Gao Wenqian: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was an unprecedented catastrophe that occurred in China in the 1960s. Those ten years were the darkest period in China’s modern history, filled with blood and violence. Many families were torn apart and many people perished. Injustice was rife. Over 100 million people were affected. During the Cultural Revolution, the Mao Zedong personality cult reached a peak. Everyone carried the “Little Red Book.” Statues of Mao were everywhere. The whole of China became one “sea of red.” The exhibition “Art and China’s Revolution” is a portrait of that fanatical age.
Gao: These three pictures are very interesting: they reflect different time periods of the Cultural Revolution, and convey a sense of the ups-and-downs of historical change. This is a large auditorium. During the Cultural Revolution, various “criticism meetings” and “struggle sessions” were often held in precisely this type of setting. This was the most typical gathering place. Usually the people being denounced would be on a stage or standing on tables, sometimes wearing dunce hats with the so-called “crime charges” written on them, or they would be forced to stand in the “airplane position,”1 with two people standing behind the person being denounced, pulling with full force the person’s arms upward while pushing his or her head down.
Regina Hackett: There are photos of people forced to maintain the “airplane position” in the exhibit upstairs.
Gao: During the Cultural Revolution, some women were shaved into “yin-yang heads,” with hair left on half of the head and no hair on the other half.
Hackett: Why were their heads half-shaved?
Gao: Because they were believed to be enemies of the revolution, they became “ox ghosts and snake demons,” no longer human—so you could humiliate them however you wanted.
Hackett: It is interesting in a culture where the concept of “loss of face” is so important that the Cultural Revolution went so far out of its way to not just kill but disgrace and humiliate its victims.
Gao: At the time, there were many other frightening practices, like hanging black placards around people’s necks, smearing their faces with black ink, stuffing their mouths with straw, etc. All of these personal humiliations were done in the name of “revolution” and “loyalty to Chairman Mao.” Later, after the most fanatical period of the Cultural Revolution had ended, the auditoriums where struggle sessions had been held were left unused, deserted except for the rickety desks, chairs, blackboards, and stools. That is exactly the kind of scene the second photo depicts. The third picture depicts the time after the Cultural Revolution, when the country started implementing reform and opening up, and everyone became engaged in business. The auditorium was once again rented out, becoming a warehouse. These three photographs are truly the historical portrait of China’s incessant twists and turns during those few decades.
Gao: Now, this was the most typical statue of Mao that was ubiquitous during the Cultural Revolution. Why is he beckoning with his hand? At the time, there was a very popular slogan that went, “Chairman Mao waves his hand and I forge ahead.”
Hackett: It’s iconic.
Gao: It means that wherever Mao points to, that is where the people will go, because they want to make revolution with Chairman Mao! “If Mao lets us rise, we will go anywhere.”
Hackett: The title of these sculptures is “New Mao” . . . .
Gao: New Mao! (laughs)
Hackett: So the artist Qu in effect is saying, I have taken the old Mao and removed his threat by making him a commodity. He’s nothing but a silver, shiny bauble. Do you think that’s effective?
Gao: Perhaps it can have that kind of effect on someone who has not experienced the Cultural Revolution, but for someone like me, who has personally lived through it, it is not like that at all. Regardless of how it changes in form, as soon as I see a statue of Mao, what I’m experiencing
is not an ornament; rather, it makes me think of the bloody terror of those years. It takes me back to the era I cannot bear to look back on. It’s like hearing an old song that reminds you of past events.
Gao: These two paintings—Yue Minjun’s “Noah’s Ark” and Tang Xiaohe’s “Strive Forward in Wind and Tides”—are actually inherently connected. The grinning crowd in Yue’s painting is a broad artistic generalization of the mental state of Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution; it’s very vivid. There was nothing individual about the ordinary Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution; all the faces are the same, as if cast from the same mold. And why are the people in this painting crowded in a boat? There was a very famous slogan during the Cultural Revolution, which went, “When traveling at sea one relies on the helmsman, when making revolution one relies on Mao Zedong thought.” During the Cultural Revolution, China had about 700million people, but only one brain, and the one brain was Mao. The expressions of everyone in the painting are the same; they can only grin idiotically. This is the true portrait of the mental state of the Chinese people of that time: ignorant, numb, without a soul; all that remains is a body.
