The Sideways Gaze: Roland Barthes’s Travels in China

The Sideways Gaze: Roland Barthes’s Travels in China by Dora Zhang

A unique record of Barthes’s failure to offer a portrait of China.

June 23rd, 2012 reset - +

LATELY THE POSTHUMOUS CORPUS of Roland Barthes has been growing at a rate that rivals Tupac Shakur’s. (Can a hologram Barthes be far behind?) Recent years have witnessed the publication of lecture notes from his last seminars at the Collège de France (Preparation of the Novel) as well as the journals he kept following the death of his mother (Mourning Diary). The latest addition to his English catalogue is Travels in China, a translation of his notebooks from a three-week trip there in 1974 with a delegation from the French literary review Tel Quel.

In France, the publication of Barthes’s private notebooks and journals (Carnets du voyage en Chine and Journal de deuil both appeared in 2009) spurred a round of contentious debate about the ethics of looting a dead writer’s archives. (Somewhere, no doubt, Max Brod is sighing with sympathy.) It’s not hard to attribute the spate of posthumous publications to the mercenary incentive to squeeze every last drop out of an author with any degree of fame. If we’re feeling a little more charitable, we might also see them as testaments to the desire for more of a distinctive voice and a singular intelligence. Each death of a major intellectual figure seems to prompt a flurry of new publications of old material, much of it scraps, all of it suggesting an inability to accept that no more words will issue from that pen, a kind of disbelief that the author is, at last, really and truly dead.

As an addition to Barthes’s oeuvre, Travels in China is a somewhat tepid offering, with little of the verve his best work displays. But it adds important testimony to the collection of accounts of the now almost-mythic trip undertaken by “Tel Quel and Friends” — the culmination of a period of intense interest in China among the radical French Left — and the book thus has considerable interest.

Tel Quel and Friends

There they are in the photo, standing in Tiananmen Square: four Westerners in flared trousers, and their two Chinese guides, dressed somberly in black. Only one man, standing confidently in the center, is smiling directly at the camera: Philippe Sollers, novelist, editor, and, for the time being, ardent Maoist. Next to him is Marcelin Pleynet, art critic and poet, holding what appears to be a camera. At one edge of the group, looking offstage, is François Wahl, philosopher and editor at the publishing house Éditions du Seuil. Barthes, the only one in a tie, stands a little behind the others, wearing a slight frown. Behind the lens, we can infer from her absence, is the feminist semiotician Julia Kristeva. (A scheduled sixth member of the delegation, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, pulled out at the last minute. Alas, we are left to wonder what the good doctor would have made of the conversation in a Shanghai hospital where the group was informed, as Barthes tells it, that mental illnesses are “cured by materialist Dialectic.”)

Though less than a household name in the US, Tel Quel (1960–1982), founded by Sollers and Jean-Edern Hallier, was at the center of postwar intellectual life in France. Its contributors included most of the luminaries in the French intellectual firmament, many of whom would also go on to shape the humanities in the American academy: Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, and, of course, Barthes. The journal brought continental recognition to foreign writers like Ezra Pound and Jorge Luis Borges, fostered the work of contemporary French avant-garde authors (not least among them Sollers himself), and revived the critical reputations of a host of ignored or neglected ones, including Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade. While primarily a literary journal, for a time Tel Quel also dabbled in radical politics; the Chinese trip in 1974 was undertaken at the height of the group’s enthusiasm for Mao Zedong and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution he had launched, which they hailed as “the greatest event of our time.” They went to China in order to witness (and participate in) a true revolution, whose message they would return to France to disseminate. For the Tel Quel group, it was a way to authenticate their status as militant radicals; and for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it was a chance to bolster the image of the country abroad.

Tel Quel’s sojourn in the People’s Republic has been thoroughly recounted and appraised, in some cases multiple times, by all those who went: a series of articles by Wahl, books by Kristeva and Pleynet, essays by Sollers, and a special issue of the journal dedicated to a report of the trip. Barthes, however, has said little on the subject. With the exception of a short piece entitled “Alors, la Chine?” (“So, What About China?”) published in the newspaper Le Monde a few weeks after the group’s return, we’ve had no statement from him on this trip until thirty-five years later, when his notebooks from the trip were published in France as Carnets du voyage en Chine. Travels in China is the competent English translation of that text, complete with footnotes provided by its French editor, which help to fill in some of the history and context of the names and places mentioned (occasional transliteration mistakes aside).

