The Red Sun Lights the Road Forward for Tachai

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Mao during the early 1960s was hanging on to power by a thread. The Great Leap Forward, which was supposed to bring industrialisation to China, had failed. Mao had spearheaded the collectivisation of agriculture and spurious agricultural theories that were supposed to produce a vast food surplus. This abundance of food would then be used to subsidise the development of modern industry and allow China to catch-up with the modern world. That was the theory. The reality was a man-made famine that caused the death of millions.

Much of the Chinese leadership turned against Mao after the nightmare of the Great Leap Forward. The problem was that they couldn’t get rid of him as he was a globally significant figurehead at a time when China was at odds with both its communist allies and the West. To have removed him from power would have been a sign of weakness that outsiders could have exploited. Also, as the charismatic father-figure of the Chinese revolution, who had united the country after decades of war and avenged the wounded national pride of a nation exploited by outsiders, he was immensely popular. In effect, Mao had become a substitute Emperor figure for a country that had been ruled by despotic leaders for millenia.

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So the rest of the Communist leadership cooked up a plan in the early 1960s to slowly and carefully shunt Mao to one side and relegate him to hand-shaking and ribbon-cutting duties. China would be ruled by practical men. A rational authoritarian government would  cautiously lead China from now on. They had tried Mao’s radical ideas and they had led to disaster. There was no way they were doing that again. But Mao struck first. Using his considerable charisma and power, Mao whipped up the youth of China into a frenzy and then unleashed them against his enemies in the Communist Party in what became known as the Cultural Revolution. The result was a decade long descent into near anarchy and social chaos for China.

Mao was a writer and he had produced a considerable body of work explaining his ideas of how revolutionary communism had been successfully adapted for Chinese circumstances. Mao wanted to be regarded as the revolutionary philosopher-king who would inspire the repressed people’s of the world to rise up. His theories even got a fancy name: Mao Zedong Thought. Later, a quick and handy guide to the important bits of Mao’s scribblings entitled Quotations from Chairman Mao, more popularly known as the Little Red Book, was put together by his crony Lin Biao (who later attempted a failed coup and was killed in a plane crash in an attempt to flee the country). The Little Red Book became the bible of the Cultural Revolution. No decision could be made without first consulting your personal copy of the Little Red Book and finding a quote from Mao that told you what the correct thing was to do. The credit for every success was down to Mao. But the flip side was that any failure was your fault; you must not have followed Mao’s teachings correctly. Utter rubbish of course, but in a totalitarian regime questioning nonsense like this can be the difference between life and death.

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But the stain on Mao’s reputation caused by the Great Leap Forward remained. After all, his insane agricultural policies had caused the famine. This was the annoying loose end that threatened to pull down his carefully constructed image as the benevolent all-knowing messiah, adored at home and abroad. A new story needed to be told, one in which Mao emerged as a visionary who could inspire miracles amongst the faithful. The result was Tachai.

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Tachai (now spelled Dazhai – the method by which Chinese characters were translated into the Latin alphabet was changed, hence Mao Tsetung becomes Mao Zedong) was a small agricultural commune in Shanxi Province. Located in the mountains, Dazhai was an impoverished village with poor agricultural land. It first came to prominence after a week of flooding in August 1963 swept away much of the houses, harvest and crops produced by the commune. Instead of asking for help to cope with this natural disaster, the leader of the commune, Chen Yonggui, announced that Dazhai would go it alone. All of Dazhai had read Mao’s writings and decided that it would pull itself up by its bootstraps through sheer hard graft.

By 1964, Mao already hatching his plot to finally overthrow his leadership rivals, had fully embraced Dazhai as a model that the entire country should emulate. The idea that an impoverished group of peasants scraping a living on the side of a mountain could overcome natural limitations through manual labour and wishful thinking became a way of refuting criticism of the nightmarish famine that Mao’s policies had unleashed during the Great Leap Forward. Inspired only by the guidance of Mao Zedong Thought, this commune had triumphed over adversity. So the argument now put forward was, if a group of poor farmers can work miracles on bad land then it proved that Mao had been right all along. He had been correct. Somebody else must be to blame for the failures of the past. And the logical conclusion followed that hidden enemies in the leadership and bureaucracy were the ones to blame for the famine and mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward.

