Introduction: The Art of Mao’s Revolution

Melissa Chiu


Although there many books on the Cultural Revolution, there are few scholarly analyses of the profound shift in aesthetic values that occurred in China in the post-revolutionary years. [1] There are probably several reasons for this, though paramount it would seem is a popular belief among Chinese art historians that the art of this period does not warrant attention. It is often dismissed as pure propaganda and thus not worthy of academic study or aesthetic scrutiny. Partly this is true, for much art during the Cultural Revolution was infused with politics—direct pressure was exerted on artists to comply with political directives through public denunciations, shaming and sometimes even violence. Meanwhile, individual creativity and free thought was stifled and even punished. The Cultural Revolution also saw the disruption of art schools and conventional teaching methods. Yet to dismiss the art of this period altogether is to ignore the fact that there was some truly great art produced during the period, specifically the oil paintings celebrating a sense of optimism and hope of the Chinese people in the post-revolutionary era. It also overlooks the extraordinary diversity, accessibility and reach of much of this imagery, which was widely disseminated through posters and other popular media hung in homes, schools and workplaces. Some scholars have begun to re-assess this art (actions and performance, exhibitions, posters, manifestos, paintings, prints, and publications), arguing that it marks a ‘modernist’ popular art movement of sorts. [2] For better or worse then, the art of this time represents a significant cultural event in China—one that deserves attention not only for its own merits but because it continues to influence Chinese art and visual culture. As artist Xu Bing has said, “If anyone wants to probe deeply into the underpinnings of contemporary Chinese art one must consider the influence of the Cultural Revolution on my generation because it was an entirely unique experience”.[3]


The Early Years

The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 saw profound changes in the lives and working conditions of Chinese artists. Mao Zedong’s belief that art should be for the people set out a new role for artists in an ideal communist society. These beliefs, first articulated in his series of 1942 lectures delivered at Yan’an and published a year later laid out a new sense of purpose for artists; henceforth, the nation’s artists were charged with making visual imagery that was accessible, instructive and suitable for mass circulation in public exhibitions, including  regular (or periodical) national juried exhibitions at the National Museum and National Art Gallery of paintings nominated for display by party officials in towns and cities across the country. (During the Cultural Revolution period, ) The Red Guards—few of whom were trained as artists—also staged public exhibitions of their paintings, woodblock prints, caricatures and posters. Much of this material was not propaganda strictly speaking (art that served a social and political purpose) but a more heartfelt expression of a widespread desire to transform society at all levels. It was what you might call art in the service of a cause.


It was also a radical departure from all that had gone before. Prior to the communist revolution, art in China was largely produced for religious or funerary purposes, as architectural ornament, or, in the case of ink painting and calligraphy, as part of a Confucianscholarly tradition stretching back centuries. In dynastic China, ink painting was the exclusive province of the educated elite—a small group of leisured individuals whose position or wealth relieved them from more mundane obligations. In fact a proficiency in ink painting along with the writing of poetry and calligraphy were essential attributes for anyone aspiring to the status of a cultivated gentleman. There was also a tradition of private art appreciation through the collection and study of the work of past masters. Individual expression and technical proficiency were prized, with connoisseurs learning to compare and appreciate the characteristics of artworks of various eras and styles.


Of course, with the arrival of European colonial powers, the decline of the Qing dynasty and the gradual opening up of China to the outside world things began to change. During the 1920s and 1930s European style oil painting was popular among radical artists and later became part of the official Chinese art school curriculum. Socialist realism was introduced as the preferred official style in the 1950s, immediately following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, aligning Chinese art and artists with aesthetic developments in the newly ascendant Soviet Union. Chinese artists were sent to Russia to be trained in painting while Russian artists taught in Chinese art academies. Perhaps best-known was Moscow-based artist Konstantin M. Maksimov who was sent by the Soviet government to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing 1955 to train Chinese artists in Soviet-style realism.[4] His classes were immensely popular and influenced an entire generation of Chinese artists.


Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s there was a relative degree of artistic freedom in China. Though socialist realism was encouraged, it was not mandatory. Traditional artists working in ink were free to do what they had always one, though with minor modifications of subject matter in deference to the new political regime—traditional landscape paintings of the period often included a discretely positioned red flag, a poetic dedication to Mao, or scenes of industry and industrialization. But by the mid-1960s a very different mood had settled over the country as Mao mounted a purge of senior party officials with whom he was locked in a struggle for political control. His excuse was the need for change within the party, which he advocated had become complacent and decadent. Senior officials were gradually dismissed or disgraced and replaced with younger cadres loyal to Mao. Among them was his fourth wife, Jiang Qing, a former actress, who in 1966 was appointed to the Central Cultural Revolution Group, a newly-formed committee to draft policy documents for the Politburo Standing Committee. It was the center for Cultural Revolution activities and gave her direct control over culture.