Not that Travels in China is a “statement,” exactly. The English version notably omits the “carnets” or “notebooks” of its French title, suggesting a more definitive document than is in fact on offer. The three notebooks that make up Travels in China record impressions of what Barthes sees, hears, eats, and thinks in the present tense, so that we feel as if we’re perched on his shoulder, watching the events unfold in real time. Written in incomplete sentences and often composed of lists, the entries sometimes read like stage directions in a play, setting the a scene in a few rapid strokes. Of the arrival in Beijing, for instance, we get: “Airport lounge: plain, austere. Leather chairs. Switzerland fifty years ago.” Such descriptions are interspersed with Barthes’s commentary in parentheses, often amused and irritated. Of little girls performing a revolutionary ballet, he remarks, “Oh dear, they have smiles like air hostesses”; and listening to a philosophy professor expounding on Marxism elicits the tart observation, “an answer to everything straight from the Corpus, from the Vulgate: an excellent priest. Worthy to teach the catechism!”

As with any journal, the interest of Travels in China lies at least as much in what the notebooks reveals about its author as its subject. We learn, for instance, that Barthes prefers urban settings (“at last, a City,” he exclaims upon returning to Beijing at the end of the trip), is revived by shopping, obsessively notices hands and nails, and thinks a lot about sex (looking out the window of his hotel in Shanghai, “at other times, a paradise to live here – the quayside down there for cruising…”). At its best, the effect is a little like watching a film with a friend who whispers asides every so often in your ear. There are indeed a number of endearing moments when we feel privy to the incidental confidences of a close companion, as when Barthes confesses on the flight over, “If I were to be executed, I’d ask people not to bank on my courage. I’d like to be able to get slightly drunk beforehand (on Champagne and food).”

Mostly, though, the notebooks document his frustration with the guided tour organized by the Chinese Luxingshe, the official tourist company that supervised the group’s every move. The Telquelians’ itinerary, the only one on offer for Western visitors at that time, included visits to factories, agricultural collectives, schools, and hospitals, as well as museums, historical sites, and revolutionary opera performances, all of it carefully planned to prevent any straying from the Party’s ideological path. ”Tourism of Kings. The whole trip: behind the double-glazed window of language and the Agency,” Barthes records glumly. The English publisher’s blurb bills the book as providing “a unique portrait of China at a time of turbulence and change seen through the eyes of the world’s greatest semiotician,” but it would be more accurate to call it a unique record of Barthes’s failure to offer a portrait of China.


The China visited by the French delegation in 1974 was in the last stages of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, begun almost a decade earlier. As political scientist Richard Curt Kraus recounts in The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, during the period’s first phase (1966–1967), Red Guards, mostly bands of students, carried out violent acts of destruction in demonstrations of protest against state authorities. Mobilizing this discontent against the ruling elite, Mao managed to oust many of the CCP’s top leaders, restoring him to absolute control of the Party (which he had lost after his ill-conceived Great Leap Forward in the late fifties and early sixties led to a catastrophic famine that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions). The second phase of the Cultural Revolution (1968 to Mao’s death in 1976) involved containing rebel forces and consolidating power, as universities were closed and masses of urban youth, many of them former Red Guards, were exiled to reeducation labor camps in the countryside. During this repressive period, in which widespread social engineering programs denied individual choices and tore apart families, the country was steeped in pervasive paranoia, often erupting into brutal violence.

Because China had increasingly isolated itself, barring access to foreigners, details about actual conditions there were not well known in France in the late sixties, when swathes of Parisian intelligentsia were ablaze with Maoist fervor. This fervor burned particularly brightly in the Rue Jacob offices of Tel Quel, where Kristeva and Sollers, two central members of the editorial committee, already had a long-standing interest in China. As chronicled by the literary critic Eric Hayot in his book Chinese Dreams, their fascination unfolded along two dimensions: the aesthetic (classical Chinese poetry and the ideographic language) and the political (a different strain of Marxism), which, they hoped, would be combined in a truly cultural revolution.

