art and future forms of cultural capital. I will elaborate on the importance of this later.

Chapter 4, “The Serial Images of Qu Leilei” is perhaps my favorite. Here, Lee deftly examines how the sketches and captions in Qu’s diary entries showcase a dialectical struggle between his anxious feelings towards lack of the revolution’s closure, the language choices that implicate himself and the audience as post-revolutionary “citizens”, and how his work unwittingly turned collective forms of political art into the seeds of privatizable expression. Out of the entire book, this chapter best bridges the historical context, the affective intensity of anxiety, and how it relates to the greater structure of feeling into a satisfying whole. Chapter 5, “Do Androids Dream of Me?” arguably provides us with the final “villain” of Anxiety Aesthetics’ narrative arc, the literary scholar Liu Zaifu. Not only does Liu produce a strongly individual-centered vision of writerly subjectivity through the metaphor of a computerized manufacturer, but Lee adroitly detects a chauvinist bent in Liu’s discourse. However, this gender critique never quite bubbles to the surface in the chapter. 

To sum up, the chapters in Anxiety Aesthetics are strong in relation to one another and as standalone sagas, but there seems to be a disconnect between anxiety aesthetics as a structure of feeling and the individual artists and thinkers toiling in the post-Mao interim. That is, it is not entirely clear, barring the chapter on Qu Leilei, how each particular figure interpolates themselves through the depersonalized affects and emotions of anxiety, other than already being a part of a larger milieu that is suffused with it as a socio-political mode of being. If anxiety works like a structural unconscious, then how are artists and intellectuals who claim not to be affected by it still within its reach? 

This, then, leads to my response to the book as a whole. Lee’s aim to show the radical ambiguities and innovations of Anxiety Aesthetic’s four artists in relation to formal and informal institutions during the post-Mao interregnum – as something far more complex and fraught than a “break” – is successful. On those grounds alone, this book is worth reading carefully. While I appreciate Lee’s focus on evaluating the (dis)continuities of Maoism in these artists and critics on the merits of their own period – with the present landscape of a highly commercialized Chinese marketplace of art looming as a specter – I can’t help but wonder if the stakes could be brought into sharper focus by introducing a connective framework between the 1978-85 period with the contemporary artworld and its specific logics of capital accumulation. I sense a particularly fecund opportunity in expanding and considering “anxiety” (youhuan yishi) not only as an intellectual and artistic mode under duress, but also as a process that mediates between a crisis and the accumulation of (cultural) capital; anxiety might be capable of imagining solutions to a crisis, but such solutions may not always produce the benefits it desires.

Let’s return to the moment in the text where “anxiety” gets welded to the multiple connotations of youhuan yishi. Lee cites Gloria Davies to explain how youhuan yishi functions as a mode that has its roots from Mencius of the Warring States, Fan Zhongyan of the Song era, which then finds its modern expression in the twentieth century and beyond, before joining it to anxiety through the related concept of tension, jinzhang (Lee, 13-15). Davies’ own study provided this loose genealogy of youhuan as her text mostly focused on illustrating the contemporary discursive formations of “worrying” (her choice for rendering youhuan yishi) in comparison with Anglophone critical discourse. Lee and Davies’ historicization of youhuan yishi, I believe, is meant to institute a distinction between its pre-modern versions and its twentieth century and post-Mao iterations. However, I believe there was a missed opportunity to stress the continuities of youhuan yishi between the pre-Confucian (Mencius), medieval (Fan Zhongyan), the early Republican (say, any prominent reformist or revolutionary intellectual of that time), and the post-Mao era (the four artists in Lee’s monographs from the Liberals and New Left intellectuals today): which is to say that under both the Confucian bureaucratic system and its current role in intellectual debates, youhuan yishi is a mode through which individuals and groups accrue cultural capital by positioning their intelligence, moral, and ethical views as something “in the common higher interest of improving Chinese society and culture” (Davies, 11). What does differentiate anxious and worrying intellectuals and artists in the contemporary era from their premodern counterparts, though, is that they are functioning in the age of global capital where China is but a part, hence they consciously or unconsciously pit modalities of the nation, state, and civilization against a much larger behemoth. 

One’s prescriptions may not actually hit their marks but instead become commodified in the marketplace. Pierre Bourdieu has stressed that forms of exchange that are purportedly “disinterested” in mercantile economic activity are still crucial in ensuring the two-way transubstantiation of “immaterial form[s] of cultural capital or social capital” (Bourdieu, 16). Does not the anxiety aesthetic not – with its focus on interest, concern, and voluntarism – function like a valve that regulates and converts the flows of cultural capital from Maoist deadstock into reform-era surplus? By combining anxiety with cultural capital, I believe we can further make sense of the tension between anxiety as a structure of feeling, the subjectivity of the individual artists & thinkers, as well as the gap between aesthetic praxis and its socio-economic afterlives. A crisis always capitalizes – even from those who aim to solve it. 