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Published by the Foreign Languages Press in 1969, The Red Sun Lights the Road Forward for Tachai is an exploration of this showcase commune at the height of the Cult of Mao Worship during the Cultural Revolution. The tone, as you’d expect, is decidedly upbeat and cheerful. Beginning with the requisite portrait of Mao followed by dedications by Lin Piao (this was before his attempted coup). The introductory pages show panoramic views of the verdant landscape around Dazhai and the neatly terraced mountainside fields along with the neat new houses built for the commune members. These are contrasted with images of muddy scrub-land and the dilapidated cave houses that had existed only a few years previously.

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Then the narrative moves on to the central reason for this transformation; Maoist ideology. Images of Chen Yonggui (in his trademark white turban) appear showing him leading study sessions of the local communist party branch, reading copies of Mao’s works, putting Mao’s picture up on the wall and taking time out from digging the fields to lecture farm workers. Mao is everywhere. Maoist ideas, quotations and his portrait appear on almost every page of this book. The cult suffocates everything else. Interestingly, in any photograph where a Mao portrait appears in the background, it has been retouched so that it stands out and no distortion whatsoever appears.

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After a brief look at the bad old days when Chen Yonggui lectures the youngsters about just the dark past, we move on to the core ideological message of the book; self reliance, hard work and complete devotion to Maoist ideology will deliver a better world. Meeting after meeting is documented where serious groups of communist cadres and farmers all shown intently studying Mao’s writings. Then we move on to the back breaking labour that was required to transform the landscape itself; unproductive mountainsides are to be turned into terraced fields with nothing more than picks and shovels. Snowstorms will not stop these dedicated true-believers. Any obstacle can be overcome through sheer will power.

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After all that toil we are shown the fruits of victory. The new terraced fields carved into the inhospitable topography of the area are now full of crops. Nature has been tamed by man and the barren landscape made productive. The bountiful harvest is in. Wheat, maize, peas and sorghum now grow upon the once bleak mountainsides. Images of happy farmers inspecting the fruits of their labour prove their success. Their hard work has also paid off in terms of the improved living conditions they now enjoy. Children go to clean and bright schools, they shop in the commune’s department store and modern medical treatment has made life better for all. Things are on the up in Dazhai.

But the broader context is not forgotten. The narrative now reiterates the need for constant struggle and vigilance against enemies. A key double page colour spread shows Mao inspecting Red Guards in Tiananmen Square before we see the conscientious farmers of Dazhai lend their support to the Cultural Revolution by writing posters denouncing in Orwellian terms the President of China Liu Shaoqi. He now becomes the arch traitor and “Capitalist roader” who was conspiring to destroy the paradise they were creating. The loyal farmers of Dazhai are shown as fully united in their active support of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

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The final section of the book deals with visitors coming to view the spectacular achievements of Dazhai and it became a site of pilgrimage. The slogan “in agriculture, learn from Dazhai” became the new mantra. Here we see awe-struck visitors from all parts of China and abroad coming to see for themselves the miracles performed by the Dazhai farmers. Furthermore, they were expected to copy these methods themselves and apply them to their own areas. But the result was yet more disaster. In a country the size of China with a huge variety of climatic, topographical and soil conditions, the simplification of farming to a one-size-fits-all model just does not work. Luckily, famine did not return. But the legacy of Dazhai was long-term environmental destruction in the Chinese countryside as Maoist zealots cut down trees, leading to soil erosion and desertification in futile attempts to increase the harvest.