Tel Quel’s ardent Sinophilia (which caused internal fractures, as the editorial board was not unanimous on this front) took place amidst a backdrop of upheaval among the Left in the wake of the 1968 protests in Paris. The French Communist Party (PCF) sided with the USSR after the Sino-Soviet split, and was highly critical of both the Cultural Revolution and its European cheerleaders. Tel Quel broke rancorously with the PCF in 1971, declaring its support of Maoism as the true, uncompromising radical movement. That summer, the journal’s offices were covered with dazibao, revolutionary posters written in large characters typical of the Cultural Revolution. And Tel Quel’s autumn issue of 1971 — one that was, incidentally, dedicated to Barthes — carried a manifesto entitled “Positions of the June 71 Movement,” which ended in classic Maoist style, “Down with dogmatism, empiricism, opportunism, revisionism! Long live the real avant-garde! Long live Maozedong-thought!” It shouldn’t be too surprising that the contents of this manifesto concerned mostly French rather than Chinese politics, but the group would also go on to dedicate a special double issue to explicating China’s culture and thought, and to publish translations of the Chinese poet Lu Xun, as well as of Mao’s own writings.

Tel Quel’s passion for China was, at best, only ambivalently shared by Barthes. His own interest — such as it was — had been piqued less by any enthusiasm for Mao than by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 documentary, Chung Kuo, Cina, made at the invitation of the CCP with the aim of introducing China to the West, and subsequently denounced by the Party for not focusing enough on the country’s new industrial accomplishments. If he were to publish his notebooks as written, Barthes reflects at the end of the trip, “it would be exactly a piece of Antonioni. But what else can I do?” “Approving” and “criticizing” were equally impossible choices. The only alternative is “describing a stay in no particular order. Phenomenology.”

But Barthes didn’t publish the notebooks during his lifetime, suggesting that his attempts at phenomenology also left something to be desired. He is hesitant from the beginning about what could be gleaned from the trip, confessing early on, “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 alors, la Chine? but alors, la France?” By the end of the three weeks, this view is only strengthened. “Nobody, whatever the length and conditions of his or her stay, manages to force it open at any point…Any book on China cannot help but be exoscopic.”

These reservations notwithstanding, he did attempt to answer anyway the question “alors, la chine?” in the 1974 article of that name in Le Monde. In that not particularly penetrating text, he dismisses the country as bland, peaceful, and largely uninteresting, and concludes that it presented “very little to be read except its political Text,” which was “sizzling with energy” beneath its crust of plodding commonplaces. Perhaps Barthes felt pressure at the time not to offend his radical friends, who had staked much of their political credibility on their insistence that Mao was not another Stalin. In any case, there is little trace of any such belief in China’s “sizzling energy” in the notebooks, which record far greater mistrust of the political doxa.

The journals, while more clear-sighted about the limitations of his knowledge and judgment, nevertheless confirm what we already know from previous accounts: the trip was a dud. Barthes is bored, sometimes staying on the bus while the others go off to sightsee. He feels keenly the deprivation of “coffee, salad, flirting,” and suffers from constant migraines and insomnia. Aside from the cuisine (which he loves), the calligraphy (elegant, counter-vulgarity), and the children (sometimes interesting; the only potentially anarchic element), the country strikes him as drab and dull. He can’t get over the absolute uniformity of the clothes — we’re talking, after all, about the author of The Fashion System — which erases all sexual difference and suppresses all eroticism: “But wherever do they put their sexuality?” While visiting the Longmen Caves — a historic site with huge wall-carvings dating back to 493 AD — Barthes is impressed, but retains his sense of priorities: “And with all this,” he reflects in an aside, “I won’t have seen the kiki of a single Chinese man. And what can you know about a people, if you don’t know their sex?” (The most he manages is to hold the hand of an attractive worker for a few minutes, although in The Samurai, Kristeva’s 1990 roman à clef, she imagines Barthes having a hallucinatory dream in which he is seized after attempting to pick up a young man, tried publicly in front of the “people’s court,” and sentenced to a year of re-education at a rural labor camp.)

