Episode 2 - Chronicling Clothing & Culture: Communist China

Step behind the Bamboo Curtain with author Vivian Bi whose latest novel "Dragon's Gate" explores the impact of Mao’s Communist China on the China's cultural landscape

By Sherman Centre for Culture & Ideas

SCCI Virtual Fashion Hub 2020

In this episode of SCCI Virtual Fashion Hub 2020, Chronicling Clothing & Culture: Communist China, we step behind the Bamboo Curtain with Vivian Bi, a woman who, as a motherless girl of fifteen years-old, was labelled “of bad origins” in Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1972. Determined to live a full life her mother had known, she seized every chance and made choices where there appeared to be none. Eventually moving to Australia, Bi penned the acclaimed memoir Bright Swallow: Making Choices in Mao’s China (2019), a work celebrating resilience, the power of literature, music and the imagination, paying tribute to the people who retained fundamental human decency and kept the flame of creative self-expression alive under adverse circumstances.

In conversation with cultural facilitator and translator, Jane Sydenham-Kwiet, Bi describes the background of Mao’s Communist China and its impact on China’s cultural landscape as depicted in her 2020-published novel, Dragon’s Gate.

Following several decades of civil and world war, foreign aggression and internecine political strife, the Communist Party took control of China and Chairman Mao Zedong assumed the seat of power. At the ceremony in Tiananmen marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Zedong commenced his term in office, crucially wearing what would later become known as the ‘Chairman Mao Suit’. Symbolically signalling the inauguration of a social revolution, the romanticisation of the ‘proletariat’ also marked the beginnings of a sartorial revolution which would reverberate through mainland China for decades to come. Clothing became a contentious battleground, with bourgeois ‘foreign’ garments being supplanted by traditional ‘feudal’ dress. What’s more, the Red Guard often forcibly encouraged PRC citizens to adopt the attire of workers, peasants and soldiers – in short, those who were regarded as the ultimate benefactors of the state.

"Dragon's Gate" by Vivian Bi (Hybrid Publishers, 2020)

Beijing teenager, Shi Ding, is thriving during the Cultural Revolution. He has won acclaim for his storytelling and for his clever entrapment of class enemies, especially those seeking to escape punishment through suicide. Suddenly, his father kills himself. Grief-stricken and now the son of a suspicious suicide, Shi Ding finds himself ostracised. Why did his father do it? Did it have something to do with that attractive neighbour, the university professor? Before he can learn more, the woman kills herself too. Ordered to guard her home, Shi Ding becomes enthralled by her library of banned world classics. He devours their stories, obsessed with finding a way to share them with a story-starved populace. But how, when doing so is dangerous? The title is based on a Sichuan idiom for telling a story: “scaffolding the dragon’s gate”.

Chronicling Clothing & Culture: Communist China, Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas, 2020-04-16, From the collection of: Sherman Centre for Culture & Ideas
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Episode 2 - Chronicling Clothing & Culture: Communist China

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