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A Refusal to Forget: Casting Statues for the Soul of China

June 25, 2013

The painter Hu Jie once lived in the Yuanmingyuan Artists’ Village1. Later, he filmed a documentary called “Seeking the Soul of Lin Zhao.” I saw it at a gathering of painter friends in Song Village2 and was quite shocked by it.

Lin Zhao and Zhang Zhixin were both followers of the Communist Party of China. But faced with reality, they went through painful reflections and expressed their doubts. They rebelled against the Party, shouted their cries for justice, and in the end died for the truth.

In memory of these two martyrs and to refuse to forget, we began developing the idea of creating statues for the soul of the Chinese nation.

In 1993, I initiated the “Performance Art—Lawsuit Against the Beijing Public Security Bureau for Violating Human Rights,” for which I was arrested and sentenced to forced labor. During this time, I was held in a rubber cell, put in solitary confinement, and tortured for three hours with electric shocks from six electric batons used simultaneously. In prison, I created more than 100 large acrylic and ink paintings and wrote “Divided by Life and Death,” a 450,000-character account of my life in prison. Part of my work was later included in my picture album, “Iron Roses’ Memory of China.”

In October 2006, I was once again put in prison for the crime of “subversion of state power.” While serving my sentence at the Luqiao Detention Center in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, I wrote a 300,000-character rebuttal called “Performance Art Class Dismissed.” I tried to commit suicide so as to leave this life. What I didn’t expect was I would come back from the dead.

At the end of 2009, upon release from prison, I was allowed to return to Beijing. During the period of my [post-release] deprivation of political rights, I took the risk of once again being charged with a crime and, together with my wife Zhu Chunliu, started making the sculptures of Lin Zhao and Zhang Zhixin. Despite all kinds of threats and harassment by the police, we completed the clay sculpture of Lin Zhao. At a comments session on the first draft of the Lin Zhao clay sculpture, Professor Qian Liqun donated 10,000 yuan on the spot and proposed to raise money to cast the statue in bronze to make it everlasting. With the money raised from people domestically and abroad, we finally finished the two bronze statues of Lin Zhao and Zhang Zhixin.

On April 10, 2010, the Exhibition of Two Bronze Statues of Lin Zhao and Zhang Zhixin opened at the 798 Hong San Fang Art Zone, but was immediately banned by the authorities. Our original plan to display the statues at the 798 Art Square was also blocked by the authorities.

In such a huge China, there is not even a corner for the public display of the statues of these two martyrs. I once expressed my wish to donate the statues to Peking University and Renmin University of China—the respective alma maters of Lin Zhao and Zhang Zhixin—for display on campus. But they also politely turned me down.

On September 9, 2010, breaking through all kinds of obstruction, we finally set up the two bronze statues in my backyard for the public to view and to pay their respects. I also held a celebration for their completion, marking the birth of the “Garden of Iron Roses.” Since then, throngs of mourners have come to pay their respects and to lay flowers. Because of this, the authorities view the “Garden of Iron Roses” as a thorn in their eye and have closely monitored it.

From “Iron Roses’ Memory of China” picture album.

During the brief blossoming of the “Jasmine” street protests in 2011, the authorities became so paranoid that the police wrapped up the statues to prevent people from coming and paying respect to them. The authorities also closely monitored my wife and me.

During that year, my wife and I holed up in our shabby home and compiled the “Iron Roses’ Memory of China” picture album. It’s a compendium in honor of good conscience and a sorrowful soul’s hope and cry for the spirit of the Chinese people. My gratitude goes to Professor Qian Liqun for writing the preface to the picture albums.

Naturally, this picture album cannot be officially published in China. We raised funds and found a printing house to print it privately. Still, it was stopped by the police. The money we paid for printing was also not returned. I thank the Human Rights in China Biweekly for publishing this picture album in installments on the Internet abroad.

