Art of the Cultural Revolution in China

By Linnea Finkle

Mao Zedong

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a cultural movement started by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966 until his death in 1976. It is often seen as a period of government regulation of art and cultural stagnation, but it was also an attempt to create a new and modern Chinese culture, during which much art was produced.

Mao is remembered as the father of China's Communist Revolution; he led the Communist forces when they triumphed over the Nationalists (led by Chiang Kai-shek) in 1949 and helped to create the People's Republic of China. During the 1950s, he began instituting economic change with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to rapidly modernize China, but this failed horribly and resulted in the deaths of around 45 million people because such rapid industrialization was not sustainable. In the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, Mao was removed from everyday decision-making and Liu Shaoqi became the president. However, Mao still had a great deal of power and influence, and he began the Cultural Revolution. (1,4)

The Cultural Revolution was started for a variety of reasons: Mao wanted to re-ignite the revolution to clear the way for socialism and create a society that truly reflected his socialist ideals; he wanted to restore his position of leadership after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward; he thought the urban population was much more favored than the peasantry and wanted something to spur on an egalitarian society; and he wanted to give young people a chance to experience the revolution. Mao believed that true political revolution could only follow cultural revolution, so changing people's everyday thoughts and behavior was the first step to liberation. China's traditional cultural heritage was thought to be the biggest impediment to real social change, so the "four olds" had to be destroyed: old thinking, old culture, old habits, and old customs. (1)

Long Live Chairman Mao! Long, Long Live! (1970)
Mao mobilized students and young people to be Red Guards, or agents of the revolution, who advanced the cause of socialism and eradicate counter-revolutionaries. Teachers, officials, and young people of bourgeois background were often persecuted as not revolutionary enough, and students were encouraged to attack the party establishment and destroy old traditions. In cities, chaos, terror, and political disorder erupted. Mao was forced to call in the Red Army to disband the Red Guard units, which were sent to the countryside or mobilized into the People's Liberation Army (an important power base outside the bureaucracy). Mao's political aims had been achieved though; Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were purged from their leadership positions at the top and Mao was once again in power. (2,4)

During the next stage of the Cultural Revolution, power was consolidated at the top by Mao, the Gang of Four (Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao), and the radicals who helped shape the policies of the Cultural Revolution. The People's Liberation Army took control of art: it had to reflect real life and the military, with strong messages of proletarian ideology, communist moral, revolutionary heroism, and hyper-realism. Subjects were extremely realistic, ageless, larger-than-life figures; mostly peasants, soldiers, and workers; who represented the strong, healthy, productive society the state wanted to propagate. People were painted with warm, bright colors. In order to show an egalitarian character, everyone was 'masculinized' and wore army green, cadre grey, or worker blue. Color symbolism was very important: red was used heavily and represented everything moral, good, and communist, whereas black represented the opposite. (5)
Posters were the ideal method of communicating revolutionary messages. Images were the most efficient way to address both the urban population and illiterate peasants, and other methods did not work as well for various reasons (many people were uneducated and couldn't read newspapers, film was expensive, radio was difficult because of widespread geography, and theater was only available to certain audiences). It is estimated that well over 2 billion posters were produced during the Cultural Revolution, and most focused on Mao and the cult of personality that was formed around him. Pictures of Mao dominated art and helped to construct a god-like image of him. He was referred to as the Supreme Commander, the Great Teacher, the Great Helmsman, the Great Leader, and various other titles, and depicted as a benevolent father, astute military leader, strong statesman, and wise teacher. He was shown as being the primary source of light in a picture, and was often surrounded by a halo emitting a divine light to illuminate the people in his presence. (5)

Mao became a regular occurrence in every home, whether with his official portrait or some kind of statue displayed in the center of the family altar, which increased his status as a god-like presence. Not having a picture of him was seen as being counter-revolutionary and as refuting Mao's role in everyday life as well as politics. His images were worshipped throughout the day, "asking for instructions in the morning, thanking Mao for his kindness at noon, and reporting back at night." This involved bowing, singing the national anthem, a Loyalty Dance, reading passages from the Little Red Book, and wishing him "ten-thousand years." However, by the early 1970s, the most extreme and religious aspects of the Mao cult had been disbanded. (5)

Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan

Perhaps the most famous works of propaganda from this period is Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan (left), an oil painting by Liu Chunhua. It depicts Mao as a young man on his way to the city of Anyuan to lead a miner's
strike and was meant to discredit Liu Shaoqi, another leader who actually played a much more important role in organizing the labor strikes. It was promoted by Jian Qing, Mao's wife, as a model painting, and became a benchmark for iconographic representations of Mao. It is estimated that over 9 million copies of the painting were produced and spread its message even further. (5,7)

Dazibao, or Big Character Posters, were handwritten posters covered in large writing, posted on public walls that were the major mode of propaganda in the Cultural Revolution. Many were made by students to rally the public for political struggles, and they covered the walls of universities. Because they were usually written anonymously, they provided a popular medium for expressing political opinions. Many attacked local officials and led to their removal. In 1966, Nie Yuanzi, a teacher at Beijing University, wrote a Big Character Poster that accused the University and its president of being counter-revolutionary and suppressing student activities. Mao had the text published in China’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, and it inspired students all around the country to start questioning their teachers. Mao later wrote his
own Big Character Poster to support the students, entitled ‘Bombard the Headquarters’ that justified rebellion. (3,6)
Dazibao being put up

Posters were not the only form of art in the Cultural Revolution. The theater also involved propaganda. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, supported the artistic direction of the People's Liberation Army and the model operas that were made to set conventions in the theatrical arts. They formulated the 'three prominences,' or important characteristics that should be stressed: positive characters, the heroism, and their central character. These principles were translated to the visual arts, in that the subjects had to be portrayed realistically, in the center of action, surrounded by light, and were often drawn at some sort of angle as if they were on a stage. (1, 2)
Modern Revolutionary Ballet. The White-Haired Girl. (1972)

Today, relics and propaganda from the Cultural Revolution are very popular, which is somewhat surprising considering the violence, upheaval, and tragedies that occurred from it. One of the reasons historical propaganda is so popular is because many people became artists and musicians to make propaganda. Traveling propaganda troupes brought art into peoples' lives, and even though they were making art for the state, they were still making art. Many people ask learned writing and calligraphy to make Big Character Posters. Furthermore, many of the propaganda was made with popular culture in mind, and it was popular culture for quite a while, and still is to some extent. However, it is still not completely known exactly why propaganda from such a painful time for many people is sill so popular. (3)