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In a very effective piece of design, quotations from Mao are printed in white text on revolutionary red boxes which has the effect of making them really stand out. Furthermore, any sayings or other Mao quotes used in the captions appear in bold text. The result is to distance Mao from the everyday world. The words of mere mortals are of no consequence. He stands above his people as a quasi-divine being whose every utterance is treated as a direct message from God. Horizons are narrowed. Mao Zedong Thought simplifies the world. All problems, no matter how layered or complex they are, can only be resolved through the correct application of Mao’s sayings. Images of the industrious farmers of Dazhai consulting their copies of the Little Red Book appear again and again throughout the narrative.

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Most of the imagery in the book consists of black and white photographs documenting the everyday life of this agrarian paradise. These are punctuated periodically by vibrant colour images that help to produce a very rosy view of this utopian paradise we are viewing. When combined with the bold red blocks of Mao quotations, the net effect is to produce a sense of energy and dynamism to the narrative. The sense of frenzied fervor in the book is something that a cult leader would approve of.

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After Mao died in 1976 the truth slowly emerged. Dazhai was a complete fraud. It was not some magical fairyland where nature could be overcome by wishful thinking. The bountiful harvests claimed by Dazhai were not the result of hard work and reading the Little Red Book. Huge amounts of state aid had been secretly funnelled into Dazhai and the army had been drafted in to provide the vast labour power needed to transform the mountainsides. The harvest figures were fabrications. There was no magic, only lies. Mao’s ideas were the delusions of a paranoid madman, a tyrant intoxicated by power and utterly divorced from reality.

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PLEM 1909-1959

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Our dependance on energy has never been greater. While we may complain about the costs (financially and environmentally) electricity imposes upon us, the fact is that ready access to vast quantities of energy has transformed our lives to an unimaginable degree. Both as individuals and society we are addicted to the stuff. Without it, our technology is worthless junk. Similarly, the utopia promised by pundits of the digital revolution is dead in the water without a reliable supply of massive quantities of electrical power. It truly is one of the essential building blocks of life as we know it today.

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Like many other countries, electricity generation in the Netherlands first began at a local level with private companies competing amongst each other for business. But economies of scale meant that this could not last. Originally founded as the Limburg regional electricity company in 1909, the Provinciale Limburgse Elektriciteits-Maatschappij was a semi-state company based in Maastricht. PLEM retained it’s distinct identity until 1992 when it became part of Mega Limagas and later Essent. This book, simply titled PLEM 1909 – 1959, was published to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the company in that year. Overseen by Dick Elffers, and using a lot of top-quality Dutch photography talent of the time, this book is an excellent example of that particular country’s talent for combining various design elements to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. The various aspects of the design and more background about the individuals involved can be found on the excellent Bint Photobook site.

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So how do you visualise something invisible like electricity? Photography is great at showing tangible objects but once the subject matter becomes more vague and abstract then you need to come up with a new strategy. In terms of electricity, the obvious answer is to focus on the production and consumption sides (the power station and the person using the electricity). Unlike the invisible products of work today (e.g. data) large scale electricity generation requires imposing industrial structures and lots of machinery. This is visually impressive when recorded on camera. It is then a relatively straightforward process to contrast these images with photographs of the banal domesticity of the everyday user as they bask in the glow of the power generated far away.

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For a designer, how do you make your book stand out from the crowd? How do you show us something different about a subject that has been done many times before? Simultaneously, you also have to ensure that the people funding the book are happy with the final result. This can be a challenge when it comes to corporate publications as, usually, the people who sign off on the book are not particularly visually literate. So as a designer you have to bring them with you rather than suddenly present them with a final book which might not meet their expectations. The company will have it’s own agenda and reasons for producing a book of this nature which a designer must be aware of. As long as the agendas of both the designer and the company are compatible, then the project has a good chance of working out successfully. Otherwise there will be problems.

