Negative Exposures

Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China

Book Pages: 312 Illustrations: 66 illustrations Published: March 2020

Art and Visual Culture > Photography, Asian Studies > East Asia, Cultural Studies

When nations decide to disown their troubled pasts, how does this strategic disavowal harden into social fact? In Negative Exposures, Margaret Hillenbrand investigates the erasure of key aspects of such momentous events as the Nanjing Massacre, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square protests from the Chinese historical consciousness, not due to amnesia or censorship but through the operations of public secrecy. Knowing what not to know, she argues, has many stakeholders, willing and otherwise, who keep quiet to protect themselves or their families out of shame, pragmatism, or the palliative effects of silence. Hillenbrand shows how secrecy works as a powerful structuring force in Chinese society, one hiding in plain sight, and identifies aesthetic artifacts that serve as modes of reckoning against this phenomenon. She analyses the proliferation of photo-forms—remediations of well-known photographs of troubling historical events rendered in such media as paint, celluloid, fabric, digital imagery, and tattoos—as imaginative spaces in which the shadows of secrecy are provocatively outlined.


Negative Exposures is a brave and revelatory book. With lyrical prose, nuanced argumentation, and a photosensitive eye, Margaret Hillenbrand limns the contours of China's contemporary cryptocracy, showing us how photographic images can work both to obscure and to bring the shadows of the historical past back into spectral presence.” — Andrew F. Jones, Professor of Chinese, University of California, Berkeley

Negative Exposures is a boldly original book that analyzes cultural works based on photographs as objects that enable us to see and think through the unsayable in China. Margaret Hillenbrand contends that a culture of public secrecy, rather than censorship or historical amnesia, can explain how ordinary Chinese citizens fail or refuse to see and speak about difficult issues. This book is a powerful intervention that will be warmly welcomed and widely applauded.” — Chris Berry, Kings College London

“While sharply grounded in Chinese cultural history, Margaret Hillenbrand’s Negative Exposures is a valuable addition to current studies on visuality…. Negative Exposures is an insightful account of media objects’ centrality within anthropological, art-historical, literary, historical and sociological modes of analysis, binding often disparate methodologies together.”

— Shaowen Zhang, Critical Inquiry

“Margaret Hillenbrand’s incisive and beautifully composed monograph takes...‘photo-forms’—repurposed historical photographs—and their circulation as the point of departure for her fascinating excursus of public secrecy in contemporary China…. Her work could not have come at a more opportune time.” — Patricia M. Thornton, China Quarterly

“Hillenbrand focuses on the medium of photography and its treatment of three key historical moments—the Nanjing Massacre, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Movement of 1989.... This is a beautifully conceived and nicely written book that is always interesting and thought-provoking.”
  — Kirk A. Denton, MCLC Resource Center

“This timely book by Margaret Hillenbrand...examines the mechanism of ‘secrecy’ as a main structuring force in contemporary Chinese society.... A courageous and revelatory work like this, also beautifully written, surely blazes new trails and opens up many questions.”
  — Mia Yinxing Liu, Chinese Literature


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Margaret Hillenbrand is Associate Professor of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Literature, Modernity, and the Practice of Resistance and the coeditor of Documenting China.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Series Editor's Preface  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Preface  xiii
Introduction. Staking Out Secrecy  1
1. Don't Look Now  45
2. Keeping It in the Family  89
3. Cracking the Ice  131
4. Ducking the Firewall  168
Conclusion. Out of the Darkroom  209
Notes  225
References  245
Index  277
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