Hackett: Would you value this piece more highly than Qu’s sculptures, “New Mao”?
Gao: Yes. This painting truly reflects the mental state of the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution: spirit killed by abuse, personality distorted, no independent thought.
Hackett: . . . Just the physical body . . . .
Gao: Right. That’s why everyone’s facial expression is completely identical. How can this be? Because the Communist Party believes that each person is just a screw in the machinery of revolution, a completely identical screw, a standardized part. No different thinking of any kind is allowed.
Gao listens to an interview recorded with painter Liu Chunhua (刘春华), who was famous for his work during the Cultural Revolution. Looking at Liu Chunhua’s “Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan” (毛主席去安源), 1967.
Gao: “Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan” was an extremely well-known painting during the Cultural Revolution; it was painted by Liu Chunhua. The painting was highly praised by Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, and was a model for oil-painting at the time. Posters of it were everywhere.2 Liu received great honors because of this; you could say that those were his glory days, so naturally he looks back on the time with fondness. Given the circumstances, he engages in neither introspection nor criticism during the interview. Since he had a vested interest in the Cultural Revolution and had raked in many benefits, of course he wouldn’t be criticizing Mao.
Hackett: So it would be hard for him . . . do you think he doesn’t see the problems, or he doesn’t want to?
Gao: I think that this can be looked at in two ways. One is, the comfort of your seat determines how you think. The artist was a beneficiary of the Cultural Revolution, so, naturally, he would see things differently from its victims. His impression of the darkness and brutality of the Cultural Revolution could not be that profound, nor could his criticism be incisive. This is one way to look at it.
Hackett: These (videotaped interviews in the exhibition) are taking place recently, and this artist is still just as pristine in his view of Mao: Mao is a great man, and even his wife is great, which deviates from the current line—the Gang of Four3 is to blame for the Cultural Revolution, but not by him. So he has remained steadfast to that apex moment in his life when his painting became famous. There is no difference in his public opinion now and then.
On the other hand, Leni Riefenstahl created Triumph of the Will in 1938, about the Olympics in Berlin. She was favored by the Third Reich, and the movie reflects her insider status .After the war was over, she said that she didn’t realize, didn’t know, and wasn’t in Hitler’s camp. She didn’t defend Hitler afterward, but Liu still defends Mao absolutely.
Gao: To look at it the other way, I believe that this also has something to do with a deficiency in traditional Chinese culture. Compared with Western culture, Chinese culture lacks a tradition of repentance. Although the Cultural Revolution ended so many years ago, very few Chinese people have reflected upon their conduct during that time .Although Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution and should bear main historical responsibility [for it], he never raised his own hand to beat people. Those who directly participated in persecution were all ordinary people; they are the ones whose hands are soaked with the victims’ blood. But they are not at all willing to openly admit that they made mistakes at that time and to apologize to their victims.
I think that the lack of a tradition of repentance in Chinese history and culture could have something to do with the lack of religious tradition in China. This is a great difference between Eastern and Western culture. At the core of Western culture is Christian civilization, with an omniscient and omnipotent god. Man [is born with] original sin, and must redeem his soul. Chinese culture does not have anything like this. Confucius said: Respect the spirits and gods, but keep away from them. This had a profound effect on the cultural mentality and religious mentality of Chinese people. The Cultural Revolution was filled with violence and bloodshed. Many families were torn apart and many people perished, wives left and children were scattered. To meet political needs, the Chinese government placed the responsibility on Lin Biao4 and the Gang of Four, and protected Mao Zedong. Those common people who persecuted others also pushed the responsibility up onto higher authorities, as if they themselves had never done a thing. Yes, in the entire Chinese tradition, history and culture, there is no tradition of repentance.
Those who directly participated in persecution were all ordinary people; they are the ones whose hands are soaked with the victims’ blood. But they are not at all willing to openly admit that they made mistakes at that time and to apologize to their victims.
