2009 Henry Allen Moe Prize
Autumn General Meeting
The 2009 recipient of the American Philosophical Society’s Henry Allen Moe Prize in the Humanities is Barbara Mittler for her paper “Popular Propaganda? Art and Culture in Revolutionary China.” It was presented at the Society’s Spring General Meeting in April 2007 and published in the December 2008 issue of the Society's Proceedings.
In her paper, Barbara Mittler addresses the question why the items of propaganda of Mao’s time, a tragic period of suffering, are now popular in China, and the figure of Mao himself, once a monster, has become a mythical figure. This, she argues, goes against the general response to propaganda that it is to be scorned and mistrusted. From her experience in China especially interviewing artists and musicians, she proposes various reasons. The use of art and music in Maoist propaganda did not reject Chinese tradition but brought it to the countryside (people read Confucius or heard Chinese opera who would never have done so). People found pleasure in this learning experience, many of them able to look beyond the Maoist criticism to the value of the works. Some of her interviewees credited participation in activities during the Great Leap Forward with starting them on careers in music and painting that would never have been open to them otherwise.
The other main point she makes applies to the broader Chinese society as a whole. The glorifying of the Maoist period is a response to the new society that has emerged as China introduces its form of capitalism, with the scene of extravagant wealth falling into a few hands. The new world makes Mao’s dedication to the common man seem a heroic age. This is useful knowledge, a valuable perception of the gut feeling of ordinary people in China to the current regime.
Barbara Mittler, since receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg (Germany) in 1994, has been a member of the Institute of Chinese Studies at the same institution. She was first employed through a project sponsored by the German Research Foundation, later (since 1996) as an Assistant Professor, yet later again (since 1999) as an Associate Professor. Starting in October 2002, she was on research leave, originally for three years, on a Heisenberg Scholarship by the German Research Foundation. During this time, she was affiliated with the Institute of Chinese Studies and the Center for Gender Studies at Marburg University, as well as the Centre d'Etudes de la Chine moderne et contemporaine in Paris. She resumed teaching as a Full Professor at the University of Heidelberg in 2004. Her former desires to become a practicing musician led her to explore Chinese avant-garde music and fueled her passion for Chinese culture. She is a member of the Selection Committee for German Scholarships by the Rhodes Trust, a member of the Senate committee for International Affairs, and a Principal Investigator and Member of the Steering Committee in Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe, Shifting Asymmetries in Cultural Flows.”
Endowed by Edith N. Moe in 1982, the prize honors Henry Allen Moe, paying particular tribute to his firm commitment to the humanities and those who pursue them. Early in his career, Dr. Moe became president of the Guggenheim Foundation, and for the next forty years shaped and ran the organization to become one of the nation’s chief benefactors of creative scholars, scientists, and artists. Dr. Moe served as president of the American Philosophical Society from 1959 to 1970.
The selection committee consisted of Richard Herr (chair), Professor of History Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley; Kezia Knauer, Consulting Scholar, Mediterranean Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; and Christopher Jones, George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics and History, Harvard University.