Wherever they go, be it to printing presses, tractor factories, rural communes, elementary schools, or hospitals, they run up against the same “bricks” over and over again: “Doxa…made up by cementing together blocks of stereotypes”; the propagandistic narratives, slogans, and clichés of the CCP. At the time of Tel Quel’s visit, a nationwide propaganda campaign known as “Pi-Lin, Pi-Kong” (Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius) was in full swing. Lin Biao was a former military hero and Mao’s personally-named successor — he died in a mysterious plane crash in 1971 after accusations of plotting a coup. His name became yoked together with Confucius as one-size-fits-all villains of revisionism and tradition: “a scapegoat who can be made to fit every occasion, every couple of minutes,” Barthes surmises after a few short days and umpteen diatribes.

At first, he dutifully records the facts and figures that are recited at every stop, noting the set narrative “lines” comparing the present reality and the period “before the Liberation” to heaven and earth, or the paeans to the limitless powers of Maozedong thought. But he grows increasingly bored and impatient with the pat responses and vague generalities, and very soon begins to annotate these speeches with a simple “Etc. (I’m fed up with this.).” The language of totalitarianism forecloses not only surprise but also subtlety and nuance: the entire order of the implicit, in fact, since the very possibility of latent meaning poses a threat. It’s not hard to see why Barthes, dedicated always to the something else in what is said, would have found China in 1974 so unsuited to his constitution.


The Tel Quel expedition was not Barthes’s first time in Asia, of course. An earlier trip to Japan had already occasioned a dazzling book, Empire of Signs, which acknowledges at the very outset that it is not an analysis of a historical and cultural reality but the fashioning of a “novelistic object” out of the flashes of an actual country. What’s at stake, he avers, isn’t the discovery of an “Oriental essence”; Japan is not to be construed as an object of knowledge to be apprehended through history books or statistics. Barthes’s relationship to the country, as to most things in his experience, remains determinedly textual, literary. More than anything, Japan “afforded him a situation of writing”: by being different from the West, it allowed him to entertain “the possibility of…a revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems,” essentially the same dream of Sollers and Kristeva, though they located theirs in China.

For Barthes, however, China is “not at all exotic, not at all disorienting,” and by that same token, he finds it utterly uninspiring. The country offers him nothing to work with, nothing like pachinko or haiku; it remains stubbornly opaque and devoid of nuance. “All these notes will probably attest to the failure, in this country, of my writing (in comparison with Japan),” he admits. “In fact, I can’t find anything to note down, to enumerate, to classify.” He makes a few half-hearted attempts at semiotic flight — calling the ubiquitous tea thermoses “fetish objects,” for instance — but these never really get off the ground.

Chinois” in French can mean bizarre, complicated, or incomprehensible: “c’est du chinois” functions much the same way that “it’s all Greek to me” does in English. (Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 film La Chinoise, about a group of young French Maoists, plays on just this meaning.) But the surprising fact revealed by the notebooks is that China is not, for Barthes, particularly chinois at all. His disappointment at the country’s lack of foreignness is echoed by some of his companions, who feel they might as well be in East Berlin, or some Soviet country. For the Sinophiles among the French Left, China held the promise of revolution only insofar as it was essentially different from the West and from models of existing communism. By coming to the country, the Telquelians’ disappointment was the result of, as Michael Wood put it in his 2009 review of Carnets du voyage en Chine in the London Review of Books, “an over-exposure to an anti-aura.”

Barthes shares this disappointment, but in his own inimitable style. His “incredible absence of disorientation” (and attendant boredom) manifests in seeing everywhere in China reminders of France: it was the same old, but worse. Inveterately Gallicentric by his own admission, he finds the landscape outside the train windows just like Beauce or the South-West. “The first thing that needs to be said about China is that there are many plane trees. Frenchness.” Perhaps spurred on by homesickness, he often sees resemblances to familiar faces: an emaciated writer in a cap reminds him of Michel Foucault, the caricatures of Lin Biao look like André Gide, a worker at a textile factory in Xian “somewhat resembles Marguerite Duras,” and a distinguished old man in a brown suit is “très Aragon.” Even the animals are not immune. At a zoo in Nanjing, “Two white peacocks spread their tails. One peacock cries ‘Léon Léon’ (not in Chinese?).”