Back to our four cases. Generative points of entry into thinking about anxiety as a form of cultural capital emerge when we consider Anxiety Aesthetics through the lens of its narrative progression, which is to say, through a cognitive mapping of the relationships between its individual case studies. If we accept that there is, indeed, a constitutive disjuncture or tension between anxiety aesthetics as a structure of feeling and the subjectivity of the individual artists and thinkers, then it stands to reason that Huang, Wu, Qu, and Liu occupy differing and possibly conflicting positions on the uneven cultural terrain of Lee’s topography of the post-Mao transition period. Huang Rui takes up a mediator role, between the artistic forces representing independent minkan/dazibao/xiaozibao and those representing official institutions; Wu Guanzhong inhabits the promoter role, lionizing the value-to-come of an aesthetics of abstraction vis-à-vis Marxist scientific rationality; Qu Leilei is the melancholic mourner, whose diary entries simultaneously facilitated a public and private mediation of the end of Maoist artistic subjectivity, with the scales tipping towards the privatization of such sentiments into value; Liu Zaifu is the middle manager who directly converts the Maoist revolutionary into an artist-as-production-line operator, a metaphor that is ready-made in collusion with the post-reform era’s consumer subjectivity. These roles compete and complement one another, while ultimately contributing to the politico-economic unconscious of the dawn of the Open and Reform era. 

This process happens, Lee argues, through the structure of “anxiety” (youhuan yishi), which itself is tapped into the matrices of cultural capital. Each embodied role I name above bears a differing relationship to its object of anxiety in the landscape of Anxiety Aesthetics: the “end without closure” of the Maoist political and aesthetic regime. As they lament, Huang and Qu devise ways to extend the spirit of Maoist voluntarism into new endeavors that both continue and breakaway from it, even as this still cumulates into latter-day fame and prestige. But here I want to focus on Wu and Liu, because through their purported “anxiety” towards the artistic and intellectual climate, they actively antagonized and emptied out their opponents and competitors’ grip on older Maoist tenets, in a bid to restore the primacy of intellectual and artistic work in the hierarchy of labor. Liu Zaifu’s contempt and animus towards the results of Maoist aesthetic education are barely contained as he laments that “the aesthetic subjectivity of my nation’s artistic recipients has been lost, because the structure of the aesthetic mind itself has suffered grave damage, deformity, simplification and vulgarization” (Lee 139). Wu Guanzhong, as Lee demonstrated, adroitly swapped out the “likeness” (xiang) in “image” (xingxiang) in favor of “form” (xingshi), claiming that “[f]ormal beauty is one loop in the hinge of fine art making. It is the unique technique with which we serve the people” (Lee, 92). Liu’s and Wu’s operations here relied on a dual “invisibility”: their attacks had to first resonate in a cultural context where euphemisms and metonymy with respect to Maoism were visible by both friend and foe; and second, the same codes must also simultaneously had to attain a sheer of opaque, “bloodless” neutrality for its other audience members who were not as attuned to the discursive field and yet potentially would find such ideas attractive (Lee, 92). “Anxiety” is therefore wielded as a cudgel for their wars of positioning in the vacuum left by the swiftly exiting master narrative.

Lee’s initial formulation of the anxiety aesthetic in the introduction, “as the site of a persistent revolutionary episteme, an order of knowing the world through both radical practices and the language of socialist materialist logic” (Lee, 11), then, could perhaps benefit from an addendum: the anxiety aesthetic is also a (de-)revolutionary episteme. All four cases (Huang, Wu, Qu, and Liu) started from a Marxist-Maoist-Humanist perspective, yet the most prominent aspect of their legacy today is the stripping away of the Marxist and the Maoist, often with only the Humanist remaining from the 1990s to the 2000s: this eventually transforms into the humanism of the Chinese liberal Right (ziyoupai), who, according to Chaohua Wang, at its most contradictory “stand firm on the need for human rights and rule of law…[while] welcom[ing] the spread of the market…protesting at its distortion and corruption by political power, but not at its social extent” (Wang, 36). Does this not also describe the abstracting power of capital itself, its ability to commodify and pacify ideas that would threaten it while creating exchange value out of its enemies? A pair of hospitable and hostile protagonists mapped onto divergent coordinates of the transitional terrain of Maoist aesthetics notwithstanding, all their endeavors are captured in a vortex where the accrual of cultural capital heralds the accumulation of capital itself in the 1980s. And yet, the market – and its butler, the marketplace of ideas – will always be a fickle lord indeed: barely a decade later, as Jason McGrath describes in his discussion of the “humanist spirit” debate starting in 1993, the trifecta of modernization, enlightenment, and market reforms supported by the Chinese intellectual elite yielded not a robust humanist subject but rather a consumerist one (McGrath, 27). And not unlike Liu Zaifu before them, the scholars involved in the humanist spirit debate mobilized the language of crisis/anxiety to reposition and survive in a shifting field of cultural production in which they were bleeding (cultural) capital. By declaring that “an entire century’s tradition of literature’s importance in the life of the nation was coming to an end” (McGrath, 29), the humanist spirit debate proponents once again invoked youhuan yishi, now as a mechanism of cultural capital accumulation that thrives in moments of crisis, transition, and newness. 

