Travels in China, by Roland Barthes, translated by Andrew Brown, edited by Anne Herschberg Pierrot, Polity, 196pp, £16.99 (hardback)

This intriguing little volume contains the three notebooks kept by the famous French semiotician Roland Barthes during his three-week tour of China in the spring of 1974 with his colleagues at Tel Quel, the avant-garde literary magazine that was then going through a Maoist phase. Barthes intended his notes as material for a book, but it was never written; all we have are his terse yet pregnant descriptions of the people and places he saw, interspersed with bracketed observations, impressions and speculations. What emerges is an idiosyncratic account of a Western encounter with the East at a time when both were going through tumultuous upheaval; it is a record both of an episode in late twentieth-century history, and of the mind of Barthes at work.

This was not Barthes’s first visit to a communist country, since he had taught in Romania in the 1950s; nor was it his first foray into the orient, since he had made a highly successful trip to Japan in the 1960s. He had been enarmoured with Japan because, unlike the West, its culture had no need for a ‘transcendental signifier’, that being a central sign from which all other signs derive their meaning. Barthes was thrilled to discover that, by contrast, Japanese signs simply stood for themselves, without any need to signify anything other than their referents; there was no desire for a grand design with some ultimate reference point. The Japanese epiphany led him to compose his famous ‘The Death of the Author’ essay, in which he argued that a knowable text is a Western bourgeois delusion: the work and its author are separate, so we cannot know what the latter intended; hence, any text has meaning independently of its author. This was a continuation of Barthes’s earlier critique of French bourgeois cultural icons in Mythologies of 1957, in which he deconstructed the associations attaching to such national staples as red wine. Barthes’s entire career can be seen as a quest to find alternatives to Western bourgeois mass culture, which must have been a factor leading him to join Tel Quel’s jaunt.

Thus it was that on the evening of 11 April, 1974, Barthes sat in Orly airport awaiting his flight to Beijing. Also in the party were the French writer Philippe Sollers, who was one of Tel Quel’s founders, his wife, the feminist literary theorist Julia Kristeva, and the intellectuals Marcelin Pleynet and Francois Wahl. (The neo-Freudian psychologist Jacques Lacan was going to come along but cancelled at the last minute). Barthes’s companions all had considerable previous interest in China, both for its classical culture as well as what they saw as its contemporary capacity to transform the world with its Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which they had admired since its commencement. Tel Quel had in fact announced its Maoist stance in opposition to the French Communist Party, which favoured the USSR, and it was hoped by Sollers and Kristeva that they could bring some original revolutionary fervour back from their trip which could be spread in France.

Barthes, by contrast, was less fervent than the others from the beginning, although it is apparent from his jottings that he had hopes for the trip, evidently for a repeat revelation of the kind he had experienced in Japan. The notebooks record, however, a steady disillusionment. Indeed, Barthes’s disenchantment starts from the first page, when he remarks on a party of Chinese aboard the plane in their uniforms with ‘standing collars’ who ‘look like a travelling monastery’; on the very next page, he refers to them as ‘seminarians’. These irreverent descriptions launch Barthes’s perceptions of the crypto-religious nature of Chinese communism. His semiotic sixth sense detects religiosity in both the uniformity of dress and the ‘bricks’, or ideological doctrines, that he evaluates, and perhaps even in the disinfectant that he smells everywhere. Hence he calls the repetition of ‘set themes’ that the Tel Quel group encounters at every stop as a ‘lectio’, or medieval Scholastic teaching method. Barthes also describes a guide leading the group around an industrial exhibition as being like ‘a sacristan showing people around his church’, and a sculpture of Mao addressing the populace as ‘just like the Sermon on the Mount’. Still later, he calls yet another interminable ideological lecture ‘thorough-going Scholasticism’, and he reminds himself to ‘review the bricks of Scholasticism’. The religious parallel becomes most noticeable to Barthes in an encounter with a Peking University philosophy professor who has an ‘excellent knowledge of Marxism, an answer to everything straight from the Corpus, from the Vulgate: an excellent priest. Worthy to teach the catechism.’

Related to the religious fervour of the Cultural Revolution is the sexual repression, which bothers Barthes even more; hence, a preoccupation with the ‘absence of eroticism’ in communist China runs like a basso continuo through all three notebooks. On his first day in the country, he notices ‘no sexual difference’ between men and women because they all wear the same uniform, leading him to wonder, ‘wherever do they put their sexuality?’ in what he calls a ‘Desert of Flirtation’. Barthes had of course earlier applied his semiotic analysis to fashion, so he wonders about what the Chinese feel and do sexually, and its relationship with their plain uniforms, repeatedly during his trip. Then while chatting with doctors in a hospital over the usual tea and cigarettes, the party is informed that since China is socialist, there are few mental illness cases (astonishingly, those they do have ‘are cured by materialist Dialectic [sic]’). These doctors are down on Freud because of his emphasis on sexuality, which would presumably have rubbed the Tel Quelers the wrong way given their association with Lacan; when they ask about any ‘sexual tensions among the young’, the doctors assure them that China’s youth are focused on their work and accept late marriage willingly; as for premarital sex, they reject it as ‘debasing.’