Yes, but that’s deep in their hearts. When they do something unconscionable, people are always uneasy. There’s a saying in China, “If you haven’t done anything unconscionable, there’s no need to fear the devil knocking at your door.” The people who did the unconscionable during the Cultural Revolution may be troubled by nightmares when they sleep, waking up in the middle of the night plagued by their conscience, thinking, “Beating people 30 years ago was probably wrong.” However, that’s as far as it goes. These sorts of thoughts only flash through their minds, but they would never speak of them openly.
Overall, that’s how the Chinese are. Of course, each individual is somewhat different. When the leaders who are in power refuse to admit their mistakes, China’s lack of a tradition of repentance is a secondary reason. What’s more important is that if they admit that they were wrong, their power would lose legitimacy because they weren’t elected by the people. If Mao Zedong admitted that the Cultural Revolution was a mistake, he would have had to step down. Actually, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution precisely to cover up the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions died of starvation. Why did the Chinese government officials protect Mao after the Cultural Revolution? Because if Mao were to fall, they themselves would lose legitimacy, since it was Mao who had established the current regime.
Gao: In this photograph of Mao Zedong waving at crowds from the Tiananmen Gate Tower on August 18, 1966, you can see the frenzied scene of the time. This was the first time during the Cultural Revolution that Mao reviewed the Red Guards. I was in the square at the time, near the national flag stand. Over a million people were there. I was fourteen. Big memory. I still remember Mao walking from here to there, waving. It’s Mao’s most typical pose. The crowds were frenetically shouting, “Long live Chairman Mao!” And Mao waved and shouted back, “Long live the people!” They were feeding off each other.
This is a photo of a Mao button that was very popular at the time. During the Cultural Revolution, when Mao’s personality cult reached a peak and his quotations, buttons, and statues were everywhere, and the whole of China became a “sea of red,” the country used the finest aluminum, used in airplane manufacturing, to make Mao buttons. Not to have done so would have been disloyal To Mao. In those days common people in China had no other diversions but to check each day when they met whose Mao button was the newest, the biggest, and the best designed. Then they would exchange them; for instance, two small buttons could be traded for one large button, two of poor quality could be traded for a good one. This was a kind of amusement back then.
Hackett: The wall text notes that 2.2 billion portraits of Chairman Mao were produced during the Cultural Revolution. And you’re a fourteen-year-old, you’re enthusiastic.
Gao: Yes, of course, I too was very much into Mao button swaps back then and would dash off to the button exchange sites almost every day. When I think back to it now, I find it both laughable and pathetic. The buttons later became bigger and bigger, you could get one as large as a plate. This kind of button, at its biggest, could cover your chest and stomach. There were even some fanatics who would pin their buttons through the flesh on their chests in order to demonstrate their devotion to Mao.
Hackett: That’s what the Khmer Rouge did before they killed people. They took pictures of their victims and pinned their numbers into their flesh when they weren’t wearing shirts. But that was done to them rather than someone doing it to himself.
Gao: This button, where Mao is wearing five red stars, was very popular during the Cultural Revolution. I used to have one of them. In this one, Mao is wearing a military uniform. Before the Cultural Revolution, Mao usually did not wear military attire. He switched to wearing military uniforms when receiving Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, to show that he occupied the highest commanding position in the military.
Gao: These are all the most typical propaganda posters. They are from before the Cultural Revolution. That one is a propaganda poster from the Cultural Revolution, a call to “destroy the four olds”—that is, destroy old thinking, old culture, old customs, old habits. During the Cultural Revolution, they would put dunce caps that said “four olds” on a lot of historical sites and traditional objects and then smash and burn them. Mao had said that “to rebel was justified,” so the Red Guards “destroyed the four olds” everywhere. The destruction of traditional Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution was extremely serious, the loss is irrevocable.
Hackett: This photographer was deemed counterrevolutionary and he had to hide his images. The only reason we’re seeing them now is that he hid them during the Cultural Revolution. They thought his images did not depict the Cultural Revolution in a good light.