I hope that “Iron Roses’ Memory of China” lives up to the praise of Professor Qian Liqun:

History freezes and crystallizes here. This is an independent civil society intellectual history that seeks freedom of thought and a history of the civil society movement that fights for democracy and against autocracy. The picture album constitutes a spiritual genealogy of the Chinese civil society: from the “May 19 [1957]” call for a democratic movement by Lin Xiling3, the planting of the seeds of the “Spark” group in the 1960s led by Lin Zhao and Zhang Chunyuan4, the swan songs of Zhang Zhixin, Li Jiulian5, Zhong Haiyuan6, Lu Wenxiu, and Wang Peiying7 during the 1966-76 “Cultural Revolution,” to the rise of Beijing’s “Xidan Democracy Wall” at the end of the 1970s, and the ensuing Tiananmen Square Democracy Movement at the end of the 1980s.

 “Iron Roses” is constructed as a history of civil society spiritual art. It is performance art; even more, it is spiritual resistance. What unfolded around the two bronze statues is a decisive battle between beauty and ugliness, love and hate, solemnity and coarseness, truth and absurdity, and life and death!


February 9, 2013


1. Yuanmingyuan Artists’ Village, located in a western Beijing suburb, was settled by a group of young artists in the 1980s, who transformed the area into a bastion of the new Chinese avant garde.^

2. Song Village, or Songzhuang, an art colony located in Tongzhou District, Beijing, is the largest and most famous artist community in Beijing. Originally representing the avant-garde, the area now accommodates more than 2,000 artists who paint in varying styles, ranging from the avant-garde to the academic.^

3. Lin Xiling was labeled a rightist in 1957, arrested as an anti-revolutionary in 1958, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was one of six rightists not reinstated during the Party’s 1978 rehabilitation campaign.^

4. Zhang Chunyuan was labeled a rightist in 1957 when he was a student in Lanzhou University, arrested in 1960 for organizing and publishing Spark magazine, and arrested again in 1961 after escaping from jail. He was executed in Lanzhou in 1970 and posthumously rehabilited in 1981.^

5. Li Jiulian was executed in Xin County, Jiangxi Province, in December 1977 for being a “couter-revolutionary.”^

6. Zhong Haiyuan was executed in April 1978 for “viciously attacking Chairman Hua.” After she was shot in the back, her kidney was removed by military doctor and transplanted to an injured air force pilot.^

7. Wang Peiying was arrested in 1968 for publicly supporting former President Liu Shaoqi, and executed in 1970 on the charge of “counterrevolutionary behavior.”^


About Yan Zhengxue

Yan Zhengxue, born in January 1944 in Taizhou City, Zhejiang, is an artist and human rights activist.

A 1966 graduate of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts High School, Yan is included in the online list, "2010’s One Hundred Chinese Public Intellectuals,"1 where he is described as "one of China’s earliest ‘professional artists ’and its first itinerant artist who has roamed the country for more than 20 years.” The entry also mentions that Yan and his daughter had a joint exhibition at the National Art Museum of China, the most important art museum in China at the time, in July 1988, when exhibits of individual artists were rare.

In 1992, Yan started living in the Yuanmingyuan Art Village in Beijing, and was later elected as the head of the village. In 1993, after he was elected as a deputy to the Jiaojiang Municipal People’s Congress in Zhejiang Province, Yan was beaten by three Beijing police officers and was hospitalized for severe injuries. Later, Yan sued the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, and this action—a citizen suing government authorities—was widely covered in the media. In advance of the trial, Yan received a threat that said: “You will die in a traffic accident.” On November 29, 1993, Yan’s son, 26, was killed in a traffic accident. Yan was later detained and, in April 1994, ordered to serve two years of Reeducation-Through-Labor (RTL). He was sent to a camp in Great Northern Wilderness (北大荒), where he was repeatedly tortured. While in the labor camp, he wrote a 450,000-character prison diary, titled “Divided by Life and Death” (《阴阳陌路》) and created nearly 100 large acrylic color ink paintings.

After completing his RTL sentence, Yan actively participated in rights defense activities while continuing to create works of art, and was arrested by police more than ten times. In 2000, Yan brought a suit against government officials for involvement in prostitution, and received widespread domestic and overseas media coverage. Central China Television (CCTV) commented that: “His courage to speak out in order to safeguard public interests is commendable.”