However much of France Barthes sees in China, he is, at any rate aware that he is not really seeing China at all. Aside from the barriers imposed by the Telquelians’ linguistic ignorance (Kristeva knew a little Chinese, the others none) and cultural differences, the tight rein of the Luxingshe prevented the occurrence of anything unexpected, allowing “no trace of an incident, a fold,” nothing surprising that could catch one off-guard. A single small exception occurs when Barthes happens upon an outdoor theater one evening and feels, for a moment, that he is witnessing life spontaneously unfolding. The episode only reinforces his sense that “it’s the continual presence, smooth as a tablecloth, of Agency officials that blocks, forbids, censors, rules out the possibility of the Surprise, the Incident, the Haiku.”

Japan was generative for Barthes because, although foreign, it remained susceptible to his mode of reading: everything that was strange only provided more fuel for his semiotic fire. Especially in his later writings, Barthes filters everything — meditations on politics no less than on photography or love — through his own person, writing, as he often insisted, from the body. But in China, he encounters a place that, though not particularly strange, is however also not susceptible to his mode of reading. “They have to be taken literally. They are not interpretable,” he writes of the Chinese. He could not make anything of them. Like flame-retardant fabric, the Maoist tablecloth laid out over the country seems to have successfully repelled all kindles of semiotic sparks. But Barthes’s inability to work his customary literary alchemy might also be put this way: he is not the right reader for China. There is something “behind the double-glazed window of language and the Agency,” but he cannot see what it is.


Barthes’s allergic reaction to the Communist propaganda the group was spoon-fed raises important questions about how to be a political subject that are as relevant now as ever. In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, an autobiography of sorts published shortly after the 1974 trip, he writes of himself in a section entitled “Sed contra”:

It is a kind of intellectual “sport”: he systematically goes where there is solidification of language, a consistency, a stereotypy. Like a watchful cook, he makes sure that language does not thicken, that it doesn’t stick.

But he also warns about “the risk” of this kind of contrarian sport: “since the stereotype shifts historically, politically, it must be followed wherever it goes: what is to be done if the stereotype goes left?” It is difficult to imagine that Barthes didn’t have in mind his friends’ credulity in the face of Maoist orthodoxy while he was writing this. But it’s not a condemnation. Wholehearted commitment to political struggle requires, in a way, the suspension of self-questioning about one’s beliefs. Without such conviction, why go on fighting? Barthes is too sensitive a thinker to call such commitment simply naïve. His conundrum is whether it’s possible to remain convinced while still holding one’s beliefs at a certain distance.

The other Telquelians have sometimes painted Barthes in their own accounts as an apolitical aesthete, uncomprehending of the pressing political issues that so absorbed the rest of them. Kristeva observed, in The Samurai, that he was far more interested in calm calligraphic engravings on tortoise shells than in garish revolutionary posters. “Deep down, Bréhal [Barthes’s stand-in] hoped he’d be able to restrict himself to the pleasure of signs…But he went out of his way to insist that he was fascinated by contemporary events in China too, to show he was still young and of the left.” Sollers sniffed in a response to the publication of the notebooks in 2009, “What was he reading in the train without looking at the often admirable landscape? Bouvard and Pécuchet. For my part, I was reading the Taoist classics.” (Barthes himself records this fact in his journals, wondering mischievously at one point, no doubt in front of one of the ubiquitous portraits of the communist fathers, “Marx and Engels (hairy): Bouvard and Pécuchet?”)

He seems to offer a kind of pre-emptive response to the charge of apoliticality in a section in Roland Barthes entitled “Brecht’s reproach of R. B.” “R. B., it seems, always wants to limit politics,” the section begins. Barthes acknowledges his inability to be committed à la Brecht (whom he greatly admired), but he maintains that his place, his milieu, is language.

To sacrifice his linguistic life to political discourse? He is quite willing to be a political subject but not a political speaker (the speaker: someone who delivers his discourse, recounts it, and at the same time apprises others of it, signs it).