This stance must certainly have been off-putting for Barthes, who continually refers to the attractiveness of Chinese males. One of the greatest exasperations of the trip, we infer, is the lack of sexual contact with the natives. Thus, while bored at the Longmen Grottoes, Barthes exclaims, ‘with all this, I won’t have seen the willy of a single Chinese man. And what can you know about a people, if you don’t know their sex?’ On the very next page, he writes of the ‘Floating pricks beneath the clothing (of workers)’ – clearly he was eager to get to know them intimately! All this sensual deprivation, along with his continual migraines and insomnia, had its effect: in the final week of the tour, he complains of ‘no movement in my genitals’ since leaving Paris.

Another sexual issue on which Barthes frequently remarks, and one that may have contributed to his genital inactivity, is the predominance of women in the Cultural Revolution, or at least its propaganda. Thus, at a tractor factory the French are informed how women, long oppressed under Confucian hierarchy, ‘have become the vanguard’ in the campaign to criticise Lin Biao and Confucius, which was at its height in 1974. Barthes describes the dominance of the actresses in a communist opera as ‘like an American matriarchy’, and notices that the hero in many such performances is a heroine. Matriarchy is something Barthes sees all around the country, from the ‘triumph of little girls’ at a primary school to a commune where he notes the ‘huge matriarchate. Presence, extent of the mother. The girls are shown … The little boys are crushed’. Of course, all of these occasions were officially orchestrated, and there is no telling to what degree Barthes’s perceptions were influenced by his own sexuality or his notoriously close relationship to his mother. Nevertheless, the frequency with which Barthes notes Chinese prima donnas throughout the tour leads one to think that they must have been a significant feature of the China of the time.

The completely choreographed nature of Tel Quel’s tour is another source of exasperation for Barthes. Everything that happened from the flight to Beijing to the return flight to Paris was arranged by the official Luxingshe Travel Agency, whose guides escorted the French literati to every commune, school, factory, hospital and office, effectively preventing any contact with Chinese who were not preapproved. The fact that he is being led around a vast Potempkin village is galling to Barthes, who yearns for some kind of spontaneous ‘incident’. The control by the guides, combined with the ceaseless ‘bricks’ denouncing Lin Biao and Confucius at every single place to which he is led, causes a mounting disillusionment that is especially noticeable a third of the way through, when he realises that China is basically Stalinist. Thus, we find Barthes completely disgusted with both China and his native France as he sits aboard the aeroplane bound for home. He comments on the Chinese in their uniforms looking like ‘real Jesuits’, and sits through ‘the usual crap from Air France’ pre-takeoff. Once airborne, he writes ‘PHEW!’ and comments on the ‘vulgarity of the hostess’. He concludes that the Chinese are ‘basically: Quakers … (the women are nuns)’, ironically concluding his notebooks on the same religious theme with which he started them.

That Barthes’s notebooks have a religious subtext is perhaps not all that surprising if we consider that both he and Sollers were Jesuit-educated, while Kristeva had been schooled by Dominican nuns. (It is ironic to reflect that the first Frenchmen to explore China were Jesuits sent by Louis XIV three centuries earlier). Tel Quel’s China trip proved to be both the climax and the end of its Maoist phase: after devoting its autumn issue to China, it changed its position on Mao, and by the end of the decade was exploring Western classical and theological questions within its pages. China itself, meanwhile, was also leaving Mao far behind. The magazine ceased publication in 1982, after twenty-two years in print.

As for Barthes himself, he appears never to have turned his notes into a book because, as he too late realises, China is not Japan. The utterly politicised culture which he finds there is clearly beyond his flair for deciphering cultural messages in material products. In Mao’s China, everything is made to glorify the Cultural Revolution, and Barthes comes to understand toward the end of his sojourn that ‘only with the negative can you make art’. Back in France, in the final years of his career, Barthes decided that Marxism is just as guilty of limiting meanings as bourgeois culture, advocating hedonism as an antidote to both in The Pleasure of the Text in 1975. Perhaps he needed more time to conceive a new semiotic paradigm, but his life was, alas, cut short by his collision with a Parisian laundry van in 1980.

What is the value of these notebooks? They are clearly of more relevance to someone interested in Barthes than to someone interested in China, although they do provide a window on the final stage of the Cultural Revolution. They leave the reader wondering about Western intellectuals who were drawn to Mao, and to the turns that literary and cultural theory took in the late twentieth century. The reader also wonders what role Barthes’s sexual orientation may have played in his ideological leanings and theories. Was his career up to 1974 an attempt to subvert the heterosexual Western tradition, which, when foiled by disillusionment with Red China, led him to a kind of elevated neutrality? Barthes asserted in ‘The Death of the Author’ that only the language of a text speaks, but this volume may help many decipher Barthes himself.

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