China Beat Archive



An Image


Date of this Version


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August 17, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright August 17, 2010. Used by permission.


There were 12 minutes and 28 seconds remaining.

I had never bid on eBay. It takes too much energy, too much attention to follow the vagaries of an online auction. And there never seems to be anything I want that badly. But I wanted that propaganda poster—a reproduction of an oil painting, mid-1970s—depicting, with the imagination and rhetorical power possible only in socialist realism, the May Fourth movement of 1919.

In the painting, the sky is clearing and clouds are dissipating behind the imposing presence of Tiananmen, which dominates the scene. The students, young men and women, are marching at the center, their facial expressions ranging from outrage to stern determination. They wear either the scholar’s long gown or Western-style suits; both kinds of attire identify them as belonging to the social group of “modern” students. And the fact that they indeed embody the forces of modernity, of progress against an essentialized tradition, is made very evident by the painter. One of their signs reads, “Down with the store of Confucius and Co.” while the notable presence of female students marching prominently in the forefront epitomizes the stance on gender equality.

11 minutes 15 seconds. I wanted it. I repressed the creeping sense of unease, took out my credit card, and placed a bid.

9 minutes 20 seconds. “You have been outbid.” Somebody else wants it? But who? And why? Who could want that? I tried to resist the urge, tried not to get sucked into this perverse poker-like game of raising the stakes. I am an intellectual, a historian; I am above the petty antiquarian lust for ownership, for artifacts. I trace trends, ideas, and lives. Right.

8 minutes 35 seconds. All true. But I am specifically a cultural historian. I work with materiality, I study representation, I analyze images. Why shouldn’t I own my subject matter?