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Roughly about a third of the book is devoted towards the historical aspects of the company. There are the usual introductory texts by the corporate bigwigs extolling the virtues of the company and the great strides it has made over its fifty years of operation. As this is a company that prides itself on its roots in the local community, the positive impact they have had on the area is heavily emphasised in this introductory section. The book even starts with the Limburg anthem (Limburg mijn Vaderland) also composed in 1909. Electricty generated by PLEM is presented as being at the heart of all the great modernising strides the region has made since the early part of the century. Graphs and charts show the expansion of electricity production over those years while images of street lights demonstrate the tangible benefits of electricity for the people. Picturesque colour images of farms and the agricultural landscape are used to stoke both regional pride and also convince readers that modernisation would not pose a threat to their regional identity and the traditions they hold dear.

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This first section of the book appears in a muted colour palette – the archival images are stiff and static, heavily laden with serious looking groups of dignitaries. Dark suits and respectability predominate. This is the past. Once they become established, corporations, then as now, like to tell their foundation myths. These usually take the form of a small group of courageous visionaries, the struggle to be taken seriously, the overcoming of obstacles, the battling of challenges, the gradual growth of the company and it’s ultimate success as a leading player in the field. These stories are usually just that, stories. But they are used to get new employees to buy into the corporate culture of the organisation in order to try to make them feel as if they are part of something larger and that they too are helping to create history. These foundation myths also add a layer of gravitas and tradition to an organisation that makes them appear trustworthy.

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We now move on to images of the landscape transformed by electricity. Streetlights illuminate the picturesque buildings and streets of the region as the old and the modern harmoniously come together in order to produce a better future for all. Blocks of colour are used to produce a sense of energy and dynamism that was absent in the previous historical section of the book. Here, electricity poles run alongside roads bringing power to towns and villages.The metal skeletons of pylons loom above the camera lens as the viewer gazes skywards in awe to the immense power that courses through the cables above their heads.

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The quasi-religious symbolism continues in the next section of the book, which deals with the construction of the Masscentrale Power Station near Roermond. Built between 1951 and 1960, this “temple of energy” was PLEM’s greatest achievement to date and they were keen to show it off. The cult of technological progress that has dominated Western thought for at least two centuries finds expression in this imposing structure. Size matters and by emphasising the scale of the plant they are signifying just how important the company has become, as well as the awesome nature of the power harnessed by mankind. Unlike the historical section of the book, which consisted largely of the upper managers huddled around bits of new machinery looking dignified, the images in this section reflect the social changes of the time. Now it is workers and builders who dominate the photographs. Like many of the communist publications I have reviewed on this blog, much of the imagery has a distinctly heroic quality to it. Once more the use of blocks of colour with photographs adds a sense of energy and dynamism to the narrative. A vast new building emerges from the ground. Again, the images used emphasise the immensity of the project, designed to produce a sense of awe in the viewer as we gaze in wonder at this immense cathedral of power.

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Now we delve deep into the bowels of this vast structure. Images of pipework and circuit boards form geometrical patterns, abstract images of technological progress and power. Similarly, substations stand ready to convert and transmit this raw power on its journey to the final user. The overprinting of black and white images with blocks of colour again add vibrancy and interest to what would otherwise be relatively straightforward industrial images.

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The final section of the book brings it all back home with images of industrial equipment, trains and factories all powered by electricity, helping develop the industrial base of the region. A simple but effective message is sent: with electricty comes progress and a better life for all. Limburg’s happy future is assured. By repeatedly using blocks of colour, the book produces a sense of rhythm that assists the narrative flow and connects the various sections together.

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The late fifties was a time of hope. Postwar austerity and the all-consuming effort to rebuild the shattered lives and countries left in ruins had largely been completed. Optimism returned. Modern technologies promised new ways of living and working that would produce a better world. Clean and cheap electricity would fuel the labour saving devices that promised to consign everyday drudgery to the past. Colour and brightness has returned to life.