Gao: I know this photojournalist. His name is Li Zhensheng. At the time he was a reporter with the Heilongjiang Daily. He used his position as a provincial journalist to take many pictures of the Cultural Revolution struggle sessions. This one here is of a criticism and denunciation meeting we talked about earlier; the person being denounced is the provincial party secretary. He is standing on the stage, with a placard reading “counterrevolutionary revisionist” hanging from his neck.
Back then Li had no place to publish the photographs, so he stored them. He published them only after preserving them for many years. That’s what’s enabling us to see this historical scene today.
This provincial party secretary was considered a “capitalist roader” by the central government, and was consequently submitted to criticism and denunciation. One could easily be turned into a “counterrevolutionary” during the Cultural Revolution; a disaster could strike anytime, anywhere. For instance, you tilted a portrait of Mao, and they could say that you were defaming Mao. Or perhaps a journalist wasn’t paying attention to what was in the background when taking a photo, so people could connect the writings of Mao in the photograph with an unrelated black cross-out sign in the background, for example, and the photographer would [instantaneously] become a counterrevolutionary. That’s how things were back then.
Hackett: Even when you’re eating your bowl of rice or your soup, you need to show your politics, your loyalty to Mao.
Gao: Also, the factories that made the bowls, if they did not make them like that, they might have run into trouble. Everyone back then had to show their loyalty to Chairman Mao, as in, “When you drink water, don’t forget the person who dug the well; when you’re happy, don’t forget Chairman Mao.”
Hackett: Their loyalty. Everyone showing loyalty. I have read that if people had a ribbon in their hair or had a goldfish, they took out the ribbon and poured their goldfish out in the street, because beauty by itself was not a good thing.
Gao: During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong was like God. He was called “the reddest of all the red suns in the world” and was the only idol that people were allowed to worship. All other fine things about humanity were considered “feudal, capitalistic, or revisionist.” People were deprived of the right to enjoy fine things; it was a complete spiritual wasteland.
One of the nation’s founding fathers, Zhu De (朱德),5 was fond of growing orchids. At the very beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Mao sent out word that this was an idle, bourgeois past-time, so Zhu De had no choice but to destroy all of the flowers in his house. My father loved classical music, but during the Cultural Revolution, he had to listen to it in secret. He would close the doors and set the volume very low. He also liked Chinese landscape painting, which allowed him to temporarily forget the worries of reality. But whenever he looked at the paintings, he was very nervous. He would close the curtains tightly, and at the slightest sound of movement outside, he would quickly put the paintings away.
Hackett: Did you notice this at the time? Gao: Yes! Of course! My father closed the windows, closed the door.
Gao: Yes! Of course! My father closed the windows, closed the door.
During the Cultural Revolution, people could only listen to songs composed from the quotations of Mao Zedong or his poems. Other than that, there were only the so-called eight model operas. What was then called “modern revolutionary Peking opera” was a remolding of the traditional Peking opera, and Jiang Qing was in charge of doing it. These “model operas” were examples for everyone to follow. This is a poster advertising “The Legend of the Red Lantern” (红灯记), one of the eight model operas. These are all characters from the eight model operas.
Hackett: Painter Chen Danqing said recently [in an interview], “At the time, I felt that there was no difference between me and the Renaissance painters. They painted Jesus, I painted Mao.”6 But there is a difference. Renaissance painters had an established iconography, yet what they brought to it—their individual artistic vision and expression—made them matter. But the painters from the Cultural Revolution became famous for the amount of adulation they could pack into their portraits. Adulation alone was enough. That’s why the art doesn’t work. Because the art is just a vehicle for the idea, and no one would say that about Michelangelo. His execution makes us care
today, even if we’re not Christians.
Gao: Chen Yanning was an up-and-coming talent in the world of oil painting during the Cultural Revolution, from the realist school. In the environment created by the Cultural Revolution, everything was in the service of politics, and the works he produced in that period clearly carry that mark. Most of them are political propaganda with hardly any artistic quality worth mentioning. Like this painting of Mao inspecting the Guangdong countryside, depicting how much the peasants love and respect Mao after a bumper harvest, which seems very fake. In reality, at the very beginning of the 1960s, tens of millions of peasants starved to death in the Great Famine. Here, it is just typical propaganda. There is no artistic quality at all. It wants to show how farmers love Mao, and how happy they are. Many farmers died because there was no food in the 1960s. This is totally fake.
