BA History and Russian / Course details

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
The Cultural Politics of Dissent: visual culture in China since 1970

Course unit fact file
Unit code HIST32041
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course will consider how different groups in the People’s Republic of China have expressed ‘dissent’ since 1970. Using visual sources such as films, art works, monuments, advertising, propaganda, and photographs, we will explore the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party’s ideal model of society has been challenged, modified, or even rejected at different moments in the post-Mao era. This course will introduce you to a range of theories and methodologies that you can use as an historian to analyse visual sources, and will encourage you to think critically about how we interpret East Asian cultures and societies from our position as scholars based in the west.

Over the course you will produce two pieces of written work: an analysis of a particular theory or methodology which interests you; and a short research essay using visual sources to answer a question about Chinese society and dissent since 1970. You will also contribute to class discussion by preparing responses to the set readings, and chairing group discussion with the assistance of the course lecturer.


HIST32042 is restricted to History programmes and History joint honours programmes (please check your programme structure for further details).


  • To understand how the Chinese state has made use of visual culture since the 1970s and their rationale
  • To explore the motivations and methods of Chinese non-state agents using visual media
  • To consider complex methodological questions relating to the use and interpretation of visual culture for historical research
  • To counter homogenous readings of Chinese society and challenge preconceptions through immersion in visual culture

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to;

Knowledge and understanding

  • Understand and assess social change in reform era China and critically evaluate key concepts and debates
  • Understand the relationship between visual culture practices and cultural history methods
  • Familiarity and ease with a range of visual source materials including film, photography, contemporary art, propaganda, and new media
  • An appreciation of the diversity of Chinese experience in the reform era and commitment to engaging with hidden histories

Intellectual skills

  • Ability to choose and apply a range of methodological and theoretical frameworks to the analysis of visual sources
  • Understanding of the complexities involved in handling visual media
  • Ability to critically engage with key concepts including censorship, dissidence, appropriation, agency, the subaltern, gender, and alterity

Practical skills

  • Ability to synthesise and critically assess a range of primary and secondary materials
  • Visual literacy
  • Confident presentation and communication skills
  • Written fluency
  • Independent research skills

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Working as part of a team and engaging in productive, respectful discussion
  • Clarity of expression both spoken and written
  • The ability to work independently and manage time
  • The ability to critically examine cultural values and social stereotypes
  • Commitment to the values of diversity and equality

Employability skills

In-depth knowledge of contemporary Chinese society with direct relevance to current events in that region
Written communication
Confidence and familiarity analysing and communicating about visual material
Public history skills

Assessment methods

In-class presentations & chairing 20% 

Methodological essay 30%

Research essay 50%

Feedback methods

In class presentations & chairing – students will be emailed feedback after their presentation and chairing session; final comments and mark applied to submitted slides and chairing notes via turnitin at conclusion of the course.

Written assignments – ongoing feedback via one-to-one meetings; grades and comments via turnitin.

Recommended reading

Merle Goldman, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: political reform in the Deng Xiaoping era (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1994).

Richard Howells & Joaquim Negreiros, Visual Culture 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019).

Richard Curt Kraus, The Party and the Arty in China: the new politics of culture (Lanham MN: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

Ching Kwan Lee & Yang Guobin (eds.) Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: the politics and poetics of collective memories in reform China (Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 2007).

Paul G. Pickowicz, China on Film: a century of exploration, confrontation, and controversy (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

Sebastian Veg, Minjian: the rise of China’s grassroots intellectuals (New York NY: Columbia UP, 2019).

Robin Visser, Cities Surround the Countryside: urban aesthetics in postsocialist China (Durham NC: Duke UP, 2010).

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom & Elizabeth J. Perry (eds.) Popular Protest & Political Culture in Modern China 2nd ed. (Oxford: Westview Press, 1994).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Francesca Young Kaufman Unit coordinator

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