In 2006, after making a speech at a seminar in the United States and posting articles online, he was charged with “subversion of state power.” He was later convicted of the lesser crime of “inciting subversion of state power” and sentenced to three years in prison. Yan almost died in prison on several occasions from illnesses. He also attempted suicide. During this prison term, Yan produced great quantities of writings, including a 300,000-character autobiography.

In 2009, Yan was released from prison three months ahead of schedule because of health reasons. He started working on the sculptures of Lin Zhao and Zhang Zhixin that year.


1. This list includes some of the most well-known Chinese scholars, activists, and artists on the mainland and overseas.  No information is available on the organization that compiled this list or its criteria used for the selection. See:^


About Lin Zhao

Lin Zhao was one of the earliest critics of the Chinese Communist regime. She was born on December 16, 1932, in Suzhou. Her original name was Peng Lingzhao.

Lin Zhao was admitted to the journalism department at Peking University in 1954. In the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign, she was branded a rightist for opposing attacks on students who expressed their opinions. She attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills.

In 1960, she was arrested on the charge of “counterrevolutionary crimes,” in connection with her planning a magazine called Spark and writing "reactionary” poetry. She was held in a detention center without trial until early 1962, when she was released for medical reasons. After her release, she began discussion with Huang Zheng and Zhu Hong—both were branded “rightists”—to found a "Chinese Free Youth Fighting Alliance," and drafted the organization's platform and regulations. She was arrested again in October 1962 and was later convicted of “counterrevolutionary crimes” and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In prison, she wrote diaries and letters-in-blood totaling some 200,000 characters. In them, she accused the Chinese authorities of brutally persecuting her for political reasons, detailed the torture she suffered in prison, and articulated her pursuit of human rights, freedom, and equality. As early as in the 1960s, she sent criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) "totalitarian ruling" and "policy designed to keep the people ignorant" to the People's Daily, referring to Mao Zedong as "an emperor assuming the mandate of heaven dressed in foreign [ideological] gown."

On April 29, 1968, Lin Zhao was secretly executed in Shanghai. The authorities never made public the reason for her execution.

In August 1980, the Shanghai Municipal Higher People’s Court revoked the original verdict on Lin, and pronounced her not guilty on the basis of her mental illness. In 1981, the same court undertook another review of the case and ruled to revoke the 1980 verdict, concluding that 1) the court’s 1980 ruling—revoking Lin’s original verdict on the basis of her mental illness—was an error, and 2) Lin Zhao was not guilty because her actions did not constitute a crime.


About Zhang Zhixin

Zhang Zhixin was born in Tianjin in 1930, to a family of music teachers. Her father, Zhang Yuzao, participated in the 1911 Revolution.

In 1950, after graduating from high school, Zhang enrolled in the education department of Tianjin Normal University, in Hebei Province. The following year, in response to the call from the CPC and the state, she joined the People’s Liberation Army, and was sent to study Russian in at Renmin University. Zhang graduated in 1952, ahead of schedule, and stayed at the University to work. She joined the CPC in 1955, and began working as an officer in the Propaganda Department of the Liaoning Provincial Party Commission in 1962.

 In August 1969, Zhang criticized Mao Zedong and Lin Biao, Mao’s handpicked successor, and spoke out in defense of the ousted CPC Chairman Liu Shaoqi and other toppled senior revolutionaries, and was arrested in in the following month. She was first given a life sentence, which was later changed to a death sentence. Before execution, the authorities cut her throat to prevent her from shouting slogans.

In October 1978 and March 1979, Zhang Zhixin was rehabilitated by the Yingkou Municipal Intermediate People’s Court and by the Shenyang Municipal Intermediate People’s Court, respectively. Both courts reversed the original verdict and pronounced her not guilty.

About Yan Zhengxue

Yan Zhengxue, born in January 1944 in Taizhou City, Zhejiang, is an artist and human rights activist. Read More

About Lin Zhao

Lin Zhao was one of the earliest critics of the Chinese Communist regime. She was born on December 16, 1932, in Suzhou. Her original name was Peng Lingzhao. Read More

About Zhang Zhixin

Zhang Zhixin was born in Tianjin in 1930, to a family of music teachers. Her father, Zhang Yuzao, participated in the 1911 Revolution. Read More

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