As a vocal member if the Central Cultural Revolution Group, Jiang Qing began to agitate for the implementation of guidelines for art production based on ‘revolutionary qualities.’ She advocated that all artworks should not only serve the people, but also possess revolutionary characteristics— they must be, in her words, “red, bright, and shining” (Chinese text TK). Over the following decade, this radically transformed cultural production in China while, socially and politically, engulfing the country in chaos. The flashpoint came in May 1966, when a group of faculty members at Peking University wrote and displayed the first ‘big-character poster’ (dazibao) criticizing the university administration for quashing the impending mass movement. Almost immediately afterwards, students at the university put up hundreds of posters, some echoing the first poster while others refuted the statements. ‘Big character posters’ began to appear at campuses all over Beijing calling for the replacement of school administrations and new radical revolution. Schools and universities subsequently stopped classes—although teachers and students were still on campus engaged in criticism sessions and mass denunciations. Art magazines and journals also ceased production. The movement also turned violent, as radical armed groups of Red Guards (a mass movement of civilians, initially radical high school and university students, who were encouraged by Mao) began to search homes, destroy or confiscate ‘bourgeois’ private and public property.


An older generation of traditional artists, once free to pursue their own aesthetic interests, were now subjected to severe official criticism and rebuke. Several revered ink (guohua) painters, such as Li Keran, Lin Fengmian, and Pan Tianshou [fig.] were shamed through denunciations of their work as ‘bourgeois’. Other artists had their work destroyed by the Red Guards in raids of homes and studios or found themselves included in exhibitions often similar in intention to those ‘degenerate art’ exhibitions organized by the Germany’s Nazi party in the late 1930s. Some of the most notorious were the ‘black painting’ exhibitions held in Beijing and Shanghai in 1974. On other, albeit rarer occasions the artists were imprisoned or sent out to the countryside for labor. Some artists destroyed their work rather than have the Red Guards find it and persecute them.


Artist and teacher Zheng Shengtian voiced opposition to the Red Guards continuing violence and destruction of cultural artifacts and paid a devastating price: ‘I was arrested by the Red Guard Fighting Force at the Beginning of January 1967 and placed in the niupeng (cowshed) on campus that served as the detention building where the “monsters and demons” were kept. I was held prisoner there for about three months and shared a room with Pan Tien Shou, a renowned artist and the President of the Zhejiang Academy, as well as a dozen other senior professors and school leaders. We would wake up in the morning, sweep the campus, and then line up to recite Mao’s quotations and slogans. Most of the time, however, we sat in the room and studied Mao’s Little Red Book and Cultural Revolution documents. As detainees, we had to criticize and humiliate each other in order to show our willingness to subordinate ourselves to the Red Guards.[5]


Perhaps for the first time in China’s history, younger artists were suddenly given authority over their seniors—the antithesis of the Confucian philosophy which equated age with wisdom. The Guangzhou-based artist Wu Qizhong, among others, believes that a great deal of the persecution of artists during the period was age –related, with artists singled out for criticism based purely on their level of experience: “artists 50 years and over were not allowed to paint and were criticized, but those who were 20 to 50 years old had many more opportunities to make work”[6]. Other artists have described a hierarchy in the government controlled artist studios. Wang Huaiqing recalls that the twentieth century master ink painter Wu Guanzhong working with him on an oil painting, but the master was only allowed to paint the background: “Only red guards and revolutionaries were allowed to paint Mao”.[7] Artist Zheng Shengtian has said that after submitting a sketch for his painting Man’s Whole World is Mutable, Seas Become Mulberry Fields: Chairman Mao Inspects Areas South and North of the Yangtze River, he was told that ‘Mao’s head had to be painted by a young revolutionary and his body painted by a person with a relatively higher revolutionary consciousness than my own…I was given the task of filling up the large background area”.[8]


Much of the art from this period was limited to portraits of Mao. As Chen Danqing recalled to me in an interview in 2006, “The two years from 1966–67 is often called “Red Ocean”.  Across the country, people were painting—whether they were professionals or amateurs. Everybody was painting Mao’s image, until it was stopped by Zhou Enlai in 1968 {STZ: The date is not correct. In December 30, 1966, CCP Central Committee circulated “The Notice of Stopping Making so-called “Red Ocean””, base on Zhou Enlai and other’s criticism. In July 3rd, 1967, CCP Central Committee circulated Mao’s letter to Zhou and Lin Biao, suggesting stopping building Mao’s statues nationwide.}. We had no other choice—there was nothing else to paint. Nobody told you that you could only paint Mao’s portraits.  Mao’s image was the only thing in the world that you knew you could paint. Nobody told me or taught me to do so. Also, we were very happy that we could paint. At the time, I felt that there was no difference from the Renaissance painters—they painted Jesus, I painted Mao.[9]