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Epopee Pe Somes

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Nicolae Ceausescu is best remembered for his brutal demise. At a time when the various Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe were crumbling due to peaceful protest and people-power, his was the only one that collapsed into violence. Largely hated in his own country by the late 1980s, Ceausescu presided over an impoverished police state where people didn’t have enough to eat. The economy had all but collapsed and the use of blood transfusions as a state-supported policy to make up for lack of baby food left a horrendous legacy of HIV infection. The hasty execution of both him and his wife was the result.
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But it didn’t start out like this. Ceausescu had once been seen as a figure of hope. He emerged from the shadows of the communist bureaucracy because of his public opposition to the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The rare sight of a Communist leader standing up to the Soviet juggernaught inspired popular support at home and abroad. Ceausescu played off both sides in the Cold War, courting both East and West for his own ends whilst simultaneously building an all-encompassing personality cult for both him and his wife.
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Western companies, suffering from recession, leaped at the chance to trade with the newly emerging country that was asserting it’s independence. Massive loans were advanced to the Romanian government which they used to buy vast quantities of industrial equipment and modern technology from the West. This seventies spending spree ultimately created the seeds of Ceausescu’s violent downfall as he imposed crushing austerity on the population in the 1980s in order to pay back his lenders. The terrible human costs imposed in doing this undermined his legitimacy and created the sense of anger that was unleashed once fear of his police state collapsed in 1989.

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This book, Epopee Pe Somes (The Poem of Somes), is from the early part of Ceausescu’s rule. Summer 1970 saw severe flooding in Romania with the death of over 200 people and making over 200,000 people homeless. There was significant loss to both agricutural and industrial production as a combination of heavy rain and a heat wave (that melted snow in the Carpathian mountains) led to rivers bursting their banks. This book deals with one incident in this broader natural disaster; the flooding of the county of Satu Mare by the Somes River.

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Published by the Propaganda Section of the Satu Mare regional Communist Party, the book follows a fairly standard narrative structure in how it depicts the flooding. First we see images of the doomed battle against the floods as people pile sandbags in a desperate attempt to hold back the water. Then we see the flooding itself – towns, villages, factories all submerged underwater all depicted by blurred images taken in less than ideal conditions.

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Boats appear on the streets and survivors wade through the floodwaters trying to find help. We are then shown images of the devastation left behind once the water recedes. The palpable human tragedy of the event is emphasised as traumatised survivors pick through the wreckage of their former lives desperately looking to salvage what they can and find some sort of shelter in aftermath of this natural disaster.

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The narrative moves on. We now have the arrival of the benevolent messiah, Ceausescu, who tours the devastated area, inspecting for himself the extent of the damage. Unlike later publications where the Ceausescu personality cult consumed everything, his presence is relatively restrained and limited to a small section of the book. Here the wise leader comes to witness what has happened, sympathise with his people and direct the recovery effort. Like all such dictatorial regimes, the leader is presented as a substitute father-figure who knows how to direct his otherwise helpless children.

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After Ceausescu tours the area and meets survivors, the forces of the Romanian state swing into action. Guided by the local communist party administration, they soon provide all the assistance needed. Temporary accommodation is constructed for homeless people, the army provides logistical support, aid comes from all corners of a country united in its determination to assist the flood victims. somes17

Finally, as this is a communist regime where faith in man’s ability to overcome whatever nature throws at him and create a better future remains unquestionable, we are shown the rebuilding effort. New towns and factories are being built to replace the old. Construction cranes dot the skyline. Concrete tower blocks will replace traditional buildings.

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The flood has become an opportunity to replace the past with a brighter future. Just as Ceausescu would later deliberately sweep away vast swathes of Bucharest in order to build his megalomaniacal new capital, so the flood has erased the historical baggage of the past that had held Romania back. Under Ceausescu’s wise and benevolent guidance a new and brighter future for all was on the horizon.

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In the broader context, the damage caused by the flooding enabled Ceausescu to cement his leadership position. The flooding prompted increased national unity in the face of a crisis which has the effect of blunting all debate or criticism from alternative voices and prevents political challengers from emerging. Shrewd politicians can exploit events for their own advantage. By being seen to handle the crisis decisively, Ceausescu consolidated public support for his leadership which laid the foundations of the grotesque personality cult that of the 1980s.

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