But “anxiety” (youhuan yishi) both is and isn’t unique to the Chinese context, and readers not laboring in this field will still find broad, transferable valences from Lee’s study. According to Fredric Jameson, “anxiety” can be understood as a particular iteration of capitalist modernity’s constant drive which “allows for the return of the category of a break, even though it has become internalized as little more than the infinite repetition of the process itself” (Jameson, 91). Anxiety does not seek equilibrium or moderation, but instead craves innovation and velocity in order to break out of what it perceives as a rut; although anxiety treats every crisis or problem as a new and pressing one, its tendency towards solving it has already seen “infinite repetitions”. At the risk of transhistoricizing anxiety, we must note that even if anxiety has historically contributed to moments that challenge the capitalist order – such as the 1930s Maoist slogans about tension, “Unity, tension, seriousness, and liveliness!” (Lee, 14) – in a socialist or communist idiom, it still possesses a strong affinity with the accumulation of cultural and actual capital under capitalist modernity. One digressive lesson of Anxiety Aesthetics thus could be that: anxiety (youhuan yishi) must be afforded as an affective-cultural-economic complement to the analysis of a crisis. That’s because anxiety, as a concept, is adept at three things: first, it excels in mapping individual subjects’ reactions to the larger structure of feeling of crisis; second, it shows how the solutions conceived by anxiety diverge from its intended effects; and third, anxiety can disclose the affective and intellectual gap between the individual subjects and the crisis as a whole. And a final provocation: could anxiety, with its heavily medicalized connotations in today’s Euro-American context and its more conventional translation as jiaolü (焦虑), be more fruitfully bridged with the theoretical resources of melancholy (youyü 忧郁)? For Sigmund Freud, melancholy consists of an emotional state where we know “whom [we have] lost but not what [we have lost in us]” (256); for the artists Lee explores in China’s transition period, Mao is gone, but they didn’t yet know how Maoism was leaving them. Anxiety joins melancholy as its follow-up act: it brings to the table the recognition that “we know what we have lost in us, but not what we are now anxious to create.” And their anxious creations will indeed take on a life of their own. 

I will close by looking back to the future. The anxieties of artists during the post-Mao interregnum put on display by Jennifer Dorothy Lee may provide not only a diagnostic function, but perhaps a prophetic one as well. The conclusion, with its deliberate openness, prompts the reader to mobilize the book’s insights on monumentality and the mediatic qualities of art towards the social movements of our day and age (during Lee’s writing it was Hong Kong; today, it might be Palestine). It also makes a claim on the ex post facto nature of intellectual work in relation to the arts, and the incomplete closure such labors bring, as Lee exclaims how the “foreclosure of the [Beijing] Spring…extends far beyond 1980 and stands today for the sheer impossibility of its repetition” (Lee, 149). The challenge that the concept of anxiety (youhuan yishi) and the path of post-Mao artists pose to us, would ultimately be: how can we repeat this aperture of openness differently in the future, in a prophetic way informed by the past? And all of this, against the constant encroachment of amnesia staring down the wishes for collective liberation from each and every generation. 

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Forms of Capital.” Richardson, J. Ed. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Westport: Greenwood. 1986. p.241-58.  

Davies, Gloria. Worrying about China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIV (1914-1916). Tr. James Strachey and Anna Freud. London: The Hogarth Press. 1957.

Jameson, Fredric. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. New York: Verso, 2002.

Lee, Jennifer Dorothy. Anxiety Aesthetics: Maoist Legacies in China, 1978-1985. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2024. 

McGrath, Jason.  Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age. Stanford: University of Stanford Press, 2008.

Wang, Chaohua Ed. One China, Many Paths. New York: Verso, 2003. 

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.