It is, in a way, a warning about what happens when literariness — subtlety, nuance, the implicit — fails to find a place in political language. But Barthes also wonders if refusing to “speak” politically has to preclude all engagement. “It is as if he were the historical witness of a contradiction: that of a sensitive, avid, and silent political subject (these adjectives must not be separated).” Both the insistence on this conjunction and its delivery in parentheses are entirely Barthesian. How to be a political subject whose sensitivity and commitment does not have to be verbalized, much less broadcast, in order to be affirmed? The militant response might be dismissive: impossible to be silent when we need to mobilize! But the question remains, no less for Occupy than the Tea Party: how to be political speakers whose language does not thicken and stick?


In many ways, the trip to China marked the beginning of the end of Tel Quel’s political engagements. Although not all members of the group voiced their reservations immediately after their return, the journal’s editorials after 1974 no longer spoke of Mao or China with the same enthusiasm. The Autumn 1976 issue carried a note, “À propos ‘Maoism’,” which made explicit the group’s distance from their previous stance. It condemned the “current events unfolding in Beijing,” and concluded, “We must finish with myths, all myths.”

By the early seventies, details about the repressive practices of the Cultural Revolution were increasingly emerging in the West. In his history of Tel Quel, Philippe Forest calls their trip “the ‘damned spot’ which nothing can ever erase.” But since Forest means to be a sympathetic defender, he also adds,

The Telquelians believed that China would be for our time what Greece was for the Renaissance: an ignored continent would rise up and overturn from top to bottom the knowledge and thought of the West. How could anyone be reproached for having dreamed that dream?

From the present vantage point, four decades later, what seems perhaps strangest now is not that the Telquelians dreamed their revolutionary dream in Chinese. The sometimes willful blindness that was required to maintain it is another matter, but it’s easy to see why, disillusioned with existing models of communism both in the USSR and at home in France, they placed their hopes for true insurrection in a land that was still, for most Westerners, terra incognita. A place so differently constituted seemed uniquely capable of overturning the global order. And as steadfast champions of the avant-garde who prized novelty in all things as a virtue in itself, it’s not surprising that they would have been drawn to a movement whose ideology trumpeted the destruction of the “Four Olds” (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas). “Soviet Marxism had become completely ossified and stratified,” Philippe Sollers recalled in an interview in 1980:

China seemed to be the place where the revolutionary will was broadcast live. The extraordinary fact was that never before had any message come from China to the Western world. The simple slogan “the East wind triumphs over the West wind” seemed at that time to reverse the usual coordinates of the planet.

What seems most surprising now is not that the Telquelians would have believed in the promise of the Cultural Revolution — then, as now, intellectuals will take their revolutions wherever they can get them — but the nature of the revolutionary promise that they saw in China at that time. In our day, China stands once again at the center of speculations — often hand-wringing – about the possibility of a new world order. But the current East wind couldn’t be further from the one that seemed to portend the end of capitalism four decades ago. China’s rapid economic growth, beginning with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms after Mao’s death in 1976 and accelerating rapidly in recent years, needs no rehearsal here. The message that the country seems to be flashing in ever-brighter neon lights — “capitalism with Chinese characteristics,” as economist Yasheng Huang’s recent book is titled — is in many ways the antithesis of Mao’s dictums, even if the Chairman’s massive likeness continues to preside over the symbolic heart of the country in Tiananmen Square. China today seems to promise not to overhaul the global system of social relations, but to alter the positions of the players within the existing one. The real mistake of the Telquelians, then, was not to have supported the Cultural Revolution, but to have believed that it would usher in a global era of revitalized socialism.

But that’s too simple a story. In reckoning with China’s current rise in the global community, Richard Curt Kraus observes, a certain narrative of the Cultural Revolution serves to buoy a sense of Western moral superiority: “the economy was a shambles, education destroyed, but Deng Xiaoping rescued China by copying our free market.” Yet another illustration of the home truth that socialism doesn’t work, this line goes, and more pity for the fools who believed it might. But the remarkable economic and social changes after Mao’s death that have resulted in the country we know today cannot be cordoned off from the earlier period of revolutionary turmoil, even if the precise connections between these two seemingly radically different Chinas remain to be clarified. It would be too easy to simply dismiss the Cultural Revolution as a wholesale failure and its supporters as merely political naïfs.

