Margaret Hillenbrand, "Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China" (Duke UP, 2020)


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The fact that secrecy and the concealment of information is important in today’s China is hardly a secret in itself, yet the ways that this secrecy is structured and sustained in such a vast society is not especially well understood. A lot more must be at play than simply the PRC state’s vast censorship apparatus when it comes to obscuring everything from the leadership’s private lives to dark chapters of country’s recent history.

Margaret Hillenbrand’s Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China (Duke University Press, 2020) sheds unique light on the operation of what she calls China’s culture of ‘public secrecy’. Focusing on the storied afterlives and artistic re-purposings of photographic images from key junctures of China’s twentieth-century – the Nanjing Massacre, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests – Hillenbrand shows how they expose the subtle contours of what it is permissible and what impermissible to know. The book’s highly original and at times haunting exploration of photographic afterlives in art, literature and online offers up a nuanced but also forceful picture of how secrecy reigns in the PRC, and indeed beyond.

Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.

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