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The Ten Frustrations, or, Waving and Smiling Across the Great Cultural Abyss

If much of China’s art is lacking today, it is not lost, only sleeping. Some day we shall carry on a tradition that has made the world marvel.

—Madame Quo Tai-Chi, Queen, October 9, 1935.

IN RETROSPECT, I’M NOT SURE what I saw in the two and a half weeks I was in The Peoples’ Republic of China.1 I do know that the things that most interested me had little or nothing to do with art. But since art is my field, it provides the most convenient framework in which to try to convey my excitement and confusion about China. The following is neither “my Chinese Diary,” nor an expert’s overview, but an attempt to make some sense of a baffling experience.

It was simultaneously just what we had expected and totally unimaginable. We knew the Cultural Revolution was over and we were prepared for the (by now diminishing) references to the Smashing of the Gang of Four. We knew that Mao’s 1957 exhortation “

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