Moreover, as Pankaj Mishra pointed out in a recent essay in The New Yorker, Maoism is alive and well in parts of the world, and recent insurgencies have been carried out under its banner in Nepal and India. Even in China, Mao’s name continues to be invoked admiringly in protests by migrant workers and the unemployed, even as the specter of the Cultural Revolution is summoned by the CCP to silence rumblings of social unrest. In the wake of the upheaval caused by the recent corruption charges against top official Bo Xilai, the historian Roderick MacFarqhuar wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, “The volatile society unleashed against the state by Mao almost 50 years ago bubbles like a cauldron.” There are some 500 demonstrations or riots every day against dictatorial local authorities, MacFarqhuar notes, concluding that the country’s New Class of wealthy elites will worry that the revelations about corruption at the top “have exposed them to the danger of the Bolsheviks coming back.”

Nor, of course, is China by any means the only place currently touched by civic unrest. As social protest movements like Occupy Wall Street in the United States, the indignados in Spain, and the student strikes in Québec continue to develop, questions about models of direct action and mass mobilization are once again pressing. Mao’s “Sinification” of a European tradition of revolution is still being debated among scholars, Mishra observes. And though the Telquelians may have long ago renounced their memberships, Maoism continues to have a powerful presence among contemporary French intellectuals on the left (Alain Badiou being one prominent flag-bearer).

Let’s be clear: the point is not that Maoism should be valorized, or that the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution should be whitewashed or condoned. I know well how horrific the conditions were: my parents grew up during this period; my father’s family in particular, who were blacklisted as counterrevolutionaries, suffered under its repressions. But the challenge, as Kraus writes, is to take the Cultural Revolution seriously. It was violent and devastating, yet it was also a source of genuine excitement — at home and abroad — about the possibilities of social change. And although it was a nationalist movement, it took place in the context of uprisings of radical youth all over the world in the 1960s and 1970s. The Maoist legacy, with all of its complexities, continues to demand our attention.

Most accounts of Tel Quel’s engagement with Mao and with China begin by dismissing it at the outset, taking their task to be one of explaining how a group of smart people could have been so stupid. What this approach never considers seriously is the idea that the Cultural Revolution — or Chinese thought — had anything substantive to offer. Although foreign fascination with China during this period was often naïve, Kraus argues, “it did mark a turn in which Westerners began seriously considering political ideas from Asia.” However much the French intellectuals may have projected onto China, what would the account of this eastward turn look like if we took their interest on good faith? That is, what if we took seriously the idea that China was flashing a message to the world, even if the Telquelians inevitably read it through their own filters?


Barthes’s position in all of this is anomalous, since he does not fall neatly into any category of leftist Sinophile. Travels in China contains no great insights into the geopolitical situation of the time; Barthes realizes quite early on that their tightly-monitored trip will yield nothing of the kind, even if he were the right reader to discover them, which is doubtful. In many ways it’s his acknowledgment of the pitfalls of trying to understand the other that is most insightful. After lunch with a group of Europeans who have lived in China for a long time, Barthes identifies two perspectives on the part of the foreigners. One attempts to speak “from the inside: clothes, rejection of the foreign restaurant, bus and not taxi, Chinese ‘comrades’, etc.” At the other end of the spectrum is the perspective that continues to see China from the point of view of the West. “These two gazes are, for me, wrong. The right gaze is a sideways gaze.”

And what about the gazes from the other side? Returning to the 1974 photograph of the Tel Quel delegation in Tiananmen Square, we might wonder about the two men in black, the translator-guides both Barthes and Kristeva offhandedly call Zhao No. 1 and Zhao No. 2. What were they thinking as they stood with this group of foreign intellectuals gazing into the camera? Did they too believe in a socialist ideal, or a nationalist dream? Or were they just working for a paycheck? Were they puzzled by the questions asked by the French? Bored, or surprised? If we are to understand this moment of encounter between East and West in a global history of radicalism, their voices, too, will surely need to be added to the still-growing collection of reports of Tel Quel in China. For his part, Barthes does not quite succeed in providing a portrait of the country seen from a sideways gaze, but Travels in China at least makes it clear that “alors la Chine?” remains very much an open question.


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