Model Works


While the paintings of older artists—often executed in ink (guohua) —were frequently criticized for not being revolutionary enough, the younger artists (mostly born in the 1940s) strove to make realist paintings in oil that captured the new revolutionary fervor. The best of these were selected by Jiang Qing and other officials as model artworks, toured around the country and reproduced as posters. In this way they gradually acquired national fame and iconic status. Two oil paintings of the era that received widespread official approbation were Liu Chunhua’s Mao Goes to Anyuan (1967) [fig.] and Shen Jiawei’s Standing Guard for the Motherland (1974) [fig.]. Liu Chunhua was a twenty-four year old student at the Central Academy of Art and Crafts when he was commissioned to paint Mao’s portrait for a national exhibition titled “Mao Zedong’s Thought Illuminates the Anyuan Workers Movement”. The painting shows a youthful Mao, dressed in a traditional robe (changpao){STZ: in Liu’s interview is changshan}, striding toward the coal miners to agitate a strike—a beginning point for the Chinese Communist revolution. (It is worth noting that Liu’s work stood in contrast to an earlier painting showing political rival Liu Shaoqi leading the strike.) With Mao’s role in the Party at stake it is no wonder that Jiang Qing became interested in the work. She declared Liu’s painting as a model artwork and printed reproductions began to be made. In total, there were said to be nine hundred million copies of the picture made and distributed during the next decade.[10] There are few who lived in China during this period that would not have been seen a reproduction of this painting, and it is perhaps for this reason that it is considered one of the most important painting of the period.


Shen Jiawei didn’t have opportunity to  study atArt Academy as he dreamed. He was one of the approximately twelve million youths sent to the countryside for re-education during the Cultural Revolution. Choices of locations were frequently dependant upon one’s family background. At the age of 22 Shen was sent to Heilongjiang, a remote area at China’s far north along the border with the Soviet Union, a relatively desirable rural location largely reserved for individuals with party connections or good family backgrounds. “It was 4,000km away from my home. We were strongly influenced by Russian art. Everything in this place looked Russian. I thought it was a good duty to be a soldier. China was also clashing with the USSR so we all wanted to be at the front to serve our country”.[11] It was here that he painted Standing Guard for the Motherland, a large and imposing realist oil painting measuring 75 x 63 inches. It shows two fearless PLA soldiers vigilantly watching the icy northern Chinese border in case of an enemy attack. The painting remains in the artist’s possession in Australia, where he has lived since 1989. The artist retrieved his painting from the Heilongjiang Province Chinese Artists Association in the early 1980s after a friend told him that it was rotting away in storage.


In contrast to the many other works from this period that featured Mao and other political figures, Shen’s Standing Guard for the Motherland illustrates a national imperative—the protection of the nation’s borders. He also chose to valorize soldiers, who were esteemed in the communist society alongside workers and peasants. Shown at the National Art Exhibition in Beijing in 1974, the painting attracted Jiang Qing’s attention. As the artist recalls, “We were asked to paint our everyday life. Our job was to defend our motherland so I wanted to paint this subject. We were invited to visit one of the posts and I felt that it was a good idea to make a work here. The first time I visited the area I did some sketches and then I asked the leadership if I could do a painting and I received permission. Most people would stay for 1 or 2 months doing wood cuts. Only a few people were allowed to paint in oils. The best paintings were sent to Shenyangand then on to Beijing. The 1974 National Art Exhibition opened on October 1, National Day, the second National Exhibition since 1966. Jiang Qing went to see the exhibition and I was told that she spent nearly five minutes in front of my painting. Observers noticed her interest and there were many articles then written about the work.”[12]


For artists of Shen’s generation, few escaped being sent to the countryside, though the numbers varied from year to year and province to province—Guangzhou, for instance, was quarantined from much of the early turmoil and relatively few artists here were sent to the countryside. By contrast, the Shanghai-based artist Chen Danqing has estimated that everyone form his 1969 high school class was sent. ‘For us, it was 100 %. You had to go”.[13] Some artist hated the experience and could not wait to return home, while others were able to use their time productively. Luo Zhongli, Xu Bing, and Wenda Gu recall that their time in the countryside provided formative experiences for them, influencing their later work. Luo Zhongli used his time in the countryside to hone his skills as an artist. On a visit to his studio in Chongqing in 2006, he showed me old and faded sketchbooks filled with drawings and landscape studies that he made during his time in the countryside. Some of his sketches showed the peasant family he stayed with. The father of the household later served as inspiration for Luo’s now-famous painting The Father(1980)[fig.], a photo-realist portrait which launched the Scar Art Movement {STZ: in Liu Chunhua’s interview it is called “wounded art”. We should choose one translation.}of the early 1980s.