Li Keran’s (李可染) painting, “Sunset on the Pass” (雄关夕阳), 1964, has the same problem. Li Keran is China’s renowned grandmaster of landscape painting of enormous skill. From this painting you can see that his composition is broad, his brushstrokes are vigorous, but he is unable to break away from being in the service of politics. This is a freehand brushstroke landscape painting, but he injected red-flag wielding Communist Party troops on the march, which is in jarring discord with the overall style, making it look like neither fish nor fowl. During Mao’s era, art did not have its own independent position; it was merely a slave to politics. If an artist did not depict politics in his work, he could get in trouble.
Hackett: And that’s a tragedy.
Gao: This is a typical propaganda poster from the Cultural Revolution. It says, “Follow Mao Zedong closely, and the whole world will be red.” What’s different about this poster is that, while all the propaganda posters we saw and discussed earlier were made for domestic consumption, this one serves foreign propaganda. The Chinese government’s slogan during the Cultural Revolution was, “Down with imperialists, revisionists, and reactionaries.” “Imperialists” referred to American imperialism, “revisionists” meant the Soviet revisionism, and “reactionaries” was directed at India, with whom China had just ended fighting a border war, and the relations between the two countries were very tense. The meaning of this painting is that Mao Zedong is not only the supreme leader of China but the supreme leader of all the people in the world; it’s a call to them to follow Mao in making revolution, overthrow imperialists, revisionists, and reactionaries, and let the radiance of Mao Zedong thought illuminate the entire world. From early childhood we were being told that people in China were the most fortunate, and that people in other countries of the world, including America, Europe, the Soviet Union, and Taiwan, lived in the dark.
Hackett: When I was growing up, I was told the U.S. was the best country in the world.
Gao: Of course, every country has some political propaganda, and the U.S. is probably no exception, it isn’t perfect. But on the other hand, when you compare China’s and America’s reality, there is no real comparison— they are worlds apart and can’t possibly be mentioned in the same breath.
Hackett: The art is crude, and yet Chinese culture is so carefully calibrated and refined. For crude simplicities like these to become dominant is shocking.
In your book, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, you described what happened when Zhou met Nixon. During the toast, Zhou had to touch glasses with Nixon not at the top, but in the middle, to show less respect, and he had to be photographed with exactly the right expression. His complexity served such a crude collection of ideas. That’s the part that always staggers me. How much went into it. And I think that’s part of why Chinese people tend to find Westerners simple. Because Westerners present didn’t understand Zhou’s actions, and the Chinese all did.
That point is well-made in the book. It carefully details Zhou’s complex process and his crude results. And that’s much more of a profound contradiction than a comparison someone might make to what went on in Germany under Hitler and Russia under Stalin. Stalin and Hitler were crude in form, crude in thought, and crude in execution. But in China, always there are levels on levels on levels of thought. Mao was fully aware of the emperors he both rejected and embraced. His actions weren’t casual or improvised.
Gao: This contradiction can be seen in a more mundane example: many Chinese perceive the straightforwardness and lack of ceremony among Westerners as signs of shallowness, and, at the same time, mistake their own intricate formality as depth and meaning. Sadly, the opposite is often true.
Just think of this principle of aesthetics: natural colors and unadorned simplicity are beautiful. The simplest things often contain the most profound philosophy.
Gao: This group of sculptures is the then very famous “Rent Collection Courtyard.” At the height of its popularity during the Cultural Revolution, it sailed across the seas to be exhibited in countries such as Japan and Canada. Using the folk-art form of clay figures, the installation shows how Liu Wencai (刘文彩), a major landlord in Sichuan, exploited and oppressed the peasants, how he was rich and cruel, a model of evil. It should be said that the figures are lifelike in form and vivid in expression, and, from an artistic point of view, have a certain aesthetic value, but they are completely in the service of politics, inciting hatred between the classes. In reality, the story of Liu Wencai was entirely fabricated by the authorities for political ends.
