Multi-Species Poetics in Modern Sinophone Literature and Media
2: An Elephant Capture: "War Against Nature," Multi-Ethnic Nationalism, and Animals in Socialist China
Saturday, March 26, 2022
12:30pm – 2:00pm EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 316C
Harvard University, United States
In 1971, a team of zookeepers, vets, and filmmakers from Shanghai embarked on an expedition to capture an elephant in Yunnan. This would be the first zoo elephant in China caught via new anesthetic techniques and multi-ethnic cooperation. This expedition was recorded in An Elephant Capture (1972), the first animal-themed documentary in socialist China. The film, which became popular at the time when entertainment was often limited to a few model operas and their adaptations, nevertheless remains understudied up to date.
Combining textual analysis and archival research of newspapers, relevant zoo documents and memoirs, this paper will revisit this documentary’s transmedia journey and unexpected ecological consequences. I will place the film at the intersection of the ecological transformation in socialist China, the Maoist discourse of “self-reliance,” which had taken on new weight following the Sino-Soviet split, and a lurking anxiety over multi-ethnic relationships. The militaristic attitude towards human-animal relations comes into tension with the multi-ethnic nationalist discourse that emphasizes harmony and cooperation. This tension is further complicated by the stubborn visual presence of elephants, carrying their own cultural symbolisms and affective impact. I argue that this film supplements the conventional narrative of “Mao’s war against nature” and what Daisy Du (2019) terms as “the double disappearance of animals” during the Cultural Revolution. Pre-socialist perceptions of animals were not simply eliminated in Mao’s China, but were rather worked into a complex media apparatus that “captures” animals, facilitated by nationalist and developmentalist discourses, leading to an ambivalent vision of co-existence.