Many of those who experienced the Cultural Revolution would like to see it forgotten, for it was a period of great pain, suffering, and hardship for many people. Families were split up, food was in short supply, property was destroyed and society was chaotic. But others believe that these events must never be forgotten, if only to stand as warning to future generations. Testimonial literature is one area where this desire to remember is taking shape.[14] There are also isolated instances of attempts by museums in China to evaluate the artistic production of this period, in particular oil paintings and woodcuts. In the south of China, a Museum of Cultural Revolution opened three years ago. The museum has received international media attention, notably a 2005 feature article in both the Washington Post and New York Times. Located in a park about 1 hour’s drive from Shantou, a city in Guangdong province, the Museum is filled with a series of black granite slabs etched with the illustrated history of the Cultural Revolution transcribed from the pages of a book on the subject published in Hong Kong in 1995, titled Cultural Revolution Museum: 1966-1976 (wenhua dageming bowuguan: 1966-1976) Much of the material contained in the book, by Yang Kelin and Cosmos Books was never available inside China. There were few visitors they day I was there, apart from a high school couple in their uniforms. Looking at the images, one turned to the other and asked “What is this Cultural Revolution?” It seems that the need to remember this period is more pressing than ever.







[1] For historical accounts and analyses of the period see Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao (1996) Turbulent Decade: A History of the Cultural Revolution (rev. ed.) Transl  D.W.Y. Kwok, Honolulu: University of Hawai ‘i Press;  Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals (2006) Mao’s Last Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; Woei Lien Chong (ed.) (2002) China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. For an art historical focus two important sources to date are Yan Shanchen and Wang Mingxian (2000) The Art History of the People’s Republic of China, 1966–76, Beijing: China Youth Publishing House [Chinese] and Julia F. Andrews (1994) Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1979, Berkeley: University of California Press.

[2] See Wang Mingxian (2002) From Street Art to Exhibition Art: The Art of the Red Guard During the Cultural Revolution, Yishu: Journal of  Contemporary Chinese Art, Vol. 1, No. 2, August Summer, 44–49.

[3] Xu Bing, Interview May 27, 2000, Sydney. Scholars have also noted the importance of this period to contemporary Chinese art, see Martina Köppel-Yang (2002) ‘Zaofan Youli/ Revolt is Reasonable: Remanifestations of the Cultural Revolution in Chinese Contemporary Art of the 1980s and 1990s’, Yishu: Journal of  Contemporary Chinese Art, Vol. 1, No. 2, August Summer, 66–75; Britta Erickson (2001) ‘Recent Riffs on the Cultural Revolution in Chinese Art’. In Wu Hung (ed.). Chinese Art at the Crossroads: Between Past and Future, Between East and West (pp.17–31), London: Institute of International Visual Arts.

[4] For an analysis of Soviet socialist realism see Boris Groys (1992) The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Groys was also responsible for an exhibition titled “Dream Factory Communism” at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt in 2003 arguing that the Stalin era imagery has parallels with Hollywood in its idealism. See accompanying book Boris Groys & Max Hollein (eds.) (2003) Dream Factory Communism, Ostfildern-ruit: Hatje Cantz.

[5] Zheng Shengtian (2002) ‘Brushes are Weapons: Art Schools and Artists During the Cultural Revolution’, Yishu: Journal of  Contemporary Chinese Art, Vol. 1, No. 2, August Summer, 61.

[6] Wu Qizhong, Interview July 3, 2005, Guangzhou

[7]Wang Huiqing, Interview June 28, 2006, Beijing

[8] Scott Watson and Shengtian Zheng (2002) Art of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution 1966-1976 (exhibition catalogue), Vancouver:  Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, p.10

[9] Chen Danqing, Interview March 1, 2007, New York

[10] Julia F. Andrews (1994) Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1979, Berkeley: University of California Press, p.339.

[11] Shen Jiawei, Interview December 15, 2006, Sydney

[12] Ibid.

[13] Chen Danqing, Interview March 1, 2007, New York

[14] For example Feng Jicai (1996) Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China’s Cultural Revolution, San Francisco: China Books and periodicals inc.; Gao Yuan (1987) Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution, Stanford: Stanford University Press; Robert Pledge (ed.)(2003) Li Zhensheng: Red-Color News Soldier, London: Phaidon Press Inc; Kang  Zhengguo (2007) Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China, New York: W.W. Norton.

shengtian zheng © 2014