This entire affair is a sham. For example, the authorities portrayed Liu Wencai as a blood-sucking vampire who forced wet nurses to squeeze out their milk for him to drink, which led to the “creation” of the clay figure of a mother, who has just given birth, being forcibly dragged away. In fact, although Liu Wencai headed a powerful, wealthy family, he was a very generous person. He was a philanthropist, whose donations built a local secondary school. Liu Wencai had a concubine who had been born into poverty and who, after liberation, refused to marry someone else. She maintained all along that Liu Wencai was a good person, and suffered a lot because of it. From that, one can perceive Liu Wencai’s true character.
Hackett: What is it about the rosy cheeks people have in the paintings and posters?
Gao: This is a customary technique used in the propaganda of communist totalitarian countries, while the reality is just exactly the opposite. I said earlier how official propaganda imparted the idea from an early age that the Chinese were the most fortunate people in the world, and that people in other countries lived in extreme misery. This is very much like the situation in North Korea today. North Korea is suffering from famine and many of its people do not have enough to eat; their faces are sallow and their bodies emaciated. We have an expression in China, “a face the color of a vegetable,” to describe grayish yellow pallor. In order to cover up the truth, the authorities portray the common people as very healthy and leading very happy lives in the propaganda posters. North Koreans have only one set of formal clothing, which they are obliged to wear when they go out, otherwise, they would get into trouble.
Hackett: What is your impression after going through the exhibit, as someone who has first-hand experience and scholarship?
Gao: After seeing the exhibition, my heart is very heavy. Why? Because I have personally experienced the bloody terror of the Cultural Revolution. Every era has its own song. Many years later, when someone starts singing that song, you will naturally be transported back to the feelings and scenes of those years. This exhibition has taken me back to those days of the Cultural Revolution that I cannot bear to look back on, to that nightmare. It has made me recall my own family’s experience: my mother, who was sent to jail, while I myself was labeled a “counterrevolutionary son-of-a-bitch” and sent down to the countryside, with no way out. It is a kind of fear that sinks deep into the marrow of your bones. When I was young, I got anxious whenever I heard a knock on the door, not knowing what was going to happen. I think that the feelings of Western viewers of this exhibition will definitely be different from mine, because they do not have the personal experience [of the period]. Actually, behind every painting in this exhibition there is more or less a story; some are extremely tragic and heart-wrenching, but this is not visible on the surface. For me, this is not a pure appreciation of art, but an experience that is fused with the suffering in life.
Hackett: This show reflects a political system that’s quite savage. Now China has changed after Mao, but has it been a deep change, a profound change, or a surface change?
Gao: Only a surface change. The one-party system is still there, and that’s why human rights conditions in China are getting worse.
Hackett: Human rights are getting worse?
Gao: Yes, because the Party refuses to give up power. So a lot of people working for human rights in China are faced with this problem, faced with this reality. All the problems stem from the system, from the one-party system established by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. It’s still there.
Hackett: The Chinese people deserve better. And I think the reality of the Chinese government will become more apparent in time. Your book helps. You accomplished what your mother asked you to do, to “tell the truth to the Chinese people.”
1. “Airplane position” refers to a common method of abuse used during the Cultural Revolution, in which one was forced to bend over until their head was almost touching the ground while someone twisted their hands up and back over their heads. ^
2. According to the Asia Society, 900 million copies were made during the Cultural Revolution. Melissa Chiu and Zheng Shengtian, Art and China’s Revolution (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 131. ^
3. The “Gang of Four” refers to four leftist Communist Party of China officials: Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen. They came to power during the Cultural Revolution and were later charged with treason for the social chaos created during that time. ^
4. Lin Biao (1907–1971) was a Chinese Communist military leader who was Chairman Mao’s second-in-command during the Cultural Revolution .After his death in 1971, he was deemed a traitor and along with the Gang of Four was labeled one of two “major Counter-revolutionary parties” that were blamed for the Cultural Revolution. ^
5. Zhu De (1886–1976) was the founder and military tactician of the Chinese Red Army. ^
6. Quoted in Melissa Chiu and Zheng Shengtian, Art and China’s Revolution (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 10. ^